Monday, March 25, 2013

Revisiting Red Hook, Brooklyn

When we first arrived in Red Hook, it was a water-soaked, shaking, clanking, screaming, foul-smelling madhouse. It was maybe two or three days after Hurricane Sandy and everything was wrong. Storefronts had been flooded, basements were still full of water, gas-powered pumps were rattling on the sidewalk and spewing their water into the street, people were moving their belongings out of wrecked stores, people were lined up to get water from the National Guard and crying on the street. It was a hurricaned version of what Yossarian must have seen as he was walking through Rome.

As I wrote the first time around, we weren’t even supposed to be in Red Hook that day. Fed up beyond belief with sitting around and doing nothing while New York floundered all around us, we stopped to get coffee and found an excuse to help. We walked the streets and handed out disaster assistance fliers, talked to volunteers and survivors and tried to provide whatever help we could. Our blue FEMA jackets were like magnets. We were the first FEMA people anyone there had seen, and some of them fastened onto us like we were there to fix everything. Disappointing them over and over, telling them that we couldn’t help right now, that there was very little we knew how to do and could you call this number for assistance please, was agony. They needed more than we knew how to give.

Two days ago, we went back to Red Hook for the first time since that nightmare November afternoon. The streets were mostly empty. The monster-pumps were gone from the sidewalks, replaced with shuttered windows. We drove by the spot where a fat man with long gray hair and tears in his eyes told me about his home and his restaurant, both flooded. We passed the side street where I talked to an old Iranian man who had been living in his son’s basement, who owned nothing right now but the clothes on his body, and not even all of those—someone had donated a long gray coat to help keep him warm. Here was the park where the National Guard line had stood, there was the storefront where scores of volunteers had congregated, now an empty sack of rooms. Here was a grocery store, miraculously open again and with dozens of cars in the lot; there was a wine store where we’d seen people carrying boxes out onto the street, now boarded up and shuttered.

We drove through the Red Hook streets and everyone shared a memory from the storm, something they wished they’d done or someone they’d have told what to do if they themselves had known. We smiled and took a picture underneath a “Red Hook Recovery” banner, in front of a park where children were kicking a soccer ball inside a high gray fence. Who knows what all the might of FEMA was able to do for these people, all the resources of the city and state and federal governments and the myriad of private organizations. All the grants, all the loans, all the SBA applications, all the rental assistance payments and the Temporary Sheltering Assistance Program and the Sheltering and Temporary Power program, all the acronyms and buzzwords and alphabet porridge, all the good intentions and the fulfillment of our obligations to those in distress… I just hope it helped.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Masters' Inn in Tuscaloosa Is A Place Even Summit 5 Won't Stay In

It's 11:21 PM, we've been on the road all day, and I don't have time for an elaborate introduction, so here goes: the Master's Inn in Tuscaloosa was the scariest fucking excuse for a sleeping arrangement my team, or I, have ever encountered. In the space of about 15 minutes, my team discovered the following atrocities in and around our hotel rooms: 

-A five-foot-by-four-foot oval of water-damaged plaster over my bed, which left some of the plaster looking like it'd fall down any second. 

-Dirt, dead bugs, chunks of masonry and other unidentified crap on our bedside table. 

-Semi-rotten leftover food in our fridge. 

-Unidentified stains on the chairs and floor.

-A cigarette burn in my sheets.

-Fragments of poop in Malinda's toilet...

-Pubic hairs in her fridge...

-A huge brown stain on her sheets... 

-...and what we're fairly certain was dried semen on her headboard. There was some white spray on the TV in my room that may also have been rogue escaping semen; nobody cared to speculate. 

Also, Joe was approached by two teenagers--this is in the middle of the afternoon, mind you--trying to sell him marijuana. (Why they approached him I have no idea; Joe is about the most clean-cut, all-American, upright-moral-standing-lookin' sonofagun that you will ever see.) We lasted about fifteen minutes before piling back into the van and demanding immediate and uncompromising egress from that hell-place. We egressed so far we got all the way to Vicksburg, three and a half hours distant, where we are now.

We have slept in some crazy locations (the armory, the ship, an Army base, etc) and some crappy ones, but this one was too much even for hardened FEMA Corps lunatics. AVOID THAT PLACE, READERS; AVOID IT FOR YOUR LIVES. 

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

We're Almost Outta Here

It's been two and a half months since we came back to New York City after winter break, four-and-a-half since Sandy roared through the upper East Coast while we were at the Emergency Management Institute in Maryland, huddled in our rooms while the rain poured down outside and waiting for an assignment. We spent one day in Connecticut before being transferred again to NYC. We've been working here ever since And on Sunday, we're piling everything into the van, closing the doors and pulling out, driving south for the warmer weather and kudzu-covered hills of the distant land of Vicksburg, Mississippi. So I guess this is my way of looking back on everything we've done.

The list of different jobs we've done, things we've accomplished, is ridiculous. Everybody on my team has canvassed door-to-door in hard-hit areas on Long Island. We've waited in shelters to register disaster survivors with FEMA, talking to people who maybe didn't have a home to go back to--scared, confused, in the middle of a nightmare that just wouldn't stop happening. I've handed out food and blankets, water and baby formula, diapers and Red Cross cleaning kits and endless mounds of toilet paper, to survivors who trudged one by one through a rain-slick parking lot to the mouth of our manna trailer. I've worked in a FEMA office, collecting and calculating data and generating report after report; I've recruited voluntary agencies to join a long-term disaster working group, an organization that will outlast FEMA's brief time here. Outside our official duties, I've mucked-and-gutted houses, helped clear a vast beach of garbage, painted a future day-care, helped move an unfathomable amount of ham. One of my teammates is working to improve FEMA's inclusion of people with access and functional needs, which many know as 'disabilities'. And my compatriots across the New York disaster area, from the hinterlands of Nassau County to the shores of Staten Island, moved and carried and registered and drove and typed and lifted and advised, consoled, helped in I can only guess how many ways. The numbers say we directly assisted two hundred and sixty-one thousand people, a number that simply will not fit into the mind.

We met the President of the U.S.A. We lived on a ship. We peed in friendly Subway bathrooms, got hopelessly lost in a darkened New York the day after coming here, turned down countless offers of food and bottled water from kind survivors, tore our hair out with frustration. We worked twelve-hour days and longer. I dug my fingernails into my palms and gritted my teeth as a bearded old FEMA supervisor, dubbed "Santa Claus", told my team that we couldn't be allowed to talk to survivors without a minder so that we didn't screw up, and I laughed for joy a week or so later when a smarter, savvier Reservist turned us loose on Freeport to plan and canvass as we would. As a group or on our own, we made countless trips into New York City to see the sights and visit with friends, and I got so lost in the New York subway system that I swear I saw the Minotaur. We helped people at countless front doors, got cussed out of houses and booted out of churches and came back for more. John and I helped get food to an elderly, car-less couple who couldn't walk to the grocery store, and we also (in a separate incident) accidentally reminded another elderly gentleman of the inexorable workings of entropy. "There are worse things." *pause* "LIKE DYING." We ate lunches in the van, typed our daily reports with surpassing speed and fury on tiny Blackberry screens, and took pride in "knocking out" hundreds of houses in a single day. We proved what we can do.

I will remember New York for the astonishing kindness of strangers, for all the people who told me "No, my house isn't that bad. We're fine. You should go help those people at the end of the block, they had it much worse than we did". I will remember New York for the daily odyssey in our van, for the crazy drivers, for the cat-in-a-yarn-basket highway system, for the towering buildings and flashy billboards and Mediterranean food of surpassing quality at a little kiosk in Times Square. I will remember New York for vegetarian Thanksgivings and nagging hungry cats, heart-stopping jumps and crazy long-haired wigs and lunchboxes used for unexpected purposes, all of them good. I'll remember New York for the jerks who inexplicably accelerate into your lane on the highway when you're trying to move over, for the graffiti and the trash decorating every building and sidewalk, for the crowds and crowds of people filling every corner of the Manhattan streets. I'll remember the work we did and the work we didn't do, and everything I learned along the way.

And I'll remember the people, those we helped and those we encountered along the way. I'll remember the elegant old architect in Far Rockaway, the kindly principal in Nassau County who called down the wrath of five thousand townspeople on us, the old Jewish couple who loaded up on boxes of kosher noodles at the POD, the grandmother who took forty-five minutes to get registered in a Nassau shelter and drained me of so much energy that I collapsed on Malinda's shoulder afterward, the gloriously profane homeowner in Freeport who told me that anyone who left their car in the driveway to get flooded should receive "the dumb-shit award", the immensely capable FEMA reservist who taught me about disaster response, the intelligent Sikh man who owned a huge gray dog with testicles like walnuts hanging pendulously off the back. I'll remember the laughter and the hard times and the immense satisfaction of knowing that you helped somebody today. I'll remember the looks on the faces of the half-dozen people who told me the water went right up to the bottom of their doorway and stopped.

There's a lot I'll remember about this place, and a lot more I kinda wish I'd gotten to do--places and people seen, things I have or haven't done. This experience and everything that came with it will define all of our FEMA Corps terms, like it or not. It's been a long road since I was sitting in a backroom office in Atlanta, hearing vague reports about some storm named Sandy down in the Caribbean and how it would probably turn out to sea soon enough. All of us have grown a lot since then.

Here's the last project.
Time to see where we'll end up.
I'm hoping Texas.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Avoid Them Like A Chainsaw: Musings on Idioms

I have always hated idioms. Insofar as an idiom is a common, somewhat banal phrase that attempts to convey a concept by means of figurative language (including platitudes and clichés--each of these turns out to have a somewhat technical meaning, so read on). The latter two tend to be tiresome or hackneyed, the former simply omnipresent. All of them tend to have the same function, though, which is to take a shortcut to your meaning and use a common phrase instead of coming up with something original to convey what you want to say. I hate this because I love playing with language, and because it's really hard to use an unaltered idiom/phrase/cliché to express something in a unique or clever way. Which is more memorable, someone saying that they really "screwed the pooch", or that they had "a colossal fuck-up"? What about "I am all ears" vs. "tell me your secrets", or "by the skin of your teeth" against "You nearly just freaking died"? 

Well, because it's hard, that's why. They're common shortcuts, and they describe a specific situation or feeling well enough that it's difficult to find a way around without just being boring. "I am all ears" redirects to "I'm listening". That's it? "I wait eagerly with anticipation?" "I am agog?" It connotes that, yeah, but in an easy-to-communicate package that doesn't sound ridiculous. You can't really take that phrase, "I am all ears", and replace it with something that has the same ease of delivery and contains the same meaning. The best you can do is mess around with it, which is where snowclones come in (although this applies to clichés and platitudes more, apparently). These, apparently, are deliberate modifications of existing hackneyed phrases; a team example would be the gradual change from the "Cornflake nooooo! That's your sister!"* to "Cornflake noooo! That's not your sister, keep it in the family!" to, over a long period of time, things like "Dillinger noooo! That's not a baseball bat, that's a mongoose!" or something. 

To me, those are fine. Even though they keep the conventional phrase structure, they use it to convey something that may be completely different from the original meaning. It's creativity in action, the opposite of lazy language. The phrase is a living, breathing construction that self-modifies over time as it's passed around, unlike an idiom--"a chink in the armor", for example--that just never changes unless it's being used as a racist term. One is a shortcut, the other is an inspiration; although the template for the new phrases isn't original, it itself promotes original thinking. The same kind of logic applies to meme-faces, which always signify a particular situation or emotion, but which can be used by itself or combined to tell stories to get across literally any story imaginable. As conversational envelopes that hold meaning, they're right up there with words and phrases themselves. 

Idioms, though, have very little meaning**. The words that make up an idiom obviously don't mean anything on their own; I hope I don't get actually bent out of shape, and if I fell asleep with the fishes I'd wake up wet. The only meaning they have is the collective meaning of anger or death, respectively. I've written before about "bloodless" language, usually in the context of one or another government agency; this species of corporate-speak tends to be composed largely of idioms, clichés and platitudes, the concatenation of which often makes it impossible to discern a meaning even in casual conversation. When a major fight erupted between government and press after Bob Woodward disputed the President's story of who had "moved the goal posts"--sports idioms, by the way, are NEVER modified--I just groaned. 

The funny thing is that foreign idioms and clichés are fascinating to me, because they're crazy and unusual and they don't make sense in fantastic ways. They include things like Vrane Su Mu Popile Mozak (Croatian: "Cows have drunk his brain", or "He's crazy!"), avoir les dents longues (French: "To have long teeth", or "To be ambitious"), or Tristo kosmatih medvedov! ("Three hundred hairy bears!" or "Oh shit!") and hundreds of thousands of others. They're the very opposite of the bloodless bromides that pop up in our language like dandelions. Are some of our clichés hilarious to non-English-speakers? Undoubtedly. It's a weird kind of handicap; you know your own emperor is naked, but you can't see what anybody else's monarch isn't wearing; it just looks fabulous. 

Update from the Washington Post: THIS. ALL THE THIS.  

*Team joke. Don't ask, but the guy in question has no sister. 
**I'm writing off the top of my head here, so bear with me, but I'm just gonna go with 'meaning' = exactly what it sounds like. You use this, it means something. 

Friday, March 15, 2013

Summit Unit Moved Twenty-Five Tons of Meat Yesterday

I'm gonna let that just hang in the air for a second. Savor it. Bask in the glory.

Aaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhhh.*sips martini, relaxes on tropical beach*

Okay, storytime now. The entire Summit unit, minus a few people who couldn't duck their work for the day or were otherwise engaged, went to the New York master food pantry today for an Individual Service Project. I say "the", not "a", because however many of them there are, this one was the definite article. It was an immense warehouse where what appeared to be hundreds of tons of food are stored. The organization subcontracts their food out to lesser food pantries, which turn around and give it to the people, free of charge. As the posters on their walls and the promotional video they showed us proudly blared, the entire program serves over 400,000 meals a day through its various outlets (and teaches kids about healthy eating, AND does peoples' taxes for free). One-fifth of the city supposedly uses their services. So we all packed up and went down to the factory floor, where we were greeted with more ham than I have ever seen in the entire rest of my life combined, and were told to repack it into boxes that would be trucked to various pantries. (Sundry amounts of chicken, beef, pastrami, etc. also appeared occasionally and got their own separate pallets.)

The mechanics of it were fascinating. It was 45 pounds of ham to a box, but because every ham was different, we were allowed to have it be anywhere between 43.5 and 45.0 pounds. A natural assembly line developed, with variations over time depending on what we were short of. Some people unflattened (dimensioned?) and taped the bottoms of boxes, while others fetched the hams from gigantic ham crates in the center of the room. Those same people helped pack the boxes atop a scale, made sure it was within the boundaries (not even .01 pounds over, the guy said) and slid it down one of those rolling belt things with a kajillion little wheels that you slide things down. That went down to someone who taped the top and wrote HAM on the side, who stacked it on a table where yet more people hauled it off to pallets, which were finally dragged away by forklifts (sadly, that bit was not us).

 It was an immense amount of fun. I did a lot of different things--fetching ham, carrying boxes, etc.--but my favorite was being the weight guy, that is, loading the boxes and making sure they were within the weight limits. I got to yell like an auctioneer A LOT: "Twenty-five pounds! Thirty pounds! Thirty-four pounds! Forty pounds! Forty-two-point-three-four pounds! We are... OVER! Forty-six pounds! Take that one out, put that one in! [sometimes repeated eight or ten times until it works] And it is... IN! Forty-four-point-four-five pounds!" Close the top, slide it down the conveyor, get the next box on. It was for all the world like a puzzle game; given this number of pieces and these limits, get to the correct number as fast as possible. We developed an appreciation for all the different hams; there were "big bastard" giant half-hams, round "pillbox" bright red hams, legions of ordinary "apple hams", pesto hams, peppered hams, black hams and so forth. The most valuable commodity by far was the tiny red hams, only one and a half pounds or so. If you were stuck at 42.5 (otherwise known as ham hell, since every other type of ham was three pounds or more), all you needed was one of those little beauties to close you out. My table stole an entire box of tiny hams to use one by one on difficult boxes and frequently poached smaller hams from the neighboring (Team Leader) table. Like I said, it was a ton of fun.

The day was also stupendously productive. My group (John Joyce, John, Jay, Adam, Sean, Rafael, Zack, Michael and I) estimated at the end of the day, when we were cleaning up scraps of cardboard and cut zip-ties, that we had moved perhaps twenty thousand pounds of mostly ham. At forty-five pounds to the box, twenty-four boxes to the pallet, that would be 1,080 pounds per pallet (less maybe a pound per box on average). We estimated that we'd moved perhaps twenty pallets, but that wasn't even close. We'd moved over fifty thousand pounds. 50,432 if you want to be precise. The food bank representative, Germain (and he was, on the whole), told us that at 1.2 pounds per meal on average, we had just boxed 42,027 meals--over a tenth of New York's per-day requirements. As TL Dan calculated, if they didn't mind ham, that much food could feed a family for thirty-eight and a half years.

So that was Summit Unit's Thursday ISP. Would to heaven we could do that sort of thing more often. It was fun, it was helpful, it was direct service, and more than anything else, it was tangible. There's nothing quite so visceral as holding hundreds of pounds of ham, and you can take that quote straight to the quote book.

Thursday, March 14, 2013

Jermon Bushrod Will Be a Colossal Bust for the Bears (And Other Free Agency Thoughts)

Here's the first thing to get out of the way: Let's vanquish the idea that Jermon Bushrod is a two-time Pro Bowler, as most of the NFC North media is currently saying. He's not. He legitimately made the Pro Bowl once, in 2011, as the No. 3 tackle. In 2012, he was a first alternate replacement for Super Bowl-bound Joe Staley. Although the Pro Bowl is far from a perfect selection process, that is not nearly as encouraging as the ambiguous "two-time Pro Bowler".

Second thing: Bushrod played for the Saints in a system that is designed to hide their lack of talent at tackle. The Saints boast two of the top five or so guards in the NFL, those being Jahri Evans and Ben Grubbs (and until recently, Carl Nicks), ensuring that Drew Brees will always have room to step up in the pocket when his tackles get beaten around the edge. Chicago will not have any such luxury with their marginal interior linemen.

Third thing: Drew Brees is Drew Brees because, in part, he has a phenomenal quick-release and great pocket presence. Brees has never, in 11 years as a starter, been sacked more than 27 times in a season. In Jay Cutler's three full seasons with Chicago, he has been sacked 38, 52 and 35 times, plus a 27-sack season with Denver. He had 11 sacks in sixteen games with Denver in '08, a phenomenal accomplishment, but that was with Ryan Clady protecting his blindside. Bushrod is no Clady. And Cutler is no Brees; he's skittish and shuffles his feet under pressure, and likes to wait for ages and then throw deep down the field. These are not attributes with which Bushrod is likely to mesh! While he's certainly better than the likes of J'Marcus Webb or Chris Williams or a washed-up Orlando Pace, Bushrod will be no better than an adequate LT for the Bears--as he was for the Saints--and will likely be much worse. (It doesn't help that Bushrod will be facing Jared Allen and Clay Matthews twice a season, either.)

Other notes: Erik Walden is a valuable player as part of a rotation, but a four-year, $16m contract is far too much for a guy who consistently wears down over the course of any season as a full-time starter... Who's running the Baltimore Ravens? I still can't believe they let Anquan Boldin go for peanuts, and now they've lost Paul Kruger and Daniel Ellerbe too... The Oakland Raiders suck at drafting, according to ESPN's Bill Williamson. Darren McFadden is the only first-round pick from the last decade remaining on their team, if Rolando McClain is released as expected... 2013 Chiefs Dream Team > 2011 Eagles Dream Team... Reggie Bush should only thrive with the Lions; their running backs caught 96 passes last year, averaging better than 10 yards per catch... Hey, Bernard "The Intimidator" Pollard is available. Could he be a poor man's Dashon Goldson?

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Second Retraction This Year

Well, for the second time this year, someone in the upper ranks of one of my parent organizations has objected to one of my blog posts. For the second time, it was for the same basic reason. I apparently cannot speak about what that is, so here's something neutral and nondescript: many mothers tell their children not to speak unless they have something good to say. So, as requested, I will not post about FEMA Corps unless I have something good to say.

In unrelated news, expect plenty of football posts, philosophy posts, book reviews, etc. from this site in the near future.

It should be noted, however, that--as I said in the offending post--I was not complaining about my lot, but simply describing it for what it is. That by itself should not constitute a critique, but it does.

Veteran Free Agency: Ted Thompson Should Give It One More Try

(Written 3/11/13, this may be slightly out of date)

By any objective measurement, the Packers' free-agent spending spree before the 2012 season was a total failure. Anthony Hargrove and Daniel Muir didn't make it out of training camp. Phillip Merling made it four games before being cut in favor of Mike Neal, who was returning from suspension. Cedric Benson was injured in his fifth game and lost for the season. And while Jeff Saturday made it fourteen games before being benched for Evan Dietrich-Smith, he was so ineffective that the Packers were forced to change their entire running game to minimize his weaknesses. The Pro Bowl berth Saturday was awarded was cosmetic at best. All this sounds like a powerful argument for staying out of free agency, but there are a few reasons for the Packers to dive back in this offseason.

First, the financial cost of signing several veteran free agents was negligible. Jeff Saturday received a one-time $3.18 million payment. Benson received $540,000, as reported by the Journal Sentinel. The other veterans presumably were compensated for their time in training camp (or got game checks, in Merling's case) in minimalist fashion. Most, like Benson, were presumably signed for the under-a-million veteran minimum salary.

Second, Green Bay doesn't need and won't try to overhaul its roster by signing "second contract" free agents, players fresh out of their rookie contract and looking for a big payday. While these players represent the biggest opportunity for a slam dunk (See: Darren Sproles, Michael Turner, Vincent Jackson, Drew Brees*), they also tend to command plenty of guaranteed money and often aren't as good away from their original teams. Cliff Avril, for example, is supposed to be the No. 1 free agent this offseason; the 4-3 DE had 29 sacks and nine forced fumbles in the past three years, but he also played on one of the NFL's best and deepest defensive lines. Put him on a team with a weak line and he might be the next Ray Edwards, who thrived when he was playing with Jared Allen, Kevin Williams and Pat Williams (16.5 sacks in 2009-10) but failed with the Atlanta Falcons (3.5 sacks in 2011-12, now released).

Third, it's also a banner year for 'cap casualties'. The No. 1 question with any free agent is why his old team is letting him leave. If he was a bad personality, was injured often or just wasn't good at football, why take a chance on him? But if you think the player was poorly coached, in a bad scheme or was cut because the team couldn't handle his salary-cap hit, well, that's another story. And it feels to me like there have been an inordinate number of salary-cap casualties around the league this year. There could very well be some low-priced, low-risk, moderate-reward talent out there for the Packers. I know they will have to find the money for a Clay Matthews mega-deal--I still think that it's just media hype that the Packers are supposed to extend Aaron Rodgers with two years left on his 2008 deal--but there's always a way to sneak in a few small deals if one is judicious.

Of course, that means my dream players are far out of reach. There won't be an in-his-prime, hard-hitting-intimidator-yet-terrific-in-coverage Dashon Goldson to solve the Packers' problems at safety, as much sense as that would make. I'm sure Green Bay will go into the draft looking for a center or O-line sixth man, a tackle (again), a safety, defensive line help and wide receiver help, and they'll probably end up filling most of those needs. Here's a wish-list, though, and a few reasons for the Packers to go and try out a few new faces:

Chris Canty, DE, Cowboys/Giants. Canty isn't Reggie White, but he is huge, long and lean--exactly the player the Packers have been missing, a big run defender and occasional pass-rusher. At 30 and on his third contract, Canty is on the downside of his career, but a two- or three-year deal might get the most out of him. (Canty has since signed with Baltimore, so nuts to that.)

Richard Seymour, DE, Patriots/Raiders: Seymour isn't the type to grab a one-year veteran minimum contract, even at 33, so the Packers would have to think long and hard about this. But even a Seymour in decline would bring some much-needed nastiness to the defense. He's also 6'6", 317 and isn't a slug.

Ricky Jean-Francois, DE, 49ers: RJF won't command a mega-deal; a backup behind an immovable, veteran San Francisco front three, he started just five regular-season games in four years. But he's big and tough, strong as an ox, and he's got that unmistakable patina of 49er punch-you-in-the-mouth. The Packers could use a guy like him.

Steven Jackson, RB, Rams: This frustrates me almost as much as Goldson. Jackson is a 30-year-old RB; he'll be relatively inexpensive. His physical running style would be a great add for Green Bay's often-soft offense. He'd be the kind of legitimate 16-game back that Packers fans have agitated for since 2009. It makes too much sense not to happen--but, as with all the free agents on this list, it probably will not. Sigh.

*Those were the first four names that came to mind; coincidentally, all four are former Chargers. Imagine if that quartet had stayed in San Diego?!

Friday, March 8, 2013

How to Muck and Gut a Home

There's no heat in a flood-damaged house, so you'll generally dress for the outdoors. Khaki pants that tie off at the bottom, full of pockets full of detritus. Americorps gray sweatshirt over a gray shirt, and possibly a black old-school coat over that. Black steel-toed boots, scraped and scuffed, on the bottom. Over this goes a white (or blue, or gray) painter's suit that isn't supposed to rip but does anyway, usually along the crotch. Tuck the sleeves into your white painters' gloves with orange palms. There's a respirator going over the ears with ridiculous pink air filters sticking out like alien mouthparts, and a high-school-science-class clear plastic eye mask, usually scratched up and dirty. While you're working, this will fog up with your own perspiration and make it nearly impossible to see; instead of a basement or a first floor, you'll be in some strange twilight simulacrum of a half-world where your entire vision narrows onto one tiny point in front of you. Welcome to the muck-and-gut. 

Mucking and gutting, for the non-Americorpsers in the audience, is what happens after enough water to fill your entire town five feet deep decides that it is no longer content in the ocean/sea/lake/river/clouds and would like to come over for a drink and a dance. After the flood comes an immense amount of mold, and there is really no way to rid a flooded basement of mold other than tearing the living shit out of the walls. The drywall has to go. The insulation has to go. The carpeting typically has to go. Any records, books, newspapers, dolls, tablecloths, anything paper or cloth (or sometimes wood, other than walls) has to go unless the owner really, really wants to keep them. And heaven help you if there's any food down there; my last muck-and-gut had a stench of rotted-egg sulfur so foul and malodorous you could breathe it at the German Army and kick them out of France. Getting all this crud out of the basement and stripping it down to the boards are where Americorps, or any other disaster volunteer group, comes in. During times when work is lean and office-y and unsatisfying, a good muck-and-gut or two over the weekend can get you just jazzed enough to make it through another week of filing the FEMA equivalent of TPS reports.

So now you're down in somebody's poor, ravaged basement (or, if they don't have one of those, the first floor). The first thing is to clear the room, and this is an awful job. Basements are where all the shit that nobody wants to look at collects, unless it's where all their most valuable things are, which is even worse. My first muck-and-gut saw us carrying out CDs, auto parts and tools, a gigantic wall-mounted mirror (it had mold all over the backing), records, a toolbox that was brimming over with floodwater, school pictures, fake costume jewelery... it all gets buried in jumbo-size black plastic garbage bags and plopped on the side of the road for the overworked sanitation trucks. The first time I did this, the mounds of bags and siding and fallen branches were easily three to four feet high and stretched a good twelve feet horizontally along the sidewalk. Once you've cleared all this junk out, you get to haul out the tools and inflict some major damage on the unsuspecting house.

Yes, it's time to tear into the walls, and this is by far the fun part. Office work got ya down? Sitting on your hands instead of helping survivors? Here's a crowbar. Here's a sledgehammer. There's a wall. Go kill it. Every bit of infected drywall has to go; the longer you wait to tear it out, the more it'll mold and the higher the mold will get. Tear out the insulation behind in huge patchy fistfuls. This is one of the more surreal experiences I've had in FEMA Corps; you and your comrades are unrecognizable behind masks and respirators and suits, a bunch of astronauts blundering around some darkened moonbase and looking for the keys that somebody dropped. Your own little piece of the basement becomes your entire world. One wall, one windowsill, one section of insulation. The pores in your mask are supposed to let hot air out, but they're old and the mask is broken and they don't, so it just builds and builds until you're seeing everything through this gray sheen of sweat and panting and sheer effort. There's a savage pleasure in reaching into a hole, grabbing the edge of the drywall and just ripping chunks and whole sections away from the wall. You pull and rip and whack and sweat until there's no more to be had.

You have to pay for it, of course. Every bit of rubble has to be bagged and carted outside. The floor is shoveled clear, then swept, then swept again. If there are tiles on the floor, they have to come up; some, with water under them, will yield with little fuss. Others will take five solid minutes of cursing and hacking with a pry-bar until the last fragments are off the bare concrete. Extraneous screws and nails that used to hold something important have to be yanked out of the wall and collected. Any cabinets or other furniture that had the temerity to be down here have to be carted out; once, I was working next to a wall-mounted cabinet on one side of a wall, and a couple of my colleagues were bludgeoning away on the other side. The sonofabitch fell out and down with an almighty crash, missing my legs and my friend's legs by a few inches. Once the swearing was over, it went out the door with everything else. I spent my last half-an-hour of another muck-and-gut scratching away at a foot-wide patch of grout on the floor that had to be gotten up. Why? Perfectionism, that's why, which is a horrible philosophy in muck-and-gutting. 

Once you've cleared the basement and/or first floor, your job is pretty much done. I'm assuming the next step is to bleach the whole mess of exposed wall, just to make sure, before the contractors come in to replace insulation and drywall and fiddle with the electrical outlets if they feel like getting zapped. Muck-and-gutters provide the brute labor. By the end of a session, your spotless white oversuit will be filthy around the feet where you've probably been dragging the tails through all kinds of mud and muck and mold-covered crap, and ripped in a dozen places from chance encounters with a nail or bending down too far or simply subjecting fragile seams to indelicate amounts of force. (It invariably rips at the crotch, is what I'm implying here.) Everybody peels off their outer layer with varying degrees of grossness and/or hilarity, throws them into the trash and piles into the van to head back to our housing, exhausted and satisfied. The only drawback is that you can't do it every day.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Why I Cannot Stand Sanitized Language

Here is the Gettysburg Address, according to Yale's Avalon Project

"Fourscore and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent a new nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal. Now we are engaged in a great civil war, testing whether that nation or any nation so conceived and so dedicated can long endure. We are met on a great battlefield of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate, we cannot hallow this ground. The brave men, living and dead who struggled here have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract. The world will little note nor long remember what we say here, but it can never forget what they did here. It is for us the living rather to be dedicated here to the unfinished work which they who fought here have thus far so nobly advanced. It is rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us--that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion--that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain, that this nation under God shall have a new birth of freedom, and that government of the people, by the people, for the people shall not perish from the earth."

Here is the Gettysburg Address in corporate-speak. This hurt my brain to write.

“Eighty-seven years ago, our predecessors produced in this location a nation, brainstormed in a working-group discussion and tasked with the robust objective that all persons are created equally. Now we are faced with a robust challenge, determining whether that nation or any nation with a similar objective is able to maintain a strong working relationship. Here, our employees met a great obstacle in that challenge. We have come to task a part of that resource as a repository for those who were downsized in the meeting of that challenge. This is a robust idea. But in a larger sense, we cannot add value to this location. The employees that have moved on to other opportunities who participated in this challenge have added their value to this place. This speech will not impact the world, but their surmounting of that challenge has. Our new, right-sized workforce will continue to address the issues that our former workforce identified as a need. We will continue to leverage our resources to support the completion of this task—that we utilize the resources left by our former co-workers—that we will complete our assigned task, that our synergized nation shall continue to stand robust against all challenges, and that we will resolve all outstanding issues."

Monday, March 4, 2013

The Great Men of Ohio

Last Friday I was hit over the head with the greatest feeling of déjà vu I've ever felt in my life. Vagaries of my brain's information-processing system had little or nothing to do with it. This was a side-effect of pure great writing, characterization and biography, and just a touch of destiny meeting me on the grounds of the Ohio Statehouse. 

A little backstory: This past weekend, I Greyhounded myself to Ohio to see college friends, carouse, adventure, relax and share memories. Before that, though, I made for Ohio's house of government to take a tour and see what it would be like to work there. (If I got the job I wanted, that is.) I love Columbus's downtown, by the way, especially after months in New York; the streets are wide and airy, the buildings aren't oppressively tall, there's plenty of green space and the people are happy to give directions or share a joke with a random stranger off the street. There's a park a block away from the statehouse with a light-up dance machine, and the statehouse square sports a giant stone billboard making fun of Christopher Columbus and his everlasting (and false) association with the city. 

A little more backstory: for the past two months or so, ever since seeing Lincoln, I've been on a late-nineteenth-century history kick. I first went for Doris Kearns Goodwin's Team of Rivals, which Lincoln was partially based on, then progressed to Candice Miller's Destiny of the Republic, about the murder (and murderer, and accidental abettors) of James Garfield. Then it was on to Bruce Catton's bite-size Reflections on the Civil War, the historical novel The Killer Angels, about the battle of Gettysburg, and most recently David McCullough's The Great Bridge, about the building of the Brooklyn Bridge. All conspired to form a picture of a simpler, wilder America, a place for great men and greater dreams with plenty of room to grow. I came away deeply impressed with the era and those who had driven it, the politicians and the generals and the architects who shaped industrial America.

So there I was, idly wandering around the statehouse grounds and thinking of nothing in particular, when I was confronted with seven of the men I had been reading about for months, bronze statues on a pedestal and right in front of me. The feeling was indescribable; I had never met these men, never known or spoken with them, but in a flash I felt as if I had been their most intimate friend. Salmon P. Chase (Team of Rivals; Senator and later Ohio Governor, Lincoln's Secretary of the Treasury, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court) was the one I saw first and who struck me the hardest. In one defiant moment, he had leaped off the page to confront me in person, looking as arrogant, stern and filled with righteous self-confidence as I could ever have imagined from Goodwin's prose. The sight quite literally took my breath away. 

From left: James Garfield, Rutherford B. Hayes, Chase.
Here are a few of my notes, thoughts pictures as they relate to the men. 

Chase: This brilliant and devoted politician believed unshakably that he was destined to be President of the United States. Convinced of his own victory, he believed it so strongly that he went to the 1861 Republican Presidential Convention without doing any of the necessary groundwork or trying to woo delegates, as they did in those days; he lost, of course, to Lincoln. Chase's statue stands tall, proud and confident, right hand tucked in his coat in a manner reminiscent of George Washington's portraits. His gaze is stern and uncompromising, seemingly possessed of messianic powers of foresight. 

Hayes: This reform-minded President, who took office at a time of what we would consider astonishing corruption, is the only one I do not know. Holding a paper almost defensively in front of him, Hayes' gaze is one of tired, weathered bewilderment; his eyes peer out like mice from the deep cavities in his worn face. He seems to be wondering how it all went wrong. 

Chase is on the right, Garfield in the center, and Edwin M. Stanton on the left.
Garfield: Viewed as a man of great talent and greater honor, the ludicrously un-ambitious Garfield was nominated for President against his will at his own Convention, over the candidate he had hoped to support. He was shot by an insane assassin-in those days, literally anyone could walk into the White House and ask to see the President, even after Lincoln's death at the hands of John Wilkes Booth, but Garfield was shot in a train station-and died in great pain at the hands of his doctors, whose contamination of his wounds eventually killed him. Garfield's statue is proud but troubled; one hand is hidden behind his back, while the other is balled in a fist as if to ward off the pain.

Stanton: Lincoln's Secretary of War, also a onetime political rival, also a turbulent and hot-tempered soul, also an indispensable talent in the prosecution of the Civil War. Goodwin did a hell of a job, as did the sculptor; like Chase, Stanton's statue captures him perfectly. He's looking down at a rolled paper in his hand as if going over his notes one last time before a speech. Again I feel as if I had long known this man, haughty, irascible, brilliant, precisely his portrayal in print and on the screen. His overcoat is slung open, revealing a long double row of buttons over a slight potbelly. He is preoccupied, I feel. Standing for the sculptor must have been simply a formality for him, and a mildly irksome one at that. Surely in another moment he'll stride right off the column and fall spluttering to the pavement. One knee is flexed restlessly; I swear his toe is tapping in impatience. 

Stanton, center right; Philip Sheridan, center left.
 Sheridan: Beside Stanton is Sheridan in all his glory, ablaze with golden sash and medals and a cavalryman's mustache. One hand thumbs the sash; another hangs restless at his side, where a pistol would hang in its holster. Yet this is not the fire-eating cavalry commander who burned the Shenandoah Valley. His eyes are large, limpid and sad, and he stares out at the courtyard as if holding back a sob. 

Right to left: Sheridan, Ulysses S. Grant, William T. Sherman.
 Sherman: He's rumpled, like his boss. Two buttons are undone on his jacket and his gloves are clutched forgotten in one hand, while the other rests on a saber hilt. He's clearly just come in from the field. For whatever reason, historical, artistic or human error, his head is gigantic. It dwarfs that of Grant next door.

Grant: In the center, framed by his commanders, is Grant. he's clearly uncomfortable; one hand grasps his lapel as if to hold himself upright, while the other is tucked sloppily in his pocket. His top two buttons are undone, then there's one loyal holdout, then two more deserters below; his shirt is as crinkled and crumpled as his pants, which don't seem to quite fit. His whole body seems rumpled--but his face! An old face, a wise face, lined by cares. Like Robert E. Lee, he appears haunted by old sorrows. And yet there is a quiet dignity to him, head up, shoulders straight, facing out at the world. Above him is Ohio herself and the inscription "These are my jewels". 

And then this happened.
 This entire thing had a lot of special meaning for me, and it makes my observation and writing purple. So let's end on a different note with a different statue. Know what didn't make any damn sense? William McKinley's statue. For starters, it's Greek; the U's in the inscription are replaced with V's, it's a marble mini-plaza instead of a simple statue, and tiny couples whisper into each others' ears about the great man standing in front of them on his gigantic pedestal. And to top it off, for whatever reason, McKinley looks pissed off. He has this righteous-wrath-of-the-crusaders expression upon his face like he's going to come down and unleash holy havoc. If anyone can explain that, I'd love to hear the story behind that one.