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."