Miscellany — From the October 2009 issue

Disaster Aversion

The quest to control hurricanes

Like many a girl with a long-dead father, I refer to myself as a girl rather than as a woman, and I gravitate to places I suspect my father, dead fifteen years now, might haunt. My father was a left-handed professor of meteorology at the University of Oklahoma, an Israeli immigrant who never saw the interior of a mall, who remained suspicious of proposed etiologies of global warming, who liked nothing quite so much as a Sunday morning of watching political “arguing shows,” and who regularly called my best friend in elementary school “the Huguenot,” for no other reason, I think, than that her last name sounded vaguely French and he liked saying the word. His office answering machine promised to return calls “as soon as feasible.” So, naturally, when the Whitney Museum put on a Buckminster Fuller-retrospective—one advertisement featured Fuller’s diagram for a weatherproof dome over forty blocks of Manhattan—I went.

A tour of middle schoolers was there, gathered around models of affordable homes built out of repurposed grain silos. A peppy docent was lecturing to the kids about Fuller’s neologisms of “lightfulness” and “livingry” (not weaponry!) and about “Spaceship Earth,” which, with our lightful technology, we could captain justly using renewable energy, recycled resources, and, eventually, computer programs that would resolve sociopolitical disputes as easily as they autopiloted airplanes. According to the comely lecturer, the optimistic and industrious Fuller was a phoenix who rose from the ashes of an impoverished, drunk failure of a man who, following his daughter’s death from polio complications, had been near suicidal.

My father either admired Buckminster Fuller tremendously or thought he was a tremendous fool, I can’t quite remember which, can remember only that the feeling was strong and probably expressed with the word “tremendous.” Alone that afternoon at the Whitney, among the mock-ups of all those new edenic geodesic domes, I recalled hearing tell from my father of a time not so long ago when the term “technological fix” didn’t sound dirty and delusional. When my dad was young, Fuller and scientists like him were crusaders of the left, heroically engaged in ushering in an utter transformation of society. The humbly engineered new world order would be one of less waste, more justice, less suffering, domed town halls built out of Venetian blinds, and, just maybe, plastic living rooms that happier housewives could simply wash down with a hose. The technological aspirations of Fuller’s world were well-diagrammed, beautiful, and ludicrous.

“Ludicrous”—that’s another word, along with “feasible,” that my father fetishized in his autodidactic foreigner way.

“Progress,” the exhibit downstairs from the Fuller show (the quotation marks are endemic to the exhibit’s title), featured two gorgeous Ed Ruscha industrial-scapes and a miniature mud-hut-dotted futuristic landscape. There are reasons, I guess, why these days we are more likely to think of our technological advances as heralding a future of superstitious apes and Charlton Heston weeping before the wreck of Lady Liberty. On the “Progress” floor, my irrational expectation of running into the ghost of my father faded fast.

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is the author of Atmospheric Disturbances, a novel.

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October 2019