Please Forward

Please ForwardI know I shouldn’t be excited about something so grim but nevertheless I am happy to announce that Please Forward will soon be available in bookstores (officially on August 15) and is now available for pre-order at all the usual places, including my favorite bookstore.

This anthology collects online writings that erupted in the aftermath of the flooding of New Orleans in 2005. As such, it’s a topic that’s near and dear to my heart, upon which I have expounded at some length.

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I Was Not Killed This Morning

Last night we had dinner with an old friend and his new wife. When the topic turned to cycling in New Orleans, she confessed she was fearful for her safety, and she enumerated an appallingly long list of friends and acquaintances who have been severely injured when their bicycles collided with automobiles.

This morning a number of friends contacted me, concerned that I was perhaps no longer among the living. I’m still here, but a man about my age was killed at Jeff Davis and Canal Street. He was riding a bike and was struck by a car, or so I read.

"A driver killed a cyclist here today."

I was not killed this morning, but it could have been me. Until the new year, I passed through this intersection at least twice a day. This is a dangerous intersection for bicyclists; there are not even stripes to designate where the Jeff Davis bike path crosses Canal Street.

No Stripes

This reminds me why I first got motivated to pursue the construction of a trail in the Lafitte Corridor ten years ago, and why the work of groups like FOLC and Bike Easy is so important. We need to do better by our cyclists and pedestrians.

For now, though, my heart goes out to the man who was killed this morning, and to his family.
Continue reading I Was Not Killed This Morning

Six Month Warning

Flood Line

People of New Orleans!

In six months we’ll mark the ten year anniversary of the flooding of our city. Already the media machinery is gearing up for all kinds of coverage, and ordinary citizens elsewhere in the country and around the world will be provoked to remember us for a brief moment. They may wonder how we’re doing.

So get ready for that. It seems to me there are two ways to play this. You may wish to:

1) Avoid it as much as possible. Tune it out. Weather the media storm. There was a lot of trauma around that time, and you may prefer not to have those memories stirred. There’s been a ton of books and movies about the subject, and as a rule I’ve avoided them all — except for those I’ve produced myself.

2) Be prepared to talk about it. Have your soundbite ready. I imagine a lot of people will be asking for an assessment of where things stand here in New Orleans. Have we made a full and complete recovery? Be ready to answer that question. Be ready to volunteer your own perspective. I’m certainly not going to tell you what to say, but I hope your answer reflects some of the complications and nuances of reality.

These may seem like mutually exclusive strategies but they’re not, really. You can tune out the media blitz while still answering questions from friends, relatives, visitors, casual acquaintances, and even the odd reporter. In the age of social media, such interactions are easier than ever.

Any other ideas? Forewarned is forearmed.

Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’

I am so proud to be named one of the Urban Conservancy‘s 2014 Urban Heroes.

What, me a hero? I am not much afflicted with the infamous vice of false modesty, but I have to admit this makes me blush just a little.

Yes, the Lafitte Greenway in now under construction, but after all, I am not the one pouring asphalt and concrete, erecting lampposts and so forth.

Fresh Concrete

Lights on the Greenway

The award comes for my work with FOLC, of course. FOLC has played a vital role in advocating for the greenway. I think it’s safe to say that this work would not be underway presently if it wasn’t for FOLC’s advocacy.

I’m a founding member of FOLC, and I served as president of the group for three years. It’s because of that intimate involvement that I know just how much of a team effort this has been.

So while I will indeed revel in this little slice o’ glory, I’m mindful of the following fact: all I did was help start something.

Wanna be startin’ somethin’?

That’s right, I’m referencing Michael Jackson. I can do that because a) we’re both from Indiana and b) what with this Urban Hero designation I’m almost as famous as him now.

Look: starting something is actually the easiest part. Anyone can start something. People start things all the time, things that don’t last, things that fail to launch. The difficult part is keeping it going — sustaining the effort past the first initial blush of enthusiasm. That’s where the hard work comes in. After the inspiration, perspiration.

That’s where the team effort comes in. This project was blessed with the attention and support of a diverse group of people who brought an array of strengths with them to the table. If it had just been me, the project would have gone nowhere. I’ve piled up a few projects like that over the years. But instead, this project bloomed because people wanted it, and they pursued it with patience, focus, passion, and an attention to detail I could certainly never have mustered on my own.

To those many people who contributed their precious time and effort over the last nine years, I am extremely grateful.

Now get your tickets and help me celebrate.

Rising Tide 9

Rising Tide 9

It’s time once again for Rising Tide. This will be the ninth iteration of this “conference on the future of New Orleans” which was launched by a bunch of local bloggers and concerned citizens on the first anniversary of Katrina.

I think what I like most about this event is its grassroots nature. Even though it is hosted at Xavier University of Louisiana (thanks to the sponsorship of the Center for the Advancement of Teaching) the event itself is entirely organized by volunteers. All the work that goes into it is done for sheer passion. The consistent quality of the event itself is a testimony to the power of that approach.

Of course, that means there is no big advertising budget. The only way most people learn of the conference is through that modern equivalent to word-of-mouth: social media.

So please take a moment and register for the conference, and then use Facebook or Twitter or email to help spread the word.

What’s that? You remain unconvinced? It’s gonna take more persuasion to get you to part with ten bucks? Fine, check the conference schedule. Look at that keynote on school reform by Andre Perry. Surely you’re curious as to why the former CEO of the Capital One-UNO Charter Network is saying that charter schools “aren’t the proper tools to deal with the root problems of New Orleans education.”

If that’s not enough to get you in the door, check out any of the other panels. I’d like especially to draw your attention to the final one, “Religion in Post-Katrina New Orleans,” which I am helping to organize in cooperation with Jimmy Huck.

Religion in Post-Katrina New Orleans

Last but not least, there’s the added enticement of a delicious lunch. Please register now.

Advocating the Greenway

Greenway Foldout

The New Orleans Advocate has a nice story by Andrew Vanacore on the greenway, including a couple quote from yours truly.

Also, Here are a a couple items which I should have noted when I posted last week:

  1. Yes, they are about to start work on the greenway. At last. As the Advocate article notes, it’s been almost nine years since I took my first hike along the Lafitte Corridor. Over the years the project has encountered many setbacks and challenges. I keep pinching myself, but this seems to be really happening.
  2. Not too long ago, Friends of Lafitte Corridor had their annual board elections. It was a historic moment, as the last of the founding board members rotated off at last because of term limits. I was deeply impressed by the slate of high-quality candidates. In a nutshell, it seems that FOLC is in good hands and there’s a lot of energy and momentum there.

    Even more than winning that Hero award, this development has me feeling that FOLC will be around for a while. It’s stunning to me, not to mention gratifying, that something I helped start has taken on a life of its own. Sure, the physical infrastructure of the greenway will be great, but without a living, breathing friends group, it will never reach its full potential. Plenty to do. Rock on, FOLC.

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Rest Easy, Ms. Foxworth

When I first met Ms. Foxworth, just 18 months ago, I was taken aback by her manner. She was quiet — very quiet. New Orleanians are known for many things, but being quiet is not one of them. Yet here was this woman talking so quietly I could barely hear her.

My confidence was a little shaky. This would be my daughter’s first public school teacher? Could this woman handle a room full of rambunctious pre-kindergarten children?

Another parent reassured me: “She’s great,” I was told. “They call her the Child Whisperer.”

Ready for 2013

Very quickly I learned how ungrounded my misgivings were. Without raising her voice, Ms. Foxworth commanded the attention and respect of every child in her class. Maintaining order amongst four-year-olds is no easy task, but she managed to make it look as natural as breathing. I was in awe of her.

Ms. Foxworth also welcomed me into her classroom. The kids were doing an International Baccalaureate unit on plants, and I came in to share a lesson on wheat. It went so well that I came back six more times throughout the course of that school year, to share seasonal celebrations with the children, often tying them into the larger curriculum. At every juncture Ms. Foxworth gave me encouragement and appreciation.

She even participated in the activities. One year ago today we planted a “light garden” for Candlemas.

Ms. Foxworth

My daughter’s moved on to kindergarten now, but when I saw Ms. Foxworth last week, she asked if I couldn’t come in to her class again and share a lesson with her new crop of students.

As it turns out, that was the last chance I’ll ever have to speak with her. Over the recent two-day snow outage, news came that Ms. Foxworth had passed away.


I didn’t really know Ms. Foxworth all that well, but I do know a few things.

She was a veteran teacher, at the pre-K level for two decades, and her experience clearly showed. These days there are a lot of Teach for America kids in local schools, but there is no substitute for long years of experience.

I will also say this: She wasn’t paid or respected nearly enough. I hasten to add that I was never privy to her salary information, nor was I ever aware of anyone disrespecting her. However, I know that as a rule we do not pay teachers highly in our country, and we do not accord them the deep respect that other cultures do. Let’s face it: In America respect and salary are often correlated, and teachers are not at the top of either list, but they should be. That’s one of the most troubling aspects of American society.

It makes me sad to know that Ms. Foxworth is no longer with us, that I’ll never see a child run up to hug her again. What truly breaks my heart is the knowledge that we, the American people, could have done better by her while she was alive. Some things are inevitable, but how we treat our teachers is not. Sorry to get political, but I feel this is an important point, something we must insist on at every turn.

The best way to honor a great teacher is to uplift the teaching profession.


Ms. Foxworth’s untimely death is a tremendous loss to our entire community. Ms. Foxworth didn’t just teach our kids. She taught us all by her example.

As another parent put it, she “embodied the power of gentle, calm silence.” It’s an ideal to which I still aspire. Even if you never met her, I think we can all still learn from her.

See also a far more eloquent tribute from Joie d’Eve. It’s funny how we hit the same themes.

Tree Blessing

Nov. 16, 2013: I officiated a civic tree-blessing ceremony on the bayou. We had a real-live fire dancer and Big Chief David Montana led us in singing “Indian Red.” Still can’t believe this really happened. It seems remarkable that someone like me, without any relevant credential, would be invited to do something like this. Many thanks to Jared Zeller et al for pulling this together. And thanks to Michael Homan for taking these photos.
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Preacher’s Cart

How did this shopping cart full of miscellaneous hardware come to be parked in our yard for three months?

Preacher's Cart

Therein lies a tale.

One day in late May, a guy came walking down our street. He started talking to Xy and somehow convinced her to hire him to cut our grass. Before I knew it she had him in the house and she was showing him a broken window pane. Could he fix it?

I scoffed, but I guess he had a way with words because the next thing I knew we’d agreed to hire him to fix the window pane and the drainage under our kitchen sink to boot.

The guy was a bit of a character. Called himself Preacher because he’s a man of God. A fast-talker, but likeable. Charismatic. Slightly tenuous grasp of what is laughingly referred to as “reality.” Seems like I’ve known a few guys like Preacher over the years. I drove him to his house, just a few blocks away, so he could get his tools.

He did fix our drainage, and he cut our grass once or twice. But he also seemed to keep asking for more money, and between Xy and I being generous and not communicating with each other, we ended up paying him more than we should have. He was still “working” on the the window pane project when he showed up one day with this cart load of stuff he got on discount somewhere. He asked if he could stow it in our yard while he ran some other errand.

Then he disappeared.

After three months we were really getting tired of having this cart around. I took this photo with plans of posting it to Freecycle.

But lo and behold, Preacher showed up the very next day. He had been in the hospital. He took the cart with a promise to come back and trim our grass one more time. No charge. He seemed to have forgotten about the window pane entirely.

But that’s fine by me. I wish him well.

How Long the Storm?

Street Salad

Isaac is gone, but his odor lingers on.

Seriously. There’s a smell in the air, a certain peculiar smell I can’t describe. I’m not sensitive to smells. I often think if I was more tuned in to my sense of smell, I’d have a radically different way of being in the world, more animalistic perhaps and less hyper-rational. I don’t notice many smells. But this smell I do notice. It reminds me of the smell after Katrina, which at the time I thought was all mold and rot. Now I’m not so sure. There was plenty of mold and rot, to be sure, but this is maybe something else that was also in the mix. It sprang up almost immediately after Isaac’s winds died down. There were massive amounts of live oak leaves scattered all over, damp with rain. Could that be the source of the smell? Those leaves don’t decay quickly. But perhaps they have some kind of mold growing on them, there already before they fell. Who knows.

It’s not an unpleasant smell. Not entirely pleasant either. I might say it smells like mold without any mustiness if that makes sense. Fresh mold. I’m trying to invent terms to describe a sensation for which my vocabulary is inadequate. But every time I catch a whiff, it brings back memories from 2005.

How long does a storm last? My boss speculated that people who haven’t lived through such storms don’t understand. The storm itself was only on us for a day and a half, right? But we were watching Isaac since August 21st. Most people around New Orleans lost at least a week of work to Isaac, factoring in the preparation and the subsequent power outages. When I got back in my office, it took a full week of rescheduling and catching up before things got back to what is laughably referred to as “normal” around here. For some, though, “normal” is still a long way off; some offices were compromised by the wind and rain and mold has set in. Remediation is under way.

As of today, two full weeks after Isaac’s landfall, our city streets are still lined with piles of debris, mostly branches and sometimes whole trees that have been cut down to size, stacked and bundled. They sit waiting to be carted off somewhere. (Probably a landfill, more’s the pity.) It’s a massive task and the city just doesn’t have enough crews to get it done quickly. I fully expect there will still be plenty of work remaining to be done in a week’s time. At that point, Isaac will have dominated our attention, or at least impinged upon our collective consciousness, for a full month.

I’m talking about those who weathered the hurricane with minimal impact. For some individuals, some families, some communities, the road to recovery is much longer. For those folks, the consequences of Isaac will linger long after his smell has faded from the street of New Orleans.

Tree

It wasn’t until after Labor Day that I passed by the bayou and saw what Isaac had done to my favorite tree.

Tree

This is the tree where my daughter got her name back in 2008. Throughout the 2010-2011 school year I stopped at this tree almost daily for a moment of contemplation. This tree survived a lightning strike last year. But I’m afraid Isaac may have dealt the death blow.

When I saw the damage, I was devastated. I embraced the tree and my tears flowed freely.

In the forest such a tree might continue to live for many years, but this tree is in an urban area, on public land, and highly visible. Some time in the last week, the tree was trimmed back and all the dead matter removed. Half the tree is gone now. The trunk remains and one major branch, giving it a lopsided, severely asymmetrical profile.

Will the humans allow it to live? I guess that’s the question. So I called Troy at the Orleans Levee District. He said their policy is not to cut down such a large oak, as long as there is life in it, without special authorization. I contacted his boss to say I want to help in whatever way I can, either to save the tree or to plant a new tree it if this one must be removed.

We Are OK

Hurricane Aftermath Party

So the storm came and lingered. Like us, Isaac dithered. Someone described him as the drunk Louisiana uncle who crashes on your couch when you were really thinking the party was over. Eventually he left.

We weathered the storm with no damage. Bit of a leak in the ceiling of our kitchen addition, but nothing to speak of. We lost power, and I’ll write more about that later.

Right now I wanted to take a moment to say thanks to all who held us in their thoughts over the past week, and to the friends who offered up their homes to harbor us. I want to let you know we’re alright.

Addendum: I don’t mean to speak for anyone else. It bears remembering that over a hundred thousand people are still without power. Also, a bunch of towns were flooded by Isaac. When you’re home is underwater, things are generally not “OK.”

Rising Tide 7

For the last several months I’ve been embedded, ensnared, and otherwise entrapped in the planning process for Rising Tide 7. I haven’t actually done any work, but I’ve observed other people doing lots of work, and I’m happy to take credit for their efforts.

Rising Tide 7

The poster for Rising Tide 7 riffs on the demise of New Orleans’ daily paper. You can bet there will be a very interesting panel on this topic, and many others, including the subject I’ve been writing about over the past week: The Education Experiment: Petri Dish Reform in New Orleans and Louisiana.

I may even be moderating a panel on parenting, Mardi Gras Moms and Who Dat Dads, unless we can sucker someone else into doing it for me.

Register now and save a few bucks. The ticket price will go up soon.

Poster credit: Line drawing by Melissa Moore, graphic work by Lance Vargas.

Why We Pulled Our Daughter Out of a Private Suburban School and Enrolled Her in Public School in New Orleans

Why We Pulled Our Daughter Out of a Private Suburban School and Enrolled Her in Public School in New Orleans — a headline intended to provoke. New Orleans public schools have such a bad reputation. How on earth could we send our daughter there?

It’s an act of hope.

Also trust. And determination. And a lot of other things, I suppose, but let’s come back to hope.

Hope for our daughter. Of course we hope our daughter gets an excellent education. We all want what’s best for our children. This is trite but true. We would not send our daughter to a school which was not up to our standards. As we are educators ourselves, with some graduate education under our belts, our standards are pretty high.

Hope for our pocketbook. We are not so poor that money is the determining factor, but we’re not so rich that I can avoid considering it. We are stuck in the middle. We can afford private school tuition. We’ve paid it for the past year. But it would not be easy. Money is an object. The least of all objects, but still an object. We are already paying taxes after all. If we pay tuition we pay twice, and that offends my sense of economy.

Hope for our community. Ah, here’s the rub. In my lifetime I feel that local communities everywhere have been undermined and weakened, to the point that many of us don’t even know what a community is any more. Our sense of the public sphere is diminished. The common life and the common good have all but evaporated. And that is a shame.

It seems our national political discourse has framed the relevant issues in terms of a conflict between individualism and government control. Libertarian types refer to public schools as “government schools.” I’m somewhat sympathetic to this critique, in all honesty. But what is lost in this debate? There has to be a way to think about and talk about our commonalities without resorting to the authoritarian structures of the state or the private model. Recently, the Occupy movement returned some attention to the idea of public space. I found that heartening, even though I’m skeptical that any real progress has been made.

Schools are among the most important public institutions we have. While private values such as religion may get reproduced at home and in the church or temple, whatever shared public culture we have gets reproduced in the public schools.

But make no mistake. Sending our daughter to public school is not some sort of altruistic act. We are not sacrificing our child on some altar of ideology. That would be perverted and wrong.

Rather, as I see it, we are thinking ahead. We are thinking not just of our daughter’s education but her overall quality of life. What kind of city will the next generation inherit? We need more quality public schools here. Everybody says so. The health of this city depends on the health of its public schools, both of which have languished far too long.

By investing in the school, putting our lives into it, we are investing in our future, and our daughter’s future.

A school is not a clockwork toy that one can wind up and let go. It requires constant effort and constant renewal. Every year there is a new crop of kids, a new crop of families to bring into the mix. This year we are part of that new crop. We plan to do our part. I’m not sure exactly what form this will take, as we are still getting the lay of the land, so to speak. But we hope to find our roles and make meaningful contributions.

This is how a community uplifts and sustains itself. This is what we believe in. I hope this hope is not misplaced.

A Night with Desmond

Saturday night I found myself with a bunch of Pagans and other folks at an uptown synagogue, preparing food for the homeless. We whipped up some large batches of red beans and rice, salad, and watermelon. Then we took the food to a large encampment of homeless people and served it. I slopped out 130 or so helpings of beans.

I was frankly amazed at how long the line was, how evident the need.

Though my connection was with Lamplight Circle, this regular Saturday night effort is organized by the Desmond Project. I understand it was started by a Catholic priest; it now runs out of the kitchen of a synagogue; throw some occasional Pagans into the mix and it starts to look like an interfaith project. Strangely enough I don’t think I’ve ever been in a synagogue before. But I digress.

The Desmond Project website appears to be misconfigured but there is a cached version. There’s also a Facebook page which appears to have gone somewhat dormant, and a Youtube channel with a couple videos posted a two years ago; I also found a sign-up form for volunteers but don’t know if it’s functional. The group, however, is definitely functional, and I’m sure there are other similar organizations out there.

If you’ve never done something like this, I highly recommend it. I read plenty about the plight of the homeless, here in New Orleans and elsewhere. It’s easy to become calloused or indifferent. It’s easy to turn people into abstractions. Seeing the faces of the men and women living on the street is profoundly humanizing.

By the Light of the Moon

Moonrise

We gather by the side of the road on the edge of an urban forest. I know the others only because they are dressed like me, in white clothing. We talk amongst ourselves, getting to know each other.

The signal comes at twilight, just as the sun is setting and everything is growing dark. We walk into the woods along a gravel path. We can hear the sound of drumming.

Soon we come to a clearing. There’s a circle made of lit candles and strewn leaves. Inside the circle, an altar and a pentagram. There are two women here, also dressed in white. These two I know, a little. One is inside the circle, drumming. The other is outside the circle, singing. She strides toward us. Her voice is beautiful. She reaches out and takes my hand, leading me and all the rest toward the circle.

We are each in turn ritually purified with incense. When all are within the ring of light, the circle is cast by calling the quarters and invoking the elements. And within this sacred space the ritual unfolds, as the full moon slowly rises.

This is an esbat, not a seasonal celebration, and so something new and unfamiliar to me. The heart of the ritual I might describe as energy work and group therapy. H. Gunaratana Mahathera describes Buddhism as “much more akin to what we would call psychology than to what we would usually call religion.” This is not a Buddhist ritual, but I’m reminded of this nonetheless. We are invited to think of some area in our life where we’ve reached a plateau, some area of our personal or interpersonal development where things have stagnated, where we’ve grown complacent or are just plain stuck. We think about ways to release that energy, and we engage in a few activities to visualize that release. Strategic symbolism, perhaps.

This may all sound very solemn, but there was a lightness to it as well, and laughter. We also drink margaritas.

Later, we sit in the moonlight sharing food, drink, and conversation. I hear a voice through through the trees. Soon it comes again, and again, impossible to ignore because the unseen person is shouting. He sounds angry. Then another voice joins the first. A woman. Their exchange becomes a song. Then instruments kick in: accordion, double-bass, sousaphone. The music is lusty and uproarious. There’s a whole band back in the woods somewhere.

After a few verses and a rousing chorus, the song crashes to a halt, and there is a round of applause. Judging by the sound there must be at least fifty people there. A couple members of our party are dispatched to scout out the situation. They report that it’s a gypsy-punk interpretation of Oscar Wilde’s Salome.

Many strange and wonderful things happen by light of the moon.

Photo: Moonrise / Eric Miraglia / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0