Monday, January 30, 2006

My son had a preschool evaluation recently, and suffice it to say, we weren't told anything about him that we didn't already know. What surprised my husband and I, however, was when we were told my son doesn't exhibit much curiosity in class. I was already a bit upset about the evaluation in the first place, constantly having to keep in mind that he was only three, after all. Hearing this coming out of a preschool teacher's mouth, however, was strange to say the least.

My first impulse was to tell the woman what my son did at breakfast each morning. I absolutely had to pull out a folding chair he could stand on at some point in the process of preparing the food so that he could stand on it, look over my shoulder, and ask me questions to his heart's content. A recent trip to the Museum of Natural History with me and his paternal grandparents climaxed in the planetarium's space show, which did not freak him out, as I had feared...on the contrary, he asked a spaceship load of questions in the show and afterwards. Just walking down any main shopping street elicits another barrage. Watching carefully how my son examines toys and other objects gives me the idea that this is a kid who likes to find things out in his own way. My husband just had to laugh about it after a certain point - the best reaction we got was when Dan told our friend Edie about it this past weekend, when he transported our new second car down to New Orleans. A teacher with a few decades of experience under her belt, and a grandma herself who knows our son from his many visits to her house, all Edie could say was an incredulous WHAT?!!???

I say all this not to slight his preschool. Matter of fact, I think his preschool is a good one, and they have basically pegged his personality. Sometimes it takes a few tries to find a decent fit between child and school. Talking to my mom recently brought up a case in point, namely me at three or four: one preschool told her to take me to an orthodontist because I seemed to have too much of an overbite, and she knew then it wasn't the place for me, bless her. I say this because it got me thinking about curiosity and the role it plays in our lives...the role it will continually be playing in life down south.

Curiosity is something we most definitely nurture in our offspring these days, something that was stomped on at an early age in earlier generations. Does "children should be seen and not heard" come to anyone's mind these days? It most certainly crops its head up with regards to where children are allowed in public - any parent who has taken their kids with them for a night of restaurant dining knows what I'm talking about. I have seen it most often with regards to kids and worship services, no matter what the religion. Some religious institutions welcome kids and make provisions for their participation in rituals and services. This is fast becoming a matter of life and death for some churches and synagogues - ignore and disdain the younger generations at your peril, o elders! But I digress...

What I worry about the most with regards to my son's curiosity is how much it will get him into trouble. Curiosity can take you to some pretty awful places in this life...and yes, sometimes the squelching of such a thing can be advantageous. Cases in point: gee, what will this dog poop taste like? Let me walk into that huge body of water and check out where the currents take me!
That bag says "Biohazard" on it...let's open it up and see what the fuss is about! There are houses in those mud flats - let's explore! Our government says to pay no attention to those men behind the curtain - oh, what do they know? Let's peel it back and see!

Did I really include those last two things in the above paragraph? Really?????

Here I am pooh-poohing curiosity, when I'm going to be going out onto those same mud flats armed with a digital camera to check out what life at the edge of the water line is like in the flooded areas of the Ninth Ward and Lakeview, just to name a few places. Here I am, kicking curiosity in the teeth, when all I want to know is how government institutions on city, state, and federal levels could have failed so spectacularly in keeping a great city and its people above water. What the hell am I doing?

I'm running up against one of the things I was most afraid of whenever I contemplated having children. It's a major paradox of the human condition squeezed into the phrase "Do as I say, not as I do." As parents, we send our little beings into the world expecting them to be able to preserve their lives, to support themselves, and to be curious about the world...for the right reasons. "Because I say so " won't cut it after a while - in my son's case, it stopped having any effect a loooong time ago. And he's only three.

After a large amount of thought (profound brain things inside my head, to quote a cartoon character in one of my son's favorite kid movies), I know that my initial impulse to do all the things I'm doing with this blog was simply to check the area out for myself. The curiosity is killing me a little, especially since my husband has been down there twice since Katrina hit and has seen a great deal for himself, and here I've been up in New York holding down the fort. His description of the city really got me. To paraphrase what he said, areas of the city are hopping like nothing ever happened, and right next to them are ghost towns that had formerly been vital neighborhoods.

However, I came across much more than just the "hey, what happened?" factor when I thought about what that city means to me, to Dan, to all those we know down there. We've done our best to try to impart that to everyone we know, whether they've been to New Orleans or not. The news media thrives so much on the news for news' sake - if they don't get the story, revenues decrease for the media reporters and for their system. I find myself thriving much more on getting some kind of truth across through the admittedly biased prism I have - I love this city and I hate what's happened to it.

It makes me even more determined to get my son's curiosity thriving, but to get some sort of value system behind it. Some sense of exploring forbidden places not out of just doing it, not out of peer pressure, not out of ticking Mom and Dad off, but out of having some kind of need to get to the bottom of things for a purpose that contains much more meaning than the Jeff Foxworthy-ish redneck way of saying "Hey- watch this!"

And that is hard. Because doing something just for the "watch me!" aspect of it can be fun. I find that it is also becoming a reason for reward in our society, be that reward in the form of fifteen minutes of fame, a supposedly greater position among one's peer group, or some sort of material windfall.

Curiosity can beat you down in this life even beyond just one's own physical preservation. Following your curiosity and then telling others about what you've found can really bring the hammer down. Look at whistle-blowers. Check out members of the scientific community who have disproven widely accepted theories as to how the universe works (like, say, Galileo). It's so much easier to keep it to yourself.

My little guy is a talker. A three-year-old born schmoozer. I think he quit being curious in his class because he hasn't found much in there to be curious about. A certain familiarity with his schoolroom and its routine may well have knocked that out of him, which is a big mistake on his part as well as the teachers'. In moving back down to New Orleans, Dan and I are banking on a slight chance that some of its familiarity will be there, sure...but it will also be wonderful if it began to develop in ways that some may never have thought possible. All of us need to find that balance with our curiosity - truth or trouble? Life or death? Familiarity or diversity? Security or adventure?

Folks, it ain't a John Grisham novel, but it is life....

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

I spent some time this morning, out with my dog, looking at the trees in the backyard of our little rented spot here in Queens. I am trying to overcome the immense amount of inertia I have right now when it comes to actually sorting through clothes and toys and beginning to pack. I am also thinking about what the city of New Orleans will look like when we return...I though about this when I was looking out at the trees.

Our good friend Justin is a tree man. Justin is a ribald, raucous fella about my dad's age with a degree in forestry and a good sized homestead in Algiers, across the river from the Central Business District and the French Quarter in New Orleans. The very first time I made his acquaintance, he came to the choir practice at my synagogue with a huge jar containing a chunk of wood crawling with Formosan termites, the little guys that had holed up in so many homes and in a large number of the old oaks that covered the city. He was testing out a fungus that would make Centrocon bait systems and sprays obsolete, inserting it in clients' trees and carefully documenting the effects. Whenever big storms came, he would always talk about more trees being ripped or tipped due to the weaknesses exploited by colonies of Formosans making them into sawdust on the inside rather than from the strengths of a storm. And then he would be one of the people called in by clients and the like to help clear out those trees.

Katrina was no different for him, except all his equipment was stolen. Initially, he was working clearing trees on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain just to get equipment. Then he helped out FEMA, the city, and his clients.

I just can't help thinking about the trees, though, and about what a different city New Orleans will be without its trees. Summers will burn much hotter. The shade of the trees will be sorely missed. And the character of those trees was way different from the scraggly fellows I see when I look out into the backyard here at the overgrown Long Island Railroad hump that once carried commuter trains. They were large and gnarled, stretching themselves up and out as far as they could possibly go. Even the Mardi Gras floats had to respect those trees, though the krewe members knew how to festoon them with beads as they passed by.

These days I find myself thinking as well about the trials and tribulations of trying to root ourselves in a community that has seen so much pain and has lost a great deal. A few people here have engaged in some Monday morning FEMA directing, to twist a sports metaphor. It's one of the perils of telling people you are moving to a scene of devastation. It's also an indication of one of two things: these are people who actually care, or they are people who just like to hear themselves talk. We are fortunate to have mostly the former bringing us their small tidbits of New Orleaniana they gleaned from the news or the Net, but sometimes it is a bit trying.

Ray Nagin's recent comments come to mind. There is a man who should have kept his mouth shut. Focus on the recovery of a region, man, and don't try to make the news all the time, was my first thought. In many ways, Katrina gave him a great mandate in terms of eliminating the corruption that has plagued New Orleans institutions for so long. Now is not the time to be playing any sort of a finger-pointing card, and especially not on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Something that was much more in the spirit of that day here in New York was the march for the betterment of the situation the home health care workers are in. A similar march could well have been made on Gallier Hall for the addition of industries other than tourism to help keep a great city alive, well, and inclusive. Then we could all decamp to the devastated areas and have a toast.

Maybe even plant some trees.

Monday, January 16, 2006

"You'd better look all of this up before you move down there!" my dad said over the phone.

I stayed silent after my noncommital "uh-huh", knowing he was right. I can't take much of this moving stuff for granted anymore. I can't just assume that doctors, pediatricians, hospital facilities, shopping, even the excellent restaurants we once knew so well are still alive and well and operating like they once did. My husband Dan reassures me there are still such things going on just as they once did, only with limited hours.

The kicker is, I have to look it up quick. We're moving back to New Orleans next month.

I dropped that bomb to our friends and fellow members on our synagogue listserve a couple of weeks ago, and they understood our reasons, yet they didn't understand. It's expensive living in the New York area. Dan's job situation only pushed us to find a new place to live and a new job for him, a position he'd found in Baton Rouge last spring that we weren't ready to jump on at the time. Socially the life and friends we left behind four years ago are in New Orleans, as is the house we've been renting out all that time.

The part that people didn't understand, unless they'd gotten to know us really well, was why we're going back now, after all that's happened.

Well, it was going to happen eventually. We both loved New Orleans and hated to leave it when we had to. We kept in touch with our friends down there and visited frequently. Our three year old son knows our friend Edie's house and pets from frequent visits, and assumed for a long time that the cell phone was around expressly for calling Edie. It's in our blood. In Dan's case, it's probably astrological destiny - a Scorpio put in touch with a Scorpio city. Such a combination!

What our friends up here only got from us in bits and pieces was the effects of what happened down south...and it's still tough to convey all of what we went through. For a long time, we were the information lifelines for our friends who were scattered all over for over a month. It meant so much to Edie that we found a number for the Orleans parish school system employees to call to keep them informed about the financial end of their newly dissolved jobs. Finding a phone number for our friend Justin so that he could call a friend in the Dakotas and let him know he was all right was a major lift for his spirits. Informing my former boss about developments looter-wise in the neighborhood of her business at least kept her informed and relieved in the end when things were not as bad as we'd thought.

We both reached some boiling points, Dan and I. He was completely speechless and couldn't work at all on the Tuesday when the levees breached. Out of curiosity, I looked up the Audubon Zoo's provisions for a disaster such as this (I had been watching a nature program about komodo dragons and thought immediately about the zoo's komodo exhibit, one of my favorites) and suddenly realized, after seeing that only five animals died and that the provisions were better for the animals than for the people of the city of New Orleans, that I couldn't take in any more disaster information and dissemination. We both felt guilty and impotent in a way we couldn't fully describe. It was all I could do to get up in the morning and take my son to preschool.

So this move was eventual for us. What remains to be seen is what they day-to-day living will be like down there - hence this blog. Granted this wasn't the reasson why I signed on to this site in the first place, but I need to vent somehow...

My other reasons for this blog are C-Span and Nick Spitzer.

Flipping through channels on the tube one night, Dan and I stopped at an Army Corps of Engineers tour of the Ninth Ward that was being given to a bunch of congressional muckety mucks, who were themselves wandering about in major amounts of muck left behind by the flood waters. Innumerable numbers of flooded houses could be seen from the tour bus. What got me steamed, however, was what one AC of E fellow said to the members of the tour at the entrance to the "temporary" building of the Jackson Barracks, the Louisiana National Guard's station in the Ninth Ward. It was something to the effect that health-wise, it wouldn't be good to go in to the building because of all the mold, so some people could take a pass if they wanted to. I found myself yelling at the TV. These people had to go in there. They had to see what had happened to this place, damn it, because congressional reps had to get some idea of what was happening, damage-wise, to places other than the Jackson Barracks. The cameraman did go in, as did all of the congressional members on the tour, bless them. What they saw was mold that had made its way over all the walls and loads of flood damaged furniture. Just a teeny, necessary glimpse into what recovery's beginnings would be like for eighty percent of the city.

Why Nick Spitzer? Every so often, I would tune into "American Routes" on our local public radio station that carried it and listen in on some little vignettes of New Orleans life way before the storms and the floods. A show that carried a small interview of a Verti-Mart delivery guy one night got me missing the city so bad, it wasn't funny. After the floods, Nick was exiled to Lafayette, Louisiana, where the public radio folks there have generously allowed him to use their broadcasting facilities, and thank goodness they have. This is a man who is really doing a service I would liken to that of the WPA folks in the thirties who were going around and interviewing people about their lives and cultures, interviews which culminated in books such as Gumbo Ya-Ya and the like. Or maybe this guy is just Alan Lomax with a broader mind. I found that when things seemed to be darkest for the people that we knew, when I felt so down about the situation, I would listen to "American Routes" and feel a little less alone. It felt good hearing D.L. Menard's explanation as to why hurricanes are better than earthquakes (one that echoes my husband's explanation - Dan ought to know, having grown up on the left coast). I listened to a great story about a rescue of a bunch of sunburned Palestinian Chalmatians (people from Chalmette, for those not in the know) who decided to walk the levee on down into the city and became trapped by the water, only to be rescued by the storyteller.

What do such things have in common? The news media has moved on to the latest and greatest story since all the goings-on in August-September, which is typical. There have been some occasional revisitations of the story since then, but the recovery of such a great city and of a region that deserves way more respect is becoming a grind and a long haul...not necessarily newsworthy. A glacier melting seems to be more fun for folks to contemplate sometimes.

Nick Spitzer and congressional tours have a way of giving us a much needed jolt, however. I have never been more excited and more scared as I am now that this move is underway for my family. All I know is that it helps to talk about it, to tell these stories that have begun to pile up in my brain and my being...and to go and see it all for myself, as much as I can with a family in tow.

I'll be keeping you all posted...