Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Knit 2,

Two years ago today, Hurricane Katrina tore through the city of New Orleans and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. Today, we take a break from our regularly scheduled knitting for a brief culture report -- the good, the bad and the ugly:

Scads of our people still are living in trailers in our front yards. Our insurance companies screwed us over, we've run out of savings and now it's either "Design on a Dime" for those of us with the money for building materials and the skills to do the job ourselves ... or a painful waiting game for those of us too aged, unskilled or impoverished to hang drywall ourselves. New Orleans is a heavily elderly city, and when old folks run out of money to pay other people to repair their homes ... well, you know. It just doesn't get done, and it's not their fault.

The ray of hope? A program called The Road Home, which offers grant money to help people repair their homes, provided they actually plan to live in them. I am grateful that I had enough savings to remove the tree from Mom's house, fix her roof and get her interior repaired, livable and painted, but we still applied to the Road Home Program for help in finishing the job.

The home below is only a few blocks from my high school. The water was about eight feet deep around here. My old school is back up and running, but this family still has a tree on their house and a blue tarp for a roof. The car, previously a prized vintage vehicle, was smashed by a falling tree which tumbled across it on the way down. The black mass to the right of the car is the overturned root ball of that tree -- the trunk, about five feet in diameter, which was blocking the street, has been sawed off and hauled away. That's a tire snagged on a root on the far right:

And the car? It didn't belong to the white house. It belonged to a neighbor down the street.

Repairs have not even begun in huge parts of the city. The unflooded section has largely come back to life, even though many wind- and tree-damaged homes are stalled in progress, their owners overwhelmed and out of money. But vast stretches of New Orleans remain untouched, ungutted, and un-come-home-to. Their former occupants, about half the city's Pre-K population, remain in Houston and other cities.

This is as far as one of my relatives was able to get on her home. It is now gutted and ready to repair. She has applied for a low-interest loan and grant money so she can begin work. See the water marks? There is a high water mark, and various lower levels as the floodwaters were pumped out of the city over a period of weeks:

Fly-by-night contractors are still ripping people off. We can only pray for instant Karma, and hope they get their balls caught in a nail gun. If they ever actually pick one up, that is.

The city's homeless population has doubled. Many people made homeless by Katrina have joined the ranks of those who were already homeless before the storm hit. A considerable number of homeless people are camping out in other people's abandoned homes.

As a result, the fire department has been busy.

Rats Rule. Where do rats go when the water rises? They go where it's dry. 80% of New Orleans flooded during Katrina, so the surviving rats from that portion of the city swam to the unflooded section. And? They have been reproducing quite well. The part of the city that stayed dry now has a rat population to rival Medieval Europe.

Fortunately, one of my Mom's cats thinks that he is Ted Nugent, and rats are deer.

Katrina is still killing people. Or, welcome to Hospital Rwanda! If you get seriously sick in New Orleans today, you have a 47% greater chance of dying from your ailment than you had before Katrina shattered our health-care system. Why? If you're poor, or working and uninsured, Charity Hospital is gone. And if you have insurance and can otherwise afford a doctor, there simply aren't enough doctors and hospital beds to go around.

New Orleans used to be a great place to live -- now it's a great place to die. I know that seems amazing, as we are arguably in the First World and all that, but consider that only one fourth of the city's major hospitals are back online. The numbers get worse when you consider how many smaller hospitals, dialysis clinics, and other second-tier hospitals are gone. This isn't due to poor care standards. Nurses and doctors are doing the best they can with what they have. It's simply due to a shortage of bed space and a doctor-to-patient ratio to rival any third world nation. It's also due to the fact that one of the finest trauma centers in the world -- Charity Hospital -- is gone.

The remains of about a hundred and thirty storm victims remain unclaimed. A memorial for these unknown victims of Katrina soon will be erected. Update: I made a trancsription error when I first posted this; I accidentally typed only "thirty."

Se Habla Espanol. This isn't a bad thing at all, it's just new, and interesting, and it takes a little getting used to. The flavor of New Orleans is changing from "Creole" to "L.A. South." New Orleans had a fair representation of Latino food and culture pre-Katrina -- and some mighty fine hot tamales, I might add -- but now it's like, "hello, carnitas! And pass the menudo, please."

Menudo is a lot like boudin -- once you acquire the taste, you like it a lot. And, like boudin, you really don't want to know what's in it.

I love the cultural cross-pollination -- it took the Latino drywall and roofing crews about three weeks to figure out how to make crawfish empanadas. And I might add that New Orleans enjoyed an unusually festive Cinco de Mayo this year.

Side note -- I would be soooo grateful if one of y'all would tell me how to make the "~" sit on top of the "n" like it's supposed to. I can't figure out how to make Blogger do it.

Vera's marker has been demolished. This does not bode well for the karma of the empty lot on the corner of Jackson Avenue and Magazine Street, just a block away from Garden District Needlework.

In the first desperate days after Katrina passed through and the city began to flood, a hit-and-run driver ran over a woman named Vera, who later died on the street from her injuries. Neighbors and strangers on the street had no alternative but to construct a makeshift tomb on the sidewalk. Her body was covered with some plastic sheeting and people arranged bricks both to hold the sheeting in place and to provide a modicum of dignity by marking the spot with what they had at hand. Someone painted a makeshift headstone on these bricks: SHRINE -- VERA -- 8-30-05 -- GRAVE -- NEVER MOVE:

Well ... somebody moved it.

After Vera's body was recovered, the marker bricks stayed for over a year and a half. During that time, steady offerings of flowers, cards and Mardi Gras beads appeared at the marker. But the last time I passed by, the bricks were gone, and a real estate agent's sign has appeared in its place.

Vera's spirit, however, is still there. I don't think the real estate agent is aware of that fact.

In the photo below, the sign closer to the camera is planted exactly where Vera's body lay:

President Bush today ventured into the city to mark the anniversary of Katrina, two years after he stalled on taking charge of the situation -- two years after he utterly and completely failed to dislodge himself from his vacation in order to manage one of the worst crises in American history.

Two years too late. In his speech today, he said that he understood what people were going through.

I am absolutely certain that he does not.

I find it hard to believe that two whole years have gone by since I was up to my neck in wet, filthy and frightened animals. My mind holds a dizzying array of images from the past two years: at one of the emergency animal shelters, I recall a veterinarian in blue scrubs, trying to catch a short nap on top of a pallet of donated dog food ... the trash heap in front of the house I grew up in ... an elderly lady planting flowers in front of her still-ruined home this past spring ... the bones of a small child discovered months after the storm, found by one of our SPCA officers in pursuit of a stray dog in the 9th Ward ... a truck resting in the branches of an ancient live oak tree ... dead cows and horses in other trees ... an enormous barge perched atop a levee ... armies of ruined refrigerators lining the streets ... FEMA food tents late at night ... the vast stretch of raw earth, destruction and nothingness where the town of Waveland, Mississippi once stood ... boats on rooftops ... an overturned New Orleans city bus wedged sideways across a narrow street ... heavily armed Guardsmen in camouflage riding around in Humvees ... and vast stretches of my home city rendered completely unrecognizable.

And the smell.

I also remember the stars shining over the black and vacant city.

Local pianist Phillip Melancon recalls this phenomenon in song:

"Stars coming out in New Orleans ... for the first time see their grace ... what a price we must pay in New Orleans ... to see God's freckled face.."

When I talked to Lisa Louie tonight, she reminded me that you can't come to closure with a tragedy when you are still in the middle of it. Lisa survived Hurricane Iniki in 1992, a devastating storm that hit Hawaii only days after Hurricane Andrew visited his wrath here on the mainland.

It takes a long, long time to come to terms with a disaster of this nature. If you were lucky enough to be able to repair your own home, you can't start emotional healing while half of your neighborhood is still a rubble heap. There is the dreadful combination of joy and guilt that your home was spared the worst of the flood when others were not, and a deeper guilt in the knowledge that your own property is mostly repaired and functional when other people are still crammed into tiny white trailers or even living on the street. There is the fear and anxiety over when you will see some of your friends and relatives again, if they will ever come home, and what will happen in the long run to your home town.

And if you worked in the rescue and recovery efforts, there are still the nagging doubts. Did I try hard enough? Could I have done more?

I am haunted by the voice of a woman on one of the animal-rescue phone lines, begging for help. She was in her attic, with her dog and her cell phone. She had heard the animal rescue number on the radio. The water was rising. "Please," she begged. "Please, somebody come get us. I need to break the attic window so we can get out on the roof."

I had taken down her address, confirmed it, and was in the middle of giving her some instructions when she was cut off.

Silence. I felt like someone had punched me.

I ran to the triage table and handed over her information, making sure that it was dispatched immediately as critical. That was the only thing in my power to do.

I have to believe that the call just dropped. Cell phone service was crashing everywhere.

Or maybe she dropped her phone in the water.

I have to believe that she and her dog got through the attic window and out onto the roof.

I try to envision them on the roof, looking up into the night, waiting for the helicopters.

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Sunday, August 19, 2007

Sunday is for

Hurricane Dean seems to have plans for visiting its wrath on Jamaica and Mexico instead of our general area, which allows me to put local disaster planning on the back burner for just a moment and show you all a picture of the delightful hand-dyed pencil roving sample that Ray of KNITIVITY was nice enough to send me last week:

Ain't it purty? This was dyed using a sampling of Ray's favorite color mixes applied to natural Jacob's sheep grey pencil roving. Because it is pencil roving, the yarn, once spun up, retained the color repeats rather close to the way Ray laid them out. This was Ray's first attempt at dyeing roving and I have to give him a hand; he instinctively knew how to space the roving so that a bit of grey showed in between color repeats without being muted out by the color.

The photo above was taken in natural light on an overcast day and is about 95% true to the actual color of the roving. It can be tricky getting true color on an overcast day. Oh, and ..? Slap me with the stupid stick. I didn't include an object for size reference, so I should add that this very fluffy and squishy ball of roving is about the size of a small adult-sized hat, or a loaf of sourdough bread. Weight: 1.8 US ounces of fiber.

The natural grey adds depth to the dye color so that it has a somewhat tweedy effect even as a single ply. The following photo was taken indoors under an Ott light, with flash, and is spot-on for color reproduction. Notice that the yarn seems just a little darker than in the photo above. This is because the roving color always looks darker (or more saturated) after it is spun up, just as paint always dries a shade darker than it is in the can :

Now if I had wanted, I could have Navajo-plied to retain the color sequence and saturation showed above ... or, I could have retained the color sequence and created a muted color segue by plying it with either a solid grey or a solid white single. But the yarn told me it would rather have a tweedy appearance, so I plied it against itself, making no attempt to match color sequencing. The result is a mix of barber-pole effect and matched-color bits as they happen to fall in the plying.
Here is the resulting yarn on a niddy-noddy:

And here it is, skeined up and put away to ripen until it decides to become a knitted object. The sample yielded 105 yards after plying. Ya know, a whole bunch of this stuff would make a really yummy sweater:

Like I told Ray, something about these colors made me think Victorian thoughts ... thoughts which lingered in shadowed parlors draped with ruby silk and midnight blue velvet ... the surf pounding on the grey cliffs outside ... and into this parlor wanders Edgar Allen Poe. Ray, this is a great colorway for handspinning, and I hereby christen it, "Annabelle Lee."
"It was many and many a year ago,
in a kingdom by the sea,
that a maiden there lived whom you may know
by the name of Annebelle Lee.
And this maiden she lived with no other thought
than to spin and make yarn for me..."
Sorry, Edgar, but I couldn't resist ...
9:00 PM update: Folks, please keep your thoughts on the poor folks in Jamaica -- they are getting the worst quadrant of the storm as I write this. The Yucatan is next, and the storm will have strengthened to Category Five by the time it hits Mexico. Cancun is still in shatters from the 2005 storm season. This is a good time of year to donate to your favorite disaster relief charity.

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Friday, August 17, 2007

Why I Knit

by Lisa Louie

Dear-Readers: Hurricane Dean is nosing into the Gulf of Mexico and Mambocat must spend some time in contact with animal rescue folks in the event this storm heads our way. My co-conspirator in yarnly matters, Lisa Louie of Maui, guest-blogs today. This post was written before school let out for the summer....

Several years ago, an on-line survey asked the question “Why do you knit?”

My answer was “Because I HAVE to. I’m not sure why I have to; I just know that I do.”

I knit a lot, and I have been knitting for a relatively long time. Twenty years, which is almost exactly half my life. I’ve never stopped during that time, paused a few times, but never stopped. At this point, my knitting stops only long enough to go to work or buy groceries or other mundane necessities.

Why do I work? I have to have money to buy yarn, and support a few other of my hobbies, like eating regularly and living indoors. I work for a non-profit learning center, and much of my time is spent getting students of various ages through their homework, and teaching them what they need to get through their homework. Many of our students are, ahem, challenging, or as the PC police call them “high risk”. Whatever these students are called, they all seem to be having a “high maintenance” week. Shorter attention spans, slower to understand a concept, wiggly, fidgety, whiny, and so forth. I’m not sure if it’s because school is almost out, and they can smell the freedom of summer, if the planets are out of alignment, or what, but it’s been a week of much effort on my part, and little payoff in their learning. As I told my husband, getting learning into them has been like “pushing Jell-O up a hill. With a stick.”

After a week of “Jell-O pushing”, I got home last night and was completely brain dead, but my body was still wired. We had dinner, and went for a walk, but after that, I just had to knit. I only managed a few rounds on a sock, because my brain and my hands couldn’t seem to connect to get the stitches in the right order (it’s been a reaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaalllllllllllly bad week) but I needed it very, very badly just to try and restore some sort of balance to my brain. Soothe it, connect it with something it needs and try and untangle its connections so I can function again today. I think the knitting helped some, and I am going to take it with me to work today. I hope I don’t need it while I’m there, but at least if I have to go push some more Jell-O up a hill, at least I’ll have a good stick. A short, pointy stick. But it’s a good stick, and I’d much prefer to use it on yarn.


Sunday, August 12, 2007


Y'all, it is hot. It was a hundred and four degrees Fahrenheit yesterday afternoon. It was 84 degrees at two in the a.m. when I woke up and had myself a good dose of insomnia, and it's 101 right now.

It's the kind of hot that makes you seriously contemplate whatever posessed your ancestors to settle here. Me? I'm convinced that my own ancestors arrived in October and made their decision based on that, and by the time summer came back around they were too busy eking out a living to get the hell out, and by then, the babies caused by happy October weather were born ... and then well, you know. You're stuck.

My own personal, direct ancestors didn't arrive till the late 1880s. By that time, clothing was slightly less voluminous than in days gone by, but not by much. Women still drowned when any sort of boat sank, weighed down both by their clothing and the social norms of the time which forbade them to shed it, even to save their own lives.

I can't stand wearing anything but the thinnest garments in this weather. I can't imagine facing it in pantaloons, petticoats and corsets. Gah. Once the thermometer hits about 95, it's even too hot for shorts. A loose, thin, cotton or linen skirt is much more comfortable. Today I'm wearing a Hawaiian-print wraparound and a tank top, which makes me think of Lisa Louie -- hi, Lisa!

I have a hard time imagining the first European explorers deciding on this as a swell place to live. "Hey, guys! There's a little rise over here next to the river! Let's build here, just as soon as we get all those water moccasins and poison ivy vines out of the way."

Before the advent of air conditioning, running water, mosquito control and modern sewage, people down here died all the time from yellow fever, malaria, and related ailments -- right up until the early 1900s. We still have to maintain diligent mosquito control to keep encephalitis and West Nile Virus in check.

Anyway, yesterday, it was too hot even to spin properly. Even indoors with the air conditioning on, the humidity was such that I was having trouble drafting the fiber.

So I fooled around with experimental yarn labels instead. The labels shown below are draft-quality mock-ups -- having a bit of Sunday afternoon computer fun:

I waited until late afternoon to catch the low, slanting light outdoors, but the oak canopy above our house still prevailed -- it's so much easier to take outdoor pictures in winter here. You can't even see our house on Google Earth, but you sure can see the trees.

Yarn colors, top to bottom, are: Candy Striper (gradient-dyed Romney singles plied together), Blood Orange (space-dyed roving, spun into 2-ply sport weight), and Blue Hawaii (dyed 2-ply Romney). I was going to dye some more last night but it was too hot, even with the air conditioning on. It occurs to me that I should put a tiny dash of yellow here and there in the Blue Hawaii, to represent the twist of lemon in that drink.

I suppose the name "Candy Striper" belies my age -- how many of the rest of you were hospital
Candy Stripers in high school? I am thumbing through my dye notes, and nearly all of my other color names are either food-related or adult-beverage related. I can't imagine why ...

I don't think I like the idea of a twisted skein with a wrap-around label as much as I like the idea of loose skein hanging with a tag. I'll play around with tag designs tonight, and post photos to solicit opinions.

Thanks to everyone for your kind and supportive commentts about my upcoming venture into the weekend arts market. I am still waiting for my application to be approved but I will let you all know as soon as I have an opening day for my weekend stall.

I'm getting up super-early tomorrow to dye some singles before breakfast, before the heat gets serious. I also need to be up super-early because I'll be edgy -- my brother-in-law is having bypass surgery tomorrow morning, and I worry better if I'm up early.

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Sunday, August 05, 2007

To Market, To Market

I've been keeping a secret.

I have long yearned to have a yarn shop. And I have also long struggled against any notion to abandon or diminish my career in animal welfare.

I do hope to be able to retire someday, and to feel satisfied that I have done my part in the world of animal welfare. And I often entertain the idea of opening a yarn shop at that point in time, if I can ever bring myself to retire from my line of work.

A random selection of my handspun and hand-dyed yarns.

But I am no candy-eyed fool. I suffer no delusions about a leisurely life of shopkeeping. I grew up in retail -- my Mom managed a card and gift shop -- and I knew from an early age that your life is not your own if you manage a store.

Some people are absentee shop owners. They see their shop only as an investment. And with a stellar manager like my Mom on your payroll, you can be an absentee owner. You can say, "Here are the keys, O Competent One. Manage my shop and make money for me while I go to the Bahamas." The owners of Mom's shop did that sort of thing all the time. They went to Europe, and Mom went to work.

But I don't have enough "play money" to set up a store and pay a good manager the salary they deserve to run the show on my behalf while I do my fulltime work (much less go to Europe).

I've been employed in the animal sheltering business for quite some time. It's not the sort of work you want to pursue if you deeply need to impress others with your monetary prowess, but it's what I do, and it's why I am here on this planet. I also knit, and spin, and write, and do other things to express my creative self, but caring for those creatures who cannot care for themselves is my real calling in this world. And that's where I need to spend most of my time.

However, my urge to create, to make things with my own two hands, and to put words down for others to read, is quite large.

I knit. I spin. I design garments. This helps me deal with the endless frustration of keeping a candle lit in a hurricane, which is the nature of work in a municipal animal shelter. You save a life one day and you are called, sadly too late, to help another life tomorrow. You beat your head against the wall a lot, trying to convince abysmally stupid people to do the right thing -- to spay and neuter their pets, to vaccinate their pets, to keep their pets from running at large.

Some days, you take a cruelty case to court, and you prevail, and the bad guy has to pay for his horrid actions. Most days, you don't have enough solid evidence to make a good case.

Some days, you get a dozen downtrodden dogs off to rescue groups, four adult cats are adopted, and a batch of healthy puppies go off to loving homes.

Other days, you find yourself investigating an animal poisoner, prosecuting a dog-fighter, and euthanizing a litter of desperately sick puppies whose lives could have been saved if the owner had considered that spaying --- or even just vaccinating -- the mother was more important than buying a carton of cigarettes.

Often, you come home and you just want to curl up in a ball in the darkest recess of your closet, with a blanket over your head. On days like that, it's not hard to think that everybody's old friend, Jack Daniels, might have some good advice. You think about giving him a call, climbing into his pickup truck, and having a good, long, bumpy drive through the woods and swamps and backroads of your mind, while you retrace your steps and carry on about how you could have done things better. Mr. Jack and his friend Ms. Merlot are good listeners, and you have a lot to get off your chest, and maybe you should give them a ring.

But then you remember that you have to work tomorrow, and you acknowledge that it might not be such a good idea to give old Jack a call tonight.

Ah, well then. Maybe on the weekend.

Unlike Mr. Daniels, knitting and spinning do not drag you deeper into Dismal Swamp. Knitting and spinning provide repetitive kinetic release, soothing the eyes with color and beauty, and soothing the hands with texture and softness.

So I knit, and I spin. When I really want to let go of some tension, I scour fleeces and make felt.

And I write compulsively. It makes me happy to have a small audience for my blog, but I'm just as pleased to do technical writing for my job. On a good writing day, I can inspire others. On my bleakest and most barren writing day, I can at least crank out presentable employee training materials.

But no matter how lousy my day has been, I can almost always knit or spin.

We've had our share of frustration, aggravation and waiting for miracles in my line of work since Hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit south Louisiana and the Mississippi Gulf Coast. We have worked insane hours in burdensome conditions. We have built new shelters and clinics. But there is still so much more to do. My job situation has changed twice since Katrina hit.

Not good for the ol' morale.

But last week I learned there is some available space at the arts market downtown, which is affiliated with the farmer's market.

And I thought about yarn.

So I have applied for a weekend booth at the arts market downtown. Into this booth I shall bring my handspun yarn, and offer it for sale. In addition, I plan to offer some "recycled" yarns -- mill ends combined with other yarn into new skeins of one-of-a-kind novelty art yarns. And I will offer some small knit goods for sale -- scarves, amulet bags, that sort of thing. The sort of things that will be seen as good gift items as the holidays approach.

And of course I will spin. The arts market likes to welcome people into their fold who do what they call "heritage crafts" -- knitters, weavers, potters, dyers, basketmakers and now a spinner. As far as I know I am the first spinner to give it a go.

This could potentially lead to a fulltime or part-time indoor stall later in the year. We shall see.

So let's see what happens.

More later.

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Inmates in the Asylum since July 27, 2006: