Leaving Buras, LA

We said goodbye to Emergency Communities today, to begin the journey back north. We finally have some pictures of our time there. Here is a picture of the (former) YMCA where we were staying and working.

This is the dining area. Open-air style. A few days ago I met a woman who used to work on this property, and it was the first time since the storm that she'd had the courage to come inside. We walked around the building, which no longer has any interior walls, and she pointed out where things used to be.

Many of the volunteers, including M and I, camped out in the building that used to be a school, behind the YMCA. The tents are set up on a stage, to the left is a basketball court, that some of the volunteers cleared and began using.

On the way out of town, we passed what used to be the school. There are not enough children back in the area to warrent reopening all the schools, so most of the kids are bused to the town of Port Sulpher. This is one of the few buildings that is actually standing and seems to have most of its walls and roof, but there is still a significant amount of damage. For now, the school board warns everyone to "keep out."

We met some truly amazing people while we were there; people who have been volunteering there for months upon months, residents from the area who come in and work at the community center; people from the area who stop in to offer whatever they have, even as they themselves are rebuilding.


Still in Buras, LA

We are still down here in Buras, LA...living in the open-air remains of the YMCA, cooking and cleaning at this community center. Emergency Communities is a group formed to address the longer-term needs of a community hit by a natural disaster. If you've ever been through one, I'm sure you know that the Red Cross is long gone, in fact, I'm not even sure if they ever made it down this far at all.

What they have set up here is a distribution center; a soup kitchen that serves three hot, home-cooked meals a day; free laundry; and free internet access, among other things, but the main idea is that this is a community center that belongs to the community of Buras and the surounding towns. The doors are never locked. Well, actually, there are no doors. Or walls. Anyone can hang out here at any time. Music is always on, or people are playing instruments. There are also a lot of long-term volunteers here - people that stay months and months.

Yesterday a woman I met at a community fair on Saturday came in to drop off some supplies. When she found out that I would be leaving this week, we started talking about the unmet needs of the community and what I could send down here, after I got home. As she was leaving, she called over her shoulder, "Tell everyone...we still have two to five years to go."


Buras, LA

Here's where we are:
Buras, LA


Houston, TX

We are currently in Houston, TX, visiting my Uncle Joe, Aunt Donna and Cousin Heather. Joe cooked a tofu feast for us last night and we watched a tv show called House. We also took a walk with them and their three dogs. I love visiting them because they have a very predictable routine (I think every time I've been here in the past five years, we've done the same thing - sans tofu), but it is not boring in the least. In fact, I would be a little disappointed if I came to visit and it was all different. Next time, however, we are going to check out their favorite Thai restaurant.

Heather is in her final year of law school and M was happy to have a chance to talk to her about her experiences. We wish we had more time to spend here, but we are off to Louisiana to do some volunteer work, the details of which are a bit vague right now. We are not entirely sure if we will have internet access or cell phone reception, so don't panic if you don't hear from us. Our first destination is Buras, LA, and then we might be heading north to St. Bernard Parish. My guess is the work will be messy, but we have our tetanus shots updated, so for the moms out there, don't worry. We still plan to be back in Pittsburgh by early October.


College Station, TX

Here We Go...

We got a call from my cousin Eric, who goes to school at Texas A & M, has HDTV, and stadium seating in his living room. We decided to stop by for the Steelers Monday night football. Sadly, we were defeated in a hard-hitting game, but we still had a blast with Eric.


Austin, TX

Well, we are still here in Austin, TX. The temperatures are quite warm, but luckily, Barton Springs is right across the street from the entrance of the music festival. Unluckily, I got so hot yesterday that I ran straight into the Spring with my clothes on. And my cell phone in my pocket.

We planned to turn our phones off in a couple of weeks anyway, so I'm not going to have it fixed. Call me on M's phone if you need to.


Direct from the Fest

Yes, technology is possible. We have entered the gates and are about to watch Ted Leo. Not before stopping by the air-conditioned tent of a Fortune 500 company to use their free internet.


Austin, TX

We've arrived a couple of days early to prepare for ACL. Mike and Kurt and Rocco are here...guaranteed good time.


Fredericksburg, TX

We stayed at the Lady Bird Johnson Municipal Park campground, which was remarkably calm, considering it was next to an airstrip. Well, it was a very small airstrip. I flew my Reddy Sleddy pocket kite for a little while before we broke down our camp.


Carlsbad Caverns National Park

I don't like caves. I don't like being underground, the dark, the smell of bat guano, or the sound of dripping water. I would much rather be on top of rocks than underneath them.

M loves caves. He loves stalagmites and stalactites and other formations. He likes the dark, learning about geology, and little critters that live underground.

I think one of the reasons our marriage works is that I will go into a cave because I know he wants to see it, and M will hold my hand so that I will be less scared.

That being said, Carlsbad Caverns was pretty cool. The cave tour is self-guided. We walked down through the natural entrance (which is where all the bats come flying out of at dusk), and continued down a steep and slippery path - the equivalent of 80 stories, past all kinds of formations. It's not a very far walk, but it takes a long time and is not for those with weak knees.

Carlsbad Caverns was one of the earlier established national parks and, consequently, was developed during a time when people had a different understanding of conservation of resources. There is an elevator to the "Big Room" - which is basically the bottom of that 80 story trail, as well as restrooms and a cafeteria. That type of development would not occur today, quite the opposite in fact. Instead of a focus on public access, the approach is security and access for researchers only. When we asked a ranger about the nearby, recently discovered Lechuguilla cave system, she said, "I could tell you where it is, but then I'd have to kill you." Actually, it's not that secret...the cave location has been known for a long time, but nobody knew how big it was until a few years ago.


Five Years Later

Everybody remembers where they were five years ago. These days, m and I are not always sure what day it is, especially when we are camping, but we remembered right away when we saw the flags at half mast.

It was rather jarring to realize that the country has basically been at war for half a decade...longer than we have been married...most of my adult life. The "elevated terror risk" has become the default. Questioning the government has become unpatriotic. I am guilty, as many Americans are, of spending remarkably little time thinking about the financial and human cost, and how my action or inaction may be impacting the situation.


Tucson Relatives

When M and I were living in Phoenix, we got to know the relatives that are the descendants of my grandfather's brother, who live in Tucson. We made a stop here on Saturday for a cookout and to catch up with them before we head back east. Their hospitality is always amazing and we are so thankful for it. Ed made fantastic grilled portabella mushrooms and we showed some of our trip pictures. We also got to see some photos of Ed and Mitch at a time when Ed's hair was as long as M's is now. Clyde and Bonnie shared some stories about their own cross country adventure that they did as newlyweds. Since Ed and Mitch had a full house with their grandchildren staying with them, we went over to Christel's place to sleep.


Review: Omnivore's dilemma by Michael Pollan

On a recommendation from Jack, m and I just finished reading the Omnivore's dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals. Michael Pollan has an easy and entertaining style of prose that makes it a pleasure to get through some rather difficult material. This book traces the origins of the ingredients in four meals, from field to consumption. All too often, books on food can be judgmental, with an all-or-none attitude. Pollan's goal, however, seems simply to want to convince his readers to think about what we eat. Reconnect with the food chain.

M and I have made an attempt to be more thoughtful about our diet, shifting to a vegan approach this year. However, I am beginning to think that our quest for fresh veggies and honey-free bread may be misguided. In every grocery store around the country (and we have visited 15 states to date), most domestically-grown produce came from California. This should be disconcerting in places that are thousands of miles from California. As vegans, we have also become label-readers...checking to make sure products don't contain hidden animal ingredients, like whey or gelatin. One thing we have noticed is that virtually every processed food in the grocery store contains HFCS - or high fructose corn syrup. Yes, it's vegan...but does that make it healthy? Ecologically responsible? Pollan examines this issue, and raises some interesting points along the way.

This is not a PETA book, although it does bring up animal cruelty. Pollan does not preach about a diet that will save Americans from our chronic battle with obesity, although it does point out some contributors to the problem.

I think the most compelling message in the book comes from the chapter entitled, "The Market: Greetings from the Non-Barcode People." Joel Salatin, of Polyface Farms, puts it well when he asks, "Don't you find it odd that people will put more work into choosing their mechanic or house contractor than they will into choosing the person who grows their food?"

Do you know who picked your lettuce? Slaughtered your beef? Gathered your eggs? Perhaps this is the disconnect in our diets. Any backyard gardener knows that all food is not created equal...soil and weather conditions can effect the taste, and likely the nutrition, of the tomatoes we grow for fun. Why should we think it's any different for the commercial farmer?

After reading the Omnivore's dilemma, I am left with lots of questions, but I strongly recommend this book to anyone in the U.S. who purchases the food they eat.

Hall of Flame

As mentioned before, we used to live down the street from the Hall of Flame Firefighting Museum. As much as we respect firefighters, the sign to the museum always made us giggle a little. We tried to convince nearly every out-of-town guest we had to visit the museum with us, but all declined. Well, we figured this was our last chance to go, and we didn't think it would take that long to get through.

Warning...this museum is much, much larger than you would think possible. It is more of a collector's warehouse, as they have literally hundreds of restored fire engines. After paying the $6 admission, we were handed a binder filled with descriptions for each of the exhibits. In addition to the fire trucks, the museum also has a collection of the insurance plates that people used to attach to the sides of their houses so that the fire company would know who had paid for the service. Basically, if you didn't pay, they would let your place burn down, unless another structure (belonging to a paying member) was threatened. The museum also has a collection of firefighter patches, and we found a bunch that were from Pennsylvania.

Of particular interest to Arizonans is an exhibit on fighting wildfires, and there is also a fire safety section for children. One of the coolest things they have is the old dispatcher equipment with a map of Phoenix that shows the location of firehouses. They have an actual scanner playing real-time calls which is kind of interesting to listen to.

If you are in the area, definitely check out this museum, located on East Van Buren Street near Papago Park.

Here We Go

Harold's is adding on a new covered porch around the side of the bar, so that even more of the Western PA diaspora may gather here during football season. The bathroom renovation is completely finished, and Dex the DJ was set up in a new area. Other than that...same menu, same staff, same people there. We were so excited to be able to see Dave and Terry again, who we shared a table with last year. Unfortunately, the first game of the season was the only game we will be able to watch from Harold's.


Return to Phoenix

We have officially completed something of a circle around the country. Having started out from Phoenix, AZ on July 19, we are now back where we started. Phoenix is still Phoenix. We are repacking our car to accommodate some things we left here in July, visiting with a few friends, eating at our favorite restaurants, and experiencing the strange feeling of, as m put it, "being tourists in a place you used to live." We plan to visit Taliesin West, the Hall of Flame, and the capital building. Our visit has coincided with the first Steelers game of the season, so naturally, we will be heading up to Cave Creek to watch the game at Harold's.

Last night we had the pleasure of dining with Steve, who plays the clarinet in the Phoenix Symphony. We went to Fate, recently remodeled and with a slightly revamped menu. There aren't a lot of restaurants that I would travel several thousand miles to eat in, but this is one of them. We were sad to see the Fate Plate is no longer on the appetizer menu, but I highly recommend the "market green" of the day, especially if it is gai lan. I ate the House Dynamite, which was hotter than I remembered, but still delicious. For once, I did not walk out of there with leftovers, so it must have been good. If you are afraid to try tofu, or don't like it because of its bland taste, I implore you to give it another chance at Fate. The tofu is fried, but comes out without the oily taste that I've experienced at a lot of other restaurants. Not that I'm in the market, but I think the ambiance of this restaurant would lend itself nicely to a first or second date...if you ran out of things to talk about, you could just watch Johnny work his magic over the flames as he cooks.

We were also lucky to connect with our friend Jared, a fellow Yinzer and Steelers fan. He has been gracious enough to let us stay with him and his roommate in the house they recently bought in South Phoenix. His house is awesome and has a really big yard, in which Jared is engaged in some interesting projects. Like many southwest yards, it first appears to be nothing but dirt, but instead of covering it over with grass that is not supposed to grow here, Jared is watering the dirt to make adobe bricks, with the intention of building a pizza oven.

Stay tuned for more Phoenician adventures.


San Diego, CA

When my sister told me she was moving to San Diego last winter, I was thrilled - after all it's right down the road from Phoenix, at least by Arizona standards, and it's one of the most beautiful cities in the country. Danna and I have spent a good portion of our lives living and/or working together, and it was a big adjustment for me to be out in Phoenix without her. It was funny to hear Mark and Adam trade stories about us, because we have a lot of personality traits in common that I never realized before.

We arrived on Saturday after spending a ridiculus three hours in traffic on the I5. Bumper to bumper Labor Day weekend traffic that we were not expecting, but should have. I think it's good for us to periodically get stuck in traffic, though, because then it reminds us how much we dislike commuting. So as beautiful as a place might be - we're not moving there if it means spending half your life on the freeway.

First order of business was visiting our favorite San Diego vegan restaurant, Kung Food, which is set up sort of cafeteria style - you pay by the pound. Most of the time we avoid 'imitation' foods - like vegan cheese or "meats" - but Kung Food seems to do it pretty well. I had a lasagna, cucumber salad, and pumpkin stew over quinoa. Adam got chicken pot pie. Danna ate "holy macaroni" - a fantastic hot pesto dish. Mark ate herbed mashed potatoes and gravy, three bean salad and greens. We all feasted on soy ice cream after dinner - they have soft serve here that is so creamy and rich it is hard to believe it is dairy-free. If you are curious about vegan food, this is a good place to come, because they will let you sample everything.

After dinner, we hit the Turf Club for some drinks. This is an interesting place because for $6.75 you can get a steak and cook it yourself. They have a communal grill in the middle of the restaurant where the patrons take up the raw meat that the servers bring out and cook it to their liking. Not vegan, but still very cool. The ambiance in the bar was great, and it was busy but not too crowded. Beer was reasonably priced.

On Monday, we went over to Balboa Park and wandered through the art galleries and gardens. We have discovered that a select number of museums are free to the public every Tuesday, so we are going back today to see the Science Center and Model Railroad museum. The best part of Balboa Park is that you can park and walk around there for free, and the roses always seem to be in bloom. Danna and Adam live in Golden Hill - which I think is a very romantic name for a neighborhood - and it is just minutes away from the park.

Now, if you know Danna and Adam, you know Sidney, their Bull Terrier, aka the "Bully". We went to the dog beach on Coronado Island on Sunday and that was smart, because this beach was not as crowded as the other ones and we found parking right away. Sidney played in the water, sniffed other dogs and got sniffed and dug a giant hole in the sand. Mark and I laid in the sun and dipped our toes into the cool Pacific waters. Later, we noticed that Sidney's tail wasn't wagging as furiously as it usually is - in fact, it looked downright limp. Apparently this "tail exhaustion" can happen to dogs sometime, so she will recover. Sidney is a bold dog and she likes all kind of food. This picture is NOT of her and Adam kissing, but in fact, Sidney grabbing a carrot out of his mouth!

Aunt Jan and Her Clan (Santa Ana, CA)

We were remiss in not taking a picture of Aunt Jan to post, but we would not miss sharing the adventures we had with her last week. First of all, she got a recommendation from her friend about the 100% vegan Native Foods so we went there for dinner on Thursday. The food was pretty good and it was in a yurt, which of course thrilled me. Aunt Jan is also awesome about accommodating our vegan diet and we spent several really pleasant mornings having coffee and toast and catching up.

We spent most of Thursday and Friday relaxing at her house, it was great to hang out in the pool and jacuzzi, although the sun drove us inside in the later afternoon (guess these Phoenicians spent a little too much time in the Pacific Northwest and lost our tolerance to the burning desert sun).

On Friday, cousins Steve and Chris, Louise, Caetie and Claire came over for dinner. Looks like Caetie might be interested in veganism - she ate a whole carrot without even cutting it up! We ordered Chinese takeout, and Claire got busy on an art project while we were waiting for our food. Claire even tried a piece of tofu!Since it will probably be a while before we get back out to the OC, we felt compelled to go out with Steve and Chris one last time and ended up at the Fling, a bar with...let's see...some character. And some characters. It was a great deal of fun, but by two, I was ready for bed, so we said goodbye.

One thing that was great about living in Phoenix was having this branch of the family within driving distance and we will miss seeing them at holidays. Thanks for having us, Aunt Jan!


The Trade Off

M and I have been exploring the concept of simple living for a while now, and by that I mean the idea of finding smaller, low-cost housing with sustainable energy and water sources; getting away from the daily grind of commuting and working for someone else; eating more simple foods; spending more time outdoors. In short, all the things we felt that our time in Phoenix prevented us from doing.

I have realized, as we move around the country, that there is a trade-off...we may give up the frequent access to restaurants and museums that comes from living in an urban area in order to live someplace more rural and affordable. If we decide to 'settle down' in a yurt or a converted school bus, instead of a 2,000 square foot house, I may not be able keep all the books around that I want. Mark may need to cut back his record collection. Some things are really easy to give up...like television and meat. Other things are more difficult to see living without, like a washing machine or full-size oven. The grass is always at least a little bit greener on the other side, and when I see people who have nice houses or things I do feel a pang of jealousy sometimes. There are places that I would love to settle down in, like San Diego, but knowing how expensive it is here keeps it from entering my mind as a realistic possibility.

What I know is that I want to live a life as free from debt as possible, mainly because I don't ever want to feel trapped at my job. I know from experience that even non-profit work can be morally compromising at times. If living in a small, paid-for space might buy me the opportunity to speak up without fear of losing my job, I would gladly do it. In all honesty, I doubt that I would lose my job - but fear is what keeps us from taking risks, and I am seeking freedom from that fear.


Updates on California

We spent a couple of days driving from Sacramento to Santa Ana, where we stayed with my Aunt Jan. Now we have moved further south to San Diego where we are visiting my sister and her boyfriend. Here are some highlights of the trip down here.

I didn't have high hopes for Berkley, and we probably would've skipped it, if not for my friend Michele currently going to graduate school there. Michele and I worked together as Literacy Specialists at the Teach For America Institute this past summer, and she was also a teacher in Phoenix. We were able to meet up for lunch, and Michele led us to this Japanese vegan restaurant, where we extravagently dined on a variety of noodle bowls and sushi rolls, finishing up with chocolate cake and fried bananas. It was outstanding. We didn't linger in Berkley, as we were eager to get out of the expensive and urban San Francisco area before nightfall so we could camp someplace cheap. I also didn't get a chance to see the Alice Waters inspired Edible Schoolyard, which was sort of my equivalent of Mark's driving through a tree dream. I wasn't too disappointed however, because now that Jamie and Trisha live out here, I'm sure we'll be back through the area.

We really didn't give this city the attention it deserves, but we did spend some time in the nature preserve that sits just north of the city on the coast, as well as stopping at vista that overlooks the Golden Gate Bridge. When we left Sacramento that morning, it had been about 90 degrees with no clouds in sight, but of course, as we drove out towards the coast and over the mountains we descended into some thick cloud cover. It was actually pretty sunny when we took this picture, but the wind was incredibly strong, and I learned, definitively, that my Denali fleece jacket is NOT windproof.

HIGHWAY 101 and 1
Despite warnings, we exited S.F. about 4:30 pm and hit absolutely no traffic on the way out...guess not too many people commute via the Pacific Coastal Highway. We spent the next two days traveling slowly down the coast, pausing frequently to get out of the car and take in the scenery. At night we camped in state parks near the beach, listening to the waves and feel the heavy coastal fog roll in. We spent one night just south of Santa Cruz and one night in Pismo. The last leg of the trip took us away from the coast and through downtown LA, which was the fastest, although if you know LA traffic, not all that fast, way to my Aunt Jan's house.


Santa Ana, CA

We have made it to So-Cal, and are visiting k's Aunt Jan, who is always a delight to visit. Tonight we will get to see some more of k's cousins (and yes, to those who have been wondering, k does have an extremely large and close extended family).

More posts to follow regarding where we have been over the past week and our upcoming plans.