Two terrible nights: backing the Blue, and each other

It’s been a horrific week. And not just in Dallas, although it’s only been 48 hours since the vicious assault that slaughtered five police officers and injured many others.

Robert Moore

Photo by Robert Moore of Dallas, taken as he was protected for more than two hours by this Dallas Police officer on July 7, 2016.

I don’t have the answers; I don’t know that anyone does. But I do have a story.

Not yet a month ago, crushed by sadness yet lit by fury, I watched news reports out of Orlando. An angry man, a semiautomatic rifle, a nightclub of happy young people – and then a floor slick with blood and 49 brilliant lives extinguished.

While I didn’t know anyone murdered that night, it felt personal. Nightclubs have always been a place for us to feel safe, behind doors that provided a respite from constant judgment and scorn. An assault like this, in that happy place, brought a deep, searing anguish, framed by our current climate of division and hatred.

Because we are human, we are driven to gather in the face of something so terrible. To share a glance, a touch, a hug, words with others who get it.

Here in Dallas that June night, we made our way to the community center. It was just hours after the news from Orlando broke; details were still fluid, but solid enough to strike horror in the heart of any decent person – and brutal enough to cast a specter of fear over our gathering.

I didn’t know if we would be targeted; if copycats would want their 15 minutes of fame by attacking those who gathered in one of the nation’s largest cities, a blue circle in a bright red state.

Yet still we came. We could do no less.

The first thing I noticed at the community center was a row of Dallas Police black-and-whites. We turned the corner, and there was another row. And another, and another. Dozens upon dozens of officers, standing in the hot, steamy rain, waving us in, helping us park. Smiling gently, with kind, sad eyes that mirrored ours. Certainly more cops than needed to help 1,000 people find their way into an open parking lot.

To frame this, let me explain something.

Tensions have been high between the gay community and Dallas Police. In the past year, there have been a stupid number of vicious attacks in the Oak Lawn “gayborhood.” People have been followed, hunted, assaulted, beaten and terrorized more than two dozen times. No arrests have been made.

There have been meetings, demands for extra police support, stories told through the swollen and battered mouths of beaten victims. Dallas Mavs owner Mark Cuban even donated $1 million to be used for extra police support. Armed citizen groups (Gays With Guns!) have begun weekend patrols.

It’s been ugly, and bitter.

This is the lens under which we gathered that June night.

Just before the vigil began, Police Chief David Brown arrived, along with the mayor. (You’ve seen both of them on TV a lot since Thursday night.) They stood alongside us as words of all colors flowed — somber, angry, heartbroken, inspiring, shaken.

We silently moved en masse onto Cedar Springs Road, a two-mile ribbon leading to the Legacy of Love memorial. We walked slowly, yet steadfast, wearing our grief but unwavering in our visibility. Tears and raindrops mingled on our cheeks.

I walked alone, at the front, on the right. As we passed every single intersection, Dallas Police officers stood on all corners, holding traffic so we could pass. They watched us, nodding somberly, but their eyes constantly scanned: spectators, the streets, buildings.

They were there to protect us, to serve. It was crystal-clear that no harm would come to us during these vulnerable hours, that our shattered hearts would be allowed to grieve, as we needed.

I felt the tension in my shoulders ease a bit with every step, guarded by those women and men in black.

I began to peel off at every intersection, walking over to rookie beat cops, sergeants, majors, captains. I reached out to each, simply saying, “Thank you. We appreciate you.”

The reactions stunned me. To a person, they showed nothing but deep respect. Not one single cop – out of hundreds – was rude, or cold, or dismissive. None looked at their buddies and rolled their eyes, or smirked, or looked at us with anything but compassion.

When you move through life as a member of a marginalized, ridiculed group, you are used to those reactions. The absence of them spoke louder than any words could. Just with the sheer numbers involved, you’d think one or two would be having a bad day, were hot or hungry, and not at their best … but no.

And there was more. Every officer shook my hand, but dozens went further. As I reached, they reached faster. They clasped my arm with both hands. They leaned in, speaking softly into my ear: “I’m so sorry.” “I wish you peace.” More than a few pulled me into bear hugs, my face pressed into wet polyester covering rock-hard Kevlar. My glasses were askew; I lost my place in the procession.

And I didn’t care. Every one of those gestures smoothed a little piece of the jagged edges of my soul. Alongside, there was Chief Brown, making every step of those two miles with us.

It was clear that our police force shared our grief at the horror of Orlando.

And there was absolutely no doubt that they stood ready to step between us and anyone who wanted to repeat that carnage.

Not in our town. Not in Dallas.

This is the same police force that stood by with respect and professionalism at the vigil last Thursday night. Photos shared during the march show officers standing next to Americans exercising their constitutional rights, smiles on all faces.

These officers knew the marchers weren’t protesting the police, but abuses of police power. They know there are very real concerns about profiling and violence that we as a nation must address, and they know the terrible incidents in other cities cast shadows on their every actions, as unfair as that is.

Are they perfect? Of course not. Are you? I’m certainly not.

A friend, forensic scientist Rob Boyle, did some math tonight, using conservative estimates. Think about this:

– There are about 1,220,545 U.S. police officers.

– There have been about 500 officer-involved shootings this year, whether “justifiable” or not. But let’s count them all, for argument’s sake. Double it, then add a bit more just to be conservative. Call it 1,240 by the end of the year.

– Again, being conservative, let’s say it’s a 1:1 ratio of cops per fatality.

That means .001% of officers will be involved in fatalities this year, even counting the ones that reasonable people would agree are justified. Knock those out, and the number shrinks even further.

Do you get how tiny .001% is? Picture 1 million baseballs dumped into a large room. Now, imagine that 10 balls are dyed red. That’s .001%.

Ten baseballs, out of 1 million.

Now, hear me: That does NOT mean the unjustifiable deaths don’t matter. They do. They are an outrage, a tragedy, a crime. They poison the decent world. They are fuel to the fire of righteous anger burning across the U.S. We must stop the tsunami of deaths.

Yet we are capable of complex, nuanced emotions. We can burn over injustice and racism, and cry out against them. And we also can grieve the loss of police officers that put their lives on the line every day.

They are not mutually exclusive.

Our Dallas officers know the people they are sworn to serve are stoked by very real anger, pain and fear.

And they are working to swing the pendulum. Chief Brown has been criticized for some of his changes – after all, at every crossroads of change stand 1,000 guardians of the past. But Dallas has methodically become a leader in community policing. Use of force and citizen complaints have plunged; the use of force policy has been significantly remodeled.

We know the people behind the badges.

And that’s why we immediately opened our hearts after our Dallas Police Department and DART Police were ambushed Thursday night.

Because we know that almost all are decent and well-trained, trying to do an impossible job in a very dicey time.

Because when the shots rang out, they ran into the barrage. They stood in front of all equally: black, white, brown.

We cannot let the few bad souls on the fringes overwhelm us, or steer us into a downward vortex of negativity. There are a few bad cops; there are a few angry, cowardly men with guns thinking violence is an answer; there are some protesters who laughed because police were being targeted.

None of these are good people. But more importantly, none of them represent the whole of their tribes.

We are not so different.

I saw that firsthand, on that rainy night less than a month ago. And the world saw it Thursday night.





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Gail Kerr: love and loss

Nashville mourned today as Gail Kerr was laid to rest. Friend, cut-up, dedicated, certain, and a damn fine journalist… She was this, and she was more.

It’s no surprise that 700 people made their way to her service, comforting Les, Gail’s mom, her sister, the rest of her family. She touched that many, times a million, in her life. She and I used to gripe about the absurd attendance estimates that event organizers made. “Two thousand? (Snort.) I am NOT putting that BS number in the paper.” She’d smile to see a crowd number listed for her service, but we all know this one was accurate.

Those of us not able to be there today were devastated. I, for one, threw everyone out of my Dallas office at 11 a.m., shut my door and leaned back with my eyes closed. I let my mind drift to thoughts of Gail through my years at The Tennessean. Laughs, laments, successes, frustrations, disagreements: a typical, rich mosaic of newsroom life, both in and out of the office. Her MS diagnosis, which she adamantly demanded we virtually ignore, because she didn’t want to “be the story.”

I re-read our last recent emails… Unprintable thoughts about cancer, which had struck us both (we blamed certain editors for that), now colored by my survivor’s guilt. We are the same age. She was funny and eloquent, naming her relapse “Camp Suckyville, the Sequel.” And printable thoughts about life and love — especially her words about the husband she adored, Les. I will share those with him soon, although it’s nothing he — we all — didn’t already know: that she knew, without a doubt, that he hung the moon. I don’t know that I’ve ever seen anyone as certain of their love as those two. She was a writer, a creative — but she used to listen to his songs, and her eyes would glow, and she would say, “Isn’t that incredible, what he can do?” Beauty, sheer beauty.

In the midst of all of the nastiness that cancer brings, she — again, typical Gail — took the time to thank me for helping redirect her column years ago. We wrestled, passionately, for many months about how to best aim her eloquence and fathoms-deep knowledge of Nashville into pieces with powerful heft, united in wanting everyone in Nashville to say, “Did you SEE what Gail wrote today?” She gave me too much credit for that success. It was her gift that did that, her gift alone.

During her service today, tears fell. Not just at Downtown Presbyterian Church, but 700 miles southwest, too. We have 177 mutual friends on Facebook, and I wrapped my mind and heart around each of them, sending my spirit eastward as intently as I could. Catherine, Frank, John, Sandra, Ted, so many more. I figured Michael Cass, another gifted staffer, would cover the service, and I sent him extra juju, because no one wants that assignment. I especially lingered with thoughts of Les and the rest of Gail’s family. I know their pain is bottomless right now, and that only time will ease it.

But I also know that none of us can hope for more than a life well-lived. And that, dear Gail, is exactly what you had. We’ll miss you.

— 30 —


(I swiped this from The Tennessean’s web site. I hope they won’t mind. Photo by George Walker IV.)

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10 things no one told me before we got a kitty

So, Christmas brought a new addition to our family: Cash, the kitty in black. Here he is. Cute, right? The vet said he looked like an X-ray. Cash

It seemed like a good idea at the time. D’s 16-year-old cat died the summer we moved to Texas, and since then it’s been nearly three years of perfectly un-subtle hints about how she really, really, really, really, really wanted a kitten.

I’ve never had a kitten, and heck, they’re cute.

How hard could it possibly be?


“10 Things No One Told Me Before We Got a Kitten”

1. While weighing only 1.8 pounds, kittens come fully armed with 349 ninja knives tucked away at the end of their stubby little legs.

2. Kittens and great white sharks are first cousins. I know this to be true because you know how when a great white starts to chomp on a seal, a whole second set of  razor-sharp teeth pops out of its mouth? Cash must have those.

3. Kittens are more inquisitive than the TSA after you make a bad bomb joke. Particular items of interest include light sockets, iPads, bathtubs, priceless Seminole baskets, clothes on hangers, anything with a dangly cord, the handmade ceramic bouncy kite sculpture lovingly carried home from Spain, the DVR, any cardboard box and Chase’s fluffy tail. These items are of much more interest than the 28 little fuzzy catnip mice, feathers on sticks and velvet rattle balls littering our floor.

4. There is a sign written in ink invisible to humans hanging from every small door, including the dishwasher door, the refrigerator door, the pots-and-pans cabinet door, the pantry door and the laundry room door. This sign reads, “Kittens Must Crawl Inside Here Immediately.”

5. To the kitten eye, human legs are indistinguishable from tree trunks and exist not for mobility, but only to be climbed.

6. Kittens can dart at approximately 186,282 miles per second, the speed of light. This allows them to teleport from an upside-down, total unconscious snooze to the middle of a bedroom door jamb just as you slam it closed.

7. Kittens are superheroes who can survive being closed in a bedroom door.

8. Kittens believe the concept of hypothermia to be just a vague, unproven rumor started by the old Columbia Sportswear lady to get rich. They spit upon this concept all the way into the freezer, where they cuddle up to a bag of baby lima beans while using a Boca Burger as a pillow.

9. Kittens like dog food better than kitten food. Dogs like kitten food better than dog food. And dogs definitely like litter-covered kitty poop more than dog food.

10. Dogs can indeed look at you balefully. (Here’s proof: And that whole “I bet Chase will learn to love his new little brother” discussion was a ridiculous pile of rationalizing crap. But he will learn to tolerate him, particularly when he outgrows the attack phase. Can’t we all just get along?

So just when I’m at my (admittedly low) limit of tolerance for being attacked in my own home, what does Cash do? Crawls up on my chest, curls up in a little ball, purrs so loud I can’t hear the TV, licks my face and then falls asleep, his little black-and-silver striped fur ruffling in the breeze from the ceiling fan.

A friend who’s just one small step from being a cat lady told me that these little “mrrrowow”-ing balls of fur and pointy teeth and daggerlike claws are created so cute so we don’t kill them before they reach cathood.

photo-12Truer words, never spoken.

And there’s even hope for Big Brother, too:

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Happy 7-Days-After-Thanksgiving

This post is late. Really late, like “why the hell is she talking about Thanksgiving now” late.

There was a time I could blame the mail carrier for missing birthdays, anniversaries, sorry-your-dog-has-worms and other momentous life events. Now that excuse is a little flimsy, since no one actually uses the mail anymore.

That excuse worked with everyone back then, except my mother that one time I missed her birthday. In the grand scheme of things, missing your mother’s birthday is one step past “oh my god the fiery asteroid is nearly upon us.”

After years of reading me like a cheap paperback, she immediately scoped out my pathetic attempt to throw the U.S. Postal Service under the bus. (Or maybe I was trying to throw them under the stubby little tires of one of those boxy white Jeep-like things they drive.) Whatever I was trying to throw them under, she didn’t buy it. I paid for that screwup for many years.

I did, however, get some measure of revenge on my 40th birthday, when the card from my parents arrived with a cheerful little note written inside: “Hope you have four more years!” Four, 40, whatever. She was mortified. My friends found it hysterical, and have ever since serenaded me upon my birthday with lusty choruses of “Four more years! Four more years!”

That got really funny after I got cancer. My chosen family has a pretty warped sense of humor.

Even now on Facebook, I usually fail in offering deep and meaningful words to my friends and assorted people I don’t remember from grade school. I mean, Facebook makes it so damn easy to send emotional testimonies about the specialness of each person, like “HB2U!” and “Hope it was special!” And I still can’t swing it all the time with any consistency.

Maybe Facebook could make it easier for me. I mean, it can be scary-hard to have to stand over a hot computer, read that complex “Birthdays today” title, then have to actually scroll down with a finger to see all of the names. Today’s equivalent of toting that barge.

Often I’m a day late, or two days late. Or four. Once I was a good two weeks late. Another time I was so late, I offered up a cheery “Happy anniversary!” to a couple currently engaged in a bitter divorce that made “War of the Roses” look like a Disney flick.

Those super-late situations necessitate the marshaling of all of my verbal skills to pour out a heartfelt, combo mea culpa/happy day response. Something with lots of exclamation marks, to show that I really mean it(!), along the lines of, “Hi, ___! Geez, I’m a complete doof who can’t even be counted on to send you good wishes on your birthday! I a scum-sucking friend/acquaintance/frenemy who should be unfriended, excoriated with verbal abuse and then stabbed in the eye with a flaming stick! Anyway, HB2U! Hope it was special!”

Then I add a few of those black, silhouette-y hearts, because in Facebookland, that proves beyond a doubt that I really do love them.

But I really did think of you all on Thanksgiving, and I was really thankful that you read  my blog. You know that it helps keep me a tiny bit farther away from the edge of insanity, especially on days when the universe is conspiring to thump me right over that cliff. You stick with me, even when I take canyon-sized gaps away from blogging. I don’t deserve you. But there was method to my madness (in this one instance).

I decided a while back that I really, really need to get off of my ass and finish my novel. You know, write something that might actually help me retire one day. Or even if it doesn’t, will let me drop, “Oh, I’m a novelist” to groups of drunken partygoers while modestly scuffing the floor with my toe.

So fair warning, I’m expecting you to buy my novel, even if it’s a pity purchase and you think it’s dumber than mustard on ice cream. I’ll e-publish, so it’ll be cheap. Start saving now. I’ll even email you an autograph. If you don’t buy one, then I’ll just have to remind you: that’s why you can’t have nice things.

I have a decent start, although you know how my brain works — I keep coming up with ideas for a new one. Maybe I could start a web site offering book ideas for sale, instead of actually writing any of them. Then I could say, “Oh, I’m a novelist suggester” to groups of drunken partygoers while modestly scuffing the floor with my toe. If I mumble on the last word, I could have the best of both worlds.

I figured NaNoWriMo might be just the catalyst I need. But it turned out to be more like a wet fuse on those perfectly good M-80s my siblings and I used to throw at each other.

If you’re not on the creative hip train, NaNoWriMo is sickeningly cutesy shorthand for National Novel Writing Month. You’re supposed to just sit down and write 50,000 words in the month of November. Then, presto, you have a finished novel on Dec. 1.

I’m 49,346 words short. But there’s still one day left!

I blame work and Ryan Seacrest, who really are related in a substantive way, but I won’t bore you with the details. I mean, seriously. Who in the hell picked November for this creative project? A Facebook friend had the right (write?) idea, suggesting that NaMarWriMo or NaFebWriMo would be much less stress-inducing.

I mean, you may end up with a novel with NaNoWriMo, but you’ll be editing it from your hospital bed after they cut you open to cauterize the bleeding ulcer.

Back to Thanksgiving… in no particular order, I am thankful for words. For a loving, kind better half. For finally shutting off relatives who only wish to wound me. For the many members of my chosen family who don’t need to share DNA with me to love me unconditionally. For Chase. For good jobs. For the many opportunities to share our good fortune with the less fortunate. For chemo/radiation/surgery. For health insurance that paid for them. For my camera, which feeds my soul as words do. For laughter. For forgiveness for being late with birthday messages. For you.

So, to every one of you, my heartfelt wish goes out:

Happy Halloween!  ❤ ❤ ❤ ❤

(By the way, so sorry for this post being blank last night. WordPress ate my homework. So this is a rewrite. The first one was better.)

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What a (pussy) riot

A group of new super-cool “thinking” friends is planning a get-together soon, and we were tossing around some ideas for what we should talk about. (Other than which happy hour beverage goes best with chips-and-salsa. That one’s pretty well decided already.)

Our planner is an experienced, steel-in-her-eyes nursing poobah at a kids hospital, used to facing down the most awful moments in life. So it was no surprise when she tossed out this lovely little gem: “Can anyone summarize the recent prosecution of the all-girl band Pussy Riot?”

She was joking. I think. Maybe. Could be.

But never one to shrink from a challenge, I figured I’d give it a whirl… Here goes, in 10 easy steps:

1. Female Russian musicians form punk-rock protest group, decide to call it Pussy Riot. Apparently they have no friends, loved ones or sober acquaintances to tell them that A) Russia isn’t exactly a bastion of democracy where dissent is welcomed B) “Pussy Riot” is a really stupid name and C) punk rock is dead, having expired in 1979.

2. Band performs in weird places, like on top of a bus and on a train-station scaffold, each of which help drown out their screeching, off-key notes. But they really poke the bear when they protest at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow with such quiet and respectful actions as jumping up onto the altar, tossing off a lot of their clothes and putting on funny hats, then bouncing around kicking up their heels and shadow-boxing the air.

3. They film their protest with high-quality cameras that cost at least $5.47 each, then make a lovely and melodic music video called “Holy Mother, Chase Putin Away!” They use bad words and beseech the Virgin Mary to get rid of Russian President Vladimir Putin. The Virgin Mary cannot be reached for comment on her plans.

4. Putin, not known for his jocular, warm sense of humor, has them arrested and charged with “hooliganism.” Media around the world begins to notice, spurred by the fact that uses the word “hooliganism” anymore.

5. While waiting for trial, the band complains they are being treated poorly in jail. This surprises only an old man named Vladimir Ksnrakehnkyelskiz, who lives in the tiny village of Kropotskinkaya, where there is no TV, radio, internet or sunlight.

6. The band claims Putin is orchestrating their prosecution, which brings the possibility of a 7-year jail sentence. Jaws drop in shock across the world at this unbelievable assertion against a man of such great character and high morals.

7. The Russian Orthodox Church, afraid Jesus really might be watching their actions after all, asks the court for clemency for the band.

8. On Aug. 17, the girls are convicted of “hooliganism motivated by religious hatred.” (There’s that word again.) Severe punishment simply must be taken, because hatred cloaked in the name of religion must not be allowed to occur in the civilized world. Or in Russia.

9. Band members are sentenced to two years in prison. Officials claim this is a fair sentence, despite it being more time than given to 97 guys convicted of murder, 524 women convicted of selling their kids into slavery for $13 apiece, and a wolfhound that ate seven children.

10. Two other members of Pussy Riot consult a Ouija board, which makes the electrifying, startling prediction that protesting a maniacal iron-fisted president with weird performance art isn’t exactly the best idea for their future. They flee Russia, ensuring that their erstwhile bandmates will have no ready source of money dropped off at the prison canteen for cigarettes, feminist magazines or political email lists.

Did I miss anything?

It is kind of nice to see someone putting their lives on the line to effect political change, instead of just getting snarky over chicken sandwiches and posting anti-whatever e-cards on Facebook. Especially feminists who take me back to the edgy riot grrrl days of the early ’90s, when bands like Sleater-Kinney and Bikini Kill made you think, made you mad, made you rage against the machine. (Kathleen Hanna, where are you now?? Miss you.)

Or, carbon-dating myself as a dinosaur even further, back to the the earlier days of  Siouxsie Sioux or The Runaways.

You go, you (pussy) riotous girls. Rock on.

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Isaac: Deja vu all over again

Seven years ago this week, I had strep throat. It was my first experience with it as an adult, and it seriously kicked my butt. I remember this because I was at home sick, with nothing to do but watch feverishly for two days as Katrina barreled toward New Orleans and the Gulf Coast and many people I love.

This storm just felt bad. Très mal, as we’d say in the bayou. When that thing crystalized into this beautiful-but-awful storm, with a perfectly deadly eye, it shook me to my core. On Sunday, Aug. 28, when it hit Cat 5 status, it was terrifying. I still remember Hurricane Camille, a Cat 5 monster that hit when I was young.

ImageThat week was a difficult time, even before the storm. It was also a fresh anniversary of the day we lost one of my nieces, an amazing light, in a car accident. My job was slowly stealing my soul. Then the strep, which kind of feels like someone’s carefully grinding crushed glass into your throat. But I was on the upswing, physically at least, as Katrina approached.

I went in to work on Aug. 29 and told my boss that I needed to go to Louisiana. Even back then, he was already running the newsroom on a shoestring, and editors taking off during a big story isn’t the best thing. Still, he told me I could go — as long as I took vacation time. OK.

I went back home and watched as TV folks talked about New Orleans being “spared.” They sounded disappointed. I get that. As a journalist, you get stoked up for a disaster, then it eases off and it’s kind of a letdown. I mean, you’re happy for the people in the disaster area, but you don’t have anything to cover.

But I also saw where Katrina went ashore. And even though no media talked about the Mississippi Gulf Coast, I knew what had to have happened there. There’s just not much “give” in that area during a direct hurricane hit.

Then came the reports of the levee breaches in New Orleans. It was what we had all feared, forever. Soon, the footage began to roll. People stranded. Bodies floating in the streets. I still remember the Homeland Security guy saying that for some people who didn’t get out of New Orleans, “it was their last night on this earth.”

When D got home from work, I met her at the door. “I have to go,” I said. Being the gift that she is, she simply looked at me for a moment. I’m sure she wanted to say, “Are you crazy?!” But she just nodded, and said, “Let’s get you ready.”

We spent a few hours buying out local stores. Having grown up in Louisiana, I knew what to take. Bug spray. Water. Juice. First aid supplies. Diapers. Non-perishable food. Batteries. Pet food. Big gas cans. We had a huge Sequoia SUV, and we crammed every inch of it. As we loaded up at store after store, people stopped and asked, “Are you going to New Orleans?” When we said yes, they handed us stuff. $100, a handful of crumpled $1 bills, a case of peanut butter crackers they’d just bought.

The next morning, I went to work to pick up a laptop to take with me. Word had gotten out that I was going, and in my office I found a small mound of supplies and cash, dropped off by my coworkers, crusty journalists who emptied their hearts and wallets. We made more room in the Sequoia.

All the way down, I drove alongside power trucks and rescue vehicles. Listening to the radio, it quickly became clear that anarchy was ruling and chaos was king. I arrived in Southern Mississippi well before the official response had kicked in. (That was nothing special, of course, given how slow that happened.) I stopped at the newspaper in Hattiesburg, where I’d cut my teeth as a journalist many years before. I ran into an old friend and former colleague whom I hadn’t seen or talked to in 20 years. He took one look at my face and my SUV, and offered up his spare room. His street was littered with downed trees, but he opened his home and his heart immediately.

I caught some shuteye. The next morning, I drank a warm Dr. Pepper and ate a cold Pop-Tart. Then I headed south. Into the abyss, into devastation. Trees snapped like toothpicks. God, it was hot. No power, no A/C, no ice. Families sitting on the ground in parking lots of stores, shell-shocked and hungry. Once I stopped to clear debris off of a road, and my shoes got stuck to the asphalt. The pine trees were so torn apart, sap had run into the streets like glue. It was so horrible, but it smelled so good, like fresh pine always does.

I made it to the coast. No checkpoints, no cops, no military. Nothing but desolation, piles of debris, and the worst smell you can imagine. I parked near the coast, put on my gloves and started moving debris, looking for survivors. I didn’t find any. I found parts of people who didn’t make it, and item after item from Life Before: baby dolls, photos, a karate trophy, half of a mounted marlin. I’ve never been so hot, so dirty. The air was oily and thick, the stench something from the inner circle of hell. Decomposing body parts and animals, rotting food, the rainbow sheen of oil and gas on standing water, all baking together in a hot soup. I saw a small dog, a bone poking out of the back leg he was dragging. He was mad with pain and fear and thirst. I tried to catch him, but he disappeared into a pile of debris that would only be moved by cranes.

Occasionally people would come up, asking if I’d seen so-and-so. Some would help for a minute, then shamble off, going back to looking for their loved ones. After a few hours, a crew of cops came up and took over. I went back to my car. I looked in the mirror, and saw that my tears had cut lines of clean down my filthy face.

I drove about three blocks away from the Gulf, right next to a huge boat that had been tossed inland and left stranded. I saw a couple of pickups there, handing out clothes to small groups of survivors. As far as you could see, homes were just piles of rubble and ruin and splinters. What items survived were covered in mud and filth. It seemed like the right place to stop and begin emptying the truck. It only took about an hour. There was no pushing or grabbing or shoving, just stunned people lining up quietly and taking whatever you handed them. When my supplies were gone, those who went without just slowly turned away and went in search of help somewhere else.

I have only felt so helpless two other times in my life, when facing the unexpected deaths of two young family members. But I was angry, too, along with the rest of the world. How did this happen, here, to us?

I found a nearby Red Cross shelter and went to work on the medical crew cleaning and dressing wounds, taking medical histories, anything and everything. People making their way to the shelter had fled with nothing, not even their medicine — diabetics, the mentally ill, even cancer patients. They were covered in cuts and scrapes, almost all infected, and terrible bruises and oozing bug bites. One man had a broken arm, which he’d lived with for three days. They had lost everything and had nowhere to go.

The shelter was in a horse arena, too, and there were fleas. Miserable. Cots lined the walkways, and it was bloody hot — no A/C there, either. One afternoon another volunteer and I were walking through the cots, and we looked over to see a 50-something man molesting a young pre-teen relative. Right there in the open.

The shelter, while providing a valuable service, was a heartbreaking, soul-wrenching place. We did what we could, but it wasn’t enough. It wasn’t nearly enough.

On my trip home, I stopped to eat at a Piccadilly cafeteria in Jackson, Miss. It was clean, brightly lit, full of people laughing as they ate their comfort food. I sat down to my plate, and lasted less than a minute before I had a big-faced-cry PTSD meltdown in the middle of the dining room. The juxtaposition between that dining room, and what was happening just two hours away, consumed me. I fled, black-eyed peas untouched.

Katrina changed me, along with hundreds of thousands of others. I didn’t lose my home, or my life. But I lost a little part of my soul. I gained something, too: a desire for a different life. I had spent more than 20 years being a journalist, remaining distanced from my community in the pursuit of objectivity. I loved it… but after Katrina, I could no longer do that. It is an important role that journalists play, and I applaud them. It was no longer a role I could play, however. I turned instead to the world of non-profit health care, which feels so right to me and where I know I have made a difference in some people’s lives.

As Isaac approaches, I believe we hold close the lessons learned from Katrina. We are better prepared today; this societal breakdown will not happen again. I have healed from those days of horror. I knew another hurricane would come, of course, marching inexorably toward Mississippi’s Gulf Coast and New Orleans.

Now that it has, I realize that I have healed… but I have not forgotten. The smells, the sadness, the pain, the anger, the helplessness — while 7 years old now, those feelings are as sharp and fresh as fine cheese. They are a sick, gnawing ache in my gut, burning brighter with every minute spent watching The Weather Channel.

We are ready for Isaac, and we will outlast its fury, no matter how strong he is. (Personally, I hope he fizzles out like a wet sparkler, and then we can dance and toast his demise.) But we must not forget what brought us to this day, just seven short years ago, and how it changed us.

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It’s a small, small world

So, this grand adventure of chucking the suburban life and becoming urban dwellers has just one downside: Downsizing.

For 20 years, I’ve lived in a house, where I could spread out and tuck things away safely in hidey-holes where I’d remember where I put them (only that never really worked that well, truth be told). Now we’ve condensed ourselves into a space that’s approximately one-third the size of our last house.

Now, one-third is a lovely little number, in theory. Who doesn’t like to get a third of something, like a pie? Or a massive lottery jackpot? All those cute little round, bouncy numbers, .3333333. Looks kinda like a string of hearts. Or fish lips.

But while D did a heroic job of selling stuff on craigslist, we are still trying to ensure that all of the important things make it into our 1,250-square-foot apartment. Things like artwork. Beds. Clothes, and things in which to put them. Books. (We have Nooks, but while they’re lovely little marvels of space efficiency, I still must hold an actual published tome now and then or else my brain melts.) A stereo.

That’s the easy stuff.

What’s really fun is finding a home for things you’re not really sure why you have anyway:

– Six pairs of scissors? Did I dream once of starting a fourth career as a hairdresser? Or maybe a scrapbooker?

– Four sets of salt & pepper shakers. Trying not to even use salt anymore, so what the heck?

– T-shirts. Oh lord, the T-shirts. I have this thing for logo’ed T-shirts. Can give ’em up. I have all of my Vandy employee tees. Concert tees featuring singers who either haven’t been alive for years, or are living in a ranch house in an L.A. suburb waiting to reappear on a bad reality show. A bunch of tie-dyed tees from parties, rafting trips, etc., events where going back to the ’60s sounds like much fun. I think they multiply in the closet when I’m at work. I’m going to put in a nanny-cam so I can keep an eye on them. Catching randy T-shirts getting frisky with each other might make a great viral YouTube video.

The biggest difficulty was the kitchen. I love my kitchen stuff, and I had a big kitchen in the last place. Gadgets, tools, trinkets, free shot glasses emblazoned with the name of a middling liquor brand, 47 rolls of paper towels. Little glass parfait cups I’ve never used but simply had to have one Vicodin-hazed day after my last surgery. (I swear, I WILL one day layer them carefully with fruit and whipped cream and lighter-than-air cake to make a delightful, yet healthy, dessert.)

But those who know me well realize I’m a tiny bit OCD-ish. Tiny as in Mt. Everest, the Burj Dubai, the Shapley Super Cluster, the Donghai Bridge. I’m that person who puts up garage pegboard so I can hang my tools and outline them, like tiny little murder victims. So this challenge is actually fun for me in many ways.

So my stacking and collapsing and reorganizing of the apartment kitchen went pretty well. I only had to undo/redo one thing — after seriously underestimating the number of pots and pans I could live with, I ended up having to swap the cookware cabinet with the Tupperware cabinet. Sigh.

There’s actually a lot of storage space in the apartment. Much of it, unfortunately, is approximately 10 feet high. I am not 10 feet high. In fact, I am merely half that high. So the storing of little-used items requires me to get a phone book, put it on top of a stepstool, balance that on top of Chase’s crate, add two pillows, then stand on the pile and leap up, simultaneously hurling the item toward the shelf.

Somehow, in my head, this exercise will result in the item sliding smoothly into place, fully squared away and facing forward in a perfect row. However, what inevitably happens is that the item bounces sideways, flips upside-down, knocks over three cans of Scrubbing Bubbles and then flings itself down onto my nose. This in turn causes me to plunge off of the carefully constructed pillows/crate/stepstool/phone book tower, landing in a small heap of person from which issues all sorts of colorful words. And then the Scrubbing Bubbles all domino right down behind the dryer, which is somehow wedged under the hot water heater, because the Marquis de Sade designed this apartment’s laundry room.

Devoted readers will remember that we bought our last house simply because of the master closet, which was the size of Jupiter’s third moon. We solved the “less space” issue in the apartment by getting rid of a ton of clothes. I really, really was a struggle to give up that silk, green-and-purple-checked, button-front shirt with the cap sleeves that I last wore in 1997, when it was in style and I weighed 30 pounds less. But D made me.

Goodwill in Carrollton is now adding a new wing just to house the stuff we dropped off. We even sacrificed a dozen pool towels, 10 duffel bags, five lamps, eight jars of mismatched screws and bolts, and a pair of scrubs with bleach stains on the front that kinda looked like Jesus if you squinted.

So, all told, we did pretty well in the “simplify” world, and it feels great. Now I know why those Marines say that all the time.

We feel lighter, less weighed down by stuff. We helped a lot of people by giving away our stuff. We go shopping now and don’t want to buy anything. Our footprint on the world is smaller.

There may have been one or two things we just couldn’t part with, but couldn’t find a home for in our Uptown world. Like that green-and-maroon afghan my mom made that no longer matches anything we own. And my grandfather’s old tools. And 37 boxes of “Father Christmas” dishes I’ve hauled all over the nation.

So is it really cheating if we might, perhaps, somehow, accidentally have rented a tiny little storage shed?

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