Weekly Wire
Nashville Scene Ill Wind

By John Bridges

NOVEMBER 10, 1997:  I should have heard about El Niño earlier, a lot earlier--like when I was 7, maybe. I could have used El Niño then. I could, in fact, have been using it all my life. If El Niño and I had only been working together, I might never have had to take the blame for anything. In short, I might have been a different man.

When my mother discovered the floor of my bedroom littered with paper dolls cut out of old Photoplay magazines, I would not have had to take responsibility. I knew, even then, that there was not much point in trying to blame my brother. At that moment my brother was probably out in the backyard pretending he was Clint Eastwood in an episode of Rawhide, staging a trail drive with a herd of feral cats.

But if I had been able to say, "Gee, Mama, beats the hell out of me. Must have something to do with El Niño," I could have caused my mother much less pain. Better yet, when I listened to her and my father talking at night in their bedroom, I would never have heard my father saying, "I don't know, Margaret. Maybe we should talk to somebody at a military school."

When I was 16, I could have blamed El Niño for the dent I put in my brother's hand-restored midnight-blue '57 Chevy. I could have blamed El Niño for the time I didn't make All-State Band. I could have blamed El Niño for the fact that my voice didn't change until I was almost 17. I could have blamed El Niño when I didn't do my homework. I could have blamed El Niño when the maid found unsightly stains on my underwear.

I do not know why, even now, El Niño is not being put to more effective use. Just knowing it is out there, unpredictable, ineluctable and unfeeling, is to me a certain source of comfort. I do not know why the New York Stock Exchange has not seized upon it to explain what happens on certain Mondays in certain Octobers. I do not know why Cleveland has not used it to explain about the Marlins. I do not know why Bill Clinton has not used it to explain Paula Jones.

If I were Janet Reno, and if somebody asked me why I still haven't got around to appointing an independent counsel, I would just say, "Whew. You know. Just waitin' to see what ol' El Niño's gonna do."

I think this way because I come from Alabama, a place where the weather can be blamed for almost anything--a fallen pound cake, an unwed mother, any election that resulted in George Wallace being governor. I have learned that relentlessly rising barometric pressure can cause joints to swell and cotton crops to fail. I have learned that barometric pressure, when it plummets, can be the cause of migraine headaches, soggy meringues, and toy poodles that run into the highway and get run over by pickup trucks.

It is not enough for weather forecasters to tell us that El Niño is responsible for the early snowfall in Colorado. It is not enough to suggest that El Niño, somewhere out in an ocean, can be blamed for an earthquake in Tuscany. Surely, there are woolly worms and various sorts of lichens that could tell us this sort of unremarkable thing.

I prefer simply to accept the fact that, when I balance my checkbook and discover a $575 overdraft, it has occurred in the middle of the night, when it was blown in by a gust of something horrid from the Pacific. I prefer to believe that, when I wake up blindly hung over after drinking seven martinis on a Wednesday night, the fault is not in the gin or in my tolerance for it. I like knowing that, if this were a year when there was no El Niño, this sort of illogical, causationless thing would never have happened. I like knowing that it is not my fault I cannot button the pair of chinos I bought just last April. I like knowing it is not my fault that I can no longer bench press my full body weight at the gym. I like knowing it is not my fault that I have not rotated my tires.

It is wonderful to know that El Niño is out there, malevolent and heartless. To accomplish anything, with it looming over us, is a tribute to humanity's indomitable spunk. Merely to arrive at the office, at any hour, is an act of bravery, given what might happen at any moment at the whim of El Niño. To open a bag of Oreos--the ones with the bonus cookie in the middle and the extra frosting on each side--is a valiant gesture, defiant in the face of Nature's ruthlessness. With such uncertainty hanging over me, in fact, I wonder that I dare to leave my house, to pour a cup of coffee, to attempt to dial a fax machine, to get on an elevator, to sit on a public toilet, to walk through a revolving door.

If I had only known, years ago, that life was not my responsibility, I might have eased up. I might have stopped worrying about whether Elizabeth Taylor would find true romance with a building contractor. I might have stopped blaming myself for the existence of John Tesh greatest hits albums. I might have stopped fretting when, at age 43, I discovered that I already had hair growing out of my ears.

But El Niño came along too late in my life. By the time I learned it was out there, I was already ironing my own napkins, checking the expiration date on my boxes of Grape Nuts, and knocking back a squirt of breath freshener before I answered the telephone. I was perfectly willing to accept the blame for the way Serbs feel about Croats. I had trained myself to assume that the only reason I had never found true love was because I had never found the right aftershave. I was fully convinced that, at some point in my life, I would already have won the Publishers' Clearing House Sweepstakes, if only I had been home to answer the door.

I did not know that I lived in a world where apologies are absolutely unnecessary, where there are no tracks to be covered and no explanations to be made. I did not know that El Niño, more malicious than an Alabama tornado, was out there, wreaking havoc and relieving me of all civic responsibility. I always figured that, eventually, the storm would blow over and my mother would be standing in my bedroom door, asking just who had been cutting paper dolls out of the Photoplays. I always figured that, eventually, the sun would come out and I would have to clean up my room.


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