Saturday, August 30, 2008


And Good Humor.

On the Interstate highway near our home, the citizens of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast go by, inland bound as night falls here in Baton Rouge. Following them come the northermost long, blustery rain bands of Hurricane Gustav.

I've just returned from the last few errands: a couple of bags of ice, some milk and bananas, cookies and a few extra batteries. We are all set and in place for the storm tomorrow.

Next to the drugstore is a video rental place, its windows taped to prevent glass from shattering. Along with a drugstore and a very few other businesses, they will be open until quite late tonight, eager for last minute customers.

Yes, we know the power will go out, probably for longer than the three-day movie rental period, and I doubt that all the people taking advantage of the hurricane rental special owned a generator, but they rented movies anyway. Indeed, the movie rental store was doing brisk business. Even in the face of a hurricane, good humor prevails:

Click on the picture to make it bigger -- you really should read the lefthand side of the door: "Open till midnight --or apocalypse -- whichever comes first -- rent at your own risk -- your safety is not guaranteed!"

We are going to take a windy beating here in Baton Rouge, even this far inland, much as we did with Hurricane Andrew in 1992. No real flooding here unless your house is right along the banks of a river or bayou, but Andrew felled so many trees and otherwise provided so much wind damage in the Baton Rouge area that some parts of town were without power for almost two months. Andrew downed thousands of trees, countless power lines, and carried off many rooftops in our city. We may expect similar effects from Gustav, although it has weakened a little since earlier today.

This will be my last blog post for awhile, because we will certainly lose power -- maybe for hours, maybe for days, maybe for weeks -- and I will be busy with my real responsibilities.

If I am unable to post for more than a few days, I will contact Lisa Louie by phone, and she will post on my behalf, and give you updates via our conversations, as I don't have one of those cell phones you can blog with.

Lisa, thanks in advance.

To everyone else, thanks for the good thoughts. We sure need them down here.

"Knit on, through all crises." --Elizabeth Zimmermann

"I think we're gonna need a bigger boat." -- Roy Scheider

"When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro." -- Hunter Thompson.

Much obliged if you'd cross your fingers for us here in Baton Rouge, but for the folks of New Orleans, and especially the coastal areas which will take the full force of the storm surge and landfall, please invoke and appeal to the deity of your choice. They need it.


Friday, August 29, 2008

Not Again.

New Orleans is often compared to a soup bowl. That being the case, my mother lives on the rim, just a block or so from the docks and the massive cranes which unload cargo from transport ships docked in the Mississippi River. Her New Orleans street runs from south to north through the city, from the relatively high ground closest to the Mississippi River on through to the central part of the city. As you drive north from my mother's end of the street, the elevation creeps lower and lower. By the time the street dead-ends into a quiet neighborhood, you have gone from the narrow section of the city where the houses stayed well above water after Katrina, to a part of town where the first floor was fully inundated -- or the entire house, in the case of one-story dwellings.

The floodwaters invaded homes along much of this street, from homes of modest means to homes of the wealthy. Like many New Orleans thoroughfares, her street changes masks as you go along -- on Mom's end, near the river, it is a pleasant and multi-ethnic mix of renters, retirees and young couples renovating their starter houses, then it moves on through an old area full of grand homes, and further on, where the serious inundation began, into an area sporting a mix of both modest and impressive homes.

My old high school is a few blocks past the end of that street, and the Interstate highway that takes me home to Baton Rouge is another mile past my high school. Each time I leave Mom and return home, I try to take a different street, to monitor progress since Katrina.

The part of town that stayed dry -- the rim of the bowl that follows the curve of the Mississippi River as you go around the lower edge of the city -- likewise runs the gamut of the social ladder, from some of the very wealthiest citizens to the poorest as you move from Audubon Park, past Uptown, through the Irish Channel and the Garden District, into the business district, and beyond into the French Quarter, the Marginy, and the Ninth Ward. Most of the damage on the uptown end was wind damage, and this is the part of town that is coming back the fastest. If you drive down Magazine Street, which is a mix of retail and residences following the curve of the Mississippi River from Audubon Park into downtown, you'd have to look hard for evidence that a hurricane ever happened.

South Broad Street is not so fortunate:

That's a once-prosperous business which lost its roof and windows and was flooded by Katrina.

Near Mom's house, some people are still living in FEMA trailers parked in their relative's driveways:

Some people have finished their repairs, like the house in the next photo, whose live oak tree still bears the dark-brown floodwater stain several feet up the trunk:

Some people have just gotten started on major repairs:

And some people have never come home.

It's still a great, vast, healing wound, this city of my birth, at once beautiful and devastated, despairing and full of hope.
And today, on this third anniversary of Katrina, the citizens of New Orleans, Mississippi and the Louisiana Gulf Coast wait anxiously once more as another monstrous storm develops in the Gulf, lurching inevitably northwestward, hell-bent on destroying somebody, somewhere.

Only weeks ago, my sister-in-law moved back into her home, two blocks from Katrina's first breach in the levee system. Earlier this summer, my nephew and his wife finally moved out of their FEMA trailer in Mississippi and into the brand-new home which replaced the one that Katrina's storm surge sucked into the Gulf of Mexico. This spring, with the house repaired and painted, my mother planted new rosebushes. Only several short weeks ago, the streetcars started running again.

And now this. Hurricane Gustav, a large and very dangerous storm -- with Hanna close behind, and a tidy row of newer tropical systems marching across the Atlantic like floats in some evil parade.

All the people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast can do is look to the sky and plead, "not again."

Y'all think good thoughts our way, okay? Thanks.

Edited to add: I had wanted to load more photos but Blogger isn't cooperating tonight. I may try again tomorrow.

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Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Knitting Olympics Triathlon:

Synchronized Birthing,
Stormtracking Marathon and
Gumbo Relay Events

I have about eleven acres of knitting to finish in the next few days, and I'm blaming it on Bobby.

I don't know what my brother-in-law put in the Thanksgiving sangria, but three of our younger relatives gave birth in a ten-day period last month, which gives me a good excuse to be the Official Stormwatcher in our household this hurricane season.

Somebody has to watch the Weather Channel, and somebody has to knit all these baby blankets, so it might as well be me.

Here's one good reason to be motivated for the Olympic knitting marathon -- my niece Laura, showing off her brand-new firstborn, Logan, who brought in the bronze medal for Team Synchronized Birthing, being the last of the trio to arrive at the finish line:

My husband and I acquired three new grand-nieces and nephews during the last ten days of July. Unavailable for pictures in time for this particular blog post are Coerte, firstborn son of Laura's brother (it's pronounced "Curt" and it is a family name from Cajun country). Of the bunch, Coerte arrived first, seizing the gold medal, closely followed for the silver medal by little Joey, second son of my niece, Brandi.

More photos are coming, just as soon as we get all these tropical storms and hurricanes out of the way.

You know you're a Southerner if:

1. You actually know someone named, "Cooter..."

2. You put a spoonful of rice in each of your salt shakers to keep the salt from clumping up ...

3. Not only do you know the full names of every reporter and meteorologist on the Weather Channel, but you also notice when they buy a new suit.

Once again, we are at the peak of hurricane season, which means that if anyone south of the Mason-Dixon line is awake and at home, the TV is locked on the Weather Channel, where the earnest hurricane crew is dutifully employed either standing on beaches and pointing out toward the horizon, or standing in front of a weather map and pointing at a giant red blob which may or may not be huffing and puffing steadily toward your very own personal residence.

While New Orleans residents earnestly and optimistically continue to rebuild their homes, the entire levee system they depend on is still only held together with string and duct tape, so even the wimpiest hurricane is fraught with potential for disaster, especially if you live in St. Bernard Parish (just east of the city) or in low-lying areas like New Orleans East, the Ninth Ward, Lakeview and Gentilly.

Hurricane season always offers a devil's trade-off: while a tropical storm doesn't have the strength to cause much wind or storm-surge damage, it can carry staggering amounts of water and leave a wake of severe flooding wherever it goes. And a real hurricane packs a wallop with high winds and the staggering force of water rolling in from the sea. Not much of a choice.

Either way, you have to plan and worry. Whether you are near the coast or further inland, you must either prepare to evacuate your family and pets, or prepare to welcome your evacuating friends and relatives into your home.

We are inland in Baton Rouge, and a whole forty-seven feet above sea level, so our job is to host friends and relatives fleeing from storms.

Here's our hurricane preparation checklist:

1. Clean house

2. Have extra towels, sheets and blankets ready for guests

3. Buy lots of toilet paper, bottled water, non-perishable groceries, diet root beer, popcorn, bleach, propane, pet food and batteries

4. Move the spinning wheel to its late-summer migratory home in front of the couch

5. Move knitting bags containing UFOs to the living room

6. Put on comfy weather-watching clothes

7. Make an enormous pot of gumbo. If we are beseiged by evacuating relatives, we'll need it; if not, it can go into quart-sized containers in the freezer. I do wish I had something in the picture to give a sense of scale, besides the large spoon down there in the corner -- this is a five-gallon pot:

I am strange. I sometimes take pictures of things I cook....but if I didn't, y'all wouldn't know what you are missing, would you?

Diligently watching the storm actually makes you feel like you have some degree of control over it, and, while we all know this is completely delusional -- sort of like placing a Neighborhood Watch sign in front of your house -- it does make you feel as though you are being a self-directed adult instead of a small and helpless creature in the path of an uncontrollable force of Nature.

Storm-watching also provides a large amount of uninterrupted knitting time. Someone must unblinkingly monitor the storm's exact strength and location, and that might as well be the knitter in the household, especially if there are baby blankets to be finished. Like this one in good old Lily Sugar-n-Creme:

For the Knitting Olympics this year, I signed myself up to cast on and finish a tank top during the alloted time, but I also committed to focusing on a few UFOs, especially in the blanket division. Also on Team Synchronized Birthing is this scalloped-edged blanket done in vintage Unger Cotton Plantation:

I'll let you guess which blanket Logan is getting so it's a surprise for her mother.

So my official score for the 2008 Knitting Olympics is two finished UFOs, and a portion of the tank top I cast on. I had to admit to myself that the blankets needed to be finished first, seeing that the babies are already here (all a bit early, by the way), and the tank top will be useful knitting while I fret over storms.

First, Tropical storm Fay, which staggered all over Florida like a drunk frat boy on Spring Break, and now, before we can even catch our breath, we are keeping a close eye on Gustav, a system with the potential to develop into a seriously dangerous storm if it enters the Gulf of Mexico -- it could easily become a Category Three or even a Category Four storm, which is frightening indeed.

At this writing, all trajectories have Gustav making a beeline for South Louisiana, and I can tell you for a fact that New Orleans needs a major storm right now about as much as a sunburned kid needs a slap on the back.

I'll keep you posted.

And? If anybody out there knows who's in charge of naming these storms, please let them know that I have a bone to pick with them. Who in their right mind gives a storm a name with "gust" in it?

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Sunday, August 10, 2008

For Pam

Y'all have no idea how many times I started writing, then edited and deleted bucketfuls of words, before I could get myself together sufficiently to write this blog post.

There is always a surreal quality to post-funeral gatherings, particularly when they are held in the home of the deceased. Everyone arrives in their Sunday best, someone rounds up the folding chairs, and children trot around looking somewhat uncomfortable in their church attire. The adults sit with plates of crab casserole, potato salad and jambalaya precariously balanced on their laps while they sip from a soda or a glass of wine and talk about days gone by, and if you didn't know any better you would think you had maybe stumbled across a holiday dinner.

But for the somber tone, the gathering of family and friends almost looks normal, except that of course you are sitting at the kitchen table, and you keep looking up, half-expecting to see the rightful owner of that table swoop in through the doorway any second now, carrying a peach pie or a stack of extra plates.

It's deeply disorienting when the person you have gathered to remember isn't there at a party given in her honor, inside her very own house.

Trying to cope with her absence, people wander around the house, reverently paging through photo albums and gingerly touching framed pictures: photos from her long-ago ballet recitals, her wedding portrait, the optimistic smile in her high school graduation photo, and snapshots of a growing family. You wander through the garden, absently touching the wind chimes and bird feeders she placed there, letting your gaze rest upon the flowers she planted.

Inevitably, you find a photo capturing the two of you together in a long ago place and time, a time so distant in your own mind that you recall it better as a collection of disjointed images than as a series of events. You look at the picture, and you try to recall what you were like then:

You may need to click on the picture to make it bigger. That's me on the left, and my cousin Pam on the right, perched on the weary old mounted bear who served as a photo setting at the Audubon Zoo in New Orleans back in the 1950s and '60s. Kids would climb up on that poor old moth-eaten bear, and for a modest fee, the photographer would take a snapshot for your parents to bring home and remember the outing.

The year was 1967. The car coat and corduroy pants tell me it was taken in the fall. The picture captures our personalities quite well: me, wind-blown and eager for adventure, no doubt fiercely hoping that the bear would spring back to life ... and Pam, sweet and demure, every hair in place and eyes sparkling, smiling shyly at the camera and at the admiring parents standing nearby.

Sitting on that bear, we had no way to know that, forty-one years later, also in the fall, Pam would be diagnosed with lung cancer, and that nine months later, she would succumb to it.

When Pam and I were little girls, we conducted our share of childhood funerals for goldfish, gerbils and hamsters. We wrote earnest little eulogies: “He was a good gerbil,” we would solemnly intone over the shoe box so gently laid on the ground next to a small excavation in the tomato garden. “He was sweet and pretty, and he was nice to everybody.” And then we would bury the little guy, and place a handful of clover or wild violets on the grave.

But I never thought the day would come when I would be doing a eulogy for Pam.

When we were little, sometimes my mother would take us shopping downtown – all girls, you know -- or my dad would take us to the zoo and the pony rides.

I always had a clear understanding of how these pony rides would work out. “Pam,” I would say, “This is what we’re gonna do. I’ll be the cowgirl, and you can be the princess.”

And she was.

Pam was always the beautiful princess. Being the gracious princess came just as easily for her as climbing trees did for me.

In fact, this past Christmas, while family members were going through old photo albums after dinner, Pam’s grandson pointed to a photo of Pam in her wedding dress and asked, “who’s the princess?”

And his grandfather said, “that’s your Grandma, when we got married. That’s our wedding picture.”

"She was beautiful," the child said in wonder.

"She still is," said her husband.

Pam wasn’t just a princess. She was a ballerina, too, and when she danced, it almost broke your heart.

She wanted to go to the Julliard.

She could have gone to the Julliard.

She probably could have danced with Barishnikov.

But, life has a way of happening to you while you’re making other plans.

So she married her high school sweetheart, and raised a family, and lived to see one grandchild. The second arrived forty-eight hours after her funeral.

She devoted her life to her family, and her work to teaching fitness, landscaping, and teaching others to dance.

She surrounded herself with beauty at every step -- first position or on point. She had an innate skill for turning a nondescript room or a dull corner of the backyard into soothing and restful places, easy on the eyes and the soul. Plants came indoors; furniture went outdoors. Ponds came into the family room; Arabian curtains were hung from the porch. Rock gardens sprang up outside. Candles, sculptures and other surprises awaited visitors to her garden, and vast swaths of rich color appeared everywhere from bathroom walls to flowerbeds.

Shortly after her cancer diagnosis, she took up knitting . She became the recipient of chemo caps and learned about the unfailing generosity of other knitters, be they family members or total strangers.

Cancer gave lie to our own grandmother's gentle superstition that "God won't take you if there's work on your needles." Pam leaves behind an unfinished crib blanket she was knitting for the baby who was growing inside her daughter during the same nine months that cancer was invading her own body.

Pam loved gardening and flowers of every kind, and she loved oriental art, New Orleans, Mardi Gras, birds, fish, and every sort of animal. She dearly loved her dog, Mason.

And she loved dragonflies.

We used to catch dragonflies when we were little girls. She thought they were magic, and they are. I’ve been told our local Choctaw tribe believes that dragonflies represent joy.

Pam had the sort of talent for making things beautiful that other people spend years studying for, but it came to her naturally in everything she did – in her landscaping, on canvas, and in her home. She was a true artist in everything she touched.

Of all things in nature, she loved the water, and she loved beaches the most.

And … that brings me to my story, about sandcastles, and pails, and shovels.

Once upon a time, way back in the Sixties, there were two little girls who loved to build sandcastles on the beach. And when we built sandcastles, we had a pretty good routine. Pail and shovel in hand, I would do all the digging and building, dutifully marching between the water's edge and a high spot on the beach.

I would build the castle, and Pam would decorate it, artfully poking wildlflowers, Mardi Gras beads, seashells and feathers into the rooms and turrets. Sand dollars and bottle caps were transformed into golden dinner plates, sun-dried seaweed served as royal carpet, and once we found a mermaid's purse -- the cast-off hull of a shark's birth sac. When we found still-living starfish, we threw them as far as we could, so they could return to their friends in the sea.

Sandcastles require royalty, of course, and our Barbie and Ken dolls could usually be talked into playing games in which the princess was rescued from a fearsome dragon attacking the castle. Generally, my plastic Godzilla doll made a convincing dragon, and Sir Ken would come to the rescue of Lady Barbie, armed with a pencil for a lance and a squirt gun for backup artillery.

A few jabs from the pencil-lance and a few squirts from the water-gun always put an end to that pesky dragon. Sir Ken always rescued the princess, and the story always had a happy ending.

Pam was always the magic princess. And if only we could conquer cancer with the same ease and confidence that a seven-year-old slays plastic dragons … well then. The world would be a much better place.

But we can’t.

And this time, the dragon was real, and it stormed the castle with dire intent, and the story didn’t have a happy ending at all.

Here is a photo of Pam taken this past February, at my mother's 80th birthday party:

Pam is at peace now, and her pain is gone. The fairy princess on the beach ... the teenage ballerina ... the cheerful young mom ... the artistic grandmother ... they are gone as well.

But we all know that she’s up there dancing, right this very minute.

And she has her point shoes on.


Inmates in the Asylum since July 27, 2006: