Hurricane Irene Was Too Much With Us

Psychic?Tim Schreier

“The world is too much with us,” claimed William Wordsworth, but he didn’t know the half of it. The Weather Channel is too much with us, would be more to the point. Mayor Bloomberg is too much with us. Anderson Cooper is too much with us. Fox News is too much with us. Warnings and dire threats of all kinds are too much with us — e.g. those surrounding “Hurricane Irene,” who/which would have been more accurately described as “Subtropical Depression Irene” by the time she managed to waddle her way up the East Coast in her rain-soaked skirts and finally “hit” New York with the soft, wet slap of a gloved hand. As trees swayed gently and reporters valiantly swallowed their disappointment, we were all far too invested in the story to evacuate the portion of our brain in which she’d taken up residence.

Well, she did rain a great deal. And knocked down some trees and flooded this highway and that subway, but a “hurricane” she was not. Nonetheless she managed to take up most of my weekend – mentally speaking. And by the time she finally cleared town I was flat-out exhausted by her. For two days I had obsessively followed the event-to-come, watching TV, scanning Internet sites, constantly checking The Times’ “Hurricane Tracker” and all the latest updates from FEMA, only to discover that it was all foreplay and no conclusion.

Outside my window it looked like a very windy, rainy night in the East Village. That’s the way it looked on the street as well, except for the fact that shops were boarded up and almost everything was shut. I could have used the time to accomplish something useful, but instead was magnetically drawn to every snippet of news on the Internet, on TV, on Facebook, and anywhere else I could find it. I didn’t even go to sleep, so eager was I to follow the story all the way to its conclusion.

And the conclusion, when it finally arrived – and this was really quite clever in a postmodern way – was that there had never really been a story to begin with. (Surprise!) Or if there had been a story, it was the wrong one. In short, the media had played me for a sucker, and I’d willingly given up my theoretically precious autonomy by going along with it. I had dumped hours of my life to experience a non-hurricane not in the flesh but on TV and the Internet. While located geographically right in the middle of it, I had managed to not even get wet. I’d spent 48 hours following the progress of a hurricane in the virtual world only to discover that it was more or less virtual in the real world as well. What an idiot!

Perhaps there is a yearning inside us to lead a vicarious life more than a real one – that’s my excuse, anyway. Actual, day-to-day flesh-and-blood life becomes ever more puzzling. No one has ever discovered what life is “for” exactly, but now everything has become so abstract that it’s hard even to figure out what your job is for, presuming you can get one. (The last time I got a call from a headhunter, she asked me not if I was interested in a job, or a “position”; she asked me if I was interested in a “role.” Was she looking for an actor? No, she was looking for an editor-in-chief.)

In less than a fortnight there will be wall-to-wall television coverage of another major event, this one commemorating a world-historical rupture that happened not far from the East Village: The tenth anniversary of 9/11. But what is one supposed to make of that? The intervening decade has made New Yorkers strangers to the people they were then. Today’s America is a stranger to that America, and even downtown New York seems a stranger to itself.

So perhaps I should express a smidgen of gratitude to “Hurricane” Irene. First, for not blowing the roof off my apartment building, and second, for teaching me it’s sometimes wiser to keep your laptop closed, your television off, your cell phone silent, and instead of listening to CNN or whatever…. Well, that’s the hard part. Instead of listening to CNN or whatever, what? (It’s not so easy when you’re wired to being wired.) But at least it would be worthwhile to take the trouble to find out.