Friday, December 14, 2007

home sweet home

After some adventures with snow and more snow, we're home in Concord safe and sound. Tales of our last two days will have to wait until we've had some sleep.

4,558 miles since we were last home.

If you're in the southern New England area, we'd love to see y'all--we'll have some free time between now and Christmas, so give us a call.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

oh, me oh my-oh, look at miss ohio

We're staying at my uncle's place outside of Canton. Ohio is rather an unfortunate waste of space, but I love seeing my family. They're awesome. And it's great to have a day off the road.

Mulates and Zydeco

For our second to last night in New Orleans – the last free night, the last night where we didn't have to be doing things like packing and going to bed early – our friend Rose treated us to a wonderful night on the town. We started with dinner at Mulate's, where we savored what we knew would be some of our last Cajun and Creole food (for the time being) while listening to the five piece Cajun band set up on the far side of the dance floor. It's been really neat to identify elements in Cajun music that are familiar from other music I enjoy, like bluegrass and Qu├ębecois fiddle music. My grilled shrimp were delicious, Rose’s red beans and rice were exceptional, and we had fun trying different things on the Cajun appetizer sampler. Erika disliked the fried oysters, I thought they were OK, and Rose prefers to avoid oysters however they are prepared. We all liked the fog's legs, though they were almost too rich for me, and none of us liked the alligator. Seriously gross. Like chicken but greasier and with a slight hint of soap. Erika says it recalls burnt motor oil.

After dinner we made our way to a New Orleans landmark known as the Rock n' Bowl. It does indeed have a bowling alley, but we didn't make it past the dance floor. The zydeco band we come to see was in full swing when we arrived, and couples filled the area in front of the stage. Less than 20 seconds after I walked in the door, this goofy Cajun dance teacher swept me out into the crowd. Thank goodness he was a good leader -- I'd never danced zydeco before, and he had me twirling all over the place! The crowd was energetic, enthusiastic, and mostly unpretentious. It was also intergenerational (though 21 and up, because of the bar), and quite mixed in terms of race and ethnicity. The two things that everybody had in common were that they liked the music, and they liked to dance. And let me tell you, most people there could really dance!

For those of you who have never heard zydeco music, picture a spectrum with bluegrass on one end and New Orleans Jazz on the other. Zydeco would be somewhere in the middle. If you've never seen zydeco dancing, think Texas Two-step and swing, but Cajun, sort of. The beat is very specific. Anyway, the music and the dance are both great, and we had so much fun! It was definitely our best night out of the entire trip.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Missouri loves company

It was 80° and humid as we drove out of Memphis. I was dismayed to see that, in places, Memphis appeared to be in as much disrepair as central city in New Orleans. We saw rubble piles, houses abandoned and boarded up, smashed windows, and burned cars. I understand why New Orleans looks like this, at least a little bit, but it's quite affecting to think that Memphis could come to this state by poverty alone.

We were surprised to find the whole of Arkansas and Missouri swaddled in immovable fog. I associate fog with the ocean, but evidently the Mississippi can muster up a decent fog itself. It almost felt like we were driving through the river -- that the water hadn't stopped at the shore, but spread up into the air and out over the land. The colors of the crops and dirt in the fields beneath the fog were vivid and rich compared to that flat white.

(Erika says: We've been living alongside the Mississippi this whole trip -- our bunk house was nestled in the corner of the river, so we'd find it if we went south, east, or west. We've walked, sat, eaten, and napped on its banks in New Orleans, Steamboated up and down its final port, leaned against its levees, learned about its usefulness, history, power, and fetters, followed its route on our maps, but it still seemed like a distant entity. Yesterday, surrounded by the dense muffling fog in Caruthersville, Missouri where my mother's parents grew up, watching the roiling silvery waters silently buffet a fishing boat and slide under the branches of an elm, I felt the undeniable presence of the river for the first time. All rivers are forces more than objects, this one more than any other I've known.)

Petra again: The levees that bordered the public fishing and boat launch where we stopped in Caruthersville looked quite similar to the ones that run along the lower 9th Ward. I’d heard, of course, that the federal levee system runs all the way along the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis, but to actually see the truth of that was quite something else.

We found the City Museum of St. Louis was unexpected and eerie east. We didn’t even have to pay for parking. Those of you who haven't heard me rhapsodize about this institution might be surprised to hear that my desire to bring Erika to the City Museum was an extremely significant factor in our decision to drive North and then East rather than straight northeast from New Orleans. I was secretly convinced that by the time we actually got there, something would've gone wrong: it would have gone out of business, become entangled in a dramatic lawsuit, or be otherwise closed unexpectedly. For her part, Erika was sure that there was no way it could possibly live up to my elaborate descriptions, nor be worth going approximate the 600 miles out of our way or the steep cost of admission. In fact, it was open and she instantly fell so in love with the place that she put away her camera to free up her hands for climbing only two minutes into our visit. For her to enjoy something more than taking pictures is extremely rare. They had to kick us out at closing. Erika now wants to move to St. Louis -- specifically, to the twig nest above the white whale in between the first and second floors.

Perhaps further explanation is warranted at this point. The City Museum of St. Louis is not so much a museum as a beautifully mosaiced, lovingly constructed, fantastically designed, and unbelievably elaborate five-story building cum sculpture. While you could walk upright through most of the building, why would you, when you can instead climb through a spiral of shiny metal into a suspended tunnel decorated with tree branches, hurdle down the steep three-story slide covered by an arch of spinning colorful paint rollers, and wriggle your way down 2 1/2 stories of dark tunnels and caverns to find St. George’s Dragon? It's a sculpted 3-D maze large enough for adults to get lost in, and every detail is perfectly crafted. Most of the materials are scavenged, like the paint rollers: we took a break on a bench next to a pillar that someone had decorated with a realistic and detailed mosaic of the gecko made entirely out of old watchband's. It's gorgeous and whimsical and filled with stuff straight out of the myth, or out of your favorite dream. Incredibly, nothing is caricatured, cheesy, or childish. Although it may sound like a place for kids, adult enjoyed it just as much and crawl through the tunnels with just as much glee.

After the City Museum, we went to see our friend Soda, a temporary St. Louisian, who lived in the same dorm as me at Smith. These days, it seems we only get two see her for twelve hour periods every three years, which is very sad. Accordingly, we made the most of our time together before finally sending her back to her homework. We fell promptly asleep.

em eye ess ess eye ess ess eye pea pea eye

We’re on the road again. (La la laa la la la laaa la la – come on, you know that song.) It’s really nice to be on our own after such tight community living, but it was very hard to leave our new friends, our meaningful work, and the bunk house that has been our home.

Our route took us hundreds of miles due north from New Orleans up the long edge of Mississippi (lots and lots of Mississippi) to Memphis, Tennessee. We first skirted the surprisingly large and varied western shore of Lake Ponchartrain, which surely is actually thirteen lakes banded together in a subterfuge of identity. Unfortunately, we couldn’t verify this, since the lake(s) were almost entirely covered with stagnant impermeable fog. I was previously amazed to learn that, to this day, whole communities of Native Americans and Cajuns live undetected in these marshes
Lake Ponchartrain marshes. Having now seen their extent and density, though, I’m sure that within a mile of the Interstate dozens of people could live without anyone on the outside knowing of their existence.

After more marshes and lots of flat boring stuff, we came to the first hill we had seen since arriving in New Orleans. We hadn’t realized the lack of hills until we saw this one. We greeted it gladly—a mound of earth that was not a levee, and had no other purpose than just being a hill!

Next there was Jackson, which was only interesting in that it prompted us to sing “Jackson.” We couldn’t really remember all the words (hotter than a pepper sprout… go comb your hair… teach ‘em what they don’t know how?), and neither of us sounds like Johnny Cash, but we gave it a full faith effort.

The unscintillating prospects out the car window prompted me to examine the area map in great detail, resulting in my discovery of a tiny notation north of Jackson: “Mississippi Petrified Forest.” Needless to say, this prompted a swift change in our itinerary, and we soon stepped out of the car into a strange, quiet, humid rural valley. The path (guarded at the beginning and end by truly adorable fuzzy kittens) led through wooded “Badlands,” former agricultural lands that had eroded into untellable steep, rocky, winding gullies and banks, in the process uncovering piles of petrified tree trunks. These beautiful tree fossils lie as they fell 36 million years ago, resting amidst the detritus of the modern forest surrounding them. It was often hard to tell at first glance which were wood or stone. And, yes, we made all of the obligatory “Petra-fied” jokes.

A few hundred miles of lovely farmland later, we arrived in Memphis. After a few choruses of “Graceland” and “Walking in Memphis,” we checked into the Pilgrim House hostel. It’s very cozy and chill (and has a cute fuzzy kitten named Soup), and interestingly is run by a Congregational church. In addition to housing the church and this hostel, this building also has a bike organization, a day care center, a performance/dance space, a shelter of some sort, and probably other things too. They do churches big down here.

We treated ourselves to a dinner of delicious veggie food (vegetables! tofu! and hummus! oh my!), which …oh my goodness I am already hungry for more vegetables. I think we mentioned before that New Orleans doesn’t believe in vegetables. I LOVE VEGETABLES! My enthusiasm is unfeigned and currently knows no bounds. I will spare you my odes to the zucchini, though, and go to bed.

P.S. There were cute kittens next to the restaurant too. Piles of them. A surplus of cuteness today.

Tuesday, December 4, 2007

rollin' on the river

We rode a steamboat! On the Mississippi! As a life-long fan of Mark Twain, this was a dream come true.

The river has certaily changed considerably since Twain's time. Lots less charm, lots more industrial sprawl. The steamboat itself was lovely: quiet, efficient, comfortable. Definately a superior mode of travel. I say we go back to horseback, trains, and steamboats for good.

Random things we learned on the cruise:
Where we were boating, right out of downtown New Orleans, the Mississippi River is 200 ft deep and always above sea level. The day we were on the water, we were 6 feet above sea level. It can get up to 18 feet above sea level on normal years, flooding over the levees somewhere almost every year. As Twain wrote, "The Mississippi River will always have its own way; no engineering skill can persuade it to do otherwise." Lake Pontchartrain, where the levees broke, is at sea level. (People care a lot about sea level around here, if you haven't noticed.) The levee system was started in 1717 by individual landowners, and have been under the control of the Army Corps of Engineers since the Civil War. They now go all the way north to St. Louis, MO.

New Orleans is the 4th largest port in the world (by tonnage). Grain is the port's #1 export, and oil is it's #1 import. Aluminum is made from byprodcuts of the oil refinery process. The Domino Sugar refinery, which we passed on the way, is the 2nd largest sugar refinery in the world. It was incredible to see entire barges of unrefined sugar, and cranes with truck-sized scoops moving it around.

The Mississippi has catfish up to 200 pounds. The captain of the Natchez has himself caught an 80 lb catfish. I saw the pictures to prove it. I sure hope he didn't eat it--I shudder to think about the pollution in the waters here.

brangelina and glowing pink boxes in the lower 9th

Half way through dinner last night our friend Rose called to say that we should fill our car with people and come immediately to the lower 9th Ward for this art exhibit, concert, and fundraising benefit she was attending. It’s going on now and involves large glowing pink boxes representing houses that Brad Pitt is going to build, she said, so hurry.

Brad Pitt has founded a nonprofit organization called Make It Right. Partnering with a variety of other organizations (architects, private-sector corporations, 9th Ward community organizations), they're going to build affordable and ecologically-sound houses for Katrina victims in the lower 9th Ward. Last night was their kickoff event and benefit fundraiser. They're starting goal is to build 150 of these homes, and last night alone they raised enough money for seven. At the moment, there are 150 pink house-sized tents covering about a five block area of the lower ninth Ward. At night they are lit from within and without, and you can see them as soon as you crest the bridge over the Industrial Canal. Scattered among the tents are small blue points of light that look like candles or stars, one for each resident of the Lower 9th Ward who died in the floods. They're also three or four viewing platforms set up come each about two stories tall. The display is definitely best viewed from above.

Because it’s New Orleans, I was completely unsurprised to hear excellent live music as we walked through the neighborhood towards the stage. I was surprised, however, that the music wasn't jazz but rock and roll. Specifically, 1950s rock. After we listen to the second song, I narrowed it down even further. It appeared to be a Jerry Lee Lewis cover band.

We climbed to the top of the viewing tower, taking in the sites and absently listening to the music. Gradually it occurred to me that this was an awfully good Jerry Lee Lewis cover band. Quite exceptionally good. And the crowd, though small, was really extremely excited about it. Much more excited that I would have expected the New Orleans audience to be about a Jerry Lee Lewis cover band.

And then they started to play Great of Balls of Fire. The entire audience went crazy. Things started to fall into place. We raced down the stairs, heading for the stage as quickly as we could. The guy at the keyboard looked to be about 80 years old. I stood there gaping. This was not a cover band. We were listening to Jerry Lee Lewis himself play his hit Great Balls of Fire, live in New Orleans in the lower 9th Ward, from a stage less than 20 feet away from us.

Then he played The Twist, and it was totally awesome. We twisted. That man can still rock.

Unfortunately, I didn't actually see Brad Pitt or Angelina Jolie, though we knew they were there. We left to go home to bed before they came out (I've got a bit of a cold). My friend Melinda stayed longer, and she did see them both. In fact, she was standing right behind them during the final performance of the Neville Brothers (who we also heard play). Angelina was holding one of the babies. Melinda has pictures -- blurry pictures, but pictures nonetheless. I'm trying really hard to get over the fact that I missed my opportunity to meet the second most beautiful personal alive (#1 being my beautiful wife) in order to go home and go to bed because I have a cold. There’ll be other opportunities to meet Angelina Jolie, right? Sure! Of course there will be.

This photo by Melinda:

And these by Erika, of course:

corporate volunteers galore

Well, the Phillip Morris employees smoked a lot. No big surprise. Especially considering that the 30+ volunteers we had at Ms. Evelyn's house were not just any Phillip Morris employees, but were the people in charge of ensuring that Phillip Morris cigarettes were prominently displayed and actively sold throughout the Gulf Coast region. They loved their jobs. They loved "pushing tobacco" (their phrase, not mine). They had some rather amazing ethical blinders on, and I spent most of the day wryly smiling and keeping my thoughts to myself.

They were perfectly nice people, of course, who got a lot of work done (I was in charge of reinforcing the structural supports of the 2nd storey floors), and who donated a big pile of money to keep the work going. Much appreciated. If big businesses are going to make money in evil ways anyways, they might as well give a lot of that money to worthy causes. I'd rather take money away from evil businesses than from companies whose money could be used within their own fields in good ways. For instance: Monday was another big corporate project. 100 environmental consultants from a company called RMT came from all over the country to help out at another public school. They didn't donate additional money, though, because they are constantly reinvesting their money into researching better environmentally-friendly technologies. I like that. I think that in many ways that's just as important as investing money directly in these houses. So I'm glad Phillip Morris gave Hands On a big cheque and RMT didn't.

The RMT employees were absolutely fantastic workers. Remind me that if I'm ever doing a volunteer project, I want to recruit engineers. By lunchtime we burned through all the scheduled projects for the day (I was in charge of a raised-bed planter), and they improved our plans and processes the whole time.

With the extra time in the afternoon, Petra set the horde of un-tasked volunteers to creating sidewalk murals. She did an absolutely amazing job pulling great easy mural ideas out of nowhere, managing paint and brush supplies, preventing paint spills, doing quality control, and directing ongoing cleanup. I don't think many people could steer 80 strong-willed, intelligent grown men (and 2 or 3 women) toward painting the alphabet, the solar system (with proportional distances), the water cycle, hopscotch, a creative calendar/clock, etc. with such success. The kids and teachers were thrilled with her project far and above everything else we did. They called the main sidewalk "the new information superhighway," and thanked her for giving the kids a fun way to play, for making it so "the kids can't help but learn, just by walking around," and most touchingly "for making this look like a real school now, not like a prison camp."

Sunday, December 2, 2007

two cemeteries and a lounge

One of Hands On’s first projects was to rebuild and renovate the Mother-In-Law Lounge. The late founder Earnie K-Doe was quite a character, as is the current proprietor, his widow Antoinette K-Doe. Ms. Antoinette is a frequent spokesperson for Hands-On, and her best friend is an historian who used to lead tours of many important sites in New Orleans. Consequently, I got an excellent tour of two of New Orleans’s most gorgeous and notorious cemeteries: St. Louis #1 and St. Louis #2!

The cemeteries are awesome. They're like ornate marble and/or lime-washed mini-cities of dead people scattered around in the middle of the larger city for living people. I had a lot of fun taking pictures that attempt to convey this idea. It's easy to see why they’re New Orleans icons.

My favorite part about the cemetery is the culture of ancestor reverence that surrounds them. People have tombs that have been in the family for generations. A lot of them are in disrepair, but some of them are clearly well maintained and frequently visited. People use the tombs as an anchor in grief. The customs and rituals involved in caring for the tombs provide a communal social model for maintaining a relationship with departed loved ones. From what I hear, the cemeteries on All Saints Day resemble nothing so much as a family reunion/cocktail party! Grief in New England is usually a private, individual thing. In New Orleans the experience is shared much more broadly with the community as a whole, and for all that is no less personal, and seems much more joyful.

I want a little city of y’all around me when I’m dead, and I want parties held at my tomb every year, ok? You can bring my favorite foods and tease me from the other side of the veil. Be there or be square!

(photos by Petra)


On the 23rd we went to the Louisiana Indian Heritage Association's annual fall powwow, which we’d read about in the newspaper. The moderately terrible weather (really rainy and rather cold) made for pretty small crowd, but the gathering was all the more intimate for its small size. It felt rather like being at someone else's family reunion. This is unsurprising, since in many ways a powwow IS a family reunion with a community outreach component. Everyone was very laid-back. The MC told stories and jokes, unhurriedly moving people through the afternoon's programming. People strolled around visiting each other and the few hardy vendors who had stayed despite the weather, or relaxed at picnic tables in the pavilion. The dancers prepared themselves -- and their elaborate clothes -- at a leisurely pace, pausing here and there to catch up with old friends.

Judging from the clothing, the people came from a much wider variety of tribes than I had expected: Louisiana, certainly, but people were also wearing clothes typical of tribes from the Great Plains, Southern California, and northern Mexico. The languages spoken, Creole included, were just as mixed. Most surprising of all, to me, was to see clothes I recognized from the tribes back home in New England -- Wampanoag and Pequot, if I’m not mistaken! The kid’s clothing frequently reflected that of their parents in color and ornamentation. I found that very endearing. Also the way they frequently danced with their eyes fixed on their parents feet, clearly working hard to get the steps right.

And then we met a celebrity! The MC kept teasing one of the performers about being famous movie star. Because of the teasing tone, I assumed he was joking. He was, but I discovered when I went over to her display table that she actually is a big movie star! Irene Bedard, to be precise. We meant to get a picture of ourselves standing with her, figuring our younger cousins especially would be excited to here that we've met the woman did the voice of Disney's Pocahontas, but we forgot. Sorry.

The powwow was held a campsite in Robert, LA, which is on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain. This meant that we got to cross the really really long Lake Pontchartrain Causeway. I’ve wanted to do that since we came down here, and I was delighted to finally have the excuse.

I was really glad to get a chance to meet some people from this culture that has so profoundly shaped New Orleans. Yay powwows!

audobon zoo

We found more alligators for Erika, big ones this time. Fortunately, there were many other animals around to distract her, and I didn't feel compelled to double-check the trunk of the car for reptilian stowaways when we left at the end of our visit. Highlights of our zoo trip were definitely the:
1) white tiger asleep with its feet in the air and its whiskers twitching, clearly dreaming about chasing small elephants,
2) adult sulcatta tortoise roaming around the Discovery Walk, who reminded us of Khalil,
3) pair of bobcats adorably washing one another’s shoulders,
4) strange and beautiful white alligators, whose lack of normal pigmentation is do not to albinism but a different genetic mutation: they are leucistic, and their eyes are bright blue.
5) primates. Always the primates.

The real star of the New Orleans Audubon zoo, though, is the unique Louisiana Swamp exhibit. You go along a boardwalk that snakes through cypress trees draped in Spanish moss, past Cajun houseboats (donated, I think), and over a duckweed covered river full of -- what else -- alligators. If you’re ever in town, come here.

the high life

Petra and I got to live the high life for about 19 hours this weekend. Some of the Hands On staff surprised us by put us up in a super-shwank hotel downtown on Saturday night to thank us for our work here. We were delighted, and really greateful for the mini-vacation in such a beautiful place. While the outside of the building was boring, the interior was just gorgeous. It made contemporary design look GOOD. The photos don't begin to do it justice.

We enjoyed exploring the tucked-away lounges scattered about the hotel, luxuriating in the huge comfy beds and their amazingly soft bedding, watching Anne Rice's Interview with the Vampire on the big TV, taking about seventeen hot showers each and trying all of the smelly soaps (sage and lemon! real lavendar!), playing in the glass-enclosed rooftop gym, and watching all of the astoundingly fashionable people file through the lobby.

In the morning, we walked across the street to Mother's, the city's best breakfast joint, and almost made ourselves sick eating so many butter biscuits. We also had fun introducing some British tourists to the glory of grits.

The whole thing was a wonderful break from the very basic, very communal bunkhouse we've been living in for the past month and a half. It was good to get back to our friends here, though, and good to be reminded that while luxury is fun, community is really where it's at.

Thursday, November 29, 2007


We were interviewed on Nov. 29th by Peter Walsh, the host of Oprah's radio station, Radio XM 156 (Channel 1807 on Direct TV) about our reasons for coming down to New Orleans and volunteering. It's amazing to hear how they can wheedle and squeeze the cheese out of you. I cringe to hear what I said. But if you want to listen, it will be playing four or five times throughout the day Dec. 14th, and will be available online after that. To hear it you might need to sign up for the 30-day free trial of XM Radio Online, which you can do here. I'll put a direct link up here to the interview segment when it's available.

Our other media appearances coming up include articles written by me and Petra and photos by me for the Hands On New Orleans newsletter and for the Preservation Channel's website, as well as bit parts in a Hollywood reality TV show. No joke. One of our friends is being followed by a film crew, so we're in the background. We'll let you know more about it when we can (for instance, when they come up with a name for the show).

Basketball and Travelocity

Yesterday, Travelocity and their corporate partners (esp. Mastercard) sent 200 volunteers and a lot of money to help us fix up one of the terribly dilapidated New Orleans public schools. Petra was in charge of the murals. They looked fantastic. I was in charge of the basketball court and 25 volunteers to help make it happen. After days of hard prep work (see "dug a hole" below), the volunteers finally descended. It's pretty incredible how much work 200 people can do in one day, given good leadership. And it's pretty incredible how much mischief 25 corporate dudes can get into given about 30 seconds of inattention, 900 pounds of quick-dry cement, and a basketball. It was about 100 times harder than babysitting toddlers. It all ended well, with no injuries, very little poisoning (remarkable given the death mold, petroleum clay, and construction chemicals), and the whole school looking great. The kids and teachers are psyched. If you want to know more about the basketball court installation process, see the captions on the photos linked below.

Since so many of you have been asking, the weather has been absolutely gorgeous. 75 or warmer and sunny almost every day. I have a bit of a sunburn.

Another corporate project tomorrow. Construction. Phillip Morris. I.E. the tobacco devil. Rich devil, and giving us a lot of money. But still the devil. This should be fun.

Sorry for the lack of depth and meaning in this report, but I'm exhausted.

Monday, November 26, 2007

dug a hole

My friend Steve and I dug two and a half holes today. Well, I suppose we dug three holes, but one of them isn't deep enough yet. And there will be one more hole after this. The layers: gravel and blacktop pavement (2"), shells (12"), bricks and gravel (6"), sticky stinky oily bluegrey clay (40"). This is a lot deeper than you think it is. Add to this a lot of water that needed constant bailing, since this city is, of course, below sea level.

These holes are what we will cement the posts for basketball hoops into. Travelocity is sending 200 of their staff to volunteer at this school on Wednesday, and we're doing the dirty work prepping for that deluge of helping hands. Literally dirty. I'm covered head to toe in slimy oily clay. And I feel like jelly all over. I'm going to go eat now.

Thursday, November 22, 2007


Man, did we ever have thanksgiving. We had 50+ people for dinner (which Petra, I, and a Hands On New Orleans (HONO) staff person named Geneva cooked). The house was full of volunteers, HONO staff, New Orleaneans, friends, and families. We talked over dinner, and gave thanks. New Orleaneans talked of their gratitude for their lives, the roofs over their heads, and all the volunteers' help in not only rebuilding the city physically, but in rebuilding their hope. Volunteers, staff, and visitors gave thanks for the people who helped us come do this work, for the welcome offered to us by this city, for Hands On New Orleans' leadership and sensitivity in facilitating our work, and for the chance to be reminded of some of the things that matter most in this world: life, kindness, safety, patience, dedication, and community.

Thanks to all of you who support us every day. We love you and miss you. We'll be home soon.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

miss petra the librarian

The James M. Singleton Charter School is a K-8 public school in the central city area of New Orleans. There are approximately 600 students. They attend classes in the YMCA building, an old public library building, and a number of modular/mobile classrooms (a.k.a. trailers). Space for storerooms and classrooms is in short supply. A number of classes are taught out of the school cafeteria, often concurrently.

The library has about 8,000 books in it, all donated. A former Hands On volunteer started the library a little over a year ago. She worked with the school to designate a room, organized a fundraising drive, solicited donations of books, established a system for shelving and checking out books, etc. The library is still solely staffed by Hands On volunteers, of which I am the latest.

When I arrived the library had been without a volunteer for several weeks, and the place was a mess. The shelving system had disintegrated, donated and checked in books were building up in stacks, and boxes of school supplies, textbooks, microscopes, and other materials that hadn't made it to classrooms or storage closets were stacked everywhere. I’ve spent the past three weeks fixing all of that, and it’s taken all of that time. I've redesigned the cataloging system, and am in the process of re-labeling and re-shelving the books accordingly. Bookends are scarce, so I've made some out of bricks from a Hands On construction site around the corner. I took an inventory of all the random school supplies and bulk books, and have succeeded in moving most of them to where they are actually supposed to be. The excavating process uncovered a small table and three large and very welcome windows.

The atmosphere in the school is lively and busy. Classes are large, and the students have a lot of energy. The administrators are always doing at least three things at once. I learned very quickly to act first and understand that if I do something I shouldn't someone will let me know. People have no time to do things for me, and very little time to think about how I could do things for myself if I ask for advice or permission.

In New England, it’s generally polite to stay in the background when you’re new to a place, ask people if you want to rearrange something or change the way something is done, and wait patiently for people to finish their conversations if you would like their attention. That's not how it works down here. Doing these things down here makes people concerned about my competence and/or intelligence: If I ask about changing something they wonder why I can't figure it out for myself, and why I so distinctly lack confidence and decisiveness. Moreover, standing differentially on the edges of someone's conversation is creepy and weird. People wonder “what’s wrong with her that she doesn't know how to ask for help?” and/or “why isn't the white girl talking?” Things were a bit awkward in the first week, but have gone much smoother since I developed better southern manners. (My apologies if I’m rude when I get back up north.  )

I really like the students. I will unashamedly admit that a few of them ran circles around me at first—I even got played* by a first grader – but I like to think I'm a bit wiser at this point. They were very patient with my initial inability to understand them when they spoke plain English (I told them I was hard of hearing, and they could hear my funny accent for themselves). They’re now pleased that my ears have improved to the point that we can speak normally, and delighted that my feeble memory can now hang onto their names (Joniqua, Chrishikiante, Derika, Ashikira, etc., all said with a THICK quick drawl). My name is The Library Lady, and sometimes Miss Petcher, Miss Patrice, or Miss Patrick. If they see me outside the library some of them will confuse me with The Drama Lady, who is also white. A couple of them think that because of this, we must be sisters.

I’ve had a lot of fun figuring out what they like to read. As everywhere, the Goosebumps books are impossible to keep on the shelves. Nonfiction books are the next most popular, especially how-to books for particular skills (books that teach drawing or magic tricks), joke books, and sports books (primarily basketball). Equally popular are books about black history and famous African-Americans. Rosa Parks is a special favorite, along with Martin Luther King Jr., Booker T. Washington, and – of course – Babe Ruth.

They're generally not as excited about fiction. The science-fiction & fantasy section is almost entirely ignored, the exception being the eight or so students that make a beeline for it every time they come in. (There are some in every school.) The rest like historical fiction, especially if it’s about black history (a current favorite is My Name Is Not Angelica), and books about contemporary teenagers going to school. It's with these books that I am the most dissatisfied. The basic problem is that the James Singleton library’s fiction collection – especially when it comes to young adult friends-with-angst books – is very similar to those that were in my school libraries. This includes The Babysitters Club, The Boxcar Children, Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, the complete works of Beverly Cleary, multiple complete sets of Little House on the Prairie, Sweet Valley High ad nauseam, Encyclopedia Brown, Cam Jansen, Madeline L’Engle’s books, etc. Most of them are great books, don't get me wrong — as a kid I loved them. These kids generally think they’re all right, but there’s definitely something blatantly missing. Kids want to read about themselves, especially during adolescence. What they’d really love to read is a Babysitters Club equivalent where all the main characters are black.

What’s even more frustrating is that most of these kids really can’t read. The deck is really stacked against them. The literacy rate in New Orleans even before Katrina was incredibly low, with 40% of the city’s population unable to read above a 5th grade level according to a local friend of mine. And that’s including the white population. These kids are bright, and they want to read. They just aren’t being given the support they need to learn. It’s not really the teachers—it’s the whole system.

My saddest moment so far has been when the vice principal came by and dropped off a seventh-grade boy he’d pulled out of class for disruptive behavior. This happens fairly regularly, and frankly it’s fine with me. At first he only wanted to look at basketball books, and he was generally surly. I eventually coaxed him toward other books, eventually finding one that captured his attention: a coffee-table book with historical photographs of black women from colonial times to the present. His surliness evaporated, leaving a bright, intent, engaged young man who deeply wanted to learn about these women and their lives. He chose to be late for basketball practice to stay with me in the library, struggling through the captions on the photographs, which he just couldn’t read on his own. Together we painstakingly read through the entire book. I left glad to have been able to help him, and enraged at the system that left him and the hundreds of other students at this school like him with skills so inadequate to serve their intelligence and interests.

I don’t think I need to tell you why I find this work so meaningful. Yes, Mum and Dad, I am going to be a teacher. It just might take me a few years to get there.

Erika and I have started a wish list for better books to add to the library. I want to give these kids something they’ll see as worth expending the effort to read. The wish list is at, or you can click this button:
My Wish List

Thanks in advance for helping to give these kids a better library!

* being “played” is like being tricked or hoodwinked. Here's an example, completely fabricated of course: if a first grader manages to get you to confirm her story that you told her to pull all the books off the shelf and re-shelve them upside down, backward, and in the wrong place, you got played.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

i'm in love with an alligator

I’ve always wondered what a bayou was, so we set out today to find out first-hand. We went on a swamp tour that was actually quite fun and informative. Our guide was a local guy, a former firefighter, who was even better than me at spotting snakes in the bushes. We saw lots of alligators, turtles, egrets, herons, trees, remarkably misplaced houses (thanks to the 30+ft storm surge from Katrina), etc.

The guide was rehabilitating a little (2 ft-ish) alligator, which he brought along on the boat. I got to hold Allie the Alligator for about an hour after everyone else squealed over him/her for a few minutes. Petra was the only other person on the boat who wanted to really cuddle with him/her, but was kind enough to let me co-opt his/her attention. I am in love. Allie is soft, cuddly, smiley, adorable, and has beautiful eyes. I know Allie is really a vicious wild lizard, but that knowledge does not dampen my affection. I miss him/her. I want a pet alligator now. Petra says I’m not allowed.

In other news, there are massive marsh fires east of New Orleans that we’ve been watching from afar for days now. The smoke reaches all the way over the city, and we can smell it outside the bunkhouse here when the wind blows the right way. The smell reminds me quite a bit of India. Beautiful sunrises and sunsets have resulted from the pollution. We got up early this morning and walked almost all the way downtown and back (4+ miles) reveling in the especially-golden light.

We could see the smoke from these fires all the way from Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, where we stopped to play on the beach after the swamp tour. The area was devoid of most human inhabitants, as the eye of the storm destroyed this part of the Gulf coast, but it was lovely. White sand beaches, bathwater-warm salty salty water, palm trees, live oaks (of course), and silence. (photos of the beach and morning walk added to the sidebar slideshow.)

If I go missing, you might find me happily hiding with my pet alligator clan in the Gulf Coast bayous. Don’t say I didn’t warn you. :)

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

i love the lizards!

I really, really love the lizards that dart around everywhere. They are hilarious and beautiful and fierce and eat bugs. They make me smile and smirk every time one sneaks by. I wish they lived at home.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

waiting for gumbo

On Saturday I went to see Waiting for Godot. Co-sponsored by Creative Time and the Classical Theater of Harlem in partnership with local colleges, high schools, and community organizations, the show was free and open to anyone who wanted to come. There's excellent information about the production here:

Waiting for Godot ran for two weekends, and was staged in two different neighborhoods. The first two performances took place at an intersection in the Lower Ninth Ward. I saw it the second weekend, when it was staged in and around an abandoned house in the New Orleans neighborhood of Gentilly (in/near the Upper Ninth Ward depending on who you talk to). At each performance there was seating for about 600 people, and they were turning folks away by the hundreds every night. On the night that I went -- the last night -- there were probably about a thousand people hoping to get in who were unable to get seats.

My evening started at 4:45 p.m., when I arrived to wait in line for my ticket. They were planning to hand out tickets at six, and there were already about 40 people in line ahead of me. They ended up giving out tickets an hour early because the line was so long. At that point I was no longer waiting for my ticket to Waiting for Godot, I was waiting for gumbo: the free gumbo they served at 6:30 p.m. It was delicious—well worth the wait!

The crowd was huge and included a lot of people who weren’t from New Orleans: college students, tourists, volunteers like me, and people who'd traveled to New Orleans for the show. I wish that more locals had been present, since the show was largely directed at them and designed to address the experiences of people living with the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. The people from the New York theater companies were particularly conspicuous. They weren't trying to be rude – they were just behaving like New York theater people (unsurprising) – but in New Orleans their attitude was inappropriately cool and brusque. Ditto most of the college students.

At seven o'clock the Salty Dog jazz band started to play, and they were wonderful. They let us in a procession across a bridge spanning the London Avenue Canal, down the levee (where it breached), and up into the bleachers. By lucky chance I ended up sitting in the third row in a crowd of people from the Lower Ninth Ward and Gentilly – right behind Anthea Pierce, whose son Wendell Pierce (a prominent actor) played the leading role of Vladimir. Wendell Pierce grew up in Gentilly, and is definitely a local hero. Ms. Anthea helped introduce the play, reading a poem and inviting us all to enjoy not the show, but her son’s performance. She was a hit.

The show started a bit late (8:15 or so), so we got some extra music. The band played jazzy gospel hymns and we sang along. A few people got up and danced, and everyone was moving – especially for “Elijah Day” and "When the Saints Go Marching in."

The show was beautifully, sensitively acted and produced. Although understated, Waiting for Godot’s relevance to post-Katrina New Orleans was intrinsically unmistakable and underscored by skillful staging. Vladimir’s and Estragon’s pursuits involved quite a bit of beat boxing and hip-hop dance, which was a particularly nice touch. Though seemingly light of heart, the character’s attempts to fill their empty time become increasingly contrived as the play progresses. They desperately try to keep busy in order to distract themselves from their nightmares, their memories of a traumatic experience which remains undefined throughout the play, and from their growing awareness of the fact that their lives now consist entirely of marking time. They complain about the silence and desolation of their meeting point—and we listened from the silent wreckage of what used to be a thriving urban neighborhood, a neighborhood in which many people are now waiting now for Godot but for FEMA, for insurance money, for help of any kind.

Vladimir and Estragon long to change their situation, but are held by the conviction that when Godot finally comes, they'll be saved. As the wait increases they forget what this salvation will actually look like. They begin to question their conviction, their memories (did Godot actually agree to meet us here?), their sanity, even their existence. How can you exist if someone who holds so much power over your life can ignore you so completely?

One of the lines in Vladimir's final monologue reads, “The air is filled with our cries!” Pierce delivered this line leaning out the second-story window desperately waving a white handkerchief. A few moments later he flipped through a flood destroyed photo album, showing us pages and pages of unrecognizable pictures and delivering the line, "Everything is dead." Many audience members responded with murmurs of agreement, "Amen," and "yes, it is."

Needless to say we gave an enthusiastic – if tearful – standing ovation. Music is a fundamental part of the healing process down here, and as we finished clapping Pierce began singing an upbeat, joyful, gospel “I’ll Fly Away,” encouraging everyone to join in. We did.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

accepted into grad school!

I just heard from Monash University in Melbourne, Australia--they like me! Graduate Diploma in Bioethics. A very exciting program. Which I can attend! Yay! Yay!

Now I just have to hear back from my first-choice school, the University of Melbourne. But really, I'd be quite happy with Monash. (happy! happy!)

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

animal rescue

I volunteered at the Animal Rescue of New Orleans, a no-kill animal shelter that has bravely taken in thousands of the animals abandoned from Katrina. The previous owners of many of these animals were killed in the hurricane, or were not able to evacuate the animals with them because of the limitations of the rescuers.

Most of the other shelters in the Gulf Coast area took in the thousands of abandoned pets immediately following the hurricane, but then had to put many of them down a year later because the shelters didn’t have the resources to support so many animals. This shelter was instrumental not only in taking on so many animals, but also in helping to get hundreds of animals transferred to other shelters around the country, where they have a greater chance of being adopted. There’s a great video about them here.

These animals are stressed. Some were traumatized by the terror of the hurricane, flooding, fires and their aftermath, and seem to have animal PTSD. Others were also messed up by the chemical sludge they had to swim in to survive. All are cramped for space, despite the organization’s best efforts. Almost all of the animals were totally sweet once they got a bit of love.

I spent most of the day handling the trouble animals: running miles with the dogs and their pent-up energy, crooning and stroking the quivering ones, nuzzling with the lonely cats, socializing the fiercest babies. It was an incredibly rewarding day. Tears actually came to my eyes when one of the angriest dogs there, who was lashing out and harshly biting anyone who came near him at the beginning of the day, crept over to me and curled up on my lap and licked my fingers after we went on a long run together.

The people here are just as messed up as the animals, but you can't walk up to a strange person and cuddle them until it's ok. It was wonderful to be able to give some of the New Orleans residents the love they need.

Monday, November 5, 2007

Lower 9th Ward

We visited the Lower 9th Ward today. I expected the devastation and desolation, but not the beauty. It was gorgeous. As we all have heard, the entire ward is below sea level, bounded by a canal on two sides and the Mississippi River on another, surrounded by ineffective levees, on damp and unstable ground, and has (not surprisingly) been frequently flooded. What I had missed amid all of these facts was the obvious: left to it’s own devices, the ward is a natural flood plain, a marsh. Having been wiped fairly clean and then left alone for two years, it’s of course quickly returning to its natural state. There were gorgeous rushes and reeds, marsh grasses, flowers, shrubs, and vines. And the birds: stalking egrets, skulking osprey, tiny timid doves, swallows darting and skimming about, a miniscule stripped bird of prey that was hunting grasshoppers with the intensity of an eagle, and more. Since many of the human residents were killed or displaced, and those who we saw were quiet and dignified, there were blissfully few noises except for those of the birds. It was as if we were spending the afternoon in a park—one with a looming tragedy.

The details of the human drama that played out on this “ground” (mud, really) of course were ever-present, and made my throat tighten with grief, but this did not translate into any antipathy toward nature’s force here. What it brought to light more than anything was how weak our claim on this earth is, and how unimaginably strong the forces of nature (both large and small) are. Water toppled steel, fire melted glass and wood, ivy shunts off siding, birds unravel cloth. The real tragedy is not the hurricane, which was an unfortunately-located natural phenomenon after all, but our inability to live in a more sustainable place in the natural world.

I hope to visit the ward often again before we leave. I know I have only just begun to explore this beautiful neighborhood. It is so full of life.

themes and variations

There should be signs at the New Orleans city limits saying “Abandon Expectations, All Ye Who Enter Here.” To function here requires a certain suspension of disbelief. At first it seems that you can never know what you’ll find around the next corner, or what you’ll hear when the next person opens his or her mouth. But we’ve started to notice some recurring themes:

I’ve always heard that New Orleans has great live music—it’s what the city is most famous for. However, I suspect that it’s impossible to understand what that means without experiencing it. Obviously the jazz bands are incredible, but the excellence is not confined to this local specialty. Strolling down Bourbon Street on Wednesday night, we stumbled upon the best bagpipe player I’ve ever heard—in or out of the British Isles! After listening for several minutes in a state of delighted incredulity, we continued down the street, pausing to appreciate the fantastic 12-piece jazz band that had set up a few blocks down. The fact that none of these musicians looked older than 20 years old made their performance all the more impressive. Later that night, we stopped by the weekly open mike in the bar around the corner from our bunk house. (The bar is called the Buddha Belly, and is a combination watering hole and laundromat.) Every act was good, and our favorite was a crusty old man singing sweet gravely blues. We’ve been trying to figure out what accounts for this phenomenon. It’s not just that the musicians know how to play, it’s also that everyone knows how to listen. The good music has an appreciative audience and lots of community support. Furthermore, people’s tolerance for bad music is very low. Since coming down here, we’ve hardly heard any of the manufactured top 40 insipidness of the week that peppers the radio back home. This is more refreshing than we could have anticipated. We hadn’t realized how much canned poor music had poisoned our souls.

New Orleans is also famed as a welcoming and friendly city. We have found this to be overwhelmingly true. In passing encounters, people are genuinely nicer, warmer, and more polite than we ever are up north, even with our dearest acquaintances. The city also seems much more racially integrated than New England cities, though people tell me that racial tensions here have increased in the wake of the storm. We have certainly felt much more comfortable being in the racial minority down here than we ever do in similar circumstances at home. This is really good, since most of the time here we are the only white people around. We will sorely miss this relaxed camaraderie when we come back up north.

Live Oaks grow throughout the city, arching their branches over the boulevards. They are a favorite feature of our morning jogs. We wonder if there were other trees around before the storm that didn’t weather it, or if Live Oaks have always reigned supreme.

One strange thing we’ve notice is an absence of scent. Boston is always smelly in one way or another, whether you’re smelling the sea air, the nearest garbage bin, or a passing urbanite’s expensive cologne. Mostly New Orleans smells like nothing, even to Erika’s perceptive nose. It’s disconcerting—we feel deprived of a sense. Even scrabbling around face-first in rotten houses produces no smells. Our recent trip to the city dump was delightful for many reasons, one of which was the slight sulphurus scent that reminded us that we have noses.

Perhaps the saddest thing about New Orleans (at least in our stomachs’ opinions) is the diet’s remarkable lack of vegetables. Not even a collard green or brussel sprout in sight. It’s all chicken, sugar, seafood, sugar, rice, sugar, and beans (with sugar!). And some rum. All very tasty, mind you, but not conducive to digestive comfort or nutrition.

Tomorrow, I’m back at the library. I hope to have the new shelving system in place by Wednesday. The kids are adorable, and I’d love to gush on proudly about them for hours, but won’t now. Maybe next post.

Thursday, November 1, 2007

food bank

Today I unpacked just shy of 4,000 pounds of food. I was one of three people unpacking boxes of donated food at a huge Gulf Coast regional food bank. All told, the team of nine of us unpacked, sorted, repacked, and prepared 11,850 pounds of food for distribution. That's more than 9,000 meals, 4% of their annual goal. We were psyched to be able to help, and had fun setting a fast pace.

The food bank, Second Harvest, was amazing. They serve hundreds of thousands of people throughout the entire Gulf Coast region. Their facilities, efficiency, dedication, etc., were inspiring. It was great to see a place equally good at logistics and ideals.

Last night Petra and I went down to Bourbon Street and Frenchman Street, the touristy and local centers of New Orleans night life, to witness the Halloween revelry. It was... out of control. Fun, though. There were tons of queer people around, which was refreshing, and a real mix of people: all ages, races, classes. Everyone was dressed up. I was a cowboy and Petra was a butterfly. Sorry, we forgot to take pictures. Most others' costumes defied convenient description. I played drums for a while in an awesome impromptu percussion jam. There was a lot of great street music--I mean really great. We look forward to exploring the French Quarter in the daylight. It seems strange and beautiful.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

getting started

We've been in New Orleans for two full days, and we're settling in nicely. On Sunday we did chores and finished setting up our bunk bed area. We like our compact space-its simple and fun, and we’re right by the window.

My Sunday chores included a trip to the Verizon store. My cell phone - the one Erika and I are both using these days - died midway through Mississippi. It was a strange new kind of broken, and one that resulted in the irretrievable loss of all of the phone numbers stored in our cell phone contact list. Consequently, we can now call only the two phone numbers we still have memorized: our parents. If you are not they, please send us your phone numbers! E-mail us, call us, text us your name so we'll know it's you and can save the “unknown number” accordingly! My/our cell number is the same. Thanks in advance!

On Monday we started our projects! Erika’s rebuilding Miss Evelyn’s house, a two-storey Victorian. Miss Evelyn couldn’t get back into the city for months after the storm, and when she finally did she discovered that the storm had blown her roof off. Rain had been collecting in the house during her absence, ruining the interior. The house has been stripped to the studs now, but the volunteers were miraculously able to save some of the original wood details (which are very nice).

Erika accomplished a lot on Monday. She patched a big hole in the wall by installing new siding (slow but satisfying work), then cleared scrap wood from the house. Using a big car-style jack, she then jacked up a corner of the house to make it level (which was totally exciting). The end of the day found Erika tiered but satisfied. It will take some time to adjust to doing this kind of labor again - this is no desk job!

I’m currently staffing the library at a K-8th grade charter school not far from where we’re staying. Hands On volunteers established the library about a year ago, raising money and collecting donations of books. Prior to that, the school had no library and the book-to-child ratio in the neighborhood was something like one book for every twenty-four children. Today, I’d guess that the library’s got about 7,000 books-hooray! The shelving system seems to be a bit haphazard, so I’m reorganizing.

It’s disheartening to see how many children are reading well below grade level. Only two or three kids have checked out the kind of books I would expect them to be reading at their respective ages and grades, and I’ve only met one kid reading books I would consider advanced for her grade. There's a fourth-grade reading group that meets in the library every morning. Most of them couldn't make it through a Berenstain Bears book.

In spite of this melancholy reality, it's a pretty fun place to be. The kids are high-energy and friendly, and the novelty of the library has definitely not worn off. There also really excited about Halloween tomorrow. They get to wear their costumes to school, and most of the teachers (including me) will be giving out candy in their classrooms. I've stocked up on almond Hershey Kisses and Tootsie Rolls.

We're also excited about Halloween in New Orleans -- it's supposed to be quite the festival! This evening we went out for ice cream with a bunch of our fellow volunteers, and most of the houses we walked past were already decorated. The large stately mansions, many of which sport decorative gas lamps on their porches, and the enormous live oaks arching over the boulevard make for a very spooky setting indeed!

Saturday, October 27, 2007

we're here!

We drove (by which I mean Petra drove and I doted on her) eleven hours straight today, leaving Knoxville at 6:30 am and arriving at the Hands On New Orleans building at 5:30 pm. Because we took great care of them, Petra's hands are doing fine. The drive went surprisingly quickly, thanks to a rather amazingly engrossing murder mystery book-on-tape my brother had loaned us. (Thanks, Reede! You saved the day!) We drove through half of Tennessee, a corner of Georgia, plus diagonally across Alabama and Mississippi and a snip of Louisianna. A little more than 600 miles today, making a grand total of 1,896 miles from Boston to here. Yes, mothers, we will change the oil now.

About 80 miles from the coast, we started noticing the wind damage. Trees stripped of limbs, mostly, and the bare skeletons of gas station signs. Then there was a weird mile of rolling fields full of thousands of brand new white gleaming trailers, unoccupied, locked up in chain-link enclosures. We assume this was FEMA's work. The closer we came to the city, the more bizzare mountains of rubble and abandoned bulidings and general damage there was. The neighborhood we're in is pretty posh--we're one block from Magazine Street in the Garden District--and seems pretty completely recovered, from what we can tell from a quick turn around the block. This building is chock full of volunteers, energy and laughter.

More tomorrow!

mountains and a revolutionary farm

Gorgeous drive yesterday out west all across North Carolina, up over the Great Smoky Mountains, and eventually down through Knoxville to Powell, Tennessee to our friend Elandria's house.

We stopped along the way in the mountains to drive up a random dirt road that came off the highway and discovered a lovely picnicing spot, a gorgeous river, an interesting hydroelectric water plant, and the Appalachian Trail. Despite our best efforts, we were unable to find a safe route from the road down into the river that was calling out to us, "Swim in me! Swim in me!" We're planning to come back to this place when we have more time. The Smoky Mountain foliage is truely beautiful, as are the mountains themselves.

Elandria took us to visit her place of employ, the Highlander Center, which was extremely exciting for me, since I'd heard about this place for years. It was amazing. Highlander is a revolutionary organizing center that supports progressive movements in the south. It's also on top of a mountain with one of the best views we've seen on the trip, complete with a herd of sweetly lowing calves artistically lit by the god-like rays of a pink sunset followed by a huge orange harvest moon. We could see for 100 miles across receeding ranges living up to their smoky reputation. Unfortunately, we discovered upon arrival that Erika had actually forgotten her camera at Elandria's! Oh bitter irony! We met a couple of Elandria's co-workers, who were kind, smart, funny, inspirational, and chill. And chili: we ate it on mangos. Yum. I'd be happy to have these people by my side come the revolution. :)

Then into downtown Knoxville for drinks and dinner. If you're ever in Knoxville, we recommend the Tomato Head for delicious local all-natural food that isn't too "out there." Our pizzas were awesome.

Overall, gorgeous scenery, fun people, and good food. We're definately coming back.

Thursday, October 25, 2007


Today we did chores, laundry, errands, and other fascinating things. It was great to spend time with Reed and Sue, catching up and watching a Sox game. I’m not looking forward to getting back in that car again tomorrow. I’m ready to be there already.

water, water everywhere

We watched the dawn emerge over the marsh from the dock Wednesday morning, and took the canoe out with Amanda as soon as it was light enough. An osprey, five great blue herons, and a snowy egret or two were all startled by our passage.

A few hours later found us blasting Midnight Vultures on our way to the beach, with warm warm water and 80 degree breezes and occasional cascades of warm rain. We were the only ones on the beach, and shared the waves with a pod of dolphins, whom we could hear chattering and whistling when we ducked our heads under the water. Some came quite close.

A platter of delicious fried things and a gigantic statue of Neptune fortified us enough to get back on the road for the trek into the real south. Unfortunately the skies got some mischievous ideas from the ocean, and squalls of torrential rain followed us most of the way west through fields of peanuts and cotton. The most perfect sweet potato pie ever made, discovered at the Valvoline station in Lawrenceville, Virginia, kept up our spirits through the rest of the storms down to my brother’s house in central North Carolina.

national values

We started out our day in DC by going to Australia. Australia is rather dimly lit, and has an amazing 8’x10’ photo of blokes in Speedos in its entranceway. We were venturing onto Australian soil (carpet) to lodge my application for a visa. My favorite part was when they made me sign a statement of Australian values saying that as an immigrant I will be expected to treat everyone with respect, allow for the practice of free religion, say please and thank you, and respond politely to dinner invitations. If everyone in Australia proper is as delightful as the employees of the Australian embassy, I’m really going to like it there.

After inevitably getting lost in downtown DC, we braved some rather terrifying traffic on the way south to Virginia Beach—Petra, driving, was very brave. Passing an Air Force base, we were surprised by strange mini jets with giant satellite dishes pointed to the sky on top of them flying low over the highway. Does anyone have any idea what these planes might have been?

We made it to our friends the Stevens’ house in time for fried catfish, good conversation, and fresh pie on their dock in midnight’s bright moonlight.

Monday, October 22, 2007

my love affair with Rt. 95

You can go all the way from Presque Isle to Miami without ever leaving Interstate 95. Should you ever want to do such a thing, that is. Fortunately, we were only it through seven states today: Connecticut, New York, New Jersey, Delaware and Pennsylvania (for a hot second each), Maryland, and now the District of Columbia (still taxation without representation). I'm pleased to report that despite the complexity of our directions (stay on 95, continue staying on 95) we managed to not get lost. And, praise Asphaulta, there was actually no traffic to speak of.

Erika is gleefully keeping track of all the rivers we have crossed, and is documenting each crossing (see slideshow). When not taking pictures, she's been kind enough to read aloud to me from One Hundred Years of Solitude.

Our last stop of the day before arriving at our final destination was the bustling metropolis of Beltsville, MD, named in homage to the incomparable Interstate 495, a.k.a the DC Beltway. We just couldn't pass up such a charmingly named locale (although it almost lost to Suitland). A haven for appreciators of industrial parks and private sector "campuses", it also harbors an incongruously good Mexican restaurant entitled Gringana, which we highly recommend, should you (God forbid) ever find yourself in Beltsville.

Following these scintillating adventures, we made our way to the home of our friends Mandy and Rob Keithan, on whose hospitality we are imposing tonight. Reminiscing about the thrilling excitement of our day's adventures may keep us awake, but somehow we zzzzzzzzz....

on the road

Well, our first day could have been worse. There was beautiful foliage and crisp air and provisions by Vivienne and long-lost mix tapes from the '90s, but there was also a 2+ hr traffic jam on the Pike, and, at one rest stop, our keys inside the locked car and us outside of it. AAA came to our rescue, and six hours after leaving home, we made it to my grandparents' house on the shore in Connecticut. The air was ridiculously clear, the moon was bright, the tide was high, and we relaxed before going to bed by watching the La Guardia air traffic--big delays, it seemed.

Today we're visiting with my grandparents, then heading off to D.C. This may be the trickiest driving of the trip. Wish us luck!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

thanks for the send-off!

You have given us a most magnificent ceremonial departure. We almost don't want to leave!

First, on Thursday, we had a lovely party of Erika's work-people at the posh 6B downtown, where we toasted and joshed the night away and ate delicious cake. Extra-special guests there included Erika and Lisa's mom and their family friend Lisa-the-elder visiting from England. Next came a family after-party in Brigham Circle eating tasty tasty food, praising our mother for giving birth to us twins, and lauding the glory and perfection of entire line of Jaffa Cakes (samples of which Lisa-the-younger and I are now proud possessors).

Then last night, many of you gathered at The Field (an Irishish pub) in Central Square in Cambridge for a more ribald affair. By the end of the evening, we almost filled that whole back room. Lindsay made us the best birthday card ever (a novella adventure story involving Galapagos tortoises, Barbara Bush, and cornbread), no one was injured by the pool cues, the fries were perfectly fried, and Erika was only one throw away from winning at darts. We feel the love, y'all. We'll miss you.

A Deliberate Journey

Since I (Erika) worked for a church until yesterday, it shouldn't surprise you to learn that my former workplace holds chapel services for the staff once a week. I led this week's service, speaking about why Petra and I have chosen to leave our jobs and go off into the wild blue yonder. I was speaking to a Unitarian Universalist audience, so this won't make total sense to those non-UUs out there, but if you're curious, you can read my sermon and other service texts here:

Friday, September 21, 2007

you're invited

Both of our birthdays are this week, and we're leaving town this weekend.

Come celebrate us getting older, and come say goodbye!

Check out the Evite, or call Petra for details. RSVP!

No thing-gifts, please. How about a donation to the Help Erika & Petra Do Good Things fund instead?

Thursday, September 20, 2007

calling all donations

Volunteering costs money! We will be spending $1,300 in New Orleans:
  • work pants, $35-50 each, 2 pairs <$100 total
  • work gloves, $15 each, 2 pairs $30
  • goggles, $10
  • steel toed boots, $70
  • $20/day food + housing x 2 people x three weeks= $840 total
  • gas to drive down and back, $250
Help us out with this!

By donating to the Help-Erika-and-Petra-Do-Good-Things Fund, you can vicariously volunteer, and ensure that good things get done.

If you can give $20 or more, please do. $20 would cover the fee for volunteering for one of us for one day. But really, any amount that you can donate would be a great help. You can give us donations in person, or send checks to:
Erika Nonken (or) Petra Aldrich
c/o Lilli Rhodes
P.O. Box 123
Hebron, CT 06248
You can also use PayPal to donate with a credit card or bank account:

If by some fever of generosity we raise more than we need for our own part in this work, we will donate all extra $ to Hands On New Orleans. We will also be leaving our work gear behind as a further donation, to help volunteers who can't afford the gear be able to participate in the future.

Thanks in advance for helping to rebuild New Orleans!

making plans for volunteering in New Orleans

We are well on our way toward the first phase in our adventure.

Even though it has been more than two years since the 2005 hurricanes, the Gulf Coast area is still in disarray. There is sadly a lot of work to be done. We are going to pitch in and do what we can to help.

After finishing up our last day of work on Oct. 19th, we will be driving down to New Orleans to volunteer Oct. 27-Nov. 17.

The organization we will be volunteering with is Hands On New Orleans. They not only work to gut and rebuild homes and school buildings in the Gulf Coast area, but also tutor children in New Orleans; clean, exercise, and entertain the thousands of abandoned animals in shelters throughout the city; provide day-care for volunteer and professional workers; and match up volunteer's professional skills with local non-profit restoration organizations. Our skills and time will be well-used, and Petra's hands won't be destroyed in the process.*

We will be staying in the Hands On housing, which is essentially a giant hostel built in the basement of a large downtown church. It will be tight, but we're used to that.

We're looking forward to getting to do something about this mess we've been hearing about for years, getting our hands dirty with some real and meaningful work, and meeting other volunteers from around the world. We're also excited about exploring this fabled city, eating hot Cajun food, basking in the Gulf sun, and attending the popular First Unitarian Universalist Church of New Orleans.

We'll keep you updated as these plans move along!

*Petra has severe chronic tendinitis in her arms as well as carpal tunnel syndrome, so can't use her hands much at all.