The Carpet Bagger's Journal — moving from NYC to Mississippi

December 24, 2017

A Christmas Letter from Swamp Country

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Dear Occupant,

I write this Christmas letter to brag to you about the various accomplishments of this year in my family in the hope of producing envy and covering up the severe dysfunction that has long-plagued my existence.

First, allow me to tell you about my perfect Southern husband.  He works at a petrochemical plant in an area with flooding, so rest assured, they used his body as a sponge to soak up all the chemicals that might have otherwise overflowed from vats. Then, speaking of sponges, he cow-boy-ed up all that pain of his work week into a beer guzzle down at the local pub that is too seedy to feel safe to women around here. At seven a.m., drinking in a bar in Louisiana is legal, so after a graveyard shift, my husband could tie one on, I tell you what. The good news is that because of the heady chemicals on his work clothes, I can never tell if that is PBR I smell or PCB. When he gets home and feels amorous, he starts singing that old Charlie Rich song, “Behind Closed Doors,” and that’s my cue to put on that lacy thing he got me out of some catalog years ago and blink my false eyelashes at him.

At my job at the library, we are pleased to report the number of death threats we got for carrying books that “make you queer” was not as high as the local television news reported. In fact, two of the people who called from burner phones who at first sounded menacing, it turned out that they just wanted to find out if there was a book where they could make somebody else queer (asking for a friend).  If they had not blocked the numbers they were calling us from, we might have introduced these two lovelorn boys to each other. The library is still the leading place in the Parish for the homeless to sleep during daylight hours, and old folks ask me to help them find the tax forms. We have children’s book clubs with a couple of kids in every grade, and we even have some adults check out books, too — mostly Stephen King novels and books on how to repair boat motors. Actually, those two category of books get checked out together often enough I wonder if somebody jammed up their motor in the lake while fighting off some kind of lost monster manatee loose and bloodthirsty in our local swampwater.

Meanwhile, my pit bull, Cruiser, just graduated with honors from LSU in developmental psychology and has been accepted as a therapy dog at Johns Hopkins, where he will take on the role of pediatric psychiatry resident, assisting clinical therapists in their important work with troubled toddlers. We just bought him a lab coat and stethoscope (see enclosed photo) in anticipation of this.  We weren’t terribly surprised by his career starting off so well.  After all, it wasn’t that long ago that when we were training him to play dead, he fetched us a copy of The Times-Picayune turned to a full-page article on the state legislature, so we knew he was gifted. We couldn’t be more proud.

We are equally pleased to report that our Daschund Oscar was acquitted of all charges in that double homicide at a liquor store on Tchoupitoulas Street. The defense attorney was able to demonstrate to the jury that without opposable thumbs, Oscar was incapable of loading and firing the shotgun found at the scene of the crime covered in his paw prints. The surveillance collar he was forced to wear has now been replaced with a flea collar. We are so proud of little Oscar, who has now sought therapy for his anger issues and very well may have inspired our other dog’s career choice. We continue to fully support his Second Amendment rights, especially in times like these.

Meanwhile, we have prepared the shack here with traditional Christmas decorations.  We fished out a log from the tide water here and have sprayed it with glitter paint from the craft shop.  We have hung nautical ornaments made with old fishing flies and a glue gun. Tante Suzie brought us her annual Christmas beignets, and we are making Uncle Pierre’s Christmas shrimp gumbo as we listen to Michael Doucet sing us “Trinquez Trinquez.”

Christmas is such a great time!  We can forget who voted for who and why.  We can forget that Congress just raised taxes on people in the Bayou to line the pockets of the Koch brothers.  We can forget lots of other things that I have already forgotten — one involved a broken bottle and a cracked head — I don’t remember whose. I’m sure I wasn’t even there that night.

So Merry Christmas.  I hope you sent out a letter with as many tall tales as this one. Make people hate you on the day we remember our Savior’s birth.

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October 8, 2017

Lessons from God — American politics and regional experiences

Imagine for a moment that all Americans believed in some kind of divine, at least in Jefferson’s “nature and nature’s god” from the Declaration of Independence.  Imagine now that all of us here also really believed what we say unkindly to those in trouble: everything happens for a reason.  How might such a set of universally held beliefs affect our regional politics?

I believe that when disaster strikes, especially when that disaster defies explanation, the rational mind shuts down and looks for paranormal interventions, whether we mean it to or not.  As a Christian, I have no trouble believing in the divine, but I also know that I have an irrational side that does not square with my theology, that believes that when a tornado warning goes off and a funnel cloud appears in the distance, no mater how much I know about meteorology, that the rotating winds are there as God’s thumb to squash me like a bug. No amount of schooling, no amount of storm-tracking by satellite, can prevent me from holding this view. There is part of me that cannot reconcile my immediate anxiety to a clear-headed rational thought.

During the Middle Ages, people made no pretense of rational thought in such circumstances, however resigned they were to meeting their Maker. In Palermo, during a horrible outbreak of plague, people wrote of seeing the plague appear in the form of a large black dog dressed as a bishop, cutting people down with a broadsword.  In Sweden, the plague was sighted as  beautiful maiden who waved a deadly saffron-colored scarf into one window or another in a village, causing all inside to die. In the absence of any germ theory or immunology, people did what they could in their terror to understand the emotionally incomprehensible.

plague

During the Middle Ages, people frightened by the plague hallucinated phenomena that could allow them to understand how one person could die while another lived.

Let’s be honest. For all our Doppler 4000 and our antibiotics, we’re no better. We respond to disaster viscerally, and because individually we are largely unable to control events larger than ourselves, we look to God.  It has often enough been said that there are no atheists in foxholes. Allow me to submit to you that in America, whatever our pretense of intellectualism or agnostic yogic meditative practices, there are no atheists in America when a disaster hits us, and consequently, we form ideas about the theodicy — the “how could God let this happen here” — of such events. As some events are more likely to happen in the North than in the South, in the East than in the West, regional concepts of the divine, not the church divine, the scriptural divine, but the irrational-brain-invented notions of god and that idolatrously constructed god’s mysterious ways, that influence how we understand commonweal and political responsibilities in the face of catastrophe.

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In industrialized cities, wealthier people understood that letting the poor die of yellow fever without care endangered their own health.

In Philadelphia and in Chicago, it became clear that a system of government that could prevent and extinguish fires would be useful. It was clear that if Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicked a lantern in a shed, the whole town would suffer. In New York and Boston, it became clear that some form of sanitation and public health system would be better than not having one.  While the pilgrims believed in an Abrahamic covanential sort of responsibility toward one’s neighbor, particularly towards one’s pious and hard-working neighbor who fell ill, in New York, the motives for this were different.  There, it became clear to the very wealthy that sometimes even when one leaves town during an outbreak of yellow fever, one might catch it anyway from one’s butler or one’s laundress. Hence, having health clinics for the poor might secure the health of the wealthy and powerful. Either way, in major American cities, we are all our brothers’ keepers even today. We understand that an attack from unseen forces on one of us is likely a harbinger of trouble for us. We show up to liberate people from airport jail during a fascist Muslim ban.  We dig through the rubble of the World Trade Center. We make condoms free during the AIDS epidemic. We make sure every building has a fire escape on it, and if need be, a water tank as well, so that Mrs. O’Leary’s cow can’t harm anyone but itself.

This is not what disaster teaches the irrational mind of Americans outside of sardine-packed cities, particularly not in the South, where tornadoes and hurricanes are the most common mass tragedies.

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A storm hits one place and misses another — are we spared catastrophe by our innate virtue?

Take last night.  My husband and I hunkered down in New Orleans with our two dogs and more starchy food and alcohol in the house than we commonly have, cases of bottled water, and flashlights. We removed outdoor hanging plants from hooks and packed up lawn furniture. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was headed for us. Why? Because Hurricane Nate was supposed to land on us as a category two disaster. The mayor Mitch Landrieu wisely told us to stay indoors after seven pm.  He told people repeatedly not to go surfing on Lake Catherine — apparently a hurricane jackass dare. He called for a mandatory evacuation of three neighborhoods on the far-eastern side of town. We were battened-down.  We were prepared.

And then, at the last possible minute, the storm turned Eastward, away from us. We were spared from all disaster. I saw a rainbow in the sky. I knew we were fine.

Here is the insidious lesson that might be learned from the irrational-brain-god about this event, one that might serve to explain a lack of general compassion on the part of some for the problems of others, particularly those poorer than we are: We might learn that this god spared us because we are somehow better than our neighbors in his eyes.

We hear the occasional crack-pot preacher claiming Houston got flooded because it elected a lesbian mayor, that New Orleans has too much decadence in it, and that caused Katrina. I’m not really talking about those losers who say this. I think that the frightened human mind cannot quite help momentarily thinking that the disaster that narrowly missed us and hit another is a confirmation that we are just in the hands of a proactive and highly insightful deity who knew that the person whose house got clobbered by a tornado either had fantastic insurance and would get a much better house or was sinful in ways that we weren’t, and that’s why our house was spared. The lesson here is the opposite of the lesson learned in the industrial city.  In a rural community, Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicks a lantern in a shed, and the shed burns down, maybe her cows get loose, and her son gets scolded for sleeping in the shed drunk with a lantern that could catch the hay on fire. The person who got sick from yellow fever whose nearest neighbor lived five miles away probably didn’t spread the disease.  They won’t even know he’s dead until he’s half decomposed. The irrational brain divine tells us to believe in ourselves, in our own virtues, in such circumstances.  While this is not scriptural — Jesus says to us that rain falls on both the wicked and the just — it is an almost inescapable human reflex, one that is destructive to our Republic.

There are cynical politicians in Washington bought up by a few wealthy and greedy megalomaniacs who are willing to demand help for Katrina and withhold it for Sandy because it won’t directly benefit their districts and will cost their patrons more in taxes. They are what we call down here common trash scalawags, and I am not worried about them because I believe (despite recent political rallies) they are few in number. I worry, though, about people who refuse to learn either from the Bible, the Torah, the Koran, or rational and secular humanism that they ARE their brothers’ keeper, that if one of us burns down, we all do, that a flood in Biloxi, is a flood in New Orleans, is a flood in Houston, is a flood in Miami, is a flood in San Juan. How many of us are willing, relieved that we were spared, to share the burdens of others at a distance?

I am sitting writing this now in my un-flooded living room, my pit bull asleep on the love seat, one of the hands typing this intermittently reaching into a bag of starchy snack food that was supposed to sustain me in the event of disaster that never arrived. I feel comfortable. Two hundred miles away, there are sixty thousand people without power. That’s where the storm hit. Even as I send disaster relief, there is a small, barely conscious part of myself that wants to congratulate me for my moral hygiene and clever foresight that I was not the victim here. I need to smash that idol — right after I eat this bag of puffy starch sticks.

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