Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Why I Miss Lee

Today is the day of Syllabus Writing for Lee and me**, which has so far involved list-making and beer consumption. Somewhere in the lists are the backbone of this syllabus (somewhere), and it makes us feel very organized and accomplished to have lists.

Here is why Lee and I need to spend more time together:

ME: I'm at a phase in my life where I simply can't stare at Times New Roman anymore. I have to change everything to Arial. That's where I am in life right now.

LEE: I miss hanging out with artists. I totally understand that. If you said that to a mathematician, they would think you clinically insane.

Our conversations are pretty much all like that.

**I received an email with a lot of exclamation points from my mother about the usage of "I" and "me" in this sentence. I fully admit that, as a writer, this is my worst habit. I frequently misuse them. I should consider myself lucky that I have doting parents who read and proof my blog, but I also kind of want to stomp up the stairs and slam the door and yell down something like "THAT IS SOOOOOOOOOOOOO NOT FAIR."**

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Times Like Th(e)se

times like those
a low-land home
heaven and earth filled the room
'til the windows broke
children rose

J. Tillman, Marked In the Valley (Year In the Kingdom)
Special thanks to Jackal who has always provided me with uncanny soundtracks for whatever thoughts I'm presently chewing upon.

Monday, March 29, 2010

NOLA Presentation

On top of gearing up this week to write a syllabus with Lee for a class we're teaching next month (NEXT MONTH. AS IN- "MAY." WTH.) and scrambling to do my taxes (how did I fall so behind on that this year?) I'm also writing two articles about New Orleans for submission and putting together a presentation to give in Annapolis on the 25th about the work we did.

One of the group members sent around this video which quite informatively explains a day-by-day time line of Hurricane Katrina and the subsequent levee break. Although it might skirt some controversial issues, it's done by National Geographic and gives a pretty unbiased account.

Busy, busy, busy. Also got a job lead. Things are feeling good.

Also, I asked Josh for another funny Tumblr to rival Michael Buble Being Stalked By A Velociraptor (bee-tee-dubs, I was at the gym this morning and almost fell off the treadmill whilst sprinting as his song "Just Haven't Met You Yet" came on VH1 and I kept mentally inserting the snout of aforementioned velociraptor into each frame), and he sent me this. Ever so often, Josh and I have a distinct disconnect between what we find funny.

Josh's reply:
Fine, fine oh Trivia Lady - I will do my best to not disappoint you further with links not as funny as Michael Buble being stalked by Raptors...if I should come across a blog about Harry Connick Jr being pursued by rabid kittens or collages of David Hasselhof+ Buddist Temples+Ramen noodles I will forward them tout suite.

I believe Josh wins this round.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Michael Buble Stalked by Velociraptor

Was in need of a good laugh today, and then Josh sent me this. I couldn't even begin to tell you why it's hilarious; it. just. is.

That is some excellent PhotoShop.

In other news: I will soon be acquiring "1 Dead in Attic" which was recommended to me by several New Orleanders (is that the correct word? Who cares? It's Friday.) to supplement my understanding of post-Katrina NOLA.

In other news: went to see Ben Folds on Wednesday night (4th time I've seen him live), and he was just as phenomenal a performer in 2010 as he was in 2001, the first time I saw him. He played some ancient Ben Folds Five ("Army," "Brick," and "Kate," to name a few) as well as some more current songs reflective of pop culture. I love the collaboration of Nick Hornby and Ben Folds. Dreamy. AND, he did Chat Roulette live on-stage during his performance. I didn't know anything about Chat Roulette, and now most of what I know is that it's questionable at best and downright disgusting at worst. Still, hilarious.

Happy Friday.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


A thousand thanks to Jaunt for the quotes.

There was- and always has been- another tradition that stretched from the days of the country's founding to the glory of the Civil Rights movement; a tradition based on the simple idea that we have a stake in one another, and that what binds us together is greater than what drives us apart, and that if enough people believe in the truth of that proposition and act on it, then we might not solve every problem, but we can get something meaningful done.
-President Barack Obama

The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.
-Anna Quindelin

Wherever you are, be there.
(I wrote this quote on the paper beneath the siding boards that we nailed against the house, and dated it. For as long as the house stands, a little piece of me will be there.)

How wonderful it is that nobody need wait a single moment before starting to improve the world.
-Anne Frank

It is one of the beautiful compensations of this life that no one can sincerely try to help another without helping himself.
-Charles Dudley

The secret of success in this life is to realize that the crisis on our planet is much larger than deciding what to do with your own life. The only work that will ultimately bring any good to any of us is the work of contributing to the healing of the world.
-Marianne Williamson

Great opportunities to help others seldom come, but small ones surround us every day.
-Sally Koch

The true civilization is where every man gives to every other every right that he claims for himself.
-Robert Ingersoll

We don't accomplish anything in this world alone...and whatever happens is the result of the whole tapestry of one's life and all the weavings of individual threads from one to another that creates something.
-Sandra Day O'Connor

Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
-Martin Luther King, Jr.

Any change, any loss, does not make us victims. Others can shake you, surprise you, disappoint you, but they can't prevent you from acting, from taking the situation you're presented with and moving on. No matter where you are in life, no matter what your situation, you can always do something. You always have a choice and the choice can be power.
-Blaine Lee

Life is not merely a series of meaningless accidents or coincidences, but rather, it's a tapestry of events that culminate in an exquisite sublime plan.

It always seems impossible until it's done.
-Nelson Mandela

The most profound joy has more of gravity than gaiety in it.
-Michel de Montaigne

I cannot believe that the purpose of life is to be happy.
I think the purpose of life is to be USEFUL,
to be responsible,
to be compassionate.
It is above all
to STAND for something,
to have made some difference
that you lived at all.
-Leo Rosten

A Brief Word About Complications

My intention is to get all of the photos up this week (a lofty goal since it's beginning to look a lot like spring, and my attention span goes directly outside where it wants to be for the next 3-4 months), but I do very quickly want to point out something that was mentioned the other day.

I was called out for my supposed "misunderstanding" of the Katrina situation and for falsely attributing post-Katrina damage to the storm itself instead of noting that the bulk of damage came from government neglect of the levee structure or faulty engineering.

But here's the thing- my limited knowledge still tells me that the entire situation is such a perfect storm of complications, it's impossible to isolate one single aspect as "The Thing" that was the tipping point of damage. Even putting aside all the difficulties of evacuation, the socio-economic problems, the poorly up-kept levees, and all of the things that made headlines there are still other problems that contributed to the damage. Over a hundred years ago, loggers and watermen began changing water patterns which led to the complex series of canals and dams that keeps the Mississippi where it belongs and created a more direct route from Lake Ponchartrain to the Gulf. All of these land-moving initiatives and bridge innovations were crucial in the early planning of central New Orleans, but ultimately man's taking over of nature has a price.

Some of the problems with flooding came from storm surge coupled with a man-made change in water flow patterns. Even if the levees had held, it would have been a problematic situation.

In hind sight, I'm sure, we'll find many times over that our man-ipulations (see what I did there? How clever!) of nature upset the natural balances and flows that keep everything where it should be. There are some theorists who conjecture that the recent spike in violent hurricanes is due to changing global weather patterns which; although periodically throughout recorded history these anamolies occur; some attribute to global warming and other indications of our presence on this earth.

I am not comfortable with camping out in any one facet as "The Thing" that tipped the damage from terrible to catastrophic. In all of the infinite complexities, there were failures and coincidences and things both in and out of peoples' control that went wrong.

This is not unique to New Orleans. Inner-city problems in most urban areas, are complex issues of power balance, natural resources, generational poverty, antiquated laws, and a host of other aspects that contribute. Toss in an unanticipated natural disaster and it's chaos.

There is still so much for me to read and learn about this situation. But I did want to point out that I'm not on board yet, and possibly won't be, with isolating any one particular aspect. It's all intertwined, it's all crucial, and it's difficult to mete out responsibility in that fashion.

More photos of glorious Crescent City to come this week! I miss it terribly already.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Home Again

Back in Baltimore with a lot of thoughts to process and a lot of dirty laundry. Faced with the anxiety of unpacking and getting back into the daily grind, I'm attempting to hold on to the surges of positive energy that propelled me through the last week.

I have plenty more photos to post and things to write about, so stay tuned. In the mean time, however, Real Life calls me back so immediately I almost wonder if I dreamed the past week.

Viva NOLA.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Duly Noted

Thanks to the New Orleans Ladder for linking to my post and for pointing out that much of the post-Katrina damage was due to structural weaknesses as opposed to anything that the storm actually did.

My knowledge of the logistics is, admittedly, a mere drop in the ocean. I couldn't even begin to explain all of the facts surrounding Katrina and, as they referenced it, "The Federal Flood of New Orleans." I tiptoe around these issues knowing that my ignorance of all of the facets of the shattered glass situation certainly creates a specific lens through which the situation is being viewed. I am open to "schooling myself," which is part of the reason I'm here.

The rhetoric in any situation that involves such touchy subjects is always tricky to navigate, especially because as human beings we assign so much meaning to words and how they are used. Please understand that none of my commentary about Katrina is value-laden in the sense that I openly accept my knowledge limitations on the subject.

At the same time, I would like to point out what the New Orleans Ladder blog also kindly took the time to do: this is a grateful city that welcomes volunteers and interest with open arms. Everywhere we go, we are recognizable by our paint-splattered clothes and sawdust in our hair, and everyone is happy to have us. The hospitality here has been overwhelmingly gracious, and I thank NOL for taking the time to not only comment on my blog, but point out some viewpoints and considerations new to me and also to recognize that these conversations are keeping the dialogue open and alive, as it should be.

Friday, March 19, 2010

New Orleans: The Good, The Bad, The Ugly

There's so much to think about. Which, I suppose, was mostly the point of doing something like this.

I've talked to so many people over the past week and it got to the point where I started taking notes to remember all of the stories I've heard. It's like asking someone where he or she was when he or she first saw the televised images of 9-11 or heard about Kennedy being shot: everyone has a story to tell.

In my efforts to collect my thoughts, I started taking notes. Jotting down little key words to remember specific stories and incidents. And so, I'll relate them to you here with some explanations. Also, some of these stories correspond to pictures in earlier blog entries. I'm not nearly organized enough (or with the luxury of enough time) at this point to make the connections, but hopefully some logic abounds.

- Architecture schools from all over the US have jumped on board to design new homes, especially in areas like Brad Pitt's Make It Right project (which we walked through as part of our 9th Ward tour the other day) and Harry Connick Jr and Branford Marsalis's Musician's Village (which we also saw and is also located in the 9th Ward.) The homes are re-built with new specifications to withstand Category 5 hurricanes and floods which, in the Make It Right area meant raising the houses on stilts up to where the roof lines used to be. Additionally, aesthetics are considered as crucial as logistics, which is part of what makes these projects unique. Architecture schools have churned out creative, compelling designs (see "Completed Homes Gallery" on the Make It Right page) with interesting details, the way New Orleans architecture was meant to be. On top of all of that, many of the homes are built in eco-friendly ways with sustainable energy intake.

- The X's on the doors are a part of a city-wide audit that was done in the days and weeks immediately following the hurricane. Each quadrant corresponds to a different piece of information: the date, the unit conducting the search/audit (which began as a Search and Rescue effort but soon dematerialized into a count as few were found in later weeks), any structural hazards, and whether or not anyone was found (alive or dead.)

-Other information painted on houses: the ASPCA left notations of pets that were picked up. "Two Dogs," and "Black Cat" are clearly labelled in two of the pictures from one of my previous posts. Pets were not allowed in any of the shelters, and most people were forced to leave them behind if they could not make other arrangements. A make-shift animal shelter was set up near the public morgue and volunteers posted pictures of found pets on the Internet in the hopes that owners would be searching. As late as two years after Katrina, owners were still trickling back into the city and, joyfully, coming to reclaim pets that had been thought long dead and gone.

For all of the horrific stories about Katrina, for all of the death, poverty, and social issues, there are scattered stories of hope and love.

-One of the problems associated with the disbursement of federal aid and insurance claims is closely linked to social issues in terms of poverty, primarily the fact that often houses changed hands in the event of a death (passed from parent to surviving children, for example) with no actual legal transfer of deed. In fact, the deeds for many of the houses were lost, destroyed, or simply non-existent after years of impoverished circumstances. This was merely one tiny hiccup in the massive and painful hemmorhage of things gone wrong and the sudden visibility of all of the problems an urban area can have.

-Approximately 1,500 people perished directly from Katrina, about 100 of which were never identified or claimed. New studies have revealed that extensive stress, depression, and other post-traumatic ailments may be behind thousands of other deaths that followed in the weeks, months, and even years after the storm.

- Big plants, such as Coca Cola, in a hurry to get workers back on the job and producing would have huge installments of FEMA trailers placed on site to accomodate workers and families. In a massively counter-logical way, big businesses helped push local businesses back into existence as families would move back to the area to reclaim their jobs and need local businesses for food, gas, etc.

-The entire city was closed to residents in the weeks following Katrina and those who came back either had to have some form of legal identification that merited entrance to the city. Of the people we have spoken with, most of them created some sort of fraudulent identification and/or fabricated lie to get past the National Guard to get home to see what was left of their houses.

- The water that breached the levee in the Lower 9th Ward and up by the 17th St Canal stood until early October, ebbing with the tidal pulls of the Gulf. Houses still have clearly marked water lines, starting at the gutters and moving down, foot by foot, as the water was drained and/or pumped out. In the weeks following Katrina, the weather was at record highs. Which meant that every house full of water was also a house full of water and standing at between 80-95 degrees with high humidity. Even homes in which only the first floor was flooded needed to be completely gutted and renovated (provided the force of the water hadn't knocked the house fully off its foundation, which was common) because of mold. The mold attacked and destroyed everything; every wall, every stitch of furniture, every book, every floor board, every lamp, everything. When houses were gutted, not a thing could be saved as everything was in such a state of rot and decay by the time the waters receded.

-Things that require electricity: mortuaries and aquariums, among others. Mortuaries lost power and corpses rotted in record time. The aquarium could no longer oxygenate the water, and every living thing inside died. The tanks had to be emptied, scrubbed, and completely re-stocked. Fortunately, however, most animals in the Zoo made it safely through the storm.

-Other thing that requires electricity: refrigerators. There was a massive shortage of refrigerators available for purchase in the New Orleans area for up to a year later, because residents were unable to return to their homes for weeks after Katrina and, when they did, found bio-hazards residing where their cold cuts had been. Most residents did not bother opening the refrigerator door ("I had just gone fishing," one man joked) but duct-taped it shut and simply put it out on the corner for bulk pick-up. One family finally purchased a refrigerator in Baton Rouge online, rented a U-Haul, and drove up to get it. Even in the movement of the refrigerators, "juice still leaked out." I am told that I cannot imagine the stench, the disgust of it all. I had some visualization that, eventually (because in homes that were gutted, refrigerators remained untouched for 6 months to a year post-Katrina) the food would simply rot to a point of non-existence but, apparently, this is an uninformed viewpoint. The food is still there, a year later, unrefrigerated. Vomit.

-There is much talk of Hurricane Katrina being an "equal-opportunity flood," meaning it wiped out poor and rich homes alike with no thought to socio-economic circumstances. However, this completely perverted term is highly contraversial and, in many cases, offensive. Yes, a storm surge that breaks down a levee wall is just as apt to wipe out a multi-million dollar mansion as it is a shot-gun house, but who do you think has insurance to rebuild? Who do you think has enough money in savings to temporarily re-locate while contractors can rebuild? Many who lost their homes in New Orleans simply had no where else to go, no options, no money, and nothing left without the collateral of a house.

"Why didn't they evacuate? What, were they going to leave bed-ridden Grandma, climb into the family car with money and food, and go stay in a Best Western?" someone noted. An evacuation requires a back-up plan, something that is considered a luxury.

Additionally, Hurricane Katrina occurred towards the end of the month when many welfare families are stretching out the dregs of that month's check. The last few dimes and dollars rattled around as meteorologists urged people to leave, and the subsequent storm caused a major red tape earthquake and long delays in issuing checks and other forms of government help.

-There is, and perhaps always will be, a major debate over public housing. To re-build or not to re-build being the central question, and yet another tiny sliver of the massively-complicated latticework of post-Katrina problems. To be fair, however, public housing is a major debate in any urban city, its very existence bringing with it a host of questions and problems. As of yet, and this is only according to my sources so I could be wrong, none of the public housing that was destroyed in Katrina has been rebuilt. Neighboring cities, such as Houston, have absorbed many of the displaced and are now seeing social issues arise because of this.

My knowledge of Katrina was limited to the rhetoric issued mainly by the Associated Press and other news outlets, but the drama continues and is far more complicated than I had previously understood. It seems that under every rock there is another issue, another problem, another facet of the vastly complex underpinnings of this particular national disaster. Although Katrina was certainly not the first or last hurricane to devastate any area of the US, it has certainly become one of the most hotly debated for the sheer fact that it unearthed a seemingly-unsurmountable number of problems with urban areas in general. A severe gap in the population between the haves and have-nots, an immediate call to address issues that this city (and it is in no way unique in this fashion, because most-if-not-all cities suffer from the same sort of helplessness when it comes to some of these problems) had, for years, swept in layers under forgotten rugs.

Although I'm coming a bit late to the party, and although my understanding of the situation is changing by the day (if not by the minute/hour), I am slowly attempting to grasp the complexity of everything and try to make some sense of it.

And it's not all bad, certainly. Crime rates are down, the spirit of the city is infectious, and volunteering is at an all-time high. Where local and federal governments have failed, again and again, to provide aid for citizens, private and indepedent groups have stepped in. This is a great time for guerilla volunteering, for community, for working to re-build a city with a past as spicy and sweet as its delicacies. There is endless culture here, and Katrina has fueled creativity for a new generation of artists working to make sense of the catastrophe through art, music, and literature. There is hope here, certainly, and a belief that the problems are not insurmountable, the damage not permanant, and spirit still alive and well.

And, of course, there are drive-through daiquiris, and bowling alleys with live zydeco music, and po'boys, and red beans and rice, and pralines, and palm trees. There are those things too.