Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Is Rocky Right?

Rocky’s back and he’s about to make a fool of himself. That’s the underlying message of an article in the New York Times recently announcing the release of “Rocky Balboa,” a Sylvester Stallone movie that brings the aging boxer out of retirement for one last doomed go in the ring. Even Stallone’s wife was worried when he took on the project, anticipating “humiliation and embarrassment” for the 60-year-old actor.

Stallone seems willing to risk the ridicule. Mainstream culture caters increasingly to the youth demographic, so good for him for pushing back. If his generation is considered obsolete, he told the Times reporter, it’s “just not true. This film is about how we still have something more to say.”

It seemed to me that there should be room for a movie, even a boxing movie, about a man who won’t accept that he’s washed up because he’s 60? This reaction would come as no surprise to the Times reviewer, who somewhat condescendingly observed that that Stallone “may well rally some support from baby boomers who are similarly reluctant to leave the stage.” Do I see smirking in the peanut gallery? Like maybe there’s some kind of karmic justice at work when the demographic that famously never trusted anyone over 30 feels prematurely pushed aside?

I guess you could look at it that way. By rights center stage belongs to the young. After all, we had our turn, and quite a long one too. Then there is the reality that must be faced: all those decades have added up. Certain things we can’t/won’t/aren’t in a position to do any longer.

Still, we in the baby boom generation do have more to say. And if mainstream channels shut us out – well, we formed a counter-culture once, we can do it again. We don’t even need to seize the means of production, because we already own it. You are looking at it. The computer changes everything about growing older: It’s becoming easier and easier to circumvent the (youth-oriented) gatekeepers by digital means. So there’s no way we “aging boomers” can be marginalized unless we allow it to happen.

I picture us, some years down the road, as members of a vast, virtual community— sitting on our front porches, laps warmed by laptops, staying in touch and keeping up with one another’s creative output via the Internet.

Arriving in New Orleans Day 1

If you shut your eyes on the way to the French Quarter from the airport you could visit New Orleans and never know there’d been a hurricane. The city’s tourist areas of the city look pretty much the same as ever. You can still eat well and listen to great music. On a recent Saturday, the sidewalks were jammed, between the Ferrari convention, the Words & Music Literary Festival, and the jazz funeral parade.

But if you keep your eyes open, as I did on my recent trip, the half-hour ride into town serves as an abbreviated tour of storm damage. I watch through the taxi window as Katrina’s now-familiar iconography of destruction slides by: boarded up houses; twisted skeletons of industrial buildings; shotgun cottages scrawled with the ubiquitous spray-painted red x’s, indicating each home’s post-storm search status. Signs on telephone poles advertise mold remediation, and you can still see an ugly brown stripe bisecting the walls of some houses – the high-water line. Still, I know I’m in New Orleans when I see a sign on a storefront church announcing the topic of Sunday’s sermon: “The Gospel is in The Gumbo.”

This is my second trip here since Katrina—my husband and I came in April to visit friends and attend the French Quarter Festival, a kind of smaller, local version of the famous Jazz Fest. Certainly there are signs of progress since then. Fewer piles of debris, downed tree limbs, rusty bicycle frames. Over in the Lower Ninth Ward, the huge heaps of splinters that were once houses have been mostly cleared away, leaving an eerie wasteland that was once a neighborhood. There is still a house with a truck lodged on top, but few such Katrina-produced incongruities remain, so it’s become a much-photographed tourist attraction. (If you have visited New Orleans since the hurricane, send photos and stories.)

One thing that hasn’t changed is that people in New Orleans are really glad you’ve come. If you were to somehow arrive in the French Quarter with no awareness of the surrounding devastation, you surely would start to wonder why you were being thanked all the time just for being there. And if you were paying close attention you might notice that everyone was trying really hard.

It’s heartbreaking. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many people trying so hard. This was crystallized for me one morning when I was headed to Mother’s Restaurant for a cup of chicory coffee. I came across a sidewalk table holding sign-up sheets, work gloves, bottles of water and brooms. Running this volunteer clean-up was Alphonse Martin, director of public space for the downtown district.

He explained that members of the National Association of Realtors were about to start arriving in town for a convention, only the second large convention since the hurricane. The call for volunteer cleaners had gone out under the banner, “Company’s Coming.” When the public eye is on New Orleans, it’s important that the town look nice, Martin told me. He asked if I’d seen the Saints play on TV that week. “One thing you didn’t hear anyone say was that New Orleans looked dirty. Nobody said it looked dirty.” That’s something to be proud of and he is.

Rise and Shine and Bon Temps Day 2

New Orleans has always been like nowhere else in America, less “rise and shine,” more “bon temps.” It’s still like nowhere else, though the “rise and shine” quotient is higher now, as waves of volunteers bring their elbow grease to town. Since Hurricane Katrina, willing individuals have arrived by the hundreds and put themselves to work. “Bon temps” has hardly disappeared, though. For all the suffering, having fun is still very much on the agenda. If you want to combine good works and good times, this is the place to come.

The Louisiana Office of Culture, Recreation and Tourism has invited me and other journalists on a media tour to observe local possibilities for joining tourism with volunteer activity – voluntourism, it’s come to be called. The need here is so great that there’s no end to the opportunities. Whatever your particular bent, you can find a suitable way to make yourself useful.

Here are a few:

If you like digging in the dirt, ReLeaf New Orleans has a job for you. The city lost 50,000 trees during the hurricanes and ReLeaf is bent on replacing them. You can sign up for tree-planting duty at www.parkwaypartners.com. Or kick in funds for a tree – from $300 for a crepe myrtle to $800 for a phoenix palm. (This includes maintenance.)

Prefer clearing brush? New Orleans City Park schedules Super Saturdays, usually the first Saturday of the month, for volunteers to pitch in with pruning, raking, and clearing away underbrush. Or on any weekday you can show up at the Park’s Botanical Garden and help propagate and care for plants. [http://neworleanscitypark.com/katrinavol.html]

You can even cook for the cause. The inimitable Poppy Tooker teaches creole cooking at the Savvy Gourmet [www.savvygourmet.com/], and if you’re on the Culinary Voluntourism package at the Windsor Court Hotel [www.windsorcourthotel.com.] (designed for groups of at least 10), you can learn how to make chicken etouffe, for example, and then deliver the meal to volunteer job sites.

It’s worth seeing Poppy do her thing, even if you’re not on the package deal. She’s as much culinary historian as cooking teacher, as she shows us in her entertaining demonstration on how to prepare cala (pronounced ca-LA). Calas are a kind of rice fritter, deep fried and dusted with powdered sugar. They are, Poppy maintains, much more tasty than the better-known beignet, and they have a poignant backstory, as well. In antebellum New Orleans slaves were granted a day off and women often used that time to sell calas on the street, in many cases earning enough money to purchase their freedom.(LINK TO THE RECIPE IN ANOTHER ARTICLE PAGE)

The possibilities I’ve just mentioned are voluntourism lite. Lite is fine—you’re contributing to the city’s recovery, even if you’re just there eatings calas. If you’d rather do heavier work, there’s another way to go. You can build things or tear them down. More on this kind of volunteering in later posts. (www.volunteerlouisiana.gov will match prospective volunteers with organizations needing help)

Construction by Day; Carousing by Night: Day 3

My sister is known as the bra lady of New Orleans, so she tells me. Like me, Jane has been a regular visitor over the years. Soon after Hurricane Katrina, she canceled a family vacation to Italy and went instead to New Orleans, where she tried to make herself useful. Now she returns when she can, always bringing whatever donations she can wring out of her friends and colleagues in Indiana. On a trip last fall, it was bras. A member of her congregation was the proprietor of an upscale lingerie shop, and she loaded Jane up with 300 bras. Fancy ones. A negligible contribution in the scheme of things, but greatly appreciated by women who had lost everything to the floodwaters.

You will find lots of people like Jane in New Orleans, ordinary citizens who come whenever they have time, to do whatever they can. Some mount their own personal relief initiatives – from making Easter baskets for homeless children to helping survivors interview one another. Others sign up with one of the many established projects like Habitat for Humanity. At “Musicians’ Village,” Habitat workers – no skills necessary—are putting up housing for displaced New Orleans musicians. Already one side of one street is filled with compact two-and three-bedroom cottages in bright tropical colors. [www.habitat-nola.org]

I visit one of these building sites just as three women from Casper, Wyoming finish stapling a protective layer of Tyvek onto the bare outer walls. Chrisa DeGraeve shows me how the front walls came out smoother than the back, since they’re learning as they go. The women are old friends, they tell me, and they decided to celebrate a birthday by volunteering at Habitat. Their program for the week is construction work by day, carousing by night.

Can any of this make a dent in the enormous problems facing New Orleans, I wonder? What use are Easter baskets, or fancy bras, or new pink cottages, for that matter, in the face of inadequate levees, toxic sludge, and the lack of a coordinated recovery plan?

These are good questions. But the government’s conspicuous absence has led to a remarkable presence. New Orleans is now home to the biggest and most long-lasting volunteer movement in American history. If you want to be inspired by the good-heartedness of people, this is the place.

FEMA Got No Zydeco: Day Four

On Sunday afternoon I decide to head over to the Fais Do-Do, a kind of Cajun hoedown, at Tipitina’s, the legendary New Orleans music club that you might remember from “The Big Easy.” This weekly event would not be everyone’s idea of a good time.

First, there’s Tipitina’s itself. The barn-like structure, with its corrugated tin walls and its haphazardly arranged folding chairs, looks like about the right setting for a tobacco auction. Then there’s the Cajun dance music. You have to like accordions. (If you do, you might want to make your own Fais Do-Do playlist and send it in.)

I recall from previous visits that the Fais Do-Do attracts a mature crowd, and one that isn’t going gently. Today’s prize for flamboyance belongs to a woman with twinkling red lights on her shoes and a pink ostrich feather in her hair. She’s dressed in a white ruffled tunic bearing the legend “FEMA Got No Zydeco.” Once the music starts up – after the World’s Longest Sound Check – couples take to the dance floor. I feel content to watch the graceful waltzing and two-stepping—though I do consider the possibility of engaging a Fais Do-Do gigolo next time. I’m ridiculously pleased when, after a while, someone asks me to dance. I do my best, and because my partner is a strong leader as well as a kind man, I don’t disgrace us. Still, I’m a charity case when it comes to Cajun dancing. My family is spending Christmas in New Orleans, and I know I’ll want to hit the Fais Do-Do again. So I make myself a promise: before I come back I will take at least one lesson in Cajun dancing.

There are lots of reasons to love Tipitina’s, despite its unprepossessing physical plant. One is that the club has taken the lead in rebuilding New Orleans’ musical culture. After Katrina, the Tipitina’s Foundation started the “Instruments A Comin” program, which has given away $500,000 worth of replacement instruments to local schools and musicians. It also has opened an office that helps musicians affected by the hurricane manage their business dealings.

New Orleans at Any Age

I fell in love with New Orleans 20-some years ago, when I attended a Writers Conference here. The high point of the closing party was an impromptu Cake Walk procession led by a woman no longer in the springtime of life. She was bold and vibrant and wore a gardenia in her hair—and she was 70 if she was a day. No one was embarrassed for her. You’re never too old to have fun here, I thought, and when I’m old, this is where I will come. (Any other nominations for places where you’re never too old to have fun?)

Since that trip I have returned to the city many times. What has most charmed me over the years is a kind of collective sense of humor. Everyone in New Orleans gets the joke, and this turns even mundane transactions into playful encounters. Here’s one only-in-the-New Orleans story: I was standing in the parking lot of the Rock n Bowl, a combined bowling alley and dance hall that draws crowds from all walks of life. A black stretch limousine drew up, and from it emerged a Just Married couple, he in black tie, she in full bridal white. Each clutched a long neck bottle of bear. As the bystanders gaped, the groom turned to his new wife and, after an exquisitely timed comic pause, said, “Gee, honey, do you think we’re a little overdressed?” (If you have a favorite New Orleans story, please send it in.)

A couple of years ago, I started hearing people talk about moving to New Orleans someday. My sister and her husband began looking at real estate there. It made sense. There was great food, great music, a lively cultural scene, bookstores, sidewalks, universities and teaching hospitals. The winters were warm and you could wear a flower in your hair and lead a Cake Walk at any age.

I pictured New Orleans becoming a Boomer retirement mecca. Hurricane Katrina may have scotched that idea for now, but the city remains a place where older citizens do not subside. Even in death they seem to have plenty to celebrate. I get to see that for myself one afternoon when I fall in with a Second-Line jazz funeral parade. The traditional way to mark the passing of a New Orleans personage is to hold a procession led by a brass band and open to anyone who wants to follow along.

As the marchers gather outside the Backstreet Cultural Museum, I learn that the decedent, Keith “Flames” Keller, was a blues harmonica player, a sound engineer and a rehabber of houses destroyed by Katrina. The pace is set by two Grand Marshals twirling festooned umbrellas, and the famous Treme Brass Band provides the music. Bringing up the rear is a carriage drawn by two black horses and holding a photograph of Keller decorated with musical notes and a tuba.

The procession winds from the Treme neighborhood through the French Quarter to the Mississippi River, picking up followers all along the way. As we near the Quarter we’re at least 80 strong, and, the dirges give way to that most exultant of spirituals, “I’ll Fly Away.” People begin strutting in time with the brass band. And I decide that a New Orleans jazz funeral is the best kind of send-off anybody could have.

Taking Stock

Taking Stock

I have never cooked a turkey. It seems a somewhat shameful admission at my age, but there it is. At Christmas, my brother-in-law makes a mean paella. As for Thanksgiving, for the last 20 years, ever since my daughter was two, we have spent the weekend at the vacation home of our oldest friends.

Not only do I not cook the turkey, my opinion is never solicited regarding roasting methods, stuffing ingredients, or doneness. My turn comes the next day. I am the turkey carcass soup expert. We use the recipe from the Good Food cookbook, by Jane Brody. It’s a two-page, two-day affair which requires several long shifts of chopping vegetables, first for the stock and then for the soup. Cheesecloth is involved. It’s a serious business. I was introduced to Jane Brody at a party once, and I told her about our turkey soup ritual. I think she was gratified—and also somewhat amazed—to meet someone who spent the better part of two days a year following her recipe to the letter.

We do not hold with shortcuts. We make it just like it says in the book, and it is delicious. We eat it on Saturday night, which is also the night we celebrate my birthday, even in years when my birthday is nowhere near the date. The dessert is always birthday cake, made from a mix by the kids and decorated with more enthusiasm than finesse. That’s how it used to be, anyway. In recent years the finesse has increased, but my daughter assures me the enthusiasm has held steady.

I love it that the children are still willing to participate in our cozy family holiday. It won’t last forever, I know. But as long as it does, I’ll continue celebrating my birthday on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, even when it’s not my birthday.

Nora Ephron's Color War

Nora Ephron’s best-seller, “I Feel Bad About My Neck,” is the latest installment of her self-deprecating schtick—employed to such witty effect in earlier journalism. Now that the subject is aging, she turns out to have rather strict views on the subject of what is appropriate, fashion-wise—as she elaborated in an Octover essay in the New York Times.

Nora, I am horrified. You can’t mean it. Do you really think all my clothes are horribly inappropriate, that I should pack them up and send them to somebody younger? Somebody who “would look much better” in them than I do? That when shopping, I should “walk straight to the blacks and browns and not bother with any other section?” You might have come out with this earlier, Nora. Say a year ago. Because that is when, after a long struggle with myself, I started to buy clothes in colors. Before that, it was all black all the time. Black has so much going for it: it’s slimming, it doesn’t show dirt, it goes with itself. You never feel like an Easter egg or a Christmas tree ornament when you’re wearing black.

Still, it’s black. If you’re not a Sicilian widow, consider the rainbow of hues that is open to you. Why not branch out? I thought. If not now, when? So I talked myself into buying a new wardrobe of clothes that were the colors of eye shadow. Not crayon-bright, but not black either. A little more form-fitting, too. I was pleased. It was about time, I figured.

Well, according to Nora Ephron, it’s way past time for us middle-aged women. Face facts, she chides us in the pages of the New York Times Style Magazine. Forget yellow, blue or red. Instead, “you can load up on turtlenecks.”

Thanks for the advice, Nora, but I’ve thought it over and I don’t believe I will purge my closet. So maybe I am “avoiding reality,” as you put it. But whose reality are we talking about? Just who is this disapproving beholder you imagine, the one who’d be scandalized by the sight of an old lady in a red dress? I’d really like to know. Because the way my color palette is brightening up, that could someday be me.

Who is the Open-Minded Skeptic?

The skeptical part doesn’t need much explaining. It comes with the territory of middle age. When you’ve been around the block a few times, it’s easy to get the sense that the scenery is familiar. Whatever is happening has happened before. You’ve already seen this movie. You know how the story turns out.

I felt this keenly during last summer’s round of bloodshed in Lebanon. Every morning at breakfast, we would play a game called “Guess the News.” Whoever had not got to the newspaper had to try and come up with the day’s headlines. I was horrifyingly good at it, which I took as confirmation that a certain cynicism had rooted itself deeply in my brain. Is there a lifetime limit on buying a bill of goods? If so, I think I have reached it.

The open-minded part is what brings me here. New and unexpected things can happen. Here’s proof: after decades of having my words published in books, magazines, newspapers—the full dead tree gamut – I am writing a blog. Moi. I know that millions have beaten me to this form of expression, some of them even more advanced in years than I. I know I’m coming late to the party.

Still, I am amazed at myself. And maybe not so amazed. I’ve always wanted more of a conversation than a monologue. I once took a job at Harper’s Weekly, a magazine meant to be written partly by its editors and partly by its readers. We learned from that noble experiment that it’s hard to sustain two-way communication when words take weeks to arrive. But that has changed; they don’t anymore. I press a button and presto, I have posted. You press a button and presto, you have responded. That’s how I hope it will be, anyway.

I’m more than ready for it. I believe I may also have reached my lifetime limit of sitting alone in a room, occasionally flinging out paper airplanes of prose that land who-knows-where. Actually, I do know: in waiting rooms, or so I’m always hearing from friends who were visiting the dentist and “saw something” I wrote in a magazine. Well, goodbye to all that. The Open-Minded Skeptic is ready for company.