Archive | March, 2012

The Experiment’s On Me

24 Mar

Tuesday as I drove to campus, I could feel my muscles tensing; my body and mind were getting ready to explode out of the blocks into a track meet of a week.

To make the metaphor more specific, try high hurdles. More hurdles, in fact, than I could count.

There was a proposal to write … followed by the Thursday meeting in which I would pitch the proposal … followed by hosting a Thursday colloquium in which our community service learning students shared their experiences before an audience of students, faculty, and administrators.

Not to mention a school newspaper meeting followed by a dormitory writing group. Or teaching a class on the HBO series The Wire, followed by sitting through a night showing of this week’s episode.

Then, oh yeah, what some would rather narrowly define as my “actual job” – the teaching, grading, and advising of students.

And, like a more hellish version of one of those special TV offers, “that’s not all!” With the above, I also get three probably hour-long discussions with colleagues from other disciplines, all regarding Community Service Learning, the program that I direct at Assumption College.

Walking to my office Tuesday – watching enviously as students lolled in the first warm weather of spring – I told myself that a wiser man, more steeped in the ways of time management, would know when to say no.

Or at least postpone. Focus on doing fewer things better. In a week like this, weren’t these three chats – with an ethicist, a graphic artist, and a psychologist – ill-timed luxuries that this English professor couldn’t afford?

This question lingered an hour later, during Ill-Timed Conversation No. 1, which involved my teaching partner, sociologist Rich Gendron, and Philosophy professor Josh Shmikler. The subject was Josh’s guest appearance in Literature of Social Responsibility, a dual Sociology/English course in which students experience both traditional texts and community service through the dual lenses of  sociology and literature. This year Rich and I chose to build the course around the Home Box Office series The Wire; when Josh heard about the course last fall, he’d written to express his interest, and we’d invited him to come speak about ethical dimensions of the series.

An idea, of course, that I loved – if only this particular discussion of ethical dimensions wasn’t taking place an hour before class – a complicated session about the violent and disturbing second section of Richard Wright’s Native Son. Still, the deeper we delved into the dimensions of Josh’s ideas on The Wire, the more I quit looking at my watch. It didn’t even matter that our conclusion – that Josh should move his lecture back from this week until next month – gave me one more class to teach this week. I plunged into our 75-minute class feeding off the fresh energy of our philosophical colleague. I infused my lesson with that fire: It felt like one of my best lessons of the year.

I had little time to rest on my laurels – I forced myself through an hour of grading until it was time for Ill-Timed Conversation No.  2. This commenced when Graphic Design professor, Patty Harris, walked in to discuss the possibilities of putting one of her courses to work for non-profits, many of whom need upgrades to their websites. For the second time that day, I felt the profound pleasure of watching the wheels turn in the mind of a colleague from another discipline. Imaginative and innovative, Patty kept questioning and brainstorming until my original idea – little more than a hunch – became her own conception, so much more comprehensive than anything I had in mind.

Now it was well after 5 p.m. Tuesday, and I am seldom productive past 8 at night. But I surprised myself. I worked on and off until midnight, writing the proposal and grading, planning and networking. The same wave of energy swept me through Wednesday’s and Thursday’s classes, grading and advising – as well as my Provost meeting and our CSL student colloquium, in which students shared their CSL experiences (an entire blog unto itself).

When Friday finally rolled around, I didn’t have much left in the tank for Ill-Timed Conversation No. 3, with another prospective CSL professor, Sarah Cavanagh. Still, I perked up as she explained her work in “positive psychology” – which includes a blog in Martha Stewart’s web universe – and how that could lead to a course in which psychology students worked at after-school programs.

I made the natural assumption that her students, like my own charges in both sociology and journalism, would be practicing their skills on observing the clientele and staff at the agencies.

Then, finally, I got what she was really talking about – the students would be reporting on the effects of volunteering … on themselves! “The students would be the subjects,” she said, smiling.

Of course! It should’ve been obvious – charities generally strive to remind us that service is a two-way ministry – but for the third time this week, a colleague in another discipline had given me that eureka moment of seeing a familiar concept in a startling new light. I walked away with a deep satisfaction, and more intellectual energy to carry into my last two classes of the week.

But the biggest insight didn’t come until Saturday morning – after my first good night’s sleep of the week. That’s when I realized the students weren’t the only subjects of experiments in positive psychology.

It turned out I, too, was a subject.

Every one of those supposedly ill-timed conversations turned out to be just what I needed – an extra dose of enthusiasm, passion, and imagination, all serving to lift my performance to a higher level.

Which probably explains why Friday, instead of taking a break, I emailed my friend who teaches Environmental Science.

Wouldn’t he like to chat about his discipline and service learning?

The experiment continues.

Conscious Evolution

17 Mar

I settled into my stage-side seat at Snug Harbor, ordered an Abita Amber  and admired the palm-tree outline projected onto the wall .

I let out a sigh of satisfaction.

I was feeling a bit proud of myself. On my first full day of this visit to New Orleans, I’d moderated a panel on medieval literature at the annual convention of Sigma Tau Delta, the national English honorary for undergraduates. What makes this less impressive to my readers – but more impressive to me – was that I did it without knowing a whole lot about medieval literature.

But I knew enough to know a good paper when I heard one, and just such a paper had been delivered by Stephanie Giguere, one of three Assumption College students I was escorting. The escorting a few hours later was of a less intellectual variety – I walked Stephanie, Erin Sullivan and Caitlin Schneider to Mother’s for a taste of New Orleans cuisine, then led them back up St. Charles, beneath railings and trees still sporting its share of beads, relics of Mardi Gras just ended. Once the students, mature seniors all, were oriented, I did what any wise faculty escort does – I got out of their way.

Now, after a brisk walk of a mile or so, I’ve docked at Snug Harbor, a quiet and intimate jazz club recommended by a friend. Never has a music venue been named more perfectly: The place is “snug” to the point of intimate, with perhaps 50 chairs positioned loosely around small tables, so that one can turn around to talk with fellow listeners. The downstairs space in which I sit is smaller than the main room of Nu Café, a coffee shop I frequent back in Worcester – and that includes the stage. There’s a balcony, but it consists of a single row of chairs rimming a railing.

As for the “harbor,” this feels like the musical port in the storm I’ve been craving  – a place where I could gather with others who want to quietly appreciate some exploratory jazz, away from the stupid faux hedonism of Bourbon Street. Here I also might meet some folks who are actually from New Orleans. I turned to my left and got acquainted with an older couple who had come all the way from Canada’s Northwest Territories. I started to say how, in eighth grade, I’d done a presentation on the Northwest Territories, and had a great fondness for their people, their major exports and their natural resources – but suffice it to say I’d been on surer ground explaining Stephanie’s paper.

In contrast, a dark-haired younger woman behind them turned out to be New Orleans tried and true – and, even better, she knew Khari Lee and the rest of the band. She teaches with them at the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, where she instructs younger kids from diverse backgrounds, “getting them ready for Khari.”  Given what some have told me about the struggles of New Orleans, it’s good to hear NOCCA is thriving – some kids even move to the city to be part of the program. My new acquaintance reminds me of the service done every day by those who teach arts – or any subject, really – in primary and secondary schools, most of whom, despite considerable obstacles, manage to keep their passion for both subject and service alive.

One way they keep it alive, of course, is to make time for their artistic growth. This concert, I learned, celebrated the release of Conscious Evolution, a collection of original works by Lee and his band mates in what they’ve chosen to call the New Creative Collective. “These are great musicians,” she said. “And they’re nice guys, which isn’t always the case.”

Soon enough the musicians arrived: Michael Pellera on piano, David Pulphus on bass, Geoff Clapp on drums and percussion, Ed Anderson on trumpet. For the first composition or two, during moments of personal amazement, I occasionally checked the responses of my new acquaintances – one staring intently, one smiling broadly, one listening with eyes closed. But soon their faces dropped away, leaving only the musicians and, when I closed my own eyes, their music. I slouch my way through too many events in life, but these guys have me bending forward, elbows on knees, fascinated.

Earlier in the day, Stephanie’s paper had posed the question of whether, in The Canterbury Tales, language itself can move someone not closer, but farther from an experience of the sacred. But the instrumental compositions of Conscious Evolution circumvented that problem. These prayerful moments – when words themselves drop away and there is only the searching and merging of musicians, rising together to the challenge of a passage – are why I love listening to jazz. No distracting – and usually disappointing – lyrics; no rigid formulaic patterns or musical clichés.

By definition, I can’t put what I felt that night into words – the only reference point was the last concert in which I felt that way, the sudden flashback to a moment five years ago at Mechanics Hall, when Dave Brubeck, and musicians he’d played with for decades, took me to a similarly ecstatic moment.

Lee in album cover by Angela Ortiz

When Khari Lee  did speak, he did so with a mixture of humor and joy.

“I think of conscious evolution as a way we can move into the world in which we want to live, the place we imagine living – a world in which everyone has what they need.” Then he laughs. “You know, every house has a garden, and the kids are all playing outside … and no neighborhoods are sketchy …”

While this dare to imagine is genuine, he delivered his vision with a knowing smile; the audience, which included a good many friends, laughed along with him. This is post-Katrina New Orleans, and folks here know evolutions are hard-earned. But the music had opened me to the spirit of the dream. While less tangible than a house or a soup kitchen, this music (like all art) is its own kind of service – providing moments of transcendent ecstasy. Like all manifestations of spiritual evolution, these moments re-energize us to go back into the world and keep trying to make a difference.

Of course, music teachers like Lee are helping the next generation of New Orleans natives experience the same.

At show’s end, before pressing his hands together at his chest and bowing as if to say Namaste, Lee expressed a similar sentiment: “I want to thank everyone. What you think, matters. What you do, matters. All the good stuff that’s happening, it takes more than one person to make it happen – whether you’re building a house … or doing a dance.”

For more on the music of Khari Allen Lee and the New Creative Collective, check out

Dewayne Part Deux

7 Mar

Dewayne Searcy hollered at me from the distance, then clambered up the rise to greet me with a firm handshake.

“Before I give you a hug, I want you to see what I’ve got on!” he said, pointing with pride to his sky blue Reach Out Center t-shirt, the one with the back that states, “We have FEET to walk on, HANDS to work with and (HEARTS) to serve.”

It was, of course, the t-shirt Assumption’s SEND students gave Dewayne back in January, during our simultaneously tearful and hilarious farewell at my mother’s house down here in Tuscaloosa.

Back then, Assumption students labored hard to help Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa nearer its goal of finishing the home of 82-year-old Appie Jones, who had survived last April’s killer tornado. That home, built near the start of the tornado’s six-mile path through my hometown, was dedicated last week. Now we’re standing near the opposite end of the swath of destruction, on 4th Avenue East in the Alberta City neighborhood.

Here, Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa is building four homes together, side by side and back to back, on adjacent streets. One is finished – it was dedicated last week – and beside it, volunteers from three Episcopal churches in Wilmington N.C. have joined forces with some Ohio folks to begin putting up the frame of the second house on 4th Avenue East. Meanwhile, Dewayne and I stand next to the four-block high square of concrete blocks, outlining the foundation of a third home; behind us, a fourth group is down in a network of trenches, shoveling out the water – courtesy of an underground spring the workers were surprised to discover the day before.

James Shackelford, another friend from our January trip, began conferring with Dewayne about the next move on the flooded lot. Then the pump started working again without warning – good news, if not for the way the hose came alive and snaked back into the trenches, spilling in more water before James, showing off his former Bama football skills in the trenches, jumped in and returned the rebellious hose to its proper place.

“You’ve got to have a sense of humor to do this job, don’t you?” I say.

“Yes you do,” he says, grinning.

Dewayne and James take a break.

As if to demonstrate, Dewayne, sporting his Alabama football cap, pointed to his student group from the University of Florida, home of the Tide’s rivals, the Gators. Dewayne yelled , extended his arms in the familiar Gator chomp signal, and exhorted, “do this!” Someone started to, and then he added, “Now say, ‘Roll Tide!’ ”

They immediately stopped, waving him off in mock disgust. It was good to see Dewayne, who motivates through good-natured abuse, back to his old tricks. In a way, he symbolized another source of humor – that of the local citizens, who, even as they’re glad to talk of the storm, resist the stereotype of mere victims.

After putting in a few hours slinging clumps of concrete into a dumpster on Tuesday, I came back the next afternoon. Since Dewayne had nothing in particularly suited to the skill set of an English professor, he told me to shoot photos and keep “documenting” the effort.

Half-completed roof of North Carolina group's house.

So I settled into talking with the Episcopalians down from North Carolina. They represented a group of Episcopalian churches – St. James, St. Andrews on The Sound, and Church of the Servant – along with a few from Closer Walk Methodist. I mentioned having just been in New Orleans, and it turned out that in a past year, this contingent had done work there as well. Rev. James Mazingo told me, “I went down there expected to be sad at all the devastation, but we had a really good time. The people there made it a fun.”

A group of parishioners joined in the conversation as they sat on the pile of lumber, waiting to pack up. One woman said the same thing was true here – and even in the Dominican Republic, where the group has twice visited.

There, in that much more impoverished setting, there were far more reasons for discouragement – ranging from less reliable supplies of electricity and water to the obstacles that the local citizens faced – but, one woman said, “it was actually fun! They were fun!” So much so, she said, she couldn’t fall into the trap of feeling sorry for the people they were helping.

The house on which Assumption worked, pictured this Wednesday, a few days after dedication.

It was, several agreed, a two-way ministry. Particularly when you get to go to the place – whatever place you choose – and take it in.

“If you go to a place and open your heart to it,” a man named Goose told me, “then the check-writing will come later.” Connections, he said, go on for years.

Certainly that seems to be the case for Dewayne and Assumption, remarkable considering that, in March alone, Habitat Tuscaloosa has seen 380 volunteers from out of town. When I told a volunteer from Texas that I’d come down with a group from Assumption, he grinned in recognition.

“Oh, Dewayne loves those guys.”

Once the Episcopalians said their closing prayer and moved out, I sauntered back to the lot tended to by the Florida students. With the students clearing out, Dewayne seemed to be enjoying a solitary moment of quietly smoothing the drying concrete atop a chest-high square tower – the foundation for the future safe room Habitat is putting in every post-tornado house.

“It’s like a house inside a house?” I asked.


Dewayne smooths concrete base of safe room, while mixer turns in the background.

Which tempts me to pad the stats and double the number of houses built here this year – but Habitat and all the outside volunteers have plenty to brag on already in these parts.

Meanwhile, Dewayne – who had already texted a photo of the two of us to the SEND group – told me to relay a message to the crew.

“Tell them,” he said, “I miss ‘em.”

Appie's porch and chair.


Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa update: March 6

6 Mar

Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa update: March 6

The Hall-Matthews family at dedication of new home Monday. Photo by Dusty Compton of The Tuscaloosa News.

Amid the stories of the latest tornado-related losses around the country, two rays of hope: Habitat for Humanity Tuscaloosa has dedicated two homes for tornado survivors in the last five days.

Last week Habitat dedicated the home for storm survivor Appie Jones.Monday’s dedication was for the new home of Amie Hall and Keith Matthews; last April’s tornado lifted and moved the entire house with Hall and their three children in it. See the link for more.

New Orleans Revisited

5 Mar

Katrina coffin memorial at Rampart visitor center.

We round the corner of Louis Armstrong Park and meander up St. Philip, turning our backs on the traditional tourist mecca of the French Quarter and heading into the quieter Treme. I would say this marks my transcendent rejection of the tourist mentality, but since this itself is a tour, well, you know.

It must count for something, though, that my tour guide, a former anthropology major named Hope, focuses less on what’s in Louis Armstrong Park – the statues paying tribute to the birth of jazz at Congo Park, the big chief Mardi Gras culture, Louis Armstrong and Mahalia Jackson – as what’s not here.

Meaning the hidden costs of urban renewal. Meaning the former residents, mostly African-American, who were moved to housing projects without compensation to make the park possible. Or the once thriving black businesses along Basin Street, wiped away by Interstate 10.

Or, of course, those lost to Hurricane Katrina.

We’re passing a series of small old wooden homes – unremarkable in that my tour guides don’t bother remarking on them – when I see something that makes me bring the entire tour to a stop.

I’m their only customer, so I have that kind of power.

FEMA-marked window on St. Philip.

What I see is the familiar spray painted X on the window of a small brick home, with figures written in each wedge. I’ve seen those X’s, part of the FEMA making system for damaged structures, up in Tuscaloosa, Alabama; disaster workers left them all over my hometown after the April 27, 2011 a tornado mowed a six-mile long path through the city, killing 52 people. It was a system born here, amid the aftermath of Katrina, which left 1,464 confirmed dead in Louisiana – and far more unaccounted for.

I’ll only learn later that the 3-505 to the left signifies the inspector – in this case the Alpha Company, Parachute Infantry Division, 82nd Airborne – and that the NE on the right means No Entry. We do feel sure about the bottom symbols – “0 D” translates, my guides say, to “zero dead.”

Meanwhile, the top symbols – time and date of the inspection – are inscrutable, but we’re talking more than six years, regardless.

In all this time, no one had replaced the window; instead, a tenant or tenants chose to see the world through this grim scrawl of a reminder.

Conscious statement? Weary resignation? Poverty plain and simple?

Or just an abandoned building?

Tuba Fats Square, site of Treme neighborhood music celebration, with I-10 in background.

Deciding the latter, I raise my camera and press the button – only to have the barred door beside the window swing open. A black man, athletic and attired in nice sports wear, emerges; as he walks to his car; he could be anybody. Reflexively I lower the camera, but it’s too late. I feel like a looter – even if all I’m stealing today are images, along with, just maybe, some inspiration.

This moment – both my intrusion and the FEMA-provided grid through which this young man must stare – brings me back to questions that have been swirling in my mind the last few days.

Do the people in New Orleans feel overly defined by Hurricane Katrina? Are they tired of questions from strangers with no deeper investment in the city, even if those strangers come here to help? If so, will the people up in Tuscaloosa come to feel the same way in years ahead?

No one person can offer a definitive answer to this question, and, as it happens, my tour guides – about half my age – did not grow up here. But they do come at my questions from a deeply analytical perspective – Hope, my official guide, brings the full force of her anthropology major to detailed mini-lectures on 200 years worth of multiracial culture in New Orleans, and her friend, a history major who created this tour, lived through Katrina and its aftermath. Amid their detailed series of lectures on the rich African-American culture of the neighborhood, they are quick to note the negatives – the mixed results of gentrification, for instance, particularly when new residents who swooped in on post-Katrina bargains then come into conflict with the neighborhood’s sometimes spontaneous parades.

Hope, my official tour guide, in the brightly colorful and up-scale Cafe Treme.

Since it’s just the three of us talking – and, since it’s their own tour, there’s no civic party line they have to toe – I believe it when they say the long-time residents still seem more appreciative than annoyed by the attention.

Similarly, I believe my guides when they say that they’ve heard few complaints about the HBO television series Treme – the inspiration for this tour. Created by David Simon and Eric Overmyer, the series is a thorough and realistic portrayal of how a wide range of people­ – musicians and cops, bar owners and chefs – grapple with the vexed questions and staggering challenges of recovery. Hope says the series has brought more jobs to New Orleans – which already attracts more than its share of filmmakers – and has raised the national profile of local mainstays such as John Boutté, who sings the series’ theme song.

In addition, the show’s painstaking approach to the subject matter has surely sensitized visitors to the subtler aspects of post-Katrina life in these parts. This seems to be suggested in the minor nature of the objections my guides have heard about the series. What they perceive as glitches in the fiction only reinforce the grimness of the facts. For instance, my guides didn’t doubt the realism of a character being beaten by frustrated and exhausted police; however, they did question the idea that the victim would have gotten treatment afterward in a “brick and mortar hospital.” One of my guides had a tetanus shot administered on a sidewalk; the other’s boyfriend got his glasses at the zoo.

Home sports a mural in Treme.

Ironically, their tour, as under-attended as it is, reminds me that this city has had its share of troubles for centuries – and its ways of transcending them. One way being, of course, through music. After I bid a fond farewell to my guides, I cut back through the French Quarter, grabbing a muffeletta in some dark bar near Bienville, and stay in my hotel room just long enough to make notes and search the internet for a fitting way to end my four nights in New Orleans.

I find what I want, then stride the length of Royal, past all the thriving art galleries and antique stores, and into d.b.a. – the bar where, this very night, one John Boutté would in fact be singing. It turns out to be right next to Snug Harbor, where I’d spent the last two nights, listening to the cutting edge New Creative Collective on the first night, and Ellis Marsalis on the second. Sitting perhaps 10 feet from me the second night was none other than Henry Louis Gates, the distinguished scholar of African-American Studies back up my way, at Harvard.

Whereas Marsalis was an easily justifiable 30 bucks, Boutté is a miraculous 5. Soon I discover why – when they swing open the doors to the performing space, people rush into a mostly furniture-less room. Some locals know just to drag in a barstool; I wind up out of position and simply settle for leaning against a bicycle rack that, for some reason, is near one end of the stage. I point out the bike rack’s advantages to a woman in front of me, and soon I have two new friends, Robin and her husband Tim. They’ve moved down here from Jackson, Mississippi because their oldest is attending Tulane.

Like my tour guides, they’re not natives, but Tim and Robin are warmly and intelligently conversational folks who’ve been living here a while now. So I ask again the question that’s on my mind: Are folks hear feeling overly defined by Katrina? They agree that, if anything,people are glad to share their memories and reflections. Maybe, six years later, it’s actually easier for folks to talk about a trauma that, after all, they’ll never forget. They also suggest that, at the same time, New Orleans is still more defined by the richness of its culture – including the music we’re about to hear.

Proof of that soon arrives on stage. Boutté, slender and unassuming, radiates a powerful stage presence. He sits alongside his musicians for the most part, but that only adds drama when he chooses to stand, learning forward with the microphone as he makes love to the song he’s singing, rendering slow and soulful even such rock ‘n’ roll standards as Neil Young’s “Southern Man.” The set is almost all covers, but he makes them his own – just as New Orleans makes its own almost everything, including the way it will transcend its losses.

During one interlude, he announces he wants to share a story: This very day, he was sitting at home when he heard the Treme brass band playing out on the street. That was all the story there is … but somehow it’s enough. We can fill in the significance around the edges.

Shortly before sliding into his last number – of course, the theme to Treme – Boutté speaks softly to the crowd.

“It’s such a beautiful city,” he says in a heartfelt manner.  “We’ve got our problems … but I’ll still take our problems over other people’s. I’ve been other places, man.”

Boutte snapping fingers to the beat.

Not being from here, I wouldn’t presume to agree, or disagree. But I believe that he believes. After I bid farewell to Tim and Robin – we actually exchange emails before they jump into a cab – I wander a half-block to the corner bookstore, where I ducked in and asked for a book my tour guides had recommended if, they said, I wanted a glimpse into the New Orleans post-Katrina psyche. Chris Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic gets its title from a note that, like the FEMA X earlier today, was spray-painted on the side of a house. In the store, I thumb through the prologue, “Who We Are,” dated 9/6/05, nine days after the storm.

           “When you meet us now and you look into our eyes, you will see the saddest story ever told. Our hearts are broken into a thousand pieces.

            “But don’t pity us. We’re gonna make it. We’re resilient. …

            “And one more thing: In our part of the country, we’re used to have visitors. It’s our way of life.

            “So when all this is over and we move back home, we will repay you the hospitality and generosity of spirit you offer us in this season of our despair.

            “That is our promise. That is our faith.”

Wedging Rose’s story into my jacket pocket, I step out onto the crowded corner where, just the night before, I saw half a dozen young men blowing that distinctive New Orleans brass sound, wild and exultant – while a middle-aged black woman with distinctive high cheeks danced slow in the middle of the intersection, drawing cheers from pedestrians and honks from cabbies.

Clearly, more than six years after Rose’s words, the people of New Orleans are holding up their end of the proposition.

I hope we hold up ours as well.

Church in Treme.

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