I must reluctantly confess to being a fairly superstitious person, although only in a conventional sense, if you can have a conventional superstition. I’ve nothing against black cats and I’ve deliberately broken a mirror (bitch got in my way) and when people say the words “Friday the 13th” to me, I think first of the television series and then of the movies (and neither with any great swelling of emotion). On the other hand, I do have a pair of earrings that I only wore to job interviews (and yes, I always got the job when I wore) and before I lost it (or it was stolen by someone who sensed its power), I had a little lucky octopus that I took to Bingo, and I guess some part of me genuinely believed that when I grabbed it and whispered the number I needed into its tiny rubber siphon, it would telekinetically sieze the corresponding ball and guide it into the caller’s hand. I’m one of those people who believes that talking about something bad that might happen almost guarantees that it will happen, especially if you talk about it next to an open window. Which is why I have waited a week to make this particular post, now that the weather has decided to relax for the summer and I think it’s safe to tell the story.
Let me start by saying that about three years ago, I moved to Kansas after a lifetime in the Great Pacific Northwest. There are a lot of things I could say about the differences between those two areas, but today I’m going to talk about the weather. You see, I used to think I knew weather. I didn’t know weather. I didn’t know weather at all.
I used to think it got hot in the summers just because I occasionally got heatstroke; in Kansas, it can be 80 degrees in February or October, and 100 degrees in the middle of the night during the summer. I used to think it got cold just because it snowed once in a while; in Kansas, it starts snowing in September and keeps it up as late as April (note that it can also be 80 degrees during these exact same times. That’s not a typo), piling it up as deep as the windows and burying the damn car during the appropriate winter months. I even thought I was used to rain, growing up as I did just outside of Seattle; I was wrong. But then there is the one thing I could not even pretend to acclimate to in the Northwest and that is Tornado Season.
In three years, I still have not seen a tornado with my naked eyes, although we did have rotating clouds roll over the top of us once while my sister and I were sitting by the side of the road with a flat tire. And believe you me, we were watching it. In fact, let me be clear: I don’t want to see one. I saw Twister. I don’t need to get any closer than that.
Contrary to popular belief, Kansas is not entirely flat. The part that I live in is actually fairly hilly and as such, we were told that our odds of getting hit with a tornado were pretty low. Unless the tornado spawned right on top of us, that was. In which case, it was likely to keep bumping off the hills until it blew itself out, coincidentally wiping the entire town off the face of the Earth. So, yeah, almost comforting, but not quite.
Some of you may know that the Midwest is prone to runs of bad weather. Just about every town out here has a siren. The siren means “Tornado is here.” Not “tornado is coming” or “tornado could happen” but “tornado is here.” Last week, for the first time in three years, the sirens went off.
It was ten-thirty at night. My brother-in-law had gone to bed and my sister and I were just sitting down to watch some TV. I had just made nachos and had the first chip in my hand when the sirens sounded.
We looked at each other.
“Basement,” she said.
She grabbed her laptop and her parrot. I grabbed the cat, who had stumbled over to be cuddled and steal nachos anyway. We went down to the corner of the basement designated as the Bunker, where my sister’s husband had taken to sleeping, simply because it was cooler. He had a TV down there and we watched the Weather Channel post sports updates and advertisements for McDonalds for the next forty-five minutes until we finally turned on the computer and started getting our weather news from people who understood that people huddled in their basements don’t give a crisp goddamn about basketball or burgers.
It’s funny, the things you think about when you are sitting in the dark waiting to hear the roof of your house detach. I thought about Moore and Joplin and Greensburg. I was worried for my father, who has no basement and no town siren either. I was weirdly grateful that my dog had died the previous year, because storms freaked him right the fuck out and at one hundred and eighty pounds, if he chose to run screaming down the street instead of hide with me in the basement, there wasn’t anything at all I could have done about it. I keep family photos and such in a footlocker in my room and I was pretty sure those would make it even in the worst-case; I may have to dig down for a while to find them, but I thought the trunk would be intact. I had a lot of stuff I thought I’d miss, but it was just stuff in the end. We were all there in the basement–cat and bird and all–and we’d be okay.
But I was going to lose my computer. Which meant I was going to lose my stories. And this is the thing about thinking about tornados: inbetween the idea of being killed by one or losing a loved one and escaping entirely unscathed exists a mental landscape of miles and miles where you think about losing everything else you have, one precious thing at a time.
Sitting in the dark watching the weather lady make absolutely damn sure we had the sports scores, I thought for forty-five long minutes about losing my books. They’re all backed up, of course. On disks. Right next to the computer. Which were quite possibly about to be blown to separate points of Oz. When I finish a book, I am in the habit of mailing it to myself as a kind of poor man’s backup, so I wasn’t so much worried about those as I was all unfinished ones. Two hundred pages of Pool. Ninety pages of my untitled djinni story. Thirty pages plus outline and notes for The Bull of Minos. My rough outline and six scenes for The Bone Tree. Half a dozen short stories awaiting half a dozen more before I combine them into an anthology. If I lost them, I could write others, surely, but could I ever write them again?
I did that once. When Heat was two hundred and eighty pages along, my younger sister and her boyfriend decided to boost the computer’s performance by reformating the hard drive. They backed up our pictures. They backed up our music files. They backed up my sister’s documents. They hit Yes when the computer asked if they were sure. And then my sister said, “Wait.”
I’ll spare you the details of my reaction, except to say that I did not die from it after all. I just rewrote the book. And finished it, which I otherwise might not have done. I even think some of the scenes are better this way (and some will never be but pale imitations of the glorious scenes they could have been), but that was just one book. Could I lose them all?
I said none of this, of course, but my sister understood it anyway. The next day, she tried to talk to me about an automatic backup service for my computer, but I couldn’t do it–the window was open. However, now it’s been a week, the storm demons appear to have been appeased or at least flown off to other parts of the world, and I feel safe talking about it.
Kids, if you’re out there reading this, have a plan ready in case of an emergency. Know what nature routinely dishes out in your area and prepare for it. Get a first-aid kit together and at least a week’s supply of food and water. Have a radio, flashlight and batteries ready where you’ll be able to find them in a hurry in the dark. If you have pets, factor them into your plan. Hold disaster drills at least once a year. Get a fire-safe for important documents and if you write, for the love of God, back up your system and do not store your back-up in the same room as the system it’s backing up. Also, it helps to have something to do in your emergency room so you’re not spending forty-five minutes bitching to each other about the priorities of the people on the Weather Channel. And seriously, if you decide to watch a movie, make it Jurassic Park or Alien or The Human Centipede…anything but Twister.