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Full disclosure: I am a New Orleanian. No matter where I live, or how long I live there, I will always call New Orleans home.  I know how to pronounce Tchoupitoulas, am still confused why bars don’t offer to-go cups and can make a roux with my eyes closed. 

morris01I go to Domilise’s for my po-boys and the Spotted Cat for my jazz.  When I was a teenager, I used to sit on the Mississippi riverbank, elephants and monkeys waking up at the Audubon Zoo a few feet behind me, watching the barges and driftwood compete for current.

When I was a little girl, we’d go to the French Quarter to eat souffléd potatoes and grits and grillades.  When we walked into a restaurant, my mom always asked the waiter for an extra tablecloth to wrap around me because air conditioning is its own element in New Orleans. 

My best friend and I would sneak out and take the streetcar down to Jackson Square when it was a full moon and have our fortunes read at midnight.  We paid for it with our babysitting money.

fortune

I never made a plan past what are we eating for dinner?  New Orleans doesn’t require a plan.  In fact, it’s probably best enjoyed without one – which is only a problem when a Hurricane is threatening to demolish the city.  And when the infrastructure  fails and the city marinates in its own filth, not having a plan is a catastrophe.  That is where we are today, 10 years later … picking up the pieces from that catastrophe. 

After Hurricane Katrina blew through the Gulf Coast, the levees burst and many thousands were left stranded, either literally or in limbo. 

The Superdome became a breeding ground for all things horrific, and it was valuable real estate. To give you some perspective, when the dome reached maximum occupancy, people were shuffled to the nearby Convention Center.  John Burnett, an NPR reporter was there, and gave this stark summary of the Government’s epic failure:

“They couldn’t send them to the Superdome, which was already overcrowded and squalid. Yet more and more people were emerging wet and bewildered from their flooded neighborhoods with nowhere to go. Officials later estimated that 25,000 people were huddled inside the vast convention center — the length of four city blocks — and on the sidewalk. Day after day they waited for buses, but no one came. The fiasco at the convention center came to epitomize the disorganized, inadequate response to the disaster by local, state and federal officials.”

The disaster Burnett described, playing out in a structure that only days prior had hosted Wheel of Fortune, is best understood through imagery.

Katrina was a trauma when it happened, and remains a lingering trauma today.

Walk into any bar on Frenchman Street now and you will hear the sultry, bluesy sounds of poets and showmen weaving the storm into their lyrics.

Like gumbo, Mardi Gras beads in the Oak trees, streetcars and potholes, Katrina has become a part of the fabric of the city.  It remains one of those divisive events that slices through a life, separating it into two categories: pre and post. 

It was a category 3 storm. The death toll was over 1800, making it the third deadliest Hurricane in history.  The third deadliest, yes … but it tops the list in cost: over $100 billion. These numbers do not take into account the many who had no choice but to flee the city, their lives forever altered.

Now, a decade later, the dislocated are hearing appeals to return, with promises of a new land.  Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently gave a speech in Houston and while he was thanking the Texas city for providing refuge for the displaced, he summed up a sentiment about the Big Easy that anyone whos spent time there can agree with:

“We don’t talk the way anybody else talks, we don’t dance the way anybody else dances. [Others] don’t eat the way we eat, they don’t hug the way we hug, and they don’t love the way we love. It’s just different. And it’s wonderful.”

Tens of thousands of New Orleanians escaped the storm. Most settled in Houston. Many have returned, but many others have relocated, resettled and are trying to move on with their lives.

Wayne Lewis is one of those people. He and his wife sought shelter in Austin, TX, Raleigh, NC and eventually landed in Lexington Ky, although he admits that he will always call New Orleans home.  Wayne is many things; a new father, a husband, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership Studies at the University of Kentucky, an education reformer, and a passionate musician – to name a few. 

We caught up with each other in a dimly lit bar in downtown Lexington.  Boisterous, serious and lit from within, Wayne immediately captured my attention.  Had I not known he was from New Orleans, I would’ve assumed as much, which is the best compliment I can think of. 

SAX2bw

Before we talked, he pulled out his saxophone and took a few requests from his captive audience. As the honey poured out from his golden horn, my feet instinctively started moving. Mayor Landrieu is right, we dance differently.  The sound that is created by a New Orleans jazz musician is raw, sweaty, alive and gets right on into your blood. In fact, it’s possible that the first note of When The Saints Go Marching In has an invisible thread tied to your big toe; making it impossible not to dance.

That was the scene in Willie’s Locally Known at 10:00am on a Tuesday morning in Kentucky: two New Orleanians lost in the music, talking about the lagniappe of our lives. 

Wayne is above all else, a man of faith.  When he looked back, he attributes his faith as the saving grace through it all.

“I remember the moment I realized we’d lost everything very clearly,” he said. “My wife and I had just gotten our first apartment in Raleigh. We went to the Walmart to shop and when we walked through the doors, we both looked at each other and, at the same time said … ‘we need everything.’”

I remember the moment I realized we’d lost everything very clearly,” he said. “My wife and I had just gotten our first apartment in Raleigh. We went to the Walmart to shop and when we walked through the doors, we both looked at each other and, at the same time said … ‘we need everything.’

Not some things … EVERY thing. 

“But you know what Lillie, we laughed about it,” he recalled.  “We laughed.  Not once throughout the whole thing did we feel hopeless.  It was just understood that God was going to take care of us.  And he did.”

He went on to tell me about how the storm changed his perspective about life in general. 

“When you lose everything and realize that you’re ok, that you’re still the man you were before, maybe even stronger … when you know that in your heart, then you can really see what living is all about.”

saxBWSo, what does living look like for Dr. Lewis these days? Well, for one thing, he plays his sax as often as he can, which admittedly, is not often enough. 

Currently, he plays in a band called The City. One of their songs, The Levee, composed by lead vocalist/guitarist Gene Woods and featuring a solo by Wayne, is a message of solidarity with those left behind in Katrina’s awful aftermath. The song is haunting in its contradiction and counterpoint: a traditional, upbeat N’awlins second line rhythm that defiantly marches the barely concealed pain and heartbreak of abandonment through the sodden streets of the Lower Ninth Ward, past a preacher shouting from atop the ruins: “Hold the line! Don’t you succumb! You gotta find the will. To carry on.”  Sad and honest, mysterious and revealing; it tells the tale of New Orleans after the levees broke. 

Like Wayne, like New Orleans, like many of us, the profound injustice and sadness is disguised behind a facade of determined joy.

The Levee is an appropriately sad song.  Katrina caused immeasurable sadness in the souls of many. She wreaked havoc on the bayous and flooded the streets with hate and anger. 

But in the end, The Levee is a song … because that’s what New Orleanians do. We deal with the heartbreak by making beats, beans and boudin.  We dance when we’re up, we dance when we’re down.  We let the music explain us and guide us.  It guides us to the food most of the time, where we are the happiest, eating lunch and talking about dinner.

What can you do to help New Orleans today?

Go there. Experience it for yourself.  Eat.  Dance.  Fall in love and spend your money on an experience that will change you forever.  Feel alive. Feel it all.  Let your sunglasses fog up when you walk outside and embrace it as the city’s way of crying for you. Cry on your own.  The river will take it.  In the words of Rebirth Brass Band, just “Do whacha wanna do …” and Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler.

If you need recommendations (which you don’t btw), Wayne Lewis is happy to give them to you.


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Is it “Christian” to turn away vulnerable children?

Guest opinion by Lyman Stone ~

Transy grad, Tax Foundation economist Lyman Stone

Transy grad, Tax Foundation economist Lyman Stone

“When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.” – Leviticus 19:33-34, ESV

“For if you truly amend your ways and your deeds, if you truly execute justice one with another, if you do not oppress the sojourner, the fatherless, or the widow, or shed innocent blood in this place, and if you do not go after other gods to your own harm, then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave of old to your fathers forever.” – Jeremiah 7:5-7

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.” – Matthew 18:1-6

* * *

Customs and Border Patrol officials estimate that up to 74,000 unaccompanied minors will be caught crossing the southern border of the United States this year, a dramatic rise from just over 15,000 in 2011. The largest part of this boom comes from migrants from Central American countries like Guatemala and Honduras. This surge of young migrants has provoked a public theater of outrage, with anti-immigration advocates protesting at refugee shelters and transfer points, yelling at busloads of children in scenes that, to the author’s Southern imagination, look hauntingly like Little Rock in 1957.

For self-styled moderates in the broader immigration debate, the treatment of child migrants is and should be a litmus test. The reason why is simple: none of the conventional arguments against immigration apply to children. With what any honest accounting must call a humanitarian crisis in the making, the question of child migrants is a barometer of the honesty of immigration debates, and, of great concern to this writer, the spiritual integrity of politically active Christians.

Before the question of Christian responsibility for child migrants can be judged, it may be useful to briefly outline why child migrants are such a narrowly philosophical question. There are essentially three main arguments that a reasonable person, without malice or racist intentions, could deploy to argue against increased immigration: competition for jobs, cultural assimilation, and public financial burdens. Whatever validity these arguments may or may not have for immigrants generally, they simply do not apply to child migrants.

1. Child migrants aren’t competitors for jobs, and certainly not for high-quality jobs.
2. Child migrants will probably learn English and assimilate to other American norms. American youth culture is globally popular and rapidly learned, and with it comes the English language, meaning so assimilation of child migrants should be swift.
3. The degree to which child migrants burden government services is almost entirely determined by how we choose to welcome them. If we put them in refugee camps and segregate them from normal economic life, we can count on expensive welfare dependency. But with adoption, education, and more normalized living conditions, we can reasonably expect child migrants to become socially and economically integrated and productive American adults.

The usual arguments against immigration, based largely on what may be practical concerns, simply don’t apply to child migrants, provided we offer a quick transition into normalized life for them through fast-track adoptions and community sponsorships. The United States has had a long, if sometimes problematic, history of mass adoptions during periods of high immigration, such as the “Orphan Trains” taking unwanted children from the East Coast to the western states from the 1850s to 1920s. Conservatives who routinely advocate adoptions as an alternative to abortion should feel at home advocating it as an alternative to deportation. This is especially true given that, for children from violent or unstable countries, deportation may be a death sentence.

For Christians (such as the author) whose faith defines their political positions on everything from the sanctity of human life to the importance of work, the question of child migrants should therefore be simple. We should receive these children in Christ’s name, knowing that what we do for the least of these, we do for Christ. We should beware, lest we deport angels in disguise. We should recall that our treatment of the foreigner and the fatherless is the first test of our faith.

Many Christian churches, charities, and individuals throughout the nation have responded faithfully to the current child migrant crisis, providing shelter for displaced children, working hard to find adoptive homes and families, and helping older children find safe and productive places to live until they reach adulthood. These efforts are a salutary expression of public Christian piety in a way that sign-waving protests against busloads of children are not.

And ultimately, the solution for child migrants will vary: fast-track adoptions in non-border states could be good options for many, while the normal foster care system may serve others better. Some may be good candidates for court-supervised legal emancipation, others may already have family in the United States with whom they could be reunited, while others may need some as-yet unidentified system to help them integrate into the American mainstream. But whatever the solution may be, faithful Christians committed to the sanctity of life should be at the forefront of advocacy for vulnerable children, not at the front of the picket line.

Lyman Stone is a graduate of Transylvania University, Jessamine County native, and recent immigrant to the Washington, DC metro area. He is also an economist at the Tax Foundation, a nonpartisan tax policy think tank. Opinions expressed here are Lyman’s only, and do not represent the Tax Foundation.

Mr. Stone’s opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of UnderMain.

Related link: FACT SHEET: Educational Services for Immigrant Children and Those Recently Arrived to the United States

Arts

Institute 193: Volume 1

193

Book Review by Daniel Brown –

Institute 193 is an important non-profit exhibition and performance space in Lexington, Kentucky. Founder Phillip March Jones saw an empty space in a less developed part of the city in 2009, and understood that the kind of gallery he had in mind could make a huge impact on Lexington’s burgeoning contemporary arts scene. He hired Chase Martin to be director (Martin has since moved to Chicago), but some of the best exhibitions, with excellent accompanying text, were recently made into a book, Institute193: Volume One. The book, over-scaled but not quite “coffee table” in dimension, is a superior look at the Institute’s history to date, and also a piece of the general philosophy of the gallery, which emphasizes documentation and enhances the gallery’s presence in the Lexington community. The book also allows non-Lexingtonians a wonderful look at the so-called New South’s visual artists.

Featuring the work of 18 artists, all of whom have exhibited at the space, several themes emerge and dominate both the exhibition history itself, and the underlying philosophies of founder and director. The philosophies mesh with what one reads in most contemporary art magazines, and text surrounding international art fairs, and art mainly shown in non-profits, as opposed to commercial galleries, which represent a completely different world from that of Institute 193. The Institute seems very keen on showing what used to be known as “outsider art”, which they dismiss as an irrelevant and self-limiting category, in favor of a more holistic, inclusive group of artists, some of whom once would have been marginalized as schizophrenic, unprofessional, outside the mainstream. While this goal is a noble one,the selection of artists occasionally slips into the celebration of victimhood, the art veering towards urban anthropology and sociology as well as the aesthetic. Another major strain that runs through these exhibitions is an emphasis on non-traditional materials that most of the artists use, particularly materials from daily life, from the throwaway to the forgotten. Much of contemporary art celebrates the use of such non-traditional materials and media, and Institute 193 represents an outstanding example of this strain in the art of today. Concurrently, I think that the use of such materials links these contemporary artists with the long tradition of Kentucky crafts, thus allowing visitors and viewers to these exhibitions an ability to see contemporary art in the context of much of Kentucky visual history.

As in much contemporary art most of the artists in the book are dealing with, and/or interpreting, individual identity in a period of rapid change, new technological tools, and a rather surprisingly, nearly non-existent sense of sexuality or of the erotic. There’s a heavy emphasis on the influence of comic books, photography, and, most intriguingly an aesthetic delight in what we might call the Neo-Baroque, as in the work of Charles Williams, Marvin Francis and the wildly gifted Robert Morgan. Morgan “who began his career as a scavenger” borrows the iconography of Hindu gods and goddesses to symbolize the young men who have died of AIDS, and when his symbols become metaphors, his mixed media sculptures are some of the strongest art around.

Pencil Holder
Pencil Holder

Charles Williams, Pencil Holder, n.d., Mixed media, 17x13x11 inches. Image courtesy of Souls Grown Deep Foundation and Institute 193.

Deep in the Heart of the Brain
Deep in the Heart of the Brain

Marvin Francis, Deep in the Heart of the Brain, 2009, Papier maché and acrylic paint, 17.5x10x7 inches.

Pangenia Youth
Pangenia Youth

Robert Morgan, Pangenia Youth, 2010, Mixed media, 42.5x16x14 inches.

Boy King of Rodinia
Boy King of Rodinia

Robert Morgan, Boy King of Rodinia, 2010, Mixed media, 42.5x17x14 inches.

Work by Mare Vaccaro, which are digital prints, manifest an artist who has whole body alopecia, is also among the strongest, not only in the book, but of contemporary art in general. Using herself as a model, she borrows materials from classic western art history, adding just dollops of makeup in what become boldly iconic, and nearly religious icons. Because of her condition, a quick look at the work might indicate that the model could be either male or female, making her work a brilliant part of the analysis of gender.

Mare Vaccaro, Secrets, 2010, Digital c-print, 20×20 inches.

Mare Vaccaro, Smoke, 2010, Digital c-print, 20×20 inches.

Mare Vaccaro, White Tie, 2010, Digital c-print, 20×20 inches.

Although the use of photography is common and almost pandemic, I found some of the photographic work the least effective, perhaps because of its ubiquity. If there is one critique to make in general, it would be the use of so much work by people of similar age, and thus of similar sensibility, that the range of work seems limited by its own philosophies, and by attempting to place the Institute itself within the context of cutting edge contemporary art. The introductory essay by Lilly Lampe may do more harm than good to the real vision of the curator/director of the institute. But, to quote Lampe’s last line, this book does prove that “Institute 193 proves that groundbreaking contemporary art can be created and sustained anywhere”.