Saturday, June 30, 2007

If only...

It's been a long week, and for most of it, I've been sitting Indian-style in a chair with my laptop. My online teaching job has been KICKING MY BUTT. In addition to responding to the nearly-constant submissions of my 13 reliable middle-school aged students, I've had to chase after two laggards. This is one reason why I am so happy to teach college and NOT middle school--if a college student doesn't show up or fails to do the work, I don't have to chase them down. I simply apply the standards to their work and performance, and they reap what they sow. When teaching middle-schoolers, though, you've got parental involvement to deal with, and I find the position it puts me in ethically questionable and down-right uncomfortable. Basically, I become the Customer Service Representative. I resent being put in that position. Especially because I care so deeply about my teaching.

My supervisor has told me that I should "write less," and she's right. But when I say I care deeply about teaching, I mean it. Not only does "writing less" mean that I may not be able to accomplish all I'd like to, it also requires a lot of skill. I haven't mastered the skill of offering perfectly-concise critiques of student-writing. My solution in the classroom has been to make very brief notes at the end of the essay which I then address in student conferences (also time consuming). Obviously this isn't possible in online teaching.

Anyway, I've been at it every day from 9 until 5, and I am STRESSED. The only break I got from teaching this week was the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association (HCNA) meeting--which was uplifting and eventful. Among the highlights: the shared appreciation of this article chronicling the "green rebuilding" efforts in the Lower Nine, and a heated "discussion" (read: rant) on the subject of the Holy Cross School Board's decision to rent their modulars to the State's Recovery School District (RSD)--without consulting the neighborhood's residents.

The Holy Cross campus has yet to be gutted. Instead of gutting the buildings, the board decided to abandon ship, and so they brought in trailers and let the rest of the campus go. They'd already decided to move the school to Gentilly--a decision that will inevitably mean a much longer recovery-time for the Holy Cross neighborhood, and one whose motives appeared to be at least partly related to racial tensions between the mostly-white, upper-class private school and the mostly-black, lower-class Lower Nine. As you might expect, the board denies this. But when has white-flight ever been openly acknowledged in public spheres (unabashed racists aside)?

At any rate, the RSD school that will be housed in the trailers on the moldy campus is to be an "alternative school." At the HCNA meeting, a 31-year veteran of the Orleans Parish Public Schools (OPPS) explained that "alternative" is a politically-correct way of saying "a school for bad kids." They'll be students who have either not chosen or were too late in registering for other schools (I may not have mentioned that New Orleans is now a giant petri dish for the grant charter-school experiments so popular these days). They'll also be students who have been expelled from other schools. High school students. The attitude toward the students is epitomized by one HC resident's cry: "These kids are BAD." Another neighbor said, "You know, comparing the Holy Cross school to this alternative school is like apples and oranges. Holy Cross was the good kids. The alternative school? We don't want those kids around here."

As you might imagine, these complaints are hard for a young, idealistic teacher like me to hear. From what I gathered, my feelings are shared only by my husband and one other woman--a beautiful sister who graduated from Douglass. She said, "The way I see it, we can either see the kids' presence as an aberration to be ignored, or an opportunity to embrace them." This inspired poorly-disguised groans and harrumphs, and the rant continued:

"I'm not trying to say that these kids are a bunch of jail birds, but they are. They will set fire to their school and watch it burn. Hell, they'll set fire to their own house and sit on the stoop and watch that burn, too. These kids will do anything."

"We are living at Ground Zero here. These are the kids that nobody wants--that's why they're sending them down here."

I felt like crying. Instead, I stood up and introduced myself.

I was trembling I was so nervous. I was keenly aware of being This White Girl. This White Girl from across the canal, no less. I wasn't there before the storm, so what do I know? I teach at a University, so who do I think I am to speak on behalf of the kids of OPPS? My privilege, my age, my naive hope--who did I think I was to suggest that we could be "neighbors" to the school, that we could volunteer to tutor, or invite the kids to meetings, or say hello to them before they have a chance to burn our houses down. Who did I think I was?

"Truthfully," I said, "the idea of an alternative school in the neighborhood scares me, but I just feel like, I don't know, we can be angry and lock our doors and the shades, or we can do something else..." (real articulate.)

"We can confront our fears," Pam suggested.

I nearly shouted. "Yeah!"

Truthfully, I think that the issue is we have different ideas about confronting our fears. The 31-year veterans think we should be threatening grannies. The idealists think we should be kooky, loving aunts.

So I learned a bit more about my neighborhood this week.

Also, we got the second bid back, and it's too high. I am so sad about this I can hardly speak. To know that we--two degreed professionals--can't afford a 1200-square foot home in a devastated neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward tells me Something Is Seriously Wrong. In my opinion, the Preservation Resource Center (who's selling us the house) should eat more of a loss in order to get us in that home. The Operation Comeback Mission Statement reads: "Restored houses will be sold to low and moderate income buyers at attractive prices. Because post-Katrina construction costs make it difficult or impossible to repair homes at an affordable price, the Operation Comeback Revolving Fund will cover financing gaps of up $25,000 per buyer. Additionally, we have access to a small pool of HOME funds for low-income buyers and are strengthening ties with other non-profits to ensure buyers get the financial help they need to buy our houses. Returning New Orleanians need every bit of help they can get, and our discounts will help put them on the road to personal recovery." But they have told us they are only willing to take a 10K loss, which means we have to fork over at least 25K more than the initial estimated price.

We aren't quite sure what to do about this. We may have to lose some serious square footage. We will definitely not be able to have the welcoming porches from the original drawings. We're going to have a "demo-party" to remove the rear shed. We're going to have a yard sale. We're going to win the lottery.

What we're not going to do is be on This Old House. The sad news came today, and I am royally bummed. It appears that our story is not good enough. (Stephanie at the PRC put it perfectly: they come in from out of town with Our Stories already written; they don't tell our stories as they really are.) The fact that we weren't living in our house before the storm was the issue. I suspect it also had something to do with our being white and moving into a black neighborhood. Nobody wants to see a gentrification story.

Well, folks, this is my story, our story. It's messy, it ain't carefully proofread, and it's happier than what you may have had in mind. But that don't mean it's not worth telling.

So there, This Old House. You can take your $10,000 in appliances and shove 'em. (Gawd--if we'd had that money, maybe we could afford the house. How's that for a sob story, TV land? Sad enough for you?)

A final note: today was to be the sale date for our house. Oh, if only...

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Happy Birthday, Terrence, and Thank you, U of Wisconsin!

Our dear neighborhood friend, Terrence, turned 16 on Friday, which made me sad (surprise, surprise). Mostly I am sad because Terrence didn't call us--as he usually does--to say, "It's my birthday!!!" and now I worry that he's turned jaded teenager--too cool for the square white teacher-couple from his old New Orleans neighborhood.

No. That can't be true. Not my Terrence!

Actually, he probably wanted to call but was unable to, which makes me feel badly (surprise, surPRISE) because the last time we spoke he was asking us to by him minutes for his cell phone. We said no, thinking we were protecting him from himself. You know: Terrence watches too much TV, Terrence plays too many video games, Terrence gives too much of a crap about his darned cell phone. All of this is true.

But so do Terrence's parents work too hard. And so does Terrence have to share with Jabari, who isn't his real brother (or cousin, or related, even), and who is living with Terrence and his family, now, in Houston (thank God--since Jabari's mother is a Lost Cause of perpetual front stoop-dom). And so does Terrence miss New Orleans. I know he does.

The last time I spoke to Terrence he asked if we were still moving "down the other side of the canal."

"Yes, we're still moving," I told him. "Someday."

"Well, then I don't even want to move back to New Orleans if y'all movin' down there."

"Terrence, it's close enough that you can ride a bike, so don't even go trying to make me feel guilty."

Terrence is good at making me feel bad. He's got me that way. But then again, everyone/everything does, I suppose.

Terrence has been saying for months that they are moving back, and I've never believed it, but recently, the house they lived in was fixed up (finally--shoddily but at least and finally). So maybe he will come home.

Part of me doesn't want him to, as much as I miss him. He's older now, and I think this is a bad place for a sixteen-year-old male whose best friends are the white teachers up the street. We can't protect him.

But the more I think about the way that we forged a relationship with Terrence's parents, the more I realize that it really does take Getting to Know Your Neighbors to quell irrational fears. So that is what we will do when we (finally--ever?!?!?!) move to Holy Cross.

Last Thursday, we went to a Holy Cross Neighborhood Association meeting. I'd not been since the Christmas party, and since then, the venue has changed from a Holy Cross School trailer to a little old restored church near the river.

When we entered the church, there were video cameras rolling. The cameraman's assistant told us to skooch on by. So we did, and sat down in two of the folding chairs.

The topic was crime, and the first thing I noticed was how many young and altruistic-looking white folks were busily scribbling notes. I was sitting next to a young man who seemed to be a reporter. He had New Yorker tennis shoes on--hip and nerdy ones, and he seemed unhurried and had good reporterly penmanship. He made me feel as though I should be jotting down notes, too, so I did.

The first note I wrote: "We're not used to seeing the police."

One late middle-age white woman was sharing her cop-sightings: two cars in one week.

Simon and I have noticed the lack of police presence in Holy Cross, but we try not to think about it. Evidently, though, the lack of presence has meant continued problems with theft. One elderly black woman reported that her generator and compressor were stolen from her house-in-progress. She called the cops at 1 pm, at 2, and then at 6. No one ever showed. Later the next day, she saw a patrol car and she stopped to tell the cop about the robbery and the lack of response. He told her that for issues like that, she should call the guard.

"But we don't have a number for the Guard," she told him.

She reported that he looked at her like, "I'm just doing what I gotta do." "He was just down her to lock up his mama's house," she said.

There were other stories like this one, and later, commander Schaubhutt (sp?) from the 5th District explained the real problem: There are simply not enough police to go around.

"Do y'all even realize that we have issues down here?" one woman asked. "I mean, don't you think that if the criminals know y'all are all over Central City, and they know that there's no one looking after the Lower Nine--don't you think they're smart enough to come down here?"

Officer S said, "Look, Ma'am" (never an encouraging way to begin a sentence), I'm just hear to listen, I can't say anything that'll get me into trouble."

"Well, what would you say that could cause trouble?"

He chuckled. "Now, there you go again! I'm not going into that."

"Well, so what are you doing here listening? If you say you are here to listen, then what, exactly, do you plan to do with that information?"

There was no answer to that question.

Now, you might think that this would scare us away, but I have to say, this meeting was UP-LIFTING!!! It was IN a church, and it felt like GOING TO CHURCH, because here were all these different people--tough-as-nails old ladies, middle-aged black couples, white ladies (come to think of it, I don't recall seeing many white men)--and they were all coming together, asking questions that mattered. And when the cop left, they all--we all--banded together and made a plan to make calls and write letters and to stick together. It was neighborly, damnit, and it felt really, really good.

On Friday, in fact, we went to an HCNA crab boil at Caffin and Florida in the Lower Nine north of St. Claude. The crab boil was sponsored by some of those altruistic white folks, a group of graduate students from the University of Wisconsin who are working on a wetlands restoration project.

When Simon and I arrived, we asked the group's leader-- wiry Asian man named Herb--what their work was all about.

For starters, he showed us the Bayou Bienvenue wetlands, which I had no idea were just on the other side of Florida Avenue. Herb explained that at one time, the wetlands were filled with cypress trees--a fact confirmed by arial photos from the 50s, and by one elderly resident from the Lower Nine who remembered fishing in the swamp there as a boy.

Now, the wetlands look like this:

Those specs are dead cypress stumps and knees. I asked if this was what the bayou looked like because of the storm.

"No," Herb said. "This was caused by saltwater intrusion--most likely by MR-GO."

Briefly: the MR-GO is the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet. It was built in the 60s to provide a quick and easy link for shipping traffic between the River and the Gulf. Since it was built, it has seen scant use (but those who do use it are, of course, rich-as-hell shipping interests), and it has caused major wetlands loss due to saltwater intrusion. The Army Corps of Engineers (I'm sure you could've guessed they were behind this debacle) has debated the validity of those obvious correlative claims (MR-GO built in 60s--major and rapid wetlands loss begins in the 60s), as they have also denied that the storm surge from MR-GO was responsible for the devastation of St. Bernard Parish and much of the Lower Nine.

As I stood on that levee and looked out at the devastated wetlands, I felt so unbelievably sad. Also making me sad: to the east of the S&WB plant was a what looked like a levee. A big one. It was, in fact, a very large mound of land created by dumped debris from Hurricane Betsy. And we did have refrigerators then, people. So it's possible that the Corps destroyed Bayou Bienvenue, and our own garbage did, too. (The good people from the U of Wisconsin have sicked [sp?] a smart grad student on that, too.)

Yes, the folks from the U of Wisconsin bring hope (as many energetic out-of-towners have done for those of us simply trying to do the day-to-day thing here). They are working on a study that will likely confirm all that the Corps wishes to deny--and that will hopefully lead to a radical wetlands-restoration project that I can describe in simple terms, this way: the filtered poop from Orleans parish will no longer be pumped out in the Delta (killing fish and clogging parts of the river with plant-life that thrives on poo-water), but it will be pumped into Bayou Bienvenue.
So that one day, maybe my kids will have a crab boil by the bayou with crabs they caught themselves in a restored, rich, greeny-green swamp.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

The Priorities in Jefferson Parish

This is just awesome: let's get rid of the taco stands. Yeah, that's important!
Well, I won't be sad if the one's that get kicked out of Jeff immigrate to Orelans Parish. Gawd, Jefferson Parish is The Worst!!!!

My damn head-ness...

Yesterday we had a hefty afternoon storm, and lo and behold, we lost power. I was in the midst of stewing a chicken for a batch of Indonesian fried rice, so after pulling the chicken from the carcass and putting the chopped onions into a little plastic baggie, I waited in the almost-dark for the darker. I called 1-800-OUTAGE to report the outage and learned that it would be 10:30-11:00pm before the power was restored.

So Simon and I went out for dinner at Pho Tau Bay, and then to see Waitress, which I would have found wholly charming were I not suffering from over-education. I explained to Simon that I hated how the waitress didn't leave her husband until she had a sure thing in her lover, and she didn't leave her lover until she'd been given a big ol' heap o' cash by another man who'd died. I'm pretty sure that I wasn't supposed to "go there," and that instead I was to see it as an uplifting movie about women supporting women (or something?), but once again my cynical noggin' ruined it for me.

A wonderful respite from thinking was the week that Simon and I spent in Fort Morgan, AL. (We returned two days ago.) We were with friends and colleagues, including two of our very bestest friends who are moving away come August. On our last night at the beach, I said, jokingly, "Let's all get really drunk and sad!", which I then did. Okay, so it is impossible for me to get away from my head-ness, altogether... something I commented on to Simon while we were walking along a beautiful path through the National Wildlife Reserve that ended at an untouched beach and with an encounter with a blue heron. "I'm already missing this," I said. My pre-emptive nostalgia makes the present harder.

But I am feeling really, really sad about losing yet another (and another) New Orleans friend. Even though their leaving is more about graduate school than it is New Orleans-fatigue, I still feel as though they are abandoning ship, and I hate that. Stop abandoning the ship, I say! Of course, I am already missing them, too.

So now that we are back in New Orleans, I have officially fallen into my summer funk. I really hate summers because of the unstructured time. And compounding my feelings of funk-dom is the fact that a) we have sooo much to do in the house (but really it's mine to do, as it involves sorting through and getting rid of 8 years of my stuff), and b) I also have so much to do, professionally (I'm up for my third-year review next year at the University, and I need, need, need, to make myself look like a pro with a folder and all, and I need, need, need, to publish), and c) my dear husband has No Problem with productivity. None. He gets up and writes. Then he cleans. Then he reads. Then he works out. Then he writes and reads. And throughout all of this productivity, he experiences no anxiety, feels no inferiority, has no self-doubt. This makes me feel even crappier about my procrastination and pack-ratting and, and, and...

The bright spot for me is work. I have started my summer online teaching gig, and I really love getting to send encouraging emails and playing coach to a group of web-students. The only problem is this: I may need to make this blog private, as my web-savvy students could Google my ass and then witness me writing shoddy blogs, and, well, "ass." What do you think? Make blog private or no?

Speaking of shoddy entries, I apologize for my long absence, but I must say that it's just gonna be that way until I get outta this funk. And I don't know if that is going to happen, so...

You know, I'd really feel better if I could spend the whole summer at the beach. I love digging in the sand, walking along the water, finding shells and critters, watching no TV, and sleeping hard from real physical exhaustion. The thing about the summer in New Orleans is that you are absolutely stuck indoors. You are entirely dependent on AC. So you are stuck inside, and in my case, stuck with yer damn head-ness.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Home Again...

I've just returned from a long trip home to Atlanta, where I traveled to the mountains with my parents, celebrated Aalia's 30th birthday, shopped a lot, fought a little, and slept badly. The weather was beautiful and the trip generally relaxing, but one thing I've begun to hate about going home again is how it reminds me of aging--my own, my parents'--and how when I return to New Orleans, everything is the same--Murder Capital, devastated landscape, messy house, hurricane season. I don't want to be any younger, mind you, I just don't want to get any older anymore.

In more uplifting news, Simon and I met with producers of the TV show, This Old House this morning, and it seemed to go as well as it could. We don't have the exciting "story" they're probably looking for (couple caught behind during the storm struggles to rebuild historic home), but we are camera-ready, and I wore my "Make Levees, Not War" T-Shirt, which the director seemed to really dig. The executive producer asked us why we were moving down to a devastated neighborhood, calling us "urban pioneers." The real reason is a complex one, largely dictated by our wanting a lot and being able to afford very little in any other neighborhood. But of course there's our love of the neighborhood, and the house, and our city, and so we recited that list (also: having the levee--the largest lawn we will never have to mow--for our future kidlets to play on).

Anyway, I don't know if our "story" will be compelling enough, so I am hoping that the house, itself, for This Old House; perhaps our good looks and charm will get us on board.

Meanwhile, I have been catching up on sleep--all day--and looking at the piles of crap I need to confront. We'd agreed we'd spend a good bit of the summer preparing the house for our end-of-the-year move, and I'm realizing that what that really entails is my getting rid of a lot of my crap. I wouldn't call myself a hoarder, but I do hang onto a lot of books, papers, music, shoes, and clothes, fearing that if I throw them away I may someday miss them. So I will try to get into my most zen-like state and throw, throw, throw stuff away (or, rather, sell it at a yard sale so we can finance our champagne taste in furniture).

I'm doing what I do every summer, too: cutting down on TV watching. Simon says he is proud of me, but really my giving it up has more to do with his not having so much work to do; during the school year I make every effort to get my work done during the day so we can be all couple-y at night, but Simon always, always has to bring work home, so I wind up keeping myself company with TV. Giving up TV is pretty hard to do in our house, where we don't have many good, well-lit and uncluttered spaces for reading. (This is what happens when two lives converge, with their historic crap, on one 900-square foot house.) Simon, however, is not giving up his reruns of The Sopranos on A&E, and so here I am catching up on this blog.

This is a lame entry. I am in a poo mood. I will try to do better soon--complete with pictures and narrative and meaning and whatnot.
Yeah, that's it: meaning and whatnot.