Disaster Trance

by Cooper Young

That’s what I’ve always called it. Those times when something’s going on–something bad, something close, something you’re on the edges of–and you just lock down and stare at the news for hours or days or weeks. You may call it something else. There’s probably a technical term for it, but part of me feels like it’d be ruined for me if I knew what it was. Not to say that I enjoy it, of course.

It’s a little like being high, if you’re someone who isn’t high often. You go numb and limp. You can’t focus. You get pissed at anyone who tries to make the it–the news–go away. Hours go by in the blink of an eye.

I think it’s happened to me more times in my life than I’ve actually been high, so take my similes with a grain of salt. I don’t know drugs. I just know the trance.

Last year was bad. The Waldo Canyon fire was just outside town, and the original command post was twelve blocks from my house. The first night my husband and I stayed up until four or five in the morning watching the live feed from the local news and the TweetDeck column I’d devoted to the official hashtag (there were a couple of unofficial ones that didn’t have good info). It was coming right toward us, pushing southeast through the night. By morning it had slowed and begun to burn the opposite direction. It burned in a spiral over three days before an outflow wind from a storm in Denver sent it rocketing into the northwest edge of the city, destroying 350 homes and a seventy-year-old married couple. From the first report to total containment it lasted ten days.

For ten days I was glued to my computer. As glued as a newborn baby and a part-time job will let you be, anyway, which is surprisingly glued. I didn’t clean. I didn’t cook anything more complex than a grilled cheese sandwich. We ordered dinner almost every night. I didn’t write a word.

That’s disaster trance.

Five months later, I was in Pennsylvania for my uncle’s wedding when Hurricane Sandy hit. I ended up pinned down in an EconoLodge near Harrisburg for three days with my mother and daughters, unable to get a flight out. I had limited internet access, but unlike at home I had cable. The internet ended up being a portal to Facebook games for my older girl.

“Shh. Mommy and Grandmom are watching the news. Swap the jelly bean and the butterscotch and you’ll be fine. Older PopPop brought mufffins; they’re on the table if you’re hungry. Shh.”

The flight out on the fourth day broke the trance. I don’t know if it was the info deprivation or my removal from the area but I was functional once I got home. But for those three days, I shut down like I did during the fire.

It’s not about massive death-tolls. It doesn’t happen to me after shootings or bombings. It didn’t happen to me after the Boxing Day Tsunami in ’04, despite the fact that three of my close friends had not only been in Thailand at the time but were missing for a full week after. I want to know about those things, yeah, but I don’t feel the need to know everything about them as it unfolds over days on end. I don’t need to see the story as it’s written.

Now, if it’s something that’s preceded by or coincides with massive evacuations, that’s a different story. That’s what I’m watching. That’s where I lock down, can’t function, can’t live. Why?

Two things. First, from Don DeLillo’s White Noise:

“Look at us in this place. We are quarantined. We are like lepers in medieval times. They won’t let us out of here. They leave food at the foot of the stairs and tiptoe away to safety. This is the most terrifying time of our lives. Everything we love and have worked for is under serious threat. But we look around and see no response from the official organs of the media. The airborne toxic event is a horrifying thing. Our fear is enormous. Even if there hasn’t been great loss of life, don’t we deserve some attention for our suffering, our human worry, our terror? Isn’t fear news?”

And second:



That’s the gym of the high school on Osan Air Base, South Korea and the exceptionally frumpy young woman in the white shirt is me, age thirteen. A nervous-looking MP (crazy to think of, but the guy was probably younger than I am now) had come to our door that morning to tell us to evacuate. Events in the last twelve hours had suddenly made the higher-ups realize that our apartment complex, which was host nation owned and located off-base, couldn’t actually be secured. We were allowed two bags each and any pets we could carry. Nothing else. We had half an hour.

We underwent NEO (Non-combatant Evacuation Operation) processing at the high school, with one major difference: the usual goal of a NEO is to get the non-combatants out of the country as quickly as possible, but they didn’t dare put us on a plane. There was some talk of putting us on a boat to Japan, but until they figured things out they decided to stuff us in the gym with some cots and a television. Around noon they took us to the mess hall and fed everyone the meal the airmen usually got on their birthdays. At four thirty they handed out keys to apartments on base and told us to haul our stuff up the hill and wait for the cot truck to come around. A week later, we were told that was now our home. We were allowed to go get our stuff about three weeks after that.

That was it. A little anti-climactic, to be honest. Yeah, we never saw that apartment again, but it’s not like we lost all our possessions. We were never in any real danger, either. Nobody died, and the only “injury” was the weird girl’s mom complaining that her new, larger apartment had too many stairs and that simply wouldn’t do for her knee, which was in TERRIBLE shape regardless of what those hack doctors at the med group thought. It’s easy to look back and say it was no big deal.

It was a lot harder to say that during that week. As DeLillo put it, our fear was enormous. My mother told me years later that one of my brothers had nightmares about it for a long time afterward. Last year, during the fires, the evacuation zone got close enough that I ended up packing. I kept thinking I shouldn’t have to do this. I should get a pass, dammit. I’ve done this. Once should be enough. Most nights I couldn’t sleep. And yet, I still think I was more afraid during what we called the Air Force Village Evacuation.

But DeLillo was talking about people whose evacuation was ignored by the news, right? And in the background of that picture you can see a whole bunch of people huddled around a television watching…

The aftermath of a terrorist attack thousands of miles away. We were evacuated on the twelfth of September, 2001 because there was fear that the North Koreans would take advantage of the confusion. It would still have been the night of the eleventh in New York. We never made the news, not national, not theater-wide, and certainly not local. And don’t for a second misunderstand me–That’s exactly how it should have been. What was going on back home was far, far more tragic and more important. Our evacuation was nothing by comparison.

I think that’s where the trance comes from, though–from that humbling moment of feeling scared and uncertain and abandoned and homesick and then coming to the realization that absolutely nobody who wasn’t in the room with me would ever, ever give a damn. That they absolutely shouldn’t give a damn. It’s not a flashback. It’s a desire to watch the fear of others because nobody watched mine. It’s an acknowledgement that fear is news. It was right for my fear to be ignored, but that shouldn’t be the norm.

So here I am, watching the city burn again, dropping what I’m doing for every press conference, locked in the disaster trance. Staying up ’til all hours reading the tweets as they go by. Watching people be afraid. Watching others offer prayers. Watching people speak honestly about what hurts. Watching strangers listen.

That’s the thing I’m entranced by: watching people listen.