Whether it was the zip code or the seven-digit phone number which came first hardly matters. Both were traumatic in their way. When the telephone exchange for my home town (PYramid2) was dropped in favor of all-digit dialing, you could hear the wails of the afflicted rising up to heaven: “They’re turning us into nothing more than numbers.”
Writing in The Atlantic, Megan Garber recalls that period of transition:
All-Number Calling—it is clear in hindsight—stood in the minds of many for the age of the impersonal, when people live in huge apartment buildings, travel on eight-lane highways and identify themselves in many places—bank, job, income tax return, credit agency—by numbers.
Stephen Baker, author of The Numerati, contends that such simple and relatively straightforward numbers are relics of the industrial age. Today’s data miners seek to turn us into combinations of numbers as they gather, compile, and interpret information about us before drawing their conclusions about how we will — or, more precisely, how we might be persuaded to — behave.
As Baker points out, the digital revolution may have enabled us to express our individuality through the use of new tools, but it’s quite clear that others are busy devising the most efficient ways to convert our individuality into numbers on a spreadsheet.
Whatever we think of this new intrusiveness, we continue to live by old-fashioned numbers: social security numbers, driver’s license numbers, credit card numbers. We memorize them, or use software programs to track them. Some continue to write them down on slips of paper before tucking them away for safe-keeping.
Especially for people along the eastern seaboard or on the great, looping Gulf coast, two of the most important numbers come as a pair. My own special numbers are 29.54 and 95.06, nicknamed 29N and 95W, respectively. The numbers– latitude and longitude coordinates — not only provide an accurate way to locate my home on a map, they also help to predict the chance of my home getting wiped off the map by a hurricane.
During hurricane season, latitude and longitude reign supreme on the Gulf coast. From the time a depression forms in the Atlantic or Carribean, the coordinates lurk at the edge of consciousness. If a storm scoots through the Yucatan channel and heads across the Bay of Campeche, shoppers begin talking probabilities in the lines at Target. Drivers engage in cryptic conversations at the gas pumps: “Has it crossed 25 yet?” “Don’t think so. I heard it’s still at 22”. Around the marinas, boaters’ gossip is faintly anxious: “Did Cyrean head up-island yet?” “Nope. They’re staying put below 15 until after the season.”
As storms form, dissipate, and re-form, wobbling or surging their way through tropical waters, latitude and longitude take on the feel of ancient incanatations: mysterious, trusted charms whose endless recitation somehow can influence a force of nature.
The response, while totally irrational, is understandable. Watching a tropical low, a nascent storm, or a hurricane making its way across the Gulf toward 29N, latitude becomes more than a number. It becomes the boundary for fear itself. Once experience has proven your place in the world can be obliterated in hours, the latitude called fear becomes as real as the monster spinning into life over the water, and people sometimes live at that latitude for years.
Some months after hurricanes Katrina and Rita devastated the northern Gulf coast, I traveled to Louisiana and Mississippi. During a second trip to Bay St. Louis, I encountered a little girl and her mother at the waters’ edge.
The young girl, barefooted and solemn in her green and white checked dress, circled her hands above her head like a ballerina. “Does she dance?” I asked her mother. “No, not any more. She used to, before the storm. Now, she puts out her arms, or holds them above her head. But she doesn’t twirl. She says she doesn’t want the water to come when she isn’t looking.”
Gulfport, Mississippi beach prior to Hurricane Isaac (Megan Jordan)
None of us wants to be surprised by turbulent waters, and so we watch: obsessively, intently, compelled by the chaos swirling just beyond the horizon. Whether a storm arrives on our doorstep or goes elsewhere to wreak havoc in a different neighborhood, there’s no escaping the watching and waiting, with all of its attendant anxiety and fear.
In the midst of the watching and waiting, we ponder the basic question: do we stay, or do we go?
Sometimes, the decision is made purely on the basis of fear. Some people flee because they never have experienced a storm, and they fear the unknown. Those more experienced in the ways of storms may run to avoid being pummeled by another hurricane’s wrath. Anxiety sometimes leads people to provision as best they can and hunker down, staying to protect property they fear would be lost in their absence to wind, water, or looters.
But more often than we imagine, decisions in the face of a coming storm are influenced by love.
Along the coastlines, people exist who know their land more intimately than many of us know our children, our spouse, or our best friend. Attuned to its rhythms, they recognize its voice; bound to it by ties unspeakably strong, they would willingly die in its arms rather than turn away and leave. Some stay because they love their community — the people they’ve grown up with, and a heritage they’re determined to preserve. Work requires others to remain. Steadfast and resolute, their commitment, too, is a form of love.
Others leave their homes because of love. They never would subject their aging parents, their children, or their disabled relatives to the fury of a storm and the discomforts of its aftermath. Some respond to the loving pleas of far-off family members, or realize in a fit of clarity that their love for life itself will not allow them to risk that life by confronting a surging storm. “Hide from wind, run from water” is ages-old wisdom, and here on the coast, that wisdom is taken seriously.
Fear, then, is the latitude crossing the storms of life, while love is its longitude: a line running as deeply through our lives as the worst of human fears. Confronting a storm, those who leave and those who stay often differ only in their final decision. They are equally courageous, standing at that intersection of love and fear where the questions always are the same: “What shall we do, now? What will we do, then? Will there be something left, or will the water overcome us at last, and wash our lives away?”
For now, asking the questions is sufficient. The time for decision has not yet come; there still is time to feel the air cooling and the breeze stirring.
For now, the music of life trills like a seabird taking flight, and life itself continues, lapping toward the shore.
While clouds part and stars still glimmer against a glowing, perfect dawn, someone who remembers a storm-scoured coast is walking toward the water’s edge: their child’s heart newly courageous, newly determined, and perfectly poised to dance at the intersection of love and fear.
Comments always are welcome.