29 August 2015

Reviving The Periphery

It is time, I think, to revive this blog.

And I have, at a new site. The address is here: https://reustis.wordpress.com/

Bear with me, as it will be a work in progress for quite some time.

I will be in Amman, Jordan, for a year or so. If anything, I have moved from the periphery of world events to the center, in many respects. Amman is the first capital city I've inhabited for a long time.

I'll still write about the things that usually interest me: outdoor education, literature and the environment, higher education (especially in Louisiana), music, occasional politics and sports.

It's been a while since I posted here, so I don't know how many of you will follow me over to wordpress, but if you do: welcome!

Or, maybe better:  Ahlan wa Sahlan

An Article About Katrina

Let's begin as I began long ago: with a story I wrote about my Katrina experiences. Keep in mind that I wrote this for my old newspaper in Atlanta (The Fulton County Daily Report) while I was a grad student at LSU.

I was volunteering at the River Center as a halfassed medic, taking second year PHD classes, and "conducting" a graduate-level seminar for my professor Jeff Humphies, who was having trouble returning from his evacuation in Pineville.

Jeff was a brilliant poet, theorist, and translator, and his course was on "New Orleans and the Arts." I mention it in the piece. Jeff died late last year, and I miss him.

My father, too. He said would rather die in New Orleans than stay in Houston one more day. He died in 2009, in his home in New Orleans, his family around him.

There's a lot I loved about that city that is gone now.

I also must mention that I was writing while all of this was going on, and my information was spotty, and colored by reports from people who had access to media (I had little). We know now that, far from preying on each other, survivors actually banded together for mutual aid. I've left the article as I wrote it, however. It was originally published in Sept. 2005.

I donated my pay for this piece to the relief efforts in Baton Rouge. It won an award for feature writing.

Like all of us who lived through this event, I'm exhausted by talking about it, and shaken by some of the memories. But I would feel irresponsible to let the day go by without marking this time in some way.

Special to the Daily Report

BATON ROUGE, La.-Every New Orleanian grows up steeped in water. It saturates the air on the city's driest days. It laps at the shores of Lake Pontchartrain, where I sailed as a boy with my grandfather, father and uncles. And there is the Mississippi, the reason for the city, repository of American power and myth, carrying enormous freighter ships that pass level with the second story of my parents' house two blocks away.

Water is our medium, our background music.

It is the backdrop against which most of our significant memories unfold: endless dinners of boiled seafood and Dixie beer at the lakefront, soggy Carnivals, stolen kisses on the levee with the river golden and scarlet in the fall evening, road trips to Pass Christian or Bay St. Louis to bathe in the Gulf and bask in the sun, football games in torrential afternoon thunderstorms. And always-always, always-the threat of The Hurricane. The one that would return our home to the waters. The one we always seemed to dodge.

To borrow a phrase from Norman Maclean's novel “A River Runs Through It”: those who make their home in New Orleans are “haunted by waters.” The waters always lay in wait to claim their own. We knew it, and we laughed in their face, held parties in the shadow of fragile levees, named drinks after the natural disaster that would sink us one day.

My Last Visit

The last time I visited my home in New Orleans-two weeks ago-I barely spared it a glance. I was in a rush-in transit between a summer spent as a guide in the Wyoming backcountry and a fall semester at LSU that started far too soon. I stopped to spend the night at my parents' house and eat a long breakfast with plenty of sweet rolls and chicory coffee. Then I raced west and north, cursing the heat and humidity. Why, I asked myself, hadn't I just stayed in Jackson Hole?

On the Friday before the storm, I bypassed the city altogether as I made my way to east Tennessee to kayak the Ocoee River with friends. I assumed Katrina was another piddling Category 1 storm-the kind that always seems to knock out power in Mobile for six months but just affords my neighbors an opportunity for a hurricane party. After letting our frightened dog in for the night, my dad and brother would pour their usual tumblers of bourbon, light cigars and sit on our porch to watch the storm pass.

Thirty-three years of hurricane threats I had seen. Not one of them had ever landed a real blow. Of course, any riverboat gambler, any French Quarter casino sharpie, anyone who spent any time at the track at the Fairgrounds, could have told us that runs of luck like that don't last.

When I finally turned on my cell phone late Saturday night, I intended to tell my parents that I would pass through New Orleans for a night on my way back to school in Baton Rouge. Instead I found message after message asking where I was and telling me that the storm looked horrendous.

A Call Home

I called home immediately. The raucous raft guide party 50 yards away faded to a whisper.

“We're going to Houston,” my mother said. “Your dad's boarding up the house right now.”

My grandmother, aunts and uncles were going with them. My sister and her husband were fleeing to Atlanta.

If my father was leaving, this was serious. The Jim Bowie who died in the Alamo would have appreciated my father's attitude to New Orleans. Pop doesn't like to venture farther than our place in Lafourche Parish-about 80 miles away. He'd rather be home. Countless times my mother, grandmother and sister had fled for drier parts before a storm, while my dad stayed home, cooked a steak, watched a football game, and then cleaned up the yard and went to his law office the next morning.

“Some of us have work to do,” he said. My sister-also a lawyer-has adopted much of his attitude.

But this time he sensed the danger was for real. He and my mother now have an apartment in Houston. He refuses to unpack his suitcase. The Central Business District will have power soon, he reasons, and someone will have to get to work. He also checked out a satellite photo of our house Uptown. The deck is still in one piece, and the roof is still on, so he might as well go back.

He hasn't yet. He can't. No utilities yet, and there's the threat of diseases that haven't surfaced there since the 19th Century. Not even the courts are open yet-and there's no telling when they will. The Fifth Circuit federal appeals court may be out of its magnificent New Orleans digs for a long time.

A Changed Baton Rouge

I returned to Baton Rouge on Tuesday, running backroads to escape the Interstates rumored to be impassable. I drove through ditches and over logs to get through. The side of the road was lined with people dragging salvaged belongings, or those who had run out of gas. The radio crackled with spotty AM stations desperately conveying what little information they had to whomever had survived and could listen.

Highway 90 in Mississippi, the conduit to so many spring weekends on the gulf shores: gone. Not just impassable. Not there. As if nature had tired of it and decided to erase it forever. The owners of convenience stores stood in their doorways with shotguns.

Working in a Shelter

The next day I started work as a medic in the evacuee shelter at the River Center in downtown Baton Rouge. My cable was out, so no TV or Internet news prepared me for the crowds: The young, the sick, the hurt, the scared, the old.

My medical training is as a Wilderness First Responder; I can dress wounds, splint breaks, reduce dislocations, wrap the hypothermic and immobilize spinal injuries. But I was dealing with diabetes, with heart conditions, sores and ailments brought on by filthy water, people so sick and scared and traumatized we hardly knew what to do with them. All of them had spiritual hurts I could do nothing about.

One seven-foot giant of a man arrived barely sentient, able to do nothing but cradle his face in his hands and weep. He had been trapped in the Superdome, and could not locate his wife and five children. One woman, once a nurse, had suffered a stroke, and refused to be parted from her husband to receive the care she needed. We had at least a dozen children whose parents were missing.

The first days were terrible-barely organized, supplies short, and hurts deep. Without the few doctors and exhausted nurses who kept the clinic running, the body count already would be much higher than it is.

Since then things have improved. A team of doctors has set up in the clinic, and we have plenty of supplies. My cousin, a displaced Tulane medical student, is coordinating the efforts of medical students nationwide from her new room in my apartment.

The offers of help have been huge-not only in material, but for morale. We haven't been forgotten.

Things Have Changed

But a million things have changed-some of which I notice, some of which I have chosen not to think about. There is no part of my life this storm hasn't touched. In Baton Rouge groceries and gas are in short supply, as is space on the streets and in our homes. There's no place to park, no point in trying to drive. Starting this weekend, my apartment, luxurious for one, will have five people in it-including my three-month-old niece. We don't know when they will go home-or where that home will be. Materials I wanted for school are at my parents' house. These are little things, of course. We're lucky.

My sister's firm is looking for office space. It might be in Baton Rouge. Or it might just continue with its Lafayette office. Or maybe Houston. My brother-in-law is looking for a teaching job. They don't know if there is anything for them to return to in New Orleans-whether their new house of six months survived the storm. My father wants to get back to work-and presumably to his partners.

I am back in class, studying literary theory. I have never been so convinced of the inadequacy of language. As a favor for a professor unable to return to Baton Rouge yet, I have agreed to lead his
graduate seminar: “New Orleans and the Arts.” We're beginning with Walker Percy's “Lancelot”, a work suffused in tragedy and loss, in which some horrible things happen during a hurricane. I honestly don't know how to begin.

Next is a book by Percy's Uncle Will-the classic “Lanterns on the Levee”. Then John Kennedy Toole's “Confederacy of Dunces”.

I have forsaken television news. I turned on the TV when power returned, only to find people bickering over politics while my neighbors drowned, starved, dehydrated, preyed on each other, rotted in the flooded streets an hour away from me. I nearly vomited.

Assigning Blame

If they like, I can assign blame for them; it's the blame that lies at the heart of all such disasters: some combination of man's breathtaking folly and nature's rage. Nature, as Edward Abbey said, always bats last.

I hate everything about this disaster. I hate the glimpse of humanity it has given me-how quickly people can become beasts. But as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin said a few days ago: there's a ray of light. The Quarter survived, as it always does, along with parts of Uptown. The rest is draining slowly. There are stories of great bravery, tenderness, selflessness, to counter the nightmarish brutality we've witnessed in the storm's wake. Signs that civilization may hold.

And there are signs that the city's peculiar magic realist grace will persist. There is the woman we treated, who broke into the boxing gym across from her submerged house and floated to safety with her infant son on a boxing ring. There is the man I saw who swears he was led by a flight of butterflies to the empty skiff that saved his family.

The nation will pay late and large for what it should have paid for early. One day, there will be someplace to live in the crescent of the river south of Lake Pontchartrain. Someplace, we hope, that's worth salvaging. But I wonder whether the New Orleans flair, its Creole, Mediterranean comfort and glee in the face of death, will ever return.

I loved that city.

I wonder if I'll feel the same about the place that will bear its name. r

RICHMOND EUSTIS is a former staff reporter for the Daily Report. He
is currently a doctoral candidate in Comparative Literature at
Louisiana State University. He can be reached at reusti3@lsu.edu.

23 June 2012

Motoring on the A13

Here's the southern end of the Cassiar.
I was going well past Stewart and Hyder.
But not really. Instead I've spent the past two days rolling up the Cassiar Highway, which is by far the most beautiful, interesting stretch of (mostly) asphalt I have ever driven. For you New Orleans types, thing of a road about the width of one side of the neutral ground on, say, Napoleon.

That's the highway.  People in huge trucks drive on it at a great rate of speed.

Fortunately, I think I saw fewer than 15 cars in the space of two days of driving. This is one reason to take it instead of the Al--Can highway: fewer folks puttering along in rented RVs.

Not to say that I'm exactly tearing up the road. My speed made good is slower than I care to report. But I'm not in any rush, really. I dawdle. I get out and talk to people. I stop at rest areas and take pictures and make coffee on my camp stove. It's nice when the rest areas are as pretty as the ones in BC.

There's no phone signal. At all. Not just "roaming"-- no signal at all that my phone recognizes. I'm hoping it picks up something again when I cross into Alaska sometime tomorrow evening. But lots of places have WiFi. Which is why I get to send and receive emails from time to time...

And I've been passing the time listening to audio books on my Kindle's Audible account. Pretty neat, actually. However, my choice, while fun in many ways, is worth a review later. Keep an eye out.

This is a rest area in BC.
(As beautiful as the scenery is, the food: not so much. Lots of fried stuff on toast. I ordered a lunch special at a roadside grill. The special was a "steak sandwich." Sounded fine. Ordered it "medium rare" when they asked. Odd. It turned out to  be a slab of beef on a piece of garlic bread. The salad was out of the bag, with french dressing out of the little peel back containers. Sigh.)

Whitehorse, though, is not bad at all. I'm staying in the NOLS staff house, which is very handy-- and the chance to shower and clean up a bit has been VERY welcome. Next, I must find some laundry...

I've been camping. Last hotel I stayed in was in Prince George. It was expensive, and kinda ratty. I've slept better in my tent, despite the depredations of the hordes of mosquitoes in British Columbia and the Yukon.

Did I mention that the roads in the direction I'm going just opened a few days ago? The rivers have been flooding like crazy up here, wiping out several small communities (you might imagine I feel a sort of kinship, although it's not the fault of the Canadian government that these places flood...). Getting to Alaska from Whitehorse, I'm told, has been a bit of challenge. The waters in most places have receded over the past week, just in time for me to pass them. But the rivers have been stomping. I looked in at the Stikine and the Fraser in particular. Yikes.

It took all my mature discipline and restraint not to jump on one of them. I had to remind myself that I didn't know them, didn't know what they do in flood, and didn't know how to get back to my car if I did.

But on the way back...

24 June 2009

I saw three deer

...at my campsite on San Juan today. Three blacktails: a doe and two fauns. The doe slinked out of the brush near where I was dripping coffee for breakfast. She looked at me with caution-- not as if she were afraid of me hurting her, but as if she didn't want to startle me, wake me up, disturb my breakfast.

I squatted and turned my head, making myself look small and unthreatening. She crept out of the brush, two spotted fawns scampering with excitement next to her.

It's the kind of thing I would have called my father to tell him about last summer-- and I almost tried to today. I had pulled his number up on my cell phone before my bleary, early-morning brain remembered.

It made me think of this poem by Donald Hall:

White Apples
when my father had been dead a week
I woke
with his voice in my ear
I sat up in bed
and held my breath
and stared at the pale closed door

white apples and the taste of stone

if he called again
I would put on my coat and galoshes

Tomorrow I leave on the first of six sea kayaking trips over the next couple of months. The trips are shorter this year, to my dismay, but should be fun all the same...

01 June 2009

Richmond Minor Eustis, Nov. 24, 1945- May 30 2009

This runs Tuesday and Wednesday in the Times-Pic. It was the most difficult thing I've had to write-- for many reasons.

I don't feel capable of writing much more about this right now. There is, of course, much more to say, but somehow it feels trivial to write about it in this medium. I may write more about my father's death later, but I doubt it will be here.

I am resigning myself to missing this man every day for the rest of my life.

Richmond Minor Eustis, a lawyer, died Saturday in his home in New Orleans after surviving cancer for nearly two years. He was 63.

The son of David Eustis and Molly Minor Eustis, Richmond Eustis was born in New Orleans and graduated from Isidore Newman School. He earned a bachelor’s degree in economics from the University of Virginia, where he was a member of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity, and he earned a JD from Tulane University Law School.

An expert in corporate and admiralty litigation, Eustis began practice at Phelps, Dunbar, then joined Monroe & Lemann, where he became a partner. He later founded the firm Eustis, O’Keefe & Gleason, where he practiced until shortly before his death. He was a member of the Maritime Institute and the Louisiana Bar Association, and was admitted to federal practice before the Fifth Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court.

His survivors include his wife of 38 years, Catherine BaƱos Eustis; two daughters, Julie Eustis Vaicius of New Orleans and Molly Minor Eustis of New York City; two sons, Richmond Minor Eustis, Jr. of Baton Rouge and Joshua Leeds Eustis of Chicago, IL; his brother David Leeds Eustis of New Orleans; his sister, Kate Eustis of Birmingham, AL; son-in-law, Christian Vaicius; two grandchildren, Lucy and James Vaicius, and more than a score of adoring nieces and nephews. His family and friends were gathered around him as he died.

Eustis served on the board of the Children’s Bureau and the New Orleans Board of Trade, and was an advisor to family-owned White Plantation. He was a member of the Inns of Court, the Sons of the Revolution, the Louisiana Club, and the Boston Club.

In addition to his legal work and his board work, Eustis enjoyed working outside in his yard or around his Lafourche Parish house. Blessed with what he liked to call “a trivial mind,” he was fond of the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, of punning humor, and of the dogs who flocked to him.

He also was one of a handful of people expert in the history, repair and maintenance of traditional Carnival flambeaux.

A funeral service will take place Friday at noon at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1329 Jackson Ave., in New Orleans—the church where as a boy Eustis served as acolyte. Burial will follow at Metairie Cemetery. Visitation will begin at 11 in the church.

In lieu of flowers, donations may be sent to one of the following groups: the Trinity Episcopal Church Medical Mission, 1329 Jackson Ave. 70130, the Kellermann Foundation/Bwindi Community Health Center—Uganda, P.O. Box 1901 Penn Valley, CA 95946, or the Delta Chapter of Alpha Tau Omega fraternity at the University of Virginia, P.O. Box 400314, Charlottesville, VA 22904.

19 January 2009

Humanism Ends With a Whimper

Yes, after 800 years of education as a process for the liberation of the soul, a new way of considering education has come to dominate: the training of students for standardized jobs. Contemplative thought is out, problem-solving and rote repetition of tasks is in.

(Of course, in a sense this is nothing new: education almost always serves the needs of the society footing the bill for it. If you think education isn't working or that the schools are crappy, it's not a bad idea to start asking why we have chosen that such should be the case.)

Anyway, here's Stanley Fish on a new book by a student of his, Frank Donoghue (called, incidentally The Last Professors: The Corporate University and the Fate of the Humanities):
How has this happened? According to Donoghue, it’s been happening for a long time, at least since 1891, when Andrew Carnegie congratulated the graduates of the Pierce College of Business for being “ fully occupied in obtaining a knowledge of shorthand and typewriting” rather than wasting time “upon dead languages.”

Industrialist Richard Teller Crane was even more pointed in his 1911 dismissal of what humanists call the “life of the mind.” No one who has “a taste for literature has the right to be happy” because “the only men entitled to happiness . . . are those who are useful.”

The opposition between this view and the view held by the heirs of Matthew Arnold’s conviction that poetry will save us could not be more stark. But Donoghue counsels us not to think that the two visions are locked in a struggle whose outcome is uncertain. One vision, rooted in an “ethic of productivity” and efficiency, has, he tells us, already won the day; and the proof is that in the very colleges and universities where the life of the mind is routinely celebrated, the material conditions of the workplace are configured by the business model that scorns it.

The best evidence for this is the shrinking number of tenured and tenure-track faculty and the corresponding rise of adjuncts, part-timers more akin to itinerant workers than to embedded professionals.
I've ranted here before about the ascendancy of the corporate model for increasingly large shares of our world. By this I don't mean the corporate takeover and "privatization" of more and more of economic life. Rather, I'm referring to the adoption of an efficiency-obsessed, profit-fetishizing, model for non-business pursuits such as law, medicine, and yes, academia. Market pressures make an operation leaner; it's true. More efficient, sure. But one loses the point of pursuing law, medicine, or deep study of a subject. It's just not the right model for these things (or many others). I'm not going into it further here.

The main purpose of some (though increasingly few) pursuits is not the generation of profit.

So, even those who hoped to escape the god of efficiency by going into medicine or, say comparative literature, are reduced to "service delivery" cogs in an enormous profit-generating machine. And the profits are generated, no doubt there. But if you can deliver service without the doctor-- or with only 4 minutes of a doctor's time, or by eliminating tenured professors in favor of podcast lectures-- then that's efficient. But medicine is harmed. As is education. Fish and his student are right. I'm hoping against hope I don't end up in a miserable adjunct job for the rest of my life. Increasingly it's the kind of hope one generates on buying a Powerball ticket.

To repurpose a quote by Gov. Edwin Edwards: "A Ph.D. program is tax on people who are bad at math."

More from Fish
The for-profit university is the logical end of a shift from a model of education centered in an individual professor who delivers insight and inspiration to a model that begins and ends with the imperative to deliver the information and skills necessary to gain employment.

In this latter model , the mode of delivery – a disc, a computer screen, a video hook-up – doesn’t matter so long as delivery occurs. Insofar as there are real-life faculty in the picture, their credentials and publications (if they have any) are beside the point, for they are just “delivery people.”

Those ideas have now triumphed (Carnegie and Crane are victorious), and this means, Donoghue concludes, “that all fields deemed impractical, such as philosophy, art history, and literature, will henceforth face a constant danger of being deemed unnecessary.” And as a corollary “professors will come to be seen by everyone (not just those outside the academy) as unaffordable anomalies.”
In other news: in an effort to save the state a couple of bucks, Gov. Jindal has proposed cutting health care (never medicine, now) and higher education. One of the departments on the chopping block?


06 December 2007

John Wesley Powell I am Not, But Still...

Get this: if you're a boater-- I mean a real boater, not someone who hires raft guides-- it's next to impossible to get on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. To do it, you have to get a permit from the National Park Service- and the vast majority of permits go to the commercial outfitters, which charge thousands of bucks for the 15-day trip. The demand for the remaining "private boater" permits is so huge that the park service can charge applicants $25 just to have the chance to enter the lottery in hopes that they MIGHT get a permit that year.

I've never gotten a permit. Until yesterday. (That sound you heard was all my kayaking buddies scrambling for the cellphones to see if I might have space for one more. Of course I do. It's a full permit.)

It's a terrific opportunity, of course. A once-in-a-lifetime deal. And considering the academic work I'm doing on Powell's journals, it's right in line with my studies as well.

But here's the problem: I got the permit in the secondary lottery, which raffles off the slots that others have canceled on. I have to tell the park service by Dec. 10 if I want my launch date-- which entails dropping a deposit of $400. And the launch date is Jan. 14.

The first day of class for the spring semester at LSU.

I've committed to teach World Lit (1650-present) in the spring. (Not exciting to everyone, I know, but I'm pretty psyched about it. My syllabus rocks, if I do say so myself-- devised over a pious beer or two with my buddy Tom, who is teaching a section of the same course for the English department.) So, yes, I could beg someone (most likely Tom) to cover my class for the first two weeks-- after all the first week is just adding and dropping-- and MLK day accounts for one of the classes, so I wouldn't be missing much.

I could do this. Maybe. It would be kind of a rush and a stretch, but I could do it.

Except that the first couple of classes are crucial for setting the tone for the rest of the semester. And if I bail on the first two weeks, it's not a great way to get started. It's not exactly a display of commitment to my current line of work. My track record for making any kind of commitment at all over the past five years or so has not been so hot. I'd like to remedy that when I can.

Except that it's the GRAND CANYON. And just this once. Maybe. My department chair/committee chair (also a bit of an outdoor devotee) said he would understand...

I hate when "outdoor guy Richmond" decides to tangle with "academic guy Richmond." I like both of those guys and want them to get along. (And besides, Academic Richmond is kind of a wuss...)

So I have three days or so to figure this out and get a team together.

That's if I go.

If I don't, back into the lottery I go, to wait for another chance.

And wait.

And wait.

And wait.

20 April 2007

Steady Now

In June of 2005 I was in the Salt Lake City airport en route to a summer guiding job in Wyoming. Out of some odd impulse, I picked up The New Yorker. It was odd, in that I tend to stay away from The New Yorker. Whenever I have had a subscription, the issues pile up and keep coming until they form a paper testament to everything I will never accomplish in my life-- chief among them, keeping up with the damn New Yorker.

So I stay away from it. In general. Except for that time. That time I found a poem in it by Eamon Grennan. I liked the poem so much I tore out the little corner it ran on, folded it up into quadrants, and jammed it into the handy pocket in the back of the Moleskine notebook I use as journal and wallet.

I carried it around all summer, vaguely aware it was there. Then I found it again one morning in early September 2005, when I was exhausted and sad about what had happenen to my city and to my friends and family and neighbors.

I saw the words differently then. But I still thought it was a good poem. And reading it this morning, I still think it's a very good poem. So here it is.
Steady Now

Although things vanish, are what mark our vanishing,
we still hold on to them-ballast against the updraft
of oblivion-as I hold on to this umbrella in a world of rain,

of heavy wet greens and grays dissolving into a new
atmosphere, a sort of underwater dulled electric glow
off everything, the air itself drowning in it, breath

thickening, growing mold. Yesterday I felt the smell
of grass greeting me as across a great distance, trying
to tell me some good thing in an underglaze of memory,

some forgotten summer trying to speak its piece. It is
the way of things and it never stops, never calls a halt-
this knocking and dismantling, this uprooting, cutting out

and digging down, so tall oaks and honey locusts are
laid low and drop to earth like felled cattle, shaking
the ground we've taken a stand on as if it were a steady

establishment, a rock of ages to outface ruin itself, not
the provisional slippery dissolving dissolute thing it is-
which we have against all evidence set our hearts on.