Monthly Archives: August 2014

A story of New Orleans, by my daughter

As many of you know, my daughter and her husband (a native New Orleanian) recently moved to Boston after living in New Orleans for the past four years — med school for him, grad school for her. Following is a post she wrote and put on her blog today, which she (reluctantly) gave me permission to post over here. As long as I didn’t identify her by name.

She prefaced the link to it on her Facebook page by saying:

We’ve been asked a lot up here about New Orleans and how it is doing. Like any decent story about New Orleans, this one begins with food and ends with music, with a bit of struggle in between.

New Orleans on My Mind

I’ll never forget my first poboy. It was May of 2007 and my first visit to New Orleans. Adam insisted we get poboys. I didn’t really understand what this meant, and Adam couldn’t really adequately describe it. A sandwich, kind of like a sub or hoagie, but with fried shrimp instead of deli meat, and bread unlike any other sandwich bread in the world. If it’s not on Leidenheimer bread, it’s not a true poboy. Could I put cheese on it? No, he said, I absolutely could not. Cheese on a shrimp poboy?? No. You get it dressed. What does that mean? Lettuce, tomato, mayo. But I don’t like tomatoes on sandwiches, can I get it without that? Won’t it be dry without cheese? He just looked at me and shook his head. There sure seemed to be a lot of rules regarding poboys. I was unconvinced. So he drove us to some nondescript building out near the lakefront, which outwardly did not look at all like a restaurant, and ordered a large shrimp poboy, fully dressed, with some Crystal on it too, please.

We got back in the car with our poboy-laden brown paper bag and drove through what I was told used to be a beautiful neighborhood. The houses were still beautiful, they were just in varying stages of repair, as was their landscaping, and the streets. We took a short detour to stop by his friend’s mom’s house, where we could still see the waterline from the hurricane, above my head. I pressed my face to the window to look inside, and it was definitely not suitable for habitation. She was living Uptown now while she figured out what to do with this house. Is this the same friend who lived with your parents while you were in school in DC after the storm? This is his mom’s house? It was. I stood there looking at the house, feeling almost like I wasn’t even allowed to be sad because none of this happened to me. This was not my pain. This wasn’t even the worst of the pain suffered here. Someone was sharing their story with me, though, and I was saddened.

We got back in the car, turned the radio to an upbeat station, and continued out to Lakeshore Drive along Lake Pontchartrain where we parked and walked until we found a suitable bench on which to eat our fully dressed fried shrimp poboy with Crystal, sans cheese. As he rolled it out from the layers of paper wrapped around it, wafts of shrimp emanated outward, and several of the golden bite-sized prizes that the poboy was stuffed to the brim with toppled off the bread back onto the paper. The wind coming off the water blew my hair into my face as I tried to hold my napkin on my lap while taking my half of the poboy from Adam. Not yet a believer in poboys, I lifted the top half of the bread up to inspect what was going on inside my sandwich. Plenty of mayo, lettuce and tomato, more shrimp than the bread could hold, and streaks of red-orange hot sauce. Here we go.

I think Adam probably expected to eat some of my half too. Not a chance, buddy. The bread was unreal. Crispy, soft and fluffy all at the same time, melt-in-your-mouth kind of bread. The shrimp were tender and juicy on the inside, crispy golden on the outside, and full of flavor. The “dressed” aspect of the poboy was perfect, complementing the bread and shrimp to create a holy triumvirate that now ruled as benevolent overlord of all other sandwiches in my world. I gobbled that small piece of heaven up so fast I got hiccups, lamenting that we didn’t each get our own poboy. I leaned back on the bench, finally able to take in the view of the lake before me, satisfied and happy. Eating was believing.

My first trip to New Orleans followed that general pattern. Exposure to new and wonderful things, having a fantastic time, interrupted periodically by scars from Katrina that prompted serious and sad conversations of what happened during and after, and then we carried on enjoying the many wonderful things the city had to offer, because in New Orleans you enjoy life. Since moving to Boston, we have both been asked “How is it down there since the storm?” when we say we moved here from New Orleans. Multiple times. This is strange. It has been nine years this weekend since Katrina, and I guess we assumed that meant people were done asking that question. It has been at least four years since anyone has asked Adam that question whenever it comes up that he’s from New Orleans when we are outside the state of Louisiana. But now, during job interviews, meeting new coworkers, meeting neighbors, talking to patients, people want to know how New Orleans is doing since the storm.

During my four years living in New Orleans, Katrina got mentioned all the time. This is where such-and-such used to be pre-Katrina. When was that Thanksgiving that no one remembered to make oyster dressing, was that before or after Katrina? You see a lot more fluers de lis around the city than you did pre-Katrina. The Marigny has more young people living there than it did before the storm. I’m excited for Christmas because my cousins are coming, they went to Houston after the storm and never came back so now we only see each other on holidays. And so on. It’s like the narrative of the city has subtly changed, and the storm became the central point of reference when describing things and telling stories.

We had a few tropical storms and hurricanes form in the Gulf while I lived there. In the days leading up to landfall, when the weather folks are still showing that wide prediction cone for the path the storm might take, when there is still a lot of water to cross that could potentially strengthen the storm, the mood of the entire city shifts. The tension is palpable. People don’t really wonder out loud if the storm will head towards Mobile, veer towards Houston, stay straight, or just fizzle out. Not the way we openly discussed storm path possibilities growing up in NC. There’s not a whole lot of detailed conversation, no one really wants to voice their fears, but everyone is keeping a close eye on the weather channel. Nothing really gets accomplished in an efficient manner at work. Everyone is wondering if and when they should leave. Everyone who lived there in 2005 is quietly reliving trauma, and those of us who didn’t are respectfully quiet and sensitive while we wait to hear what the storm is going to do.

Driving around New Orleans now, you won’t see the physical scars unless you know where to look. Most of the city has been rebuilt, and it looks great. It really does. It has come back enough to host the Superbowl. In addition to fixing what was damaged, there is a lot of completely new stuff, like the new section of the National WWII Museum and the bike lanes. Tulane is getting a football stadium. The city is getting a shiny new hospital complex that spans at least 6 city blocks. New grocery stores are opening all the time, and new schools are getting built. Some parts of town were rebuilt more than others, and a lot of work remains to be done in the areas that were worst hit. For the areas where houses were torn down and are now just a patchwork of overgrown green lots, there is nothing but the driveway entrance past the sidewalk to indicate where a house once stood. The houses that haven’t had much of anything done to them don’t look a whole lot different than blight you might see elsewhere, so it’s not immediately apparent the damage is from the storm as well as nine years of neglect. It’s not immediately apparent that the families who left those houses, and couldn’t come back to the city or perhaps just not to that specific house, suffered. On the majority of those houses the FEMA x-code has been covered up with paint or boards, but it is still visible on others. Some houses that people have come back to and are living in, some of those families chose to leave the x-code on their house when they rebuilt. It is always jarring to drive around and see a refurbished house with the x still on it.

Progress has been uneven, but progress continues to be made, and life goes on as it must. People are focusing on addressing larger social issues that don’t have anything to do with the storm. Madri Gras is still Mardi Gras. The food is better than anything you’ll find anywhere else. Crawfish boils abound in the spring. The music is fantastic, the impromptu dance parties in front of brass bands in the street being my favorite. The festivals are seemingly endless. The people are the friendliest I’ve ever met and the architecture is colorful and vibrant. Second lines still stop traffic. The moments when memories of the storm displace the joie de vivre that pervades the city are fewer and fewer as time passes, but the storm is still woven into the fabric of the city. If you want to know how New Orleans is doing, you should really go and find out for yourself. I promise you’ll fall in love.

About that Superbowl. As part of being host city, New Orleans set up free concerts along the Mississippi River, one of which was Trombone Shorty. He is my absolute favorite. At one point in the concert, he started up the Who Dat chant, and the crowd went nuts. Absolutely nuts. We were all screaming “who dat say dey gonna beat dem Saints” while the Ravens and 49ers fans stood confused and lost. The band then proceeded to play a mash-up of New Orleans-themed songs, including Fire on the Bayou, the Mardi Gras song, When The Saints Go Marching In, Iko Iko, and others I can’t remember. The band was one with the crowd, all of us caught up in our love for this city, and our blatant disregard for the feelings of the fans whose teams were actually competing that weekend. This was our city, and our team might not have been playing, but we were still going to celebrate because we knew this place was one of a kind, and we knew the collective love we felt for the city was more important anyway. We waved anything white we could find and danced freely. We were New Orleanians.

But we can’t say all of that to the Bostonians who want to know how New Orleans is doing. So we say the city has come a long way and is doing well. Because it has. And it is.



Filed under Guest Post

. . . and then there are losses that are personal

We received the news of this last night, and today I posted the following on facebook. I decided to share it here as well.


Feeling sad and mourning the loss of one of my Imaginary Internet Friends. Louis was a true gentleman and a real life cowboy, a storyteller and a poet, an avid reader who enjoyed the romance genre. He was a veteran of the US Navy who once described seeing San Francisco from aboard ship by quoting Carl Sandburg. A man of few words, yet his descriptions of life on his horse ranch never failed to captivate and charm. He died last week — “drifted off gently in his sleep” according to a daughter-in-law — at the age of 90. He was a dear friend who enriched my life in so many ways. His absence from our community will be keenly felt. Rest in peace, Louis.




Filed under deep thoughts

Reflections on creativity and depression and obsession

The suicide death of Robin Williams a few days ago hit me hard, as it did so many other people. I’ve been trying to figure out why, as I can’t really say I was a “huge fan” of his. Not the way some people are. I haven’t seen all of his movies, or watched all of his TV appearances, or listened to all of his recordings. What I have seen of his work, I’ve enjoyed immensely. I certainly admired the man’s comic genius that bordered on insanity.

If I’m honest, a part of me always felt unsettled, inexplicably and vaguely afraid, while watching him perform. Because his comedy was so extreme, so wildly unrestrained, it really did border on insanity. A part of me, the tiny part that wasn’t laughing, somehow sensed there was a dangerous flip side, an equally extreme down side to all that manic genius.

I’ve felt that way watching other performers, mostly comedians, especially early in their careers. George Carlin, Richard Pryor, John Belushi, Jim Carrey, Steve Martin, all the Monty Python guys. Huh. I just realized they’re all men. No idea what that signifies, if anything.

All of them had that same wild talent for pushing at various boundaries, for giving performances that were over the top, or right at the edge, or on the verge of madness. God, what huge risks they took. Not just with whether their manic highs would resonate with an audience, but risking the devastation of what I suspect were the inevitable lows. Now, I don’t know this for sure. I never saw any of them “come down” from a performance, never saw the exhaustion or the toll it took. But it seems likely. It falls in line with Newton’s Third Law: for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

Extreme highs, extreme lows. And a part of me always rather desperately hoped they had it all under control. More so than it appeared from the outside.

In my experience — and I’ll grant you that my experience is on a vastly smaller scale — those highs and lows are different from depression. I know creativity and depression are linked, but I don’t believe it’s an absolute and inevitable link, just as I don’t know whether those people I mentioned had or have depression. Reportedly, Robin Williams did. Apparently, he’d also recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease.

It feels important to make the distinction between depression and the highs and lows of creativity. Depression, to me, is not the extreme low point on the rollercoaster of creativity that some people think it is, but more of a stifling thing. A chemical process in the brain that levels off both the highs and lows and has more of a dampening effect, a dulling of the senses, a loss of caring, an overriding hopelessness. Guilt, shame, denial. Dread. Profound emotional isolation. I’ve come to wonder whether depression is the brain’s way of protecting itself from, and trying to prevent, the extremes of creativity. That seems to make sense. To me.

But I’m not any kind of scientist and have no authority to say that other than “it seems to make sense.” Bear in mind that, when I was a child, I was convinced that squirrels could talk. If they wanted to. That made sense to me too. So, grain of salt. I suspect my parents went out of their way to shield me from any and all versions of Doctor Dolittle.

Joking aside, I’m not making light of depression. It’s a horrible disease and I’m sure the science of it is a far more complex and difficult thing than I could ever comprehend.

Anyway. Back to trying to make sense of why this particular death hit me so hard. I still don’t know and perhaps never will. Why Robin Williams? I’m a sucker for the combination of intelligence and humour and he certainly had both, but it was more than that, with him. I think it was his eyes. Whatever intangible quality he had, it was in his eyes. Don’t ask me to explain that because I don’t think I can. There was just something genuine and compelling in his eyes.

Or maybe it’s simply that I feel too much. I have an excess of empathy. It has always been a problem for me, although I try to convince myself that’s an asset for a writer.

Pieces of this quote have been teasing at the back of my brain, so I looked it up and decided to share it here:

“The truly creative mind in any field is no more than this: a human creature born abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. To him, a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy, a joy is an ecstasy, a friend is a lover, a lover is a god, and failure is death. Add to this cruelly delicate organism the overpowering necessity to create, create, create — so that without the creating of music or poetry or books or buildings or something of meaning, his very breath is cut off from him. He must create, must pour out creation. By some strange, unknown, inward urgency he is not really alive unless he is creating.” ~Pearl S. Buck

It’s the “abnormally, inhumanly sensitive” part that has been resonating with me the past few days. The words “a touch is a blow, a sound is a noise, a misfortune is a tragedy” have been cycling in my mind. And I don’t mean as a description of Robin Williams, although certainly it could apply to him, but to describe myself.

Part of what I mean when I say “this has hit me hard” is that, for whatever reason, there is an obsessive component at work. Something about this man, and his death, has struck a chord and my brain has become a bit like a tuning fork that continues to vibrate long after it should have gone still. I recognize this because it’s something I’ve experienced before. Many times.

Part of my focus as a writer, my job if you will, is to understand and evoke emotion. I don’t know which came first, my desire to write or my fascination with emotion and psychology. So when people or events touch my emotions deeply, I tend to get sucked in and drown in it. When it happens to this degree and becomes obsessive, what it means, for me, is that I need to step away from it.

Twitter and Facebook and news sites offer up links to a flood of grief and remembrance. The entire internet is full of anecdotes and stories, not just of who the man was and what he meant to so many people, but also stories of other people who struggle with depression. These are all good and worthy and valuable things to share. Respect and gratitude to those who are able to do so. But every single one of them reduces me to tears and subjects me to welling emotion until my entire being feels like a giant raw exposed nerve. I can’t read them any more.

I have to remind myself that while we all share in the loss of this man, it is not personal to me. I didn’t know him. I never met him. It is not a blow to me personally, it is not my personal tragedy. I have to remind myself that I AM abnormally, inhumanly sensitive. That I care too much.

The point of me talking about this publicly in a blog post, rather than just filing it away in my mind as yet another example of my own vulnerability and instability, is that I see other people who appear to be struggling the same way I am. Part of the “problem” with knowing so many other writers and creative types (honestly, it’s a blessing, not a problem) is that a disproportionate number of my friends and acquaintances are equally sensitive, in various ways. We all care too much. And as much as I want to, I can’t make myself dismiss the reports saying that suicide, especially celebrity suicide, can be “contagious.”

If, like me, you’re one of those too sensitive people, I want you to know it’s okay to step away. It’s perfectly acceptable to skip reading that story or not click on that link. It is perhaps even necessary in order to protect yourself.

I’m not kidding. Step away if you need to. I did.

I’ve been mostly offline the past few days, doing ordinary mundane things. I deliberately tackled the most daunting project in my house, the one that has been the primary recipient of my formidable powers of procrastination: my dining room. That place where all the irritating, non-urgent miscellany of my life goes to await its fate. Stuff that you hesitate to throw away because it might be important, maybe, someday, but you’re not sure when or why. The kind of stuff that becomes obsolete with time but that you never quite get around to throwing out. Or maybe that’s just me.

Well, I’ve gotten around to it in a big way this week. Among the things I’ve disposed of are the user’s manuals and warranty information for two different cell phones, neither of which I’m still using, and the user’s manual for a TI-83 Plus calculator that I haven’t even seen since the kids were in high school. There was also warranty information and a user’s guide for the toaster. Who the hell needs a user’s guide for a toaster? And why didn’t I throw it away immediately? Maybe I thought I’d need it if the toaster was defective and I had to return it? Who knows.

Every so often I take a break and do a brief check of social media. Nope, not safe yet. Not for me, anyway. So I tackle the next stack of ancient dusty paper. An invitation to and course book for The Cambridge College Programme, a “thank you for visiting” letter from another college with my child’s name misspelled, a college semester grade transcript. All go into the trash/recycling.

It’s not that I’ve been keeping this stuff on purpose. Although, looking at some of it, I’m starting to wonder whether I’m one of those hoarders. No, there was a time when these things would have been important, depending on various decisions. But then that time came . . . and went . . . and the stuff stayed. Expanded to fit the space available. Someone should invent paper that disappears once its usefulness has passed.

And then there are the cardboard boxes. Okay, I might be a hoarder of those. *cringe* It always seems like there might be a good use for a box of a certain size. You know? Well, two or three seems reasonable, but no one needs as many as I’d mysteriously accumulated. So those are now broken down, flattened, and put into the recycling as well.

My dining room is starting to look like a dining room again. For now.

You might be thinking it’s ironic that in trying not to obsess about something, I’ve written a lengthy blog post on the topic. But I’ve found that putting a thing in writing is often the easiest way for me to stop thinking about it. Getting the words out of my head and into this post is not as counter-intuitive as it might seem. Doing so is as necessary to my mental health as the more symbolic physical manifestation of getting rid of worthless old papers and boxes. It frees up the space and energy necessary to fan the spark of other creative pursuits.

For, as Robin Williams wisely said:

“You’re only given a little spark of madness. You mustn’t lose it.”

Keep an eye on yours. If you’re at the point where “a sound is a noise” then turn off the noise. Control the input and turn it off if you have to.

If you need more help than simply shutting down the internet provides, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24 hours a day at 800-273-8255. No shame, no excuses, no overwhelming aloneness, just help.

Take care of yourself.



Filed under creativity, deep thoughts, health and well-being