Friday, October 10, 2008

Our New Garden and Other Fall Delights

First of all, I know I haven't written lately, and there's a good reason for it: work. Because I am a writing teacher, I spend a LOT of time responding to student writing. When school is in session, the notion of doing any other kind of writing seems both absurd and an incredible burden.

Of course, life has kept on happening, and I don't want the cobwebs of this blog to grow too thick. So I thought I'd post some pictures of progress at our new home in Holy Cross.
We hired some neighbors to plant us a garden. Lisa and Paul are "La La Landscaping," and they are as kooky as their company-name implies. Lisa is a ball of happy energy. She flits. She giggles. She has an idea to create "high heeled gardening shoes" that will make weeding a less-backbreaking chore. She says the queens in the Quarter would love her idea.

Her boyfriend and business-partner, Paul, is her exact opposite. He rarely speaks, and when he does it's a mumble. He weeds slowly and methodically, getting even the most hidden seeds, a cigarette drips smoke all the while. He tells Lisa she shouldn't tell everyone about her shoe idea or someone might steal it. He also doesn't drink a drop, but he makes persimmon wine and he's promised to show me how.

Here's the house when the first group of plants went in.

Paul and Lisa planted zinnias, cosmos, ornamental peppers, rudbeckia, Mexican sunflowers, artemesia, butterfly weed, and jungle red hibiscus in the bed along the south side of the house. Simon and I have gradually been adding a Mississippi driftwood border, and I've been reading a lot about Louisiana gardening and getting excited about plants. I read that red hibiscus (also known as "red shield" or "jungle red" hibiscus) is and endangered plant, but I'm not sure I believe it. Lisa says when the plants flower, the blooms are the same color as the maroon foliage, and you can take the blooms and boil them to make hibiscus tea. Cosmos (the white flower whose foliage looks like dill weed) are scrappy buggers with paper-thin blooms. I'm not sure they're my favorite. I like the zinnias most of all. I cut several and made a lovely centerpiece for our dining room table.

The overall design of our garden is a bit more chaotic than I think I would have chosen. I had in mind several "levels" of plantings. Maybe some gold lantana or artemesia at the front, then some purple Mexican petunias in the middle and the red hibiscus at the back--like that. But Lisa and Paul gave us a ridiculously good deal for all the work they did, and they didn't use any gross chemicals (they even used eucalyptus mulch instead of cypress mulch). And I like the way the garden doesn't look too landscaped or like it belongs in a cul-de-sac in some Driftwood Manor place in everytown USA.

Here's the red hibiscus and butterfly weed when it was first planted. I'll have to take some "after" pictures this weekend.
A cosmos flower:

This morning I saw that a Monarch butterfly had landed on our butterfly weed. I read that the monarchs stop through here in early fall on their migratory path to Brazil.

The cats love the garden. Well, they like to pee in it. And our cat-harem has grown. Not only do we now have Miss Stripeypants hiding out in the backyard, but we also have three feral kittens (not hers) who we're trying to socialize. It's not working. Next up is trapping and neutering...

Here's Miss Stripeypants (who is very possibly, in fact, Mister Stripeypants), looking worried. She won't let me anywhere near her, although she comes running whenever she hears me come out onto the back deck:
This is Big Man (also known to Simon as "White Stockings"), Carrot Soup (the orange and white one), and Peebo (the black scaredy-cat in the background). They're not all that healthy, but they're getting better with more food and water...

In other house-news: a group of volunteers came to help us remove our Katrina-graffiti. Now there's no "1 DOA" next to our door. I miss the big white "0"s, but our home looks more like our home now, and that is a good thing. We used a product called "Graffiti Off" (or something like that) to scrub the spray paint from the vinyl siding. Earlier, Simon had tried to buy spray paint to match the siding, and he wound up making the "D" in "DOA" very defined. The volunteers also painted our front doors "cranberry bog," which I like a lot (I'll have to remember to photograph that, too). The whole house looks very "fall like" in its color-scheme. One day we'll peel the vinyl siding off and paint the wood, but for now it's looking better every day.

Oh: the appraisal got done without any major problems (since the volunteers helped us). The appraiser had been a real jerk the first time he showed up. He didn't get our of his car and essentially turned his nose up at our exterior. This time, he came inside, where he applauded the many choices I'd agonized over. ("So many custom features!") I was such a proud homeowner!

Now we are waiting for the refinancing paperwork to go through so we can start paying a monthly note that's more comfortable for us. We're still paying the construction loan rate, which is high, and I had thought we'd get a really good rate--maybe even the 5.4% George Soros proposed to help with the bailout--but it looks like the rates for 30 year fixed rates haven't gone down. Oh, well. At least we should get it down to 6%.

There's so, so much more to write about, but I need to get back to work, and I wanted this to be a happy-post, and a lot of the other stuff isn't as happy, so...

Well, happy weekend, anyway!

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

"Blogging from the Classroom"

Here's an interesting piece on blogs by teachers. I don't know if I mentioned that my own blog was read by the parent of one of my summer students... I learned that she felt I had written inappropriately about her daughter from one of my colleagues. He'd had to deal with her wrath after her daughter didn't pass my course. I believe he said she called him an "f-ing a-hole."

Anyways, I have felt very conflicted about writing about teaching, but lately I have felt that it is an important subject, and I have even thought of publicizing my blog to my students and colleagues. I'd love to hear your thoughts, Mom, on whether you think expanding beyond hurricanes to address the classroom is wise or foolish...

Thursday, September 18, 2008

When Tired Meets Mad

I have lots to write about and lots to say, but I'm exhausted. Spent the day loading and unloading debris from our renovation--debris the contractor should have disposed of but left in the name of preservation. Yeah, thanks for the mountain of termite-eaten hollow-board, dude.

Anyways, I can't write now because I really am exhausted, but I wanted to post a link to the Voice of the Wetlands site. Community activist Karen Gadbois posted a link to it on her Twitter account, and the sentiments expressed on the site are the same I've been hearing everywhere: IF WE DO NOT DO SOMETHING ABOUT THE WETLANDS NOW, COASTAL LOUISIANA IS IN REALLY BIG TROUBLE. And that, my family and friends in less threatened locales, spells trouble for you, too. (And not just because you'll have to hear from me about it.)

Gawd, I really have been asked a kabillion times, "Why do you STAY there?" to which I am forced to respond with the same romantic B.S. you have already heard (the people, the music, the culture, the food) and have likely grown tired of hearing. Because these comprise a good portion of my personal reasons for being here.

But that is really beside the point.

The point is that we are not asking our fellow Americans (and the world, sure, yes, the world) to save our wetlands and our hurricane protection systems because we are dumb enough to think that our reasons for wanting to live here are also yours. We know they are not.

But when you ask us this question, "How can you LIVE there?" you ask the wrong one. We feel the same sense of "What the F?!?"--the same dumbfounded incredulousness about your living where you do.

Last week I had a conversation with my friend Bill Loehfelm lately about making Why Coastal Louisiana Matters cards. They'd fit in your wallet, and we'd be able to pull them out whenever people ask that question: "Why do you LIVE there?"

When we got asked that question, we wouldn't have to blubber on about the sentimental crap that allows folks to tightfist their cash--to think, "Why should I save their asses just so they can eat and hang with their 'community' when I can take my vacation elsewhere?"

We'd be able to answer that question in terms that would impress you.

First on the "Why you should save our asses' list": we supply 30% of your gas and oil. You get our coffee and sugar because of our ports, too. As Bill put it, try living a day without gas, coffee, or sugar. Then we'll see how much people care about restoring our wetlands.

Okay, so I really AM exhausted, which evidently inspires ranting...

When I am not so tired, I will beef up this list. And then, when I have more money (and less important things to handle than actually dealing with the impacts of storms that would not have impacted us do terribly had our wetlands not been squandered--had our federal levees held)--I will make that "Why You Should Shut Up Talking and Save Our Asses, Already" card.

Really: good night. I promise to post a non-rant post soon. It really was a long and very eventful week, and I want to process it on the page and share with you, dear readers, even if I am mad at you sometimes for not understanding why we matter--really matter--and not just to our damn selves.

To prove that I love you anyways: big hug from my house (whose address is a heckuva lot closer to the Gulf than it was just a week ago.)

Thursday, September 11, 2008

After We've Recovered from the Toxic Gumbo...

When I opened an email whose subject was "Electricity?" today, I realized I hadn't updated my blog since we'd been home. So here I go, back...

The drive back to New Orleans seemed interminable, although it was uneventful in comparison with the one on the way out. I saw several Louisiana families on both I-85/65 and I-10 who were also headed home. They looked tired, as I am sure I did. My cat Ray was so "over" the car ride that he jammed himself between a box and the rear passenger window and stared ahead so resolutely and pathetically--without sleeping or blinking--that I worried he was dead.

When I got to Mississippi, the adrenaline had worn off, and I was just f-ing ready to get home. I was tired of listening to Elizabeth Gilbert talk about how spiritually enlightened she was (I'd promised to finish Eat, Pray, Love, and could only manage to do it via audiobook), I was tired of eating gummy bears and drinking Diet Mountain Dew, and I was even tired of texting Twitter updates (which are now appearing in the margins of my blog). So I smoked cigarettes to stay awake, even though I am really and truly one of those "social smokers" that real smokers can't stand, and I reset the cruise control for 77mph. Poor Ray thought there was a fire, and he let out a howl to rival even the most feral and in-heat of cats, so I motored along with both the A/C on and the front windows cracked.

My favorite part of the drive home is always when I make it over the top if the I-10 "high rise" in New Orleans East. You can't see the city until then, and so you climb and climb up this artificial hill (it's the only stationary bridge over the Industrial Canal), and then once you get to the top, there is the whole bowl of New Orleans all spread out before you. To the south, the lights on the Crescent City Connection dip and rise like Christmas lights strung between porch posts, and when the sun is setting--as it was when I drove in on Sunday--the Mississippi River undulates pink and orange and blue-Gulf-gray. I can remember seeing that view for the first time almost eleven years ago, how both my brother and I were like, "Holy shit," and my heart beat fast.

This time, I had a similar reaction, only my body wouldn't stop. My heart raced. My fingers tingled. I started to sweat from even my forearms, and I was sure I was about to either throw up or faint. The Franklin exit comes up quickly, so I begged my body to cooperate until I could exit the interstate. I drove the speed limit. I hung on.

At the bottom of the exit ramp, things felt better for a moment, and the cats, aware of the sudden stillness, started up with their cries. I had to get home. Had to had to.

On Franklin I saw dead tree limbs that'd been cleared from the road and piled onto the neutral ground. There was a power line down across from the home of a family who was all out gathered on the porch, the steps packed with sisters braiding brothers' hair. It was a typical Sunday picture, nothing much had changed.

When I finally got to the Judge Seaber (sp?) bridge, I looked left toward the back of town and saw the same canal walls that'd been on TV so much. The water'd gone down. On the lower-9 side of the bridge, I saw that Brad Pitt's houses had survived without a lick of damage--not a single solar panel was blown out. On Tennessee Street I took the potholes slow. I saw a big tree down just before Reynes. It'd already been cut up and its thick middle removed from the street. I passed by empty houses whose destruction was familiar, who had no new scars to show for Gustav. This made me sad for some reason.

As I passed the now-abandoned Holy Cross practice field, I saw black tar paper in peeled-back curls atop some of the old school buildings. I couldn't remember if this was new damage or old.

I turned onto Deslonde and saw that the CFLs on our front stoop were on. I was so shaky and vomitous-feeling when I pulled up by the house that I remember being very methodical: a) put in park; b) cut off ignition; c) open door; d) place one foot and then the other on the ground; e) retrieve cat carrier; f) go inside. Simon was unloading the back of his truck (he'd left an hour before me because his truck only goes 60), and Mr. Taylor was there, smiling, being our neighbor.

"How you derrin'?" he asked (this means "How you doin'," but people say "derrin" here).

"Oh, my nerves are shot," I said, the words falling out of me like I was drooling tacks.

"I'm tha same way," he said. "The same way."

I said to Simon, as low as I could, "I'm sick. I'll be inside." Then I went to the bathroom, stripped down naked, dry heaved, and took a cold shower.

I lay in bed for an hour before I felt better. Then Simon and I ate carry-out Mona's at our dining room table, only I didn't eat mine because it tasted sour and bad, like the hummus had been frozen and thawed too many times, the salad dressed in stale vinegar. We guessed their power had gone out, too.

I cracked open a beer from the freezer, and then took to the task of washing the few moldy spots that had grown in the fridge during the week we'd been without power. It was nothing, nothing, so bad as it was after Katrina, when the dried-up rice grains of coffin-fly carcasses peppered the refrigerator seals, when we had to have a group of roaming Scientologists help us carry the whole affair to the curb.

After dinner, Simon brought in more of our stuff: our art work, my wedding dress, the contents of our file cabinets, the new rug we'd bought at IKEA. I wanted Simon to take the boards off the windows and doors because it felt like we were living in a box, but there was too much else to do, and I was worthless for carrying stuff.

At one point, Simon came in and told me to come outside, he had to show me something. There, a tiny orange and white kitten was curled up on the sidewalk, cushioned by our ridiculous weeds. There were two more, Simon said, and a mama and dad-cat, too.

Later, Simon came in to tell me that he'd seen Mr. Washington from across the street. Mr. Washington said he'd gone up to stay at his house in Shreveport for the storm, but he'd been home already for days. "You seen that movie, that 'Alice in Wonderland'?" he asked Simon. "What's that the girl says in it? 'No place like home'?" Simon nodded and Mr. Washington went on, "I took that shit serious."

I guess that's really the best way to put it, too, isn't it? Here in New Orleans, we take this home shit serious.

And so--thank God--now we are home.

Still, on Monday I felt empty and all shook up. I "taught" if you can call it that, but it felt like I was tripping over thinking, over picking up chalk, over talking about "the importance of description in fiction writing." I put my writing workshop students to work on a craft exercise in "showing versus telling," and I asked them to use their five senses to show readers their evacuation experience. One student described the sight of "clouds moving faster than cars," another, the discomfort of her foot being "wedged between the gear shift and a crock pot." I shared the sound of "love bugs banging against the radiator" (a detail I don't remember, really, from my own evacuation, but I had to offer something, and there are the love bugs now--the love bugs everywhere, like there were ladybugs when I lived in Ohio and fireflies when I was growing up in Georgia, only lovebugs lack the charm of either, save their name.) There was, of course, lots of "sweaty skin sticking to the seat."

Later in the day I started to feel a bit more human. My friend Kim came by my office to bring me a copy of the textbook we'd worked on all summer. I flipped through it and felt vaguely proud, vaguely remembering that we were concerned about textbooks once. I told her about how sick I'd felt when I came home the night before. She said it was probably some weird form of relief, of release. As in, I'd seen the city, finally--all okay like I'd been told it was. But then there it really was, and all the stress I'd been holding in all week came flooding out. It was toxic, that stress, and so it made me sick. Sick like I'd eaten a bowl of "toxic gumbo".

On Monday night, after my Intro to the Short Story and Novel class (which went wonderfully, thank you bejesus), I went to the Parkview to have a beer with some of my school comrades. We shared stories of this storm. AC and Bill had gotten eaten by ticks while hiking in Tennessee. Jenni had begged her way into an overpriced hotel after 18 hours of driving. Joseph and Amanda had weathered the storm in Baton Rouge, which turned out to be a mistake, and so they returned to New Orleans on Thursday to sit in the still heat of their own home, at the very least. We all talked about watching TV, about how the reporters got their geography wrong, how someone actually, for real, used that blasted Katrina-phrase again: "toxic gumbo." Then we laughed some and seemed generally glad to be home again (although we all seemed still to be doing a bit of sleep-walking, to be grinding our teeth).

I slept for ten hours Monday night, and on Tuesday and Wednesday I began--slowly--to feel human again.

Now I am sitting in my office, and outside the winds of Hurricane Ike--still two days from Texas--are whipping the leaves of the banana trees so they look like raggedy combs. I know that at home the wind chime is making so much noise that all the cats--Carrot Soup, White Stockings, Sammo, and the still-intact, still-kicking Miss Stripeypants are all huddled beneath the porch. I read on Jeff Master's weather blog that Ike will have surge bigger than Katrina's, and that there's already 5 feet of surge in the Industrial Canal.

But tonight I can't look at no stinkin' flooding in no stinkin' canal.

Tonight I will go to the neighborhood association meeting. Then I have a Ben and Jerry's ice cream cake party to attend at Markey's bar. Then I think I might just keep it going at Vaughn's, since I'm feeling like me again, finally, and since I am home, dammit, and since I, too, take that shit serious.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Heading Home...

Here's another piece in the Times-Pic on the nightmarish evacuation and re-entry that some experienced, and yet another from WWL-TV on the concerns of our clown/mayor that residents may not leave (should we be asked to) in advance of Ike.

We head home today. As we hug the necks of our hosts, we will hope not to see them again any time soon--not because we don't love them, but because we need Ike to leave us alone.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

Preparing to Return to Our Home of Uncertainty...

Yesterday our good friend Adam called from Holy Cross. He was standing outside our house, where he confirmed the reports of several other friends: all is well. There were several cars on the street, and the drone of a generator provided the afternoon soundtrack. Mr. Taylor sent a hello to us from his porch, where he was seeking relief from the heat in his home. Was there anything we could bring him when we returned from Atlanta, Simon asked (via Adam)?
"Yeah. A generator and a case of Heinekken."

"That could get expensive," Simon said. "How about we bring you one or the other?"

"Okay, then bring me a generator so I can keep my Heinekken cold."

Yes, the power was--and is still--out in our neighborhood. In other areas, electricity has been coming on fast. On Twitter, a friend posted, "all sitting in the dark and stuff and woof! The power comes on."

I remember how that happened all the time when we returned after Katrina. We'd be just settling in to have no power for several hours (again), and then it'd startle us when it returned.
Being home right after that storm (I feel like I can't call it "The Storm" anymore, now that there's Gustav) had an adventure-ness to it. We cooked on our Coleman stove with the doors and windows open. We drove to friends' houses to take showers. We talked about where we'd been, who we'd lost, and how we hoped the city would move on. At night, when the power went out, we emerged from our houses onto our stoops and watched the moon turn slate rooftops silver. Or at least this is how my memory colors it now, and that's probably just because this time around I am much less enthused about returning to the outages, to the heat, and to the iffy future.

In Atlanta I've been playing Auntie Sarah. Auntie Sarah has the mojo when it comes to her nephew. She sings him R&B songs about "nekkid time" when she changes his diaper. She puts his ass to sleep, like pronto. Auntie Sarah loves being Auntie Sarah. She'll miss it when she goes back to New Orleans tomorrow.

I've also been trolling the internet for any kind of useful news and finding none. has posted an "Entergy updates" page which tell me nothing specific about my neighborhood. Today it says that all of Orleans Parish should have power by tomorrow, but it said the same thing of Saturday two days ago. I hope Adam will return to Holy Cross to give me updates.

In the meantime I have gotten a message from my employer that reports that they are "excited" that power has been restored to the UNO campus, and then, "You must report to work at 8 a.m. on Monday, September 8th." Is it too much to expect my employer to acknowledge our not having power yet--too much to ask the Chancellor to express some gratitude for my returning without A/C, hot water, or refrigeration? Or am I being a whiner?

Also in the meantime: Hurricane Ike watching. New Orleans is now in Ike's "Cone of Uncertainty" (or "Cone of Error"). I feel like that would be a better name for this blog: "Blog of Uncertainty," especially now that I am realizing that I'm writing in a post-K and post-G era, not just a post-K one.

I worry that folks won't evacuate if we stay this way--in the path of Ike--after having had such a hard time evacuating for Gustav. Here, in fact, is an editorial about what many see as a botched evacuation:

...The girl from across the street just came over. Her cat died last night and she wants to see ours... My next post may be from New Orleans, my home of uncertainty.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

The Evacuation Continues...

We are still here (living in my parents' basement in Atlanta). The cats are pissed. We are homesick and bored. And yet... none of this is as bad as sitting in a hot house with no power. We did that for many, many days after we returned from our Katrina evacuation, and we were "fine" with it then (relatively speaking), but then we'd been living in my parents' basement for six weeks then. So much was different then.

Yes, the power is still out at home. Here, we've been eating a lot, drinking nice cold beers, giving love to our nephew, and generally being spoiled while we wait. Because we've had friends check on the house, we really don't feel any sense of urgency to get back, although I have begun to feel the homesickness creep in, big time, especially as our friends who live Uptown start to return and report their happy homecomings via Facebook.

I don't have any faith that we will have power any time soon, and both Simon and I are feeling that our having moved to the other side of the Industrial Canal has everything to do with it. We are geographically separated from the city. In fact, our geographic neighbors are the residents of St. Bernard Parish, where power is also entirely out, and where the parish president has called the lack of electricity the biggest obstacle to recovery. Entergy has acknowledged (see first link) that geographic isolation is a big problem in restoring electricity. So as you might imagine, we are not at all encouraged to learn that St. Bernard is not promised power until September 15th.

Tomorrow: generator shopping.

We DO NOT have "generator money" budgeted, and so we'll pull from our savings in order to buy what we imagine will become a necessary, uh, "appliance" in our Lower Ninth Ward home. Our employers are expecting us to return to work on Monday, and we don't know how we can do so (sanely--since it promises to be a very challenging return) without having a good hot shower and a cool room to sleep in. I know people do this, but

Lest you think we're a bunch of whiners, may I remind you that New Orleans averages temps in the mid-nineties this time of year--and humidity levels are darn near the same. Thank goodness, then, for the cool(ish) Atlanta September, and for my parents' willingness to put up with us... Thank you five million times, Mom. Thank you.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

On Relief and Not Being Ready for "Re-Entry"

About five beers in, and after hearing at least a dozen erroneous references to "levee overtopping in the Lower Ninth Ward" by reporters on CNN, I cooked up some evacuation steaks, had a silent dinner with my family, and went to bed before nine-thirty. I slept for twelve hours, woke up, slept long enough to have a dream about struggling to synchronize swim, and got up, feeling much, much, more human today.

By now it's clear that the city avoided the worst. We still don't know exactly what has happened to our house, but we feel largely relieved about the impact Gustav had on New Orleans. Simon says he hopes the only result is that the wind pulled down the dead limbs from our backyard live oak--the ones that have been tangled up in themselves ever since Katrina. I joked that I hoped it mowed our lawn, too.

We have heard from several friends, and it seems that this storm has inspired a lot of writing... from Ken Foster, another resident of Holy Cross, comes this story in the St. Louis Beacon. Two friends blogged: Tara Jill Ciccarone began this Gustav-blog (from the city, itself), and our neighbor Ariane (who's pictured helping us board up in a previous entry) posted these thoughts on her friend's blog. In fact, there's a whole wonderful network of New Orleans bloggers, many of whom have been sending regular and blessedly accurate accounts via Twitter. I learned about this Gustav-related entry from another New Orleans blogger via those Twitter posts...

I've been grateful for the comments from some BBC-viewers on this blog. I love my mom, and all, but it's much easier to devote time to the sometimes-difficult task of writing when it's more than just your mom reading. So thank you for the well-wishes, all!

Today we have heard this good news from a friend who stayed:

"All -

I made a trip down to Holy Cross this morning (stayed in town during the storm) and am happy to report that the neighbor is in good shape.

Some limbs down, a lot of leaves and debris. But no trees fell on houses.

The only damage I saw was a collapsed house in the 4900 block of Burgundy - it had been framed but was not clad. There was another in the 700 block of Flood which had been framed and not clad and collapsed. Another house in the 700 block of Flood - a cottage near the corner of Burgundy on a big lot - looked like the side wall had fallen

I checked on the houses of Greta Gladney, PRC, Sarah Debacher and Simon hand, Ken Foster, David Whaley, Ann Schexsnyder, Katie and Jason, Rashida Ferdinand, John Washington, Emil Dumesnil, MArna, David Fields, Kevin Mercadel and did not see problems anywhere."

The mayor has asked that no one return yet, and while I hear from our friend Terrence (via text message) that he's "going crazy" and "can't wait to go home," we feel very much like we can wait on the re-entry. The prospect of returning to a house with no power or air-conditioning is bad enough, but we also have to unpack our belongings, re-hang our art, and re-enter our real lives. We're not ready to do any of this right now. We both feel like yesterday was a week ago, and two days ago, a lifetime. And--like someone who's lived a lifetime--we feel tired, tired, tired. We want rocking chairs and beers. We want more time to recover (emotionally) from the evacuation, even though we evidently will not need to repair any real physical damage. Luckily neither Simon nor I have to return to work until Monday. Luckily we have a comfortable and free place to stay. So we plan to take at least another day to repair our fragile nerves before making the trek back home.

Today I stayed away from the internet and the TV, which helped. I spent time holding and rocking my six-month-old nephew. I napped with my cats. I allowed myself to believe that we were a-okay because I really, really needed to feel that way for a moment. And then, when I logged on and learned from Stephanie that we really are, I was mightily relieved.

Off to bed. I'm not setting no stinkin' alarm. I'll re-enter this evacuation phase when my body and dreaming head are good and ready. Until then, good night...

Monday, September 01, 2008

Water in the Industrial Canal

This video is taken at the Claiborne Avenue bridge, looking north. (The bridge you see that's down is the Florida Avenue bridge).

We don't have a gate to protect the canal as they do at London Ave, 17th Street, Harvey, etc. When their gates go down, there's less area to relieve water pressure in the Industrial Canal. Also, as I have said before, the fact that the useless debacle that is the MR-GO has yet to be closed (even after congressional approval, and THREE YEARS after its surge took the lives of hundreds of New Orleans residents) makes residents currently living near the Industrial Canal (unforgivably) vulnerable to excessive flooding.

I'm not a conspiracy theorist, but one does have to wonder: if the residents of the Lower and Upper Ninth wards (north of St. Claude) were not lower-middle class black Americans, but were instead wealthy white Uptowners, would the sense of urgency be greater? Would the work move more quickly?

If you examine the areas of concentrated recovery efforts so far, post-K (and I should find a graphic to support this, as I'm sure there is one), you'll find that the Corps' recovery efforts have been focused not on the most vulnerable areas first, but on the areas where the wealth is. (God Bless America.)

Just so you know, I live where the wealth is. Mine's not a wealthy neighborhood (far from it... the construction of the Industrial Canal effectively guaranteed that by cutting Holy Cross off), but as with all areas in New Orleans, the concentration of wealth is greater the closer you get to the river. Simon and I live on high ground, next to a secure earthen levee. My house did not flood in either Betsy or Camille--storms that led to deaths in the "back-of-town" side of the Lower Ninth Ward. So we knew to expect some flooding from Gustav...

It really is better that I stay away from the TV. The national guys don't seem to know the difference between the east and west sides of the canal. Our local boys, thank goodness, do. This local info (from makes me feel a little better:

"Waves are crashing over the Industrial Canal walls in the direction of the Ninth Ward. The walls are holding solid at this time and the water going over the walls is not flooding homes. An Army Corps spokesperson said they expect the walls to hold."

My mom has returned from the store with beer. Simon is tearing apart the truck, looking for our toiletries. I'm going to have a beer and shower, in whatever order is convenient to more news and information-prowling...

New Post from Fellow NOLA Blogger


Video of Water in the Industrial Canal

"The biggest problem we are having at the moment," according to Nagin, is here:

Oh, no.

We live near here. The waterway that runs perpendicular to the Mississippi River is the Industrial Canal.

I have just heard (on FOX 8 news, of all places) that the surge is overtopping the Industrial Canal levee walls. Evidently it's on the western side, which means folks in the Upper Ninth Ward will be getting water.

Our improved levee on the east side is holding. I think.

I need to be careful not to allow the TV news-folks get me all worked up... Especially since I am on essentially no sleep.

This Really IS Deja-Vu...

I didn't sleep but an hour or so. The cats were busy establishing their territory in my parents' basement. Simon is passed out. I have been watching TV with my dad, and I am relieved to learn that things don't seem as bad as had been predicted.

But then again, we had a moment like this after Katrina. We thought we'd dodged the bullet. So no celebrating until tomorrow, when we can be sure the levees have held. Let's hope that the Industrial Canal can weather the barge-beating, too (talk about deja-vu):

Here's the link to WWL 870 a.m. Click on "Listen Live." It's got way better coverage than CNN or the Weather Channel, although I will admit that I do like me some Anderson Cooper, especially when he's all windblown and standing on Chartres Street in the Quarter, next to landmarks I know. And who can resist the hilarity of Jim Cantore in his blue parka, screaming even in the thinnest of breezes.

14 Hours Later

It's 2:39 a.m. and we have just arrived in Atlanta after a fourteen hour trip (ordinarily I make the trip in seven hours). The four cats are prowling around in my parents' basement, smelling everything, poufing up. I am having a glass of red wine, although GAWD I wanted a cold, cold beer, and then I remembered that you can't buy alcohol on Sunday in this godforsaken state. The wine is making my teeth feel chalky.

I'm on edge.

Yesterday seems like a week ago. After the trip to the Northshore to pick up our dining table and after the boarding up, I gave several interviews to the BBC. Simon was annoyed with me, I think. Here he was--securing yard debris, putting stuff in the attic and taking memorabilia and files down, and here I was--yakking about what it's like to be evacuating. I was asked twice if it all felt "a bit like deja vu," which I guess is a logical question, to which the presumptive answer is "yes."

But the answer is no. This time didn't feel anything like last time, or the time before that (Ivan), or the time before that (Dennis), or the time before that (Iris), or the time before that (Georges). I've lived in New Orleans for ten years, but none of the evacuations has ever felt this... this... BAD. In my interviews, I remembered to mention the failure of the federal levees as the reason for the devastation wrought by Katrina. And that failure (and its aftermath--the fodder for this blog) is what makes this time feel so different.

Also, I am a homeowner and not a renter this time. I mean, I don't guess that ownership is the real difference--it's more the process of finding our home; Of working through the long renovation process; Of eating (or not eating), sleeping (or not sleeping), and breathing (or smoking) that house for months upon months and then moving in, and then having to leave.

Last night, after our friends left our very short and not all that relaxing "clean out the 'fridge" BBQ, Simon and I packed in earnest. I packed enough clothes for a six-week stay. I made sure to bring interviewing clothes, just in case I'd have to find a new job. I packed art, photos, journals, letters, and my wedding dress. Then I showered and checked in with the 1:00 am update, and there was the technicolor swirl on the screen. There was the grimmest of predictions: 21 feet of storm surge; catastrophic flooding.

I was waiting for a BBC interview that would air on their live morning program, but I was so spent and emotionally overwrought that Simon thought I should turn off the phone. When he asked me if I was okay, I started to cry, hard and snotty. "We're going to lose our house," I said. Then I turned off my phone. Then I turned it back on.

We slept. I woke at seven. I was worried about getting out. On the news they were talking contraflow. They showed pictures of the I-10, blocked for miles and miles. Then the Dawn Brown said it was important to get a move on before the weather conditions started to deteriorate.

Down the street, Tasha was packing her truck on her own. Her son Ejean played a tie whistle on the stairs. She kept yelling at him. She asked us for rope. Simon said he'd leave some if we had any left. It was already 11:30 by then. I'd already had another hard cry. "I think we're going to lose our house," I told Simon. He nodded and then hugged and shushed me.

I kept thinking of more things I wanted to bring. Outside our pile grew: next to my car was the pile that had to stay dry. In Simon's was the stuff that could get rained on. The sky was turning gray already, and there was a stiff breeze. I worried. How stiff could the breeze get without lifting our roof off? Simon wanted to put more things in the attic, but I had too many windblown movie images in my head--of roof tiles flaking off like fish scales. We compromised and moved things to high shelves in our closets. I made signs that read, "Hand Family Caravan" and taped them to our rear windows so people would know not to separate us if we got into a wrong lane in the contraflow.
The cats were the hardest part. The last time we took Ray--our post-Katrina kitty--on a trip in the car, he pushed himself against the cage so hard that he rubbed of patches of fur and bloodied his tiny nose. I put him in a harness. The effect was paralyzing. He sort of sat there on the bed, looking worried, wondering what that harness meant. Anna went relatively cheerfully into her carrier. Both Sammo and Georgie required heartbreaking pushing and prying. (Later we gave them breaks, although stressed out animals, I've discovered, do not want to eat, drink, or use the bathroom. They want to sit on your lap and be reassured.)
And then we had to leave Miss Stripeypants, Sammo's sidekick. She's a feral cat who's part of the SPCA's "Catch and Release Program," which we figured out on account of two things: her notched ear and her running away even after we've just fed her fancy organic cat food (peas and duck, Miss Stripeypants! Peas. And. Duck.)

I'd bought a 16-pound bag of Friskies. I opened the top and put it on top of a cabinet on our raised porch. I measured the water line from Katrina to make sure it was high enough. Then I left two big bowls of fresh water and opened several small bottles of water that I figured she could tip over to drink if she needed to. She eyed me warily from under the porch. I blew her a kiss and moved on.

As we drove away, Tasha approached. She wanted to know where we were going. "To hell," I joked (as anyone in New Orleans knows that evacuating is its own special kind of hell.) When I told her we were really going to my parents' house, she said, "Oh, mother! Well that really is hell!" Ejean in the background looked like he might feel the same. He looked worried--like why is my mom packing everything, everything, everything and letting it get so late and leaving me here on the steps with this damn whistle when I know very well what's going on even if I was only two during Katrina? She told us to be careful. She said, "I hope it doesn't flood this time." I told her there was some extra rope on the side steps. She thanked us and we left.

The streets were empty. When we got to Franklin and I-10, the traffic I'd seen the day before was gone. We stopped to ask a cop if we should go that way. We wanted to get to I-10, but we'd heard they weren't letting anyone go on to I-10 past I-12. The map indicated that we'd get forced on to I-59, heading north. The cop shrugged. We decided to follow Mark's route. He'd headed up Causeway, then to highway 190 to I-12 to I-10 east. He reported it was smooth sailing. It sort of was.

There was, in fact, a lot of traffic that came in strange bursts apropos of nothing. There were no accidents to inspire rubbernecking or anything; you'd just be going 60 miles-per-hour one minute and then 15 the next. When it was slow I texted friends. "Dear Friends," I wrote. "Simon and I are creeping toward ATL with cats and wedding pics in tow. We hope to return to NOLA soon. In the meantime, please keep in touch, wherever you may be... XOXO SARAH." Jenn texted back that she'd been 15 hours en route to Birmingham, where she and her four dogs were not "hot and deeelerious" in a cramped hotel room. Dave took 12 to get to Arkansas. Adam and Ashley were in St. Petersburg, Florida. Scott and family: Memphis.

We (the Hand Family Caravan) mostly listened to WWL-AM 870 and called each other. On the radio, people called in all day to bitch about "contraband" (contraflow). Those who'd taken the route we very nearly did--I-59--were in "a parking lot." You could hear the frustration and anger. The southbound lanes were empty, but no one was moving. The exits had been closed. There was no place to use the bathroom or to get gas or a cold drink. Later, a woman from Uptown called to say that "someone should be held accountable" for the fact that she'd been in her car for thirteen hours and hadn't made it to Hattiesburg yet. Simon called me and asked if I'd heard the reports of gridlock on I-59 and we thanked our lucky stars we'd not gone that way. "We're charmed," he said. I wouldn't call fourteen hours for a seven hour trip a "charmed" journey, but we are here and safe, and even if I can't sleep and have wine-tooth, I am grateful we have a place to go.

Tomorrow we will watch TV, which is probably not a good idea, but what else can we do now that we are here and not there and our home is weathering the storm (we hope... we hope...) and our city is taking another sucker-punch to the gut (we hope not). In intend to stay sane. I was a rotten mess sometimes after Katrina...

(Also, I'll add some pictures to this post.)

Thank you to the readers who heard me on the BBC and who have offered support and wellwishes, by the way. Thank you for helping me to stay motivated to write about all of this, too... (We'll see how long THAT lasts!)

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Boarding up...

Our dear, dear neighbor Ariane Wiltse, and her friend Beau helped us board up the house this afternoon.

This is our house, waiting for what our clown of a mayor has called "The Mother of All Storms." Tomorrow we will leave her behind, and I am so, so sad about it. Also, I have realized that we will likely be gone for a long time. There's this, too: because we are separated from the city by the St. Claude and Claiborne Avenue Bridges, and because there is likely to be very bad damage in St. Bernard Parish to our east (and perhaps again to New Orleans East), we will probably not be allowed to come home for a long time.

Must not allow this all to sink in. Will keep moving and moving and then will sleep. Tomorrow we will leave as early as we can, but we also do not want to be driving zombies. We will be in our cars for a very, very long time. And I will have four very unhappy cats with me.

There is more to be said, but I am very, very tired, and now I have to pack in earnest. I've been sorting and getting ready in that sorting way, but not in a, "Let's do this" fashion, and now I need to. I will try to blog tomorrow. It will likely be from my parents' house in Atlanta.

P.S. Screw spellcheck.

If You Are Panicking...

We have been getting a lot of calls today. It seems many of you want to hear our plans. The problem is that our plans may not coincide with yours.

Yes, we are still waiting. Here's why:

  • We have already missed the window of opportunity for leaving without having to encounter massive traffic. (When I drove back from the Northshore, bumper-to-bumper evacuation traffic began at Franklin on the I-10/610 merge.)

  • We are not ready. Simon had to teach yesterday and we were unable to board up. We are boarding up now and clearing the yard. I have all of our papers together and I will pack this evening. We will then watch the latest coordinates at 7:00 and then make a decision about leaving. We will leave in the middle of the night--as in 3:00 a.m.-ish--if we decide that we do, indeed, need to leave.

We are not stupid. We are not irresponsible. We will leave if we think it best, and we will leave in time to avoid the possibility of being stopped by bad weather.

We understand there may have been a better way to deal with this Gustav-fucker. We understand that our plans may not comfort you. We are sorry that you are panicking. (Watching TV--the explosive graphics, well-chosen stories of heartache and fear, the use of extreme TV-lingo--it can inspire panic. It's why we are keeping it off until another storm update is to be aired.) Your panic, however, does not help us right now.

So please, please, please, know that we will take care of ourselves. We will call you with our plans--plans you may not approve of, but that will nonetheless be the result of a lot of thought and careful consideration.

In the meantime, please do not call to express your disapproval of our plans. Being here, knowing that we may lose our home, living through this again, and trying to do what we need to in order to be safe--and sane--is harder than I can express in words. Having to answer the phone--to stop boarding up, packing, assessing, and dealing with this--in order to provide you comfort does not help us. At. All.

Saturday Afternoon (Three Days Pre-Gustav)

I feel better when I am not watching television. I also feel better when I am not at the grocery store.

We just returned from Rouse's on the lakefront. The store looked closed. Crews were putting corrugated metal on the windows, but one door was open. Inside people looked as confused as I felt--like they didn't know whether to stay or go, whether to get more water or less, whether this is all some cruel joke, coming on the heels of the third anniversary of Katrina.

In the meat department they were knocking prices down by 50%, and everyone's hoarding instincts seemed to be kicking in. Because we still haven't decided if we will stay or go, we were preparing for both staying and going. We bought eight filet mignon steaks, two punds of ground buffalo, and two whole chickens.

Then Simon's brother called, and he seemed worried. Simon told him we were probably leaving, which confused me. I was loading more beer in the cart.

I had to leave. I cried in the parking lot. My mom called. I pulled it together and promised her we will be safe.

On the way home, driving through the Lower Ninth Ward on the back-of-town side, we passed the Katrina memorial and I felt just awful. When we pulled up, we saw that our across the street neighbors were leaving. I think they must have hated us--us bringing in the ice, the steaks, the beer. I hated us.

Now I am watching the mayor on TV and everything feels more serious than it did last night and yesterday. Gustav is a cat-4. My friends Amanda and Joseph called. Last night we planned to get together, to BBQ. But the 4 has Amanda worried, and she says they are leaving. Simon and I have agreed we will leave tomorrow morning if we have to, or even as late as Sunday night. We are hesitating, which I have never done before, because we have four cats who will suffer on the drive, and make us suffer, too. We are not stupid. We know how dangerous the storm is. We will be safe. We need time to batten down.

In the midst of all this, I can't believe that I am about to drive to the Northshore to pick up our dining table, but I am. It will not be insured in the furniture-maker's house, and we are--thank God--heavily insured. This feels like crazy-making. I have to get out before contra-flow begins and traffic gets bad. Simon is staying to board up and secure yard items. He has just come home after getting air in the truck's tires. I have to go... will try to write more and describe everything later.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

The Crazy Before the Storm: Or, Go, Go GO!"

Yesterday morning I got up early. I walked along the levee, where dragonflies divebombed crazily, aiming at nothing in particular, it seemed, as though drunk on the heat.

Even before we moved to Holy Cross, I'd planned to take these morning walks on the levee. Having access to greenspace in our clustered-up city is such a rare thing, and the path along the Mississippi is just one block from our new home--a fact that made me giddy. I looked forward to morning walks on the levee. Yesterday, after Simon woke me, I contemplated staying in bed until eight, but contemplating and then giving myself permission to simply stay there is a problem of mine. So I forced myself out of bed and into the company of the Mississippi River and the dragonflies.

I was trying to make my head quiet while I walked, trying to wring the storm out--both the last storm and now this Gustav-fucker. Coming from a hairy-armpitted mother and growing up in the company of many women who are interested in what my mother's guru-like friend would call "woo-woo" stuff, I've had a fair amount of exposure to the notion of meditating, but I've never had the discipline--or even the inclination, really--to commit to doing it at all, much less regularly. You're supposed to choose a word--a word that you can go to when the outside pushes in. A word that will re-center you and keep you focused on, well, nothing. Words like "peace" or "calm" would be good ones, I supposed.

I told myself I would try these words. I would attempt to focus on repeating them instead of on cursing the dog-walker who neglected to pick up after their dog. Peace... peace...

But then at 8:00 am, the Naval base across the river piped out its morning reveillion (?) , and next came the national anthem. With no breeze to lift these and carry them away from me, I heard them both as if I was there, myself. And then "peace" became "war." So I tried "calm." As in, "before the storm." That didn't work.

What if I picked my own focusing word? "Go" seemed like a good choice. Go: such a proactive, positive word, so tidy and round and uplifting, even. Go... go... go...
But the outside had, by then, already pushed its way in. And try as I might to focus on the present, on placing my feet one in front of another on the gravelled levee path, on breathing the air, on flowing with the river, I couldn't do it. I started thinking about having to "go" away--about having to evacuate. As in, "Go, go, GO!" As in run like hell.
And then I thought of MR-GO ("Mister Go"), also known as the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet.

"The Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (MRGO) is a 36-foot deep, 500-foot bottom width, man-made waterway authorized by the River and Harbor Act of 1956 and the Water Resources Development Acts of 1976, 1986 and 1996. The MR-GO extends from the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal to the 38-foot depth contour in the Gulf of Mexico. Construction of the channel began in 1958 and the channel was completed in 1968. The channel was dredged through shallow bays, coastal marshes and cypress swamps. Its construction was authorized by Congress to provide an emergency outlet from the Mississippi River in the interest of National defense and general commerce and to provide a safer and shorter route between the Port of New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico."
Many outside of New Orleans are not aware that the now nearly-unused MR-GO was responsible for much of the widespread and devastating flooding in New Orleans East, the Lower Ninth Ward, and St. Bernard Parish. Not only has its creation resulted in saltwater intrusions that have devastated wetlands (our natural defense from storms), but it also acted as a pressurized funnel for storm surge from Katrina. The MR-GO has not only not served its intended purpose, then; it also contributed to the deaths of hundreds of residents in the areas impacted by Katrina's surge, including a man who lived in my now-home.

As I walked back to my house, I started to get a bit of that crazy-feeling I had three years ago--the one I got when I was in the Chicago airport and--bam--it hit me that this Katrina-thing was really happening. I showered, made breakfast, watched the latest weather update, felt crazy again, fed the cats--including Mister (or Missus) Stripey-Pants, whom we believe to be a pre-K kitty on his/her umpteenth life--and went to work, where I tried to actually work. Mostly, though, I clicked back and forth between and

In my fiction writing workshop, I made an assignment which would be due the Wednesday after Labor Day, "Assuming, of course, that we're here." My students laughed when I said that, but not in a ha-ha way. They--we--laughed nervously. We didn't look at each other. We looked at out notebooks and doodled. We looked at their hands. I told them that if we had to evacuate, I would be happy to teach online. I didn't tell them that I would be happy to do it largely because a) if Gustav makes a direct hit, my home will probably flood, but I will have to keep in paying my mortgage, which means that b) I will HAVE to keep teaching, whether I like it or not.

Later, I and two of my colleagues had a meeting with the director of distance learning at UNO. We were discussing ways to streamline the process of administering tests in our online classes, which inevitably led to references to "The Katrina Semester," when anyone with access to a computer (and a shred of mental stability) was forced to teach online. Inevitably Gustav came up, and the new director--a lovely woman from Florida who has somehow avoided ever evacuating for a hurricane--asked if she really needed to make evacuation plans. The pre-K three of us looked at each other, incredulously: uh, YEAH! We gave her a list of areas to call for hotel reservations. We told her to remember to bring more than three days worth of clothing. We talked about Last Time. Mike had been living in Chalmette. He lost everything. Laura and I both survived with little to no damage.

Then, Laura said, "Sarah, didn't you just move to the Lower Ninth Ward?" When I told her that I did, and that I was afraid of what could happen because the Corps has yet to close MR-GO, Mike emitted a sound that sounded to me like a cross between, "Good luck" (as in, "Good luck ever getting the Corps to do ANYTHING) and "Oh, fuck."

After my meeting, a student of mine from my workshop dropped by to tell me that there is a vacant apartment downstairs from them where Simon and I can stay if we don't want to evacuate, but don't want to stay in the Lower Ninth Ward. I thanked her but said it was more likely that we'd drive to Atlanta. I asked what her plans were. She said she and her husband would drive to Chicago--an 18-hour drive--to stay with friends. I told her they could come to Atlanta, instead, if she didn't want to drive 18-hours away. We exchanged numbers.

Afterwards I spent too long looking at storm graphics again. Then, I made the mistake of reading this:

"If Gustav heads into southeast Louisiana, scientists and engineers agree that large swaths of the region could be at great risk of flooding from even a moderate storm surge, especially neighborhoods near the Industrial Canal and on the West Bank of Jefferson Parish.

More than $2 billion in repairs and improvements made to the system since Katrina cracked it open three years ago have strengthened some weak spots. In particular, floodgates on three New Orleans outfall canals -- two of which broke through their floodwalls causing catastrophic flooding during Katrina -- should protect neighborhoods from surges flowing through Lake Pontchartrain. And new levees are giving protection to the Company Canal and Harvey Canal north of Lapalco Boulevard.
But almost $13 billion in work remains to be done before the region is protected from a 100-year storm -- about the size of Hurricane Rita -- and that means much of the hurricane protection system remains at risk.

In many cases, there's nothing that can be done to beef up inadequate flood defenses if Gustav strikes early next week. East of the Mississippi River, for example, the system's Achilles heel remains the Industrial Canal area, where $695 million worth of structures are planned at the confluence of the Gulf Intracoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet. But that work, still being designed, won't start to provide any storm surge protection until this time next year.

Despite some higher Intracoastal Canal levees and new armoring against erosion, communities all around the Industrial Canal remain exposed to the potential for major flooding" (italic mine).

I live one block from the Industrial Canal.

On my way home from work, I felt stupid for offering to take in my student in. While 18 hours is a long way to drive, at least she has a place to go. There will be people who don't--a lot of them in my neighborhood. What will the Taylors do? I know that last time they stayed with a family in Wyoming, but Mrs. Taylor said it was "too dry" for her, and she missed the south terribly. We could take them.

Or what about UNO's international students? This summer, a student of mine from Nicaragua wrote a paper on the inadequacy of the University of New Orleans' evacuation plan--about its failure to address international students' needs. She described the scene after Katrina, the "panic" felt by students who had only limited English speaking and comprehension skills and who were ultimately left to fend for themselves. Her paper pinpointed problems in the current plan. That plan offers to evacuate students who have nowhere to go by bus to a shelter outside the evacuation zone. There:

"Students can expect to share an open gym floor without cots in a nonairconditioned building with extremely limited resources. Working bathrooms will be available but could become disabled. At the offcampus evacuation site, water and prepackaged
military meals, Meals Ready to Eat (MREs), will be supplied in limited quantities." (See UNO's Student Housing Campus Evacuation Plan.)

When my student called to find out more about what international students should do to get on the bus, she learned that it would take just 50 students to safety. There are 750 international students attending UNO. I should take those students, I thought. Who else could I save?
As I was crossing the Claiborne Avenue bridge, getting a glimpse of some of the Make It Right (or "Brad Pitt") houses--several of which now boast solar panels and are nearly finished--my mother called. She told me she thought Gustav was just going to blow away--not blow us away, but just break up and stay away from us, altogether. She said she didn't know what it was--maybe her "mother's intuition"--but that she just didn't feel like this was going to be All That Bad. I said I wished I shared her feeling. Then, I launched into a rant against the Corps and against MR-GO. I was raging, which probably scared my mom more than it did me. I hadn't realized how angry I was--how angry I am.
When I got home, I did as the paper told me: I placed a dated newspaper on the floor and started taking pictures. The newspaper will allow us to prove to the insurance company that the pictures are post-K, as those bastards the insurance companies will evidently give us hell about paying for repairs if we can't prove the home has been repaired since Katrina.

Later, as I made dinner, I watched the neighborhood emerge for sunset. Mr Taylor was having a Heineken and a cigarette on the porch. Damone swerved down the block on his "Whipstick" scooter. No one seemed to be freaking out like I was--which may not necessarily be a good thing, but at least it made me feel better. The sky was a crazy-beautiful pink/purple/orange, and it made me feel better, too.

After we ate, Simon and I walked up to the levee to watch the sky turn colors and to imagine a lifetime of sunsets on the levee. I brought a cup of wine and worked on smiling. A group of young boys talked to the National Guardsmen who were parked on the levee--still here helping out after Katrina--and we overheard the Guardsmen ask the boys about what they were going to do for Gustav. They didn't seem to know.

This morning, I got up to walk along the levee again. Screw mind-clearing; I just walked. I walked past my neighbor's house, where a truck had arrived with a load of sheetrock. Adolf renovated one house already, and now he is close to finished with his second--the one that he and his wife will move in to when it's done. It's a huge a beautiful home, and I was happy to see the sheetrock, as that always signals that you're getting close to done. I hope he does not have to do it again. I hope we don't.

When I got to school, I took a picture of the sign I walk past every day. Someone in the department put it up, I am sure. Today it was both funnier and meaner than ever before:

Later, at the beginning-of-the-semester faculty meeting, everyone was talking about the uncanny echoes of three years ago. That meeting had been held the Friday before Katrina's landfall. Three days later it was the way it was--the way it now is. Tomorrow's department party is cancelled. One colleague, whose husband directs a suicide hotline, says they will leave tomorrow. I didn't hear from anyone else yet.
Just a moment ago, the man who has been making our dining room table sent an email. He said we will need to pick up the table by Saturday if we want to guarantee that our table will be safe. We don't have room for it, sadly. We will need to take people, instead.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

When to Open a $70 Bottle of Wine

We have plywood.

After he got out of school, Simon called from the Home Depot. I measured the windows and doors. An hour later he unloaded the wood while I made dinner and listened to WWOZ broadcasting from Denver, where the Democratic National Convention is in full-swing. On the radio one of the local DJs said, "So it's what, 20-to-eight in New Orleans? That means people are cookin'." I was cooking. I smiled. "Just so you know, people, we ARE aware of the weather reports, of Gustav. We hope the music can take you away from your worry."

When Simon and I sat down at the kitchen island, I asked him if he wanted to have a seventy-dollar bottle of wine for dinner. The wine was given to me by a friend upon the publication of her novel (it was that way around because I'd helped her find the agent who sold her book) several years ago. The wine is pre-K stuff, which means there's a good chance it's turned, but somehow I've just kept hanging on to it, not drinking it after we returned to New Orleans after the storm, not drinking it after we got married, not drinking it when we closed on our house, after we moved in. I don't know what we've been waiting for...

"I figured we should drink it now," I explained, "in case we can't toast our new house when the dining table arrives."

Simon considered it. "Let's wait."

I did not tell Simon what I'd thought earlier--that it's a good thing our dining table is not ready yet, since everything in our house might be gone if Gustav makes a direct hit. The dining table--a custom piece that my parents are giving us as a gift and that's being made by a Northshore furniture maker who made one for Rashida in her This Old House-house--is made from boards taken from walls we removed during the renovation.

Once upon a time, the boards floated down the Mississippi River on a barge. The barge was deconstructed and turned into our house some 100 years ago. In 1927, after the devastating Mississippi River floods of that year (our house flooded because the even-then buffoonish city officials decided to blow the levees downriver in order to spare the upper-crusties in the Garden District), the owner papered the barge board using issues of the New Orleans Tribune. (One story reported, "President Coolidge urged to visit New Orleans." It seems even then the government was relying on the "personal responsibility" of its own victims to heal the devastation wrought by poor leadership.) The man who is making our table reports that the wood is likely "first growth virgin pine" from Natchez (I think he said this was in Tennessee, not Mississippi).

One day we hope to have meals atop those boards. We hope to look out our window and see the big ships go by (the ones that make US commerce possible; the ones that rely on our New Orleans ports and our New Orleans workers).

I am therefore grateful to Simon for keeping me from opening the $70 wine, because it needs that table.

I am also grateful to Bob Breck of Fox 8 New Orleans for reminding me (with one of his trademark turkey gobbles and a girlish hoot) not to "hyperventilate" over this Gustav.

I think I'll go to bed.

And I'm supposed to TEACH through this worry?

Another Weather Underground blog entry (from a smart weather-guy type) reports this:

"For those of us in the central Gulf Coast region, the long range forecast for Gustav is looking eerily like Katrina's track in 2005. The GFDL (the currently favored model as far as it's reliability) has a long range position for Gustav on Sunday morning near 28.2N 88.6W or about 150 miles due south of Biloxi MS and SSE of New Orleans, LA as a category 4 hurricane.

For that reason, I would warn folks, as the Hurricane Centers forecasters are, that the long range models are prone to large errors. There is little doubt that those forecast tracks will change with each new run of the models. Especially given the current left hand turn expected and then the forecast right turn toward the northwest. There are simply too many variables to be focusing on a long range position. Having said that, if you live on the Gulf Coast, you should be prepared for storms this time of year. Don't wait til you have one on your door step."

I just watched the news, and the local guys were telling us to "review our plans." I plan to leave the very moment it looks like we need to. I and my husband and our our cats. We'll head to Atlanta, hopefully for three days of TV and drinking and a little catching up with the nephew and nothing more.

I want to stop worrying so I can work now.

Plywood and Other Preparations

I wasn't here when Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005. I was in the bucolic mountains of Burlington, Vermont, at the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference. I'd gone to sort out my troubled relationship with writing, and for ten days I managed to be convinced by the intensity of the event, the beauty of the setting, and the isolation from, well, everything outside of it, that sorting out my on-again, off-again affair with writing was The Most Important Thing in my life at the time.
Clearly things changed.

I can't remember now if it was Saturday or Sunday when I got a little pink slip in my Bread Loaf mailbox directing me to call Simon. I remember worrying that something had happened--maybe to my parents, maybe to his--and feeling actually relieved when he told me it was a hurricane evacuation, instead. I'd been through two of those (Georges in 1998 and Ivan in 2004). Both were a hassle, but in the end, actually kind of fun. A hurricane evacuation, I thought (relieved), I could handle.

But when I went to the basement of one of the Bread Loaf campus's buildings to check my email, I read the doomsday reports. I saw the projections. I eyed the storm's forecast cone, by then menacingly focused on New Orleans.

And then I got all quiet and stunned. While the rest of the Loafers celebrated the conference's end (the resident poet pressing himself to young admirers at the final night's dance, the basement boys having their frat-like farewell kegger), I wandered around in a daze, saying, "What the fuck" to anyone who would listen.

I spent the final afternoon--the one when some of my friends headed to a swimming hole for a dip--on the phone with a representative from Delta. My flight to New Orleans was cancelled. I would have to fly to Atlanta, where Simon would meet me with a truck full of cat carriers and file-boxes, with my dad's hand-me-down guitar and Simon's shell-shocked brother, who'd been in town for his vacation.

Because I was already in what I can only describe as an alternate universe--this pretty-fied place that seemed to me to be a postcard come to life--none of it really felt real, somehow. Maybe it was because I had no access to radio or TV that I couldn't quite believe what was happening (ordinarily, I'd be glued to every forecast from a storm's birth, eight days out). I don't know. I just remember that I didn't really feel like it WAS happening until I got to some airport (was it O'Hare?) and ordered an egg-and-cheese biscuit and sat down in front of CNN. When I saw the images of the evacuation--of the miles and miles of cars and cars, none of them really moving, of the people boarding up and spray painting their dares on the plywood (Go Home Katrina!), of the many Weather Channel correspondents who'd stationed themselves around the city--I started to cry. I remember everyone was watching the TV, and everyone looked worried. I was really afraid.

This weekend, when Fay's remnants mussed our hair as we stood with friends outside Lucy's Retired Surfer Bar, celebrating the publication of our dear friend Bill Loehfelm's novel, a few of us talked about that time. We're close to three years out, now, and of course those milestones bring the memories out, big time. Even though we all know it, know it, it still seems surreal, even now. We were zombies, all of us, in those days. Or robots. We were going through it because we had to, but none of us processed it in our hearts until it really punched us at some odd point, typically one that occurred in front of a TV.

It's the TV, now, that has me worried. That and a post from the Weather Underground blog of Jeff Masters:

"The track forecast for GustavThe models are in good agreement on the 1-3 day track of Gustav, and we can be confident that Gustav will turn west and pass south of Cuba after a close encounter with the southwest peninsula of Haiti. The trough of low pressure currently exiting the U.S. East Coast and pulling Gustav northwest is expected to move off to the east, allowing a ridge of high pressure to build in and force Gustav due west or slightly south of due west. After three days, there is more divergence in the models. The ECMWF and NOGAPS models foresee a landfall in the Cancun/Cozumel region on Mexico's Yucatan Peninsula, followed by a second Mexican landfall south of Brownsville, Texas, early next week. This solution assumes the trough of low pressure moving across the Midwest U.S. late this week will not be strong enough to turn Gustav to the north. The other models predict that this trough will be strong enough to turn Gustav northward, and foresee a landfall on the Gulf Coast between the Florida Panhandle and Texas border 6-8 days from now. The GFDL is the fastest, bringing Gustav to New Orleans on Sunday afternoon. This is a plausible forecast, but at this point, virtually any point along the Gulf Coast has a roughly equal chance of a direct hit by Gustav.Which set of model should we trust? I plotted up the errors for some of the computer model forecasts made during Fay. While Fay was over Hispaniola and Cuba, the GFDL model made the best track forecasts, among the four main models used by NHC: GFS, GFDL, NOGAPS, and UKMET. This makes me more inclined to trust the GFDL model's forecasts for Gustav, since Fay and Gustav are similar storms."

Yesterday, when I first read about the storm--when it first got its name--I checked out some comments on They made me feel ill. (Mom, don't read them.)

I am going out to gas up the cars. This afternoon we will get plywood.

In terms of steeling myself for what may happen... for preparing myself mentally for the possibility that Gustav could be yet another "big one" for New Orleans? I just can't go there. We just moved in to our new home!

Nope. Not going there.
I will say that I could really go for being someplace pretty and isolated from everything. And I could go for not having to deal with an evacuation.

Mom, your prayers would be good right now...

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Why Did the Egret Cross the Road?

After two weeks of genuine vacationing, Simon and I returned home on Sunday evening. We had two cars instead of one this time, since we were transporting furniture we'd bought (or were given) in Atlanta. I drove my dad's old Subaru station wagon--with no A/C--and while the lack of air conditioning may have been all right in Asheville, NC (where we spent a week of our trip), it was SO not okay in Mississippi, Alabama, and Louisiana. We stopped several times so I could wring out my shirt, and the misery of it all was compounded by sporadic heavy rains and no radio, whatsoever. I sang a lot of songs I remembered from my nerdy choir days, and I ate gummy worms and pork cracklins in order to stave off sleep and boredom. Ah, road trips!

Our vacation, itself, was lovely. In Atlanta, we spent lots of time with family, and specifically with my nephew, Damien, who has grown like a weed. He now does cute little-person things. He laughs, for one, (and not just when he has gas), and he grabs things. Babies. Ain't they grand?

Parents Paul and Aalia appear to be doing well, although Paul seems to think that Damien is much more evolved than he really is. One night, he mentioned that Damien was going to get a "big ego" from all the love and attention he was getting. So of course we attributed any of his typical-baby behavior to his colossal "ego" from then on. I think Paul is more frustrated than anything by the fact that babies can't be controlled--and by the fact that they also can't communicate their needs. Babies. Uh, ain't they grand?

We visited Simon's brother, Tom, and sister-in-law, Brandi, at their new home just outside of Asheville, NC, too. They've bought a cute, albeit cookie-cutter, home on a ridge in the "town" of Candler. Their home overlooks Hominy Creek, and Tom has built a wonderful deck by the creek, where we enjoyed sunsets and summer ales. Both Tom and Brandi appear to be taking to "country life" fabulously. Tom has set up a woodworking shop in the basement, where he turns bowls, and where he constructed the kitchen butcher-block island we inaugurated on our trip. Brandi will be teaching hip-hop dance classes at the Asheville ballet; she's even been asked to choreograph a hip-hop version of the battle-scene in The Nutcracker. She and I had some really nice evenings on the deck, talking marriage and family and other 30-something matters. (Though I should mention that Brandi has yet to reach the 30-year milestone!) I was reminded of how wonderful it was to have them here in New Orleans, and I miss them terribly now that we are back.

I can't say much about their new hometown of Candler. It's got a single "strip" on which some pretty darn good fried chicken gets served, and down which many a mullet-wearing mountain-man cruises in his beat-up truck. It stands in stark contrast to Asheville, where Subarus are as common as hoopdies are in New Orleans, and where the Friday-night activity is a city-sanctioned "drum circle" where hippies, old and young, gather to do the chicken dance (a la Grateful Dead concerts) and beat bongos. My favorite joke from our time in Asheville: the HBO program, "The Wire" is planning a sequel, "The Wire: Asheville." At the end of the first season, a waitress at Tupelo Honey gets undertipped. At the end of season two, someone gets turned away from the drum circle.

The best thing about Asheville is the access to the outdoors. There are some really incredible hikes--along rivers, to waterfalls--all within an hour's drive, and the weather was cool enough that we didn't sweat, but warm enough that we could swim. I wanted to walk every day, and I now find my heart aching for access to that kind of outdoor-space here in NOLA. Our new home boasts access to the Mississippi River levee, which thrills me, but it's no hike alone in the woods. In fact, there are not many opportunities to enjoy the outdoors here in New Orleans, and having been a child of canoers and hikers, being in the mountains of NC reminded me of just how important that time outside really is to me.

Okay, I'll admit it: there was even a moment when I thought, "I could live here." Well, it was more like, "We should live here." My family is close to Asheville, and Simon's siblings are all now close to Asheville. And then here we are, far, far away. And, of course, not only are we far from family, but we are living where we live.

When we drove in on Sunday, in fact, I was sad. I never feel that way. I mean, sometimes I feel mad, as in, "c'mon, people, let's fix these damn roads," or, "folks, cut it out with the littering, already." But on Sunday I felt sad, heavy-style. As in, "How the hell are we ever going to raise a child here?" As in, "When will our city even be un-broken?" I wanted to cry.

Then, of course, we got home and I saw my cats and our backyard, and Mr. Washington and Mr. Taylor waved hello, and the sun was setting in a saturated-pink kind of way, and Simon and I unloaded furniture and did a bit of nesting and it all felt good again.

Still, I will admit to feeling more than a little tired right now. When we were away, I read about the latest city-wide scandal, and I found myself crying rather than being pissed off. At the liberal arts faculty meeting on Monday, the chancellor talked about post-Katrina numbers and recovery (or the lack, thereof,) and I didn't feel my usual surge of commitment--my typical sense of resolve to stay, to dig in, and to make it all better. When I drove home from work that afternoon, I saw a contractor peeing in someone's yard, and I had to stop my car to let an egret cross the road. I wanted to kill the contractor, and I wanted to save the bird. What were they doing here? What am I doing here?

Last night, as Simon and I were eating dinner and watching women's platform diving on television, I told him what I'd read online about Tropical Storm Fay: there's a path that has it heading back out into the Gulf and then perhaps right back in toward us. I realized as I talked about it that I was almost mad at Simon--and at myself--for being where we are. Now, on top of living and working in this mess, we have to go out and get plywood? We have to prepare for the possibility of its happening again?

Yes, I knew this when we returned. I knew when we bought the house here in New Orleans that we were putting down roots in a hurricane-prone city. But knowing and really experiencing that reality are two entirely different beasts. And I simply cannot fathom doing the past three years all over again. I have lost nearly ten pounds from stress (which, yes, probably puts me at a healthier weight, but I don't think stress is ever a good way to lose weight, and besides, my clothes don't fit.) Keeping on as things are already seems overwhelming... what if things got worse again? Do I have it in me to repeat this process? And, more importantly, will we even be able to recover now that we are not only emotionally committed, but financially invested in this city, as well? I don't know... I really don't know.

So, the important thing is that we pray (or whatever) like hell that Fay stays away. In the meantime, we need to deal with the drainage-problems we're having. We need to put another coat of poly on the cork tile in the shower (the contractor didn't do a thorough job, and now we're seeing signs of rot). We need to hire someone to mow our jungle, to put up a fence. And I need to quit this oh-woe-is-me blogging and do some "real" writing and some genuine school-prep.

In the meantime, I have promised to post pictures of the house, and my dad gave me a camera-cable so I can upload those pics. So, here, Mom and co., is the guest bathroom, where you will bathe in our wonderful clawfoot tub... Enjoy!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Generally Speaking: or, Why I've Not Posted Lately

I have been meaning to post more pictures of our wonderful new house, but I haven't because a) I couldn't find the box with the new batteries (and I didn't want to spend money on more), b) I've been savoring every moment of free time (and blogging hasn't felt savory to me lately), and c) I've been busy as all getout with the summer semester (and my students and their work have been monopolizing my time).

I've now entered the very last week of classes, which means my students are panicking--and that they are submitting revisions, galore, and wanting me to turn them around and grade them, like, pronto.

Two weeks ago, I spent an ENTIRE weekend grading over 50 essays, only to have approximately half of my students drop the course (due to poor grades) WITHOUT coming by to pick up their essays--with their abundant (and dare I say, rich) comments I had so labored over. I suppose I shouldn't be surprised; my students have never been shy about admitting that grades are more important to them than the mere satisfaction of learning. Still, I'm not ashamed to admit that it hurts my feelings to have put so much time and effort into providing useful feedback, only to have my feedback ignored.

Summer semesters are always tough. Not only do we have to accomplish so much work in so little time (writing --and for me, grading--five essays and at least one revision in just eight weeks), but the students who enroll in summer classes often do so for the wrong reasons. They are students who want to simply get freshman comp "out of the way." Or worse: they are students whose advisers have somehow managed to counsel them toward a degree, leaving this class until last. So, generally speaking, my summer students are weaker writers than those who take comp in the regular semester. And generally speaking, they are precisely the students who should not enroll in such a difficult class with so little time in which to learn so much.

So I have been having conferences like crazy, grading like crazy, and also working on the new freshman comp textbook like crazy. And guess how I feel?

Thankfully, the end is in sight. I can't wait for a real break--two weeks without work--but we have a trip planned that I am actually kind of dreading. I want to see everyone, and all (my parents, bro, sister-in-law, nephew, and all of my in-laws), but I want them all to come here. I feel as if I haven't had any time to simply "nest"--and nesting is all I want to do. Simon's boxes are all unpacked, and he's been dutifully working at getting us a security system, weeding the side yard, and attending the neighborhood association meetings, but I still have several boxes that need unpacking, one of which had better have in it my very favorite pair of teacher-ly jeans (the dark and wide-legged fancy kind). Sigh.

There have been interesting and wonderful moments over this past month, of course. We've had friends over to play cards and Cranium on the back porch. We watched the fireworks on the levee on the Fourth (and then just walked right down the hill to our home). We've cooked our first meal, watched our first movie, and read the paper every morning on the stools at our new island. We've met more neighbors (and received a bottle of holy water from one). Generally speaking, we've been loving life in our new home. I just want some time to really be in our new home before school begins all over again.

Anyways, I am posting largely because I just wanted to get a blip up on the screen that says: I'm alive. I'm well. And I haven't forgotten about this sloppy blog.

I hope to be able to post more regularly soon... Until then: back to grading!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

We're IN!

On the 11th of June, several of our dearest friends came to our house to brave a storm of cat hair and dust. We packed the U-Haul, and, in the midst of still-ongoing last-minute contractor repairs, moved in to our new home in Holy Cross.

I thought I'd get goosebumps typing it, but it's all been such a blur, and the first week, especially, was so chaotic that I am just relieved and a bit tired, even. Simon said of our now-official home-ownership, "It'll never be finished, will it?" and it certainly feels that way. Today he is off buying a stud finder so we can hang curtains. I'll be unpacking clothes and books. This weekend we plan to deliver barge board to a furniture-maker on the Northshore who will make us a dining table, and we are crossing our fingers that we will have enough money to afford a new fence.

No, it'll never be "over," but I am loving the initial nesting, at least. My favorite room is the kitchen, which shouldn't surprise me, since I spent forever and ever designing it. My biggest dilemmas (after the layout, which I drew and redrew at least a dozen times) were whether to install matching upper and lower cabinets. I don't generally like upper cabinets, but I'd seen a couple of kitchens where the uppers were white and lowers were wood, and I really liked it. The uppers from the place where we got the lowers were crazy-expensive, though, so we had some IKEA cabinets delivered, which, even with the additional cost of delivery, saved us a lot of money.

I also agonized over appliances. I've just never considered myself a "stainless" kind of girl--too bourgeoisie--but the white appliances were all textured and generally less attractive, and I am not going to lie about wanting everything to look good (and last long). Because our countertops are black, I didn't want the high-contrast of white, either, so stainless it was. (We did get all Energystar appliances--and we had some serious sticker-shock, but we are sickly in love with our appliances. Gawd, we're so old. Or yuppy-fied. Or American. Whatever it is, we're it.)

Anyways, if you are at all interested in hearing/talking about any or all of our layout and design choices, I am happy, happy, happy to discuss every last decision--and to hear advice for ways to improve. I researched every little thing, all of it, and I could have continued to do it for ages...

...Here's the other side of the kitchen (plus cat Ray):
The hoosier on the left is an antique from England, complete with menus for the 1930's British homemaker. How does this sound for a "Plain Winter Day Menu Dinner": Cold beef; Tomato Sauce; Mashed potatoes; West riding pudding"? Breakfast, anyone? "Porridge; Potted meat on toast, breakfast sausage; toast; lemon marmalade." Mmmm. Potted meat. Simon says no one eats potted meat, really, just like hardly anyone actually eats SPAM, but we have both gotten a kick out of these Brit-ahem-feasts, and I am happy we bought the hoosier for pantry-space, too.

I want to take pictures of every room in the house, but this is the only one that is really unpacked and clutter-free. All the rest are filled with boxes. I'll post more pictures as we settle more. And I will write more about what it's like to live down here, one block from the levee, on a quiet cul-de-sac, with my wonderful neighbors and a sense that things can--and are--getting better. (Hint: it's wonderful.)