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

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.

cray

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.

storm shelter

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?

who-dat

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.”

anonymous_portrait_of_jean_lafitte_early_19th_century_rosenberg_library_galveston_texas

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.

bethlehem16

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.

 

June 26, 2016

Too Hot to Kneel — Southern Heat, Southern Church, and Hellfire

In a marvelous essay recently published by Image, Southern Catholic poet Molly McCully Brown told a story about being in church with the brilliant fiction writer Kate Sparks, and a man commented to them that it was too hot to kneel that day in St. John the Evangelist Catholic Church in Oxford, Mississippi. I believe that too-hot-to-kneel day happened last summer, and this Sunday we are having another day where it’s too hot to kneel.

Old sheldon ChurchChurch in the South can be sweltering, I mention for those of you who stay home on Sundays or attend church up North.  The ladies with the fans in the pews that you see in movies set in small Southern towns, that’s no joke.  While the majority of church vestry committees down here make the purchase of air conditioning a top priority, air conditioners give out, and there are just some days where it doesn’t matter how frigid a blast you get from your HVAC, you find yourself reaching in the freezer for ice cubes to drop into your cleavage.  On such a day, you might try to stay at home and to lower the blinds.  You might keep a cooler of drinks on hand.  You might do as I have done this Sunday, which is to skip church — it was too hot to kneel, too hot to sing, too hot to stand or sit, too hot altogether — and to go to the usually chilly Ole Miss Library, where I am looking for all the references in the Latin Vulgate Bible of Effeminacy.  Why?  It’s a long story, trust me.  You don’t want to know, not even if you are effeminate.  Anyway, it’s too hot to explain.

A friend of mine told me about her strict Southern Baptist upbringing, and her youth pastors decided one summer to teach young people to fear Hell.  They did this by locking them in the church with the air conditioning off and the lights out.  It was too hot to see God, and too late to repent.  She feels traumatized to this day, doesn’t attend church anymore, just in case.  It’s too hot to have flashbacks.

There is hellfire in the Southern sun from late June to late August.  Like Milton’s devils, we cluster in dark corners, glowering.  We are, like them, overwhelmed with ever-burning sulfur, unconsumed.  We can try fanning ourselves, but it seems to fan the flames. Some of us try drinking alcohol, but that pours kerosene on the barbecue that roasts us. The library air conditioner is barely functional.  The third floor is hotter than it is outside.  The second floor seems to be slightly cooled.  The first floor is about as steamy as a shaded patio in swamp country.  It’s too hot to move.

I squint down on the Latin words on the page — molles, mollis, effeminati — the effeminate consonants seem to sweat ink on the page. In many cities, there is a parade today, and people are sweating glitter.  I am just sweating sweat.  It’s too hot to translate Latin.  It’s too hot to dance Latin dances.  It’s too hot to be in Hell, on Earth, or for all I know in Heaven. I fan myself with a paperback.  I drink some Diet Coke.  I stretch my legs, but it’s too hot to stretch.  I would type more here, but it’s too hot to type.

Lord Jesus, fix the air conditioner in every church in every small Southern town so that we can kneel or take a nap on the pew bench until this steamy season subsides.  I repent in this dark Southern Baptist Hell-simulation.  I repent of my absence from church, of my sweat beads on this Bible. I repent of my consuming of high-calorie foods and of taking so long to write a dissertation. I repent of my skin still being on the meat of my body, not yet simmered off like stewed chicken thigh off a bone. Mea culpa. Mea Culpa. Mea maxima culpa. The heat gives no absolution.  It just lingers like a malevolent spirit in the dusty room of books. It swirls around my legs like an unfed cat, but I can’t find the can opener. It creeps down the back of my neck like a feeling of foreboding. It abides like the smell of cigars in a humidor, only I smell dusty books ever so slightly mildewed and a few sweaty male graduate students who need a shower. It’s too hot to complain.

I would wish you all a cool evening, but it’s too hot to wish. I would wish you an end to global warming, but it’s too hot to globalize.  Instead, I write you mint.  I write you Michigan mid-winter for five minutes. I write you a cold plunge from the edge of this hot sauna.  I write you a breeze, one that lifts the pages of the Latin Vulgate so that they blur into a crenelated fan, a breeze that clears the air and beckons a deep breath, that clears the head and makes the Latin declensions easy and even the condemned effeminate Roman robust.

 

 

June 10, 2016

This article has coined a term for me “Babsonesque,” which surely means I have arrived as a writer!  Come tomorrow evening and have your hair blown back, y’all!Suanne Strider: No Place in Particular – A Celebration of Southern Poetry and Music

At the lovely new Shelter on Van Buren in Oxford tomorrow night (June 11) will be an affair to remember, and also one for the history books. Salt Zine, an

Source: Suanne Strider: No Place in Particular – A Celebration of Southern Poetry and Music

The Southern Concept of “Fixing to,” and What I am Fixing to Do Tomorrow Night

Southern supermodel and ex-wife to Mick Jagger Jerry Hall told reporters about her looks, “My momma always used to say, ‘honey, there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.'”

Jerry Hall

“Momma always said there are no ugly women, only lazy ones.” — Southern model Jerry Hall

Southern women are not lazy; after all, look how carefully groomed they usually are!  No Sarah Lawrence College bohemian tousled bobs on their heads — Southern hair is always intentional. Neither are Southern men lazy, though they are less carefully groomed on the whole than their sisters and wives.  However one might say all those well-groomed Southerners are in much less of a hurry than Yankees tend to be.

When I moved from Brooklyn down South, the hardest thing for me to absorb was the Southern concept of timing.  I itched for the whole first year down here for a New York minute, and honey, while there are no ugly minutes down South, there are plenty of lazy ones.  That New York minute never came; it wasn’t even unimaginably delayed coming on the Northbound F Train because of extensive trackwork; it never existed and never would. I mourned the New York minute the way I mourned the chopped liver bagel from the Second Avenue Deli.  Both New York phenomena are hard to explain to outsiders as charming.  You have to take a bite of one to know how good they are.  I am at an Irish wake in permanence for the New York minute.  As anyone who has attended an Irish wake can tell you, such events involve tears, off-color tales, prayer, and a little bit of whiskey while nobody else is looking.  New York minute, we hardly knew ye, at least down South.

resting Southern men

These men are fixing to get up and go back to work.

Instead, down South, we don’t bound out of seats to do things as much as we are “fixing to” do things. For those uninitiated to that grammatical structure, “fixing to” do something means one really may get around to it eventually.  If one is “fixing to” pick up his friend at Memphis International Airport, for instance, that means one is watching the last five minutes of an episode of Designing Women on DVR, wondering if the shirt one is wearing has a stain on it requiring a change of clothing, and looking under the coffee table for one’s other flip-flop.  Maybe in fifteen minutes, the one who was fixing to go to the airport will have fixed himself, applied a little designer impostor cologne under the armpits of the shirt with the stain on it, which one has decided to wear despite the small splotch of barbecue sauce, found the flip-flops, and sauntered over to the car to open the driver-side door.

To their credit, Southern cardiac surgeons are usually never “fixing to” perform a balloon angioplasty; they operate as emergency requires with a brisker pace. But the cardiologist usually nods understandingly when the patient says he is “fixing to” start an exercise regimen, no riot act read.  It’s just the way things eventually get done around here.

Anyway, I am fixing to do something myself tomorrow. I am fixing to give a reading of new poetry as part of an important New Southern literary event.

There is a marvelous avant garde literary journal called Salt down South; they are as experimental as anything coming out of literary Brooklyn in recent memory.  They are so avant garde they have rejected old paradigms and rebooted themselves.  They are now Salted 2.0, and they have published a work of fiction I wrote about Irish-American identity and cultural expectations within that community, to which I belong.  They have asked me to read at a literary reading, art show, and harmonica and steel guitar folk extravaganza tomorrow night in Oxford, Mississippi.  The event is fixing  to go from six-ish to ten-ish tomorrow evening at the Shelter on Van Buren, directly adjacent to Oxford Square and across the street from Off Square Books.  There will be beverages and snacks for sale.  There will be bonhomie.  There will be me reading poetry commemorating the smashed glass ceiling of Tuesday night, another Irish  wake with off-color tales of the highest literary caliber.  The editors of this journal are not just good editors; they throw a wonderful Southern beaux-arts party (or bozart party, as H. L. Mencken would have it). Prepare to feel happier and hipper leaving than when you arrive.

This is also the launch party of the rebooted avant garde journal. The honour of your presence is respectfully requested.  Again, that’s Saturday, June 11, 6-10 pm, at The Shelter on Van Buren, 1221 Van Buren, Oxford, Mississippi.  I sincerely hope you are fixing to attend.

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