Thursday, December 30, 1999

true confessions (more or less) of a survivalist

If this is the last thing you ever read that I wrote, blame it on my brother Brian.

I say to blame it on him because we have a 29-year-old policy of passing the buck to each other, and so history and tradition support my decision to make him a scapegoat. Besides, Brian is a computer programmer and therefore, it stands to reason, the responsibility for the end of the world lies entirely on his shoulders.

I'm writing of course, about Y2K, that programming bug in human nature that will cause people to lose control and go into a full-scale panic at midnight New Year's Eve when some smart aleck -- that would be me -- turns off all the lights in the building just to see how people react.

I've always had a morbid fascination with Doomsday scenarios. There's something especially appealing about human civilization ending because of a stupid error like a programming shortcut that considers only the last two digits of the year.

Given the chance of global collapse from an extinction-level meteor hit, a virulent plague or Y2K, I would pick Y2K every day because of the delightful irony in being done in by our own stupidity.

It would be even more appropriate if the problem is fixed -- which it supposedly is -- but the world ends anyway because people overreact to the millennial rollover.

A colleague of mine recently told me about the water and food supplies he had stockpiled in his cellar-turned-bomb shelter, along with enough firepower to hold off an invasion.

"Ooh, can I come by and borrow some bullets if I run out?" I asked him.

My colleague looked straight at me, and deadpanned, "Yes. Stop by any time after New Year's, and I personally will give you an entire clip of bullets. I'll give you all the bullets you can take."

I've decided not to visit him on New Year's after all.

Somebody -- I forget who -- once observed that no society is ever more than 30 years from barbarism. Personally, I think this person was an optimist.

Given the comments I've heard and read from several people who really do think Armageddon is around the corner, I would give civilization 20 minutes before it starts to unravel on New Year's if the power fails for any reason, including a downed electric pole.

If I worked at Public Service Electric and Gas Co., I would have a field day on New Year's Day playing Tic Tac Toe on the power grid with my co-workers.

The real fun with Y2K is going to start when everyone realizes the world still exists. I figure it's going to work like this:

First, the goofballs who actually wanted the world to end either will try to make it end, or, more amusingly, will claim that it actually did end, but the government is covering it up to avoid a panic.

Secondly, experts in the computer industry will give those of us in the media something else to write about by drawing attention to the "Y2038" bug, which will cause all sorts of problems with computers in another 38 years.

(Honest, that's a real problem, though I still don't understand it after having it explained to me three times. Apparently the current thinking is that the problem will have been fixed by the time the Year 2038 arrives. Sound familiar?)

Thirdly, supermarkets and other businesses that have made a killing the last few months selling supplies to worry-prone shoppers are going to see their sales bottom out.

After weeks of record-breaking sales -- I myself spent $160 in two trips to the supermarket this past month, more than twice what I normally would spend -- they're suddenly going to be short on income.

The last bit of fallout will be more personal. After I spent all that money stockpiling food in case there was a run on the supermarket or a disruption in distribution, it dawned on me that I would have no way to cook if the gas goes out.

Hmm. Maybe if you don't see anything else with my byline you should start the investigation with my wife.

Thursday, December 16, 1999

what dreams may come

People sometimes ask me where I find things to write about. In this case, it's a dream.

This particular dream I had was a nightmare that struck about 5 a.m. Dec. 14. It was the first real nightmare I recall having since I was 14 years old and dreamed our basement was being invaded by the Sleestak from "Land of the Lost."

That particular nightmare turned out well, because my brothers also were in the dream, and although the Sleestak grabbed Herb, the other three of us got out just fine.

I never found out what happened to Herb in the dream, since Sleestak never do more than walk around with their arms outstretched, and hiss. Whatever it is, I'm sure it couldn't have been too pleasant, since Herb hasn't had a cameo in a single dream of mine since.

In this more recent, Herb-free dream, I was outside, talking with my wife in the parking lot behind our house.

There are three things rather odd about this. To begin with, our house was a church I attended while I lived in Easton, Pa. Secondly, the parking lot doubled as a runway for a private airport we ran out of our house. Thirdly, my wife in the dream is not my wife in the waking world.

I suppose that's not too unusual, since, as everyone knows, dreams are a strange phantom world where people change identities fairly easily and reality is never stable.

In the Sleestak dream, for example, my oldest brother Brian at one point suddenly became my younger brother Herb, and this went unremarked-upon by everyone. If this happened in reality, several of us would at least raise our eyebrows in consternation.

In any event, my wife -- who looked suspiciously like a member of the board of education of the last school I taught at -- and I ran a private airport out of the house, and at the start of the dream, she was saying goodbye because she had to fly somewhere in our only plane.

Once my wife left, I entered the church-turned-house/airport-combination and met Scott, a friend of mine who probably will be as surprised as I was to discover that he was in my dream as an employee of mine.

Scott and I went to the kitchen and walked over to the stove, where -- this is very important to remember -- there were six beings of infinite evil confined, one in each burner.

Scott for some reason decided it would be a good idea to free these creatures, and persuaded me to do so by writing their names on the burners in the same code I use for formatting the newspaper.

In other words, I wrote "<Satan>" on one burner, and then lit the burner. Somehow this arcane form of black magic freed the Devil from his prison. One wonders what would have happened if I had tried to boil an egg instead.

I don't remember the identities of all six evil people. One of them was Satan, and another was Dr. Doom, the arch-enemy of The Fantastic Four in Marvel Comics. It could be that a third was Herb, now long-since corrupted by the Sleestak, but I honestly don't recall.

It was when Dr. Doom and Satan started to burst free from the stove that I woke up, breathing fast, sweating, and horrified that I had unleashed such tremendous evil on an unsuspecting world.

Only inches away, my daughter Evangeline stirred in her sleep, disturbed either by my sudden movement or more likely by the malevolent Dr. Doom himself, who had been freed at last by my intervention from the stove where he had been trapped for untold years.

So there you have it. You are now privy to one of my dreams, and like my wife (my real wife, not the one I had in my nightmare), you're probably laughing at me and at the terror I felt. If you're a psychologist, you're probably having a field day with this one.

I mentioned my daughter earlier, and thinking about dreams makes me wonder what she sees when she sleeps. I expect that in another three years or so, Evangeline will wake me late at night with screams brought on by her own nightmares.

I just hope they make more sense than mine do.

Thursday, December 02, 1999

the unacknowledged elephant

Have you ever felt like there's an elephant in the living room, and you're the only one who notices it?


It's an odd feeling. You watch in disbelief as the rest of your family and all your guests walk around or under the elephant. You expect at any minute for someone to chase the elephant away, or at least to say, "Why is there an elephant in the living room?"


Oddly enough, no one ever does, and after a while you wonder if there's a problem with you for even noticing the stupid thing.


That's the way I've felt for the past week or so. Well, all right, that's not true -- I've felt that way all my life, but that's beside the point.


During the past week, I've watched in profound mystification as first regional media and then national news media began to give air time to a dispute between Lorraine Zdeb and the Borough Council in Millstone, N.J.


Back in September, when Hurricane Floyd struck New Jersey, Ms. Zdeb went into neighboring Manville and Bound Brook, and saved nearly a hundred pets from drowning. Dogs, cats, snakes, you name it -- probably even an elephant or two -- she saved them.


It was a touching story, and when someone wrote a lengthy letter to the newspaper describing Ms. Zdeb's efforts, I was moved enough to recast it as a guest column, giving it a little more attention than it would have received as a letter.


Still, it's worth noting that earlier in 1999 Ms. Zdeb had applied to the Millstone Planning Board to build a permanent-standing animal shelter on her five-acre property, but the Planning Board denied her request. So it should come as a surprise to no one that Millstone slapped Ms. Zdeb with a fine when she sheltered the animals on her property in September, since she was doing what the Planning Board had told her she couldn't.


In the ensuing weeks, I have watched from my editorial desk as Ms. Zdeb's star has risen higher and higher into the stratosphere. Some area newspapers took an interest in her plight, and then one of the New Jersey 101.5 talk show hosts focused on her for an hour or so. It was when the Associated Press ran a story on her that things really got going.


Toward the end of November, my curiosity got the better of me, and I punched Ms. Zdeb's name into a few search engines on the Web. I found hits on CNN.com, on FOXNews.com, and a few others. On Nov. 30, ABC News called one of my reporters and asked him to fax them the stories he's written about Ms. Zdeb.


Celebrities like actress Mary Tyler Moore and model Rachel Hunter have taken an interest in her case. Ms. Zdeb has -- unwittingly, she claims -- become an overnight celebrity of sorts herself.


Not surprisingly, with all this attention, the Millstone Borough Council agreed to drop the case, which would have gone to trial Dec. 1.


Maybe I'm stupid, or maybe my brother hit me in the head with that log harder than I thought at the playground when I was 6, but I just don't get it. All I see is an elephant.


I'm not unsympathetic to Ms. Zdeb or her love of animals. If my dog Hamlet had been caught in flood waters, I would have been in the thick of things too. But I can't help feeling my colleagues in the national news media really missed the mark on this one.


When Hurricane Floyd hit Manville back on Sept. 16, it put more than a third of the borough under water, according to some estimates I've heard. About 200 people have asked the state to buy their homes because the flood damage was so severe.


Visit, if you can, Manville's Lost Valley section. There are people whose homes remain uninhabitable, putting them in trailers while they try to rebuild and find a way to pay for it all.


I was on the phone earlier today with a woman whose house has been hit four times in as many floods. She's hoping the government will buy her house from her so she can leave. Is her story worth less than the story of a couple parrots?


Then there's Main Street. A number of businesses have reopened, but there are many that haven't, and some that may never again, including businesses that have been part of the community for decades. Should they be ignored in favor of dogs and cats?


And don't forget the children whose homes were hit, and who probably won't have as big a Christmas this year as they have in years past. There's real tragedy in their stories, as well as real joy. Their stories are worth hearing.


When Hurricane Floyd hit Manville, it appeared as though the local news media were the only ones to give a rip; the national media were more concerned with the drama of fires in Bound Brook and the tragedy of the two deaths there.


A little more than two months after the flood has passed, and now the spotlight is turned back to Central Jersey, not to highlight the people who are digging out and deciding what to do with their lives, nor on the real fiscal problems Manville and Bound Brook will face if state buyouts proceed and they can't make up their lost population somewhere else.


It's a shame that Millstone wanted to prosecute Ms. Zdeb for giving animals temporary lodging on her property, and I'm glad the Borough Council dropped their case, but that's not where the real story is.


The real news about the flood is found in places like Manville, amid the continuing heartache of the losses and in the triumph of the human spirit over adversity.


To pretend otherwise is an insult.