Sep 2, 2011

Good Night, Irene

Shortly after my last post, I encountered a "perfect storm," one main component of which was the recent storm Irene and its consequences for the region where I now live, the Hudson Valley.  The storm itself proved not to be as dangerous as some feared and others seemed to have hoped, provoking a number of complaints particularly in the region south of us -- New York City --that it had been "hyped" (but also in other places along the East Coast)  That's perhaps understandable, given how much media attention gets paid well in advance to developing weather, how many recriminations and second guessing those charged with overseeing public safety face even when they plan prudently, actively issue order, and in general get things right, and how little control the ordinary person senses themselves to have over important aspects of their lives when caught up in the effects of forecasted unpredictabilites of nature, policies and responses of communities, unavoidably opaque efforts by corporations to restore infrastructure, and the behavior -- even the very bodily presence -- of so many other people enmeshed in the same complicated systems suddenly more visible because of an event.

Portions of New York City were issued evacuation orders by Mayor Bloomberg well in advance of Irene's landfall.  Mass transit and bridges were shut down by Saturday.  Many coastal towns and cities in New Jersey, Rhode Island, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts, and in Long Island (which looked to be particularly vulnerable) were also evacuated, National Guards were mobilized and sent into some places, and there were worries in some areas that the incoming weather could also prove fertile for breeding tornadoes.  As it turned out, Irene hit the coast in an already downgraded state and -- mercifully to most but perhaps disappointingly to some -- did much less and much more readily repairable damage than had been feared or even expected.  Further inland, away from the coastal megapolis of New York City and the smaller coastal cities, however, the damage was considerably greater but more dispersed, and for that reason less easily, less quickly remedied. It took multiple places and forms across a spectrum of types and degrees of that broad, equivocal, but real category of "damage", one type or incident often enough interacting with or contributing to, occasionally causing, another.

In the portion of Kingston, NY where we live, we came through remarkably well.  By Friday night, panic buying started to empty certain shelves in a few of the local stores as the reports came in about the evacuations further south.  Saturday was actually quiet and pleasant most of the day, and Sunday the storm hit.  There were lulls in the winds, which proved to be strong enough to drop quite a few tree limbs in the yard, and the rains were more often steady than torrential, at one point ending and giving way for some time to the weird still air matched with strangely moving clouds that from life in the Midwest we readily recognized as a possible tornado sky.  Later, the rain and wind picked up again, but by Monday, the storm was past, at least here.

As expected, we lost power and internet, but we'd charged up our phones, laptops, and a recently purchased Kindle, and most of the day, we read by the daylight afforded by windows and a convenient skylight.  During the lulls, I took the dogs out into the yard, which drained remarkably well, not least due to the vector along which an old road long grown over running through the yard diverted the sheets of water coming down steadily from the ridgeline behind us. We tramped through the puddles and streams running through the grass, and I surveyed what little damage had occurred while they did their business. As it got darker, we lit pillar candles and tall votives, and cooked Italian sausage that risked spoiling into a homemade pasta sauce on our gas stove. 

Nothing leaked, and going for a day without power or internet as the rain and winds hammered on outside was actually enjoyable, somewhat like a vacation, eating at leisure by candlelight, reading with a cat in my lap and coffee by my side, checking for updates on our smartphones.  We discovered that Marist College, where I was slated to start one portion of the new phase of my career, teaching only part time while I devote renewed time and energy to reading, writing, research, and consulting, had cancelled classes for Monday, coping with flooding, power loss, downed trees.  One of the two possible routes to campus, which lies on the other bank of the Hudson, was entirely blocked, choked off at a vulnerable point. The alternate route would be open, but I was happy not to have to try it, both because traffic would likely be much heavier, slowed down, perhaps even snarled, and because I would have to show up for the first day of my two classes without having anything more than a syllabus ready and loaded into a new course management system that I was just in the process of learning to operate.

Monday we had power, and hoped that a restored internet connection would soon follow, not least because of the setbacks I'd experienced Saturday working with the Sakai-based course management system Marist College relies upon, and into which I'd wanted not only to upload syllabi and discussion questions for their first readings, but also to create folders and files containing links to our course readings and to web resources, and even to design a page housing videos I'd created welcoming my students to the class, explaining key sections of the syllabus and briefly introducing myself -- means for getting students engaged in the class outside of class time, in multiple media forms, right away -- hitting the ground running and perhaps even making up for time lost to Irene and her effects.

Our power never went out after that -- and I was thankful, because there are still areas in our region without electricity (except from generators) as I write today -- but the internet remained out all Monday, and TWC, or at least the support people we could reach, could give -- not unexpectedly -- no information or estimates as to when it would be restored.  So, I read and worked on developing more resources for my classes -- handouts, discussion questions, -- tweaking my pretest and culling my syllabi again for typos, hoping that we'd have internet again the next day. And we did, for perhaps two hours, so painfully slow that its presence, when attempting to negotiate websites, a browser, a CMS designed for fast internet, simply lent itself to greater frustration than to the relief of catching up and productive work.

So, I packed up my laptop and headed across town to Starbucks.  Usually that location does a brisk business, but at any given time has roughly half to a third of the seats empty, and most of the patrons are mix of those engrossed in contemporary coffee klatch conversations, the laptopped (and sometimes now, tableted) leisured, and those clearly occupied with some kind of work. I've long ago made my peace with Starbuck's coffee culture in all of its silly and pretentious aspects -- I did my time serving crowds behind the counter, living off of and experimenting with espresso drinks and syrups, in a local Milwaukee cafe when some of the present generation of unbeknowingly foppish baristas were just toddlers -- and now go expecting a kind of consistency of experience that maks for a good workspace because its intended-to-be-stylish elements, aspects, and characters quickly fade into an undemanding and relatively spacious background soon forgotten.

A very different air to this Starbucks was immediately noticeable, a heightened degree of nervous energy.  Outside, every table and every seat was taken.  Inside, as I waited in line behind a crowd of young businessmen, some noticeably ill at ease in their suits and ties, talking loudly to each other, irritatedly arriving to the decision to take their drinks elsewhere -- I realized why they were holding that conversation:  there were almost no free seats left in the place. Every table was full, and in front of every single person was a laptop, a tablet, or a smartphone.  I got my drink and found one of the last free chairs, and got to work myself.  Starbucks was full-up precisely because it had not only power but working internet.  Some customers were transacting business, making, breaking, compromising or rejecting deals on the phone.  A conversation started and grew -- who had power and who didn't, who had generators and how well they working.  A bride-to-be wondered how they were going to firm up the wedding plans and last minute preparations without power.

I got what I could done within the course shells for my classes -- one of which started the next day -- struggling with Sakai's protocals and possibilities seemingly so similar but yet distractingly different from those of the Blackboard CMS I'd used for the last three years.  I discovered too late, and for the second time -- the first was Saturday night -- that Marist's Sakai would without any warning bounce you out in the middle of unsaved work after a given amount of time.  I found myself caught in a mixtures of moods, the strongest tone of which was frustration, or rather irritability.  And, after some time indulging in a bit of complaining, that has set me reflecting along lines suggested and to some degree imposed by one of the areas of my interest and work:  practical rationality.

Three things struck me in particular over the last several days, all of which bear upon emotion, mood, character, and the matrix of choice.  Although I've also observed similar affective reactions in the other people with whom I interact or at least momentarily share places with, I'm going to write solely about my own here, and situate them within a few short reflections about why Irene became a component of a "perfect storm" for me.

The first is that one feeling about the storm and the aftermath that should be spontaneously present, gratitude that matters came out as well as they did in our case, was and remains noticeably absent.  The second is that I underwent, at many points, and over several different matters, frustration and even anger over being cut off from accustomed means I rely upon in order to work, remaining confined to tackling other sorts of work, knowing that it would be impossible to obtain any real answer about how long that condition would continue.  Third, I realized that my prevailing mood, underlying the frustration, blocking the gratitude or even a sense of ease or relief, was an irritability mixed with a sort of anxiousness centered on resuming a normal pattern and plan of work, catching up, getting things done. 

I can say that these emotions and moods were exacerbated by the uncertainty of starting previously taught classes but at a different school with entirely new students -- whose aptitudes, tendencies, attitudes -- quite different from those of students in other places I've taught -- I'd been told about but had yet to experience. 

I can also say -- in a way that might appear self-congratulatory, but is in reality instead rather rueful -- that I did manage not only to take note of my frustration, anger, and irritability (as well as my lack of gratitude), but also to keep those "passions of the soul" and the associated desires they express or awaken in check when dealing with others, to reason (occasionally, not consistently) with myself about how and what it would be better for me to feel and think, and even at times to set my negative or "agonistic" feelings aside, to enjoy my interactions with students, colleagues, and friends.  What that means to me is that I have made some progress from where I have been in the past.  It also means that I'm nowhere near to a virtuous disposition in these respects -- I just recognize what a virtuous disposition would be like, and that it would be better for me to move in that direction.

The perfect storm -- the worn-out movie title we use to describe a coincidence of factors amplifying each other, preventing or undoing remedies -- in the case of my emotions, desires, habitual structures of attitudes and thoughts, included  -- or better said, was occasioned by -- Irene, but was really much more the composite of two other matters, one of which a person has some degree of control over, the other of which not only does a person lack control over -- it is in fact a lack of control. 

Our lives, activities, plans, purchases, products, work and play always remain dependent upon complex networks, interfaces between the natural and the social, cultural, human world, much more than we ever do -- or could in its entirety -- realize, and that infrastructure of so many interlocking and interdependent sorts remains ever vulnerable -- even when we harden them, even if we pay for more reliability, even when we establish redundancies -- to disruption, to destruction that requires responses and repairs.  For some of these workarounds exist or can be found, but each of these comes with its own additional costs in time, effort, money, even patience, which for most of us is a limited quantity.

When things go off, what we discover is not only that we continue to be subject to a natural world over whose workings we turn out to have relatively little control, but that once things go awry, we leave the realm of our own intentions, desires, better or worse practical reasoning, an we end up, sometimes caught even trapped within, sometimes on the outs of, sometimes in a Kafka-like half-world, of other people's plans, policies, decision procedures, organizations. Over the things that we'd like to have -- or deeply feel we must have -- some degree of control, it turns out that not only do we not, but we are several steps removed, several moves behind, who knows how many conversations or transactions or even suspicions away from those who determine what goes on in our world, how long things take, where resources are allocated -- in short, what counts as the rational solution to the current situation or crisis. And, everyone else -- or at least those who are no more in the know than the rest of us -- are similarly stuck in the situation.

There are other possible responses to this than simply frustration. A willingness to sit tight and to be grateful that we suffered little damage from wind-blown branches, a short outage from down and damaged electrical lines, no lasting flooding, no evacuation -- particularly when many people and communities upstate and in neighboring states suffered much more, and some are still suffering from rain-swollen rivers, triage and rebuilding decisions and work by our infrastructure providers and maintainers -- that affective response would make sense. 

Along with the vulnerable but (if one stops to think about it, and place it in historical or even global perspective) amazing infrastructure not only for transportation but for information we possess, there is a temptation that I so routinely seem to fall into that I suspect it ought to be regarded as a way of life, one shared by multitudes, an internalized pressure, but one on some level chosen, to leverage, to use and incorporate as many of the opportunities afforded as possible, to project-plan, organize, integrate, to produce as much as possible, which can only be done well when coordinating things well. 

This assumes a good side, a pleasing face, a laudable ideal:  to do the best and the most possible -- for example: to constantly and consistently create excellent, interconnected, mutually supporting and reinforcing learning content for my classes, housed in a course site (while doing similar work with my book projects, my blog posts . . . . and so on).  It possesses its darker aspects as well -- and exhibits them, not least of which is a tendency towards an intellectual and emotional tunnel vision, a failure of practical rationality on a higher level while practically reasoning well on the lower level dominated by the desire to excel and produce  -- a desire that easily leads to a lack of proportion, both in viewpoint and valuation, and in emotional response.

The good news is that both ancient and medieval thinkers, and certain modern schools or psychology are right: to a certain extent, we do have the possibility of control not only over what we choose, not only over what we think, but also over what we feel -- not a direct control in most cases, but the possibility of volitional intervention and gradual reworking of our habits, attitudes, characteristic thoughts, and eventually not only the occasions or intensity, but even the objects and occurrences of our feelings and moods.  And, such a project in turn requires not only volition -- choosing, willing, doing -- but also understanding, reflecting, thinking inquisitively and honestly about one's emotional responses.

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