frog's blog

Anuran, n. an amphibian of the order Salientia (formerly Anura or Batrachia), which includes the frogs and toads

Saturday, September 10, 2005

Nothing But Beads

Once again those strands of colored plastic will be prayer beads again. But when the time for praying is over, we turn to ranting once again.

Have you heard what they are peddling out for rationale for the tragedy? According to some fundamentalists, it’s “God punishes gays for the Southern Decadence parade.” Or if you worship a different deity, it might be, “Allah punishes Americans for complicity in empire.” Somehow, though, if God exists, I don’t think she acts this way.

But if you listen to many of us radical activist types, the potency of Hurricane Kail, I mean Katrina, I mean She Who Shall Not Be Named was very likely linked to global warming.

Yet it’s not the hurricane that hurt us, but all the racist reactions to it. Thanks to a fellow Tennessean and friend of justice and former denizen of Nahlins—Tim Wisewhat needs to be said has been said.

I am writing for us, for all my friends who love dissent and gumbo and carnival that cannot be quelled by churches, cops, or category 5 racial intolerance. This hit us hard, but we are hard-headed, stubborn, soulful, resilient. Who are we? We who love New Orleans, urban underwater village of voodoo visionaries, jazz mythologies, blues grit, spicy grits, groovy Februaries, an urban bayou beatitude of gratitude. Despite the crime, the racism, the hypocrisy of the tourist industry and politicians, this is some transgalactic outpost of sin, of sinful saints, of beads and cake, of alcoholic hallucinations of god as goddess, naked on Bourbon Street & wrapped in nothing but beads.

I’m waiting to hear again: the wicked refrain of Tom Waits’ odes, the psychedeic sanctification offered by Dr. John, the religious jubilee of the Neville Brothers.

Why couldn’t it have been Texas, Los Angeles, the East Coast some lovers of steamy southern decadence confess. But this is not a wish for harm on the hateful. We taste the curse of ecology and gravity and a white supremacist society. I can hear the hushed refrain of reaction: Didn’t you know that God hates black people and gay people and people who didn’t know they were living below sea level?

But I love that city as black as red and brown and gay and avant-garde, and it still be a real part of Dixie, a surregionalist bioregion of its own concoction, a magickal constellation still part of earth.

It’s nature’s 9-11, America’s Tsunami. Before the waves drenched us, CNN floods with the recurring disaster of spectacle. Before a crisis even happens, the media makes us melodramatic with fear. But the reality has outstripped the hype. How often does that happen?

Castro offered aid but we didn’t take it. Too good for commie doctors and commie politicians but when a category 5 hit Cuba last, not a single Cuban died.

Unlike 9-11, this is worse, and this time the flag is not being brandished like a bully’s bat to beat us into the proper response. Bush is dodging rhetorical bullets and whining about the blame game. Don’t blame! Investigate! How many lives would that approach have saved in Iraq? Afghanistan?

“Greatest catastrophe” and “doomsday scenario” of “biblical proportions” to grip the victims of the daily grind. The Spectacle responds to mama nature’s spectacular nature.

How many times did we hear the words “chaos” and “anarchy” invoked to describe the human component of what came after the wave. The rotting horror that followed the hurricane represents not anarchy but the dire shambles of a dreadful system. Blaming the victim reaches a new form when the hungry, desperate, and often hopeless survivors of doomsday are painted as the torchbearers for chaos and anarchy.

While resisting the temptation to form a PR committee to defend my favorite A-word, I must confess that what we saw last week was not so much the triumph of anarchy but a failure of government. A massive, mean-spirited and catastrophic failure of imperial proportions.

How many cops turned in their badges? How many sad, inexcusable excuses can the governor of Louisiana and the president of the United States trade in one day? Perhaps we need words to describe liberty and freedom but let’s be clear when we say that FEMA and the White House represent neither. I found a much more thorough analysis that follows a similar line of reasoning here. And thankfully, these perspectives are not isolated but represent a swelling momentum of deep human courage, not the apolitical photo-op heroism the media and polticians love.

Of all the reactions, many surprised me in their heartfelt honesty and sense of solidarity. The number of unofficial, unsponsored, unlicensed, unequivocably effective grassroots and down-to-earth relief efforts is amazing.

Who decided to stay. Who had no choice. Who couldn’t afford to join the parking lot on Interstate 10. All lanes outbound. Who will ever get to go home?

A rhyme scheme begins:

Cries of distress piped global through digital hoses

The pathology of shame shot up through our noses

On a voodoo grave I see rotting roses

Friday, September 02, 2005

For New Orleans?

I began this two days ago. As the "news" rolls in, there will be more to say, feelings will fluctuate, thoughts will change. And I must tell myself "it's not about me or 'us' or what I paid at the gas pump yesterday."

Already, two comrades from New Orleans have found refuge on our land. Listening to their stories, the breadth of this, the layers of this, the incalculable meaning of this, settles into my unsettled heart.

I wanted to write something profound for New Orleans. But most words, most forms of expression—short of screams and howls or a long solemn silence—seem inadequate. What mode offers a proper ode? Wouldn’t a prayer or poem be redundant at this point? (Shiloh and I, we are working on a song). What’s there to say when there’s nothing to say? And whatever we say: it will sound like a cliché.

Perhaps I should just compose a list of all the music I’m listening to manage my fear and grief, because New Orleans is so much about sounds, as much as it is about images. But the list isn’t surprising: the Nevilles, Dr. John, Professor Longhair. Except for one: an obscure young cat from suburban Detroit, who ended up for a while in “Nahlins”: Dan Kahn does folk blues with a bite, and “Terrebone Parish,” the opening track on his self-produced CD River Mouth, is all about murder and hurricanes. It’s an eerie and musty soundtrack, a song as haunting and humid as the weather. (Check back next week, as I am trying to post an MP3 of this amazing song).

Kahn sings lines about the past that should have been written today: “everybody’s waiting around for the water to rise to the edge of the sky and the rain to come tumblin, tumblin on down”; “it was deep in the hurricane month . . .”; “those rumors they spread like malaria”; “but you can’t tell a Cajun, just to move off to Houston”; “you can take all the dreams . . . and you can wash them away just like Hurricane Andrew washed trailers away from their lots.”

Perhaps I can list each person I know from this city and check off the names of those I can confirm are safe. Most of my people had the means to get out. Mostly they are white, and in perspective, they have privilege compared to those now trapped in the Superdome, in attics, and on rooftops. (Or shipped like livestock to Texas, or lost in the streets, fighting for their lives, or worse). On Tuesday, I carried Mardi Gras beads with me wherever I went, fondling them in my pocket as a ritual and reminder.

While memories of some cities fade, mine of New Orleans remain vivid. It’s this tangible template of lingering thoughts, scrolling across the canvas of my mind like fragments of celluloid, like the bad dreams of youth. This recurring return, it comforts as it haunts you. You might be just as scared that it may never come back. How much of this city will never come back?

Sunday night and Monday morning, as the opportunistic media horror story began to mount, I thought, this is really over-the-top. Yet worse: the tones of apology and relief at first, on Monday: “not the doomsday scenario some expected.” That’s something easier for pundits with their lives in tact to say. Tell that to the homeless! Define doomsday, define biblical proportion, define economic crisis, define natural disaster, define catastrophe, define heroism. Define these things, and we’ve defined humanity. What is "history" but a winding narrative of death and drama and human folly?

But now, as we realize the real impact of it all, I doubt it possible to exaggerate. Witnesses describe communities on the coast as “not severely damaged” but “simply, not there.”

And as a writer, I have overcome some cynicism of my early media critique, gaining some respect for the poets of the satellite dish, for the prophets of the cable news network, even with their manufactured tears and emotions on auction to secure elevated ratings. When the obscenity of reality TV tweaks it up another notch each day, there’s nothing like a genuine disaster to redefine destruction and keep the spectacle in perspective.