Saturday, August 29, 2015

Ten Years After…and Don’t Call it Katrina

Ten years ago, 80 percent of New Orleans--a city I love--was underwater. Most media covered it as an unavoidable catastrophe: the storm surge overpowered the levees, and who could possibly have expected this? So we thought it was a natural disaster, and we blamed the resulting devastation on Hurricane Katrina.

Television brought us heartbreaking images and stories—elderly residents abandoned to drown in a flooded-out nursing home, families making their way through foul waist-high water, thousands stranded on rooftops and bridges and in the Superdome and at the convention center, baking and some dying in the hot sun. (I've avoided using the most shocking images here.)

The story was still unfolding two days later when my husband Peter and I went to see New Orleans’ own Dr. John at a local jazz club. We had seen him several times before, but this time he was heartbroken, and angry. He was still trying to locate friends amid the chaos. And he was giving interviews with a message: Don’t blame Katrina, blame the people who knew for years that the levees were falling apart. The Army Corps of Engineers and the city’s own government knew that the levees couldn’t hold against a truly strong storm, and they let it happen. Dr. John performed a brand-new song about lies and betrayal, and eventually he produced an album full of protest songs,“City that Care Forgot.”

Thousands of homes were uninhabitable because of water damage, toxic mold, and lack of utilities. We heard that FEMA would bring in emergency trailers. There was a supply of trailers available nearby—in Mississippi, as I recall. They were locally built, so if FEMA used them and ordered more, they would be boosting a regional economy also disrupted by hurricane damage. Instead, FEMA held out for trailers that would be built in Alaska and transported to Louisiana. When I heard that, it dawned on me: They are stalling so their friends can get into position to profit from this. Just as Halliburton got excessive no-bid contracts in Iraq, a fleet of out-of-town contractors would profit from exceedingly favorable treatment in the cleanup and redevelopment of New Orleans.

Years passed before the stories came out about how greed and corruption did, in fact, prolong the suffering of people trying to recover from the storm, especially the poor and non-white. Rebuilding the poorest and most damaged parts of town took a back seat as developers, investors, and government officials focused instead on more profitable business and tourism projects. City officials pocketed payoffs and traded favors; former Mayor Ray Nagin was sent to prison. Tens of thousands of residents who had fled the city did not return, largely because they no longer had jobs or places to live. In the process, the city lost a perceptible share of its distinctive multiethnic culture.

Peter and I had visited N’Awlins three or four times before the flood. He fondly recalls a locally born cabby who briefed him on his first visit, including where to go, what to eat, and to be sure to order your drink in a go-cup so you can take it out on the street. When we took an interest in crawfish etouffe, wait staff at every restaurant could explain the recipe and technique that made theirs unique.

When we visited this past April, our cab drivers were seldom New Orleans natives; during Easter Week a nice young man from Jordan asked whether we could explain the Good Friday tradition. The wait staff at one Cajun-Creole restaurant was entirely Latino and at another entirely southeast Asian, seemingly imported from elsewhere when a restaurant reopened or changed hands. They provided competent service, but they didn’t know beans about rice and beans. Something similar must have happened in the kitchens; traditional New Orleans food was simply not quite as rich and tasty as it should have been. The problem is not the addition of new ethnicities; it is the decreased presence of those who, like generations before them, shaped the remarkable culture unique to New Orleans.

Of all the expressions of New Orleans culture, music seems to have survived best. Some of the city’s most successful musicians (the Marsalis family, Harry Conick Jr., Dr. John and others) banded together to support the many musicians who were wiped out, and often forced to flee, by the flood. They raised money, built a musician’s village through Habitat for Humanity, established a music school for city children, and kept on playing. New Orleans music is not just an art form, not just a tourist attraction, it is vital part of life. The spirit of second-line parades and “Indian” parades, together with New Orleans jazz, blues, zydeco, and the rest, give a sense of the culture and strength that brought the city’s people through the flood and its aftermath.

In case you’re interested, a remarkable HBO series called Treme gives a fascinating picture of post-flood life in New Orleans. Well researched, well written, and cast with wonderful actors, it humanizes the issues and spotlights the city’s music with live performances from a wide range of the best musicians. It’s available on Blu-Ray. I can promise that watching it will be much more fascinating, enlightening, surprising, disturbing, and ultimately inspiring than the feel-good ten-years-after pieces we’ve been seeing in the media the past couple of weeks.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

TBT: Being thankful for every day

This first appeared August 26, 2009; it was my third-ever blog post. 

Today's Cryptogram was "Write it on your heart that every day is the best day in the year." It's Ralph Waldo Emerson (not LL Cool J, who apparently posted it on his web site recently).

Just yesterday I was thinking about the fact that being grateful for each new day is one of the better pieces of self-help advice I ever got. Habitually making the conscious choice to appreciate what you've got changes your approach to the day. I notice it in my responses when greeted with "How are you?" Old responses: tired, overworked, hate the weather, I have this ache.... New responses, at least some of the time: great, love this sunshine, too busy but glad to have a job in this economy, and of course the newly popular, having the time of my life being a grandma.

That single change makes things go better, and it's a bit of a gift to others, too, since negative energy sucks the life out of everyone around. Being open--loving life, things, people--makes us grow existentially; we expand to incorporate in our being that which we love.

I was thinking about these things last night while I couldn't sleep (which made today's Cryptogram a timely surprise). I started thinking about the prayer we were taught to say as children: "Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep. If I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take." My mother assured me that I was asking God to watch over me, but it sure seemed that I was inviting someone to snatch my soul in the middle of the night. What a creepy thing to teach a child. What did we learn from this recitation, except fear? How did it teach us to be good little people?

So at 2 or 3 a.m. I asked myself, "What prayer would I teach a child, if I were going to do such a thing?" I decided it would be something like, "I give thanks for this new day; please help me use it well." And later in the day, "Thanks for all the good things that happened today." And then we'd talk about good and not-so-good things from the day that offer teachable moments.

When Peter woke up too, I mentioned this, and we agreed that these are messages Augie and Vi are already getting. Mommy Abby is effusive and animated about pretty much everything they do and see in the course of a day, and any little gift or kindness that someone extends. They can't possibly just take things for granted when she is so relentlessly appreciative. I talk to Augie about this beautiful day, the beautiful garden, the wonderful sunny day... and now we hear him express his own appreciation of beauty...that's a beautiful cat, look at all the beautiful flowers, etc. And we all celebrate the kids' achievements, letting them know how clever, funny. strong, talented, beautiful, kind, and loving they are.

I sometimes have wondered whether we confuse the quest for happiness with spiritual growth. But I have no doubt that these life-affirming, positive, confidence-building messages are totally superior to anything I got from the Catholic Church of my youth. When happiness is based on authentic appreciation of what one has and is and does, it will produce children (and grownups) who are far more fully developed individuals, in pretty much every dimension, than we ever were. As for me, in my new-found blissed-out state, I am a better person than I have been for a long time!

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Facing the world through Facebook

I spend lots of time on Facebook these days. Too much, in fact. And it's not because I'm sharing the latest grandkid story or seeing friends' vacation photos, although those things do happen.

No, the extra time is because Facebook has become a source of information on endless topics, served up based on what you've already shown to be your interests. Some is from shaky sources (it's the internet, after all) but some is from news-gathering and news-reporting organizations with pretty solid fact-checking credentials.

So if a friend shares a link to a video in which scientists are literally watching part of an iceberg collapse into the ocean, and if I click "like" after reading it, Facebook will see that my newsfeed includes more stories about global climate change. Several friends share the latest quotes from Bernie Sanders, who has regularly opposed the way billionaire businessmen and corporations have bought influence with Congress at the expense of the middle class. Now when one of those quotes comes my way, Facebook also aggregates a handful of related stories, whether it's about regulating Wall Street or protecting health care or shifting our national priorities away from fossil fuels and toward cleaner, renewable energy. And because I'm interested in all those things (and more), I read them, perhaps "like" them, and voila! I receive more of them.

This is not the only way my newsfeed fills up. One friend loves animals and every day sends a dozen items about endangered species living in protected habitats. She also sends a dozen cartoons. Some are genuinely funny, but to find out which ones, I'd have to read them all. Other friends send inspirational messages, stunning photos of exotic places, or political commentary from the left or the right. These are not their own writing or photos, they are simply passing along things they like. And I compound the traffic flow, because periodically I "like" a message that resonates, or a political cartoon that nails an event or situation in what strikes me as a very clever and insightful way. When I "like" something, my Facebook friends get the same message, and a line saying that I liked this. 

I can put an end to some of this traffic. I can tell Facebook that I no longer wish to see Minion cartoons, for example, or posts from other specific sources. I can even say I don't want to see posts from certain friends, and they'll never know. (In fact, I can continue to see a little preview of everything they have posted, just in case I want to check in sometimes.) So I'm about to regulate some of the volume.

But there's another aspect to all of this. I'm getting more and more information that documents ways in which we are losing natural resources that we need to survive as a species. Ways that our democracy is not living up to its promises. Ways that products we use every day--including food--are introducing poisons into our systems. Ways that progressives and conservatives misunderstand each other at the expense of social interaction and our governance. You get the idea.

We all have perspectives on these issues. A few of my blog friends write about them often, but most of us have chosen to focus on other things--daily life, families, books, aging, sometimes even religion. Anything but "politics." But I've been drawn to those social and political issues on Facebook.

Mostly, I read about them. My Facebook friends and I occasionally write a paragraph as an into to a link we are passing along, but we're not really having discussions there. It isn't a medium that encourages an individual user to write a thoughtful piece...blogging is better for that.

So I'm trying to decide whether to write a few pieces about my most pressing issues, and if so whether to post them here or open a new blog with a new name...because when I look at these issues I'm not exactly blissed out.

Friday, July 31, 2015


I have clothing and fabric strewn about my office, on our dining-room table, and on the floor outside a couple of closets I've been sorting through. The process of de-cluttering, it turns out, creates a lot of clutter while it's underway. 

Quilt project and sparkly stuff
It takes a lot of energy, too. I find myself evaluating items that represent, literally and figuratively, the threads of my life. Should it go? Should it stay? These decisions can be complicated. The secret, I think, is in the timing. Am I ready to let go of this? Am I ready to stop being the person who needed this outfit? Can I see myself getting along without so many bins of fabric and craft supplies? Or, at least, with less of these particular supplies? (There is definitely a voice in my head that says, "If you get rid of this stuff you'll have more room for that other stuff you've been wanting.")

Sometimes an item represents a dream. For example, I came across a pink pinwale playsuit I began to make for ViMae seven years ago, when she was a few months old. The fabric was cute but too heavy for ruffles, and before I'd finished it she was growing so fast I knew she'd never get to wear it. I couldn't throw it away--I had long dreamed of sewing darling clothes for adorable children. But by now, I have sewn other things for both grandkids, and I have also discovered the joys of buying wonderful like-new dresses at Once Upon a Child. Realizing that my dream is intact and even improved, I am finally ready to throw away that unfinished project along with other hapless bits and pieces. Bonus: In the process I uncovered more fabric that the kids have decided will be perfect for some brand-new projects.

Then, of course, there's the matter of an entire work wardrobe--two, really, because summer and winter demand different clothing options here in Minnesota. I'd stopped wearing dresses for work long ago in favor of dressy pants and jackets or sweaters. To my way of thinking, I had maybe five pairs of pants for winter and five for summer. My closets, however, say there were more. And I had them in three different sizes. For a couple of years in my 40s, I wore braces on my teeth. Lost 25 pounds because I wouldn't eat in public. I did give away some of those clothes years ago, but I realized I was keeping a few "in case I ever get cancer and lose a lot of weight." I guess that idea stuck with me because my mother got cancer at 60 and did lose a lot of weight, and shopping for new clothes while you know you are dying is not that much fun. But I'm finally ready to risk it. Those size 8s and 10s are gone.

So are a lot of other clothes that don't fit, probably never will, and perhaps never did. Also gone: things that never were really comfortable, or didn't flatter, or that I just don't like.

Or that I no longer "need." Apparently when I was working I needed eight black long-sleeved t-shirts, differing only in length and in the shape of the scoop necks. Plus eight or ten in other colors. (I wore them, instead of blouses, with suits and jackets.) I can say with confidence that I don't need so many now.

Future pillow cover and more sparkles
The same is true with all the pants, both dressy and casual, that I'd accumulated in an array of classic colors: black, brown, navy, and, of course, tan, beige, taupe, sand, stone, khaki, and other synonyms for, um, tan. Tried them all on, found some in the back of the spare closet that fit better than ones I've been wearing, kept only the favorites. In another closet I found four pairs of pants I'd put in a bin to be hemmed. Kept two, tossed two.

Today we are taking three huge bags full of clothes to Goodwill (along with household items we've recruited for the trip). This will make room to continue the weeding process, which will eventually include books, collectibles, you-name-it. And I plan to revisit my closets in six months or so, because I know I'll be ready to shed some additional stuff.

Cleaning out my closets, and then decluttering in general, was going to be my first post-retirement project. It has taken four and a half years to get started. I think I feared the process; I thought I would have to summon brutal self-discipline to get rid of things that had been part of my life. You've heard, "If you haven't worn it in a year, it's gone." Well, no. Some things just have a longer shelf life than that. 

So I gave away everything I was sure of, including some special-occasion clothes and some of the t-shirts I've collected over the years, bearing logos of favorite causes and teams and places. But I kept things to which I felt attached. A very worn shirt bearing the logo of International Women's Year (1976), in which I participated, for example. And my 1991 World Champions sweatshirt with a few Twins' autographs. And I was already feeling okay about that when I heard about a new best-seller with a rather grand title: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing.

I haven't read the book, but in interviews author Marie Kondo says that when you are torn about keeping or tossing an item, hold it, touch it, feel it. If it makes you happy, keep it. Amen to that.

How about you? Have you mastered the art of decluttering? Organizing? Shall we form a book club to study Ms. Kondo's advice?  Or have you found life-changing decluttering "magic" from another source? Do tell!


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