Friday, March 31, 2006

This Semester Has Kicked My Butt

Only three weeks left and I can't wait until it's over. I was walking across campus the other day and ran into another teacher who asked, "Are your students getting as lazy as mine?" And indeed they are, but the truth is, so are we. I, in fact, am writing this during class while I have all my students working on their web pages. Apparently, I have done all the teaching I'm going to do this semester.

I have four writing classes this semester, which really isn't that big a deal because I almost always have four writing classes even though everyone agrees four writing classes is probably two too many. Plus, two of them are classes new to me, so I have all new preps added to the two classes I have done before. For those non-teachers out there, trust me, four classes and three preps is a lot of work. Not to mention the grading, the grading, the grading, the endless endless grading ...

All of this while struggling with a multitude of bureaucracies including, but not limited to, two separate insurance companies, two mortgage companies, FEMA, the electric company, the water company, the USPS, as well as a multitude of city and state departments of this, that, and the other, all of which want stacks of paperwork signed in tripiclate and stamped and dated and verified and endorsed and notarized. My life has been reduced to a constant struggle against red tape in an immense bureacracy I can't even begin to understand. I am K.

Meanwhile, the almost-not-metaphorical Sword of Damocles at Loyola is preparing to descend. The scuttlebutt around here is that in the next two or three weeks the great "re-organization" plan shall be announced, and the next round of lay-offs shall begin. Word is, they plan on dumping entire programs, and nobody seems to know just what will happen with non-tenure track faculty like me. So in the next couple of weeks I could be told I'm out of a job. Again. It's really hard to motivate myself to grade and teach and all that stuff when I've spent the entire semester at least half-convinced I'm about to be let go.

All of which is a really long way of saying I'm sorry I haven't been updating this blog as much as I would like. I'm way behind on adding links and pictures, not to mention responding to comments, which I really appreciate, or acknowledging all those out there who apparently read this (yes, I have a counter and yes, I'm pretty surprised at the numbers - hi everyone! And thanks!) and there is a whole host of things I've been meaning to write about.


So, yeah, this semester has kicked my butt, and as much as I have actually loved my classes, I'm so done, though really, it's not the classes that have kicked my butt, it's all the other stuff. Unfortunately, classes actually have a end point, while it seems that the rebuilding bureacracy just stretches on endlessly into the future, never to end, so I'm in this weird position of looking forward to end of something good so I can concentrate on dealing with the crap.


But enough self-pity - at least I'll have more time to blog.

Saturday, March 18, 2006

The First Mardi Gras Post-K

Here was the plan for Mardi Gras: wear costumes, wander around the Quarter, see everyone I know, and party all day. I'm proud to say I accomplished every aspect of the plan.

Anyway, I have to say this was one of my best Carnivals ever. I already wrote about the parades, which only got better despite the fact that many of the krewes lost their floats in the flood. On Mardi Gras itself, we headed down to the Quarter in the morning and arrived in time to march with the St. Ann's walking parade, which was the usual collection of funny, sexy, and satirical costumes, everyone half-dancing, half-marching down the street to the horn blasts and drum thwacks of the brass band. Many costumes made fun of the government and the Thing (hurricanes, floods, apocalypse, etc.), though we chose not to focus on that ourselves. Besides, I did a Katrina Kostume for Halloween. Plus, I wanted to wear a silly hat, because what's the point of Mardi Gras unless you get to wear a silly hat?

Brooke had a costume emergency in that her boot was attempting to cripple her, but that was solved with a $15 pair of sandals and an extrememly large vodka tonic.

Once that was taken care of, we returned to careening around the Quarter aimlessly, which, if you've never been to Mardi Gras, is essentially like attending the biggest costume party ever that lasts all day, and I really did run into just about everyone I know since we all hit the Quarter and tend to congregrate at some point near Lafitte's Blacksmith Shop. I swear I have friends I only see during Mardi Gras. There's never really any telling who you will end up hanging out with as people come and go, everyone on these crazy, looping trajectories intersecting each other, then splitting, only to come together again later - you run into someone you know dressed in a fairy costume who knows someone throwing an apartment party in the Quarter where a complete stranger convinces a handful of people that you absolutely have to bar hop down Decatur which leads you to Frenchmen where you meet up with a colleague dressed as a superhero and then ... well, you get the idea.

I know this is a strange word to apply to Mardi Gras, but it was really nice this year. Very casual and stressless (even considering the near-disaster of the boot) and a good time. Everybody was happy, and while it was definitely crowded, it was never overwhelming. Later, the city announced that arrests were way down, even taking the smaller crowd into account, so it wasn't just me. So, yay, New Orleans! Even when knocked on our ass, we can still throw one hell of a party, and if people don't think that's enough of a reason to love, cherish, and rebuild this place, well, they have no joy and no soul. Unfortunately, I think that's exactly the reason why so many people don't think New Orleans should be rebuilt.

Sure, Hastert and others like him continue to say it's because it's dangerous - we're below sea-level, after all, but that's true of most port cities located on big rivers, and it's not like other places don't have similar dangers. Yet, I don't remember there ever even being a question about rebuilding Charleston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, etc. And while our damage is much more extensive than those places, since when has the difficulty of a task been a reason not to do it?

But if it's too much for Hastert, we'll do it without the wimp.

We do have a not-undeserved reputation for corruption, but name me one place that doesn't? If corruption were a reason to abandon a place, then given the millions of dollars the feds have wasted on useless trailers, overly expensive blue roofs, and no-bid Halliburton contracts, D.C. should be razed. Or perhaps just those neighborhoods housing the federal government, since they clearly would be best returned to green space.

But I don't think the "don't rebuild" argument is about any of the stated reasons of danger, difficulty, or corruption. I think it's actually about the unstated reason that we're a city that knows how to have a good time. We refuse to get with the American work ethic program, apologize for our hedonistic ways and come to Jesus and a life of self-denial and hard work.

Over in England, the Puritans banned the performances of plays, bringing to an end one of, if not the, greatest play cultures of Western civilization and ensuring that Shakespeare lived out his latter days and died in a place where none of his work could be seen. The British quite sensibly kicked them out, but unfortunately, they sent them here, and most of the country has been trying to throw off those self-imposed shackles ever since. Most of it.

New Orleans is the only American city I've lived in where people actually seem to work to live, rather than live to work, where we not only don't feel guilty about shutting the city down for a week to throw a big party, but celebrate it. We even have the audacity to brag about it.

We're the charming, ne'er-do-well brother that most people shake their heads over but are really a bit jealous of, but who really angers some others, like Hastert and Bush. After all, he had to give up booze, cocaine, and going AWOL, so New Orleans should, too. If we don't, we'll just see about that help we need. It's a little more subtle than the idea that God punished New Orleans for our sinful ways with Katrina, Rita, and the floods, but it boils down to the same attitude.

I'm tired of defending New Orleans with other reasons why we should be rebuilt, the oil and gas, the seafood, all the grain that goes out and coffee that comes in - the hell with it. Why should New Orleans be rebuilt? Because we throw the best party this country will ever see. Without us, you're England without Shakespeare, no joy and no soul.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Media Darlings

Okay, one last note on the media coverage of New Orleans, and then I promise I'll write about Mardi Gras and even put up pictures, and then return you to your regularly scheduled rants and venting.

Anyway, Dave Walker wrote an article in the Times-Pic today that reviewed the national media's coverage of Mardi Gras. Now, I have to admit that I actually didn't see much of the national media's coverage because I was, well, here. Dave Walker, on the other hand, as the Times-Pic's tv reporter, clearly watched a ton of it. His conclusion - they "got Mardi Gras mostly right." The article goes on to detail the nuanced reporting New Orleans got during Mardi Gras.

So bravo, people. Apparently you didn't live up to our worst fears and presented a picture of New Orleans in all our weird complexity.

Full disclosure: I get named in the article. I'm pretty sure it's the only time my name will appear in print in the same sentence as Harry Connick, Jr.'s and Mayor Nagin's, and yes, when I read it (and was completely surprised by it), I jumped up and down and shook my booty, but strictly in the privacy of my own apartment.

All that said, I'd like to mention just a few more things. When Jacki from CNN asked me what the media was doing wrong, I got in my only half-way witty moment of the interview by asking, "Before, during, or after?" I didn't get a chance to elaborate on all those, but I'm taking it now.

As for Pre-K, at a recent panel discussion at Loyola on the media and Katrina, some members of the local media criticized themselves for not hammering local politicians enough, that while we all knew the levees could fail and that New Orleans could drown, they didn't demand answers from council members, levee board members, mayors, governors, and on up, and thereby force them to address the problems we all knew were there. I would agree with that, and extend the criticism to the national media. For far too long, they have been merely passing along news briefs from politicians and not investigating enough, not pushing for answers. And that has real world consequences. In a democracy, only the public can ultimately hold politicians accountable for their corruption, lies, or simple incompetence, but the public only knows to do that if the reporters get the stories to them. And pre-K, they simply didn't ask enough questions nor demand enough answers.

I don't know if it was because of worries of being perceived as unpatriotic in the wake of September 11th, economic pressures and dwindling profits, fears of being labeled as liberal, or perhaps a combination of all those and other factors, but the media as a whole (and not just that news channel that starts with "F" that shall not be named) have been pretty toothless lately. And trust an unabashed liberal on this: there isn't a liberal bias in the media; there's a conservative one. Perhaps you could argue that if a liberal perceives a conservative bias and a conservative perceives a liberal one, than the reality is pretty neutral, but really it means I'm right and they're wrong.

Did everyone catch Jon Stewart's joke during the Oscars, the one about how both "Capote" and "Good Night and Good Luck" are stories of journalists doggedly pursuing the truth and therefore, obviously, period pieces? Good stuff.

During the disaster, everyone succumbed to hysteria and sensationalism. Granted, I'm sure it's mighty hard to cover a story in the midst of such confusion, but we're talking people that have covered war zones, genocides, and tsunamis; I think we can expect a little more than relentless repetition of the same shot of one National Guard truck driving into the city. It's true that all the misinformation about the rampant murders and rapes was coming from the usually reliable sources (city officials and the National Guard), but I wish I could see some tapes from back then and check to see how much caution was taken in passing along that misinformation. There's a huge difference between reporting "murders and rapes" and reporting "completely unconfirmed rumors of murders and rapes." How it's phrased makes all the difference in the world, and there was plenty of human suffering and tragedy without concentrating on what turned out to be untrue.

Since the disaster, everyone I know can relate the same conversation with some well-meaning friend or relative, the one that includes the friend or relative saying something quite close to, "So it seems pretty much back to normal now." Clearly there's some disconnect between what people are seeing in the news and our reality here, because we aren't anywhere near normal.

The Times-Pic has, for one, improved by leaps and bounds in my estimation. What had been a rather bland local rag that I turned to for listings of music, art, and other cultural events, has become an absolutely essential conduit of vital recovery information, and they have really come through. If you want to get some coverage of New Orleans, hit and read the Times-Pic online. NPR has kept one eye on New Orleans over the past six months, and the additional attention we have received lately because of Mardi Gras can only help.

Finally, the treatment of our leaders, both local and national, has been more hard-nosed of late, and I know it's not because the politicians suddenly turned corrupt, mendacious, and incompetent. They always were; we're just hearing about it more now. Perhaps it's just a pile-on effect, but if Katrina in some way emboldened the media, then (while I won't say it was even close to worth it) at least they learned something. Here's hoping the Mardi Gras coverage is an indicator of things to come.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Next Up: A Rain of Frogs

It's the apocalypse: Newt Gingrich and I agree on something.

My favorite fun fact from the editorial he wrote with John Barry, author of Rising Tide -

In the past two years, we've spent more on restoring Iraq's wetlands than Louisiana's.

Iraq's wetlands. Restoring them.

Who the fuck even knew Iraq had wetlands!!??!!?!

God, I hate Bush. I mean, I really, really hate him. Really.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

The Heart of Media Darkness

So it’s been a hectic couple of weeks for me, what with an out-of-town guest, house- and pet-sitting, teaching, and all the parades, parties, and general pomp and frivolity of Mardi Gras. As if that weren’t enough, I was also on CNN.

Yep, CNN found out about this here blog through channels that remain somewhat murky to me, and called for an interview. Seems they wanted someone to provide a New Orleanian’s perspective on what the media has done wrong (and right, I suppose) in covering Katrina and her aftermath, and I’m absolutely not going to pass up a chance to criticize CNN on CNN. Not to mention the chance to get the blog out to a much, much, much wider audience, which I’ve already noticed has made a difference (hi, CNN people!).

They mailed me out a web-cam, which I had to hook up to a friend’s computer because mine is a wheezy dinosaur incapable of supporting such technology, and had me on-hand for an interview during a taping of “On the Story” the Friday before Mardi Gras. This, by the way, while parades were going by and I was missing out on incredibly valuable beads and other throws, but these are the sacrifices I’m willing to make to get New Orleans’ story told.

Let me tell you how surreal this whole experience was. First off, once I got the camera working, it put a picture of me up on the computer that I could watch. After spending a good twenty minutes getting me placed correctly, all I could think while looking at this utterly unflattering close-up of my face was, “Wow, I am so fucking bald.” I had a good forty-five minutes of sitting there waiting for my turn to think about that. Plus, that close-up eliminated any chance of showing off my extremely cool "Defend New Orleans” sweatshirt.

Also on the computer was a shot of the woman interviewing me, Jacki Schechner, who could not have been nicer, all in this weird blurry, jumpy, slightly-delayed web-cam view. The thing about this, though, is that all the action takes place on the computer screen, while the camera is down below it, and even though I tried very hard to look at the camera while talking, I kept glancing up at the computer screen, which I could tell made it look like I was staring off into space somewhere above the audience’s heads, perhaps at the lovely art they have hanging over the back of their couch at home.

After the wait of forty-five minutes, they hit me with three questions, and I did my best to answer them intelligently, but of course I felt like I was saying all the wrong things. It’s incredibly hard to say something articulate, thoughtful, and meaningful in three minutes. All that waiting, and then bang, it’s over. Off-camera, Jacki gave me a look that was either a reassuring smile or a sign that she was a little disappointed, hopefully because we didn’t get to talk more and not because I sucked it up, though it’s hard to read expressions on a computer screen. I asked her if I did okay, and she assured me that I did, though then admitted she hadn’t been able to hear any of my answers because her producer was constantly talking in her ear. I did not find this reassuring.

Nothing against Jacki (sounds like it was more her producer's doing), but I also don’t think it’s particularly good journalism. Shouldn’t the journalist be listening to the responses given? The producer should shut up and let her listen. As a counter-example, I have been interviewed by NPR twice since the disaster. Once, when “Day by Day” talked to me and some friends about the State of the Union address, and again when I ran into an NPR reporter at a Mardi Gras party. Both times, they spent way more time talking and listening to me. During the State of the Union, Audie Cornish arrived well before the address, recorded us for at least half an hour, kept recording us during the whole speech, and interviewed us again after. It lasted for over two hours, and got edited down to about five minutes. Trust me, that five minutes is much more packed and articulate than the three minute CNN blab and dash.

That said, I actually have no real idea how I did because I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. And I certainly didn’t tell anyone else when to see it. By accident, I caught a bit of the show right before my last answer and suddenly realized that not only did they show me when actually asking me questions, but also when just referring to me, which they would do without warning. This I did not realize at the time, and I assumed I was off-camera. I can only imagine the nose-picking, beer-drinking, and crotch-scratching that went out on national television.

Oh, the horror, the horror.

As for what I said, you can read a transcript. I talked about the way New Orleans is portrayed as a polarized city – black and poor vs. rich and white – which misses a lot of complexity. Not that it doesn’t have truth to it, but it would take way more than thirty seconds, and way more space than I have on this blog, to properly discuss race, poverty, and the way those intercepted and interacted with Katrina and the on-going recovery. That’s a book I hope someone more expert than I is working on. I also talked about the portrayal of Mardi Gras as just a big party, though didn’t have time to explain what it really means, and had no chance to mention the obsession with sensationalism, the insistence on controversy, the determination to strip everything down to two opposing views. Hopefully, I’ll elaborate on all that later on this blog.

Ms. Strawberry asked me how it went, and I replied with a shrug and “eh.” Without further explanation, she said, “It lasted two minutes and they asked all the wrong questions.” Yep, pretty much.

So, if you really want my ten-second sound bite on what the media, by which I really mean television news, did wrong before, during, and after Katrina (or any story), it’s this: despite their unbelievably massive resources and serious responsibility to a properly functioning democracy, they never take the time to get the story right.

Still too long? Then I’ll give you one word: over-simplification. That’s the theme of everything I said to CNN. But then, I guess that’s why I keep blogging.