Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Pictures, A Story and Family Ties

I mentioned earlier that when my sister returned to New Orleans last October, I went with her to help clean out her flooded house. The water had receded by then, but everything in the house was still wet.

There were two things we hoped to salvage from our childhood home: the family photo albums and Dad’s story.

At least 20 albums containing hundreds of photos taken during the 1950s, 60s and 70s usually were kept in the guest room. Some prints were 3 ½ x 5, others were in the old square Brownie camera format. All were attached to black pages with corner mounts and captioned with silver ink in Mom’s beautiful handwriting.

Some photos I remember, in no particular order: my sister and I as ring-bearers in a cousin’s wedding; me and the boy cousins on the ramp at Grandpa’s camp; me, my sister, Mom and sometimes Dad in various groupings on trips to San Antonio, Pensacola, Washington DC, St. Augustine, Dallas; a certain young trombonist in the Jesuit High School uniform; me naked on a bed at age 1 or less. Most of the albums were on an upper shelf in the closet, above the water line but right in the path of spreading mold and humidity, locked for weeks in the hot, closed up house.

None survived.

Some albums were solid bricks, others held pages that when pried apart revealed little squares of wet, psychedelic mush. Some stuck together. All were beautifully captioned. Not one contained a recognizable image.

I wasn’t aware of Dad’s written story till a few years ago. As the Parkinson’s began to affect his brain power, he decided to write about his life while he could still remember it. He trusted my sister to help him and made her promise not to share his writing till after he died. She took the promise very literally and wouldn’t even show it to me.

At some point she began to transcribe his story onto paper and computer. As she hastily collected items for her evacuation from the path of Katrina, she skipped that folder. “We always come back in a few days” and you can’t take everything. It was safe on the computer desk, above any likely flood level.

Two close friends were the first to enter my sister’s house after the water receded, a week before her return. The story was at the top of the “what to try and save” list. They didn’t find it during their first two visits.

On their third visit (my first), one of our friends found the folder. We carefully opened hand-written and typed pages. Each was readable, none were stuck together. Thank God for little miracles.

Over the next few days of removing muck there were other surprises. I found several pocket-size diaries kept by Mom. They contained little glimpses of the early days of her marriage and our lives. Some entries: Ann Marie weighs 24 pounds today; the weather is gloomy and cloudy; Benny had the day off today. Dr. Duffy visited. (Remember when doctors made house calls?)

Mom seems to have been the premiere family packrat. She collected many things, but the most unusual find was a newspaper ad featuring cousin Harry. An Oldsmobile dealer ran a series of warm-and-fuzzy ads in the 1970s, featuring behind-the-scenes non-salesmen employees. Harry was their accountant. Harry died a few years later at a very young age, and Mom apparently laminated the saved ad. I found it staring at me in a mound of wet muck near some of the ruined photo albums.

Perhaps another found item is family ties. Through the tragedy of Katrina, the tense process of locating cousins and Mom, the death of Mom, the shared news of evacuations and damage, our family has become stronger. I might be the biggest beneficiary of this, however, because I have been one of the biggest loners. I distanced myself from my relatives and New Orleans, not because I didn’t like them but because I wanted something I didn’t think I could get by remaining there.

Right before my dreaded 50th birthday I began to reconnect with family and friends from the past. I wanted to learn how they turned out and what they were doing. Beneath the surface I believe I also wanted them to learn about me, to see my successes, to understand that I appreciated them.

And, like both of my parents, I am a packrat. It must be a family trait. My aunts and uncles who did not live in New Orleans apparently collected photos and mementos, including some that were sent to them by my parents over the years. My cousins still have those photos and they took the time to dig them out, scan them and send them to me and my sister.

Now we have some of the lost photos, but more than that, I have found my family. Reluctantly I thank Katrina for that.

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Ellen Made Me Cry

The Ellen Degeneres New Orleans Tribute Show was today, the 1-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. Ellen is from New Orleans. So am I. Her show is usually funny. Today’s show included a serious tour of devastated neighborhoods, including the one where I grew up.

One scene included a tour of a house which hasn’t been cleaned out yet. A family’s moldy possessions are still scattered across each room. The scene ended with a tearful Ellen removing her microphone and walking out of the scene.

Her tears were real. So were mine. I couldn’t watch any more.

Sunday, August 27, 2006

A Personal Hurricane: That Smell

Tuesday (August 29th) is the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s devastating Gulf Coast landfall. Katrina is a personal story for me because I grew up in New Orleans and most of my family still lives there. My sister evacuated 50 miles north, rode out the storm with friends, then learned that her neighborhood was flooded.

She stayed with us in Maryland for several weeks then I helped her return to a friend’s house in the New Orleans suburbs when her job came back last October. She is still living in that friend’s guest room. Her house is gutted and she’s waiting for loans and other financial assistance in order to begin the process of elevating the house, a required step before moving back in.

The pictures that accompany this post were taken in and around her house last October. The montage at the beginning is before and after; her house is third from the bottom. The following is something I wrote while taking a break from dumping her water-logged belongings on the front lawn for pickup by debris removal crews.

October 20, 2005

After seven weeks of saturation coverage, much of America is tired of Katrina. The hurricane recovery is no longer front page news or the lead story. But in New Orleans the nightmare of her aftermath has just begun.

My sister Ann Marie owns and lives in the 50-year old house where she and I grew up, in a middle- to upper-middle class New Orleans neighborhood called Lakeview. Despite its name, Lakeview starts a mile from The Lake, but the west boundary is the 17th Street Canal of levee break fame. The entire neighborhood sat in 10 feet of water for more than 3 weeks. No home was spared, none are currently inhabitable and many will be a total loss.

My little part in the recovery effort is to help clean out Ann Marie’s house.

The worst part is the smell. I could mention the devastation; describe the toppled trees, water-logged abandoned cars and mounds of ruined personal belongings piled next to the brown shrubbery. I could help you picture the water line as it painted stripes across the little white house a few inches below the top of the front door. You might share my tears as I bag bundles of wet clothes and muck-covered remnants of photos spanning five decades.

But nothing is worse than the odor.

The smell of wet decomposing leaves is similar but far more tolerable than the scent of a lifetime of paper, clothes, furniture and wet carpet that has been saturated with the muddy, brackish water of Lake Pontchartrain that spilled through the levee less than a mile from here.

I smell it in the house, near other houses; sometimes a breeze sends it my way as I stand in the dusty yard changing into my clean clothes (hey, whose watching? I’m alone on this block today). The minivan interior absorbs the aroma during a 30-minute ride to my cousin’s suburban home where I promptly place the jeans and long-sleeve t-shirt in the washer. Last night I woke up with that scent in my nostrils. Just looking at photos of the house tricks my nose into acknowledging the stench.

New Orleans used to smell like magnolias, hot sauce and chicory. Now mold is the signature scent of this ghost town.

New Orleans is still The Big Empty. As of August, 2006, less than half of the 455,000 pre-Katrina residents have returned. Some neighborhoods look like they did a few weeks after the storm. The nightmare that began a year ago is ongoing for a few hundred thousand of our fellow Americans.

You may wonder why someone would live there after all of this. To find an answer, imagine if the place you’ve lived and loved for five decades was seriously damaged in a matter of days. Your whole life is tied to the buildings, people and culture of the place. It is difficult to rebuild, but it is possible. Wouldn’t you consider that option?

It is some kind of blessing that I left that region 28 years ago to chase a dream. But New Orleans never really left me. Jazz, jambalaya and hours of Katrina anniversary media coverage still grab my attention and shred my lifetime of memories almost as if I still lived there. And now the smell of mold produces the same reaction.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Boomer Men and Younger Women

Like most healthy boomer men, I like looking at young women. Women in their 30s and 20s. I don’t have to explain the attraction, do I? A lot has been written about middle-age boomer men and their attempts to act on these fantasies.

Before I make you uncomfortable with where you think this post might be headed, let me say I have NOT acted on any such fantasy. I’m a fifty-something man married to a younger woman. Four years younger.

That said, I do want to tell you about a “young” woman that always catches my eye. When I say young, I mean younger than me. She’s a beautiful, versatile actress whose current job puts her on your TV every Thursday night: Marg Helgenberger.

She plays forensic detective Catherine Willows on C.S.I.

Earlier roles include KC, a hustler on China Beach (1988-1990) and Dr. Laura Baker in Species, a 1995 movie that was on TV as I started to write this.
She also had a recurring role as George Clooney’s love interest on E-R.

I think Marg looks great at 48.

Saturday, August 19, 2006

Technology Stuff

I just bought the most amazing little device – a USB flash drive. This finger-sized plastic thing that now hangs on a lanyard with my work ID can store 1 GB of data, more disc space than the entire hard drive of the computer I had in the 1990s. I copied several hundred photographs and all of my blog posts onto this device yesterday, and only used half of the available storage space.

This mini drive would enable me to copy of all the audio files I work with every day, acting as a pint-size backup of my current work projects. I could probably back up sensitive personal data like scanned insurance documents. It is probably a good gadget to have in the event of a terrorist attack, natural disaster or computer theft and it only costs about $25. For a few bucks more I could get a 2GB model.

I’m no stranger to technology, but this little plastic thingie amazes me! And it reminded me of technology we have and take for granted and items boomers used to have that younger people might never have seen or used.

Stuff we used to have:
- Dial phones, party lines, calling an operator to place a long-distance call
- TVs with no remote, black and white TV, only 4 channels
- Cars with no air conditioner, paying extra for seat belts, gas station attendants
- The milk man, doctors who made house calls
- Record changers, 45s, 8-track players

Stuff we have now – and take for granted:
- Cell phones, computers, online shopping
- VCRs, 125 channels or more
- Power steering, power door locks, air bags

Stuff 20-somethings have that many boomers can’t understand:
- iPods, text messaging, My Space

Has technology helped us or has it just made us slaves to our devices? Can a cashier count out change if the register doesn’t figure it out? Can you go on vacation without checking voice mail or email? Have you ever answered your cell phone while sitting on the toilet? Can you have a family meal and conversation without the TV on?

I love technology, but sometimes I miss Mayberry.

Monday, August 14, 2006

Another list

Ian has challenged his readers to another meme. I can’t resist – I’m a list junkie! Here are my answers. Let me know if you do this on your blog.

1. If you could have dinner with any three people (except Mohammed, Jesus, Martin Luther King Jr., Ghandi) then who would they be? (don't say Mother Teresa either)

You didn’t specify dead or alive, so …
Dead: John F. Kennedy, Glenn Miller, Isaac Asimov
Alive: John Glenn, Jodie Foster, Walter Cronkite

1a. what would you eat?

Their choice. The conversation is more important to me than the menu.

1b. what restaurant would it be?

An Italian restaurant or a diner.

2. If you could force everyone in the world to read one book (except for the Quran or the Bible) what would it be?

The Power of Optimism, by Alan Loy McGinnis

3. Is there a TV show you'd cancel dinner with your best friend for if you knew that a new episode was going to be airing once only? What is it?

No, because my VCR still works and one day I’ll have Tivo.

4. If someone told you that you could only have one hobby/favorite passtime for the rest of your life, what would you pick?

Photography. At times it's a hobby, a passion, a source of income and a creative outlet. It's been my favorite passtime since my age was in single digits.

5. Which song is on the soundtrack of your life?

One just won’t do, but The Dance by Garth Brooks expresses one sentiment I believe in.

6. How old were you when you had your first crush? Who was it?

Second grade. I can’t remember her name, but she was short, cute, blond. After college, she married a man who was classmate of ours in second grade.

7. If you could read the thoughts of any one person, who would it be?

My wife. She seems to expect me to read her mind anyway so it would be great if I could.

Alternate answer: President Bush. I want to know if the Iraq war was really his decision or if he caved under pressure being exerted by his advisors.

8. If you could block your thoughts from only one person, who would it be?

See first answer to previous question.

9. If you could choose between life on earth forever or going to heaven, which would you choose?

I’m not completely sure there is a heaven, so I slightly favor the earth forever option. Sometimes I think we’ll get both because heaven might turn out to be the conflict-free earth we often dream about.

10. When you die, what will your contribution to the world be?

I helped people learn something useful or feel better about themselves because of something I said on the radio or wrote in a book or a blog.

OK, your turn. Let me know.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

Three days in August

An event on a hog farm in the Catskills changed the world.

Thirty seven years ago this week, 500,000 boomers converged on Max Yasgur’s farm near Bethel, New York for the Woodstock Music and Art Fair, three days of peace, love, music and mud. More than two dozen musical artists performed, two babies were born, two concertgoers died. There were 20-mile traffic backups and thousands got in free when staffers at the gate were overwhelmed by the size of the crowd.

The lineup was a who’s who of the music world: The Who, Santana, Blood Sweat & Tears, Joan Baez, Arlo Guthrie, The Grateful Dead, Joe Cocker, Janis Joplin, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Jefferson Airplane and more. Richie Havens opened the festival with a song of freedom, Jimi Hendrix closed with a psychedelic Star Spangled Banner.

The variety of artists is incredible. Some were already past their popularity prime, some were brand new. One of many signature quotes from the event was spoken on stage by Stephen Stills: “This is the second time we've ever played in front of people, man, we're scared shitless.” Jimi Hendrix, Santana and Janis Joplin were among those at their peak. Many are now considered legends and many still tour.

The festival ran from August 15 through 17, 1969 and a Woodstock movie and 3-album soundtrack came out in 1970. Both Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin died in 1970.

Tickets for the 3 days of Woodstock, featuring more than 25 acts, cost $18 each. Today, tickets for a typical one night, 2-act show (for example: Woodstock performer Santana, who is still popular, still touring and playing in my area next month) cost $30 to $80, plus a service charge of close to $18.

The Woodstock Music and Art Fair thirty seven years ago was a turning point for music and for the youth culture of the time, the baby boomers. Some of us who lived through the traumatic events of the previous year, including war protests, civil rights demonstrations and the assassinations of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy, looked at Woodstock as a symbol of a possible peaceful future. In truth, things got worse before they got better, but they did get better.

Some readers of this blog weren’t even born yet and only know Woodstock as history. They might be surprised to learn that many people of our parents’ generation feared us. Media coverage fueled the fear with an emphasis on our long hair, loud music and “radical” beliefs. But Max Yasgur, who was a few months short of his 50th birthday at the time of the concert that changed the world and his farm, didn’t seem to be afraid as organizers brought him onto the stage. His words to the crowd are immortalized in the film: “This is the largest group of people ever assembled in one place, and I think you people have proven something to the world: that a half a million kids can get together and have three days of fun and music.”

Thursday, August 10, 2006

Stars, real stars

One of my geeky hobbies is watching the night sky. Stars, planets, the moon, meteor showers. I don’t really know all that much about what I’m watching; I just like to watch.

This weekend is the peak for the Perseids, an annual meteor shower that actually runs for a few weeks before and after the peak. The timing isn’t all that good for North American observers this year, with the highest rate of activity occurring in the daytime and a full moon getting in the way of some night observing. There may still be some spectacular viewing, especially near the East Coast.

For best viewing, drive away from the bright lights of a city. I already live in such a place, and got quite an eyeful a couple of years ago. It’s quite a site.

Here are a couple of links for more information:

Saturday, August 05, 2006

Anti Inflammatory Attitude

Boomer idealism can lead to an interesting analogy.

I’ve been in pain for several weeks. Apparently a disc in my lower back was swollen, which pinched the sciatic nerve, and caused severe pain and muscle spasms all the way down my leg into my foot. I’ve been walking with a limp, leading to further imbalance in my body.

After a month of letting body parts fight it out with each other, I took a proactive approach and went to my doctor for help. He ran some tests, asked lots of questions, analyzed the situation, explained what was wrong. He suggested a course of action to solve the problem, which included an anti-inflammatory drug.

The medication relieved pressure on the sciatic nerve, which is connected to my thigh, knee, calf, ankle and foot. Each is a unique body part, yet each must work together for me to move forward. Reducing tension enables the parts to function properly and ultimately the whole body will be in better shape.

What if an anti-inflammatory attitude could be used in the world body, affecting some connected parts like Israel, Lebanon, Iraq, Iran, North Korea, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and the United States? Each is a unique country and culture, yet each must work together for the world to move forward in peace. Reducing the swelling of tensions would enable the countries to function properly and ultimately the whole world would be in better shape.

Idealistic? Yes. Possible? Maybe not.

Yet a new understanding of how my body parts relate to each other plus the use of anti-inflammatory drugs has enabled me to walk almost normally again. Understanding how countries can relate to each other plus the use of an anti-inflammatory attitude could help the world take a long step toward more peace with less pain.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

List Junkies

Ian tagged me for this. And I'm a list junkie, so I did my version. Do your version on your blog and let me know where it is. Or if you're like me and can't pass up a list, just read on.

Four jobs you have had in your life:
1. Concession stand attendant in a high school gym
2. Account Executive for a hotel
3. Telemarketer for a home-improvement company (I quit after 2 days)
4. Overnight DJ on a Country Music radio station

Four movies you would watch over and over:
1. Casablanca
2. Dirty Harry
3. Cool Hand Luke
4. Lethal Weapon

Four places you have lived:
1. Louisiana
2. Wisconsin
3. Texas
4. Maryland

Four TV shows you love to watch:
1. The Closer
2. Law & Order
3. Law & Order: CI
4. NYPD Blue

Four places you have been on vacation:
1. Arizona/Utah
2. The Outer Banks, North Carolina
3. Cancun
4. Jamaica

Four websites you visit daily:
1. A couple of Blogger sites, including Diner Girl and Ian
2. Everything New Orleans
3. Google
4. The AOL Game site (a real time-waster)

Four of my favorite foods:
1. Jambalaya
2. anything with rice in it
3. carrot cake
4. pasta

Four places I would rather be right now:
1. Walking on the beach near Sanderling, North Carolina.
2. Watching a sunset at the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.
3. Sharing a bottle of wine with my friends who live in Kona, Hawaii - at their house, of course.
4. Going west on the interstate instead of east to work.

Four friends I am tagging that I think will respond:
1. Diner Girl
2. KJ
3. LeeAndra
4. Meander

Four places you'd love to visit:
1. Palermo (Sicily)
2. Banff (Canada)
3. London
4. St. Thomas

Four foods you don't like:
1. Sushi
2. Sushi
3. Sushi
4. Sushi