29 Dec 2006

Chillin' in the city

I'm hanging out in Ravenswood right now at my annual pilgrimage to Zachfest (recently relocated from central Urbana).

After a quiet Christmas Eve ending in a really awesome High Mass at midnight (aside from the bizarro train wreck of a Gloria), Kathy and I followed a longstanding family tradition and stayed up all night playing video games---in this case, Mario Kart Double Dash. It turns out this is way better when you're doing Mass on Christmas Eve and can sleep in in the morning. Go figure. Then, Christmas Day was spent hanging out with guests at the house, and the day after I found myself lacking in things to do; I had miscounted days and thought the 26th was the day to visit my cousins, but that would be the 27th.

So about 3 in the afternoon, I started playing the GameCube's Zelda game (Wind Waker). Kathy gave it a lukewarm rec, because the plot was good and play decent, but "you spend the whole damn time sailing." It's 'cause she was doing it wrong (selon moi): although previous Zeldas were equally amenable to the play-the-plot-through players and those that search for side quests, this one really only works for the latter group. When you are taking notes, a sail from the bottom of the map to the top (which might otherwise take fifteen minutes!) can become a zigzag up the map following various side tasks. Great fun, and only mild camera-angle problems. With only food and bathroom breaks, I played through to 11 the next morning!

After a nap, we headed over to my cousins' in the city. At one point the plan had been for me to go straight from there to Zach's, since it's only a couple miles away, but about 4 or 5am I decided that might not be a great idea. So instead? I went home and played more Zelda, from say 9pm to about 6am. (I had intended to just play a few hours and cut out after the next big dungeon crawl, but it took a while to get to a dungeon... and then I had to play it....)

And so it was on just twelve or so hours of sleep over the previous three days that I came to Zach's gaming party yesterday. No huge marathon games started, which was ok because I was able to play more of them; this went through 4:30am with a brief break to hit the Moroccan restaurant with the couscous and the fabulous tea. Today is movie day, although we got a late start; inertia and various technical issues meant we didn't start watching anything until 4, and then we had to wait for the movies to go be rented, so we watched the first two episodes of Buffy (which were fabulous, of course). Then Shaolin Soccer, which is hilarious but only if watched in a large group, and TransAmerica, which is a pretty awesome movie and, from what I hear, a very thoughtful and accurate depiction. They're watching Hotel Rwanda now, which I've seen before so I ducked out to check email, fix a snack, and post this, although I'll head in there for the second half. I wonder what will be next?

"That [virginity] pledgers who have sex are likely to be contraceptively unprepared is to be expected, for it is hard to imagine how one could both pledge to be a virgin until marriage and carry a condom while unmarried." --Federal study on virginity pledging

Posted by blahedo at 11:54pm | Comments (1)

24 Dec 2006

Here we go again...

I really don't know why I let myself keep going to St Thomas. Well, no, I do: it's right across the street from my parents' house, and therefore convenient. But every Mass I attend there ends up being offered up as a penance, for something, because they typically range from the comical to the downright painful.

It's not even that they are liturgically abusive. There are some spots, sure, but they do better than a lot of the places I've been while travelling. It's just that the music is so awful.

Not that it has to be. The music director, Marcy Weckler Barr, is a talented musician, playing, singing, and even composing---her stuff is just the sort of thing you'd like, if you like that sort of thing. Today's responsorial (from Ps 80) had a Jewish-inspired tune that was actually pretty good. It's just that for every song she's up there playing her synthesiser with the breathy, new-age-y instruments that sound incredibly out of place in any liturgical setting. (As does the drumset....)

And the musical choices! I can forgive putting "O come, O come Emmanuel" as the processional, because although I'm not fond of the piece, it is traditional and eminently appropriate this time of year. But she managed to find a simply awful Mass parts setting to the tune of "O come, O come Emmanuel". The words didn't fit very well, and nobody knew what they were supposed to be singing, and based on what was written in the "worship pamphlet" they didn't want the congregation singing anything but the refrain anyway (didn't know there was a refrain in the Sanctus, did you?). The congregation never sings at St Thomas, though, probably because they get new stuff thrown at them every week and most of it is pretty crappy anyway.

The offertory song was an exception, in that it was actually pretty good, but not an exception in that it was performed for the congregation (we had words, but no music). It's called "The visit", by Miriam Therese Winter, and it's about the visit of Martha to Mary. As long as you get rid of the last verse (which appears to call Christ a burden (!)), it's a great and appropriate song.

Less so the Communion song: Hail Mary, Gentle Woman. I did like that they were actually playing a song I knew and liked, but a Marian song for Communion? Fr Bill would be having fits.

And then there was the closing: "Soon and very soon". I feel a little guilty picking on this one, because it's actually appropriate and all, but just two weeks ago I went to Mass at an African-American parish in NOLA, which also sang this as recessional, and I just laughed out loud at how incredibly white this choir sounded. Totally unfair, I know.

Had that been the only thing, it would've just put a smile on my face. But it was the cap to a Mass that mostly came off as comical and ridiculous. I wonder if their Masses in Polish are better?

"Uh-oh, Ryan. You're starting to base your religious beliefs on an experiential relationship with God. It's all downhill from here, y'know." --Jonathan Prykop

Posted by blahedo at 11:16am | Comments (3)

23 Dec 2006

The Water Saga (part 2)

(continued from part 1)

Ok, so I've tried to drain the hot water heater by running hose out the window and starting a siphon with my mouth. Which was dumb, but what can you do? I will say that based on later discoveries, the only water that touched my mouth was whatever had been in the garden hose before we started, which is a little less gross, I guess.

Anyway, more running around to try to figure out what to do. All of a sudden I have this major epiphany: the water can't drain out of the system until air can enter it—meaning not just opening the valves connecting the HWH to the house, but actually opening a faucet somewhere. So I turn on the laundry sink faucet. And, thinking further, I should probably do this upstairs to actually let the water drain out of the system and not just keep dripping (or whooshing out later as enough air eventually works its way in)....

I just go ahead and do this, wandering to the upstairs bathroom and turning the faucet and shutoff valve. I'm rewarded with a coughing, sucking sound as air flows into the system and (downstairs) water flows out. Success!

At this point, I pile up the whole garden hose inside the house, with the end of it draining into the sink. Turning on the HWH drain valve, I'm rewarded with a rush of clear water, then black gooky water, then clear again. At this point, I (keeping the end of the hose in the sink) feed the middle part of the hose out the window, then cap the hose with my hand and throw the end out. Siphon successful! I report in to Kudi that the HWH is draining. This takes longer than you might think, and brings us more or less to the end of the work day.

So then the task becomes removal of the HWH and laundry sink, first thing on Thursday (day 3). There had been talk of using a hacksaw, but now that we had proper tools that looked unnecessary; the plumber's wrench made quick work of the pressure release pipe that drained through the floor, for instance. Someone else had removed the sink while I was off doing something else, and Kudi and I are easily able to unscrew the HWH connections with a crescent wrench. Time to remove the thing....

...Only, the dolly, one of the nice ones with inflatable tires, has a flat! This seems nearly inevitable in a piece of equipment regularly used on a gutting site, but nevertheless, puts a bit of a damper on the proceedings. So, I grab someone to help and we lug the sucker out by hand. Which is less bad than you might think: a drained hot water heater weighs a lot less than a full one!

But in the meantime, I've had a problematic revelation: the house's water has to come back on at the end of the day. Only one of the HWH pipes has a cutoff, and I'm not 100% convinced it's the inflow, but we're willing to gamble. But where the laundry sink was, there are now two bare pipes (three if you count the drain) open to the world, with no cutoffs to be seen anywhere. Kudi and Laura (the TLs) call a conference on what to do about this, and I'm called in as the local water expert (!), and the verdict is that after lunch we'll make a Home Depot run for some sort of shutoff valve we can screw on, or maybe just pipe caps to cover over the ends. Because we have to get something over them before we turn on the FEMA trailers' water supply when we leave....

Of course, what really should have happened is that the owners needed to get an extra garden hose, and divert the trailer water supply from the house's inflow, rather than from the outside tap. This would be trivial for a plumber and not hard for the homeowner; I'd've just done it, but this was technically outside our job description, I didn't have any Teflon tape, and if anything went wrong it might've been Bad.

But, during lunch, more epiphanies. Even without reinstalling the whole sink, surely we could just block the open water line the same way it was blocked before, viz the laundry sink's faucet? Brilliant! No Home Depot run required.

Of course, that's assuming everything fits right.... I still don't have any Teflon tape, and so at the end of the day when it comes time to reattach the thing, we just screw it back on and cross our fingers. The water comes on... "Stop stop stop!!!" Ok, so, water spraying all around the laundry room is less than ideal. Tightening the one that was spraying only gets it down to a slow drip... but the TLs say it's good enough and that they'll come back with one of the more experienced Hands On folks that evening to check it out.

Now I'm getting distracted by Christmasy things. Guess this'll have to be a three-part story!

Posted by blahedo at 11:53pm | Comments (0)

20 Dec 2006

NOLA update

I've just finished typing in posts that I wrote while still in New Orleans, and backdated them to when I actually wrote them. They are:

That's not by any means all I have to write about the trip. I still need to finish up the Water Saga, and I need to talk about Timberland, for instance, not to mention recounting the final community meeting. But I figured I'd mention the backdated posts, since if you've been following along and keeping up, you might miss them.

Also, now that I'm back, I'll be going back to posting about my usual array of random topics. If you're interested specifically in the NOLA posts, I've thrown together a special NOLA edition that includes only New-Orleans-related musings.

Posted by blahedo at 7:10pm | Comments (0)

18 Dec 2006

The run continues!

We've gotten a final confirmation on the speaker for Knox Commencement 2007: It will be William Jefferson Clinton. Hooray for guaranteed seats on the platform!

"[Ballroom Dancing] just gets more exciting the more you know about it, which is why you have to do well at school so you can spend the rest of your life supporting your habit. Just don't plan to marry anyone who dislikes dancing; it'll probably win in the end!" --Kay Teague, YCN Coordinator

Posted by blahedo at 9:28pm | Comments (0)

17 Dec 2006

Ugh, spam.

I'm trudging through 462 email messages right now. Some are legit, but an awful lot of it is spam. Ugh, spam. That's what I get for not checking my email for two weeks.

"There are just two kinds of languages: the ones everybody complains about and the ones nobody uses." --Bjarne Stroustrup

Posted by blahedo at 1:22pm | Comments (0)

14 Dec 2006

Racism and specialness in New Orleans

Something is really special about New Orleans. I'm sitting in the community meeting, hearing people talk about their experiences here and their intention to come back, and this is not just the same old same old. What is it? How many cities have so many songs written about them? How many cities have so many people fighting so hard to live in such a marginal location?

I have one thought about the communitarian nature of NOLA: racism here is right out there in the open. White racists are quite unafraid to say so; which means that if you see a white person mixing in with black people, it's not just a closet racist seeking approval. The right-out-there aspect of racism here makes the city much more racist in some ways, but much less racist in another. Maybe I'm just misreading it, but here in New Orleans, when I've been in black neighbourhoods (which was most of the time), I've not felt as glared-at as I might in some northern cities. Because white people can easily avoid these areas, and because white people have nothing to prove on this front, the fact that I'm even there signifies to the residents that I'm on their side.

So that may be something that is speaking to a lot of these (mostly white) volunteers who drove or flew in some considerable distance to help out here. Or maybe I'm just crazy, but I myself have certainly felt something different here; Chicagoland and Providence and Galesburg have all been nice places to live, but New Orleans is a Place, a personality unto itself, and the easy adoption into its community seems like it must be a reason why.

UPDATE: In his post "Nigger, nigger on the wall", Geoff Pullum makes a very similar point to mine above about racism:

I want you to, because there are things I need to know about you. Whether you refer to African Americans as niggers is relevant to whether you and I are ever going to have lunch together or be drinking buddies, for example. I don't want to know you have been cowed by some ban or convention; I want to know how you think it is appropriate to talk. Knowing how Michael Richards used the word nigger is highly relevant to my decisions about whether I will ever put my money down to see his act in a comedy club. Useful information.

Posted by blahedo at 6:59pm | Comments (0)

At the community meeting: AmeriCorps

[The community meeting]

Tonight is the last night for one of the Americorps groups. I'm getting a little jealous, and I'm sitting here wishing I had done this between college and grad school. Some of them are doing exactly that, some are taking time off from college, and some are in it directly out of high school. It's such an opportunity to actually do something; it bundles up community and service and friendship all into one convenient package, and you get to see the country while you're doing it. I can remember when Clinton signed it into existence, and thinking then that it was a great idea, and a worthy complement to the Peace Corps, but honestly hadn't heard much about it since then.

So anyway, we're wishing them all goodbye. One of them I hit with a sales pitch for Knox, because she'd be an awesome addition to Knox; I had to wait in line behind several students who were trying to do the same thing. But the whole group was interesting; their next assignment is building houses in Biloxi with Habitat. After that, who knows? In their 10-month term of service, they get four assignments, and they don't find out about each one until just before the previous one ends, so the rest of their term could be just about anything....

Posted by blahedo at 6:02pm | Comments (0)

More shotguns

[Today's house]

Another cajun shotgun house today—six rooms front to back, with just a couple of side closets and bathrooms. Plus two rooms out back, one a mud room (with water heater) and the other a greenhouse. It had already undergone one day of gutting; today was the finishing gut.

Some of you that have known me long know of my fear of heights. Some may even know of my bungee jump in Reno, and that after that my acrophobia got a lot less strong. Well, today that was proven over again, as I found myself leaning way over from the second step of a ten-foot ladder to get the opposite side of a closet. (The ladder wouldn't fit inside the closet.) "Screw this," thought I, "I'm climbing on the rafters like Elyse is doing."

So I left the ladder behind and spent the next forty minutes climbing around the door frames and pulling down walls, twelve feet up. The TL got all worried and said it was against HONO policy; that's as may be, but I certainly have seen a lot of HONO people, including TLs, going off-ladder, so whatever. This TL was way more concerned with following the rules than with safety, because it was way safer to be firmly planted on a rafter than to lean way over. (Not that I haven't also done my share of leaning off ladders.)

[My closet perch]

The excitement of the day was that a TV crew from TNT came around to get footage of a gut in action. So, I might be on national cable at halftime tonight. (Charles Barclay seems to have adopted NOLA—he was present in person at yesterday's hoo-ra, and I think this coverage is attached to him somehow.)

I had a headache on and off today, and I was thinking it had to do with too-tight hardhat or respirator or something, but when I described the specific symptoms, Sarah instantly diagnosed it as a mould headache, and said that Tylenol and such would do nothing for it. Which wasn't very reassuring, but at least it seems to be gone now.

Ooh! I still need to talk about Timberland. But we have to go now; I'll write more later.

Posted by blahedo at 4:42pm | Comments (2)

13 Dec 2006


Ok, maybe not a tragedy per se. But at some point last night my computer's power cable died. So, there are a couple of posts bottled up in it, and a couple more rattling around in my head right now, but you won't see any of them until at least Sunday. :P

In the meantime, BUY TIMBERLAND PRODUCTS. That company is très cool. I'll tell you more about it later.

Posted by blahedo at 6:08pm | Comments (1)

12 Dec 2006


        gutted interior]

I'm not sure what the left half of the duplex had to offer, because I got switched to another site. It turns out that one of the two "first guts" yesterday was actually a de-mould, and Emily and Sarah were intent on making sure everyone had a chance to gut; so they had put some of last week's de-moulding crew on it, only to find out they'd have more de-moulding. So for the second day at that site, they swapped a bunch of them with a bunch of us over at the duplex.

The morning actually started off with me leading the vans to the site. The two TLs we were assigned were from the new group that just did their training gut last week, and they didn't know the city very well. So when I came over to their van asking for directions and looking like I knew my way around a map, they handed me their MapQuest printout and asked me to lead. (!)

[The ranch house to de-mould]

Lead I did, and in short order we pulled up to a totally 50s ranch house with a FEMA trailer parked on the front lawn. A nice middle-aged lady came out and was really excited to see us; the TLs went inside to scope out the place while we chatted with her. She's lived seven different places since the hurricane, not getting a trailer until April---prior to that she was in Houston, and then a string of different apartments inside New Orleans. Her two (adult) boys were living with her due to assorted life circumstances, and one of them was actually living inside the house (!), although in a room that was plastic-and-duct-taped-off, although that was done only yesterday when the previous crew told them that would be a good idea. Or rather, a less bad idea. Lucky for all of them, the house didn't get too much standing water; although it was close to the levees, it was near the edge of the areas that actually flooded. And it wasn't in the direct path of the break, so they got rising flood water (hence comparatively clean) rather than mud-and-silt-filled levee-break water directly. One house in one direction and they'd've had more than a foot; two houses in the other and they'd've had no flooding at all.

So anyway, the TLs came out and told us that this house is a little unusual. I'm increasingly becoming convinced that "this house is a little unusual" is part of the opening patter of every TL at every site, because I have yet to see or hear of a completely "usual" house. In any case, this house's particular unusualness is that the floors have gravel on them, and since the next stage of de-moulding is vacuuming, we need to first pick up the bigger chunks of gravel. While the vacuums would theoretically be able to do this themselves, they have HEPA filters in, and would need to be emptied out super-frequently. So, picking up gravel.

[Picking up gravel]

As best I can tell, this house (unlike the other NOLA houses I've seen) was of slab construction, and the slab under all but the kitchen and rec room was poured of very rough gravelly concrete with wooden A-shaped studs embedded, onto which a slatted hardwood floor was overlaid. The floor had been removed, and the gravelly stuff remained. Except half of what looked loose, wasn't, and of the rest, was. So this was an enormous pain in the ass. And in fact, the TLs eventually decided it was pointless since we couldn't really do anything with the rough concrete part of the floor anyway, so we just cleared off the floor studs. Having done all that, we went outside while the TLs started vacuuming up the dust, which hopefully didn't get too kicked-up while we were degravelling.

It was about this time that I discovered that the de-moulding process is one part science to two parts voodoo. After all the studs are brushed with a wire brush (to remove some of the surface mould) and vacuumed up (to remove most of the mould dust), we dump a bunch of Pine-Sol and water in a bucket and rub down all the available wall and floor surfaces with it. It's not clear whether the most important part is the dousing with Pine-Sol or the wiping off. It's not clear what the active mechanism is. They've tested and the air quality is generally better after this is done, but they're not sure why. Yikes!

But, in we went, and did the last phase of de-moulding on most of the house. At noon we took a break and the owner bought us pizza and we met the neighbourhood dog, Jake, and the owner showed us some of the really clever and cool wooden furniture her dad had built and which was fortunately saveable. (We would be wiping those down with steel wool and Pine-Sol after lunch.) After a panicky bit of moving stuff into the carport and storage shed when it started raining, we went in and did the last of the wipedowns; done by 2:00.

It was certainly interesting to see the Katrina effects on someone from the "other side", i.e. comparatively well-off, and white. Although she came across as very nice, she commented at one point that she had seen the Katrina documentary When the levees broke, but that she didn't like it and would like to see a Caucasian documentary (!!!). Quite aside from the water levels, the damage to her life was certainly different: she was able to come back to the city by the end of September 2005, was able to save a crap-ton of furniture, clothes, dishes, and so on. She has, as she told us, "fantastic insurance adjusters", so we gather that she's doing ok. One of our group commented that it was weird and unfair that we were doing volunteer work to help this lady, who looked like she could afford to pay, when there are so many people who just couldn't. I'm somewhat sympathetic to this view, but I pointed out that we just don't know what her whole life circumstance is. She's divorced and at the moment supporting two sons, and semi-elective medical work (her profession) is hard to come by in a city that, like NOLA, is still rebuilding. Furthermore, even without other potential drains on her money, a house gut-and-rebuild is not cheap! I know if my parents' house was similarly affected, we have a lot of stuff, much of which we might be able to save, but I'm not sure they could easily afford a full rebuild, and they're hardly poor. Especially if insurance were iffy---and down here, "fantastic insurance" might just mean "they didn't completely screw me", which is what most insurance providers did last year.

But I hope I can manage not to get on another de-mould site. Bo-ring! And I'm not totally convinced it's not a waste of time, and that inconfidence totally saps my energy to actually do the work.

Posted by blahedo at 5:20pm | Comments (2)

11 Dec 2006


5:10 Monday [Today's duplex]

We got switch to a new house today, thank goodness. I may feel a little better about the PoD than I did when I was working it, but I was really pleased that a shuffle put me onto a fresh gut. Today's job was this mazy little duplex; afaict it was originally a plain old side-by-side duplex, but at some point someone built an addition out back with a hovel of an apartment on the first floor and an extra couple rooms for the right half of the duplex. (The alley in the middle runs back there.) Later, or perhaps at the same time, the right half was subdivided so that the first floor was a two room apartment, the upstairs was a two room apartment, and the back addition was a two room apartment, all sharing a closet of a bathroom at the top of the stairs. There's a lot of old trim we're trying to save, not to mention furniture and other stuff: in this part of Central City, there was no flooding (or at least, not enough to reach floor level), but the hurricane itself blew off part of the roof, so there's a lot of ceiling and wall water damage. But the owners really can't afford a lot of replacement stuff, so we're minimising the "damage"---and if a wall just has crappy plaster, with cracks and small holes like plaster eventually gets, we leave it.

So this job has a fair bit in common with the house we gutted last week, although it's got its own share of, ah, interesting details. The hallways, for instance, are about three feet wide, and we have to lug all the debris through them (to chuck off the front balcony, since the stairs are a little too dubious). Which makes it hard to actually work on the hallways... at one point I was standing on the banister, leaning across the hall to get at the plaster, while debris crews carted stuff underneath me. Which was a lot easier than having to keep moving the ladder in and out, but I got a few funny looks.

Can't wait to see what the left half has to offer!

Posted by blahedo at 6:54pm | Comments (0)

10 Dec 2006

The Water Saga (as promised), part 1

On the first day, Kudi (one of our Team Leaders) asked the group if there was anyone who knew anything about plumbing and water heaters, because they were going to need to remove one. I sort of tentatively raised my hand, because I knew a little bit, but I figured that the TLs would have more experience than me, right? And they sort of did, but what I had was more information in my head, because anytime I run into anything with my house, I read up on it.

So anyway, the gut proceeds for a while, and then later that day they ask for me and Mack (who also professed some experience) over to the side of the house, where they've had problems turning off the water. Turns out, they've found the curbside water cutoff, and they turned it off with the T-bar, but when that valve is shut off, it starts spraying water everywhere. So, plan B. I suggested that there must be a customer shutoff inside the house---but I'd look for it in the basement, and this being New Orleans, there is no basement. The house is basically up on stilts, and there's a crawlspace underneath.

Several of us get on our knees and peer around; no valves in evidence, but we can certainly see the pipes. They appear to branch before they get anywhere, which seems strange because there must be some way to shut it off, right? We go through the house, and there's really nothing. Argh. Since the city water people will have to eventually fix the curb shutoff anyway, we figure we'll call them.

After lunch, a guy from the city shows up, and it turns out I was right: there was a customer shutoff, but it was just buried a little bit! We were able to dig that out and shut it off. Problem solved, right?

Then we start looking at the hot water heater and trying to figure out how to dismantle it. Kudi is arguing for using a hacksaw, but that seems extreme. Unfortunately we don't have a plumber's wrench, or even a big crescent wrench, so we decide to put it off to the second day.

The morning of the second day, we made a new discovery. One of the trailer residents out back came out and said she was getting ready for work, and could we turn the water on? It turns out that to plumb the trailers, they put in a splitter on the back garden hose faucet, with hoses running to each trailer. Which meant that we couldn't shut off water to the house without shutting it off to the trailers as well. Problem! We turned it back on and figured out what to do next.

After the resident left, we went back to work, but we told everybody to be super careful, because we were going to have to turn it back on every night before we left! Meanwhile we set about draining the HWH: screwed in a garden hose and... oh, wait, the back security screen is locked and we can't run the hose out that way. So I suggest running it out the window---this would require starting a siphon. I tried doing it the old-fashioned way, with my mouth; although this ended up not working, it caused Kudi to nominate me as a Stud at that night's community meeting, which required me to then stand up and announce "I am a stud" to the gathered group, and let me tell you, I haven't heard the end of that yet.

Gotta go! More later.

(continued in part 2)

Posted by blahedo at 12:53pm | Comments (0)


Last night, by the way, we went to Landry's in the French Quarter. It was perfect! We wanted to get something that was distinctively New Orleanian, but not fast food and not anything we had to dress up for or that would cost too much. We drove around a bit on Magazine St but didn't see anything that was quite what we wanted, and then we ended up in the Vieux Carré, where we saw something promising. I don't even remember what it was, because then we drove around to find parking and on our way there, we saw Landry's, which had good location, good prices ($teens, mostly), and good dress code (i.e. none). And, it turns out, good food. I had the stuffed shrimp enbrochette over jambalaya, which I couldn't finish, and everybody else seemed to be similarly pleased with their orders.

So, that worked out well.

Posted by blahedo at 12:27pm | Comments (0)

God is good! All the time!

I just got back from St. Matthias Cluster Parish. It's a "cluster parish" because it has temporarily absorbed a bunch of nearby parishes, because of numbers and because of building condition. Even this one is still rebuilding. I walked in and I don't know what I was expecting, but all the pews were gone and people were sitting on an assortment of chairs, there was no heat, and the plaster was ripped off the brick up to a height of about a foot and a half. The altar majeure was ok but the active altar was a temporary wooden affair set on a big oriental rug in about the right place. The church is huge and it looks like the murals and such were safe, although currently covered with thin plastic duct-taped around the edges, so you could see them but they were protected from assorted ongoing reconstruction. In one of the chattier moments towards the end of Mass, the priest mentioned that there was a priest shuffle over at Holy Ghost, where he's staying (because the St. Matt's rectory hasn't been rehabbed yet), and he hoped that they'd let him keep staying there or he'd be homeless---at which one of the women in the row ahead of me turned to someone and gave the aside "we all homeless."

But let me tell you, black people know how to throw a (liturgical) party. As my indie friends would say, there was a ton of mojo flying around in there; a more traditional Catholic would say that you could feel the Holy Spirit suffused through that place. It's primarily an African-American parish; I saw one family I think was Indian Indian and maybe four other white people besides me. The music and the style were, well, about as different from a weekly Mass at St. Pat's as they could be and still fit inside liturgical norms. There was a lot of call-and-response stuff: the priest says "God is great!" and the congregation responds "All the time!", and then they repeat it the other way round. At virtually any point in the Mass, you might hear a chorus of isolated "Amen"s from around the church. And the music was drawn from a range of African-American sources: "Come by here", "Soon and very soon", etc. Even the Mass parts were distinctly in that style: the Memorial Acclamation was "Jesus Christ is risen, Jesus Christ has died, Jesus Christ will come again, deep in my heart I believe, Jesus Christ will come again"---to the tune of "We shall overcome", which throws in a whole extra subtext of which I totally approve.

Subtexts were actually pretty prominent in this Mass. When you hear about living in exile and missing your home, your food, your place of worship, it's more or less abstract, but for these people, it's a reality they've lived and some of their friends and family are still living. Themes of hope and anticipation and fresh starts also tend to strike rather close to home here. The priest was a master homilist, talking about all these things and making the messages of the liturgical day highly relevant to the congregation. The dominant theme was good news/bad news: the latter sells better, and people tend to dwell on it, but we need to focus on the good news (and the Good News), and proclaim that to other people---it's a message of optimism and hope that is very well received in this population.

The Mass ran to a full ninety minutes, but I didn't even notice. I'm not sure where all the extra time went; maybe all the singing (we sang at every opportunity), maybe the long homily (not that it was boring). But it was a great pick-up and motivator and spiritually awesome. I felt bad for the white couple with the baby that was in my line of sight, because they looked really dour and not into it, which I guess wouldn't look out of place at a white suburban parish but seemed kind of weird here.

So I'm really really glad I went and didn't talk myself out of it, even if it did require breaking a couple of rules. I think Emily's mad at me now: I took a van with less than five people, and I went out without a "buddy". Which wasn't entirely my fault, since I asked around and couldn't convince anybody else to go (their loss!). I did ask at breakfast if it would be ok to take out a van "with less than five people", and it was, especially because half the people weren't up yet, but she didn't realise it was just me. That was slightly intentional on my part, since I didn't feel like getting a lecture about going out alone, although at that point I was still hopeful of getting more takers. In any case, I'm not sorry, both because the buddy rule is a little extreme (the van one makes sense, but what could I do? I suppose I could've called a cab...) and because the experience is already looking like a major highlight of the trip.

Posted by blahedo at 12:15pm | Comments (0)

9 Dec 2006

The pit of despair

I still am promising that entry about the Water Saga—which continued yesterday!—but first I want to write about today. After yesterday's full court press to the finish (narrowly beating the sun by about fifteen minutes), we got put on a different site today. I've taken to referring to it as the Pit of Despair.

The missing siding is actually the fault of some overzealous gutters yesterday, whose school will not be named here, but that's not why it's the pit of despair. It's a pit because half the studs are supported by the ceiling, there are holes in the floor, a lot of clapboards were already missing anyway, there's significant termite damage (and termites present—I saw one), and big portions of the floor are... soft.

It's depressing to work in, because it seems inevitable that, however it may have looked when scouted, it will in fact have to be knocked down. But having started, we have to finish the job. And even if it is finished and they don't knock it down, they will essentially have to build a new house in its place. There are no baseboards or trim, no doors (not even the front doors), and they'll need to replace most of the structural frame and support studs.

And yet, some houses are worse! This one's in the upper ninth ward, which still has an awful lot of houses untouched since they were first opened a year ago. Businesses have signs out front stating that they intend to come back, or that they are back but elsewhere in NOLA, or just giving a number to call. Some houses have a visible 15° lean to them. But the upper ninth only got about six to eight feet of flooding (the PoD has water marks about three feet up the inside wall), and the rebuilding is actually going along more than in places like the lower ninth (which I intend to visit tomorrow and hope to post pictures then...).

Gotta go—the vans are headed back to the SA. God, that's annoying.

Posted by blahedo at 6:29pm | Comments (0)

6 Dec 2006

Today's demolition

        living-dining room]

I don't have a lot to say about the general demolition today, because it was mostly just a lot more of the same. I spent time removing crown mouldings that were fairly nice, and then hanging out on top of a ladder knocking down plaster and such. There was more, but that will have to come in a whole separate post about The Water Saga....

        middle of the house]
Posted by blahedo at 6:00pm | Comments (0)


Evenings are more or less free time, although you can't go do anything by yourself---the leaders are really worried about safety of the participants. I'm increasingly of the opinion that New Orleans is pretty much like any other city, with good areas and bad areas and if you have a sensible head on your shoulders you'll be fine. But, there is some wisdom in making observation of the fact that many college freshman don't have a sensible head on their shoulders, so the buddy policy is probably a good one. :)

SO anyway, there's a bit of work at cobbling together groups to go places. Last night, I joined a group that was a mix of people going to an internet café to blog and people going to an internet café to drink coffee and people going to visit their friend in New Orleans, who lived near an internet café. Unfortunately, as we arrived at Café Flora we discovered that their wireless was down, so we got to sit around some really good cappucino and chat for an hour or so.

Then, when I got back, there was some agitation for a card game, and we had five players, so I taught them King-Peasant. They seemed to like it!

Posted by blahedo at 4:50pm | Comments (1)

A day of gutting, continued

[Some ivy growing
inside the house]

We made just as much progress today as we did yesterday. But first, let me finish talking about yesterday.

house, carpeted]

Once we got inside, the damage was a little clearer. Anything that was sitting on the floor was visibly rusted or mildewed or whatever; things higher up may have had a little bit of crud on them, but it was clear that the house needed work. We'd already carted off a bunch by the time I took this photo; when we went to remove that table a couple minutes later, it pretty much disintegrated in our hands.

Some of the stuff we were pitching actually appeared to be in okay shape. For the wooden things, this was a little deceptive, because mould spores can get in there, and there's not a lot you can do about that. But, things of metal or ceramic should be fine (if you wash them well enough). As I've mentioned before, I find it a little frustrating to see some "perfectly good" stuff thrown out. Fortunately, it was literally being tossed on the curb; FEMA and/or the city picks up the trash (eventually) for volunteer-run gut jobs. And residents of New Orleans are by now all too familiar with such things, so within about an hour of when we started putting stuff out, there were people pulling up in vans and pickup trucks to pick over the stuff for anything good.

That actually didn't go over so well with several of the other Knox folks. "That's somebody's life," they argue, "and it's awful for someone to go rifling through it!" True as that may be, it's still stuff that's being thrown out, and perfectly good. Nevertheless, the site leaders asked the garbage pickers to go away and come back later. I wonder if some of the student bloggers are writing about that? I'll have to ask them (or just check and see).

[The house,

At one point as we were just about done with removing furniture and carpet and appliances and stuff, a middle-aged man showed up: the house's owners' son. We learned a little about him and his family then; he had lived in this house since he was 3. His sister also showed up, a little later, and both of them were just gushingly happy that we were helping them out like this. Their parents are currently staying in Memphis, but other family members are living in the RVs out back, and they're really eager to start rebuilding.

While the son was there, one of the trash-pickers started talking to him, and evidently he claimed to be in the subcontracting business or something, because the son took him in to show him around and talk to him. We were just in the process of removing the doors---beautiful old wooden panelled ones---and the guy was telling the son he shouldn't throw them out and they'd be impossible to replace or at least very expensive. That made for an interesting altercation between the site leader and the "crazy guy" (as he was later dubbed), because she was trying to explain that the mould spores are in there even if you can't see them, and he was trying to claim that they're all on the surface of the painted wood and you could wash them off. I'm actually more with him on this, because A) there was a thick coat of paint on the doors, B) you can get the surface crap off with a good attack of cleaning solution, and C) if you repaint the doors starting with the right kind of primer, you can seal it in (which is basically what they do with the framing studs). In any case, the son decided to save the doors, so we kept them in a stack for him to reinstall and repaint later.

[Gutting in

After lunch, we really got started on the gutting proper. Once you decide to gut a wall, it gets stripped to the studs. In this case, there was a layer of drywall over a layer of plaster and lath; so basically, you hack at it with a hammer or the short end of a crowbar or wonderbar until you loosen the drywall and plaster; then you use the claw end of the hammer to pull down all the stuff, including the lath. It kicks up a lot of dust.

At the end of the day, we'd put out a lot of stuff. A lot of stuff. This is a big house, but we filled the entire terrace in front of the house, then moved around to the side and filled that up too; the tool truck obscures it here, but the piles of trash extend all the way to the edge of the photo:

[Big load of
Posted by blahedo at 4:30pm | Comments (0)

5 Dec 2006


[The house we

Today was the first workday. After some van confusion, we got over to the site around 8:30. It looked like... it looked like a house. Surely it didn't need gutting; it even had curtains in the windows! But note the RV poking out of the back yard---it's one of three or four back there, a common strategy for coping with post-Katrina reality. You have a job in New Orleans, you own a house in New Orleans, but you can't live there; so you get a FEMA-subsidised (or -provided, I'm not sure) RV to park on your lawn until you can get your house rehabbed or rebuilt.

[The street the
        house was on]

The street it was on was likewise deceptive. Though not a fancy neighbourhood, it looked generally fine, with big old houses kept in a decent state of repair, with cars in the driveway and parked in front. But if you looked a little closer, you could see a porch roof propped up by a two-by-four, a doorway opening onto a missing stair, a boarded up window, and other giveaways. Plus the biggest giveaway of all: a lot of them had one of those RVs parked in the driveway or in the yard.

I keep getting distracted by talking to people. More of today's pictures tomorrow!

Posted by blahedo at 5:49pm | Comments (0)

The first day

So, yesterday (Monday), it turns out we didn't have any work scheduled. So after moving our stuff to the Salvation Army---a former homeless shelter that they've recommissioned as a Volunteer Village---we had some free time. We walked up Claiborne nearly to the Superdome, then turned around and walked back; and after lunch a bunch of us piled in a van and drove all over the city.

Some parts of the city are just gorgeous, much (presumably) as it's ever been; we drove through the Garden District, and the French Quarter, and saw the trolleys and so on. But then we drove up in to the north-central part of the city. Here there are a lot of houses that still have the big cross spray-painted on them with information about what was found inside when it was first opened. Many houses still had a visible high-water mark six or eight feet up the wall. An awful lot of them had untended yards; but then there were also a whole bunch that either looked brand new or freshly renovated. A few of the renovated ones that were brick-faced looked as though they'd tried to remove the cross but hadn't succeeded yet---not sure how recently they tried, though.

We continued up to Lake Pontchartrain, which like the Great Lakes is wide enough that you can't see the other side. There was a very empty feeling up here, which might have been how it always was, but as we passed the rusting hulk of a rest area it was clear that things weren't quite back to normal yet.

Then we headed back, grabbed dinner and went to the Hands On community meeting and got our work assignments for today. And after that I pulled together a bridge table (two learners, but they picked it up fast) and we played that for a couple hours before going to bed.

Posted by blahedo at 5:30pm | Comments (0)

3 Dec 2006

Road trip to NOLA

[The bunkroom at Hands On HQ]

After a surprisingly stressful trip, first because of the ice that still persisted two days after the western Illinois snowstorm, and then because of our ongoing attempts to keep seven independent-minded vans together, we arrived in New Orleans about 9:30, then got lost (predictably enough) and made it to the Hands On HQ around 10. This is only a temporary home—we move to the Salvation Army tomorrow morning, which is where we'll bunk down for the next two weeks.

It'll certainly be interesting! It was dark and we came straight here, so we didn't see the worst parts of town yet. We'll see!

"People reward developers who deliver software that is cheap, buggy, and first." --Bjarne Stroustrup

Posted by blahedo at 10:51pm | Comments (1)

1 Dec 2006

Six to twelve inches, such bull

[my house under more than a foot of snow]The newspaper was predicting ten inches of snow for today and the usual websites 6–12". My ass. That's more than a foot out there, and it's wet, sticky snow at that, so an enormous pain in the ass to shovel. They've plowed Broad St about ten times just in the last two or three hours—and it stopped snowing long before that—but they still haven't been plowing side streets, so even if I had done my driveway (and I haven't), I'd not be able to go anywhere with my car. Plus, I'm not sure I could get back up the driveway again.

My next-door neighbour actually spent almost six hours on the road this morning: two trying to get to work up in the Quad Cities (but only getting as far as Woodhull, because I-74 wasn't plowed), then a while getting back to Galesburg, then he was going to stop at the Hy-Vee on Henderson for supplies, but that exit from 34 was closed because of an accident, and then the Main St exit was under more than a foot of snow, so they stopped him from going on, but wouldn't let him turn around or go back. They kept him there for about two hours before he could finally come home. And then his pickup truck couldn't make it up the driveway, so he had to dig out the shovel and try to clear enough of a path. He has a snowblower, but it appears to be cold-blooded—worked fine when he tested it a month ago, in 50° weather, but wouldn't start today. Last I heard he was going to try warming it on an engine heater block to see if that helped (but by that point he'd gotten the truck up the driveway, so it was less urgent).

[Nutmeg standing among snow up to his shoulder]For my part, I have a chorus rehearsal tonight, and I'm wondering how many people will be there; a lot of the group come from some distance away, and may be snowed in. I also have some stuff I need to get printed and done at school, but I think I'll just put that off until I get back from New Orleans, because I have basically no way to get there other than walking, and I'd rather not trudge through snowdrifts for twenty minutes if I don't have to.

UPDATE: rehearsal cancelled at the last minute, when they realised that although we could get into the church, there was no place for anyone to park!

"I would believe only in a God that knows how to Dance." --Nietzsche

Posted by blahedo at 1:12pm | Comments (2)