Monday, November 19, 2012

Dust Bowl lifestyle

Documentary film maker Ken Burns' "The Dust Bowl" was on TV last night. I had thought I might want to watch this history lesson on the decade-long, man-made ecological disaster that struck America's bread-basket states in the 1930's, a time attended by the double-whammy of the economic Depression.

As always with Burns' stuff, what I saw was careful and touching, but then this lesson in sadness was too much and I turned it off. Carelessness, ignorance and greed blew much of the topsoil in the southern Great Plains into the Atlantic Ocean more than 1,000 miles to the east; 100,000,000 acres were affected; and thousands of people, people whose very air could prove fatal, suffered. I knew much, if not all, of the tale ... I knew how it ended. I didn't want to be sad about something I knew would make me sad.

How many things are like that ... you know it's too good to be true, but you do it anyway, hoping against hope that this time there will be a happy, less painful ending?

Sort of like the old limerick:

There was a young lady from Niger,
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger.
They came back from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

I'm not trying to suggest with a smug 20/20 hindsight that the Dust Bowl might have been avoided. The confluence of need and greed and ignorance is always pretty compelling. I am only trying to say that last night I did not want to be saddened by the compulsion. As I sat in front of the TV, it seemed that there was already enough Dust Bowl to contend with.

Yesterday, my younger son drove north to pick up his older brother at college in New Hampshire. The two of them came back in preparation for the wake and burial of their cousin Matt, 23, in New Jersey. Matt died after a car crash last Friday and my wife went down to be with her sister and Matt's mother and the rest of a riven family. Gob-stopping grief ... a time when even the air you breathe seems to do nothing more than nourish an all-around-you sorrow. There must be a way out, mustn't there ... but the tiger just smiles.

As the boys gathered at the house here, my wife drove back from New Jersey for a doctor's appointment today and then a return trip to New Jersey and the dust bowl of silent anguish. Tiring drive, exhausting situation.

On top of this, my younger son rolled out of bed early today to return to the military base where wants to complete a test that will allow him to become part of the Army National Guard. His decision to sign on the dotted line sends up billows of mixed emotion. He is the last of my three children to chart a course and leave the nest in one sense. It is a death of sorts ... where childhood finds a demarcation point and steps across it and ... well, things will never be the same.

I remain embarrassed and on the fringes of this wracking situation. It affects people I love, but my weaknesses of age mean that if I were to travel to New Jersey, I would probably be another burden in a burdened situation. I wish I could go and lend whatever support I might, but making things worse does not appeal to me.

And then, as a footnote to the current sandstorm, the stove went on the fritz and there is a fellow coming today to see if he can fix it. The damned thing just stopped working as I cooked some brownies. How and why I haven't got a clue, but somehow the dilapidation of things seemed to enjoy a minor uptick. Where is the good news? There must be a way out, mustn't there?

I am not trying to suggest that my Dust Bowl is greater or more worthy of attention than anyone else's. I'm just another blind man in a sea of blindness. But I do think that the instructive potential of the very real dust storms that come along is probably just this: Act with care and responsibility. Even when that care and responsibility seem to be ill-rewarded, act with care and responsibility. There is no guaranteed happy ending, but at least when the laughter arrives it will be less encumbered.


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