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.