When the Cavalry Doesn’t Come

Five years ago this week, as I watched Michael Brown stand shiny and clean on camera and receive one of the worst alleged atta-boys of all time, I knew in my gut he was being set up.

Life in the reality canyon.

I remember the physical discomfort between “Brownie” and the President.  I remember the way those words, “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job” came out of the mouth of the FEMA chief’s ultimate boss and the look on Brown’s face.  You can see in that instant he knows a hell of a lot more than he can share. It was painful.  The words were condescending, and artificial and inappropriate and awful on every level; and they highlighted a yawning reality canyon between those two men as well as between the federal government and the states.

Much has been written and expressed in other — often artistic — forms about how the nightmare of Hurricane Katrina removed any mask we might be wanting to put on our fundamental lack of progress around racial disparities.  I can’t disagree.  The literal black and white disgrace that was FEMA’s total disconnect with the very kind of situation it exists to manage is burned on our nation’s history.  No one can say the authorities on every level “didn’t know” it was going to be a disaster.  Extensive records exist that verify the proper people knew exactly what was poised to go down.

I still have no accounting for what exactly fell apart.  Michael Brown’s continued efforts to explain it only seem to make things worse by ripping off what frail bandage we had on the memories and yet leaving no more healing in its place.

Mike Hale of the New York Times said it well when he described Spike Lee’s portrayal of the aftermath (emphasis added is mine):

Released just a year after Hurricane Katrina swamped New Orleans, “When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts” was a thrilling achievement: both intimate and magisterial, angry and eloquent, an indictment and a testament, it represented a high point in the career of its director, Spike Lee.

It was definitively racial.  But as a West Virginian, I saw more.  I do believe it was racial in New Orleans, but I feel some of the same kinds of nausea at home, where the U.S. Census measures our population at over 94% white.  I think the most powerful common denominator is a profound disregard for human life when that life is uneducated and living in poverty.

I want to believe that if some natural disaster befell West Virginia, that the cavalry would come.  That the nation would turn on the television and see our plight and send every resource to save us.  What I saw 5 years ago in New Orleans scared the hell out of me, because I no longer have that belief.  I think some populations are considered disposable and not worth the effort and expense, and as much as I don’t want to believe it, Katrina took away my suspension of disbelief.

The Sago mine disaster was a perversion of this grinding fear.  Every day in West Virginia (and around the world) human beings go deep underground and risk their health and their lives so I can use my laptop (see The Short Ladders for some stats on our state’s educational attainment, or lack thereof).  There is a lot of drama around rescues once people are in trouble, but very little evidence that the nation is serious about reducing dependence on coal or that most coal companies themselves see these human beings as something more than replaceable commodities.

I’ll conclude where I began, with the “heck of a job” video clip and Michael Brown.  I don’t know anything about Mr. Brown.  He may be a negligent incompetent monster, but that seems less likely than he was one man at the helm of a critically important federal agency that the powers that be had no real interest in leveraging during Katrina. 

The question remains why, and if it would have been the same story in the Hamptons.

You’re Not Really Real Sometimes. Really.

Don’t overthink it – quick, what do Charlie Brown’s teacher, The Graduate, and Heavenly Creatures have in common?

Remember? It felt about as comfortable as this.

I bet you know in your gut, but if you’re like me you prefer not to think about it.  They are all connected because they portray — sometimes frighteningly and sometimes humorously — what it looks like and sounds like when young people don’t really see anyone older than themselves as real.

I first started thinking about this in an ongoing way after seeing Heavenly Creatures.  I was an adolescent girl once upon a time, and it was quite disturbing to evaluate my comprehension of what happened to the girls in the film.  In short, they become obsessed with one another and the world they create for themselves, and when their parents develop concern that their connection is unhealthy and try to separate them, one of the girls kills the other one’s mother.  The film is based on a true story.

As with any shocking tale, there were a lot of water cooler conversations about, “Can you believe that happened?”  But there were also a lot of private conversations between women who trusted each other about how, yes, they could believe it happened.  It opened up a whole dialogue about the dangerous capacity of adolescents to disconnect from adults, not just by going to their rooms and turning up the music, but by completely discounting the humanity and “realness” of those adults.

I had a lot of conversations with friends from my youth about our perceptions of the adults around us.  Unlike the movie – thank God – there was never any serious animosity toward anyone.  But there was this shared sense of not perceiving our parents and their friends as really inhabiting our world.  They were like satellites orbiting around us, and while we acknowledged them, accepted their offers of food and a ride to the mall, we didn’t really connect with them at all as truly part of our reality.

It’s very weird to reflect on that psychological place.  But you can experience it as an observer any time you are in a crowd of kids.  Notice how they make eye contact only with each other, how they seem to hear only each other, how you could swear if you didn’t make a fuss about it they would trample you flat as they walk in a group down the street……….

I love young people.  Remembering how I perceived the world then helps me not go bananas when they seem to not even see me, because in truth, they don’t.  And it’s not exactly a picnic for them either.  I think it just means we have to try harder to reach them on their terms, and to remember that we were young once too.