return to “Big J in Greater New Orleans” index

previous entry .......... next entry

Year Sixteen

written 9/xx/2021, during the days following Ida

Sunday Sep 5, 2021

Around 10pm I roll off one body-shaped mattress puddle only to quickly sweat out another. Lying on my back again, I notice a dim light peeking through the front bathroom window. This contrasts with the stark blackness of the previous seven nights. I get up and walk outside, if for no other reason than to allow my bed a few minutes to breathe. Earlier that night I saw lights return to houses on streets one block north and south of mine, as well as on the streets that bracket mine immediately to the east and west. I had been proud to maintain good spirits through a week without electricity in the hot stickiness of a Louisiana summer, especially in light of early projections that we could be in the dark for the better part of a month. But the taunt of seeing power return on all sides of me starts to wear my patience thin. I bet many of those now-well-lit houses are presently unoccupied! All windows in my condo are wide open, yet the absence of a cross-breeze offers no relief from the smothering heat and humidity.

Now, standing outside I see light emitting from the immediately surrounding houses. And then I remember the clicking sounds that morning on the side of the building. Presumably the property manager was turning off the breakers to avoid potential surges once the energy kicks back on. I flip a couple of the switches back on, and voila! My condo instantly lights up, as does my mood. I strut back inside, verify that my thermostat is in working order, and gleefully wait for the air conditioner to work its magic. I’ve never appreciated the comfort of modern technology as much as in this moment.

Ida

Hurricane Ida struck the gulf coast on Sunday, August 29th with Category 4 winds.Ida’s intensity and damage to Louisiana is second only to Katrina, which eerily struck on that same date 16 years earlier. Thankfully for New Orleans (but with sorrow for Port Fouchon, Grand Isle, Houma,…) the eye of Ida veered just far enough west of us so that we didn’t have to bear the full brunt. Unlike during Katrina, the levees held up and saved us from catastrophic flooding. Moving to New Orleans just months before Katrina and then living through the aftermath provided me with perspective and gratitude that “at least it wasn’t worse.” It occurred to me that my youngest students hadn’t been born before Katrina, and even my oldest students weren’t old enough to form memories. Despite tropical storm threats every year, this is the first “big one” to actually hit New Orleans in their lifetimes, with the possible exception of Category 1 Isaac in 2012. I wondered how my students were experiencing Ida – especially those who remained in New Orleans throughout. To this day, many Katrina survivors simply refer to it as “the Storm.” Will Ida inherit that title now?

Like most people I encountered after the event, my decision to stay home through Ida was driven largely by my pets. The ol’ gals Kong and Estelle don’t like to travel, and they would’ve outvoted me had I pondered evacuating. When they were about a year old, we all fled to Jackson, MS during Gustav, 2008. Now they’re a distinguished 14 years of age, and I took the calculated risk that hunkering down would be most beneficial to our collective well-being. The proverbial calm before the Storm gave way to increasingly howling gusts of wind that pummeled us for about 12 hours. I maintained optimism that the building around us would protect against the winds themselves despite occasionally pondering how structural failures can occur in an instant. Thankfully none of New Orleans’ famous giant oaks threatened our rooftop. Projectiles offered the courtesy of bypassing our windows.

~ ~ ~

Best time to make an emergency supply list: Before the emergency.
Second-best time to make an emergency supply list: During the emergency, while the “coulda shouldas” race through your head.

Overall I was well stocked with non-perishable food, potable water, and other essentials. Still, I jotted down some very-much-nice-to-have items. Top of the list: Battery-operated lanterns and flashlights that actually use the same size of batteries that I had in good supply. I also discovered a bit late in the game that none of my various small-device battery packs work with the new phone I got earlier in the summer. A radio would be nice. Lessons learned for the next-go-round.

~ ~ ~

For the lucky among us who decided to endure Ida’s punch and didn’t suffer the loss of life or major property, the subsequent power outage was the most loathsome burden. Each day I woke up and thought “Day 1 of XX without electricity… Day 2 of XX… Day 3 of XX…” I was surprisingly buoyed by the consideration that each passing day brought me that much closer to the return of familiar comforts. Of course not knowing the value of XX frequently nagged at my consciousness. That value could inform so many decisions about how to ration supplies and whether or not to even stick round and wait. But without that XX, each decision is bogged down with the possibility that it could be deemed regrettable in retrospect.

Before any informed estimates could be provided about duration of the outages, I engaged in an imaginary negotiation with the Universe: If XX = 3 days, would I be willing to stay? (Absolutely.) What about XX = 10 days? (Uhhh… probably.) XX = 20 days? (Yikes… I dunno about that one.)

I decided that if the Universe could guarantee me XX = 7 days, precisely a week, I would gladly accept the deal in exchange for knowing ahead of time what I was in for. The Universe granted me no such prior knowledge, yet the total duration of the outage in my neighborhood turned out to be XX = 7 days, plus a few hours! Close enough. Thank you, Universe.

~ ~ ~

Left to right:  Jasper, Mr. Mittens, and mystery cat.

Many people stayed through the storm but then left in the subsequent days of sweltering summer in the South. Twice daily I rode my bike through the neighborhood to feed the stray cats living around some friends’ house, giving thyroid medicine to one of them. During the ride I saw plenty of downed trees and property damage throughout Uptown, ranging from fallen fences and punctured roofs to a few collapsed structures. I don’t want to minimize the stress and suffering and expense of this storm, but I just kept finding myself thankful that in terms of death toll, this was no Katrina.

~ ~ ~

I’m adept at dealing with solitude. Sometimes this skill is a hindrance to my still-developing socialization, but at times like this it’s a great asset. A neighbor leant me a 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle before he evacuated – the first I’ve attempted in at least a couple decades. I had forgotten how much fun they could be. Jigsaws were also added to my supply list for future emergencies. Or maybe it’s contextual, and under different circumstances I might not enjoy them. Perhaps in this past week there was something satisfyingly metaphorical about the slow, painstaking process of assembling a puzzle. The stepping back to take in the overwhelming mess, the tedium of flipping everything right-side up, the sorting by various criteria, the establishing of boundaries that give a sense of scale for the project (i.e. interlocking all the edge pieces) followed by a loss of momentum while trying to connect the innards. The minor victories of blocking together small islands gets amplified as one island gets connected to another, and the vision starts to become clear. With sustained diligence the whole task starts to tip towards feeling achievable. Numerically-inclined assemblers such as myself start to estimate: “Am I 25% through this chore? 50%? 75%? (Is electricity in New Orleans 25% back? 50%? 75%?) Eventually enough of the finished product is formed so that the rest is easy to envision. Excitement builds as the remaining pieces fall into place at an increasing pace. How thrilling when those final pieces validate the entire effort! We stand back to admire our beautiful city, proud of whatever big or small part we played in putting it back together.

Now may we just end the metaphor here, pretending that the puzzle will hereafter remain intact?

~ ~ ~

With some unplanned time on my hands, how could I resist keeping the mind supple with Math? Andy Talmadge now lives about a block and a half from me. He’s a Math/Computer Science teacher at another high school although I met him as a University of New Orleans professor for several of my how-to-be-a-teacher courses in 2005. His wife evacuated after the hurricane passed, but he stayed back to care for their cats. (See what I mean about these influential pets?) With power out, we spent several afternoons in the shade of his back porch, tackling various Math puzzles to pass the time.

For example: How many right triangles exist such that the perimeter is numerically equal to the area (ignoring any units mismatch)? I encountered this problem in high school and have returned to it many times over the decades, trying to see how many different ways we could arrive at the same correct solution. Like many of the best Math puzzles, there are multiple angles of approach. In prior years I had found nine mostly-different solutions. With Andy’s perspective, we found a tenth.

Also, Andy had been recently pondering: How many triangles with integer side lengths (right or otherwise) exist such that the cosine of at least one of its angles is equal to a given rational number between -1 and 1? We wrestled with this one for a long time. It didn’t take too much time to convince ourselves that there will always be infinitely-many such solutions for any such rational value. We fell short of finding a compact formula to churn out all primitive solutions. However, we each independently found algorithms that we’re confident would generate all the primitive solutions. Unfortunately they’d have to be sifted out from among an abundance of non-primitive and duplicate solutions, but we were still proud to reach that point and call this problem “solved enough” for now.

Right triangles with Perimeter = Area

Integer-length triangles wit given rational cosine

Housing

Oh, what’s that? Earlier I mentioned a “condo” instead of my “apartment?”

Being rudely welcomed to New Orleans by Katrina in 2005, I developed an early assumption that Louisiana would be a temporary stop. I acquired all my furniture for cheap or for free from Craigslist or other giveaways. Early on, I estimated that I would live in New Orleans for five years, tops. Then for the next 16 years I kept all my important documents in plastic crates. I kept all my clothes in plastic bins or on over-the-door hanger racks. My kitchenware is the same random assortment of cheap stuff I brought with me from California. I felt comfort in renting since I didn’t want anything “tying me down” to this meteorologically-temperamental city. After a year in the neighboring suburb of Kenner, for the next 15 years I lived in the same small shotgun double on Soniat Street with about 440 s.f. of interior floor space. It was far from fancy, but it suited me well. Plus, both my initial landlord and the couple who bought the property from him were kind in not raising the $700 rent even once. I look upon that place fondly. The most recent couple bought the lot with two adjacent buildings seven years ago. They lived next door while my former neighbor Sandi and I remained in our doubles. The young couple, now with an infant, finally chose to extensively renovate our building into a guest house. Back in March they offered us a generous three months minimum to find new housing and move out. Still expecting to rent, I knew Uptown rates would be significantly more than what I had been paying, but I had to recalibrate upon finding that I’d now have to pay at least twice as much for something comparable. With interest rates on home loans at historic lows, I eventually realized that I could get a mortgage for about the same outflow of money as a new lease. Furthermore, both of my condos in CA were fully paid off as of two years ago and some healthy savings had accumulated in my credit union accounts. Suddenly it seemed a wise time to get over my hesitations about New Orleans homeownership and make another investment.

However, unlike the condos I bought in CA, this pursuit was different. This would be the first place I moved into right away upon purchasing. This would be my home primarily and an investment secondarily. By the time I shifted from rent-mode to buy-mode, I only had a month and a half left until I had to leave Soniat St. I worried that such a major purchase needed careful deliberation that my timeline wouldn’t allow for. But thankfully the stars aligned perfectly. After several weeks of perusing houses online, I concluded that a condo would suit my needs best. I met with a realtor on a Monday. We saw several places on Tuesday, one of which immediately excited me. We returned to look at it again on Wednesday and also check out a couple more places just for some added comparison. On Thursday I completed the paperwork for a loan approval. On Friday I made an offer on the condo that had piqued my interest. On Saturday I got a verbal acceptance, and on Sunday I signed the written offer.

Holy frijoles that happened quickly! The internet posting of this condo on South Liberty Street initially struck me as worthy of consideration, but nothing remarkable. I had saved it to “my listings” and proceeded to search for something else. But when I saw it in person, the impression was much more powerful. I remember exclaiming aloud, “Wow!” The layout of the approximately 690 s.f. of interior floor space (officially listed as 789 s.f.) felt much more spacious than the number suggested. The 12-foot high ceilings and the cabinetry and window dressings and bathroom/kitchen tilework and two sizeable closets (by my standards) immediately felt like a perfect fit for me and the two ol’ cats. The furniture in the condo looked notably nicer than what I had been living with, so I asked for all furniture to be included in my offer. The king-sized bed frame gave me perfect justification to replace my 16-year-old queen mattress with one befitting my long physical stature. I welcomed the opportunity to use a dresser for the first time in over 16 years and enjoy the convenience of an indoor washer/dryer unit. With a little pestering on my part, the closing process took barely a month for my 15-year, 2.125% interest loan. I obtained the keys on June 2, a full two weeks before I had to leave the old place.

I started moving on June 3. I had been concerned that the process would be terribly unsettling to Kong and Estelle. As indoor cats, they had spent almost their entire lives in the old apartment. I brought them over early in the morning and locked one each in the bathroom and walk-in closet. I feared that if I kept them together, distress might lead to fighting. A friend with a truck helped me move my meager possessions throughout the day. When I released the ol’ gals in the early evening, to my pleasant surprise they immediately investigated their new surroundings and began the process of calmly settling into their new home!

My South Liberty St. condo is only a half-mile from the old apartment. It’s about that much farther from school, but my walking commute is still enviably short at just over 10 minutes. I’m in year 7 of living without a car, and I still very much appreciate that all my essential destinations are within walking or biking distance.

Three months into living here, I’m very happy with the move. My condo is one of seven in the building. I’ve taken the opportunity to get rid of some clutter and focus on keeping the place neat enough such that I wouldn’t be embarrassed to welcome visitors on short notice – something I had failed to do in the last place.

It’s funny to think that I was hesitant to buy property in New Orleans due to a monster hurricane three months after moving here in 2005. Now, three months after finally getting over that reluctance, another monster hurricane hit. I’m extremely grateful that my building passed the test, suffering only a few fallen fences, cables yanked from the building, and relatively minor roof damage that primarily affected the one second-floor unit.

I still don’t think of New Orleans as my last stop in life, but it’s not as temporary as I initially thought. May this be the start of at least a few more good years in this city.

COVID, teaching, COVID + teaching

COVID-19 – ugh, even for reflecting-back-later purposes, I don’t feel like spending much time on this one. Like so many, I would love to let much of the past 1.5 years fade into forgottenness. As much as there may be valuable lessons or character-building contained within tragedy, I don’t yet have much perspective to look at the pandemic through that lens. I’ll simply say that thus far I’ve been fortunate to avoid the ravages of the virus myself. Of those closest to me who’ve been stricken, I’m grateful that all survived it with apparently full recoveries.

As noted in my Ida musings, my solitary leanings have served me well. The main impacts I’ve been weathering have occurred in my role as a teacher. The joy has diminished greatly in the COVID era. Like waiting for electricity after Ida, I reassure myself that the joy will come back someday, but a large part of the dismay is in not knowing when that will happen. Despite being technologically competent, I’ve confirmed my belief that teaching via videoconferencing will never be anything but a sorry substitute for live interaction. Once it became feasible to allow limited numbers of students back in the classrooms, the grand “hybrid learning” experiment of splitting teacherly attention between “in-person” and “virtual” learners left way too much to be desired. The inability to arrange students in groups and encourage them to closely interact with each other has been a huge hindrance to my classroom culture. I especially appreciated the rare student who was able to make their personality and efforts shine through across a video interface, yet I mourned the inability to connect meaningfully with so many more of them.

My decade and a half of teaching experiences during pre-pandemic “normalcy” assures me that this can be a calling that I love, and I’ll patiently await a return to that feeling.

Other Education-adjacent Matters

Someone once advised me back in my Lockheed-Martin days to periodically update my résumé, even when not seeking new work. The concept stuck with me even though I never adopted the practice. As somewhat of a half-measure, I’ll record here a few cool things to possibly include in my next résumé update, whenever that may occur.

  • What My Students Taught Me podcast in late 2017: An English teacher at my school referred me to her friend, author and journalist Sarah Carr, who was producing this podcast series at the time with the Columbia Journalism School. Each episode sought to interview both a teacher and former student who had encountered some sort of hurdle to overcome in their relationship. When asked if any such student came to mind for me, one name immediately popped into my head. If we couldn’t bring this student into the fold, I didn’t have much interest in doing the project at all. The student agreed to participate, and it was fascinating to contrast what he remembered about his three years as my student (Mr. W was really strict about homework… whaaaaaat?!) vs. what stood out in my memory (A test I custom-designed for him in a frustrated attempt to induce some humility, yet he didn’t even remember it). Our episode was released as The Student Whose Cockiness Tested My Patience.
  • GeoGebra contract work from October 2019 – September 2020: Collaborated with a global team for about 570 hours, creating interactive apps for a textbook publisher using GeoGebra dynamic Math software. On the heels of that effort, I recreated my Unit Circle Practice Tool in GeoGebra since the original Adobe Flash version was no longer supported in popular web browsers.
  • Batman Reimagined article in NCTM journal Mathematics Teacher: Learning & Teaching PK–12, Volume 113: Issue 6, June 2020: I spent about three years writing, revising, putting aside, and revisiting this effort before it finally got published! While the article is behind a paywall, the same content is covered on this YouTube playlist. Having assigned this project over the summer to my incoming AP Calculus BC students since 2017, all student work is posted here.
  • AP Daily videos in Summer 2020: In response to COVID-19, CollegeBoard hired me to create 24 video lessons to help teachers fill gaps in their instruction. I was among eight total teachers from across the United States selected to create the videos for the AP Calculus AB course.
  • AP Calculus cartoons in Summer 2020 – Summer 2021: Initiated while making the AP Daily videos, I drew dozens of cartoons spanning the topics of the AP Calculus AB curriculum. While Adobe Photoshop has been my favorite graphics software for a couple decades, this outlet helped me enjoy Adobe Illustrator much more than I ever have before.
  • AP Summer Strategies Workshop in Summer 2021: CollegeBoard hired me to create 16 videos for their AP Summer Strategies Academy, which is intended to prepare underrepresented students with a strong foundation prior to taking AP Calculus courses in their high schools.

The Ol’ Gals

While mentioned in passing earlier, I have to dedicate a little more time to my sweet ol’ gals Kong and Estelle. These are the only cats I’ve ever raised myself since kittenhood. Their “senior” status is hard to deny by now. Estelle has had several teeth extracted. With only one of her two front/top fangs intact, it’s hard not to notice the lopsidedness during her more pronounced meows. Kong must be up to five or six missing teeth by now. Both of her fangs have been removed, thus avoiding the indignity of such asymmetry.

Kong has been diagnosed with diabetes as of this summer. I now give her insulin shots twice daily, yet the vet and I are still trying to get her glucose levels under control. She also probably has a thyroid condition that will need to be addressed – Testing is underway as I write this. Both still seem happy, but Kong especially is developing the bony feel about her body that older cats develop upon starting to lose muscle.

I’m finding myself bracing for the day(s) when I’ll have to say goodbye to them. Kong has always slept in my bed and soothed me with her emphatic purring. Only in the past year or so she has taken to nuzzling closer and gently laying a paw on my face. Even as I push the paw away, she persists in making that contact. The disruptiveness to my sleep would be purely annoying if it wasn’t simultaneously so endearing. I’m not one to interpret it as some sort of sign that she recognizes her own mortality, yet I invariably pull her in for a big smooch before trying to roll away from her soft jabs.

Estelle is every bit the affectionate cat that she surely always was, yet for a while I didn’t fully recognize it. She started hissing randomly some years ago – a habit that never completely went away. The hissing is almost always directed at her sister Kong, who doesn’t show any aggression that I can see. The hisses would often startle and frustrate me, and I tended to favor Kong when doling out affection. I’m not sure why it took me so long to realize that I just needed to go comfort Estelle when she hissed instead of giving in to annoyance. Estelle will always be a cat who only wants and accepts attention on her own schedule. But as I’ve adjusted my behaviors, I’ve very much enjoyed finding more moments when she rubs against me or jumps into bed and begs for some love. The obnoxious pitch, volume, and duration of her begging meow is unbecoming of a cat as cute as she, yet I now fully indulge in burying my face in her belly and letting her know I adore her. Whatever anxieties led Estelle to hiss in the first place seem to have been mellowed out by the extra space in the condo and my improved attentiveness to her quirks. She hisses quite rarely now.

Kong and Estelle are as essential as any ingredient in my New Orleans adventures. I have no idea whether I have months or years left with them, but I resolve to treasure whatever time they continue to provide me with their sweet furry companionship.

Estelle & Kong, not too bothered that we don't have power two days after Ida struck

Earlier in summer, Kong & Estelle showing some sisterly love in their new home     

Kong claiming this new-to-us cabitet as her own  

Estelle says: "This new-to-us couch is mine."

Kong figured out what this open cubby in the new-to-us dresser is for  

Estelle says:"In case you didn't hear me the first time, the couch is mine."