On a recent road to Ottawa the fire alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 7:00 in the morning.
I did what I think anyone would naturally do, which was assume that it was a false alarm – accepting that there was no real danger – and went back to sleep. In fact, no one staying at the motel seemed particularly concerned about the alarm: there was no running out of doors, no frantic calls to staff (or each other) about the apparent looming danger, the possibility, yes, of a suddenly close (probably painful) death.
None of that.
On a different trip, I was staying at the UBC dorms in Vancouver when the fire alarm went off at the ungodly hour of 6:00 or 7:00 in the morning. It rang and rang and rang. My roommate and I finally got out of bed when it kept on ringing. Only we didn’t know what to do after that. Call someone? There hallways were dead, no one was rushing out of the building or knocking on our door and it seemed wrong, if no one else was showing evident concern, to stir up a commotion. More than that, it seemed an impertinence.
Who does that?
I have often been called an impertinence.
When the firetruck showed up, we called down from our 4th story window. Should we leave?
Yes, the firefighters responded. You should. And please, if you don’t mind, go and knock on all the doors and tell all those people to leave too.
We did, and is it really a surprise that not everyone behind those doors decided to leave right away?
Well, was there a fire, or wasn’t there?
When there turned out to be, in fact, no fire, there was, rather then a sense of collective relief, that heavy cream feeling of having wasted everyone’s time.
All the embarrassment we weren’t spared.
How needlessly we had knocked on all those doors.
But the alarm was real, wasn’t it? That’s what bothers me still, that particular uncertainty, the exact definition(s) of that, and also what it could look like if looked at differently.
The alarm was real – or wasn’t it?
Real or not, it seems that the instinct to go to look and see and at least make sure that everything is OK (or not) – to confirm that someone’s been crying wolf (or not) – is suspiciously absent.
Suspiciously? No. Not so suspiciously. There’s certainly a kind of expediency to ignoring what is clearly a false alarm – and more than that, to ignoring the kind of alarm that straddles you with the burden of having to take some kind of dubious action on behalf of self-indulgent others, a job, frankly, that you did not ask for, and that is not theirs to foist upon you.
Who even looks up when a car alarm goes off, and who can blame them for not looking?
Sometimes I wonder how much it matters if the danger is real. We are told to be afraid of so many things, false alarms or no, it gets to be exhausting. It is the kind of thing that both drains and undermines you.
Another thing to do is another thing you have to do.
Another thing on top of everything.
I am reminded of the tornado drills we used to undergo in primary school. The alarm went off (in this case it was a practice, not a false, alarm, another critical distinction), the teachers lined us up, walked us to the basement, lined us up again (this time, rather ominously, against the wall) and told us to duck, and cover.
The tornados never came. In fact, we didn’t live in an area in which tornados should have been of any real concern, except the one time they almost were.
I remember how our teacher talked us through the drills as the alarm rang out.
“Keep your heads down,” he said. “Everything’s fine.”