The Cassandra Syndrome, Part I

I. Powerless
On the night of Sunday October 30th, we got The Dreaded Robocall from Superintendent of Schools Brian Osborne, whom we Maplewood parents primarily know as an unpredictably sadistic automaton that randomly but regularly derails our careers and destroys our plans for the day by calling off school for weather-related reasons that somehow always seem less pressing than the need for the children to actually be in school. As if to add insult to injury, our household got the call FOUR times (once each on my and my husband’s cell, once on the home phone from the Board of Education, once on the home phone from Maplewood Township), plus the following email:

“Due to down power lines throughout South Orange and Maplewood, and hazardous conditions persisting from yesterday’s storm, all South Orange-Maplewood schools are closed tomorrow, October 31, 2011.  Offices will remain open and twelve month employees will have a regular working day.”

Okay, first of all, Brian, if you’re going to fuck up my program, please come correct with proper English: that would be “downed power lines” and “twelve-month employees,” the latter of whom most certainly will NOT be having a regular working day if they have school-age children, now, will they? Let’s add accurate content to that target-list of improvements. If you’re the School-District Dominatrix whose job seems to have evolved into dishing out pain, then you’re going to get a little push-back from the Editorial Dominatrix. *sound of whip cracking*

The natural disaster/school cancellation/disembodied voice of doom falls into Cassandra’s territory for a few reasons. Just to refresh your memory, Cassandra was part of the ancient Greek Iliad crew, (though she gets more action in Agamemmnon, the first play in Aeschylus’ Orestia trilogy, which is one of  my favorite classics because really, nothing makes you feel better about your own life than reality-show-forerunner, hot messes like Agamemmnon, Clytemnestra, Orestes, and Electra). The sister (maybe twin?) of the infamous Helen of Troy, Cassandra was another beautiful daughter of doomed King Priam. Apollo fell in love with her and first gave her the gift of prophesy, then the curse that no one would believe her prophesies until it was too late.

Talk about an abusive relationship. *whip cracks again*

You can imagine not being believed about something as big as the Trojan Horse would kind of eat away at you. No wonder she went crazy after Troy fell and her parents were killed, she was taken as a slave, blah blah blah. Meanwhile, here in Maple-Troy we had our own Greek tragedy last weekend due to the unexpected October Snowpocalpyse. Although the weekly forecast had called for snow on Saturday, I’m pretty sure I speak for the general populace when I say we were all envisioning that half-assed sleet that sometimes becomes snow for a while when the weather first turns cold; the kind that makes for a few gloomy hours before turning back into rain and melting away. So I set out in my car to run on the treadmill at the gym in a sort of preemptive strike against impending Halloween candy carnage. “It’s not that bad!” I delusionally told my friend on the cellphone about 2 p.m. as I skidded through slushy snowdrifts. After I had gotten to the gym, ran for an hour, showered, and changed, I noticed that my phone was blowing up. It was my husband, informing me that we had no power, a huge tree limb had crashed down in the backyard, the governor had taken time out from his busy eating schedule to declare a State of Emergency, and I should get my crazy ass home NOW.

The normally 15-minute drive took  45: we Maplewoodians were clearly in the middle of a blizzard and, like Cassandra, powerless. At first, being powerless is fun, in a Little-House-on-the-Prairie role-playing kind of way (our power wouldn’t be restored until Sunday night, much of the town and neighboring towns remained without power for a full week). We lit candles and I played a 2-hr. long game of Scrabble with the girls while my husband made huge pots of chili on the stove (the gas burners still worked when we lit them ). Although I’m usually the Scrabble Slayer, The Lawyer (who just turned 13, the subject of another post), demolished all of us with this:

Built off the "Thug" she put down earlier, this improbable extension managed to clear @48 points.

Since I had managed to knock out a batch of chocolate-chip cookies that morning before we lost power, we enjoyed an an atypical, chili-chocolate-chip-cookie, face-stuffing afternoon/early evening of quality family time before the trapped heat dissipated and the darkness descended, dissolving the cozy layer of our alternative-reality program and leaving us with the chilly, all-too-predictable consequences of living in Cassandra Culture. How can we silence these nut-jobs pressing for environmental regulations and crying about how the toxic way we live is destroying the entire atmosphere and changing our weather patterns? Or, more locally, Hmm, Maplewood has gotten SLAMMED over the past several years by a strange continuum of unexpected, powerful storms that take out our trees and cause massive damage and lasting power-outages: should we maybe invest in some infrastructural measures to address this? Or on an individual level; Our friends have lost massive trees and sustained serious property damage due to storms over the past year, then that was that crazy hurricane a month ago where everyone lost power. Should we maybe look into evaluating the trees surrounding our house, perhaps invest in a generator? Nah.

Cassandra came to mind because of a dire prediction my friend Alix made during our town’s annual Halloween costume parade/party, which transpired as usual “right after school” on Halloween, Monday the 31st, even though school had been canceled due to epic fury the storm had visited upon Maplewood. I was the one dressed as a witch, but Alix was the one who said, “I bet we don’t have school tomorrow, either.”

All around us, little devils, Ibsen-The Scream imps, vampires, and zombies screeched and stampeded in pursuit of the trick-or-treating candy handed out by the village merchants. “No way,” I said, the hair raising rising on my arms a corporeal recognition of a Prophesy of Doom.

“Sure,” she replied, shifting her delightfully plump fairy princess to the other hip. “Half the town still doesn’t have power, and so many trees are still blocking the roads no one’s going to be able to get to school.”

But it couldn’t be. Already I was rushing the kids home from the parade to put the finishing touches on the grant application, due by midnight, that I’d been feverishly working on for weeks. My job is a hectic one, made even more so by the academic editing work I do on the side. I cannot do two jobs working from home with a house full of kids. And yet, school was indeed cancelled one more day, creating a nightmarish beast of a week with two days off at the head and two half-days for teacher conferences at the tail. Oh, and one more half-day the following Monday, capped off by that week’s Thursday and Friday off for the one-two punch of the New Jersey State Teacher’s conference and Veterans Day.

I was powerless; to a certain extent, we all are.

Cassandra’s tragedy–I know what’s going to happen but I can’t change it–hasn’t gotten any less haunting over the millennia because it’s remained one of the core problems of human nature: identifying and realizing consequences of our own actions and those of others, but for a frustrating combination of reasons, being powerless to change them.

Next up, Part II: does the dog wag the tail or vice versa?


11 Responses to The Cassandra Syndrome, Part I

  1. Susan says:

    Sorry to sound nit-picking, but Clytemnestra was Helen’s sister, not Cassandra. Helen and Clytemnestra were the daughters of the King of Sparta (or Zeus) while Cassandra was the daughter of King Priam of Troy.

    I do hope we don’t get early snow, or any snow come to that. We don’t cope with snow very well in Britain.

  2. helena says:


    Dammit! Something told me to check w/a classics website but I really wanted to just knock out this post…my own hubris for thinking I’d remembered right after all these years…

    Thanks! Will try to properly fact-check and edit…

  3. helena says:

    Wait a minute, just double-checked a few classics sites and I was right; she was Priam’s daughter back in good ol’ Troy. Phew! Clytemnestra was Agamemnon’s wife, that much I know because she’s pretty unforgettable!

  4. Ah, my dear – just thanks for this. Back when I was marginally employed and had private yoga students, I would get so insanely bollixed up by the anti-Cassandras of our local school departments wringing their hands over .00025″ of snow. The ripple effects of such decisions could be a micro-microeconomics thesis.

    Your description is, at least, entertaining.

  5. helena says:

    Thanks, Jill! It’s always chuckle-worthy in RETROSPECT, isn’t it? November should just be called “Fuckyouvember” here in Mwood because of the clusterfuck of gratuitous days off that culminate with Thanksgiving vacation. I understand the post-storm emergency circumstances, but only a few of the elementary schools were without power 2 days later; no excuse for not opening the ones who had power (like MY kids’ school!) considering they certainly made enough goddamn phone calls to explain the complexity of such a situation…

  6. Imir says:

    There is a passion and hatred demonstrated here that only parents can understand, relate to and share. Snow days, robo calls and their ability to derail our morning cup of coffee are evils that I place on the same ledge as reruns, bi-weeks and mom jeans.

    • helena says:

      And pleated jeans: don’t forget the pleated jeans! Oh, and women who go to a bar and nurse a glass of Chardonnay the whole night….or, better, yet, men who do so. And back to school night, and…oh wait, this is turning into a rant. What I wanted to ask was, what are bi-weeks?

      • anyone who nurses any amount of (American) chardonnay. Anywhere. Anytime.

      • helena says:

        I guess if you want to drink that babypiss in the comfort and privacy of your own home I’m not to mad atcha, but if you make the effort to put on makeup/non-parenting apparel (i.e., clothes that don’t have dirt or chocolate syrup or dinner leftovers on them), then for chrissakes, order a REAL drink!! Or three or seven.

  7. Peter says:

    We had something like ten snow days last winter. They responded to my ire by saying “some kids live up in the hills and their roads and driveways don’t get plowed in time.” To which I replied “So let them be absent.” Or at very least, YOU come build Lego spaceships with my kid so I can get some fucking work done today.

    I know that you’re always plowed in time, Lani. And I dig that about you.

    • helena says:

      The threat of having your work day spent building Lego spaceships or playing Scrabble or reading 27 chapters of the Sisters Grimm series or, even better, listening to bickering over who gets the iPad, is a very powerful motivator. When I heard murmurs of there possibly being a THIRD Snowpocalypse-day because “some people still had trees in their streets” I was planning on renting a bulldozer and driving it around town like Mario Andretti. All clear, motherfuckers, now get back to school!!!

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