Thursday, November 29, 2007

We did it!

We bought a house!

Yes, we are now the proud owners of an 1800 square foot shotgun double in Holy Cross. Two afternoons ago, we met the sellers at the attorney's office and signed the next thirty years of our lives away. I signed and signed and signed until I got to the closing costs. Then, I signed and clenched my teeth. We could pay our rent for a year for what we paid in closing costs. And silly me, I thought those costs actually went toward the loan. Nooooooo. Gawd, that part was sickening.

In fact, I'm just really going to have to find ways of staying positive about money. The bid seems high, the loan seems high, the closing costs seem high, and until we are able to actually move into the house, our living expenses will be ridiculously high. As in 400% higher than they are now. So we need the contractor to work fast... and we've been told by everyone to go ahead and forget that idea.

But I want to stop thinking about all that negative stuff. I want to pick paint colors and furniture and fixtures. I want to landscape our backyard in my head. I want to swing on the imaginary swing I have hanging from the branch of our backyard's live oak tree. And most of all, I want to settled on a damn floor plan!

Simon's been making fun of me for pulling out the drawings I've made wherever I go. It is a little silly to ask so many people for opinions on floorplans, I guess. And the historic consultant we've hired to help manage the home-restoration thinks we need to hurry up and settle. But isn't the floorplan, like The Most Important Thing? I mean, we plan to live in this house forever, so we don't want to regret kitchen-placement, of all things.

I think I've already posted about this, which goes to show just how obsessed with floorplans I've become. But really, we need help deciding!

I know everyone wants to have these open floorplans these days, but I don't see why I'd want my kitchen to be in my living room. Kitchens are loud and messy, and living rooms are for reading and TV-watching. (My dad did point out, though, that we'd need to think about the arrival of kids, and in that sense, I guess having a kitchen-living combo would be good.)

Anyways, I'm going to shut up about that. But if anyone has a floorplan-issue related to your own house that you either love or hate, let me know. The consultant may push use to decide, but we can't afford to get this wrong.

I really just wanted to write to let folks know that we've bought the house and are now in the beginning stages of what promises to be an agonizingly long wait for the home's completion. (And I'm scared about money, too. But only parenthetically and only because I want to be able to furnish our home inexpensively and in an environmentally-sound way... that looks good.)

Back to meeting with my panicky students. Oh, the semester's end...

Monday, November 26, 2007

House Update

When I dressed this morning, I chose gray wool slacks and a silk and Lycra fuchsia blouse under a black fitted corduroy blazer. I looked lovely and grown-up, and it was all for what was supposed to be our house-closing.

ALAS! We have NOT closed, due to a glitch that I think can safely be blamed on the loan processor. Evidently, we needed to secure our builder's risk insurance 24 hours before closing (we were ready to show up with the paper work). Did anyone tell us that was the case? Why, no!

So we met with the owner today to draw up a joke-uva hand-written extension on the contract. Lucky for us, the owner is really nice and very understanding.

Closing is now slated for the same time tomorrow, but I think this time I'll go in jeans and a t-shirt.

In other house news... the great obsession over floorplans continues. An awkward side-entry makes the third of four rooms in our shotgun nearly-useless, and so that room will be "borrowed from" to create a guest bathroom. The debate: whether the kitchen should go in the rear, separated by a hallway from the front dining and living areas, or whether the family room should go in the rear, separated by a hallway from the front kitchen and dining areas. In most shotgun houses, the front room is a "parlor" that no one really uses, which makes the second room the first "real" one--but that also means that second room feels almost too exposed for a kitchen.

Argh. Our contractor wants us to hurry up and decide, and I know this probably ISN'T a big deal, but it feels like The Biggest Of Deals. I'd be grateful for advice...

Sunday, November 18, 2007


Looks like I've neglected my blog... again. The problem? I've taken on too much, and am overextended.

I've agreed to be the website committee chair for the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association, although I know next to nothing about websites. I guess in that sparsely-populated area, I am, right now, the big computery fish in their pond. HA!

So there's that. Then there's the Help Holy Cross blog, which I've promised to contribute to when I can. "When I can" feels like never, though, and I'm finding that the stories I'd like to cover can't get covered in a timely fashion because of other obligations...

Like house-buying, for instance, which has by now entered crazy-serious stage, wherein I meet with termite inspectors, structural engineers, call insurers, obsess over floorplans, email our loan officer daily, and generally feel like, "Holy kamoly, we are DOING THIS!"

Add to this: work. It's near the end of the semester, and so naturally my students are all collectively panicking. I don't ever want them to panic, but if they're going to, I don't know why they save it until the last minute--most of the students who are panicking now haven't gotten a non-panic-worthy grade so far this semester. I guess the whole revision-bit staves off panic until now. How can I make revision serve its purpose without its appearing to be a free pass to fail and then fix?

I guess it's too late now to talk about Waiting for Godot... is it?

I'd made that wonderful assignment. I'd had such a wonderful class. I was practically glowing with the idea of it, and then...

I couldn't get in. Nor could my students. I showed up more than an hour before ticket-issuing, got dutifully in line (a line that looked only marginally longer than the one I'd been in before--the one that got me in to see the play), and waited for an hour. Soon, a guy from Creativetime came over and said there was no way we'd be getting in. There were seats for 400, and that number had been reached a few folks before me.

Which doesn't explain how, when I decided to wait and got closer, I was told that there were only tickets for forty more people--and more than 80 people in front of me.

I checked out the "Gumbo Party" and noted that there was nowhere near 400 people in the reception, so something had to be up. A rumor began to circulate: there was a guest list, and we weren't on it. The woman behind me in line lived just a few blocks away and had lost her house; she wasn't on it. So who was?

When I saw Ann Pasternak, the director of Creativetime, apologizing to line-standers being turned away, I approached her. I told her that I thought she should know that a rumor was circulating that there was a "VIP list." She denied it, vehemently (and a little rudely, I might add). "The only people on our VIP list are national press, like the New Yorker and New York Times."

I had to wonder: if I were, say, the woman behind me in line and not myself, would she have brought up the New Yorker and New York Times?

She'd assumed that I cared about the national press--the same national press that swoops in whenever there's a "gumbo party" in the ghetto and calls it recovery. Bor-ring.

"I'm not accusing you of having a guest list," I explained. "I just thought you ought to know of the rumor."

She did explain that the actors had a guest list. Also, there was a list of organizations nearly a page long. I'm sure these volunteers managed to be VIPs, too (at least I hope so).

I explained that I'd built curriculum around the play. "Will you add an additional night, like last week's?" I asked.

"No," she said, again with the vehemence. "I'm at such a deficit with this project."

That's when I was like, "Okay, peace."

Deficit?! Sister wants to talk to someone who lives here about a deficit!?

Here's my real problem with her deficit:

Creativetime saw it more important to buy gallons of gumbo than to avoid said deficit. For the umpteenth time, people: we do not need you to feed us gumbo! Gumbo is expensive--all crabs and whatnot. Skip the freakin' gumbo!

Creativetime saw it more important to admit actor Isaiah Washington (of Gray's Anatomy and "fag"-mouthed fame) and his bevy of ladies to the play--on a VIP list--and to get his picture taken (for said national press) than to ensure locals were able to attend.

Creativetime also wanted so badly to appear to extend a hand to the communities that they prioritized free admission over widespread access (via additional performances). Free stuff is great--and many needed to take advantage of the free admission. Many more, however, didn't (Washington, for one) and could easily have "contributed" a few bones to ensure more widespread attendance.

Finally, Creativetime's Pasternak prioritized press coverage over public access. One might argue that they can't be blamed for that; after all, that same press coverage will keep their donors happy. But if their mission is genuine--and is geared toward providing access within the communities to site-specific art--those communities should have been priority number one, and I think there were better ways of handling the production than Pasternak's.

The truth is, I'm picking this bone because Ms. Pasternak was dismissive, and I think she was because she was making assumptions about who I am and what I value. Annoying.

The real, real truth is that I love, love, loved the play and think it needed to stay longer, and I am blaming Pasternak because she's an easy scapegoat for my cranky-crankness. I've been feeling this crankity-crankyness lots lately, and it's not Pasternak or some play that's doing it. It's the accumulation of it all.

So: I need a break, and I intend to take one. Happy Thanksgiving to all. You can read more pleasant and less self-absorbed whatnot at

Until I'm feeling more inspired AND have more time AND can cut it with the whining, I'm signing off (for a spell)...


Friday, November 09, 2007

Preparing to wait (with my students) for Godot

I've just come from the Friday morning writing lab meeting with some of my freshman composition students.

Today, I decided to spend the 50-minute lab preparing them for seeing the Gentilly-area production of "Waiting for Godot." I realized that while the production rocked me to the core, my students may not be quite so willing to give themselves over to the ambiguity of the play. In fact, I had this vision of my students giggling with each other, eye-rolling, and then leaving before the second act, all "What the heck was THAT?!"

Before class began, I wrote a quotation from a recently-published (August, 2006) piece in the New Yorker: "Beckett's work can lay a strong claim to universality: not everyone has a God, but who doesn't have a Godot?"

When the students arrived, a few launched into excuses: "What if I can't go? I mean, some of us have to work."

I had to restrain myself. I mean, do they THINK I don't know about having to work?! Have I taught them NOTHING about audience-awareness?

Anyway, I explained that their final writing assignment would be to write an evaluation of something--a play, a movie, a restaurant, a book, an exhibit, a festival, this class, etc.--and that those who attended the play would have a built-in subject at their disposal. Those who couldn't would evaluate something else.

"But is that fair?" Christy asked.

Obviously, the question was rhetorical. What she meant to say was, "That's not FAIR!" I do have to applaud her for having enough awareness of her audience--enough self-restraint--to forego reverting to a straight-up whine.

"We'll use our common experience to talk specifically about writing an evaluation of the play," I explained, "but the tasks those who attend the play will engage in when writing their evaluations are no different from the ones you'll engage in."

Christy seemed placated, if not sure that it was, in fact, "fair."

Then, I passed out the play's program (last week, I'd been lucky to get my hands on one, so I made copies to distribute to my students--I figured reading star Wendell Pierce's bio would help inspire the nay-sayers to attend).

The students read paragraphs from the program's "Introduction" by Anne Pasternak, the President and Artistic Director of Creative Time:

"Creative Time is proud to present a site-specific outdoor production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot, directed by Christopher McElroen [my student called him "Chris Mac-E"] of the Classical Theatre of Harlem with artistic direction by Paul Chan. More than a play, the project has evolved into a collaboration between local residents, artists, and community leaders on the subject of waiting. St in an intersection of the Lower Ninth Ward and a front yard in Gentilly, this production allows Beckett's play to contextualize the unfolding story of New Orleans as a controversial and renewing city."

We then read aloud the "Synopsis and Production History of Waiting for Godot":

"Two tramps meet on the side of the road. The two men remember that they are supposed to wait under a tree for a man named Godot. It appears they do not remember this man very well, but they think he was going to give them an answer to a question they don't know."

We also read about the play's many prison-stagings and its 1993 staging in war-torn Sarajevo ("war-torn" meant something to them, but Sarajevo didn't.) We talked about the play's 2006 production in Harlem, where rather than on a country road, Vladimir and Estragon waited atop a roof over water--like New Orleanians waiting for rescue after the storm.

"How do you think the staging in Gentilly will 'contextualize' the play?" I asked. "What does 'contextualize' mean, anyway?"

"To put into context," a student offered.

I then directed their attention to the quotation on the board: "Beckett's work can lay a strong claim to universality: not everyone has a God, but who doesn't have a Godot?"

"So," I said,"two tramps wait in Gentilly for a man named Godot who never comes. They think he is going to give them an answer to a question they don't know. Within the context of New Orleans, now, who is Godot, and what kind of answer are the men hoping for"?

"He's FEMA."

"He's the Road Home."

"He's their neighbors."

"They're hoping for help."

"For relief."

"For security."

Me: "Yes! But who was Godot for the prisoners in San Quentin?"

"The parole board."

"And who could it be if the two men are simply on a plain old, ambiguous country road on a darkened stage, with a twig of a tree? Who else could Godot be?"





"The point is, the 'universality' means that the play can mean something to anyone--to everyone, because we all wait for something."

We then talked about Beckett, who explained at one point in his career that he felt a bit like the young girl Carl Jung mentioned in a lecture Beckett once attended, who "had never really been born." Beckett, author Benjamin Kunkel explains in his New Yorker piece, "Sam I Am," "was willing to confide to people throughout his life that he considered himself a similar case. The notion of an incomplete birth seemed to explain something of his feeling of unreality--many a Beckett character seems uncertain whether he really exists."

"What's that all about?" I asked. "Seems pretty absurd to me."

"Is that what he means by 'We are all born mad'?" Felecia asked, referring to a quotation from the play included before Beckett's biography in the program.

"What do you think?"

"Like, it's madness that we're here 'cuz we don't know why we're here?"

"Maybe so. Why don't we know we're here?"

"Because we're human!" yelled Blake from the back of the room.

"Yup! We sure are," I said. We talked about how maybe Beckett felt uncertain about whether he really existed because here he was, a human, but he didn't know why. We didn't ask to be born, after all. And given that truth--that we ARE but don't know WHY--what do we do with ourselves?

"We wait!"

"For what?" I asked.

"For Godot!"

"What's Godot got to give us?"

"We don't know!"

At this point, the absurd seemed to have taken over class, and we all broke down into a bit of "What THE?!!" But to me, it felt like an epiphany--like here we were, talking about art, about ourselves, and my students WEREN'T lost. They GOT it, ambiguity at all, and it was universal. It just made sense.

We ended class by reading Jarvis DeBerry's column from the T-P. One of my students said, when we were through, "Damn, that was good!" And, of course, I--the writing teacher--had to keep myself from cartwheeling: to hear a student say, "Damn, that was good" to a piece of writing!

As the students left, I distributed copies of Paul Chan's artist-statement (which has some remarkable similarlities in content to Susan Sontag's writing on her staging in Sarajevo), and Mapquest copies of the play's location. As the students filed on by, eye-rolling Christy stopped to say that she really wanted to go to the play, that was "on call" for work tonight and would try to go, but that she didn't want to go by herself. So, I've promised to meet Christy here on campus and to go to the play together. And really, I just can't wait. For real.

I can't wait to see the play again (this time I will hopefully hold myself together a little better!) I can't wait to stand in line with my students--to talk, to eat with them. I can't wait to sit next to Allie, who asked if she could ask me questiosn if she didn't "get it." I can't wait to see how my studentsabsorb the play--to see what they take from it. I promise to report on the experience, and to share more about how this play has impacted my teaching in this final unit of my freshman comp class.

Since I know most of you (Mom!) can't see the play, I recommend you watch this multi-media presentation on It was compiled using images and sounds from the night Simon and I attended the play.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Waiting for Godot

This weekend, Simon and I went down to the Lower Ninth Ward to see a wholly unique staging of Samuel Beckett's play, "Waiting for Godot," and I'm trying now to process the experience, which was--in a word--cathartic. (I like how Susan Sontag puts it in her piece reflecting on her 1993 staging of the play in Sarajevo: "In Sarajevo, as anywhere else, there are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art."--Yes: what she said.)

I think I can recall reading the play (maybe in high school?). I recall its being boring, and wondering, Dear God, why we were being made to read such a thing!?
In it, nothing happens. Two men simply wait "for Godot." Who Godot is, or why they are waiting for him, you--and they--aren't exactly sure. You just know that you are waiting.
It's that wait that fuels the play's tension, and, like waiting, the tension you (and the characters) feel is fueled at times by promise, at times by fear, at times by frustration, exuberance, anger, dread.
You aren't even sure if what you're waiting for is, well, worth waiting for.
Still, waiting is what you do because waiting is, it seems, all there is to do.

That feeling of an interminable wait with only a very ambiguous promise at its end (if a promise, at all) is a lot like what it feels to live in New Orleans right now.

And so, when we went to see "Waiting for Godot" in a performance staged outdoors--at a street corner in an utterly devastated area of the Lower Ninth Ward--we felt as though the play were uniquely ours, in spite of its being written in France in the late 1940s.

I found the play so moving, in fact, that I cried my way through most of Vladimir's second-act soliloquy. As the fall evening breeze sent waves through the knee-high grasses that blanketed the scenery, as the ships blinked and groaned on the Industrial Canal that was the backdrop, as the sky overhead enveloped and mocked us, I cried and cried and cried. Frankly, it was a little embarrassing. But when the spirit moves you, right? You got to move.


Let us not waste our time in idle discourse!
(Pause. Vehemently.) Let us do something, while we have the chance! It is not every day that we are needed. Not indeed that we personally are needed. Others would meet the case equally well, if not better. To all mankind they were addressed, those cries for help still ringing in our ears! But at this place, at this moment of time, all mankind is us, whether we like it or not. Let us make the most of it, before it is too late! Let us represent worthily for once the foul brood to which a cruel fate consigned us! What do you say? (Estragon says nothing.) It is true that when with folded arms we weigh the pros and cons we are no less a credit to our species. The tiger bounds to the help of his congeners without the least reflection, or else he slinks away into the depths of the thickets. But that is not the question. What are we doing here, that is the question. And we are blessed in this, that we happen to know the answer. Yes, in this immense confusion one thing alone is
clear. We are waiting for Godot to come—

We are waiting, and yet we don't know what the wait will bring, or even if it will bring any

We'd heard that there was a big turnout for the play, so we arrived at 6:00, only to discover that the line was already two blocks long. No matter.

We waited.

For two hours.

Gumbo was served (and now my question is why, Dear GAWD, always the GUMBO?) Cans of Deeps Woods OFF were distributed to protect our delicate skin from the vast swarms of evening mosquitoes come in from Bayou Bienvenue. The Rebirth Brass Band played. I drank wine from a screwtop bottle in a plastic cup, and waited.

Finally, we were seated. In front of me, Isaiah something-or-other (Dr. Burke from Gray's anatomy). He had with him beautiful women, and the whole lot of them got up too many times to pee. Hollywood.

But in spite of the play's being of super-high quality (with Equity actors, a Classical Theatre of Harlem director, and Paul Chan--another high-tech New Yorker--at the helm), it felt as though it were meant for, and bred in our city. It was, quite literally, The Most Moving Theatre Experience I Have Ever Had. I mean, I felt as though I were witnessing something wholly unique--something really special. It felt like ART and HISTORY, all in caps. Oh, Dear God, it was moving...

(David Cuthbert of the Times Picayune wrote an excellent review of the play that gets it right.)

This coming weekend, the play will again be staged, this time in Gentilly. I'm not sure how it can possibly match the intensity fueled by the backdrop of the Lower Ninth Ward (the levee and its infamous breach lurking in the background, both literally and heavily in our memories), but I look froward to seeing the play again. If I knew people who had the kind of money that would allow them to hop on a plane to come down for the performance, I would say DO IT. But I don't.

So I will tell you about that staging, too.

I'm taking my students to see it on Friday. Lordy, I hope they get it. I hope they don't think, as I once did, Dear God, why this play? I hope they can see how Paul Chan and Creative Time has made this play just exactly ours.

I plan to share with them his artist's statement, which I hope, hope, hope they can appreciate (even if they don't entirely get the play). It's clear that New Orleans moved artist Paul Chan, and I am incredibly grateful to him for envisioning the project and bringing it to New Orleans.
Here's an excerpt of Paul Chan's artist statement:

"What surprised me about seeing the city for the first time was that, from seeing what was
right in front of me, I still couldn't put together a complete picture of New Orleans. I
expected comparative contrasts but not wholesale contradictions. Some neighborhoods,
like the one around Tulane, seemed virtually untouched by Katrina. But in the Lower
Ninth Ward and parts of Gentilly, the barren landscape brooded in silence. The streets
were empty. There was still debris in lots where houses once stood. I didn’t hear a single

"I have seen landscapes scarred by disasters of all sorts. In Baghdad, I saw kids playing
soccer barefoot on a wide boulevard and around the concrete rubble that came from US
troops shelling the buildings near the Tigris River. I thought I saw the same kids playing
in the ghost town known as downtown Detroit on a side street during an enormous labor
demonstration in 1999—with shoes but no shirts. Life wants to live, even if it’s on
broken concrete."

"New Orleans was different. The streets were still, as if time had been swept away along
with the houses. Friends said the city now looks like the backdrop for a bleak science
fiction movie. Waiting for a ride to pick me up after visiting with some Common Ground
volunteers who were gutting houses in the Lower Ninth, I realized it didn’t look like a
movie set, but the stage for a play I have seen many times. It was unmistakable. The
empty road. The bare tree leaning precariously to one side with just enough leaves to
make it respectable. The silence. What’s more, there was a terrible symmetry between the
reality of New Orleans post-Katrina and the essence of this play, which expresses in stark
eloquence the cruel and funny things people do while they wait: for help, for food, for
hope. It was uncanny. Standing there at the intersection of North Prieur and Reynes, I
suddenly found myself in the middle of Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot."

“'If you want to do this, you got to spend the dime, and you got to spend the time,'
someone said to me. The idea of staging Godot in New Orleans, of using the natural
collaborative process of producing a play with the necessary give and take of working on
the streets in order to reimagine how art—as the form freedom takes without the use of
force—can become the opening to enter and engage the myriad dimensions of life lived
in the midst of ruin, without succumbing to the easy graces of reducing it to either
knowledge or illustration of that life, began to take shape in a way that became
unpredictable, which is to say, new. It is fashionable today (still?) to claim that there is
nothing new beyond our horizon of art, that everything worth doing has been done. But
this seems to me an altogether specious claim, for it ignores the vast undiscovered
country of things that ought to be undone. In these great times, the terror of action and
inaction shapes the burden of history. Perhaps the task of art today is to remake this
burden anew by suspending the seemingly inexorable order of things (which gives the
burden its weight) for the potential of a clearing to take place, so that we can see and feel
what is in fact worthless, and what is in truth worth renewing.

Waiting for Godot has been staged on Broadway (in 1956), at a prison (San Quentin), and
in the middle of a war (during the Siege of Sarajevo, directed by Susan Sontag). It is a
simple story, told in two acts, about two tramps (we have other names for them today)
waiting for someone named Godot, who never comes. In New Orleans in 2007, Godot is
legion and it is not difficult to recognize the city through the play. Here, the burden of the
new is to realize the play through the city.

Paul Chan
June 2007
New York City"

So, my friends, if you have money to get here to see it, DO!!!!