Thursday, September 22, 2005

On Being a Refugee

In its collective mind, Houston is Jesus to New Orleans. We provide rest for the weary, and strength for the downtrodden, at the cost of ourselves. Nearly everyone I know has muttered about a newfound fear of certain parts of town, the Astrodome district, the new slums, filled with the desperate and dispossessed, possessing nothing but memories and a $1,000 Red Cross gift card. But despite those fears, nearly everyone has contributed to the relief effort with hard work and generous contributions. Hard work and easy cash are the qualities that Houstonians would brag about, if they ever bragged. (They don’t. Humidity. The toxic smell. And so on. But hard work and easy cash is why people put up with it.)

That’s what I kept thinking about as I became a refugee from Houston.

Unlike the rest of my family in Houston, I have personal, visceral memories of hurricanes. When I was a kid, I rode out a hurricane in north Florida, which I don’t recall being all that big a deal, except that it made for some very interesting neighborhood exploration over the next few days. There were tree branches everywhere, which were fun to play on and look at. (As I look back on those memories through the eyes of an adult and a father, I am horrified. But it gives me comfort to know that Jonah will treat these situations as a lark.) In contrast, I will never forget driving through South Florida a couple of months after Hurricane Andrew hit, and seeing the city of Homestead returned to the pastureland from whence it sprung. Nor will I forget the sight of one of the dancers in the UF dance department, sitting on the “smoking porch” where all the Cool Kids sat to smoke and be Cool, being very un-Cool, crying so hard her thin frame was shaking. She had just learned that her home – as undergraduates, your parents’ home is still “home,” no matter how hard you posture – her home had simply ceased to exist. Gone. All her teddy bears and photos and high school yearbooks were gone, deleted, erased before she was ready to set them aside. None of us really knew what to do for her. Her friends tried to console her, but it was clear that they didn’t understand what she was going through – there was some sort of fundamental difference between her and everyone else around her. Andrew had also taken her belief that she connected with her friends.

As Rita started churning in the Atlantic, and the projections started to show a Texas landfall, the former won out over the latter. I was not especially concerned. Like so many in the Gulf region, I am exhausted and jaded by all the local news stations hyping every storm into a reason to tune in (because there are only so many times you can do the “Are salad bars safe?” story), so I dismiss a hysterical attitude toward tropical storms as the sure sign of a newcomer. Moreover, the projections were so far away from landfall that Houston was only slightly more likely than the other options (e.g. 13% Galveston, 11% Corpus Christi, 10% We Don’t Really Know). As Shannon and I talked about going to stay with her family in San Antonio, I wasn’t even sure if that was a plausible idea. The projections showed a route that cut between Houston and San Antonio, so it looked like we wouldn’t be gaining much by going there. San Antonio is significantly further inland, but it is also a flood-prone city. And – most importantly – my in-laws do not have cable television, much less a cable modem. Can you imagine fleeing a hurricane to a place that doesn’t have The Weather Channel? We needed more information to make an informed decision, though there was already a run on water and “C” batteries at the stores. Yet Shannon’s argument was persuasive – San Antonio was much more likely to have power, and thus air conditioning.

I stayed up very late, trying to glean more information from the Internet than existed. This is a common problem – the volume of information makes you think that there must be new information out there somewhere. How many times can you look at the same computer projections? Answer: a lot.

Wednesday morning, the charts were updated, and it looked significantly worse. Rita was headed straight for Houston, or slightly to the west of it, which would mean that Houston would get the brunt of the winds. Rita was now reliably believed to be a candidate for Cat 4 status, and Cat 5 was a real possibility, not merely the ratings-driven fever dream of everyone’s favorite meteorological scaremonger, Dr. Neil Frank. We decided to leave, as soon as we could get everything together and make the arrangements. I went to get my oil changed and my car checked out, which took well over an hour due to the number of other people thinking the same thoughts. I spent most of the time talking to a man from New Orleans, who laughed about the irony of evacuating the evacuation city, and who told me about the insanity and incompetence in New Orleans when he went back to check on his house. (Two National Guard units kept telling him and his wife contradictory orders, just like in “Cool Hand Luke.”) The mayor’s press conference was on the TV, and I was able to tell him the story of how Bill White got elected mayor on a platform of “Dull Enough To Do The Job Right.” Shannon and I went to get a hamburger at Lankford Grocery. We went to the mall to exchange shoes. The mall was a ghost town; some of the stores had already closed and it was clear that the clerks were looking to get out too. It created a greater sense of dread than we had experienced up to that point; Shannon and I talked about how Katrina had spooked everybody.

Back at home, I started taking a camcorder survey of the house and all its possessions. This was something that I took away from Andrew back in 1992 – the desperate need for those homeowners to find some way to substantiate their claims of property ownership. So I slowly panned a camcorder over every inch of the house, every book, every piece of furniture. Strange emotions bubbled up – not a desire to protect most of these things, but rather a realization that they were transient, meaningless, hardly worth replacing. For other items, I found myself babbling into the camcorder about how my grandfather had made it, or how I had made it, or how it had been a gift for a particular purpose. In another weird instance, I found myself defending the wattage of the microwave oven. And then I took a careful survey of the outside of the house, to gather evidence showing that there were no overhanging tree limbs or anything else that could defeat insurance coverage. (Once a coverage lawyer, always a coverage lawyer.)

Shannon and I had been thinking in terms of “let’s get everything ready and then decide whether to leave tonight or in the morning.” (Frankly, I thought that it would give me more time to stay in my own house – remember the cable TV/cable modem thing?) It was about that time that the news took a turn for the worse. Definite Cat 5 status now – Andrew-sized – and a pressure drop that was truly for the record books. New projections showed it hitting Houston directly. San Antonio was safe; Houston was not. Shannon’s mom called with that distinct tone of panic in her voice – nothing new, but now she had the facts to back it up.

New plan. Pack quickly. I had already put the videotape of the house in my briefcase, along with all the home videos and my DVD-R backup of our family photos. I put all the irreplaceable items in the trunk of my car, and was shocked at how little time it took. Lockbox of important documents, silver chest, wedding album, the jewelry box I made for Shannon as a wedding present. That’s it. Lots more room. I got Shannon’s scrapbooks, and brought the Xbox on the thought that it would be something to do with Shannon’s teenaged cousins. (Who am I kidding? That was the excuse. With no cable TV and no cable modem, I wanted to make sure that I at least had “Psychonauts” to keep me occupied.) We still had lots of room. Then came the surreal task of placing large items on top of other large items, to protect them from flooding. The TV set was too damn heavy -- Shannon joked, “didn’t you want to get a new flat screen anyway?” and I said “Not this way.”

By 7:00 pm, we had everything in the car – treasures, clothes, 2 ½ year old kid, dog, cat, fish. [Side note: There’s a strange moral calculus when allocating the limited interior room of a Honda Civic to (1) a fish and (2) a hateful cat that despises travel and would be guaranteed to howl the whole way. The former raises questions about relative worth, the latter about redemption and forgiveness. The cat didn’t make it easy, either. She pissed all over everything out of fear at being locked into a small, confined space with the dog and the kid.] The sun was setting. It was a pretty day – hot, clear, no sense whatsoever of what was coming. And as I went through the house and wondering if I would see it again, I shuddered with a tangible, physical sensation of gratitude. Gratitude that I lived in a time where we would have several days’ warning of such devastation, gratitude that I could ensure that my family would be safe, gratitude for the family that was now packed much too tightly into a Civic. I said a prayer, recognizing that I was praying to the same God that had guided nomads for millennia, and then we left.

I had predicted that traffic would be as bad as on Thanksgiving weekend – four stressful hours to go 180 miles. I was wrong. After four hours I had gone twenty miles – and that was taking the HOV lane out of town, which was slow, but the regular highway had turned into a parking lot. Stop. Roll forward. Stop. Roll forward. One hour. Stop. Roll forward. Two hours. Roll forward. The rest areas were mobbed with cars and people. One truck stop had cars swarming over it like ants. This was no idle observation -- sitting in traffic takes up a shocking amount of gas, and you start to wonder whether this traffic will last the entire way. Even though I started with a full tank, I started to do the mental calculations for how long I could go before joining the teeming masses. No cell phone service; the networks were overloaded.

Remember the being-packed-into-the-car issue? The kid was good for the first two hours, then had an absolute fit for the next two hours, which had the beneficial side-effect of keeping the cat too panicked to howl. All the while, we listened to Archer Prewitt’s “Wilderness”; in my mind, those achingly beautiful songs now represent flight and the lingering sensation of gratitude that pulsed through me. As my son cried, I was grateful. Stop. Roll forward. Grateful.

After midnight we crawled past Columbus, where the exit was blocked by police officers. There was no emergency -- people were clearly at the gas stations -- the scene reminded me of the Gretna, LA sheriffs that turned away NOLA refugees with shotguns. It will be a cold day in Hell before I ever spend another dollar in Columbus. But that is where the traffic divided to Austin and San Antonio, and I-10 finally sped up to a comfortable 60 mph.

We got to Schulenburg by 1:00 a.m. The two gas stations were very busy, but not mobbed like the previous ones had been. We stopped and took a bathroom break, and I got some Red Bull and sodas, because I had no intention of stopping until we got to our destination. Even if there was a motel – a dubious proposition – and even if that motel took pets – dubiouser and dubiouser – I was fairly convinced that the car was a ripe target for theft. I had a nice conversation with a tattooed guy headed from Austin down to the coast; he never explained why he would be doing that, but I wished him well. The line to buy supplies was long, but polite. Shannon tasted a Red Bull for the first time and marveled that anyone would drink it. We kept driving and listened to my “This American Life” recordings.

We arrived at 3:30 a.m. – not a minute too soon, because it was rapidly getting harder to stay awake. My recollections are not clear. Shannon’s mother was right there, ready to open the door. Weenie the cat jumped out of the car and hid in the bushes; I spent four or five minutes trying to catch her. I e-mailed Mom and Dad from my Blackberry, but the e-mails wouldn’t go through. We got the luggage into the house and I fell into the bed and slept for seven hours.

I woke to a bright, clear day. Rita was a Cat-4 again, and the projections show it moving more eastward – a trend that could be great for Houston but bad for Beaumont. I wondered if the sense of urgency that I felt (and the gratitude it had spurred) would seem ridiculous in hindsight. Then I found news reports showing that the evacuation was even slower this morning than they had been the night before. And regardless of the news, I am still overwhelmed with the tangible, physical sensation of gratitude. I am so grateful my chest hurts, I am so grateful I find it hard to do anything else.

Our minds are great mansions in moonlight, their heights and depths concealed in darkness, their open spaces draped in flattering silver light. The darkness is very useful -- we would never be able to get anything done if we spent every day considering anew the memories and emotions that do not get things done. But the darkness also lulls us to sleep. We can cast light on the forgotten corners, but they are forgotten. How often do we remember to look for those things that are out of view?

Sometimes, a loud clap gives us a start, and we turn our lights toward the sound, and see the place as though for the first time.

I am shining my light on my family, and they are beautiful, so beautiful.

That is what it is to be a refugee.

 3:08 PM

Wednesday, September 14, 2005


Bush asks Condi for permission to take a bathroom break at a UN summit.

Pics here and here from Reuters. This is no joke, this is a real photo.


I am speechless.

 7:25 PM
I have been comparing the sound quality of XM radio recently, and came to a fairly shocking realization that sound quality standards are not what one would normally think.

I have a trusty Delphi "SkyFi" XM radio that I use in the office, but not too long ago XM allowed all its subscibers to use its streaming web radio service for free. ("Free" -- that is, they raised the monthly rate but threw in the web service at the same time.) It's the same channels, only they are transmitted through WMA9 streaming audio to your web browser.

Interesting discoveries:

1. The WMA9 stream is significantly more detailed, especially in the high end. I was shocked at how much detail I had been missing.

2. Nothwithstanding, the SkyFi sounds better.

How can that be? The SkyFi seems to have been designed to eradicate a very particular problem with XM radio -- and with all streaming audio that is highly compressed. (XM radio is 64kbps, but it uses an algorithm that is supposedly superior to MP3.) The very high-end sounds like crap -- "artifacts" everywhere. And by "artifacts," I mean that cymbals sound like someone going "chhhhh" into a Mr. Microphone. All that distortion comes through crystal clear in the WMA9 stream.

The SkyFi seems to have been designed to roll off the high end frequencies to make the whole thing sound a lot more like FM radio. And it does -- it is very comparable to FM, just with a whole lot more selection. FM is no leader in sound quality, but it works just fine. And the SkyFi spares you that distortion, and the detail that comes with it.

That is why I am a little dubious of the claims behind the new wave of high-end XM or Sirius tuners, who claim to have better sound quality. Beware the attempt to make more out of this audio stream than it can handle.

No idea why I decided to pass this along. Perhaps just trying to add to humankind's knowledge.

 11:16 AM

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?