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.