Sunday, October 28, 2007

Weekend pictures from Holy Cross

When the weather is as positively perfect as it has been this weekend (dry, sunny, and in the seventies), Simon and I make our way to Holy Cross as often as we can. Yesterday we drove down to check in on our friend Mark, who's working on a home on the Jackson Barracks side of Holy Cross. While he and Simon talked shop, I swung on a swing set as the sunset.

Afterwards, we drove to our end of the neighborhood to see this lovely end to the day:

We met Mark for tapas at Mimi's in the Marigny, and watched from the balcony as a Halloween parade passed by on the street below. I was remembering two years ago, our first Halloween back, when the same parade occurred.

That year, the parade's Grand Marshall was dressed as "Katrina--That B*tch!" and the amicable and then very present National Guard joined in the fun.

We were losing power regularly back then, and just as the block party was really getting going, a transformer blew, and we were plunged into relative darkness--forced to toast Halloween by candlelight.

How odd that I am almost nostalgic for that time! Back when our hopes were still alive and the National Guard's presence felt like icing rather than necessity.

Our trips down to our future neighborhood are what give us hope, now. Today we took a camping table and some lawn chairs down to the levee to grade papers. We're both up to our ears in grading, as usual, and the task is never exactly fun. But, well, when you're setting looks like this, grading papers simply cannot suck:

That object on the horizon in the upper right is a massive freight ship--the kind of traffic we get to watch go by!

Later, we took a break from grading to walk down to the site of the Global Green Holy Cross Project. We noted that the material that we'll use for a radiant barrier in our attic covers all of the exterior walls on this house. That's some insulation!

Still, I hope that it begins to look a little less space-aged as it takes on more siding. In spite of its staying "true" to shotgun-style architecture (and energy-efficiency) in being a line of rooms (topped by another line), it's got some not-so-attractive features.

Like the hulking concrete whatnot with the metal antennae that supports the front roof. Uh, okay... That may have something "green" going for it, but we agreed that it's about as lovely as a pair of TV rabbit ears. Maybe we're just spoiled by some many lovely old New Orleans homes--like our own!

This week, we'll meet with the contractor, and hopefully finalize the layout and the financing. In the meantime, I'll be grading, and grading, and grading papers... so for now... Good night Holy Cross!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

And now for some lighter fare...

I've done it again.

I've neglected my blog for too long, and in the meantime, lots and lots has happened.

The problem: when so much has happened, the idea of writing about it overwhelms me.

For starters, Simon and I travelled to Atlanta to attend my brother's celebration of his marriage.

Also, the Holy Cross Planning Committee held a meeting and announced that our little cul-de-sac may one day become a through-street.

My oldest cat, Georgie, broke her paw.

And the house-buying has officially become a time-consuming, intimidating, paper-worky chore.

Because I don't particularly feel like delving into any of the above, I will instead share this picture of what may possibly be my second favorite sandwich of all time. It's a "BLT" made using a deep-fried softshell crab, Alan Benton's incredible Bacon, organic local lettuce, and buttery-crispy-soft-chewy bread. Oh, and a homemade aioli. Madness. Check out the fries, too. Them's some real fries, Belgian-style, in a paper cone. When I ate these goods, I thick with salt and happiness all day. You, too, can have one at Luke. The atmosphere is a bit too uptown for me, and not enough neighborhood-y. Also, the mini-ketchup is pretentious and wasteful.

But the sandwich...Also on my list of favorite sandwiches of all time:

1.) Cochon de lait po-boy (Walker's BBQ--at Jazz Fest)

2.) Vietnamese po-boy (Chargrilled chicken, with homemade mayo at Pho Tau Bay; the BEST fusion-food, IMO, EVER.)

3.) My mom's BLT (with Miracle Whip and peanut-butter; don't knock it until you've tried it!)--tied with Luke's BLT (for Mom's BLT's undeniably-strong nostalgia-factor).

4.) The fried shrimp po-boy with "Wow Sauce" from Verti Marte.

I have not yet had a burger worthy of listing here. I mean it. Some would say that Port of Call makes the best burgers, but I just don't get how a great burger can possibly be great if it is not accompanied by french fries. Impossible! Honestly, my favorite is probably Wendy's Jr. Cheeseburger Deluxe.

Anyway, I apologize to my vegetarian friends for this meat-heavy entry. Perhaps one reason I felt compelled to write it is that Simon and I have decided to cut pork out of our diet, and I am mourning BLTs. And the cochon de lait poboy...

We decided to cut out pork, and to cut down on our meat consumption in general because I learned that meat farming and corn-production are major contributors to our wetlands-loss. (I can't now find the original article where I read this.)

Any vegetarian readers eager to share a veggie sandwich recipe, by all means, do.

Monday, October 15, 2007

A Lovely Weekend

There was lots to be happy about over the weekend, so I am trying to remember those things as another busy week at school begins.

Saturday was most memorable. Our dear friend Terrence had just moved back from Houston and he called to tell us on Friday. While I was down in Holy Cross at a website committee meeting (where I was somehow made chair of the committee !?!?! perhaps because my fellow members mistake having a blog with having a clue about the Web... sigh!), Simon picked up Terrence and brought him down to see what we hope will be our new house.

At the house, we met with members of the Emerging Green Builders--a group of young architects and environmental-y building people (I really MUST learn how to talk about this with some kind of authority)--who took a look at the house and gave us lots of advice about how to renovate in a way that would save energy (and money).

I'll have to admit, a lot of what was said kind of went in one ear and flew out the other. Because we are not in a position to handle the renovation on our own (and remain sane and married), we are asking our contractor to use affordable and sustainable measures as he renovates, and we are (perhaps naively) trusting that he will. Among the measures we'll take: following the recommendations of The Alliance for Affordable Energy (whenever feasible), including installing a radiant barrier in the attic, installing plenty of insulation, installing ceiling fans in order to avoid using "forced air" cooling whenever possible, and purchasing Energystar appliances.

The problem with all of this energy-stuff is, of course, that it costs money.

This, however, brings me to another happy lesson/moment from this weekend: I learned a lot more about the Lower Ninth Ward Center for Sustainable Engagement & Development (or CSED), largely via the website committee meeting and a bit of research. (As part of the website-building plan, Dave Macaulay and friends have donated the URL [which is a website address]and the design for The website will largely be the platform for the CSED, which is good, especially since a Google of "CSED" brings up far too many other CSED's. I'm looking forward to helping with putting together a more effective website than the current one,, which is a rather rudimentary site right now that doesn't do the work of the CSED--or the neighborhood--justice, but which will... soon... soon!)

In a nutshell, the CSED is committed to helping Holy Cross become the first carbon-neutral neighborhood in America. Yes, really. Now you may see why I get the goosebumps when I think about/talk about/write about my future home. To think this is happening in New Orleans!

Anyway, I learned a bit more about my neighborhood's environmental commitment, and then I learned a but more about my future home, and then, Terrence and I drove down to the Delery Street Playground and swung on an excellent, if rusty, swingset. The sun was setting and the weather was incredible. The humid air had taken leave for the weekend, and swinging through that cool air with my friend Terrence with me, well, all just felt FINE. Terrence seemed happy to be home (although we are worried, worried, worried about his schooling), and I felt wonderful and light as air. When I got a call from a friend asking what we were up to, I said, "Swinging!" and then I explained my take on swinging and also skipping: it's nearly impossible to be down if you are swinging, really swinging (none of that melancholy scrubbing a foot around and staring at the ground) or when you are skipping. Try it!

To top off this wonderful weekend, the Saints won their game against the Seahawks last night, and I ate four Dove dark chocolates, drank a glass of Malbec, and slept well. I even dreamt of swimming competetively, as I did when I was young, and in my dream, I was the same kick-butt backstroker as I was way back when.

Today I was back at school, and back to my house-head (I feel as thought All Things House run through my mind nearly constantly these days). In between classes, I drew potential floor plans for our double-to-single shotgun conversion, obsessed over financing details that sound Greek to me, and made other house-obsessive attempts to ignore the mounting pile of literature papers I have to grade. I really do not know how people work full time while renovating a home... (and being married).

Now, back to the grind...

Friday, October 12, 2007

This week and whatnot

It has been an utterly exhausting week, and I have no one but myself to blame for that. Rather than ruining last weekend's house-buying excitement and gorge-fest with a slurry of paper-grading, I put it off. That meant that every minute of this week that I was not either in front of the class teaching, holding one-on-one conferences with my students, or getting some much-needed (but minimal) sleep, I was grading a student essay.

Luckily, I'd given them an assignment that produced some really wonderful writing.

The assignment asked students to inform a general academic audience of something they thought we should know. They were to choose a subject about which they already had a good deal of knowledge--one which wouldn't require the use of outside sources. In the early stages of generating topics, I had students coming to me and tearfully saying, "I don't know anything worth writing about."

My response: "P-SHAW!"

It is always a pleasure to explain to my writing students that the range of "worthy" subjects is limitless, and that in order to be worthy, it need not be lofty or weighty, a la Global Warming or Capital Punishment. I love watching the gears turn when I say that yes, they can write about the Plaquemines Parish Orange Festival or about their high school marching band (the topics of two of my favorite essays this time around.) And I love helping them craft essays-worth-reading from the material generated solely from what they already know.

So the content of the essays wasn't what exhausted me. What exhausted me were the sheer numbers of them that needed responses. I've worked and worked at developing methods to cut down on my response-time while also providing thoughtful, helpful comments, but inevitably I end up writing too much and spending too much time agonizing over how to strike just the right balance between praising what's good and giving 'em a necessary dose of tough love (read: this is good, but, well, this isn't.) I think what I find most difficult is that I want my students to understand not just what is wrong, but why it's wrong, and doing that succinctly is just plain difficult.

Another reason this week was so exhausting was that I held conferences with all of my composition students. I do this several times throughout the semester. One-on-one conferences with my students are the most productive aspect of my teaching, and my students seem to agree (nearly all of them mention them in their final evaluations of the course). But they are time-consuming and tiring.

Here's how my student-conferences work:

Several days before the conference, students hand in a paper. Before they do, I ask them to use out the handout on "Writing Standards" to award themselves a grade and to explain why they believe their paper deserves that grade. The self-evaluation is not an opportunity for them to convince me to give them that grade, and, in fact, I don't see their self-evaluation until the conference (when I have already responded and given the essays a grade based on my assessment.)

On the board, I write a list of items they need to bring to the conference: 1) A written self-evaluation of their most recently-submitted essay, 2) a draft of their current essay, and 3) a list of no more than three specific questions about their current essay. I find that making students come to the conferences with "homework" shows them that the conferences are not mere rap-sessions, but that they are, in fact, a vital part of the class, itself. (Back when I first started teaching, I met just once with my students, I didn't make conference assignments, and I took a much more casual approach to the time spent with them. As a result, I discovered my students didn't take them seriously, and that our time together was often chaotic and sometimes unproductive.)

At the beginning of each conference, I say hello and how are you and whatnot, and then I make the purpose of the conference clear: "The purpose of this conference is to discuss your last essay and to address any concerns you may have about your essay-in-progress." Announcing the purpose of the conference helps keep us on track and establishes a clear objective for our time together. It helps us get stuff done efficiently and effectively.

Then, with the student's previous, graded essay on the desk (between us), I ask them to get out their self-evaluation and tell me what grade they would give the essay and why. I have the Writing Standards taped to the desk (facing the student) to remind them that these are the criteria for their self-evaluation.

After they announce and explain their self-evaluation, I am able to assess their understanding of the criteria on the Writing Standards handout. Typically, they don't do very well with this the first time they meet ("I gave myself an A because I worked really hard") and so I point to the sheet and say, "Hmmm, I don't see 'A for Effort' here, so you're saying it's [insert criteria here]." When they admit that, well, they don't think their prose flows smoothly or that they have a clear thesis, I can then "lead them" to what I think is the correct assessment of their work by highlighting the language that most fits their work. While they are sometimes pretty bummed to discover that their work is, say, D-quality, instead, I am able to use the writing and grading standards to teach them what "development" really means. So I am able to use assessment not as a gate-keeping tool (which is how students typically perceive it), but as a teaching tool.

Anyways, I realize this likely does not interest many of you, dear readers, but I positively love holding conferences, in spite of just how tired I feel after having 30-something 15-minute conversations on similar subjects. There are typically tears from a few students, defiance from others (not surprisingly, the defiance usually comes from the less self-aware students), and a whole lotta epiphanies. It's pretty darn rewarding, is what I mean, so the exhaustion is a good kind. I finished my last conference an hour ago, and I feel, well, a little bit high from a week of learning more about my students and vice-versa. Whoo-hooo!

Also in happy news: I've been given a major vote of confidence by the Department via a new work assignment. I will now be the Coordinator of the Transfer Proficiency Exam. Because I am an unretained instructor, and a young-ish faculty member, being given this role means that they must see something in me. On the other hand, one could look at it and say, "Sounds to me like they're taking advantage of your non-retained status to pressure you to perform admin-work." I don't see it this way mostly because the offer was prefaced with a lengthy explanation of its not being a thinly-veiled "assignment," but a genuine offer. I took it. Because my primary interest with comp-rhet is assessment, coordinating one of the major assessment tools of our department will be a great learning experience for me. Now, if I could just decided whether or not I actually want to go for a PhD.

I met with the chair of the department about my interest in PhD programs two weeks ago, and he said that of course getting a PhD in a field that interests me would be a good thing, but that my interest in returning to UNO to out that PHD to work was risky. What if they didn't have an open line for a comp-rhet PhD when I was ready to return? How would I fare if I were then competing with a national pool of candidates for a similar position (especially if my degree were from an in-state school)?

He didn't say this, but I found myself wondering, "What if the school continues to go downhill in terms of enrollment and my instructorship is no longer available to me, either? Or worse, what if there's another urricane-hay and there's no Ew-Orleans-Nay to return to, at all?" Well, then I guess at least I'd have a degree that would make me an attractive candidate at other schools, especially since I haven't written a word of fiction in ages.

Oh, I am still right back where I was: not knowing what I want to do.

Complicating my confusion even more is my beloved Holy Cross. Last night was another Holy Cross Neighborhood Association meeting, and it was uplifting, as ever. I've volunteered to be on the website committee, and Simon and I will continue to work on the community garden. The more I get involved with the HCNA, the more that work feels like some of the most important work in my life. And if I am off getting a PhD for the next however-many-years, I won't be able to commit myself to the HCNA during this very-exciting time of rebuilding and change, change, change.

I guess that what is super-duper exhausting is this constant uncertainty. I'm always second-guessing myself in that big-picture way. I'm always feeling as though I'm doing too much, and then, of course, not nearly enough.

This week in my literature class, we were talking about Huck Finn and the impact of age on our ability to think freely and to be brave. Listening to my students, I realized that as we get older, we become less brave, not more. It's like we don't take the adventures--not because we don't think they aren't worthwhile, but because we are afraid that if we just embark, damn it, we are keenly aware of the potential for regret. What if we regret our choice? And then again, what if we regret our choice? It's paralyzing, this adulthood. I would like to return to the time when it was hope that informed my decisions instead of regret or fear.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Under Contract

Our offer was accepted! We are now under contract to buy the house pictured below. We are THRILLED and can't wait for the financing to be secured, the inspections to (hopefully) go smoothly, and work to begin.

Meanwhile, I've been trying my darndest to focus on grading student essays, but I keep finding myself compulsively drawing floor plans for a shotgun double conversion (to a single). It's addictive. Shotguns make for rather odd living spaces, so it's a real challenge to find ways of creating the kind of open floor plan we want, while still allowing for the kinds of spaces and through-ways we need. If anyone out there has converted a double to a single and has advice, please let me know!

We don't know what will happen with our deposit on 717--the PRC house we're still under contract to buy. The PRC, like everyone else, seems to be overworked and understaffed, so we haven't heard back from them about our decision to move three doors down. We figured it was important to move ahead, anyway, lest we risk losing that gem. We hope that if we find a buyer for the house, we can retain at least a portion of our deposit.

So if you know anyone who'd be interested in a beautiful single with an open-floor plan, a master suite (one of two bedrooms), two bathrooms, a large backyard and off street parking, let us know. Not only would you be getting a wonderful historic home (with a great story--oh, and a 50-year-old bird-of-paradise bush!), you'd also be getting US as neighbors! And I have documented that house's progress every step of the way, so you'd get pictures of its progress, too.

Now: must. grade. papers.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

A New New Home

Simon and I just put in an offer on the double three doors down from our PRC-single shotgun. We had all kinds of advice--much of it conflicting--about whether to offer the full asking price or not. We heard that homeowners "never think they'll get their full asking price," so we should lowball. In cases where the prospective buyer has to get financing, though, we heard that a lowball offer may be risky; someone can always come along with cash and snatch it up... and we'd witnessed and heard about a lot of interest in that one house, so we know this was a big risk.

Ultimately, we decided that the right price was a fair one, and one that would get the house off the market and into our posession. Everyone who's seen this house has said that the house was, in fact, worth the asking price. So we offered that price, with an offer expiration of tomorrow at 5 pm, and we feel pretty darn confident that we will get it. Exciting!

The house is on a corner lot and gets lots of southern light. Today we were standing at the top of the levee and when we looked back down the street, we realized we could see our front window clear as day. So we'll be able to look out the window and watch the ships go by. It has a wonderful story, too; it was rolled back from the Industrial Canal when the Lock was put in, and its bargeboard construction tells us that it's been around since the late 1800's. It has lots of beautiful details like gingerbread trim and intact front window shutters. And it has a live oak tree in the backyard that will provide shade (in New Orleans, worth gold). I look up and see a perfect limb for a swing. Yay, swings!

Perhaps because we realized we were on the cusp of something really exciting--buying our first (and hopefully forever) home--Simon and I ate our way through the weekend. I'm talking, we ATE! We had Mexican at El Gato Negro on Friday, a BLT made with a deep-fried softshell crab at Luke for lunch yesterday, and roasted oysters, pickled mirliton and beets, deviled eggs, chicken and andouille gumbo, sweet potato bread pudding, and apple crisp at Cochon last night. Tonight: dinner at Bacchanal (where we were married). Now, if only I didn't have so many papers to grade...