Thursday, September 29, 2005

In which Mike explains what's up with the "in which" thing, and also why he's abandoning it

Many of my loyal readers, by which I mean Ben, have asked me what's up with the whole "in which" thing in the titles of my posts. Basically, what happened is the last two books I read (Philip Roth's The Great American Novel and Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose) both prefaced every chapter with a summary of what happened in that chapter, and the latter began each of these prefaces with "in which". I thought it was a nifty way to express things, so I suddenly decided to do it for no reason.

That having been said, I've suddenly decided to stop doing it, though this time I have a reason: I find the format too limiting. Almost every post title in this format has been of the form "In which Mike does something". That, let's face it, is pretty lame. Also, I'm getting sick of referring to myself in the third person.

So, as quickly as the post title trend was born, so it shall pass. Drop back by soon, for if I have time I should finish up posts-in-progress dealing with such things as American racism, traffic problems, and perhaps most importantly, music.

Song lyric of the day:
"I've been waiting half my life to find the real world
If you find the real world, let me know
But it never rains enough to cool my fever
All it does is rain"
- Long Winters, Scent of Lime

Monday, September 26, 2005

In which Mike wonders why the trip back was so much smoother

I wonder why the trip back was so much smoother. Seriously, I've had longer delays getting from Springfield to Stafford. I guess one reason is there's much less sense of urgency (i.e. no massive storms people are looking to escape from). Or maybe it's because the public officials had proposed a plan for people to stagger their returns based on where they lived. (Actually I doubt many people paid attention to that; hell, if we had followed that plan, we'd have been in Louisiana 'til Wednesday.) Honestly, I don't have a clue what made it quicker. But I'm glad.

We and the two families who had accompanied us caravanned back, with me driving the middle car. The only major delay we ran into was in Carrington, where they had cops directing the flow of traffic between US 59 and US 287. Two other times traffic slowed, but I'm pretty sure it was because there were state troopers by the side of the road. (I mean, seriously? When people are returning to an evacuated city even? Why don't you go, you know, catch criminals or something?) We made it back in 6 hours, which means in two trips we're averaging 14.5 hours between Houston and Shreveport. Fantastic!

So yeah, I'm back in Houston. For those who don't know, the storm turned east and followed us to Shreveport. We had a feeling it might - it's just been that kind of year. If we had simply stayed in Houston, no doubt the hurricane would have maintained its course. To the residents of Shreveport and all the other Louisiana towns Rita pummelled along the way, I apologize; I didn't mean to drag the storm to your neck of the woods. You'll be in what for me passes for my prayers.

Song lyric of the day:
"Let me enlighten you
This is the way I pray
Living just isn't hard enough"
- Disturbed, Prayer

Saturday, September 24, 2005

In which Mike recounts his experiences evacuating Houston

On Wednesday morning, before Hurricane Rita had been upgraded to a category 5, before classes at Rice had been cancelled Thursday and Friday, before evacuation from Clear Lake had become "mandatory", I drove north to attend class and hopefully get to work done. As usual, I-45 was occupied by drivers who haven't yet understood that the gas pedal goes farther down than that. When I arrived on campus, I remarked casually to a friend, "These people don't even go above 60 when they're evacuating the damn city."

It turned out to be the understatement of the century.

As most people who follow the news are aware, the term "clusterfuck" was given a whole new meaning this past week. Cars attempting to escape the city of Houston were caught in traffic moving approximately half a mile an hour. Most people kept their windows rolled down for some 100 degree air, hoping to save on gas. Several ran out of fuel anyway and were forced to camp by the side of the road; meanwhile, fuel trucks frantically searched the haystack of evacuation routes for those few needles.

And all this after Governor Rick Perry remarked, "I don't think there's a state in the nation that's better prepared". I pity those other states.

Ourselves, we were fortunate to only be on the road for 23 hours on our way to Shreveport. We left at 2 AM Wednesday night/Thursday morning, myself, my parents, and a family friend whose husband was already ahead of us. Getting out of the city itself turned out to be relatively academic, as we managed to escape in a little under 4 hours. We thought we were well on our way.

Things got interesting on Texas State Highway 321, when I was lucky enough to be driving. This was our first, though certainly not last, experience with the gridlock they faced back in Houston. While I'm not sure of its cause, I mostly point to the traffic getting onto SH 105 (which included us). Conveniently, though this is an intersection of two major state highways, it is also east Texas, so there is no traffic light. However, considering that the traffic continued on 105, I'm not sure it would have made a difference.

Expert navigator that I am, I reasoned that most people who were on the same back roads as us were simply trying to avoid the traffic on US 59 and get into Lufkin via US 287/69. Certain of this, I guided us east to US 96, which intersected 59 far north of Lufkin and took us straight to Interstate 20 and on to our destination of Shreveport. So I guided us down SH 770, before finding it inexplicably closed (which by the way is a ridiculously stupid thing to do during an evacuation). A short detour got us over to US 287/69, at which point we started going in the opposite direction of everybody else, hopping onto SH 327 and heading to US-96. I think we had been on the road about 10 hours at this point. I felt certain it would be smooth sailing from then on.

Unfortunately, for all the coverage of the worsening Houston traffic, no one on the radio mentioned that the slight northern turn in Rita's path had led to an evacuation of Beaumont.

So we entered yet another jam. This one lasted until a cop, apparently deciding to do something good for a change, started leading a charge up the other side of US 96, exercising the same idea of contra-flow traffic that was being used with limited effect in Houston. After that, we made it all the way to Jasper (yes, the same Jasper, which wasn't exactly comforting) with relative ease before running into one final slew of unmoving automobiles. This last one appeared to be caused by a cop sitting for no particular reason in the middle of the road with his lights flashing waving people along with a glow wand. No disrespect to law enforcement officials, but most of the ones we encountered didn't really seem to be doing much.

But at last, traffic had mostly cleared, and only 2 hours left in the normal 5-hour trip to Shreveport. We were free to drive at the speed limit, which around there was 70 miles an hour. Hell, we knew that the police had much bigger fish to fry what with the evacuation. We could pretty much go as fast as we wanted! But did we? Of course not. As I believe I've said before, these people don't even drive 60 when they're evacuating. 50-55 was their maximum speed most of the rest of the way up 96. Finally, the road split into two lanes, and we were free to fly by the slow ass Texas drivers. My mother was behind the wheel, so we kept it between 75 and 80, which, just so you Texas drivers know, is what you should be driving in a 70 mph zone. (I know, it doesn't make sense, but trust me.) We pulled into Barksdale AFB around 1 AM, and crashed. As in, fell asleep, not actually crashed. That would have really sucked.

Well folks, that's my little evacuation experience in a nutshell. Of course, I neglected many details, such as the fact that all the gas stations we stopped at (there were maybe 5 between Houston and Jasper) were closed, so I got to go to the bathroom in some pretty interesting places. (I pity the poor bastard who roams behind that dumpster in Buna). Certainly that much time on the road is not exactly optimal for a cancer patient. It's hard to truly capture in words the ridiculousness of the whole thing.

But as crazy as it was, I realize we were lucky. As I reflect on all those cars with us on the road, I can't help but wonder how many ran out of gas or overheated. For that matter, how many of them actually had a destination in mind? How many were simply trying to get further north, away from imminent disaster? I'm not a praying man (given that I have no clue who or what I'm praying to) but I still pray for them and for all in harm's way. It's all I can think to do.

Hurricane Rita, incidentally, has been downgraded to a category 3, which is still a big deal but we might have been willing to ride it out at that strength. Knowing that makes me chuckle. Still, I'm pretty glad to be out of the area at the moment.

I can't wait to see what the return trip is going to be like.

Sorry for the long post, the situation just seemed to merit it. I'll close with a song lyric by one of the three bands whose cancelled concerts I was looking forward to seeing in concert this weekend. As for Rita, I extend my middle finger in her general direction.

Song lyric of the day:
"I want specifics on the general idea
I want to think what I should know
I want you to do me what to show
I wanna see movies of my dreams"
- Built to Spill, Car

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

In which further proof of Hell's frigid temperature is offered

On a much lighter note, as if the 'Dores going 3-0 wasn't enough to convince us that Hell had frozen over (see Saturday's post, yesterday the Washington Redskins managed to beat the hated Dallas Cowboys with a late fourth quarter comeback. Mark Brunell somehow complete two long touchdown passes to Santana Moss (I knew he was a good pickup) and the defense as usual stepped up to preserve the win. Other than the Texans losing miserably, this has been like the best football weekend ever: Vandy won, the Skins won, Notre Dame lost. The only problem: I was too damn busy to watch any of it. Oh well.

Song lyric of the day #2:
"Hail to the Redskins
Hail victory
Braves on the warpath
Fight for old D.C.!"

In which Mike begins the new trend of starting all posts with "in which"

Beware: introspective rant to follow.

I think "complacency" is the word of my life right now. I'm getting to that point where I think I'm ready (at long last) to delve into something that isn't school, but it seems like before I get to that something, I have to finish grad school, and finishing grad school entails spending entirely too much time on projects and not enough time preparing for the next step (while admittedly allowing some scant time for socializing and solitude). This is the same spiral I fell into two years ago as I prepared to graduate from Vanderbilt. (Though I'll be the first to admit I put a lot more emphasis on the social program then.) At the same time, buried as I am in project work, I still get that same feeling that I got back then, that feeling that I really don't want to do this for the rest of my life. I've got so much time left, and yet I already feel like my life has already been laid out before me. I keep trying to remember Robert Plant's words in Stairway to Heaven (cited below), but I suppose they are easier said than done. And the most prevalent point is, I really do fear I've grown complacent, that I'm just willing to follow this path for lack of other foreseeable options. That maybe I should have explored the possibilities years ago, but I didn't and now it's too late. Blarg.

In the meantime, Hurricane Rita is supposedly barreling toward Houston. A chart in the Houston Chronicle today indicated that it will be category 4 or 5 strength by the time it hits our home. Oh goody, as if there wasn't enough to worry about already. Hey, Mother Nature, my sister is a tree-hugging environmental science major. Don't you think you could cut us some slack on her behalf if nothing else? But then, of course, here comes more complacency. I'm having a hard time making myself care. Maybe it's denial (there's certainly been a lot of that over the past year). Maybe it's the fact that Houston's drainage system is (of necessity) far better than in any of the areas Katrina hit. But right now my biggest concern is how Saturday's Coldplay concert is going to be affected. Perhaps reality will set in at some point. I keep waiting for it.

But anyway, I really wanted to keep this blog from being a series of rants regarding my personal state of being. Hopefully my readers will allow me this one indiscretion.

Song lyric of the day:
"Yes, there are two paths you can go by
But in the long run there's still time to change the road you're on
And it makes me wonder..."
- Led Zeppelin, Stairway to Heaven

Saturday, September 17, 2005

God called. He said to get a sweater

All I can say is, "Holy shit." The illustrious Vanderbilt Commodores, so horribly familiar with being shat upon by college football commentators and the Southeastern Conference, are 3-0. This is better than sex. Okay, that's an exaggeration. But it's pretty damn sweet. I'm fired up. The last time this happened I was still in diapers (hey, I was a slow potty trainer, alright?) Anyway, I'm going to go eat, drink, and be merry. I just had to relay this awesome news.

Oh, and GO DORES!!!

Song lyric of the day (to have this post's title make sense):
"I just got a message
That said, 'Yeah, Hell has frozen over'
I got a phone call from the Lord
Saying, 'Hey boy get a sweater right now'"
- Modest Mouse, Tiny Cities Made of Ashes

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

So it goes...

The state of Texas executes more people by itself than the entire rest of the United States. That's a pretty well known fact. Tonight, they're doing it again.

At 6 p.m. tonight, Frances Newton will be put to death by lethal injection, barring any successful efforts such as those cited in the Houston Chronicle. The death penalty is, of course, legal and supported by the state of Texas. To paraphrase Ben in a July 12 post, tonight my state commits murder.

Unfortunately, I don't have all the facts that Ben had for the Conklin case. I know nothing of Newton's background. All I have is my gut.

The crimes of which Newton is accused are horrible. She murdered her husband and two children, supposedly to collect insurance money. Now, to me this does not seem like the act of a rational individual. (Maybe she was suffering from postpartem depression, Tom Cruise.) But maybe it was, maybe she was just that greedy and malicious.

Either way, there is that part of me that desperately wants to see her hang for this. Hell, there's part of me that wants to throttle every murderer and rapist around the world. Maybe I'm wrong to resist those temptations. Maybe I'm wrong to oppose the death penalty, when I can see where those who support it are coming from.

But I do oppose it. Call me stubborn, but I made up my mind about the death penalty back when I was a Christian, and the wavering of my faith in many tenets of that religion hasn't dulled my continued belief in two fundamentals: the belief in the possibility of personal redemption, and the belief in the sanctity of life.

Apparently Frances Newton did not value the sanctity of life in 1987. But does this completely rule out her chance at redemption? Has the sanctity of her life been destroyed by her crimes? Are we still living by the Code of Hammurabi, eye-for-an-eye? Where does our culture of life fit into all of this?

The questions keep coming, but the answers remain out of reach, if visible at all. I guess no one ever said the world was easy. Busy, busy, busy...

Song lyric of the day:
"Guilty as charged
But dammit, it ain't right
There's someone else controlling me..."
- Metallica, Ride the Lightning

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

You can't hug your children with nuclear arms

Yes, I think that slogan is pretty silly. And yet, it seems somewhat appropriate for a brief post regarding the concept of nuclear retaliation. No, I'm not talking about protons and neutrons ganging up on those poor innocent electrons (or am I?). I'm referring to a disturbing article pointed out to me by Jeff and David Barzelay. For my semi-full response, please see my comments on Jeff's post. Suffice to say, I feel the United States should be a tad more big brotherly regarding our interactions with foreign nations. (And note, I don't mean Big Brotherly in the Orwellian sense. We have enough of that going on in our own country.)

As a corollary, am I the only one who thinks presidential power is getting grossly out of hand? A large part of me is looking forward to having a strict constructionist on the Supreme Court just to rein in the executive branch. I can guaran-damn-tee you the Founding Fathers did not have this in mind when they framed the Constitution.

Of course, I'll very likely change my mind if I ever get a president I mostly agree with. But somehow, I don't see that happening.

Song lyric of the day:
"The remainder is an unjustifiable, egotistical power struggle
At the expense of the American Dream"
- System of a Down, A.D.D.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Attention alternative radio stations

I used to really like the following songs... 10-15 years ago, when they first hit the airwaves. I never thought I'd get tired of these songs, but having heard them on alternative radio stations for such a duration, I can safely say you can drop them lower in the rotation:

Bottom line: stick to newer stuff. There's plenty of good modern stuff out right now and lots of it I don't ever hear. It's not that I don't ever want to hear the above songs, but try to keep it based largely in the 21st century. Thanks.

If anyone else has songs they'd like to add to the list, feel free!

Song lyric of the day:
"You were hurt so you got hard
You were cursed and scolded and scarred
You were searched for, then ignored
You wanna burn the liars? You'll set us both on fire"
- the Long Winters, Scared Straight

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Vandy! Vandy! Oh hell yeah!

For want of something to post about, I just wanted to post a hearty congratulations to the Vanderbilt Commodores, who just this afternoon beat Arkansas 28-24 to begin the season 2-0 for the first time since 1988. Shoot, the last time Vandy won consecutive games period was my freshman year in 1999 when they pulled it out against Ole Miss in overtime and then the next week squashed Duke like everyone else does. Regardless, going into Arkansas and beating them on their home turf is huge. Bring on Ole Miss!

P.S. Yes, the title of this post is our entire fight song. I guess we get to sing it so rarely they didn't bother coming up with anything better.

Song lyric of the day:
"She's a brick house
She's mighty mighty, just letting it all hang out"
- the Commodores

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

This is what fire drills do to people

I'm sitting in Fondren Library at Rice at the moment, and the fire alarm is going off. It's very loud and obnoxious, but I just now sat down at this computer, and I don't feel like moving at the moment. For all I know, the building could be burning to the ground. Yet here I sit, typing away.

And now, after about five minutes, they've finally come in and told us to evacuate. To be continued...

Sorry about that. Maybe there was an actual fire. But I must admit, I've come to the point where I just assume a fire alarm is just a drill, and for the most part I've learned to tune out the noise. (The only one I doubt I could ever tune out is the one at TJ. Now that one got you moving.)

And I'm not alone in my complacency. Of about 10 people in my line of sight at Fondren, I think two got up and left before the lady came in and asked us to. And I'd be willing to bet at least one left because of the noise rather than the fear of catching fire.

So I'd like to propose an e-toast to the fire drill: one of the most useless things they made us do in school, right alongside art class (where they decide what is and is not "art") and math (where they decide whether 1+1 does or does not equal "2").

Song lyric of the day:
"Since then it's been a book you read in reverse
So you understand less as the pages turn
Or a movie so crass and awkardly cast
That even I could be the star"
- the Shins, Pink Bullets

(Yes, I should have done something about fire, but I've had the lead riff to this song stuck in my head for the past 2 hours. Plus it fits a relatively nostalgic post. For a fire-related song quote, go here.)

Saturday, September 03, 2005

The most meandering post ever

First off, I wanted to offer a movie recommendation for you. The Constant Gardener, starring Ralph Fiennes and Rachel Weisz in what should be Academy Award nominated roles (particularly Fiennes, who is superb), is a very compelling and worthwhile film: a taut political thriller and sweet romance all rolled into one. I'm not sure if it's Best Picture material, as early buzz would indicate, but it's certainly a good one to watch. As it is my belief that anything but the most cursory reviews reveal too much of most movies to interested viewers, and as I am feeling particularly lazy this morning, all I'll say is it revolves around a British diplomat and his activist wife who uncover an evil plot in Africa. 9/10.

Second, I am now the proud owner of the first novel in the Left Behind series. I know very little of the series other than its general premise: the apocalypse comes, and all the good people, that is the good people who also happen to be Christian, are sucked up into Heaven while the bad people are "left behind" to fend for themselves. It was given me by a friend of mine who in turn received it from her boyfriend's mother in an attempt to "save" her. (Needless to say, she didn't bother to read it and was anxious to get rid of it.) I admit, I am somewhat curious as to the specific content of the book from a serious perspective, but I am also left with the hilarious indelible image of the guy burning in torment screaming "Oh why did I choose to be gay?" in The Simpsons' wonderful parody "Left Below". I will try to approach it with an open mind and not as a work of pure comedy from a black-and-white mentality. That is, assuming I can ever get to it amid all the schoolwork and backlog of books I need to read.

And finally, I just wanted to send a shoutout to all the DJs at 94.5 The Buzz, particularly Rod, Theresa, and Travis, who have been working pretty much nonstop since Monday running a request-a-thon to raise money to aid victims of Katrina. Circa midnight yesterday, they were up to $504,000, which is just incredible. In addition, I have heard songs I never thought I'd hear them play, such as the Village People's Macho Man and Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue, both of which had me laughing so hard I could barely drive, but for different reasons. But seriously, the outpouring of support has been amazing, and I wanted to give notice to everything the city of Houston has been doing to aid relief efforts. And to all the victims of Hurricane Katrina, my deepest sympathies. We're gonna try like hell to get you all through this.

Song lyric of the day (from some New Orleans' natives):
"Any way you look, any way you talk it over
It's easier to let it slip out of your mind
But it rips your heart out..."
- Better Than Ezra, King of New Orleans