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Tuesday, April 24, 2007

New Orleans Lower 9th District April '07

If the Upper 9th is a sort of Wild West, the Lower 9th is a sort of post-bomb Hiroshima. It is quiet with very few people around save for the tourists driving around with cameras like myself- over 18 months after Katrina. There are many vacant lots where houses have been razed and tall grass has reclaimed the plot after a lengthy interruption. Zac says that each time he has come to see it, there are fewer structures; more open land. Hand written, makeshift streetsigns have been put up on poles, since the old ones have vanished. The levee wall is standing again and what once was a neighborhood is now like a field splattered with misshapen houses that crumbled in on themselves or floated to new resting spots and positions. The doors are usually gone and you can look in to see washers and dryers, toilets, bicycles, couches, desks, mattresses, light fixtures overturned or jumbled together. There was a water heater that had somehow floated up to an attic. In one house you could see some clothes hanging neatly, totally anomalous to the mashed potato crunch of most everything else. It is voyeuristic, peering in to the empty broken rooms searching out the everyday articles that belonged to other people’s lives before the last hours when they had to flee or drown. Like the broken watch that was laying on a mattress, every house was a picture of time standing still and broken.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

Habitat for Humanity Dedication

We went to a “Dedication” this afternoon – a celebratory ritual when a Habitat house is finished and the keys are handed over to the new owner. In this case it was in the “Musicians Village” in New Orleans that Habitat is constructing for musicians displaced by Katrina; a neighborhood of rainbow colored homes that will eventually number 80 and include a building for performances and classes. After the short, touching speeches, the 100 or so of us who came were treated to a zydeco concert by Sun Pie in front of the house with the new owner on bass guitar.

This was in the upper 9th district where my son Zac says that about 50% of the houses are vacant and mostly unlivable. Many homes have painted messages on them detailing the dates they were searched and whether animals were found or not. The surreal environment has generated a somewhat lawless environment for some who live there. Many of the Habitat houses get robbed of things during the building process. Doors have been taken off their hinges, electrical wiring pulled from the walls before the sheetrock gets installed, plumbing fixtures dismantled etc.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Parental Peak Experience

Zac addresses volunteers before work starts.

This is the Americorps and Habitat Construction Staff in New Orleans.

Peak experiences as a parent are fewer and farther between as our kids get older and move away from home (not too mention the high school drought years), but when they occur they are every bit as overwhelming and nectar-sweet. I flew to New Orleans to see Zac and meet his girlfriend Erin, arriving at 2 AM on a delayed flight. Four and a half hours later I sat in a little trailer office and watched my son meet with his Habitat for Humanity cohorts before the workday began. Throughout the day I witnessed him addressing a morning crowd of hundreds of volunteers, getting us all assigned to various crews and inspiring us about our work; answering scores of construction questions from staffpersons; juggling two overactive cell phones; dealing with vendors and delivery guys twice his age - never at a loss for good information and good humor. His leadership skills blew me away with pride.....this from the kid that did everything he could to avoid getting assigned a speaking part in his sixth grade play. I also learned a few tricks about hammering studs into place as I worked with a team of volunteers.

Then there is the indescribable pleasure of seeing him in love and being loved by a beautiful young woman, every bit as infused as he with the wonder and faith in the rush of possibilities and dreams at the dawn of adulthood. I feel feted on the darkest of chocolaty desserts that life can offer up to a 54 year old parent.

Attention Deficit Order of the Day

I remember getting chastised by a teacher in a Broadcast Journalism class (my master’s degree) for not using enough visuals in an 8-minute piece about the men who invented the atom bomb. I was amazed to be speaking with these men at all in the early 80’s and listening to their misgivings about the nuclear age they had spawned. I left the screen on each of their faces for the most part. I was told that the American audience would not sit still for a talking heads piece. She was right of course. I remember one lecturer who told us that the average length of each soundbite (the part where an interviewee speaks) in a news story had gone down from about 25 seconds to about 7 or 8 seconds. I wonder what it’s at now? Who needs an “actuality” when we can have a great-looking, smooth-talking newscaster capsulize what the interviewee said? Nowadays some of the most popular media are 2 minute viral videos passed along the internet, or 15 year olds doing a quick dance on You Tube. I predict that most of the “vanity videos” (the "Me Shows") will lose their popularity and fade to the background after the YouTube novelty wears off. But I think the mini-time-length format is here to stay. Hopefully Viacom and the other big boys won’t take it all over and net neutrality will enable a multitude of artists to reach the public via the web. Still I wish I hadn’t been so reshaped by media rhythms. I wish I could still enjoy a long-shot, thoughtful, internally luxurious Ingmar Bergman film. Maybe they’ll re-release them in two minute increments on the web.

Thursday, April 05, 2007

There's a Facist Preaching in my Backyard

Last week I attended a lecture by Chris Hedges, a longtime New York Times war correspondent, and most recently, the author of "American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America." Hedges told us about his father, a Presbyterian minister in New England who tried to shut down the one local bar, but who was also a progressive, opponent of the Viet Nam war. When Chris was only 12, his father told him earnestly that if the war was still going on when he became 18, he would go to prison with him. To this day, Hedges says, that he carries a rather gloomy image of having to sit with his father in a jail cell while the war raged on.

Hedges says that there are 10's of millions of Christians who are part of the religious right, angry about taxes, entitlement programs, and government regulations in addition to the usual stuff about same sex marriage, creationism, and abortion. He said that they see the war in Iraq as part of an apocalyptic battle between Christianity and Islam. The "Christian Embassy," a Washington D.C. based fundamentalist organization has many ties in the Pentagon. Forty generals attend the weekly bible sessions. Fundamentalists account for about 50% of military chaplaincies. There is a conscious effort to infiltrate the military and law enforcement.

A number of fundamentalist organizations are fighting against hate crime legislation, because they don't want to have to reign in their diatribes against gays and lesbians and immigrants on the hundreds of radio stations they run across the country.

He says that the mainstream media are not examining this humongous story.

Sunday, April 01, 2007

"Illegal" Immigration

Yesterday, I attended a forum on immigration put on by the League of Women Voters and the World Affairs Forum, held at Hewlett-Packard, one of the many high tech companies in the Silicon Valley that is deeply interested in immigration policy. Richard Hobbs, the Director of the Office of Human Relations for Santa Clara County told us that 36% of our county's population are foreign born and when you add in their children, it comes to 67% of the population. That's hard to believe from my rather "gated" perspective living in affluent Palo Alto.

In California there are nearly 3 million illegal immigrants among the 10 million foreign born, though the path for "illegals" is now taking 75% to other states with more jobs.

Hobbs made it clear that most immigrants come either because of economic desperation or because they are fleeing a dangerous political situation.

NAFTA and GATT free trade agreements have led to the loss of about 8 million jobs in Mexico across numerous sectors including farming, retail, manufacturing, and artisans. While somehow the US can subsidize its farmers to the tune of $11 billion (annually I think), NAFTA eliminates protective tariffs that used to keep US crops more expensive in Mexico. Add to that our superior productivity and bingo!, we've conquered the Mexican grocery shoppers. While the average cost per hour of a Mexican factory worker is $2.82, the average in China is now 70 cents p/hr. In Monterrey, Mexico, 80,000 factory workers have lost their jobs as corporations have moved to ever cheaper locations. Another speaker at the forum told us about a community in Mexico, famous for its tequila products. They make a good living there and nobody has ever left to illegally cross into the US.

Obviously, if we focused more on helping third world countries raise their standard of livings we wouldn't have the flow of impovershed people coming to the U.S. to clean our homes, trim our grass, and flip our burgers. Some of that translates to FAIR trade rather than FREE trade agreements. Debt forgiveness, an end to agribusiness subsidies, a world minimum wage, and a world MAXIMUM wage were all mentioned by Hobbs on the solutions side of the equation.

Regarding political refugees, there are now 12 million people worldwide who are languishing in refugee camps. This doesn't impact the U.S. as much because most of them are an ocean away from our Statue of Liberty. For example, there are now 1 million Iraqis displaced by the war. So far, the U.S. has decided to allow 7,000 into our country. During the Reagan years when Salvadorans and Nicaraguans would come to escape death squads, we'd send them back if we caught them, because we were supporting the governments that spawned those death squads.

As is often the case, the average age at this kind of event was over 60. At least the room was packed with over 200 gray heads.