new orleans

Old NOLA

We went on a road trip to Alabama early in February, and had the opportunity to stop in New Orleans overnight to see a friend.  We were able to time our trip with crawfish (and king cake) season, and I've been meaning to post a few pics.








Project Mardi Gras: Finale



Since we learned late last week of our unexpected trip to a Mardi Gras ball this weekend, I have been online and into stores, but mostly, I have been drafting, cutting, sewing, and re-cutting.  Every time I thought I found a dress that I wouldn't mind buying, it didn't work out, and each time I almost gave up on making the dress, there was a breakthrough, or a new bit of inspiration, which kept me committed.

Five days and more than thirty hours later, I have a dress to wear to the Endymion ball.  It's not perfect, it's not purple or gold or sparkly, and it could be improved upon, but at the very least, it is complete and wearable.  Miraculously, no new money was spent for it since the material was already in my stash.  Laissez les bons temps rouler, indeed.

Project Mardi Gras

A few days ago we were invited to a Mardi Gras ball in New Orleans.  Tuxes, ball gowns, Maroon Five, oh my.

As a general rule, I avoided Mardi Gras when we lived in New Orleans; I found the crowds overwhelming and the mess to be a less-than-flattering side of the city.  However, it is a very sweet honor to be invited as a guest of a Krewe, and we are touched that our friends thought of us.  I also recognize that sometimes we just need to get out in the mess and not worry so much about what it all means.

So, in the meantime, while trying to organize an outfit that I like without letting it hijack the finally-calm post-move budget, I have challenged myself to see if I can prepare something that can pass for a gown right here in my little sewing room.  I have wavered back and forth on the wisdom of this, but the thought of spending money even at the affordable end of the ball gown spectrum irritates me; I have really, truly been making the effort to avoid disposable, single-usage clothing purchases.  I have spent two afternoons shopping and not been thrilled even with the selection at higher price points.  I have spent many hours online, and have ordered a dress I like which would have a longer life span, which kind of messes up the budget but would at least be worth it if it looks great on.  I would also like to locate some vintage or second-hand options, but there are limited hours and a myriad of other tasks between now and our Friday afternoon departure time.

So for now, while I wait for that Dress B to arrive, I have set myself upon the task of attempting to sew Dress A.

One Drink Minimum, Y'all (Said the Bouncer at the Spotted Cat)

It's been a long time since I wrote about living in New Orleans.  When we were living in Calgary, New Orleans seemed impossibly far away, geographically, financially and logistically.  It is well known among my close personals that I did not find living in New Orleans simple or comfortable.  It was a volatile affair; periods of lusty joy followed by stretches of anger and rejection.

When we moved away, I was ready for the departure.  I was ready to be where laws and rules were not subject to the whim of the enforcer and where carrying a purse was not an invitation to be mugged.  That does not mean, however that I didn't miss things.  I missed many, many things, the way that you miss things you experience and feel passionate about.

Last weekend, we had an opportunity to visit our very close friends who (mostly) live there.  They are tricky to track down because sometimes he is offshore, and usually she is working in Denver.  But technically, they live in New Orleans.  They are responsible for introducing us to most of the things in New Orleans that we loved, and about which we reminisce.  So last weekend, we visited them and experienced a tiny, mini, perfect microcosm our past life.  It was delicious.  I ate and drank everything.  I heard high-quality live music for very little money.  I saw my friends dance together in the sweetest way.

I can't live in New Orleans because it is a bad fit for my long-term mental and physical health, but having a few favorite spots and people there makes it a perfect weekend away.  Now I'm refreshed and ready to get back to business.

Home

During a recent phone conversation with my sister, when I mentioned my hope that hopefully my husband and I will have some part of our lives rooted at 'home' within the next few years, my sister interrupted me, asking me where I think 'home' is.  "You've moved so many times, I just can't imagine where you feel like home is."  I was startled by the question; it's clear to me that I consider Minnesota home.  It made me wonder if what is in my head is not accurately conveyed to the outside world.

I wondered how she would define home, and it got me thinking about my own definition.  I felt a list forming in my head of specific descriptors and conditions, none of which are necessarily: "Home is where you live right now."

A place is home when it is where you feel comfortable keeping your stuff.  A place is home if you think you might want to spend a good portion of your free time there.  A place might be home if you have some combination of friends and family there.  A place is home when thinking of it makes you feel viscerally that you want to be there...you can smell it, hear it and see it.  If you're me, your eyes might also fill with tears sometimes when those thoughts occur.  A place could be home if you feel that the taxes you pay enhance the quality of your life.  A place is home if you care about crime in the community.  When you are home, you may want to know your neighbors and you probably notice the news.  You might want to get involved and help the community.  A place might be home if you feel sad when you have to leave.  A place is home if it feels familiar.  You want to build a life in a place that feels like home.

I have felt bits and pieces of the above conditions in Louisiana and Calgary, but never all of those things, all at the same time, or with any convincing strength.  I have always loved to travel, but now when I leave Minnesota, I become sad and ornery and I feel dread.  I succumb to strange shopping urges, buying inconsequential items that remind me of home, products which if I still lived there, I would hardly notice.  I look at real estate in Minnesota and feel longing, while in Calgary I feel grateful to not be tied to a house.

In Calgary, I have a few friends, and things feel a little bit familiar.  I don't mind spending a little bit of free time here, although mostly just inside the apartment with my books and sewing stuff.  I live here in blissful ignorance of the lives of my neighbors and I care not at all for the local politics.  It's kind of peaceful and easy to be that disconnected, but there is also a nagging sensation of time passing and of financial and emotional resources spent in a place that we may never see again after we move.

I watched my parents care for two homes for much of my life.  It was a lot of work and it required certain decisions and sacrifices.  At times I thought it was silly of them to work so hard and to try to live in two places...it seemed that they were worn out from it sometimes.  Eventually I concluded that they should pick one; conserve their energy.  I said I would never choose that path.  I have come to realize now that when I say "never", the very thing that previously struck me me as out of the question becomes at some point necessary.

Maybe home is what you gives you strength to face the most ridiculous things that the universe can imagine for you.  For the moment, my husband will continue to work far from home, and we will continue to scheme about ways that we can live both with his work and in a place that feels like home. 

Vintage Video: Mr. Okra and More

Unfortunately, I am not skilled at taking video.  However, these clips still give the basic idea of what normal days in New Orleans look and sound like.  I found them recently while cleaning out old electronic files on my computer.


Here is Mr. Okra driving around the neighborhood in April 2008, selling produce from the back of his truck.  Sorry that I forgot that you can't turn the camera that way while filming.


Here is a normal Saturday afternoon, in the non-Bourbon-Street part of the Quarter in April 2008.


Here is the satirical Krewe du Vieux 2009 parade in the Marigny, around the corner from our old apartment.  It is hard to describe how ridiculous it was, and the video is very dark.  Again, sorry.


Here is a snippet of what you see when you walk around JazzFest.  I have no idea who they were, just a normal bunch of seriously talented, musical New Orleanians, probably.

Bloom Where You’re Planted

Note: This entry was written originally in January, 2009.


I went to Minnesota for a condensed weekend visit earlier this fall. I was a reluctant participant at work the day after my return, full of homesick yearnings for the gloriously efficient and chilly North Country. “Bloom where you’re planted,” said the owner of the motorcycle shop, so cheerfully that I wanted to crush her. People that are from New Orleans never leave, adding further insult to injury. How could she understand the madness of this place, having never left? She had no comprehension of my pain!  I knew she would die before she would live somewhere else.  Outrage. I pouted all day, depressed by the heat and dysfunction, and I think she was genuinely confused.

Now I have just returned from three weeks in Minnesota, a place formerly referred to (by me) as home. I could smell Louisiana the minute we crossed the border in our car, speeding over the dark murky fingers of swamp. It has a scent difficult to describe. Polluted, sweet. Humid, and full of delicious notes. It looked familiar to me now. The darkness of highway floating over brackish water, the ridiculousness of other drivers weaving around us at ninety miles an hour. The planets appeared to be back in order, as the cat howled through the car windows to the alligators below us.

Home is where the heart is? No, I argue that in the twenty-first century, for many of us, home becomes where our stuff is. Our books and sweaters, our photo albums and coffe mugs. Our bakeries and shoe repair places, dry cleaners and farmers' markets (if we're lucky).  Our daily rhythms create home around us, and in 2008, I followed my stuff back to the bayou. I was thrilled the other night when we pulled up in front of our apartment and walked in. It smelled musty and wonderful, in the ancient wooden house way. The covers of my paperback books had curled up from the humidity. I enjoyed the 60-degree weather in December. I re-discovered t-shirts and shoes that didn’t make the trip North (due to their lack of heat-retaining properties). I was home, and already distracted by thoughts of shrimp and grits.

My memories of life before Louisiana are fuzzy. Eliminating Louisiana at this point would mean eliminating special people and favorite foods. It would mean erasing almost three years of experiences with my husband. I’m gearing up for crawfish, Mardi Gras, and JazzFest. Who am I? Who cares. I feel great. While it remains mysterious exactly what I will be doing in 2009, it is no longer a mystery where I will be doing whatever it is.

One of my close friends is preparing to leave Louisiana, and I know she will locate home where she is headed, just as I know that she will always love her home here. She envies my 504 area code, just as I twitch with distraction thinking about her coming adventures. I know that she will bloom overseas, just as I try to in New Orleans.

Live Smaller

Note: This entry was written originally in 2008.

I have a new ride. She is black and has two wheels, and she is named Louise. Louise is sleek and Italian and lovely, and my husband and I bought her one recent afternoon in the French Quarter. The quality of my commute has improved, as her wheels handle the considerable potholes of the old streets of New Orleans without leaving me rattled. She has lights and a dainty black basket.

Working at the motorcycle store has been every bit the adventure that I anticipated. The woman that owns it has done a remarkable job building her business, and the men in her life (her husband and two sons) are all thoroughly engaged in running it. Conflicts arise, as they naturally would in any business setting. Since the conflicts affect family members instead of mere colleagues, they take on a slightly more heated tone than do the average water-cooler situations. But the they also laugh with each other, help each other, and enjoy each other. They work really, really hard.

Every day I continue to try to understand what I seek in a career, and in a life. I have come embarrassingly slowly to the realization that had I chosen to live a little smaller at some key times in my past, I would have felt less trapped and more able to explore options. I have often chosen expensive instant gratification, rather than the more fruitful slow and careful path to resolving my questions. I admire my friends who lived carefully on a new teacher’s (writer’s, accountant’s, advocate’s…) salary and still managed to save instead of going negative. I admire my sister and her family, who long ago set down a vision for their family, and have continued to steadfastly follow their path. If they have ever been distracted from it, I have seen no such evidence.

Slowly I work to make better choices with my wallet and my time. Choosing a light and fun job over the serious and never-ending task of spreading English around was a good start. However, lately we have noticed that when I spend more time at home, and less time selling European helmets and motorcycle replica shirts to people, I have time to cook and keep things more organized. Voila, improved domestic harmony, better physical health, and the financial cost to the household is exactly the same. This is news to me, and perhaps others in my generation, but surely not my mom, or others in her generation. I am in quiet awe of my friends and family who have taken on the challenge of simultaneously working full-time and parenting. Sometimes I feel barely able to keep the cat up and running during busy weeks.

In New Orleans it is easier to live smaller than it was in Minnesota. The lack of grueling winter simplifies maintaining a two-wheel commute throughout the year, instead of only 6 months out of the year. It also means that there is not much of a heating bill. Maybe it is not just New Orleans though…maybe it is Chip, or the time in my life, or the uncertainty of what is next. Maybe I am just sick of having stuff because having stuff means packing and moving stuff. More and more, I notice that having stuff also means finding ways of disposing of it, and often far too quickly to make it worth the original cost, environmental or financial. For whatever the reason, I can finally report that living smaller provides satisfaction more often than pain. Not that I’m great at it, but I’m making progress.

I was really excited to buy a Vespa…I have had a crush on those beautiful scooters since I moved to New Orleans. But ultimately, it was not the most reasonable choice for Chip and I. It was more vehicle than we needed in our household right now, and it was better to save our money for other things. Ultimately, that is what led me to Louise: a beautiful and sleek bicycle. Who knows how long Chip and I will be down here, and of course I still have no idea what I will be when I grow up, but I do know that because we are living smaller, we feel free to make new choices, rather than to be bound by our previous ones.

Ghost

[This entry was written originally in 2008.]

I am paralyzed by Hurricane Gustav. Just like Gustav over Haiti, I have stalled. I don’t normally spook easily but I can’t deny that I feel skittish and frustrated. News articles about evacuation recommend clearing the fridge in order to avoid sticky, rotting messes later. One piece of advice from a reader on the local news website reads: “Pack as though you are never coming back.” Another person posts a piece of advice recommending taking all family vehicles instead of just one. I’m confused and unsure how to proceed, so instead I compulsively check my email and look for new tracks on the storm prediction map. It is too far away to begin packing but it is coming up too quickly for me to put it out of my mind. As a result, I am wandering around the apartment in circles, working on tasks much less pressing than packing insurance paperwork and memorabilia.

Pack as though you are never coming back. Easier said than done. I have twice in my life packed a year’s worth of belongings into two suitcases and one carry-on, so it seems like I should be better at this. Maybe since I was underage during both of those instances, they don’t count. I didn’t have wedding photos then, or a cat, or furniture, or cookbooks. I wasn’t distracted then by images of mold creeping over all items left behind, or water trickling through wind-damaged walls or windows. People who have done this before post advice about leaving family photos permanently in the plastic travel tubs reserved for evacuation only. I think that this is no way to live, but I see their point, as more than two months of hurricane season remain. I am reminded of those dinner party questions where you have to pick the three things you would take if you were headed to a deserted island. I think that I will never enjoy that game again.

For about twelve hours, I thought that we would not evacuate. I suddenly understood those folks who stayed when Katrina came. I have a liquor cabinet full of yummy booze and plenty of things to do; this was no time for a forced exodus. With lots of interesting bits in the pantry I would try new recipes!  It would be fun! I would pull out my sewing machine! I would write letters! I would finish my wedding album! No I wouldn’t, said my wise, younger-but-smarter-than-me across the street neighbor-friend. She reminded me of my fondness for air conditioning in the steamy heat, and for running water. She also gently reminded me that the people who stay are the ones with guns and generators, and that Chip and I were not those folks. We do whatever she tells us to do in this strange land, and she told us to evacuate, so that is the plan, barring any good weather news in the next 24 hours.

Pack as though we will never come back. How? We have already done this. We reduced the size of our living space by sixty percent when we moved down here. We are a lean operating machine, at least by American family standards. I keep thinking of random, completely unrelated tasks and items (I need more cat litter! I should wash my hand-washables! I will bring my dry-cleaning with me and do it in evacuation land…maybe I will even have my shoes repaired…hmmm) and then an hour has gone by and Gustav has crept a bit closer on the National Weather Service back-of-the-airplane-seat progress map.

A couple of weeks ago my manager told us a tale at lunch about the ghost who lived with her family in their last home. No one in the office was disconcerted (or unconvinced) by the story, or by the possibility of its truth. One employee called out “No way!” which at first I took as disbelief, but really it turned out that he was thinking more along the lines of, “No way, I didn’t know that happened to you, because something like that has happened to me, too.”

The ghost and Gustav are just two examples of how life in New Orleans is like life nowhere else. Spirits and raging storms are accepted by folks here as a part of the daily rhythms, and in a manner so calm so as to not permit any disbelief. I avoided going to bed until late last night, because when I am awake, the storm moves more slowly. Eventually, though, I had to go to sleep, and now that I am up again it is time for me to suspend my disbelief and start packing.

A Revolution

Note: This entry was written originally in 2008.

This is the most difficult Houma Report I have ever written, because this is the one in which I tell my parents that I resigned from my respectable teaching job, and instead started working full time at a motorcycle dealership. [Holding my breath right now and waiting for the screaming sounds]

Hear me out, that’s all I ask.

I was going to write about the alligators on the swamp tour, or the adventure of participating in a deep South wedding, or the utter ridiculousness of the New Orleans DMV experience during my recent effort to get a Louisiana driver’s license, but then life interfered and brought me an unexpected treat, so now I am writing about that.

In my circle of loved ones, multiple theories of the world of work compete for validation. One mantra I heard many times as I grew into adulthood was that I should do what I loved, and the money would come. Others maintained that work is work; end of story. It stays at work, pays the bills, probably isn’t fun and definitely doesn’t define us. For a long time, I belonged to yet another tribe in the vast community of workers: the one that believes that work not only is a reflection of our soul, but also requires a commitment to our community.

I have spent considerable time pondering this conundrum, double the pondering since getting married and joining lives with a man whose work could bring him just about anywhere on the planet. It would be easy to blame my professional confusion on him; I tried that once or twice. If we were going to continuously move, why should I try to actually figure out my career stuff? This thought, in spite of his expressed pleasure that I was interested in pursuing a career, and his openness to us following my path as well as his. Tsk, tsk, shame on me.

I spent the summer immersed in stuff: our belongings, freshly arrived in New Orleans after the sale of our home in St. Paul, in our apartment, overwhelming the car load of stuff with which we originally moved. My teaching books were strewn everywhere in little piles, and I avoided them until there were no other boxes. I won’t rehash my tortuous relationship with teaching; most folks reading this are already familiar with my love-hate feelings for that work. What is most important for this story is how I felt every single Sunday that I was a teacher: really, really crabby. Not just a little bit of Sunday night blah, but serious, bitchy meanness. And what I felt every time the alarm went off: dread.

The second important part of this story is how I feel about Vespa scooters: they are adorable. Ridiculously charming. They look like Italy and France and Audrey Hepburn, and women in fabulous outfits, all wrapped up with the soundtrack of Amelie playing in the background. They are all over New Orleans. Scooters everywhere, so cute. My husband and I went to visit them once, just for fun. I loved it in that store. It just felt good.

What happened next has thrown me off a little. I applied for a little summer job, mostly to get the discount on one of these delicious scooters and give some structure to my time off. They offered me a full time job, merchandising their apparel, among other things. Apparently, scooters and motorcycles have been taking off in a big way since the price of gas absorbed everyone’s disposable income.

So instead of answering their phones for the summer, I am helping to organize their expansion and giving their blossoming apparel business structure and form.

I quite unexpectedly located a job that gives legs to all of the theories of my family and friends. I am not crabby on Sundays. Work stays at work. I am helping my community (promoting a more fuel-efficient form of transportation). I am doing something I enjoy (playing with clothes from Europe and organizing spaces). I work for a family following their dreams, and having a ton fun at the same time. We have happy hour at work when we feel like it, and the family dogs hang with us all day. I am becoming a purveyor of modern, functional art, brought to you by Vespa, Triumph, Piaggio and Ducati. Someone is paying me to move stuff. I am very good at moving things, after all of the practice in recent years. And, I won’t have to take new classes and get new certifications every few years to prove it.

I spend a lot of time and energy while I was a teacher feeling angry at the education system. I was angry at rich schools for not taking a stronger stance in community debates, and angry at poor schools for not figuring out how to provide better working and learning conditions. While I think that my frustrations have roots in valid issues, ultimately I am forced to admit that maybe I just wasn’t a good fit in that profession.

I feel a little sheepish about all of this, but in all honesty, I was just taking everyone’s advice.

Here is the website of my employers, just in case you want to see the art:

www.thetransportationrevolution.com

Easy Come, Easy Go

Note: This entry was written originally in 2008.

Forget much of what was written in volume 9…remember that I got engaged and married, but forget the part about moving back to Minnesota. We did move back to Minnesota, but if you blinked, you may have missed it. Part of me is tempted to pretend like it never happened, because we feel a touch sheepish for the outrageous plan changing…moving to New Orleans after going home to St. Paul is a rapid reversal, even for us.

On the other hand, I think we just have to own up to the whole thing, because it may have been bigger than us. We tried to move back to Minnesota. We rented a U-haul; I got some jobs. We settled back into the condo. My husband participated in a monthly cross-country commute for nine months. But in the dead of winter, with no promising job prospects for him in Minnesota, we began to view his current job with a new appreciation. Minnesota is important to us, and always will be, but we could not find a job there to compete with his current one. He is paid well to do something that challenging and engaging. Not to mention that it may take us out of the country for a while, which we ultimately decided was worth further short-term reshuffling. Finally, living at opposite sides of the country was not proving a fruitful way to cement our newly official partnership.

When we considered the coming months with those things in mind, I re-posted my teaching resume in Louisiana. Before I even mentioned to my husband that I had done that, I was offered a job interview. Four weeks later, I started teaching ESL in a high school in Jefferson Parish, on the West Bank of the New Orleans metro area. I appreciated my respite this year from teaching high school, but also could not shake the feeling that I had bailed too soon; given up too easily. It was time to saddle up.

We are in New Orleans now. It continues to bring Alice in Wonderland to mind. It is often wonderful and occasionally maddening, beautiful and delicious and of course broken. We live across the street from some very good friends who help us navigate the moving decisions…which gym? (the one with chandeliers)…walk or drive? (drive if it is after dark)…which grocery store? (Whole Foods without a doubt)…which restaurant? (all of them). Several mornings a week I hear a man singing about fruit and veggies over a bullhorn in the neighborhood: “…I got watermelon…I got cabbage… I got the mango”. Turns out he is the produce version of the ice cream man, driving around the neighborhood four or five days a week to fulfill our every vegetable desire, or merely to supply the onion that you forgot to buy when you drove across the city to get to the grocery store.  He is called Mr. Okra.

Spring Break ended, and I started teaching this week. I was really nervous, but it feels fine. The school is so poor that I didn’t get a stapler, or even a keyboard to go with my computer, but on the other hand, I have my own classroom for the first time of my teaching career, something I have never been offered by wealthier schools. When my husband finishes at work, we get to eat dinner together, instead of having to talk on the phone about what we ate for dinner. I feel worn-out from the incessant moving, but also peaceful and optimistic about the coming adventures.

Check out this radio program for a really good description of what it feels like here: http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/features/nola/

How to Be a Highly Mobile Couple

Editor Note: This entry was written originally in 2007.

I’m in hell in Houma. Or maybe I’m not? How do you know? How do you know when life is ridiculous and needs to be boycotted or when you are ridiculous and you just need to suck it up? When my boyfriend and I were preparing to move and I was beginning to explore ways to bring writing more into the forefront of my life, he suggested that I write the guidebook of how to be a highly mobile couple. We were dealing with movers and packing and finding an apartment and a myriad of other random tasks. Although sharing our life was still a new habit, we had in common the urge to simplify, streamline, and downsize, both in our individual lives and together in our home. We share a mutual aversion to piles covering our desks, boxes of trinkets stacked in closets, and too many square feet requiring cleaning and repairs.

At the time, we thought mostly of the spatial and tangible aspects of this plan. How would we fit all of our belongings into a one-bedroom space the size of which I formerly occupied all alone? How many shelves would be required? How would we decide whose teapot to use? How would we dispose of the extra stuff? I gave little thought to the shedding of emotional and geographical baggage linked quietly to the notion of home. Most of my wise friends and family members could see the challenge of this much before I did, but they likely sensed my lack of interest in hearing their counsel. I had decided I was up for this move and no one would stop me.


How important is it to love your grocery store? Should you stay home to be close to your family? Is it necessary to understand the politics of your neighbors? Can you be as close to your friends via phone and internet as you can were you in the same city? How much do colleagues affect the quality of your work? I reflect on these questions daily now. My boyfriend lives with these puzzles more easily than I. He is already acclimated to the nomadic lifestyle due to his work, but he also lives a different Houma than I do. He works with a wide variety of other nomads who, like him, are from somewhere else. Sometimes we are both startled by the intense, visceral responses I have to what happens to us here and to what I see at my job. From time to time I have teetered on the edge of wanting to throw in the towel and during one really bad night I almost declared that it was time to go back to Minnesota. I had welcomed this adventure, so that should have made coping with all of this easier. What was wrong with me?

We have emptied most of our boxes now. The surface of my boyfriend’s desk peeks out, newly exposed. Every couple of months we notice and eradicate another pile of items which we do not use. Yesterday was our one-year anniversary and we were happy to be at home, quiet, reflecting and relaxing in the middle of our downsized life and our mostly functional space.

I hope that my boyfriend will correct me if he thinks I’m wrong, but I am reasonably sure that the trick to being the highly mobile couple that we originally envisioned is more related to the quality of our relationship than it is to airport acumen or specialized packing skills. I’m coming to believe that for us, success lies in using our relationship as our vehicle. Like a well-constructed car or airplane, our relationship needs to be safe and strong. Sometimes it requires maintenance or mending. Like a train, it needs to be adjustable, so that it is flexible and sufficient to carry our hopes and plans.

I’m not ready to give up on being mobile (sorry, Mom). But I do need to get out of Houma. Stay tuned for coming updates on news of our impending move to New Orleans (sorry again, Mom).

Patriots for Christ

Editor Note: This entry was written originally in 2006.


Many of you have asked what it is like teaching in the schools down here. I have avoided writing about it because I am amazed, frustrated, mystified, angered, surprised, and then sometimes, pleased, with what occurs here. As a result, I haven’t known how to describe it. I am Alice in Gator-land, stunned when the people sitting in the same rooms with me aren’t also stunned by what is occurring. I hope this topic does not bore, as it is always on my mind while I go about my life here.

Finally, in my fourth year of teaching, I’m learning how to be rebellious. Those of you closest to my daily life know that I squawk a lot. I squawked the entire time that I taught in a high school fantastic school. Now that I teach in a school situated in a community which values formal education hardly at all, I understand why many of my colleagues felt I was overreacting in the past.

First, I will say to them, I will always overreact. It is my way, and there is not a lot I can, or want to, do about that. Second, I will say that we should always squawk at those in power, because that is how they first find out what happens among the peasants, right before the uprising. Finally, I would say to them that it does not matter how excellent a school is, employees should continue to squawk in order to make it the best place on the planet.

The first decision of my work day occurs when I must decide where to park. I have recently learned that a Honda Civic makes a fine off-road vehicle. I park on the grass now, because I can. Because that’s where teachers park here. This is tricky in heels, so if I smell rain, I try to get to work in time to get a regular spot. As I settle into my desk, I am greeted by the voice of the attendance clerk, who reads the morning announcements over the P.A. system. Imagine Mrs. Poole’s voice from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, with a rich south Louisiana accent, and then you will have a close approximation of the sound of the announcements. I cringe in particular at the biweekly reminders of the Patriots for Christ meetings.

As this is occurring, I pour my coffee from my thermos and scan my inbox for any e-bombs lobbed overnight by my insomniac boss. She gets lost in the maze of her own cyberlife and fires off all kinds of error-ridden, grammatically appalling, policy-altering missives that generally cause ripples of horror throughout my department. I try to check my box from home on Sunday evenings to avoid the drastic plummeting of already-low Monday morning morale, but I don’t always get around to it.

After I recover from the collateral damage, I finish preparations for my lesson and then race off to teach it. The students in my ESL course impress me constantly. Since I formerly experienced teaching ESL to students mostly not literate in their first language, I am amazed by my students here because they already know how to read. They can hold pencils, and they are quite competent at opening their lockers. I didn’t realize how much class time I formerly devoted to these endeavors with the East African students I’d taught in Minnesota, until I no longer had to instruct those activities here.

Our class meets in a remedial reading classroom during the second period of the day, and we frequently notice remnants and fallout from the behavior issues in the first period. We recently finished a book called Seedfolks. Shortly after our ESL class completed the book (maybe 70 pages at about a fourth-grade reading level), an observant student of mine glanced over at the materials used by the mainstream class and spotted the same book on the remedial reading shelf.

While it is no secret that my shining professional moments are not those related to teaching the 12 and under crowd, I will say there is something charming (and strangely scary to me) about elementary schools, where I also spend part of my days. I don’t remember much of the ones in Minnesota, but the ones here smell funny. No one is completely sure what I am to be doing at these schools, including my boss. As a result, I direct myself. The consequences of this are sometimes positive innovations, such as emailing documents to staff, instead of hand-delivering them. However, other consequences of no one knowing what I am supposed to be doing can be a less than perfect adherence to a “schedule” which was confusing to begin with.

I enjoy rebellion now because I know that I won’t be fired. The drunk guy just finally got fired because he didn’t come to work for four days running and didn’t call anyone. I figure my small acts of defiance, all performed in a quest for greater program efficiency, will result in no other consequence than people leaving me alone to work in peace.

A couple of weeks ago, I began to utterly disconnect from it all. I felt wildly unhappy and worried to have left so many inspiring colleagues in order to come to a job and feel isolated and without leadership. But then something happened. As I had done in the beginning of my time at Eden Prairie, I began to lean on the positives. A fellow transplant, another Badger, is here teaching at my school. I began stalking her and pouring out my woes. She resisted me briefly, but became exhausted from the effort, so now I have a sounding board for processing the shocking tragedy which a system like this can represent. I looked again at my students, who deserve my full attention, and as much information as I can organize for them to explore.

I still don’t know what to say about schools in the bayou region, and I’m looking right at them. Pointing fingers too simple. While the teachers may not have fancy degrees in their backgrounds, most of them appear to be working pretty hard to educate their students. Race and economics play some of their usual roles, but the lack of value for education in general crosses a lot of demographic categories. Pay is low and facilities are sketchy, but on the other hand I received a mid-year raise and a one-time bonus, both completely without warning, which is something I have never heard of in a public school teaching position.

And today, in the face of a boss who I thought was hopelessly immune to any ideas but her own, agreed to a proposed program change, which will improve my quality of work life considerably. Wonders never cease. Today I liked my job. Now that I have said that, I am sure that the sky will crash on my head tomorrow.

An Eight on the FDLS

Note: This entry was written originally in 2006.

October was a busy month, full of work issues and continued settling in. All of the sudden it is November and we are surprised by this because the weather is still largely in the 70s. I was also surprised last week to find out that my boyfriend and I were invited to a banquet in New Orleans Friday night, to celebrate his five-year anniversary with his company. We would be able to expense the travel costs and stay overnight in a hotel room on the company tab. This was too much excitement for me…an all-expenses paid trip into the city AND I would get to dress up?!?!?! Fabulous.

As it turned out, the banquet was very nice and then we were free to play. Since our hotel was in the French Quarter, off we went to throw off our fancy dresses and put on our jeans and play a little in the debauchery. There were about eight of us and we were out until the wee hours: The Funky Pirate for some blues by (very) Big Al, Pat O’Brien’s for some hurricanes and piano, Utopia for some dancing, and then finally to the hotel to collapse into bed at 5:15 a.m.

Needless to say, I paid for my sins on Saturday a.m. We checked out of the hotel and scurried to meet one of the couples who had been at the banquet. Matt and Megan live in the city and invited us for breakfast (which became lunch) at a neighborhood café by their place. Matt was off to a jazz funeral in the afternoon and would we like to come? Yes, of course! My hangover worked to keep me down, but ultimately (after limping along for a little while) I threw it off and rallied because it was all too fun to miss.

The jazz funeral turned out to be amazing. It was a glorious day, sunny, breezy, and sixty-five degrees. Those of you nearest me are aware of my difficulties with tradition, ritual and ceremony. I don’t do well with ceremony. Churches and weddings are a struggle, and even homecoming events or proms at the high schools are difficult for me to swallow. I can’t help it; I feel next to nothing. On this Saturday, however, I had a taste of a ceremony that I experienced as beautiful, delightful, and moving.

A jazz musician well-known in the area had passed away, which was how there came to be this jazz funeral. A jazz band walked through the streets after the church service, with the celebrants trailing behind. The procession made its way around the city and we tried to find it. We couldn’t find it for a little while, however, which led to the happy accident of us bumping into some kind of a little mini Ferrari convention. Two city blocks of antique Ferarris lined up in cherry-red and royal blue glory. My companions were so excited that the jazz funeral became secondary and I was happy regardless because it was a glorious afternoon with all kinds of New Orleans characters strolling about for my people-watching pleasure. And most importantly, my hangover had sufficiently abated so as to allow me to enjoy a cappuccino.

The Ferrari procession came to a close and we remembered our original funeral mission. And then, with seemingly no effort, we bumped right into it. A smart and sharp jazz band walking in front of a hundred or so people, along the Mississippi River, which was their final destination. At the river’s edge, they put the ashes of the individual in the river. The most miraculous thing about this event, though, was that all members of the procession were walking along in time with the music. They all had rhythm. Every person in New Orleans can shake their ass. It was one of the most graceful things that I have every seen. There were no rhythm-less Minnesotans floundering around in that group of celebrants.

This epiphany I had about the ass-shaking New Orleanians was reinforced later on the same glorious day. After quick hors d’oeurves, more live music and more fresh air at the Bywater neighborhood festival, we re-grouped at our friend’s house, and then gathered steam for tapas and a DJ at another neighborhood joint called Mimi’s. The food was outstanding, and as the music began, My boyfriend and I were surprised to see a woman in her 40’s or 50’s assemble her turntables to spin records in this little establishment. Where we are from record-spinning is the territory of the 20s and under crowd; the proud possessors of wide-legged trousers, several piercings, and a solid resume of past hallucinatory experiences.

We were even more surprised by the fabulous array of funk and soul which emerged from her hands. This was a new kind of DJ for us, and we approved. As did the gathering crowd of dancers and patrons. The tiny room filled up and the dancers were of all ages. All excellent ass-shakers, without fail. What secrets New Orleans has.

It was all too much. Ultimately, the exuberance of my feelings for the weekend led me to create a system. I needed a vehicle to manage all of the excitement I was feeling. I settled upon a rating system which would measure the quality of my Louisiana days and experiences. I thought of stars at first, but then realized it needed to be something more specific to this curious Louisiana place. And then I had it! Fleur de Lis…the Fleur De Lis Scale, otherwise known as the FDLS. An absolutely off-the-charts delightful or weekend, rich with Louisiana culture, would receive the highest possible rating: an 8 on the FDLS, which is exactly what I gave last Saturday.