Monday, June 03, 2013

[Rant] It's (almost) a Twister! It's (almost) a Twister!

It's (almost) a Twister! It's (almost) a Twister!: This bothers me. We had a tornado warning. For those of you from non-tornado areas, a tornado watch is issued when conditions are ripe for a twister, a tornado warning is issued when a funnel cloud or a near funnel cloud has actually been spotted.

So, we had a tornado warning. That's not what bothers me. What bothers me is the reaction. I was in the local library and the first thing they did was try to shepherd us all into the basement. Instead, I left, but not before I got a very forceful and indignant suggestion from the librarian to comply with her instructions. (I wasn't worried. I'm pretty sure I could have taken her if we threw hands.) So I went to the grocery store where they stopped all activity and tried to usher all the customers into the warehouse storage in the back. At least the pimply grocery clerk told me I had the option to leave.

The hell? Why young fella, back in my day we used to go outside to watch the twisters -- the closer the better. As it turns out, the suspected almost tornado was about ten miles north and never actually turned into a real tornado anyway.

Yes, I had another get-off-my-lawn moment. But look, the chance of tornado coming down on your head is pretty close to zero. And despite what breathless news storm-chasing news journalists tell you for dramatic effect, you will get a fair amount of warning. Things get dark. There is hail. Wind picks up. I know -- I was within spitting distance of a nasty one last year. You do not have to put the brakes on life as we know it just because there may be a possible tornado somewhere in the county.

I understand that nature is a scary thing. It's supposed to scare us. That how we survived to evolve civilization. But we really need some sense of proportion when assessing risk. I don't know who to blame for this. The recent OKC tornado; media sensationalism and the idiots who buy into it; the clowns who have planted the inane idea that this is all due to global warming and the apocalypse is coming and we are actually living in a bad sci-fi movie -- your guess is as good as mine. Businesses get freaked because they are sure that if a tornado does hit everyone in the store is going to sue them.

What's frustrating about this is not that it's another example of what's gone wrong with the world (let's face it -- the world was never right to begin with). The thing that frustrates me is the reaction of the overreactors to non-overreactors. They overreact. Take the angry librarian. What would the reaction have been if I had turned and explained (as I wanted to) that the chance of a tornado blindsiding me is zero and they were acting like scared kittens for no good reason? The response would have been indignation at my irresponsible attitude. I may have even been lectured about endangering the children or something.

I realize we live in a much safer world than we used to. And it may be because of a shift in attitudes (and laws and regulations) towards greater risk aversion. And it also may, on balance, be a good thing. But you can't deny much was lost in the process. How much institutional behavior is driven by fear of lawsuits rather than reason and analysis? How many simple pleasures, large and small, will we people younger than myself never experience?

Riding in the back of a pickup truck. Jumping of the roof of the garage. I did those things as a child; I did not ask permission, and adults knew I did them with little concern. Could I have been killed or hurt? Sure. Would it have been worth it if I had been? The wise answer is no, it wouldn't, therefore I shouldn't have done them -- I shouldn't have taken the risk. Well, perhaps my wisdom is lacking, but I'm not so sure. Those little adventures had meaning for me. They still do. They are symptomatic of a sense of invulnerability that only a child can have. I no longer have that, of course, but don't know how I could live without the imprint of the sensation in my memory. I could not approach any unfamiliar or risky situation with confidence that I would overcome it were I not able to draw on that sensation of invulnerability from my childhood: that it's scary to jump of the roof, but awesome when you do it. In the absence of that, the only way I would be comfortable acting in uncertainty is if I had faith that the world -- the system/community/institutions -- had my back, that the environment had been structured so that I would not be harmed. Is that what younger adults have now instead of invulnerability?

Maybe it's better this way. Maybe that's progress and I'm just a grouch. Or maybe it's not. Maybe it really was better back in the day. Or maybe it's neither. Maybe it's no better or worse, just different. But in no way is it the answer so clear that you should get on your high horse about safety to someone who isn't scared of tornadoes. If you want to dive into the basement at the first sign of bad weather you have my blessing. How about you give me your blessing when I don't? If you don't want to dive in the pool head first, don't. But let me.

Huron River Drive in Ann Arbor is a beautiful scenic road that winds along the river. The river is crossed by railroad bridges in three or four spots. They are maybe twenty feet above the water and when the river is high, and you have taken the time to locate any hidden rocks, they are a blast to jump off. One for my fondest, most vivid, memories from my early twenties (maybe thirty years ago, yikes) was coming out to one these with a bunch of friends and spending a hot afternoon leaping off one of the bridges into the cool water.

As I drove past one hot day last summer I noticed a group of four kids -- ok, not kids, they looked about 20 -- lined up on top of one of the bridges to leap in together. I gave an involuntary grin. I could see them count off 3-2-1 and get airborne and shout with joy. As they swam to shore they were met by a security guard or park ranger or some form of uniformed authority who was clearly beside himself with indignation and was just brimming with excitement at the opportunity to teach these kids a lesson about safety. The kids were clearly intimidated by this authority figure. I was tempted to stop my car, charge over, get in the uniform's face, and claim to be the kids' lawyer just to take the guy down a notch. What exactly did they learn? What is their memory? Is that wisdom?

It may indeed be better and safer this way. But it's also sadder.