Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Why I hate the Pledge of Allegiance

Their patriotism burns like a pile of schoolbooks

Ever since I first bit the forbidden apple of political awareness, I have tastefully refrained from saying the Pledge of Allegiance. Is it because I equate support for the flag with support for the Bush administration? Because I hate America? Or could it be because I haven't been in a grade-school class in seven-plus years?

Actually, those reasons would be irrelevant anyway. Part of what I love about America is that we (at least in principle) do not enforce national pride; indeed, not requiring it seems to truly bring it out in people. And that's the way it should be--because Americans aren't forced to say anything patriotic, they are more likely to affirm that pride out of genuine spirit. I show my patriotism in numerous ways, such as by exercising my personal freedoms and by being actively aware of political society. The issue I have with the pledge, then, is that it is a purely symbolic and robotic recitation of what it means to be an American. And as the past few years have shown us with a proverbial slap to the face, we need far more than simple lip service to truly act as Americans.

With that in mind, here are three major reasons why the pledge (as well as most national statements and songs) are flawed in purpose:

1) Schoolchildren have to say it every day. Even as a four-year-old in Head Start, I had the say the pledge on a daily basis. This was the same year I learned (via flashcard sessions) how to pronounce and define such words as "word" and "learn." The hardest word I dealt with that year was "together;" how, then, could I possibly understand such concepts as "allegiance" and "indivisible?" And yet, we're all told repeatedly how important it is for students to reaffirm their devotion to their country every morning. Curiously, such lessons in good citizenship are rarely, if ever, accompanied by deeper introspection.

2) And adults don't. If we are to believe that saying the Pledge of Allegiance is a major ingredient for responsible American citizenry, then why aren't adults given more opportunities to say it? As far as I know, the pledge is spoken mainly at local council meetings and--since 1999!--the Senate. It seems to me that reciting the oath would have far more significance in adulthood, once one has had a chance to become an active citizen. But then again, the pledge never really comes off as an assertive civic act, does it? Perhaps the adults are onto something...

3) It contains the words "Under God." Regardless of how you feel about the sectarian mention of a deity in the pledge, you have to admit that the issue is divisive. Kind of ironic for an oath in which people pledge devotion to an "indivisible" country, right? That fact alone is proof that the pledge needs an overhaul. A national statement of patriotism should bring people together instead of causing conflict. The United States is a nation supposedly founded on the idea that no person should be limited in terms of choice, belief or outlook. Consequently, a national motto should steer clear of the specifics the government can't and shouldn't control, such as faith and personal politics. In such a diverse nation this might mean having no pledge at all; maybe that's the price we pay for our ideological freedom. But if we are going to have a pledge, then we should have a purer statement of national pride--one that hints at love for country without thumbing its nose at others or reflecting the reactionary furor of an era that belongs in the past. One, dare I say, such as this:

"I pledge allegiance to my Flag and to the Republic for which it stands: one Nation indivisible, with Liberty and Justice for all."

Yeah, I can definitely handle that one. It worked from 1892 to 1923, after all. As long as we speak it without the Hitleresque salutes, then we have a winner!

Now please be seated.

Saturday, September 24, 2005

It was a dark and stormy night

As I write this, I should be on a flight to Minneapolis (or at least to Atlanta to get to the Twin Cities, to watch the Saints cream the Vikings). But alas, I'm still here thanks to Hurricane Rita.

But I guess I should be thankful. I just woke up after an extended nap to the evident realization that the worst is over for us. Sure, the wind is still swirling and continuing its impression of a dead scream queen from a Stephen King novel, but the old hag's died down considerably. I might have been halfway dreaming, but I think I heard that at this point we're receiving tropical-storm-force winds. And, as we all know, those things can't cause any harm.

As always, I stayed up very late to watch the storm. Unlike most nights, everyone else also stayed awake. At almost the same moment during the night, I said "Lili was much worse than this," my mom said she had never endured a worse storm in her life. We just kind of looked at each other.

Over the course of the night, I camped out with my teenage sister, mom and their puppy in our hallway. I attempted to sleep, but couldn't, because halfway across my house my dad was blaring the news on his TV. At one point I think I blurted out, "I really wish the power would go out." In order to go to sleep, I need a generally quiet atmosphere. Compare that to most of my family, who cannot sleep without a television ON. My sister's been known to wake up if I turn off her screen, even if the volume is all the way down. As soon as I heard my dad snoring--a phenomenon louder than any network offering--I crept into his room and turned his system down. Damn you, surround sound!!

For hours, my mom sat transfixed in the hallway, watching the storm through the patio doors across the way. Her expression was an almost continuous gasp. Though watching the gale-force winds ravaging our backyard freaked her out, she could barely pull away. She must have had that famous proverb in mind, "A watched pot never boils." Of course, that standard did not apply to me, for any effort on my part to watch the storm was met with, "Oh my god, don't go in there! I'd like it if you stayed in the hallway." Right, like being stuck in my house most days isn't already suffocating enough without being confined to the space equivalent of a Thai prison cell. But I braved numerous trips to all of our windows, watching in awe at humankind's deserved humility against Mother Nature. Mom kept imploring me to come out of my room, lest the massive pine tree in our driveway fall over and slam into it like that utility pole in the movie Pulse. I assured her that I would have advance warning, and would almost want to see something like that anyway. In case anyone hasn't noticed, I have a sick side.

I was also warned by my loving parents that I could be sucked away in a split second if I played it too dangerously. Though that suggestion failed to scare me, it did put me in the mood to watch Cast Away. Which I could have done, because at no point did we ever lose power. On a related note, watch me suddenly lose this entire post!

For several months now, one of the two pine trees lining our circular driveway has had a long branch that points straight down, looks almost exactly like a gout-ridden hand and sways precariously in the breeze. I call it "the dagger branch" and tried my best not to park directly underneath it (or to deliberately do so, depending on the state of my vehicle), because a demonstration of its impaling qualities always seemed imminent. As of this writing, most of the dagger branch is gone, though it took some time to fell that bastard. So much for calling State Farm--my truck is not there to be impaled. It's already dead, currently parked at a garage in New Iberia, where it may or may not still have a roof.

During my most recent nap, I had a dream I believe to have been dictated by the radio. It involved trying to publish a newspaper and keeping a portable TV and radio dry right outside a makeshift Red Cross shelter set up in my house. I suppose I'll have to look that one up in the Book of Dreams.

At the moment I woke up, our radio was blaring an interview with an editor from our local newspaper, who explained that they had employed several journalists and technicians from other areas in order to get off today's issue. I hope they felt free to use my resume as extra post-consumer pulp for one of their advertising inserts.

By the way, I'm fine. Just in case you weren't sure. I hope everyone else is the same way.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

That was then, this is now

A tale of two shitties

It looks like Hurricane Rita is going to hit my city, albeit just with its far-right perimeter. From all accounts, that would appear to be a Category 2 breeze--about the same as what we had with Hurricane Lili in 2002.

During Hurricane Lili, we stayed here at my parents' house. This is likely where we will continue to be, given that as of this writing we haven't made the move to leave. At 7 p.m. tonight, I could have sworn we were leaving the area for good. We were all packing and securing items, and there was talk of heading to my uncle's house in Arkansas. Also hinted at was a trip to my other uncle's house in Baton Rouge. But at some point during the night, everyone just went to bed. They said they "wanted to see in what direction the storm would turn." Nice going, guys.

So why haven't I taken any action on my own, independent of my parents and siblings? Several reasons. First off, I no longer have my own transportation; on Sunday morning at 3:30 a.m., my truck conked out on Highway 90 near Baldwin, some 50-odd miles from my house. It needs a motor transplant, and I'm not doing that. Second, I was hoping against hope that my trip to Minneapolis to catch the Saints game and Second City was still possible (which, as of now, is canceled). Third, I figured I'd stay with my family. Fourth, I really don't have much say among said family. So there you go.

But I'm just fine with staying here, to be honest. During Hurricane Lili, we stayed at our house and the worst that happened was that we lost our power for close to five days. Oh, and that a massive oak in our backyard nearly fell on our house. But that tree's gone now! Now all we have are several pine and oak trees around our front yard. Following our date with Lili, our neighborhood was a mess of tangled branches and clogged gutters. We spent our humid evenings walking outdoors in an eerily unlit neighborhood, and our nights reading by dim light or by playing games. And you haven't lived until you have taken a bath or a shower with freezing-cold water. When you're done, you really feel clean because you take on an oddly antiseptic scent (not unlike that of medicated dandruff shampoo). You also feel like the hardest ass in the world for going through that.

Though Lafayette expected a hard hit from Lili (and wasn't disappointed), the city adapted impressingly quickly. In fact, I distinctly recall that my parents and sister were able to drive to Baton Rouge that Saturday to watch the much-hyped LSU-UL Lafayette football game. I stayed behind, briefly visiting Barnes and Noble for the air conditioning before a city-mandated curfew forced me home. I then sat home alone in a pitch-black and quiet house, listening via radio as my cousin's football team crushed mine, 48-0. It was sitting there, lonely, sweaty and feeling defeated, where I wondered if I could ever feel any worse. I wish I didn't now know the answer to that.

My neighborhood was one of the last to get its power back. I biked through the adjoining neighborhoods and noticed that they all had their power on; it was like we were in a bubble. My aunt and uncle lived in one of those power-blessed neighborhoods, and they invited us over that Sunday to watch the Saints defeat the Pittsburgh Steelers, 32-29. That was the beginning of the healing, and the first time in several days that I really felt that everything was returning to normal (make your own Saints-winning joke here).

One of the funnier things about Hurricane Lili was that it fell straight on UL Lafayette's first-ever Fall Break, which fell on Wednesday through Sunday. So I didn't miss a day of school. Good times. When I think about how Hurricane Rita has similarly ruined my vacation, and with basically the same expected force as Lili, I wonder if the two events aren't strikingly parallel. Speaking for Lafayette at least, we weathered that storm relatively well.

I wish the same for everyone else who must endure the worst of Rita. I'm pulling for all of you.

Monday, September 19, 2005

Lame game notes

Saints, the NFL's current metaphor, fed to Giants

In a score I should have seen coming, the New York Giants beat the Old Orleans Saints 27-10 in a contest that served as a metaphor on too many different levels to explain on only one blog. What follows are my more-or-less random observations about the night.

Mick Jagger opened the broadcast by saying, "Hello, New Orleans Saints fans!" That was so surreal and awesome that I wished I'd taped it. The Saints played their first season in 1967, when the Rolling Stones were already icons, and most likely had no clue as to the nature of American football.

The Stones' appearance reflected the Saints' center-stage presence in this year's football conscience. On one commercial, New York Giants players wore Saints jerseys and introduced themselves, imploring us all to "be a Saint." The commercial temporarily derailed my vocal requests for Michael Strahan to "break his Mike Tyson face and get violently paralyzed by a vengeful God" and for Eli Manning to "take his overrated quarterback-dynasty ass back to the home city he betrayed." Similarly, seeing some the signs Giants fans had made showing solidarity with the Saints and New Orleans put the game in perspective for me. But once the Saints' offense apparently got scared of scoring late in the second half, I began looking for the "We're all Gi-Aints" commemorative paper bags. When I see those, I'll know that football fans truly stand united.

Seriously, though, the NFL has turned the team's scheduling and personal woes into an increased awareness of the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina. The way the league has come together, in all ways, for the victims has been nothing short of spectacular. Having the Giants-Saints game (originally a New Orleans home game) as the centerpiece of Monday Night Football would have been the icing on the cake.

Too bad the Saints dropped the ball, in every sense of the word. Literally speaking, they didn't drop the ball many times, but just enough to cost at least two touchdowns and turn the similarly uneven performances by both teams into a rout. Aaron Brooks had said before the game that the team intended to carry the victims of Katrina on their backs. He should have told the defense not to take it literally.

Giants coach Tom Coughlin made some hilariously frustrated faces late in the game, which in my angry-football-hooligan mode was oddly satisfying. Speaking of angry-football-hooligan mode, I would like to take this opportunity to apologize to God and/or the forces of karma and nature for certain comments I made over the course of the night:

--I don't really want Michael Strahan to die of a heart attack on the field after breaking his face, nor do I think he is an asshole for pummeling people from New Orleans in this time of need;

--I apologize for suggesting that Eli Manning should have every tooth from his pretty-boy mouth broken in a nasty sack-gone-wrong, and that he be met with random gunfire in San Diego next week since he refused to play for the Chargers;

--I repent profusely for using the name of Tiki Barber in vain, as well as for suggesting that Joe Horn's horn of plenty wasn't plenty enough;

--I apologize to God for suggesting that he/she/it sucked, enjoyed dumping on Louisiana and is obviously a huge fan of the Giants (God is obviously a Patriots fan);

--I apologize to my television screen for spitting on it at the sight of Michael Strahan's face. It was in no way a statement against Monday Night Football, the Katrina benefit telethon or Sansui electronics;

--I also apologize to my wall-mounted master's degree, which I also spit on and rapped with my knuckles. That was just tangential rage;

--Finally, a big "sorry" to my mom for catching me at my football worst. Watching the NFL's goodwill ambassadors lose on the same day that I lost my truck got to me. I still love you, mom, and I can't wait for you to drive me around town tomorrow.

Still, You Gotta Have Faith. And I do, because I plan on watching my beloved Saints rip the Vikings in person next weekend. Just to make sure they do it right like they did against the Panthers. See you on TV!

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

Katrina: The fuzzy aftermath

--The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina continues as evacuees are being bussed all over the nation, with most of them being taken to Houston. Just in case they haven't already suffered enough.

--Though prices have reportedly leveled off, gasoline costs continue to hamper motorists in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Likewise, Hurricane Katrina continues to hamper Louisiana motorists in the wake of having destroyed their cars.

--FEMA. It's the new four-letter word!

--Britney Spears recently told USA Today that her pregnancy has been "mind-blowing." If that blows her mind, imagine when someone tells her what just hit near her hometown of Kentwood, Louisiana. I heard it blew too!

--Hip-hop artist Kanye West stunned viewers during a live hurricane-benefit broadcast when he claimed that George W. Bush "doesn't care about black people." The White House immediately condemned the statement, clarifying that Bush hates all poor people equally.

--The annual Southern Decadence parade marched through the French Quarter Sunday, drawing more than two dozen gay revelers. Sorry, Pat! God missed.

--Bob Denver, the actor best known for playing Gilligan, died Sept. 2 at the age of 70. Actually, he died at 55; but hey, the Minnow had been lost!

--In world news, a sleeping man in Russia emerged unscathed after being overrun by a train. He did, however, dream about eating a very long marshmallow.

Sunday, September 04, 2005

The evacuee diaries

In my first 15 hours volunteering to help the victims of Hurricane Katrina, I've already seen a great deal. Some of it has been chronicled in the media; some of it hasn't and probably never will. Here are some of the highlights:

Shift one: 12 a.m. to 10 a.m., 9/3/05:

--I first worked the registration table, where I was part of a group checking in evacuees. Though it wasn't required, the process went a lot more smoothly with an ID. Many of the people I checked in had identification cards instead of driver's licenses, bringing to light their probable dependence on public transportation and effective contingency plans. Several of them voiced to me their anger over resources and warning systems that could have been used in their areas but weren't. They also expressed surprise and extreme gratitude that the Cajundome was stocked with every possible amenity, in refreshing contrast to the heat, hunger and disease of the sewage-laden Superdome.

--In a quiet moment, I walked into the main arena, where the majority of the then-6,000-strong crowd was camped out. Not a sound. I've heard more noise in the Dome when no one is there than with all of these people catching some rest. Having heard all of the stories about looting, violence and (false incidents of) random Lafayette carjacking, I did not expect this scene to ensue at all.

--For more than an hour, a woman who had lost everything except her husband poured out her feelings to me. Most of the things she said reflected what others there had said, that they were at a genuine loss as to how the government could have dropped the ball. They weren't vindictive (or making it a political issue), but they were more than a little angry and upset that FEMA and the National Guard, among many others, failed to address the issue as early as they should have. Her greatest concern was that she had no clue as to the whereabouts of her 25-year-old daughter. It reminded me of earlier that night, when a young man had come up to the registration table asking if we knew of a phone number he could call to recover his father's body, in the likely event that he was dead. The woman asked why there was currently very little attempt to enter the check-in cards into a master database so that people in shelters all over the affected area could do a better job of matching estranged families. I said I had no idea, but hoped it was ongoing.

--In the couple of hours leading up to 8 a.m., a large crew of volunteers set up five long tables for breakfast. Food items included everything from single-serve cereal, apples and oranges (don't even think of comparing them) to McDonald's biscuits and Danish pastries. We also had a disturbingly high ratio of fruit punch to milk, leading one woman to remark, "should we really be giving these kids all this pop?" We also had real Dole orange juice, but at one point I was asked to hide it because there wouldn't be enough for the demand. To the credit of the assembled masses, everyone waited patiently in line until we opened for business. Aside from a few people sneaking coffee at the drink kiosks, the patient line was a far cry from what I would have expected from thousands of people just one barricade away from more food than any had probably seen all month. One smiling man asked me if we had Raisin Bran, which we didn't have in our line. He replied that he was okay with his Corn Flakes, because after spending four days last week with water up to his shoulders and nothing to eat or drink, this was a feast. He said he was "blessed," which was a word I heard a lot that day. I drove away that morning feeling really good, not due to any self-gratification but because even in the worst situations, the good people at the Dome held hope for the future.

Shift two: 11:30 p.m. to 3:45 a.m., 9/3-4/05:

An unsettling sight awaited me before I even walked through the doors of the Cajundome: an ambulance, lights flashing, with a stretcher being pushed in by someone wearing a surgical mask. The guy at the door, with whom I worked on my first shift, didn't recognize me and asked me to present some ID. I got asked twice by the Red Cross if I were over 18 and not a resident of New Orleans--apparently some people were trying to hoodwink the system somehow. In any event, I said how different this had been from the previous night and they said, "Yeah, everything's different." I never did figure out why, because things eventually seemed to be the same as the night before, only with even cuter Red Cross girls.

My duty Sunday morning was to help sort out donations of food, clothing, toys and toiletries. We did this under dim lighting and mostly silence, as to not disturb the hundreds of evacuees camped out in cots in the same room. Aside from the occasional crying baby and a handful of people needing items, the work--and the sleep--continued quietly. At one point I found myself with nothing to do and asked the girl in charge what needed to be done. She said, "find something that isn't on the table and make a box for it." My kind of job exactly, being that I love coming up with organizational systems. What follows is a list I compiled of the most interesting moments of the night:

--Finding a marykateandashley telephone among a box full of hair dryers and baby monitors;

--Leafing through a stack of magazines ranging from Boys' Life to Black Confessions;

--A blood-pressure machine that, to my horror and amusement, went off in the quiet auditorium;

--Finding a syringe, presumably unused, among the donated items;

--I very thickly marked a box, "Toys" before noticing that there already was one, resulting in me changing the box to read, "Not Toys"

--Marveling at the cultural and economic diversity that are boxes of tampons;

--Making the best damn maxi-pad and diaper display ever;

--Hearing a woman on the ever-blaring Fox News say from New Orleans, "Things will never be the same again" as the bulletin, "Supreme Court Justice William Rehnquist has died" flashed across the screen;

--On my way out, reading the artwork and signs that Lafayette children had put out in a show of support, including the endlessly ambiguous "I am sorry that you have to live here";

--And finally, after assuring my family that I was not going to bring home typhus or dysentery, I did bring home food poisoning from a bad sandwich. Fortunately, the good people of New New Orleans have a different, better-regulated food source. We'll talk to them again soon.

Saturday, September 03, 2005

Saturday morning service

Just a quick note to everyone that I worked a 10-and-a-half-hour shift for the Red Cross early this morning, and I'll be back there at 11 p.m. tonight. Which is why I don't have much new stuff today. I'll try to regain my priorities soon, I promise.

I'll just say this: are you in for some stories! Screw the news; you won't get this stuff anywhere else. These are the people to whom the news never lends an ear. Stay tuned.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

Update from New New Orleans

I just went down to the Cajundome (our college basketball arena and Ground Zero for evacuees) to volunteer my time. It took me a considerable amount of time to weave my way into the right place to sign up. Within that time, I got to see for myself the multitude of people who are now calling Lafayette home. At this writing, there are still lines of people snaking through metal detectors, presumably for processing. This did not prevent me from using a side entrance to breeze right in, but moving on...

I took a phone call from my friend, a social-services worker in Abbeville, who was asking me about rumors that people were carjacking and vandalizing at the Lafayette Wal-Marts. I told her I wasn't sure, but that a lot of rumors were floating around. Several officials were on the radio earlier assuring everyone that, isolated incidents aside, people were not looting Lafayette or starting gang fights at your kids' schools. My friend said she didn't believe that. After hearing it three times in an hour, I'm not sure I do either. Still, avoiding the rumor mill probably is the best course of action at this point.

After the call, I looked around and found myself among several families and an elderly woman on a cot, chatting happily with a police officer. Saying these people need a place to stay is like calling the Grand Canyon a hole. In every concourse I saw people lying on sleeping bags, blankets or whatever else they could find to separate themselves from the polished concrete floor. The main entrance was a hotbed of vertical bodies, milling about as if a basketball or hockey game was in town. I was a little surprised at how much...calmer everything seemed than I'd expected. Yes, there was a lot of frantic action, as well as almost continuous unloading of new arrivals from school buses. At the same time, the pervading sentiment was that these people were just content to have somewhere to go. I don't doubt this feeling will restlessly erode after a period of time, but for now everybody seems to be cooperating. At no time did I feel particularly concerned about my safety.

The only somewhat questionable experience I had was, ironically enough, when I got up to the volunteer table. The table was manned (humanned?) by several women and girls, most representing the Red Cross. Here's what went down:

Coordinator: Can I help you?
Me: I want to sign up to volunteer.
Coordinator: Okay, sign up at one of these schedules. [Pointing out the obvious] This one's packed, this one's full, this one is too, and this one looks better. [Annoyed] We are just swamped with volunteers right now! Fill out this form and we'll call you.

As I filled out the form--and signed up for a graveyard shift on Saturday--I overheard her say to someone else, "Yeah, everyone's volunteering now, but they're going to lose interest and no one's going to want to do it later!" With that attitude, yeah. But for the sake of the people of Old Orleans, I hope not.

On my way home, I heard the press conference where city officials are assuring us that the apocalypse is not upon us (in other words, lying). I sat and listened to snippets, getting out of the Ian-mobile only to see that my bank has shut down its lobby. Not being a big fan of drive-thrus, I instead used the secluded ATM outside. Thanks for keeping us safe!

I stopped at my neighborhood Subway afterwards, only to see that their food supply has been cut off. They're all right now--they had my chicken breast, dammit!--but who knows what's going to happen down the road. A perfect analogy for what we're going through.

All I know is, we're not in Kansas anymore. Kansas doesn't get many hurricanes.