Don’t you have a job?

Stacked BooksThis year, I started using a service, GoodReads, that is made for readers to connect both with each other and with the books they like. I actually signed up with the service years ago, but only just discovered how convenient it is to have a “to-read” bookshelf that I can access through my phone (so it’s always with me). And since I started finding it valuable when friends would review books, I took it as a personal challenge to do as much as I could in return. For the last couple of months, I’ve actually managed to write at least a small review of every book I finished reading (note: not the same as every book I actually finished—meaning I’ve even reviewed the ones I decided to stop wasting time on before finishing them). And to be even more useful (and because only a small fraction of my friends are actually on GoodReads), I’ve linked those reviews on Facebook.

Now, I know that I read a lot, but it seems that I’ve managed to surprise some friends who may not have realized how much I actually read. This post is to answer those questions that amount to “how can you possibly find the time?”

Statistically-speaking

So far this year, statistically-speaking, I’ve read about a book every other day. I don’t know if this is average for me because I haven’t ever tracked my reading so closely before (and it’s only because I’ve been using GoodReads that I do so now). I suspect that it’s on the high-side. I go through periodic dry-spells that can last days, and sometimes months, without touching a book. I don’t actually read a book every other day, of course. I’ll finish two books on most weekends, typically in late-night binges (when I can sleep in the following morning). I’ll typically complete a single book between Monday and Thursday, though.

eBooks

Also disrupting a regular/average flow is my “casual” reads. Since I’ve started eating regular lunches (with accompanying lunch breaks), I’ve started making sure that I have a book available to read during those breaks. That means an eBook I can easily take with me for those times I can spare a moment. So on any given day, I generally have a book I’m reading in the evenings as well as one that’s on my phone/pad.

Audiobooks

Then there’s the audiobooks. I commute almost an hour each day (25 minutes each way) and I’ve recently discovered the joy that is audible.com. Indeed, I kind of panic a bit if I ever find myself without an audiobook during my commute. And yes, that means that I’m actually in the middle of three books at any given moment. Typically.

Writing Reviews

So doesn’t it take a while to write up all these reviews? Well, yes and no. The actual writing takes between ten minutes and a half hour depending on how much I have to say and how hard it is to say it.  I’ve found that if I let the book sit a while for processing that it goes a lot faster than if I try to write the review immediately on finishing. I can’t let it go too long or I’ll lose details, but generally speaking, a day or two doesn’t hurt and quite often helps.

Since I don’t like publishing my reviews on the weekend (I know I skim more on the weekends than I do during the week), that means I’ll often release a bunch of reviews early on a Monday morning. I’m sure this contributes to my friends feeling overwhelmed by my profligate ways. Like today where I have four books I’ve finished this weekend. You’re welcome. Smile

Genre

Of course, the genres I enjoy reading doesn’t hurt my reading “speed”, either. I mostly talk about the fantasy and sci fi but I actually read more YA and romance. Or better yet, YA romance. And yes, I’m fully aware that I’m a grown man reading outside my stereotype, here. If you don’t already know that I don’t much care about what people think I should be interested in, well, now you do. Yeah, I’m a romantic at heart and YA tends to skip the soft-porn that regular romances have devolved into. Indeed, if you know good authors who can tell a love story without overloading on the explicit sex scenes, please, hook me up. I’m not above begging…

Reading is Fun!

So there you have it: my reading habits all formally written up for your review and judgment. The fact of the matter is that the actual reading is pure selfishness on my part. Everybody has their own methods and means of entertainment and this is mine. Still, I hope the reviews are helpful for those of you who bother following them. And I hope you’ll let me know if you have recommendations or favorites you’d like to share. I’m always willing to discuss a good book, even if it’s outside my normal reading proclivities.

16. April 2012 13:04 by Jacob | Comments (0) | Permalink

Lest We Forget

Daisy Duke's, the South's answer to Denny's, only with better food and service. We started our Sunday by sleeping in until almost noon and then breakfast at Daisy Duke’s.  Jacob’s love of grits with cheese is boundless.  Afterward, we took a taxi to the World War II museum, which was just too far away to walk to.  I’d never been in a taxi before, and in a sense I still haven’t; most taxis here are just ordinary sedans and minivans with their company logo on the side.  Ours was a minivan whose interior had seen better days, with a center bench seat that was not securely fastened to the floor.  It was a very short drive, but we were glad not to be walking.

In the front lobby of the WWII museum, a series of military vehicles used in the war. The driver deposited us at what turned out to be the museum gift shop, where we browsed a bit before crossing the street to the main museum.  The National World War II Museum in New Orleans began life as the National D-Day Museum, founded in part by historian Stephen Ambrose.  As awesomely broad as the current exhibit is, there is a diorama inside the front doors that shows their plans for expansion to a six-acre campus.  Even now, the largest section of the exhibit is dedicated to the D-Day invasion, but the museum’s collection is so This enormous bomber hangs from the lobby ceiling.  You have to not think about how strong the cables holding it up are. extensive that no part of the war is overlooked.  Why build it in New Orleans?  The man who developed the amphibious craft that made much of the Allied victory possible, Andy Higgins, was from New Orleans; Dwight Eisenhower once said that this man’s boats won the war.  I had never heard of him before today.

This looks like shutters over a window, but those are actually glass shelves holding hundreds of plastic toy soldiers.  This display illustrates the relative sizes of the German and Japanese and American armed forces in 1939; each toy soldier represents 2,000 men.  The US military was only 18th in size in the whole world back then. The exhibit is laid out chronologically, with arrows showing where to go next, and you don’t realize how much of it there is until your legs and knees are aching and you notice it’s been two hours and you haven’t even reached V-E Day.  This is a seriously intense experience.  It begins in Asia, with the Japanese invasion and occupation of the mainland, and takes you all the way through to the atomic bomb and One of the first displays, with posters that encouraged civilians to do their part in the war.  The one just right of center tells people to "save their cans" and has a graphic of a row of tin cans merging into a belt of ammunition. Japan’s surrender—ending where it began, as the final caption says.  It took us three hours to see the whole thing, and I imagine four hours would not have been unreasonable.  (We went back inside after leaving to ask them to call a cab for us, and one of the volunteers kindly informed us that there was no way we’d be able to see the whole exhibit in the 45 minutes left before it closed.  If you go, go early.)

American weaponry used in the European campaign. The overall mood is neither jingoistic nor anti-war; every word, every display celebrates the bravery of those who fought abroad and at home while unflinchingly portraying the terrible human cost of war.  The Pacific war exhibit in particular makes this dichotomy entirely too real, with some very graphic photos of how vicious that campaign was on both sides.  It’s clear the museum founders used John A "suitcase wireless" given to Allied operators working behind enemy lines in France and elsewhere.  They had to have units that could be packed up quickly and carried through the streets without arousing suspicion. Dower’s book War Without Mercy as a resource, based on how they portrayed the differences between American attitudes toward their German and Italian enemies versus their Japanese ones.  Both America and Japan engaged in denigrating one another to the point that both sides considered the other to be alien,  inhuman, not worthy of decent Japanese weaponry and uniform, including the "woodpecker" machine gun (at bottom) feared by American infantry for its accuracy and lightness.treatment.  The museum has a large display of propaganda posters produced by both America and Japan, many of which I have seen in books before, but somehow the life-size, full-color version are horrible in a way that is difficult to describe.  (Even if I had taken pictures of them, I don’t think I could bring myself to post them here.)

But the real heart of the exhibit is the stories of the men and women who were involved, whether in Europe or the  Pacific, abroad or at home, airmen, infantry, Marines, medics, engineers.  Some of them are very familiar (in general, if not specific) and others were astonishing in their unfamiliarity—so striking that it was hard to imagine no one had heard them before.  Sad, too, to see the continuing evidence of the racism that kept the troops segregated (even donated blood was separated by race, probably for fear that getting the wrong transfusion would give some Iowa farmboy good rhythm and a taste for fried chicken).  You’d think that having a common enemy would have broken those old barriers, but no.

The whole thing was devastating, and overwhelming, and beautiful.  It was worth the $18 per person admission price.  I recommend strongly that anyone visiting New Orleans take the opportunity to go.  Just go early, wear good shoes, and sit every chance you get.

We came back sobered and ready for a break, so we played computer games for a while and then went to dinner.  Storyville Restaurant had been such a success that we headed back toward Bourbon Street.  I insisted that we walk a ways down the street itself, so we could at least say we’d visited.  It’s certainly the loudest and brightest street in the Vieux Carre, filled with many bars and restaurants and strip clubs.  We passed one with a bored-looking woman undulating in the window, so mechanical in her movements they might as well have put an animated mannequin there.  We encountered a fellow shilling for some sort of Meals on Wheels program whose pitch was so good, Jacob gave him a donation and got a very fine hat in exchange.

Felix's Sea Foods has a much more modest sign than everything else on Bourbon Street, believe it or not. We gave up on Bourbon Street and went back around the corner to Felix’s Sea Food.  We’ve discovered that even the most hard-core fish places serve other meats as well.  Jacob got beans and rice and I got a sampler plate so I could try etouffee, which I’d seen on many menus but never tasted.  I actually didn’t know what it was, but I’m an adventurous eater.  This was the point where I saw that they had alligator as an appetizer and insisted that we order it too.  It was really good, blackened and spicy, but I always worry that heavy spices are covering up something else.  So I’m not entirely sure what it tastes like, except that it’s closer in texture to shrimp than chicken.  It was very yummy.

It seems etouffee is much like the other basic Creole dishes, except that the rice is cooked with the base so it is more of a paste, and it has shredded chicken along with the sausage.  It is so delicious I think I could eat it at every meal for a week.  I will definitely miss the food here.

I almost rolled home except that the gutter was still full of last night’s rainwater and the only cigarette butts I’ve seen en masse in the French Quarter.  A lot of people smoke here, but they’re more considerate about it—they only smoke outside and they throw their butts away.  I saw a woman grind out her cigarette under her sole and then carry it to a garbage can several feet away.

It’s our last day here.  I’m eager to be home—eight days is a little too much for me—but I’m looking forward to coming back to New Orleans some day soon.  How much different will it be in the spring, or fall, when the heat is less oppressive and moving around is easier?  I have a list of things I never got around to: riding the St. Charles streetcar, taking a haunted tour, visiting the Voodoo Museum, going on a riverboat…at least this is a list where I can say “next time” and not “maybe someday.”

13. June 2010 19:56 by Melissa | Comments (0) | Permalink

We’re Not Tourists Anymore

Sword and Pen.  I wish they had more replica weapons and fewer Hitler Youth knives. The French Quarter has a way of sucking you in…even when you plan a simple day, new stops keep adding themselves to your itinerary.  We had breakfast at Mena’s again and then made one last try to visit Sword and Pen, a store specializing in hand-painted miniatures from military history.  Yes, toy soldiers.  Every time we’d passed it before, it was closed, so it was nice to see that it actually opens occasionally.  They also have some antique weapons and a few replicas, none that we were interested in, but fun to look at.  For a moment we thought we would buy a 1950s Marine dress saber for our military-mad son, but we don’t love him $500 worth.  The store also had an unusual number of Nazi relics and a lot of much older pieces, Roman and Bronze Age.

After this we set out to capture the last two bookstores on our list.  I had taken Jacob in to Crescent City Books so he could see what a lovely place it is, despite its near total lack of romance or SF books.  The second store we walked right past because it hadn’t opened yet.  We had just turned around and started checking house numbers when a man pedaled past, balancing a box of books on his handlebars, and asked if we were looking for the Dauphine Street bookstore.  Sure enough, there it was—all the signage was on the inside of the giant green shutters, and he took in the store sign at night for some reason.  It was far narrower and less friendly a place than my other favorites, but had the best overall selection by far.  Also, it had a half-grown black cat who was moderately friendly to strangers.  I got the feeling that this was one of those owners who has a bookshop just as a place to store his overflow, especially given the conversation I overheard him having with a customer who was clearly more of a fellow book-buyer and seller.

Marie Laveau's House of Voodoo.  It really does look like a shotgun shack.  In the upper left corner, you can see where dozens of Mardi Gras beads have been tossed. Next we ambled in the direction of the Cathedral (ambling being the preferred method of travel when it is so hot and humid) toward the last bookstore, but New Orleans being what she is, we got sidetracked by Marie Laveau’s House of Voodoo.  This is on the corner of Bourbon Street and has an altar set up to Marie herself.  It’s interesting to wonder how many of the coins left there are from real believers and how many from amused tourists.  I still haven’t found any shrunken heads, real or fake.

When we found Arcadian Books after one wrong turn, in the streets behind the cathedral, I almost wished we hadn’t.  At first it looked merely crowded, like the Dauphine.  Then you realized that two-thirds of the books were shoved onto shelves sideways so you could see neither spine nor cover.  A very bad place.  Do not go here if you are at all interested in books, or in keeping your sanity. Plastic Coke crates were turned on their end and used as mobile shelving units on the floor under the overloaded wooden shelves, which might have been clever if pulling out one unit did not overbalance the loose books which had been piled on top.  A row of young adult novels were arranged spine-up directly on the floor, with dust and dirt collecting against the pages where someone had cursorily pushed a broom across the still very dirty floor.  This was the ultimate in book buying gone to a horrible, nauseating extreme.  And it wasn’t even as if the collection was any good; probably half the hardcover books were book club editions, and his remarkable little collection of foreign language texts were impossible to navigate.  I’m surprised he even bothered with the rudimentary alphabetization he’d achieved.

It made me sick.  I personally would love to have what he has: a bookstore in the heart of the French Quarter, located in a beautiful old building in a quiet side street, part of a thriving used-bookstore network.  He might as well have been selling meat, or boxes of lightbulbs, or any other commodity that can be stacked together any old way.  (Though if he were selling meat in those conditions, the FDA would be on him faster than you can say Emeril Lagasse.)

Mmm...beignets. Fortunately, our next stop was the Cafe du Monde company store, where I bought a much-desired T-shirt for myself and a <something cool not food-related> for <censored>.  We also bought a couple of bottles of the elixir of life and went to sit on a bench outside the Jackson Square park, enjoying a break and the artist’s displays.

The French Quarter is different on the weekend, or maybe it’s just different when there’s a festival going on (the aforementioned Creole Tomato Festival).  All week, the streets have been Jackson Square on Saturday, with three times as many displays and booths as usual.  This view is from the NE corner, with the Cafe du Monde at your back.busy but peaceful—you feel as if anyone you meet might have a story to tell, and everyone is friendly and aware of everyone else, stepping out of the way on the sidewalk or holding a door, things like that.  Today the streets were full of strangers.  We are tourists too, but this was very different.  The newcomers were consciously alien and  The view from our bench.  The artist had stretched heavy twine across the fence at different levels, wrapping it around the uprights to keep it in place, then used big paper clips to attach his paintings to the twine for display.apart.  We passed a trio of street performers who were fairly outrageously dressed but playing good music, and not a moment later I heard a loud woman saying “Did you see that?  There’s a man in a dress!”  just as if he were a mannequin in a store window.  It felt very strange to us for these friendly streets to be so much less welcoming.

The Maskarade storefront.  The door does not shut by itself, and the shop lady had to ask Jacob to shut the door in tones that implied "were you born in a barn or what?"  She was actually very nice. After our rest, we went just a little way west on St. Ann to see Maskarade, which was on my tourist’s map and supposedly had a display of historical masks as well as modern ones.  A lot of stores here specialize in masks, and you can buy them at pretty much any souvenir shop (all of  which tell you DO NOT TAKE PICTURES!!! although we’re not totally sure why; is there a thriving black market in reproducing cheap Carnival masks?).  Maskarade is different.  For one thing, it sells the real Just one wall of the store.deal—not the commercially produced masks, but handmade and individually designed pieces of real papier-mache, feathers, rhinestones and velvet.  For another, the woman at the counter invited us to take pictures and even handle the masks.  Everywhere I looked I saw something beautiful. 

My favorites are the metal masks, delicate This mask is cut out of metal and finished with rhinestones and ribbons.  Extraordinary.traceries of curved and diecut designs studded with jewels and…I don’t know what process they use to make the color stay on, though I’ve seen it before, but you almost can’t believe something as strong as metal could produce something so ethereal.  Those masks were behind glass, and a good thing too—who knows how much handling they could actually take?  The picture doesn’t do them justice.

The colored sections on this mask are each filled with tiny beads.  The hand model is me. The kind of mask a princess might wear to a ball.They were all for sale, too, starting at $40 and  going up from there.  They are not so expensive that a person who wanted the perfect costume could not afford one.  I’m so glad we made the effort to go over there.

The Storyville Restaurant.  It has a very good view of the street and, today, a good view of the traffic jam caused by thousands of people all wanting to turn right on Bourbon Street. After that, it really was time to head home.  The weather here really is draining in the summer.  We try to walk back to the hotel by a different route every time so we can see new buildings and things.  After cooling off for a couple of hours, we went to dinner down near Bourbon Street.  I say “near” because by this time, it was 8:00 and the tourists were out in droves.  You can always tell which restaurants have been talked up in the tourist guides because there are huge lines out the door.  Jacob’s loathing for seafood in almost any form kept us from even thinking about joining the throng at the Oyster House.  Instead, we went to a place we’d noticed on I don't know why she's here, but she looks happy about it.the way to the first bookstore, the Storyville Restaurant.   It’s part seafood  place, part sports bar, and part bowling alley—not kidding!  The first think you notice when you enter is the giant statue of a mermaid.  Then you come around the corner and see the two lanes of miniature bowling,  right there parallel to the window.  We sat right next to them, but no one did any bowling, sadly.  The bowling alley at Storyville Restaurant.  The woman in the white shirt with her mouth full is me, enjoying my food way too much.Jacob ordered a BBQ pork quesadilla and I asked for a soft-shell crab po-boy (I had decided on the way to dinner that I needed to try as many different local recipes as I could.)

I’ve never had soft-shell crab, so what came out was a total surprise: a po-boy roll laid out flat, with tomato and lettuce on one side and two batter-fried crabs, still with all their legs on and recognizably crablike, on the other.  Soft-shell crabs, it turns out, are cooked in their shell because the shell is edible, so dipping them in batter and frying them up is no problem.  It took me a while to saw the roll apart so I could turn the thing into a sandwich, but it was delicious, as always.My dinner.  Don't those crabs look like they want to crawl right off the plate?  Every time I have crustaceans for dinner, it feels like Melissa 1, Spiders 0.

(That’s an exaggeration.  I forgot to mention that we had lunch at a cafe near the hotel and had the first substandard food of the trip; they failed to mention that their gumbo has shrimp in it, which gave Jacob a nasty surprise, and their jambalaya was the first I’ve had that mixed the rice in rather than scooping it onto the liquid base.  And the flavor wasn’t much—just heat and nothing else.  It wasn’t awful, just not good.)

The wonderfully exciting Marriott Hotel laundry room. Having eaten, we proceeded to the most exciting part of the day: doing laundry.  Changing underclothes twice a day will tend to make that necessary.  Public laundries really bug me.  They’re one of the few places in contemporary America that are aggressively anti-consumer (the others being cable companies and the DMV).  Everything is in their favor.  The people who need their service generally don’t have any other options, so the owners can set their rates high, install small machines to force you to do extra loads, and mandate the form of currency you must use.  Good thing I had a book to read.

Tomorrow, we hope to go to the World War II museum.  Tonight, I hope to sleep better than I did last night.

12. June 2010 22:14 by Melissa | Comments (1) | Permalink

The Agony of Defeet

(This title is Jacob’s responsibility.)

(Don’t forget to hover over the pictures to see captions.)

I’m so tired that only my sense of duty and Jacob’s nagging is keeping me at the keyboard right now.  We managed to go a lot longer today together than I have all week alone, with careful planning and a lot of cold water, but it was still a lot of walking.  I had Jacob plot out our route and we walked at least 2.5 miles.

The front counter, with a genuine old pharmacist's display counter.  In the middle section are rows and rows of syringes and ampoules, some of which were so big you can only hope they were used on horses.We had a late start, mainly because I had trouble sleeping last night but also because, in this city, there’s really no incentive to get started early; most places open at 10 and by then the streets are steaming like an oyster on the half-shell.  Unfortunately we had to skip lunch at Mena’s because an awful lot of tourists were there before us.  Stupid tourists.  We turned around and crossed Canal Street to find the UPS Store (Note to everyone: UPS is way better than FedEx in almost every way and very helpful to out-of-towners with a book-buying compulsion) and ended up getting lunch at a sports-themed po-boy place whose name I have unfortunately forgotten.  Their roast beef is divine and the ambience very cheering.  I’m not a huge sports fan myself, but I enjoy being around fans who really embrace their fandom.  It’s probably going to turn out that the owner was a college football star and I had no idea how cool it was for him to hand us our change; we only realized he’d been an athlete when we saw two photos of a marathon runner, the same man ten years apart, and recognized in him our cashier.

You wouldn't believe some of the stuff they had remedies for back then. I was beginning to worry that the Pharmacy Museum would suck after how hard I’d tried to get in there.  No worries.  It’s a small place on Chartres just a couple blocks from Jackson Square, and you know you’re there because the windows have several enormous show globes filled with different-colored liquids.  Nowadays they probably just put food coloring in; I can’t imagine what they used to do to get those colors.  The globes used to be how you identified a place to get medicine, but there’s a difference of opinion as to how they came about or what exactly the signified.  Red was supposed to mean an epidemic, but aside from that it’s less certain.

We paid our money and got a couple of binders with information about everything they have.  I love self-guided tours.  The soda fountain on the front floor is of cherrywood and real marble and, except for not being hooked up to anything, still works.  I’m just old enough to remember the pharmacy on Provo’s Center Street and its soda fountain, which to me was about the coolest thing ever.  The guidebook said that soda fountains were installed originally to make medicine taste better so kids would take it (and adults too, let’s not kid ourselves.  “Kid” ourselves—hah!  I crack myself up sometimes).

Blue means BAD! As you’d expect, most of the displays were antique bottles of every possible shape.  One whole row had those beautiful deep-blue glass bottles…all of them marked POISON.  It seems some pharmacies would use that color to quickly identify substances that could kill.  Puts a whole new complexion on those innocent bottles, huh?  Another thing they did was to use obscure names and abbreviations so slightly smarter people wouldn’t know how to find the silver nitrate or belladonna.  Some of those bottles still had powders in them.  I wouldn’t want to find out how efficacious they still are.

The first floor also had a lot of medical tools, some of which we still use (in very much more advanced forms) and some of which are thankfully outdated.  I’d heard of a fleam before, but never seen one—it’s a short blade attached to the end of a metal rod that the doctor would press into the patient’s vein to make a deep cut that could be closed and reopened for multiple bleedings.  There were several old stethoscopes, a “sugar scale” in its own glass cabinet that looked like something out of a mad scientist’s lair (duh, of course I wanted it for myself!) and many other tools of the pharmacist’s trade.  There was even a set of trepanning saws; I didn’t realize that those were in use as recently as the Civil War, not to let out the evil spirits, but to relieve pressure from cranial injuries or remove shattered bone from the skull.  I told Jacob I needed a set of these so I could threaten the kids with releasing their evil spirits.  He said I’d need a bigger set.  I was geeking out the whole time, all that nineteenth-century paraphernalia, but I’m pretty sure my favorite was a little pouch of glass ampoules, each of which would contain a single dose of medicine.  They were common before pill-making became the preferred method of dosing.  Gosh, they were cute.

The courtyard behind the museum. To get to the second floor, you have to go outside and up through the loggia, which is a covered staircase usually at the back or side of the house.  There was a pretty courtyard and a plaque indicating that Walgreens had contributed to keeping the museum going.  That’s a weird thought.  The Pharmacy Museum’s displays have about as much in common with Walgreens’ clean and sanitized stores as a child’s scribble has with War and Peace.  And yet…they are the same.  A tribute to Walgreens.  Who knew chain stores care about preserving history?  Oh, right, because it's not actually a threat to their market share.Looking at all those rows of bottles, all I could think was that those people really cared about helping people get well.  All those different remedies, all those tools—they were doing the absolute best they knew how.  For example, the first floor had laminated cards here and there with quotes from contemporary doctors and writers and other prominent people, and one of them was by an eminent physician of the day.  He was talking about the controversy over “bleeding” a patient (that’s right, even back then there were sane people who questioned the value of inflicting wounds to help someone heal).  This guy was absolutely sincere in his belief that it was the best treatment medicine could offer, because he had seen the results—immediate results—first-hand.  Sure, I read that and think “dude, have you never heard of a controlled experiment or the logical fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc?”  (This is because I am a hopeless intellectual snob who thinks in Latin phrases.)  But you’ve got to admit that it’s not that unreasonable to believe the things you experience are true, because most of the time, they are.  Still, I can’t believe we didn’t take a picture of the jar of leeches.  Not the pretty ceramic jar, the ugly glass cylinder full of dirty water and actual leeches.  Ladies and gentlemen, the New Orleans Pharmacy Museum!  Bring the kids!

The fake bedroom.  Be really glad you can't see what's in that glass case on the right. Upstairs is where they keep the smaller exhibits, like the old eyeglasses or the obstetrical gear.  One of the rooms is set up like a nineteenth-century bedroom so you can get the full effect of imagining what it would have been like to give birth back then.  I won’t describe some of the equipment on display, but the whole thing made me glad that a) I live in modern times and b) I am never ever going to have children again.  The eyeglasses were really cool, though.  There were a couple of pairs of Chinese glasses with huge round thick lenses; the guidebook said that the Chinese made them this way on purpose to indicate dignity and wisdom.  So those old caricatures of Chinese people with huge glasses—those were based on reality.

Our itinerary for the day was to go from the museum to a bookstore supposedly just northeast of Jackson Square, then to the flea market to see if we could buy a third suitcase and whatever else seemed good.  But this route took us past the St. Louis Cathedral, and we decided to stop here for a while.

Looking toward the altar in St. Louis Cathedral. The little angel statue is holding a bowl with holy water for worshippers to use. The Cathedral is a beautiful, peaceful place.  There is a leaflet just inside the door that has a map of the interior with a guide to all the statues and windows.  The stained glass windows show important events in the life of Louis IX of France, crusader and champion of the Church.  The stained glass is almost 100 years old, as far The death of King Louis IX.  He's in a tent. as we could tell, and the colors are just extraordinary.  I can’t imagine what the people who were there to pray were thinking; there weren’t many tourists, and we were all very quiet, but I wonder if it’s distracting at all.

St. Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower. I had to do a little asking around to find the statue of St. Therese of Lisieux, someone I’ve long admired.  In 1888 she entered a Carmelite convent at age 15 and was there until her death at age 24.  She never did anything obviously great, never made a big splash in the world, but she had great faith in God and in His work.  I’m not Catholic, but the idea of making a difference in the world without following the world’s ways is profoundly moving to me.

This picture for Ethel Kidd Real Estate was taken on Pirates Alley.  Get it?  (This woman's signs are all over the place.  Arrr, matey!) After a relatively unproductive visit to the bookstore, we strolled along to the flea market.  Jacob found a nice suitcase, one of those ones on rollers with a telescoping handle, and then the vendor recognized me from when I’d bought my new wallet from her!  I got a few compliments on my aragonite and goldstone pendant and tried to control my urge to just buy everything I saw.  One interaction was a little  embarrassing: I was looking for a gift for <unnamed female friend> and stopped at a stall to look over the jewelry.  I was admiring a fleur-de-lis pendant with red Me helping myself to fruit from a 'market patron'crystals when the stall owner started aggressively trying to make a deal.  “It’s got earrings to match, make me an offer, etc.”  I decided that it just wasn’t what I was looking for, but they insisted I make an offer.  So I said I wasn’t planning to spend more than $15, but it just wasn’t what I wanted.  Even as we were walking away, they were saying “$10?  How about $5, you want it for $5?”  This confirmed my guess that the “crystals” were just cut plastic, but at $5 I might have bought the set if I hadn’t felt so awkward about their urgency.  We did get some very nice things, including a skirt for me and a watch for Jacob.

It was about 4:30 when we realized  that there was another store we needed to visit over on Royal that would The Cornstalk Fence Hotel, where we want to stay next year.  You can see the little corncobs in the ironwork.almost certainly close at 5.  We went as fast as we could, but it was already closed (and had been so long before 5, bah).  But that was the end of our energy.  We collapsed in the glorious room until almost 8, then went across the street to Daisy Duke’s for dinner.  This was not at all what I expected; it was a step or two up, ambience-wise, from the bar/restaurant we thought it was.  It also serves breakfast 24 hours a day.  You could think of it as a Southern-fried version of Denny’s but with better food.  I got red beans and rice with a very nice slow burn to the palate and some excellent cornbread.  Many people don’t realize that good cornbread is just the slightest bit sweet, not salty, and this had good texture as well as flavor.  Jacob had an omelet and grits (of course).

We haven’t made plans for tomorrow.  To tell the truth, we aren’t that thrilled about any of the haunted tours we’ve looked into.  So far, it’s just breakfast at Mena’s and then…who knows!

11. June 2010 20:53 by Melissa | Comments (0) | Permalink

Life is Like a Box of Chocolates…It Gets Melty in the Sun

(Don’t forget to hover over the pictures to see captions.)

The inside of Mena's.  It's very cozy.We had breakfast again at Mena’s Palace, an odd name for a mere corner diner.  Their breakfasts are consistently good and Jacob can have grits with cheese every morning if he likes.  I had a spinach and tomato and feta cheese omelet, which was the first thing I’ve eaten in New Orleans that wasn’t perfect—the tomatoes were a little too hard, but otherwise the flavor was good.  We took pictures of the interior and explained about this blog to the waitress.  At that, she told us about the sign on the wall, which to us looked like some kind of mirrored plastic with the name of the diner on it. The famous sign.  That pattern is actually butterfly wings. No, in fact, the entire background is made up of BUTTERFLIES—big reflective ones from years ago when you could still do things like that and not be shut down by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Bugs and Icky Gross Creatures.

This was Jacob’s last day at the conference, and he was leaving early (for some reason they gave the attendees only one wristband for the closing bash, and sold guest passes for $125 dollars; I can think of better ways to blow that kind of money in New Orleans) so we arranged to meet back at the hotel around 4 p.m. for an early dinner at Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Co.

The courtyard at the Jean Lafitte Historical Preserve. My main goal for the day was to get as far as the Farmer’s Market and the Flea Market, way past the Cafe du Monde on Decatur.  On the way there, I stopped at the Jean Lafitte Historical Preserve, which is this totally unassuming (from the street) driveway that leads back into a beautiful, cool courtyard and a visitors’ center.  They have guided tours, but I just wandered around by myself looking at the displays.  It’s all about the history of Louisiana and the settlement of New Orleans, but goes all the way up to the present and Hurricane Katrina.  The exhibit at the Cabildo is more thorough, but this filled in a lot of gaps for me.  I recommend seeing this one second and possibly getting a guided tour, which I understand goes to a number of other historical sites.

Look!  The Cafe du Monde!  I finally remembered to take a picture.I decided that I was not going to let myself get overwhelmed by the heat  today.  I had a plan this time that began with buying a bottle of very cold water from a vendor on the street.  This was where I learned that crossing Decatur right at the end of Bienville’s monument is virtually impossible.  The traffic, which crawls everywhere else around the French Quarter, moves very quickly there.  I didn’t want to go all the way down to the light and then back again; this would be counter to part two of my plan, Move As Little As Possible.  An army chaplain who was standing there collecting for a charity asked where I was going, then said “You just have to start walking into the street.  They’ll stop for you.  Don’t worry, this is how we do it here.”  It felt like taking my life into my hands, but eventually I did get across without being killed.

The “far” side of Decatur (opposite the one we usually use) is close to the river, and you can see the steamboats pulled up to the bank and sometimes hear the music they play to entice passengers.  There’s actually a lot of greenspace there too, and the shops look newer and more uniform.  And with covered walkways, too, which made me happy.

I came upon Montrel’s, a corner bistro with outside seating, and the maitre d’ asked if I wanted to sit and have refreshments.  I was still full of breakfast, but this man…oh, my, he was gorgeous.  I told him I’d be back for lunch.

You would never think that just an hour earlier, four burly men were trying to figure out how to erect this without the top tearing off.There were signs along the way announcing some upcoming festivals, primarily the Creole Tomato Festival.  When I reached the entrance to the market, there were some men trying to erect the giant tomato sign you see in the picture.  They were having some trouble with it trying to bend and tear away at the top, but it was in place when I came back, so I suppose it all worked out all right.

The Farmer’s Market and the Flea Market blend into each other.  It’s all housed in a long covered patio, lined with ceiling fans, where people set up stalls and (sometimes) dividers andThe Market goes on like this for a long way.  You can see it curving to the right at the far end.  At this end, there are more permanent food stalls behind where you can see the fruit stands at front center. lay out their wares.  It surprised me that so many people were setting up still when I arrived, given that it runs from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m.  There were not a lot of people at the farmer’s market end—some produce, but not much.  The flea market was not what I expected either.  Rather than being a sort of glorified yard sale, the vendors were mostly selling the same kind of goods that are available in any French Quarter store, but cheaper (which makes them prettier and nicer and more worth having, as anyone in my family knows).  A few people had unique items: a man selling African masks and statuary, some of which I really wanted; a booth with hand-glazed tiles in coaster and trivet sizes; a few artists drawing caricatures or personalized designs.  I bought something for a friend here, but I’m not saying who or what.

There were a lot of jewelry stalls.  Honestly, New Orleans is like Jewelry Heaven.  It’s not just the ordinary stuff, but local designers and unusual materials, and it’s everywhere.  I’m surprised I’ve only bought a couple of pieces for myself; either I have more self-control than I imagined, or I burned out my gleeful extravagance on book shopping.  I had a hard time resisting the hematite necklaces and even more trouble not buying a long strand of freshwater pearls in a shade I’ve never seen before.  I’ve seen a lot of patterns I want to try for myself, though I’ve resisted the urge to take pictures; it seems somehow unethical even if I’m not competing with the artists for sales.

Montrel's lineup of famous people who have eaten there.  Gorgeous maitre d' not included. I decided to pass by Aunt Sally’s Praline Shop on the grounds that if I bought a box of pralines to give to friends on Thursday, I would personally eat them all by Sunday night, and went back to Montrel’s for lunch.  Mmmm,  Mister Handsome was still there and showed me inside.  My waiter was very nice and almost totally unintelligible to me, which is a first.  Though once I was able to understand him, he cracked me up.  He told me the secret to how delicious my shrimp gumbo was is that they “put their foot in to stir it about—makes it tasty.”  So I told him my grandma always said she put her finger in our oatmeal to make it sweeter, and he laughed at that.  On the way out Mister Handsome told me, all concerned, that I needed to drink more cold water because I had looked very flushed when I came in.  I thanked him, but mostly I was thinking “Please marry me.”  He had the best voice, just a hint of southern Creole, and he made my day brighter.

After this, I didn’t really have a plan, so I explored some of the shops on the far side of St. Ann (the northeast edge of Jackson Square).  I stopped at the market for more water and a Coke for my private stash of drinks that are not Pepsi or $2.75 apiece.  In retrospect, I should have taken a bio break somewhere around there, but I wasn’t thinking about such things.  So when it started to be urgent, there were no places with public restrooms anywhere around.  I cut my trip short and hurried back to the glorious room.  Of course, once I got there, I realized how sweaty and uncomfortable I was, so I didn’t feel like going back out.  Bah.  I took a shower and stretched out to read for a bit.

Jacob got back even earlier than anticipated—they’d cancelled shuttle service until 5 p.m., so he’d taken a taxi.  I ordered pizza for the kids (it’s a long story, but the short version is that Domino’s has a great online ordering system) and read my book.  Around this time Julie called to tell me the Great Sugar-Eating Secret (also a long story; get her to tell it to you) and what with one thing and another, 5 o’clock rolled around and we went to dinner.

How to tell your server to keep moving... The reason for the early dinner is that Bubba Gump’s is a very popular restaurant, and on a previous evening walk, we’d seen people lined up outside the door to get in.  So we figured we’d beat the rush, especially since it’s about 6 minutes’ walk from our hotel.  It’s themed around the movie Forrest Gump—decor, cute sayings, etc.—and has framed stills from the movie and other related objects on the walls.  I’d mainly heard it has good food.  I ordered the bourbon mahi-mahi recommended by the waitress; Jacob got the ribs, one of a handful of menu items not fish-centric....and how to get your server to stop.

The food is very good.  Jacob’s ribs, in fact, were outstanding.  I’m glad he thought to give me a bite while he was sucking the meat off the bones, because they are tender and juicy.  The waitress told us that the ribs go fast during the week and they’re usually out by the weekend.  I believe it.  The key lime pie was good, but “more lime than key” as Jacob put it—not in the same class as the one he got at House of Blues.

My beautiful and delicious dinner.  You can see Jacob's ribs in the background.  Really good food. We meandered home, replete and happy, for an early night that, knowing us, we will spend with our respective computers or books.  Tomorrow it’s back to the flea market with Jacob in tow, and I am determined to see the pharmacy museum no matter what it takes.

10. June 2010 18:03 by Melissa | Comments (0) | Permalink

In Which Everything Comes to a Crashing Halt

Jacob woke me at around 4:15 in the morning complaining of excruciating back pain—so bad it went through his entire torso.  I found a huge, hard knot of muscle right next to his spinal cord that didn’t want to go away.  After an hour of massage, hot cloths, a hot bath and a large dose of pills, the pain subsided enough for him to sleep in a makeshift bed on the floor.  By morning it was gone.  We never did figure out what caused it—maybe his heavy computer backpack, but he carried it all day today and had no trouble.  I suppose we’ll find out at 4:15 tomorrow morning.

I had been sleeping restlessly before the Interlude of Pain and I didn’t sleep any better afterward.  When I woke up, it was almost 1 p.m. and I still felt groggy and not all there.  So I decided to call off the day’s plans and take it easy.  There was, after all, laundry to do, most of it mine.

Royal Street by night.  The tower in the center is the Marriott Hotel, and our room is near the top. Getting it all done was far too complex.  Public laundromats require quarters—lots and lots of quarters—and the Marriott is no exception.  It costs $1.50 to use either a washer or a dryer, and the washers are tiny.  I felt very smug about having exactly enough quarters for two loads washed and dried until I remembered that I would need two boxes of detergent.  $1.25 each.  That’s right, in quarters.

I started the wash and went down to the snack shop to buy something that I could turn into quarters.  Unfortunately, the snack shop is more of a place for hurried convention-goers to buy an overpriced breakfast than an actual snack shop, and they had no sandwiches.  The gift shop next door sells bags of chips along with their hideously overpriced Pepsi, but no sandwiches.  I made it all the way back to the laundry room before I remembered, in my hunger-addled state, that the point was to buy something because I needed change.  I went back and bought orange juice laced with gold dust or something, based on the price (could have bought a whole freakin’ gallon of the stuff back home for that price, grumble grumble) and then sat around for a while waiting for the laundry to finish drying.  I was not surprised to learn that the inefficient dryers failed to get the heavier things totally dry, but I didn’t feel like sitting around much longer and I was getting really hungry.  So I stuffed the dry clothes into one bag and the damp clothes into another and took them all upstairs to sort and fold.

By this time it was 2:30 and my stomach was trying to secede from our union.  I did what I never thought I’d do in New Orleans:  I went to Arby’s.

Here’s the thing about chain stores in general and chain restaurants in particular.  People gripe about them destroying the unique character of a neighborhood or city, taking business away from the small businessperson and so forth.  That’s mostly true.  McDonald’s has to be recognizable as McDonald’s wherever you go, and it is truly odd to see the familiar logos of the golden arches or the Subway sign on the edge of the French Quarter.  But when you are in an unfamiliar city, and you need a particular thing right away—lunch, or a toothbrush, or something—you can’t always go looking for the local option.  When we go out to dinner, for the most part we wander around checking menus or even storefronts to see if we want to eat one place or another (about which more later).  When you’re really hungry and a little off-kilter, you need a known quantity even if it isn’t anywhere near as good as the po boys from last night.  So Arby’s it was.  (The Arby’s, by the way, has old exposed brick inside and a second floor with ironwork railings.)

Back in the hotel room with my low-quality not-really-Philly sandwich and the Coke I had so sensibly procured for myself last night, I settled down and ate and read a book and didn’t care that I wasn’t doing anything cool in the city.  I get a kick out of this sign every time I pass it.  Contemporary jewelry AND Judaica?  It seems a bizarre mix somehow. Around 4:00 I started feeling antsy and wanting to go out, so I packed up and went shopping.  I visited the store of the artist I’d admired last night and bought a pair of earrings; the truth is, I can make them myself, but I’ll never actually do it and I think it’s important to support any talented artist who doesn’t overprice her work for the tourists.  I went in and out of antique stores on Royal St., window shopping mostly.  One store had a bunch of old scientific and medical tools that I almost blew a ton of money on except that I couldn’t get them home.

I had one really fun encounter at New Orleans Lagniappe, where I found some <censored> and <more censored> for friends.  I was admiring this really great leather purse when the proprietor told me he could make me a good deal on any of the purses.  I told him the one I’d been looking at and he came and picked it up, admiring the leather.  That’s when I noticed the price tag--$89 marked down from $129!  I backed down and said I thought it was too large for me.  He told me to make an offer, so I lowballed him and said I’d take it for $40.  He looked at me for a couple of seconds and I thought he was about to tell me to get out of his store and stop insulting him, but he said “You buy the purse for $60 and I’ll throw in the <censored> for free.”  I told him he had a deal.  It was the most fun I’ve had interacting with a shopkeeper so far!

About this time I realized I’d left my phone in the hotel room, so I started heading back.  I was a little afraid Jacob would get there first and worry about where I was, but fortunately I got there before him.  I was overheated enough to be happy with his suggestion that we not go to dinner immediately.  We left around 8, which is pretty late for us.

The Copper Monkey Grill.  It looks like a seedy bar, but it's really not.Let me just say right now that Jacob is a lot pickier about where we eat than  I am.  Of course, some of that was probably because a lot of the places we checked out were enormously expensive, even for New Orleans.  Still, it was a while before we decided on the Copper Monkey bar and grill.  I was glad to sit down and desperate for some ice water (no air conditioning).  It took a while for the food to get there, but it was totally worth waiting for.  I had fried catfish with corn on the cob and potato salad; it was, no kidding, the best potato salad I have ever eaten in my life.  I’m starting to have a real love of catfish, especially batter-fried, where the meat is rich and buttery-textured.  Jacob ordered the chicken and sausage gumbo (this is a joke because our favorite Campbell’s soup is chicken and sausage gumbo) and it came with the chicken still on the bone—two meaty little legs swimming in the broth around the mountain of rice in the center.  Jacob said it was incredibly good (once he borrowed my fork to peel the meat off the bones).  We both agree that it seems to be impossible to find bad food here, except of course at Arby’s.

New Orleans by night.  The view from our hotel room.  The balcony railing is just for show; you can't actually get outside. It was after nine when we started back for the hotel, and I discovered that there is a point in the day when I can walk around comfortably outside.  It’s just a time when there’s nothing good open.  We went to the corner store (Canal and Chartres) because I was in the mood for pralines, then came up to the room.  It was good to have a relaxing day, but I hope I can do more of the things on my list tomorrow.

9. June 2010 20:55 by Melissa | Comments (0) | Permalink

I Love New Orleans, But It Doesn’t Love Me

(Make sure you hover over each picture to see the captions.)

This morning Jacob and I had a late breakfast together at a tiny cafe that barely rates the title—one of those out-of-the-way places with half a dozen tables and a single waitress, cash only.  Even so, I think you’d have to work hard to find an eatery in this part of town that doesn’t have good food.  Around 9:15 Jacob headed off to another day of unrelieved geekery, and I strolled along down Chartres toward the museums around Jackson Square: the Cabildo, the Presbytere, and the 1850 House.

I was there before 9:30 and thus discovered that the official New Orleans tourist website was wrong—the museums’ hours had changed recently, and they didn’t open until 10.  I entertained myself with a walk down Pirates Alley,This sign is smack next to the entrance to the cathedral.  I don't know what that means. which runs between the Cabildo and St. Louis Cathedral.  Midway down the alley you come to Faulkner House, where William  Faulkner wrote his first novel way back before he was famous.  The bookstore on the site opened much later (which I already knew), but mainly I was happy that Pirates Alley picks up an unexpected cross-breeze, because at 9:30 I was already uncomfortably warm.  I went around the corner and hung out in an upscale Plaque outside Faulkner House.  The bookstore has a grundle of old editions of Faulkner novels.souvenir/art store, admiring the work of a local artist who uses the fleur-de-lis motif as the foundation for hundreds of different pieces.  Outside the store I had an interesting conversation with a homeless man who had actually been to Salt Lake City.  He asked if I was Mormon and when I said yes, he told me that the Mormons had helped him out when he was traveling through the city to a funeral, years ago.  He also gave me directions to a bookstore not on my list.  It’s the first time in my life I’ve given money to a street beggar (not The back corner of the Cabildo, off Pirates Alley.  Why is it foggy?  Because my lens got chilled by proximity to my water bottle and took ten minutes to get used to the humidity.that he asked; he more like hinted around, woe is me, it’s so hot and I have nowhere to go).  He was missing a lot of teeth and looked totally grizzled and was two years younger than me.  It was actually a fun way to start the day.

On the stroke of ten I was inside the Cabildo, but the stern lady running the cash register had the attitude of government officials everywhere that ten o’clock did not happen until her computer said it did.  There was a small group of pre-teens there waiting, I presume, for a school tour.  Every one of them spoke French, probably as a first language based on their interaction with the surly government lady.  I wish I knew enough French to know if it was French Creole or not.

Supposed to be the original marble stone that marked the French possession of Louisiana. The Cabildo was the seat of colonial government when the Spanish controlled Louisiana and continued to be a government building after the U.S. took over.  The museum exhibit displays the history of Louisiana and New Orleans from the early days of white settlement through the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, which actually happened in the Cabildo, and beyond.  I knew practically nothing about any of it, so it They used the backs of playing cards as money for lack of other hard currency.  The inscriptions on most of these say was worth going.  I had no idea the Marquis de Lafayette had lived and entertained in  the Cabildo, or that Spain had signed over the Louisiana area to the French less than a month before the French and the U.S. completed the Louisiana Purchase.  (This seriously pissed off the Spanish, because they had transferred the property on the condition that it not be Napoleon's death mask.  He doesn't look at all like a power-mad military genius, does he?given to a third party, but Napoleon really needed the cash and didn’t care all that much about the opinions of the Spaniards—as was seen a few years later when his army tore through Spain.)  The Cabildo also has one of the four bronze  castings of Napoleon’s death mask.  Cool, and a little creepy.The Sala Capitular, where the Louisiana Purchase was signed.

One of the things the website got right was that you get a discount if you buy tickets to more than one of their museums, and I was able to see all three of Three costumes worn in two different parades; the Mad Hatter and March Hare were designed by the same woman. them for $12.  So I crossed past the cathedral (I never did go in; maybe another day) to the Presbytere which, despite its name, has never housed any priests or other religious types.   Half the museum is closed off while they install a new exhibit on Hurricane Katrina, but the permanent exhibit on Mardi Gras was open, and it was what I came to see.  Where the Cabildo exhibit is as much about the building as the history, the Presbytere looks a lot more like a traditional museum (except for the long gallery at the front, which used to beOne of the King Zulu costumes.  The Zulu parades began as a parody of the Rex krewe and other all-white groups, hence the blackface painting (a mockery of how white men used to portray blacks). open to the Square and is now, thankfully, closed off and air conditioned.  I make no apologies for being a soppy tourist).  I know about as much as Mardi Gras as the average person who’s never been to Carnival in New Orleans, which means I know almost nothing.  Originally, there were two of these seahorses.  They won at least one prize during that year.The Mardi Gras celebrations are a seriously big deal here, and the people involved in the krewes (the groups that organize the parades and parties) take them at least as seriously as  hard-core sports fans take the big game, probably a lot more.  My favorite rooms showed the regalia of the “royalty” of the different krewes each year, the favors the krewes commission and give out (not the same as the “throws” the participants throw from the floats), and a long series of pins designed for the different krewes each year.  It was Crowns and other regalia of long-ago krewes.  The first thing you notice is how incredibly ornate these things are.  Then you realize just how long these celebrations have been going on--over 100 years.impressive and a little alien, in a good way.

I decided I’d been standing long enough and took a lunch break.  Across the street from the Presbytere is Muriel’s, and I was just looking over their lunch menu and thinking it was a little heavy and expensive for me when a woman from somewhere much further southeast stopped to rave to me about how wonderful the food was and A rifle from the Battle of New Orleans display at the Cabildo.  Can my gun-crazy son identify it?how I wouldn’t regret eating there.  So I changed my mind.  The place was way upscale—I would have been underdressed for dinner there, but fortunately at 11:45 the place was nearly empty.  I was seated near two ladies, one of whom was a native, who started chatting to me just out of the blue.  I’m finding that this is a New  Orleans trait; the people all love talking to strangers and are genuinely interested in meeting you.  It’s a trait that rubs off on you after a while.  I’m not a gregarious person, but I’ve had more random conversations in the last two days than in a month back home.  In the ladies’ conversation with each other I also confirmed that the natives do pronounce “Chartres” as “Charters,” which I can’t quite bring myself to say.

The meal was wonderful.  Because I was alone, I indulged in food I will never be able to have at home: chilled beet soup and crawfish with goat cheese crepes and shrimp.  The crawfish came whole, propped up on the crepes, and he was so cute I felt bad about disemboweling him.  I don’t know what kind of tomato-bisque sauce they swam in, but it was so good I could have licked the plate clean.  Yum yum yum.

A sitting room at the front of the 1850s House.  The buildings were all designed as apartments to be rented to people who could afford them.  In 1850, this usually meant slave owners.  But take a look at that sofa set! After lunch I went over to the 1850 House, which is the least impressive of the museums visually.  The main floor is given over to a gift shop of mostly books about New Orleans in general and the House in particular.  It’s part of the Pontalba Buildings, on opposite sides of Jackson Square, that wereDoes this child look like a slave?  She was.  She lived at the 1850 House with her father (and OWNER) Mr. Huger.  Abolitionists used her photo to drum up sympathy for their cause. built by the Baroness Pontalba in the   late 1840s as part of a renovation along the Place d’Armes (as it used to be called).  It’s not much different from any other building of its time as far as the furnishings, but it’s three very steep floors up overlooking one of the many inner courtyards you usually only glimpse from ground level.  I was more interested in the life of Baroness Pontalba herself—an heiress before she was three, married by 16 to a cousin, tormented by her father-in-law, who wanted her fortune and ultimately shot her trying to get it, and finally a wealthy and influential businesswoman of New The courtyard of the 1850 House.  The slave quarters are just below where I'm standing, so at least they had a nice view.Orleans.  The shop sells her biography, Intimate Enemies, but at such an exorbitant price that I bought it on Amazon.com instead.  (This brought my book purchases on this trip to just over $200.  Woohoo!)

 Part of the slave quarters, which were at least clean and light.  Not that that would make me any happier about being a slave.I headed back along Chartres to see the pharmacy museum, but decided I was too tired and hot to appreciate it and just went back to the hotel instead (with some stops for souvenirs and to admire the jewelry stores—I was tired, not dead).  I was thwarted in my search for Coke, too; I didn’t buy one at Jackson Square because I figured it  would get warm on the way back, the vending machine was broken, and the hotel store only has Pepsi.  Bah.  I ended up paying almost three dollars for twenty ounces of a too-sweet Pepsi that was still cold and caffeinated, so not a total loss.  When I reached the glorious room I was, again, drenched in sweat.  The back of my head might as well have been sprayed with a garden hose and my clothing was sticking to me in places I didn’t know I had places.  I haven’t seen a single other person get this drenched, even the other middle-aged women who dress like me (as opposed to the slim young girls who wear thin cotton tank tops and short shorts and seem invigorated by the heat.  I hate all of them on principle).  I’ve only seen one person sweating at the back of his head, and that was a fifty-year-old balding man.  I think I’m not made for this climate.

The glorious room, made less glorious by the view of all my bags and stacks of books and things.  There's a dining table beyond the couch and a wet bar area to the left. Anyway, I changed out of my dampest clothes and laid down to cool off.  I underestimated how tired I was, though; I started drifting off while I was playing Eschalon II and nearly got eaten by wolves, so I switched off and took a nap.  Blessed, cool, lovely bed.

Jacob got back early, around 5:30, and then he needed a nap.  We set out for dinner around 7.  This time we were looking for a hole-in-the-wall place, something simple.  It took a surprisingly long time to find one, and now I can’t remember its name, but we had sausage po boys and I had a dish of really good jambalaya.  Despite being stuffed full, we managed to roll ourselves around to the Cafe du Monde…and in so doing discovered that we’d eaten on Bourbon Street and hadn’t known it!  That explained why the roads were blocked off; it was closed to traffic.  We turned off just before reaching the stretch of Bourbon Street that is all girlie shows and stuff.  I’m pretty sure it isn’t what Sting had in mind when he wrote the song.

The glorious room from behind the dining table.  You can't see the TV behind me, but you can see the stacks of books.  I think those might be visible from space.The streets were filling up with people going on the haunted tours; they start after sunset, but I was starting to see a major flaw in the idea of me going on one, namely, that it was getting dark and I was still sweating like a pig.  (Pigs don’t sweat, but the imagery is more evocative than mere fact.)  I’ll have to figure something out, because they look fun.  We stuffed our faces with beignets and wandered back, making stops at some souvenir places and a little neighborhood grocery.  How cool would it be to live in one of these apartments in the French Quarter and shop at the local market?  (I speak figuratively.  It would actually be hot as hell.)

We also visited a little jewelry store that had the nicest collection I’d seen so far.  Almost everything was made by local artists, and coincidentally the one I was most interested in has her own shop just up the street.  Not only does she have elegant designs, her prices were far more reasonable than any others (and at this point I have a very good idea how much the materials and labor cost for beaded jewelry).  I am definitely going back later this week.

We got in around 9 p.m.  I immediately got in the shower so I could feel more like a person and less like the unholy spawn of a garden sprayer and the Swamp Thing.  I love this town already, but I’m not sure I’m built to live here.  Thank goodness for air conditioning.

Tomorrow I plan to do laundry first thing.  I wish the shops opened earlier or stayed open later (the jewelry shop we went to closes at 10 p.m., which is extremely unusual) so I could shop in the cool of the day.  I’m either going to the pharmacy museum or the Riverwalk, depending on how adventurous I feel.  After a night in the glorious room with the duvet, I feel very adventurous.

8. June 2010 22:11 by Melissa | Comments (1) | Permalink

Should Have Brought a Snorkel

(Jacob says to point out that it’s Melissa writing these posts.  In case it’s not obvious.)

I would like to live here.Jacob woke up around 7 and left for his conference.  He called soon after to tell me that the hotel room’s price on the door was “just an average” (which makes no sense to me, but whatever) according to the desk clerk, who also apologized for causing us worry ulcers. I managed to fall asleep again and slept until 11 a.m., probably because the two previous nights were so restless.  I like the bed’s duvet, too.  When I finally woke up, the Pelf Fairy had visited with a nice aluminum water bottle from the conference so I wouldn’t dehydrate during the day.  I felt I had to scramble to make up for lost time, so I quickly got dressed and picked up juice and a muffin in the hotel’s overpriced snack shop and ran outside.

Then I had to stop because the air was more or less solid.

I’m not a stranger to humidity, though it’s been a while since I lived anywhere that it was a problem.  But I’ve never spent a lot of time in the South, where humidity and heat combine into an atmosphere liquid enough to require scuba gear.  It’s really not all that hot here, especially since today is still overcast—maybe mid-80s.  But it feels like something Dante would have written about if he’d lived in Louisiana instead of Italy.

The first thing you realize, walking around New Orleans in this weather, is that you don’t want to go too fast.  It’s hot, but you don’t really sweat because the humidity is so high your body gets confused about whether it really needs to produce more moisture.  Then the instant you step into an air-conditioned building (and they are ALL air-conditioned) your body seems to realize that you’re way too warm and overcompensates.  I was doing fine walking down Canal Street until I went into the pharmacy.  Then I turned into an extra from “The Waters of Mars.”  I actually had to hang around inside ten minutes longer than I needed just so I could dry off a bit.

(Another thing about the way the big chain stores don’t really dominate the neighborhood: there’s a McDonald’s on Canal Street between our hotel and the CVS Pharmacy, but you can’t tell unless you’re right next to it because the sign is under the store’s awning.  And the Arby’s in the other direction looks more like an old-time movie theater.)

The statue on the corner of Decatur and Peters.  It's of Bienville, the founder of New Orleans.   After picking up the few things we’d forgotten and taking them back to the hotel room, I set out on my journey.  The first thing I wanted to find was the bookstore we saw on Charlie’s whirlwind tour.  I didn’t realize that it is actually next door to our hotel.  It’s just on the corner across from Evelyn’s Place, and if we’d kept walking last night we would have seen it.  I’m sure this has some cosmic significance, but I don’t know what it is.  I bought enough books there that I had to go back to the hotel and drop them off.  I probably should have had the nice man ship them to my house instead.

Bienville's back side, a Catholic priest, and some oppressed indigenous person.On my third start, I went the other way out of the hotel—its main entrance is on Canal Street, but its big garage entrance is on Chartres, which is how I’d been leaving before—and crossed over to Decatur.  My goal for the day was Jackson Square and the Cafe du Monde.  None of the museums I wanted to see are open on Mondays (I don’t know why) so I figured I could spend a leisurely couple of hours strolling up Decatur, coming back via Chartres, and stopping in at whatever stores looked interesting.

There are a million little shops and cafes and bars all along Decatur.  Most of the souvenir stores looked depressingly similar, so I didn’t stop (no sense in getting drenched just to pop in and out of several different places).  I was greeted by someone in front of the House of Blues, where I want to go for dinner—I don’t know what to call him, but his job was to talk people into eating there.  He was more or less unique.  A lot of people seem to linger in front of the stores and restaurants, but most of them seemingly have nothing to do.  From a distance, they look like idlers from street gangs or the unemployment line, but they don’t accost the passersby and (when you get close) don’t seem shiftless or menacing.  It’s just one of the things that makes the French Quarter what it is.

Then I found another bookstore.  I swear I wasn’t looking for one; it was just there across the road.  The guy at the counter gave me a map with other local bookstores listed, all within walking distance.  There are eight.  Six more to go.

It probably would have made more sense to once again return to the hotel and leave the bag of books behind (you knew there would be a bag of books, right?) but at this point it was 1:30 and I was starting to be impatient with all the bookstores throwing themselves at me.  I resolved to keep going.  It’s a fair distance from Canal Street to Jackson Square, almost a mile, but you hardly notice (if you are not lugging a bag of books, that is) because there’s so much to look at.  I had to keep track of all the stores I want to go back to this week, all the restaurants to go to, and so forth.  There’s a place where North Peters Street comes in from the south to meet up with Decatur, and in the triangle they make with Conti is a green area and an enormous statue of Jean Baptiste le Moyne Bienville, the founder of New Orleans.  Across the street is the Hard Rock Cafe and on the Decatur side is Bubba Gump’s Shrimp Co.  Bubba Gump was playing Queen.  I don’t know what the Hard Rock Cafe was playing.  No jazz yet.

The St. Louis Cathedral from Jackson Square. By the time I saw Jackson Square ahead, I was ready to sit down in the park and rest.  But then, there it was—the Cafe du Monde!  I perked up enough to cross the street and walk in, where I collapsed in a chair by the window.  (I decided by then that sweating a little was worth sitting inside.)

The Cafe du Monde is really big.  Its outdoor seating is easily twice the size of the cafe itself.  The menu is limited; you go there for beignets and coffee, and that’s about it.  (I had Coke instead.)  You don’t get in line or wait to be seated, but instead find yourself a table and wait for a server to notice you.  They have a lot of servers.  About half of them were just sitting along the walls taking a break or something, but the service was still fast.  I got an old lady who would have been comfortable working for Stalin as an enforcer.  No fuss, no conversation, just took my order and left.  I loved it.  I was in no mood to chat.

A beignet, in case you don’t know, is a kind of fried pastry, similar to a scone or sopaipilla, about the size of a tennis ball.  They’re also known as French donuts.  At the Cafe du Monde, you get three to an order in a saucer with half a pound of powdered sugar.  They are, no kidding, one of the best foods ever invented.  You pay when the server brings them to you and she makes change right there—no waiting around for a cashier.  I think the Cafe du Monde is my new favorite place.The Cabildo, site of the signing of the Louisiana Purchase.

I was refreshed enough to continue a little farther along Decatur and do some actual souvenir shopping at Aunt Sally’s Original Creole Pralines.  I wasn’t in the mood for pralines, but I did get some praline pecans for a snack and some gifts for friends that will remain a secret for now, haha.  I considered going all the way to the flea market, but that was a little too far.  So I cut through Jackson Square over to Chartres and took a little break there (completely forgetting to stop and take a picture of the Cafe du Monde).

The neglected Andrew Jackson. Jackson Square is surrounded by buskers and street artists, but the square itself reminded me a lot of the public area outside Temple Square—very quiet, no vendors of any kind.  A statue of Andrew Jackson, for whom the square is named, sits at the center of the space.  No one seemed to be taking pictures of him except me.  In fact, I didn’t see many cameras anywhere.  I took one so he wouldn’t feel neglected.

When I came out of Aunt Sally’s, I could hear someone playing the trumpet.Me and my trumpeter friend.   It turned out to  be a guy on the far side of Jackson Square, so as I crossed the park I got to listen to his extensive repertoire.  He went from “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot” into “Little Bunny Foo Foo” without a break, which cracked me up.  His friend took a picture of me with him while he was playing.  The last thing I heard him do was the Sesame Street Theme.  It was great.

The difference between Chartres and Decatur is much greater than the block separating them.  Chartres has fewer souvenir shops and a lot more boutique-type stores: antique shops, jewelry and clothing stores, at least one shoe store, and the aforementioned used book store.  I stopped in at most of them just to look around, but at Earth Odyssey I struck up a conversation with the owner, Joy.  I had been looking for Earth Odyssey because it sells stones and beads, but Joy and I got to talking about children and stuff and it was really nice.  I bought a pair of super cool earrings, but I’ll have to go back for more.

It was just after 3 p.m. when I returned to the hotel.  I was drenched.  I can’t remember ever sweating this much in my entire life.  I hope there are some kind of laundry facilities in the hotel, because I’m going to run out of clothing.  Aren’t showers lovely?  Whoever invented them is a genius.

By the time Jacob got back and we were ready to go to dinner, it was raining.  We decided to tough it out for the short walk to the House of Blues.  The entrance is a narrow door like all the rest, but it leads to a brick alley and a courtyard that are so pretty.  I was glad we weren’t there for the show, because there were already people lined up along the alley in the rain and a shorter line of people hoping to get tickets to the sold-out show. The door to the actual House of Blues.  Lots of people waited a long time to get in here.

It was a short wait to be seated, but then it was a very long wait to place our order.  Our waitress looked very flustered and would dash past with a quick “Hello” or “Just one minute.”  Our first theory was that we were being shunned because we are old and uncool (our entering raised the average age in the room by about 3.6 years), but soon we realized that the place was just woefully understaffed.  My seat gave me a good view of the kitchen and the cash register, so I saw our poor waitress trying to enter five different checks from one table in under two minutes.  We had nowhere else to go, so we sat it out.The ceiling at the House of Blues.  Lots and lots of bas-relief sculptures of famous musicians.

It was totally worth it.  I’ve never had catfish before, so I have nothing to compare it too, but it was juicy and tender and smothered in tomato-heavy salsa.  Jacob’s favorite was the key lime pie.  For a while I thought he might just die from happiness with every bite.  It really was that good.  We were probably there for over an hour and a half—a slow meal, but worth waiting for.  When the waitress brought our bill, she thanked us for being so patient and said she’d taken my chocolate cake off the total in gratitude.  It ended up being a good evening.

We found a cafe next door to the bookstore that does breakfast, so tomorrow we’ll give it a try.  On Tuesday: I see how many tours I can squeeze in before I go souvenir-hunting.

7. June 2010 18:52 by Melissa | Comments (0) | Permalink

In The Big Easy, It’s Not So Easy to Leave the Airport

I’ve been looking forward to this trip for months: eight days in New Orleans, most of them on my own, all of them sans children. It’s been almost ten years since the last time Jacob and I took a vacation alone. I love my kids, but all moms know that any vacation taken with the whole family is a vacation for everyone but Mom. So, having promised to return with loads of souvenirs, we packed our bags and headed for the airport. Aside from a short trip two years ago, I haven’t flown since that last trip ten years ago. Things have changed at the airport. Like, for example, how you are charged for every piece of luggage you check. Or that going over the weight limit of 50 pounds invokes yet another charge of $90. That last one was too exorbitant even for us and led to Jacob transferring my laptop to his backpack. (This would later turn out to be a blessing in disguise, but at the time we started planning to buy a third suitcase to haul back the loads of souvenirs.)

The flight was no big deal. We had a momentary panic (and by we, I mean myself) when we had to cross Houston International Airport in about two and a half minutes to catch our connecting flight. That meant taking both a shuttle bus and a little train and a lot of walking. The person who designed that airport will either earn a lot of condemnation in Heaven or an upper-tier seat in Hell.

At New Orleans, we discovered that our suitcases hadn’t made it on to the plane with us in Houston. No doubt they took the wrong shuttle. Fortunately, the baggage claim lady was both competent and friendly. She arranged for the bags to be sent on to our hotel and told us exactly what to do at the hotel to make sure they came to our room. But this was only the first delay. Then came the nightmare of Standing In Line. There was a lot of this going around at the airport. You stand in line for a ticket on hotel shuttle (which is, by the way, managed not by the hotel but by the airport, and costs a merry bundle). Then you stand in line to wait for the shuttle. There are many lines, and even if you follow directions and get your ticket inside before queuing up, you still might not know which line to stand in. Thankfully, we had the Line Lady. This was a diminutive black woman with endless quantities of energy and patience who kept walking up and down the curb, checking shuttle tickets, directing traffic, and sending people to the right line. At first I mistook her efficiency for abruptness, until Jacob cracked a joke and she laughed and said something funny in return. We began to look for her infrequent appearances as a sign that eventually the shuttle would come. We needed the reassurance because we stood in line for what in subjective time was about fifteen days. The shuttles, taxis, and other airport traffic run in endless circles through the tunnel formed by a roof across the airport exits. You’d probably appreciate it if it were raining, but when it’s overcast and muggier than usual, and the exhaust from traffic is trapped in that little area, all you can think about is how sweaty you are and how likely it is that you will collapse in the path of one of the many taxis that pass by at freeway speeds.

The shuttle that finally came for us, just before we resorted to cannibalism, was driven by an old man who looked as if he had last smiled during the Nixon Era. He banged doors and hefted bags and grouched at people, including the Line Lady, and then merged into the high-speed taxi lane with the skill of an Andretti. Maybe I was just confused from the heat, or maybe driving fast agreed with him, because he suddenly introduced himself as Charlie and turned out to be a charming and funny guy. The ride to the hotel became a mini-tour of the French Quarter, with Charlie dishing out bits of information about the places we passed (like how the grassy strips between lanes that we call medians are called neutral areas in memory of the demarcation meant to keep the French and American settlers from killing each other after the Louisiana Purchase).

Most of New Orleans is a modern city with the typical mixture of new and decrepit that all modern cities have. But the French Quarter is a microcosm of history embedded in the city that has assimilated modern life without being altered by it. The streets Charlie took us down are very narrow, one-lane, one-way roads with no shoulder that look as though the sidewalks are just there for decoration. (Actually, they are two-lane roads, but the right-hand lane is reserved for parking. The parking rights are as narrow as the streets; this space for taxis, this one for patrons, no parking allowed in this section from 8-12 Tuesday mornings because of the street cleaners. It’s a testament to how much Americans love their cars that all the available parking was full.)  I was immediately lost, despite having pored over my map of the French Quarter last week. Every so often, I saw a road sign I recognized, only to lose it as Charlie took yet another left turn and explained that Canal Street was named for a canal that had never been built. Since our hotel is on Canal Street, that’s probably fortunate.

Checking in was easy because, of course, no baggage. The elevators in the New Orleans Marriott are interesting. Instead of an up or down button, there is a little electronic box. You enter the number of the floor you’re going to, and the box tells you which elevator to board. There are no buttons to push inside; you can see your floor number on a screen by the door, along with the floors of anyone else riding with you. The elevator takes you all up and makes stops on the preprogrammed floors. It’s a very cool, if somewhat disconcerting, system, once you get past the feeling that you ought to push a button somewhere. Almost everyone we rode with today (we made several trips) seemed to be as unfamiliar with the system as we were, so I’m guessing it’s either new or we just happened to come to town the same day as all the other hicks.

We were still waiting for our luggage, so we decided to go to dinner. As Charlie had suggested, we just left the hotel and turned right and walked two blocks. Canal Street is the dividing line between where the French settled originally and where the Americans started building after Louisiana became part of the U.S. This divide is still visible; Canal Street itself has large buildings and chain stores (though surprisingly these don’t dominate the scenery the way you’d think), but on the French Quarter side, the buildings are very narrow, share common walls, and have tiny shops every third step. We passed two eateries, an adult novelties store, and something called The Harem which had the sort of women you’d imagine lounging outside. We opted for Evelyn’s Place over Daisy Duke’s and were really glad we did. Evelyn’s Place has a long wooden bar down one side and small tables and booths on the other. The décor is…I don’t know how to describe it. There were team jerseys and hats and women’s lingerie and posters over every wall and hanging from the overhead beams. A jukebox at the far end inexplicably started playing “Valley Girl” and then went silent when the song was over. There were dollar bills dangling from the ceiling and pinned in a huge collage over the bar mirror. The woman who waited on us was also tending bar, and she was the funniest and most gregarious person I’ve ever met. She joked with us over our meal and went straight back to mix some guy a Manhattan. Seriously, a Manhattan. She said no one had asked for one of those in forever—but she did it for him.

Jacob had corned beef and I had gumbo. Ahh, gumbo. This had chicken and sausage as the meats of choice, and the sausage was just spicy enough to set up a nice slow burn on my tongue and tonsils. Yum yum yum. I think I’ve come to the right city. There’s some kind of law that says the best cuisine is found in these hole-in-the-wall restaurants where they only serve four things. I’ll have to test that the rest of this week.

The luggage came right about when the baggage lady said it would. We unpacked and settled in to our enormous suite. Well, not quite a suite, but it’s bigger than our first apartment. The room has a Murphy bed, the only king-size bed available, so we got to haul it out of the wall cabinet ourselves. I usually think of such beds as belonging to hotel rooms in old noir films, so I’m having trouble imagining how Marriott came to install one in such a nice room. It’s so nice that Jacob went to check the room rate and was shocked to see that it’s almost $1000 a night. Uh…what? Our reservation is for something about a tenth of that. Somewhere there has been a huge mistake, but it’s late enough that we’re not going to deal with it until tomorrow. Plus, I’m in my pajamas.

On Monday: Jacob goes to the conference, and I go shopping. Plus, the mystery of the room rate unfolds. I hope.

6. June 2010 23:49 by Melissa | Comments (3) | Permalink

Blind Reason

Blindfolded Everybody knows that blind faith is a bad thing, right? I mean, we’re all clear on that even if we can’t really describe what it means exactly. Most of us have, at some point, known “that guy” (or girl, it’s a gender-neutral phenomenon). You know the one. Impervious to reason. A fanatical exponent of some faith (maybe even your own) whose every expression is one of devotion and doctrinal rectitude. Or the modern expression of the same impulse: a political partisan who clings fiercely to their party line and who knows their talking points by heart and can’t be taken far from them. We can see the potential for harm in that kind of devotion and we eschew it as dangerous and to be avoided.

It is such an off-putting phenomenon that even the accusation that you have blind faith is enough to send you searching your conscience for examples where you’ve gone counter to the party line. Nobody wants to be seen as a predictable drone or mere extension of some collective body with no mind of their own. We’re all individualists here, no matter how alike we might appear on the surface.

The Rational Man

And everybody knows that the antidote to blind faith is reason, right? I mean, the ascendency of reason over religion during the Age of Reason brought huge advances in science and improved the human condition. Reason was such an effective counter to the excesses of faith that for many people, reason has replaced faith as their guiding force when principles collide.

While it is impossible to live entirely without faith (there are simply too many complexities of life to question every assumption or taught truth), many strive to live with as little as possible. Nobody more so than the modern intellectual. Whether ensconced in a university or merely well-read and contemplative, intellectuals worldwide explore boundaries, investigate assumptions, and test hypotheses. And nobody can deny that this is a good thing, at least, not while enjoying the advances of science and technology.

True Faith

Since the LDS church places so much emphasis on education, it should come as no surprise that a great deal of effort has been made to rationalize our doctrine. There are scores of books, talks, firesides, and stories whose purpose (whether explicitly stated or not) is to reassure ourselves that we are, at heart, a rational people.

And that is as it should be.

We believe, after all, that God is the source of all Truth. So if there is anything that can be proven true, it is our duty to embrace that truth no matter how uncomfortable it may make us.

Reasonable Doubt

There is a fundamental problem buried in the above section, however—the concept of “proven true” is a troublesome one even before you get to the fallibility of all human endeavor. What we accept as “proven” can be tricky, and if we aren’t careful, we can end up in places that are murky at best. I’ve seen enough friends and associates of an intellectual persuasion leave the church to suspect that there is something almost deliberate that happens to those who pride themselves on their intellectual capacities. This happens too often to be mere coincidence, which got me thinking (uh oh…).

I don’t know if this is universal and can be raised to the status of a gospel law, but it is so frequent in my experience that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it were. I have noticed that everybody who is proud of their ability to reason eventually finds something that they cannot reconcile with the church. It may be a passage of scripture. It may be a political call to action. It may be a new church program. It may be a conflict with a leader or church authority. The details are highly personalized, but eventually every intellectual I’ve known well enough to discuss this with reaches a point where they have to make a choice between their reason and their faith.

I’ve been there, so I know how painful this can be.

Pride Goeth Before…

I wasn’t being subtle above, so it should come as no surprise that I believe this is a problem of pride. Of course my reasoning is correct and my understanding of the principles involved complete enough to come to rational conclusions. The discrepancy must, therefore, be in our leaders (past or present).

Here’s the thing: we believe and sustain our leaders as not just followers of but as actual representatives of God. Each member of the church is exhorted to gain a testimony for themselves, from God, that this is true (and really, being a member is enough work that I personally don’t understand anyone who would go through it all without having obtained that confirmation).

So an intellectual who finds their own personal point of digression has a choice to make. Popular choices at achieving a reconciliation between faith and reason include:

  • Denial. Pretend there is no problem and simply go about your business and hope it doesn’t come up.
  • Delay. Hope a solution presents itself at some future point in time—hopefully sooner rather than later.
  • Compartmentalization. There’s a problem, but just because the church is wrong about one thing doesn’t mean it’s wrong about everything.
  • Justification. The church is wrong from some explainable, and perfectly reasonable, cause (cultural inertia, social conditioning, ideological contamination, whatever).
  • Crusade. The church is wrong, but I can help fix it.
  • Individualization. God has a general path for everyone else, but mine is different because I have a greater capacity/truth/wisdom/whatever.

People mix and match, of course. A little justification with a pinch of compartmentalization and maybe a little crusade if you get some support. Flavor to taste. The problem with all of those approaches is that they are stop-gap at best. The fundamental problem isn’t going to go away. The disparities between faith and reason will accumulate, causing your discomfort to grow over time. Eventually, it is going to grow to the point where you have two options: you can talk yourself into leaving the church, or…

Humble Pie

You can humble yourself, admit that you may, just possibly, be wrong. After all, if the church really is led by representatives of God and you are in conflict with it, then chances are that you really are wrong. Most people, when asked, will admit that in general they are human, fallible, and can be wrong. Theoretically, at any rate. It is amazing how few can bring themselves to admit this in a particular instance or give an example of it happening. Particularly when they are so sure that they are right. It makes sense and it feels so right. How could it possibly be wrong?!?

So let me ask you specifically (or, given that this is a blog post, ask you rhetorically): can you be wrong even when you are positively, absolutely sure that you are right?

This is “Only” a Test

Depending on your personality, making the choice to be humble and putting your faith in God and His chosen servants can be incredibly hard to do—particularly when you know that you are at least as smart as (and possibly smarter than) those servants are. Even more so if you have made proclamations that will have to be retracted. Would He really want us to do something that is so hard and that makes us so uncomfortable? Well, we know that God isn’t exactly reluctant to ask us to do hard things. And He is forever droning on about being humble (almost enough that you’d think He was serious about it).

Indeed, God takes our humility so seriously that He has been known to offer us occasions to demonstrate that we have heard Him and are doing our best to obey. It is this aspect of Him that leads me to suspect that He has set things up such that events naturally produce these occasions. It could very well be more important to Him that smart people learn humility than it is that His servants get everything precisely right every time they preach in His name.

At any rate, I know that, personally, I’ll take the word of the Lord and His servants over my own understanding every time. Even if I think they’re wrong. You can look at it as a matter of track-record (mine being pretty abysmal even before comparing it to people who are proven right time and time again), but really, it’s a matter of faith. I believe that they’re right even when I think that they’re wrong.

Blind or Dumb?

It’s a hard thing being left without reason to fall back on in our day—particularly if you are in a situation where you are asked to defend your position or decision. That blind faith thing, remember? Some will scorn you. Others will laugh. You may even face professional discrimination (and that’s a possibility even if you’re only a computer programmer). After all, how serious can you be if you are willing to admit in public that you will suspend (and/or have suspended in the past) your own reason when it conflicts with the doctrine of your church?

So let me close with some comfort should you choose faith. God really is right. Following His representatives is not only right, but will help you avoid trials and tribulations that result in more than mere humiliation. The only real question is if our leaders really are His representatives or not. If they truly are, then you have literally no reason in the world to worry.

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21. October 2009 20:43 by Jacob | Comments (10) | Permalink

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