Saturday, January 29, 2011

Grand Isle LA

One of the things I wanted to do on our recent pre-Mardi Gras trip to New Orleans was to head even farther down to see the Louisiana south coast.  
I wanted to do this for few reasons.  First, I wanted to see something about America I knew very little about.  Last winter when Cindy and I cruised out of New Orleans for Mexico, I was surprised to find that it took ten hours of sailing to clear the Mississippi River and make it into the Gulf of Mexico, and both times the cruise ship came through that way it was dark.  Doesn’t seem like there should be that much Louisiana left, if you know what I mean.  
Second, I wanted to see for myself what the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill looked like.  News folk reported from fishing towns like Venice and Grand Isle, Louisiana last spring when all hell broke loose down there.  Some waded around in thick sludge that coated beaches and wetlands and impacted wildlife.  I thought it was worth a look to see how the cleanup was going.  
And third -- last but not least -- I was hoping to find a Cajun restaurant where I could spend a little money to support the local economy.  One of the concerns following the Deepwater Horizon was that livelihoods would be shattered by loss of tourism.  My hope was to help at least one restaurant out that Sunday afternoon.
Well, I can tell you it takes two+ hours of driving to make the beaches south of NOLA.  Still depends, of course.  One has to decide which side of the mighty Mississip’ one wants to see.  The last venue across our nation’s largest waterway is the Greater New Orleans/St. Pontchartrain Expressway Bridge to Algiers in downtown New Orleans.  We decided on the west side and off we went.
After taking a couple of interstate highways to clear urban New Orleans, we found ourselves winding down a two-lane state highway in country that looked a whole lot like Ohio:  small towns with the occasional WalMart.  Looked pretty agricultural, too, with signs referring to Louisiana strawberries and local vegetables.
About 45 minutes out on LA 1, we drove parallel to a bayou with a drawbridge in what seemed every town.  Lots of fishing boats were moored along the waterway, most big enough for big water.  
The towns ran out when we hit the wetlands.  Flat, lovely wetlands.  But we were still 25 miles out from Grand Isle.  That, I can tell you, is one heck of a lot of water.  I had a better understanding of what the Weather Channel reporters meant when they said that Louisiana wetlands can absorb huge storm surges from hurricanes making landfall.  There is a whole lot of wetland down there.  Still,  2,000 square miles of wetland has been lost.  Lost wetlands = hurricane trouble for below-sea-level neighborhoods in New Orleans.  
Farther down LA 1 we came across the new Leeville Toll Bridge, a monstrosity of an elevated roadway built post-Katrina that promises to keep the road open to flood-prone Grand Isle.  Wow.  Such an engineering marvel.  Odd, too, there were no toll takers on the toll bridge.  Instead, drivers needed to stop at a toll kiosk located in local establishments to buy a ticket.  We paid $5 for two passes.  [For more on the bridge, see ]
Once in Grand Isle, as impressed as we were with sand and water, we were disappointed with the town.  First, there were very few restaurants and most of them were closed.  We thought we would have our pick of many.  Not so.  Lots of great looking elevated homes, that’s for sure, with lots of phone numbers and invitations to rent for a week.  

There just weren’t many folk around.  It looked like a ghost town to me.  I wondered right away if we were seeing a concrete result of Deepwater Horizon.  We saw a few fisherfolk out in the wetlands, some not far from oil company helicopter facilities where workers were choppered out to the rigs.  Very few other people, though.  When we got to the state park beach at the end of the road, ours was the only car in the parking lot.  Another one came by before we left, but that was it.  
The beach was closed, too, due to heavy equipment cleaning sand where operators were working on a Sunday.  We were able to walk out on the long fishing pier at the park.  (See photo.)  The sand looked inviting and air smelled great (translation:  no oily smell).  We didn’t see anything to be concerned about, but we wondered about what was in the sand just off shore.  We saw a dozen or oil platforms from the pier, and a couple fishing boats out in the Gulf.  Lovely place, I can tell you that.   
Still, we wondered how Grand Isle was really impacted by the oil spill.  Did everybody leave in the off-season?  And why no more fishing boats out?  I mean, the fish don’t know that much about winter in the Gulf of Mexico.  Just go fish a little deeper. 
We finally stopped for lunch at a gas station/marina/fishing shop that claimed to have great Po‘boys (Midwesterners:  think sub sandwich).  Sandwiches were indeed, very good.  
So was the conversation we had with staff.  When we told the grill lady why we came down, she said, ‘Don’t believe what you hear on the news.  That oil spill did major damage to the way of life down here.  People are really hurting.’  
The other employee at the cash register said his job used to be working on a fishing charter.  This is the only work he could get.  
I suppose that just about says it all.  
Today’s elder idea:  I think the environment should be put in the category of our national security.  Defense of our resources is just as important as defense abroad.  Otherwise, what is there to defend? 

Robert Redford
actor and environmental activist

Image:  From the Grand Isle State Park pier (Tom Schaefer)

Monday, January 24, 2011

New Orleans 1

Blogger tells me this is Back Porch Blog entry #100.  I raise my glass of early afternoon ice water in a toast!  And thanks to you, especially, for coming by.  Cheers to all!  ;-) 
I’m currently listening to a new iTunes download from the Depression era singing troupe, The Boswell Sisters, that puts a cool finishing note on a trip Cindy Lou and I just completed to Louisiana.  
We traveled south two weeks ago to have a late Christmas with Cindy’s sister’s family in New Orleans.  And when in New Orleans, be ready for good music!  
On Saturday night we went with brother-in-law Amasa Miller to The Three Muses nightclub on Frenchman’s Street where he looked every bit the barroom piano player for The Pfister Sisters.  The Pfisters follow in the steps of the Boswell girls who started their three-part harmony careers in New Orleans back in the 1920s.  The Boswells eventually got a national recording contract and moved to New York City, but quit the act by 1935.  Connee Boswell went on to a successful solo career with Decca records. 
Following the Boswells in American musical history, came the Andrews Sisters, best known for their three-girl harmonies on World War II hits like ‘Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy’ and ‘Chattanooga Choo Choo.’  They were really hot stuff when my dad was in the Army Air Corps during the war, I can tell you that.  In any case, the Pfisters keep the memories and the great harmonies of the Boswells ringing through the French Quarter.  
Then on Monday night it was off to Snug Harbor to hear Amasa play his regular gig with the Charmaine Neville Band.  Truth is, he’s played keyboard and served as manager for both the Pfisters and Charmaine for close to thirty years.  It’s how the dude makes a living.  Good stuff, too. 
While we were there, Spenser Bohren stopped by the house.  He’s a life-long folky who is ‘home’ in NOLA for a short stay, but needs a piano player for a new original song he’s working on.  Amasa’s the guy.  After a few performances in town, Spenser’s off on a few domestic dates before embarking on a March tour in Europe.  
Like that wasn’t enough wonderfully American music for one trip.  On the drive home, in central Kentucky, Cindy and I stopped at a McDonald’s for lunch.  Wouldn’t you know it, the guy who sat down next to us pulled out his harmonica and starting playing a riff that was truly amazing.  
After a few minutes, how could I not ask him about his music?  Seems he grew up in Nashville and has carried a mouth harp in his pocket since he was 5.  Can’t read music.  Writes a few original songs he plays at church now and then.  Thought he might record something sometime.  Told a story of his daddy exchanging moonshine for votes in a local judge’s election years ago.  Worked, too.  The judge got elected -- and there was still plenty of white lightnin’ left after all the votes were counted.  
Just before we left, I asked him what name I should look for on his CD when it’s released.  He said, ‘Just call me Long Distance.’  The guy must be a poet!  
For more on The Pfister Sisters, see: 
For The Chamaine Neville Band, see: 
Amasa Miller and the Pfister’s Holley Bendsten’s released a personal anthology album summer 2010 entitled Our Songs (pictured above):
For folk singer Spencer Bohren, see: 
Today’s elder idea:  
I hear babies cry I watch them grow
They’ll learn much more than I’ll every know
And I think to myself, 
‘What a wonderful world!’
Louis ‘Satchmo’ Armstrong
New Orleans’ jazz great

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Violence on government

Dayton journalist D. L. Stewart made a connection in this morning’s newspaper between the killing of a Clark county sheriff’s deputy last week and this past Saturday’s carnage in Tucson.  His point:  Can’t we keep guns out of the hands of crazy people? 
Jon Stewart (no relation, I’m pretty sure) made a few points on Monday’s edition of The Daily Show, perhaps the most poignant that “crazy will find a way.”
In spite of all the bloodshed, it would seem according to this morning’s front page headline, America has no will for tightening gun laws.  According to MSNBC, for every 100 Americans there are 90 guns in circulation, yet the majority of us feel that crazy folks do crazy things and there just isn’t anything we can do to stop it.  Even if it means limiting the size of magazines gun owners have for their semi-automatic weapons that they carry for, I guess, protection.  You never know how many gangs might come at you where you’ll need to deliver 30 bullets at your adversary.  
I’d like to see some form of gun control in this nation.  I know cops and mayors want to see fewer handguns because it is largely these smaller weapons that cause the most community handwringing and family heartbreak due to the havoc they cause.  I don’t see the need for the general public to have armor piercing ‘cop killer’ bullets, either, even though former Wyoming representative Dick Cheney voted in favor of keeping them twenty-some years ago.  
And now, of course, it is Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin who are calling those who criticize their violent ‘reload’ rhetoric as pointing fingers at the wrong people.  Everybody talks violence, Right and Left.  Don’t blame us for what crazies do
But when public leaders use the violent language of revolution and ‘Second Amendment remedies,’ and then somebody shoots a politician, why should they not be held accountable somehow?  Have they had no responsibility in directing public discourse and public distrust of government?  
Frankly, the whole discussion makes me a little nauseous.    
The fact is we live in a gun-hungry nation.  The National Rifle Association is the most powerful lobby in Washington.  When a politician crosses them with some idea for limiting guns, ammunition, or the availability of semi-automatic magazines, there is a price to pay.  Those same politicians are marked for defeat and big money comes into a local race to see they are defeated. 
But another headline in today’s paper came to my attention, as well.  Writer Amelia Robinson wrote on the idea, ‘Why would anybody want a career in politics?’  
And, to me, perhaps that’s even a bigger issue:  Who is it who seeks election?  
Don’t most people get into politics to make a positive difference in the country and the world?  Don’t individuals get involved because they want to make our country a better place?  Undoubtedly, there are those want to do things differently than I’d do, but can’t we get along in the process?  Can’t we agree to disagree?  Now I’m starting to sound like Rodney King.  
I’d count myself a public servant, having served thirty+ years as a public school teacher.  I wanted to make a difference.  I am sure Gabrielle Giffords felt the same way.  
So why do so many Americans hate public servants?  Cops are bad, teachers are bad, Congress folk are bad, Presidents are bad.  
Isn’t that ludicrous?  Why do we think that way?  Why do so many assume solutions are found in the chambers of a gun?  It would be one thing if the same folks who shoot each other most often in neighborhoods were the same who took pot shots at politicians and federal office buildings.  It’s not.  Most neighborhood shootings are drug related.  Shooting cops and Congresswomen are very different.  And what is the point of packing heat to a political rally?  Isn't that more than a veiled threat?  
Why can’t we talk about this?  Why can’t we disagree?  Why can’t we fill the public discourse with facts instead of hateful innuendo that fires up the public?  (The idea of ‘death panels’ in the health care bill still irritates me.)
Doesn’t hateful talk lead to hateful actions?  Why can’t we do better than that?  Why can’t we accept that our words have consequences and that guns don’t hold the answer in civil discussion?  
Why in hell can’t we have common sense gun laws?  Wouldn’t that make America a better place to raise kids?
Today’s elder idea:   An atmosphere created by violent language + rampant gun availability = an America more dangerous than it needs to be.  
We can do better. 

Tuesday, January 4, 2011


I don’t know how it is for you, but my guess is one of my real dilemmas in life is one most of you can relate to:  staying focused.  
I do enjoy how life bounces me around sometimes, from one cool project to another.  Maybe it’s filling bird feeders right now, then watching a football game for a couple of hours, then fixing dinner -- all while I had originally planned to sit and write a blog entry.  Somedays are like that.  The idea’s not quite there and one thing leads to another and then another, and before I know it, it’s late and the ‘work day’ is spent.  
About a year or so ago I became more aware of my penchant to flit from task to task.  After thinking about it for a time, I decided I would post the word FOCUS around my basement living/working space.  FOCUS is posted on my office door, on a cabinet in the train room, with another prominently posted on the very front of my Mac.   See photo.  
Let me say this:  Thinking about focus has allowed me to focus on what I do with my time more.  I really do think about what I’m doing.  Still, finding fun tasks to replace the more difficult necessary ones sounds a whole like a classic case of passive avoidance; you know, where the brain figures out something more fun to do that justifies the postponing of that more difficult stuff?   And I’m probably ADD.  Can’t be good, you know?  
As a retired guy, I find the problem of FOCUS more pronounced now than when I was a classroom teacher.  Back then, my day was set from the time the morning alarm rang until 3 pm.  After that, I had some choices.  But until then, I knew where I had to be and what I had to do.  No thoughts of sitting down to write a book back then.
These days on occasion, I hate to admit, I feel depressed. When the darkness strikes, I sleep a little longer, then just sit tight, hang on, and maybe take a walk.  On other days, when I have assigned tasks that get me out of the house, I feel a lot better.  Last week I felt exceptionally punk one day.  The next, when I had some work to do over at my daughter’s house, I felt much better.  
I suspect my limited progress on the book is a prime contributor to the depression.  The Hog Island history project has been with me for years now.  I truly love the subject.  I do.    
It’s just that the project seems so big and so important and, well, so beyond me.  Lots has been written about Mabel Loomis Todd and Millicent Todd Bingham and I should think every literary historian worth her or his salt has an opinion about both.  Now I come along to add some heretofore un-focused-on stories about the family.  It needs to be right.  I want it to be perfect.  I want people to like it.  And it scares me to death. 
Still, I am drawn to the Hog Island project and feel that FOCUS is the biggest part of an equation for me that will see some significant environmental history about the place reach some kind of publication.  I know that.  I have to continue with the reading, the organization, the writing, and trust that all will fall together.  I know it will.  I know that. 
It still scares the bejeebers out of me.  
Today’s elder idea:   A prayer from an unworthy pilgrim:
Spirit of the Universe, help me focus on my writing.