Thursday, August 31, 2006

So how did I observe the Katrina Yahrzeit?

I did my best to avoid any formal ceremonies, opting to take my son to school (he started on Monday, and he's still not sure about the whole Montessori thing. I could see him on the first day wandering through the classroom and looking for the cars and trucks that weren't there. He then asked me on Tuesday morning why we were going to the "work school".) and then walking my dog with Edie and her two dogs on the streetcar tracks near her house. Since the tracks will be devoid of streetcars until sometime next year, walking the dogs on the wide neutral ground (N'awlins for "median" for those not in the know) is a good activity and a good exercise opportunity.

As it happened, we found the ceremonies anyway, at the foot of Carrollton Avenue. A Katrina memorial fountain was being dedicated, something of an aptly twisted thing of European beauty sitting right near a city bus turnaround. An all-black metallic fountain, the topper was an urn with three faces. Just what this city needs - a water feature in remembrance of a flood. A Janus-headed urn trying to catch the overflow and failing, not unlike all levels of government involved in the whole fiasco that has been this past year since the storm blew through.

And then we were all keeping an eye out for Ernesto and willing it not to come this way. It better not, was the general consensus. It wouldn't dare. Hell, our mayor still doesn't have a recovery plan in effect. There can't be another major storm here unless that happens.

Our plans are to head to Baton Rouge, since Dan's workplace is there. We half-joked that if the storm were to head our way, the Labor Day road trip we have in the works would simply be an evacuation vacation with both our cars on the road and our pets as passengers as well. I told Dan about a T-shirt I'd seen recently - a big hurricane is bordered by the slogan "Go With the Contraflow!" He said we'd take the West Bank Expressway instead of I-10, effectively going south and west to go west-northwest. Whatever will get us out of the city quicker.

The anniversary reared its head in other ways. A father picking up his child from school told me his daughter had been afraid to go this year, because this time last year, there was school in session for a week, and then the storm and its aftermath came. See what can happen if you go to school, kids? A year later and everyone still needs a sanity check in one way or another.

The night of the 29th, I called my parents to wish them a happy belated wedding anniversary, since the 27th had come and gone. Of course my mom brought up that the 29th was a different sort of anniversary! I thought of the dinner plans I had tried to make at any one of the restaurants participating in the Restaurants for Relief program, only to find that most of them were booked. I caught a teeny bit of a Katrina program later that night only because it featured Leah Chase in one segment. Dan and I had been curious about why Dooky Chase's restaurant on Orleans Avenue hadn't reopened by midsummer as was promised by Leah herself at the JazzFest. We tried to make reservations there last week and found that it hadn't reopened yet. Turns out the building had only recently been cleared for mold remediation services, so the renovations were now moving forward. Now that's uplifting news.

I popped into my nearby needlework shop the next day and overheard the shop ladies chewing the fat on Spike Lee's Katrina documentary - specifically, Barbara Bush's crass comments about the evacuees that were moved to Houston's Astrodome after their Superdome ordeal, among other ordeals. It made me so glad they shut off our cable recently.

As far as this yahrzeit being a media event, I have to credit Andrei Codrescu for articulating what I'm feeling way better than I even knew:

One year after Katrina, we are no longer photogenic. The cameras focus on narrow slices of rebuilding, which is all that fits within the lens. If you've been looking at the city for a year, things look better. Most of the flooded cars packed in the neutral grounds and under freeway overpasses are gone. There is no debris in places most visible to motorists. There are trailers and gutted houses in every wasted neighborhood. If you look only at the swarms of life in isolated spots, you might feel optimism, but if you look at what's around these spots, you might feel dread instead. Yes, there is a recovery going on, but there is also a pervasive depression. The media isn't equipped to deal with both hope and despair; it can only show and tell one story at a time. The Gray Zone where we live is beyond its power.

In New Orleans, nothing is what it seems. People believe things they don't say and say things they don't believe. To the media, we are recovering. To ourselves, we are sinking. Our heavily mediated and heavily medicated city is generating paradoxes, not certainties.

I wanted to have a part of this blog be a photographic response to recovery. That explains "The Line" part of my title. The idea was to go straight to the edges of the floodwater lines, from the levee breaches to the neighborhoods that got a foot or so. What I saw my first day here, and what I continue to catch glimpses of when I drive about town, are the neighborhoods that still look like hell after all this time. These wide swaths of abandoned homes and buildings still scare me and sadden me in my heart of hearts. I agree with Codrescu: how can a camera lens capture all of this madness? A picture is something one can walk away from very easily - but there is a deeper feeling of exhaustion and depression that cannot envelop the viewer through a photograph. I find it a tad easier to write about it, but I know eventually I will have to face what I fear. It is so much easier to think in the abstract that a roof and material possessions are not very important, but there is still a certain mourning for them, too, when they actually are lost to the elements. It takes a very long time to get over that.

The lessons of this whole debacle are being learned the hard way. Really, if all of us in this country truly learned anything, we would be talking about restoring the wetlands right now instead of kvetching over nonexistent rebuilding master plans. No one in a position to do so wants to make the hard decisions concerning the fate of this place.

We are in limbo. A bad kind of limbo. Dante would have called it purgatory.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

It's the little things that can get to you sometimes.

Driving down the street yesterday, I took a good look around and thought about all the businesses that are gone and the ones that sprouted up in their places, and about all the places that have hung on by their fingernails or have thrived for many years. Places where, ten years ago, there were thrift stores, there are now renovated malls or simply properties that have been superficially spruced up and are waiting for someone to sign a lease. Just the usual stuff that happens on any retail street in this country.

I stopped at a traffic light and checked out the city bus that was waiting at the opposite corner for the light to change. It wasn't a New Orleans RTA bus, it was a SEPTA bus from Philadelphia. The symbols of its former city were wiped out as much as they could be on short notice, but the destination on the bus' marquee was one for the northeastern part of the country. Guess it couldn't be reprogrammed for this city. Oh, well, it's still taking people from place to place here...something that this town still needs.

I thought about a former coworker and acquaintance I ran into at the grocery store the other day, a fellow who I would have loved to talk to more, but my son's insistence that we drive the shopping cart truck around trumped that impulse. The guy had been a bit aimless when I last worked with him four years ago, except for the burning need he had to finish college. Right now, he's got a master's under his belt and is currently working with someone I had some conflicts with when I first came down here to work. I found myself wishing that with all the therapy I've had over the years, I wish someone had really taught me how best to forgive. My thoughts about past slights on me, real and imagined, might well have colored my conversation with this acquaintance when I heard who he was working with now. It startled me, as it always does, to think that some feelings can burn for decades, usually the bad ones.

I'm really happy for my former coworker, though. He put in the hard work and made it!

Which is what we all need to do down here, despite the way in which our mayor runs his mouth. Bashing the reconstructions and reimaginings of Ground Zero isn't going to help rebuild this city any faster or better. And picking at all the ways in which this city isn't measuring up to anyone's nostalgic or futuristic visions won't help, either. The past always looks better in hindsight, and it's so much better to be working away towards a better future with hands and heart rather than sitting around and speculating with one's brain - at least, not too much speculating!

Of course, this is always so much better to say than to do. I have to catch myself from looking at the little things and judging by those, case in point being a brochure that Tulane University sent out recently. The whole thing touts Tulane's and New Orleans' recovery and resurgence, and features an aerial shot just inside the brochure's cover of Tulane's main buildings on St Charles Avenue. The picture reveals some grand old buildings situated on a green lawn, typical of most college campuses that have been around since the nineteenth century, truly a reassuring vision. I have to constantly restrain myself from looking for the details that signify hurricane damage, however: roof slates/tiles/shingles missing, windows broken on the upper floors of buildings, missing trees or shrubs. Despite some flooding in the university area (and it was well known locally as a floodplain in any kind of substantial rain), the place is still there, and students are coming back.

A common problem amongst the New Orleans based universities now is the difficulty in recruiting students, especially for the NCAA sports teams. Coaches' complaints are that the city is coming back, but all the parents have to see is one report on CNN or the national news about the slow pace of recovery and the potential student passes on coming down. The numbers have gone down for registration of kids at the religious school where I will be teaching once a week, to the point where there is some speculation into combining some grade levels, a move no one wants to take. It's miraculous that the religious school is in session, period.

But it is one little thing that got to me the most. I was able to attend Friday night services at a local synagogue, and the rabbi there addressed the fact that Katrina's anniversary, a yahrzeit (day of remembrance), was coming up. Instead of sermonizing about it, he opened up discussion to us all in assembly as to what good had come out of the storm and its aftermath. People talked of stronger connections with neighbors who had decided to stay and rebuild. One man said not only did he get a brand new downstairs in his house (!), he was also heartened by the out- pouring of support and tzedakah (charity) from all levels of the national and international Jewish community towards Katrina survivors and evacuees. People seemed to reconnect with others from being housed elsewhere when their properties and lives were flooded out or otherwise destroyed. I recalled how many people up in New York were concerned about Dan and I and our connections here: they had a need to help in whatever way they could.

I then realized that I've been in mourning all this past year, since the storm hit. This is the one place I have always considered to be my home, the place where I first started to live life truly apart from my parents. In a sense, around this time last year, I went through about a week of intense sorrow for the city and our friends here, culminating in my refusal to watch, see, or read any more about the tragic goings-on. Things have been tougher and easier since then, as I guess all mourning periods are. Which is why it is fitting for me seeing the large memorial stone that has been erected in the Ninth Ward for Katrina's victims. It's not an end, but a beginning.

The twenty-ninth is coming, complete with a bell-ringing ceremony and a memorial visit from our president. I have to sit on my hands so that I won't type what I really think about his presence here... but for all of us to move on, we need to let that kind of thinking go.

Maybe my forgiveness of others is beginning as well.

I hope so.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Summertime is winding down, though it certainly doesn't feel like it in this area.

I've returned home from some hot but dry days out in No-Cal to muggy and sweaty days here at the mouth of the Mississippi. My son complained for the first few days that he was hot and could we visit the doctor, please? In New York, I have experienced days when it was too cold to take my little guy out, and here, now, there are days when it is too hot to go out... unless you do it at the crack of dawn. Even at night, though, it can be hot. We got in from California late at night and it was eighty degrees and muggy out. At least the humidity is supposed to be good for the skin.

According to the EPA (at least, as reported on the front page of the Times-Pic), environmentally speaking, the greater NOLA area is fine as well. No ill-effects from toxic floodwaters or, say, the oil spill from tanks in St Bernard parish are to be expected in the short or long run. According to a recent court ruling, no payments from insurance companies related to damages incurred from storm surges can be expected, either. All I could think of with the court ruling was an anecdote from an essay by columnist Chris Rose about the dejection and sudden elation of some local homeowners:

Some friends of mine were clearing out their belongings from their home in the Fontainebleau area and were going through the muddle of despair that attends the realization that you were insured out the wazoo for a hurricane, but all you got was flood damage... As they pondered this dismal circumstance in the street, their roof collapsed. Just like that. It must have suffered some sort of structural or rain-related stress from the storm and then, two weeks later, it manifested itself in total collapse...realizing their home now qualified for a homeowner's claim, they jumped up and down and high-fived each other and yelled:"The roof collapsed! The roof collapsed!"

Our home is destroyed. Oh, happy day. I submit there's something not right there.

I say, Damn Right, Mr Rose. I traveled away from the insanity for a week and a half, and here I am back in the middle. Actually, I got thrust right back into it at the San Jose airport, when the woman at the ticket counter took one look at my address and saw I was going back to the city where she was raised and still considered it to be home, though she lives in Burlingame. She took her son back to the city for this past Mardi Gras, and we chatted about that a bit, and about a relative of hers having to dock his boat on his roof when he checked out what was left of his property.

I picked up a copy of Texas Monthly at the Houston airport where I made our connecting flight and read an interview with Joe Allbaugh, former Dubya campaign manager from his governor and early presidential days and FEMA director from 2001-2003. The man had advocated keeping FEMA separate from the Department of Homeland Security for some big reasons:

1) The need for direct dialogue with the commander-in-chief, which is what Michael "Brownie" Brown didn't have.
2) The need for one person, and only one, to be accountable, rather than the roving circus of administrators and military personnel that kept proclaiming reponsibility and then attempting to do something. Allbaugh partially blames Congress for sticking FEMA in with Homeland Security.

And (drum roll, please) the ones that bear the biggest responsibility in rebuilding after Katrina and Rita are - SURPRISE - the locals...

I think there are too many parochial interests getting in the way of the global picture. Neither New Orleans nor the state of Louisiana has crafted a plan. It shouldn't have been a surprise that the levees were going to fail. Everyone knew they were only built to (sustain) a category 3 (storm). James Lee Witt had tried to engage New Orleans in an exercise (to test the city's disaster preparedness). I tried to engage New Orleans in an exercise. It was all blown off. City officials just weren't interested...Everyone has a piece of that pie. Citizens even have some responsibility. It's too easy to hope that the state, local, and federal governments are going to solve every problem out there. That's not realistic. We have to do a better job as individuals to be prepared for the unexpected. We haven't done a very good job of it in this country.

And yet, a recent survey said that one out of every four people living in a high-risk area for hurricanes would choose to stay behind in the event of an evacuation situation. The local government balked at a plan that would accept federal government aid for the city provided everyone in the city who is rebuilding complies with government guidelines for elevating the homes in which they will reside; it was described by local officials as being "blackmail" on the part of the federal government towards New Orleans. That same attitude prevailed months ago when I attended the Andres Duany meeting in Chalmette concerning possible plans for St Bernard, plans that condemned slab housing and caused most of the assembled audience to groan in frustration. How dare anyone outside of this area tell someone who has lost everything how to rebuild? Fix the levees first! Bring back the wetlands! Then we can rebuild any old way we damn please! That's where this whole area needs the help in order to weather a really Big One that might be coming our way, right?

God, did I need a break from all this.

I will be heading into another school year courtesy of my son's beginning Montessori pre-K, however, and I am looking to get involved some. There is a building shuffle going on, as certain grades are now being sent to different school campuses that housed, in some cases, completely different Orleans parish schools before the storm. Parents are sorely needed to help with the move, and I hope to help out a bit with it tomorrow. In talking with more parents at yet another birthday party for a friend of my son's, the general attitude about the remnants of the parish school system is still that of "wait-and-see". Most parents are sticking with the private schools; if it ain't broke, and the kids are doing well, why try to fix or change it? I seem to be a bit of the maverick who's willing to take a chance. What the hell, huh?

I returned to the local park to walk my dog, and the fountain was up and operating, which wasn't too much of a surprise, since that had happened before I left for the Left Coast. The pleasant change this time, though, was that the grass was finally mowed after a couple of months of seeing some dogs disappear into the long, scraggly-looking grass. New beginnings, maybe. Room for things to grow.

Yeah, maybe Allbaugh is a little bit right. It is all, ultimately, up to the locals as to whether this place lives or dies. I vote for the life support.

I also vote for eating out on August 29, that fateful day when the storm made landfall. Check out for a restaurant participating in Restaurants for Relief in your area, make your reservations ASAP and help contribute to Gulf Coast relief. It's a better way to mark such a day than to sit on your butt and watch all the innumerable programs that will be trotted out for the anniversary. Plus, you can do it with friends!

Bon appetit!

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Why, oh why does stuff happen when I come out to visit the in-laws?

One of the last times my son and I were out here on the Left Coast, the big Northeast blackout happened out in...well, the northeast, forcing my husband to walk all the way home to central Queens from the Madison Square Park area in Manhattan. Another time, when I was out here, my husband seriously underestimated how much stuff we had when we moved down the road from one apartment to another, and ended up taking the rest of a work week off to pack and move all the smaller stuff back and forth in our car all by himself.

And now these terrorist yutzes who were just days away from blowing up a number of airplanes using basic household chemistry (the Anarchist Cookbook, anyone? Or maybe Die Hard With A Vengeance...). They have now become instrumental in a new sort of prohibition, one that might have made Carry Nation proud. No liquids or gels allowed in airports past security checkpoints. That means I've got to leave the big bottle of Garnier Fructis I got recently with my in-laws, probably. For whatever reason, I find it tough to locate a bottle of that particular type of shampoo in New Orleans. Maybe I'm just going to the wrong places to get it, but the family size of shampoo would have lasted me a while.

The only other thought that comes to mind is a plot from Jack Nicholson's Joker in Batman - a combination of beauty products that, when used all together, cause people to drop dead from the effects of Smilex. Wouldn't it be lovely to see supermodels and celebrities scared right out of their makeup? It might be funny if it weren't so frightening.

And so I continue on out here in Northern California, as ambassador for the main attraction: my three year old son. My duties as ambassador are as follows:

- I must be present so that the grandparents of said son can hand him over to me if he is getting difficult. Difficult is defined as a number of things: poopy pants that need to be changed, frustrations over said son's lack of appetite, frustrations over the young 'un's reluctance to conform to a planned day's activities, and grandparental reluctance to deal with the kid when he wakes up at the crack of dawn.

- I must accompany said son on airline flights to and from the grandparents' domain, braving all airport security checkpoints and the screeners who may call the toxicity of my son's Pull-Up pants' contents into question as a security risk, yanking the child through all airport hurdles while waiting on a connecting flight, and, above all, I should NEVER, at any time, expect the kid to fall asleep on the plane. People think I'm kidding when I say this. After three-plus years of travel with a young infant/toddler, any rest from him is a cherished gift.

- I must leave any normal ideas of vacationing far behind me. My husband has quit saying, "Enjoy your vacation," to me when I embark on these trips, and wisely so. The only vacation I have here is when I don't have to walk my dog or clean out my cats' litter boxes. Anything else is a bonus. Dan usually has to work, so he can't accompany me on these trips. I also get the feeling he doesn't want to come, after having grown up with his parents for eighteen-plus years. His parents are sweethearts, but we also have to brave their blatant hints that sure, my husband can find a long-term job in Silicon Valley that can support us, too... and then we can all live close by! All I picture from here on out with that scenario is my mother-in-law as Marie Barone, letting herself in our place whenever she feels like. Much as I love my in-laws, it's also nice to have extended breaks from them- namely, our lives, such as they are.

And so I travel here fairly regularly and brave the comments, the kvetching about everything under the sun, and all other family quirks because they do love us and want to see their grandson. Plus, it is fun, overall. There is great effort put into finding places for the little guy to go - local parenting magazines are searched for daily kid-friendly activities, a selection of toys is put out for the little guy, videos are borrowed from the library for his viewing pleasure, and standby attractions are always good places to go. And my son gets to get with Grandma and Grandpa for up to two weeks.

Sure, the stuff will happen while I'm out here, because the rest of the world doesn't take a chill pill whenever I go off, although the camp where I worked did end for this summer. But what if there were at least one week when everybody took a break? Among the possible happenings:

- The NOPD and the Louisiana National Guard could let down their guard for a few days, as all criminal activity will have ceased.

- All these terrorist organizations will use their Rare Flyer miles to head for, say, someplace in Polynesia, have a grand old time, and actually return from their vacations without hurting another person in any way.

- My in-laws' talk about the terrorist doings will cease to be, and my son won't get upset about the "bad news", as he calls it.

It is nice to take a break from a mostly ruined city, from all the talk of rebirth and the ways in which the actions fall short of that talk. Ever the optimist, my mother-in-law has said that the city may well be waiting for the right moment to declare eminent domain over large unclaimed flooded parts of the city, and then to redevelop those sites as the city sees fit. I hope she's wrong, but chances are, she's on the mark. I still have to laugh at the concept of building some high rise condos in the Broadmoor, Gentilly, or Ninth Ward neighborhoods, though. If Louisiana's coastline continues to erode at an unchecked pace, those high-rises will be surrounded by waterfront property that will also be in the lower floors of the buildings. Prime real estate, indeed.

As it is, I get so angry trying to discuss the political and law enforcement situation to my in-laws. I hear what is coming out of my mouth and I sound as though I am insane. Describing an ineffectual court system and a bevy of opportunistic politicos that have not changed their ways - and then trying to hold my head up high and say that this is my home - well, it is to laugh and to cry all at once. I hate that this summer has had the aura of New Orleanians feeling they can make it through all the problems if the area emerges from this hurricane season unscathed. The people who care about this city, whose lives as they know it would not exist without it, need to just get off their duffs or move on. Granted, there is a natural inertia that comes with sweltering NOLA heat, but come on.

Must stop on this train of thought before I really bust a gut.

Know what helps? Cross-stitching and making stuff in the kitchen. I've been cross-stitching fleurs-de-lis in loads of colors, all from a pattern I purchased at a place down the street and around the corner a bit from my home. Easy to carry along with me in my purse and whip out whenever I have the time. As for the cooking, I have a nice slice of a blackberry-strawberry crumb tart waiting for me, and I'd better get to it.

God, I never in my wildest dreams thought I would be so stereotypically womanly and domestic.