Connected by disaster

I came home last week to find my daughter standing on the front porch looking up at the sky. “What are you doing?” I asked.

“Thinking about the radiation plume,” she replied.

She’s 18, she understands you can’t see radiation, but she had been hearing a lot about the invisible particles landing in Los Angeles.

Then there was Libya. I watched on CNN as bombs fell and targets exploded, intercut with the devastation in Japan. It seemed there were bodies everywhere. Later, it felt odd to drive down Sunset Boulevard and see people shopping, talking or waiting for the bus, everyone alive.


Radiation from Japan — a minute amount of it, at least — has arrived in our backyard. Somehow it makes sense that bombs could fall here too. Nothing seems distant anymore. The Internet gives us satellite images of tsunami wave patterns and radiation plumes as they are happening. We watch live reports, see videos on YouTube, receive tweets from victims and refugees. It is all happening right here, in our living rooms, at our desks and even on our phones. No wonder my daughter is unsettled.

So am I. After the Japanese earthquake, I was bombarded with texts and emails from friends all over the country insisting Los Angeles is next. I found our earthquake kit in the hall closet, handily stored behind the beach towels, sleeping bags and old vacuum cleaner accessories. It had diapers in it! My youngest child is now out of high school, which tells you how long it had been since I looked in that bag. I bought new batteries for the flashlights, a fresh first-aid kit and jugs of water. Our new, improved earthquake kit is now sitting by the front door. I feel more prepared, but every time that duffle bag catches my eye, I’m reminded why it’s there and I shiver.

Outside my window I see birds at the birdfeeder and my neighbor washing his car. Inside, on every screen, the world is falling apart. Thousands dead in Japan. Another war in the Middle East. I feel disconnected from both worlds.

Saturday night our power went out and my daughter had her own personal meltdown. We live in an old house, and we can blow a circuit when she plugs in her hairdryer, but this time she screamed and burst into tears. The electricity came back in minutes, and she ran to the radio. Was it an attack of some kind? Was there a disaster we had missed? We were both relieved to hear music and then the disc jockey advertising a future concert. The news came on next, and I turned the radio off. Enough already. We don’t need it to tell us again how scary the world is and how very small a place it has become.

I suggested my daughter pick up a book, preferably something from the 19th century, “The Portrait of a Lady” or “Middlemarch,” back when news arrived on horseback, slowly and after the fact, when it was too late to worry about.

Diana Wagman is the author of the novels “Skin Deep,” “Spontaneous” and “Bump.”