Time to Undeck the Hall

Big Hand Santa

I’m packing up Christmas decorations today. This is a task I’ve sometimes grumbled about and often found melancholy, but this year I’m feeling at peace. That may be because I’m not working against a deadline, but I doubt it.

The fact is last year’s holidays were more difficult than anything we had ever experienced or imagined. Marge was just heading into her chemotherapy. We did not utter our darkest thoughts, such as that we might be having our last Christmas together, and we propelled ourselves forward fueled by one part will to two parts desperation.

By contrast, this year’s holidays were serene. In our better moments, we have come to accept that life is fragile and finite as well as precious. Putting away the ornaments is giving me the chance to remember our Christmases together. There have been 42 since we got married in 1968. The last 30  have included Elizabeth. We have never been separated on Christmas, not once in all those years, so there are lots of memories.

The ornaments themselves tell part of the story. There are those we purchased, those we inherited, those that were given to us and those we made ourselves. The one shown here was made by Elizabeth in 1985 and cut from a sheet of loose leaf notebook paper. Every year since then Elizabeth has endured the same joke: “Ladies and gentlemen, let’s give Santa a big hand…” Every year since then Big Hand Santa has hung on the tree.

Every year since then I have been amazed to discover how much joy can be found in one sheet of notebook paper.

La fin de l’année

It’s the end of 2009, whether my French is correct or not. In looking at the blog, I realize that I haven’t posted anything here since early November. I’m not exactly sure why that is. To rule out the obvious, however, it’s not because I didn’t have anything to say. That hasn’t happened to me for a single waking hour since I was about three years old.

My online silence, I think, has had more to do with a sort of profound weariness–a delayed hangover, so to speak, from the ordeal of supporting Marge through her cancer treatment and recovery. She has felt it, too. After months of having too many difficult things to do every day, both of us came to a time when we didn’t really have to do anything at all. So we didn’t. That consumed most of the summer. Through the fall, we did what was required. The blog, however, somehow got labeled “Not Required.” And so it has been.

I don’t usually make resolutions for the new year, but I’m making an exception this time. During 2010 I want to post something here at least three times a week. As the old cliché has it, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say?”

So out with the old year and in with the new year. Take it away, Guy…

Is Healthcare Like a Highway?

highwayA day or two ago, I found myself launching into a discussion of healthcare reform via the comment capabilities of Facebook. Taking the Facebook approach is, to be charitable, a fool’s errand. Healthcare reform is complex, and opinions on all sides are passionately held. Yet I think I learned something by trying to take the discussion to the land where BFFs LOL.

The difficulty lies in the divergence of our fundamental beliefs about healthcare; and it has proved insurmountable, in Congress as much as on Facebook.  The current debate should tell everyone that it’s finally time for us to decide where healthcare belongs in our view of the world. We’ve long since made such decisions about many other things. The military, for example, protects everyone at taxpayer expense, including people who don’t pay any taxes. In the same way, public highways, libraries and schools are available to everyone, whether they contribute a lot or a little in taxes.

Highway usage is admittedly constrained by tolls and vehicle registration and use fees, but pedestrians and bicyclists generally use public ways for free. People paying to register their cars usually don’t fret about paying taxes to provide roads for cyclists. Taxpayers don’t ask public libraries to limit patrons’ use of their materials and facilities to a “fair” share. Public schools don’t tell families with lots of kids that they can’t all come to school. This is because over the course of our history, we’ve decided that the nation as a whole benefits from establishing and maintaining roads, libraries and schools as public institutions. Availability is based upon universal need rather than the ability to pay.

So, does healthcare belong on the same list as highways, libraries, schools and the military? People who think the way I do say yes. From that premise, of course, it is impossible to imagine healthcare reform without the so-called “public option.” The nation as a whole will benefit from a healthier citizenry. Government therefore must be involved. How else are we going to to take care of everyone’s health needs?

On the other side of the debate are people who believe that doctors and hospitals provide a personal service, like accountants, mechanics, maids and dog-walkers. From this premise, it follows that healthcare should be available based on the ability to pay rather than actual need. But everyone needs healthcare. Against this backdrop, therefore private insurers currently earn billions of dollars, through ever-increasing premiums, by making healthcare available to people who otherwise couldn’t afford it.

Given that government is already in the business of providing and paying for healthcare, through Medicare, the Veterans Administration, the military and the health plans members of Congress currently enjoy, I maintain that it isn’t much of a leap to take healthcare public. The military wants its people as healthy as possible, because healthy people do their best work. The military therefore provides healthcare for service people and their families. That seems to me like a direct, simple and smart approach as well as a worthy goal for society as a whole.

Same Old Same Old from the Homophobic Right

Here in Maine, we’ve been through months and months of hysteria, misinformation and outright nastiness from self-styled defenders of marriage who have mounted a referendum effort to repeal a measure passed last May by the Legislature and signed by the Governor that legalizes same-sex civil marriage.

I’ve done my best to stay positive while doing my part for the campaign working to defeat this referendum. This afternoon, however, I happened to get a look at one of the websites promoting passage of the referendum. This is what I found.

If that link doesn’t seem to work, by the way, please enable popups in your browser. I’ve put up a picture of the page rather than an actual link because, well, because I’m damned if I’m going to give that site a link! If all else fails, you can go directly to the picture by clicking here.

Please take a moment to read the copy on that page and to study the picture that accompanies it. I’m asking a lot here because I’m about to start a rant, and I really, really want you to know what I’m talking about.

Let’s start with the headline which suggests that Question 1 is the only thing protecting schoolchildren from an onslaught of homosexual propaganda. No matter that Maine’s Attorney General has rendered a formal opinion that states that the law as enacted has no impact at all on what is or is not taught in Maine’s schools. The Stand for Marriage Maine (SAMM) folks must know this, unless they are as obtuse as they seem to hope Maine voters are, but they continue to beat the same drum. It’s hard to imagine they have any other purpose in mind than to sway through fear voters who don’t know about the AG’s opinion or who don’t know enough to believe it.

Next they talk about “national organizations” bringing a fight to Maine. If this doesn’t qualify as an attempt to manipulate through distortion, I don’t know what would. The facts are these: The referendum is to repeal an act of the legislature, not to enact anything. The truth about this claim appears when we “follow the money.” According to campaign finance reports, the bulk of the money funding SAMM and the referendum itself comes from out of state. It’s the effort to preserve the existing law that is funded overwhelmingly by contributions from people here in Maine.

The rest of the text is speculation and innuendo about Massachusetts, but it drops a nasty little zinger about attempts to limit parents’ rights to control what their kids learn in school. I suspect that this is an attempt to connect SAMM’s agenda with the same parental anxieties that only a few weeks ago launched that brainless resistance to President Obama’s speech to school children.

My suspicion is strengthened by the photo. According to the 2000 census, Maine is the whitest state in the nation. Nevertheless, SAMM offers an image that features an African-American teacher, black like Obama. Perhaps this is something besides a blatant appeal to racism, but given the content of the text on the page I have serious doubts.

In the photo the blue-eyed blond in the back looks as if she is hearing something that she doesn’t believe. The other kids, however, merely look troubled and confused. The narrative of the photo is therefore this: a teacher who is an alien influence, like Obama, is filling the minds of our innocent children with poisonous ideas from an out of state conspiracy of homosexuals. Some children (e.g., the blond symbol of white America) will be able to resist these lies, but what of the rest? What will they do, the picture asks, if we don’t beat back these invaders by undoing the law our own elected representatives enacted six months ago? The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Vote Yes!

There are certainly poisonous lies coming from out of state, but they appear on the SAMM page and do not come from existing law or the campaign to preserve it. A responsible and legitimate political organization would offer actual information upon which a voter might base a reasoned decision. SAMM, however, offers a skewed and paranoid vision of our schools and state government based on half-truths, innuendo, racism and homophobia.

This is simply more than I can keep silent about.

Happy Birthday, Dear Internet

I know it looks and acts younger, but the Internet is 40 today. It was on October 29, 1969, that the first message was sent from one computer (the Internet’s first node) to another computer (the Internet’s second node).

By today’s standards, the computers of 1969 were real clunkers. That first message was only two letters long, after all, with confirmatory phone calls between letters. I like to point out that a typical cellphone these days has more processing power than NASA’s Apollo control room at the time of the first moon landing. Most of the power in today’s computers, of course, goes toward making the computer seem less like a machine and more like a companion.

Even so, I often wish I had been an Internet pioneer. On that momentous day in 1969 when a bunch of geeks at Stanford were creating the Internet, I was in my ninth month of military service. I didn’t really appreciate that computers had already seriously affected my life. Thanks to a tip I got from a colonel on the day I signed in at Pease Air Force Base, the Air Force’s primitive personnel database was working to keep me from being sent to Vietnam.

Here’s the back story on that. The database was totally unprepared for “irrational” input, in my case a signed and dated but otherwise blank volunteer statement. I was proud to volunteer for…nothing and nowhere. That mattered because of the way the database worked.

Say, for example, that the Air Force needed a 922 specialist (like me) with a rank of E-5 (like me) to go to Vietnam. The computer would look for 922 E-5’s who had volunteered for Vietnam. I hadn’t volunteered for Vietnam (or anywhere else) so my name wouldn’t pop up.  If nobody’s name popped up, the computer would switch to the list of non-volunteers, the people who had not signed volunteer statements. My name, however, wasn’t on that list because I had signed the volunteer statement. The result was that the computer couldn’t find me either as a volunteer or as a non-volunteer.

Leonard Kleinrock, the computer scientist interviewed in the article linked above, speaks of the openness and trust among computer scientists and Internet users in those early days. That sort of innocence about implications probably carried over into the programming of that Air Force personnel database. From that point of view, my blank volunteer statement probably counts as an early computer “hack.”

So, maybe I really was a pioneer!

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Postscript

I went to New Orleans with a group of volunteers. We worked on one house that belonged to one family. Others involved in rebuilding the city, however, have serious money behind them and seek to implement Big Ideas about architecture, energy conservation and the nature of community.

We heard a lot about Brad Pitt while were in New Orleans, but I didn’t actually see any of projects bearing his name. Back in Maine, however, I read this article in the November issue of The Atlantic.

The article is intriguing, and it certainly contains ideas that are new to me. Even so, I’m left wondering what all of it actually has to do with the people I met in New Orleans. I can’t escape the feeling that these are the ideas of conquerors and missionaries, not helpers.

New Orleans certainly needs help and its people are generally grateful for the contributions that have been made. I’m not convinced, however, that it’s in anyone’s best interest to take this time of crisis in New Orleans as an opportunity to paper over the place with sensibilities that have more to do with San Francisco and Cambridge than the Crescent City.

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part IV

Every New Orleans resident whose home was flooded or otherwise damaged by Katrina has faced wrenching decisions about whether to leave or stay, what to rebuild, what to abandon, when to do or not do anything and how to pay for whatever decisions are finally made. across-the-streetFrom the vantage of our group’s work site on Pauline Drive in Gentilly Woods, we easily found examples of many of the ways these decisions have played out.

Pauline Drive runs north and south, parallel to and west of the Industrial Canal. The house we worked on is on the canal side of the street and faces west. The house directly across the street, shown here, seems to be completely new, right down to its immaculately manicured lawn. I have no idea who owns the house or even whether there was anything on the lot before Katrina.

The neighborhood shows lots of signs of work in progress, but this house stands alone in its newness and completeness. My friend and fellow volunteer Tom has years of experience as a real estate appraiser. Who, he wanted to know, would build this house in a neighborhood so damaged that its survival may still be uncertain?

It’s a fair question, I think. The only plausible answer I can think of is that the house was built by someone who wanted to stay put in Gentilly Woods and who had first-rate insurance in force when Katrina struck.

The next door lot to the south tells a different story. It has been vacant since 2007 when everything on the lot except the cement slab and driveway was hauled away. Most people would agree that the lot is now an eyesore, slab-street-viewbut I have to wonder what happened here. Is this a case of a displaced owner, financial ruin, family quarrel, title problems or bureaucratic morass? Maybe the cause is just the owner’s despair.

That driveway visible on the left side of the photo is where I parked most days, but I didn’t explore the lot otherwise. I have a natural aversion to most insects and reptiles,  and I was pretty sure something I wouldn’t like was alive and hungry in those bushes. slab-next-door-150The smaller picture shows how the vacant lot and its driveway looked from the back bedroom of the house we were working on.

It appears that no one has done anything on this lot for at least two years. I say that on the basis of information I got from people in the neighborhood. It seems incredible to me, however, that those bushes could get that big in just two years. I have to admit that I don’t fully comprehend the incredible fecundity of New Orleans.boarded-up-nextdoor I remember joking to another member of our group that everything we saw had something else growing on it, even the mold.

The house on the adjoining lot to the north looked like a lot of the homes we saw in Gentilly, uninhabited, unrepaired and boarded up. In this case, the yard has been taken over by kudzu or something similar, although someone has paid enough attention to the property to hold back the bushes.

Across the street from the vacant lot, we saw a variation on the boarded up house theme. boarded-up-prideAlthough this house was also uninhabited, unrepaired and boarded up, there is something about that new bright blue paint on the blinds and window coverings that suggests this owner will be back. Restoring this house seems obviously a work in progress, perhaps even a labor of love.

The little corner of Pauline Drive where we did our work typifies the situation in New Orleans overall. Apart from and in addition to all of the big decisions made and to be made regarding the city’s future, there are the stories of individual properties and individual property owners.

The new house across the street is already inhabited. The house we worked on should have residents in time for Christmas. The vacant lot may remain vacant and overgrown for a long time to come. The boarded up house will probably be repaired and once again made into someone’s home, but it may remain as it is for several more years. The house with the blue paint will certainly be back, sooner rather than later. UCC-signWith the passage of enough years, Gentilly Woods will probably look more or less the way it used to, although by that time so many of the old residents will be gone and so many new residents will have arrived that those who remain from before Katrina may barely recognize the place.

I’m glad I went to New Orleans and proud that I got to play a part, however small, in the city’s recovery. For the six days I spent there I knew each morning, unequivocally, that just by showing up I was doing some good. Life is usually more complicated than that.

So I say again, if our church sends another group to New Orleans next year I will be part of it.

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part III

levee-viewYears ago when I practiced law, a truth of human nature became apparent to me: nothing is simpler than somebody else’s problem. The so-called helping professions, including law, counseling and social work, are all founded upon this principle. As a lawyer, I didn’t agonize much over my clients’ problems. Their situations seemed absurdly simple: Client X should get a divorce; Client Y needed to file bankruptcy; Client Z had to sober up and turn himself in. Sure, these were huge, life-fragmenting steps with frightening implications—but they seemed so obvious. People just needed to quit dithering and get on with it!

I think most of us apply the same kind of reasoning to groups of people as well as to individuals. Moreover, the larger those groups and the farther away they are, the easier it becomes to feel comfortable making blanket pronouncements about how other lives should be led. The temptation is great, therefore, to believe we can take in the nearly 300-year history of New Orleans at a glance and conclude that the place shouldn’t be rebuilt at all. People need to face reality and move to a place where things like Katrina don’t happen, right? It’s just so simple!

Except that it isn’t.

My own thinking has matured since I took the photo at the top of this post. I went to New Orleans, and I saw for myself. The picture shows the back of the house my group worked on as it appears from the flood wall at the top of the embankment that abuts the back yard. You are seeing in this photo, by the way, exactly what you think you are seeing. The wall that flood waters over-topped when Pauline Drive flooded is higher than the roof of the house. So, doesn’t this prove that rebuilding the house is a bad idea? That thought is at least part of the reason I took the picture in the first place.

But the picture doesn’t really prove anything. The seawall and other earthworks that make the Gentilly area habitable date from 1927 and have held back the water for more than 80 years. Most of the houses shown in the photo were built in the 1950’s and have stood where they are for half a century or more.

There have been storms through the years, but nothing like Katrina. This seems to mean more to the residents of Gentilly than to people outside New Orleans. Residents love their homes and for the most part want to stay put.

In the four years since Katrina, many people have had a lot to say about the folly of those in New Orleans. At least one writer, however, has had the perspicacity to note the recurring hazards some of them, in such disparate locations as Seattle, St. Louis, Reno, Torrington, CT, and Lewiston, ID, were choosing not to heed in their own backyards.

The irate resident of St. Louis in the article linked above is quoted as saying, “I am sick…of hearing how every taxpayer in America should pony up a couple grand to subsidize the rebuilding of a cesspool of a city that will just be wiped out again by the next ‘unlucky’ hurricane.” Yikes!

Somehow he does not acknowledge that huge sections of his own city were submerged and destroyed by flooding as recently as 1993. The Mississippi River is still there, Mr. St. Louis. It’s obvious that flood waters will come again. Do you really think it was a good idea to rebuild St. Louis?

The resident of Reno, no less irate than his St. Louis counterpart, is even more amnesiac and seems to have no memory of the 1997 flood in his city. Yet the Truckee River, like the Mississippi, is still there and will flood again, Mr. Reno.

And as for that cesspool remark, well, the FBI has a lot to say about St. Louis. Reno, as everyone knows, has its own well-developed reputation in that department. The God of the Old Testament may have laid waste to the cities of the plain on account of their morals, but it’s probably not up to us to make that decision about New Orleans.

The fundamental fact is that St. Louis and Reno, like the rest of America, do not build for the ages any more than the people of New Orleans. It’s easy to decide that other people should give up their homes and move to a new place, but even easier to believe that our own homes should be rebuilt.

So it is in New Orleans, and so we worked to make our own small contribution to that rebuilding.

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part II

house-markingOn our first full day in New Orleans, we traveled through the Gentilly and Ninth Ward sections of New Orleans. The first thing I noticed was how much of Katrina’s devastation remains. Then I noticed the spray paint markings still prominent on houses that have not been completely repaired.

The photo shows the marking on the house in Gentilly where I ended up working. According to the explanation I got, the story the spray paint tells is this: On September 16, 2005, more than two weeks after Katrina roared through the neighborhood, a disaster relief crew identified as “SCTR” (probably from a National Guard unit) finally reached Pauline Drive, perhaps by boat. Inspection of the property—probably cursory inspection—turned up no dead bodies (the Ø) and no dead pets or livestock (the N/A). It went without saying that the interior of the property was totally destroyed by lingering flood waters. For the inspectors, however, finding no cadavers and no carrion was good news.

The house marking shown is on the front of the house (behind the cypress tree in the photo below). The other significant “marking” in that photo is the line, up about three feet from the ground, where the cypress bark seems to change color. This indicates the level at which flood waters stood. The glass in the front window of the house is permanently clouded up to the same level.

flood-waterlineWe drove to the house for the first time after completing  our orientation at Little Falls UCC Church. The orientation itself was filled with surprises, at least for me. I didn’t know, for example, that the work of rebuilding New Orleans is only about half complete four years after Katrina.

I also didn’t know that most of the work being done now is in the hands of charities, other non-profits, the faith-based organizations like ours, private contractors, and people who simply come to New Orleans to volunteer. Federal and state governments, together with the most opportunistic of the private contractors (Blackwater, Halliburton, etc.), have basically declared victory and gone home. The FEMA trailers are mostly gone now, but recovery from Katrina is expected to set the course of events in New Orleans for the next fifty to one hundred years.

Homeowners seeking assistance in rebuilding have had to make their way through a dizzying maze of programs, eligibility requirements, restrictions of various sorts, and lots and lots of paperwork. Public and private bureaucracies all work to help people get the relief they need, but they must often appear to be doing the opposite.

Our group’s work was mentored and monitored by the UCC Disaster Response Ministry which helps people who meet what are mostly economic criteria. Other relief organizations operate only in limited geographical areas. Some help only certain groups of people. Some take on projects in a limited dollar range. Some handle only certain kinds of repairs.

A homeowner might therefore qualify for several programs and have to decide which is the best fit. On the other hand, that homeowner might not qualify for any program and have to keep searching. This is often the situation for those whose home ownership is based upon informal and undocumented transfers. Cash sales without deeds and inheritances without wills or probate fall into this category. Such transfers can pass unnoticed for years, even decades, so long as real estate tax and utility bills continue to be paid.

The house our group worked on belongs to two sisters whose ownership is fully documented. We were told that they had just bought the place and moved in when Katrina struck. The story was that they hadn’t even made the first mortgage payment. Katrina spoiled everything for them. Except for what they could carry at the time of evacuation, the sisters lost all that they owned. After the storm, their house had to be gutted. All that remained of the interior was bare studding and the naked cement slab upon which the house was built.

sanding-joint-compoundI don’t know the details of how the sisters have held onto ownership through the four years they have had to live somewhere else, but somehow they have managed it. Now they wait while team after team of volunteers, a new group every week, slowly restore their home.

Our group finished sheetrocking the walls and completed most of the taping and joint compound work. By the end of the week, the place was starting to look like a house again, but there is a long way to go. Tim, our project leader from the UCC Disaster Response Ministry, estimated that the owners may be back in the house in time for Christmas. This lengthy timeline reflects both the slow pace of the work, done mostly by volunteers without particular skills in the building trades, and the long wait for inspections by New Orleans’ harried and over-worked code officers.

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~

My Big Fat New Orleans Mission, Part I

I am not the person you would expect to see jetting off as part of a church mission group. I can point to a lifetime’s worth of non-participation in such activities to back up that statement.

But there is something about what Katrina did to New Orleans that has gnawed at me for the last four years. Our church sent a group to New Orleans last fall. I had planned to go with them, but Marge’s surgery kept me in Portland. So when I heard that another mission trip was planned for this year, I signed up immediately.

St. Paul's UCC, New OrleansWe left Portland early on the morning on Sunday, October 4th, and were in New Orleans by mid-day. After we had settled into the bunkhouse at St. Paul’s UCC Church, it was time for our first meal in the Big Easy. Somehow the group decided on a place called Parasol’s.

If you are a middle-class New Englander like me, you have to adjust to a lot of things in New Orleans. Parasol’s was, to be frank, the filthiest restaurant I have ever been in. If I had been traveling alone, the peeling paint, the sagging roof,  and the raucous noise from the bar would have convinced me to turn around without even going inside. By the time any of this began to register, however, we were already through the door and our group had taken over the small “dining room” in the back of the place. The cook was also serving up po’ boys that looked and smelled delicious. I was hungry.

After a long moment, during which I did my best not to focus on the fact that the metal-topped table where I sat was sticky to the touch, I made the decision to order one of those po’ boys, a roast beef with swiss. Served on a cheap paper plate, it turned out to be the most wonderful roast beef sandwich I’ve ever had, and I ate all of it despite my fear that by the middle of the night I would be sick as a result of it. That fear became conviction when I headed into the men’s room and found myself in the foulest, rankest public accommodation I have ever seen. As I recall, the three New Orleans cops who ate at the next table did not go near that men’s room. A woman in our group spoke to the cops and got one of them to show us the half-sleeve of tattoos he had on his right arm. We were not in Kansas anymore, Toto.

my-bunkAfter the cops left and as soon as I could get the group to move, we left Parasol’s and headed back to St. Paul’s. Before long, I was sitting on the edge of my bunk wondering how illness would manifest itself and how bad it was going to be.

Hours passed. I called home and talked to Marge. I organized things for the next morning. I waited and I waited. Finally I got into bed and fell asleep.

One of the other guys in the group was a snorer. My father was a snorer, and Marge has mentioned to me that I snore from time to time. I thought I was pretty much impervious to snoring, but I had never heard anything like this. This snoring sounded like a  piece of heavy equipment in the process of self-destructing. It went on for hours and woke me up again and again. By about 5:30 in the morning, I had had enough and I got up. It was dark, and I didn’t have a flashlight. I was still grumbling to myself when I realized that I had not been sick! In fact no one in the group was sick.

We all felt great, and we ate breakfast.

When everyone in the group was dressed and ready to go, we got into our three rental vehicles (a minivan, an SUV and a sedan) and drove to Little Farms UCC Church for our orientation and instructions for the week.

As for Parasol’s, would I recommend the place to anyone visiting New Orleans? Absolutely. Just remember a few simple things:

  1. Use Purell liberally
  2. Order the roast beef and swiss po’ boy
  3. Don’t touch your table
  4. Stay out of the restroom

~ ~ To be continued ~ ~