Santa Clause, Katrina, & Lost Dogs

                After serving with a U.S. Army Task Force in Katrina in 2005, I’ve been the keeper of a strange, secret, and elevated fear.  I felt like I’d been tricked.  I had believed that our lives in the United States were above the brutal truth told by the devastated and filthy streets of New Orleans.    

                It was a hard coming down, and had many of the nuances of finding out for sure that there is no Santa Clause.  After I found out about Santa Clause, for a moment I felt like I knew something important and adult, and took pride in thinking that I could lord it over those young enough, or naïve enough, to still believe.  But after that moment, after the neighbor kid broke it to me, and I’m sitting on my front step for awhile in the winter sunshine, drawing designs in the snow with a stick, I realized that it all makes sense now.  Past puzzle clues slide together and make a picture.  I’d been led to believe something, something very important about my special little life, something that was not true.  It’s a lie.  The Flying Saucer sled next to me is just something that Mom bought.  There will be no Santa Clause anymore, and the weight of it crushes the original sin of pride.

                I’m writing about this now because I’ve just finished reading Anderson Cooper’s book called Dispatches From The Edge.  In it, he reports upon all of the fantastic journalistic adventures he’s had reporting for CNN while chasing war, disaster, chaos and conflict across the globe for decades.  And despite the tsunami, famines, wars and hurricanes, he ends up being the most powerfully affected by Katrina.  As I read it, I realized he is affected by that experience in the same way that I am.  Cooper has the appropriate abhorrence to the looting and violence, the untended bodies, the general horror.  And he ponders the valid questions about governmental unpreparedness, a lack of accountability for its failure, and racism coloring the response.  But I can read between the lines that he feels mostly a sense of betrayal—a deep one.

                The betrayal is that what he saw over ‘there’ can happen ‘here’.

                One of my earliest memories is seeing a Superman movie that had a United Nations scene in it (all nations facing some global enemy I’ve long since forgotten) and I remember feeling the assurance that smart concerned adults were in charge of the world.  I never questioned as a child that we were all in the hands of educated, morally centered adults who ran the world properly and competently.  The good guys would always win.  As I grew up, I began to learn about the instability of other countries, and some of the ugly events there were splashed across the television news occasionally in obscene gaud.  But it never seemed to happen here, and so I carefully closed the circle of my safety expectations around the perimeter of the United States instead of the entire whole world.   

                And when I joined the Army, I began to travel around the world and see for myself what the television showed. What we take for granted here is not always present there:

  • A young man approached me in Afghanistan accompanied by his wailing mother and presented me with his immensely swollen, purple, and obviously broken arm.  In this primitive village, he had received all the treatment he was going to get, there was no money to be had to get him to real medical facilities and I understood through my interpreters, and surmised, that he was therefore going to die.  I gave him the Afghani equivalent of $128 for a taxi ride to Kabul and to pay for the treatment at a hospital to live.  Note:  it was illegal for me to give him that money. 
  • In Honduras, my whole platoon was filling in our foxholes and we had each incidentally thrown our trash into the holes before we began shoveling.  A squad of elite Honduran Soldiers was standing near and got excited about this, though they were always quiet and composed even while they worked with the Contras to lure Sandinista forces across the Honduran border for ambush.  After inquiry, we were told to stop with the burying.  The Hondurans would handle it; they wanted the food remnants in our trash.   When we realized what was going on, we quickly rifled through our backpacks to give them any additional food that we’d packed since we were just hours away from a plane ride to the United States.  Note:  They needed that food despite standing there with brand new U.S. made rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns—better weapons than we were holding, an active-duty U.S. Army Ranger Battalion! 
  • I once took a tour of the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek,  with a very nice and professional Kyrgyz interpreter, and she was explaining about life there and reading signs for me and taking me to interesting places.  I saw the Kyrgyz police stopped in the street and talking to some people and asked my guide offhandedly if the police were pretty good in this country.  Her demeanor changed immediately and she glanced across the street and said with a derisive and certain little laugh: “No.  Of course not.  They’re probably shaking them down for money.”  Note:  this explained why we were all required to carry special instructions with us; besides contact phone numbers and addresses for the U.S. Embassy, the State Department, and our own contracted ‘Reaction Force’, the other side of that card said in the Kyrgyz language something that roughly translates as “Don’t do a goddamned thing to this United States Soldier or you will be in heap big trouble.”  We were to present the card to any official encounter with their police.      

                And so forth.  All over the world we’d run into inadequate medical and police services, corruption, etc.  I’d come home and feel safe again. 

                I recognize that some delightful little European countries, perhaps a few others elsewhere in the world, might meet an original definition of “First World” countries:  any country with little political risk and a well functioning democracy, rule of law, capitalist economy, economic stability, and high standard of living.   This is a neat little 6-point test.  But I daresay that there are not many countries in the world that will pass this test.   

                In New Orleans (and elsewhere), police, medical and fire services stopped.  Food, water, and electricity stopped.  Ordinary life stopped.  Thousands of homes and lives were wrecked.  People gazed out into the lawlessness and silence of response and were flooded with despair.  The silence.  Everyone remembers the silence, and Cooper comments on it pointedly.  I’d always imagined that it would take months of chaos to induce such an holistic devolution, but I saw that it took mere days.  Base instincts wriggled free and collective safety rose into the sky like a balloon released for someone that was suddenly killed in the street. 

                It doesn’t happen all the time here, of course.  But it’s not that it happens all the time here, it’s that it can happen.  It’s that it did happen—and could happen again.  That’s why Anderson Cooper felt a new kind of dread leak into his gut at Katrina, and that’s why I also cannot discount those images or ever truly release that strange, secret fear.

                Even scarier, take a second look at that 6-point test in the context of the United States today.    It’s like being lost in a place that ought to feel like home.

New Orleans September 2005

Dirty half-blown-over trees try to right themselves

in the heat, the heat busies itself with every thick stink.

Signs, buildings, wreckage, and cars tumble

into the blasted streets, and the streets fall dumb

under the flood.  Blood slicks the stormed

supermarket aisles and the people have stopped

clawing at their attics.  Only

the dogs remain—lost

as people ought never be lost; standing gaunt

in the haunted streets, they don’t understand why

the bad dream won’t end, where

their families are, and what,

what has happened to their land.

New Orleans September 2005.  I think

I’ll never find the word

for the loudest sound I never heard. 

The Correct Change

Attention: U.S. Department of Education

     I just bought an Apple Fritter at Dunkin’ Donuts.  It cost $1.81. I handed the young lady two one-dollar bills.  I got back 23₵.  Now, this, of course, is indefensible.  But let’s try to defend it anyway:

“Your Honor, my client was never there.”

Judge:  We have her on camera attending to Mr. Perrin; store records and co-workers also attest to her presence.

“Your Honor, my client never gave anyone change that day.”

Judge:  Again, we have her on camera.  And it is clear in the enhanced video that she handed him two dimes and three pennies.

“Your Honor, my client can’t be expected to do that kind of math because she is too little to know that yet. “

Judge:  She must be 16 years old to work at Dunkin’ Donuts.  Records show her as a High School graduate and that she is 24 years old.  She appears to be of normal adult size for a female in our society. 

“Your Honor, my client was victimized by the cash register not telling her the correct change to dispense.”

Judge:  this court does not recognize outsourcing one’s own responsibility to engage a couple of brain cells once in a while.  And the cash register has been shown to be working perfectly, before and after.

“Your Honor, my client simply mistook one of the dimes for a nickel- it was a simple mistake to make.”

Judge:  Not so fast.  First, that would still render the change short by one cent.  And, while nickels make great quarter impersonators*, they cannot reasonably be understood to be mistaken for a dime.  It doesn’t happen.

“Your Honor, my client overpaid the Plaintiff, and did not in fact short him; it is therefore clear that Plaintiff has no cause of action.”

Judge:  Are you asserting that your client conspired with Plaintiff to engage in the larceny of four cents from Dunkin’ Donuts, one of the largest coffee and baked goods chains in the world?  Or that this cause of action should have been brought by Dunkin Donuts?

“No, Your Honor.  My client is not guilty by reason of insanity.” 

And so forth . . .

     I am forced to conclude, and I am sorry for it, that the young lady had a different perception of what was supposed to happen during the transaction than I did.  She must have thought of it in terms of three simple clear steps:  1.)  I give her money.  2.)  She gives me a thing.  3.)  She then gives me back less money than I gave her. 

And that’s it. Next.



Dolores and the Ice-Cream Truck

My aunt Dolores used to wait near the ice-cream truck on summer days. As the flurry of children dispersed back to play, ice cream in hand, she would scan the periphery. Some children had held back, watching, tempted to the spectacle but without money to spend. She’d wave them in towards the window of the truck and have them point to the picture of what they wanted on the outside of the truck. And then she’d buy each of them an ice-cream. Brilliant. It was a poor neighborhood, we were all poor, and my aunt wasn’t any different. But she invested in humanity this way.

I wish I could track the effect.  It must have been for some of these children like Dolores was buying stock in them early, when the vision of their company was a child and needed someone to believe in its worth.    

This neighborhood was near the railroad tracks, adjacent to the public housing project where I lived, and was filled with families and children. There were good people here, there were bad people here, and there was a lot of noise. I remember the noise of the train: the soul-rattling blast of the horn, the rumble and blur of tons of dirty metal wheels, and the cyclone rush as we stood as close to it as we dared. Playing ‘chicken’ with a train at full speed drowned out being less. We sometimes put pennies on the railroad track and learned with fascination what can happen to small objects under pressure.

Against this noise, on summer afternoons, the melody of an ice-cream truck would dance into the parking lot like a rainbow ballerina stepping out of a black and white photograph. My aunt Dolores would gather up change.

This was decades ago. When I think about it now I picture a child, perhaps a little girl in a little dress, lighting up as she realizes that a nice woman was going to buy her ice-cream on a day that her parents couldn’t, or wouldn’t, give her a dime. And I hope Dolores remembers, and will always see, that girl’s little finger pointed carefully, and shyly, at the glossy orange and white Creamsicle picture on the side of that white, white truck on a bright sunny summer day.

Message To A Warm Frog

(Democracy Hits An Iceberg)

                Have you heard this thing about frogs?!  The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out, but if the frog is put in tepid water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death. The story is often used as a metaphor for the inability or unwillingness of people to react to, or be aware of, sinister threats that arise gradually rather than suddenly.

However, it’s not true, because frogs are ‘thermoregulators’; changing environment is a fundamentally necessary survival strategy for frogs and other ectotherms. Thermoregulation is the ability of an organism to keep its body temperature within certain boundaries, even when the surrounding temperature is very different. (A thermoconforming organism, by contrast, simply adopts the surrounding temperature as its own body temperature, thus avoiding the need for internal thermoregulation.)

                The biology lesson is over, but, let’s not let science be an inconvenient truth.  Let’s suppose the fable were true, and ponder two key questions:  Would the frog even get in the water if it knew that the water would soon come to a boil? And would the frog stay in the water if it learned as it was sitting in the beaker of water that the water was coming to a boil?   

                In another context, would someone board the Titanic knowing well beforehand that it was scheduled to meet an iceberg?  And, having hit the iceberg, would someone stay onboard as the ship took on water, tilted, and the lights winked out one by one? 

                I used to think I knew the answers to these questions.

                In a more contemporary context, would the average person on the street 5 years ago have said that they would like to someday have as President of the United States a person vulgar in both word and deed?  And, having elected such person, and squatting bug-eyed in that ignominious beaker of warming water, would they maintain support for their decision as the water ridiculed and ignored advice from its own senior leaders, embraced our real and potential enemies, criticized and subverted our longtime allies and alliances, all the while standing on 5th Avenue impulsively tweeting ignorance and disregard of science, history, and democracy?   

                Democracy has boundaries and needs to be regulated to survive. And here’s my message to a warm frog:  If you voted for him—jump.  And if you still support him—boil.

Definition of Vulgar: 1a : lacking in cultivation, perception, or taste : coarse b : morally crude, undeveloped, or unregenerate : gross c : ostentatious or excessive in expenditure or display : pretentious 2a : offensive in language : earthy b : lewdly or profanely indecent

Definition of Thermoconforming: 1a : Republican

Hospice Care

Hospice Care

“. . . a program designed to provide palliative care and emotional support to the terminally ill in a home or homelike setting so that quality of life is maintained and family members may be active participants in care also : a facility that provides such a program”

            Archaeologists examined a 4,000 year old skeleton of a child in Vietnam and learned that, due to a congenital paralysis condition, he had had little, if any, use of his arms from birth and could not have fed himself or kept himself clean. But he lived another 10 years or so.  Let’s call him Utu.  They concluded that the people around him, who had no metal and lived by fishing, hunting and raising barely domesticated pigs, took the time and care to tend to his every need.

            He lived another 10 years or so.  4,000 years ago.  As soon as I read about this, it made its way into my thought rotation and would periodically surface in different genres of interest.  Anthropology:  Is this rare in primitive cultures?  No—research reveals many examples of this kind of care in ancient societies; there are even older cases which show medical conditions just as severe.  Archaeology:  How was the care rendered?  Were artifacts found which suggest how the family group fed him, bathed him, and tended to his bodily functions?  Family:  Who in the family, or family/tribal group, had the compassion in such a brutal environment?  Was it Mom and one or two others?  Or, did the group as a whole feel a collective duty to the unfortunate one? And finally, Language:  as written and spoken language existed in that area of the world then, did the young one talk with the others?  What was said?  

            A friend of mine commented recently that ordinary life is like hospice, as we journey to our last feeble heartbeat.    

            I like this analogy, as it favors a tenet of my general philosophy about life—that everything is on a spectrum.  Through this prism, I can argue that hospice care indeed need not be limited to within a doctor’s declaration that a person is reasonably presumed to have no more than 6 months of life left.  This modern legal/medical insurance/resource-mindful threshold of time unlocks the benefits of hospice attendants, liberal pain management drugs, and the comfort that can come from personal home care from loved ones.  Though it seems practical to not squander an entire family’s resources upon more intensive medical care to extend a person’s life slightly, neither does it seem right to have to be in the position to pit care against resources. 

            And then there are the ‘facilities’.  I was a hospice care volunteer briefly and baked chocolate chip cookies for an 87-year old veteran in a hospice care facility; these cookies were a thing he had joked about previously.  I brought cold milk with it.  He was surprised and delighted, and I talked with him for awhile.  I could see a kind gentleman emerge from behind his clouded eyes, one whose language, intellect, and sense of decorum was of the Cary Grant era.  It was my turn to be delighted.  No doubt, as soon as I left, he was wheeled back in front of the communal TV where I had found him, to stare at the screen in his stained sweater while trying to elevate his swollen feet.  He will be barely visible to the uniformed attendants, his fellow octogenarians, and his memory-deprived wife at the same facility, until everyone needs to be wheeled to dinner or bed.

            So, everything is being tried.  Home care under limited, final conditions.  Facilities.  Advanced medicine and economics shape the various options today but advanced medicine and money were not even players at the table for little Utu, and I’m not sure that was detrimental to his quality of life. 

            I like to think that he was told stories around the fire at night, that his mom cradled him protectively in the cold, and that he contributed his thoughts, ideas, and perhaps wit to his friends and family.  The group might have liked having him as one of their own.  Far from being forgotten, he was probably always being thought of, and may even have been considered special in some superstitious way.  He must have believed he was getting the best care available-as he was-and that nothing was held back from him due to resource constraints.  If the group had food, shelter, clothing, toys—they shared.  If a certain plant-derived medicine was thought to help, it was applied.  And he was always at home.  And for him to live a full 10 years under such primitive conditions, he must have been incessantly loved.  And, he must have felt it every moment of his life. 

            Now, that’s hospice care.

“While it is a painful truism that brutality and violence are at least as old as humanity, so, it seems, is caring for the sick and disabled.”

The Colors of Death

     I’ve experienced enough death at this point to be able to color it in a coloring book. 

     I’ve always delighted in the way that very young children color things heedless of the conventions of color and I love the way their hands take flight with scribble and run amok within and without the lines.  Here are children skating on a pond with green and yellow faces, and there is an elephant, big and black with orange tusks—wearing a hat!  The world is a carnival, one can paint it with imagination instead of experience, and within the big Crayola box is a ticket to every ride.    

     I’ve had the normal share of real death growing up; once in a very great while a neighbor, an uncle, or grandparent dies and there are the funerals and after-gatherings.  These are colored somberly in dark browns and matte blacks, low voices, and quiet preparations.  Those close to the loss and experiencing deep grief sometimes acted a bit outside of the lines, but their errancy was accepted with deference, and, for sure, with extra visits for coffee and conversation for many days and sometimes weeks afterwards. 

     But, of course, there are also abnormal death experiences.  The autopsy I witnessed in a room with moon-thin light, odd smells, and grotesque vulnerability was the color of a silent scream, and yet we all kept within the lines as medical training expects.  The bodies we found and tracked in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina told tales of slash-red violence and midnight-black suffering and yet we kept quite within the lines, as military training expects. 

     Adults handle it.  We are expected to handle it, and with restraint, and we should and do usually color appropriately and within the lines.  Society and life feel safer, and maybe children grow up better able to handle it in their own futures by this example.     

     But there is one area where all bets are off. 

     The death of a child. 

     Anyone can tell you that the death of a child is particularly heart-breaking in all regards and extreme deference is given to those parents who experience it, and it is also traumatic to those who must ‘respond’ to it.  Among a corps of necessarily stoic first-responders, it is legion that the toughest part of their job deals with the abuse or death of a child and they are understandably greatly affected by it.

     My two young children are still alive and I am grateful. 

     But I have a sense of this kind of loss.    

     I lost both of my children to parental alienation, deliberately false allegations, and bias in the family law court systems.  As for grief stages:  I am usually numb, though whenever I see children of their approximate age, I experience a quickening.  I relive moments with my beautiful young children; they leap alive in my mind.  Quick movies play, and I experience a hug, a toy, a laugh, and the gentle holding of a little hand.  A moment later, it’s gone, and I am again alone.  And for the rest of the day, I want to sleep.  This has gone on every day for over three years.  Life.  Death.  Life.  Death.   I cannot see the lines that I am supposed to be within.    And there are no colors for this that I can describe.


                Just after I woke up this morning, I descended my stairs carefully.  I had soft thick socks on, the wooden stairs had a shiny finish, and my fear factor was at a ‘two’.  So, I deliberately planted each step firmly and I did that thing where both feet meet upon the same step before another step is ventured.  This is an old-people thing, of course.  As I later puttered about on the first floor, I dissected the significance of the ‘two’.  It should have been a zero.  Fear seemed like an intruder here—the uninvited kid at the party who is rumored to have a gun. 

                I had gotten used to zero.  For so long, falling was fun, and was seen through the prism of play versus injury.  In the playground, we’d push each other down just to initiate a chase.  As teenagers, we’d jump off our 10 foot high porch roof into the grass yard, having to clear a menacing metal fence underneath!  We’d build up to that stunt as a rite of passage in the neighborhood.  Later, I’d parachute out of airplanes in the military and, despite carrying heavy equipment and even jumping at night, we’d usually land without injury.  (Myself excluded—but that’s another story!) 

                 I’d had a fall down the aforementioned staircase recently, and ended up in a pile at the bottom of the stairs with my laptop and a few other things strewn about the impact area.  Memory came upon me while I was lying there catching my breath and teared up until she realized I was pretty-much OK.  Nothing broken.  But that scene must have looked like one of those commercials for a ‘life-alert’ device, where the actor who has ‘fallen and can’t get up’ looks to be about 80 years old.  

                There are many manifestations of aging along our lives’ journeys but to be worried about stairs feels like a big category jump; a jump into the last category of aging—that category where people talk wistfully about moving to Arizona or Florida and getting a one-story house with no stairs.  Another big category jump is when discussing surgeries competes with discussing sports teams as general conversation at a gathering.  We all remember that kid in 4th grade who had their tonsils out—so exotic and novel was the idea of surgery and hospitalization back then that we were mesmerized and even jealous of that kid.  All the special treatment they must have been given at home, and were certainly given back at the classroom!  But now I’m afraid to ask how someone is, for fear of opening up the door to the banalities of their various health ‘procedures’. 

                 Well, I guess I’m old.  I’m admitting that.  Whew, that was a big step I just took there.  A-Ha-Ha-Ha. 

                I picture it all as a long journey to the top of a hill and then down the backside to the final valley of death.  I’m over the top, am somewhere on the backside and, actuarial tables aside, I think my slight fear of stairs can give you an accurate grid coordinate.  The exact location of the top of the hill, the peak of one’s life, is different for everyone, highly subjective, and open to interpretation as to whether it’s a physical and/or mental thing.  Good arguments can be made for various ages and events up and down the ladder of human experience while life is shiny and strong.  We can, however, exclude a timid descent of well-lit ordinary stairs as anywhere near a peak life event.

                So, now that I’m here, what do I have to show for it?

                Well, a good lifelong friend and mentor said that perhaps the only thing that survives our deaths, after anybody who remembers us also dies, is our writing.  So, since I’ve been writing for many years, I picture the backside of that hill glittered with little pages here and there.  And this piece is now also behind me as I stumble downward through the end-of-life scree. 

                See?  It’s just over there, at the base of that fallen tree, fluttering gently in the fading light.

Well Being.

The day before my wedding, I went to check the well at the farmhouse where I was staying and where the wedding was to be held the next day.  The farmhouse got all of its water via an electric pump from this well and it was a big and professionally engineered well.  I would check it once in a while in its neat little wooden covered hut, and I always tipped the large wooden disc cover up so I could stare down into the deep cool clear water.  It was late summer, dank and florid with earthy smells.  I could  even smell the wet granite stones that lined the well. 

                This time, as I lifted the cover up, I was surprised to see a dead rodent floating on the surface in the center.  I could see that no such creature could get up the smooth granite walls of the well once it had fallen in.  After it died, it had remained floating and apparently slowly decayed on a lake of glass. Various grey and blue hues had spread out widely in concentric circles to cover the entire surface of the water in a sheen of decomposition.  In the middle of the target was a small hapless bag of fur, tufted carelessly, laying quietly atop the water like a dropped jacket.  I couldn’t see whether the fur had yet released the marionette of mouse skeleton to spin eerily through the cool water to the stone cold bottom.

                I pulled what I could out of the water with a big screen dipper used for taking the occasional leaves off the surface. 

                Back at the farmhouse, I thought about it.  Hmmm.  Big wedding tomorrow with people coming from all over.  Guests were staying with us.  Water for cooking, food prep.  Water for showers/bathing and drinking.  Almost immediately I thought about calculating how much bleach I could add to the water to ostensibly ‘purify’ it.  I knew about this stuff from being an Army Officer and there were calculations one could work to make water potable for ‘field’ situations; bleach, in proper ratio, was the simple little miracle ingredient.  I typically had that type of Army manual around, found it, and decided to do it.  I was a trained and smart little Army Officer and really had no second thoughts other than an abstract interest in the implications of a bad outcome.  Ha.  But I was pretty sure about myself back then, and didn’t even devote much time to worrying.  The night before a large home farmhouse wedding and reception with all the fixin’s tends to be a little busy.   

                I measured the volume of the water in the well, calculated, added the bleach in carefully counted ounces, and stirred.  The next day we had the wedding, everything went great, and nobody ever got sick.  I would occasionally tell the dead-mouse-in-the-well story to one of those wedding guests years later and of course everyone was (safely!) aghast.

                Later, I would sometimes wonder about a couple of things here.  How could I have decided so cavalierly upon my ‘water treatment’ scheme versus simply buying lots of bottled gallon water from a supermarket for the day?  Cost wasn’t a concern compared to what we’d already spent on the wedding.  And, with a sad furtive shudder, I’d also wonder about the last hours of that mouse: the swimming, the exhaustion, and whether maybe, near the end, the mouse had had a stricken sentient realization.   

                So.  Time went on.  Years.  Jobs.  Houses.  Cars.  Kids.

                And then I got divorced.  The divorce, and subsequent proceedings, have been a struggle.  My beautiful children were pulled away from me through a family court legal system that cannot, or will not, recognize bad-faith and malice.  I haven’t seen Autumn and Lincoln in years.  And I’m swimming.  And it’s dark down here.  And I’m alone.  I cannot rest. And I’m very, very tired.