The Grandest Trickery


“Francis – Latin: Franciscus – ‘Free man,’ a man subservient to his government.”

Name Your Baby by Lareina Rule, 1963.


After a brief and heavily-publicized tour of the United States, Pope Francis returned to the Vatican last Sunday night. Amidst his hectic schedule, frequent baby-kissing and the usual slew of parades, complete with Miss America-type waves, Francis became the first leader of the Roman Catholic Church to address a joint session of the U.S. Congress and the first to hold mass at New York’s Madison Square Garden. The media and Catholic faithful couldn’t get enough of it. I’d had enough the moment he stepped foot on U.S. soil.

In a way, the former Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was returning home; since he’s the first pope from the Americas and the first outside of Europe. But he’s of Italian extraction, and his hometown of Buenos Aires is more European than Latin American. So, he’s not that different from his predecessors. You know what would be different? If the Church had selected a full-blooded Indian who was raised dirt-poor in the mountains of México; perhaps even a man who had been married to a woman and then widowed or (better yet) divorced; maybe someone with a criminal background, like burglary or auto theft. But that would make him too imperfect. I can’t see someone with that many scars rising to the lead one of the most self-righteous institutions the world has ever seen.

I’m not concerned with perfection. No such quality exists in humans. Most everyone in America, from President Obama down to the latest illegal immigrant across the U.S.-México border, was smitten with Francis. As a recovered Catholic, I could see right through the velvet and silk menagerie of angelic verbiage and outstretched hand. Yes, Francis may sound different; offering juicy tidbits of progressive ideology by saying, for example, it’s improper to judge gays and lesbians and criticizing the growing wealth divide. But he’s still head of one of the most powerful and affluent entities on Earth; an empire with an estimated net fortune up to $750 billion. As a former altar boy at a Dallas Catholic church, I wonder now if any priest or nun thought of molesting me; knowing how shy and obedient I was during my childhood. Francis has convinced many people to return to the Catholic Church. I left the Church years ago for one primary reason: its mistreatment of women. And I’ll stay away. I’ve always had a tendency to hold grudges, but this goes beyond personal feelings.


Women’s Work

Of the world’s estimated 1.1 billion Roman Catholics, women comprise more than half, which corresponds to the world’s overall population; that is, women make up more than 50%. Yet, unlike most of the planet, certainly unlike developed nations, the Church is far behind in how it views women and their “place” in society. Women actually make the Church function; they’re the ones who teach the kids, sweep the floors, cook the meals, do the laundry, carry the water and so forth. Meanwhile, their male counterparts (term used loosely) don all those chic designer gowns and issue judgmental pronouncements on human behavior. In medieval times, for example, the Church condemned as heretics any medical practitioner who sought to ease the pains of pregnancy and birth for women. Such agonies, the Church declared, are the price all women must pay for Eve’s trickery in the ethereal “Garden of Eden.” You know the story: the one where the wicked female shoved an apple, or some type of fruit, down Adam’s throat; thus making him and all of humanity a victim of feminine wiles. Even now, the Church refuses to grant the role of priesthood to women. It was hell – almost literally – for them to allow alter girls. But, aside from the convent and church secretaries, there aren’t too many formal positions for women in Roman Catholicism. The Church still won’t even sanction birth control.


Native Americans

In 2012, Pope Benedict XVI canonized the first Native American saint, Kateri Tekakwa. It was a unique moment in the Church’s history. Native Americans have a contentious relationship with Roman Catholicism and all of Christianity. That came to the forefront recently when the Church announced that Francis would canonize Spanish missionary Junipero Serra. Canonization is exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church; a lengthy and exhaustive process a deceased individual undergoes before achieving sainthood. Sainthood is that coveted status in the Church where people are proclaimed to be as God-like as humanly possible. Someone has to do a great deal in the name of the Church (and God) just to be considered for canonization. It’s sort of like the U.S. Medal of Honor, except the Church doesn’t acknowledge the recipient may have killed some folks along the way. More importantly, Medal of Honor recipients don’t try to convince people they’re above humanity.

In the 18th century, Serra established one of the first Christian missions in what is now the state of California. I’ve always proudly announced that Spaniards were the first Europeans to colonize the American Southwest; building entire communities. But I’m just as quick to acknowledge the other side of the epic tale: the indigenous peoples of the same region often fell victim to the violence and oppression Europeans brought in their hunger for land and precious metals. When Spain’s Queen Isabella, who funded Christopher Columbus’ voyages and who’s also one of my direct ancestors, learned that her minions were torturing and killing the Indians, she ordered them to stop – which they did. She then ordered them to begin trying to convert the Indians to Christianity – which they did. Then Isabella died, and the slaughter continued. The brutality was almost as bad as that imposed by British and French royalty who had no problems killing those people who either didn’t catch the flu and died or dropped to their knees and started praying to Jesus. In America’s infancy, many White Christians held a concept called “Manifest Destiny.” Some still do.

Francis proclaimed Serra “one of the founding fathers of the United States” and praised his willingness to abandon the comforts of his native Spain to spread Christianity in the Americas. Absent in the virtual deification is the fact that Serra was a tool in a brutal colonial system that killed thousands of Native Americans and subjugated thousands of others who didn’t perish. In August, the California state senate voted to replace a statue of Serra with one of a truly heroic figure: the late astronaut Sally Ride, a California native who was the first American woman in space. You know that had to piss off the Vatican elite. A woman given higher status than a male missionary?! How dare they!

Naturally Francis didn’t address the Native American holocaust; the longest-lasting and most far-reaching genocide in human history. Instead, he said that, when it comes to Christian missionaries, we must “examine their strengths and, above all, their weaknesses and shortcomings.” In other words: we don’t give a shit how you people feel.


The Pedophile Scandal

In June of 1985, American Roman Catholic bishops held their annual conference in Colorado. There, they were presented with a report entitled “The Problem of Sexual Molestation by Roman Catholic Clergy: Meeting the Problem in a Comprehensive and Responsible Manner.” Labeled “confidential,” the massive document was prepared just as the church was dealing with the case of Gilbert J. Gauthe, a priest in Lafayette, Louisiana who had been convicted of child molestation. While we now know the pedophile priest scandal stretches back for decades, the Gauthe case is where the madness first came to light. Revelations about what the Church knew and when shocked and horrified the Catholic faithful. That the Church tried to cover up the scandal by spiriting its gallery of child rapists from one diocese to another – a sort of ecumenical Witness Protection Program – initially seems unimaginable. But, with its vast financial resources and entrenched role as a global powerhouse, I’m not the least bit surprised. Like any international conglomerate, the Church didn’t want to concede it was wrong; opting instead, to pay out millions to keep the loudmouths quiet.

There’s no amount of money that can make up for the pedophile scourge. The damage has been done. This is not a 1950s-era TV show where mom dents the car, and the kids stumble around trying to keep dad from finding out. Francis grudgingly acknowledged the pedophile conundrum during his visit to the U.S. by meeting privately with a handful of victims and proclaiming that “God weeps” at the sexual abuse of children. I guess God weeps when old fuckers like Francis couch their disdain for talking about it publicly by using such generalized terminology. I say this because Francis also praised American bishops for how they confronted the scandal and told priests he felt their pain. For the record, the Roman Catholic Church never confronted this scandal, until U.S. law enforcement got involved. And the priests certainly aren’t the ones who endured any pain – unless it was pain from handcuffs that were too tight or soreness from sitting in a chair for hours, while giving a deposition. But I don’t feel that qualifies.

In the myriad dreams my writer’s psyche produces, the disintegration of the Roman Catholic Church is one of the grandest. But it’s still a dream. We’re talking about an institution nearly two millennia years of age. It’s the foundation of all Christianity – something evangelicals are loathe to admit. It’s not going away anytime soon, unless a comet strikes the Earth or every super volcano on the planet erupts simultaneously. With his soft voice and impish smile, Francis may have convinced a number of people he’s a pope unlike any other; a man wanting to bring the Church into the modern age. After all, he has a Twitter account!

Social media savvy or not, I see the same ruse. I see the same hypocrisy. I see the same figurehead. I see the same wicked entity. It just won’t change for the better. It can’t. It’s deceived too many souls.


Image courtesy J. Belmont.


Filed under Essays

F This!


Just when you think something is new, researchers prove you wrong. For example, I thought American cowboys invented the ‘F’ word. Then I heard rumors someone in my family came up with it during a baptism, but that’s another story. A British historian, however, has found the earliest written record of this vocabulary gem in a court document – from 1310.

The item refers to a man named “Roger Fuckebythenavele,” and was discovered accidentally by Dr. Paul Booth, a historian at England’s Keele University. Booth was examining medieval court cases, when he stumbled upon the unfortunate moniker. Roger wasn’t actually born into a family called “Fuckebythenavele.” He was branded as such because he was an incompetent copulator. Usually that refers to most politicians, but Booth informed the local press, “Either it refers to an inexperienced copulator, referring to someone trying to have sex with the navel, or it’s a rather extravagant explanation for a dimwit, someone so stupid they think that this is the way to have sex.”

Apparently Roger was so bad at sex he was considered an outlaw and would be tried under judiciary circumstances. Before Booth’s discovery, the earliest documented example of “fuck” was in a 1475 poem titled “Flen fyys.” The line in question reads, ““fvccant vvivys of heli,” which can be translated to “they fuck the wives of Ely.”

Booth has contacted the Oxford English dictionary people to advise them of his discovery; whereupon they should then make the appropriate updates to the historical etymology of the “F” word. As of now, Booth hasn’t received a reply. In that case, just tell them to…have a nice day. Dagnabbit!


Filed under Classics

National Banned Books Week 2015

Old Covered Books on Table HD Wallpaper

Today is the official start of “Banned Books Week” here in the U.S.; the annual counter-assault against the angry and the self-righteous who dare to tell the rest of us independent thinkers what we can and cannot read. It’s a relentless battle.

This year the theme is “Young Adult” fiction. YA fiction, as it’s more commonly known, is the newest fad among adventurous scribes who want to help teenagers cross the troubled bridge into full-blown adulthood; the period of life where people learn the hard way that they aren’t the center of the universe. Suzanne Collins’ “The Hunger Games” trilogy is one highly successful example. Despite its popularity, it has garnered its own share of conservative protestors. I really can’t understand that. Within the context of American mythology, “The Hunger Games” has everything: violence, racial exceptionalism and plenty of bad luck. I mean, people getting shot down like wild animals. What’s more American than that?

One of the more curious books being challenged is Rebecca Skloot’s “The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.” Henrietta Lacks was an African-American woman, born Loretta Pleasant in Virginia in 1920, who died of cervical cancer in Baltimore in 1951. It’s not her brief life or tragic death that is necessarily so compelling. It’s not even the fact she died of cervical cancer. It’s what resulted from her death, and the variety of ethical challenges her situation posed. The type of cervical cancer she developed was unique; something oncologists at the time had never seen. Shortly before Lacks’ death, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital removed two samples of the cancer – without her knowledge or permission. They ended up in the laboratory of researcher Dr. George Otto Gey who noticed the cells were unusually durable. Gey isolated and multiplied some of the cells, producing a line he dubbed “HeLa.” The HeLa line would go on to assist cancer researchers in the ensuing decades.

Perhaps the most famous outcome was the cure for one of humanity’s greatest scourges. Jonas Salk used the HeLa line to develop the polio vaccine, which was approved for general use in 1955, after only three years of testing. Immediately thereafter, other scientists began cloning the HeLa cell line; since then, over 10,000 patents involving the HeLa cells have been granted.

The Lacks Family didn’t learn of these advances until 1973, when a scientist contacted them, wanting blood samples and other genetic materials. For them and many African-Americans, this scenario reminded them of the infamous “Tuskegee syphilis study;” perhaps the most egregious and blatant example of medical racism in the U.S. The tale of Henrietta Lacks is nonetheless a compelling study of medical research and medical ethics. But one idiot in Knoxville, Tennessee has a different view: she calls it pornography. Parent Jackie Sims found Skloot’s book inappropriate for students at L&N STEM Academy in Knoxville. The term “inappropriate,” of course, means: ‘I don’t like it, so no one else should have access to it.’ Sims apparently equates gynecology with pornography. The term “cervical” surely sent her frail mind into a tizzy. Her precious on was given an alternate text (maybe something along the lines of a Disney coloring book), but Sims – like the typical self-righteous curmudgeon – wants Skloot’s tome to be banished from the entire school district. Fortunately, district authorities haven’t backed down, and – as of this writing – the matter is still under consideration.

For a complete selection of this year’s frequently-challenged books, check out this list. Then go out and buy, or download, one of them and read it, if you haven’t already. Remember, true freedom begins with the written word.

Banned Books Week on Twitter.

Banned Books Weeks is partnered with the Center for the Book in the Library of Congress.


Filed under News

Old (Dead) Friends


Shortly before Thanksgiving 1992 I happened upon the obituary of a young man I’d known in grade school. He was 29 and had died after a “brief illness.” Another friend who’d, ironically, attended the same grade school (although we didn’t know each other back then) told me that term – “brief illness” – was code for AIDS. Well…sometimes, yes. Then again, it’s really no one’s business what takes the life of a person. Still, it bothered me back then. I had just turned 29 and, for the first time in my life, contemplated my own mortality more seriously than ever before. As someone who suffered from severe childhood depression, coupled with schoolyard bullying and alcoholism, I had thought about death a lot; a hell of a lot more than any kid normally would. But, when I saw that obituary, I thought about death and what legacy I might leave on Earth with a greater sense of intensity.

When my father’s family had its usual Christmas Eve gathering at his mother’s house that year, I asked a cousin who’d also attended that same grade school, if she remembered that young man. “Oh, yeah,” she said. “He died.”

Oh, yeah. And it’s cold out there. Rather matter-of-fact. The full scope of life’s brevity didn’t really hit until the following year, when a close friend, Daniel*, died of AIDS at his mother’s house. For the first time in my nearly three decades, someone close to me – other than a relative – had died.

In the ensuing years, I’ve lost a few more friends and acquaintances. I believe, when you reach the half century mark, life takes on all sorts of different meanings. Things that are, or are not important switch places.

About a month ago I decided to conduct a more intensive search on an old friend, Heath*, who I’d met in 1997. Normally people of my generation who want to find out what happened to old friends would either have to break out a Ouija board or scour a police report. But I did it the new-fashioned way: the Internet. No candles needed.

Heath was a quirky little character; all of 5’5” with bad teeth and a penchant for all things western. He also had a fascination with the Titanic. After James Cameron’s 1997 version of one of the 20th century’s worst man-made calamities, Heath became obsessed with the story. He saw Cameron’s movie more than a few times. Then again, I’ve seen “The Poseidon Adventure” no less than 50 times. I guess we both relished in nautical tragedies. We also shared a love for muscle cars and travel to exotic places. He’d actually managed to do the latter more than me; several more times, but I never held that against him.

I think I last saw Heath sometime in the summer of 2001, after I’d been laid off from the bank and had some free time to enjoy. It was the summer before the great 9/11 horror; the last bit of a romantic hangover from the spectacular late 1990s. Being that contemplative, soul-searching type that most writers are, I reacted like most people during the aftermath and began pondering the whereabouts of old friends. It’s what prompted me to reach out to another friend, Tom*, someone I hadn’t heard from in months. I’d eventually make contact with Tom, which culminated in a brief roommate situation the following spring, which turned out to be a disaster, but still had a positive ending because I ended up with his puppy who I renamed Wolfgang. In the midst of all that, Heath occasionally hopped into my mind. But, with my new job at an engineering firm, traveling and such, while still getting used to having a dog in the house, I had to make him hop back out.

He wasn’t the only one, of course. Plenty of folks from my past kept trying to work their way back into my conscious mind and very busy life. The health of both my parents became tenuous; I tried to get my novel published; my job started requiring me to travel; I resumed my pursuit of a college degree; I bought a new truck; I had foot surgery; my father got sick twice within one year; I got laid off from the engineering company.

Old friends? I just didn’t have much time for them anymore. I needed to start shoving useless crap out of my brain to make room for more important stuff. I know the human mind is supposed to be infinite, like star systems and Thanksgiving turkey. But there’s only so much I want to have inside of me.

So everything stopped for me, literally ground to a halt, when I found out Heath died back in March. He’d hopped back into my mind again, actually he’d been hopping into my mind for the past several months; as if really hoping to get my attention. He kept jumping up and down, almost yelling, ‘Goddamnit, man! I need to tell you something!’

Okay, okay! Damn! Some people just don’t know when to quit. But Heath wasn’t that intrusive type. It was kind odd that he’d kept coming at me so much over so short a period of time. That new-fashioned way of finding people you knew way back when doesn’t salve the pain of finding out they expired; it just delivers the shock more quickly than waiting on a phone call or the mail.

Heath had died back in March – no, found dead – in his North Dallas apartment. Found dead?! What the fuck?! I continually re-read the online obituary, hoping the digital verbiage would buckle from my shocked, angry glares and reveal more.

Who found him? What made them go over there? Apartment in North Dallas? The same one off Greenville Avenue where I’d hang out with him and other friends; talking about cars, listening to rock music and playing with his two small dogs?

The words on the screen could say no more. The photo of Heath posted alongside the obituary made him look almost menacing; it was unlike any expression I’d seen from him before. In fact, he was almost unrecognizable. That’s really why I couldn’t (wouldn’t) believe it.

That’s not him! That’s some other 5’5” guy with a natty ball cap covering his receding hairline who lived in an apartment in North Dallas and had a replica of the Titanic in his living room.

No, it’s not. It was Heath. No one else I know would have built a replica of the Titanic and keep it in his living room. The post said little else: he lived alone; he hadn’t been ill, so nobody knew what caused his death; friends had to pool together money for his funeral; no relatives could be found.

Is there a proper way to respond to something like that? If there’s a book on Amazon, or some kind of web site where I can find out, please let me know in the comments section below. Your consideration will be highly appreciated.

A few years ago I chunked my four high school annuals into the recycle bin. In the fall of 1978, I had been so eager to get the hell out of that parochial grade school near downtown Dallas and begin a new life at a new school with new people. By the time I graduated in June of 1982, I was filled with the same kind of excitement. I just wanted to get the fuck out of there. I hated high school even more than grade school; more than looking at myself naked in the mirror and realizing how ugly I am; more than going to a German wedding and finding out the open bar ran out of beer before the reception. But, in the intervening years, I did wonder what happened to the four or five friends I had in high school. I found one on Facebook. I’m sure many others just don’t care to bridge that gap between snail-mail letters and social networks that plagues people of my generation. Others may be in the grave, and I just haven’t found out yet.

Death figures prominently in my novel. I really don’t have a fascination with it. I just accepted long ago that it was another chapter in life. And I realized – after watching my parents cringe at the sight of old friends in the obituaries – that you don’t get up there in years without going through some bumps and bruises. Some of those bumps are learning an old friend died, and – like a job offer that went into your spam queue two weeks ago – goddamn if you knew about it until now.

My father got emotional a few months ago, when I culled the obituaries of the local paper and found someone who’d attended the same East Dallas high school he did, around the same time as him. In my father’s youth, it seems all the Mexican-American folks knew one another; lived in the same neighborhoods; and went to the same schools. They had to in those days, when people were placed into boxes according to race and gender.

That’s one thing I remember fondly about Heath: neither one of us liked to be defined by other people’s expectations. We didn’t fit into predefined categories that made others happy, content and satisfied the world around them functioned the way they thought it should. His other friends couldn’t figure me out and, aside from a fascination with muscle cars and sea-bound disasters, didn’t know what we had in common. That’s okay. I didn’t care for all of his friends. I’m sure he wouldn’t have cared for some of mine. I didn’t have nearly as many friends as he did, though. He obviously had enough to collect money to cover funeral expenses. Unless my parents were here, I don’t know if any of my friends would do the same. I don’t socialize with people much.

But I’m faithful to the few friends I do have. That’s why, for example, when my friend Alan* – married with 3 kids – tells me he needs to talk about stuff over lunch on a Saturday, I’m there. When my friend Raymond*, who I wrote about a while back, calls to say life has become unbearable for him, I try to get back to him quickly. Alan once had a bout with cancer, and Raymond still carries a bullet fragment from an attempted robbery. If I lost either of them now, I can’t just go out and get a new friend, like some people get a new computer.

I’ve gotten over Heath’s unexpected death, and he’s no longer bouncing around in my mind. He got my attention. That’s the thing about old friends. Eventually they become dead friends. There’s no other alternative. I wouldn’t want one.

*Name changed.

Image courtesy: 4-Designer.


Filed under Essays

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.



Filed under Essays



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.


Filed under Essays

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!


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


Filed under Art Working