What the Tornado Siren Said

Learning to live with an air-raid siren.

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I recently moved to rural Pennsylvania and experienced tornado sirens for the first time. For those who don’t know, a tornado siren is a loud mechanical wail modulating in pitch about once every second, getting blared as an early warning system in the event of a bad storm. It’s meant to make people take shelter, either underground or at least indoors. If you’ve ever seen old WWII movies, it sounds remarkably like an air raid siren.

Having lived in the West all my life thus far, I had never experienced the infamous weather out here. Tornados and bad storms happen frequently and can do serious damage, the sort that would make me mumble things under my breath after I’d seen reports about it on the news. So in short, as alarms go, a tornado alarm is sort of alarming.

But don’t worry, no emergencies have happened thus far, only some thunderstorms. And yet that name, “tornado siren,” what it threatens, and the fact that it’s a necessary, commonplace thing here, has already left an impression on me.

This morning, when my alarm clock went off, I thought in my groggy state that it was one of these tornado sirens. A few seconds later, after I had woken up a bit more and realized it was just the alarm clock, the fact of my mistake caused me to contemplate the concept of alarms and buzzers themselves — the sort of contemplation that rarely happens, except between sleep and wakefulness. Alarms happen all the time, and people tend to register either as they are intended, as warnings of some impending calamity, or as “drills” (ironically, a homonym for another loud, high-pitched noise), safe to be ignored or get annoyed with.

Alarms are meant to draw attention to something, obviously. But they do more than that. They show a state of being in which being *called* to attention is necessary. Alarms are about not only the danger one should heed but the heedless inattention one is called from. They suggest a winnowing down of information. “This is the important thing, and nothing else at this moment.”

I remember the day when I realized that language, very generally, has two characteristics, a muchness of the teller and a muchness of that which is being told. A recitation of a poem could highlight the teller, the style of the telling. A man running into a room to declare the building is on fire highlights the thing being told. Alarms seem the purest signifier of the “thing told.”

When considering the context of alarms, that winnowing of information also bears out. When the alarm clock goes off, we’re drawn from the dream—world into the prosaic, time—sequential experience of reality. When the buzzer for a professional sport goes off at the beginning of a game, we go from an ostensibly non-competitive plane (or one where competition is less codified) to an extremely organized set of movements, in which players are grouped in a hierarchy according to how they perform a very rigidly defined set of tasks. When the buzzer goes off at the end of that same sports game, we’re transported from plane of the sport itself to that in which the meaning of the outcome of the contest is determined; success itself, as defined by this contest, is winnowed, and we decide what it actually means that one person (or group of people) were able to perform this set of tasks better than another.

Alarms suggest the danger of inattention that information is being focused. And yet, I can’t help but think there’s something false about this. In my experience, road to Damascus-type revelations are fairly uncommon concerning important things.

The really important lessons tend to be learned slowly. We learn most often not through sudden realizations of facts, but through dogged organization of them. Alarms are good at identifying facts, but we have to make sense of what those facts actually mean, and that seems attached to a less rigid time-table. In short, we learn through context, and alarms are about the least contextual signifiers ever, which is why it was so easy for me to confuse one sort of alarm for another this morning.

It would be hard to imagine a culture for which alarms were the only signifiers, because as soon as the alarms were given the opportunity for context, they would cease to be merely alarms.

Nathan Pensky is a writer and editor living in rural Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter.