Sunday, February 25, 2007

Aging

I don’t like to think about dying, but I guess at age 60 it is something worth contemplating. First we have aging, then dying. For most of our lives, we tend to think of ourselves as immortal.

I realize my body will simply cease to be one day. Maybe it will be car accident, or maybe cancer. Most likely it will be a heart attack. I guess a massive heart attack would be my preference. It is quick and in my genes to go that way! I would rather go quickly that to fight a long-drawn out battle with cancer. But, no matter how I go, I know the world will go right on spinning around without me. Those who care for me will grieve, but they will get over it and get on with their lives.

But in the meanwhile, I am dealing with aging. Like most boomers, I really don’t feel all that old. I certainly don’t feel like I am as old as my grandmother or even my own mother at my age. In fact, I don’t even feel like I am as old as some of my friends. Part of it I think is in the head. I look in the mirror and I don’t see a 60 year-old.

What I do see is the same person I have been seeing all these years. My face is a bit puffier and hair is gray (I prefer to think of it as naturally frosted), but who cares. Basically, I am the same teenage girl, minus the pimples and teased hair. I have never been one to spend a lot of time in the sun, so my skin is in decent shape and I don’t have a lot of wrinkles.

Despite the youthful way I feel, others can tell I am 60. Why else would they offer to help me to my car with two meager bags of groceries? Why else would they offer me the senior discount? Hmmmn… I guess it IS noticeable.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Winter Power Failure

The power didn’t seem to go out very often when I was a child in Birmingham, Alabama. We had candles on hand for emergencies, but I honestly can’t recall more than two or three times when we used them for light, and that was in the summertime. I can’t recall a single winter power failure when I was a child.

But when I was a teenager, we moved to the suburbs. About that time, Birmingham started experiencing ice storms. The roads would close, the power would go out and the schools would close. We used the free days to go sledding, drink hot chocolate and tromp to the shopping center.

One power failure, I remember vividly. It was a New Year’s Day. Our next door neighbors were having a party, but they had no electricity and were unable to cook. We, of course (because my dad worked for the gas company) had the ability to cook (both on the stove and on the grill). We cooked everything and took it next door. All the neighbors, most of them cold and hungry, came to the party. I don’t think I have ever felt closer to neighbors in my life. We were all there, young and old, trapped in our own little world, and enjoying each others’ company, with a raging fire in the fireplace and hot food and drink.

I left for college and left the ice storms behind with my parents in Birmingham. The storms continued and they finally bought a generator. I was never there when they used it. Summer power failures were tolerable, but the winter ones were different and as they aged I think they reached the point where they couldn’t stand the cold nights. But I think what pushed them over the edge was the time that they used the burners on their new gas stove with the built in microwave oven above it to keep warm. The heat (because there was no exhaust fan) melted all the controls on the microwave oven.

But I went on with my life many miles away in places where ice storms didn’t happen or were rare. My parents had their generator and gas for the stove and coped the best they could.

We were in Birmingham with my parents for our last Christmas together. We all knew it would be our last Christmas and it was so strange. My mother was dying with lung cancer and had days left. The weather was strangely warm. An azalea bloomed by the back steps, despite the season. My mother loved azaleas in bloom. I sometimes think this one bloomed just for her.

Days after I had returned to Maryland from this dismal holiday visit, I got the call to come home. My mother was fading away quickly and I needed to get there. The weather was terrible in Maryland, but it was worse in Birmingham. I arrived in Birmingham in the midst of an ice storm. Power was out all over town, including my parents’ house. The roads had just been cleared and I was able to get to the hospital. Within two hours, another ice storm hit and the roads were once again impassable.

My mother clung to life and my father and I stayed with her at the hospital, taking turns sleeping on a recliner in her room.

Two days passed by; the roads were clear. We needed some things from the house, and my father asked me to go there and get them. We knew there was still no power, but it didn’t matter; I was only going to be there for few minutes.

The house was horribly cold. Even in my coat and gloves I shivered my way through the house picking up needed items. But what really got to me was that I felt like I was walking through a grave. Everything I touched was cold. Nothing seemed the same. And I knew nothing would ever be the same again. It hurt at a very deep level. I saw my mother’s things sitting there, knowing she would never see them again. And she never did and life was never the same. The power came back on before the funeral, but the life never came back to the house.

In Maryland, from time to time, we have lost power over the years in the winter, but usually not for very long. We have learned to live with it and expect it. I have a cupboard with kerosene lanterns, flashlights, and radios. There is a stash of firewood always on hand. And for most short failures, this is enough. In retrospect we should have kept my father’s generator, but we gave it to his brother.

But this power failure was different. Steve was away. The power went out early on Wednesday morning. It was no wonder, as all the trees and power lines were coated with ice, just like the roads.

That first day wasn’t so bad. I stayed busy chopping ice on the driveway and shoveling it away. I could read my paper by my new fluorescent lantern. I was able to check my email on my Treo. The roads were cleared and I could keep my business obligations.

The local coffee shop offered a warm refuge in the afternooon and a place to plug in my laptop and use the WIFI. I was one of about 30 people who set up shop there that afternoon. We were each alone with our laptops, dressed ever-so-casually, working diligently on whatever couldn’t be put aside, while sipping coffee to pay moral rent on our seats.

Steve got home safely and finished off the driveway and sidewalk. I brought chili home from the coffee shop and heated it up for dinner on the gas stove. We ate by the firelight and went to bed early, under layers of blankets and comforters. And we awoke to a VERY cold house. Steve dressed and left for work.

I dressed quickly and realized that I could not stay at the house and accomplish anything. It was just too cold. The thermometer in the bedroom read 42 degrees. By 8 a.m. I was back at the coffee shop with my laptop. I quickly realized that the cold, dark house brought back all those painful memories of my mother’s death. The pain of those memories was almost as bitter as the penetrating cold.

Throughout the day on Thursday, I checked to see if we had power at the house. The test was easy --- if I got a tone when dialing the fax machine I would know the power was back. But I got no tone – the phone just rang and rang. So I sat at the coffee shop working – breakfast, lunch and mid-afternoon snack and water along the way. I was once again trying to pay rent on my seat.

Various friends emailed me offering us a guest room and a shower. I thanked all. If it really got bad we could go to our son and his family’s house nearby. But I nurtured the firm belief that our power would be back before sunset and all would be well.

Steve called from the house about the time the coffee shop was closing (6 p.m.) and told me that the power was still out. He had called the Navy Lodge at the local Naval Station (near the Academy) and had us on the standby list for a room. It would be less disruptive for all if we went there than if we stayed with family or friends.

I came home and found that Steve had a fire raging in the fireplace and the lanterns lit. It didn’t matter. The house was still bone-chilling cold. The fire made little difference. Everything I touched was frigid. The horrible feeling associated with my mother’s death came back. I had to get out of the house. There was no way I could spend the night there – the physical and mental discomfort was too much!

We did succeed in getting the last room at the Navy Lodge. It was a nice room, just like a motel, and we had lights, heat and hot water. But I was determined that we should not just sit in the motel room and work. Instead we went to a movie and then out to dinner afterwards. During dinner I checked the power at the house and found it was on. We stayed the night anyway, and while we could have gone home and cooked breakfast, we chose to go to a downtown Annapolis favorite, Chick ‘n Ruth’s deli, and get a hot breakfast. Our evacuation actually turned into a bit of a mini-vacation.

This crisis is over now. The house is warm again and I am back on schedule with my work. But I am changed. I don’t want this to happen again. We aren’t as young as we used to be. They have a new kind of whole-house generator that you put in place permanently and hook up to the propane tank. I think that is what I want for my birthday this year!

Monday, February 05, 2007

New Orleans and Mississippi Coast Revisited

I went back to New Orleans after Katrina. We had been told there were two ways to help –come and help with the re-building or come and spend a few days and help out the local economy. Given my carpentry skills, the latter seemed more practical.

As our flight landed, the signs of damage did not seem to be immediately obvious – just an occasional blue tarp here and there. But in retrospect I realize that it must have been our flight path coupled with the fact that I didn’t know what to look for. On the flight home I noticed white FEMA trailers and blue tarps and swimming pools that without the usual blue shimmer dotting the landscape.

We stayed at a small time-share condo in the French Quarter. It was on Burgundy Street (pronounced Bur-GUN-dy by the locals). Our location was a good one in terms of overall convenience to things within the quarter. We made our usual rounds to our usual favorites, plus added some new destinations. On the surface, everything seemed normal. But the people who ran the businesses all seemed just a bit friendlier – eager to welcome us and thanked us for coming. This was most noticeable at the Palm Court jazz club and the Commander’s Palace (in the garden district). There were some tell-tale signs of damage and small things that showed that the Quarter had lost some of it sparkle. A walk down Bourbon Street was the same as always, though this time there were no big crowds. There were people there, all right, but they were not shoulder to shoulder.

Just listening to the nightly news or reading the Times Picayune it was clear that there was an underlying tension in the city. The murder rate is very high and people are still living in trailers while sorting through their ruined belonging and destroyed homes. Insurance companies aren’t paying and there is lots of misery that is not evident in the French Quarter or Garden District. Several nights of our visit were marred by extremely loud music and noise coming from a nearby bar. At times it seemed as though the crowd in the street outside the small bar must have totaled hundreds and the cars cruising the street in front of the hotel made a statement with their loud music and un-muffled engines. There was a tension in the air.

We rented a car for a few days and one destination was to see the home where my father lived in the 1920s and see what, if anything of it, has survived. The neighborhood, formerly quiet and well-groomed, was filled with the ravages of the storm, though 18 months had passed. The streets were stacked with debris and the houses still bore the giant X’s marked by rescuers. I was particularly drawn to one home that had scrawled in spray paint – “Owner took pets.” My family’s former home was there and still standing. It was one of the lucky few that obviously had been covered by insurance. A nice new fa├žade was going up on the front porch and the house was being rebuilt.

Our travels took us along the coast to visit friends in Ocean Springs, Mississippi. While the damage in New Orleans had been heart-breaking, the damage in Mississippi was just appalling. In many cases, there was literally nothing left. We drove along US 90 between Gulfport and Biloxi. What had been a vibrant business area was just totally devastated. Churches were turned to twisted beams. I recall having once visiting Jefferson Davis’ home there. It was still there, but barely standing. There was a sign saying that locals were raising money to restore the home. We passed what had once been a nice seafood restaurant that I had particularly enjoyed – a place called McElroy’s. All that was left was a sign that said “McElroy’s will return.”

While the monster casinos (new since my last visit to the area) were heavily damaged, they seem to have all been rebuilt good or better than new and the parking lots are full of cars. This was one of the great contrasts.

Our friends on Ocean Springs took us to lunch at lovely little restaurant along the bayou. It has just re-opened and we were the ONLY people in the restaurant. Our friends drove us through the town of Ocean Springs (fortunately spared), and also through their old neighborhood. Their house was totally GONE. Their home had been on a nice piece of land overlooking the bayou. What I admire about my friends is that they didn’t let it get to them; they found another house, bought new clothes and furniture and got on with their lives. Clearly not everyone has been able to do that.

On our way back we drove through Bay St. Louis, a lovely little village where we had once had dinner with the same friends who live in Ocean Springs. The restaurant was gone – the town was gone. A wall remained with a mural on it, but most of what had been downtown was just concrete slabs and rubble.

The road along the coast was in pretty bad shape, but OK for driving. We repeated a drive we took about six years ago. Then there were majestic homes lining the non-water side of the road. They were surrounded by majestic trees. At the time I wondered how much a house like that would cost. Now those lovely homes are now simply gone! Often there is a FEMA trailer where a home once stood. Occasionally you will see something like a Quonset hut made out of inflatable plastic. Those are churches. Between Bay St. Louis and Waveland the destruction was unimaginable.

Rather than face rush hour traffic on I-10, we opted to stay with US-90 all the way back to New Orleans. We went through rural areas with homes with blue tarps and FEMA trailers; we saw large boats just sitting alongside the road with no water in sight; we saw piles and piles of rubble.

Our route took us back through St. Bernard Parish – one of the areas very badly hit. It was like driving through suburbia anywhere, but here everything is boarded up – the big box stores, the gas stations, the apartment complexes, the supermarkets. Here and there are signs of recovery, but the damage was clearly catastrophic.

This whole area was devastated, but the human spirit is very strong and the desire to rebuild is definitely alive and well. Will New Orleans and the Mississippi coast ever be the same? I doubt it, but it is clear that the soul of New Orleans, while battered and bruised, is still there and the music is still alive. It is also clear that the people of Mississippi will control their destiny and re-build their lives.