The Astoria Borealis

I lived in Washington DC as a child, at a time when violent crime and gang activity was especially prevalent in the city. The safety lessons my parents imparted went beyond Stranger Danger and into full bore survival tactics. What will you do if someone pulls a gun while we’re shopping? What if someone breaks the car window on the Beltway? What if there’s a gang fight at school? All these what ifs were presented over and over until we could produce a clear Run-Hide-Fight response plan.

It sounds a bit extreme now, but we had been huddled bystanders in armed robberies and parking lot gunfights while living there. The triple homicide in our neighborhood was the final push my parents needed to relocate us to an ultra-rural cowtown. But as the saying goes, you can take the gal out of the city, but you can’t take the excessive crisis planning out of the gal.

Our move to NYC has widened the landscape of my What If game, presenting an entirely new set of potential disasters. When we chose to live and work on the island of Manhattan, my What Ifs kicked into high gear. It’s an island! What’s our flood zone? How will we evacuate if there’s a hurricane? What if there’s a threat that closes the island? What locations are most likely to be terrorist targets, and what is our relative day to day proximity to them? What if a disaster occurs while we’re at work? Where will we meet? If there’s a fire in our building and we need to exit off the balcony, what’s the best way to carry Marcy? To be clear, I feel very safe living here. I just can’t seem to stop my mind from wandering to potential disasters.

Last week, we had our first chance to confront a real life What If. What if it’s after 9 in the evening, and the black sky in the east lights up as bright as any sunrise? What if the brightened sky suddenly turns blue and proceeds to flicker for three minutes? I had not prepared a response plan for such a scenario.

Daniel and I stood on our small balcony, watching the blue lights race across the sky. It was quiet outside, save a low electric hum. There weren’t any sirens, and we didn’t see anyone else coming outside to watch. A glitch in the matrix just for us? An alien invasion? The northern lights? Nuclear war?

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We honestly thought it was nuclear war. As the blue lights kept flickering and Twitter failed to give me any reasonable answers, Dan put his arm around me and said, “If we’re about to be annihilated, know that I love you.” Comforting!

As it turns out, there was an underground fire at a power plant in Astoria. The blue light was caused by the electrical arc tearing through oxygen and nitrogen atoms. Amazingly, no one was harmed, though nearby residents were understandably scared into fleeing.

And I learned an important lesson. Sometimes, no matter your What If planning, there’s nothing to do but watch. If I am to greet the end times, I don’t want to spend my last moments scrolling through Twitter, looking for verifiable explanations. It either won’t matter (because of impending annihilation) or there will be time for answers later. Maybe it’s enough to lean into each other as the lights roll toward us, and say, “I love you.” again.

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