Friday, February 17, 2006

As I drove Paul to the airport last Sunday, I was missing him already. I'd gotten to share a bit of my favorite time in New Orleans with him; on Saturday we attended the Krewe de Vieux parade that starts in my neighborhood and winds through the Quarter. Floats like the one that read, "Buy Us Back, Chirac," and, "Home is Where the Tarp Is" conveyed the "spirit" that journalists keep referring to (tritely, I might add, though not without truth). We laughed, we caught throws--my favorite was one mocking the power company, Entergy, with a likeness of its logo changed to read: "Entropy: We Have the Power... and You Don't"! Later that night, as if to ice the cake, the power went out. This time, though, it was charming.

Having Paul here was invigorating. Simon took him on a bike ride into the Lower Ninth while I taught, and when they returned, Paul seemed visibly shaken. "I was blown away," he said. I did my best to keep things light. When we went out later to tour Gentilly and Lakeview, I said that I thought it was good we were getting all the devastation packed into one devastating day. So on Saturday we could move on to some fun. We could move on to posting the Valentines his students made for New Orleans kids--the ones that I laughed at that said, "We Wish You the Best," and the one that read, "I Love You, Mom." We could move on to joking about the good a Valentine will do in times like these. 'Cause with someone from out of town here, you can make these jokes. With Paul here, they were funny.

But Paul is gone, and it is just us again, and as if to punctuate my emotional sadness, my body got sick and I spent Monday and Tuesday in bed, feeling sick and feeling dark. Last week's meeting has begun to sink in, and I really do have to think about what it will be like to live here without my teaching job. Sick and in bed, I began to feel like it's not something I can do. I've joked to others about driving a UPS truck, bartending at the Hard Rock Cafe--anything to stay in this city I so love. But really I'm not sure it's something I can do. Could I be happy without my students, without this life that I love? And with the city just a shell of itself--and that shell reminding me: You Are F-Ing Lucky at every turn--You Are F-Ing Lucky That You Are White, will I feel okay? Will I love New Orleans if she doesn't recover--if the people who made it the Chocolate City I moved to can't return? I'm just not sure.

But then Mardi Gras is upon us. On Wednesday we had cheerleading practice for the Ninth Ward Marching Band. The documentarians (everyone seems to be making documentaries in this city, these days) showed up even before the cheerleaders. They filmed me making buttered popcorn and arranging cookies on a plate. They asked me about moving here and what stories my students told. "What was the craziest story your students told," the cameraman asked. I couldn't remember. Weren't they all "crazy"? Wasn't THIS crazy--this standing in the kitchen that was still standing, buttering popcorn and talking about cheerleading and devastation in one breath--wasn't it?

I told the story that Debra from my class last semester told me. She'd worked at Gulf Coast Bank in St. Bernard Parish. She'd lost everything. No one had heard from the President of the bank, an elderly man who lived in Chalmette, and yet their first task was to rescue flood-damaged money from the back. They had to launder it. It smelled like flood and money.

I told this story, and then I said something like yeah, that was crazy, and I opened the 'fridge to return the butter to its place, saying, "I can't imagine. I've never had money to launder." And later--because this is how self-conscious and guilty I feel these days, I worried about how that might seem. Me, opening a full refrigerator, with its organic milk on the door, bemoaning my being the privileged poor. What could I possibly have of value to say?

And yet, in school this week I was telling my students that THEY ALL HAVE STORIES TO TELL. Many of them feel like their stories aren't worth telling--like stories like ours of survival and guilt and what it's like to be okay amidst everything that's not are not noteworthy. "All of it matters," I said. "All of it."

But really, when you feel like no one is listening, when you see the lack of change, the way things have remained and remained and remained as they were the day we came back in October (okay--there are more gas stations and grocery stores open, yes, but so what?,) it is hard to remember that everything matters. It is hard to remember that anything matters. When Paul was here, though, and when outside people come in, it feels again like we matter.

And when we parade--when we make up a routine in the back yard to the recorded band music: "Rock You Like a Hurricane" and "House of the Rising Sun", while next door the Hispanic contractors peek out from behind the plywood windows of the house they're repairing--when we listen to music and dance, not just to celebrate, but to forget, it's all good for a minute. For a Valentine's minute, it's all f-ing good.

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Our dear friend Terrence wrote this poem and read to me on the phone from Houston last night. It might be the best Katrina poem of all time.

"I Wanna Go Home" by Terrence Walton

I wanna go home.
A summer day has come and gone,
Texas is wrong,
I wanna go home.

Terrence's friend, Jabari, and Terrence next to our Loquat tree--or, as they call it, the "Misbelieve Tree" (no one seems to know why New Orleans children call the japanese plums Misbelieves, but they do, and I love it.) Our loquat tree is readying her fruits, but this year there won't be kids around to eat them.

I'll write more about Terrence and his famlily soon.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

I have always been a good student, and I may be an even better teacher, but I have never liked school, in the social sense, and so my choosing to work in the academic system might be a bad fit. Once upon a time I had grand ideas of publishing and all that, but then I saw what it does to one's ego, and what one has to do to sell oneself, and I decided that being a really good teacher and maintaining a mediocre blog is happiness enough for me.

Still, hearing about the upcoming cuts at the University of New Orleans, and knowing that my being hired so recently (and for teaching lowly comp classes, at that) and not having published puts my job in jeopardy, I get edgy and realize that if I want this career, I'm going to have to do a whole lot that I don't want to do. Like attend really really log faculty meetings where tenured faculty say things and ask questions designed to disparage us lowly instructors.

Such was the scene yesterday at the Liberal Arts faculty meeting at UNO. I'd known about the meeting, but had forgotten, but my office-mate and friend Matt told me that it would behoove me to go. "They don't take attendance," he assured me, "but they notice who goes." So, in the interest of keeping my job, I went.

The meetings are held in a very large lecture room with stadium seating. One of the casualties of the storm has been janitorial services and apparently a key to the boiler room, so like the classroom I teach in, this one was strewn with candy wrappers, balled-up paper, and coke spills. It was hot, and extraordinarily stuffy, and the projector screen had been pulled down to conceal the missing bottom portion of the wall. Ah, the halls of the academy.

We'd heard that this would be The Meeting where they told us about the University's future, and the Chancellor was scheduled to arrive at 1:00. The dean of Liberal Arts thanked us all for teaching online in the fall, for continuing to do so while the school restructures its course offerings, and commented on the lack of housing for displace students and faculty.

There are two large FEMA trailer parks on campus--one on the Quad next to the student union, and one in the parking lot by the London Canal. Neither park has inhabitants, but both are guarded by someone in an SUV with tinted windows. The trailers were promised by November and then December and then January and most recently February, but nothing has changed. Not a single trailer has been hooked up to power or water sources. And no one knows when they will be. "I don't believe a word FEMA says," Dean Krantz told us. And we all nodded, knowingly. It is exhausting, this fatalism. It feels awful not to matter to the powers that be, and to know it. This is what that feels like. I now know.

But the trailers evidently cost an average of $35,000 EACH just to hook up. And the state has to pay 10% of that back. And we are a state-run school, as is LSU, who has been lobbying hard to get more money while we are "down." It has always been this way. LSU wants to be a flagship University. It wants UNO to fail. But to lobby for money in these times (in these times!)--blatant greed, the Chancellor called it. So LSU is lobbying against us and we are lobbying to get help and the state is hedging its bets and wouldn't it be better to just let us flounder so they don't have to pay back these ridiculous fees? Isn't that what is important--the money? I mean, screw having a research University in New Orleans. Screw 'em all, right? Survival of the f-ing fittest. God, it makes me sick.

So chancellor O'Brien arrives, and he is NOT my favorite dude. He's a business man, after all, and he's responsible for the ridiculous over-investment in UNO's business program (and, surely, for the inflatables at every UNO gathering,) but he is a good dude to have on our side right now. He seemed genuinely angry and genuinely worried for us and as if he genuinely cared that many of us will be losing our jobs soon.

The timetable is one month. Over the next month the University will do what Tulane did--it will restructure, cutting out certain programs and firing where needed. I think my job is as safe as they come--they'll always need comp teachers--but only if the enrollment numbers come up, and that is highly unlikely. Most of our students came direct from New Orleans Public Schools, and with no graduates this year and at least half of those students gone, who will come to UNO? So event though comp is a safe place, it's still likely, I learned, that I will be out a job come summer.

O'Brien kept saying, "waste and frustration" when he referred to The System, to trying to get money from the Feds. And I think a lot of folks probably read about New Orleans right now and think that we are a waste, that we should be frustrated, that we should take care of our damn selves. Well, as our Dean said yesterday, we simply have to stop acting like what happened to New Orleans was inevitable. It was not the hurricane that hit us, it was the flood, and the flood was a man-made disaster caused by years of waste on the behalf of the federal government. I grind my teeth when I think hard about it, and then I have to stop because I need to keep my head focused on the daily.

And that's what I will keep doing: I will be a damn good teacher, and maybe a better girlfriend, and I will take my evening walk past the hooting contractors and the piles of debris, and I will ramble on this blog because it is good for me, and I will take pictures of the things that just don't make sense.

Wednesday, February 01, 2006

So I am overjoyed to be back in the classroom--even with my horribly crappy schedule. I took some pictures from my drive to campus and some images from around campus. The one of black Santa and the worker is on Franklin Avenue, the road I drive to work every morning. I found the stranded boat spraypainted with a call for Greek pledges somehow uncanny. Next to the student crosswalk from the parking lot to the campus buildings is a FEMA trailer park that sits, unused. And finally, no UNO party would be complete without money wasted on stupid inflatables. On to my post...
Reading back, I realize that many (okay, most) of my recent entries (all right, all of them) have been, well, depressing. I worry that I'm injuring the reader (my mom,) and that harping on the negative will cause my reader(s) (my mom) to turn away. While I want my readers to empathize, I don't want to injure them.

In a class I once took in graduate school about literature of the Vietnam War, we talked about trauma and recovery. It is impossible, our prof said, to recover from trauma if the listener cannot listen without injury. I thought that was a fluke. How can we truly empathize without feeling injured?

At any rate, today I will share a bit of hope in sharing with you my return to teaching at the University of New Orleans (this in spite of the fact that the President's State of the Union Address was an abomination worth a blog unto itself... our local news has New Orleanians reeling about the mere 36 seconds spent on New Orleans, the lack of any new rebuilding plan or commitment, the absence of appropriate reverence for the 1,000+ dead; Simon reminded me that it was politically relevant for him to eulogize the dead in his speech after 9/11. Ours would be better ignored from a political standpoint.)

Whoops. That was anger.
Moving on...

School has started, and I get goosebumps in the classroom and am nearly brought to tears by the posts of some of my students in my online classes. Here are some excerpts:

"Hi everyone, my name is Kristen Johnson. I’m currently staying in Georgia with my parents, siblings, and boyfriend. Long story short, my house in Louisiana has to be rebuilt so I’m living here for now..."


"My name is B__. I am currently a graduating senior at UNO. My major is Hotel/Restaurant/Tourism Administration in the College of Business. I am fortunate enough to still be living in the metro New Orleans area because my house did not recieve major damage. My heart goes out to the many that did though. I work at the front desk at a hotel downtown which has re-opened, even though we had 5 feet of water in the lobby. (and looking for employees if anyone is interested!)"

"Hi all. My name is M__ and I am a senior majoring in Psychology. I also have a minor in business management. I am originally from the West Bank. I graduated from Brother Martin in 1999 and hope to graduate from UNO this fall. I was currently attending UNO when Katrina hit. I was lucky enough to get into LSU and find a place to stay in Baton Rouge. I just recently came back to the city, and I am in the process of moving into a town home uptown.

I am also a member of the 159th Louisiana Air National Guard Unit. If you guys ever pass through uptown and see the soldiers in the humvees…that’s us. I also bartend at the Venue, so if your ever in the neighborhood come swing by. Finally, and certainly not least, I receive all my joy from my 3 ½ year old son, Tyler. He is a spitting image of me and his favorite books are pretty much anything pop up!

I’ll have to admit I have a terrible time finishing a book front to back in less than a 8-10 month period. But needless to say I really enjoyed Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings Trilogy. I even delved into his Silmarillion a bit. It was mostly for the background. I also like Tim O’Brien’s If I Die in a Combat Zone and John Barry’s Rising Tide. Rising Tide was particularly interesting because it was basically a crash course on the Mississippi River, the flood of 1927, and the politics behind it all.

My hobbies include hitting the gym about 5 times a week, spending countless hours on the internet, playing with my son, and enjoying time with my friends. Even though UNO is not the same I am very glad it is back up and running."

And my favorite:

"My name is Yvonne but all of my friends call me Alexis. I was born in New Orleans and my family has always been here but I've lived in different parts of the southeast. I am 19 years old and I have been out of high school for 3 1/2 years and now is my first time in college. I homeschooled myself my junior year, which allowed me to complete two years in one and graduate early. I then left home, started to work full time and joined a band. I love to travel, sing, read, write, play, listen to music, appreciate art and history, work out and hang out with animals. I have two rokken little dogs- Lady Death Dog of Doom, a 3 year old papillion (9 lbs) and Lord Korsan, Champion of Terror, a Parson Jack Russel Terrier who is just a 9 week old puppy coming in at 5.6 lbs! My family's houses were in Lakeview and my apartment was in mid-city so Katrina pretty much ruined my life. Now I live in a FEMA trailer in Metairie and the state of my city makes me sick. Some days I feel like I'm living in the ghost of what my life used to be, especially when I drive to the UNO campus because Lakeview is so dead and it used to be so alive. Anyway, I am just grateful to be in school because education is freedom and freedom is life."
'Nuf said.