Katrina Echoing

New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park on September 9, 2005.

New Orleans’ Pontchartrain Park on September 9, 2005.

I knew that storm was coming our way. The sky had begun to darken, a mix of gray and white, and the Gulf waters were encroaching further and further up the beachfront. I mentioned that to everyone, as we piled into the two vehicles and headed back west on I-10.

“It’s too far away,” one of my friends said dismissively.

“I don’t know,” I mumbled in response. “Those things are pretty powerful.”

We left Panama City, Florida that Saturday morning; the final weekend in September 1995. It had been a good, one-week vacation. It had been four years since I’d visited a beach. Panama City wasn’t Ixtapa, México, but it was still relatively small and quaint. I fell in love with the place the moment we pulled up to our condo rental. I was saddened when Hurricane Opal tore into the town the first week in October; just days after we left.

That year, 1995, was a busy hurricane season for the Atlantic / Caribbean region. With 19 tropical storms and hurricanes, it was second only to 1933, which produced 20. I’ve always been fascinated by the natural elements of our world. I keep track of various natural catastrophes, mainly to satisfy my desire to know more about them, but also as a display of my personal reverence. When nature goes on a rampage, it humbles the human spirit. People usually realize only then that we aren’t as significant as we like to think we are.

Today marks the 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, one of the worst natural calamities ever to strike the United States. It wasn’t the deadliest; that dubious distinction is still held by a hurricane that struck Galveston Island, Texas in 1900. It certainly wasn’t the deadliest to strike the Western Hemisphere. The “Great Hurricane of 1780” took 22,000 lives in the Caribbean. It wasn’t the deadliest in the world. The Great Bhola Cyclone ravaged Bangladesh in November of 1970 and killed an estimated 1 million people. Katrina wasn’t the most powerful storm to hit the U.S. in terms of wind speed. Camille retains that legacy. But, Katrina holds a cruel and bitter place in the American psyche. Its attack on the Gulf Coast almost destroyed a major city, killed more than 1,800 people and cost over $105 billion. Katrina’s onslaught is a perfect example of human vulnerability and government ineptitude. But it also showed the power human benevolence and of the will to live.

Scientists had warned the city of New Orleans for years that it was prone to massive flooding from even a modest tropical storm system. Essentially surrounded by water on three sides, some 80% of the city lies at or below sea level. It is the only major metropolitan area in the U.S. with such unfavorable characteristics. Yet its residents had always felt relatively safe with the multitude of dikes and levees. That faith melted violently on August 29, 2005. But such misguided sentiments have their base in reality; born of another catastrophic event nearly eight decades earlier.

Beginning in the summer of 1926, the mid-section of the U.S. received some of the heaviest rainfall it had ever experienced. By the following spring, the Mississippi River repeatedly overflowed its banks, inundating roughly 27,000 square miles of land (as much as 30 feet deep) from Illinois to southern Louisiana. In one 18-hour period, beginning on the night of April 15, New Orleans alone received 15 inches of rain. Up to 630,000 people in Arkansas, Louisiana and Mississippi were directly impacted by the flooding. That so many of the displaced were poor African-Americans struggling to live in a staunchly segregated society didn’t go unnoticed.

The “Great Flood of 1927” sparked a massive migration northward towards cities such as Chicago and Detroit among disenfranchised Blacks. It also sparked the U.S. Congress to enact the Jadwin Plan, named for General Edwin Jadwin, then head of the U.S. Corps of Engineers, to set standards for levee construction and maintenance. The development of a stronger and more intricate levee system prompted New Orleans to expand northward towards Lake Pontchartrain, one of the largest lakes in the U.S., but one that is basically an extension of the Gulf of México. Engineers dredged out swampland to create open spaces for homes and other buildings; certain those levees would protect everyone from a repeat of the 1927 flood.

Much of that certainty was tested, when Hurricane Betsy rolled over southeastern Louisiana in 1965. Betsy cost $1.425 billion in damage – the first billion-dollar storm in the U.S. – but killed only 76 people.

When I started working for an engineering company in November of 2002, one of my constituents was a young woman from New Orleans. While she was too young to remember the storm, her parents and grandparents had vividly painful memories of it. They often spoke as if it was a person who had terrorized their lives. “Betsy took this and Betsy took that,” my colleague said, mimicking one of her grandmothers, explaining why they had so few family photos and other personal effects that people gather over the years.

It took a while for New Orleans to recover. Many of the levees had failed, and some residents – no longer assured of their safety – moved out. The city’s population continued dropping and stood at just under 800,000 when Katrina struck. More importantly, the bulk of New Orleans’ citizens lived on some type of government assistance. That fact alone put so many people in jeopardy. With so few financial resources, they couldn’t afford to own vehicles, much less rent one or buy a plane ticket to flee the city ahead of Katrina. Struggling to make it from one day to another occupies a person’s time and energy. They don’t often make room in their minds for levees.

In 2003, the State of Louisiana launched a year-long endeavor to review the stability of those levees. Called the “Hurricane Pam” Southeast Louisiana Catastrophic Hurricane Planning Project, its goal was “to develop a functional, scenario-based exercise that would drive the writing of Incident Action Plans for catastrophic hurricane response.” The engineers convinced themselves, and subsequently New Orleans city officials, that the levee system would hold up from a Category 3 storm, “Pam.” But incident action plans were about the only solid results of the exercise. Things always look so good on paper anyway.

Then Katrina arrived. And everything changed.

Two of my acquaintances lived in New Orleans a decade ago and ended up in Dallas because of Katrina. One, James*, fled the city before the storm hit; the other, Max*, barely survived it. James took heed of the storm warnings. He got a sick feeling about it. On the evening of Sunday, August 28, he made the gut-wrenching decision to gather his two small dogs, pack what he could into his car and get the hell out of there. No one wants to leave their home, even in the face of a pending disaster. Home is where we’re supposed to feel safe. But James told me that nauseating sensation, deep in his gut, ordered him to leave. He felt somewhat vulnerable, in part because he was alone and had his dogs with him, but also because he suffers from night blindness. Heading west on I-10, he arrived in Calcasieu Parish later that evening and stopped for the night. He was physically tired, he told me, but also emotionally tired. He worried about family and friends and wondered if he’d be able to return to his house. The next morning, as Katrina made landfall, James took off for Houston, where friends said he could stay until the worst had passed. The worst took much longer to pass away than anyone expected. He later traveled to Dallas where he stayed with other friends. By the time he got back to New Orleans, he found a city in ruins and his house unlivable. It took a while to get things together, but James eventually made Dallas his home.

Max knew he should probably leave, as well. Like so many New Orleans residents, he waffled about his decision. He’d lived through storms of various magnitudes before. Yes, there was flooding and, yes, there was wind damage. But they always recovered. Some friends in Dallas had called and offered their place as a refuge. Late on August 28 he decided to take off. With only a half a tank of gas in his compact car, though, he didn’t know how far he could get; certainly all the way to Dallas. He drove around, looking for a gas station, but every one of them was closed. He returned to his one-bedroom, ground-level apartment and opted to wait it out. Early on Monday morning, though, he worried that he wasn’t safe there. So, with some important belongs and a few bottles of water stuffed into a duffel bag, he drove through torrential rains and bruising winds to the New Orleans Superdome; the place where Mayor Ray Nagin and others said people would be safe and secure. Built atop a series of old railroad tracks, the dome was also on stable ground. But, by the time Max got to the Superdome, police were turning people away; the dome had reached its capacity. Late arrivals were redirected to the city’s convention center. Max got as close as he could to the latter building and parked his car on a street that was already flooding. With his duffel bag in tow, he sloshed through the water and made it inside the convention center. He shoved himself into a corner and, along with thousands of others, waited as Katrina raged overhead.

“New Orleans is one of those cities you really have to love in order to live there,” Max told me. And, he really loved it. This quirky jewel of the Deep South is unlike any other place. It calls out to equally colorful characters like Max. Thus, lumbering around the convention center that Monday afternoon and in the following days, Max wondered how his cherished city would recuperate from this mess. Like everyone else trapped there, he didn’t realize just how bad Katrina had torn into the city, until days later.

Max managed to make it out of the building, determined to leave the area any way he could. He was certain his car was gone and his apartment was flooded. He also looked across the vast see of desperate people and realized that, if no one was going to save the children and the elderly from that mess, they certainly weren’t going to save him. Young and middle-aged men are expected to sacrifice their time and their lives for everyone else. But, should they need help, they are viewed instead as worthless moochers. So, Max turned westward and started walking. He visually took in the devastation with each step and, at one point, came across the body of a dead man. Recounting the story to me and several others at a Dallas bar one night several years ago generated the usual response of horror.

Then, one little gal asked, “Didn’t you do anything?!”

Max looked at her, surely wanting to smack her upside the head, and quietly replied, “Yea.”

That’s a hell of a think-on-your-feet question. Quick! You see a dead body on the street in a post-apocalyptic world. What do you do?

  1. Keep walking and pretend you didn’t see anything.
  2. Stop to say a prayer.
  3. Rifle through the person’s pockets.
  4. Look around for embalming fluid and some flowers.
  5. All of the above.

Max chose option a. He just walked. And walked. And walked. And walked…until he ended up outside the city and at a truck stop. He dragged his tired, sweat-soaked body into the diner; still dragging that duffel bag behind him. Sitting at the counter, he struck up a conversation with a truck driver who was headed to Houston. The trucker offered to take Max there where he could then rent a car and head to his friends’ place in Dallas. Max accepted and wondered for a moment, if he’d just entered the lair of a psycho-sexual serial killer. But the driver turned out to be friendly and, as promised, dropped Max off in Houston. By the time he was able to return to New Orleans, he knew his car was gone and his apartment was wrecked. He just had that duffel bag. Like James, he decided to make Dallas his new home.

The effects of Katrina aren’t short-lived. Asking people why they don’t just leave in the face of such pending disaster is easy. Look around your own home at the myriad items you’ve collected over the years. What would you take, if you had to leave? Imagine if you were elderly or infirm. How would you get away?

Social and political conservatives chided their liberal counterparts for denouncing the lackluster response of President George W. Bush; saying, for example, during the 2008 presidential race, that hopefully the next president would be able to stop a hurricane the way Bush couldn’t. Stopping Katrina was never a thought. I don’t know anyone who said that. Responding to the storm was the key issue. Liberals, however, seemed to think everything lay on the shoulders of the federal government.

FEMA was supposed to have all sorts of action plans in place ahead of such calamities. Created in 1979, by President Jimmy Carter specifically to respond to various types of emergencies, FEMA ended up under the Department of Homeland Security in 2003; a government agency created solely in response to the 09/11 terrorist attacks. Under the direction of Michael Brown – whose disaster management experience included heading an Arabian horse club in California – FEMA’s definition took on a new meaning: Fix Everything My Ass!

Katrina couldn’t have hit a city more vulnerable than New Orleans or occur under a presidential administration more incompetent than Bush. Plenty of folks condemned Bush’s response. He watched the storm’s aftermath from his ranch in Crawford, Texas, before heading to Las Vegas for a speech before the local Republican Party. He later claimed he wanted desperately to visit New Orleans immediately after the storm hit, but the Secret Service didn’t feel it was safe. Besides, there was no place to land Air Force One. Louis Armstrong Airport was flooded.

In reality, just about everyone in charge screwed up. Nagin, for one, didn’t issue a mandatory evacuation until Sunday, August 28. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco – who apparently was genuinely more concerned about Katrina than Nagin – still didn’t order National Guard troops into New Orleans until September 1. The only people who reacted timely and positively to the storm were the U.S. Coast Guard. They were in New Orleans, almost as soon as the storm passed, on tattered rooftops and in the filthy floodwaters; literally rescuing thousands of people. They just couldn’t reach them all.

Just as things started to develop some semblance of normalcy, another Category 5 hurricane, Rita, entered the Gulf and struck Louisiana; this time on the western edge, along the border with Texas. Often called the “Forgotten Storm,” Rita was actually the fourth most intense tropical storm in the recorded history of the Atlantic / Caribbean region. It made official landfall shortly before midnight on September 23 as a Category 3 storm. It triggered one of the largest coastal evacuations in U.S. history. It had set its sights on Texas, particularly the Galveston – Houston area. But, at the last minute, a massive air system swept down across Texas and shoved it back out into open water. Rita generated significant storm surges along the Gulf Coast, from Texas to Alabama. For the first time in anyone’s memory, one state was ravaged by two monster storms in the same season.

That year, 2005, turned out to be the single busiest hurricane season for the Atlantic / Caribbean basin, with a total of 27 hurricanes and tropical storm systems, plus one unnamed sub-tropical system. The list of names was exhausted for the first time since meteorologists began naming them in 1953 and had to continue with the Greek-letter system. The last official name on the list, Wilma, turned out to be another Category 5 hurricane and was actually the most powerful in terms of millibars, 882, ever recorded in the region. No one had ever seen anything like it before…or since.

As part of my job with the engineering firm and the contract with the government agency, I volunteered to work in New Orleans. Two of my colleagues had been in the area almost as soon as the storm passed, along with scores of other contractors and government employees. In fact, my constituents were desperately trying to make it back to Texas on the night of September 23, as Rita lurked offshore. Together Katrina and Rita created one of the worst ecological and environmental catastrophes the U.S. has ever endured. Aside from inundating a large city with toxic floodwaters, Katrina alone devastated the Mississippi River Delta, already made fragile by rapid development and oil and gas exploration. Much of the boggy coastal areas had been depleted; material that acts as a natural impediment to powerful storm surges, which is actually the deadliest feature of any tropical storm system. Katrina uprooted millions of trees and other forms of vegetation.

Because of the heavy flooding in New Orleans, sewage and water treatment plants stopped functioning; thus millions of gallons of lethal waste were released. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency quickly warned people in the city not to touch the floodwaters. The EPA had some of its people in the area the day after the storm hit, wrapped up in hazmat suits, gathering soil and water samples. They reported that, even with face masks, they could smell the toxins. Once the floodwaters receded, those elements didn’t just dissipate; they settled into the soil where even mild winds could hurtle them into people’s noses.

I arrived at Armstrong Airport on the Sunday night after Thanksgiving 2005. I had taken the place of one of my colleagues, David*, a native of north-central Louisiana. He and the onsite supervisor, Sarah*, had been holed up in a seedy motel in a small town on the northwestern rim of Lake Pontchartrain for a while. Sarah was able to move into a much nicer hotel in Metairie, where the airport is located. David had paid ahead for several days at the seedy joint, so that’s where I ended up initially. There were only 3 good things about the place: a waffle house, a steak restaurant and a drive-through daiquiri shack. After a couple of weeks, I was able to move into the same hotel as Sarah.

The environmental impact of Katrina – and, to a lesser extent, Rita – wasn’t lost on anyone. In advance of my trip, I underwent a series of shots, including for hepatitis B. At our work location in Metairie, an on-site health clinic was always busy. People complained constantly about sore throats and itchy eyes. Later, in cataloguing various health reports, I spotted some alarming conditions. At one point, even I developed something unexpected: gonorrhea-like symptoms. I wondered if I’d had another alcoholic blackout shortly before my trip, but that wasn’t the case. After arriving home for Christmas, I managed to make an appointment with a clinic that found…nothing. It may have been just a brief urinary tract infection; something I found out in the following months affected several people living and working in the area.

Our company’s liaison to the government agency, Doyle*, was New Orleans native. A hulkish figure of a man with a far-right political bent, he had willingly returned to the city of his birth to oversee the contractors. He took some time out to visit a local cemetery where some of his relatives were interred. Several years ago the city of New Orleans outlawed subterranean burials because of the swampy ground. All of Doyle’s deceased relatives, however, were buried in above-ground crypts. Arriving at the cemetery in hip-wader boots, he recounted one afternoon, he had to step over the remains of disinterred residents. It was only then, he said, the full horror of the storm became real to him. “Even the dead were trying to get the hell out of there!” he said.

I looked around at the various people I saw and encountered and wondered how they managed to survive Katrina. What stories did they have to tell? Doyle had his. So did James and Max. Millions of people were directly affected by Katrina, as any natural disaster tends to do. And there are millions of tales of heartbreak and survival to go along with every one of those individuals.

Someone told me a while back that we shouldn’t reflect too much on what went wrong with Katrina.

“But we need to remember those things,” I replied. “Otherwise, we’ll make the same mistakes again.”

New Orleans and much of the rest of the Gulf Coast has recovered from Katrina; recovered as best as possible. How are you supposed to move on from something like that? What incident action plan is there for such dramatic events in one’s life? There are no written guidelines. But there’s something called “a will to live.” Max demonstrated that by setting out on foot; determined to save himself – or die trying. People up and down the Gulf Coast have embodied that same spirit, as they rebuilt homes and jump-started their lives. That’s just what people do. It’s how we’re wired.

It’s how humanity has survived for millennia. Plenty of people just gave up, but thousands more did everything within their power to survive and move forward. It’s just in most of us. Another monster storm will hit New Orleans in the future and do the same thing, if not worst. Tropical storm systems have been ravaging the coastlines of the world, long before humans thought of building summer beach homes and towering condominiums. They’re not going to stop because we want to windsurf or take pictures. We all just have to live with that, as we have to live with all of Earth’s natural forces. Somehow, somewhere, people will survive.

*Names changed.

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Daymares

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Within the same week a few months ago my parents had nightmares about their former jobs. It’s unsettling because they’ve both been retired for a while. My mother worked in the insurance business for nearly 51 years before retiring in 2003 at age 70. My father worked for two different printing shops; starting when he was 17. He got laid off in 1994 from the last one. They’re old school; in their day, you went to work for a company and stayed there for decades. Thus, I’ve had some trouble explaining my career as a freelance technical writer to them. They each worked roughly the same number of years I’ve now been alive.

But why, after all these years, they have occasional bad dreams about work is beyond my comprehension. I suppose they gave so much of their time and energy to those places that it’s dug an emotional trench in their respective souls like a gunshot wound.

I’ve only had three dreams about work. The first occurred in the late 1980s, when I worked for a retail store. I was being harassed by a manager who already had a nasty reputation. Strangely, though, (and what dream isn’t strange?) my parents were at the store with me. They knew I’d been having a tough time with that asshole of a manager and had come to help me out. When he shouted at them, I lost my temper and screamed at him. My own yelling woke me up. Not long afterwards, that manager was transferred to another store. I guess someone in the company’s echelons of power heard me yelling.

The other two dreams came within months of losing my job at an engineering firm in the fall of 2010. I had been so stressed out there in the last few months it was almost a relief to get laid off. It even cost me a back tooth. Just a few weeks earlier I had begun experiencing pain on the left side of my mouth. I didn’t know what to think when I realized that tooth was loose. Neither did my dentist. But, by the time I visited him, I knew my job was the crux of the agony.

“You have two choices,” he told me. “I can pull it or try to do a root canal.”

“Pull the bitch,” I calmly told him, thinking of my then-supervisor and then-manager. As he wrangled it from my jaw, I tried to think of ways to make it look like that supervisor and that manager had freak accidents. At work. On the same day. With no one else around.

Stress does that to a person – especially work-related stress. It makes them physically ill and emotionally drained. At various times during my eleven years working for a large bank, I felt the impact of job-induced stress. Back aches and short bursts of rage were the most common for me. Back then, though, I was able to fight it off because of my strict exercise regimen: pushups and crunch sit-ups in the morning; weight-lifting; jogging; and taekwondo. In one martial arts session, I almost beat the crap out of a close friend. We were fully padded up, so neither of us felt much. But he told me afterwards that I literally scared him. I apologized, but he just laughed. I explained to him what was happening to me at the bank, and he understood. Still, at that moment, I felt angry enough to send Chuck Norris screaming from the room. Despite my tenure at the bank and all the crap I endured, I never once dreamed of the place.

So, it’s still a mystery why I let my eight-year stint at the engineering company affect me in the nocturnal hours.

In the first dream, I was at corporate headquarters in Southern California with my former project manager, Dagwood*, who had hired me in 2002. He was a quirky character who’d joined the company right out of college. But I liked him and stood up for him, whenever I felt another associate was disrespecting him. In the dream, the building sat right along the coastline, separated from the water only by a strip of sand and a road. Dagwood had been there many times, but this was my first visit. And everyone was on edge. A major quake had pummeled the seabed a few miles offshore, and local officials anticipated an equally massive tsunami. The coastal areas had already been evacuated, and building management had informed us they were monitoring the situation closely. When the first wave approached, they’d sound the alarms, and everyone on the lower levels would flee upwards, which in real tsunami reactions, is known as vertical evacuation.

I’ve always been fascinated by the more extreme elements of the natural world and recall being fascinated with the prospect of witnessing a tsunami up close. But I was also frightened, since I’d never been through something like that. Dagwood had, though; a similar incident had occurred a few years earlier, he told me, before I started with the company. A massive seaquake had struck, and a tsunami was expected. But it was almost a false alarm; the tsunami waves turned out to be merely inches. This time, however, officials anticipated a real disaster.

“Don’t worry,” Dagwood reassured me. “Just stay with me, and you’ll be alright. When those alarms go off, we’ll just head upstairs.”

Cool, I thought. I felt better.

Then, as I labored over my laptop, seated right beside a window overlooking the beachfront, the alarms went off. I heard a loud thundering sound and looked out the window to see the first monstrous wall of water rushing towards us. I panicked, as I leapt to my feet and began looking for Dagwood. He was nowhere. Some people started screaming in fear, as others headed towards the stairwell. Where was Dagwood? I kept asking. He’s supposed to be here. Good God! Did he just abandon me?

I ran from one office to another, searching for him, thinking surely he wouldn’t be so cruel towards me. Several other people were also scrambling around; consumed more with hysteria. But I still couldn’t find Dagwood. Finally, I just stopped and, as the sound of the encroaching tsunami drowned out every other noise, I turned to the ceiling and said, “Fuck him.”

I proceeded towards a stairwell, and – amazingly – everyone else stopped screaming and followed me up the stairs. We all made it safely and could only watch as the water rumbled over the sand and the road, before tearing into the building’s ground floor.

But I kept asking myself that question over and over: where was Dagwood? He was nowhere to be found. What had been trepidation just moments earlier turned to anger. He really did abandon me.

I woke up.

In the second dream, I was back in downtown Dallas, at the government agency where I’d worked most of the time I was with the company. We had an important meeting; one where we’d learn our fate under the new contract. I simply couldn’t be late. As the meeting time approached, I was trying desperately to finish a critical task. I finally tore myself from my computer and headed towards a nearby meeting room. No one was there. I darted to another conference room. It, too, was empty. Where is everyone? Where is this damn meeting being held? I can’t be late!

I began scampering about the building; running into every conference room I could find. They were either empty or occupied by someone else. But, by then, I’d realized something even more disconcerting: I was stark naked. At some point, my clothes had come off. That usually happens only to porn stars and politicians, not to technical writers. And not in a government building! No one seemed to care, though, and I was only slightly bothered by it. I was more concerned with finding out where that damn meeting was being held. I finally gave up and sauntered into the break room. I dropped into a chair, still butt-naked, and resigned myself to an uncertain fate.

I woke up.

Both dreams are rife with symbolism. I know what they mean to me, but you can make your own inferences. Yet, once I recovered from that second dream, I vowed never to dream about work again. It wasn’t worth the aggravation. No job is. After years of dealing with bully bosses, hostile coworkers, office gossip, impossible deadlines and paltry raises, I want to occupy my mind with something far more significant and meaningful than a fucking job.

And it’s worked. I haven’t dreamed about the engineering company again. I told my parents they need to let go of their old jobs. “That was years ago,” I said. Those places shouldn’t hold such a strong grip on their minds.

We spend so much of our lives at work, or doing something work-related, and we don’t always get something positive after expending all that time and energy. People, especially men, have often defined themselves by what type of career they had. Blue collar, white collar, no collar. Whatever they did to make a living is who they were. One of the first questions people ask when they meet someone for the first time is, “What do you do?” And, of course, they don’t really mean, ‘What do you do in your spare time?’ Or, ‘What do you do every third Saturday of the month?’ They mean, ‘How do you make yourself a valuable part of your community?’

But I know people are generally worth more than the way they earn money. I define myself as a writer; always have and always will. So I proudly tell people I’m a technical writer. That’s how I currently earn my living. Eventually, I hope to make a living from my creative writing. Regardless, I know for damn sure that slaving over a hot keyboard is not all that I am. And whatever type of job or career you have, dear readers, should not be all who you are. We’re worth a hell of a lot more than that.

And, next time I’m on the west coast, I may see a real live tsunami, but I won’t be thinking of Dagwood.

*Name changed.

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Food for the Soul

Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz poses for a picture in front of an altar he built using corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12.

Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz poses for a picture in front of an altar he built using corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12.

As Pope Francis returns to his native South America for the first time since becoming head of the Roman Catholic Church, Paraguayan artist Koki Ruiz is ready with an edible altar. Composed primarily of thousands of ears of corn and pumpkins, Ruiz’s giant art piece conveys the mixed Indian and Spanish heritage of Latin America. It’s no accident he chose corn and pumpkins: both are indigenous to the Americas. Probably originating from an archaic plant called teosinte, corn was first cultivated in what is now central México as far back as 5,600 years ago. It migrated into North America around A.D. 200 and remains a staple of the Indian people’s diet. Seeds related to pumpkins found in México have been dated to 7000 B.C.

Ruiz’s altar is 131 feet (40 meters) wide and 45 feet (14 meters) high. I don’t know if its presence had an impact on Francis. After arriving in nearby Bolivia last week, the Pontiff did something no other pope – or any well-known Christian leader – has done. He acknowledged the Church’s role in both decimating the indigenous peoples of the Western Hemisphere and subjugating the survivors.

“I humbly ask forgiveness, not only for the offense of the church herself, but also for crimes committed against the native peoples during the so-called conquest of America,” he said.

I don’t anticipate we’ll hear anything similar from the Church of England or U.S. evangelical Christian leaders in our lifetime. Those clowns never want to admit they’ve done something bad, especially if no White people got hurt. But it’s a nice gesture on Francis’ part.

Corn and pumpkins survived the European conquest of the Americas and – despite what U.S. history school books say – so did the native peoples. On that note, let’s eat!

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Detail of an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12 during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion

Detail of an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion

Workers put the finishing touches to an altar, made of corn and pumpkins, where Pope Francis will give the main mass on July 12 during his visit to Paraguay, in Asuncion

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Black, Not Like Her

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“Everybody wants to be Black, until the police show up.”

D.L. Hughley

I wonder if Rachel Dolezal took a deep breath when she marked her race as “Black” or “Negro” for the first time on a form; whether on paper or online. If you’re American, you know the kind. The section at the end of whatever application you’re completing that purports to be for “information purposes” only. People are just now starting worry about the NSA collecting data on them? Seriously?! The IRS and U.S. Census Bureau have been doing it for decades!

I used to select “Hispanic.” Then, if I could, I’d also select “White.” I mean, after all, I can’t deny my Spanish and German heritage, no matter how much I try. And I’ve never tried. Some folks, even here in the U.S., still find it hard to believe “Spaniards” classify as “White.” I guess it’s their close association with Mexicans that goes back some, oh, 500 years and occasionally pisses off some pure-blooded Spaniards. Germans, of course, are definitely “White.” You really can’t get any Whiter than that. If you do, you’re not White, you’re albino.

In recent years, however, I’ve opted to select “Choose Not to Disclose” on that race section, which is a polite way of saying, ‘What’s this have to do with it?’ Or, ‘None of your fucking business!’ When I’d apply for a job, I don’t expect special consideration because I’m Hispanic, shy, only 5’8”, and / or have a nice butt (which I do). I’ve always simply wanted people to look at my resume and base their decision on that. I feel the same way about my writing. Don’t look at me as a “Hispanic writer.” Just look at me as a writer. Damnit!

The ongoing race debate in this multi-cultural nation took on a new and very bizarre twist last month when Dolezal, head of the NAACP chapter in Spokane, Washington was outed as a White chick. Or, mostly White. Her parents back in Minnesota produced photos of their estranged daughter with her naturally blonde hair and blue eyes; noting that they’re of Nordic European heritage, with some Indian mixed into the bloodline. Why Dolezal decided to darken her hair and try to masquerade as a Negro remains the central question? (All those “central” questions begin with ‘why’ anyway.) It’s confounded people as much as it’s upset them.

In the early 1960s, my mother bought her father a blue tie to match his eyes for his birthday. During a gathering at the home of my paternal grandparents (her in-laws), she mentioned that to my grandmother who merely replied, “Well, I don’t like blue eyes.” It startled, and even offended my mother who didn’t know what to say. But, many years ago, my father told me that his younger brother was born with blue eyes, and that their mother prayed they’d change color. And they did – to green, like his oldest brother and their father. (My father came out with dark brown eyes and blue-black hair, like his mother.)

My grandmother’s anti-blue-eye sentiments were surprising, when I found out later that her youngest siblings were all blond and blue-eyed…like their father. Looking at antiquitous black and white photos of my father’s maternal grandfather reminds me of the late actor Richard Farnsworth. My great-grandfather was born in northeastern México in 1866 and became a captain in the Mexican Army. He was married twice; his first wife died relatively young, some time in the 1890s. He and his second wife had a slew of children (as people tended to do in those days), of which my grandmother was one. Sadly, her mother died of the “Spanish flu” in 1918. The following year my great-grandfather moved his family to South Texas.

My grandmother’s ‘I-don’t-like-blue-eyes’ comment had always been a sore point for my mother, but a curious statement for me. It reminds me of the “blue-eyed devil” slur many non-Whites bestowed upon people of European ancestry. It’s supposedly of Asian origin, but like many urban legends, who really knows? Toni Morrison focused on this sensitive issue in her debut novel, “The Bluest Eye,” published in 1970. The story follows a Black girl named Pecola who, while growing up in early 1940s Ohio, reacts to the brutality of racism by wishing her eyes would turn blue. Morrison’s frankness punched bigotry in the nose, and the book faced banishment from many libraries and schools. As a writer, I know that’s the worst affront to free speech. But I also know that, in an America confronting the legacies of Black slavery and Indian genocide, few outside of the academic and progressive communities wanted to discuss these matters.

In 2008, researchers with the University of Copenhagen presented a study claiming every blue-eyed person on Earth has a “single, common ancestor.” According to the researchers, up until about 10,000 years ago, everyone on Earth had eyes that were some varying shade of brown. Then, inexplicably, a mutation occurred within the OCA2 (oculocutaneous albinism II) gene, which resulted in a “switch” that “turned off” the ability to produce brown eyes in some individuals. Formerly called the “P” gene, OCA2 is involved in the creation of pigmentation in three areas: skin, hair and eyes. Apparently, blue-eyed folks have the least amount of pigmentation without qualifying as albinos, but still – according to some – means they represent the ideal human being.

I’m not certain where green, hazel, amber or even lavender eyes fall into this genetic stew. Oddly, though, green eyes are rarer than blue ones.

Findings by the Human Genome Project (HGP), however, have pretty much destroyed that theory. Initiated in the 1980s, HPG was a collaborative effort by a gallery of scientists representing a variety of disciplines with the goal of understanding all of the genes that comprise human mammals. Its roots actually go back further and can be traced to a handful of forward-thinking individuals.

One of them was Alfred Henry Sturtevant who began studying genetics in the color heredity of horses. In 1908, Sturtevant presented a paper on the subject to Thomas Hunt Morgan, a professor of the then-burgeoning field of genetics at Columbia University. At the time, Morgan had focused his research on Drosophila (fruit flies), which turned out to be an ideal candidate for genetic study. They mature in ten days; are less than one-eight inch in length; can live by the hundreds in small vials; require nothing more substantial than yeast for food; and have only four pairs of chromosomes. In 1911, Sturtevant landed in Morgan’s lab and, within two years, determined the growth rate of six of the fruit fly’s traits. Sturtevant’s discovery is considered the starting point for modern genetics; it led the way for more detailed studies of human and animal genetics. It seems odd now that scientists made the leap from fruit flies to humans in less than a century. But scientific research doesn’t always take a logical path – at least not from a casual observation.

One of the most intriguing results from such intensive research and analyses is the determination of what people who lived hundreds – if not thousands – of years ago may have looked like. And I don’t mean ethereal ideas developed from artistic studies of Roman frescoes or lost Michelangelo paintings. DNA analyses of human skeletons have produced the seemingly impossible: actual data of people’s coloration, weight and diseases, among other factors. Two years ago Dutch and Polish geneticists announced the development of the HIrisPlex System, which can identify eye color (and sometimes hair color) by pulling genetic material from human teeth.

Still, the concept that fair-eyed also means fair-skinned weakened with a unique revelation last year. In 2006, archaeologists discovered two male skeletons in a cave in northeastern Spain. The area, known as La Braña-Arintero, sits about 5,000 feet above sea level; providing a cold enough environment to allow for preservation. After determining both sets of remains were about 7,000 years old, scientists set out to learn what the men may have looked like. Each apparently had dark skin and dark hair, common traits at the time. But one, dubbed La Braña 1, also had blue eyes. For years scientists have also stated that, for humans to turn blond, they had to migrate far into what is now Northern Europe. This is credible, when you consider that some 90% of Nordic Europeans are fair-colored. But other people who settled into neighboring Arctic regions, such as Siberia and Greenland, are also at least light-skinned.

Genetic research has discovered something else: the natural occurrence of blond hair among some dark-skinned Polynesians (or Melanesians) is a distinct genetic trait. For decades, scientists believed that the fair-colored locks of some islanders were the result of unions between amorous and lonely European sailors and local women. That sort of tale has played out across the globe for generations. But, in 2012, geneticists at Harvard and Stanford Universities proved the truth isn’t so clear-cut. They studied 43 fair-haired and 42 dark-haired Solomon Islanders and found a gene for the blond coloring, TYRP1, on chromosome 9. More importantly that gene doesn’t exist in the European genome. That means the blond-haired gene manifested by itself in the Solomon Island population. No White folks needed.

DNA analyses proved the same with the aboriginal peoples of Australia. Despite their dark skin, many Australian Aborigines have fair hair and fair eyes. This compelled scientists to place them into the Caucasian racial group decades ago. But, as with the Melanesians, genetic researchers confirmed what the Australians already knew: they’re not inherently White. They’re not a separate racial group, as they’ve often claimed, but rather the descendants of people who left Africa and arrived in Australia some 40,000 years ago.

Rachel Dolezal isn’t the first person to lie about her race or ethnicity. George Herriman was best known for his cartoon, “Krazy Kat,” which ran in U.S. newspapers from 1913 to 1944. Quiet and introspective, Herriman didn’t generate much discussion about his race. Some of his closest friends thought he was of Greek extraction because of his olive-tinted skin. In fact, Herriman was of Black and White heritage; born in New Orleans in 1880. When he was a child, his family moved to Los Angeles, primarily to escape the Jim Crow laws of the Deep South. Herriman wasn’t alone. Many people of similar mixed heritage took advantage of their fair, or somewhat fair, skin to proclaim themselves as purely White. It’s unknown just how many Americans spent their lives passing as White, but were actually mulattoes. It’s sad in retrospect, but that’s the reality many people faced. It’s even more frustrating, when you realize that Herriman, in particular, often featured African-Americans in stereotypical fashion.

While some people thought George Herriman was Greek, Gregory Markopoulos really was Greek. For years, though, Markopoulos passed himself off as a Native American named Jamake Highwater. Markopoulos claimed he was born on the Blackfoot Indian Reservation in Montana in 1942 to a mother who was French Canadian and Blackfoot Indian and a father who was Cherokee. In other versions of his life, he told people his mother was full-blooded Cherokee; he was born in South Dakota; and he was born in France. He even exaggerated his educational background. Still, he developed a distinguished career as a writer and expert on Indigenous American culture; publishing over 30 books and even took part in the recording of an avant-garde / jazz album in 1968. But Markopoulos’ true identity was exposed in 1984, when Native American activist Hank Adams published a stinging editorial about him in the “Washington Post.” Afterwards Markopoulos stopped claiming he was Native American, but retained his self-anointed expertise on Native American culture up until his death in 2001.

In the 1950s, a man calling himself Korla Pandit became a musical sensation with his own show, “Musical Adventures with Korla Pandit,” where he’d played a Hammond organ or a piano. Claiming he was born in New Delhi to a French mother and an Indian father, Pandit was considered the godfather of the exotic musical genre at the time. Wearing a bejeweled turban and not saying a word during any of his shows helped to seal his mystic nature. But, in 2000, two years after his death, “Los Angeles Magazine” revealed that he was actually born John Roland Redd in St. Louis, Missouri, and was African-American.

Ethnic switches have reached comical levels. In 1984, the world of wrestling – no stranger to outrageous personalities – saw the arrival of Nikita Koloff, “The Russian Nightmare.” Alleging he was a Moscow transplant, Koloff didn’t speak English for some 13 months after his first televised appearance. His “uncle,” Ivan Koloff, translated for him. Nikita’s real name is Nelson Scott Simpson, and he was born in Minnesota in 1959. “Uncle Ivan” was a Canadian-born teammate named Oreal Perras. After his charade and wrestling career ended, Simpson became a “born-again Christian” and established his own ministry.

Ethnic alterations have resulted in legal disputes. In 1998, a man calling himself JoJo Chokal-Ingam was accepted into Saint Louis University Medical School. He identified as African-American. But JoJo’s first name was actually Vijay, and he was Indian-American (the “Slurpee” kind of Indian, not the casino kind) who grew up in Boston. Vijay wanted desperately to get into medical school, but felt his 3.1 GPA was a hindrance. The fact that about half of the 22 institutions to which he submitted applications, including Saint Louis, interviewed him seemed to confirm his anxiety. So, he shaved his head, cut his long eyelashes and represented himself as Black. That apparently got him the necessary academic attention and final acceptance into Saint Louis. It also garnered the unwanted suspicions of store owners and harassment by police; results, he admits, he didn’t expect. But it also got him into trouble with the university and raised the ire of several African-Americans who knew him.

Some people have changed racial identities for purely nefarious reasons. In 1988, police in Sacramento, California were horrified to discover dead bodies buried in the back yard of a group home run by a woman calling herself Dorothea Puente. Puente had slowly worked her way into the heart of Sacramento’s Hispanic community by helping the downtrodden; people who were homeless or had no family to look out for them as they aged. A long series of curious events in the 1980s revealed Puente was a cunning murderer who killed at least three (and perhaps as many as nine) of her tenants. Others disappeared. But it also revealed Puente’s true identity: Dorothea Helen Gray, a California native from a broken home who was married three times; had three children; and once ran a brothel. It was a blow to the local Hispanic community. No one really seemed to think much about Gray’s fair-colored physical attributes. That, like her ethnicity, was not important in the long run.

What does this all have to do with Rachel Dolezal? Well…a lot. If Dolezal wanted to bring any kind of awareness to racial injustices, she didn’t have to go so far as to darken and frizz her hair (which is somewhat patronizing), or visit tanning booths (which is unhealthy). John Howard Griffin underwent a similar experiment (using chemicals and ultraviolet light to darken his skin) to learn what it felt like to be a Negro traveling through segregated Mississippi in 1959. He documented his experiences – and their frightening repercussions – in his groundbreaking 1961 book, “Black Like Me.” Dolezal could have focused on her Native American heritage, even if it’s a small part of her ancestry. After all, the indigenous peoples of the Americas have endured the longest-lasting and most extensive genocide in human history. She also might want to read Jared Diamond’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, “Guns, Germs and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies,” and focus on Chapter 19: “How Africa Became Black.”

Coloring aside, I refer back to the Human Genome Project and something else its research discovered. We’re all part of the same race: the one called Human. I know that sounds like a touchy, feely, Kumbaya, hug a tree and sing a song type of things. But it’s the truth. Every individual on Earth shares 99.9% of human genes. There are roughly 3 billion pairs of DNA elements. That makes us all pretty tight.

I also want to turn your attention to artist and fellow blogger Bettye Harwell (Le Artiste Boots) and an essay she published after the Dolezal case blew up. Anyone who thinks they understand race relations in America could learn about Bettye’s own personal experiences. If you’re in a lighter mood, check out actress Maya Rudolph’s impersonation of Dolezal. Rudolph – who’s biracial – can also tell the wanna-be-a-Black-gal a few cold hard facts about ethnicity.

My father worked for a printing company for most of his life. One of his long-time constituents, an African-American man, once told him, “You know, it’s hell to be Black.” My father could relate. As a Mexican-American, he didn’t have it that much easier. He and the father of two of my closest friends, a brother and sister, grew up together in East Dallas. A few years ago the sister reiterated how surprised she was that our fathers knew one another and subsequently, that I’d come to know her and her brother.

“All those old Mexicans knew each other,” I informed her. “They all hung around each other. They had to! It was the only way they could survive back then.”

My mother mentioned once that the insurance company where she used to work didn’t get its first Black employee until 1971. This was the same company that, shortly thereafter, issued a survey to its female associates inquiring if any of them felt it was okay for women to wear slacks to work. My mother recounted another odd story from her youth. Her father, the blond, blue-eyed German-American, had trouble with some of his male colleagues at a car plant where he used to work in Dallas. They didn’t like the fact my grandfather was from Michigan, a Yankee. His supervisor – another White guy – was especially derogatory. My grandfather finally just looked at him and said, “You know, you have cow shit on your boots.” And then walked away.

During my own youth – grade school and high school – it was other White kids who slung racial slurs at me from time to time. Within the past two decades, however, things have changed. Other Hispanics (as well as some Blacks) are now the ones who make racist comments to me. But, whenever dark-skinned Hispanics mock my Teutonic heritage, I remind them that not all Mexicans – even the pure-blooded Indians – are “dark-skinned mojados.” I can’t recount how many times that almost resulted in a fist fight. But I feel it’s a fight worth the trouble.

People like Rachel Dolezal need to stop fighting so hard to feel empathy. Just treat people respect and move forward.  Yes, we’re different in some ways. But yet, we’re all still the same.

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Queers on the Altar

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Last week’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court, in Obergefell v. Hodges, legalizing same-gender marriage across the country has resulted in the usual mix of joy and condemnation. A little more than a decade ago the same court ruled, in Lawrence v. Texas, that anti-sodomy laws are not constitutionally enforceable. That decision came less than two decades after the High Court ruled in Bowers v. Hardwick that states can declare same-gender sexual activity illegal.

Writing for the majority in the narrow 5 – 4 ruling, Justice Anthony Kennedy stated that “couples of the same sex may not be deprived of that right and liberty,” according to the U.S. Constitution’s 14th Amendment. That amendment was designed initially to grant former Negro slaves the dignity of a human life; that is, they would be considered as equals to Whites. But, the nearly 150 years since, it has come to mean everyone in the United States is considered equal.

In the minority opinion, Chief Justice John Roberts wrote the Court had taken an “extraordinary step” in deciding not to allow states to decide the issue for themselves, noting that the Constitution doesn’t define marriage. No, it doesn’t. And it shouldn’t. But that’s the curious thing about human rights: they’re not to be voted upon; hence the term “rights.”

Reading and listening to the plethora of responses from religious leaders and social conservatives is almost laughable. Even before the gavel fell, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee called on fellow Christians to engage in a “biblical disobedience” campaign against the “false god of judicial supremacy.” After the ruling, Huckabee told Fox News’ Megyn Kelly, “I will not acquiesce to an imperial court any more than our Founders acquiesced to an imperial British monarch. We must resist and reject judicial tyranny, not retreat.”

East Texas Congressman Louie Gohmert warned that the Obergefell decision ensures God’s wrath upon the nation. “I will do all I can to prevent such harm,” he said, “but I am gravely fearful that the stage has now been set.” He went on to recommend fleeing the U.S., lest we all get obliterated by a massive hurricane or earthquake or a toenail fungus epidemic.

One of the best reactions came from Texas Senator Ted Cruz who bemoaned, “Today is some of the darkest 24 hours in our nation’s history. Yesterday and today were both naked and shameless judicial activism.”

Aside from the fact Cruz doesn’t understand proper verb-subject agreement, I’d like to take this opportunity to point out some of the darkest periods in American history:

December 29, 1890 – Wounded Knee massacre;

October 28, 1929 – “Black Monday” stock market crash;

December 7, 1941 – Pearl Harbor attack;

November 22, 1963 – assassination of John F. Kennedy;

March 30, 1981 – attempted assassination of Ronald Reagan;

April 19, 1995 – Oklahoma City bombing;

September 11, 2001 – Al Qaeda terrorist attacks.

Of course, Cruz may not even be aware of these catastrophic events, since…you know, he’s not from this country and probably hasn’t studied American history too much.

In advance of the SCOTUS ruling, Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed the “Pastor Protection Act,” which would allow religious figures in the Lone Star State the right to refuse to conduct same-gender marriages, calling it a move to protect free speech. But, as soon as the decision was made public, same-sex couples in Texas began flocking to county offices to obtain marriage licenses. Many county officials wouldn’t issue them; claiming they had to await proper instructions from Abbott’s office. Others simply refused for obvious reasons: they don’t like queer folks and felt their religious beliefs were under attack. And we thought Ebola was scary!

Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton proclaimed that “no court, no law, no rule and no words will change the simple truth that marriage is the union of one man and one woman.” He also falls in line with the right-wing mantra that traditional Christian family values are under attack – again – by stating, “This ruling will likely only embolden those who seek to punish people who take personal, moral stands based upon their conscience and the teachings of their religion.”

Hey, Ken! Take it easy, man! No one’s trying to circumvent your religion. But I know that religion – any religion – doesn’t trump human rights. Whenever they clash, human rights takes precedence – always and forever. Or, it should. Plenty of people feel differently. They equate the two; seeing them as symbiotic. Yet more than a few use their religion as a tool of obstruction and division.

Here’s something else though: for more than a thousand years both the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches conducted and sanctified same-gender marriages. Yes, the very same people who burned Joan of Arc to death and blamed Jews for the 14th century’s “Black Plague” may not have had many qualms letting queer people get married. In his groundbreaking 1994 book, “Same-Sex Unions in Premodern Europe,” the late religious historian John Boswell found evidence that some clerics oversaw these types of ceremonies as far back as the 4th century A.D.

One manuscript preserved in the Vatican and dating to 1147 bears this prayer:

“Send down, most kind Lord, the grace of Thy Holy Spirit upon these Thy servants, whom Thou hast found worthy to be united not by nature but by faith and a holy spirit. Grant unto them Thy grace to love each other in joy without injury or hatred all the days of their lives.”

According to Boswell, it’s more than just a prayer; it’s an affirmation of marriage between two men. His extensive research produced more than 60 texts from Paris to St. Petersburg that talked of “spiritual brotherhood” or “adoptive brotherhood.” Boswell, of course, had to translate scores of documents written in antiquitous languages. And, given the difficulty in properly conveying what someone wrote, it’s not fully certain if same-sex marriages actually were allowed in the Byzantine Empire anywhere during the Middle Ages. Some scholars accused Boswell of rewriting history. These “ceremonies” were not rites of marriage, they say, but rather brotherhood-type bonds between men entering the cloistered life.  But the thought is intriguing nonetheless.

Illustration of Saints Serge and Bacchus allegedly united in a same-sex union. Source: Annalee Newitz, “Gay marriage in the year 100 AD,” io9.com, July 29, 2013.

Illustration of Saints Serge and Bacchus allegedly united in a same-sex union. Source: Annalee Newitz, “Gay marriage in the year 100 AD,” io9.com, July 29, 2013.

Among North America’s indigenous peoples, homosexuality and bisexuality were widely accepted and, many cases, revered. Interpretations of various Indian languages have produced the term “two-spirit people.” While some communities clearly mocked such people, others viewed them as uniquely deserving of respect and consideration. There’s no verifiable documentation that actual same-sex marriage ceremonies were performed among Native Americans. But, with the intrusion of Christianity ideology, “two-spirit people” were relegated to obscurity and treated with disdain. Regardless, same-gender unions may not be a just a 20th century concept.

Right-wing claims that same-sex unions pose a danger to traditional marriage, but it’s a dubious argument. Divorce rates in the U.S. had reached near 50% by the 1980s, but then began dropping. Marriage rates, however, have also been dropping. Moreover the greatest threats to marriage should be obvious: poverty and other financial difficulties; unemployment and underemployment; domestic violence; and drug and alcohol abuse.

Once as taboo as homosexuality itself, divorce became more acceptable, beginning in 1969, when California became the first state to enact no-fault divorce. Ironically the law was signed by then-California Governor Ronald Reagan, an icon of conservative family values who became the nation’s first and – to date – only divorced president.

The late actress Elizabeth Taylor was married eight times. Former radio personality Larry King was also married eight times, twice to the same woman. Faux singer Britney Spears once married a childhood friend as a joke. Kim Kardashian’s 2010 marriage to Kris Humphries lasted 72 days.

Former Congressman Newt Gingrich (who tried to impeach President Bill Clinton in 1998 for lying about an affair with an intern) is married to his third wife. His first two marriages ended in divorced after he was caught having affairs with younger women. He delivered divorce papers to his second wife, while she was recuperating in a hospital from cancer surgery.

I want to point out something more personal. The day after the Obergefell decision, my parents marked their 56th wedding anniversary. They’ve lasted this long, not because they’ve just become stuck to each other, like parasites on a cow, but because they took their marriage vows seriously. They respect one another, have a great sense of humor, and occasionally spend quality time apart. It hasn’t always been easy. Like any married couple, they had their share of arguments and disagreements. But nothing was ever so bad that they had to separate. More importantly, they never felt threatened by any gay or lesbian person. The Obergefell case isn’t going to bring an end to their nearly 60-year union. In their twilight years, they’re more concerned with their own physical health and financial well-being.

In other words, they’re minding their own damn business. I recommend all the malcontents pissed off over the Obergefell case do the same.

Despite a looming rainstorm, gay couples and their families and friends marched down Cedar Springs Road in Dallas to celebrate the same-sex marriage ruling on Friday, June 26.

Despite a looming rainstorm, gay couples and their families and friends marched down Cedar Springs Road in Dallas to celebrate the same-sex marriage ruling on Friday, June 26.

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More Frat Crap

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, March 9, 2015.  The letters have been removed, and the building now sits empty.

The Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Oklahoma, March 9, 2015. The letters have been removed, and the building now sits empty.

Last August I published an essay describing my experiences in a social Greek-letter organization I’d attempted to join three decades earlier. It still remains one of the worst decisions I’ve ever made in my entire life. All of that came back to me recently, when the “racist chant video” incident from the University of Oklahoma (OU) exploded onto the national scene. In two different cell phone videos, members of the elitist Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity’s UO chapter were caught gleefully singing about the organization’s lack of Negroes.

Basically, the chant went like this:

“There will never be a nigger in SAE.
There will never be a nigger in SAE.
You can hang him from a tree, but he can never sign with me.
There will never be a nigger in SAE.”

The group was on a chartered bus last Saturday night, March 7, headed towards the Oklahoma City Golf & Country Club to celebrate the fraternity’s founding. Another student at the university, a young African-American woman, received links to the videos from someone she refuses to identify (out of concern for that individual’s safety); a person she declares wasn’t one of those who videotaped the incident. As videos are wont to do these days, the thing went viral, and now the reputations of one of the nation’s oldest fraternities and a major institution of higher learning are in jeopardy.

OU President David Boren reacted swiftly and ordered the fraternity to shut down. “You are disgraceful,” he publicly stated. “You have violated all that we stand for. You should not have the privilege of calling yourselves Sooners.” (Sooners is the nickname for OU students).

SAE’s national office stripped the OU chapter of its charter. The massive house where the boys lived has been emptied out; its residents forced to scramble for other living accommodations. In a sign of solidarity, Black and White members of the university’s football team staged a silent march instead of reporting for practice. Two of the guys leading the bus chant have been identified as Levi Pettit, 20, a graduate of Dallas’ Highland Park High School, and Parker Rice, 19, a 2014 graduate of Dallas’ Jesuit College Preparatory School. Both schools are elite entities with hefty tuition tags. Highland Park is actually a section of Dallas that, along with neighboring University Park, is known locally as “The Bubble.” The idea is not so much to keep residents insulated, but rather, to keep those of us who occupy the lower rungs of the social ladder out. I’m not exaggerating when I tell you the area’s own police literally used to stop Black and Hispanic motorists just to ask them what they were doing there.

It’s also befitting that graduates of those two schools would make their way into a fraternity like SAE. It’s a high-priced outfit. When I tried to join that fraternity at the University of North Texas, all of the social Greek-letter organizations would gather their pledges in one arena for an introductory session. The SAE boys all showed up in tuxedos. I called them the “Ken Doll Gang.” They stood against a wall, as if announcing, ‘Look, but don’t touch. I’m too pretty for you.’

I also met two Hispanic guys in the dorm where I first lived who had made attempts to join SAE, but dropped out because of what they perceived to be the frat’s subtle, racist attitude. It wasn’t something overt, they explained, but they could feel it. They really weren’t wanted; no matter how much money they could dish out. I didn’t want to believe it back then. I mean, it was 1984. Hadn’t we moved beyond that shit?

When the Oklahoma fiasco erupted, I returned to that question and realized, quite simply, no. Well…in some circles, no. Pettit and Rice have blamed a convenient scourge: alcohol. In other words, they were too drunk to know what they were doing. Poor kids; they’re too young and naïve to realize that shit doesn’t go over well in the real world.

Listening to that chant, though, I kept thinking it’s not something they composed on the spot. It sounds well-rehearsed. Pettit and Rice claimed they were taught the song while at the frat house and therefore, like toddlers, only repeated what others had uttered. Again, poor kids. Both young men apologized after they were expelled from OU. The Pettit family has hired a top-rated Dallas public relations specialist, and the Rice family has temporarily fled their home. Both OU and SAE are now trying to identify other students on that bus, including two young women who, some claim, are sorority members.

SAE is also now investigating cases where that very song was allegedly performed at other chapters, including here in Texas and elsewhere in Oklahoma, but also in Louisiana. This is just the latest in a long line of incidents where fraternities and sororities have engaged in blatantly racist behavior since 2000 alone. There are too many to mention.

Ironically, SAE’s OU chapter employed an African-American chef; a gentleman named Howard Dixon who is now unemployed because of this mess. A fund has been set up to help him adjust.

I’m not going to sling every fraternity and sorority member into the same pile of ignorant morons. It’s always the worst elements of any group that get the most attention. I still maintain that social Greek-letter organizations serve no real purpose in higher education. Other people feel they’re vital in fostering camaraderie and unity. That’s fine, if they want to believe that. But, if anyone thinks lynching is something worthy of light-hearted chants, just look at the photos below of actual “niggers” hanging and tell me you see nothing wrong.

Back in the spring of 1985, as I stumbled through life – trying to balance my disintegrating academic regimen and still hoping badly to be a part of that fraternity – a senior-level member gathered everyone in the house one night and self-righteously slammed us for not taking the organization seriously. He condemned the group for “chasing tramps” and going to clubs “listening to your nigger music.” Off to the side, somewhat behind me, stood the only Black man in the group. He said nothing – and neither did I. That was 1985. What year is it now?

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Drawing Lines

Masked-gunmen-stormed-the-headquarters-of-the-weekly-Charlie-Hebdo-in-Paris

In March of 2003, the Dixie Chicks prepared to take a stage in London, when lead singer Natalie Maines declared that she and her bandmates were “ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” She was referring to George W. Bush (who was actually born in Connecticut), and the U.S. was on the verge of invading Iraq. In a sense, Maines was joking, but within hours, her comment thrust the group into the most unfavorable of positions. Country music fans across the U.S. demanded their local radio stations stop playing the Dixie Chicks music, and the group became the subject of hate mail and death threats. Shortly afterwards, ABC correspondent Diane Sawyer interviewed the group, during which she repeatedly asked Maines why said something so disparaging about the president of the United States. In all my years of watching politics and paying attention to how our elected officials interact with the news media, I’d never seen so much antagonism launched at one individual over a simple comment.

For one thing I am embarrassed that Bush claims he’s from Texas. I remain embarrassed that this state put him in the governor’s mansion twice and helped to place him in the White House twice. Bush is one of the worse presidents the U.S. has ever produced. I know plenty of people who would disagree with me, and we could argue about it for days. But one thing is certain: we all know we have the right to feel that way and we certainly hold the right to express our sentiments about the matter. After all, Maines didn’t curse; nor did she call Bush an idiot or a mass murderer. She didn’t threaten his life. She just opened her “big mouth again,” as she later stated, and said something. The trio eventually got their careers back on track, but I don’t think the band has fully recovered in terms of popularity.

I thought about the fiasco surrounding Maines’ comment, when the massacre at the offices of Charlie Hebdo exploded the other day. Three Islamic fundamentalists, apparently angry that the long-running satirical French magazine had the audacity – yet again – to insult their religion and the prophet Mohammed, stormed into the building and gunned down 11 staff members. They’d also gunned a Parisian police officer – a Muslim – outside the building. One of the men turned himself into authorities immediate, while the other two fled and – as of this writing – have been killed. The tragedy reminded many of the 2005 publication of a cartoon of Mohammed in Denmark’s Jyllands-Posten and the vitriolic response from many in the Muslim world.

First of all, it is an offense to Islam to publicize any delineation of Mohammed; unlike, say, Roman Catholicism, which is virtually idolatrous with its many renditions of Jesus, Mary and their gallery of saints. Second of all, I don’t care. If anything, Muslims should be upset by the September 11, 2001 attacks on the U.S.; the March 11, 2004 Madrid train bombings; or the July 7, 2005 London train bombings. I imagine most were. I’m not one to be judgmental, but I am a strong supporter of free speech. So were the folks at Charlie Hebdo. And now, most of them are dead.

It’s a tricky thing – free speech. Just about everyone I know has expressed their strong support for it. It’s a critical element of any truly democratic and civilized society. But, as with all other freedoms, it’s cumbersome when you confront the words of those who are your ideological opposites; people who say things you find offensive, even vulgar. Free speech (and its ideological cousins, freedom of expression and freedom of religion) was at the center of the push to legalize pornography in the U.S. in the early 1970s. In the spring of 1977, it was a key component of the right a group of neo-Nazis proclaimed when they petitioned to march down the streets of Skokie, Illinois, a community with a large Jewish population. The Westboro Baptist Church relied solely on the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution to protest at the funerals of deceased military personnel, claiming the latter died for a country that supports abortion, homosexuality and other perceived evils. Their case made it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court where they won. It’s not okay to call someone a murderer, but it’s apparently okay – according to the decision – to shout, ‘Thank God for IEDs.’

This 2007 cartoon by “Mr. Fish” upset plenty of people.  I still think it’s funny and truthful.

This 2007 cartoon by “Mr. Fish” upset plenty of people. I still think it’s funny and truthful.

Where should that line be drawn? Or should there even be a line?

In February of 2008, my then-ISP, AOL, published a story on how, in 1504, Christopher Columbus allegedly deceived Jamaica’s indigenous Taino Indians into believing the gods were unhappy with their treatment of him and his stranded crew and would cause the moon to turn blood red. Columbus apparently knew of an upcoming lunar eclipse on February 29 of that year. When it did occur, the Taino supposedly became terrified and were convinced Columbus was some kind of deity. There are countless stories like that about early interactions between Indigenous Americans and Europeans. I had never heard of that particular story until I saw it on AOL in 2008. Then I saw something else. Someone had commented that, despite everything “no one has suffered like the Jewish people.” What the hell?! I thought. Where did that shit come from?! It was like commenting how much you like glazed doughnuts in an article about refurbishing your dining room. I quickly responded with a profanity-laced diatribe, pointing out that Jews haven’t endured one fraction of the suffering in the Western Hemisphere that Indians and the African slaves brought over to replace them have. I was careful to mention ‘in the Western Hemisphere.’ Apparently either that original commenter or some other fool got their little feelings hurt and reported me to AOL. AOL then deleted the comment and put me on “probation,” which meant preventing me from commenting on anything on their site for a while. Gosh, can you imagine how mortified I was? When I called AOL tech support in India (the land where Columbus thought he’d landed), a representative couldn’t (or wouldn’t) tell me who had reported me. I noted that, here in the U.S., foul language fell under the regimen of free speech. After all, I didn’t make a bomb or death threat against anyone. I didn’t accuse anyone of being a pedophile or arsonist. I just called some Jewish guy a dumb fuck, which he was, because of what he said. The tech rep refuted my claim and said she could do nothing about it. Eventually they let me off probation. God, I was so relieved! I wouldn’t have been able to live otherwise.

The cartoonists at Charlie Hebdo always pushed the boundaries of personal tastes. Their efforts seemed destined to offend anyone and everyone. It’s curious, though, that France finds itself in this situation over a cartoon. According to Human Rights Watch, between 2004 and 2011, French law enforcement fine 594 Muslim women for wearing the niqab. Yet, in 2008, legendary French actress Brigitte Bardot went on trial for the fifth time because she’d insulted Muslims. She had said that Muslims were “destroying our country.” A devout animal rights activist, Bardot had gotten into trouble previously for disparaging the Muslim custom of slaughtering goats during the Eid al-Adha festival. She was literally dragged into court over these matters. Seriously? In freedom-loving France, it seems political correctness is meted out with a vengeance.

Again, I ask where is that line between free speech and common decency supposed to fall? Whose free speech? And whose decency? It’s a never-ending debate.

Mr. Fish.

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