30 November 2008

One Man's Ceiling

What to make of New Orleans' recent designation as the most violent city in America?

"Based on what?" I wondered when the announcement was made. A little research revealed the stats and criteria and time frame and author of the study. All legit as best I can tell.

But the irony (or is it paradox) is breathtaking: the first and only place on the planet that's actually felt like home to me is the most violent city in the U.S.

I'm a woman living alone--and frequently walking alone, bicycling alone, eating out alone, etc... The most threatening situation I've witnessed was a swarming convergence on a chef by 6 police units down on Canal Street one night. Along with 7 or 8 other passengers, the chef and I were entering our 2nd hour of waiting for a replacement or a repair team for the Magazine St bus parked at the curb and the chef expressed his frustration loudly enough for the bus driver to hear. I guess the driver felt threatened and alerted NOPD.

I could understand if the announcement was that New Orleans is the most frustrating city in the U.S. The place is clearly wired for telephone service (look at the spaghetti tangle hanging over our little one-lane street) but just try to get someone in city government or the utility companies or the post office or the sanitation company or ..... to answer the phone. Or if you succeed in reaching someone (and when they finally answer the phone on the 14th ring, they sound surprised--as if a client was the last person they expected to find on the line), good luck getting any information or assistance or a callback.

Government and business have websites but most all of them are riddled with misspelled words, dead hyperlinks, and inaccurate information. Today I was trying to send the mayor an email. After composing my succinct but compelling missive, I was instructed to copy a string of characters at the foot of the page as a security measure.

What do you think? The security measure malfunctioned. Likewise for the webmaster link where tech problems were to be directed....

But I still love this place.

It doesn't make sense; usually I hate when things don't work due to human negligence. I hate lazy communication. I hate intentional misinformation. I hate when people just tell you anything to avoid saying "I don't know." I hate having my time devoured by someone talking long and saying nothing.

And all of those things go on here. In abundance. On a regular basis.

I've felt frustration more often than fear since coming to New Orleans. But my gasping and fist-clenching is diminishing. Sometimes I'm actually laughing through the frustration (usually possible if I've had a few drinks). More impressive, I'm developing some wiliness. I'm getting slick and learning how to slide through or devise a trick or a strategy.

Oh, I'm a novice for sure. I'm a rookie up against the charming, relentless Error Message that is life in New Orleans. But I like games.

And I love that people look me right in my face here.
And I love that people speak, even to "strangers."

And, in my book, those two features make New Orleans the least violent city I've lived in.

24 November 2008

Teaching Black Girls To Talk

I teach a piano class four afternoons a week at a KIPP school.

The girls were horrible Thursday. No one had done their homework, three of the five showed up without notebook, music or pencil, and they were talking as much and as loud as me for most of the hour. Finally I threw in the towel. "OK. You don't want to listen to me or work today so talk to me."

They gave me two things I could use. First, T_____ said she can't learn when she's hot. The girl has a point. In the cinderblock cell where we meet, room temperature is either sweltering or frigid; there's no middle range. When the AC is on, arctic air blasts directly onto us from a 3 foot by 3 foot vent in the wall. When it's off, my blouse sticks to me.

R______ said "Miss Alex, I think we'd all do better if we had a morning class. Our mind is too tired by this time of day." Another very good point. Inspirational messages like "No Excuses" and "Find A Way" are emblazoned all over the walls of this school. Granted I haven't spent a lot of time with adolescents, but these kids seem to be making excuses all the time. Is that typical of the age group or are they just rebelling against the signs?

I stopped in the office to pick up my check on my way out. After making my way through balloons and crepe paper and tables burdened with chicken wings and cake--preparations for Parent's Night--the tension in the office was an abrupt change. The office ladies were tiptoeing around the edge of the room with averted eyes, leaving a wide circular berth around a white male teacher and a brown girl student.

I entered asking, in a normal volume, if I could borrow a computer to look up the bus schedule.
One of the secretaries gestured toward an empty desk and mouthed "Use that one..." What was going on? Well, Mr. (who is the principal as well as a teacher at this school) was schooling her in how to say "Excuse me. I didn't understand what you said." After each utterance he'd say something like "No, you sound angry" or "Now you sound like you're annoyed" or "That doesn't sound like you really want to understand."

This went on the full four or five minutes it took me to find what I needed and get out of there. It felt hard and abusive and pointless to me. I think I took it personally. And the episode fed whatever it is in my cellar-soul that growls at the sight of all the uniforms and standing in line that defines these new New Orleans schools.

These kids are being trained to fit in the dominant culture. I'm not slamming the dominant culture wholesale; don't misunderstand me.


Since not one adult found a way to inform me of the schedule changes on Monday and then Wednesday last week; and since neither the office staff, the teacher who hired me nor the payroll clerk can figure out how to set a payday and pay me on that day; and since I received neither email nor telephone message--at either of my phone numbers--today informing me that class had been canceled but instead learned about it after traveling through rain to get to school today....

It just seems like maybe drilling the adults and getting them to conform might be more useful than drilling a 12-year-old girl about the tone of her voice at the end of a long school day (they meet 7 a.m. to 5 p.m.).

That job I left in October was one of those places where voice tones are modulated to flat and positive and facial expressions are perennially pleasant. There's a slender band of affect permissible and anything to either side of that is problematic, dysfunctional or unprofessional. Suppress, suppress, suppress....

How and when did flat affect and fake smiles become the desired demeanor? Why is it unprofessional to look or sound amused or annoyed or embarrassed or hurt when one is amused or annoyed or embarrassed or hurt?

It would be a different (and possibly less distasteful) situation if the girls were being taught meditation techniques or boxing or offered tools and opportunity to encourage them to self monitor to achieve a balance that works for them--if not the dominant surrounding culture. They're being told "That way that you walk/talk/laugh/emote is not okay with us. You need to stop doing that and do it this way because we're happier and more comfortable when you do it this way."

I think the girls are bringing them something they don't know how to handle so they're outlawing it.

When I was coming up, adults would say things like "Do as I say. After you've traveled the road I traveled, you'll have the right to an opinion."

But what if I'm not interested in traveling your road? What if I was planning to sail to my destiny? Or fly?

Reflect and Review

The tone of my horoscope for the last week or so reminds me of my emotional state in the days leading up to this year's presidential election. "Oh my god, oh my god, oh my god!" the little voice in my head gasped. "Are we going to do this? Is it possible?!" Anticipation--of the breathless-excited-standing-on-tense-tippy-toes variety. Something's coming....like, dare we say it -- a new day?

As the first day of my current Quit (that's how smokers refer to the process of confronting and engaging their addiction) drew to a close, I checked the day's message for Sagittarius:

It's the first full day of the Sun's month-long visit to your sign. This is a period of renewal, so make time this weekend to review the year behind you and to envision what you want your next year to be. But this is not a one-time event. Repeat this ritual of intentional visualization until it becomes ingrained into your everyday thinking. In this manner you can impact your future by changing how you see it.

And this morning's reading

There are so many big things in transition now that it's hard to pick just one and talk about it. In these days prior to Thursday's Sagittarius New Moon, you need to look back into your past and deep into your soul for the truths that can guide your life into the future. Keep in mind that you don't have to tell anyone about your inner journey today; it's yours and yours alone.
[Maybe I'm screwing things up by letting you read this?]

Anyway, the first week of a Quit is not the best time for the kind of deep life review advocated. I am fuzzy, unfocused and disorganized... I woke up this morning to discover I'd left the freezer door open over night. I risked one social outing over the weekend and spent $100 on dinner for two. I was so ditzy all day yesterday -- misplacing things and staring into space -- that by 9 p.m. going to bed seemed the safest thing to do. So I did.

I feel like I need a map or an outline or questionnaire or something to guide a meaningful life review. Or maybe just having some time off and alone on Thanksgiving will be enough. Feels like me and America are about to step into an important time...a time for correcting some crookedness and learning from mistakes...and getting it right this time.

20 November 2008

Beginning Again

Day One. Again. Trying again to give up smoking. Quitting is always exciting -- Can I do it this time?; scary--how much is this going to hurt?

Because it does hurt. The addicts out there know what I'm talking about. Not so much the physical pain but the spiritual/psychological pain of saying goodbye to the truest, most loyal, ever-present, nonjudgmental Friend. With me through thick and thin, every step of the way, never breaking a promise, never too busy to come to my aid.

Who else do I know like that? No one.

But we have a new president coming in. A recently reformed smoker according to reports. That is an inspiration. And not just any new president: the first openly mixed-race president in American history. This is so big it will probably take me another week or two to find the words to blog about it. As the mother of a beautiful, charismatic mixed race man, I've been waiting a long time for a high profile mixed race American to be openly so.

And things are turning up, up, up for me: potential students continue to respond to my Craigslist ad and sprinkling of flyers stapled to utility poles around town and tacked to coffeehouse bulletin boards. I'm averaging a new inquiry every 72 hours and slowly building a studio of committed students.

And yesterday I started a new part-time job in a building they call the Energy Center (whoa! how's that for inspiration!) in the Central Business District (CBD). A high-paying part-time job and you can't find a lot of those in New Orleans these days.

So an impressive number of things are looking up in my life and I'm feeling pretty positive and strong. They say there's never a good time to quit (you can always find an excuse) but maybe I've stumbled into the ever-evasive "good time to quit." I wonder how Obama's doing. I can't imagine quitting on my way to becoming leader of the most powerful nation on earth. Can it be done?

But I've quit before so I know how it goes: all the feelings and fears and regrets that the smoke helped cover will begin to surface by Saturday (Day Three is always the hardest for me). And there's no shortcut or escape through or away from the process. It goes like it goes. The success of my quit rests on my ability to hang on.

So. OK. Here goes...

14 November 2008


A few years ago I taught a class entitled "Final Conversations on Race in America." I knew that we (Americans) were, and remain, a long way from our "final" conversation; but the conversations to date had been circular and ineffectual in terms of eradicating racism and bringing sanity, humor and celebration to the relationships of our multicultural village. My aim in the class was to introduce a level of honesty and candor in the conversation in hopes of effecting some real and lasting healthy transformation.

It was an experiment. I hadn't done sufficient research. The discussions in the class were not markedly different from those I'd witnessed and participated in in the decades preceding the class.

I wish I'd known about this book -- White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son -- as I designed the class. Given the students in my class were predominantly "white," Wise's book might have spoken to them in a way I failed to. His personal stories and commentary are shared with uncommon naturalness and humor. And, being a "white guy," he is privvy to what "white" people say to each other when Black people aren't around and can speak to that private field as I could not and cannot.

It's powerful and impressive how much light White Like Me is shedding on my experiences as an African American woman. Through his discussion of "white denial," for example, I am coming to understand why conversations about race with seemingly enlightened "white" people have been unexpectedly difficult. Denial operates at such deep, unconscious levels that it trumps the intelligence and creativity they show in other contexts.


Something didn't feel right at the job I just left.

Our offices were housed in an elementary school. I didn't work directly with students but the mission of the non-profit I served sought the remaking and rejuvenation of New Orleans schools. There's a huge project underway city-wide to remake and rejuvenate New Orleans schools. On the surface, an admirable mission.

There was something about most of the teachers being "white" and all of the cooks and maintenance crew being black....and 99% of the kids being black...and all the kids being dressed alike...all that lining up and standing quietly in lines...all those dark student faces and white teacher faces...and how, once inside the building, I didn't feel like I was in New Orleans. Admittedly, I have no formal training as an elementary educator. What do I know? I can only report how it felt to me. Like conformity was more valued than originality. Like the power resided in white hands. And for me, that's troubling.

These days I work in a different middle school, this time directly with students as a piano tutor. I love the work. Here, too, the kids are all in uniform and there's a lot of lining up going on. To the positive, most of the faculty and staff appear to be people of color. But, again, the regimentation seems to be killing self-determination and originality. I think sometimes the only outlet available to students for critical thinking or originality or creative self-differentiation is acting out.


I'm observing. Saving my criticism and questioning for private conversations and around the blogosphere. I have a lot to learn. Best not to rush to judgment. Wise's analysis suggests white people have a lot to learn--or admit--as well. Do they know they have a lot to learn?

09 November 2008


I'm in the middle of making muffins so this will be brief.

I'm listening to WWOZ and Hazel (the Delta Rambler) is dedicating her show today to trees. In between the songs, she and her guest, Monique Pilie (of Hike for Katreena) are talking about the tree situation in New Orleans. Still pretty dire.

Since returning in March, I've been traveling on foot or bicycle a lot, which definitely puts me in closer proximity to trees. During the summer, when the Louisiana heat was making me humble, the shade of a few particular trees on the route between my work and my home saved my life. Besides my landlord's triflin' nature and not having a porch on my little house, I guess the absence of trees on our street is my biggest disappointment. Monique's nonprofit, born a few months after Katrina and the levee break, helps neighborhoods organize to (re)place trees. I called and left her a message inviting her down to my neck of the Irish Channel. Maybe we can get some trees going on.

Even the fastest growing tree probably won't benefit me much in the six months I have left in this place. I won't see the fruit of our labors. But down the road somebody's gonna think a thankful thought.

Oooooh. I miss my motor scooter. Bicycle travel is fine most of the time but the scooter allowed speed and ease of toting cargo that my bicycle can't match. Both modes are still slower than auto travel, though. Since coming to the South I had a car all of 12 months. My life pace quickened for those few months. Now I'm back to the other clock---the one in closer sync with "the long now" and the 10,000 year clock.

And it's mostly okay. Maybe this is what happens to everybody--you get older and you slow down. And slow is good. Elegant. Spacious. How can you "savor" anything quickly? How to even compare the pleasure of slow sex with a "quickie"? Drive-through with marinating? A glance with full eye contact?

And "slow" is a relative term. Bicycling down St. Charles at 5 in the evening--feels like I'm moving at snail's pace. But a three-hour picnic dinner on the flood wall along the Mississippi, watching the light fade and the boats go by feels like perfection. Like everything is finally moving at the right speed after too many awkward years looking for a pace that fit.

Oh....my muffins.