Jewish World Review Sept. 20, 2005 / 16 Elul, 5765

Paul Greenberg

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Flotsam, or: Do you know what it means . . . | PORTLAND, Ore. — Do you know what it means to have had your fill of the news? Sure you do. You, too, have been deluged, and that's the right word for it, by all the stories out of New Orleans and the devastated Gulf Coast. The mind can take only so much news like that before it all becomes a dismal blur. Each of us takes refuge where we can.

Amy Schlesing, my newspaper's veteran war correspondent, went on patrol again with the Arkansas National Guard — this time not in Iraq but down in New Orleans, which has become a different kind of war zone.

Me, I took off in the opposite direction for an editorial writers' convention here in high-and-dry Portland, Ore., in the peaceful Willamette Valley. It hasn't been badly flooded since February of '96. (Suddenly I've developed this great interest in weather patterns. Can't imagine why.)

I'm also developing some fellow feeling for poor Jonah. When he was told to head for Nineveh to warn its inhabitants of their impending doom, he made a beeline in the opposite direction. Maybe he was just tired of delivering bad news.

Old Jonah booked passage for Tarshish; I, too, headed west, way west. But even here, I keep thinking of New Orleans. I keep seeing the faces of people I know there. Now they're scattered from Houston to Atlanta. Bodies float by on the evening news. Details at 10.

Do you know what it means to come face-to-face with the frailty of man? The displaced and distraught do. They fanned out from stricken, scattered no-longer communities, left to wonder where their next meal was coming from, not sure where they would lay down their heads that night.

Even those fortunate enough not to be wholly dependent on the kindness of strangers must be disoriented. To one degree or another, all are displaced persons now.

Do you know what it means to get a call from Natchez or Baton Rouge or Shreveport or some other city of refuge? On the other end of the line, you hear a woeful voice saying that all she wants to do is move somewhere far, far away, that nothing will ever be the same . . . .

Then you hear your own voice, full of hollow assurance, advising the caller not to make decisions in the first throes of panic. (Yeah, you think to yourself, it's much better to wait till the last throes of panic.) You know all about such conversations if you have people somewhere in those concentric circles emanating like flood waters from that spot on the Gulf Coast where Katrina made landfall.

Do you know what it means to watch your e-mail list fill up day after day with spam from every special interest and political junkie in the Internetted world? Sure you do if you're an editor, or just addicted to your PC, heaven help you.

And do you know the most amazing and depressing thing about all those commentaries? They all agree: Whatever Katrina hath wrought, whatever has been wiped out or saved, whatever good and evil mixed may have been thrown up by this catastrophe, it all proves . . . exactly what each commentator had been saying all along!

The only thing those 165-mile-an hour winds did not disturb is the spammers' sublime confidence in their own opinions. Yes, amazing and depressing.

Do you know what it means to drive home from work in Little Rock one weekday night and pass a brightly illuminated football field all shimmering and green under the lights, with the crowd in the stands and the cheerleaders out front and everything surreally normal?

For a moment, still caught up in the news of the day, you don't believe it. It must be a mirage. Nothing like that can still exist. Not after Katrina. Then you know it's time to take some time off.

Everything is very nice here in Portland, if a little over-planned, even antiseptic, maybe a tad soulless. Like a well-run sanatorium. The mental patient may be the least qualified to judge his own condition, but I feel I'm making a nice recovery after two weeks of hurricane news 24/7. Still, now and then, when least expected, I hear a familiar, raspy voice in the back of my mind, or maybe deep in my soul, singing:

Do you know what it means . . . to miss New Or-leens?

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JWR contributor Paul Greenberg, editorial page editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has won the Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. All the quotations in this column were culled from Tuesday's edition of the Democrat-Gazette. Send your comments by clicking here.

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