Our toilet is a featured exhibit in the Museum of Unintended Use. Check it out.
That we even call this the post-Katrina era in New Orleans is somewhat misleading. Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast east of New Orleans, but it missed the Crescent City. What we experienced was the worst civil engineering disaster in the history of our country. Floodwalls failed without being overtopped. The Army Corps of Engineers has said our flood control infrastructure was a system “in name only” and acknowledged a serious design flaw that led to the failures that flooded the city. The Army Corps should know, since they are the ones who designed and built and maintained the non-system in the first place. So: not a natural disaster but a man-made one.
This is a point that is pretty well understood around here, and by many around the country who have been paying close attention. But the majority of Americans probably still think of the flooding of New Orleans as a natural disaster.
Does it really matter, either way? Isn’t it still a tragedy either way? That’s kind of how I feel about it. But some folks with more political savvy than I seem to think it does matter.
I saw Harry Shearer speak at Rising Tide IV. He made the case quite eloquently that we have already lost the media battle on this point. In our national discourse, the flooding of New Orleans was a natural disaster, not a failure of engineering infrastructure.
When people from other places in the country ask why they should care what happened, Harry answers: “Because you paid to destroy us.” It’s your tax dollars at work. And now that the Army Corps is supposed to build a better flood control system — scratch that, an actual system — wouldn’t you like to see it done right? Again, it’s your money.
For an example of how it might be done better, check out the Dutch Dialogues. When the Dutch came to New Orleans, a city surrounded by water, their first question was, “Where is the water and why is it hidden?” The dialogues between Dutch and Louisiana engineers and hydrologists have generated some remarkable ideas about how New Orleans can live more safely with water.
But these ideas are a far cry from what the Army Corps is actually doing. A lot of people think the fundamental governance model of the Army Corps is flawed, and that without reform we won’t get better results. That’s a tall order, but I suppose people like Harry Shearer have it right when they say it’s important people understand what actually happened here four years ago.
P.S. For some fascinating insight into how Washington relates to our troubles “down here,” read Harry’s blog on “Playing the Inside Game,” an interesting story which he related at Rising Tide a couple days before publishing on HuffPo.
House update: Our initial offer was $9K below the seller’s asking price, which got us to a nice round number. We also specified they cover $3K of closing costs. They made a counteroffer, bumping the price back up $3K. We are accepting this counteroffer and making a deposit. Now we just have to sell our house.
I recently read that cilantro may help the body detoxify from heavy metals. I don’t know if it’s really true or not, but Xy and I both like cilantro, so we’ve been on a bit of a cilantro kick lately. I fixed a creolized risotto in a cilantro reduction the other day, and last night we had cilantro-turkey tacos with lime. If anybody has any favorite recipes that feature cilantro (or coriander, which is from the same plant) please feel free to share them.
Of course, the more I poke around looking for information, the more muddled this gets. Cilantro couldn’t do any actual harm, could it? According to some sources, cilantro merely mobilizes the heavy metals — gets them out of tissues and into the bloodstream. If that’s true, it could actually raise your blood lead level. If those metals are not excreted, they could simply be reabsorbed into the body, so some people recommend consuming an agent such as chlorella (a type of algae) that supposedly will bind with the metals and get them out of the body.
The lack of peer-reviewed science on this subject makes me nervous.
I got a press release about an interesting event coming up on the fourth anniversary of Katrina. My comments follow.
Gulf Coast Rally to Demand Speaker Pelosi Take Action on 4th Anniversary of Katrina
This Friday supporters of the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act (HR 2269) will gather for a noon rally and press conference on the 4th Anniversary of Hurricane Katrina to demand passage of this federal bill.
The rally will include:
- a theatrical performance of “President Obama” and “Speaker Pelosi” announcing an important new policy on the 4th Anniversary of Katrina;
- reflections from survivors of Hurricane Katrina;
- the reading of the names of the 1,836 people who died in Hurricane Katrina, and the planting of 1836 white flags with the names of each person and age on the flag;
- the delivering of an open letter to Speaker Pelosi;
- and the delivering of over 10,000 signed petitions in support of HR 2269.
Specifically, Speaker Pelosi will be asked to take two small, but powerful actions:
- To request that she asks the five committee chairs where the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act sits to report back to her office on HR 2269 before the Congressional winter recess;
- To sign on as a co-sponsor HR 2269.
The Gulf Coast Civic Works Act — which is co-sponsored by a bipartisan group of 30 Congress members and supported by more than 240 diverse regional and national student, faith, environmental and community organizations — would create a minimum of 100,000 prevailing wage jobs and training opportunities for local and displaced workers to rebuild Gulf Coast infrastructure and restore the coastal environment utilizing green building technologies.
Sounds great. Sign me up! Oh, wait, one last little detail. Where’s this rally taking place?
The rally and press conference will be held this Friday, 12 pm, in front of Speaker Pelosi’s office at the Phillip Burton Federal Building at 450 Golden Gate Avenue on the plaza in front of the flag poles.
That’s in San Francisco if you’re not aware.
I’m sure there are many fine events being planned here on the Gulf Coast. But I’m guessing we won’t have anything quite like this. That’s a shame. The Gulf Coast Civic Works Act is still the best proposal I’ve seen for rebuilding the Gulf Coast and revitalizing the economy. I’m frankly amazed that it’s even made it to Congress, since our system seems to filter good ideas away from the legislature. But this came up from the grassroots — in California. I’ve watched this idea percolate out in California for years, and slowly work its way up to Washington DC. I have to wonder why it doesn’t seem to garner more interest locally. I can’t recall ever hearing from local politicians about this bill.
It is a shame that, as a region, we can’t seem to come together in recognition of a good idea. It’s almost like we’ve given up. Nevertheless I appreciate the show of support from people on the other side of the country.
We are making an offer on a house today. I don’t want to reveal too many details for fear of jinxing things, so suffice it to say that it’s in Mid-City and we like it a lot.
It’s a predicated offer — our purchase of the new house is predicated on the successful sale of our current house. That’s the only way we can afford it. Tricky stuff, though I gather it’s fairly routine.
I am taking this week off to work on our house, doing little cosmetic things that I’ve been putting off for a while, to get it ready for market.
Here’s hoping this all goes smoothly.
“Chigger Bites” has become my first and (only photo) to score over 10,000 views on Flickr.
No need to share your home remedies, by the way. This photo was taken four years ago, so these bites have long since healed up.
It’s your half-birthday today. You’re one and a half years old.
Sometime over the past month you made a big transition. You went from hating hats to loving them. A month ago you wouldn’t tolerate a hat on your head. Now you wear a hat most of your waking hours.
Your vocabulary continues to grow. Here’s a list of some of the words you can say:
- baa baa (for sheep and goats)
- Ella (your cousin)
Not everyone would recognize your pronunciation of some of these words, but we do. Your most common word is probably “dat!” which you exclaim while pointing at any number of things. Maybe you’ll be a Saints fan someday.
You obviously understand many more words than you can say. I can give you simple instructions (“Go get a book and I’ll read it to you” or “Take my dirty socks and put them in the basket”) and you follow them. Amazes me every time.
It was just a month ago that we got word you have an elevated blood lead level. I’ve worried more over this than anything since you were born. We are doing everything we can to protect you, and I sincerely hope that this never manifests itself as a problem for you later in life.
Meanwhile, your biggest immediate challenge is sleep. You have trouble getting to sleep and staying asleep. This may be a problem we’ve created. You see, we’ve never put you down at night while you’re still awake, never let you fall asleep on your own. We’ve always put you to sleep with a bottle or breastfeeding or just rocking you. And so it seems you’ve never learned to fall asleep on your own. You’re also getting the night terrors, which is apparently caused by lack of sleep. You may be sleep-deprived, and I think your parents are too. I’ve been reading up on this, and it seems some sleep training is in order.
You no longer cry when I drop you off at daycare. I guess it just took a while to get back in the habit after spending the summer at home. Now you sometimes don’t even give me a backward glance when I leave. You’re still happy to see me when I pick you up. To see your face light up is worth a great deal to me. Sometimes you even do a little happy dance. You’re a New Orleanian, after all.
Another thing you’ve started doing is what I call the supervillain look. Sometimes you will get a super-serious expression and glare up at me from beneath your furrowed brow. You don’t seem particularly upset — when you’re upset, we know it — so I’m not sure what this means. But it’s one of the funniest and cutest things I’ve ever seen.
Two weeks ago I took our daughter in for a second opinion screening to check her blood lead level. I can’t believe it took two weeks to get the results back, but I just got them: BLLs > 14 µg/dL. That’s one microgram higher than her initial screening. That is not what we wanted to see.
So what does that tell us? Firstly, that this is real and not a false positive from environmental contamination of the sample. Secondly, during the three weeks between the two screenings her blood lead level did not decrease and seems to have increased. (I’m using tentative language only because I don’t know the margin of error for this test.) I suppose in retrospect that’s not terribly surprising. I only did my little remediation project on our doorframe the day before her second screening. I only identified our bathtub as a potential threat a few says before that. And so on. In other words, there wasn’t sufficient time between addressing potential threats and this re-screen to expect a diminished blood lead level.
Still, it’s depressing.
I feel like we are fumbling in the dark. We still don’t know for a fact how lead has been getting into her system. We’ve identified a number of suspects, but we don’t know for sure. And we may never know for sure.
We will, of course, schedule a more accurate venous blood test in a couple months. Hopefully those results will be more encouraging. In the meantime we are trying our best to minimize her exposure to lead and feeding her a diet with lots of calcium and iron and vitamin C. That’s supposed minimize lead getting stored in the bones.
Last night for the first time ever we left our daughter with a babysitter and had a fun night out on the town.
Actually it was a double date. We went over to Sue and Steve’s house just as the babysitter Althea arrived. (Not to be confused with my former co-worker, this Althea has done a lot of babysitting for Sue and Steve’s two boys.) She took Persephone from my arms right there on the sidewalk. When she went in the house, Sue suggested Xy and I not even go inside, so we didn’t. I was worried Persephone would have a meltdown when we left, but this way there was no drama.
Soon we were sitting down at Crescent City Steak House. I ordered a Negroni for a preprandial apéritif. (I guess that’s redundant.) I had to explain the ingredients to the waitress. Steve said he’d take one as well. Unfortunately the bartender didn’t seem to know this drink, so we got them on the rocks and garnished with lemon, but it was still pretty good. We all got rib eyes and shared a bottle of Malbec, and I had coffee and cognac for desert.
After dinner we walked down Broad to the Zulu HQ, where there was a fundraiser for Morris Jeff Community School, a public school that’s planning to open next year in our neighborhood. I’d never been to Zulu before, so that was a treat in and of itself, but even better, my favorite New Orleans musician Kermit Ruffins was playing.
I didn’t have my camera with me, but here’s a picture I took of Kermit seven years ago:
We had a couple drinks at the club and enjoyed the music. I ran into a number of people I knew. In fact I saw a few friends at the steakhouse as well, all of which added to the convivial spirit of the evening.
Pretty soon it was all over. We headed back, retrieved the girl, who seemed to have had a fine time, and went home to bed. All in all, a great evening. A restorative evening. I thought leaving our daughter with a babysitter would be more a more worry-fraught proposition, but it was all extremely smooth and relaxing. Hooray!
Update: My friend Robert Caldwell reminded me that a Negroni is indeed traditionally served on the rocks. My bad. The classic garnish is supposed to be a burnt orange, but I didn’t really expect that.
I just posted the following suggestion on Get Satisfaction:
When getting a notification that someone’s following me, it would be nice to see how many people have blocked them. The e-mail notification currently includes how many followers they have, how many tweets they’ve posted, and how many people are following them. However, I’m betting a count of the number of times they’ve been blocked would give the best indication of whether or not that person is in fact a spambot.
I have gotten ten or so follows over the past 24 hours, all from spammers. I block them once I’ve ascertained they are spammy, but the only way to do that is to visit their profile page. A block count might make it easier to filter these spammers out.
If you like this idea, you can head over to Get Satisfaction and throw it a little support. If it gains enough traction, Twitter may notice and actually implement it.
Title: The City & The City
Author: China Miéville
When I saw that China Miéville had a new book out, I snapped it up. He’s one of the few authors I’ll spring for without even knowing anything about the book. I rarely have time to read above and beyond my book club, but I do sneak one in now and again.
I’m generally a slow reader, and as I got started with this book I made a deliberate effort to stay slow. I enjoy Miéville’s prose, and I wanted to savor it. But I was hardly able to put this book down, and so I ended up finishing it in a week, which is pretty remarkable for me.
I enjoyed the novel immensely. It’s quite a departure from Perdido Street Station or The Scar, a hardboiled noirish police procedural set in what seems to be our real world — sort of. I’ll admit the characters are thin and the plot is somewhat conventional. The main interest here is without question the setting: a fictional city somewhere in Eastern Europe, I think. Actually not one city but two, twin cities in fact, and it’s the nature of the relation between these twins that drives the whole book along. I can’t really say more without spoiling the wondrous sense of discovery Miéville so skillfully evokes. I found the premise utterly beguiling, all the more remarkable because there is no recourse to the fantastic. Actually, that’s just my interpretation; I’ve poked around on the net and found other reviews which indicate other people read it differently and see elements of the fantastic where I saw none. But that’s just an indication of the subtlety of Miéville’s approach.
Alas, the story falls just short of greatness, as the conventional plot (a murder mystery) somehow manages to overwhelm everything else as it lumbers to its conclusion. But the basic conceit of the book remains fascinating, highly original, enormously evocative and well worth the price of admission.
What started as a mild sore throat ten days ago has moved through various stages. I had some nasal congestion for a while but now that’s gone. The throat got sore and swollen, but that’s gone too.
Now I’m left with a cough. This has seemed like a fairly normal progression to me, and I am assuming the cough is the final stage, though I’m not sure exactly why.
It’s been a fairly dry, non-productive cough, but pretty persistent and violent when left to its own devices. Therefore I have been doing my utmost to suppress this beast with various herbal teas, mentholated lozenges and of course dextromethorphan. (At these low doses DXM isn’t psychedelic/dissociative but it does seems to evoke some odd overtones, memories perhaps of my younger and more innocent days.) I mixed myself a gin sling Saturday night using Robitussin in place of cherry brandy. It was not good but it was surprisingly less bad than one might expect.
I got curious as to what the purpose of a seemingly non-productive cough might be. Simple enough: It’s an evolutionary adaptation for the virus or bacteria that’s having a field day in my body. Coughing is an excellent way to travel, if you’re a microscopic organism. Bugs that induce coughing can better succeed in replicating themselves.
By the time you know you’ve got some bugs, you’re past the infectious stage. Must not be the case with a bug such as this. So if you see me coughing — watch out.
I’ve just learned that the new way of covering your mouth when you cough is to use your shoulder or elbow or part of your arm instead of your hand. Boss-lady saw signs advising this technique in Canada. Makes sense. I hate when I’ve just coughed into my hand and then someone wants to shake it.
It’s been three weeks since the Lutheran Invasion, but there’s still a pile of four-year-old flooded junk in front of the house next door.
Don’t blame the Lutherans for this mess. Blame the Preservation Resource Center. Blame Operation Comeback.
I was so excited when my neighbor donated his house to this program, so looking forward to some positive activity there. And I do hold out hope that ultimately they will make the situation better, once they get the house renovated and sold to a first-time homebuyer.
But in the meantime they’ve actually made our living situation worse. Our houses are so close together this pile is practically on our front steps. It’s moldy and stinky and nasty and gross. It spills into the street, making it difficult to park our car. I’ve had to shovel the pile off the street back on to itself. Some mirrors and panes of glass that were intact have gotten broken. Neighbors have thrown their garbage on top of the pile, somewhat offset by the pilfering of items from the pile. I’m not sure who would want this water-damaged furniture but I believe I saw some pieces end up on a neighbor’s porch. The pile is actually getting smaller.
I had to warn some kids yesterday that climbing around on and playing the pile is really not a good idea. Our former neighbor, Chastity, stopped by yesterday and took some old vinyl records from the pile. The sleeves were ruined but the records themselves appeared to be in good shape. Today she stopped by and let us know that “some of those records are 200 years old!”
I’ve been in regular communication with the PRC about this problem. They assure me they’re working on it.
Not fast enough for me.
Update: August 18: The pile of crap was removed , hooray at last. Nothing left but broken glass.
I really hate our whole healthcare/insurance system, which is why I get excited when I hear about reform and discouraged when it seems to go off-track.
This is on my mind today because of the inane interaction I just had with my health insurance provider, Humana.
Back in June, when we were traveling, our daughter got an infected toe, so we went to the nearest convenient place, a “doc in a box” in Bloomington, Indiana.
We paid $25 upfront as a co-pay, and they said they’d bill Humana for the rest.
Humana did not pay, so I got a statement from the doc-box. Total charge: $109.00. Less our $25.00 payment, that’s $84.00 I owe them. A helpful note was included: “Your insurance was filed but did not pay. Your insurance was refiled today. If you have questions contact you insurance. Please pay balance due.” A further note in case you didn’t get the full import: “Your insurance is filed as as a courtesy. If you have insurance questions, PLEASE CONTACT YOUR INSURANCE CARRIER FIRST, then advise us of your claim.”
I got on Humana’s website. I was able to remember my username and password for a change. I accessed the Claim Details. “Status: COMPLETED.” OK, but was it paid? “Paid: 06/23/2009″ Aha, so it was paid? “Humana Paid: 0.00″ Oh, I guess it wasn’t paid.
Then I noticed this little message, which I will reproduce in its entirety.
Message 1: This service was performed by a non participating provider and exceeds the Maximum Allowable Fee (MAF). You are not responsible for the difference between the MAF and the amount the provider bills you for the services.Should you be billed for this, please contact 1-866-427-7478. For additional information please refer to the Schedule of Benefits and Glossary section in your Benefit Plan Documen
The Maximum Allowable Fee, in case you’re wondering, is $91.07. Don’t ask me how they derived that arcane number, but there it is. Apparently I am not responsible for the difference between the MAF and the total charge. That difference is $17.93, and if I’m billed for this, I should call Humana at the number listed.
So I did call. I asked my first question. Why is there a listing for the date the claim was paid, when in fact the claim was not paid? Do you see how that could be confusing? No, the rep maintained, she did not. Well, I said, belaboring the point most egregiously, when a normal human being hears that zero dollars were paid on a certain date, most people would conclude that no payment occurred on any date. So how could Humana list a date for the payment, when there was no payment greater than zero? She confessed she could see how it might be confusing to me, but it was not confusing to her.
Once we got that foolishness out of the way, I asked about the MAF. What’s this $17.93 for which I am “not responsible”? That stumped her, and she had to put me on hold for half an hour, after which time she came back, apologized, and said someone would have to call me back.
I proceeded to bend her ear for a little while longer about Humana’s online database of participating physicians. We’re supposed to use this to find a doctor. But the information is vastly out of date, with most of the physicians in my area flooded out after Katrina. That was four years ago, by the way.
A short while after our friendly chat ended, I got a call back from Humana. The rep explained there is a typo on the website. The text that says “You are not responsible” should read “You are responsible.” Ah, what a difference one little word makes.
Oh, by the way, this medical expense would have been covered if we had just taken the time to call in to Humana and ask for a referral to a participating physician. Never mind that we were on the road and just wanted to get our girl to the nearest convenient doctor. The doctor we chose was not “participating” so we’re not covered.
What part of this system makes any sense?
I need a little break from reality so I indulged in one of my favorite fantasies, namely that of being a DJ on a freeform radio station where I can play whatever I want. Here’s the mix:
I used a super secret process to create a logical flow from one song to the next. (OK, it’s not that secret. I obsessively tag music in my library with keywords. I used those in daisy-chain fashion. Thus, “Free Association.”) Not sure if I succeeded, but there is a method to the madness.
Anyway, if you enjoy it by all means let me know. The problem with being a DJ on the net is that nobody listens. Or do they?
I’m still holding out some hope that we are panicking unnecessarily. We are waiting results of a second fingerstick test which the girl got on Friday. Then we will have another number to look at. If it is higher than her first screening, there will be much moaning and gnashing of teeth. If it’s lower, even slightly, then we will feel good that it is at least moving in the right direction. If it’s radically lower, then we can conclude the first screening was contaminated by environmental lead, but I don’t hold out much hope for that.
(I wrote previously that the rate of false positives for these tests was something like 75%, but I botched the math. Rather, in the study cited, 75% of positive results were false. Since only 2% of results were positive to begin with, the overall rate of false positives would be more like 1.5%.)
Assuming we don’t see a big change, we’ll have to schedule a follow-up test where blood is actually drawn from a vein. Those tests are more reliable. But I hate the thought of doing that to our baby. The pinprick was bad enough.
I’ve been learning about what an elevated blood level really means. I found this writeup helpful.
The higher the test result, the more lead is in your blood. However, the amount of lead in the blood does not necessarily reflect the total amount of lead in your body. This is because lead travels from the lungs and intestinal tract to the blood and organs, and then is gradually removed from the blood and organs and stored in tissues such as bones and teeth. Blood lead concentrations represent recent exposure or chronic exposure. The danger that a particular lead level represents depends on the age and health of the person, the amount of lead they are exposed to, and the amount of time that they are exposed to elevated lead levels.
So our hope is, I suppose, that her exposure was recent, and that we caught the absolute spike. My fear is that it is more a case of chronic exposure, little amounts of lead dust adding up over time. I think that would be worse, because there would be longer time for other tissues to absorb the lead.
Of course our ultimate hope is that we see no long-term effects whatsoever, no discernible cognitive impairment, but it will be years before we know about that.
After a few days of mental anguish, I kind of normalized last week, and I thought I was coping pretty well. But yesterday I found myself in another spiral of worry, and it was pretty rough. It kind of reminded me of those days and weeks and months after Katrina. The bad feelings come in waves, and it’s all I can do not to get swamped.
I’ve been grateful for the support of my friends and community. There are a couple suggestions that keep recurring: check our pipes, and look into chelation therapy.
I’m not too worried about our pipes because we had the house almost entirely re-plumbed after the flood, plus I tested our tap water for lead last year, plus we’ve switched to Kentwood bottled water for drinking, plus lead paint is considered a far-and-away greater health risk than old pipes.
As for chelation therapy, that’s where they pump some ethylene diamine tetraacetic acid into the body. It binds with lead and other heavy metals, which are then excreted. The mainstream medical community recommends this only for blood lead levels far higher than our girl’s test results indicate. This therapy can have negative and dangerous side effects. However, chelation is embraced by alternative medical practitioners to combat everything from autism to atherosclerosis. I’m really not sure what to think of it.
Meanwhile Xy’s in her first full week at her new school, we’re getting pre-approved for a new mortgage, I’m calling lead abatement specialists and inspectors, and I need to call a contractor to fix the ceiling in our kitchen before we try to sell the house. No stress. No stress at all.
I’ve put a lot of my heart and soul into our old house. Xy has too. So I thought it would be painful to contemplate moving. I thought I’d agonize over that decision more, weighing the pros and cons.
But it really hasn’t been that hard. Once I framed the idea as “trading up,” it actually became quite easy, even exciting to think about.
By “trading up,” I mean that if we sell our house and buy a new one, we will probably improve our quality of life somewhat. Central air and heat would be nice, for example. An actual yard might be nice too. Things like that.
Apparently, out there in most of the country, it’s a bad time to sell your house, but a good time to buy one. New Orleans has had a different dynamic going on; we’ve been in a “recovery bubble,” if you will. In the last year or so that bubble has dissolved somewhat, and home prices in New Orleans have indeed taken a hit — except, it seems, in our zip code where values have gone up.
If we were really smart, I guess we’d buy in one of these other zip codes where home prices have declined. There are some real bargains to be had.
But I’m not sure that we are that smart. As we’ve started to look around, I’ve discovered it’s very difficult to contemplate leaving Mid-City. There are plenty of other cool neighborhoods, but Mid-City is really where we want to be. I like the walkability of Mid-City, as well as its proximity to my place of employment (and Xy’s).
But there’s more to it than that. We’ve put down some roots here, and especially after Katrina we have invested ourselves emotionally in the local community.
My other geographical fixation is, of course, the Lafitte Corridor. Right now we are living just a couple blocks from it, and I think it will be a tremendous asset once it actually gets built.
So I am hoping we can find the right house, at the right price, in Mid-City, near the Lafitte Corridor. We are looking in other places, but that’s the dream location.
I drew up a quick wish-list of things we want in a house.
- 2000+ sq ft
- yard or gardening opportunities
- central air/heat
- pool, or room for one (Xy’s fixation)
- big bathtub
- nicer area
The only real absolutes on that list are the last two. We will only be able to discover if a house is lead-free in the inspection phase after we’ve made an offer. As for the “niceness” of the immediate area, that’s highly subjective of course. I don’t mean fancy or posh. Bohemian is more my style. But a certain feeling of safety and comfort is essential.