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

January 3, 2018

What Does it Mean to be Southern in 2018?

Some aspects of Southern life are nearly universal and date back to descriptions over a century old. Mark Twain briefly joined an ad hoc Confederate militia hunting for Yankees they never found, but in his description of their several-day adventure, after which Twain quit the militia, he describes the welcome and the breakfast the several members of the self-formed militia met at a farm house — a breakfast with eggs, fresh biscuits, grits, and two kinds of pig meat, butter and jam.  Big breakfasts are still a quintessential Southern experience today, and a century from now, Southerners will likely still eat big breakfasts. Southern life was and remains more about who you know than what you know in many areas of life, unlike life in New York, where personal connections open doors, but only competitive competency and some measure of luck keeps one in a job. Laws are more like rules of thumb down here, with privilege playing an unjust role in many individual circumstances, not just in matters related to race and class, but also whether your uncle Bill is still a county deputy. While that politic of relationship may change over time, I don’t expect to see it disappear during my lifetime. Other aspects of Southern life that seem perennial include a deep love for hound dogs, women who pay a great deal of attention to grooming, more than in other regions of the country, and a large gap between publicly-declared moral codes and private behavior — Southerners continue on the whole to sin on Saturday night at the honky-tonk and repent on Sunday morning in the church pew. That cognitive dissonance doesn’t seem headed out of town any time soon, though a girl can hope. The South has always worked hard but values leisure time, cherishing lazy afternoons. And I show myself as a Yankee every time I ask for “unsweet” iced tea — because iced tea without sweetener is just a Southern heresy. None of that is going away in the near future. These cultural phenomena are not universal.  Not every woman grooms for three hours before a date.  Not everyone loves a good hunting dog down here. But they are norms — and the South tends to change slowly when it changes at all.

alabama-trump-supporters

White Southerners two years ago — how many feel this enthusiasm today?

Nobody in the land of political punditry was terribly surprised that formerly Confederate states voted for Donald Trump in the last election.  He was, after all, employing Goldwater’s “Southern Strategy” of race-baiting and xenophobia — and there are enough registered voters in the South who see brown people foreign and domestic as the reason things aren’t working out for them.  They believe their local jobs have gone to immigrants, rather than have been relocated overseas to countries where human rights are not respected.  They don’t distinguish clearly between the Islam of Malala Yousafzai, who got shot in the face by the Taliban, and the Islam of the member of the Taliban who shot her in the face, and rather than assuming that Malala’s Islam is the predominant view of the religion on matters personal and political, they assume, with a great deal of help from a fear-mongering television network, that it is the Taliban’s view that predominates (it does not). The Trump campaign message got rid of the dog-whistle in dog-whistle racism, as nothing could be clearer than declaring Mexican immigrants rapists with “some, I assume, are good people” tacked on at the end — translation: I know Mexicans are rapists, but I can only assume that this is not universal because I only see Mexicans as rapists. His calling women who opposed him “nasty” or  talking pejoratively about “blood coming out of her whatever” — that plays on old-school Southern sexism, applied by those who practice it in either smiling and condescending false chivalry toward “ladies,” and applied aggressively and menacingly toward women who have opinions that differ from their own — like the man from Alabama who called me a “cunt” recently for believing Roy Moore’s accusers.  Most men in the South seem to respect women, though they may not understand them all that well. But for a certain segment of the population of Southern states, the sexism and racism of the Trump campaign wasn’t a bug — it was a feature.  For some Southerners, some white Southerners, Trump’s call to make America great again was a call back to a social system that discounted the majority of the human race as child-like or inherently criminal. Not all Southerners ascribed to this vision of a great America, but enough did.

 

Neither was it a surprise to see a ban on transgender bathroom access emanating in the South. The South likes ladies a lot, but not ladies who used to be gentlemen. Regional fear-mongering made some fear rapists would use this as an excuse (despite a significant number of people reluctant to believe women who come forward to report rape as it is actually likely to happen. That such ideas would particularly take hold in small Southern towns is not surprising. The South was behaving predictably, showing a preference of traditional notions of gender and gender roles over any acknowledgment of changes actually taking place in their own communities. As Hannah Rosin showed in her book The End of Men, where big changes actually take place in what women do and what men do in the South at about the same rate as they do in the North, in the South, the rhetoric about gender remains largely unchanged in many communities — even if the majority of women in a Southern town work outside the home, the rhetoric about women’s roles sound like a reflection of expectations not lived for the last 50 years.

But then, as the nation polarized during and after the 2016 election, and intellectuals read Hillbilly Elegy in an attempt to understand what hit them, something shifted. Almost exactly a year ago, women all over the country, including in the South, marched in pink hats to reject the rhetoric of Trump and his political agenda for women, not just for women. When Trump signed an (unconstitutional) Muslim immigration ban, thousands of people spontaneously ran to the airport to protest, not just in places where one might expect leftist radicals, like San Francisco and New York, but at Atlanta and Kansas City airports as well. Was it Southern to reject the idea that Mexicans were rapists and Muslims? What had happened to the people who had overwhelmingly voted in Georgia, Alabama, and Missouri for the Trump agenda?

tiki torch nazi

How many Southerners felt these men spoke for them?

Then, in Virginia, after a group of out-of-town Nazis arrived in Charlottesville to terrorize (and kill one of) their political opponents with the explicit approval of Donald Trump, who called them “very fine people,” it was as if a switch flipped. In that same Virginia, which had voted for Trump in 2016, the state flipped like a cosmic morality lesson.  Not only did they take the governor’s house, the lieutenant governor’s house, and the attorney general’s job, they (pending a court battle) seem to have taken the Virginia House of Delegates Republican majority away.  But it wasn’t just that the tide turned against Republicans. A man whose girlfriend had gotten shot ran against a pro-NRA candidate and won. A transgender candidate won against a man trying to ban her from certain bathrooms and won — not while talking about gender, while talking about traffic problems in the community. And multiple candidates of color won against overtly racist candidates. It was as if Virginia was as good as its slogan: it really was for lovers, not haters chanting “Jews will not replace us.”

 

And then there was Roy Moore, bless his heart.  He wore a cowboy hat inspired by Toy Story, waved a gun around at his rally, excused his predatory sexual behavior with teenagers by saying he always got a girl’s momma’s permission to date a high schooler before he did in his thirties, who got compared to Jesus (!) by pastors who saw him as a persecuted victim when (Republican) now-adult women came forward despite death threats (!) to talk about his sex crimes against them, and rode a horse he didn’t know how to ride to go vote for himself on election day.  He got beat by a guy who prosecuted the Birmingham Church KKK terrorist bombers The first Democrat to serve in the United States Senate to serve in decades just got sworn in a couple of hours ago.  Alabama’s politics have been ugly for quite some time, rife with corruption and race-baiting, much uglier than the good nature of most of the people of the state, but now, they have elected a man who is a pillar of the community and who has just hired one of the few African-American chiefs of staff on Capitol Hill.

take it downWhat happened to the South? My own wonderful town, New Orleans, took down the Confederate monuments. They did this despite death threats to construction crews assigned to the work and menacing demonstrations by white supremacists from out of town — though not so far out of town as the Charlottesville protesters. KKK poster boy David Duke lives fifteen minutes away from what used to be called Lee Circle.  And New Orleans elected its first woman mayor.  Atlanta elected a black woman mayor. And when climate-denying crazy bag-lady-with-a-nice-blonde-blowout Ann Coulter asked whether having a lesbian mayor caused Hurricane Harvey to hit Houston, Texas resoundingly rejected her remarks. Yes, I’m talking about Texas, a place as Republican as a Mercury Astronaut drinking Tang astride an electric bull while Ted Nugent plays guitar!

Something happened in the South last year.  What exactly was it?

I have a theory. As a carpetbagger, I have had an outsider’s point of view as I reside below the Mason-Dixon line, and consequently, I believe I witnessed a cultural realization, however incident-specific and/or temporary it may be. As I observed earlier, the South talks a serious game of rigid cultural morality, but they don’t live out that morality as preached. In his book Everybody Lies Seth Sephens-Davidowitz confirms, for instance, that while Southerners are much more likely to say they don’t like homosexuality and don’t believe they know people who are homosexual, the South watches as much gay porn as the North does. While Southern pulpits speak passionately against heterosexual promiscuity, and pews are usually filled with people to shout “Amen,” the five states with the highest rates of STDs are all Southern. It’s as if Southerners like the abstract idea of an all-hetero-virgin-before-wedding-night community, but in life, they are not prepared to live out the moral standards they claim to espouse for themselves and want to impose upon everyone in America. Could it be that this gap between actually living out the imagined cultural standard in sexual matters and the standard itself exists in other parts of Southern thinking about social norms?

My theory is this: A lot of Southerners liked  the rhetoric of Donald Trump until somebody tried to live it out. Getting rid of Mexicans (remember — they’re rapists) might sound good until you see the picture of a child crying while his mother gets handcuffed by ICE. The idea of embracing something called “white pride” sounds appealing until you see those terrorists in khakis and Tiki torches attacking non-violent protesters in Virginia. Swaggering around calling women nasty sounds great until you realize the people calling others nasty are nastier than the accused women, and maybe you elected some. Banning transgendered people from bathrooms sounds like common sense until you meet an inoffensive customer at the big box store who isn’t allowed to use the restroom, and a mannish-looking biological woman gets arrested for using the ladies’ room, and all of a sudden what seemed like common sense seems unneighborly and unnecessary. We are more than fifty years since John Lewis crossed the bridge in Selma. A lot of Southern white people have forgotten what lived-out Southern bigotry looks like in person, and it isn’t great , it isn’t American, and seen up close, it won’t make America great again. Having seen it and confronting its real implications, many Southerners are quietly and privately revising their commitment to Trump’s stated values.

There are counterarguments to what I am saying.  The voters for Roy Moore were overwhelmingly white, and the voters for his opponent, newly-seated Senator Doug Jones were disproportionately black. Trump’s base has not eroded so much that he does command respect from about a third of Americans polled, and a lot of those people live in the South.  But a lot of people who weren’t involved, weren’t paying attention, shrugged their shoulders, talking about not trusting politicians are now paying attention, asking questions, getting organized, and going out to vote.

If making America great again means splitting up families, shaming peaceful members of the community who expose the truth of gender and sex in the South, insulting women who work and express opinions, and revering as contemporary role models people who fought to keep slavery, increasingly, Southerners are doing what Huckleberry Finn did when confronting his conscience about the runaway slave Jim. A month ago, when Steve Bannon said, “there’s a special place in hell for Republicans who don’t support Roy Moore,” Kyle Whitmire, an Alabaman journalist whose columns are picked up by multiple newspapers in the state, tweeted the famous words from Mark Twain’s great American novel out of the mouth of Huckleberry Finn in response to Bannon: “All right then.  I’ll go to Hell.”

This quotation from the novel about the moral growth of its unlikely hero suits the South in this time as perhaps never before. The South seems to be saying to itself “all right then.” Transgender people are against God’s law, and normalizing their lives is sinful? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell.  Gay couples want a wedding cake for a marriage or a respectful mortuary for a funeral, and gay marriage is unscriptural? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell. Women ought to know their place and not try to run things — after all, the Bible says, “Thou shalt not suffer a woman to teach”? All right then.  I’ll go to Hell. Treating undocumented immigrants is unpatriotic, and breaking up their families is legal? All right then. I’ll go to Hell.

The South as a whole may NOT have questioned the overarching validity of abstract stated goals of the campaign of Donald Trump, but one person by one, Southerners are walking away from the MAGA rally. Racism still exists in the South.  Sexism and homophobia still exist in the South.   An abiding belief that poor people are lazy still exists here, too. But Southerners are just not mean enough as a group to really get behind the lived-out oppressions this administration intends to enact if left unchecked. Perhaps more Southerners who voted for Trump heard “drain  the swamp” and thought the Donald had correctly diagnosed a problem, and he had conveniently blamed people that most Southern whites consider “other” for all of it. But when it comes to solutions, this administration offers few of them that Southerners seem prepared to abide.

All right then.

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December 24, 2017

A Christmas Letter from Swamp Country

christmas_pitbull_puppy_card-r61b6de79367b48f58a0d294ba49b9a5c_xvuat_8byvr_324

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.

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.

yellow fever

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.

storm

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.

June 13, 2017

Markup: Why We Need to Call our Senators Every Day This Week and Next

Danesfield crest

This is the crest of arms of my old school when I was a kindergartner in England (no, not Hogwarts).

Non Progredi est Regredi — Not to move forward is to go backwards — was the motto of my English school where I attended kindergarten and the equivalent of first grade, Danesfield Manor School in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey, about an hour outside of London. My father had a job predicting the impact of international oil production for Shell Oil in London, and in the 1970s, when I was sent to Danesfield in a blue pinafore and school blazer with a cute straw hat during the spring months, the place operated like a Dickensian panopticon (though now, it seems more progressive, diverse, and experimental than what it was). Each morning in chapel where we intoned a vague Anglican prayer after an off-key Anglican hymn I never knew, the head mistress, Miss Kate, a woman with a tight bun who truly never seemed to smile, had the older students conduct a reading of the marks.

How I dreaded hearing this recitation of the marks! Each of the three mark readers had a little red notebook from which they recited in a clear but dreary monotone, that always when a bit like this:

Danesfield students

I used to dress like this at school — only back then Danesfield Manor School made girls wear a straw hat with a blue ribbon.

“Forgetfulness marks for the day: Jane Emerson, 1 forgetfulness mark. Simon Smith, 2 forgetfulness marks…..Bad marks for the day: “Josephine Madison, 1 bad mark. Dicken Henry, 4 bad marks.”

And when Miss Kate heard of a student who had received anything more than two bad or forgetfulness marks, she would make someone like poor Dicken, who was always getting bad marks, stand before the rest of us and the entire faculty and her own merciless gaze, stand there hands clasped in front of him like Oliver Twist bereft of his empty gruel bowl, and attempt to explain himself.

“How do you account for your four bad marks yesterday, Dicken? I understand you stole a classmate’s pencil and called him a very bad word!”

Dicken would inevitably stammer out in a fearful soprano, “I don’t know Miss!  I don’t know why I did that!”

Oh! How I felt for Dicken!  How I was horrified that I might ever have a mark read against me!  I was never in league of pencil-stealers, nor did I know any bad words yet, but I might have gotten a forgetfulness mark, as I had neglected to put away a coloring book once, and I had left my sweater outside on a bench at lunch time. Oh — to have one’s name spoken in the monotone of obloquy of chapel first thing in the day! What could be worse, I thought?

At five, I could not have imagined the shamelessness of Mitch McConnell, the Senate majority leader from Kentucky, who is determined to commit an act of perfidy against Americans, worse than stealing a pencil, very much worth the utterance of bad words. He has orchestrated a legislative process in the shadows to remove healthcare from over twenty million Americans in order to give the richest one percent of Americans a hefty tax break. Instead of an open debate with public hearings in the light of day about a bill that will materially change one-sixth of the American economy, he and a few nefarious co-conspirators are behind closed doors, marking up a bill that will remove coverage for birth control (though it would seem Viagra will remain covered), mental health, hospital births, and many other needed treatments.  Rather than allowing a full airing of their activities with a fulsome debate about their merits, this dirty dozen Republican senators, under McConnell’s bulging and watchful eye, will execute the bill with no meaningful debate, ripping care away from poor children, the elderly, and the working poor.

How many bad marks would Mitchell McConnell receive, Miss Kate? I would like to think you would have made your face as flint in light of his misdeeds.

Senator cassidy and senator collins

Senator Dr. Bill Cassidy (R-LA), is perhaps the only doctor in America who is willing to endorse the Republican plan to leave tens of millions of Americans without health insurance.  The AMA, hospitals, AARP, nursing associations — they think his ideas are irresponsible.

Meanwhile, senators are claiming that their phones aren’t ringing about this. I find that hard to believe, as I know many people who have called Bill Cassidy, the senior senator from Louisiana, the Dr. Mengele of this healthcare, or as political commentator Jon Favreau calls it, wealthcare regression, has had his Washington office on voicemail only for days. At my other senator, John Kennedy (no, alas, not that John Kennedy, and not a worthy namesake) had a chipper intern answering calls one day recently, but yesterday, his phone went to voicemail as well.  We have been calling, and they have “forgotten” to pick up the line.  Is it because they want to “forget” to cover 23,000,000 Americans, close to half a million of whom reside in their state?

How many forgetfulness marks is that, Miss Kate?  Half a million? What kind of paddling or detention would that get the Senators from Louisiana?  Why are they not worried about the blood on their hands if this bill passes?

As Danesfield taught me so young, non progredi est regredi —  in 2010, Congress wisely established a national healthcare system as almost every single industrialized country has done, an imperfect system, but one that has at least improved upon the no-system system, where the shoe-shine guys in front of Grand Central Station could only get healthcare in the emergency room at Bellevue Hospital, where people lost their homes because they couldn’t afford cancer treatments for their mothers, where children when without needed visits to the doctor so that the family could eat. What the Republicans have been lobbied to do by the insurance industry, big pharma, and sundry billionaires with pathological greed, is to eliminate even this imperfect system so that the billionaire class pays an even lower percentage of their gains than the workers for minimum wage.

Non progredi est regredi — not to go forward with better coverage is to go backwards, fatally for many.

So what can we do? We must make them know we will hold them accountable, be the Miss Kate of their five year-old consciences, surely the last time that they felt them keenly in some cases.  Call the Senate switchboard twice today and every day for the next couple of weeks to get connected to your two senators, wherever you live in the country.  Their telephone number is (202) 224-3121.  Tell them that all Americans need healthcare and deserve full coverage from a healthcare system.  If you know somebody who may die from their schemes to enrich the already-rich, let them know all about that.  Read their bad marks aloud. Do not let them forget who they work for — you.

Non progredi est regredi — we won’t go back to a Dickensian era where the young heroine dies in the poorhouse, no doctor to help. Americans deserve better.

June 7, 2017

Louisianans Might Be Crazy — But We’re Not Stupid

The state of Louisiana is famous for its eccentrics.  Yes, New York has a glorious history of schizophrenics muttering to themselves in the ATM vestibules and in subway cars, yes. San Francisco practices freak-flag forms of politically inflected mania, but Louisiana, particularly New Orleans, is proud of its deep heritage of lunatics on the loose.

Indeed, the South as a whole does not disown its lunatics but makes room for them at the Easter Brunch table.

“Miz Johnson has her ways,” parents explain to children about the neighbor who stands on her front porch screaming about alien abductions. Boo Radley doesn’t get chased out of town in To Kill  a Mockingbird. He becomes the subject of a small town’s most graphic and gothic legends while he keeps his own crazy counsel.

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Miz Johnson has her ways.

In New Orleans in particular, it becomes hard to distinguish the lunatic from the merely fabulous. The people who shout at invisible oppressors, the people who dress like Napoleon and claim his identity are all part of an ecosystem of local color. Far from fleeing the mad neighbor, the people of New Orleans embrace these people as a contribution to tourism. While many people might be diagnosable or diagnosed, the citizens of New Orleans are less interested in what is wrong with the crazy man on the street corner than they are in his ephemeral passage between the frontier of respectable reality and disreputable fantasy. New Orleans has made this transgression into an attraction.

In a red state such as Louisiana, and given all I have said above about local lunacy, it should surprise nobody that the state legislature is considering budget cuts to mental health programs that benefit most particularly the schizophrenic and bipolar. The hope of such programs is to medicate those who may be medicated out of, say, homicidal tendencies.  The state is also trying to limit its highest-in-the-country incarceration rates, so I am assuming that the wisdom of the legislature is not to criminalize the mentally incompetent but to allow them to offer more Jeremiads in Audubon Park to passers by, to take a permanent Mardi Gras vacation from the normative.  Outside the city, I suppose the hope must be that they will create new attractions in swamp country.  Nat Geo’s Swamp People can only attract so many tourists to visit the mosquitoes and alligators of the state’s wetlands, but what if a Fais-do-do — the traditional Cajun dance party popular in many parts of the state — could turn into a Fais-cray-cray? Would tourists from Michigan paddle out in a pirogue to take a look at that, buy local crawfish — for such a festival we could actually stoop perhaps to calling them CRAY fish like the Yankees call them — and support jam-jar bars in the bayou? So a few more people get shot in Baton Rouge by lunatics on the loose — will the police even notice? What could that do for the tourist industry around Louisiana State University campus?

Admittedly, it is cheaper for the state to pay for medication for the seriously mentally ill who have fallen into deep difficulty than to pay to incarcerate murderers or to investigate missing persons — unless you see this as a burgeoning cottage industry that no good capitalist would ever want to regulate with Lithium and the occasional straight jacket. After all, Laissez-faire economics, isn’t that a CAJUN term for making a buck every which way?

It is time for me to stop my “modest proposal” shtick and admit that I think cutting what meager help that exists for the mentally ill is a losing proposition.  It’s crazy. But the Louisiana State Legislature, bless its heart, seems to be willing to sing along with the Louisiana State University Tiger Marching Band’s peppy rendition of the Billy Joel tune:

You may be right. I may be crazy. But it just may be a lunatic you’re looking for.

I for one would be willing to pay a little more in taxes to make sure the dangerously mentally ill got the help they needed, to provide family counseling in under-served communities in the state, to help those of us who do not sublimate our depression and anxiety in writing or jazz to get a therapist.  But then again, like Billy Joel, a New Yorker, I come from a place where it is expected that the mentally ill have more than “their ways,” that they have a counselor as needed. New Yorkers — what did they do after 9/11?  They got everybody who wanted one a therapist for free.  They knew we had all been through a trauma.  What does New York do when it is upset? It talks to somebody about it, seeks help. Louisiana isn’t so sure it needs help. It is willing to live with the crazy within its borders.

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The people of Louisiana have been collectively traumatized in recent years by needing to escape storms in shelters like this one.

One thing, however, that Louisianans know first-hand is the need to handle large community crises.  These normally come to the people of the state in the form of weather. Katrina traumatized all of the Gulf of Mexico.  Last year’s floods displaced many people in the center of the state, people who may not yet have moved back into their homes. The people of Louisiana are possibly crazy, but they’re not stupid. They are not willing to bet against the entirety of the scientific community regarding weather patterns they themselves have just barely survived and declare that climate change just can’t be real. Governor Edwards has repeatedly put out statements about the current Federal government’s proposed cuts to programs needed to mitigate climate change issues in the coast lands of the state. Mayor Landrieu of New Orleans has pledged to meet Paris Accord climate change standards whatever Washington may say. If scientists say we cannot afford to get more than two degrees Celsius hotter on planet Earth, people in Southern Louisiana in particular understand how hot it can get, and the whole community is willing to work to prevent additional disasters being visited upon the state.

In this, I believe I see the outline of a bipartisan state legislature budgetary agreement. Perhaps we could agree that for one year the State of Louisiana could send all its mental health funding to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to treat one person in particular suffering from delusions that are actually hurting the international tourist trade.  This individual believes that the former President was from Kenya, that crowd sizes are not what the rest of us see, that the FBI director told him he wasn’t under investigation and told him this multiple times, that “covfefe” is a word, that he has the best solutions, that he alone can fix the problems of this country, that factual news is fake news, that we aren’t noticing that he is planning  to cut his own taxes at the expense of poor children and the elderly in our state, and that we were glad when he showed up in the flood zone against the governor’s request so that rescuers could continue to get help to people literally stranded on rooftops so that a billionaire could bring us a few hundred dollars’ worth of children’s games.  Some lunatics are too dangerous even for Louisiana, and Louisianans are smart enough to realize that his plans need  to be stopped so that we can continue to live our eccentric lives down here.

September 27, 2016

Who Dat Dere Gonna Smash the Glass?

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This party was for both for the Clinton debate and the Saints game, no need to pick just one.

Last night, I had the delightful privilege of watching Hillary Clinton shoot a fish in a barrel, one that looked remarkably like a coked-out real estate developer and aging game show host named Donald Trump.  I was not alone for this festive occasion.  I was seated in a pizza parlor in the Gentilly district of New Orleans, surrounded by people who like me, have volunteered for the campaign to elect the first woman president.

We have been making phone calls around here to get out the Democratic vote, and we have found Louisianans surprisingly receptive to our phone calls, given the reputed redness of the state.  Most of them seem to have gotten a robo-call from white supremacist David Duke, who is running for senate and who endorses Donald Trump, before we with our real voices and our real diversity call to suggest they come out and volunteer for us.  It’s like Mr. Duke rolled out the red carpet for our second call’s arrival.  No pollster predicts that Louisiana will turn blue this election, but New Orleans, birthplace of Jazz, has always liked the blues.  It is a pocket of organized Democratic Party voters in a sea of otherwise-inclined conservatives.  Yet the choice could not be more stark this election, and David Duke has yet to win an office after he served a single term as a state representative.  His endorsement makes non-Klannish white Louisianans weigh their voting choices more carefully, and we are glad to give them something to think about.

On my way to this combined Saints Game Tailgate and Orgy of Joy Because a Raging Sexist Pig was About to Get Beat by a Girl, I convinced my Uber driver to register to vote, and because I told him the details of Clinton’s energy policy, a subject close to that man’s heart, he told me he would vote for my girl HRC.  He is a laid-off oil industry worker, and the details of Clinton’s plan seemed to spell greater prosperity and greater independence from foreign oil markets to him.  He had never voted, he said, but this election seemed really important.  I couldn’t agree more.

Watching Hillary with a room full of rowdy and racially diverse Democrats was a pleasure straight out of an episode of The West Wing, if Aaron Sorkin had let Spike Lee direct that episode.  The crowd hooted and hollered when Hillary laughed at the lies falling out of the sad old man’s mouth, and when he insulted her personally, we all gasped, and the ladies of color shouted in unison, “Oh, no he didn’t!”  But her simple remark, that while he was out on the road bloviating, she had not only prepared for the debate but had prepared to be president of the United States — well, that was worth the price of pizza alone.  His return to birtherism and stopping and frisking, perhaps that played well with the withering Fox News audience, but most of America seems to think that his version of Law and Order is not so much lawful as Orwellian-sounding.  We laughed as Hillary Clinton laughed, and we hoped that America saw as we saw her competency and his ridiculous ineptness and ill-informed and misinforming bombast.

The men who were with us checked in on the Saints’ game on their phones once in a while, but we were glued to the screen.  Neither male nor female was impressed with Donald Trump’s denial of his support for the Gulf War, nor were we convinced that it was Hillary Clinton who had a temperament problem — and what, he’s an incarnation of the Dalai Lama?  Please!  His entire career has been based on being rash and quick to anger. Nobody bought it.

Trump’s bringing Gennifer Flowers to the debate with him is proof he actually knows nothing about the thinking of women.  If he were running against Bill Clinton, this might have been some sort of an effective jab, but he’s running against Clinton’s wronged spouse, who neither orchestrated nor condoned that affair. What women saw in this was an incomprehension of our individual dignity, and he looked like he was just being absurdly bitchy.  Also, we might wonder what he would expect — that she would burst into tears? Nah.  Our girl Hillary is like all of us who have had to attend a cocktail party where some woman was there who had tried to take our man.  He might as well have handed her the election with that single mean-spirited gesture. The sight of an ex-mistress isn’t devastating to a grown-up woman; it makes us taste the copper of blood rage in our mouths. By bringing Flowers to the debate, he guaranteed she would be relentless in her criticism of him.

It was truly a pleasure to watch Ms. Clinton work last night.  I got a fan handed to me by a woman running for  judge.  I got a new lawn sign and a new sticker.   The Saints lost.  But who dat?  Who dat dere gonna smash the glass ceiling? Who dat dere gonna smash the patriarchy?  We dat.

September 25, 2016

Pirate Country –my transplanted life in the north tropics

Where I live now, there are Walgreens and Walmarts, bells of tacos and kings of burgers, so it is no more and no less American on the West Bank of New Orleans than it is in Duluth or Houston. Yet there is a mysterious, mariner-gothic bent to New Orleans (see my previous post about the evocation of vampire Lestat on my morning defecation walks with dogs), and taking a momentarily ecocritical view of my life, I understand its mystery better: I am living in the northern tropics. Wouldn’t you know that’s pirate country?

Perhaps because of an early childhood visit to Disneyland, when I think of the landscape of a tropical town, I immediately think of pirates of the Caribbean.  The truth is that when pirates were more common in colonial America, they were not a strictly tropical phenomenon.  My old town, New York City, had pirates, too.  Down on Hanover Street in the financial district there is a plaque that marks the site of the house owned by the infamous pirate Redbeard, who seems to have lived in peace with legal traders of goods and whose characters were no more shocking or flamboyant than a Wolf of Wall Street or a Godon Gekko (named, I note for the first time, after a tropical lizard — interesting) who exclaims “greed is good.”  Couldn’t that selfish sentiment be turned into the refrain of a pirate shanty?  Let’s find out:

The Shanty of The Gordon Gekko, Galleon Sans Blason

Greed is good, my buccaneers! Greed is good!

Pillage is pretty like a pert blonde lass!

Rape is right as rum in a mug of wood!

Greed is good!  Spanish galleons — kiss my ass!

 

Yes, Wall Street‘s horrible motto works well in piratical rhyme and meter. The sentiment itself is piratical. So I have lived in pirate country before, but it has not felt so obvious as it does now, while Spanish moss, if not Spanish galleons, droops over me as I shuffle in sweltering weather between buildings to teach writing. In the mornings as I drive along the causeway across bayoux, I sometimes see mist lifting off of marsh water, a mist that would mask a small landing party of buccaneers rowing a pirogue.  The weather’s abundant sizzle itself suggests the lasciviousness of piratical life.  The fact that it is now fall, and most days in this season will still get up into the nineties until we get close to Halloween, well, all that sweltering heat makes me want to rip off my lacy shirt and stand on deck wearing nothing but my knickers and boots, a single earring, and a kerchief cap until we catch a stiff breeze and spot a slave ship headed for Jamaica and we board her to liberate the human cargo to ask if they would like to join our crew.  Actually, in New Orleans, we say “krewe.”

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Pirate/war hero Jean Lafitte used to hang out where I hang out now in New Orleans. I am slightly covetous of his hat, but the scowl I can manage as necessary.

New Orleans has welcomed pirates of greater notoriety than Red Beard and more flamboyant than Gekko. Jean Lafitte (pictured here) fought with Andrew Jackson in the battle of New Orleans during the war of 1812, and the two of them may or may not have met in secret to discuss battle plans.

This partnership between piracy and politics seems to have continued in New Orleans.  Local senatorial candidate David Duke tried to take his white supremacist case yesterday afternoon to the people on Jackson Square, a place where Lafitte surely walked, but he was soundly rejected by the crowd. I note that pirates tended to have interracial crews  (not unlike Mardi Gras Krewes these days) and made no bones, no skull-and-cross-bones, about lovemaking between the races.  To Duke that is race-destructive miscegenation, not the satin-clad complexities of pirate romance. He prattled on about how black men were raping white women with false statistics he got out of his size-insecure nightmares, not FBI files. And yet, as he spoke, he stood on a spot where Lafitte surely stood, away from which he surely swaggered. Even without a Klan hood on, especially without a satin, embroidered weskit and without a plumed hat and scabbard, he looked and sounded pathetic in this town of transgressive swashbuckling.

I look through the heat of the day and contemplate how much more comfortable I would be with my laces unlaced, with my bodice ripped. I realize that this is pirate country even today.  The people on Jackson Square used vocabulary in revolt of Duke’s ideas that I won’t repeat here — suffice it to say it was salty and worthy of outlaw sailors. I say he had it coming. Don’t cross pirates unless you are willing to need an eye patch for the rest of your miserable land-lubbing life!

Atchafalaya & I-10

I commute along this path regularly.

Tomorrow, as I commute back and forth, I will see white cranes fly overhead, see lizards skitter down the bricks of my house, encounter perhaps another swarm of black dragonflies marauding like low-flying bombers. The northern tropics call for a cool drink, a change of clothes after a sweat-breaking day, and a willingness to fight the red coats or the white sheets like the old sea shanty legends tell.  I ride a car, not a ship deck, but I gaze across the water at a town lit yellow and know that this is the kind of town I already understand.

Don’t believe me?  My book The White Trash Pantheon is already in stock at Faulkner House Books on Pirate’s Alley. I have arrived, New Orleans.  En garde!

September 5, 2016

Seeing with “Vampire Eyes” in New Orleans at Five A.M.

For her extraordinarily popular book Interview with a Vampire, Anne Rice imagines a man in colonial Louisiana just outside New Orleans converting from human being into an elegant vampire.  His converter warns him to go outside as he changes but not to “fall so madly with the night that you lose your ways.”

Of course, the new vampire in the book does lose his way to the beauty of the night.  He says, “When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there….Standing among the cottonwood and oaks, I heard the night as if it were a chorus of whispering women, all beckoning me to their breasts.”

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“When I saw the moon on the flagstones, I became so enamored with it that I must have spent an hour there.” — Anne Rice

I am gradually learning that nothing in New Orleans is entirely what it seems, and yet nothing at all is purely fictional.  Writers here, Anne Rice and others like me, don’t need to make anything up, really, so much as press record like the interviewer in Interview with a Vampire. New Orleans provides enough vivacity to transform us all, not necessarily into vampires but certainly into raconteurs. Our old limitations die in the elevated graveyards, but our new eyes as writers in this nearly mythic town — a place of real magical realism — fall so in love with the night that we indeed risk losing our ways.

So it is with me at five a.m. when I walk my dogs around the block.  I choose this time because I leave for work quite early, and my dogs have fewer people to bark at or to try to sniff. That said, I was astonished when first I walked them around the block about a half hour before sunrise.  It wasn’t Lestat who had given me new eyes.  It was New Orleans.

At that hour, even at that hour, it has been well above eighty degrees outside most mornings, and the town glows despite the lights being off.  Even when I walked around the block during a power outage, the town still glowed.  How? The moon hangs low in the sky, a glass of milk seen from above, and the sky is not so black as it is royal blue with a widow’s veil hanging over it.

The cars are distant as my dogs and I circle the block, but the end of night is noisy.  Before the birds are up, a timpany chorus of insects click and chatter in what perhaps Anne Rice meant when she said her newly minted vampire heard a “metallic laughter” in the air.  It is a cocktail party of bugs held before the curtain of a big show, the chatter of socialites in a treble staccato — and it is intoxicating to hear! Occasionally, we hear the lone voice of an insomniac bird, too early even to catch the worm, but more often than not we hear only the arias of the insects in the trees.

We encounter a few mammals other than ourselves, and they, too, take on mythical qualities. Once, I crossed paths with a woman in yoga pants with a blue tooth in her ear, negotiating an international deal with the Pacific Rim in Vietnamese, but I have not seen her since.  I saw an illicit lover dart out of a door once and hide when he realized the dogs and I saw him. Usually, though, the only mammal we encounter is a single neighborhood cat, gray in the way that the French mean when they say, “La nuit, tous les chat sont gris,” and long-haired.  That long hair stands on end as the creature arches as tall as he can as my bigger dog spots him — I am having trouble convincing that dog that we are not on a hunt and that the neighbor’s cat is not our quarry. Most mornings, though, it is just us, no other creature with hair on its head or body. We are not hunting for prey, neither like a dog nor like a vampire.  We are just walking, losing our ways in the lovely late night.

We walk along the still-unrepaired undulations of the sidewalk caused by Katrina.  After a rainy night, we have to avoid deep puddles still caused by the aftermath of that now-old storm that rippled the roads around here as if they were tresses that might frizz in Category-5 humidity.  Our feet get muddy in certain ruts. The dogs sniff the ground and read the route’s olfactory braille with their wet noses. What they read there, I cannot say, but the ineffable language of the smells of this route excites them, sometimes appearing to cause debate between them. It is a lively hunt for the maker of smells, the walk, the quarrry not so much being the steak as much as the sizzle-sound of the bugs and the smoke of the frying meat they find the trace of in our tracks. We are not vampires on the prowl, but some of us smell blood.

When we return home, the night’s magic dissipates.  We enter the house as a few neighbors begin to stir, switch on lights. When I unhook the leashes of my companions, we are all covered in sweat. The night’s passions are sultry.  We catch our breath in the air conditioning. We have had a close encounter — with what? Not Anne Rice’s vampires, perhaps, but with her vampires’ New Orleans nights, heady and astonishingly beautiful.  Over and over again Anne Rice’s interviewed vampire expresses frustration at his inability to explain an experience to the interviewer.  He laments, “How pathetic it is to describe these things that can’t truly be described.” He is right, Rice is right — a night in New Orleans contains a kind of mystery that only beckons one toward meaning, a seduction not quite achieved, a new vision through a glass darkly, and the aporia is a dark river, perhaps the Mississippi at night, perhaps the Styx, that beckons us deeper but offers us no promise we can ever again pop our heads up into a rational sunlight. We are not vampires, but in this, the night of New Orleans is vampiric.

August 23, 2016

What to Do When the Waters Rise: Southeastern Louisiana University’s Heroic Response to Crisis

Yesterday was the first day of classes at Southeastern Louisiana University, although classes were supposed to begin last week.  The flash floods that destroyed so many homes in the region caused the shift in schedule, along with many other emergency management strategies that were put in place by the state of Louisiana.  People have talked about the flood down here in the media as if it were happening to somebody else, a bunch of hicks, perhaps — not people who get much news coverage at all, unless there are reports of Klan activity in the region. It happened, though, to my colleagues and my students, not to a group in white sheets but young people and their parents, people of every background, and my heart is full as I write about their courage and commitment to what John Henry Newman famously described as “the idea of a university.” I am inspired by their undaunted optimism.

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Southeastern Louisiana underwater — Photo by Southeastern Louisiana University English Instructor Chris Genre of what it looks like outside his house.

One of my colleagues came in for our meeting late last week laughing about how she had had to carry her cat in her purse when the rescue boat reached her flooded house.  Another colleague told me that she was lucky — only her bedroom floor was destroyed, no other part of her house was ruined. The photo you see here was taken by another colleague right outside his house; he had to direct traffic away from near his property, as when cars sped by, they caused waves of water to enter through his front door.  One of my colleagues, a guardsman, rescued his neighbors with a helicopter, and he was in a fine mood as well. Coming as I do from New York City, where complaining is actually competitive — “You think you have problems? Well, let me tell you” or “All your life, you should have such problems as this man” — I was struck by the stoicism of my new colleagues at Southeastern in the face of such tragedy.  They told me over and over again that it wasn’t as bad a problem as Katrina — but truly, if only 20,000 homes were destroyed, compared to the over 800,000 homes destroyed by that disaster, can one call the floods of last week a minor episode?

The English department faculty meeting I attended to prepare for this week was unlike any other I have ever been to. While I wouldn’t call other departments where I have worked heartless, I got the impression from certain institutions where I have worked that while I wasn’t outright forbidden from serving the personal needs, rather than the academic needs, of my students, there was no encouragement to do so. One department head where I adjuncted lamented that so many students wanted the professors to be “Jesus to them.” For me, that remark was problematic, largely because I am called by my faith to be Jesus to anyone in my midst and beyond who needs an ambassador from Jesus. The Southeastern Louisiana University English department has a philosophy of holistic problem-solving with the student body.  After all, how can one expect good academic results from students who have overwhelming crises in their personal lives?

The chair of the department encouraged us to reach out to students and tell them the resources the university was prepared to put at their disposal. Students who couldn’t make it to class would be excused for the first month if necessary for flood-recovery-related reasons. Students who couldn’t get textbooks or whose textbooks were destroyed could have electronic copies where necessary.  Students without computers because of the flood could check out laptops from the university. Psychological counseling was available for trauma. And he said that he felt that our discipline was particularly well placed to help people answer the question of how one overcomes obstacles and remains hopeful in the face of tragedy. What else, after all, is literature for?

Indeed, my students were more subdued than other nervous first-day-of-school undergraduates. I asked how many people had either lost a home or knew someone who did, how many of them knew someone in emotional crisis — about a quarter of them raised their hands.

I was prepared for that response.  Out of 16,000 students at Southeastern Louisiana University, about 7,000 live in parishes where the flooding destroyed many homes.  I had already gotten emails from a number of students explaining that they had lost everything in the flood, but their parents were determined to get them to school. I congratulated them on making it to campus in a manner I would not have normally done had they not left melted plaster, murky carpets, and dangerous electrical boxes to get to campus.

I told them about the resources available on campus and saw a sea of grim faces, none of the typical feigned nonchalance of freshmen who want to appear cool but are still scared children.  I decided to tell them about the opportunities that surviving a grown-up community problem presents. I talked about September 11th, which like so many other New Yorkers I did not watch on television but through a window, my friends who nearly died, the people the city lost, the sense of shallow mirth and false security the city lost in those days.  I told them that I had learned in that crisis that a disaster like that allows an individual to prioritize — what really matters? It allows one to better become the person one intends to become, if one is willing to face the grief of the situation bravely. I could tell they were listening really intently to these words.  They are, after all, already in the process of discovering who they will become as mature adults.

With that, I told them that I knew it was important for them to learn the subjects we would cover, as words are a form of power.  Words may not control the weather, but they frame how we respond to storms of every kind. Would Britain have survived the  Blitz without Churchill’s speeches? We will never know, but it would be impossible to imagine the crisis without the balm of his resolve. We need never know, thank God. Words are power.  We build with them.  Three holy book religions tell us the King of the universe creates with them, not with hammers and bulldozers — with words well-placed, and the material tools follow.

When I drove back to New Orleans, I saw that the receding flood waters had moved into Tangipahoa Parish near Manchac, making houses already on stilts look unstilted. There was an enormous rainbow in the sky over Lake Pontchartrain, vivid against a gray sky, and I was reminded of Genesis 6:13-16 — “I do set my bow in the cloud, and it shall be for a token of a covenant between me and the earth. And it shall come to pass, when I bring a cloud over the earth, that the bow shall be seen in the cloud: And I will remember my covenant, which is between me and you and every living creature of all flesh; and the waters shall no more become a flood to destroy all flesh. And the bow shall be in the cloud; and I will look upon it, that I may remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living creature of all flesh that is upon the earth.”

Indeed, Southeastern Louisiana University’s community is not destroyed.  Some there lost houses but not hope.  Others there are gaining purpose in lieu of trivia. Others still are taking up the call to serve others without complaint.

 

 

July 7, 2016

A Peculiar People –Real and Really Weird Christianity in the French Quarter

 But ye are… a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” — 1 Peter 2:9

All supernatural events are odd-ball — they are super — above — the natural way of things, the same-old same-old.  The way a lot of Christians in America play church is traditional, predictable.  Some churches pride themselves on doing things in the way their great-grandparents did. Usually, the people who attend such churches are rather traditional themselves.  They do not tend to have run-ins with the police.  They do not tend to end up dancing on top of a table at a party. They tend to own khaki pants.  They do not tend to own cars with flames painted on them after the age of twenty-five.

I was never one of those Christians.  I was not raised in the church.  I got saved at the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem.  The day before that supernatural encounter, if someone had tried to shove a Bible tract into my hand, I would have yelled at them about my friends dying of AIDS who were condemned by vocal evangelicals on television as suffering God’s punishment for sodomy.  Where was God’s punishment for arms dealers, for greedy bankers, for deadbeat dads?  I would have shouted at them, and if they had been from one of those traditional churches, they might have misunderstood me.  They might have thought I was persecuting them for evangelism, not shouting, as Jesus did, at the hypocrites.

The day after becoming a Christian, I traveled to Bethlehem — this was right in the middle of the Intifada.  I arrived in the village by taxi cab in the late morning; there were children in the street who smiled and called out the one word of English they all knew — “hello.” Businesses were open with shop keepers who wanted to sell me souvenirs.  I made my way to the church of the Nativity, saw the spot traditionally marked by celibate monks as the spot of Jesus’ birthplace — which to me looked like a gilded frame for a large dinner plate, not a place for a woman’s body to give life.

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The hole represents the exact spot where Jesus is said to have been born. That hole is the size of a large dinner plate.

As I puzzled over the choice men made of how to mark a birth, an experience that all women see quite differently than they do, I heard shots outside.  It was afternoon, and the uprising had begun again as scheduled daily. I decided I ought to leave sooner rather than later.  The only business still open was a bar just a few feet away from Jesus’ birth manger with a large terrace.  The manager explained to me he could get a cab for me, but it would be at least an hour before one could come.  I ordered a whiskey, all they were serving, and joined war correspondents who were at least two drinks ahead of me, and waited.  Nobody shot at us.  I saw Israeli tanks going one way, children with rocks going another way, the occasional adult man with a gun and a Keffiyeh on his head running after or way from the tanks. I looked at the old church across the square and thought of that missing dinner plate.

I knew I was a Christian, that Jesus was real, that He had died for my sins, that He had conquered death for me, that He loved me.  I also knew that I was going to have to be outwardly a very different kind of Christian than the people who had evangelized me with well-flossed smiles and peaceful lives.  I had met the real God, but He had sprung out of a world of madness to save it in the midst of chaos. The ABC Family Channel could never save a lost soul like mine.  The Christ of the empty tomb, the void in the floor  within earshot of brutal battle — that Christ could redeem a person like me.

Returning to America, I joined the church across the street from my New York City apartment because they had invited me to volunteer for their AIDS hospice.  In New York, most Christians understand the God who is peace in the battleground because city life is filled with gangs and greed of a more establishmentarian flavor.  I felt more or less understood as I studied the Bible and grew in my faith.

Down South, though, more often than not, when I have joined a Bible study, I feel like an odd-ball Christian.  I love my Christian brethren down here, but too often, I tell stories like the one above when we talk about Jesus, and they stare at me as if I were from another planet.  The Bible teacher asks, “How does this verse apply to your own lives?” And we go around the circle to share.  Most of them say things like, “I realize I have been scared of not getting that promotion, but God must have a plan for me,” or “I need to be more careful to teach my children to pray to God when they are scared at night, not just ask me to turn on the light.”  I say, “I’m not scared of much, but when that man pulled a knife on me late at night when I was on my way home from clubbing, I managed to tell him confidently,  at least confident-sounding, that I didn’t want to have to hurt him. Thinking now as a Christian, I think I would have tried to evangelize him after he put the knife away, before he ran away from me into the dark.”

They love me with the love of the Lord, but bless my heart, I am the weirdest Christian they know.  I am in their prayers, and I am grateful.  They are in my prayers, and they are grateful, too. But I am what one of  my college boyfriends used to call a freakazoid to these lovely, khaki-wearing church folk from white suburban church world with music of limited rhythms and short sermons.

As some Southerners say — I told you all that to say this: I have been church-shopping in my new city of residence, New Orleans, and I may have found the church that keeps the missing dinner plate of the Nativity.  I have found a church where I am not odd-ball.  I am the least weird Christian there.  I have abided in a deep state of surprise since last Sunday morning, when I met them all, and they were all really Christian and each more of a freakazoid than I am.

Vieux Carre Assembly of God Church is located in the heart of the French Quarter, just a couple of blocks away from Bourbon Street, a place where people go to see or be strippers or prostitutes, do drugs, get stinking drunk, or even to find a voodoo priest who will curse enemies for a price, using spiritual forces of destruction to do so.  There is therefore literal satanism with storefronts on the street, and there is figurative bondage to Satan in the addictions and exploitations of the neighborhood. It is a culture of bars and dark shadows in rooms, people laughing who aren’t really happy, people slurring their words as they fall off of stools.  It is ugly, the sorrow painted as mirth, down there.  It is not a party.  Parties happen in other parts of the town.  Bourbon Street is the longest crooked finger in America, beckoning those who need love and comfort to harm themselves in the name of joyless “fun.”  It is a tourist tenderloin, a place to come to get obliterated, a site for slow suicide.  Vegas is fun sometimes.   The rest of the French Quarter can be fun.  Mardi Gras is fun.  Bourbon Street reminds me of the old neighborhood around New York’s Port Authority bus terminal that got cleaned up in the nineties — there was a spiritual vacuum there to suck the lost into sex shows in Times Square and into a drug culture that killed a lot of people.  It was a sad place.  There are wrought-iron embellishments on some buildings on Bourbon Street, but you wouldn’t call it pretty, not in the section I mean.  Anyway, that’s where Vieux Carre Assembly of God worships and witnesses two nights a week.  It’s a tough mission field, a spiritual form of combat triage and surgery on deeply broken hearts.

But understand that Vieux Carre AG is kind of crazy, like Fellini directed a film about a church right after he directed Satyricon. When I walked in the door, of the very small church, hung with mauve and gold draperies, with a few short pews in a low-ceilinged old building on the Rue Dauphine,  I was immediately offered two kinds of pie. They do this before every service on Sunday,  it seems, and they eat their pie in the pews.

The pastor, Paul Gros started us out with an a capella traditional singing of one verse of the hymn, “He Has Made Me Glad,”  but thereafter, another man, the associate pastor, sat at the piano, and the rest of the praise and worship happened like we were all at a piano bar.  He clearly had the talents of a piano bar pianist, though I don’t know his testimony.  Nobody stood. Almost nobody sang along but me as he played mell0w-jazz versions of old hymns, transitioning as one might as a piano bar pianist, with phrases like, “does anybody remember this one?” It reminded me of nothing so much as a bar I used to go to on Sheridan Square, near the new Stonewall monument — the Monster.  Downstairs is a disco where I danced with my gay friends and often got mistaken for a very convincing drag queen; upstairs older gay men gathered to sing show tunes together.  After a good sweat on the dance floor, I often went upstairs to sing, “How do you solve a problem like Maria,” or “I’m Going to Wash That Man Right Out of My Hair.”  It was fun.  It was communal.  But those songs weren’t hymns, not exactly. The non-participation of the church goers disturbed me as I sang “Hallelujah” with the pianist. One lady with many piercings in her face sat quietly while she ate a half gallon of chocolate peanut butter ice cream she had brought with her to church, one supposes to go along with the pie.

Macaw

Is this macaw a missionary?

We took communion together, and then the pastor mentioned that one of the men he witnesses with had been detained the other night by a police officer on Bourbon Street — why?  Not because he was in a state of near-nudity, something that will not get one arrested.  Not because he was vomiting in a gutter, also not an arresting offense.  He got detained because he had brought a large parrot with him out to evangelize.  Yes, pasties and thongs are allowed on Bourbon Street, but not exotic pets.  I kept thinking about the exotic dancer imagined in A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole who worked with a pet bird, and who was developing an act to cater to “the bird trade” on Bourbon Street.  I guess birds are offensive  somehow. But then I realized — a parrot?  To evangelize? Who uses a big Macaw to bring someone to the foot of the cross?  Who does that?  It was odd-ball.  I sense that this church is more conservative politically by a lot than I am, which is not unusual for me as a Christian on the Left, but I will say this — they are a lot bolder than I tend to be on a day to day basis, and they truly invite everyone in a spirit of love to join them, even bringing a parrot with them to, I don’t know, evangelize the leftover pirates on Pirate’s Alley.

It was tempting to dismiss this church — after all, it was a lot more bizarre in its tactics and activities than I am, and I am used to being the weirdest Christian in the room.The thing is, though, that as I sat there singing piano-bar-style hymns and asking myself — why is their nativity scene still on display in July? Why birds? Why pie? Why  ice cream in  the pews? — I felt the presence of God with a power I have only felt it occasionally.  The last time I felt it was at Times Square Church, a church with a deliverance ministry not unlike Vieux Carre’s deliverance ministry, witnessing to tough customers in the old, scary Times Square, addicted, hooking, homeless, hopeless.  I thought I might fall out (faint in the Holy Ghost) while the gentleman flashed his gold rings like a toned-down Liberace over the ivories and asked me, “And what about this song?  Do you remember this one?” I did remember it.  I remembered it well. It  was a hymn about healing.  The words declare that there is no one else like Jesus.  Indeed, there is not; he was and remains out of the ordinary, a sort of odd-ball, really.  I thought I would swoon as we prayed.  It was tonic.  It was a palpable presence of God for the battles of the city.

Therefore I say unto you — beware the non-peculiar church.  If nothing challenges you there, it might not be a real Christian enclave. Beware the unloving bless-her-heart church. Beware the hypocrites hiding behind churchiness wherever they may lie.  If you are already a Christian, I thank God for you.  Hallelujah.  But know you are sitting on a terrace while a battle wages around you.  You, too, have to figure out just what kind of Christian you are going to be.  Better to be your weird, real self than a fake churched-up, jacked-up facade that hides your lost layers still left. Go reach a person who is hurting.  Help him. Help her. Maybe bring a parrot.  I have never tried that. But apparently, it is powerful enough to get you arrested in at least one satanic stronghold in this odd-ball country.

Vieux Carre Assembly of God is located at 433 Rue Dauphine Street.

 

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