Quiet Day

It comes but twice a year, here at the university: Quiet Day. It’s the day after the classes end but before finals begin.

I’d like to think of Quiet Day as a sacred time of mystical contemplation. The reality is that, since I don’t teach or study, it’s really just another day at work for me. But the campus is noticeably quieter today.

I don’t know how many universities observe such a day. At many schools, finals week corresponds to an actual calendar week, so it is always buffered from the last day of classes by the weekend. At Indiana University people called the last week of classes Dead Week, during which no homework should be assigned or tests administered. I suspect that this was more of an informal convention, perhaps just a campus legend, rather than an official policy. But I note that some universities, at least, really do observe a Dead Week.

Coffee Reduction Plan

I’m in coffee-reduction mode. Friday I limited myself to two cups. Ditto Saturday. Ditto Sunday. Today I cut down to one. The plan is to get down to zero and stay there for a few days, then switch over to iced tea for the summer.

I did this last year and really enjoyed it. I like coffee a lot — maybe a little too much. My daily consumption tends to increase with time, and that doesn’t seem entirely healthy. I was almost up to a full pot a day. Occasionally all that acid makes my stomach hurt.

I like iced tea too, unsweetened, but only during the hot weather, which is almost here. Tea has less caffeine than coffee, so I don’t think I would find it satisfying if I just switched over directly. I need a fallow period, a few caffeine-free days, to let my body forget the stimulation it’s come to take for granted.

Jazz Fest

I finally got religion. Here’s how it happened.

Here in New Orleans, Jazz Fest is a big deal. A really big deal. I mean, people talk about it like they might talk about sex or drugs. They compare it to Mardi Gras, and say that it’s better. People come from all over the country — and the world — to check it out.

And the season is upon us. The 35th Annual New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival started this weekend and continues next weekend. It’s in our area of town, and so we see more tourists and locals than usual, passing through on their way to the Fairgrounds.

Hmph. Call me a Philistine, but I’ve never seen the appeal. The musical acts are mostly earthy, rootsy stuff. I prefer my music a little more twisted and alienated. This is awkward when I have to explain to people why I’m not gushing with enthusiasm about the prospect of getting crushed by huge sweaty crowds in the sweltering heat so I can glimpse a video screen of a distant performer I don’t give a shit about.

Of course the truth is that I’ve only gone once before.

This year, a co-worker gave me a pair of free tickets. So XY and I smoked up and rode our bikes to the Fairgrounds to check it out. To my pleasant surprise, we had a great time. In fact, I’ll go one further: It was pure bliss. The weather was just about perfect, or as close as one could expect in New Orleans at ths time of year: blistering sun alternating with cooler cloudy moments and occasional sprinkles of rain. No, we didn’t take in any of the musical acts, except for watching a bit of Native American drumming and chanting and dancing. Mostly we looked at the arts and crafts on display.

And we ate. Ahhh, yes, this was what it was all about. I had:

  • Tunisian lamb stew
  • BBQ oyster spinach salad
  • pheasant gumbo
  • bread pudding

And washed it all down with a couple cans of Foster’s Ale. Damn, but that’s some good eatin’.

I still don’t think you can compare Mardi Gras to Jazz Fest. It’s like comparing apples and coconuts. But I feel relieved to know that I can now commiserate with my fellow citizens on some of the joys of Jazz Fest.

La Dolce Vita

One of the neighbor girls was over at our house tonight, helping Xy water the garden. She’s three years old, cute as a button, and her name is Willanita, but everyone calls her Mamaw or just Maw.

Willanita said she was hungry, and Xy asked me to fix her some oatmeal. She also likes rice milk, which we always have on hand, so I poured her a small glass. I fixed myself a rum and coke with a slice of lime.

Soon it was 8pm, and Fellini’s La Dolce Vita was coming on Turner Classic Movies. I didn’t want to leave Willanita unattended, so I asked her to come downstairs with me. I set her bowl of oatmeal down on a tray table and turned on the TV.

Soon we were watching a helicopter flying a statue over Rome. “Look,” I said, “that’s Jesus.”

Willanita’s reply: “He dead.”

“Yes,” I replied, “that’s true. He died a long time ago.”

Willanita said something I didn’t quite understand, except that it ended with “New Orleans.”


She repeated only the end of her previous statement: “in New Orleans.”

“What about New Orleans?”

And I swear I’m not making this up. This three-year old child said: “A lot of people die in New Orleans. Did Jesus die in New Orleans?”

“No,” I said. “He died a looong way away from here.”

“How did he die?”

“Well, some people came and got him — the police — and they killed him.”

“Did he run?”

“No, he didn’t run.”

“He should have run,” Willanita said. “He should have run away fast.”

“Yeah. Is that what you would do?”

She grinned and nodded and finished off her rice milk. I sipped my drink, and we watched the Italian actors prattling on, neither of us able to understand a word.

Prayer Before an Exam

National Library Week is almost over.

I work in a library. To be more precise, I work in a building which houses a library. I don’t actually work for or in the library proper. But I do have to pass through the library to get to my office.

And so I’ve been aware of National Library Week because of the displays that I see in the library lobby. There’s a big gift-wrapped box; I think they are raffling off some prizes.

Nat'l Library Week

There’s also a rack of yellow cards marked “Prayer Before an Exam — Take One.” It may seem funny to see such a display in a university library, but this is a Catholic school after all. One of the nuns on the faculty made a wisecrack about the prayer cards yesterday: “God, please bail me out at the last minute.”

Prayer Rack

Today I took one of the cards. It has a prayer on one side, and there’s a number two pencil taped to the back. The prayer appears to be taken from Prayers That Avail Much for Teens, though there’s no citation so I’m not sure. It’s kind of long — maybe 500 words. I found this passage amusing:

Father, as I enter to take this exam, I ask You to help me. Grant me wisdom and show me how to take the test, so that I gain the most points and make the best grade I can make…

Or how about this:

I will study hard and do my best. Where I come up short, I believe that You can make up the difference.

To be fair, most of the prayer is not like that. Mostly it’s about maintaining one’s confidence, studying effectively, using one’s knowledge, staying calm, working honestly, and so forth. For example, here’s a passage I really like:

Because love casts out all fear, I won’t let fear cloud or block my thinking.

Since I’m not a theist myself, I’m always a little skeptical of prayers. I can only interpret a prayer’s value in terms of the thoughts it might instill in the one who prays, rather than as a communication to a divine being. Supernatural intervention is not the main emphasis here. Instead, it aims to put the student into a good frame of mind, to create a positive attitude. I could imagine that a religious person might actually get some benefit from this meditation.

Moss Hunt

Xy’s fifth grade class is building a model of an environmentally friendly house for an Earth Day contest, sponsored by the Mayor’s Office of Environmental Affairs. She wanted to top it off with a garden on the roof, and figured moss would be the perfect plant, since it does not require much soil. So we went to City Park to hunt for some moss. It was surprisingly hard to find! But Xy persevered and eventually she found some. I wonder if it’s illegal to take moss from a park? In any event, the model looks great with a moss garden on the roof.

Streetcar Book

Edward J. Branley gave a talk at my favorite bookstore tonight about his new book, New Orleans: The Canal Streetcar Line. I rode my bike uptown to check it out, and it was pretty cool. One of the photos in his presentation was an aerial shot of my neighborhood from 1927, and you can just make out our house. We are a block from the streetcar barn, after all, but I hadn’t realized that there was a streetcar barn at that location since the beginning of the Canal line. The photo is also in his book and on the companion website, CanalSteetCar.com.

It was fun to meet Ed, whom I’ve conversed with on-line. He also maintains CitiesOfTheDead.net and some other sites, and he hangs out on the nolahistory list.


Up until two years ago, I’d only had one filling in my entire life. But that has changed.

The dentist gave me two fillings today. (He also patched up an old, old chip on one of my front teeth.) I’m going back for two more on the other side of my mouth soon. That makes about eight fillings in the last two years.

I’m 37 for chrissakes. I thought I was past the so-called “cavity-prone years.” True, I did have a lapse of three or four years where I didn’t visit a dentist at all. But now I’m practicing better dental hygiene than ever. So what’s up with all these fillings?


After a forty-year interruption, streetcar service has been restored to Canal Street in New Orleans.

The first stop, at Canal and Salcedo, is just a block and a half from our house, so I thought I’d check it out. Despite the early hour — 3:10 AM — there was a large crowd gathered there. People were handing out souvenir doubloons and commemorative pins. A guy with a clipboard was having people sign up in order. I was number 58.

There were plenty of people there who remembered riding this streetcar line back in the proverbial day, until it was discontinued in 1964.

As the big moment approached, people formed a line, and it may have approximated the numeric order on the guy’s clipboard, but it seemed like a big jumble. When the streetcar pulled up, it stopped short of where the line had formed, to the consternation of the people at the head. I’m not sure, but I think Warren Bell may have been the first customer, or close to it.

There were some boos but people were generally friendly and a good mood pervaded the crowd. Some guys were singing songs like, “O Lord I want to be on that streetcar when the saints go marching in.” I was busy videotaping, and I just didn’t feel like jostling to try to get on board, so I didn’t actually ride the streetcar. Instead I watched it take off, then came back home to write this. It’s a quarter ’til four in the morning, and I’ve got to get up in about three hours if I’m going to make it to Baton Rouge for the Green Party of Louisiana presidential caucus.

Update — I was on the front page of the Monday paper!

Streetcar Debut

What’s that? You can’t see me? Here I am:

Front Page

I’m famous!

Bad Cat

I was supposed to take our fat cat, Archer, to the vet today for a follow-up. We’ve had her on reduced rations for the last month to bring her weight down. Plus she’s on some kind of antihistamine to help with her labored breathing.

But I couldn’t get her into the cage! Archer has never really been comfortable with me. I approached her with a treat, but she acted like she didn’t know what it was, which is a laugh because she loves to eat, which is why she’s so fat. I advanced; she retreated. She went under the neighbor’s house, and them up onto the neighbor’s roof into her favorite hiding place, which is under the gutter and totally inaccessible to humans.

Xy might have had better luck rounding Archer up, since Archer likes her more than me, but she was at a teacher workshop. So I had to call the vet and reschedule for next week.

Ghost of the Pontiac

Mother frickin’ fucker.

I rode my bike out to the DMV this morning. It’s about 3 1/2 miles, and I knew the route well because I rode out there Friday morning only to find it was closed for the Easter holiday.

My mission: to renew by drivers license, which expired in January. Of course, it would be illegal for me to drive to the DMV, with an expired license, but getting there by bicycle is a minor nightmare. It’s just not a very bicycle-friendly location.

102 Veterans Blvd

I got there just after the office opened, but my heart sank when I found there were already 24 people in front of me in line. Everybody hates going to the DMV and I’m no exception.

But then my fortunes took a turn for the better. A lady with a clipboard came through the line, and those of us with fairly trivial errands got to cut ahead. Suddenly I found myself at the head of a much shorter line. Could it be that I would actually catch a break?

No chance.

The clerk checked the computer and found I had a “block” that prevented her from renewing my license. It seems they still have me on record as owning the old ’85 Pontiac Sunbird that I sold on eBay a few years ago.

Golden Chariot

Since Louisiana law requires proof of insurance for all your vehicles, it’s incumbent upon me to prove that I sold this car. The clerk suggested that this block might originate from the fact that I neglected to remove the license plates from the car when I sold it.

Of course, I didn’t have the bill of sale on me. But even if I’d had the foresight to bring it, it wouldn’t have done me any good, because they can’t clear a block at that location. No, that would be too simple and convenient. Instead, I have to go to a “reinstatement office.”

The nearest reinstatement office is 8 1/2 miles from home. I’m not sure I can realistically bike to one of these places. Hell, I’m not sure I even have the bill of sale from the transaction.

This whole thing really chaps my ass.


Last night I dreamed my family had a reunion. We were having a special conference about our family religion. The session was being led by “Tall” Steve Volan. Steve is not related to me in real life, but in the dream he was some sort of distant cousin. He stood at the front of the room and lectured us about our religion, which was a strange mix of Rosicrucianism and Zoroastrianism, with a healthy dollop of English literary tradition. In fact, Steve seemed to be infused with the spirit of a tweedy English professor — J. R. R. Tolkien, perhaps? (This is all the more odd because my family is actually German, and Steve is Greek.) After about ten minutes I interrupted. I stood up and said that I, for one, had learned more about our religion in the last ten minutes than I had on my own in the last ten years. Everyone applauded. I struggled to add that I still didn’t believe any of it, but no one heard me.


Last month, a woman named Mai Thi Nguyen was killed here in New Orleans as she worked behind the counter at a grocery store. It was an attempted robbery that turned into a senseless murder.

Three men were arrested. One of the men was released two weeks ago. The judge said the surveillance tapes and the eyewitness testimony indicated that he was just an innocent bystander.

Yesterday the District Attorney’s Chief Homicide Investigator came to my office with those surveillance tapes. The Campus Police Chief asked me to help him “enhance” the video. They seem to believe the tapes show the man was an accomplice to the crime, a lookout for the two masked robbers.

So I’ve been watching video of this stupid, horrific crime over and over. The first thing that impressed me was how quick it happens. The robbers enter the store, demand money, shoot the woman, and flee; this takes a total of ten seconds.

As for the man who was released — is he innocent, or was he in on it? The case seems pretty weak to me. It boils down to a couple of ambiguous gestures: a raised hand, a turned head. (I’m highlighting these gestures, zooming in on them, slowing the video down.) I think he’s probably innocent. I don’t feel good about doing this work, but then again I don’t think it will have much effect. I don’t think the judge will change his mind on the basis of this “enhanced” video.


So it looks like gasoline is shaping up to be a big campaign issue.

Bush has attacked Kerry for supporting a 50-cent gas tax years ago, even though he never actually voted for it. The Bush campaign is scaremongering, plain and simple.

Kerry, far from supporting a gas tax, has been attacking Bush for the current high price of gasoline. He promises us more foreign oil at cheaper prices. How disappointing.

Both candidates are pursuing strategies they know will get a positive response. Americans love to drive, and we especially love to drive big SUVs that burn gasoline like there’s no tomorrow. Few things seem to disturb us more than high prices at the gas pump.

It would be nice if our leaders actually showed some leadership and talked about how we could really stick it to OPEC: by simply reducing our consumption.

Of course, Americans wouldn’t like that. We don’t want to deal with reality, we just want to watch reality television.


There’s been a coating of green dust over New Orleans for the last few weeks. It’s the annual falling of the oak pollen, and it’s quite impressive, kind of like green snow. Unfortunately, it also triggers allergies in many people, including Xy, and those allergies lead to sinus problems, and the sinus problems lead to headaches, which in turn lead to grumpiness, which makes me unhappy by extension.

My own allergies haven’t bothered me until yesterday morning. I had a sneezing fit in the supermarket parking lot, and since then I’ve been more or less miserable. I continue to be amazed by the sheer volume of snot that I keep blowing out my nose. Where does it all come from? Is my body converting brain tissue into snot? That would explain my general sense of disorientation. I have a hard time concentrating or thinking clearly when my brain is melting.

Am I allergic to the oak pollen, or to something else that just started casting off pollen yesterday?

The nasty post-nasal drip has led to a sore throat. The whole experience is basically like having a mild cold. I tell myself that I’m not really sick — “It’s just allergies” — but what’s the difference, really?

It’s actually an interesting biological phenomenon, especially if you think about it from an evolutionary perspective. There’s no obvious survival value to the allergic reaction; in fact, one would suppose that animals with no allergies whatsoever would have an advantage. One theory is that the body is mistaking the allergen for a virus and overcompensating. There may have been a particularly deadly bug in circulation in the distant past that selected for a hypersensitive immune response. Or something. In any case, it’s clear evolution does not select for creature comfort.

Post-nasal script: Maybe I’m allergic to Daylight Saving Time, which started yesterday morning. After growing up in that part of Indiana that never changes time, DST is still a novelty to me. It’s actually kind of fun going around the house and setting all the clocks forward an hour. It’s also strange to see an hour of time just disappear like that.


So last night around 9 p.m. I mixed myself a drink and went downstairs, thinking that I would veg out watching some television. Xy was doing schoolwork and watching ER, not my favorite show, but then again there’s nothing better on, so I didn’t complain. I scooped a cat onto my lap, turned off my brain and settled down into a comfortable chair.

Just as the tube and the alcohol were producing the desired sedative effect, a lingerie commercial came on. It was the typical mildly titillating stuff you expect to see on such a commercial: supermodels in lacy undergarments slinking around Venice. Sounds like Dylan on the soundtrack, which is a little disturbing, but hardly a surprise in an era when Rage Against the Machine is used to sell cars.

And then I saw something which shook me from my stupor and threatened my very sanity. Stepping out of the shadows, there’s a man who looks very familiar. Why, he looks just like Bob Dylan. “Is that Bob Dylan?” Good God, it is Bob Bylan!

Has the world gone mad? What the fuck is Dylan doing in a Victoria’s Secret commercial?

Noting the date, I wondered briefly if this was an April Fool’s prank. But it’s not. It’s a strategic partnership that includes selling Dylan CDs at Victoria’s Secret.

Dylan fans will decry this as a sell-out, and I suppose it is. But that’s not what bothers me. He’s a counter-cultural icon, for Christ’s sake, a symbol of the anti-establishment 60s. Using him to sell sexy lingerie strikes me as a remarkably bad idea. Dylan is not sexy; he’s repulsive. Perhaps he was sexier 40 years ago. If the man has any sex appeal left, it’s an earnest, earthy, grungy kind of mojo. Victoria’s Secret, on the other hand, represents glamor and artifice and gloss and bulimia.

To see Bob Dylan shilling for Victoria’s Secret — well, it’s just plain wrong, and it almost snapped me back into sobriety. Thank God commercials are short.