Today was my third time working as an election judge for the city of Minneapolis. Since this was a primary election (my past two stints were for general elections), it was a very different experience. There are around 2400 voters registered in the precinct where I work as a judge. By 2pm, halfway through the voting period, exactly 100 people had voted. I'm told that 10% is a really good turn-out for a primary in an "off" election year (i.e. one in which there are no state-wide or federal offices on the ballot), but it sure seemed pathetic.
I got to wondering whether there were any primary elections scheduled for today in New Orleans or other hurricane-devastated areas. How do you hold an election when there are no polling places and no voters, and no prospect for either being in place for a couple of months?
Speaking of New Orleans, listen to some of the stories in the broadcast "After the Flood" from the radio program This American Life. According to several of the people who tell the stories of how they survived the ordeal, they were actually prevented from leaving the city when they tried to walk out. While the various media talking heads fulminated about the stupid people who weren't evacuating the city, armed police and military personnel aimed guns at them, even shot at people, and told them to turn back when they tried to walk across the bridge to the dry west bank of the Mississippi river. And that's only one of the horrors described. I could hardly bear to listen to it.
My earlier entry on the situation in New Orleans seems rather crass now that the full scale of the tragedy is apparent. Looking back at what I wrote, it sounds like I care more about palm trees than people.
As the scale of the destruction and human misery have emerged over the past week or so, my thoughts have evolved significantly. I am still trying to assimilate the whole thing, and as surreal as it is to me, it is obviously magnitudes more so for those who were displaced by this disaster. You hear of hurricanes decimating small towns, but this is one of the major metropolitan areas of the United States. To put it in librarian-centric terms: New Orleans is one of only 5 or 6 cities in the country that can accommodate an event the size of the annual conference of the American Library Association.
Now that city is gone, maybe forever. And recoving from the ravages of the hurricane and subsequent flooding is not the only challenge the city will face. During my trip there last month, I learned the French Quarter is under serious threat from a particularly aggressive breed of termites, which is methodically destroying the historic buildings in that district. This CNN article suggests there is some hope for victory over these insects, but according to a colleague who took tour of the French Quarter guided by a member of the local park service, the situation is dire enough to have had drastic effects on property values. Apparently, effective treatment of the problem is prohibitively expensive. Let's just hope the little suckers all drowned.
One of the reasons I took this job was for the tuition benefit. The idea of taking classes here at the U of M for free is really attractive. What I didn't realize was how hard it would be to fit a class -- and the necessary time for homework/preparation -- into a life already filled with a full-time job, Scottish country dancing, singing with a local a capella ensemble, and a fondness for travel, not to mention such mundane tasks as laundry, cooking, cleaning, exercising, and basic hygiene.
Thus, it is only after three years of employment that I finally decided I could no longer let this opportunity pass me by. I made the hard choice to take a break from the singing group and most of my dancing for a semester, and to cut back on the travel for the next several months.
Having decided to make time for a class, the next decision was what class to take. There are so many intriguing possibilities! The University of Minnesota is huge and offers a seemingly endless array of choices. Should I continue my undergraduate studies in religion? What about taking some classes in history, an area which I have (rather surprisingly for an archivist) relatively little formal education? Since I find myself increasingly interested in and involved in information technology, why not take computer programming? Or how about something totally impractical, like "The Historical Origins and Development of Rock Music to 1970"? In the end I fell back on my old vice, language bagging.
I have a lust for languages, and when it comes to languages, I'm a bit of a Don Juan. I don't seem to be able to settle down into a long-term relationship. So far, I've flirted with Danish, and German. I've had flings with Spanish and Hebrew. I had engagements with French and Russian but never made it to the altar of fluency with either one. I love the early stages of learning a new language -- mastering the pronunciation, puzzling out the grammatical structure, acquiring basic vocabulary -- but after that I tend to lose patience. I considered signing up for a French or Russian class. I truly do want to improve my skills in those languages (or at least remember all the stuff I've forgotten since college). But in the end, I couldn't resist the temptation to try something completely different.
I had my first two classes in Chinese this week. I'm going into this new relationship with my eyes open. I love the idea of mastering a language that is so alien to most Americans and, at the same time, incredibly useful since it is actually the most widely spoken language in the world (according to Infoplease, there are almost twice as many speakers of Mandarin Chinese as the next most popular language, English). But for right now I'll just take it one day at a time and hope for the best. Maybe I've finally found "the one." Stay tuned . . .