Monday, December 10, 2007

Winter wonderland

I see by the news today that there is an ice storm that has shut down travel from Texas to New Hampshire. 12 people dead in traffic accidents attributed to the weather. Airports shut down in Chicago and Oklahoma City. I guess it's really winter.

Way down yonder in New Orleans, it has been in the 80s for the last several days. I had a Christmas open house on Saturday and had to keep the a/c blasting so people who had come in their Christmas clothes wouldn't die of heat stroke. Mind you, we are breaking records for high temperatures right now. This is not your typical December weather.

But it is incredible that you don't have to go too far north to hit a massive ice storm.

And you wonder why we crazy people continue to live here. August is the pits, but we love winter.

Y'all come down. Mardi Gras is the first Tuesday in February.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Alternative universes, explained

I have done something that Alfred Hughes, the Archbishop of New Orleans, hasn't done. I have actually READ Philip Pullman's book, The Golden Compass. Just finished it a week or so ago, in fact. According to Sunday's Times-Picayune, the archbishop hasn't read the book, and he encourages Catholics not to read it either -- or to go see the movie based on the book, which opens this Friday.

And while I admit I'm not Catholic, I also admit that, as a Protestant pastor, I haven't lost my faith over this book. Not even close. But I certainly am amused at the handwringing agonizing that's been going on over it.

"All our children are going to lose their faith if they read this book." Oh, please. There are a lot of things in this world that might cause a person to "doubt," but The Golden Compass isn't one of them.

I am a big fan of fantasy and science fiction. I've been reading it since I was oh, eight or ten years old and going through the Milton Latter Library's entire collection of juvenile science fiction and fantasy (Robert Heinlein's Red Planet and Ray Bradbury's The Martian Chronicles were two favorites.) As you may have noticed by my present occupation, I didn't lose my faith reading them. BTW, the very copies I read of some of those books are STILL on the shelves at Latter. I checked.

One theme in science fiction and fantasy is that of the "alternate" or "alternative" universe, a world that looks a lot like ours but isn't. Classic Star Trek had an episode featuring an alternative universe, where Kirk and Spock were very different from their counterparts in this universe. The television series "Sliders" featured a group of characters who "slid" into alternative, or parallel, universes every week, and history had taken a different turn in each universe. And Doctor Who left Rose Tyler behind in a parallel universe at the end of last season -- if you need a good cry, watch that last scene between the two of them as they part.

Warning: "spoilers" follow. If you really want to read The Golden Compass, be aware that what follows will give away some plot details.

Well, the first sentence of the book begins "Lyra and her daemon..." As the story progresses, we figure out that a "daemon" (pronounced "demon") is an animal spirit that accompanies the humans in this book, and that the two are inseparably linked. There is no indication that these "daemons" are evil spirits. They are a part of who these people are. So right there, you know that this is a fantasy world.

And then, if you had any doubt that you were in a parallel universe, turn to page 27 (I am quoting from the mass market paperback edition): "Ever since Pope John Calvin had moved the seat of the Papacy to Geneva and set up the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the Church's power over every aspect of life had been absolute. The Papacy itself had been abolished after Calvin's death, and a tangle of courts, colleges, and councils, collectively known as the Magisterium, had grown up in its place."

Pope John Calvin -- did you get that? (Now we're in MY -- or our -- territory, Presbyterian and Reformed fans!) Clearly, this is an alternative universe! (Maybe that's why the Roman Catholic Church is upset -- in this universe, Calvin became pope!)

Yes, the Church (aka the Magisterium) does some terrible things in this universe. Please note, however, that this is not the Roman Catholic Church of this universe. And even if it was, well, I have some books of church history on my shelf that detail some pretty awful things the Roman Catholic Church -- and the leaders of the Protestant Reformation, for that matter -- did in the name of Jesus Christ. But maybe we don't want our children to know about them?

Back to that issue of "children" reading this book. I am not a reading specialist (just a reader), but on the basis of the complexity of the language, I would put the reading level of this book at somewhere around adolescence. Maybe eighth grade or high school. This is not a little kids' book. It contains words that younger children would balk over: "naptha," "anbaric," "alethiometer," to name a few. So a child who would sit down and read this book would be of an age to start making reasoned judgments for him- or herself.

If I were a concerned parent, what I would really worry about are some of the themes in this book. Who are Lyra's parents? The ones we are told about? Or are they not her real parents? And do they love her? Or do they want her only to suit their own purposes? Are they good people, or are they evil? I would worry a LOT more about these issues than the alternative universe depiction of something called "the church" which clearly bears no resemblance to church organizations as they exist in our world.

And just to make a book review out of this, Philip Pullman is a good and imaginative writer, but he is no J.K. Rowling. Lyra Belacqua is no Harry Potter. But he writes an interesting tale.

Alas, I won't have time to see the movie during the first few days it's on, but I will see it. And books two and three in the trilogy are in the mail to me even as I write this. If they turn out to be truly awful, I will let you know. If they're pretty good, I'll let you know that, too.

In the meantime, I would be happy to discuss this book with anyone who would like to join me in conversation. I only have one requirement: you actually have to READ the book first.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Another anniversary

A few days after the Katrina anniversary is another anniversary, a more personal one. It is the anniversary of my father's death, nearly 25 years ago now. The years have softened the pain of the memories of those last years of his life, and I can now think farther back, to earlier, happier memories from my childhood.

In pondering those days, I wonder if other fathers did the same sorts of things with their children that my father did with me. You see, I was the child of the second marriage, the child of my father's old age. He was 57 when I was born, and as I grew up, I sometimes had to explain to strangers that he wasn't my grandfather, he was my father. He turned 65 when I was eight, so for many of my growing-up years he was semi-retired, selling real estate part time. And I wonder if the things we did together were more the sorts of things children did with their grandfathers, not their fathers.

I remember going for walks with him in our neighborhood in the early evenings when I was around six or seven. I was fascinated by the stars and pored over the children's astronomy books I got from the library. My father, who had been a sea captain in his early years, and whose own father had run a navigation school in the Cayman Islands, introduced me to Sirius and Orion's belt and the Pleiades. The bright streetlights of a major road to our north pretty much blotted out the northern sky. So it wasn't until years later, when I went to summer camp, that I finally got to see that great mystery, the Big Dipper and the North Star, Polaris, that I had read about in the astronomy books.

When I was perhaps seven or eight, we spent our summer vacations at that grand old resort, the Edgewater Gulf Hotel on the Mississippi Gulf Coast. I remember going to the coffee shop with him and being fascinated with the display at the soda fountain. Parfaits -- layers of chocolate and vanilla, strawberry and vanilla, pineapple and vanilla -- in tall glasses sat on glass shelves in a mirrored case under bright lights and slowly turned round and round. They looked so real to me! (But they obviously weren't, or they would have melted.) They were so tantalizing!

My father, however, wanted to order the chicken and dumplings that were on the menu. He wanted me to try them to see what they were like. But for some reason, whenever he asked, they didn't have any that day. So, like the Big Dipper, chicken and dumplings were one of those mysteries that I didn't get to discover until I was older.

At the Edgewater, he and I would go out on the front lawn in the afternoons and sit in the pastel colored Adirondack chairs, pink and blue and yellow and green, under the live oaks, high on a bluff overlooking the Gulf. He would give me little bags of roasted peanuts and I would feed them to the squirrels. One, whom I named Chubby Squirrel, actually came right up to me a couple of times and took the peanuts from my fingers, to my great delight.

(A historical note. The Edgewater Gulf Hotel actually survived Hurricane Camille in 1969. But it didn't survive its economic troubles, and some years later the hotel was dynamited to make way for an expansion of the Edgewater Mall shopping complex. They had to dynamite the building twice before it finally came down. In the summer of 2004, I had lunch one day at a Gumbo Shop restaurant (the original is in the French Quarter) that, if my calculations were correct, sat roughly on the site of the front lawn of the Edgewater. I based my calculations on location by the few remaining oak trees edging the parking lot. I have no idea what happened to the property in Katrina.)

On the anniversary of the weekend of my father's death, I celebrated his memory with food. In the summers of my childhood, he would go down to a neighborhood I recall vaguely as being somewhere near the Fair Grounds Race Course, to the local Cuban market, and buy mangoes. With his pocket knife he would peel them (when they are peeled, they are slippery things!) and slice off pieces of the sweet, yellow-orange fruit. And he would tell me how mangoes grew wild in his childhood home in the Cayman Islands.

Today mangoes are not quite as exotic a delicacy as they were back then, and you can buy them in the local supermarket. But thanks to my father, I know how to pick out a good one, looking for that blush of red and just that certain texture, not too hard, not mushy. This week I found a good one at the grocery store. In memory of my father I peeled it very carefully (with a good paring knife, not a pocket knife!) and sliced it up. It was the sweetest, juciest mango I had eaten in years. Just like the kind my father used to bring home from the Cuban market years ago.

By the time I came along, both my grandfathers were deceased. So perhaps I had the best of both worlds: a father who filled the roles of grandfather and father to me. I am grateful for his life and the years I had with him. And oh, yes, he did live to see me grow up. He lived to lay hands on my head when I was ordained as an elder in the Presbyterian church. It's a memory I'll treasure always.

Wednesday, August 29, 2007

An anniversary

August 29, 2007. At 9:38 a.m. I walked around the church grounds and stopped, facing the direction of the 17th Street Canal levee breach, roughly a couple of miles northeast of where I stood. It was a late summer morning, sunny, a little cooler than it has been the past few weeks, thanks to the showers we've been having the last few days. So I stood there, wondering what people in passing cars thought I was doing, or if they even cared that I was standing in front of the church, looking at who knows what.

It's been a banner summer for cicadas, and they chirred soothingly in the oak trees planted along the curb and on the median (we call medians "neutral grounds" hereabouts for ancient obscure reasons). My kindergarten class here at the church preschool "helped" to plant those very oak trees fifty years ago. The church gardens are still in bloom in late August, with pink and white pentas, lavender periwinkle and a sunny yellow hibiscus showing off for visitors.

In short, it was a normal morning. I didn't hear any church bells ringing at 9:38 a.m., although I know churches were asked to ring their bells. (As far as I know, this church doesn't have a bell. At least, I've never heard one.) I stood in the peaceful church garden and thought of Lake Pontchartrain exploding through the 17th Street Canal levee at 9:38 a.m., that terrible morning two years ago. It hardly seems possible now, in this peaceful place. But it happened.

Earlier in the month I took a week of vacation. I went to my favorite vacation place, Pensacola Beach, Florida, and stayed at a friend's condo not far from the federally protected area that is the Gulf Islands National Seashore. In Pensacola they are still recovering from Ivan, which struck the year before Katrina and darn near wiped them off the map. Ivan was headed straight for New Orleans, but at the last minute it turned and slammed into Gulf Shores, Alabama, just west of Pensacola. My friend's condo had the side ripped off and the beach sand was feet deep all over the complex. The condo has been completely redone, and while we were there, the landscapers were installing new sod.

In the mornings and at sunset I would walk the beach and ponder the transitory nature of life. I have been visiting Pensacola for thirty years, and roughly every five years or so they get slammed by a hurricane, and Santa Rosa Island, the barrier island where Pensacola Beach is located, undergoes major urban renewal. Hotels have come and gone over the years. Most of the cinderblock roach motels are gone now. The midpriced chains (Howard Johnson's, Holiday Inn) are gone. Every time the beach is rebuilt after a storm, fancier accommodations go up. And so do the prices.

Why do people rebuild, knowing that sooner or later they are going to get wiped out again? Because this place is beautiful. Because when there are no hurricanes out there, it's a wonderful place to be, a delight to the eyes and a comfort to the spirit. And oh, yes, it's a fun place, too, with lots of restaurants and nightlife. Me, I like to walk the beach at sunrise. But your mileage may vary.

On the way home I made a side trip to Waveland, Mississippi, where my family once had a summer home on the beach. Ah, Waveland. Yes, there are parts of New Orleans
where things haven't come back. But Waveland, wow. Waveland was a tiny town no one outside of this local area had ever heard of B.K. (Before Katrina). A.K., After Katrina, it made the national news. Just east of Ground Zero, where Katrina made landfall on the Pearl River, Waveland had hardly anything left standing after the storm. And frankly, it's still devastated. The shopping center at U.S. Hwy. 90 and Waveland Avenue, where the supermarket and the dollar store and other shopping were located, is boarded up. Driving Waveland Avenue (which connects Hwy. 90 with the beach), you find few houses left and lots of piles of debris...two years later. But as I got near the beach, I saw a couple of large homes going up. Not much else around, but people are rebuilding. I shook my head and marveled at the indomitability of the human spirit. In spite of everything, these folks are rebuilding their homes in devastated Waveland, Mississippi.

Down the beach road at the site of St. Clare's Catholic Church, there are quonset huts where the church once was. The church grounds have become a tent city for volunteer work groups coming down to help rebuild the area. A sign in front reads, "Katrina was big, but God is bigger." Amen.

Here in hurricane land, we live in the tension between two realities: the transitory nature of all life epitomized by the destruction of the hurricanes, and the indomitabiity of the human spirit, the refusal to give up in the face of that destruction. Some people think we all are insane to continue to live here. I say we are brave. We know the cost, yet we persevere. There are no guarantees in life. Perhaps we who live here in New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast are just a little bit more aware of this than those who live inland, under the illusion of security.

This is our home. We are staying.

Tuesday, June 12, 2007

God's newness

One of my seminary professors, Walter Brueggemann, likes to talk about "God's newness." Isaiah 43:19 says, "Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert." God has made a way in the wilderness for me. I have a new call to ministry. I am back in a parish again. After a long, long time of wandering and wondering, of searching and praying, I have been called to a church in the metro New Orleans area. Not just any church, but the church where I was baptized as an infant and where I went to preschool. God must be laughing. My parents must be laughing. Shoot, I'm laughing too.

We held my installation service on Sunday. It was truly a celebration, for the congregation and for me. Everyone who took part in the service was a friend -- some for many years, some recent. Friends and family members came. The elders of the church were there. The congregation was there. We had a great reception afterward and everybody had a wonderful time.

A couple came in during the service. They were strangers. They needed financial assistance. After the service, I was able to give them some help. Their presence in the service was a reminder to me -- to all of us -- that the work of ministry is beyond the doors of the church, out in the community.

I believe it was T.S. Eliot who said, "The end of all our explorations will be to come back to where we began, and discover the place for the first time." And here I am, back where my faith story began so many years ago. A new adventure begins.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

The elusiveness of now

I walk across a pasture in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains. The grass has been mowed, maybe a week or more ago, for it is thick under my feet. The yellowed cuttings lie across the green grass below. Fescue, mostly, with some clover and bermuda mixed in.

It's about one o'clock in the afternoon. A warm sun heats my arms, my face, as I climb up a hill, unlock a gate, then make my way carefully down the hill on the other side of the fence. In spite of a light breeze, I begin to perspire. And as I walk, I ponder the elusiveness of "now." It's here for a moment, and then it's gone. I anticipate, then it's now, then it's past. Step after step. At the bottom of the hill, I turn left and begin walking across the pasture toward a stand of trees that mark the distant fenceline. I can see a spot of freshly turned red clay. It's dry, thanks to a long drought in this part of the state.

When I reach the fresh red clay, I stop. I put down the tote bag I've been carrying. It contains a small leatherbound book and a box of Kleenex.

There are three separate parts to this bare ground. One is hard packed. It's been here awhile. One is fresher. But the one closest to me is new, fresh crumbling earth. The tears roll down my face. I have an insane urge to dig in the clay with my hands until I find what is underneath it. But I don't.

Cinder, my beloved companion on life's trail for the last twenty years, almost twenty-one, is buried here, in this freshly turned North Georgia red clay. And a part of me is buried with him. A huge chunk of who I am is gone. The elusiveness of now. Where did those twenty years go?

And how many hours did I spend brushing that Georgia red clay out of his coat and shampooing it off him when brushes failed? He did so love to roll in it!

I am glad I brought him back here to spend his last years, and I am glad that he is buried here, where he spent so much of his life. He never grazed in this pasture, but he would have enjoyed it. It's a lovely spot, a place where a human being wouldn't mind being buried. He lies next to Sweet Talk, a mare from the farm who died about seven weeks before he did, and Chrissy, a fifty-year-old pony who died around Easter a year ago.

Someone, probably Sweet Talk's owner, laid a stone on top of her grave with words engraved on it that went something like this: "If tears could build a stairway, and memories a lane, I'd go right up to heaven, and bring you back again." Sweet Talk's owner couldn't bear to come out when the vet came to put her down. I was in New Orleans when Cinder died, but I don't think I could have watched it either.

I pulled out the slim black leather book. "I lift up my eyes to the hills -- from where will my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth." Psalm 121.

Accept, O Lord, I humbly pray, a foal of your own herd, a horse of your own barn, a creature of your own creation.

Friday, May 04, 2007

For the birds

They say it is bad luck to have a bird get loose in the house. In Cattown, it IS bad luck -- for the bird. This week, not one but two birds, sparrows, probably, fell down my ancient chimney. I begged the guys who did the roof, I begged the guys who painted the house, to put some chicken wire on top of the two chimneys to cap them so birds wouldn't fall down, but they mustn't have taken me seriously, because they never did it. Every now and then, one of the local birds decides to go for a spin down the chimney, and it usually ends badly.

Years ago, when my uncle was a boy, these chimneys vented coal-burning fireplaces, two upstairs and two downstairs, and the fireplaces and the stove were the only heat in the house. My uncle's job was to fill them with coal in the mornings. I still have two of the non-polished aluminum (?) scoop-like shovels he used for this task. At any rate, those old chimneys are still full of coal soot. And this week, when the birds fell, they got covered in it, which is why I'm not sure they were sparrows, because they were quite black when they ended up in the living room.

They fell one at a time. I found the first one in the dining room when I came home one afternoon -- and it was surrounded by three cats. 'Teebie, the hunter, was holding it down with a paw. Then he picked it up in his mouth and carried it around. When I realized it was alive, I managed to scoop it up with paper towels and carried it outside. As soon as I loosed my delicate grip on it, it took off.

But there was another one still in the chimney. I could hear it fluttering around in there, and so could the cats, who kept watch around the living room fireplace for quite some time. I was hoping it would find its way out.

Unfortunately, when I got home the next afternoon, I found the second bird upside down on the living room floor, quite dead. The cats weren't even playing with it. I suspect 'Teebie snapped its neck, because there were no signs of injury to its body. This one I took outside and buried.

Jesus said, "Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father." [Matthew 10:29] Even the death of a little sparrow that wandered into the wrong place is known to God.

On a lighter note, the green parrots of Uptown New Orleans are back. One of them has been happily dining on the drying, fermenting remnants of the Japanese plums still on the tree. (We are moving into the hot weather season now that it's May.) I can watch him from an upstairs window (joined by excited cats) as he picks a fruit from the tree with one clawed foot and holds it as he eats, using the other foot to hang on to the tree branch. He is bright green with a white underbody and a bright yellow beak. Some say these are wild parakeets, but he's awfully big for a parakeet, in my humble opinion. And gorgeous.

The tiny soot-covered sparrows and the magnificent green parrot both are part of God's awesome creation. How humble I feel to also be a part of that creation!

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

The persistence of evil

A well-read book on my theological bookshelf is titled Creation and the Persistence of Evil by Daniel Levinson. The Bible doesn't tell us where evil came from -- it just turned up in the Garden of Eden in the personage of the serpent. (The business about fallen angels, Adam's other wife Lilith, etc., come from sources outside the Bible.) Human beings got kicked out of Eden, and evil went with us. We've been dealing with it ever since.

And what happened on Monday morning at Virginia Tech was, unquestionably, evil exploding into our world in the personage of a deeply disturbed young man. I have read his plays that were posted on AOL. They were frightening enough to have his professors refer him for counseling, but really, you can't arrest someone for writing a purported work of fiction. (Well, okay, you can, but that's the subject of another blog.) The play about a young man and his stepfather could well have been his modern day take on Hamlet, for all we know: Hamlet's father was murdered by his stepfather. As for the language, well, consider the stuff Allen Ginsburg wrote. I've been in critique groups where some of the writings some group members submitted had me feeling very uncomfortable. But so far none of the authors has lost it and killed more than thirty people.

There was simply no way to predict this was going to happen. The media have listed a number of deadly shootings over the years: the Amish school shooting in Pennsylvania, Columbine High School in Colorado, the Texas Tower shooter in 1966. I can think of some non-school-related shootings that terrorized communities where I lived: a mentally ill man who opened fire in the food court at Perimeter Mall in Atlanta some 15 years ago; a shooter on the roof of the Downtown Howard Johnson's in New Orleans in the early 1970s. And a shooting in the gym of a New Orleans high school a few years ago that was either drug or gang related. We all wring our hands and try to reimagine the scene "if only" someone had seen it coming. But there's just no way to predict what someone will do. If we locked up every student in school who acted "weird," there wouldn't be enough room for them all -- not to mention the terrible injustice that would be done to young people whose only "crime" is to be different. (A lot of books have been written on that subject too.)

My heart and my prayers go out to everyone who grieves over what happened at Virginia Tech. You didn't have to be there to be part of that community. The whole nation is in mourning for the lives lost.

My undergraduate degree is from Syracuse University. December 21, 1988 is a day the Syracuse family will remember forever. On that day, terrorists blew up Pam Am Flight 103 in the skies over Lockerbie, Scotland. Among the dead were 35 students from Syracuse who were returning from a semester of study abroad. It was many years after my graduation, yet I wept too for these young people. On the campus today is a memorial to them, and every year 35 Remembrance Scholarships are awarded in their memory. In addition, there are two scholarships offered every year for students from Lockerbie to attend Syracuse for a year. When the chancellor of Syracuse, Nancy Cantor, wrote a note of condolence to the president of Virgina Tech, she recalled the grief of Syracuse over the loss of its students nearly 20 years ago.

The young people and their professors who died in a hail of gunfire on Monday morning will never be forgotten. The Virigina Tech community, like the Syracuse community, will find a suitable way to honor their memories and try to bring some good out of this tragedy.

In the meantime, we grieve.

Friday, March 09, 2007

It's that time of year again...

Yup, it's that time of year again: Lent. And in the words of one of my favorite philosophers, Frank Davis of Natcher'ly N'Awlins fame, you know what that means: crawfish season!

Had dinner with a friend last night at a restaurant on world famous St. Charles Avenue, which looks a lot like it did B.K. (Before Katrina): Mardi Gras beads dangling from the live oaks (which don't have quite as many branches as they did B.K.), people strolling the sidewalks in the spring twilight, the grand old mansions and newer hotels and condos graciously lining the avenue. The only thing missing, alas, is the St. Charles Avenue streetcar (and I really miss it!). The old 1920s cars survived the flooding, but the new red-and-yellow, air conditioned, cost a million dollars apiece ones, well, guess where THEIR car barn was? Yup, drowned 'em all, 26 of them as I recall. Until they are replaced, the old 1920s cars are being used on the Canal Street line, the Riverfront line, and on the part of St. Charles that is in the Central Business District. The long line uptown and along Carrollton Avenue, where the crashing branches of the oak trees destroyed the crosspieces of the poles that hold up the electric wiring, is still under repair. And until new streetcars arrive to replace the ones destroyed in the flood, there really aren't enough to go around all those streetcar lines, unless you want to wait an hour for a streetcar. In the meantime, we have buses on the St. Charles route, but bouncing over the potholes on a bus just doesn't have the same ambiance as riding the swaying old streetcars with the windows open. The day that streetcars run on St. Charles Avenue again, I am going to be out there on the street waving an American flag to greet them! (Unless I am fortunate enough to get a seat on board.)

At any rate, my friend and I dined at this Mexican restaurant on St. Charles Avenue. And when I opened the menu, the first thing I saw was the insert with the evening's specials. Lenten specials. Seafood dishes.

When was the last time you saw seafood dishes on the menu in a Mexican restaurant? Maybe on your last trip to Cancun? Think about it. Mexico has long coastlines on the Gulf side and the Pacific side, but most Mexican restaurants only have beef and chicken dishes on their menus. There must be a lot of seafood dishes in Mexican cooking, but you never see them on restaurant menus in the U.S. I wonder why not?

So what did we eat, you ask? My friend had shrimp empanada, and I had...crawfish enchiladas. I have no idea if they serve crawfish in Mexico. They sure serve them in New Orleans. Especially during Lent.

And they were good, too! I look forward to having the other half of my dinner for lunch, thanks to the ever popular take-out box!

Lent equals crawfish. Remember that!

Wednesday, March 07, 2007


The title of the blog below should read "Happy trails," not "Hapy." Where's a good editor when you need one?

Hapy trails

I've been on the road. Took a trip to Georgia two weeks ago to visit Cinder the wonder horse, and I found him not doing so well. Seems he had gotten into another horse's supplement, the dosage of which was one ounce, and he had eaten the entire three-pound tub. Without going into the gory details, he was not a happy camper. It was an emergency call for the vet.

It's been a long road, but he was starting to do better, until this evening, when he choked on his feed -- it got stuck in his throat. Another emergency call to the vet. I can hardly wait to see this month's vet bill. But the vet was able to flush water down his throat and clear the food that was blocked. Now he has to have his feed wetted down before he eats it.

If he gets through all this, he will be thirty-one years old on April 26. I have had him since August, 1986 -- twenty years. And it's been a long, wonderful ride. On this last trip I stayed in Alpharetta, in a place that was pastureland and woods for most of the years that I have had Cinder. In fact, I think the expressway exit didn't even exist back in 1986.

Time flies when you're having fun. In many ways, that summer of 1986 when I found him at a farm in Alpharetta seems like just yesterday. He was ten then, and he was a dapple gray horse with a black mane and tail and black stockings (black legs up to the knees and hocks). Today he is white (when he's clean) with a creamy mane and tail. He still has the dark gray patch on his left shoulder that the Arabian people call a "bloody shoulder" -- his grandfather, the Arabian sire Morafic, had the marking too.

While I was visiting Cinder, I had dinner one evening with a friend who owns a horse that Cinder buddied up with, way back then in the 1980s. She still has her horse -- he's 27 now himself, and his beautiful chestnut coat has gotten darker with age and his back has a definite sway in it. My friend and I had a wonderful time reminiscing about the barns where we'd kept our horses and the people we had met along the way. She and I had moved the two horses to the same barns at least four times so we could keep them together. We would move because the barn was closing because someone was developing the property for a subdivision, or a new barn manager came in that we didn't like, or something along those lines. We have seen a lot of changes since 1986.

Part of the problem with having to acknowledge that your horse is getting old is that it means you, too, are getting old. I have started riding again, at a barn in New Orleans. Before my first lesson I cried like a child for two days. It meant I was going on without Cinder, and it broke my heart. I probably will never ride Cinder again -- long story, but I am afraid he might fall down with me. But I want to keep on riding. And in that first time back on a horse in I don't want to say how many years, I lasted about thirty minutes. Talk about pain. Good pain, as pain goes. But I was hobbling around for two days afterward. You see, like Cinder, I'm getting up there myself. And that, too, is a difficult thing to deal with.

In the early 1990s, when we were at a farm in Forsyth County, Georgia that is now a Jack Nicklaus golf course surrounded by very expensive houses, there was a woman there who had a Morgan mare. I first met this woman when I followed her up the long gravel drive to the barn. She was driving a red LeBaron convertible. Her name was Lavinia. And she was about 70 years old. The rest of the horse owners at this barn, all women, were in their 30s and 40s. We just loved Lavinia. She said to us, "Those old ladies at my church just want to sit around and play cards all day. I can't do that." So Lavinia was out there longeing her Morgan mare, Tessa (longeing, pronounced "lungeing," is putting your horse on a long lead line and exercising it by having it walk, trot, or canter in a circle with you in the center holding the lead line). Then she would put a heavy Australian stock saddle on her and ride her. All us thirty to forty year olds decided then and there that we wanted to be Lavinia when we got to be her age.

Yeah, I want to be Lavinia. I don't know if there is going to be another horse in my life after Cinder is gone. I am afraid if I got another horse and it lived as long as Cinder, I would either be going out there to visit him on a walker or he would outlive me. I wonder what Lavinia did.

I guess if I ever have a broken hip (and my mother had one, and I know just how awful that is), I would rather tell the doctor, "My horse threw me" rather than "I fell down in my house." Although if the horse threw me, I'd probably break more bones than just my hip. But I won't go there for now!

Cinder, it's been a great ride these twenty years. Thank you for all the fun times we've had, all the places we've been, all the people and horses we've met. And I hope we have some good days yet.

Thursday, February 01, 2007

More on Ray (no, not Nagin!)

Ray Bradbury (mentioned in the post "There will come soft rains") is in his eighties now and still an American legend in fantasy and science fiction. I have a hardcover edition of The Martian Chronicles that he autographed at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference on June 21, 1997. I treasure it, and I treasured the insights he offered at the SWBC. (I see by their website that he is again the keynoter this June.)

I first read the Martian Chronicles when I was about eleven years old. We had a library of sorts at summer camp, basically a handful of old yellowed paperbacks. One rainy afternoon I found a tattered copy of the book there. As I recall, it was literally falling apart and had some pages missing. I read what I could, and at the end of the summer, when I came home, I found a better copy in the public library and read it through. For those who haven't had the privilege, The Martian Chronicles is a collection of short stories Bradbury wrote in the late 1940s - early 1950s. It tells the tale of several expeditions to Mars. The first few end tragically. There are Martians living on Mars (which is why this is fantasy and not science fiction -- even back then scientists were fairly sure Mars couldn't support any kind of sentient life) who thwart those early expeditions. But then, taking a page from American history, the Martians die of some common human childhood disease for which they have no immunity. And so Mars is colonized. But a great world war is brewing at home, and that is the setting for the story that oddly became my favorite in the collection: "There Will Come Soft Rains." It isn't set on Mars at all, but on Earth, after a great atomic war. All the humans have been killed, although there are a few pets running around. But for some strange reason, this house is left standing. In Ray Bradbury's imagined world of roughly 2050, houses are so automated that they do all the housework themselves, including cooking the meals, clearing the table, washing the dishes, etc. And so this house goes on merrily functioning with no human life present. (I guess it had its own generator, as I doubt if the electric utility company would have continued to function after a nuclear war.) The house also reads poetry to the no-longer-existent owner in the evenings, hence the reading of the Sara Teasdale poem. (I wonder if anyone will remember Sara Teasdale in 2050?)

And so Ray Bradbury has been one of my idols since I was quite young. When I learned that he was the keynote speaker each year at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference, I was determined to go. And that's how I got to meet him and get his autograph on a copy of one of my favorite books.

When Ray Bradbury talks to writers, he tells of the metaphors that have driven his life and encourages writers to think about their own metaphors. For him, it was the cartoons that were published in newspapers back in the 1930s when he was growing up. Buck Rogers, Tarzan, others. He used to cut the cartoons out of the paper and save them, until his friends made fun of him for such "babyish" behavior, and then he destroyed them -- an action he regrets to this day. When he became famous, he was asked to write the foreword to a book about these classic cartoons, which was a kind of vindication for him. He urges his audience to never let others make them ashamed of their metaphors, for they shape who we are.

The Daily Cattown News is one of my metaphors. As a child, I created a whole world around the lives of my kittens -- mostly the lives I imagined for them, but also their games, their play, their personalities. Today, I envision Cattown as more a state of mind than a place. It's post-Katrina New Orleans, but it's also an interior landscape. Think of it this way: Garrison Keillor has his Lake Wobegon, I have Cattown.

So, welcome to my metaphor. And thank you, Ray Bradbury, for giving me permission to share it with the world.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Barbaro, we hardly knew ye

One of the denizens of Cattown is a horse. Abdul Cinder and I have been together for twenty years now, and if he survives the winter in North Georgia, he'll be 31 in April. Cinder has always been a wonder horse, and he deserves honorary status as a cat because he has darn near had nine lives. Cinder has survived two colic surgeries, at least three bouts of laminitis, and hurricanes Isidore and Lili (a week apart) and Katrina two years later. Post-Katrina, I moved Cinder to a retirement community in the foothills of the North Georgia mountains, out of hurricane territory. He spent most of his life in the countryside north of Atlanta, and I plan to let him live out his days there -- with his longtime vets nearby.

Cinder is the horse my mother wouldn't let me have when I was ten. Back in those days, I was a horse crazy little girl (I still am, for that matter). Through Walter Farley's Black Stallion novels, I was introduced to the world of horse racing. My mother was embarrassed to hear me spout off about race horses like some racetrack tout, but there was no holding me back. I followed the races at the New Orleans Fair Grounds, watching them on television every chance I got. Back then, you had to be 18 to get into the track, because you might be corrupted by all the gambling going on. (I have been to the Fair Grounds twice this season, and trust me, there are little kids running all over the place. Clearly, I was born a generation or so too early.) I had no interest in gambling. I just loved to watch the horses run. (I still do.)

I loved a horse named Tenacious, who won a number of stakes races at the Fair Grounds and held the track record for six furlongs for quite awhile. (I was tickled to discover that the Fair Grounds now has a stakes race named for him.) I watched my first Kentucky Derby on television in 1961 and loved the winner, Carry Back, who had a distinguished racing career as well. I haven't missed a single Derby since 1961, and one of my life's goals is to go to the Derby one day, although friends in Louisville tell me that it is like Bourbon Street on Mardi Gras, not one of my favorite places to be, and I can see a lot more at home on TV.

Twenty years ago, when I was looking for a horse to buy, I learned a few things about horses that I didn't know when I was a child. (I have learned a LOT more things about horses in the years I've had Cinder, and I still have lots to learn.) One thing I learned was that a horse's legs don't fully develop until it is five years old -- its knees don't fill in until it's five. This is why the hunter-jumper people don't start training horses to jump over fences until they are five.

The horse racing people start running colts and fillies on the track at two and three years old. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, the Belmont Stakes and many of the other top races are exclusively for three-year-olds. These young horses are being raced before their legs are fully developed.

When I found that out, it cooled my ardor quite a bit for horse racing. I had always known it was dangerous, but now I began to learn about the toll it takes on a young horse's legs -- and back as well. In my days of hanging out with Cinder at various boarding facilities, I ran into a number of folks who had bought thoroughbreds off the track, and I learned a lot about the injuries they can develop by being raced so early in life.

And beautiful Barbaro was one such horse. I saw him break down in the Preakness, and I bawled like a baby. What a beautiful, talented young horse, so full of life! If you watched the race, you know that he was so eager to run that he broke out of the starting gate before the race and took off down the track. His jockey had to pull him up and bring him back. It was at the second start that his leg snapped in three places.

It is a great tribute to the progress that has been made in veterinary medicine that they were able to take such heroic measures to save Barbaro. And I give a lot of credit to his owners. It would have been a lot easier to put him down right there at the track and collect the insurance money. (Race horses are insured out the wazoo for just such injuries.) They really tried to save him.

I know a thing or two, but by no means everything, about laminitis. Cinder has had it and is at risk for getting it again. It is an inflammation of the foot or feet. A horse's foot is encased in a solid hoof wall. When it gets inflamed, the swollen tissue has nowhere to expand. So the inflammation actually pushes bones in the foot out of place as it tries to find ways to expand. This is called "rotation of the coffin bone." As far as I know, when that coffin bone is moved out of place, it's permanent, and it can cause lameness -- sometimes to the point that the horse has to be put down. And laminitis -- which is also called "founder" -- is extremely painful. It is awful to see your horse standing in the pasture, his feet hurting so much that he can't walk. He rocks back on his heels to take some of the pressure off his toes (the front of the hoof), where the pain is worst. Anti-inflammatory drugs help, but they also eat up the stomach lining, so there is a limit to how much can be given. Cinder's laminitis comes from a thyroid problem called Cushing's Disease. Barbaro's laminitis developed because he had to put the weight normally distributed between two back legs onto one while the broken bones healed. (There are other causes for laminitis as well.)

I recently got to see some two-year-old fillies in the paddock area before a race. Their legs were like matchsticks, so thin and so fragile. The following week I was up in Georgia with Cinder, and his thirty-year-old legs are at least twice the size of those fillies'. Yet he could take a misstep and break a leg out in his pasture one day too -- just like humans when we get old. But he's managed to make it all these years, and beautiful Barbaro never had that chance.

Barbaro, we hardly knew ye.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

There will come soft rains

The title of this post actually comes from a short story that is part of the classic work by Ray Bradbury, The Martian Chronicles. And he borrowed the title from a poem by Sara Teasdale. The point of the poem and that particular short story (in my humble opinion, as they say), is that even if all of humanity kills each other in a war, nature will go on: "And Spring herself, when she woke at dawn/Would scarcely know that we were gone."

In New Orleans this Sunday, as it grew dark, rain began falling softly over the city. It was fairly warm, in the sixties, and the streets were quiet. It was a kind of Ray Bradbury ending to the story that began back in September, the roller coaster ride of the Saints that had just enough of an air of unreality -- are these OUR Saints, the ones who have never made it this far in 40 years? -- to have been written by the master of fantasy.

And the snow that came in great showers in the last half of the game would have been lovely to see out in the woods somewhere, or from a window. The snow didn't care that two teams of human beings were wrestling in slippery, freezing mud, hardly able to see one another for the heavy snow falling around them. Or that the thousands of fans in the stands were getting covered with wet, cold snow. The snow was just being snow. And the rain in New Orleans on this quiet night is just being rain.

And it's going to be a rainy, somber day in New Orleans tomorrow. At least we have had a lot of practice saying, "Wait till next year." But next year is such a long time to wait.

Friday, January 19, 2007

The weather in hell, zip code 00000

One of my favorite jokes goes like this:

Boudreaux the Cajun lived down the bayou (Bayou St. John, maybe?) and he led a less than holy life. When he died, alas, he didn't get into heaven. He ended up in the other place. The devil made sure he kept hell good and hot, but when Boudreaux arrived, it didn't bother him a bit. He settled into a hammock and said, "Ah, just like the old days before we had air conditioning, back home on the bayou." The devil was more than a little annoyed, so he cranked the heat higher. Boudreaux poured himself a glass of lemonade and said, "Oh, jes' like the old days when we used to go crabbing on the Mississippi Gulf Coast." The devil cranked the heat all the way to the limit, so that hell started to melt, but Boudreaux just smiled and said, "This is just like back home when my mama used to fix a big pot of gumbo in the kitchen."

Finally the devil couldn't take it any more. "All right, Boudreaux," he said. "If you like it hot, then I'm going to fix you." And the devil turned on the air conditioning, and it got reaaally, reaaally cold, way beyond cold, colder than you can possibly imagine. With a big grin on his face, the devil went to check on Boudreaux.

He found Boudreaux dancing a second line and laughing and shouting and leaping for joy. The devil was astounded, outraged. "Boudreaux! I thought you liked the heat, so I made it so cold down here that you wouldn't be able to stand it! What is with you, anyway? Why are you dancing around like that?"

Boudreaux could hardly contain himself for joy. "Hell's freezing over!" he cried. "The Saints must be in the Super Bowl!"

The weather forecast for game time, 2 p.m. on Sunday in Chicago, is 27 degrees with a 60 percent chance of snow showers. Hell is freezing over! Go Saints!

Monday, January 15, 2007

The kingdom of heaven

A long, long time ago, circa 1981 or so, long before I went to seminary, I was in a study group at a church in New Orleans. We were reading Shirley Guthrie's now-classic book, Christian Doctrine. (Shirley was a man, by the way, and many years later I studied with him at seminary. He also worshiped at my church, and I was honored to have known him. In case you are interested, he published a new edition of Christian Doctrine 25 years after the first one, updated to reflect some of the changes that had gone on in our society and in his own thinking. He died in the fall of 2004, and I had the opportunity to attend his memorial service at my former church in Atlanta. But I digress. I way, way, digress here.)

At any rate, we were at a point in our study when we were considering the kingdom of heaven. As a theological issue, the kingdom of heaven is hard to pin down. Depending on which scriptures you read, you may decide that the kingdom of heaven will come when Jesus returns at the end of time. Or you may decide that it is already here ("the kingdom of heaven is in your midst"). Or maybe it is beginning to "break in" to human history. Or maybe we, by our actions as Christians in the world, can do something to help usher it in. (In the revised edition of Shirley's book, the discussion runs through pp. 275-287.)

So we pondered that for awhile, trying to develop our own imagery of the kingdom and what it must be like. And then the Holy Spirit came upon me, and in a flash, I saw the whole kingdom laid out before me, and it was glorious. And I said to the group:

"The kingdom of God is like the Saints going to the Super Bowl, and having the game played in New Orleans!"

Friends, we are almost halfway to the kingdom of God! What we saw on Saturday night at the Superdome was pretty darn close! As Jesus would say, "You are not far from the kingdom of God." (Matthew 12:34)

And so I give you a new parable: The kingdom of God is like a man who had a football team...

Thursday, January 11, 2007

I went down to the demonstration...

We in New Orleans have been putting up with slaughter in our streets for years, long before Katrina. After the storm the murder rate dropped to zero...for awhile. Then, as people started coming back, the drug dealers (and, presumably, their customers) came back, and the dealers started competing for the little unflooded turf (and, one would think, the smaller customer base) that there was, and the murders started up again. I could be a bit cynical here for a moment and say that as long as "the good people" thought it was just drug dealers killing other drug dealers, it was okay -- let the bad guys kill each other and leave the court system out of it, I guess was the prevailing attitude. But when in the space of a few days, a couple of people who clearly had nothing to do with the drug scene were murdered, the citizen outrage boiled over.

A young black man who played with a jazz band and taught music in the public schools was shot in the back of the head as he drove down the street with his wife and stepson. The gunman was after his stepson, and oopsie, hit the wrong person in the car. That was outrage number one. A few days later -- and the details are still disturbingly vague on this one -- a gunman shot a white woman to death when she went to her door at 5:30 a.m. He wounded her husband. The couple's two-year-old son was uninjured. She was a filmmaker and he was a doctor. Since the shooting, the father has left the city with the child. But this shooting, one week ago today, really galvanized the people of New Orleans.

Today I marched in a demonstration to protest the violence going on in our city, and our government's seeming helplessness to do anything about it. There were three groups marching: I was in the one that started at the foot of Canal Street, another came from the neighborhood where the filmmaker was murdered, and another came from Central City where the young musician was murdered: his band led the procession, and we all applauded as they joined us. We all converged on City Hall at high noon. I saw groups of students from several prominent private and Catholic schools. There were mothers with babies in strollers. There were college students and business people. In a city whose population is majority black, this crowd was majority white, and I'm not quite sure how to interpret that -- perhaps it's best not to draw any conclusions.

There were speakers, but from where I stood, under some live oaks on a little hill overlooking City Hall, I could hardly hear what they were saying. The only speaker whose words came through loud and clear shouted, "I am p*****!" Yeah, we hear you. Like the anchorman in "Network," a generation ago, we're mad as hell and we're not going to take it anymore.

Except none of us is quite sure how to stop the killing. There were all sorts of signs, all sorts of suggestions (mostly about firing the mayor, police chief, and district attorney). But the truth is we haven't a clue. I have been getting some emails from someone who has been attending some community meetings, and her reports are that the court system is so fouled up that it is going to take some major reorganizing to get anything accomplished. People are being put back on the streets who have no business being put back on the streets, and here we are.

I have no idea if our march today will do any good. But we did tell the world (I did see the Gulf Coast Region CNN satellite truck parked there) that New Orleanians are still here, we are fed up with what is happening, and we care passionately about out city. So there.

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

The Catmobile

My midlife crisis is officially over.

Yesterday I sold the ultimate symbol of my midlife crisis: my 1992 red Camaro convertible, the one with the red leather seats and the 25th anniversary special edition package. That one. Little Red #2 was the successor to Little Red #1, the 1987 version with the T-tops and a cargo area that would kinda sorta let you bring home a Christmas tree if you finagled it just right. The midlife crisis went on long enough that I wore out the first midlife crisis car and bought a second one.

When I bought these two cars, I was living in a nice, family-oriented, fairly conservative suburb north of Atlanta. When I bought the second Camaro, the dealer made me such a poor offer on the first one that I kept it. I still find it odd that my neighbors never said a word to me about the two red Camaros parked side by side in my nice suburban garage. My hunch is that they had already made up their minds about me, and they decided I was certifiable, so they left it alone.

At any rate, somewhere midway through my seminary career, I had racked up way too many miles on Little Red #2, the fancy convertible, driving 30 miles each way to school. (Yes, I had the only red Camaro convertible in the seminary parking lots.) So I traded in Little Red #1 for a sport utility vehicle more suited to commuting down the expressways of metro Atlanta at rush hour. (Read: great big side mirrors and cupholders, lots of cupholders.) Now I had Little Red and Big Blue, also known as the Bookmobile -- when I was at seminary and the book I needed for a class was 30 miles away, going home to get it was out of the question, so I just kept ALL my books in the back of the SUV.

Eventually I ended up in south Louisiana with both vehicles. Big Blue got traded in for Big Red. It was a long time before I revealed to my rural congregation that I had a red Camaro convertible. Most of the time it sat in my garage in New Orleans.

After my emergency appendicitis surgery two years ago, I couldn't sit upright for quite awhile. Little Red's battery went dead in the garage. Eventually I had her towed in to the dealer and I told them, "Fix what needs fixing," which I know is a dangerous statement. Little Red got a new convertible top (the old one took a pine tree through the top in an Atlanta ice storm), extensive brake work, some transmission work, and, oh yes, a new battery. For awhile I drove it around the rural community and tried to reconnect with that woman who bought it and put 90,000 miles on it. Every now and then I caught a glimpse of her, listening to WRNO (the Rock o' Noo Awlins). But then Pastor Kathy resurfaced, and I went back to the SUV.

Little Red rode out Katrina in my garage in New Orleans. She didn't flood, and miraculously, the garage didn't collapse on top of her. (We have a saying in New Orleans about buildings like that: "The only thing holding it up is the termites holding hands together.") The battery didn't even go dead during the month the city was shut down, although I suspect someone siphoned some, but not all, of the gas. (With no electricity after the storm, people were desperate to get gas to get out of town.)

But in New Orleans A.K., the roads are in terrible shape. We had potholes B.K. In the world of A.K., crews cut huge squares in the asphalt to repair water and gas lines and hastily filled them with shells and other materials that quickly settled. I don't know what to call the caverns in the street, but "potholes" doesn't do them justice. For a car that rides about three inches off the pavement, it's not a fun ride anymore.

So when I learned on Saturday that my longtime dealer was going out of business, I upped my timeline for replacing Big Red and hustled downtown. (Katrina played a factor in the dealership's decision to close -- there are just fewer people working downtown to patronize a car dealership -- but the downtown dealership is quickly going the way of the dinosaur, no matter what city you live in.) I traded in Big Red and Little Red and got a good deal on a new SUV.

A HUGE SUV. OK, there are bigger ones. But this one is pretty big. It's going to take some getting used to, and on our narrow streets and in our narrow parking lots, I'm going to have to learn how to maneuver it.

It's the Catmobile. One of the facts of life in New Orleans A.K. is that we have geared ourselves to thinking about the next evacuation. I figure in the next five years our chances of having to evacuate the city for another hurricane are probably 100%. And the new Catmobile is big enough to handle six cats in cat carriers, plus all their stuff (kitty box, kitty litter, food, dishes, and bottled water) with a little room left for me, maybe even enough for a small suitcase and a laptop (so I can communicate with my friends by email).

Cinder, my 30-year-old horse, now lives back in North Georgia, well out of hurricane country. But if, and I say if, I got another horse down here, and if I should get a horse trailer, and if I learned how to pull it, this new SUV is big enough (and has a trailering package) to pull it. So picture me, six cats, and a horse stuck in contraflow traffic trying to get out of the way of a hurricane. I hope it never comes to that. But if it does, the Catmobile will be ready!

Okay, I admit it. What really sold me on the Catmobile was the cool XM Satellite Radio package. WRNO, the Rock o' Noo Awlins, bit the dust a month or so ago after nearly 40 years on the air. But now I have a gazillion channels of satellite radio to keep me amused. It's a brand new day.