Saturday, May 27, 2006

With the help of my friend Edie, I may well have fallen into a summer job, and a way for my son to attend summer camp for a large chunk of the summer. I go in for an interview at the camp on Monday, so we shall see.

Finding a place for the kids to go in the summertime is a common problem for parents this time of year. A conversation with an older friend of mine recently highlighted one of the things that distinguishes one generation from another. At one time, it was not unusual for kids of almost all ages to just go out the door and play, only to return for lunch, dinner, and bedtime. Those certainly were the days. If we could do that now, it would certainly save parents a whole lot of money.

Check out the average summer fun for a kid now: main ingredient is SUPERVISION. We can't trust the kids themselves to do it, we have to take it into our own hands. Heck, forget the kids, we can't trust the rest of the world to respect child's play and leave the kids alone. These days, what the heck can we trust? Say it again: SUPERVISION, done by us, or, barring that, done in a controlled environment by other known and trusted parents or by hired, trusted guardians. Saves us all moolah in the end from potential injuries to children's limbs and to others' property.
Nobody likes a's all fun and games until somebody loses their financial well-being.

All the more important because it seems that things in our neighborhood are going up in smoke lately....or that people we know are sustaining injuries from bullets. I have to insert a caveat here - this ain't Dodge City, nor is it Tombstone. It's just block of three houses on a nearby street succumbed to flames in the weeks just after Katrina. Shortly before we moved down here, a landmark theater being used as a sound stage burned down, leaving a pile of debris that has only recently been cleared away, leaving a substantial art deco style chunk of the bulding behind on which people have left stuffed animals and makeshift memorials. A couple of weeks ago, a couple of houses two blocks away burned down, and we got there just in time to see the fire department dousing the flames on them and on a palm tree across the street. (Major excitement for my son and all neighborhood folks assembled) Shortly after that, a large building at the river wharf, all the way down the street from us, also went up in flames.

As for the bullets: a policeman friend of Edie's daughter ended up in the hospital after what had been a routine traffic stop in Algiers, a sister-in-law of a synagogue volunteer choir was shot in a park in Jefferson parish, and a friend of our neighbors' was shot in the city recently. Call it six degrees of devastation.

To top it all off, there are missing person bulletins on our street trumpeting the last-seen location of a visiting volunteer worker as being a corner only a block from our house. Is this my home, or am I on a Candid Camera-ish version of Survivor-New Orleans ? All of it adds up to downright creepy in my book. Almost too creepy to live here comfortably...but, countering these feelings of creepiness are the ones that are determined to keep us prepared.

Hurricane preparedness guides and maps are popping up all over the local papers and the supermarkets, among other locations. The Times-Picayune ones come with a detailed map of where repairs are being done to the levee systems and the floodgates, and how close to complete they are. Of course, the locations that most folks around here have not expected to be ready won't be, so the major preparedness rules are those that admonish us all to have enough food, water, batteries, and working radios and flashlights to last us a few days. BUT, even if we have all that stuff, we'll still have to evacuate in the event that a category 2 storm has us in its sights. Last year, the mandatory evac moved about a million people out of the area in 38 hours. (Okay, I'm now hearing some readers out there jumping up and down and yelling, "Let's break that record this year, people!" Truly some records are not made to be broken, and should never be.)

But if, God forbid, any of us ends up missing the boat on evacuating, or if my son and I are out in California and Dan is left behind, then it will be important to have all the survival supplies. I've been getting together the water and some canned goods, with a new book titled The Storm Gourmet at my side. Written by a lady who encountered four hurricanes one year in her many years in West Palm Beach, she has detailed instructions on what to buy for a good storm pantry, some good recipes for many-course meals without electricity or refrigeration, and tips on getting together a good herb garden for use in preparing said meals. I debated on whether or not to get this book or another entitled Apocalypse Chow, but I opted for the one I'm using because it could prove much more useful due to the consideration of the possibility that there might be no electricity in the event of a storm.

It's certainly a wonder that anyone is even thinking of holding such a thing as a kids' summer camp in these parts, what with all the folks we have predicting an active hurricane season with at least four high-category storms. In another time, these folks would be called Cassandras. A Walt Handlesman cartoon comes to mind, one that depicted how New Orleanians handle a hailstorm: a man is holding his drinking glass out the window to catch the falling hailstones and yelling to someone inside the house to "Get the bourbon!" That would have been our reaction before last season, certainly.

Not anymore.

The unbelievable is now entirely possible.

Even so, life must go on. And so should summer camp.

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Woke up this morning after a nasty night - an early-to-bedtime due to a nasty headache. Still reeling from my dreams, I stumbled out of bed to hear my son calling for me. He was ticked that we had to get him ready for preschool instead of ready for playing with his brand new ball, but hey, such is life. Got him in the car and off to school, and as I was tooling back to my house to walk the dog, I began to think about my dreams.

Why is it that people phrase their life aspirations in terms of dreams? As in, "My dream has always been..."? Because in all truthfulness, my dream world ain't like that. Daydreams, yes. Any daydream is a self-directed window into what could be. But no one says, "Hey I always daydreamed of this moment!" I think that once the lights go out and you drift off into needed sleep, you can kiss the aspiration part of your dreamworld goodbye, because the subconscious is in control. I've heard of people supposedly being able to redirect the subconscious mind and therefore, have some control over their dreams, but I think my mind running riot at night comes up with such outlandish stuff that seems to make sense in its twisted context that "redirecting" falls by the wayside. Cases in point from recent (remembered) dreams or parts of dreams:

Goosing some guy at the dog park by getting on him for his many girlfriends.
(In real life, I initially remembered this guy's dogs, because four years before, his then-girlfriend would take them out regularly. No idea where she's at these days...)

There's a big party going on at my house - all through the house, even in the other three apartments. I am the hostess, and I am charged with keeping all my guests happy. Things seem to be going very well - even the makeshift swimming pool in the backyard, which seems to have been transplanted from a friend's backyard, is a big hit. The problem is, the house has somehow gotten bigger. The staircase at the back of the house has definitely increased in size. And something is missing. It takes my regaining consciousness to realize what it is.
(i.e., waking up. My husband and son were missing from the whole dream)

And the one I woke up from this morning was the craziest I'd had in ages. Rock critic and author Chuck Klosterman was interviewing me for some publication, and in the process we got involved in getting me some cotton floss for my cross-stitch, I ended up in a corridor not unlike the ones I've encountered in college buildings, we ended up chasing and successfully nabbing a killer, with the help of some CSI people, and after I was a bystander to the killing of the killer, my last thought before waking from it all was that I was so glad my son was not here to see all this.

And then I woke up.

And it was at that moment in the car, after my son was safely in preschool, that I thought about what my son, in the real world, was here to see. About what my subconscious was incorporating into my dreamworld. Consider some of my recent reading material:

Mark Kurlansky interviewing Isaac Bashevis Singer:
MK: Do you think that the Holocaust was an anomaly of history?
Singer: No. It's a part of human history. The whole of human history is a holocaust.
MK: If that is true and there is a God, what is God doing?
Singer: (shouts with real anger in his voice) He did it! HE did it! I didn't do it! He created a world in which animals and man and God knows what else fight like hell all of the time. Fight! They fight for sex. They fight for territory. They fight for all kinds of cultures. They fight about religion.
MK:...all of the questions you have been asking all of your life, none of them have been answered?
Singer: No. No question can be. Of course if I ask what time it is and someone gives me the time, a question has been answered, but when it comes to the so-called eternal questions, none of them were answered.
MK: So you keep asking them?
Singer: I was always compelled to. We always say what did God do. And God is as silent as ever. We have to make peace with it or else.

From a recent article on Ivor van Heerden, author of The Storm:What Went Wrong and Why During Hurricane Katrina - The Inside Story From One Louisiana Scientist :

On the lessons of Katrina: "Ignore the science at your peril...This could happen to you, no matter where you live...This shouldn't be happening. We're a First World country. We have great science."

On the coming hurricane season: "The levee systems right now won't contain a Category 2 system...If we had Katrina again, we wouldn't flood to the same extent. but as the ASCE (American Society of Civil Engineers) pointed out, every single I-wall is suspect...I've already had some state officials on my back for saying that, and I can understand that they want everybody to come back...but I really dread this season, and that's part of the reason I'm disappearing (on vacation) for two and a half weeks."

All of it's enough to make one regret bringing a child into this world. Almost.

It's why I constantly have to keep with the routines. Walk the dog. Pick up my son from school. Feed us lunch. Take us to an afternoon playgroup. Clean up after our cats. Think up activities for when school ends next week, and summer months begin. Go to our local synagogue services regularly. And try to keep with the uplifting messages.

I guess it's also why I have been reading mostly nonfiction for a few years now. How does one effectively face adversity? What's it like, balancing oneself between wanting to be like everyone else and yet still being singled out as the Other? There's been a lot of the singling out in these parts in the past few decades, centuries, or so, despite the law of the land...and it's something that Mark Kurlansky writes about so poignantly in his book about the resurrection of European Jewry after the Holocaust, A Chosen Few. In reality, though, it doesn't have to be about being singled out as a Jew - it can be about being put in a state of Other because you are judged to be "gifted", or you're a woman, your sexual persuasion is different from what others think it should be, or the color of your skin is different, as is your religion or your country of origin.

And I brought my son into all this! Irony of ironies coming, so brace yourself: the best upbringing for my son involves an education in the equality of all people, tolerance for everyone's differences, and the right combination of street smarts and formal schooling to eventually enable him to make some choices on his own. BUT ultimately, he was never able to make the ultimate choice, which was whether or not to enter this world at all. We parents made it for him, and we will keep having a major hand in doing so in one form or another until he is out of high school and/or college.

We have also made the decision to bring him here, in this ruined city, which has the potential to be wiped off the map, because of our aspirations, because we feel at home here, and we want to teach him to at least appreciate the place...even though all he's known before this is the New York metropolitan area. Heck, he still points out New York in things like ads for a programming of Spider-Man on a cable network. Who knows how his aspirations will develop, and whether they'll include this longing for the northeast he seems to be clinging to right now.

Leaving this place on a regular basis come hurricane season will be woven into his life now, the way it will become woven into ours. My husband told me he would be getting us a hotel room in Baton Rouge in the event of an evacuation from a major storm projected to come our way. For another year, a New Orleans diaspora will become a reality. More acts of idiocy and more heroics will be revealed. More self-appointed authorities will proclaim the numerous reasons why New Orleans should still exist...and they'd still be right.

A Chosen Few speaks of maintaining the life-affirming tenets of Judaism in the face of something as horrible as the Holocaust and the presence and maintenance of the locations of former death camps. Though Ivor van Heerden still reels from the horrors of the aftermath of Katrina and the inequality apparent in the suffering of so many at the Superdome and throughout the city that eerily echoed apartheid in his South African birthplace, he maintains his hope that he and others like him will keep working together to make things better, because "you might as well die, because then the adventure's over."

So I guess I must keep plugging away at the aspirations for myself and my son..for all my family and friends here. Keep with the routines. Mix it up a little with the spirit of celebrating life that permeates this town in so many ways.

Sure beats my crazy dreams...

Friday, May 19, 2006

"Do you, do you, do you know life's a bitch?"
I said, "Yeah, but I love that girl."
-Nora Wixted

Big headline in the Times-Picayune today about over 1, 500 evacuees having died as of today. Chaperone Mom told it like it was. More people should be listening all over this country and keeping an eye on these folks in their midst...because there but for the grace of God...

Know who else ought to be paying some attention? Our illustrious local candidates, running for all positions in local government. Especially the mayoral candidates. I'm registered to vote in the runoff tomorrow, and I'm not entirely sure which candidate is the lesser evil. I even hate to put it that way, but in the end, that seems to be Louisiana politics as usual. Not so long ago, it was Edwin Edwards versus David Duke for governor in this state. That election was the Crook versus the Racist. Some car bumpers around and about still sport a "Vote for the Crook: It's Important" sticker dating from those days.

What does the New Orleans mayoral election come down to? Incumbent vs. Local Political Legacy By Association, In Part. Progress vs Progress in Another Direction, Supposedly. Clean Up or Shut Up vs Clean Up and Shut Up. Baldness versus Hair Plugs.

It ain't about race too much, much as political pundits may want everyone to believe. Polls show Mitch Landrieu getting just as much support from blacks, if not more, than Ray Nagin. It all pivots on putting this city back together, and on a decision that can only be made in the voting booth : Who can do it better? Based on the past nine months, I'm still not sure.

Hearing Nagin kvetch about it, one would think historian and local resident Douglas Brinkley has the outcome of the election in the palm of his hand...or between the covers of his brand new book, The Great Deluge, about the week just after Katrina. Brinkley claims his publisher was the one responsible for the timing of the release. Who knows? The reason why Nagin is in a snit, though, is that Brinkley writes about the failures of all levels of government to respond as quickly and effectively as they could have...and our mayor is not excepted from this assessment. Brinkley is writing about what everyone already knows, which is no surprise. What will boost the sales of this book, however, will be protestations such as Nagin's.

Granted, I have a copy of the book, but have not read it yet. I joked with Edie today, as we were walking our dogs around Audubon Park, that it was on my summer reading list along with Michael Eric Dyson's Come Hell Or High Water, a book about Hurricane Camille called Category 5 , and some other choice New Orleans and Gulf Coast related literature. About the only spin Brinkley seems to have put on the governmental failure stories, however, is the juxtaposition of stories of heroism and courage by ordinary folks in the face of all this with the politicos and appointees as life-endangering yutzes. Not all politicos are yutzes, though, and not all the ordinary folks were out to be saviors and heroes. Time will tell as to whether or not the book will continue to stand out as an essential treatise on these times in which we now live.

Recently, though, a cutesy 60-second interview with both mayoral candidates appeared in the Times-Pic, and one question, or should I say the candidates' answers to that question, proved to be revealing. When asked what essential item each candidate would grab first in the event of an evacuation, if it had to be just one thing, Landrieu said, "My kids." Nagin said, "I don't IPod..." Does it all come down to that one thing? Maybe it does...

Tomorrow is also important, on a personal level, because five years ago, we got married here in New Orleans. A lot happens in five years. Five years ago, maybe I would have taken something as pithy as an IPod with me in the event of an evacuation. I wouldn't have believed that something as catastrophic as a near-direct hit by a hurricane and levee breaches would have kept me from coming back. Nowadays, it would most definitely be my immediate family packed into the car, pets included. I married the perfect fellow for me, and there ain't no way I'd leave him behind. Happy 5th, Dan! I love you, honey.

Of course, the next important date on the calendar also has personal and local significance: my brother's high school graduation up north, and hurricane season's beginnings down here. The way people down here are anticipating June 1st, you'd think you could set your clocks and watches to the coming of the apocalypse. After all, people have gotten a big taste of what could happen already, and understandably, they are scared and are working to be prepared. I prefer to think and hope that the future will be a little brighter, for my brother's sake...but hey, it doesn't mean I won't get enough food, bottled water and supplies for a few days amid deep water. Hope, but don't hope all the way into dumb.

That's about the best lesson my brother can take into the wide world, I guess.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Mother's Day has come and gone, and for me, it was very, very nice. My family let me sleep in, we went out to Antoine's for brunch in the Rex room, amidst a spangly queen of Rex gown and innumerable pictures of upper crust, self-styled royalty from 1876 on, and concluded the day with gin and tonics at our friend Justin's house. Life is so hard down here sometimes.

This year's Mother's Day brought some things to mind, however. First thing, an old Quarter street gag, designed to get your money from as easily and as deftly as possible:

Bet you twenty I can tell you how many kids your father had!

If you take 'em up on the bet, you find real soon you're out of your twenty:

Your father didn't have any kids, it was your mama that had the kids!

Haven't seen any of those tricksters on Bourbon lately. My first trip to New Orleans featured them prominently when they stiffed an ex-boyfriend by telling him where he got his shoes. Put him off Bourbon Street for life. Another one bites the dust...

Second thing, a tale of two mamas, recounted through direct contact and conversation at the zoo recently. The zoo is a great place to take kids on a regular basis here, once one becomes a member. It pays for itself many times over, what with a ride on the zoo train, kids' attractions such as the petting zoo, the carousel, a safari simulation ride, and a small playground. My son was crawling all over the playground when I encountered one mom who wanted to read my FEMA T-shirt. Turned out she was chaperoning with her daughter's school group, and she complained a little about the teachers in charge of the group, that they could have walked up to her and told her about where to meet in the zoo rather than calling her on her cell phone. We talked about a number of things as we were sitting on a nearby bench, watching our kids play.

As with most things around here, the talk turned to flooding, to rebuilding, to some of the new hurts people have to endure. Somewhere in the middle of it all, a woman nearby overheard us and chimed in some, too. Chaperone Mom was in the midst of renovations on her house, and was ticked that she didn't have windows yet, and here was hurricane season coming around the corner. The Home Depot was supposed to have come and measured for them around January, and it still hadn't happened yet. I talked of how much I had wanted to help friends we had down here when all hell was breaking loose, and she talked of those she knew, close family members who still needed help after all this time. People who had had to evacuate and couldn't return. People who had died from grief, old and young, at the loss of property and of loved ones. The places they had left had been their homes for generations. C-Mom herself was not in the best of states, having gained at least thirty pounds over the past months since the storm. If she could leave, she would, but home was here, and she was going to make the best of it.

Overhearing Mom talked of having had to evacuate when she was about to move into a new house. Her husband had had tenure at Tulane, until they eliminated his department as part of the university's restructuring. Now they will be moving on to a college in a nearby state, having never moved into or lived in their house here. O-Mom's kids were still pretty young, and would probably be able to take that move okay, but C-Mom's daughter was in grade school and had already endured a lot. Each mom was having to be strong for her kids in different ways. C-Mom wished me good luck with life down here. I was going to need it, she said. She will need it too, as will O-Mom.

Luck brings me to the third thing, sheer dumb luck.

Most of my friends know that my mother and the Big One of 2005 share the same name. When I first saw trackings of Katrina as it was entering the Gulf and picking up steam, I e-mailed my mom and told her there were much easier ways to visit New Orleans. And then it turned into the mess that we are still reeling from.

In the weeks after August 29, my mother went into a department store and pulled out her credit card for a purchase. The clerk took one look at the name on her card and let out an uncomfortable, "Ohhhhh," at the sight of her first name on the card. Sheer dumb luck.

My mom deserves to have many things named for her, but a storm that will go down in history as the cause of one of the biggest natural disasters to hit these shores should not have been one of them. I see the T-shirts and bumper stickers, and even an art show, calling the storm one nasty five letter word, and sometimes it takes major self-control for me not to blurt out, "Leave my mother OUT of this!" Sure Mom sometimes behaves like a force of nature, but she's only human, and her behavior doesn't affect as many people.

Mom was one of the first people in my family to support our moving back to New Orleans. She knew how much Dan and I love the city, and she sees it as another great adventure we are embarking upon, helping to rebuild this place and keep it on the map. If she didn't feel such an obligation to her family, Max the dog, and to her job, she'd probably find a way to get on down here herself. And I'd do my best to live it up with her, because she deserves it, after all these years.

Mom should have gotten her Ph. D. She shouldn't have had me at such an early age. Shoulda, woulda, coulda...hindsight is twenty/twenty. Facts are, she had me when she was still in college, got her BS with child care help from my grandparents, moved us down to Houston for better job opportunities, met and married the man who adopted me and helped raise me, and toiled away as a research technician while dealing with me, the kid with behavior problems from hell. And then, when I was sixteen, she had to move to a teeny Pennsylvania town when my dad got a better job opportunity and took it. That move was hardest on my mom, in the end. She had to make her life over, especially since she was my baby brother's caretaker for the first year or so in town and really was unable to get to know many people at the time. It took time, but she stood up to the challenge.

I love her for that. I love her for her struggles, and for letting us know that it was okay to let off some steam in the process, so long as you forged ahead as best you could. I frequently made the mistake of thinking that all the anger she let off was directed at me, and I'm still afraid of it sometimes - it can be a frightening thing to behold, and you really don't want to get sucked into its vortex. Once the storm passes, however, she's there, like a rock of Gibraltar. She's one of the best nurses on the planet when you're sick. She will move heaven and earth to make life better for her children and her family. She doesn't hesitate to call us on our craziness on occasion, and she's always had the best laugh around. She is a champion worrier - if there is ever an award created for that, it deserves to be named for her. And she is a constant practitioner of the art of letting things go.

A former music theory instructor of mine used to preface our handing back a test with the admonition to "Be a good parent and let it go." I have found my mom to be a fountainhead for teaching, nurturing, and goading one's children - to a point. There is a point when you have no control, and you must go on sheer faith. Faith in your teachings, faith that the synapses are snapping in your child's head, and that, coupled with the values you have taught, will enable the child to make the right decisions at the right times. It's been hard for Mom to hold herself down, but she's been strong enough to do it, God bless her.

Since I've been down here, I've bought my mom two things. One was a cute poster that helped raise funds for the local Children's Hospital, a local artist's print of "Katrina's Party", a cartoon homage to Mardi Gras apres Katrina. The other is a soft velvet throw pillow that, unfortunately will arrive after Mother's Day, but the message on it will endure for ever.

"You can't scare me - I HAVE CHILDREN."

Ain't that the truth.

Thursday, May 11, 2006


Once again, I must make my apologies to Messrs Lennon and McCartney, as well as to my quasi-relevant JazzFest sign concerning guests (see past posts), as my guests in this case were my in-laws and they were not staying in our house, but in a nearby bed and breakfast, formerly an orphanage. That said, overall, a good time was enjoyed by all.

My in-laws arrived from California the Tuesday night before last, collapsed in their funky room in the B & B, and interspersed visits to our place and occasional meals with us with their leisurely schedule (oh, that I could sleep in some on more occasions!) and jaunts through town and just outside of town on their own...until Saturday and Sunday, the last JazzFest weekend of this year. They arrived for three reasons: to see their grandson, to see the city, and to see JazzFest. My husband and I are simply ambassadors for the kid and tour guides through this great, partially ruined city of ours.

Over the phone, pre-visit, my in-laws apparently requested we take them on the great levee breach tour of 2006, one that I embarked on my first day back here (see previous posts) and found myself not wanting to do it again. I was horrified by what I saw, and I really didn't want to go through it again. I heard the same feelings expressed by fellow dog parkers when I discussed it with them, and a good friend with whom we shared our last JazzFest ticket with on Sunday. People who live here are tired of disaster and destruction, "tired of mold", as our JazzFest friend put it. And I don't blame 'em at all.

I ended up compensating for their request by pointing out water lines on some of the houses and in some of the neighborhoods as we passed them by, not necessarily in the levee breach areas. After my in-laws' first day at JazzFest, we had a nice dinner at a nearby Spanish restaurant, and then my mother-in-law and I headed off to the Borders' Books in Metairie to take advantage of her gift card and get some albums by some of the JazzFest players she'd heard and liked earlier that day. We headed there by way of Canal Boulevard and the lakefront areas, with a detour down Fleur-De-Lis in Lakeview, just blocks from the 17th Street Canal breach. It was dark out, and the ghostly suburban surroundings closed in once we passed City Park. Once again, it was as though I were passing through New Orleans East, like I did when we were driving down from New York. Hundreds of houses, standing at attention, waiting for their occupants who, in all likelihood, would never return. Nearby streetlights revealed the water lines on some of the houses, shining in the night like sinister shadows. The shock only increased once we drove across the canal and into Metairie...and back into bright lights, shopping malls, and whatever passes for normal suburbia these days..all there due to the grace of God and the sheer luck of having the levee wall hold on the Metairie side.

While I was waiting with my son for my husband and in-laws to come to the restaurant that night, a young college student, eager and green, struck up a conversation with me and participated in the chalk drawings my son was engrossed in making on the sidewalk nearby. She is one of many college volunteers taking time (and, in some cases, gaining some credit somewhere, some way) to help with recovery and cleanup down here. God bless her for coming. God bless her for wanting to get some idea of what the situation is like down here, too, because she could see that aside from the kids in other social work courses like the ones she was enrolled in, and the people who live here, of course, no one else in the world can really grasp the sheer magnitude of the situations people here are facing every day in their struggles to survive, rebuild, and thrive.

Got to say, though, it's not easy having to explain one's home's trials, tribulations, and politics all in one fell swoop. The college student's friend asked me what the deal was with all the abandoned, flooded cars that were still sitting under the interstate (a featured set for mayoral candidate Mitch Landrieu's recent campaign commercials), and I had to explain how the mayor had supposedly brokered a deal that was going to take care of those cars, since for them to be carted away, they have to be emptied of their fluids first. The local paper revealed that the city had not taken the firm with the lowest bid on the job, and then the whole deal collapsed, leaving the cars sitting in their places. Can't say that my little local civics picture really gave those girls a full picture of what's going on, but I like to think that it opened their eyes to life beyond the Fair Grounds here.

Sunday morning dawned for me and my husband, and we decided to go to a local spot for breakfast, only to find that we had arrived there too late in the morning to get a table without a massively long wait. We headed for a birthday party my son was invited to after a late breakfast at home, and then we picked up my in-laws and our friend with whom we shared our extra JazzFest ticket and headed for the Fair Grounds. After moving some garbage cans on the street that were supposedly demarcating someone's spot, we managed to find a parking spot close by an entrance. We got our food, and then I went and enjoyed the music of a local klezmer band with our friend. I had taken care of our son for most of our time at the Fest; now it was my turn to take in some music sans child. Not that I don't love him, but I needed some remembrance of younger days, I guess. Plus, for the most part, he didn't want to be right near such loud music, understandably - though he did surprise me later on when he weaved his way through the crowds to get a close look at the doings of a Zydeco band.

It turned out I also needed the release that comes with dancing my ass off. I danced a hora with other people around me. I kicked off my shoes and danced in the mud. I let my hair down and shook my money maker. A full hour of dancing to the music left me weak in the knees and aching some in my right leg - but man, did I need it! "Happy JazzFest!" a man in full tie-dye regalia I'd been dancing with yelled near the end of the set. My in-laws commented later on how much tie-dye they saw at the Fest - it seemed to have gone east from California, in their eyes. Years ago, when I had first moved down here, I thought that all the Checker cabs that were gone from New York streets had moved west, myself, because I saw so many of them in New Orleans. I guess this city is where all the fads and trends and throwaways end up, eventually - but it only adds to the whole demeanor of the place.

It can certainly work its effect on the visitors here as well. My in-laws were so much more at home visiting us here than they ever were visiting us in New York. Even the funkiness of their B & B here was something to be glossed over, especially since the people who ran the place and worked there were so nice. Their last visit to us in New York, the people who worked behind the desk at their hotel near JFK tried to pull a fast one and book them in a room that was clearly much smaller than what they had booked on Priceline. On another visit, my mother-in-law was staying with us in our second floor apartment around the time our landlords got a primo entertainment center and were blasting their disco music and their American Idol albums such that it could be heard through the floor. My husband and I didn't care, as our son could sleep through anything when he was tired and so could we, more or less, but my mother-in-law likes a quiet house and never failed to comment on it every day she was in town. Bad timing on that one! We told our landlords near the end of the week that we could hear them downstairs, and to their credit (hey, they were a great buncha guys), they were embarrassed about it and kept the music down after that. Overall, New York did not present a good vibe to my in-laws: it cost too much to live there, it was too congested a place to live, and it was way too far away from California for them to put forth true doting grandparent duties.

Of course, my husband, son, and I have gone from a major metropolitan and world center under terrorist watch to one of the epicenters of American natural disasters. That alone would give most people pause, and though my mother-in-law maintains a constant interest in real estate and in property costs all around this great nation of ours, she did ask about whether or not we would be getting some land in the Baton Rouge area - not only because it might be good to have a place to evacuate to that is close to where my husband works, but also because it would probably increase in value once another storm with the potential to blow south Louisiana off the map comes through. At the very least, we could rent it out if we weren't living in it, right? My mother-in-law needs to get a real estate license, is what I think.

My in-laws' observations about the city now, though, were interesting to hear. It looked to them like my son's presence on the streets of the French Quarter was a surprise and a delight to passersby, and they attributed it to the small numbers of kids that were in the city. I would attribute it to that a little, but I would also say that the Quarter is more like Disneyland for adults and has been that way almost from its inception. Any kids there in the daytime were the ones attending the one small school that still remains at the edge of the Quarter, or they were on the streets tap dancing with bottle caps imbedded in the soles of their shoes for tourists' loose change. The only clubs I know of that allow kids in them are Preservation Hall and Snug Harbor in the Marigny - one offers only live music, and the other serves good meals along with its full bar offerings and live music by titans such as Ellis Marsalis. Anyplace else is largely serving drinks and little else with its music - hence, no young 'uns allowed.

Another observation was of how much work is going on on homes and businesses in the areas that experienced no flooding whatsoever. There was a good amount of damage to properties from the winds of the storm, to be sure, but does that really justify the amount of places in our neighborhood, say, that are being remodeled into condos? It was enlightening to my in-laws to see just how many places are taking advantage of the rebuilding frenzy to do things that, in a lot of cases, needed to be done anyway... in the case of the newly designated condo properties, folks are also coming through in the department of sheer opportunism. The whole atmosphere of the non-flooded areas is that of a frontier town - but the buildings have already been here, in some cases, for well over a hundred years. Not exactly Dodge City.

And of course, the fact that a major public transportation artery, the St Charles streetcar line, is not in service right now is confining most tourists to the Quarter. Even Commander's Palace in the Garden District is in on the remodeling bonanza. People coming to visit have to make arrangements of their own to get a good look at the areas badly affected by the levee breaches and the storm effects. Rental cars and locals are the only means by which these folks can do so. And considering my personal reaction to becoming a levee breach tour guide, it comes down to rental cars, I'd say. I'm sick and tired of having this place known for good times and for devastation on a colossal scale. People are busy trying to live here, for crying out loud.

Then again, this is the price people have to pay for calling this place their home, myself included. Those who can face it all and come out the other side with some form of sanity and humor intact will either be stronger than strong or be just plain insensitive. I'm not sure exactly where I am just yet...

Speaking of humor:
More recent bumper stickers, T-shirts, etc.:

Blame Me - I Voted For Nagin
Authentic Trailer Trash - Thanks FEMA
FEMA: The New Four Letter Word
Comebacks, Not Kickbacks
To Move Forward, We Need To Move Back

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

I feel the need to explain myself and storms. Why I feel this need has something to do with what I mentioned in my last post, that I was anxious recently during the onset of a big rainstorm that carried tornado watches for our area with it. It also has to do with my son's reaction to a midday storm that poured down on us while we were running some errands yesterday - more on that one later.

Storms in Houston, where I grew up, and here in New Orleans are not events for the faint of heart. During the summer, storms that come up in a blaze of black fury, with much thunder and some lightning, will dump some water on us in midday, usually lasting under an hour, and then the atmosphere afterwards is still hot, just extra steamy. No relief comes from those summer showers, that's for sure.

Winter storms are different only in that the temperatures are generally lower, so a storm simply adds more dampness to the cold. I woke up on a few mornings when I was a kid to loads of thunder and lightning that, in some cases, was a carryover from the night before, and it could shake the house with the noise and even knock out power for a few seconds. One storm dumped so much water that it flooded the route to my school. My father was turned away by some firemen blocking the route. "How high is it?" he asked the guys cockily. My dad drove a '79 Bronco. Surely it could make it through those piddly flood waters.

"Higher than your truck", the firemen said. Dad made a u-turn and there was no school for that day.

Still, there was always something thrilling about the onset of a storm - the way it could turn a sky in midday black as night. The thunderous noise that announced its arrival. The sounds of the rain plopping onto every surface it could, sometimes slowly building in intensity, sometimes dropping it all in one shot, it seemed. For me, it was like watching a symphony descending from the sky, complete with its own light show. And if it was bad enough, it could keep you out of school - bonus!

That's how I looked at Hurricane Alicia when it hit Houston. Granted, I was a kid, but any instruction to batten down the hatches, evacuate if you had to, and sit it out was great to me.
We got our food and water, candles, flashlights, and batteries for the radios and got ready for whatever would come. Oh, we should have gotten a good dose of sense while we were at it. At least we didn't live right near one of the concrete-lined bayous that threads its way through many parts of the greater Houston area. Most folks selling flood insurance wouldn't even give those homeowners the time of day anymore, it was rumored - and it may well have been true. After a hard rain, the amount of water rushing through those things was enough to give anyone pause.

I fell asleep in my room the eve of the hurricane and awoke to wind howling around the house, torrents of rain sounding like thunder itself as it whipped its way on top of the house, around and over. I also awoke in my parents' bed. My mother told me she had had to move me to their room last night because of the rattling coming from the window right above my bed; they didn't want it to blow out and have shattered glass carving me up while I slept. Good one, family. I thank you.

The windows were so steamed up, one couldn't see a thing out of them. I don't remember exactly when the power went out, but it did at some point. I seem to recall my father still watching TV when I woke up, but I know we had no power for a good twenty-four hour period. When things such as the humming of the refrigerator and the squawking of the TV and other appliance sounds are no longer there, it only amplifies the sounds of the screaming winds, high-pitched and seemingly never-ending. If a basic rainstorm is a symphony from the sky, I'd put a hurricane in the operatic category - if Wagner and the Who had collaborated on the Ring series, say. Long and LOUD - and then, quiet, as the eye of the storm passed over us.

Maybe my dad actually ventured out at that time. It's something he was surely capable of doing, and in some ways, still is. The winds returned, but it didn't seem so bad after that, probably because we knew the thing was passing. Our neighborhood seemed fine, but our backyard wasn't. A large tree in our backyard featured a number of trunks coming from one root system, and now one of those trunks had fallen into the backyard, making a once-large grassy spot into one giant mess of fallen tree. The tree was right by the den of the house, and if a different trunk had been ripped out, it would have crushed in the house and smashed up the den, couches, TV, and all. We were lucky.

We counted ourselves even luckier when we went out for a drive and saw the bayous swollen with water all the way to the bottoms of the bridges spanning them. Some people had become caught under the bridges by the rushing water and had to be rescued. Shingles were missing from rooftops. Downed trees and large limbs were features of this new landscape. We passed a high-rise building with a driveway beneath one of its eaves, and insulation blew from under its overhangs. Overall, it was a mess, but not an impossible one.

I never was all that anxious about hurricanes after that. Loads of sound and fury, and you clean up afterwards. Sounds more like a party to me. They don't have the term "hurricane party" around for nothin'. Everyone's stuck inside due to the hell outside. Why don't we raise a little hell inside?

Hurricane Georges didn't conjure up much anxiety in me, either, because here I was in New Orleans. I wasn't alone in my house - I was staying in one apartment of many that a gorgeous old decaying Victorian mansion had had carved into it around the turn of the century or so, and my landlady and several other tenants were staying put. Stories were told every so often about Hurricane Betsy and how it flooded the eastern part of the city (yeah, like Katrina originated that!). The Mississippi began to flow backwards, and it looked like Georges was going to head right up and give New Orleans a visit. Listening to the radio and hearing the rain falling outside, I heard on my radio from one caller that he was sitting in his house with a canoe on his coffee table, ready for the water. The one concession I made to the possibility of the severe nature of the storm was to pull my bed from beneath the window under which it was positioned to the middle of the room. What my parents had done years ago stuck with me, for sure.

Georges ended up being a bust. It turned to the east and paid a visit to Mobile Bay instead. The New Orleans area had dodged a bullet. Life was good and charmed. We could all return to our sleepy, humidity-soaked ways once again. And I was secure in my knowledge that big storms were like the big bad wolf and us little pigs had homes of brick that could resist such a force, or at least cause it to reconsider. La LA la la LAAAAAAA...

So here I am, and the first big storm we have, I'm running around town in my car, getting shoes for my son and some stuff for dinner and for my pets, and the sky is hovering over, ready to drop its wet load on us any minute. It begins to rain some when I am near the end of my rambling, and I make it home before the real downpour begins. So I don't get too wet, but I do feel some faint strains of fear when I am out and about, as though the skies will open up and throw every bit of fury directly on me, opening me up and throwing every blue tarp, every piece of debris, every clod of dirt brought into the houses by the flood waters down my gullet. Yes, the fear is faint, but it's there.

Yesterday, there was a midday rainstorm, and my son was in the car with me. Suddenly, it was as though the faint fear I'd had days before had become a three year old child with an elephant-sized bundle of anxiety in my backseat. He was afraid of the rain, my son was. Afraid we would be flooded out. Afraid our car would become a floating mass in a rainwater river. A large part of this anxiety was from tiredness, and my son conked out in the backseat shortly after his tirade.

Since then, however, he has expressed several times his conviction that rain will bring destruction with it, and he ain't necessarily wrong. Not all rain does, though, and lately I have been eyeing some plant candidates to grow in our yard and in outdoor planters to try to prove to him that rain has other functions in this life. My son seems to be a bit of a lightning rod for the anxiety that lurks beneath the surface of this town, flowing beneath the normality of everyone's actions and thoughts here in this city barely preserved by the grace of God and returning residents.

How best do I combat this, especially since my own long-held impressions of storms have been shaken some since I've been back down here? Maybe when the summer storms return, their everyday presence will kick his anxiety in the teeth - or maybe it will make it worse. I now dread the beginnings of hurricane season this year, especially since the new evacuation plans for the city have been revealed. Most of the provisions in the plan are things that should have been implemented with Katrina, but at least one thing has everyone I've talked to clucking with impatience: the mandatory evacuation when it looks like a category 2 storm will be coming our way. That is a real cover-your-ass move on the part of our mayor if I ever saw one.

Then again, maybe a road trip might be just what we all would need if and when it happens. My son has always done well with those. Then again, it might be a signal that one can run from your problems when they get too big. Of course, a force of nature is sometimes just way too big to deny. And my internal pendulum swings back and forth on this and many other questions when it comes to my son. What is right? What is wrong? it is questions such as these that make parenting an insanity-inducing profession.

And I thought surviving my first year in my college's freshman dorms was tough...

Monday, May 01, 2006

Well, I started to write a post on the twenty-eighth, but here it is, May already, and it's been a while since the last post. Things have intervened. LIFE has intervened.

I told a graduate student in my major, when I was in my last undergrad year in college, that I didn't get into grad school, ho-hum, and she looked pained, and said,"Oh, no, but life gets in the way if you don't go to grad school right away!" I was thinking at the time that I wanted life to get in the way, thank you, after approx. 16 or so years straight of school in one form or another. And here I am, eleven years later, looking back on that assessment of mine and, cumulatively, I'm glad I made the choice I made. However, I have my moments...

Went to the JazzFest on Sunday, which, crowds-wise, turned out to be the day to go in the first weekend. It helped that it rained the night before, because once that happens, the only ones who come out are the die-hard locals who just don't care, and the out-of-towners who have come to see Bruce Springsteen or Elvis Costello and have paid too much to come down here in the first place, and rain will not deter them from seeing who they came to see. I used to come to JazzFest, year after year before we moved, as an exhibitor on one weekend or another, working for my ex-boss at a craft booth, so I knew some of the crafters, but something held me back from going over to them and just saying hello. They were there working at their booths, and what could I tell them? Hi, I'm just popping by! Oh, just raising my son and keeping house these days! My feelings of inadequacy came to a real head when I browsed the book booth and saw that a girl I once had a good relationship with shortly before I moved down to New Orleans the first time was there signing a children's book she and her husband had written and illustrated. She got mad at me over housing woes of mine that involved her boyfriend (no, nothing like what you all might be thinking!), and I was very sorry all the time, tried my best to treat her well, but she kept treating me like dirt. And here she was, signing a book with her husband.

I wanted so badly to tell her how well I was doing, too, out of meanness, more than anything else, I'll admit. But I said nothing and walked out of the booth. All I could think of anyway was schmoozing about Montessori school admissions woes. Oooh yeah, real show stopper, that one.

My husband said later that she didn't matter, but that my crafter friends would probably have loved to see how I was doing, and that I do a lot outside of the kid and house thing. "You sang at Shea Stadium, for crying out loud!" he said. "You just sang at JazzFest Shabbat! You have taken on cooking and cross-stitching like nobody's business! You were a board member at our synagogue in New York! You took JTS courses! And you're raising a great kid!"

God bless my husband. One of many reasons why I married the man is his honesty, which can be damned brutal, but which can also be comforting. Now if only I could clone him and carry him around as a confidence booster. When I was still doing the crafting thing, I went into a co-op craft shop to deliver some merchandise and asked the girl behind the counter to validate my parking ticket. "I need to be validated," I said.

"You're so good," she said. "Don't ever change."

One way in which I was validated, repeatedly, was for wearing my Mets' cap at the Fest. Stood behind some kids when I was checking out Allen Toussaint and Elvis Costello, and one of the kids did a double take at my cap. "Oooh, our bud's a Mets fan," he said. "Didn't think we'd meet anyone else around here who was, though." Walking through the Fair Grounds, I encountered two buddies, one wearing a Yankees cap, both of 'em guys who alternately booed and cheered me. Waiting on a porta potty, I encountered a fellow in line who was a Mets fan, but whose spouse was a Cubs fan, like my husband. The Mets fan and I both agreed it was high time for them to get back to winning ways; the last time a Mets team did its thing in the World Series, the management disbanded the team out of sheer fear of the players' antics off the field. Here's hoping that won't happen again.

I was also validated by the one food item that truly makes it JazzFest for me: Prejean's pheasant, quail, and andouille gumbo. At the Prejean's booth, a girl came by asking for their crawfish enchiladas, and immediately walked away when she heard that they were out. I should have yanked her back and chided her for walking away from some superb gumbo. Some folks just don't know what they're missing in this life. The first year I had the gumbo, I noticed some fellows making a beeline for the booth in the early hours of the festival and I asked them if it was any good. "Any good? " they exclaimed. "We've been waiting all year for this!!!!!" Is that a good recommendation, or is it?

One thing I repeatedly missed in all the years I've gone has been the kids' section of the Fest. They have a tent with some musicians and storytellers, and they also have a whole lot of kid activities and crafts there. My son had a ball making like he was paddling a pirogue down the bayou and catching big plastic crabs and crawfish in nets. He could also take his catch to a play kitchen, where he told me he was going to make some crawfish pies. He played some instruments made of PVC pipes and made a small house to put on a large model of the New Orleans area, where kids could "rebuild" businesses and homes on the map. What he was most fascinated by, though, was the cooking demos held by New Orleans and other Louisiana chefs. Zatarain's sponsors these demos and has the chefs cooking in a setup of the usual pots and pans and stoves and ovens, with a tilted mirror positioned over the whole thing so the audience can see what's cookin' in the pots and pans. Everyone gets samples afterwards. My son was so fascinated with the cooking and the chopping, until he had to go to the bathroom and ended up smashing our water bottle on the floor in the back of the audience. Dan chastised us a little for missing the samples of the blackened fish and tomato salad we had been watching the chef prepare, until I told him the specifics of our situation.

As for what we did previous to our JazzFest visit, we went to rehearsal after rehearsal for our synagogue's JazzFest Shabbat this past week, which is why it took me a while to get it together on the blog. JazzFest Shabbat is what our synagogue has done for the past fifteen-plus years, through four cantors, one cantorial soloist, and our one constant through all those times, our choral director and organist. The service is always held on the first weekend of JazzFest in the synagogue's main sanctuary, and the reharsals the week of the performance are fun and sometimes harrowing, especially since the big organizers are the cantor and our long-suffering, marathon-commuting choral director. Not only is the man a Catholic, he works as the music director for a Presbyterian church in Mobile, Alabama, he teaches a load of college level music courses at a school there, and then he hops into his car every week and heads to New Orleans to hold choir rehearsals and play the piano and organ at our services. Thursday was a particularly trying day for him, as he was feeling the effects of commuting back and forth more than usual, he was trying to get the jazz band performing with us to shape up some more, and his car's windshield had been smashed from stray rocks from a construction vehicle. God bless the poor mensch.

Despite it all, it was a great service and performance this year, albeit a bit long and drawn out. It was all the more important that it happened because of all the stuff this city has been through in the past months since late August. Even the people who were unable to attend this year must have gotten some comfort that the program is still going I'm sure they are happy all over this country, or even the world, that the JazzFest itself is still going on. Traces of the tragedy have reamined, however...

The children's book the girl who snubbed me co-wrote and co-illustrated was about telling one's young 'un (or, more accurately, young animal) about the hurricane and how to prepare for it, and possibly, leave one's home. For every few people acting like the usual JazzFesters, there were some wearing recovery-inspired t-shirts and/or buttons. Outside Gabrielle's restaurant off Esplanade Avenue was a couple selling cheap water, sodas, beer, and mixed drinks, and on their sign was a small addendum, a FEMA trailer tour for $2. I asked where that money was going, and they said, only half-jokingly, it was all going to the government. We have a break here and a slight return to normalcy, despite all the crazy news that pervades the atmosphere, but it doesn't take much to yank us back to the present. I present -

Exhibit A: The official recommendation that FEMA is too flawed to fix, and should probably be dissolved or folded into the Department of Homeland Security. Yes, honey, save us from our eroding marshlands, our governments, and our Army Corps of Engineers. Maybe NOW we'll get the fourteen billion dollars the feds turned down so that 25% of this country's oil, most of the seafood, and the livelihoods of generations of bayou dwellers would get washed into the gulf with major assistance from Katrina and Rita. Yes, that'll work...

Exhibit B: The fact that if the local public school system is going to rebuild itself, it needs the funds to do so. Right now, what remains of the Orleans parish school board has control over the better performing schools in the parish, and the rest are under the control of the state Board of Elementary and Secondary Education. Even though the latter schools are under BESE's control, however, the Parish school board is still responsible for a large number of the debts incurred by those schools. And don't even mention the environmental health issues the two boards might be liable for if they cave to the pressure to reopen schools early and they haven't gotten flooded or storm damaged buildings up to snuff. I can only describe myself as slouching towards masochism when I contemplate the fact that I am trying to get my son admitted to this rats' nest. Hooray for me...

Exhibit C: A recent big rainstorm carried with it tornado watches, some anxiety on my part, and enough winds to snap a large chunk off the top of my friend Edie's evergreen tree in her front yard. She was already looking for a large amount of dirt to fill the hole left over from a large tree that was downed by the hurricane, and now she has almost half a large tree sitting in her front yard again. I was racking my brains trying to figure out where I'd last seen a pile of dirt she could use for the purpose, even going so far as to retrace my path through the city to the pile I'd seen a while back, which was still there, complete with its "Free Dirt" sign.

Yep, yet another thing to add to a resume, should I want to return to the working for a paycheck world: I can locate a pile of dirt in a ruined, recovering city for the purpose of reusing and recycling. Now that's contributing to the environment!