My Katrina

Standard

We mourn more when a pretty woman sustains a disfiguring injury than when an ugly one does. It’s not right, but we do.

So, when New Orleans, that sly seductress, was torn open and apart by the fury that was Hurricane Katrina, the nation felt it viscerally. It didn’t seem right that the lovely Party Girl that was NOLA, one who so generously shared her graces, should be brought low.

New Orleans is my home town, although I haven’t lived there since I was a little girl. My extended family does, though, and even now they greet me with that nonchalant disinterest in my adopted cities, because none could ever be as glorious as New Orleans, so why would they care? New Orleans has always been a city immodest in its many blessings: great food, drink, music, literature, beauty.

All of that changed 10 years ago, when Katrina scarred the beauty that was New Orleans and left it humbled and bewildered.

My first concern was for people. I remember the frustration of fallible technology as I waited for days for family members to check in. My parents, riding it out in an RV with my aunt and uncle, just barely out of the path of Katrina’s fury. A cousin, hiding out in Houston. An uncle, living on his boat because it just seemed safest when so much of New Orleans was water anyway.

And, then, my concern was for the homes. Roofs lost. Refrigerators full of old food and mold. Grand trees toppled. One aunt in Lakeview whose home was submerged, and an uncle whose car engine was soaked with the ugly, smelly water that filled the streets.

And, finally, the city itself and waiting to see if the lovely party girl of a city would rise from her knees, laughing at fate as she has always done.

For this last, I am still waiting. There is laughter, the kind of grim gallows humor the city does so well. But there is a shadow behind the eyes too. I see it in the poorest neighborhoods that haven’t quite recovered, in the Third World buckling streets the city hasn’t found the money or the gumption to fix, in the families who lost close ones to the floods, or to the floods of refugees who left for Florida or Texas and never came back.

When I visit, New Orleans has the look of a woman still beautiful, but whose gaiety has been dimmed by the knowledge that even a beautiful woman can be knocked down and, if it has happened once, it can happen again some time.

Katrina Boat

The Battle to Seize the Ear

Standard

I work remotely. That means that my office is in one state and I live in another. So meetings happen by Skype or phone or email. All of which is fine until a large staff meeting. Because what happens is the dynamic of a largely female office – people talking over one another, people laughing, people forgetting that anyone listening in via teleconference is unable to pull apart the strands of individual conversations. It’s a wave of noise.

I love my coworkers, so after some good-natured grumbling into the speakerphone, I’m fine. And they try to be mindful of my invisible presence, at least until enthusiasm for the topic at hand takes them away again.

But it makes me wonder: is anyone really listening anymore?

Watch the morning shows. The hosts – and it’s usually the women – all talk at the same time, interrupting in their eagerness to have their say. Even when they interview one on one, the producer’s voice in their earbud means they can only half-listen to what the celebrity or politician is saying. It doesn’t matter what the answer is in the interview, it matters what the next question is going to be.

I find myself doing the same thing. Part of me registers what my companion is saying, part of me searches for the clever retort.

In The Book of Laughter and Forgetting by Milan Kundera, he describes the illusion of a conversation:

“You know what happens when two people talk. One of them speaks and the other breaks in: “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…” and starts talking about himself until the first one manages to slip back in with his own “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…”

The phrase “It’s absolutely the same with me, I…” seems to be an approving echo, a way of continuing the other’s thought, but that is an illusion: in reality it is a brute revolt against a brutal violence, an effort to free our own ear from bondage and to occupy the enemy’s ear by force. Because all of man’s life among his kind is nothing other than a battle to seize the ear of others.”

I sometimes think psychologists’ offices are filled not only with the mentally ill, but with the terminally lonely, the ones wanting someone to just listen. To do nothing else but really listen.

talking-heads

The Art of Being Helpless

Standard

We promise to love through better or worse. Confidently, I tell my husband that I will take care of him if he gets sick, will stick with him when he gets old. I know I can take care of him.

I just never figured how hard it would be to be the one needing help.

We’ve all seen the homeless on the side of the road with hand-lettered signs, asking for help. Asking even though they know that most of those driving by won’t even meet their eyes, much less help. How do they do it? I suppose the answer must be that they have no choice, because I find it amazingly hard to ask for help, even from one who has promised to care for me for life.

My husband and I are both equally pig-headed, type-A dominants. We’ve learned to step up if one or the other is going through a crisis, but overall, it would be hard to name the leader in our marriage. Equals.

Except, a few weeks ago, I had foot surgery. On both feet. Which has left me asking for permission and help to go to the bathroom, begging for the treats from the grocery store that I normally buy myself, directing my husband to find the precise piece of clothing I want to wear that day.

Uncomfortable, I fall into the default boss tone. You know the one: this is a request because it’s phrased politely, but not really, because the only answer is “yes.”

“Why do you feel like you have to keep giving orders?” my husband asks, stopping me cold.

Why?

Because the truth – that this is a situation where I have no power, where the answer to my request could be “no” and I could do nothing about it – is just uncharted territory. I don’t have the tools to navigate this territory.

I think this may be some of the “worse” we promised to live through in our wedding vows. But my husband is caretaking like a champ. I’m the one falling short of the saintly invalid I always envisioned.

I think I need help asking for help.

Help