Wednesday, January 30, 2008

I can teach and I can gut, but I can't deal with City Hall.

I think I have said before that I have been too busy to maintain my blog. If I have, I feel like saying to my old self, "You? Busy? P-Shaw!"

That's because I am forreal busier than I think I have EVER been. I even had to say NO to something that I probably should have said YES to because it was one of those things-that-look-good-on-your-CV-when-you're-up-for-retention. But you know, I'd like to actually be able to do what I'm doing really well, and if someone asked me to do one more thing, I think this house of cards might come a-tumbling.

The real kicker is my online writing class. I teach writing every summer online, but Johns Hopkins does a really excellent job of creating and providing excellent curriculum and teaching materials, and in my class this semester, I'm on my own. That means I am having to spend hours upon hours typing lectures, posting, organizing, deleting, moving, revising, responding, writing, revising, etc., etc.

Now, having said that, I should say that I am really happy to be taking on this challenge. UNO offers just this one online section of composition, and I think that's going to have to change. I remember the first time I taught an all-online comp class...

It was the fall after Katrina. The class was a mess. I think I may have ruined lives. Who knows? I can't remember a damn thing from that semester. That's not true. I can. But it was hard, hard, hard, and there were breakdowns to be had, and nails to drive over, and it was really hard to teach.

Wait a second... all of those things are still true.

Anyway, I think there are benefits to teaching online, and I am trying to kick some butt with it and then share my experience with my colleagues. I've already learned a lot, and I've got some fascinating students: a man from Iran now living in Houston, a basketball star, and a hearing-impaired woman whose writing challenges are formidable. Lucky for all of them, I like a challenge.

In most cases, anyway.

The kind of challenge I don't like? Attitude-y outbursts from freshman not yet ready to behave like college students. I am struggling with a couple of eye-rolling, neck-cocking, teeth-tsking students in my onsite comp class, and I have had to work HARD to keep my cool. I think part of the problem is that I look like I could be their friend, and I also don't "sound like a teacher." That means I don't "whom" and "consequently" in class. I speak in language my students can understand. (In fact, in student evaluations, they regularly compliment my ability to communicate ideas clearly.) But some students mistake that casual approach to teaching as weakness, and they try to assert their own control by acting out.

I have a second theory: that the students who act out and who practice teacher-targeting and blame-games do so because it's easier to blame me than to take responsibility for their own failures. Anyway, I am really finding my comp-class challenging. Hopefully things will get better.

In house news...

We gutted the house, which led to our discovering several things. A) We have 12-foot wooden-plank ceilings. Beautiful. B) It takes more than one dumpster to contain 1800 square footage of gutting whatnot. C) I love to tear sh*t up! I mean, I had no idea how much I was going to love tearing down the lowered ceilings, cutting wires, and pulling nails. I loved it. I got so sore I could hardly move, and my hands hurt for days, but no matter! Sine I've discovered I like this sort of thing so much, I've ordered some Soy-based paint remover, and next I will take on scraping the windows and the trim.

Also in house news...

We are stalled. FEMA put the home's damage assessment at 51.74%. If you had more than 50% damage, you are required to prove a bunch of un-provable stuff, or raise your house (which we can't afford.)

I had the pleasure of visiting City Hall this week in order to contest the damage assessment (which erroneously reported that our floors, windows, doors, and cabinets were all "100% damaged,") where I had the pleasure of speaking with a very condescending, patronizing, no-sense making jerk of a man who I just about eye-rolled and neck-cocked and teeth-tsked. It appears that the kinds of things they were "letting slide" are now being scrutinized. It also appears that this kind of thing will prevent a whole lot of people from rebuilding. And what I don't understand? Our house is in a National Historic District, and therefore supposedly exempt from being forced to raise, but somehow dude was not having it. So we don't know what to do...

And I don't have time to handle it. In fact, I have to put this thing away and do some grading if I am to stay on top of things. AND... Mardi Gras is approaching, and it feels too soon and all kinds of wrong. I bought a silly wig and stuff to wear, but I am NOT feeling it! Which is sad because Mardi Gras day is my favorite day of the whole year.

Anyways, I'm staying afloat. Love to all.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

We Human Beings

Yesterday, as I was having my morning coffee and getting ready to head to work, I heard a whole lotta cacophony at the neighbor's house next door. Someone had jumped their fence and was banging on their walls, calling out our neighbor's name. The guy looked a little seedy, so I rolled my eyes and added my cream.

I'm not sure what let me know "something's not right," what compelled me to look out the front window, but when I did, I saw this:
Folks were frantically banging on the house next door--the one where Miss Diane and her family lived before the storm, but I assured them that no one lived there. I was glad of it. I would have been tearing my hair out had my house been the one next to this raging fire. Our charming wooden houses, it seems, go up in mere minutes. The time stamp on my pictures tells me the first one was taken at 8:44 . I took this one at 8:46:
Mike, the guy who owns the forever-under-renovation house next door, told me that he'd just driven up when he saw the smoke seeping out of the roof's seams. He said he'd banged on the door and woke up "these Mexican guys" who he said he had to "fight to get 'em out" because they wanted to retrieve their passports. "F**k your passports, I tol' 'em. You gonna die."
As I took these pictures, I was just in awe. It happened so, so fast. These are from 8:54 and 8:55:

Here's the back of the house, where it started, once it was "over" at 9:05:
I don't know what I would have done had the fire been at our house.
Yes, I do. I would've been frantic, and I would've been crying, because I would've lost everything, just as the guys who were renting the space did.

When I went back in to get professional for work, I discovered that my coffee was still warm. It was that fast.

Evidently, the fire was electrical. And the Mexican workers who lived in the house were, in fact, Brazilian.

Before I left, I wrote my number and the number of the Hispanic Apostolate on a post-it, which I gave to one of the men. They all seemed pretty shocked. One of the firemen was following their instructions, searching for their passports. A guitar and two suitcases rested on the sidewalk. A Red Cross volunteer was filling out a case-study form, which I recognized from my own volunteer work as a case-worker for the Red Cross after Katrina.

When the hoses had again been stowed, I was able to leave, and on my way out, I saw two black women standing with the men. They looked like they were about my age. "You all right?" I asked. They were co-workers of some of the men--employees of the Best Western hotel. They'd come down as soon as they'd heard and were waiting for the Red Cross to finish so they could take the men to the hotel.
I explained that I'd given the men my number and the number of an aid agency for Hispanics and Latinos. That's when I learned they were from Brazil. (In retrospect, I should have known. I'd often hear them playing guitar and singing, and I remember saying to Simon once, "I think that's Portuguese.")
I asked if there was anything else I could do. I nodded to our little shoebox and said ruefully that I didn't think we had room to spare, but that I could ask around. Something told me that we were all these men had in the way of help: a neighbor who never spoke to them and a coworker whose position as a hotel employee virtually guaranteed that she wasn't in a position to help, either.
"Are any of them fluent in English?" I asked.

"He is," she said, nodding to the man I'd given my number. "I mean, he speaks pretty good English. They all understand, but he the only one who can really speak it."

We were both quiet.
"That'll make it hard for them," I said. "I mean, harder."

"People don't seem to care much about the immigrants in town."
"I do," she said, smacking her lips against her gold teeth, disapprovingly. "They human beings."
"Yes, they are."
At work, I had that giddy electrical feeling that you get when something big has happened. It was dulled--or maybe "made achey" is a better way of putting it--by the knowledge that no one would much care if I told them about it. When I ran into a colleague who also lives down the street, he said, "That's too bad. I mean, the house wasn't a real historical gem or anything, but it'll be blighted." I found myself saying something I'd thought earlier but pushed down, deep down, 'cause I hated myself for it. "Yeah, it was as if everyone's home values on the block went up in flames, too." I hated myself again.
(In defense of my colleague, he did ask if the people who lived there were okay. And in defense of the vapid content of our conversation: I think it reflects both our cynicism when it comes to folks giving a shit about Hispanic workers, and about the concerns of our now super-gentrified neighborhood.)
When I got home yesterday, I got a message from the general manager of the hotel where three of the men worked. He'd been given my number and was trying to do something for them. He wanted to know if I knew of any resources.
I talked to Simon about his message before I called back. I didn't know of any resources. If the Red Cross couldn't help, what could I do? I worried that no one would care about a bunch of immigrant workers--that they'd blame them for the fire (as my deepest darkest bad-self had when I first learned of the nature of the fire.) I admitted to Simon that I'd given them the number for the Hispanic Apostolate only because I knew someone there would speak their language. But really, I knew that they'd likely NOT be able to help. After all, when I had served as a volunteer ESL teacher for the Apostolate, they'd been bemoaning the lack of resources and affordable housing available for Hispanic workers. And this was more than a year ago. Things had gotten worse, not better, for the expanding worker-population. What on earth could I do?

When I called Brian back, I felt helpless, and I said as much. He said the Red Cross had paid for three nights in the hotel, but that after that, the guys would be out in the cold. Did I know anywhere they could stay?
I thought about all the homeless who've been protesting on the local TV because their tent-city had been closed so that City Hall could repair its parking situation. I thought about UNITY (an aid organization for homeless,) who'd admitted it had begun to borrow money in order to pay for apartments it couldn't afford--about how they'd pleaded with landlords on TV, that they give people a break, a second chance.) I thought, "No."

What I said, thought, was that maybe we could contact the neighborhood association. Maybe I could ask around.

But I knew (again, deep down) that I couldn't do anything for them that the general manager of a hotel couldn't do. If a major corporation wasn't willing to forgo profits in order to house its employees until they could find homes, why would a landlord, who was but one person--whose insurance had doubled, who'd probably lost a lot, himself?

I suggested that it'd be helpful for him to 1) call the Red Cross and ask them to extend the vouchers, and 2) ask the men to make a list of their immediate needs. In the meantime, I would do the only thing I knew to do: I would email people; I would try to tell their story as convincingly as I could.

So, I posted on our neighborhood forum at, and lo and behold, I got a response. One man emailed and said he had a temporary place that he could provide temporarily if the guys could find nothing else. Another suggested I establish a fund through a bank. Another emailed me and said he'd was collecting clothing and toiletries and would have something together by Friday. Another said he could donate clothing, too.
I'm waiting now to hear from the GM of the hotel. I feel hopeful, in the tiniest of senses--not because I think we really will be able to place these guys in a home, but because I learned that there are people out there who do, in fact, give two turds about a bunch of immigrant workers.
I feel good (ish) because I know that we're out there, and we're here: people who believe that, yes, They Human Beings!

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Resolution I'm Sticking To (so far!)

There's one resolution I didn't list in my New Year's post that I have managed (10 days in) to stick to with aplomb. It's not to use ANY new shopping bags this year.

Simon and I have always kept a pile of used Whole Foods paper bags in the trunk, but I almost always forget to take them in to the store. Then when I am finally "up" for checkout and I realize I've forgotten them, I glance back and realize that the beleaguered mothers behind me will not appreciate waiting for me to dash to the car. So I'd reluctantly add another to my ever- growing collection.

Brandi had told us that they made great bags for packing away all of those homeless nick-knacks that are lying around when you're ready to move, so I'd forgiven myself of some of my guilt when I'd collect yet another bag.

Here's a Not-So-Whole-Foods story:

One day, Simon and I went to WF, recycled bags in tow. We sat down to eat lunch beforehand (a good idea, of course, if you arrive at WF hungry) and put our bags down on a nearby ledge. We forgot the bags (of course,) and when I went back to retrieve them, the cashier in the cafe said she'd THROWN THEM AWAY. Wha-WHAT?! They weren't greasy, or even wrinkled! When I asked why she threw them away, she explained it was company policy. We are free to recycle our bags, but they won't reuse them--presumably because of some sort of liability issue. Whole-dooky!

Anyways, we'd found other ways to reuse our bags. We have a canvas sleeve where you can put plastic bags and then pull one conveniently from the bottom for use as a lunch bag or poo-sac for kitty litter. We rinse Ziploc bags. I even wrapped our Christmas gifts in recycled Whole Foods bags this year.

But by far the best solution to our bag-consumption problem has been the Acme Reusable Shopping Bag that each of us got in our stocking this year.

These bags are strong and hold a lot. Plus, I can report that they are not ugly. But the best part about them is that they easily fold up into themselves for storage in a purse, glove compartment, or wherever. I ordered four more from, and since the new year began, I am proud to say that I have not brought home a SINGLE new bag. And I have done my fair share of shopping.

Another neato thing about sticking to this resolution and using my Acme bags is that I have become an accidental environmental evangelist at every shopping exchange. When I say, "No bag, please," and whip out my 2-inch-square Acme bag, unfold it, and then manage to load a heap o' groceries into it, inevitably people ask about it--and inevitably they say, "What a great idea!" I tell them it's my resolution--even apologizing for messing with their pattern if they seem surprised at all to be stopped short of reaching for a bag--and I can see that they think about the number of bags they send out in the world, the number they use, and just how easy it would be to change that habit. Ladies can even get some cutely patterned ones! Stylish and environmentally-responsible(er) consumption. Whoo-HOO!

Okay, so I learned at that over one billion plastic bags are used per minute. That's just the plastic ones. And that's crazy. In Taiwan, they use 900 bags per consumer annually. (Dude!) And in Australia, the average is 326 per consumer. I don't know the per-consumer use in the US, but I'd imagine it's somewhere in between these two figures--and well into the completely gross range.

So: get yo' Acme bag!

And a Big Thanks goes out to Mom, a.k.a. Santa, for the Acme bags.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Vapid post on my day of consumption

I don't want to jinx myself, but I do believe that I have emerged on the "well" side of this snotty funk that's been dragging me down since the fourth day of Christmas.

When we got back in townfrom our holiday in Atlanta, we went ahead and celebrated the New Year by going out, colds and all. (Actually, Simon wanted to stay in, but I pestered him into going out. then he got better quickly and I descended into sinusitis hell. I think that's what my mother would call Instant Karma!!!)

As it turns out, half the town had been sick over the holiday, and I am hoping that everyone, like me, will be well in time for next Monday's start of the spring semester.

I've been pretending to prepare for the semester by making a list of "things to do." On it:

1) Write a plagiarism contract

2) Compile handout on appropriate decorum for email

3) Compile handout on the purpose and practice of student-teacher conferences

4) Revise attendance policy and tardiness policy

5) Revise revisions policy

6) Clean office (bring in dustbuster and supplies)

7) File things

8) Get organized

9) Have margarita

I think the list is fairly doable, although it doesn't take into account any things-to-do related to my new responsibilities as an administrator, nor does it even touch the house-whatnot.

Oh, the house whatnot! The cabinet-choosing. The color-picking. The house-gutting. The mold-treating. The termite-killing. The landscaping. The tax-abatement-thingy-dealing. The lighting-plan making!

You get the idea...

Also on the roster of things to do: writing my paper for the 4Cs conference this April. Also: somehow getting up a website for the neighborhood association. And: I've gotten myself on another committee (which met last night) that's working on the Global Green Project, and I've promised to do some research on other environmentally-sustainable communities (kind of like co-ops or condo associations, but green.)

So since I have all of this to do, I figured today I'd go shopping!

The objective was to find some teacherly-clothing (meant to make me look as professorial as possible--p-shaw!), and to return our Bose iPod dock, which was a lovely gift we gave ourselves, but which was expensive and still sitting in a box.

Digression on the subject of iPods:
I have an iPod. When I got it, I was all "Yay! Now I can get rid of all of my CDs!" I have hundreds of CDs. I listen to maybe twenty of them. So I figured I'd download just the songs I like, and then get rid of the CDs, themselves. What I discovered was that it takes a long time to do that, and that it also requires additional organization (on iTunes), and that after all is said and done, you are still expected to save your files--on CDs. My attention-paying abilities don't allow me to listen to headphones as all of my students seem to do, and so essentially, I have this gizmo that has mabe three un-backed-up albums I've purchased on iTunes. These I listen to in my car. (Oh, and I do like some This American Life free podcasts.) What I'm getting at here is that this contraption seemed designed to streamline my music--and my life--and had I the time or the energy, I suppose it could. But, as with most things with a similar purpose and similar demands, my iPod has wound up feeling like another damn thing on my damned list. So I avoid it. (Interestingly, I don't buy much music anymore... I don't listen to as much, either. I hope this isn't a sign that I am becoming a stodgy ol' grownup.)

So, back to the shopping trip: I returned the docking station, and bought some made in China crapola shirts (because I was there and because I have a long list of things I have to do but will probably never do, and because I have no time to travel to some overpriced boutique on Magazine Street for American-made stuff where I can't also buy TP and Listerine in one fell swoop.)

Then, after my crap-buying, I had a lovely canteloupe and watermelon Bubble Tea from Frosty's Cafe. Next, I drove two strip malls down and bought a book at Barnes and Noble (rather than going to indie-bookstore for the same reason as crap-Chinese shirt-buying, see above.) Then, on the way home, I sang along to my thinly-populated iPod (if you can call my mucousy warble singing), thumbing my nose at the LSU SUV traffic crawling along on the outgoing side of the interstate.

Yes, it was a day.

Now, if only I could have managed to knock off something on my list.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Here's to the New Year...

Because it's c-c-cold here in New Orleans, and because I've had a cold, I've not been relishing the first moments of 2008. In fact, I've been doing a whole lot of exactly what I'd resolved to do less of: watching TV. I've just turned off some Travel Channel show about Jack Osbourne's mission to lose weight and climb mountains. Before that was a Top Model marathon on VH1. Last night: Project Runway (which has not been nearly so much fun to watch without the fine company of my friends who've moved to California.)
Last night, it was so cold that I woke up with all four cats piled on top of me, and with my hand trumpeting my nose so I could breathe something other than ice-cold, throat-burning air. I bought a new alarm clock from Brookstone, and it projects the time and temperature onto the ceiling, so I was awake, watching the red LED-flash of the seconds ticking and the temperature dropping: 48, 43, 36. As you might imagine, these wonderfully-charming old New Orleans homes lose a bit of their charm in the few weeks of winter. I fell in and out of sleep. Dreamt Simon wanted a divorce. Dreamt my car wouldn't start. Woke up coughing green loveliness. I suppose I can be forgiven, then, for doing nothing but boobing around all day. Right?

I also have found myself needing a bit more time than usual to recover from the holidays. I can recall detailing an argument that occurred last year while we were visiting family in Atlanta, and I might do the same this year were the subject of the fight not so painful and this blog not so public. Anyway, it was one of those arguments that rocks your world--the family sort of fight that you will never forget (try as you might.) One day I may find the head-space and heart-space to write about it, but for now, it's just a big ol' painful stain on the exit of 2007. Good riddance, '07!

In fact, the rest of our holiday was quite nice. My sister-in-law's belly is growing splendidly and beautifully. I gathered with old friends, held a baby, sang carols with my mother, and cooked and ate lots of wonderful food. Christmas day, itself, was particularly wonderful. My mom (a.k.a. Santa) spoiled us wonderfully, my dad was in good, picture-taking spirits, and we "kids" enjoyed a trip to suburbia-land to see "Sweeney Todd." Simon and I cooked a wonderful butternut squash lasagna, and we popped English "crackers" which contained whistles and crowns that were used with mucho-hilarity. It was nice to spend time with family--especially since this is the last Christmas where we "kids" will still be kids: come February, I will be an aunt! I sort of hope that Christmas doesn't change once the kiddies come along, and yet, I am also excited about how another generation will influence changes to our current traditions.

Anyway, with the new year comes reflection, and of course, resolutions. Simon and I made one: to recycle. Once upon a time, we had city-wide recycling here in New Orleans, but curbside pickup of recyclables was yet another casualty of the storm. In thinking about our new neighborhood's commitment to becoming carbon neutral, I've realized that in fact, we do very little to help. Partly, I think, because simply making it through the day continues to be a bit of a struggle. How can one commit to being carbon-neutral when one is trying hard to staying mentally stable?

I learned from some friends that we can pay to have curbside pickup using Phoenix Recycling. It sucks that we have to pay for what should not be considered a "luxury," but I suppose we've become accustomed (or resigned, rather) to paying more to live here in New Orleans.
Speaking of paying more--we sent off our first mortgage payment, and soon I'll write a hefty check for property taxes on a house that's nowhere near livable. I'm trying not to get crazy about what I can't control (read: the contractor's work-pace,) but our living-expenses during the renovation will be triple what they are now. It's gonna be tough. As a result, Simon and I made resolution #2: to get through the renovation and the move. And by "getting through," we mean that we hope to fight as little as possible, and approach every decision (of the hundreds we'll be making) as a TEAM. Yes, Team DeBacHand is in full effect for 2008. Go team!
In my personal life, I've resolved the following:

1) To write more thank you letters. Ideally I'd resolve to simply "write more"--perhaps even to write some fiction, or try to publish some--but the writing that gives me the most pleasure comes in thanking people. This may sounds strange, but it's true. I love to say thank you, to write it, and to send that happy message out in the mail. Even a thank you email works wonders for my soul and makes me feel rosy. Maybe my real resolution should be simply, to thank others more often--in writing and in speech. I do have so many people to thank!
2) To be more productive. I have so many things I want to accomplish, and not accomplishing them makes me feel like crapola. So, I want to:

3) In order to do that, I will need to watch less TV. I am embarrassed to admit that I need to resolve to watch less TV, but there you go. Even worse: I love to watch the kind of crap that people make fun of us Americans for watching (see above).

Realistically, if I am able to accomplish 1 and 3, 2 will follow. So, I will focus on turning off the TV and saying thank you. Hey--I'm doing well with turning off the TV (since I turned it off to write this!) Next, onto the thank you's...

Since you are likely not all that interested in reading my resolutions, I'll share that Simon and I went to the bonfires on Orleans Ave to ring in the New Year, that there is a very vocal and un-neutered orange cat howling under the piers, and that I found a piece of newspaper in our new/old house that's dated December 15, 1927. Also: last night I made a delicious but forgettable broccoli raab pasta, and tonight I'll cook stir fried veggies with tofu. Two days ago, I sorted through hundreds of CDs and came up with 100+ to sell in a yard sale. Oh, and I found some lovely lighting fixtures at IKEA that were gifted to us by my mother, and which are now sitting in storage, waiting for installation.

That's the report. Now, happy new year, dammit.