Friday, January 07, 2005

The Half-Mast Nation

Every morning when I drive past the State Highway Department, I look at the flags out front to check the wind direction. It's a habit formed in the days of running in the winter, when unwittingly starting out downwind could result in a frigid, and even dangerous, return trip. Lately, it seems the flags have spent a lot of time at half mast.

Last month, we mourned a beloved governor. This week, it's the tsunami victims. Next time, who knows? Except that there will be a next time.

We are a pious nation, and as it seems to be turning out, a generous one. We do indeed give disproportionately in the wake of disasters, and unlike other nations (North Korea, where grass is one of the four major food groups, has "pledged" $150 million to tsunami relief) actually deliver on our promises. But we are also capable of simultaneously entertaining great contradictions.

We drive distances we should walk, with ribbon magnets on our SUVs. We feel the pain of business owners, but not of the homeless. We want to solve a supposed social security crisis looming 40 years hence, but ignore today's deficits. We are passionate about protecting every fetus, but not every child.

When you are in this frame of mind, you should not spend the evening in an NBA arena.

We had paid to watch the 15 richest men in the building play a game. The high-decibel music—the identical dozen hip hop hooks that are pounding each night in NBA venues from 6pm Eastern to 10pm Pacific—momentarily gave way to the PA announcer's request that we honor a local solider, a native of Romania who died in Iraq, and we did, clutching beers and jalapeno-stuff pretzels during the national anthem, watching the big screen instead of the flag during the singing because, honestly, who could find the flag in midst of all that sensory overload? Next, the dance team, young women specially bred to practice air-humping, distributed three-foot-long foam french fries to those sitting behind the opponents' basket, thanks to McDonald's and our boys overseas defending our god-given right to make stupid things out of petroleum products.

The Minnesota logo beat the Philadelphia logo, and on the way out, we saw a $20 bill stuck between the seats of two beer drinkers who left early to beat the traffic. It's still crumpled in my pocket. I don't think I can spend it.

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