Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Mississippi Post: True Devastation

Today, my sister-in-law, MaryAnn drove myself and her mother, Jean, down to one of the most devasted area along the Gulf Coast. As we cruised slowly along I-90 and through the towns of Bay St. Louis, Pass Christian and Waveland, the images were beyond comprehension. Entire blocks of homes, entire neighborhoods, entire towns - GONE.

It's a rare day when I find myself speechless but today was certainly one. Frames of former mansions stood bare and naked in the midday sun. Personal items and bits of clothing hung from bare branches while other trees were bent over at the base, their spines cracked by the cruel hand of wind. The tropical heads of palm trees were decapitated clean, their headless bodies looked especially ghoulish along an otherwise beautiful beach.

What is most striking about the devastation is the lack of color. The once rolling green lawns have been killed by seawater and replaced by a blanket of beige sand; without leaves, bushes or foliage of any kind, the scene appears brown, muted and very dead.

Honestly, I am really struggling here to fully describe what I am have seen. In fact, I'm not sure I ever learned the proper meanings of certain words until today. "Severe" and "surreal" and "incomprehensible" come close but language, unless spray painted on a plywood sign along with a FEMA case number, simply can't get the job done here.

I kept hearing Jean, a survivor of the infamous Hurricane Camille in 1969, gasping from the back seat, "Gracious sakes alive!" and "Lord have mercy!" Her words seemed to fit so I just kept quiet and slowly hobbled out of the car (see previous post) now and again to snap a photo.

But even photography felt futile. I thought I would be thrilled about documenting this historical event but the enormity of it all is simply overwhelming. Viewing TV footage or seeing AP photos can only provide the tiniest clue for what to expect. Taking it in with your own set of faculties, seeing mile after mile after mile of it, your eyes almost become accustomed to seeing a couch stuck in a tree or spiral staircase corkscrewing up from the sand. It's not like a bomb went off here, it is like MANY bombs went off here. Very large ones.

Furthermore, the photos were harder to take than I'd imagined because of the obvious emotional toll this has cost. Lives that were not lost here were certainly ruined and if not ruined, than highly inconvenienced for a tremendously long time. Antebellum homes that had been in families for decades have little to show for this history save for a cement foundation or fancy front porch steps leading to nowhere. Roads that once hosted busy seaside traffic are now blocked and over run with sand. Giant oaks are twisted and mangled together, frozen in a macabre gnarled pose, where someone's living room once hosted daily episodes of a family's life.

I just kept thinking the same thing over and over: Nature has come to reclaim what was hers. We were foolish to think we could "own" a square of dirt and proclaim ourselves ruler. Evidently, she can take it back anytime she wants.


At last I'm a true horsewoman. Yesterday, a huge white Canadian Warmblood named Oscar threw me over his head to make a point. I'm not sure what his message was, other than 'I'm bigger than you' - he even sauntered over and gave me a regretful sniff with his huge nostrils as I lay there windless.

My sister-in-law, Carol, was riding the equine matriarch, Scarlett, and was at my side so fast, it was impressive. Somehow, she'd found my glasses and had them back on my head before my eyes even popped open again. She took both horses back to the barn and left me there with instructions: "Don't move!!!" which, of course, I ignored.

Checking all the parts, one extremity at a time, I could surmise all by myself that everything still worked. Still, my lower left back was hurting and my left leg felt tingly. The top right corner (yes, I now had a corner) of my head was bumped and bruised. My ego took the biggest hit.

Oddly enough, it was an initiation of sorts. So often I have heard the stories from my fellow riders about " . . . this one time I went flying . . . " or " . . . he flipped me right over the top . . . " but I had nothing to contribute. My own mother, Iva Mae, who rode a pony (bareback, of course) to school growing up in North Dakota, would talk about Betsy, who let her know when she was done by ejecting my mother onto school grounds.

At last, I am broken in.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Mississippi Post: Seeing is Believing

My father picked me up from Louis Armstrong International Airport on Christmas morning. I had boarded the plane on Xmas Eve at 11:30 p.m., rather inebriated on rich food, expensive whiskey and a smidgen of my homestate's finest wacky weed. After a red eye flight, with a two-hour layover in Chicago, I was dead dog tired, exactly how I'd planned it; I was bracing myself. After all the reading, watching and listening, I was soon going to see first hand the effects of Katrina's rage.

Coming west on Interstate 10 to Ocean Springs, Mississippi to where RMAC live (that's Robert and MaryAnn Clisby, my brother and his wife), it took us about an hour or so. My father is retired 34 years and, therefore, is the slowest driver alive - this was the one time I didn't mind. We swung past the AstroDome and parts of downtown, lots of building fronts gone. Already I could tell that the blue tarp was going to be a familiar site. Heading out of town on the above highway, I could look down into neighborhoods clearly forgotten, most with spray paint still on the front declaring the number alive or dead. I plan to revist New Orleans later this week. I have a beloved friend - a radio station actually - that I need to check on.

It was the side of road that held the most ghoulish images for me. Still strewn with bits of trash and every ten miles or so, a stove or refridgerator, smashed into a ball. It is strangely disturbing seeing indoor items . . . outdoor - there is a certain vulnerability you feel when you come upon someone's bedroom dresser in the open air and there are leaves on it. There but for the grace of God, and all that jazz.

Already, I've become accustomed to seeing piles of debris, twisted metal and tree after tree snapped in half. There are lots filled with FEMA trailers (which leak, I understand) and row upon endless row of damaged cars, all sadly sitting in the sun, silent and useless. Motorhomes are parked willy nilly and signs are blown out - even Micky D's hasn't gotten around to fixing their golden arches.

Once I arrived at RMAC HQ, they wasted little time in loading me into the dunebuggy (which is more of a deluxe gocart) and they took me around the neighborhood. Though RMACE lost the entire first floor of their beautiful Gulf Hills home, many of their neigbors did not fare so well. "Devastation" is the only word that truly fits here and even then, words fail. One neighbor defiantly parked their trailer right into the shell of their former home, refusing to leave. Spray-painted plywood signs express rage at insurance adjusters and their ilk.

Nevertheless, there are bits of optimism everywhere - lots of "We're Hiring!" signs and entrepeneurs offering much needed services: "HOUSE GUTIN" (gutting). The stubborn pride of Southern folks and the spirit of the season has resulted in a singular mission: persevere.

As we left the scene of one former home, Robert spotted a perfect yellow sunflower, poking up defiantly through a pile of trash. Its spine was straight and its face a perfect sunny yellow. It is sobering to think that the flower and the hurricane both have the same ancestry and share the same Mother Nature.

Saturday, December 24, 2005

I'm Old But I'm Rich

It's taken me exactly one week to finally absorb all the love directed at me on my 40th birthday. My cousin, Ryan - who is really more of a younger brother - orchestrated the event with quiet tenacity. Old friends flew in or drove from Oceanside, Long Beach, Yorba Linda and, amazingly, Albququerque.

Ironically, I fretted all week about's prediction that it would rain since we had envisioned an elaborate outdoor BBQ/firepit/deck scene. All those pretty lights we'd planned to put in the trees! How would we cook? Would everyone fit in the house? Not only did it rain but it was torrential, the Chronicle called it "the worst storm of the season." Sure, it may have kept a few folks away but my truest friends are the heartiest souls. We had about 50 folks who made the trek, including the hero of the evening, David Jacobson, who drove the birthday cake (a delicious green battlefield of cowboys and Indians) from Foster City.

Deep into the evening, my best friend, Lisa Friedman, presented to me a large black scrapbook that contained "Heather memories and photos" submitted by friends from various eras of my life. The effort it took for people to put their feelings down, for Lisa to collect and create the book was enough to knock me over. My magical friend, Heidi Nye, then stood to perform an exquisite poem she had written in my honor: "A Heather Resplendent."

In that delicate breathy voice of hers, unafraid and full of love, she spoke to the room about how she sees me, her friend, and . . . well, let's just say, it brought down the house. When she finished, there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Heidi's poems have that effect on people.

All of this and despite the rain, a firepit and BBQ thrived in the backyard, under a carefully placed blue tarp. The best part, guests continually complimented me on the quality of the other guests. The variety of people I choose to drag along with me in this life is deliberate and I take the matter very seriously.

For several days now, as I have prepared to take on all that is Christmas, I ponder the many coats of love and affection that were wrapped around me and I wonder, "Is this woman that they love the same woman who wears my skin every day?" If so, I'll have put all that fretful self-loathing on hold for a little while. At least until next year.

Merry Christmakuh all!

HEAD'S UP: This evening, I fly to New Orleans and will be posting blogs from the Gulf Coast until I return on January 3rd. I fear all my favorite places will be gone and the mood will be depressing. I will be ringing in the New Year with folks who got a clean slate whether they wanted one or not.

Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Torture Starts Early

Perhaps I am the only one to notice but two of this week's headlines got me laughing - not in a healthy way, mind you. My giggles came from a very dark place, a part of my soul that knows we humanoids are doomed. Since I am not a big fan of the species, I find this hilarious.

To wit:

"Researchers Find Barbie Often Mutilated" by Jill Lawless (I shit you not) of the Associated Press.


"Torture is Us. Denial Does No One Any Good" by Mark Morford, San Francisco Chronicle.

Seems it starts early. Personally, I did a lot of nasty things to my Barbie but they were usually of a sexual nature and Ken was almost always egging me on.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Goodbye Youth!

Yup. Last day of being in my 30s and I find myself pretty unemotional about it. This is the first year I've heard "40 is the new 30" so, if nothing else, my timing is impeccable.

George Carlin was recently asked about his age and he had this response:

"There were handicaps to being 10, there were handicaps to being 40, but the richness of memory, the richness of acquired and accumulated experience and wisdom, I won't trade that. At 68 I'm every age I ever was. I always think of that. I'm not just 68. I'm also 55 and 21 and three. Oh, especially three."

He's so right. Like a tree, we just keep adding the rings . . . actually today I feel fat so this theory is especially fitting.

Anyway, so long 30s! Good riddance! You were fun for the most part though there were some awfully dark times between 35-38 that I'd rather forget. I embrace this brand new decade full of promise and, maybe even possibly, maturity.

My birthday gift to myself will be finding a job that gives me joy and maybe even a relationship that enhances my time on this Earth. Oh yeah, and a horse. Yes, my 9-year-old definitely needs a pony . . .

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

A Proud Beast Goes Down

Last night, I saw Peter Jackson's long-awaited epic, "King Kong" and it had a strange effect on me. Though various reviewers will inevitably pan the wooden dialogue or quibble historical accuracies, Jackson artfully captured a universal pain in raw form: Loneliness.

Specifically, here, the loneliness of a giant beast who lives solo on an island as the last of his kind. He's getting up there in years and every day he rambles past the bleached white bones of his ancestors and he huffs and snorts to no one in particular. Just as he finds a friend, a beautiful companion that entertains him and fits in the palm of his hand, he is shackled and then slaughtered. Illustrated in such primitive terms, it reminded me how basic our needs are and how little they differ from other beings, whether they share our form or not.

So, I'm contemplating all this last night as I settle in to bed. Lights out and drifting off, I suddenly sense I am being watched. I open one eye and make out the silhouette of my feline sidekick, Simone. Though her nighttime 'spot' is usually at the end of the bed, on this particular evening, it clearly wasn't going to do. I opened the blankets, laid out my arm and watched her eagerly settle in. Then, to my amazement, she did something she'd never done before: She put her head in my palm of my hand and purred so loud I thought the blankets would vibrate right off the bed. It was a different type of purr, deeper and longer than usual. It was . . . well, emphatic.

Right about then I caught sight of the clock, saw that it was just past midnight and realized the State of California had just executed Stanley 'Tookie' Williams. Still in the dark, holding a grateful animal's head in my hand, I pictured Williams clinging to the top of the Empire State Building, a swarm of planes circling him and firing rounds as he swipes and roars.

In the end, of course, both proud males lost the battle but went down knowing that they had overcome obstacles that once seemed insurmountable. Death doesn't change that.

I woke up today with an overwhelming feeling of sadness - for a ex-gangster I'd never met, a giant gorilla that never existed and for the rest of us, left here to realize that their wasteful deaths did not erase any tragic events or fill any aching voids, they only deepened the wound within us all.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Some Are Irreplaceable

Though I was just an awkward teen when he was gunned down, I remember very clearly the day John Lennon died. My friends and I gathered in the quad area at Bancroft Junior High and fumbled with adult words we'd never previously spoken.

"I've never seen my mother cry before, until this morning," said Pat McCann, one of the more popular kids in school, who suddenly looked very much like a little boy. "I didn't even know . . . she said it was hard to explain what he'd meant to the world. " We all just nodded in silence, because we just didn't know either. From our parents emotional reactions and the news headlines that screamed between the lines, "Noooooooooo!", we got a sense but really, we couldn't get our still-growing arms around it.

How could we possibly know what John Lennon signified when we were just barely entering a world of zits and periods and Reaganism? Rock and roll had always been, as far as we were concerned, war only existed in our history textbooks and 'Beatlemania' was a nostalgia tour manned by look-alikes.

Well, now I know. Today, I'm honored to have walked the Earth at the same time as John for as long as I did and wonder why he had to be taken from us so soon. Certainly this is not an original thought but 16 years later, it is more obvious than ever - we could really use him right about now.

RIP John.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005


Because we are moving offices this week, I was forced to pack up my professional life and quickly came to realize I have too much shit. Of course, this is an excellent practice run for when The Real Move comes in February but on a much smaller scale. After several days of this nasty job, I declare myself a die-hard hoarder of sentiment, primarily in paper form. I am, it seems, my mother's daughter.

For example, I insist on keeping the business card of my friend, Jack - who died much too soon - in my Rolodex. If my surly pals, Mark and Pete, cc me on a particularly grumpy exchange, I cannot resist printing it out and stowing it in my 'Curmudgeons I Love' file. Invites to corporate parties from long ago, name tags that made me sound important (my favorite: "Heather Clisby, The New York Times") and clever comic strips that captured a brief moment in history - I've got this crap in endless stacks. What does it matter? What am I keeping it for? How often will I go back and actually find it relevant? Especially now that Google is here?

I rationalize it the way I do when I miss a new episode of 'The Simpsons.' My final years will most likely be spent infirm and inactive. Plenty of time to reminisce through old letters and catch up on DVD box sets, seasons 1-27 . . . right? And then?

And then, trapped in the old folks home, I'll have to bribe a corrupt nurse to buy marshmallows, sweep it all in a big pile and light it ablaze. All those humorous observations and heartfelt sentiments will go up without hesitation, in a violent conflagration of evidence that I was ever here at all.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Back in the Saddle

It's always fun to make a cliche literal and yesterday, I did just that after finally getting on a horse again after three loooooong months of elbow rehab. At the risk of sounding corny, it felt like someone had opened up my cranium and shined a light into it allowing bats, spiders and other dark creatures to make their escape.

There are a few folks on the planet who may understand my spiritual need for horses (Hi Leslie!) but since it has come so late in my life, I remain mystified by it. The riding is only a small part of it; the grooming and tacking are enough to make me giddy. I once spent hours pulling ticks off my equine friend, Robin, assisted by another horse lover, Erika, and we both agreed it was one of the best days ever.

People connect to the universal energy - which some assign to a deity such as "God" or "Allah" or "Allan Greenspan" - in different ways. Though I love to photograph churches and temples, my soul gets no substanance from these man-made structures. The Grand Canyon and a perfectly ripe strawberry come close to stirring my soul but animals really do it for me, horses specifically. They are a direct conduit to that invisible force that drives it all forward.

I must have spent an hour on Sunday hanging out with my friend Roxy, a white horse voted "Most Likely to be a Unicorn" by us groupies. Since she is privately owned, I cannot ride her but we passed the time playing the Lip Game. I hide horse cookies on my person and she uses her powerful front lip (so very similar to an elephant's trunk) going through all my pockets. In between, she licks my hand and lets me make weird faces with her mouth. She also lets me rub her gums and tries to pull my jacket off with her teeth. Times like this, I have not a care in the world.

Okay, now I've gone kookie. Still, I make no apologies. Horses are my official Mental Health Plan and the absence of them has proven it beyond a doubt. I'm so glad to be back, scooping horse poop and getting bathed in their slobber - otherwise, life is awfully dark.

Friday, December 02, 2005

So Much Gray In Between

It's Friday, I'm dressed for a party and I've got racism on my mind.

This morning, as listened to Smart Folks debate the immigration issue, I recalled a conversation with a conservative uncle I had recently. As a retired farmer in Iowa, he had some ideas about the browning of America.

"I heard that down there in Southern California the Mexicans are taking over," he said, with disgust.

"You mean taking it BACK?" I countered. Appealing to what he might know best, I offered that if one were to remove all the Mexicans from California, the state's economy would collapse. "Who is going to work in those fields? You? Your son? Me?"

Then, I boarded the bus and read about a little-known movie called "C.S.A.: The Confederate States of America" which portrays an America in which the South won the Civil War. We're talking President Jefferson Davis, a truce with Hitler and slaves sold on QVC. There's even a shot of Neil Armstrong on the moon, a Rebel flag stands proudly behind him.

I love this kind of thing and applaud the crazy ass filmmaker who dared it. Ken Wilmott, a black man, is said genius and he states: "Hollywood doesn't make movies about racism because it makes us uncomfortable. Black folks get angry and ashamed, white folks feel guilty and afraid and nothing moves forward. And we won't talk about it until something slaps us upside the face."

As a white woman, I'm not supposed to have much of an opinion on these matters but they still bother me. Ever see "White Man's Burden?" Probably not. Hardly anyone did but it was one of the most provocative films I ever saw on the topic.

Written and directed by Desmond Nakano and released in 1995, it also turns modern history on its head. Starring John Travolta and Harry Belafonte, all the black/white stereotypes are reversed. White folks are oppressed and living in the ghettos. Black folks are the elite and have all the money. White folks get profiled and beaten by unsympathetic black cops. Black folks hold high society fundraising events to benefit those poor dirty white children who just don't know any better. ("They are so cute when they're young, aren't they?" coos one bejeweled attendee.)

Even the small stuff. White people run faster and dance better. Black folks cultivate old money and whisper amongst themselves that "they" all look alike - "They just look like a bunch of ghosts, I can't tell them apart."

The night I viewed this film, I had a crazy dream. As myself, I was purchased on a whim by a modern black patriarch and brought home, still in chains. I was left on the living room floor and one by one, the family came upon me though none spoke to me directly.

The wife: "Harold, what have you dragged home now? What are we doing to do with THAT?"
The daughter: "Ewwww, Dad! Where is it going to stay? It better stay outta my room?"
The son: "Cool! I heard about those! How much was it?"

And so on. I never spoke nor was I spoken to. I was filthy and felt like it on the inside as well. There was a hot family debate about what to do with me and eventually, they grew tired and went to bed. Leaving me there, no food or water.

I escaped out the front door (they figured I wasn't smart enough to figure it out, I guess) and just started running at breakneck speed down the street. It was then I realized the mess I was in. Not only was I naked but I was in the middle of an upper middle class suburbia populated entirely by black people! Where the hell was I supposed to go? Who would take me in? There would be nowhere to hide!

Eventually I woke up but the nightmare is as real as it ever was, I can even see the designs on the front door and as I turned to look back. Chilling. Again, this must be the reverse to MLK's "I have a dream . . . " Do their dreams equal our nightmares?

But I digress. So, I'm on the bus this morning, having just read about the CSA film, when I overhear the bus driver complain to a passenger friend about people entering and exiting the bus through the wrong doors. "It's always racial," he spat. "Black folks always want to get on through the back door and white people always gotta exit through the front door. It screws everything up."

As I try to develop a theory for this, I notice a black-and-white placard, posted weeks ago, on every single MUNI bus in the city. It contains a photo of a black woman sitting in a bus seat, looking out the window, and it reads:

"Rosa Parks: 1913-2005"

We may have come far but we still have a long way to go . . . .