Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A Brief Tour

As I've started getting reoriented to living in a drastically altered New Orleans, I've been taking pictures as I drive around. I'm going to start sharing some of them right here. You can click on any picture to get a closer look. Let's start in my immediate neighborhood.

This is a pile of trash in front of a house on my block, waiting for the city to get around to picking it up. This is a fairly small pile, as the house was not significantly damaged. There are piles like this all over the place.

The park in the next block where I walk my dog. When we left for Jackson, these trees were all standing straight up, and looked alive. Neither now, it seems. Note that branches are not broken by any impact. Nothing hit them to knock them over. Only wind.

Remember, this is the part of town that got off easy when Katrina came through.

The steeple of St. Stephen's Catholic Church, directly across the street from my house. It used to be completely sheathed in copper. Not any more.

I wonder who got the copper?

I've been driving around the city as well. This is a street in an area known as Lakeview, which lies between the Orleans Ave. canal and the infamous 17th Street Canal, the one that broke open.

Not one house on this street is habitable. There are hundreds of miles of streets like this in New Orleans.

On the walls of the house in the background you can see a horizontal line, with the wall appearing slightly lighter in color above it and slightly darker below it. The line would be right about at eye level of someone standing in the doorway. This indicates the flood level, the maximum height to which the water rose. To visualize what really happened it helps to picture the space between the house and the house seen at the right edge filled with water to that point. Now extend it. Imagine the water extending towards you at that height, then away from you, then right and left, for miles. That's a lot of water.

You can also see on the front wall a spray painted inspection marker. It's a large X with the top and bottom quadrants being the most important. The top indicates the date of inspection, in this case 9/29. The bottom indicates the number of dead bodies found inside, in this case zero.

The car, on the other hand, has written on its door "Abandoned / owner dead / no title / haul off." No one has, yet. As the flood level marks on the house indicate it was completely submerged when the water came, no one has bothered to try stealing it either. What would be the point?

Cheerful stuff, isn't it? More to come.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

LOTR: The Inside Story

I absolutely adore Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings trilogy. I fell in love with the books when I was a teenager, and can't guess how many times I've read them. Because previous attempts to put them on the screen had failed so miserably (Ralph Bakshi, urgh) I was very wary when I heard someone was shooting a live action version, in New Zealand of all places. So I was thrilled when I saw the first still publicity shots that were released, of Frodo and Bilbo in Rivendell; they clearly had come up with a look for the films that was magnificently done and damn near perfect. The first internet teasers that were released got me so excited I couldn't stand it. And when I finally saw Fellowship, I practically cried tears of joy that someone had cared enough to do it right.


Nothing, or at least very little, is so sacred that it can't stand a little mockery. In fact, the stronger you are, the better you can take it. So I was fascinated and delighted to find that each of the characters, Aragorn, Legolas, and so on, had kept Very Secret Diaries as events progressed. It is interesting, it truly is, to find out some of the real motivations and off-screen detail, the stuff that Jackson just didn't have time to share with us. Such as that the balrog's rather over-the-top behavior in Moria was the result of festering anger from a bad date with Gandalf back in the Second Age (the balrog got stuck with the check). Or that, while it really shouldn't have worked since everyone knows it already, Boromir was still able to get some with that old "Hey, wanna blow the Horn of Gondor?" line.

Read and enjoy. You pervy hobbit-fancier.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Christmas Lights: Pedal to the Metal

We're in that peculiar hang time, where Christmas Day is past but Christmas isn't really over, not until New Year's Eve and New Year's Day wipe the slate clean. We can still talk about holiday things without it being totally tacky, as it would be seven days from now.

So I can still talk about this guy without violating natural law. Using 25,000 lights and a computer driven music synchronization system, Mr. Carson Williams of Deerfield, Ohio, created the most jaw-dropping Christmas light animated display ever to adorn an ordinary suburban house, synchronized to a track by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. His neighbors supported him whole heartedly, not least because there was no noise; the soundtrack was broadcast on a low-power FM transmitter so passing viewers could pick it up on their car radios.

Sadly, he felt he had to shut it down after only two days. He always said that if his display caused any problems he would pull the plug, and after learning that the traffic he had drawn had delayed cops getting to a no-injuries fender-bender he decided, ain't gonna risk it.

But you can still see it here. Adjust settings as necessary.

Why I Love The History Channel

Without question, my favorite cable channel is the History Channel, though the Food Channel runs a close second. Switch on the History Channel at any time of day or night, and you're more likely to find something truly interesting being shown than anywhere else. (Occasionally, I have to admit, they do run shows that bore me to tears, but then I just change the channel and watch someone preparing barbecue. MM-mmm.)

One of their best series is the show Modern Marvels, which focuses on the achievements of the 20th century and on into the 21st. The subjects range from the fascinating, like the development of modern hi-tech weaponry, to the terrible, like great engineering disasters (I can think of one for their next season), to the delightfully absurd, like the evolution of breakfast cereal.

Before each commercial break, they throw up a text card, read out by the announcer, with some intriguing bit of trivia about the show's subject. A couple of days ago they were running a show on popular kids' toys, always appropriate for Christmas Eve, and one pre-commercial card told this story. That some years ago, a group calling itself the Barbie Liberation Organization absconded with several hundred Talking G.I. Joe action figures and several hundred Teen Talk Barbie dolls. They switched the voice chips and snuck the toys back onto toyshop shelves. In the course of events, many a little girl had to ponder a Barbie that snarled, "Eat lead, Cobra!!", while little boys had to cope with a G.I. Joe who squealed, "Let's go shopping!!"

See what I mean? My life is richer for knowing that.

[Note: confirming link is here.]

Sunday, December 18, 2005

Brokeback Breakdown

There's an amusing post at announcing the Gay Blogger Alliance for Straight Indifference to Brokeback. The author is fed up with straight people wildly overreacting to Brokeback Mountain, even sometimes overreacting to the very existence of the film. I've noticed that too. A lot of (presumably straight) movie reviewers seem to be almost dislocating their shoulders while patting themselves on the back for giving it a good review. And a lot of bloggers and blog commenters seem to be desperately trying to establish their heterosexual bona fides by loudly stating how freaked out they'd be seeing a movie with a gay sex scene in it.

For what it's worth, I haven't seen the movie, though I've read the story it's based on, as it hasn't opened in New Orleans yet. But I'm looking forward to it because, back-patting aside, the reviews indicate it's a terrific film. And all that straight squeamishness is edging over into "the lady doth protest too much, methinks." From what I hear, the sex scene is explicit but not pornographic, and anyway is only about thirty seconds of a two hour film. The movie is about these guys' emotions, after all, not their sex lives. I've put up with longer and steamier straight sex scenes in movies often enough without complaint, so stuff it already.

So what the hell, I've joined the alliance.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Empty and Overcrowded

When I came back to New Orleans I was very unsure of what I would find. The media, who have been models of hysteria since this whole thing started, had waxed apocalyptic about how never in American history had a major city been virtually abandoned overnight, yada, yada. Even allowing for exaggeration, that's pretty much what I was expecting.

I was not expecting the place to be so damn crowded! The traffic is so congested it takes half again as long to get about as before the storm. It's not just all the street repairs and construction, though those do throw an added randomness factor into your commute. Even the restaurants are stuffed, and reservations hard to come by, and they're not fixing potholes inside Felix's Oyster Bar.

The reason is obvious. New Orleans currently has about a sixth of the population it had before Katrina, both natives and out-of-town workers in construction and cleanup. But it has considerably less than a sixth of its land space unflooded and undamaged, available for living on a daily basis. Much of what still goes on here is being squeezed into a much smaller space, and that has its effect.

And it's not going to change any time soon. I'm going to have to find a whole new set of shortcuts.

Thursday, December 15, 2005

New Subject

I'll post more later about how badly this city got whacked, when I've looked around a bit more, but for now a change of subject. Today Stephen Green was noting with amusement that George Will was writing about amorous caribou (and by golly he was), but the real subject was drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, ANWR.

I read a post on some blog a few years ago, one that I cannot find, that made a fascinating statement about drilling in ANWR, one that comes to mind every time the subject comes up. The guy who wrote it said he had years of experience in the chemical industry as a plant manager, though not specifically the petroleum industry. I don't know if what he said was true, but I thought the small group of family and friends that are my devoted readership might know something.

Now, when people stage protests shouting, "No drilling in ANWR!!!", I suspect what they are visualizing is based on those old photos from Southern California in the 1920s, during the great petroleum boom; 100 foot derricks every 500 feet for mile after mile after mile. A truly hideous sight that ought to make anyone shudder.

But what this guy said was that, like most technology, drilling technology has made a few improvements since 1923; to wit, we're no longer restricted to going straight down. We can angle the wells out from a central location, maybe even changing direction as we drill. I don't remember the numbers he gave, but the impression in my mind is that of being able to access all the oil under hundreds of square miles of terrain from a facility the size of a suburban house.

If true, this naturally changes the whole tenor of the debate. It raises the possibility of getting the oil out and preserving the environment on the surface. (Which anyway is not as pristine as some would have us believe; see the George Will article.)

If true, this is a big point in favor of drilling, and supporters of drilling should be hammering this point home whenever possible. But they're not. If untrue, then opponents should be conjuring up images of all those derricks in the 20s to support their side. But they're not doing that either.

Anybody know anything?

Monday, December 12, 2005

Back Home

Drove back home to New Orleans from Jackson yesterday. We got off later than we'd planned, so it was after dark when we got to the city. Coming in on the I-10 from the west you pass first through the suburbs of Kenner and Metairie, and they looked pretty much normal.

But you cross into the city proper by passing over the 17th Street canal, very near to the infamous levee break that took out the city, and there you meet with sobering reality. Lakeview, a vast area of land that should be filled with street lights and lighted windows, all of it pitch dark.

Of all the times I've seen the Superdome at night, this was the first time it was not brightly lit up with floodlights. It just hunkered there in the dark, looking as if it was ashamed of itself for existing.

But the house was in good shape, though I'd forgotten how messy we'd let it get. High priority will be getting it in shape again.

Drove around a little this morning looking for a newspaper, and even in areas that didn't flood there are mounds of debris everywhere. Three months after the storm and you can see signs of it everywhere you look. Tree branches, and lots of piles of housing material piled up along the streets. Roof tiles, damaged or soaked drywall, all sorts of stuff. It looks like anything that won't rot if you leave it there gets low priority for removal.

More later.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

The Floods

Since Katrina, my neighbor Tommy Zander, who is also president of our condo association, has taken it on himself to keep us all informed about the state of the building, what's going on in the city, and so on. This didn't surprise me. He's a retired United pilot who captained 747s around the world, and is quite comfortable assuming command.

Today he sent around something truly interesting, from the New Orleans Times-Picayune. (Incidentally, I think the T-P should be awarded some sort of special Pulitzer for service above and beyond the call of duty, even if one has to be invented for them. Their service throughout this crisis has been nothing less than heroic.) Their website has a .pdf file that is a map of the city showing just where the flooding was, and how deep it was at the worst, the worst being rated as 10 feet and up. Click here to see just what happened. You may need to be patient. As it's a detailed graphic it's a pretty big file, and for those of us still in exile here in dial-up land, it takes a while to load.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Cry Me A River

On the news tonight I have just been treated to the most jaw-dropping, risible, arrogant bit of chutzpah I have ever heard. Live! from Baghdad! (or perhaps, secret undisclosed location) Saddam Hussein, on trial for crimes against humanity, is threatening to boycott his trial. And why? Because it's not fair. Yes, indeed, Saddam Hussein is upset because he's not getting a fair trial.

Gee, "Saddam Hussein" and "fair trial", those just naturally go together like peaches and cream, don't they? Gosh, it's just so mean of them to allow prosecution witnesses, like the woman who described being tortured and gang raped by Saddam's buddies with no trial whatsoever, to testify from behind a screen. Who cares if she still lives in terror? Keeping her face off TV deprives Saddam and his functionaries still at large of their RIGHT to target her and her whole extended family for immediate murder.

And yes, it is entertaining to characterize a notorious arab leader with a fine old Jewish/Yiddish term. What do you bet that, if he could read this, that would upset him the most?

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Going Home

Yesterday I was trolling the blogs when I got a perverse urge to peek back at those days when Katrina was about to change everything, and see what some of the bloggers I like were saying about events at the time. I went to the archives of one of my favorites, Stephen Green’s Vodkapundit, and started reading forward from about August 25. I was quickly swept up – or swept back, whatever – into the experience, struck by the immediacy of it all, as of course Stephen and his commenters were writing in the present tense about ongoing events. I was truly moved by the shock and horror and deep sympathy shown by all; Stephen’s co-blogger Will Collier said he felt like he was watching an old friend dying.

And I suddenly realized that if I didn’t stop reading right now I was going to throw up.

It’s been three and a half months since we fled uptown New Orleans for Jackson, MS, literally running for our lives. I don’t know what I was thinking, going back to read those posts. I guess I thought that the overwhelming emotions of that time, the shock, the disbelief, and the deep, deep feelings of grief, they had all faded away. But they hadn’t. They’d only gone dormant, gone underground, waiting for something to wake them up again. Once awake, they had lost none of their power. (Though fortunately I did stop reading in time.)

None of which would be worth mentioning except for one thing: it’s time to go back. Three and a half months is long enough, in fact it’s too long. We would have gone back already, but were waiting for more of the medical infrastructure to come back online. A week from today, or if delayed, the next day, we’ll be going back. At least we have somewhere to return to. We’re very, very fortunate that the flooding came no closer to the house than about five or six blocks, and others in our condo complex report that our unit is OK.

But that still leaves plenty to be very, very apprehensive about. What is it going to be like, walking back into that house that we left so quickly months ago? What will it be like, picking up the newspaper that dropped from my hand on the way out the door? Or the book I was reading three months ago and left behind on a table? I don’t know for sure, but I expect it will be very, very weird. Like being an archaeologist breaking into your own tomb.

I know a lot of restaurants and grocery stores and gas stations are open, feigning normalcy, but what will it really be like, living there? Can a city be a real city if it has no children in it? Having gotten off relatively easy, but knowing how so many lost everything, how am I going to feel about those people as they try to come back and salvage something? And how will they feel about us?

And I know now I must be prepared to deal with all those feelings that jumped up and bitch-slapped me yesterday, only worse and stronger. All the reports from the city say the same thing; you just can NOT believe the magnitude of the disaster until you see it with your own eyes. It will be rough. But I guess I’m glad I know that now, with a week to prepare myself, rather than being overwhelmed by emotion at the wheel of a car driving on the interstate.

So I guess I’m glad I went back to the Vodkapundit archives, painful as it was. The experience was a wake-up call, and a warning.

Monday, November 28, 2005

You're Kidding Me

Nonesuch Records has just released a CD, Our New Orleans, as a benefit album for the victims of Katrina. It's a collection of new recordings made specially for this album by many of the best and best known New Orleans musicians, including Allen Toussaint, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, the Preservation Hall Band, Beausoleil, Eddie Bo, with a special appearance by Randy Newman who, while he was not born in New Orleans, spent a lot of time there when he was growing up. All proceeds from the sales are being donated to Habitat for Humanity to help ease the single most desperate problem facing the city, housing. The parent company, Warner Bros. Records, is even pitching in and donating the production costs. This is all good, very good, and I encourage you to check out the Nonesuch Records website and consider buying it. You'll help out, and get some great music too.


The Dirty Dozen Brass Band has been around for thirty years, and have been pioneers in adding the most modern elements of jazz, R&B, and New Orleans street funk to the brass band style. They made the final break with the older tradition, which was still recognizably derived from military marching bands, and their performances are anything but regimented. They're all over the stage, in fact.

For years one of their most popular songs was an upbeat, uptempo, highly rhythmic song called "Feets don' fail me now." If that title and those lyrics hearken back to the days of blackface minstrelsy, that's deliberate, as it's part of the long tradition of pulling the teeth of racist bigotry by mocking its own conventions.

So it was with no little amount of surprise that I looked at the song list for Our New Orleans and found:

-- Dirty Dozen Brass Band: "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now"

Oh, puh-LEEEEZE, dears! "My Feet Can't Fail Me Now"????? How about a few choruses of "I Have It Badly and That Is Not Good," followed by a rousing version of "It Does Not Mean A Thing If It Does Not Have That Swing," hmmm?


Monday, November 21, 2005

The Late, Great UFO

Here is a delightful short article from Tech Central Station about the UFO phenomenon; as in, where'd it go?? I think the author, Douglas Kern, is certainly right that it seems to be gone, or at least banished back to the fringes. It's hard to imagine The X Files being as big a hit today as it was ten years ago, though of course it will never really disappear, not as long as cable TV is with us.

Kern's theory is that what the Internet might have given, it instead has taken away. There was a point, as the Internet was developing, that UFO enthusiasts were rubbing their hands with glee, certain that the net, with its power to route around censorship as though it was damage, would finally let them break through the sinister conspiracy of silence the The Gummint has been foisting on us since 1947. Instead . . . nothing.

Consider this: the golden age of UFO photos was the 1950s and 60s, and the most famous of them, grainy and blurry as they are, date from this period. At that time, nobody but professional photographers carried cameras around with them all the time. Many people had cameras for vacations or snapshots of the kids growing up, but when they'd shot a roll they had it developed by somebody else. Very few had advanced darkroom skills, and so very few were qualified to evaluate the authenticity of an image. People were easy to fool.

Nowadays, millions of people around the world constantly carry cell phones capable of taking a picture in an instant and sending it to everyone they know. Just about every computer sold comes packaged with image processing software that would make the CIA's best photographic analysis labs of 1960 look like an elementary school science project. So where are the photos? It was an article of faith among the true believers that if we could just get enough people out there with cameras on the lookout, sooner or later they'd have their proof. Well, the cameras are out there right now, everywhere, and the proof is conspicuously failing to appear.

Also, we've learned to be much more careful now. Every blogger knows that if you quote someone or something in order to comment on it, if you don't include a link to the original so your readers can check on whether you're playing fair or not, well, pretty soon you won't have any readers. Even without the link, any suspicious reader can use Google to get to your source, and if you've pulled a fast one you will hear about it in your comments section.

The Internet has both made us more suspicious and given us the tools to check things out, follow up on our suspicions. The UFOs didn't stand a chance.

Read the article. And note that Kern, in true blogger style, has peppered his article with links to info on such things as the Mantell Incident and the Majestic 12 documents. Following those down is a lot of fun.

BTW, I'm going to make sure my Dad sees that article. It will vindicate everything he's been trying to pound into my head for nearly a half century.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

A Good 'un

My partner A just winged off one of the most delightful responses to a wrong number I've ever heard.

The phone rang, he picked it up, and a man said, "I'd like to speak with June McElway."

A replied, "Well, then by all means, call her!"

And hung up.

Friday, September 23, 2005


I know I’ve been numb. I’ve been watching the TV coverage on CNN with fascination, yet with incredulity. There’s something in me that has been unable to accept the reality of what I see on TV and what I read on the net and in the papers, even though my mind knows that it is are true. I remember that after WWII there were groups of Jewish people going around trying to spread the truth of the horror of the Holocaust. If I recall correctly, one group went to Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter to present their evidence, and after looking at it he said, "I can’t believe it." When they started to protest he stopped them and said, "I don’t dispute the accuracy of anything you’ve shown me. I'm sure all of it is true. It’s just that I simply can’t believe it."

I’m afraid I know what he meant. Even as I have seen the destruction on TV, I have been unable to believe it. You mean I won’t be able to drive over to Domelisa’s, pick up a few shrimp po-boys, and bring them home for lunch? Cummon!!

With the second flooding of New Orleans due to Hurricane Rita, one that may well be worse than the first and may not spare my home, as the first flood did, it’s becoming impossible not to believe it.

Someone I dearly love is dead.

That someone is New Orleans, or Old New Orleans I guess we should call it. That expression always used to refer to the ante-bellum city, or perhaps the late 19th century vision of sublime and elegant decay combined with unrepentant debauchery, a vision which the city held onto for decades, as it was always popular with the tourists from 1880 on.

Now it means, before Katrina. God, that hurts. Whatever is rebuilt on that location, the New Orleans I knew and loved is gone, gone, gone forever. For it depended not just on the buildings which have suffered such damage and destruction, but on the people, and the neighborhood cultures, and the civic traditions. Such as passing down the music within the family from father to son to niece to nephew. Or the Mardi Gras Indian tradition of Ninth Ward working class blacks rehearsing their performances once a week for a year before Fat Tuesday, working on their New Suits all that time. The Ninth Ward has just been flooded for the second time; even if some homes and businesses were conceivably salvagable after the first flood, they can't possibly be salvagable now. Even the upper class white society participated in civic traditions in ways that never happened elsewhere, maintaining a form of noblesse oblige by footing the bill for many of the most expensive Mardi Gras krewes and parades, like Rex or Comus, which gave great free entertainment to millions whom they would never have admitted to membership in their clubs.

All these things are traditions, and traditions depend utterly on continuity, on the unbroken chain of the passage of knowledge and practice from elder to younger. Break that chain and the tradition dies.

The chain is broken. It cannot be otherwise. The people who are the keepers of all these traditions, from the richest to the poorest, are now scattered to the winds. I read a poll that said that 55 % of the people in the country report that Katrina refugees have arrived in their cities or communities. And that was before the arrival of the terrified millions that have fled Texas as Rita approaches. Many, many of these, from both Louisiana and Texas, will never return. They will be too scared to return, and who can blame them?

Something will be rebuilt where Old New Orleans was. It has to be, as the nation and the world need some sort of city to run the major port that must exist at the mouth of the Mississippi for the global economy to function. But whatever it is, it will not be the city that I came to find fascinating, whose history I studied, the city I moved to, and the city I came to love.

That city is dead, and I will mourn her all my life.

Friday, September 16, 2005

And yet...

And yet... despite what I wrote below about the occasional light moment, the magnitude of this disaster is still impossible to take in.

I watch CNN, and they're saying things like, Good news!! Survivors are still being found in New Orleans! What? Excuse me? Survivors? Desperate people being plucked from certain death in the flood waters by rescuers? Isn't that the sort of thing we read about happening in Pakistan or Indonesia? But here? I'm not really used to hearing things like that reported from the American city I live in.

Except that, really, I am. I was living in the San Fernando Valley when the Northridge Earthquake cut loose literally under the foundations of my house. I remember the destruction, the few survivors cut out of the ruins of that infamous collapsed apartment house across the street from where I shopped for groceries. And I remember the indescribable emotional toll it took on those who had to live through it, and deal with it. Like me.

Yes, I've been here before. But this is worse.

A Lighter Moment

Even in the midst of disaster, there can be the occasional moment of amusing absurdity. Yesterday our Jackson homeowners insurance guy, Shaw Nickeles, came over with some papers to sign. Some of the things he told us illustrate just what a monster of a storm Katrina was. We picked Jackson because, as I wrote earlier, it seemed impossible to us that even a storm coming right at us from the coast could still be dangerous when it got here. Hurricanes get their power from the warm water they cross, and as soon as they move over land they start to weaken.

But Katrina, after hitting the coast as a category four hurricane, was still a category two when it arrived in the Jackson area, and just look at the damage cat 1 Ophelia just did in the Carolinas. Shaw is a likeable young guy whose been in the business about six years, and he was saying how he’d never seen anything like this. 250 miles from the coast, and the storm was uprooting trees big enough to come down and literally cut houses in two. Shaw had never had to deal with property damage this severe from a storm, though luckily none of his clients were injured.

But the absurd part was the reason he came over. After buying the Jackson condo, we naturally set about getting the proper homeowners insurance for it. After getting up here, A got the proper form, filled it out and mailed it in. It went to a processing office up in Missouri, and a lady in the office opened the envelope, took one look at the form, and just freaked.

Since if all goes well we will someday return to New Orleans, A had listed the uptown New Orleans address as the permanent mailing address. Also, the check for the premium payment was imprinted with the same address. She saw that much, and proceeded to leap to the horrifying conclusion that some villain was trying to buy a new homeowners insurance policy for a New Orleans property after Katrina had gone through, a property she assumed had been destroyed by the storm. (It wasn’t.)

Without reading any further she immediately stamped "REJECTED" all over the form, stuffed it and the check into an envelope and threw it into the out-box. Addressed to New Orleans of course. Who knows where and when that will ever turn up. Then she proceeded to phone up poor Shaw to loudly berate him for being such a gullible fool as to approve that policy. It took him a while to get her calmed down enough to hear his explanation, namely that if she’d read down a little further, like to "insured property," she would have found that the policy was for a place in Jackson.

The only way he was able to mollify her was to promise that, since we had to sign a new application anyway, he would personally bring that application by and personally verify that the actual insured property was undamaged.

I realize that the entire insurance industry is on the brink of hysteria just now, and with good reason, but this lady went over that brink at a great height and at high velocity. Not very professional behavior.

Monday, September 12, 2005

About Those Buses

One of the most notorious photos to come out of the Hurricane Katrina disaster, one widely reproduced and linked, is an aerial shot showing literally hundreds of yellow school buses neatly lined up and parked, in a parking lot that had since become a shallow lake. Countless people have looked at that photo and asked, what the hell? Since the human core of this disaster is the tens of thousands of people who lacked the means to leave even if they wanted to, why weren’t those buses used to get those people out! I’ve been wondering the same thing myself. And of course, most of the blame along these lines has landed squarely on the shoulders of Mayor Ray Nagin for failing to order them put into action.

On Saturday, Mayor Nagin gave an interview to the New Orleans Times-Picayune in which he addressed this question directly. And he said something that I should have remembered but didn’t until he mentioned it: he didn’t have the authority.

What??? I hear you cry. That’s ridiculous! Those are New Orleans school buses, of course he had the authority. But you see, there you run afoul of one of the sorriest chapters of that sorriest of subjects, Louisiana local politics.

The schools in New Orleans are run by the Orleans Parish School Board. ("Parish" equals "county" to the rest of you, and at any rate is definitely not the same as "city.") Under the Louisiana constitution, the school board is a politically autonomous entity, responsible to no one but the voters and, if it comes to that, the courts. And unfortunately, the few voters who trouble themselves over school board elections have historically elected some of the most appallingly inept and corrupt board members ever to disgrace public office. Students’ testing scores are among the lowest in the country, and prosecutions among the staff for corruption and embezzlement are almost routine.

The board members seem to consider fighting among themselves for power and patronage their primary activity, rather than putting the needs of the children first. Some years ago they hired as Superintendent a man named Anthony Amato, who had a record of turning around failing school districts in New York and Connecticut. Then the board, the same board that hired him, set about undermining his efforts and keeping the old corrupt system in place with such success that after two years he quit in disgust. There have been occasional attempts to amend the constitution and replace the elected board with one appointed by the mayor, but they have all failed because if there’s one thing the board members do agree on, it’s that the board must remain fully independent and autonomous. And they’re all sufficiently canny politicians to make sure that happens.

Maybe things will get better in the future, as some of the worst offenders on the board lost their bids for re-election after Amato quit. But it hasn’t happened yet. So when Nagin said in that interview, "I don’t control the school buses," he was speaking simple truth. Maybe something could have been done, if someone had thought of it. Maybe the board should have offered the buses, if they could have gotten together and agreed on it (a big "if"). Maybe Nagin should have thought to ask them for their use. Maybe we remember the old saying about being up to your ass in alligators and forgetting that your original job was to drain the swamp. (Or bayou, in this case, for a painfully appropriate turn of phrase.)

But I’m sure of one thing. At the point in time when it would have been possible to use those buses to get the people out, Mayor Nagin did not have the authority to issue the order for them to roll and have it be obeyed. By the time he declared a mandatory evacuation, maybe he could have claimed the authority. But by then, with the storm only a day away, it was just too late.

By the time we know all, he may have to accept the blame for a lot of things. But not, I think, for that shallow lake full of school buses.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Some Good Guys

By the way, I have a very warm spot in my heart for The Sharper Image just now. One of my dearest friends in New Orleans was Jon Jackson and his partner Frankie Holladay. Jon has been working for several years as a sales rep at the Sharper Image store in the Riverwalk mall, just outside the French Quarter, and from the moment he started there, everything just clicked. He loved the store, the company, working with customers, getting to play with the gadgets, everything. My understanding is that he was such a good employee that he was on the fast track to a management spot.

Unlike us, Jon & Frankie did not leave as Katrina was approaching. (You’ll be able to read about it on Jon’s blog, Shattered Impact.) Being on fairly high ground, the Irish Channel area, they made it through without any significant damage and with no flooding, but were increasingly alarmed by the deteriorating situation. Eventually, though I don’t have the whole story (Jon, you will tell us the whole story, won’t you? Thank you.), they saw a chance to leave and took it. After several exhausting days of driving by indirect routes, as all the direct routes were smashed, they made it to the home of a friend in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, where they are now. There they are trying to start over, as they have to assume that everything they left behind has been stolen.

The point of this ramble is that after arriving in Florida Jon immediately got in touch with Sharper Image’s local office. Almost immediately they found him a position at the Fort Lauderdale store. He starts on Monday. I think this is wonderful, and a laudable case of a company knowing what the Right Thing To Do is in an emergency. It was not only good business sense, showing a loyal employee in desperate straits corporate loyalty in return. It was also, in purely human terms, the only good and decent thing to do. I liked Sharper Image already, but I like them more now.

So then: Three Cheers For Sharper Image!!!

Thursday, September 08, 2005

That bitch Katrina

God I hate being prescient.

At last report, we were setting up our new condo in Jackson, Mississippi, as a nice place to go to for a long weekend and, if the need ever did arise, a place to go to if we had to leave New Orleans to escape a hurricane. On that Tuesday, I wrote glibly about how ironic it would be if we had to use the new place almost immediately, as there was this tropical depression in the Atlantic that, if it strengthened, would be called Katrina.


What a shock, what a coincidence, what unbelievable timing. At the end of the week I previously posted from, the basic furniture had been delivered and set up, and we set out for home feeling that even in the worst case scenario we were prepared with at least the basics. We drove home on Friday, Sept. 26, got the dog out of prison (the kennel), went home, and turned on the TV news. Whaddayaknow. Worst case scenario.

So we looked at each other and decided, we’re not unpacking. Launder the dirty clothes, pack them right back in the suitcases, chuck whatever comes to hand into the van and GET OUT.

We did, the next day, Saturday, even though Mayor Ray Nagin had been only hinting at calling for a voluntary evacuation, to say nothing of the mandatory evacuation he put in place on Sunday. Nagin in this crisis seems to have become widely thought of as the anti-Giuliani, the guy who did not take charge in the crisis the way Rudi did. I think this is a pity, and misguided, as I think he is a better mayor of New Orleans than most I have seen. (And I’ve seen quite a few, and studied about more.) And the two disasters are not comparable. While intending no disrespect, two big buildings falling down in a sharply defined area is not the same as flood waters spreading everywhere you can see. As terrible as they were, and for all the disruption they caused, the 9/11 attacks did not take out ALL of Manhattan, to say nothing of all the boroughs around it.

Anyway, we left. What had been a pleasant three hour drive the day before took a grueling six hours, as so many people (like us) said, screw this, we’re not waiting for the official word. We’re going.

What continues to stagger me is that if Katrina had come one day earlier, or if we had tried to return to New Orleans one day later, it wouldn’t have worked. On Saturday afternoon the contraflow was established, which converted all highway lanes from the threatened area into outgoing lanes, allowing no incoming traffic. If the timing had been one day off, we would have been turned back. One of the most painful thoughts is that in that case our beloved dog Bluebell would have been either left in the kennel to starve or, the most one could hope for, turned loose by the kennel staff to take her best chance surviving in the streets, and most likely never found again. It’s heartbreaking to see TV coverage of people desperately searching the pet rescue sites for their animals. In so many cases they’ve lost everything and finding their pet is the only hope of comfort they have left.

But we got here. We’re in Jackson, safe and sound, with a rather confused dog. I’m sure she’s trying to figure out what’s going on, but then, dogs spend their entire lives trying to figure out what’s going on, without success. It’s the price of living with humans.

We’re not sure when we’ll be able to refill the gas tank in the car. For a time, gas was reserved for service vehicles, and even if that’s been rescinded, deliveries have been spotty. Power was off for a few days, but then came back, so we’re starting to try and build some sort of simulation of a normal life. I’m painfully aware of how much better off I am than so many from New Orleans. I know keenly that I’m safe and dry not only because we had the foresight to plan for an evacuation (if barely in time) but because we had the means. I know there are thousands who would have made the same plans and gotten out when we did if they’d had the means, a car and the money to buy gas and get a hotel room whenever you get to wherever. But they didn’t. And it looks like thousands of them died because of that.

Well, that’s a subject for discussion in the category of political blame, and I think we’ll get to that a bit later.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Jackson II

In Jackson. Doing quite well. From New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi, is a very easy three hour drive, most of it through very pleasant country. And I do mean country. From the shores of Lake Pontchartrain up through Louisiana bayous and into gentle rolling hills in Mississippi farm country, it's a lovely drive.

Getting the escape condo set up is going remarkably well. Major furniture, bed and convertible couch, are being delivered tomorrow. In this area, we spend a bit of money. When the well-being of one's wonky spine is in question, you do not skimp, because if you do, you will pay for it in the coin of nasty, nasty pain. But then, for some other items we did nicely at the Salvation Army store. Dresser, coffee table, bookshelf, and so on. Well, sure, some of these have some scuffs and scratches, but I don't really want to live in something that looks like a hotel room. (Like where I'm writing this.) If things look like someone's lived with them for a while, that's fine, and if it wasn't me before, it will be soon.

Aside: Years ago, in order to place some modest orders, we went to the studio and workshop in New Hope, Pennsylvania, of the wonderful Japanese-American woodworker and furniture designer George Nakashima, not long before he died in 1990. His works, which often combined the rough shapes and burls of natural wood with exquisite woodworking and finishing, were of course always delivered in perfect condition. But he always said that he liked to see his work acquire the dings and marks that showed they were being used in everyday life, not set aside as show pieces. He referred to this process as "kevinizing," referring to the damage his son Kevin used to do to furniture when he was about four or so.

Some of the things we picked up today have been kevinized a bit, and will be stevenized as time goes on, I am sure.

We'll do more tomorrow, and the bed will be delivered and set up in the afternoon. Our new place on Wayneland Ave. will be technically functional as a refuge when that's done, though there's much more to do to make it comfortable. Who knows, it might be just in time. Tropical Depression 12 is now growling around the Bahamas, predicted to skitter across southern Florida and maybe break loose into the Gulf of Mexico. It would be ironic if we wound up having to stay here longer than expected to avoid 12 should it turn into a hurricane and head the wrong way. If 12 turns into a tropical storm or worse, I believe it would be called Katrina.

At the moment there is a hurricane working in the Pacific Ocean called, I believe, Hurrican Hilary. Make your own political jokes out of that, don't look to me.

Monday, August 22, 2005


Tomorrow we are driving from New Orleans to Jackson, Mississippi. The employment fight I've been waging for nearly a year (and which is approaching a good resolution, I hope) was precipitated by my decision to get me and my family the hell out when Hurricane Ivan was threatening to hit us and kill 50,000 people or so, despite my employer's desire that I should stick around for a few more hours to move a few more boxes.

Or something like that.

At any rate, that exact situation -- desperate flight to Texas to find some motel that would give us a room, with dog -- will not happen again. Such uncertainty in the face of danger is just too damn gut-wrenching. So having looked into Jackson, and having been pleasantly surprised at how relatively modest real estate prices are, we drove up some weeks ago, checked things out, and bought a small condo in north Jackson. Even if a monster hurricane hit the coast heading straight for Jackson, by the time it had traveled over that many miles of land it would be so weakened as to be just some wind and rain. I can deal with wind and rain.

So we go up tomorrow to start equipping the place. Get a bed bought and delivered. Likewise some furniture. Take all the seats out of the van and load it up with things like the TV we ordered, a microwave, trashcan, phones, and excess plates and glasses that are crowding the shelves here. All the stuff involved with setting up an auxiliary residence. Can be fun, really.

The dog doesn't go this time, but stays in a kennel. She'll go next time and all times after, to help her learn that this is another home for her, another place that is hers, with her own food bowl and dogbed waiting for her. For us it should also be more than a hidey-hole when a big bad storm is coming. The Jackson art museum has for years been hosting remarkable traveling exhibits that have seemed fascinating to me, but that I've never managed to drive north and see. That will be easier now.

Besides, when we were being shown the property, we chatted with our real estate agent, Janie Bass, about how our location on Napoleon Avenue in New Orleans can get pretty tiresome during Carnival time. As the house is right on the parade route for most Mardi Gras parades, you have to put up with an enormous amount of noise and inconvenience, including being barred by the police from being admitted to your own street to park in front of your own home if you get there after the barriers go down. As Alden grumbled about this, Janie remarked casually, well, you could just come up here.

He looked stunned, as if revelation had hit him. "My god! You're right! We can come up here!!"

That may have been the moment when she clinched the deal.

Thursday, July 21, 2005

James Doohan: Scotty the jazz fan

I suppose I might as well weigh in with my James Doohan moment, now that he has left us. (No, I won't use the obvious clich├ęd catch phrase that everyone else is using.) In the 80s we lived in a house in Reseda, a Los Angeles suburb in The Valley, that had an unusually large and high ceilinged living room, easily accommodating our concert grand piano. It was perfect for big parties.

L.A. then was home to quite a few retired New Orleans jazz musicians. On a few unforgettable occasions, we hosted parties for these guys and their friends and families, with a lot of our friends squeezed in, parties that were massive jam sessions of musicians who had known each other for decades but rarely got a chance to get together and blow. People like Leo Dejan, Herbert Permillion, Sammy Lee, Floyd Turnham, Alton Purnell, Joe Darensbourg, Andrew Blakeney. To indicate the caliber of these guys, when Louis Armstrong left the King Oliver band in 1924, Oliver picked Blakeney to replace him. Decades later Darensbourg toured the world with Armstrong as a member of the All Stars. And Purnell was the pianist with the legendary bands of Bunk Johnson and George Lewis.

On one of these grand occasions we had a friend visiting from New Orleans who knew Doohan through her work in theater. She knew what we didn't, that he loved jazz, and we were delighted to extend an invitation through her. So on the big night, with the music in full swing, the doorbell rang and I opened the front door to a man in a blue blazer with a very familiar face who was thrusting his hand forward with a smile, saying, "James Doohan!"

I've been a Star Trek fan since I was about ten, so I knew that. I welcomed him in to the glorious cacophony, as we must have had about seventy guests there, with up to a dozen musicians playing at any one time. Some of our guests recognized him, including one young fellow who was quietly going "Oh my god!! Oh my god!!" in the corner. But most didn't, I think. Elderly black jazz musicians are not the typical Star Trek audience demographic, and they had no idea who he was. He was just another guest. I imagine he rather liked that.

With an actor's sure sense for center stage, he spotted an empty chair directly in front of the band and planted himself in it. There he sat for number after number, sopping it up, grinning happily, and cheering wildly after each tune. Eventually the dinner break was called, and all lined up to help themselves to some hearty New Orleans fare, a buffet of red beans and rice with a green salad. I exercised host's prerogative to sit down next to Mr. Doohan and chat with him during dinner, and he was utterly charming to talk to. I remember him telling me that he'd been having trouble getting his kids to eat their carrots, so he'd taken to grating them up and adding them to spaghetti sauce, sort of sneaking them past in disguise. I privately suspected that a lot of the nutrients that are the point of feeding kids carrots were probably lost with all that overcooking, but I wasn't about to correct him.

He was also very happy to talk to other guests about himself and his career, at least when the music wasn't playing. He particularly liked talking about Jackie Gleason, whom he clearly admired as the consummate showbiz professional. He told wonderful stories about working with Gleason, told them with great gusto, and I dearly wish I could remember some of them.

In all it was a joy to have him over to share in one of these events, which are among the best memories I have of those days in Reseda, listening to all those wonderful old musicians just having fun together. I'm happy to say that I know Jimmy Doohan himself had a ball. In fact, he told us that if he'd known how much fun this party would be, he would have called up Nichelle Nichols (Uhura) to suggest that she come. Oh, she would have had a great time singing in front of a band like that, and I'd give anything to have heard it.

And incidentally, yes, Jimmy Doohan himself, not just Scotty, was very partial to very fine scotch.

Wednesday, June 15, 2005

The Latest Star Wars

I recently saw Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. Now, I know this blog hasn't been getting a lot of activity lately, though some possible upcoming developments in my legal situation may enable that to loosen up somewhat. But when presented with something of such creativity and imagination as to border on genius, one can be moved to speak.

No, no, no, I'm not talking about the movie. I thought it was pretty good, and I did enjoy it. It certainly was better than the last two, even though it labors under a considerable handicap: no suspense. Of the characters still alive at the end, we know how all of them are going to end up, that most of them come to a sticky end, and we even know how and when. But as someone said, it's like doing a jigsaw puzzle; you know what the picture will look like when you're finished, the fun is in seeing how the pieces fit together. In this the movie does quite well, nicely setting up the transition to the original films.

No, when I spoke of borderline genius, I meant this.

Sunday, May 15, 2005


Darth Vader has a blog? Oh, yes.

Monday, March 07, 2005

Terror on the Subway

Here's a lovely story that's making the rounds, by an unknown author. It is strongly recommended that you carefully set down anything liquid before reading further.

"A friend of a friend lives in NYC and participates in the SCA [Society for Creative Anachronism]. He's stereotypical Viking, 6' '7" tall, LONG blonde hair, about 350 - 400 lbs of solid muscle, and looks every bit of it. Well, he was going to a meet in full getup with long cloak and battle axe and sitting on the subway... hunched over leaning on the axe with the cloak pulled over it so he wouldn't scare anybody.

Lo and behold some little punk comes up... MAYBE 5'2", 120 lbs soaking wet, and brandishes a knife saying "GIMME YOUR MONEY!" Naturally the guy sits there... somewhat befuddled at the balls of this punk. "GIMME YOUR *bleepin* MONEY OR ELSE!" and the guy stands up... and up... and UP. Raising the battle axe over his head, screaming at the top of his lungs "BLOOD FOR ODIN!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!" At this point, the fellow passengers learn the true sound of terror. Not a scream, no curses, just a simple little "urk" as the guy leaves a wet spot as he's bolting for anywhere but here.

A couple weeks later our friend is at a club in the men's room, doing what all guys do when they've had a bit of ale, and looks over and at the next stall is that SAME PUNK! Up for a bit of a laugh, the guy leans over, and quietly whispers in the dude's ear "Blood for Odin" ......The cops catch up with him a couple blocks away... screaming bloody murder, running like the hounds of hell are after him, with his pants around his ankles.

Sunday, February 27, 2005

Letter to the Ed.

I wrote a letter to the New Orleans Times-Picayune, in response to a letter they published today. (Click on the Title if you want to read the original.) I have certain pet peeves, things that push my button, and this Ms. Foster trotted out one that particularly annoys me. It's said that Disreali remarked that there were three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. This so-called statistic is one of the worst offenders, and demanded a response. I don't know if the T-P will publish it, but hey!, that's what blogs are for. I'll just publish it myself!

* * * * * * * *

Adele Foster writes (letters, Feb. 27) that a gun in the home "is 43 times more likely to kill a family member or friend through suicide, homicide and accidents than to be used for self-defense (New England Journal of Medicine)."

Oh, please. Since the study that produced this "statistic" was first published back in the mid-1980s (and what was a medical journal doing studying criminology anyway?), it has been repeatedly debunked as fatally flawed in scope, methodology, and even basic definitions. For example, this figure assumes that the only way of using a gun in self-defense is by shooting somebody, rather than by brandishing it and scaring an attacker off. And under the terms of the study, a drug dealer murdering a hated rival counts as a "friend" shooting a "friend." Sorry, not in the real world.

There may be lots of good reasons for not wanting to have a gun in your home. But pseudoscience like this study, by a Dr. Arthur Kellerman who, again, was not a criminologist, is not among them.

Thursday, February 03, 2005

Barbarian Hordes

Well, they're here, and in force. Which means that once again it is Carnival time in New Orleans. ("Carnival," not "Mardi Gras." Mardi Gras is one day only, next Tuesday. Carnival is the whole season.) I may comment on my experiences now and then, as I come to it from an unusual perspective: right on top of it, or vice versa. I am one of those few people who live directly on the uptown parade route. I look out my kitchen window, and there they are, and in fact, they are there right now, with the Knights of Babylon getting ready to roll in about ten minutes. It is pretty exciting for the first few years, but the relentlessness of it all can wear you down. (Yeah, I know, cry me a river. I'm sure there are millions of Carnival fans who would kill to change places with me.)

But I did see something last night I'd love to share. Last night's first parade was the Krewe of Saturn, which always features political satire. The theme this year was "See You In the Funny Pages," and various political figures, most of them local, were satirically presented as cartoon characters. New Orleans Mayor Nagin was Charlie Brown, President Bush was Superman ("leaping small countries at a single bound!").

And Yasser Arafat. . . Well, I'll just say that it was very funny, very appropriate, and very gratifying. Just scroll down to the next few posts. That's my kind of satire.

Normally they would have a large image of the cartoon character, but in this case I like this much better. Some people have thought Arafat belonged in one of these for a long time now. Posted by Hello

Just so you can seen the sign clearly. Posted by Hello

Saturday, January 15, 2005

Waiting game

I'm learning some of the emotional realities of litigation. The waiting, the uncertainty. I had a hearing scheduled for Jan. 27 to start the process of trying to sue to get my job back, a hearing to start at 1 pm. My lawyer submitted a long list of names of people to subpeona for testimony, and the referee (judge) initially demurred, saying let's call the first few, get through the first day, and see how many more we need to call. That was a hint. When World War I started, everyone thought, aww, we'll be home by Christmas. They were wrong then, too.

Now the opposing lawyers have submitted a letter that, in addition to trying to quash a bunch of the subpoenas (not surprising -- if I were on the other side I wouldn't want these people to testify either), has asked for a continuance to a later date. They are saying that a certain requested person both 1) shouldn't be subpeoned, as being irrelevant and 2) is going to be out of the country anyway. Jeez. Can we be consistent here?

Obviously the legal wrangling has begun in earnest. What struck me, even surprised me, was how depressed I got when I got this letter. It's obviously an opening round in a series of legal negotiations, possibly short, possibly interminable. But I just hadn't realized how much I was counting on Jan. 27 as the day when at least something would start to be resolved.

Damn. Damn. Damn.