Category Archives: new orleans

Latest Local Birder News

Yesterday a flock of Indigo Buntings flew through the area. The males are deep blue and the females a sparrow-like brown. There is an empty lot next to our home currently filled with ripe-to-bursting wild peas of some sort, and indigo buntings apparently love to eat seeds and berries.

And I do mean literally bursting – as I went out recently to check on our newly planted honeysuckle and blackberry bushes, I realized I was hearing an odd popping sound. I stood quietly and looked around. Gradually I realized the pea pods on the wild plants were now fully ripened and dried, and since the sun was hot enough, the heat was literally making them explode open, spreading the tiny black “peas” in each pod in every direction when they burst. As I watched, one split and hit me in the face.

These plants must be very popular with the local birds because I have also seen our resident nesting cardinals fighting other birds over rights to feed in the lot, as well as significant blue jay activity there, along with the inevitable small brown birds you see all over.

We saw a hawk last weekend – I think a young one, it seemed clumsy, as if it had recently become accustomed to stretching its wings. It only appeared to be passing through, because after a moment it was gone. Other recent sightings include a flock of about 20-30 Monk Parakeets, and a close up sighting of a buzzard.

Currently two ducks seem to have taken at least temporary residence in a pecan tree across the street. I am not clear on their relationship – sibling or mates? Young ducks tend to stay close in family groups until mating time, and these look very similar in color, and small. Possibly they are both young mallards.

Our four cats remain convinced that if I let them out they could catch any of these fascinating feathered creatures, but the only cat I have known to have caught a bird is the feral cat who graces our doorstep and whom we feed to discourage her bird-hunting ways.

Strange Tales from 1990s New Orleans

I’ve been working on a video project with a backstory so bizarre it couldn’t be anything but a classic New Orleans tale – something too strange to be fiction.

I have an album whose artists are to be found no where on the internet. Or rather, they come up only as some people who sang at a concert once or twice many years ago, listed under names that are clearly not “real” or “legal” names as most people in America would understand them (see “NymWars” if you are interested in the controversy concerning the issues over “real names” vs. “legal names” among the artistic and other segments of society). The album, being on a CD, is in danger of soon degrading and being lost forever and there is no where to purchase it that I can find anywhere.

So I decided to upload the songs onto youtube, making the video some pictures I’ve taken around town. The band was named “Cybersanctum”; the album named “Alchemy”, and the artists in question called themselves “Lorelei” (vocals) and “Pteran” (mostly forms of electronica). The songs seem to be mostly based in the neopagan ’90s culture with perhaps a bit of influence of ceremonial or “high” magic in the lyrics.

The odd backstory, however, is how I acquired the CD.

For a brief time I had this roommate. I will gently allow this person to remain unnamed, although certain friends of mine will read this and know exactly who I am talking about. He declared himself to be a high priest of Satan and spent a good deal of the 90s walking around wearing these rather fetching robes – black choir robes with flames licking about the bottom. He shaved his head and the entire rest of his body, so he told me once. I never asked why. I didn’t want to know.

For all of these personal oddities, he was actually a pleasant enough fellow; intelligent, insightful and talkative. I never saw him do anything violent or even raise his voice. He smiled a lot and if anything he just seemed rather… flaky. He seemed, absent the Satanic schtick, to just be a person who was sort of absent-minded. I can’t even recall any notable tattoos or piercings, although it would seem odd for anyone in the alternative culture to not have any at that time – if he had any, they were rather understated and not very flashy. He was rather thin and not very muscular. Also, he was usually broke.

It was for this reason he ended up being my roommate, needing a place to stay and promising to pay some nominal fee for a room in my tiny apartment. I didn’t ask for much. Needless to say, he didn’t pay up and after a few weeks he had to leave. Within that few weeks he began an affair with one of my close friends, which is one of the only reasons I let him stay as long as I did. How do you explain to your good friend you are making her hot new boyfriend homeless? So I got to sit in the next room ignoring them while not getting any money. Thankfully it didn’t take long for them to break up.

It was during these few weeks he came home one night and tossed a CD in my direction. “I really think this is more you than me, ” he said. This was, of course, the one under discussion in the post. I never found out where he got it and by now I’m sure he’s long forgotten himself. I played it and immediately fell in love with the songs. He was totally right about my musical taste, of course.

The postscript: decades later, he is still in town and works at some club specializing in terribly kinky things that I won’t even walk into. And he still manages to affect our life in bizarre ways. We had another roommate the other year. One day we were checking our network and saw some oddly named computer hooked into it – “666”. We asked her about this. “Oh yeah,” she said, “I bought this laptop from him. That’s what he named it.”

Of course he did.

Here’s the first of the uploads from the album:

The Nature of Politics

I’ve long felt that human beings, in forming their social, cultural and political institutions, must of an unconscious necessity reflect the patterns existent in the natural world around them.

This is the convoluted way by which I explain the otherwise inexplicable levels of political corruption in Louisiana and New Orleans politics. We live in a swamp filled with molds, fungi, alligators, and strange things that mutate and crawl out of moats. Our political institutions are the same way.

Louisiana has the highest per capita number of convictions for political officials  in the United States. These are just the ones who get convicted and caught.

This also doesn’t include the number of sycophants, aides, supporters, and other associated hanger-ons that have built up in what amounts to an entire ecosystem of corruption surrounding everything to do with Louisiana politics.

People have tried to explain this for years, based on all levels of partisan political data, sociological analysis, historical roots, and everything else, but it seems to deny any rational analysis. I think the real cause is irrational. There is something, as they say, in the water. It’s not the heat, it’s the humidity. We live in a swamp – strange and funky things brew beneath the surface of the clouded water. Nothing is quite clean.

Even a swamp is cleaned out from time to time, however. A marsh fire occurs in dry season. A hurricane comes. Winter peels back to tangled overgrowth.

We see what was lurking beneath. You can’t hide forever.

A Matter of Honour Nearly Ends in Tragedy

After a lengthy dinner at an upscale French Quarter establishment, four young gentlemen of wealth and taste began to civilly discuss whose turn it was to pay the bill.

“I insist, my good chap,” said the party of the first part, sitting alongside his best mate. “You have paid the last several times and I simply cannot abide being treated as a charity case.”

“Never!” retorted the party of the second part, with his brother beside him. “I am more than happy to treat you every time we take refreshment, as my family has left me with a healthy independence which allows me to live heartily without even dipping into the capital!”

At this back-handed reminder of his less privileged status, the party of the first part found his honor most importunately impinged upon and requested an immediate duel, with pistols, on the main thoroughfare of the city in the presence of witnesses and with their best mates as seconds. With the restaurant fare settled, the duelists set out to their chariots to engage upon the battle.

A fiery duel proceeded to range up and down the famous New Orleans streets, leaving both duelists and their seconds injured; with sad damage occurring to at least one of the horseless chariots. Worse yet, the officious police have become involved and interrupted what was clearly a private matter of debt-settling between four gentlemen. I pray ye, can such a state of matters continue in a totalitarian clime as this; when gentlemen cannot even duel in the streets when it is needful without being harassed by the Law?!

Photo Post

The new header image is part of a much larger picture I took this spring, during the annual Mississippi River flooding.

Mississippi River, Lower Ninth Ward, levees

Mississippi River in annual spring flood

The river is currently much lower, and in fact just yesterday I was walking down amongst the roots of those trees without even getting my sneakers muddy.

Hallow E’en

Last night we all went out to meet up with some friends and see the local New Orleans Halloween parade, “Krewe of Boo“. The parade was great and the weather was perfect! Throws included Krewe cups, magnets, bags of chips and pralines. There was a great headless horseman walking along handing out candy to children along the route and some of our favorite dancing troupes, including the Muffa-lottas and the 610 Stompers (Ordinary men, extraordinary moves!)

On the way home I bought some candy for tonight’s trick-or-treaters, although I’m not sure I will get many. Trick-or-treating seems to be on the decline in recent years. Some people seem to fear it will vanish forever – but this lull is part of a larger cycle in which the practice recedes and returns, transformed.

The origins of trick-or-treating are lost in prehistory, as is the origin of Halloween itself. However, there is a great deal of information that has been unearthed about it (in some cases, literally). The customs we follow in America today are relics from various peoples who lived in the northern part of Europe. Halloween signaled the end of the harvest season and the beginning of the colder months. Now it was time to conserve energy and stay warm and fed to survive the winter.

It also seems to be commonly believed that the mysterious other world was easily reached on this day – that one could communicate more clearly with the dead, and that fairies, goblins, and all manner of inhuman creature could come out to create mischief. People burnt giant wicker men for reasons that are not quite clear. At one time, it seems, they burned actual people.

These widely held beliefs led to some commonly held practices. Lighting bonfires is still common, both for practical reasons (lighting and warmth) as well as superstitious reasons (to keep away frightening things). Masking is an acknowledgement of the belief that the fairies and the dead are among us tonight. Scarecrows are a creepy reminder of barbaric ancient practices.

Going door to door itself comes from the larger tradition of “wassailing” – in which groups of people would drink to the health of their trees, their animals, and their crops around the time of the New Year. Wassailing became most strongly a Christmas caroling tradition that lasted through Twelfth Night, but a part of it exists as the Halloween trick-or-treat tradition as well. In the times when feudal lords reigned, underlings would go to the castle lords with their wassailing bowls and sing – the expectation was that they would be provided with wine, perhaps cake. It was a community event, and something to do to brighten up the winter months.

Sometimes things got out of hand. In later urban times, moral panics would sometimes arise about the lawlessness of wassailers; their vandalism and drunkenness. There is a certain inevitability that groups of adolescent boys will misbehave while running around unsupervised at night on a holiday – especially if they are drinking. Outraged citizens mobilized to ban wassailing, just as in the modern age there are calls to curb the behavior of older boys who take trick-or-treating too far.

November 5th – now known as Guy Fawkes Day or Bonfire Night in England – is really just another modern extension of the old Halloween celebrations. November 5 was in some regions the day on which Halloween traditions were followed. Bonfires and burning an effigy have little to do with the actual history of a terrorist several hundred years dead. One could almost feel he was an excuse to keep the old traditions going.

In America – while it was still a British colony – raucous celebrations were held in Boston on November 5th, which included putting giant effigies dressed like a Pope and the devil in carts at the North and South end of Boston, pulling them toward the center of town and having a sort of drunken mock battle with each other on the Boston Commons. This ended with the effigies being burnt. Similarly to concerns about “rowdy” wassailers, various Puritan leaders sought to stop “Pope’s Day” celebrations – however, they were unsuccessful in this until after the American Revolution.

It does seem we need a communal holiday about this time of year; for it returns despite the many attempts to ban it. If trick-or-treating as it exists now goes away, something else will take its place. What are you doing for Halloween this year?

Louisiana Government is Broken

I haven’t blogged for a few days for two reasons. The first – and happier – reason is that I’ve been playing the beta test for the new World of Warcraft expansion.

The more irritating reason is due to stress over having once again been stymied in my attempt to obtain my son something that should be simple to get – a government issued state ID card.

Our background is not that difficult or unusual. My son was born in New Orleans. His father is no longer present in his life. Like virtually everyone in the city, we lived somewhere else for several years. During that time, we changed our name legally and have court documents to prove our name change. This happened about a decade ago.

But in the OMV office, despite being presented with school records in his new name, his Social Security card in his new name, medical cards in his new name, the original birth certificate and the court order with raised seal changing the old name to the new name as well as documentation proving I was his mother and had the right to be the person handling this transaction, we were told this was insufficient. What we had to do now, we were told, was change his name on the birth certificate. Moreover we were scolded because “you should have done that in the first place”.

The ignorant “worker” also said we probably would have to have his name changed “in America”. I pointed out the state we had formerly resided in was a state in America. “Oh, I know,” she said, although clearly she didn’t.

We left in a defeated way and I proceeded to try to obtain information on how to change a birth certificate, which is not something I even knew you could do. Eventually I found it, wrote out the two checks that are required, read the extensive rules and filled out the forms, then sent in the paperwork and waited several weeks.

During this time, my son turned eighteen.

You won’t be surprised to hear the upshot of this story, which is they have sent back the un-deposited checks with a form letter saying they refuse to change his birth certificate. Why? Because they “cannot accept an out of state name change judgement”. No reason is given for this decision. It would seem to me this is a direct violation of the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution, but Louisiana is famous for deciding it doesn’t need to follow any rules that any stupid federales make.

Their solution? I need to change his name in Louisiana. But how are we to do this?

To change your name in Louisiana, you need to live in the state – lucky for him, now we do. You need to present a petition to the court with your reasons. I should hope the reason of “I already changed my name as a toddler and have been living under it my entire life” would be good enough for them, but I’m beginning to wonder. Then you have to present them with various forms of ID under your “old name” to prove you are the person showing up to change your name.

But he doesn’t have anything under his “old name”, because we changed that name years ago! There are no health records, no ID, no Social Security card. The only thing left is his original birth certificate. Obviously, his name is already changed – by court order, no less. Why are they refusing to cooperate?

And I’m writing about this now because this is bigger than me.

The truly terrifying thing to consider here is the Real ID act. The Real ID act demands everyone use their original birth certificate to obtain identification. This will pin everybody’s ability to get identification on the corrupt and disorganized actions of local, inept, corrupt departments of records like those in Louisiana. Can you smell the impending nightmare?

We are contemplating hiring a lawyer to help us through this mess, because right now we can’t figure out how to get my child his ID – and he is an American citizen, white, born right here in this city, smart, and has never done anything legally wrong. If people like us have to hire a lawyer to get a basic form of paperwork that everyone in our society needs, what must it be like for people who are less advantaged than we are? What about people who are automatically considered to be terrorists or illegal immigrants, or who don’t have the resources to endlessly fight with obstinate, money-grubbing bureaucrats? Are we deliberately creating a lower class of people who will exist in a legal limbo because they can’t obtain the right paperwork?

Right now my son can’t vote, drive, get his GED, get a job, travel, or safely walk outside alone. He is being treated like a criminal and he hasn’t done anything wrong. I have dotted every i and crossed every t. I have written to the governor, who referred me right back to the OMV that turned me away. All this because we legally changed our name in a different state twelve years ago. There’s no excuse for this. He should have been issued his ID pleasantly and with a smile the first day we walked into their office. I should not have to contact five government agencies trying to figure out whose palms I need to grease to get the correct set of papers so he can have the right piece of plastic he needs in order to obtain his rights as an American citizen.

Oh but I forgot, this is supposed to keep us all safe from terrorism, right?

Denying my son an ID for no good reason at all sure makes me feel safer!


Shelob’s Noisy Boyfriend

I was up very late last night. Hopefully this post won’t be too incoherent as a result!

Longer days and increased light exposure make it difficult for me to sleep as the summer solstice approaches. Even though this far south the day-night differential is less pronounced, there is still about a 3 hour difference. Also, of course, it is much warmer than it was even a month ago. This, along with the copious rain we have had over the last week, has encouraged a vast surge of life in our urban swamp.

As I sat in the darkened, quiet house, I could hear the cats inside, the crickets outside, and – a hissing sound? The sound continued, just at the threshold of hearing. I turned off the lamp and peeked through the blind. It seemed like the sound of someone whispering nearby, so softly that I could only hear the sibilant lisps of the esses and soft cees. But no one was on the street. No one in the house was awake. Curious.

I sat down and listened. A bird? A bug? I could hear the gentle chirping of crickets and small frogs. But just as I would decide the hissing had been my imagination, I would hear it again. There was a strange quality to it, with a little grunt or squeal at the end of the hiss that is hard to describe.

I soon determined there was no imminent danger – we have security bars on the house anyway – and it was very late, so I began getting ready for bed. I wandered into and out of the living room a few times in the dark, but then I did need to turn the light on for a minute to find something. The cats were eagerly jumping on something in the corner of the room, and I went to investigate.

From out of a box in the corner, leapt a large, male huntsman spider in perfect condition. Giant orange fluffy cat also leapt up with glee and put his paw squarely on him, pinning him to the wall. I lifted his paw up and let the spider run away. The cats stared at me with deep disappointment, and then at the spider as it ran far, far out of reach. I laughed at them and went to bed.

Research shows that huntsman spiders, among others, can produce sounds when threatened or when mating through the process of stridulation – rubbing the legs together. I suppose a giant orange clawed paw reaching into your box cave repeatedly to destroy you would qualify as a fairly serious threat!

I also imagine many people would be curious as to why I made the cat let the spider go free. I don’t like to kill unnecessarily, and huntsman spiders are not dangerous. In fact, they can eat insects that are pests to humans. I have been bitten by a huntsman once before, and only because I accidentally put my hand directly on it. The bite felt like the tiniest pinch and I had no reaction to it at all. Since my house is, however, almost entirely bug-free, I hope the spider went outside – it will find little to nothing to live on here and if it comes out in the open, the cats will just kill it.

But outdoors summer evenings in New Orleans – that is the time for nocturnal hunters of all sizes.

Giant spider, I wish you well.

The Great Wall of St. Bernard

IHNC-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, Great Wall of St. Bernard, The Wall, South Louisiana

IHNC-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier

In the world of Game of Thrones, there is a huge wall to the north. This wall protects the realm from a terrifying force of nature that unpredictably visits at time intervals so great that people often laughingly disregard the very real danger it presents.

In our world, the IHNC-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier to the south of New Orleans serves the same purpose.

Severe hurricanes strike New Orleans with rare enough frequency that a generation can go by between serious floods. In 30-40 years, people forget. They downplay the severity of the danger. They begin to believe the money put into flood protection is a waste of money. They give way to magical thinking – “Hurricanes always turn at the last minute; voodoo priestesses will keep hurricanes from hitting New Orleans; it will never happen, just because it won’t.” Systems and structures meant to prevent loss of life and property damage become neglected and eventually break down as the horror of the last storm is gradually forgotten. The old ones who weathered the last storm die, or move away, and a new generation who has never seen the horrific impact of a hurricane first hand fails to understand the danger. Not enough voices are present to enforce the wise axiom, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”

In the aftermath, the traumatized survivors and the horrified onlookers overreact. Abandon the area entirely! Abandon all hope, all solutions, abandon your home. Ignore the fact that the damage was preventable from the start – call the situation hopeless and a waste of time, and move away. Give up. Declare that “no one” should ever have lived there (ignoring the vast resources of the land and the corresponding historical military and economic significance of the region).

Thankfully, wiser heads have prevailed, and real flood protection has finally been built in the form of the IHNC-Lake Borgne Surge Barrier, locally dubbed “The Great Wall of St. Bernard”. Two miles long and two hundred feet high, it is a front line defense against the sort of massive storm surges that devastated New Orleans and the surrounding metro area during Hurricanes Katrina, Betsey, and so many others.

For those who think it is expensive, consider how much more expensive it is to rebuild a vital port city every few decades than it is to build a circle of protection around it once and then maintain it.

Work smarter, not harder.