Panic rules

April 7, 2010

Photo by Pam Wells ©2010

Audrey shivered. She leaned the rake against her hip and snugged the hood of her jacket under her chin. Wind-snapped growth from the fir trees formed a pile at her feet. Joe worked alongside with a broom, seemingly oblivious to the weather.

• • • • •

Audrey knelt at the fireplace, shoveling out the cold ashes. Joe brought paper and a load of firewood which he put in the wood bin. He crumpled up The Oregonian’s “How We Live” section and the obituaries, threw them into the firebox, and grabbed the A section of The Wall Street Journal.

“Wait,” Audrey said. “I haven’t finished that.”

She read the opinion pages as Joe added kindling and three split logs.

“Here we go,” she said.

“What?”

“Global warming is dead.”*

Joe lit a match. “That’s not news, mom.”

“No, it’s opinion. But people are still pretty worked up about it.”

“Which makes the science even more suspect,” Joe said. He swung the heavy glass door almost closed, leaving a crack for the air to ignite a firestorm inside. “I don’t buy into all the apocalypticism.”

“Apocal—well, then.” She pointed to the newspaper in her hand. “Bret Stephens says it’s time to move on to the next global panic.”

“Which is?”

“Whatever. He’s open. In fact, he wants to hear some good, panicky ideas from readers. Here are the rules—”

“Panic knows no rules.”

“But contests do,” Audrey said. She quoted from the paper: “‘It must involve something ubiquitous, invisible to the naked eye, and preferably mass-produced. And the solution must require taxes, regulation, and other changes to civilization as we know it.’”

“I’ll get right on it.”

Audrey took the paper into the kitchen. She cut out the article as Joe rummaged in the fridge.

“Mr. Stephens is offering a prize.”

“A good prize?”

“A beer and a burger. In New York.”

“Good prize. No, that’s a great prize.”

Audrey smiled. As she set about arranging a bunch of the beautiful fir branches she’d brought into the house, Evan blustered inside. He clunked his backpack on the floor.

“I thought winter was over,” he said. His face was blotchy from the cold, even redder where he was having a bad week of skin problems.

“I got it,” Joe said.

“Got what?” Evan asked.

“I got the next big anxiety-creating non-event.”

“What?” Audrey asked.

“Acne.”

“Acne?” she repeated.

Evan dodged their eyes. “Don’t look at me,” he said.

“ACNE,” Joe said. Anxiety-Creating Non-Event. It’s ubiquitous, the cause is invisible to the naked eye, though the results definitely are not, and it is definitely mass-produced.”

“The tax implications of ACNE are volcanic,” Audrey said.

“They could tax hormones,” Joe said. “Chocolate. Greasy foods.”

“Like hamburgers? Is the prize taxable?”

“Certainly. The burger tax alone would change civilization as we know it.”

“Wow. And just think how much anxiety ACNE creates.”

“Paradoxical.”

Audrey and Joe rushed to the computer to compose an email. Evan shook his head and went upstairs.

©2010 Pam Wells

* “What’s the Next ‘Global Warming’?” The Wall Street Journal, 4/6/10

Got an idea for the next global panic? Write to bstephens@wsj.com

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