Thursday, November 29, 2007

Things Could Be Worse, At Least We're Not...

Today in my class we were talking about Paul's Letter to the Romans and faith based salvation. I'm not very good at teaching Paul because I don't like him much. Paul dramatically changed Jesus' view of Christianity within Jewish Law, and I don't think Jesus would have appreciated it much. Every year at this time I try to read Paul and value him more, because people whom I respect think Paul is so great. But anyway, we were talking about Paul's idea in Romans 5 that we should rejoice in our sufferings. That got us to talking about post-Katrina New Orleans, and how so many people were suffering here, but at times we still rejoice in life with things like Mardi Gras. One of my favorite students, Jessica B., said that she finds happiness and meaning by realizing that no matter how bad she has it, someone has it worse. I brought up that these people who have it worse are getting harder and harder to find for those of us in New Orleans. People here used to complain about our education system and say "At least we're not Mississippi, ha ha ha." Now, because Mississippi reformed their education and we're even worse, we can't say that. We used to be able to say about our violence problem that at least we're not Washington DC, but we can't say that anymore. I think New Orleans has become an often used "at least we're not" sort of place. So my friends and family in Omaha NE who are freezing this winter and now don't even have a good football to follow, they will say proudly "At least we're not New Orleans." But this isn't a way to inact change for the better. I told my students that this idea of a faith based salvation is hurting the world on one level, because we put up with injustice here believing there is a heaven and hell where all matters will be settled for eternity. I prefer the message of Paul's adversary, James the Brother of Jesus, who prefered works over faith. So instead of rejoicing in the fact that at least I'm not some starving refugee in Darfur, I should work to help that person have a better life.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Thanks America

Today is Thanksgiving, and I would like to join thousands of others in Louisiana in saying "Thank You" to America for two things that we needed for our recovery:

First, thanks to Congress for overriding Bush's veto, and thus authorizing $7 billion to restore our flood and hurricane infrastructure.

Second, thanks to Congress again for passing legislation which included $3 billion to close the gap in the Road Home program, so other families will get assistance like ours did.

Happy Thanksgiving. We are hopeful that next year we'll be celebrating back in our home on S. Alexander Street.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Drinking Goat's Blood At ASOR

Being back in New Orleans for a few days now, I've had a chance to think about and reflect on the annual meeting of the American Schools of Oriental Research. It was great to see so many of my ASOR friends. These are people that my family and i lived with at the Albright in Jerusalem, ACOR in Amman, and people with whom I've excavated in the summers. We know each other pretty well. Mostly I went to meetings. I told the ASOR president Eric Meyers that I used to think that ASOR legends such as him were snobs, as I never saw them at the papers. Now I know it's because they have meetings all freakin' day long. I'm glad that my co-ASOR-VP is Morag, as we can joke and debrief after all the meetings with long talkers. There are many long talkers high up on the ASOR totem pole if you didn't know. I think the most interesting paper I saw was by Gillian Goslinga. She talked about sacrifice in Tamil Nadu India, and she showed an amazing film in which a deity inhabited this woman's body, then she sacrificed a goat after it's neck hairs stood up showing it's willingness, and then she drank the goat's blood from the carcass as the eyes and mouth on the decapitated goat's head twittered about. And pay attention deities: I do not want to have you inhabit my body, but if you must, then have me eat some cheesecake or drink a few beers. If it's goat's blood you crave, then find another damn prophet.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Ghosts in San Diego

I'm back in San Diego, attending the American Schools of Oriental Research's (ASOR) annual meeting. Therese and I lived here in San Diego from 1993-2000, as I was working in my PhD in ancient Near Eastern history at the University of California, San Diego. Those years were, for me, the worst of times and the best of times. My daughter Kalypso was born in San Diego, and La Jolla, where we lived in graduate student housing, is one of the most beautiful locations I've ever seen. Dog beach was the coolest. We also used to go camping in the Baja in the Winter and watch the California gray whales breach the water. It was amazing. But I have some painful memories of San Diego. When I first arrived here I had to work extremely hard to get over a hurdle of perception. I rarely saw Therese as I had to work on my studies all day long. It all worked out eventually, and I got my degree, but I still harbor feelings of being cruelly mistreated. If they took the degree away from me at this point in my life, especially after Katrina, I would not enroll in a PhD program. Once was more than enough for this guy. Interestingly, I asked a colleague and a very dear friend of mine if he was happy with his life at this point, and he said he wished he would not have gone into academia. There are some depressed people in this group.

But being in San Diego is also surreal in that I am a much different person than I was in the year 2000. My life has certainly worked out different from the way I planned. I thought I would wind up at a major division one research institution. I'm overall happy with my job at Xavier, but it's not what I intended. But now the schmoozing at ASOR and the politicking, something I used to enjoy, doesn't seem fun. I know very well the people at this meeting. I've excavated with them, and my family and I lived with them at overseas research centers such as the Albright Institute in Jerusalem and the American Center of Oriental Research in Amman Jordan. There some of my best friends. But now my name has become associated with tragedy because of Katrina. I do appreciate all of my colleagues at ASOR thinking about me and my family. But I hope there is a day when Katrina is a distant memory. I think the first step will be getting back into our house. We're hoping it will be in June or July. Thankfully, Ron Tappy has decided not to excavate this summer at Zeitah, so I'll be in New Orleans anxiously waiting to get my hands on a moving truck. My theory is that I need to be there when we move in. Otherwise, I'll spend the rest of my life looking for things like can openers and scissors because Therese will put them in some illogical drawer. I wonder how crotchety I'll be when I'm 80.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Arsenic at My Neighborhood School

In March of 2007 the Natural Resources Defense Council found that six schools in New Orleans tested high for arsenic in the soil. The LA Department of Environmental Quality recommends that levels should be no higher than 12 milligrams of arsenic per kilogram of soil. My neighborhood school, John Dibert Elementary, tested 22.8 mg/kg. I asked the Recovery School District about this, and received a report from July that said “Sample results indicate that arithmetic mean arsenic concentrations in soil at each school are below the state background level of 12 mg/kg for arsenic in soil and well below risk-based levels of concern for children." However, there is something alarming in the details. First the good news, the other schools tested low and their students seem to be out of danger. But at Dibert, 8 samples were taken. Sure enough, 6 tested low. But two samples at Dibert were above the safe range of 12 mg/kg. One was 16.6, and one (sample 8) actually tested 40 mg/kg. I've asked to find out where sample 8 is located, and we can at least tell students not to play in that area. But I'm amazed that the short answer is "everything is fine," even though one area had such a dangerously high level. Maybe I don't know enough about soil chemistry to have an informed opinion here.

I remember back in 2003 when Audubon Montessori had to close because the building tested positive for lead paint. I wonder why people aren't more alarmed about arsenic in the soil at Dibert, but I have some theories. Parents at Audubon represent a higher socio-economic class than those at Dibert. It's also post-Katrina New Orleans, and things that wouldn't have been acceptible before are not priorities now. But in the end I do hope that we can all work together to make Dibert a safe place for children to learn and grow.

Friday, November 09, 2007

My Dream Barkus Theme

This year's Barkus theme is (drum roll)... Adventures of Indiana Bones: Raiders of the Lost Bark. With all the stuff going on rebuilding our house, and with nearly all of our things in storage, I would have been happy with a crappy theme and just done the minimum dog and human costumes, even left the float in storage. But apparently God is telling me with this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to get busy. We have a Barkus planning meeting tonight at Howie's.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

Building Foundations on Ancestors and Children

One of the most interesting features of Levantine Neolithic society involved burying the skulls of ancestors beneath floors. These skulls were often plastered to resemble the facial features of the deceased, and they at times had shells for eyes. The most famous examples have been found at 'Ain Ghazal, Nahal Hemer, and Jericho, where the two skulls below were found.

Two Plastered Skulls from Jericho, Pre-Pottery Neolithic B Period, ca. 8000-6000 BCE.

The Bible also makes reference to building foundations on relatives, but in this case, it is by sacrificing children. For example, Joshua curses Jericho after its destruction, and he says future foundations of the city will be laid "at the cost of his firstborn son" (Joshua 6:26). In the 9th century BCE, this prophecy comes true according to the author of 1 Kings 16:34, as a man named Hiel of Bethel rebuilds Jericho: "He laid its foundations at the cost of his firstborn son Abiram."

After two years of not being able to do anything with our Katrina damaged house, we have begun working on repairing it. First we raised it. Then we've been working on the new foundation. Workers dug the new trench and put down plastic and steel rods. The plastic was to make sure the cement dried slowly, and the steel rods to make the foundation stronger.


At this point, I took some of my family's most treasured pictures, along with a bit of my father's ashes, and put them at the base of the foundation. Here you can see some of the pictures:

Pictures I Put At The Base Of Our New Foundation

I wanted in some fashion to invoke the spirit of my ancestors in this milestone in our recovery. I also wanted to acknowledge that my father and the people in the pictures played a big role in building my foundation. I believe that this will be the house in which we'll finish raising our kids, where we'll one day play with our grandkids, and where eventually Therese and I will die. So the foundation became more to me than just steel and concrete. I made it personal.

Last Tuesday we had the concrete poured, 12 inches above the steel rods. Here you can see Greg Abry near the machine that pumped the concrete through a tube.


Here you can see Mario above the tube where the concrete comes out, and you can see Oscar in the background.

Then the concrete dried, and now they're placing cinder block piers on the foundation, tied to it with metal rods.


Someday soon they'll lower the house onto the piers, and then the major interior renovations will begin. We hope to be back in the house by June 1, 2008. That will be the 17th anniversary of another important foundation, our marriage.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Una, Dos, Trash

My district's representative on the New Orleans School Board, Una Anderson, is currently in a run-off for a state House seat. Her campaign is essentially based on a platform of doing away with the Orleans Parish School Board (increasing charters, more state control, etc.). I'm so tired of officials making their office incompetent and then arguing we should privatize government because it is "incompetent." Education leaders in my neighborhood and others have tried to meet with Una Anderson many times over the past year to talk about our schools, but we never got a response. I guess it's because we don't write $1000 campaign checks, like her "trashy" friends at Pampy's Creole Kitchen.

There's a story in the Times-Picayune that Una Anderson accepted not only campaign checks, but actual bribes to bring a lucrative trash school contract to Metro Disposal and Richard's Disposal. There are certainly questions about the reliability of the source, Stan Pampy Barre, who is on his way to jail for his own corruption. But Una, you played a key role in reducing the city's school board from a powerful government entity to a marginalized joke. When you started, the board oversaw more than 120 schools, and now you run 5. So whether or not you're guilty, I look forward to the day when you're out of government.

And to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten, who is heading these investigations bringing light to government corruption, please keep up the good work.

Later Note: Dangerblond covers this better than me. Link. Our own Editor B broke "garbagegate." Well done B and your anonymous source.

Thursday, November 01, 2007

I Wanna Be Sedated

Typically after something like Hurricane Katrina, the number of people suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome (PTSD) jumps. Here in the Gulf Coast region, the number doubled after Katrina. Faculty at Xavier often joke that we're not suffering from PTSD, because we haven't yet entered the "post" stage. Turns out our observations were right. Typically after disasters, over time, the numbers go down. Not here in K-Ville. Those suffering from PTSD now two years later has significantly increased, and a whopping 8% of people are contemplating suicide, according to the latest findings released in a report by Harvard Medical School published in the Journal of Molecular Psychiatry. Interestingly those suffering from depression are from all socio-economic and racial backgrounds. The researchers theorize that the increase in mental illness is due to the slow rate of recovery.

NPR covers this story here.

Thanks to Sue for the depressing lead.