I'm writing this post from my home office in southwestern Queens, where we've been lucky. A couple of uprooted and scarily teetering trees on the street, spotty cell phone service and a complete breakdown of the transportation we rely on to get to school and work -- but other than that, my family has survived Superstorm Sandy relatively unscathed.
We've barely left the house between Sunday (when we made a critical run to Blockbuster) and yesterday morning -- Wednesday -- when I unearthed the car to drive my husband to work (normally an easy subway ride). And, since we've had power the whole time, we've listened to a lot of radio, watched some TV and surfed -- and surfed again -- on the web. We've picked up messages from friends in lower Manhattan as, one by one, they reported power outages that we now know may take days or longer to fix. The people I've spoken to, images I've seen and stories I've heard remind me what the word "disaster" really means.
I say this because "disaster" happens to be a word I throw around a lot. I look around one of my kids' rooms -- or my office -- and say, "This place is a disaster!" I get stuck in rush-hour traffic and cry, "What a disaster!" My Internet goes down and I howl, "It's a disaster!"
Needless to say, none of these situations are disastrous. My father grew up in Atlantic City and owned a house in a neighboring town until just a few years ago. Looking at footage of splintered chunks of the city's famous boardwalk floating down city streets, I saw disaster.
And so, for a brief while now, I'll have a new appreciation for this particular bit of hyperbole. The meaning and power of words is always grounded in the reality that those words are meant to describe. It's good to be reminded of that sometimes.
To hearken back to a much-worse disaster, in terms of lives lost and world-wide reverberations, my family lived close to lower Manhattan on 9/11 -- we were on East 20th Street, which was much farther from the towers than the homes of many of our friends, but close enough to feel personally affected. One of the things that stood out for me at the time was the noise of sirens, and the sight of fire trucks roaring through the streets. (It contrasted, especially, with an otherwise eerie quiet on the ground and in the skies.)
My children were very young then and a few weeks after the attack we were (coincidentally) visiting Atlantic City. We were sitting in a diner when a fire truck pulled up in front. My immediate reaction was to reach for the kids. I wanted to somehow shield them from the sight of the truck, which in the moment I associated simply with menace. I remember thinking how shocking it was that not long ago parents like me would point out fire trucks to children as objects of excitement and even fun.
What does this have to do with words? It's something to do with the slippery nature of meaning. An image that is filled with positive connotations (at least from a kid's perspective) can change in a matter of minutes to a symbol of something adult and grave -- something to protect our children from.
If I had come across a fire truck-related metaphor in those early days after 9/11, it likely would have affected me very differently from the way the author intended: changed, for the moment at least, from a candy-colored emblem of heroism to an omen of disaster.
Robin Hardman is a writer and work-life expert who creates compelling and easy-to-read benefits, HR and general-topic employee communications, as well as helps companies put together the best possible "great place to work" competition entries. Her award-winning blog about writing for corporate communicators (from which this has been taken) can be found at www.robinhardman.wordpress.com; see www.robinhardman.com for information about her services.