The Storm – Part 1

Katrina is a weird thing to talk about.

I have lived in New Orleans twice as long as I’ve ever lived anywhere in my life. I have a home and a job and a family and friends here. For the past 7 years, I’ve hosted a party for the Thoth parade. My husband and I sweated out the week with no air conditioning after Isaac came through. I know where I got dem shoes.

But in August of 2005, I didn’t have that. I was a senior in college with no specific plans of what to do after. I had a work study job with the newly revived marching band, and had just moved back on campus after subletting for the summer. I loved New Orleans, but I didn’t have roots here. I didn’t even know if I was staying past the following May.

Hurricanes were nothing new, either. My freshman year, we had Isidore and Lilli. I stayed in the dorm for the first and went home for the second (when really I should have done the opposite). Sophomore year was quiet. My junior year, my two roommates ad I fled Isaac by taking a week-long road trip to visit relatives of mine in Lake Jackson, Texas. Ivan, we’d been told, was The Big One. It was headed straight for the city. At the last minute, it turned and hit Pensacola instead. So when the university said to evacuate, I packed my laptop, a backpack’s worth of shorts and t-shirts, and went to Baton Rouge to stay with relatives of people I knew from church.

The storm hit. It passed. When we went to bed things were okay, and when we woke up, they weren’t. Finding out was surreal. The power had gone out, so there was no television coverage or internet. People in other states probably knew more and sooner than we did only 90 minutes away. I remember sitting in the car running the radio and tuning through the stations to hear static.

When the whirlwind of the next few days settled down, I was enrolled at Duke for the semester where my brother had just started college. My parents were stationed overseas. I had classes to take. Tulane was one of the first universities on Facebook, so I was able to connect with my friends. People were mostly warm and concerned and caring, but to a large extent, when they asked questions, I felt like an imposter.

No, I didn’t have family there.
No, I didn’t lose everything.
My dorm room was on the second floor, well above any campus flooding.
No, I didn’t know anyone in the Superdome.
No, I didn’t know anyone in the Convention Center.
No, I didn’t know anyone who died.

Those answers made me feel guilty and out of place. The storm’s direct impact on me was an life-altering, but not life-shattering. I didn’t belong to New Orleans. I wasn’t from there. But then the other questions started.

Why should we rebuild anyway?
Why should we help people who stayed?
Why should we care?
Why does anyone live there anyway if it’s so dangerous?
Doesn’t this seem like a sign from God?
Don’t you think those people deserve this?

The first questions made me guilty, but these made me furious. Half of California is regularly damaged by earthquakes. People in the midwest should know better than to build their house right in the path of tornadoes. No one questions their decisions to try and rebuild their lives and their homes and their cities. You should help people who stayed because they are human beings and it is the right thing to do. You should care because supposedly you are a human being with the emotional ability to understand tragedy and loss and crisis and pain and hope. People live there and have lived there for nearly 300 years; this wasn’t the first flood, it won’t be the last, but at least we live in an age with technology and innovation that should help us make sure when the next flood comes, it isn’t devastating. If it was a sign from God, Bourbon Street and the French Quarter  would not remain relatively unscathed. And no. No one “deserved” this, and you are the worst kind of person for suggesting they do.

As furious as those questions made me, they also jolted me into a very determined line of thought. I was going back, and New Orleans was going to be my home.

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Another Go Set a Watchman Post

In case you maybe somehow haven’t heard, the Harper Lee novel Go Set a Watchman was released yesterday. I have seen plenty of comments and posts saying they will read it or they will never own a copy. I have seen plenty of reviews that say it falls far short of To Kill a Mockingbird (honestly, how could it not). I have also, just like many of you, questioned the motivation and timing of its release. If it is, however, what it is purported to be — an earlier draft of Mockingbird given a strong Revise & Resubmit by her publishers — then it is utterly fascinating.

It is a fascinating glimpse into the HOW of writing something as timeless and enduring as To Kill a Mockingbird. Personally, I don’t care whether she’s accurately captured our hopes and dreams for the future of beloved characters because — and this is very important — they aren’t the same characters. So Atticus is a racist? That’s an important stop the character made on the way to becoming the man who defends Tom Robinson. Jean-Louise’s grown-up problems fade into the sharper, more black-and-white, fair-and-unfair problems of a six-year-old. I confess, there’s something comforting about the idea of Aunt Alexandra being largely unchanged.

Some people have suggested that this new writing will irreversibly taint the old. I humbly suggest that these people are wrong in both their expectations and their extrapolations of Watchman. To be fair, it is not all their fault; Watchman was billed as a sequel, which it is not. It is billed as new, which it is not. It is a draft. To Kill a Mockingbird is a wonderful, beautiful, enduring novel, but it did not spring fully-formed from the mind of Ms. Lee. It took work and messiness and writing and rewriting. I think there is both room and reason to appreciate Go Set a Watchman for what it is: an imperfect stepping stone to one of the pinnacles of American literature.

What I’m Reading – Steinbeck edition

Yesterday, I stopped by our favorite local bookstore and was lucky enough to pick up three beautiful vintage Penguin Steinbeck novels.

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I read The Grapes of Wrath in high school, and it made a huge impression on me. I also had the opportunity last September to see the 1947 Mexican film La perla, directed by Emilio Fernández, which is based on The Pearl. So, I decided to start with the book I knew the least about, Of Mice and Men.

John Steinbeck’s characters are my favorite part of his writing. They’re wonderful, flawed, sympathetic, and relatable. Despite facing crushing poverty, cruelty, and prejudice, they constantly strive toward a better life and future. Steinbeck gives his characters hope and optimism and places them in an indifferent, uncaring world. I personally find that how the stories end is less important to me as a reader than how each character faces the obstacles thrown in the way.

mice and menI like George. He’s short-tempered and easily frustrated, but it is obvious that he cares about Lennie and tries his best to protect him. I like that he’s wary and cautious. I like his loyalty. There’s no question he’d be better off on his own, but he stays paired up with his friend.

I like Lennie. He may not be smart, but I enjoy him.

I like hope and optimism.

I’m not very far into the novel yet, but I know enough to realize Steinbeck didn’t write fairy tales. The good and pure of heart won’t triumph over cruelty and greed, but right now, George and Lennie are still looking forward to the rabbits.

What are you reading?

The McGuffey Eclectic Readers

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When I was 3 or 4, my parents had a reprint set of McGuffey’s Eclectic readers. At the time, I assumed that these books were how everyone learned to read. It might surprise you to learn that this is not so.

Now that I am grown up, any time I find one of them in a used bookstore or an antique shop (not often), I jump at the chance to get it. So far, I have an overwhelming collection of two small volumes: a speller and the Fourth Reader from the 1879 revised edition.

So what are they?

The McGuffey Readers are a set of six graduated lesson books written by William H. McGuffey and published from the 1830s-1880s. The first volume started with pictures and simple spelling– cat, ball, dog, and the like– and the sixth contained excerpt from Shakespeare, Longfellow, and Dickens. The volumes in between had lessons on everything from etiquette to history to biology to astronomy. They were used in schools across the United States for decades. You can read more about their history here.

They are not perfect books, especially if the Fourth Reader is anything to go by. One inventive story has a girl falling asleep during her “natural philosophy” lesson only to have a dream in which water molecules are explained as sprites and fairies, which my more science-minded friends assure me is not the case. Varied as the subjects are, there is no mention of the immigrants teeming to America’s shores during the period. They’re overwhelmingly didactic, sometimes to the point of ridiculousness to a modern audience. The only mention of the Civil War (which ended only 15 years prior to the publication of this book) is a rather melodramatic ballad in which two soldiers die, each thinking of his daughter, one in New Hampshire and one in Georgia. A nosy child opens a box she’s not supposed to touch and gets a face full of snuff.

So why do you like them?

I like them because it is fascinating to see how students learned and teachers taught. There are notes to teachers in the textbooks themselves, so you can see how a lesson was meant to be implemented. They try to teach children to be kind, compassionate, patient, and diligent, and those are things every generation can learn.  And they have things like this:

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That’s cool stuff. Who really teaches articulation as part of a regular core class anymore?

So on the off chance you come across a McGuffey reader, pick it up and see what’s inside. They’re an interesting glimpse into the history of American education.