Monday, June 30, 2008

Microwave science and the Big Easy

Last Sunday, my two staff members (my sister, K and employee/friend, A) loaded up the Expedition for a trip to New Orleans. The road trip would take about 16 hours each way, so they decided to start it off with a bang - by writing cute slogans about our clients on the back and sides of the truck to amuse passing motorists. We discovered that people who drive Prius' LOVE microwave science. Also, several truckers got a kick out of Maxwell's equation. Who knew?

Many hours later, we found ourselves having dinner in Newnan, GA. The waitresses all welcomed us with a resounding "Haaayyyyy!" each time we'd enter from our outdoor table to use the restroom. We stopped for the night in beautiful Greenville, AL, which boasted two empty drug stores, a WinDixie that didn't open until 10 a.m. on Mondays, the world's smallest WalMart and a white shack with a sign that said it was Bush's headquarters. Not surprising in the least. We frequently giggled at the names of the local Alabama sites... Shorter, Pine Apple (two words), as well as the "famous" Hank Williams shrine and, of course, roadkill armadillos. Sadly, the armadillos were the most exciting thing to see during that long stretch.

The second day on the road went quickly, and we were surprised to find ourselves amidst the devastation of Hurricane Katrina so far from New Orleans. The Mississippi coastline was littered with demolished warehouses, uninhabitable apartment complexes, still-tarped single family homes and what looked like grave yards of concrete slabs that used to support houses. I had heard of the destruction, realized we may see some of the aftermath, but never in a million years expected to see the level of devastation... especially three years after the hurricane had hit the area.

The destruction continued well into New Orleans, until we found ourselves close to the French Quarter, which had been spared from the storm's destruction, but was worse for the wear. A block from our hotel we observed pimps and prostitutes, looted storefronts, empty-eyed homeless and barely-standing low-cost housing. From the point where our hotel started (Bourbon/Canal/Iberville block), the area seemed to look more-or-less as I remembered it... dirty, colorful, smelly, loud and full of excitement. We dropped off our bags and headed into the Quarter, where I was dismayed to see teenage girls clustered outside of "gentlemen's" (ha!) clubs in broad daylight, barely clad, and even more disheartened to see some so clearly lost to this world. By the end of Bourbon Street I had thought the city was no longer worth a visit, but as we turned onto Royal Street, my heart began to patter with excitement at seeing my favorite artists' galleries still present, the smell of Cajun foods and the sights and sounds of one of the US's oldest and most authentic cities. Man, I love New Orleans.

We stopped by the Riverwalk for a hurricane and some fried onions and chatted with a local bartender who had lived all her life in New Orleans. When the hurricane hit, her family had invested 20 years of their 30-year mortgage into their home. They had flood insurance, thoughmost of her neighborhood did not as they were close to a levy (deemed by FEMA as safe, thus removing the requirement for homeowners insurers in the area to require flood coverage). The flood coverage paid out the last 10 years of her mortgage. Twenty years of investment, along with all personal valuables and belongings, were lost. And she felt like she was one of the lucky ones. They rebuilt, and stayed. Most of her neighborhood left, and she didn't think they'd ever be back. It made me stop for a moment, and thank my lucky stars for all I have.

The next day we woke early and scurried about getting ready for the symposium, board meetings and other "real" reasons we were there. By three we were free again for a few hours, and jumped aboard the St Charles trolley to the Garden District and Magazine. K and A were mesmerized by the overwhelming smells of jasmine and roses and the towering, century old crepe myrtles and twisted magnolias that hung over the streets. We enjoyed peeping into the gardens of the antebellum mansions and perused the LaFayette Cemetary #1 to check out the infamous above-ground vaults of the long-dead. On Magazine we found a Mexican dive and imbibed in a margarita and taco salad before heading back to get ready for an evening of riveting discussion at a board meeting for our microwave science group. The meeting was held at the Red Fish Grill, which was pretty good, but overly loud, slow and boasting obnoxious waiters who called you "sweetie" and "dear" while bustling about doing everything in the world to avoid actual service of the customers.

On Wednesday our conference started, and we enjoyed catching up with our favorite international scientists, technical sales folks and other greats in the field of electromagnetic energy. We developed a few new nicknames (our favorite pastime at these events) for some newly introduced characters (Cookie Monster, Dracula, the Mercenary, Milton), as well as some who had not yet been inducted into our nickname hall of fame (McGyver, Romanian Thong-Slinger, Dirty FrenchMan)... all while lamenting those that were missing this year from our list of favorites (WonkEye, YaccoBlech and BigHead).

Thursday brought another breathtaking day of discoveries in microwave energy applications, followed by an even more exciting private dinner cruise on the Mississippi River. I made the mistake of feeling sorry for K and A's lack of New Orleans experiences in the trip thus far, and let them off the hook from the event so that they could find their own trouble in the Quarter while I herded about two dozen scientists, researchers and their wives and children down the winding streets to the river. I laughed aloud at the thought of the blog entry I had hoped to write that night, devoted strictly to directing the group through five blocks. Herding cats, indeed. The group, however, were even more conversationally challenged than I could have imagined, and I was exhausted by the mental anguish I'd suffered during my four hours aboard the smoky, creaking boat and went straight to bed. Not to mention the stuff they tried to serve on board that they called a "Creole feast." I ate nothing but white rice and a roll. That good.

Friday was the last day of our event, and I had the girls packing before noon so that we could make an escape the minute the conference wrapped up. During our closing reception, I invited an acquaintance to join us for dinner, Dirty Frenchman overheard and invited himself, and then we decided to invite one more to make it an even number. We rushed to close the exhibit area, pack and get ready for our one night on the town. We wandered through the Quarter until our dinner reservations, which were set at 9:30 p.m. at Emerill LaGasse's NoLa restaurant. THAT was worth eating a week's worth of steamboat cruise crap to have. I had the shrimp and grits, and it was to DIE for.

Our company for the night was beyond entertaining. Our party was something one would use to begin a joke... "Three American girls went out with an Italian, a Canadian Frenchman and a guy from Omaha for dinner...". The Italian introduced us to the finer points of grappe (I could find no finer points, but was introduced none the less), and we enjoyed a stimulating conversation that covered everything taboo in normal gatherings - from religion to politics (I found this week that Europeans are enthralled with current US politics) to music to, well, we covered it all before being booted from the restaurant at midnight. We found ourselves wandering the streets of the Quarter the rest of the night, taking in some jazz and blues, and finally landed at our hotel's courtyard pool (where the Romanian thong-flinger made her debut). We were all sad when we finally had to call it quits at 5:30 a.m. to hit our beds for a few hours sleep before heading out the next morning on our respective return trips home. I can't remember the last time I've had so much fun - it's been at least a few years.

The next morning K, A and I loaded up the truck and headed out of the city. I was a bit worse for the wear that morning and drifted in and out of consciousness in back until we hit Alabama. The rest of our day was a lot of fun as we discussed and rediscussed our previous night, the new characters in our "play" and the sights, sounds and smells from their first trip to the Big Easy. In Atlanta we hit a major traffic jam, but we thoroughly enjoyed it as we blasted Neal Diamond's "Sweet Caroline" (much to the amusement of local Hotlantans), took pictures of a General Lee replica on I-85 and developed television plots based upon our new "characters" (e.g. The Microwave Mafia, Electromagnetic Survivor (6 microwave scientists stuck in a lab with no way out), and The Ultimate Warrior). We spent the night on the border of Georgia and South Carolina and found a real-live drivethru that the local teens actually hung out at. All in all, a good day of travel.

I wish I could say yesterday was as exciting, but we were done. We'd had all the fun we could possibly squeeze out of a scientific conference, Mad Libs and 20-Questions, and drove most of the remainder of the way in silence, trying to find a decent radio station since the CD player burned out in the truck. We were back home at 8 p.m. and K and A departed before the truck was even in Park. I was thrilled, however, to get back to my kids, both human and furry.

Next up... Japan. I'm excited, especially knowing now that some of my favorite characters from last week will be there (Romanian Thong-Slinger, Cookie Monster and more!).

On a side note, check out these awesome digs in Richmond for rent... what a bargain.

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