There’s an idea held by some intellectuals, word mavens and Brits that Americans don’t know the meaning of irony, that we overuse it to describe situations that are instead surprising, unfortunate, ridiculous, or something, but not ironic. Unfortunately, not falling into any of the expert categories, I can’t provide guidance on the proper use of the word.
So, I don’t know but I’m guessing that cosmic irony is not the right concept to apply when I say that this week I’ve been watching the wildfires burn in San Diego, wondering how our old neighbors and friends were doing, while a couple of weeks ago I was pulling up pictures of flooding in the Valencia area, reading about the deaths here from too much water. The flooding from the mid-October rains hit much of the region but was worst in the southern Alicante area. That it’s too wet here, too dry in California, is not irony; maybe it’s paradox I mean, or most likely just one of the plain old, unfair tricks that happen.
Way back when I applied to colleges, one of the schools asked a question on the application that said, more or less, if you had to leave your home in an emergency (maybe they even mentioned because of a fire), what would you take? The school: California’s own Stanford. My answer was whatever a teenager would come up with, because I thought the question was meant to learn more about potential students, but really the question was simply preparatory. I didn’t know it was something you really should think about if you’re moving to California. I could probably answer the question better now; just Tuesday, I was talking to my parents about what they had packed in their car in case they had to evacuate (luckily they didn’t).
Thanks to the amazing human invention of the Internet, I was watching the same local newscast with the annoying anchor and the charming weatherman as I could have seen in San Diego, and a continent and an ocean away I was as powerless to do anything as the people in Qualcomm Stadium watching homes burn nearby. That people have such incredible power from knowledge in some areas, and that yet we still haven’t figured out how to protect ourselves fully from forces of nature (with whatever degree of responsibility humans bear for triggering or exacerbating disasters), is somewhat surprising each time, and a shame. (And that renewed surprise each time disaster strikes is one reason we aren’t better prepared.)
That I was very glad not to be back in San Diego with two kids worried about evacuating our home, is natural. During the 2003 San Diego fires, we sat through a few days at home until the air cleared outside, so I can imagine somewhat what it would be like, but for us these fires would have been scarier as they came closer to where we lived. But that I was also very worried about people there and despite the fact that it was a useless gesture, kept checking for fire details is also natural.
The Disney ride might be somewhat musty these days, but it is a smaller world (at least until ecological guilt keeps everyone from flying – unless they have a private jet, of course); you might call people neighbors if they live next door or 6000 miles away. But you can’t necessarily help them, and you can’t send them any spare rain you have. That’s certainly not ironic; it is a challenge.