Thursday, July 26, 2012

Where Paint and Hope Collide

            The teal-colored paint was all over my shorts, shirt, work gloves and skin. I stood atop the metal ladder and finished off the side of a house, brushing from side to side. It was such a small thing – such a tiny drop in the bucket – but at least it was something.
            I’ve been wanting to get to New Orleans ever since August of 2005, when Hurricane Katrina ravaged the city and Gulf Coast region with the worst natural disaster in American history. At the time, though, I had an infant and a toddler at home, so it wasn’t easy to leave them for a service trip halfway across the country. This year, though, I was asked to chaperone six teens to New Orleans for the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America’s triennial national youth gathering. One of our five days in New Orleans would be dedicated to service. With my kids now older, it was a better time to leave them and my wife and get myself to the Big Easy. Last week, we made our trip.
            I was impressed with the degree to which New Orleans’ main tourist districts are still thriving. Led by its delicious food, vibrant music and festive atmosphere, the city has shown an astounding determination to survive. But when we took a bus trip to the Seventh Ward last week for our day of service, the atmosphere was different. In the area we visited, it seemed as if 60 percent of the houses were renovated, while the remaining 40 percent were abandoned or boarded up, with vegetation growing unchecked. I know that other sections of the city are in even worse condition than this. Many individuals have chosen not to return to New Orleans, and have started their lives over again in new cities and states. This is the biggest heartbreak of New Orleans, post-Katrina – that it still, at times, resembles a third-world country. In the United States of America.
            Some of the New Orleans residents who are rebuilding their homes have received help from the government and from non-profit organizations. Our work last week involved collaboration with Habitat for Humanity. As we arrived at the homes we’d be painting on North Villere Street, teens and adults from states across the country hopped out of two buses and started covering the outsides of two homes with colored paint – one of them teal, the other army green. The teens from my church painted the porch of the teal-colored home, while my fellow chaperone and I took on the side of the house. As we dipped and brushed, the homeowner of the green house arrived along with her brother. In true Habitat spirit, they grabbed paintbrushes and got to work as well.
            When we had finished painting the teal house, I helped put away the ladders, then walked over to the homeowner’s brother. I asked him what the experience of Hurricane Katrina had meant to him. He answered with an optimism that surprised me: “Katrina was meant to come to New Orleans because it taught us how to get away,” he said. “So many people here only knew New Orleans, but Katrina forced us to leave and learn about other places.”
            New Orleans, he said, will always be home. But the evacuation had helped him to make an informed decision on whether or not he wanted to live here, he said. I asked him if New Orleans will survive this. “Oh yeah,” he said, adding that the city’s residents wouldn’t give this town up because “we love to party too much.” When I asked him if America had forgotten New Orleans, he pointed to people like us who were venturing out of the tourist zones for the first time, in order to help.
            The bus was packing up, as we had finished painting the teal house, with the green one nearly done as well. I shared with the man how much I’d been wanting to get to New Orleans for the past seven years. Now that I was here, though, it felt like such a small thing. A few hours of help on one house, out of the many thousands still in need of love and labor.
            The young man turned to me and said what I knew to be true: “Every little bit helps.” From what I can see, America has not forgotten New Orleans. But there is still so much to be done there. It is one of our truly unfinished jobs. I am home again now, but I don’t think it will take seven years for me to get back again. I’ve got paint-stained clothes to remind me.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Our Devices, Ourselves, & Our Communities

I finally got around to reading Alone Together, Sherry Turkle’s influential study of technology in the modern day, and I can’t praise it enough. When you’re living through a seismic cultural change, it can be so difficult to step away and study the frenetic movement around you. But Turkle, a psychologist and MIT professor, has managed to use her academic training and pinpoint perspective to provide a deeply important view of the technological changes around us. I can’t think of many books more relevant to our world today than this one.

The book was published just last year, so its content is current. But most important, Turkle uses her psychological training to ask questions that will remain pertinent throughout the years to come. Are we, first and foremost, coming to expect more from our devices and less from the people around us? Are we really living a full life, or are we setting up moments so we can chronicle them on our Facebook wall? Is that Facebook wall an accurate portrayal of who we are, or is it a pose meant to showcase us in ways that make us look cool?

Are we interacting with one another in ways that bespeak community, or are we communicating in isolation, from a distance? Do we hesitate to call each other now, deferring to the text, e-mail or tweet in lieu of a real-life voice? Are we able to put the devices away, or have they changed us so much that we’re unable to leave them behind? An interview subject tells Turkle, “Technology is bad because people are not as strong as its pull” (242).

I picked up this book partly because of the changes I’ve seen in others, and partly because of the changes I’ve seen in myself. In the past decade, I know I’ve been influenced heavily by the devices around me – none moreso than the one I’m typing on right now. I don’t have a smartphone, so I’m not yet addicted to apps and don’t have constant access to the Internet. But when I turn on my laptop, it seems as if there is a magnetic pull to it, drawing me to respond to e-mails, check my “favorite” web sites, and research things I’ve been thinking about lately.

This technology is fascinating, of course, and I can spend all day listing ways in which the computer and Internet have helped me or others I know with information, education and communication. But as Turkle reminds us, we have lost a lot to these devices as well. She argues that we have every right to desire solitude, privacy, downtime, attention, and the ability to live in the moment. We can’t just cede these essential virtues to the technological revolution. “We deserve better,” the author writes. “When we remind ourselves that it is we who decide how to keep technology busy, we shall have better” (296).

My parents like their e-mail and their iPad, and they go to classes at the Apple store for help with using their devices. But overall, they are old school when it comes to communication. They like to call their friends on the phone, and they especially like to hang out with their friends in person. I’ve spent the past few days with them in their house on the Jersey Shore, and we’ve had a constant stream of visitors knocking on the door to stop in for a while. There are moments when I hear the knocking and think to myself, “Couldn’t they have texted to say they were coming over?” But then I realize that I’m missing the point. They step in, and moments of sharing and spontaneity take place.

These moments spread beyond the house itself, as evidenced when we found ourselves at the beach on July 4th, waiting for the annual fireworks display at sunset. My wife, daughters and I were there along with my parents. But so were our friends Laura and Mark, who have been close with my parents for nearly 20 years and were inspired to move to this Shore town because of their visits to my parents. This week, Laura’s brother and his family were vacationing here as well, so they joined us on the beach. And Laura’s friends from New York were in town, staying in a hotel my parents had suggested, so they also joined us. My older daughter, Katie, had brought along her face paint and was drawing fireworks and flags on kids’ faces. Another girl, whom we didn’t know, stopped over to our blanket for a face-painting as well.

I had the Wiffle ball in hand, and was tossing pitches to a 2-year-old boy named Gabriel, the son of Laura’s friends. He smacked some nice line drives back to me with the yellow Wiffle bat. His dad helped him with the batting grip, and Mark helped catch the balls Gabriel hit.

There was a lot of fellowship in that sand on a Wednesday night in July. Flashes sparkled as folks took pictures of the activity. Some of those photos might be on someone’s Facebook page by now. I understand that, and accept it. But an evening like this is typical for my parents – computers take a backseat to conversation and communion. It’s a real-life version of what Sherry Turkle is asking us to consider preserving. As I sit here at my laptop, with the cell phone and iPod beside me and the Internet a click of the mouse away, I have food for thought. I think I’ll post a blog – then go outside for a quiet walk.