Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #6: Everybody’s Got a $3 Million Lifeguard Shack (or: How I Stopped Worrying and Learned to Love Procrastination).

Today is a good day. It is the last day of the lease on our hurricane car.

For three years, this car has mocked me. It is the first new car I’ve ever “owned.” I signed on the dotted line without ever test driving it. It was the product of poor decision making brought on by stress, geographic dislocation, and exhaustion.

We lost three cars during Sandy. It is one of those super boring TL;DR stories but the gist of it is that on the morning of October 29, 2012 we had three perfectly good cars of varying vintage, and inadequate insurance. And when we woke up on the morning of October 30, we had zero cars. Well, we had three dead cars, and no hope of any kind of insurance check. So, you know, roughly $17,000, gone in a couple of hours.

Anyway, we didn’t have a car, nobody we knew had a car, and we had a shit ton of work to do and no way to get anywhere. Having depleted our savings to buy the “new”-est of the cars a few weeks before the hurricane (but having neglected to upgrade the liability-only insurance policy), we had very little cash. We needed to figure out how to get a car, where to get a car, how to get to where to get a car, and how to pay for said car. Do you know how hard that is without the Internet? Without even a newspaper? And without a car?

We were desperate, we were exhausted, and we were not thinking straight (oh, and we were also pretty filthy) when we headed out in search of a car a week or so after the storm. We had great credit but not a lot for the down payment. We had no idea what car to get. We didn’t even know what kind of car we wanted. We were afraid to buy a used car in a place that had so recently flooded. We had no idea what a good price was. And there we were, heading into northern Queens in my sister’s car, with nothing more than an iPhone that only got service once we got a few miles from home. We wandered about from one dealership to the next, and unable to make a decision.

We are not the sort of people to lease a car. I have always bought used cars, and driven them until they die. I just don’t CARE enough about having “a  nice car” to spend a lot of money on “a nice car.” But you know, we need a car.  I was so worried about spending what cash we had that all I could think of was NOT putting money down. And how many other bills were mounting as we dealt with the heat and the basement and the electric and all the tools that needed to be replaced and…. please just give me a car so I can go home and sleep in my cold filthy house? We wound up signing a lease on a Honda Civic just so we could go home and get some sleep. We figured it was less of a commitment.

Today–three years and thirty-six monthly payments later—I turned in that car.  I could have bought a good used car for way less than what we spent, and yeah, I’d have done some repairs, but I would have a car now with no payments. What was I thinking?

Well, I guess I wasn’t thinking. None of us were.

I have been beating myself up over this almost since the first day, but I’m trying to let it go. There were a lot of decisions to be made and none of us had the time, energy, mental stamina, or research capabilities to make well informed and well thought out choices in those weeks and months after Sandy. We were not ourselves, and these worn out people, fearful people that we’d become behaved much less rationally than we would have under different circumstances. So, now we were stuck with what I like to call my own personal $3 million lifeguard shack. Everyone has one.

Indulge me in this metaphor.

Here in Rockaway, there’s a running conversation/argument/complaint about the city’s, well let’s just say ‘hasty’ decision to impulse buy thirty-five prefab trailers, to serve as public restrooms and lifeguard shacks, at a price of about $3 million a pop. They are, some argue, ugly. They are definitely over priced. And they are not holding up to the elements. They were the result of a rushed and rash decision on the part of City Parks, in order to get something, anything, in place before the summer beach season began. There was, undoubtedly, some palm greasing and price gouging involved.

I think that most would agree that, whether you like them or not, the purchase of these trailers was a hasty decision. We’d all have been better off if we had kicked the can down the road a bit, put in some temporary trailers, and weighed out all the options before we committed to these oddly post-modern but clearly poorly constructed (with leaks and rust the first  year) AT-ATs. And now we are stuck with them.

Meh.

They’re like trailers, except PERMANENT!

On the other hand, there’s another running conversation/argument/complaint about how long it is taking to replace our boardwalk, when other towns on Long Island and along the Jersey shore quickly replaced their damaged promenades. It took almost three years (and will have taken almost four when it’s done, if not longer), but our inaugural, mile-long snippet of new boardwalk is beautiful, functional, and already much beloved by most people I know.  It is the product of what seemed like endless community meetings and surveys. The locals chimed in, the Army Corp of Engineers did its thing, and NYC Parks listened as ideas were floated and shot down. The plan was adjusted along the way (and yes, delayed), but everyone had an opportunity to be heard.

Yes, we could have had the same traditional board back in place quickly, and then prayed that another superstorm (or a fire) would not come along to destroy it.  What we wound up with is not the same as what we had, but it lovely, it is resilient, and it is ours.

The boardless-walk. I had

The boardless-walk: Long wait. Lovely results.

My point, I guess, is just that rash decisions are rarely good decisions. When making decisions—from purchasing a car to building a boardwalk—taking the time to do your research, weigh your options, identify potential problems, and adjust the plan accordingly should always be part of the process. My big lesson from Sandy is that if you can kick a decision down the road a bit, then you probably should. Procrastination has perks:  it’s never a waste of time to mull things over. Ultimately, you may decide NOT to do something, but that doesn’t mean you’ve done nothing. I wish the city had procrastinated on those stupid trailers–because what they built when given more time (and scrutiny from the community) was much better. And I wish I’d procrastinated on that car purchase, because I know that for my purposes, a used car would have been a better deal.

Now when I feel pressured to make a decision and it’s keeping me awake or making my stomach churn, my first line of defense is to just not decide yet. I’ve accepted that I have limited decision making skills, and when they are overtaxed, I don’t perform well. So I prioritize my decision-making facilities, focusing my energy on things that must be dealt with and procrastinating on anything that can wait, even if it means living with some inconveniences or uncertainty or complaints from the masses in the meantime. I don’t ever want to have the equivalent of a $3 million lifeguard shack in my driveway again.

Sometimes progress means just standing still for a while. I don’t think I really ever appreciated that until I was in a situation where procrastination was not just an option.

Advertisements

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #5: Accentuate The Positive

So, yesterday was the two year anniversary of Hurricane Sandy. The storm made landfall around sundown, so most of my memories of the storm itself are muddy–watching the street slowly fill with water was just eerie and ominous with the lights out. While my son was hyperventilating with fear that we were all going to die, and my daughter was comforting him, my husband and I were just watching the clock (and trying to remember how much credit we had available), knowing that the tide would turn shortly after nine. Once I saw the water start to recede from the top basement step, I figured the worst was over and fell asleep. Had a tree blown down and landed on the house, I’m pretty sure I would have slept through it. (If you want to know what it was like, you can’t do better than to read NY1 political reporter and local dude Bob Hardt, who live blogged the storm from his Rockaway Beach home. Start from the end, and scroll back to experience the view from the Beach 90s in real time.)

For me, though, today is the real anniversary–because it was not until the following morning that I fully comprehended what Sandy had wrought.  When I opened the door and saw my street, and my neighbors walking around, dazed, in tears, or even laughing with disbelief–because it was all just so surreal–that’s when it hit me. And while the sporadic texts and facebook posts I’d seen the night before suggested that it was worse than I knew–the boardwalk pulled from its staunchons, fires throughout Breezy Point and Belle Harbor–it wasn’t until a friend who still had a charge on his phone showed me a photo of the boardwalk, or what was left of, that I cried.

I just ran back through my email, and found the note I sent to friends a few days later, on November 3, when I arrived at my sister’s house for a night with my displaced children, a much needed hot shower, and a few moments of sweet, sweet Internet. Here’s my description from that email (I’ve pasted it in as written–typos and all. Cut me some slack–I was exhausted and traumatized!).

The peninsula is devastated. I don’t know what they’ve shown on TV, but it’s really bad. The boardwalk is just gone. It’s a terrible  hit, particularly for my neighborhood, which was just sort of coming into an upswing after decades of decline. While the Mayor handled the runup to the hurricane well (we can’t say we weren’t warned) and the city agencies are really kicking ass, it was terrible for morale that he declined to have Obama visit and then was planning to go ahead with the marathon. Bear in mind that we have no tv coverage down there, only the spottiest cell service, and the main news radio stations didn’t seem to be reporting on rockaway. We were seriously feeling forgotton.

The first night was madness–Looting, gunshots. But it took days for the national guard to roll in. We were seriously praying they’d just declare martial law. IT’s terrifyingly dark out there at night.

My nephew was able to register us with FEMA and they are coming tomorrow. We have not seen any presence from the Red Cross at all at my end of town, though we were hit less hard than uptown and breezy point, so I’m guessing they are up there. The hipsters we mocked all summer, however, are everywhere, walking down streets with bags of food and water, even dog food, making lists for families. They’ve got the best organized boots-on-the-ground effort we’ve seen in my specific neighborhood (check out http://interoccupy.net/occupysandy/rockaways/). It’s overwhelming. After seeing the remains of the boardwalk that first morning, my neighbor and were walking along, lamenting that “These hipsters will never come back now.” And with that, a little group of five very Williamsburgy types walked up and asked us if were were ok. And we said, we’re all safe, are you guys ok? And they said, yes we came in from brooklyn its all fine there–we came here to help. And with that they headed back to my neighbor’s yard to haul 20 yards of construction sand into the pit left by her destroyed koi pond (and was endangering her foundation).  I cried. I’ll never mock a hipster again.

So that’s my update. Again, we are fine, and you know, we have a steady income and we’ll get through this ok. There are a lot of people in wealthier part of town who were hit with way more damage, but also are more equipped to handle it in the long run. But there are a lot of really poor people in my neighborhood who lost everything and really just don’t know what to do. They are just helpless, and everyone who lives here is too wound up with their own messes to even reach out. It’s difficult not being able to help your neighbors because you’ve got a basement full of wet crap (and the occasional dead koi).

On the up side, at least there are no zombies.

Two years later, I find it helpful to reread this, and remind myself that while the city is dragging its feet on repairs to our boardwalk and infrastructure, while many of my neighbors are still displaced, while all of us are still struggling with bills and the unfreakingbelievable amount of paperwork involved in making insurance claims or trying to get money out of Build it Back, and while the Red Cross is rightfully being scrutinized for being more concerned with marketing than with actually getting help to people, we’ve really come a long way.  Sand, eventually, got pumped onto our beaches, offering protection we’ve known we need for ages. The new boardwalk, while slow in coming, looks like it will be great.  Those hipsters kept coming back–they helped rebuild our neighborhood and are continuing to help build our economy. And my little neighborhood is finally getting a needed shot of investment not from the government but from artists and entrepreneurs and tourists  and even brand new residents who are catching on to what born-and-bred locals have known all along: This place is special. (Local blogger Rockawayist provides a great rundown on all the great things that have happened since Sandy). None of it is perfect, but things are happening in a place where nothing good seemed to be happening for many, many years.

I guess I’m a glass-half-full kind of girl. Sure, there’s a lot to complain about, and there’s a lot that still needs to be done. But Rome wasn’t built in day, and Rockaway won’t be rebuilt in a year or two, especially since many of our local problems–poverty, isolation, and crappy transportation–predate Sandy by a few decades. I prefer to count my blessings, because I am a goddamned Pollyanna with no time for haters and whiners. As the surfers say, you can’t fight the ocean but you can learn to surf. In my case, you can just look around and be grateful for the fact you are alive, you still have a job, and while your home may not be worth what you put into it, at least the basement is dry. And let’s not forget: there are still no zombies.

New Mural from Beautify Earth, Beach 91st Street.  http://instagram.com/oceanus_11693

New Mural from Beautify Earth, Beach 91st Street.
http://instagram.com/oceanus_11693

An aside: If you ever want to help in disaster response, I can think of no better charity to receive your donations than Team Rubicon. These amazing veterans were among the most effective and helpful storm responders–those first dark, terrifying nights, it was Team Rubicon who rolled down our streets with a PA system announcing who they were, and what help they were offering (blankets, food, batteries, etc). As time rolled on, they deployed teams to muck out basements and get aid where it was most needed. These are men and women who served our country, and then chose to serve again. We owe them far more than we could ever hope to pay.

Lesson from Hurricane Sandy, #4: Picky eaters are less picky when they’re really, truly hungry

I made a joke on Facebook the night before the storm hit, joking that (to paraphrase the Talking Heads), I had some groceries, some peanut butter, to last a couple of days. My family has been in this neighborhood a long time, and we knew that this block had never flooded (not even during Hurricane Donna), but we thought it was likely that we would get some water in the basement. So our plan was to ride out Sandy as we had ridden out every other hurricane–to stay close to home so we could man the sump pumps and the generator. Like most of our neighbors, we battened down the hatches and hunkered down, with candles and flashlights at the ready. I had groceries up on the high shelves in the basement, and the second fridge was well stocked with a few gallons of milk, some beer, and frozen food.

Of course, that was all in the basement. So, that didn’t quite work out like I’d hoped.

Food-wise, the first day or two after the storm were kind of hilarious, as we all emptied our pantries and thawing freezers (the ones we had up in our kitchens, that is) and fed anyone who was there to eat it. I introduced some of my neighbors to Irish sausage; my next-door neighbor ate a granola bar for the first time in his life. Perhaps the most surreal moment came when another neighbor came around with a tray of just-thawed shrimp cocktail, and we all stood in the cold, covered in basement sludge, feasting as though we were at a country club.

But as time went on, the whole sustenance thing became decidedly less entertaining. For the first few weeks after the storm, there was just a ton of work to do, and we were all burning every minute of daylight mucking out and cleaning up. There was still no power, no heat, no refrigerator, or hot water to wash dishes. I had two kids who were not particularly good at eating things that they weren’t used to eating. So, sorry kids–I’m not making you Kraft mac and cheese or rolling up plain turkey cold cuts today.

But guess what? Apparently, picky eaters become less picky and more adventurous when they’re really hungry and choices are limited. For weeks after the hurricane, we were living on canned goods and the kindness of strangers. When you’re hungry, things that might have smelled weird to you a week before suddenly smell delicious. My son still talks about the amazing Jamaican jerk chicken he ate, delivered from a church van that was just trolling through the streets, offering food and comfort. My daughter ate chili from a Red Cross truck (yes, they did eventually make an appearance) and everybody dug into a huge pot of jambalaya delivered by one of the local surfers. My kids have never been big in the appetite department and would have lived on nothing but milk if they could have. But now they were, probably for the first time ever, hungry enough to get past the novelty of new textures and flavors and realize that not only did they feel better after eating it, but they kind of liked it.

I guess the point is that when it comes to getting our kids to try new things, it doesn’t hurt to tell them there’s just nothing else to eat. The thing is, I didn’t really have to wait for a natural disaster for it to happen; I’ve found a similar phenomenon occurs in less dire circumstances. If I don’t pack junk and snacks when we go to the beach, they’ll get hungry enough to just try what’s offered. That’s how I got them to consider foods that they’d previously wrinkled their noses at: hummus, fish tacos, sweet potato fries, a frozen banana. So the moral of the story is, if you don’t let them have the junk, they’ll eat things that are not junk–eventually, and after a lot of whining.

The other lesson for me was that as a parent, we fall into habits as much as our kids do. My son was 12 when the Sandy hit, but I was still playing by the food rules that we’d surrendered to established when he was a toddler and refused to eat most fruits because they were “Slippery.” In the two years since, he’s become a much more adventurous eater. I can’t say this is entirely (or even partly) due to the hurricane experience–most likely it has more to do with the fact that he’s hitting his growth spurt and is just way hungrier than he ever was before (but still not hungry enough to eat slippery fruit). And, it’s not like he or my daughter have gone and become vegetarians over night: when the junk was available again, they went right back to it (and as I’ve said elsewhere, I don’t really believe in banning anything outright). But: They have at least started to open themselves up to new food experiences, which is the first step toward a greater appreciation for different kinds of ingredients, flavors, cuisines, and textures. That’s as much a part of growing up as reading more complicated books, or learning to work independently. Having them expand their palettes has made dinners easier and our family life richer: we’re no longer cooking two different meals for the kids and the grown ups, and we can finally go out together to a restaurant (my favorite thing to do) that doesn’t have chicken nuggets on the menu.

So go ahead, starve your kids a little. It will be good for everyone.

 

 

 

 

 

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy #3: Ten reasons why I love e-books

My husband loves to buy books. He really, really, really loves them. He can read circles around me and almost anyone I know. And he was immensely attached to all the books he’d collected (when he moved to NY from CA in 1997, he arrived with one bag of clothes, and about 18 boxes of books). I had nagged forced inspired him to weed his books periodically over the years, and he hadn’t bought many paper books since we’d invested in the e-reader when the Kindle was first launched, but in the summer of 2012 there were still a shit-ton in the house. When he wanted to upgrade his reader to the Paperwhite (we have a checks-and-balances policy on expenditures over $100), I told him I would only approve the expenditure if he agreed to weed out most of the books. My final, winning argument on this issue was “You have moved these books over 3,000 miles, through at least five apartments, over the past two decades. And you have not dusted them once.” So, that fall, he filled about twenty boxes with books, dropped them at a church flea market, and preordered his Paperwhite.

Two weeks later the books-in-the-house issue was rendered moot when Hurricane Sandy brought 8 feet of water into the basement, where most of the books that remained resided. Most of what was left was mine–all textbooks for work–and believe me: it was doubleplusunfun having to slog an Ikea Billy’s worth of sopping, 1,000-page tomes out of the muck. But the truth is, we don’t miss many of the books we lost or gave away. Most of what he’d intended to save—those that he’d considered “favorites”—he could easily get at the library, and many were classics that he could download for free or maybe 99 cents if he wanted to reread (he’s a notorious re-reader). Our Kindles weren’t in the basement, but even if they had been, everything we had bought since the arrival of our first Kindle was safely stored up in the Amazon cloud. And in one of those hilarious post-Sandy moments, his spanking new Paperwhite arrived right on time just a few days after the storm. There we were, knee deep in the muck out, hungry, exhausted, filthy, with no power, no internet or cell service, not even a working traffic light for miles. The state of the neighborhood could only be described as post-apocalyptic. And here is our friendly UPS guy, with the Husband’s new Kindle.

Anyway, one of my favorite websites, Lifehacker, posed a challenge last week, asking readers to sound off on why they love or hate e-books.  I write too slowly and missed the comment bandwagon, so I’m sounding off here instead. There are solid arguments on both sides, but when I weigh out the pros and cons, I’m decidedly in the pro-ebook camp, for a number of reasons. I’ve done my best to narrow them down to ten, below, but first, a few disclaimers:

  • Yes, I know this is a first world discussion. Lots of people can’t afford to buy any books at all. But libraries can and do fill this void, and ebooks will probably have a bigger role in making more content accessible to more people as technology and access improve (at every level of the economic spectrum, smartphone ownership is increasing).
  • Libraries are still the bomb, and anyone who thinks that they are less relevant than they used to be clearly has never been to a branch of the Queens Library on any given day.
  • Ebooks still have plenty of shortcomings.  Off the top of my head: uninspiring book design; crappy business practices (and I’m not complaining that they’re too expensive here); a complete lack of copyediting/proofreading rigor; and no, it’s not all that easy to highlight, bookmark, or make notations. I am eager for the technology to catch up and for the business model and for production standards to adjust on these.
  • Most of my comments here relate to novels and straight-up non-fiction. I still prefer paper books for reference books,  how-to guides, and anything illustrated. I still like leafing through cookbooks (although I don’t hold on to them anymore). And don’t even get me started on how much I love curling up with a real, printed magazine.
  • The problem with ebooks is more about Amazon (specifically, Amazon’s near monopoly on ebooks and their business practices in dealing with publishers), I think, than about ebooks. That said, I’m firmly in the Amazon camp thus far–they just make it so easy to shop, and I found the Kindle tech and Amazon’s customer service to be far superior to B&Ns (our first e-reader was a Nook). I would be happy to jump ship to another provider if they could match the service and selection and convenience of Amazon, or improve on the overall quality of the ebooks, which seem to be riddled with very distracting proofing errors (I really wish that publishers would take ownership of ebook production and sales). But so far, nothing better has emerged.

With that out of the way, here are ten reasons why I love ebooks. Lots of people still love their hard copies, and more power to them. I suspect they are better about dusting than I could ever be.

  1. Books Are Not Bricks. That’s a quote I read a very long time ago from Henry Holt. It came up in an entirely different context, but the line has always resonated with me. Holt, writing for The Atlantic in 1905, expressed a concern that books were being signed, bought, and sold as “soulless things.” I myself have always felt that the soul of a book lies with its meaning, not in the packaging (they don’t say “you can’t judge a book by its cover” for nothing). Books are not something you own; they’re something you experience. Once you’ve read a book, it is yours forever. You don’t have to own it. Some of them are indeed very beautiful: they have been carefully designed and produced in a way that adds value and meaning, and enhances the reading experience. But for most part—especially when it comes to high volume reading, pulp fiction, and the like—the real value is not the form but the content, and what we ourselves gain from having read them (even if they are pulp). Having books on our shelves doesn’t make us better or smarter; it’s just evidence that we have enough money to spend on books. And, as I told my husband ages ago: You’re not in college any more, and miles of shelving full of things you’ve read is no longer impressing your lady friend.
  2. Ebooks are harder to share, except when they’re not. Many people I know complain that the problem is that they can’t share their ebooks–can’t loan them to friends or give them away when they’re done reading them (and conversely, one cannot borrow an ebook easily, or buy used ebooks on the cheap). But on the flip side, it’s pretty easy to set up a circle of readers on a single account. Since my husband and I buy so many books, I’ve picked up an extra Kindle for my mom and put it on our account; when my sister decided to buy one, I had her log it into my account instead of setting up her own. And: instant book club. Whenever one of us buys a book, we all have access to it. We’re going on a cruise together this fall, and we’ll all be reading the same book while we lounge on deck.
  3. Ebooks are harder to lose. Everyone talks about how they like to pass on books to friends. Most of the time they are just giving books away, but sometimes it’s because they loved a book and want their friend to love it, too. The thing is, if it’s a book you love, you might not get it back to read it again or to share with another friend (In my experience, the expected return on a loaned book is about 1 out of 10). Your ebooks aren’t going anywhere. Even if disaster strikes–a flood, a busted reader, a robbery–you can still access your books from a new device.
  4. Ebooks are easier to move. If you’ve ever moved an avid reader into a walk-up apartment (you know who you are, my friends), you know that the best books are virtual books.
  5. The battle of the indie vs. the big box was over long ago.  Some see Amazon as a heartless conquerer, but many communities were bookstore deserts long before Amazon arrived on the scene. Indies were already few and far between back in the early 1990s, when big box stores like Borders and B&N were systematically putting the them out of business. For those of us who live here on the vestigial tail of New York City, there was never a bookstore nearby: the closest on (now long gone) was a few miles and a bridge toll and a parking fee away, and it was a relatively rinky-dink mall bookstore with limited, very mainstream stock.
  6. Free samples. For so long, it was like  you had to marry a book without having dated it first. I fill my Kindle with samples, try them out, and if I find myself wanting more after those first 3o-odd pages, I click “buy.” Far fewer bad purchases sitting on my bedside table mocking me, and a lot more great books I’ve read because I took a chance.
  7. Ebooks don’t need dusting. Enough said.
  8. Ebooks are kind to the farsighted. I am appreciating this more and more every year.
  9. Sometimes you just need to reread Harry Potter. Many people have noted that they just keep the pulp versions of their favorite books. But I’m more the other way around: I keep my favorite books at my fingertips, in my Kindle and/or on my phone at all times.
  10. Shopping at Amazon is ironically more intimate and personal than shopping in the real world. Amazon launched as a bookseller, and it offered what those bookstores could not: Selection and convenience. But oddly, I was immediately won over by the more intimate nature of the Amazon book buying experience. Despite the efforts of big box bookstores, they’re still a store, and there’s often piped-in music, other crap for sale, and just other people around. And while many of us might wax nostalgic about the Dream of the 1990s and all those magical independent bookstores (and record stores), let us not forget the judgy arched eyebrow of the pretentious Gen-X sales clerk as he rang up your copy of the latest Stephen King. Shopping for books at Amazon, I can read reviews at length without sitting on a dusty floor in my work clothes; I can do it in absolute, utter, 1950s librarian–endorsed silence; I can see what others are buying without spying over their shoulder; and I can read YA or pulp fiction on the subway without anyone rolling their eyes at me.

“Books Are Not Bricks”

 

Books are not bricks…. the more they are treated as bricks, the more they tend to become like bricks,—the more authors seek publishers solely with reference to what they will pay in the day’s market, the more publishers  bid against one another as stock brokers do, and the more they market their wares as soulless articles of ordinary commerce are marketed, the more books tend to become soulless things.”

Henry Holt, “The Commercialism of Literature.” In The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 96, No. 5 (p. 578). November 1905.

In the public domain: You can read the whole thing for free on Google Books.

 

Lesson from Hurricane Sandy #2: Everyone should own a radio.

I should have known better: We’d lost power on our block for a week after Hurricane Irene the year before. But the neighbors were kind enough to let us piggy back on their generator, so we could charge our phones there, and it was of fun “roughing it” for that warm week in August. I mean, we just ate out a lot, since all the stores were open. The kids hung out outside, or played cards in the evening.

But after Sandy, we woke up to not just a physical disaster, but a complete communications void. No power, sure. But also no cell phone service. You couldn’t even get a text through. The last Facebook post I’d seen before I lost my cell coverage was from a friend who lived a couple of miles east, in Belle Harbor. It read:

Rockaway is burning. Please help.

And there we were, without a radio. The one we had was a big old boombox, and it was, of course, floating somewhere in the basement. We had no idea what was happening, anywhere, or how far the disaster went (was it just us in Rockaway?) or what, if anything, was being done to help. No land lines, no cell, no internet, no tv (what we would have done for a little NY1!), no newspapers, and no freaking radio.

I snagged an old walkman a few days later from my mom, and spent much of the remaining month plugged into it. And this tech devotee gained a new appreciation for good, old fashioned analog, even if the news was confusing, and real information was, especially for the first few days, very hard to find.

Anyway, having spent the better part of a month with the radio, following not only the disaster coverage but also the 2012 presidential elections, I’m now a radio devotee. Yes, I still stream music and podcasts, but I spend my morning with good old fashioned real-time broadcasts. And after free riding on WNYC for so many years, I finally became a sustaining member after I realized I’d have been completely lost without it. They covered Rockaway better than anyone, and kept covering us long after the rest of the media had moved on.

Obviously,  I finally got a radio (this one):

It has great reception, runs on the smell of a battery (and has a hand crank in case of a power emergency), takes up little to no space, and travels with me from room to room to garden without any wires, bluetooth connectivity issues, or recharging needed. And I love that it has dials instead of buttons.

It’s technically an emergency radio, but I use it all the time now. You’ll never be packed away in the basement, little friend.

Lessons from Hurricane Sandy (#1): It’s all just stuff, and we have too much of it.

Here in Rockaway Beach, NY, there are two sorts of people (well two sorts of homeowners, at least): Those who lost their homes on October 29, 2012, and those who just lost the basement. I am grateful to be in the latter camp. The Atlantic rolled up our street and quickly filled it up, meeting with Jamaica Bay at the end of the block. By the time we hit high tide, the water had crested the top step of my front stoop outside, and filled the basement to the ceiling; but just as tide clocks predicted, the water then leveled off and started to recede, having gone just two inches into the joists of our first floor. We lost our cars, all of our utilities, tools, appliances, and everything we had stored in the basement, but our main living space was dry. We know we were very lucky. Many of our friends, family, and neighbors were not. Some of them are still displaced. We just had a shit-ton of work to do.

Our basement had been semi-finished. I had my home office down there, and a multipurpose playroom/workout room/whatever room (aka The Room of Requirement),  plus a utility space with the washer/dryer, tools/workshop, and  storage of out-of-season clothes, holiday decorations, crap I meant to give away, and other things that just didn’t have anyplace else to go. I had been wise enough to move what I thought were the most important things in the basement up the night before: boxes of photographs, my computer and printer. There was still a ton of crap down there: all of our tools, lots of furniture (used and unused),  bins full of clothes and linens, plus toys, guitars, sports equipment, a huge TV and approximately eleventyzillion Legos. We figured we might take on some water, but with everything stored on the high tables and shelves we figured it would be ok.  Needless to say, it was not.

When we finally got the water pumped out (it took a few days, with a pair of wee sump pumps hooked up to the neighbor’s generator) we were faced with 750 square feet full of saturated things that used to seem important.

After the water was pumped out, 10/2014

Vintage furniture, waiting to be refinished. Work tables and bookcases. And Legos, Legos EVERYWHERE–including stuck to the ceiling.

 

Furniture, guitars, and the remains of my old home office.

Furniture, guitars, and the remains of my old home office.

Making matters worse, our oil burner had leaked, so all of it was infused not only with the lovely funk of sewage and seawater, but also a touch of petroleum. There was nothing to salvage. Everything must go.

It’s been 18 months now, and the process of mucking out/cleaning up/watching my neighborhood rebuild has been exhausting, but also enlightening. Having to throw away All The Things makes you think a little more carefully about which Things you actually want/need to replace. And after living for a few weeks without the essentials of life (heat, hot water, electricity, laundry, transportation, and let’s not forget Wifi), you start to wonder how much of this garbage you really needed to begin with. The tools were a huge loss, along with a lot of things I hadn’t thought about in terms of value until I had to replace it all. And yes, there were a some sentimental things that it just gutted me to lose. But what about the rest of this mess?

The kids were outgrowing those toys, anyway. Those books were probably never going to be re-read. Was I ever going to get around to refinishing that adorable little chifforobe? Was I suddenly going to start using all the craft supplies that had been sitting in boxes for years?

The point is, it was all just stuff. And it was clear that we had too much of it.

This the first in a series of posts wherein I shall mull over the lessons that Sandy taught me (in no particular order).  I don’t speak for everyone who went through it, obviously, and especially not for those who lost everything. But the process of clearing out a cluttered basement and prioritizing tasks and purchases and time and money as we clean up and rebuild has been valuable in many ways. Feel free to chime in in the comments with any lessons you learned.