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.