Wednesday, May 31, 2006

On FEMA Trailers, Blue Tarps, and Roofs in Trees

I am really tired of seeing big white shiny metal objects cluttering the landscape. I look up and down my street and see shiny white FEMA trailers jutting out of yards, white pickup trucks with Texas plates lining the curbs, and white PODS filling almost everyone’s driveway (if you don’t know what PODS are, they’re Portable On Demand Storage units).

We all seem to have our own private points of annoyance. Danielle is tired of seeing sludge-filled swimming pools and this piece of someone’s roof that’s stuck in an oak tree on Carrolton. Every time we drive past it, she says, “When are they going to get that roof out of that tree?” My mother is tired of the piles of trash that fill the yards of recently gutted houses. Steve is tired of replacing the cracked windshield on his SUV (twice this month). Sam is tired of roofs with flapping blue tarps and tumbled-down chimneys.

Nine months now. One would think we’d be getting used to it all. Instead, our patience is wearing thin. We want normal again. We want Walmarts that are open 24 hours instead of closing at 8:00. We want to be able to order a new mattress and not be told, “Well, the mattress will be here in a week, but the first delivery slot I have open is at the end of next month.” We want to be able to drive across town without having to choke back unshed tears. We want our house, our city, and our lives back.

When it gets really hard to bear, I remind myself of what it was like last October and November, when Walmart closed at 3:30 pm, when we bought a new refrigerator and were told, “It’s cash and carry. You take it with you now, or you can’t buy it.” (We shoved it in the back of Steve’s SUV) Last September, a drive across town took you past piles of ski jets and boats and coffins.

Yes, it is getting better. Just not fast enough.

Monday, May 29, 2006

Refugees Twice Over

This morning I drove Danielle to visit her friend Di (pronounced “Zee”) who lives on Magazine Street. Amazingly enough, all but half a dozen of the traffic lights we drove through on our way there now work. Of course, the streets are all torn up, there are no street signs, and more than half the houses we passed are still empty, but I actually found the trip encouraging. Most of the flooded cars along Napoleon have been towed away, and I only saw one abandoned boat still on a neutral ground.

Di and her family have just moved back from Natchez, where they’d been living since September. Di’s father runs an antique store and restores furniture, and they rode out Katrina in the apartment over his shop. Sometime during the night, the winds tore off the workshop at the back of the store and collapsed the upper back wall. They stayed for two more days, without water or power, listening to the distant sound of gunfire and the continuous drone of helicopters overhead. Di still cries when she talks about the dead bodies they passed on their way out of town.

Di’s parents came here from Vietnam, so this was their second experience at being made refugees. Because of that, I would have expected Katrina to be especially traumatic for them. But Di’s father laughs when he talks about how their house in New Orleans East flooded with 8 inches of water from Katrina and then 12 inches from Rita. It’s certainly true that he now has more antique furniture to restore than one man could handle in a lifetime. We spent a long time talking about boiled linseed oil and shellac, denatured alcohol and turpentine. He’s my antiques restoration coach. I’ve decided to tackle most of the furniture myself. I figure it’s already ruined, so if I mess up, so what?

Sunday, May 28, 2006

Defining Home

We took a few hours off from laying floors this weekend to attend the Destrehan Plantation Spring Festival. We went because it was a good excuse to spend a few hours in the shade of centuries-old oaks, listen to good music, eat good food, and wander around the antique and craft booths. But we also went because we wanted to help support one of my favorite plantations. Without the millions of tourists who used to visit New Orleans every year, the plantations of southern Louisiana are hurting. Actually, a lot of businesses down here are hurting. One tour company has already gone broke; many small shops in the French Quarter will soon follow.

Of the tens of thousands of businesses that once operated in Orleans, Jefferson, and St. Bernard Parishes, only a few thousand have managed to reopen. Many of those still in business are hurting. At first they couldn’t get in stock because FEMA had commandeered all the trucks in the area. They’re still finding it almost impossible to find workers. Many companies that do business on a national or international level are moving out of the area, complaining that there aren’t enough flights in and out of the airport, that investors are leery of investing in a company headquartered in such a vulnerable city, that they can’t get insurance. Our local governments keep talking about the many new business licenses they’re issuing; unfortunately, most of those licenses are for roofing and construction crews from Kansas and Texas, Tennessee and Kentucky—folks who’ll go home when the building boom ends.

New Orleans has always exercised a strong hold on its children; pre-K, the city boasted the highest native-born population in the country. Traditionally, very, very few people who are born and raised here ever move away. Yet I keep hearing about people who are leaving. Sam has a friend named Alice whose family used to live in Slidell. Sam spent many anxious hours with Alice on the night of August 29th, when Alice’s brother and father were stranded on the roof of their house with water up to the eaves and still rising. After the water went down, Alice’s family got a FEMA trailer and went home to rebuild. Except I heard the other day that they’d finally had enough; they’ve sold their half-renovated house and moved to Baton Rouge.

Even within my own family, many are leaving. We lost a total of eight houses in my immediate family—I don’t mean simply damaged, I mean destroyed, totaled, plowed under. One cousin has moved to North Carolina, another to a small Louisiana town an hour northwest of here. Once, they couldn’t have imagined living any place else. It bemuses me that they have gone and I’m still here. Perhaps it’s because I knew I was running a risk when I moved here. They were home; they thought they were safe. Now, they no longer feel safe.

My husband, Steve, thinks the tide will eventually turn. There are many, many jobs here that are unfilled, both professional and blue collar. He thinks that with so many people leaving it will create a vacuum, a vacuum new people will move in to fill. Perhaps. And perhaps in time the city will work its magic on them, in turn. They’ll learn to slow down, to dance in the streets and wait in the rain for hours just for the fleeting joy of snagging a great pair of beads. I hope so. This city is too wonderful to be allowed to die.

Friday, May 26, 2006

The Bolthole

It was some time last December that I started worrying about what we would do when the 2006 hurricane season rolled around. When Katrina hit we had my daughter Sam’s apartment in Baton Rouge, but I knew that wouldn't be an option this year. Without Sam’s apartment, we’d have been a part of that desperate stream of a million plus that poured out of the New Orleans area looking for hotel rooms, driving in hideous traffic for 24 hours and more to Houston and Atlanta, Tennessee and Arkansas. This year it will be even worse. This year, not evacuating simply isn’t an option. Despite all the promises of restoring the levee system to its pre-Katrina strength (like that’s supposed to be reassuring?), it hasn’t happened. New Orleans is going into this hurricane system already broken and vulnerable. Everyone keeps saying people need a plan; they need to know where they’re going and how they’re going to get there. So where do five people—one of them an 88-year-old woman—and six cats go? Every time I thought about it, I’d get sick to my stomach.

And then I got an idea.

It was one of those ideas that seems far-fetched at first, yet just won’t go away. I mulled it over for a week or so, and decided to suggest it to my family. I was convinced they’d laugh at me: Oh, there goes Mama worrying about hurricanes again. I finally summoned up my courage one night right before Christmas when we were all sitting around admiring the tree. I cleared my throat and said, “I’ve been thinking… How about if we buy a little house someplace up north of here in the country, just something simple so we’ll have a place to evacuate to when there’s a hurricane? You know, like a bolthole.”

I waited for the laughter. It didn’t come. My mother’s face lit up and she said, “I think that’s a wonderful idea!” Steve and Sam and Danielle chimed in. It turned out everyone had been quietly worrying about the 2006 hurricane season, only we’d all been keeping it to ourselves.

So we set a budget, labeled a file The Bolt Hole, and started looking. Of course, with hundreds of thousands of New Orleanians rendered homeless by Katrina, houses in Louisiana are in short supply. We had a hard time even getting real estate agents to return our calls. After months of looking, we finally found a tiny house on a lake about 115 miles northwest of here. It was smaller than we wanted and still twice our budget, but the vision of that lake started us thinking: what if instead of just a bolthole, we found something we could use as a weekend getaway, too?

We drove up to see the lake house. The house was small and rather nondescript, but the lake… Ah, the lake was divine. Nothing like the majestic mountain lakes I’d grown up with in Oregon and Idaho, but small and pretty and oh, so peaceful. Fresh air, no sounds but the wind in the trees and the singing of birds. We were in love…and then our real estate agent arrived to tell us the owners had decided to take the house off the market.

Crushed, we headed back around the lake and spied another house with a FOR SALE sign. A bigger house. A more expensive house (triple our original budget). We looked. We wrangled. We bought. The act of sale went through on Monday. We’ve spent the last couple of days moving furniture from storerooms and Sam’s apartment and my mother’s garage. We still need to get a few things, but we’re ready. Hurricane season starts again on Thursday, June 1; we know where we’re going and how we’re going to get there.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Packing up the Past

(The bench in Sam's apartment where Danielle slept for a month after the storm.)

My older daughter graduated from LSU this last weekend, so I’ve been spending the past few days up in Baton Rouge helping her pack and get ready to move out of her apartment. It seems hard to believe it’s been four years since Sam and I drove up to Baton Rouge for New Student Orientation. She was just sixteen, starting college a year early, and I was so worried about whether or not I was doing the right thing. LSU has a well-earned reputation as a party school, and I know the collective opinion of my various aunts, uncles, and cousins was that I was crazy to let her go. But she proved them all wrong, graduating summa cum laude; next fall she’ll be heading off to an Ivy League law school.

I can’t say I enjoyed being in her apartment. It’s where we stayed for six weeks after Katrina, and being there brought those dark days back to me with more clarity than I found comfortable. Everyone down here is looking at the calendar, uncomfortably aware that in less than a week, hurricane season will be upon us again. If someone had told me last August that I still wouldn’t be back in my house by the start of the 2006 hurricane season, I wouldn’t have believed it.

What I'm reading...

ORIGINAL SIN, by PD James. No one writes good, slow mysteries like the English.

Friday, May 19, 2006

How Not to Prepare for a Hurricane

My husband, Steve, and I talked about getting proper, old-fashioned shutters for our house. You know the kind, the ones all old houses once had and that now cost a king’s ransom? Just the hinges alone are almost $100 a pop. Our house has a lot of windows. It was on our To Do list.

The summer before Katrina, when Ivan threatened, my sister-in-law and her husband came down for a visit. Bad timing. They were trapped in New Orleans when the airlines closed down. Instead of visiting plantations the way we had planned (the plantations also being closed), Jim spent the day helping Steve cut up plywood to make shutters while Janie and I moved plants, patio tables, benches, etc into the garage. Ivan brought us a lot of wind, but that was all.

So when we realized Katrina was aiming at us, not Florida, we had plywood shutters already made. All we needed to do was put them up (not an easy task minus Jim). Steve started fitting the shutters on the first floor while I went up in the attic, found the two big plastic bins that normally hold the Christmas garlands for the upstairs gallery, dumped out the garlands, and set to work packing up photo albums. Photography has been a hobby of mine since I was a kid, and I’ve always been fairly good about putting my pictures in albums. Big albums. Lots of big albums.

I knew I needed to take the photographs with me, but what else? When we lived in Adelaide, Australia, our house was threatened one summer by a bush fire that burned down the side of the mountain and was stopped just a few hundred yards from our house. We could hear the fire’s roar; its red flames lit up our rooms. I stuffed my little Holden with photographs, manuscript in progress, jewelry, important papers, and clothes. Afterwards, I made up a list of Things to Take in a Bush FIre that I taped on the inside of my closet door. With Katrina barreling down on us, I found myself thinking, Why didn't you do something similar here for hurricanes?

I packed up my manuscripts—not one but three books in progress--the second of the Sebastian St. Cyr series that I’d just sent off, the third in the series that I’d just started, plus a contemporary thriller set in, of all places, New Orleans. I crammed in the rare 19th books I used as references and my big stack of research notebooks. I had fixed up a file box of important papers (birth certificates, insurance policies, car titles, etc) when we first moved here. That went on top of the bins of photos—although I wasted precious time hunting for things we use frequently like passports, and recent papers that never quite made it in there. I thought about four people descending on my daughter’s apartment, and added a bag of towels and three sleeping bags to the pile.

One of the cats meowed, and I thought, They’re going to need water and food bowls. Food. Litter. Boxes. It all went on the growing pile near the door. I raced upstairs to throw a change of clothes into a bag (yes, one change of clothes) and pack my jewelry. The one intelligent thing I did, insurance-wise, what run around and take pictures of every room in the house (that's our old kitchen, above, with the windows already blocked by plywood). But the day was quickly slipping away; it was getting dark. I went out to help Steve put up the plywood on the second floor windows and found myself looking at the fifty-foot-long gallery that stretches across the side of the house. We were getting ready to replace some rotting beams and so we’d pulled up all the floorboards. Dozens and dozens of ten-foot long boards just waiting for a hurricane to turn them into missiles. Oh, shit.

At that point, it was midnight on Saturday, August 27th. The wind was blowing and the rain had started; already the outer edges of the storm were pushing weather inland. Yet there we were, out on the gallery, balancing on bare (rotten!) beams ten feet up in the air, gathering up floorboards and tying them down with bungee cords. We were most worried about the coming wind, which we knew would be bad even if we don’t get a direct hit. I was particularly concerned because I knew our roof wasn't in very good shape; it’d only been a few weeks since Hurricane Cindy pealed off some shingles. We’d decided the roof needed replacing but it hadn't been done yet. I had this strange, apocalyptic attitude toward flooding: I was convinced either the storm would turn and New Orleans would be saved, or we’d be hit with a wall of water that would destroy the house. I never thought in terms of one or two feet of water. I was so busy putting things in the garage, boarding up windows, packing things to take, that I didn't move anything off the ground floor.

Not one single thing.

Thursday, May 18, 2006

A Thank You

My mother always said she wouldn’t evacuate for a hurricane. After all, her grandparents immigrated to New Orleans from Germany way back in the 1850’s, and the rest of her family has lived here ever since. When she was growing up, no one ever evacuated for storms; why should she now?

I tried telling her about Mr Go and the vanishing wetlands, but she just gave me that Look—the one that tells me she's convinced I don’t know what I’m talking about. When she moved “home” after the death of my father fourteen years ago, she bought a house two doors down from one sister, right next door to another sister. “Aunt Henrietta lived in her house for 60 years,” she kept reminding me. “We’re on a ridge here. It has never flooded.”

“Mama, the whole city is going to flood if we get hit by that storm surge!”

Again, the Look.

It’s a story that was repeated over and over again across New Orleans, with tragic results: stubborn older people who’d lived through Betsy, who’d lived through the storms of 1947 and 1915 and others, refusing their adult children’s pleas to evacuate. Some children and grandchildren finally gave up and simply left their aged parents and grandparents behind—and now must live with a lifetime’s worth of regret and guilt. Others abandoned their own plans and stayed with their mother, or father, or grandparents—and died with them.

I dispatched my daughter Samantha to spend Saturday night with her grandmother, while the rest of us worked at boarding up the house and getting ready to leave. Samantha combines million-dollar charm with a powerful reasoning and arguing ability that is going to make her a great lawyer.

The next morning, Samantha called to tell me her grandmother had finally agreed to leave. “Wow,” I said. “How’d you do it?”

“It wasn’t me. It was Mayor Nagin. After she saw his press conference, she turned to me and said, ‘I think we ought to go.’”

So, Thank you, Ray Nagin, for saving my mother’s life. Because while she was right and her house did not flood, she would not have survived those dark and terrible days after the storm, without air-conditioning, without lights, without food or water.

Thank you, thank you, thank you.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

What Hurricane?

Oddly enough, when I moved to New Orleans, I was never really scared of *dying* in a hurricane; I was worried about my Stuff. My Stuff is very important to me. I’ve collected it over a lifetime of moving around the world, of saying goodbye to friends and lovers and places that were dear to me. My Things have been the one constant, and each is a precious reminder of a moment, a time, a place now lost to me forever. At least that’s my rationale for my extreme attachment to the antiques and books, paintings and other art objects with which I’ve filled my home…although it could just be genetic, since I see the same trait in my younger daughter.

So when I would worry about hurricanes, the bowl that is New Orleans, and the twenty-five foot wall of water that could fill that bowl, what I fretted about was my Stuff. A few years before I moved to New Orleans, the state and local governments organized plans to evacuate the city in the event of a major hurricane. The first time they tried it—I think it was for Georges—the result was a disaster. People were stuck in traffic for 12 hours just trying to get to Baton Rouge. I heard those horror stories and decided, uh-uh, I’m not doing that. I didn’t leave for Ivan in 2004, and I didn’t leave for whatever storm other people evacuated for in July of 2005. I had this theory that the local government was advising people to leave for those storms because they wanted to test their evacuation plan. After every hurricane, they’d tinker with the plan a bit, and the next evacuation would go smoother. I’m glad they did it; I just didn’t want to be part of the experiment.

But my husband I and sat down one night—I think it was in early August of 2005—and said, You know, we need to decide under what conditions we would evacuate, and where we would go. The “where” part was easy—at least that year, since my older daughter was a student up at LSU and had an apartment. As for “when,” we decided we would leave when a big Category 3 storm looked as if it was headed straight for New Orleans and had little chance of turning.

A couple of weeks later, we knew Katrina was out there in the Gulf. But as of Friday, the storm was headed into Florida and we weren’t worried. Saturday morning, we got up and went to the plant sale at City Park. We thought it a bit odd there weren’t many people there, but put it down to a lack of advertising. Then, when we were driving home up Metairie Road, we saw a shop with a sign in the window that read, “Closed due to hurricane.”

We looked at each other and said, What hurricane?

Monday, May 15, 2006

That 25-Foot Wall of Water Nonsense

It wasn’t long after I moved to New Orleans that I first read the famous Times-Picayune article about what would happen to the city if a major hurricane were to hit. Old timers scoffed, remembering Betsy and Camille and the many hurricanes that struck before they had names, like the one that howled ashore the night my Uncle Bob was born back in 1915. But those hurricanes landed in the days before the US government, in its infinite idiocy, build the Intracoastal Waterway and the Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet (known locally as the Mr Go), which experts warned would act together like a funnel to direct a storm surge straight at the city. It was also before an uncontrolled oil and gas industry wiped out mile after mile of the coastal wetlands that once acted as a buffer for the city.

I have a writer friend who is also an attorney, locally born and bred. I met her for the first time just hours after I had read that Times-Picayune article. I guess it cropped up in our conversation, and I expressed my alarm about the article. I don’t remember that part of our meeting, but my friend does. She told me the other day that ever since, she would sometimes quietly laugh to herself at the thought that I actually believed that twenty-five-foot wall of water nonsense.

After she told me this, we both had a laugh, one of those it’s-not-really-funny-but-if-we-don’t-laugh-we-might-cry kind of laughs.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Stomping Ceilings

Mothers Day, post K. I celebrate by sleeping late then head over to the house as usual. I’ll quit early today, too. My girls are fixing dinner for their grandmother and me.

We’ve found someone to tile the master bathroom: “Ricky” from Argentina. Ricky doesn’t speak English, and my Spanish is very, very rusty. We try to communicate, and phrases from all the wrong languages keep popping into my head…French, Arabic, little Spanish. Once, I was fluent. I resolve to get some Spanish CDs and listen to them in the car as I drive back and forth to the house. I think New Orleans’s Spanish-speaking population is here to stay.

Ricky will be coming back to start doing his thing on Wednesday, so we’re in a rush to get everything ready for him. Today I’ll stomp the ceiling. The bath wasn’t ready in time for Clarence from Atlanta when he did the other upstairs ceilings, so I’m doing it. In repairing the ceilings in my office and the powder room, I already mastered the stomp brush, that high-tech piece of equipment that makes you feel like a chimney sweep from Mary Poppins. Personally, I prefer smooth ceilings, but the other ceilings in the house are “stomped,” and as hard as walls are to smooth, ceilings are worse.

Getting the master bath tiled is a Big Thing, because once it’s tiled, we’ll be able to lay the wood floors in our bedroom and move the surviving furniture that’s clogging the other bedrooms back in there. And then, with just a few other things, we’ll be able to move into the house. There will still be much left to do—not a single room in the house is actually *finished*, but at least we’ll be home.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

Candy the Drywaller

This is what it looked like, before. But today I finished hanging and skim coating the drywall in our master bath. Since the bathroom was the last room I had to drywall, this means that’s it, I’m finished, the final wall has been closed up and is ready to paint. Hence my decision to write about it.

When I first entered the world of drywall, it was a scary thing. But since I couldn’t find anyone to hire, I decided to tackle it myself. I got a DVD entitled HOW TO INSTALL DRYWALL or some such thing (yes, they really do have DVDs on installing drywall), watched it twice, and went to work.

Cutting and hanging the Sheetrock was fairly easy, comparatively; all it takes is muscle. It was the skimming and finishing part that terrified me. I started on the entry closet, a suitably dark and hidden place in case the results were not good. The results were not good. Actually, I thought I’d done okay—until I painted it, at which point all my sins of omission and commission leapt out at me. Someday, I may go back and redo the closet. But I want to get back into my house, so I moved on to the kitchen, breakfast room and laundry. Pretty public spots, you might think, although since most of my work would be covered by wainscoting, I probably should have waited until the plumbing was finished and started there instead.

As hard as it is to skim coat new drywall, smoothing a new sheet of drywall into an existing, textured, painted sheet four feet up is sheer hell. But I improved. By the time I tackled the living and dining rooms, I was in my groove. Next came the entry and stairs, and then, penultimately, the powder room. It’s a small room, and since I figured it would be subjected to close scrutiny I left it until last. My office was, thank God, paneled, so I moved upstairs.

I managed to hire a black guy from Atlanta to come in and do the upstairs ceilings. He was so tall he could stand in the middle of the floor, reach up, and comfortably put his hands on the ceiling. I was in awe. But I wasn't satisfied with his finishing job. After he left, I redid it. My husband said, “You’re turning into a drywall snob.”

The complicated plumbing in our bathroom meant its walls were left open until just last week (we, ahem, decided to change a few things while the place was torn apart). My daughter dropped by for a visit as I was smoothing out the second-to-the-last skim coat. She looked around and said, “You know, you’ve really gotten good at this.”

It’s a skill I hope never to use again, and yet I’m glad I mastered it. Conquering scary things is always good.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Counting the Dead

I read in the paper this morning that they’re opening up part of the Lower Ninth Ward. Until today, they still had a “look and leave” policy in effect on the entire Lower Ninth. But with running water and sewage restored (at least to that one section), residents of that area can now begin to go back and rebuild their lives.

The Lower Ninth Ward, like Chalmette beyond it, was one of the hardest-hit sections of New Orleans. Katrina is still giving up her dead. Most people don’t realize that they’re still finding bodies here at the rate of one or two a week. It’s hard to begin to put the storm behind you when you still see funeral notices in the paper that begin, “Died on or about 29 August…”

The death count in Louisiana stands at almost 1,400; hundreds more died in Mississippi, and another 4-600 are still missing and will be declared dead in another year. Yet when I read articles in the national press about Katrina, the death toll is usually put at “over 1,000.” It’s as if the death toll stopped when the country quit paying attention. Or is it because admitting to a death toll of “over 2,000” would be twice the national disgrace?

What I’m reading…

GUNS, GERMS AND STEEL, by Jared Diamond. Fascinating stuff! A sobering antidote to our national tendency towards a fatal hubris.

Monday, May 08, 2006

Lizards and Squirrels and Birds, Oh My!

The lizards are back. Once, they populated my garden by the hundreds. I’d walk around my garden in the morning and they’d scuttle away from me, changing in a flicker from green to brown and back again. I’ve always kept an organic garden, and they rewarded me both by feasting on any excesses of undesirables and by bringing a smile to my heart as I watched them leap from wisteria to jasmine, honeysuckle to orange tree. After the storm, they were gone. No lizards. No birds singing. Only one squirrel survived: a white-eared runt we nicknamed Pablo, who became so desperate for food and companionship that he befriended us. (Yes, I know squirrels carry rabies. But that’s one problem our area doesn’t have at the moment.) He still comes on the run when he sees us, leaps on our shoulders and chatters excitedly. Nuts! Nuts! But lately, Pablo has a girlfriend, a lady squirrel who’s wiser than Pablo and knows humans are scary things to be avoided.

Then today, as I wandered through my garden, I realized the lizards are coming back, too. The garden is awash in color: gardenias and day lilies, plumbagos and gauras, a half a dozen different kinds of jasmine, mandevilla and marigolds and roses. Dozens and dozens of roses. What didn’t die beneath the briny floodwaters has evidently flourished on the nutrients the water washed in from the bottom of the lake and out of the canals. Who’d have thought?

Saturday, May 06, 2006

The Reading Writer

It occurred to me today that I’ve been reading far more nonfiction lately than fiction. At first I blamed Katrina; John Connelly’s BLACK ANGEL was the first novel I actually managed to read all the way through since the storm. Yet I’ve read a fair number of nonfiction books in the last eight months. My reading time has been seriously curtailed by the realities of our lives these days, yet there must be a reason I’ve been able to stick with nonfiction and not fiction.

I suppose it’s one of the dangers of being a writer. We read our own writing so critically, constantly looking for flaws, that it becomes a habit. And so we bring that same critical judgment to the novels we pick up. I used to open a book expecting to be entertained. Now it’s a rare novel that can carry me away into its story enough that I turn off that internal editor, the voice that says, Poor Character Motivation. Predictable Plotting. Clunky Dialogue.

The other day my younger daughter came home from school. She said she and a group of friends had been discussing a new movie and when my daughter said “But it had so many plot holes!” everyone looked at her and said, “What’s a plot hole?” Both my daughters are always telling me I’ve ruined movies for them. Now I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve ruined the joy of reading novels for myself.

Friday, May 05, 2006

I Am New Orleans

This weekend at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, a miracle is taking place. It is a human miracle, wrought by human determination and courage. It is the New Orleans Jazz Festival.

There were those who said it could never happen, those who wanted to move the festival elsewhere. But some very strong, visionary people where indomitable. We would have a Jazz Fest this year and we would have it here, in New Orleans. How many of us believed, all those months ago in the dark days after the storm, that we could really pull it off? But pull it off we did, and splendidly.

I did a signing today in the Book Tent. The sun shone bright, the heat’s sting lessened by a breeze blowing off the lake. The music was grand, the food divine, the crowds thick but good humored. People stopped by our table to chat and conversation turned, as always, to the experience that unites us. How much water did y’all get? You back in your house yet? Where’d you evacuate to? But there were others, too, from far away--a lady from New York, a man from England; people who had come here to celebrate with us, to celebrate music and life.

As we left the Fair Grounds, my husband and I drove through the part of New Orleans known as Gentilly. It’s a forlorn place these days, with block after block of devastated houses rotting in the sun. After such a glorious day of joy and laughter, I felt my throat tighten up the way it always does at the sight of shattered roofs and gaping windows. I stared out at once-picturesque cottages now tilting drunkenly, hopelessly on their undermined foundations; I saw weed-grown schools and silent churches. All empty, abandoned. And then I saw a small brick house, its insides gutted, its flood-ravaged yard almost hidden by the gleaming white bulk of a FEMA trailer. And I smiled, because beside the trailer, someone had stuck a sign in the brown grass, a sign that proudly declared,
I am coming home.
I am rebuilding.
I am New Orleans.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Mother of All Distractions

I love our house. A two-story brick house with a wide second floor gallery, it’s built in a style often found in old New Orleans and Charleston, turned sideways to the street so that both the front door and all the French doors (three up, three down) open onto a secluded, plant-filled courtyard. My office is the room that would probably be designated “family room” on the floor plan. It stretches across the front of the house, facing Lake Pontchartrain some four or five blocks away. It’s a lovely room, with a brick fireplace and lots of built-in bookcases and a French door that opens onto the covered porch. Of all the rooms in the house, it was the only one that got walloped by both the floodwaters and ceiling damage. We had to gut it to the ceiling (we only had to take the walls in the other downstairs rooms up four feet). We made the room a priority, and while it’s not exactly finished yet—we’re still waiting on a replacement for the arched window that faces the street, and what was once a wet bar is still a gaping hole—it’s at the point that I have been able to set up the antique Australian cedar table I use as a computer desk (real boiled linseed oil from Lee Valley worked a miracle on the table’s legs). I’ve replaced about half the bookcases, and I’m slowly refilling them with the books that survived the deluge—along with the five boxes of new books I’ve somehow managed to accumulate in the last eight months. (The library recently had a fund-raising sale, and going to a book sale knowing you have empty shelves can be a disaster!)

I come here almost every day to write. We’re staying eight miles away, in my mother’s unflooded Metairie bungalow. It can be a long drive, with traffic slowed by trucks and work crews still picking up debris. Often I must stop along the way to deal with all the frustrating minutiae of trying to rebuild a house in the middle of a city that is also rebuilding itself—picking out tiles and paint colors, ordering mattresses and sofas. And then there are the flat tires, the inevitable result of roofing nails and debris scattered everywhere. When I tried to deal with my last flat, on a Saturday morning, I was met by a harassed man who simply threw up his hands and said, “I already 57 flat tires ahead of you!”

Where was I? Ah, yes. I come here to write. In the neighborhood around me, compressors kick on and off. Nail guns fire. Saws whirl. Bulldozers and trucks do their thing. Hammers bang. Work crews engage in their own version of the Battle of the Bands, their rival radios blaring hip hop and rock, country and classic pop. My neighbor across the street has hired two men to cut down his hurricane-damaged tree. They swing axes, fire up their chain saw. They argue (in Spanish). No, we do it this way! No, idiot, we need to do it like this! I feel like going to the door and screaming, “Yo! People! Trying to write a book here!”

What I’m reading…

Fiction: I’ve given up on the thriller; it committed the one unforgivable sin and became simply too boring to live. I’m reading another John Connolly, but the title escapes me for the moment.

Nonfiction: UNDERSTANDING THE VENEZUELAN REVOLUTION, by Marta Harnecker. Based on interviews with Hugo Chavez.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

A Miasma of Despair

Do you believe you can “feel” other people’s emotions, like a faint indefinable presence that hangs in the air? Think about the peaceful calm of a cathedral or an Australian Aboriginal sacred site. Or the skin-crawling horror that lingers even after so many years in places such as the Coliseum or the World War I battlefields of Europe. Is it imagination? I don’t think so. I have caught the echo of such emotions before I understood the history of a place or its significance. I’ve known houses where the very walls seem to have absorbed the anguish of the unknown women and children who suffered there, and other houses that radiate an exuberant joy left by generations of happy families laughing and loving.

A miasma of despair hangs over New Orleans. Statisticians tell us the death rate has more than doubled. People who have lived with medical problems for years are suddenly succumbing to them; others were young and seemed healthy enough, before. Medical personnel report responding to more suicides and suicide attempts in a DAY than was normal for a month, pre-K. Even the animals are dying. So many who managed to save their pets from the storm itself are now losing them to the stress of its aftermath.

The Big Easy. The City that Care Forgot. We weep for what we have lost, rage at those responsible. We try to pick up the pieces and rebuild, but it is so hard. Vast areas are still without power, without water, without phones or sewage. Mail service in the entire area is a joke. The medical system is in a state of collapse. I talk to friends in other parts of the country, they say to me, “I guess things must be getting back to normal in New Orleans by now?”


What I’m reading…
Nonfiction: LAST TRAIN TO PARADISE, by Les Standiford, on Henry Flagler and the building of the Key West Railroad. The hurricane parts are making me more than a little uncomfortable, but it’s a fascinating story.