Wednesday, July 4, 2007

How I Became (More) Tactful

Sometimes when you stumble across an artifact of your past in some dusty file folder it makes you realize how far you've come. Other times it reminds you that you are exactly the same now as you always were. "Memorize this List" belongs to the second category. It's a fading, crumpled sheet of paper dotted with numerous push pin holes from when it was tacked on kitchen bulletin boards of assorted apartments. I was in my mid-twenties when I wrote it, and I don't remember the specific stimulus. But I can still relate to my original objective. I was trying to teach myself tact. When I heard something I disagreed with, I wanted to be able to come up with an alternative to my usual "That's ridiculous!" I still do. I'd like to think that things strike me as ridiculous now less often than they did when I was 25. But I'm glad I kept the list:

Memorize this List

* What led you to feel that way?
* That's an unusual point of view.
* I never thought of it that way before.
* You may well have a point.
* Hmmm …
* You could be right.
* I see your point.
* I think you just put your finger on it.
* Is that right?
* Tell me more about that.
* I can certainly see what you mean.
* I can see why someone might think so.
* You must have had a hard day.
* That's certainly a bold theory.

Be Honest About Holidays

Can we set aside one day during the holiday season for truth-telling? Some of you grew up in families where harmony prevailed during the Christmas season—where everyone helped out cheerfully and participated in holiday rituals willingly; where nobody cursed while trying to straighten out the lights and blamed whomever had put them away in such a tangle the previous year; where tempers did not predictably flare on Christmas day and ruin everything; where there was no yelling; where nobody drank too much.

Then there are the rest of us. We wanted our family to look like yours. When it didn't, we felt ashamed. We all knew how Christmas is supposed to be. It is supposed to be perfect. We couldn't pull it off and we couldn't admit it. How could we possibly not be happy? It was Christmas! So we put on our cheerful faces and pretended—with one another, to the outside world, and to ourselves.

It's hard to stop pretending, which is why I have cloaked today's truth-telling in the anonymity of first person plural. We is me, of course. I have tried to change the dysfunctional holiday dynamic in my own family, and I believe I've succeeded to an extent (though sibling quarreling is a constant). It helps that I expect less of myself than my mother did of herself. I'm not adamant about polishing the family silver right before Christmas dinner. I don't send out 400 Christmas cards, each with a personal note. I don't make incredibly labor-intensive German Christmas cookies that involve a deep-fat fryer. Compared to my mother, I do a pretty slacker holiday. So the ambient stress level stays out of the danger zone—most of the time.

I am my mother's daughter, though, and at the very last minute, I am likely to notice that the good silverware is in fact more tarnished than I'd thought. And then I have to force myself not to crossly polish the entire lot… all by myself… on Christmas Eve.

My saner self prevails, generally. I know that avoiding resentment needs to be my No. 1 goal if we are to have a reasonably cheerful family Christmas. I learned this principle from Nancy Samalin, a parenting expert I once profiled. She cautioned parents to not ignore their own needs because, she said, "You can behave a little better than you feel, but not much." It's a good thought to keep in mind when you are making holiday plans.

Should Women over 50 Wear Black?

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.

New Orleans: Seeing It Now

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 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.

New Orleans: Ways to Volunteer

New Orleans has always been like nowhere else in America, less "rise and shine," more "bon temps." It's still like nowhere else. But 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 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.
* You can even cook for the cause. The inimitable Poppy Tooker teaches creole cooking at the Savvy Gourmet, and if you're on the Culinary Voluntourism package at the Windsor Court Hotel (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. (*See below for Poppy's Cala recipe.)

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.

If you want to get involved, will match prospective volunteers with organizations needing help.

* Poppy Tooker's Cala Recipe

2 cups cooked rice
6 tablespoons flour
2 teaspoons sugar
2 teaspoons baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
¼ teaspoon vanilla
2 eggs
Powdered sugar

Mix the rice and dry ingredients together thoroughly. Add the eggs and when thoroughly mixed, drop by the spoonful into hot deep fat (360 degrees) and fry until brown. Drain on paper. Sprinkle with powdered sugar. Serve hot.

(Note: Maintain mixture below 70 degrees before frying or balls may separate when dropped into the oil.)
Makes 12 servings

New Orleans: Construction by Day, Carousing by Night

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 (New Orleans). 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.

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.

New Orleans: FEMA Got No Zydeco

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 might 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 the 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 lead 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 will spend 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 - Never Too Old For Fun

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.