Saturday, September 24, 2005

Trapped In Paradise

Every evening, as I walk through my tony Presidio Heights neighborhood, I marvel at my apparent luck. Perfectly clean sidewalks border gardens of roses, dahlias and golden poppies. Giggling, cherubic children ride their bikes with decorated helmets or swing under the watchful eye of an Hispanic and/or Filipina nanny. Golden retrievers blissfully greet me as I admire one grand home after another.

On my route into the Presidio itself (my private sanctuary), I pass by what is known as Dueling Mansion Corner - two huge homes sitting side-by-side, each one so eager to be the biggest that their roofs actually cut into one another. Further along, I listen to the trickling water fountains and admire the marble steps leading to the front door of the Koshland House, also known as Le Petit Trianon. Built in 1902, this city landmark (#95) recently sold for $29 million and is often the setting for societal functions of Old Money - cotillions, high teas, balls, galas and so on.

Once, I had a college student come live with me and she'd asked me to speak to her mama in Dallas, to confirm the area's safety and, hence, her daughter's. "White people go jogging here at night," I blurted, and, by god, that was good enough for her.

My neighborhood is ghastly beautiful, frighteningly perfect and I cannot wait to leave.

Knowing how starkly this world contrasts with the realities that fill the daily headlines, I get embarassed and impatient. Living in a rent-controlled apartment one block away from one of the nation's richest and most powerful senators (Feinstein) is more than ironic for someone like me. Would it kill them to take out just one Baby Gap and replace it with a decent burrito place? What good is a dress shop where you have to make an appointment?

Meanwhile, I ponder all the new building that will soon take place in the battered South and I wonder: How great would it be to be part of a civic rebirth? How often does one get that chance? It's got me thinking crazy thoughts. I'm tired of not being where all the action is - it might soon be time to grab a hammer and head east . . .

Saturday, September 17, 2005


Took quite a tumble down the stairs last Thursday night and fractured/dislocated my right elbow. I screamed like a banshee enraged - all the neighbors came running. Quite the scene.

Anyhoo, I'm typing this with my left index finger and it's verrrry slow going. I will never take the many options of two-handedness for granted ever again. Putting a bra on with one hand is a frustrating way to start the day but with this pair o'mine, it must be conquered.

The idea that I will not be on a horse for awhile upsets me the most. This, and the possibility that I may have to pass up my first pro photo gig in NYC in mid-November. Already, I'm starting to realize how unfair the world is for lefties.

Still, I am pulling much strength ferom the memory of my late Grandma Myrtle, who'd had a brain tumor removed, leaving her with a paralyzed right side. Though she was right-handed, she didn't spend much time fretting her loss. She still insisted on looking her best - lipstick, powder, and, of course, matching broach, necklace and earrings. I remember watching her wash her 'delicates' with her one good hand, wrapping them around the faucet and squeezing.

After a few decades of living like this, her left hand became frightfully strong. In fact, she soon became famous for her one-armed hugs, her well-meaning but slightly dangerous Loving Death Grip. Sure, she might just squeeze the life outta you but gol darnit, it's because she loves ya so dang much . . . now C'MERE!

Monday, September 12, 2005

Divided We Stand

As the lone (moderate) liberal, I regularly argue politics with my family. My brother and father, both die-hard Republicans, subscribe to the "Everything is going just fine" philosophy, which is maddening, at best. Dad and I used to hold an annual Marijuana Debate until the year I creamed him with stats from the U.S. Department of Health comparing annual deaths from alcohol (500,000,) cigarettes (200,000) and weed (0.) However, last weekend, I had my annual knock-down, drag-out yelling match with my step-brother-in-law, Chris, and I can't stop thinking about it.

Upfront: Chris is a good guy and he always welcomes me back into his home, year after year, despite our blood-curdling yelling matches. Every year, I tell myself I will practice some restraint and poise and every year, we both engage in verbal warfare that usually ends in both of us shaking our heads in bewilderment: "I can't BELIEVE now naive you are!" It usually ends with one of us storming off the scene - this year it was me.

The 2005 match began with the innocent viewing of Ken Burns' documentary on Lewis & Clarke - a topic we are both ravenous about. All it took was one comment from Chris that 'Indians have is so good these days. I can't believe they don't pay taxes . . . ' and we were off and running. We were both sloppy and could not help yelling over one another, which caused, Julie, the woman that connects us, fleeing the scene with her ears covered.

Bottom line, the silliness of the verbage ("Oh yeah? Well, where were the Indians after the hurricane?!? Why didn't they help?!?") did not bother me nearly as much as the idea that we are a country divided and all the "UNITED WE STAND" posters stood as mockeries to our house in turmoil. That evening, Chris and I were a perfect example of how lots of yelling and finger pointing happens but nothing really changes and, in the end, neither side conceeds anything and nothing ever changes. We've lost the art of healthy dialogue at a time when we need it more than ever.

Before I headed to the airport the next morning, Chris and I mugged for a photo to document our battle. Fists up and trying not to laugh, I had to wonder if things could be so easily fixed in the House, the Senate or other, less tangible chasms, like the economic divide, racial groups and the myriad of religions in this country.

Seems we have to start with our own families. Though I've been reading that brilliant book, 'Don't Think of an Elephant', that helps liberals talk successfully to conservatives without wanting to strangle them. It makes heaps of sense, though, evidently, I have yet to put it into practice. Instead, I wonder how I am going to have a conversation with my brother, Robert, who once said that he didn't believe global warming was really happening. His source? Michael Crichton, a man who writes fiction for a living.

Mind you, my brother lives on a Mississippi bayou and sells real estate along the Gulfport/Biloxi coast so certain realities are hard to swallow. Last I heard, he was reveling in the 'urban survival' world he now lived in and had purchased bulldozers for a new land-clearing business he'd created post-Katrina. He's a red-blooded Republican captitalist opportunist, that one, and I couldn't possibly love him more. I just wish there weren't such high political walls between us.

I'm thinking next year, I'll invite Chris to a formal debate where we each talk for two minutes while the other one shuts up. Julie can sit there with a timer (if she's willing) and perhaps a whip. Feisty, know-it-alls like Chris and I need perimeters, clearly. Still, at the end of the day, I have to admire those I argue with because we have something in common: We both love our country ferociously (hence the anger) and know deep, deep down (some, less deep than others) that our country is very divided, which saps our strength. The whole world saw it last week and now everyone knows.

Don't know how it's going to get well again but talking isn't enough. We need to start listening.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

Tears for The Crescent City

Every morning when I awake and consciousness elbows its way back into my brain, I think the same thing: "New Orleans is still destroyed and may never recover." Though the day will no doubt bring many alarming facts both small (Am I getting fatter? Again?) and monstrous (see: Barbara Bush) this newish fact has me reeling.

No doubt many Americans (and more than a few tourists) will take a long time in facing facts. The New Orleans that we've known and loved may be gone forever and its demise has already been suggested by House Speaker Dennis Hastert: "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed."

Even the town's die-hards have to wonder her fate. In a recent blog posting, WWOZ's (THE jazz and blues station in NO) General Manager David Freedman asked openly about recovering the music: "How do we rebuild that particular community which is so treasured by people all over the world, the community that gave New Orleans its unique character? How do we gather up as many pieces of that shattered culture and, where possible, provide a suitable context for it to re-establish itself?"

As my cousin/pal/roommate Ryan said to me last night, "It's strange to think that one our country's major cities now sits largely uninhabited." Places like Dallas, San Francisco, Boston or New York are never supposed to be ghosts towns. That is a distinction reserved for towns like Bountiful, UT or Flint, Michigan; Hamilton, North Dakota or Limbo, Nevada. NO was (oh, here comes the past tense!) was our crown jewels with all of its dark, European/Creole roots - its unrestrained jazz and its voodoo shops.

My last visit was on Valentine's weekend of 2004. I'd flown in for a whirlwind visit to see my beau, James, who was there helping a friend move. He was staying in a century-old mansion and made an incredible candlight meal - crab cakes, crawfish bisque, pralines, etc. As we ate on the porch, we heard the clicking of Mardi Gras beads, as revelers wobbled up and down the street.

Later, we visited The Maple Leaf, and danced to an amazing rock/brass band. I remember the shiny, yellow elbow of a trombone sliding in and out of my face and then, things got fuzzy.

Anyway, perhaps I'm mourning too soon but this modern-day Pompeii has my sensibilities whacked out, even 2300 miles away. If cities were people, New Orleans would be the lovable old black guy who drank a lot but never really got drunk. He was about 100 years old, had three teeth in his head but could play any instrument you put in front of him. Some said he was poor but he always dressed in style and tipped his hat to the ladies. He was full of history, kindness and dirty jokes.

I hope he comes back.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Angry, Angry, Angry

I woke up today with my Angry Headache, which is what I get when I think about how much I loathe the current administration. Today's devastation is going to grow beyond the hurricane and will create deep, long-lasting wounds. Issues of class, race, economics, gasoline and Iraq are already swirling about in a lethal twist. And then Bush says this morning, "No one anticipated the breech in the levees." Is he kidding?

Just a few years ago, FEMA ranked hurricane damage to New Orleans as one of three most likely catastrophes facing the country. I specifically remember this because an earthquake hitting San Francisco was one of the three and the thought struck me, 'Hmmm, should probably get some bottled water.'

Not long after that, the Times-Picayune published a five-part series that began:
"It's only a matter of time before south Lousiana takes a direct hit from a major hurricane . . . we grow more vulnerable every day." The stories quoted flood experts warning specifically of the potential damage from rising water levels and broken levees. Again, I recall this because it was during this time my brother was getting married in Biloxi, Mississippi, just 45 minutes away.

The Fed reaction? Money was cut from flood control. The Bush administration routinely provided less than half the money the Army Corps of Engineers requested for New Orleans flood prevention. Three guesses where that money is now.

More anger to come.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

So Damn Lucky

Update on Southern Contingent of Clisby Family: All are alive and accounted for, including Otis the Dog and Leo the Cat.

After days of frantically trying to reach the outside world, my brother, Rob, and his wife, MaryAnn, got through to a friend in Austin, Texas. He, in turn, called everyone and my mother to deliver the big news. When I received the call, I was actually being interviewed by KNX-AM radio about the hurricane. They'd asked me to describe my brother and I did, just like one of those wandering, blotchy-eyed, stricken family members we'd seen after 9/11. That's when I lost it, just completely blubbered on the spot. Made for a heart-wrenching sound bite, I'm sure.

Apparently, MaryAnn came home from Alabama immediately after the hurricane but got a bit lost - many of the roads were unrecognizable and major landmarks were obliterated. Meanwhile, Rob and a neighbor had the chainsaw out and were busily trying to clear the roads for MA and others. Eventually, she found her way, expecting the worst but was pleased to find her husband inside, waiting.

Thankfully, they had stocked up on drinking water and food. The generator keeps the fridge and freezer running but nothing gets wasted. Even if an ice cube melts, that water is used. While they have no running water, the toilets do work. They merely walk a few feet to the bayou and scoop, good enough for flushing. Tonight, several folks from the neighborhood were going to bring over meat and fish that had to be cooked or ruined. R & MA have several gas grills and lots of booze so I'm sure a party will naturally ensue. That is the Southern way.

Because they have also stockpiled petrol, they have managed to go exploring and have seen horrific things. Entire chunks of beachfront casinos blown suddenly inland, thousands of dead chickens rotting in the sun from a delivery truck, bare cement foundations where grand old Southern mansions once stood . . . and people. Lots of people, wandering around, looking lost, thirsty, hungry, sobbing.

They do have a generator so they can watch a small TV in the garage but only one channel, the local station that gives them a vivid idea of just how fortunate they are. All the million dollar homes in their area have blown away and several neighbors have gone missing. MA still has not heard from her brother, Tim, and his family. They lived on the edge of Lake Ponchartrain and their house is most likely destroyed.

On and on and on it goes. In one bright spot, Rob & MA, lacking the usual means of entertainment, have gotten busy making their second baby. If it takes, and it's a girl, they are are threatening to name her Katrina.