These Past Years

Self Collage Prototype 1

It’s 2015, and we’re halfway through this decade. My 48th birthday has come and gone. Having been born in January, my years have always lined up with the calendar. I find myself reflecting on my last five years.

My body has begun to show signs of wear and tear. When I turned 43, my body still felt young, but shortly thereafter the long slow decline into decrepitude began. I would still qualify myself as fairly fit, and I’m grateful for my good health. But there’s no denying that I ain’t what I used to be. My thinning hair is proof enough.

It’s been a time of spiritual reawakening for me. I’ve written about this process extensively, yet I feel I’ve barely scratched the surface. It’s also been a time of artistic renewal. I’m finally writing some long-deferred projects, and I’ve actually got three pieces coming out in print this year. I’ve also been exhibiting photography: you can see my work on the wall of Skewer Gallery at Kebab.

My favorite so far is a collage I call “Native/Non-Native.”


The years have started to run together. Ask me about any year from 1985 to 2010 and I could tell you exactly what was going on in my life. Ask me about one of these recent years and I have to think for a moment. My memory’s changing, yes, but also it’s matter of settling into some rhythms and patterns. It’s a good thing, I think, but it confounds calendrical differentiation.

Which is kind of funny, because in fact 2014 was perhaps the most well-defined and documented year of my entire life. I started keeping a journal on the first day of 1984. On the first day of 2014, I realized I’d never been as consistent in my journal-writing as I was that first year. I’ll be damned if I let that 17-year-old punk get the better of me. I vowed to do better in 2014, and I did — 364 journal entries. I missed only one day.

Over the year of 2014 I also reviewed what I’d written on each day in past years. It was a year of intensive introspection and retrospection. I know myself better. Or perhaps I should say “myselves,” as despite my ardent desire for continuity, I can no longer deny it: I’m not the same person I was. These collages represent my multiplicity of selves.

Self Collage Prototype 2

Which do you prefer: the one at the top or the one at the bottom? (The one in the middle has a different raison d’être entirely.) Which is the better self-portrait?

It’s been an amazing journey, this life, and especially these last five years, and if it ended tomorrow I would die happy, but I certainly don’t want to die tomorrow. I’ve got a lot left to do.

Four Years


Dear Persephone,

You are four years old today. So: Happy Birthday! But also: Happy Mardi Gras! The last time Mardi Gras fell on the 21st of February was in 1950, which was not only before you were born but well before I was born. These dates will line up again in eleven years, for your 15th birthday in 2023. It happens again in 2034 and 2045, eleven year intervals. Beyond that I’m not sure; I haven’t found any calendars that calculate beyond 2050. I don’t know what’s up with the eleven year intervals either. Weird stuff.

So, how does one celebrate a birthday on Mardi Gras? We tried to tie in with the number four for obvious reasons. We thought about the four seasons and the four directions but ultimately settled on the four ancient elements. You know the elements pretty well. After all, they’re in the lyrics to one of your favorite songs:

Earth, water, fire and air
We may look bad but we don’t care
We ride the wind, we feel the fire
To love the earth is our one desire

(The astute culture critic will have no trouble identifying the origin of these sublime verses as that eco-goth trio par excellence, namely The Hex Girls, as seen in Scooby Doo and the Witch’s Ghost. Only a pedant would quibble that we’ve changed the word slightly. The actual lyric references “earth, wind, fire and air,” which of course conjures images of a certain funk-soul act from the 70s. But wind and air are pretty much the same thing, and everyone knows water was one of the four ancient elements. What’s up with this blatant anti-waterism?)

So for this Mardi Gras you masqued as Air, you mother was Fire, I was Water and your virtual uncle James was Earth. Of course reality was a little more complicated; we were joined by an additional Water, played by Catherine, not to mention your grandmother (my mother) who didn’t dress as anything particular but was a most welcome addition to the festivities.

As for this last month of your life, you’ve accomplished many firsts. You composed your first poem, drew your first representational drawing, and sent your first e-mail.


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So much more to relate, but I’m exhausted from a full day of traipsing round the city in costume. Perhaps I’ll come back and edit this later. For now good night and lots of love.

Continue reading “Four Years”


Here I am on my 20th birthday, with my mother and sister.

Birthday XX

My hair was thicker then.

That was 25 years ago today.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve contemplated my mortality on an almost daily basis, yet I’ve often behaved as if I think I’m immortal. I’ve frequently envisioned myself as an old man, while clinging to an extended adolescence.

Those aren’t really the contradictions they might seem to be at first. Nor do I think of myself as particularly morbid. In fact it makes perfect sense if you look at it the right way. Youth and age are linked. Life and death are not mutually exclusive. They are necessary correlates. You can’t have one without the other.

An acute sense of my own mortality has stimulated me to live life fully. It has given me the impetus to courage when I needed it.

Yet time marches on, and I’m no longer young. I’m somewhere in the middle of life, or so I hope. I’m happy to have made it this far, and with any luck I’ll have some ways to go before my inevitable demise.

A game I play at each birthday is to double my age and see what that sounds like, to think about what it means to be halfway there. So now I am halfway to 90, and for the first time I have to admit that’s a pretty intimidating number. For the first time, I have to admit I may not make it that far. My great-grandfather Paul Hollmann did, and then some. But you don’t see a lot of 90-year-olds over six feet tall. Maybe us tall types bump our heads too often. And so for the first time (ROX #88 notwithstanding) I have to admit, I may be past the halfway point of my natural lifespan.

On each birthday I have also gotten in to the habit of taking stock of how my body seems to be holding up, and generally congratulating myself on feeling young. When I turned forty, I said to myself that I felt like I could be thirty. I could be twenty. That era has ended. I’d mark the change as beginning around my 43rd birthday but as with any long slow process, it’s hard to be exact. I’ve never been especially robust; I’ve always had my aches and pains. But they have started to accumulate. The challenges faced to my lower left extremity are a case in point.

I’m getting my first hints of what life will look like through the other end of the telescope. When I was younger, I’d suffer sudden visions of my old age, almost overwhelming in their visceral clarity. When I am truly old, if I should live that long, perhaps I will be haunted by my youth, just as in my youth I was haunted by my dotage.

Right now, though, I’m in that gray middle place. Middle aged. Middle class. A little thicker in the middle from accumulating belly fat. That’s a lot of a middle for a guy who claims to value the periphery over the center.

I still get the willies when I contemplate my mortality, but I have to admit it doesn’t thrill me like it used to. Part of that may be parenthood. There is now someone else to worry about and care for, someone for whom I’d lay down my life without hesitation. That’s represents a profound shift, and it’s dulled the edge of the old fear considerably. But I’d also like to think that I’ve grown somewhat more accepting of life’s natural cycle.

Enough of that. I’ve survived another year, and that is of course a cause to celebrate. I was in a bit of a slump for a few years there: My birthday tended to suck, and I didn’t care. But last year my birthday was a blast, and this year I’ve actually got presents. I baked myself a savory cake for dinner tonight and some clove cookies to share with my co-workers. I’ve got to work late, but it’s a meeting of the Saint Katharine Drexel Book Club, so that’s a pleasure.


Martin Luther King, Jr., was not born on the 17th of January — but I was. MLK was born of the 15th. So was Drew Brees. Unlike Drew and I, the celebration of MLK’s birthday floats around. That’s how you can tell he reached a slightly higher level than most mortals. In fact he’s the only American to be honored with a national holiday who wasn’t a president. As for Drew, he won the Superbowl. I’m just happy to be alive. I’m 44 years old today. My birthday only coincides with MLK Day when it falls on a Monday, which I would guess is approximately every seven years. The last time this happened was in 2005.

Just for the record, here’s a photo of me sitting in front of this computer writing these words.

Photo on 2011-01-17 at 10.54 #3

My hair is longer than it’s been in years. (Nine years in fact.)

So far, this birthday is looking quite a bit better than #43. (Hm, #44 better than #43, what could that possibly portend?) I got to sleep in a bit, Xy fixed me a nice breakfast, my daughter sand me “Happy Birthday,” and we’ve got some steaks to grill this afternoon.

But even better than that, I got to see the word “nonviolence” on the front page of this morning’s paper. That’s a very welcome present. It seems that in the wake of recent events in Arizona, Dr. King’s philosophies are being reexamined. I sure hope so.

Yesterday evening, just as we were sitting down to dinner, I was trying to explain the concept of MLK Day to Persephone, and she exclaimed, unprompted, “People was equal!” Give her a break on the grammar, she’s not yet three years old. I was doubly amazed: first, that she had any grasp of the concept; and second, that she’d actually learned something at daycare. That was another good birthday present.

Honoring My Mother


Today’s the birthday of a very special woman in my life. I call her Mom.

Over the years I’ve come to realize that I owe Mom for whatever sense I may have for the importance of ethics, morality and social justice. I don’t know if it was learned or simply inherited, but I’m pretty sure it comes from her — and I’m pretty sure Dad would agree and not be insulted by that assessment.

The same goes for spirituality and religion; though we’ve had some divergent views, I take such matters to heart, and I credit Mom for that.

However, it’s only recently that I realized another maternal legacy which is perhaps even more central in terms of who I am and my sense of self-identity.

It was at a recent social hour sponsored by my office here at the University. I was showing off a calendar Mom had made to a co-worker from the library. She was quite impressed and exclaimed, “So now we know where you get your creativity!”

And it dawned on me that she was absolutely correct. I’ve always felt a strong urge to create, to make things, to express myself, to communicate. It’s one of the driving forces of my life, even though it is often frustrated or sublimated or corrupted or diverted in various ways. Now that I’ve been given pause to reflect on it, I recognize the same impetus at work in Mom’s life. She takes photos and makes calendars and greeting cards and a host of other projects large and small.

So there you have it. Almost everything I am I owe to my mother.

Happy birthday, Mom!


B @ 43

It’s shaping up as something of a tradition in its own right. My birthday has an overt tendency to suck. A quick recap may be in order.

  • 42: “Guess who forgot? That’s right. Xy.”
  • 41: “I’ve got no festivity in my life whatsoever. Xy didn’t even say ‘Happy Birthday’ this morning, and she has report card conferences this evening! No one at the office knows it’s my birthday, because I’ve kept it under wraps.”
  • 40: “Please be gentle with me. I’m making 40 today. I’d rather be thinking about other things, but life doesn’t seem to be working out that way, and this is what I’m stuck with. Like it or not.”

That 40th birthday was really the worst. Not only was I reeling from the brutal murder of a friend, I was also feeling pressure to be some sort of spokesman on the subject of violent crime, a role for which I found myself remarkably unsuited. Still I recall Xy managed to spend an evening sucking down oysters and booze in the Quarter. There was still a flicker of festive spirit there, however dark the backdrop. In terms of actual celebration it’s been strictly downhill since.

Prior to that I’m not sure, but I’d pretty much lost interest in my birthday after making 30.

Come to think of it, my 30th birthday pretty much sucked ass too, though I tried to put a good face on it: “Everyone was laughing and smoking and drinking and having a good time. Except for me. Well, I laughed and had a good time, but I didn’t drink or smoke. I never thought I’d be stone cold sober on my 30th birthday! Life is strange.”

Now back to the present. Our girl woke up around 4:00 AM and landed in our bed for a little nursing session, after which Xy fled to the couch downstairs. P let me sleep in until 9:00 AM. She woke up happy, I asked her whose birthday it was, and she said “Dada!” The day seemed to be getting off to an auspicious start.

Then Xy came up and informed me that she’d been barfing since 5:00 AM. And that pretty much set the tone for the rest of the day. It was very much a repeat of yesterday. Xy was sick yesterday with a migraine. This morning’s sickness may have been food poisoning. So I played “single dad” while Xy rested (when not puking) and tried to feel better.

Oh, yes, there are worse things — I know. I had fun taking the girl to the park in the morning. She was beside herself with joy at the prospect of sliding down the slide.


For lunch we went to Huevos, which is spitting distance from our new house. I got to meet the chef who has the same first name as me. I presume we don’t share the same birthday. But I didn’t check.

Xy’s feeling better now. We’re chugging on with our lives. Her birthday sucked too, for what it’s worth.

A number of people have suggested that Xy’s sicknesses, coming in the morning as they have, could be an indication of pregnancy. I have to respond: Not unless you know something I don’t. I know how babies get made and I can assure you I haven’t impregnated anyone lately.

Catching Up to the Present

Sacred Fart Activity Center

I’m still trying to catch up to the present.

We celebrated Xy’s birthday last Tuesday. Since she was feeling sick and I was run ragged it was a pretty lame birthday, but of course she’s used to such disappointments, as are all children of late December. I tried to recontextualize the Escape as Xy’s birthday present, one day late. We just ignored the part about her totaling the previous vehicle.

The Orleans Avenue bonfire was tamed last year and completely extinguished this year, crushed under bureaucracy and public safety concerns. I think that’s a shame, but it didn’t really affect us, because our daughter’s too young to go anyway. So we did like last year, stayed home and did our own bonfire ritual. We lit an ultra-mini-bonfire — a candle actually — which we placed on the neutral ground in front of our home at midnight. Xy and I each ran around it three times. Since the girl was asleep in her crib at this point, we represented her symbolically with her pink steel-tipped cowgirl boots. Xy took one and I took the other and we made three more circles round the flame. So many neighbors were shooting off fireworks that P was soon awake again, and she joined us for a bowl of Hoppin’ John.

Santa Flag

The weekend was spent in preparing Xy’s classroom at her new school. New school? What, did she change jobs? No, actually it’s a top-to-bottom renovation and expansion of the old school on its pre-Katrina site; they were in a temporary location and just moved back to the old/new school over the holiday break. It’s a very nice renovation job indeed, with a great blending of historical details and modern amenities.

Of course, there are some challenges. For one thing, Xy was assigned a consultant to scrutinize her teaching, which nearly drove her to a nervous breakdown, and this guy was observing her in the classroom right up to the last day of school in December. That meant that while all the other teachers were packing, Xy couldn’t, and so moving was quite the headache. Then a bunch of well-meaning volunteers who helped move her stuff “unpacked” all her science kits, creating complete chaos in her new classroom. She’s got a generous amount of storage space in a large closet with lots of shelves, but someone closed the door to the closet and it automatically locked and for a good long while no one could get it open. She had a ton of stuff taking up valuable space in the classroom which needed to go in the closet, as well as a good number of items already in the closet which she needed to get out. But we couldn’t do a damn thing because the door was locked. Neither of the “master keys” held by the principal and the foreman would work. Finally, late Saturday evening, some guy in a Mickey Mouse t-shirt came by and got it open, much to our relief. I immediately taped the latch open so she wouldn’t get locked out again. Little things like that can wreck one’s mental health. Inside the closet we discovered Xy’s missing potted plants, squirreled away by another well-meaning volunteer. They were still alive, luckily. Who puts plants in a closet?

Another gotcha: The new classrooms have these really cool stucco-type walls. Tape won’t adhere to them. Pins won’t stick. Neither will staples. Xy tested a hot glue gun on a discrete patch and discovered the glue pulls off chunks of wall. We ended up using sticky-tack. The next day an edict came down from the principal not to use that either. Too late for Xy’s classroom, but I’m not sure what the other teachers are going to do. Most teachers have an overwhelming compulsion to put stuff on their walls, and the idea of a school with pristine walls that can’t be junked up with thousands of educational posters and student projects is bizarre to me.

All the rooms are equipped with SMART boards, and luckily those seem to be working. Xy got addicted to using such technology in the classroom over the last few years, and getting through the first half of this school year without was difficult.

They are bringing the students back to the new/old school in stages. Today is Xy’s first day with students (seventh graders) while the younger kids will be coming back later in the week.

What else? We gave the girl her first haircut, and her cuteness now surpasses all expectation. She took her first pee in the potty last night and was so excited she reached in with her hand to stir it around.

So I guess that brings us up to the present day. Carnival starts tonight. Mardi Gras is in six short weeks. I sure hope it’s warmer then than it is now. It’s actually colder at this particular moment in New Orleans than it is out in Manzanita, Oregon. And it’s forecast to get colder still for the rest of the week. As I said yesterday morning, “This arctic wind really puts the sub back in subtropical.”

Too Young to Compute

Oh, I guess there is one other thing. My phone’s camera was on the fritz for a while, displaying only a weird solarized version of reality and unable to actually take photos. Following a tip from an online forum, I removed the cover and pushed on the lens a little. Somehow it seemed to make a difference, and thus I was able to retrieve these fabulous photos which don’t really have any connection to what I’ve written here.


Dad with Cognac

Holy frijoles, my dad is 75 years old today. What kind of gift could I possibly give the man who gave me half his genes? It will come as no surprise that I decided to make him a mix.

This is a bunch of music that was either recorded in 1934, composed or published in that year, or has some sort of connection. For example, there’s the classic “Stars Fell on Alabama” as performed here by the inimitable Sun Ra. The song was written in 1934 by Frank Perkins and Mitchell Parish; Sun Ra’s version came out in 1989, I think, but his musical career began in 1934, so it all fits together.

It may seem silly to focus on the year of birth, since the person in question doesn’t tend to remember too many details of that time. For my part, I was born in 1967. Do I feel any deep resonance with the events of that year, the spirit of that time? Well… Actually, to tell the truth, heck yeah, I sure do. That was the Summer of Love, and even though I was technically born in the winter, still I’ve always considered myself an honorary member of the Age of Aquarius. (In fact I was born on the cusp of Aquarius, but I digress.) Numerous authenticated hippie-boomers have verified this for me.

So I think it’s entirely possible that understanding of ’34 might give me a little insight into the mysterious man who is my father. Let’s see… the rise of the Nazi Party… the Night of the Long Knives… John Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Bonnie and Clyde had their famous cross-country rampages and were all killed that year.

OK, so maybe I’m not learning much about Dad here after all.

But it was also the year that brought us Flash Gordon, the Apollo Theater, the Three Stooges, Lil’ Abner, the Soap Box Derby, and — of course — my father. That’s pretty impressive.

Happy birthday, Dad. Glad you’re in good health, and I hope you enjoy the mix. Oh, and that very last track? You may be wondering about the connection, but actually it’s the most germane of all. It features Rico Rodriguez on trumpet, and it’s his 75th birthday today as well. Hooray!

That Was Fun

Parties are strange affairs. People gathering together for no other purpose than to celebrate life and enjoy each other’s company. What an ephemeral proposition! And also how wonderful. It’s almost enough to make one suspect that gross material possessions are not the most important things in life. Hmm.

We had a great party here yesterday. I expected between 50 and 100 people, and I think we we were somewhere in that zone, with people coming and going all day. We killed the keg (a small but delicious keg of Flying Dog “In Heat Wheat”) which made me happy. We ate all the jambalaya, both veggie and meaty, and I made a lot. We enjoyed a fun set of acoustic bluesy songs from Herbie Jo Johnson aka Herb Reith. Despite our protestations to the contrary, Persephone did receive a couple of amazing, unique, original gifts, which I’m sure she will come to treasure. More about those later. Plenty of people brought food and drink, all of which were gratefully consumed. We had not one but two doberge cakes. Why two cakes? Because there were actually two birthday girls. It turns out Piggy, the girl who stays across the street sometimes, was born on the exact same day as Persephone.

Persephone’s grandparents got their first taste of Carnival madness with the biggest krewe of all, the gaudy proposition known as Endymion. There was much curiosity as to when exactly the parade would reach us. For future reference I will relay what Carmen so diligently reported to me: Grand Marshal Kid Rock crossed Salcedo Street at precisely 5:55 PM. Next year we’ll have a pool. I asked Mom what she thought of the parade, and her reply was amusingly frank: “There were a lot of delays.” Which I gather was true, though I only left the house once to gaze at the stupefying spectacle, when Xy was exhausted, and I held Persephone up to admire the passage of I think one float before she fell asleep in my arms. Dad came back to the house a couple times to refresh himself, but I believe Mom took in the entire parade without a break. And that is one long-ass parade.

Probably the funniest thing, to me, was when Gerry came in the front door, quite late in the game, and started hollering at me down the hall. I haven’t seen Gerry in years and I didn’t recognize him at first. He yelled something about “penis reconstruction dot com!” which was an arcane reference to a court case I helped him with years ago, but I didn’t key in on it. All I could think was, “Oh sweet Jesus, some lunatic has wandered in off the street and he’s going whip out a razor and castrate us all.” But it wasn’t a lunatic, it was Gerry and his wife Carmen (not to be confused with the other Carmen mentioned above) who were our very first neighbors, in the Warehouse District, when we moved to New Orleans ten years ago. So cool to see them again. And it turns out their daughter Raquel is born on the same day as Persephone. She was just celebrating her sweet sixteen. And to think she was seven when I first met her.

I was too busy playing host to take very many pictures. But other cameras were more active. For example, here’s a photo from the fearsome lens of Howie Luvzus:

Ray & Seph

And this photo (also by Howie) really captures the spirit of the big parade:

Endymion 2009

Well done, Howie.

If you were here and took pictures, I encourage you to share them by any means convenient, Flickr, Facebook, e-mail. We’d love to see them.

Also: Nobody puked. It was a good party.

Xy = XL

Forty tracks to rock her fortieth birthday (which is today):

(Starts off mellow and ramps up. Contains plenty of my favorite songs by Xy’s favorite bands, and cover versions of her favorite songs, as well as a few topical selections. And buried deep in there is a bit of standup by Patton Oswalt that is not safe to blare out your speakers at work unless your co-workers are very tolerant.)

You might wanna watch this slideshow (full screen, natch) while you’re rocking out.

Please enable Javascript and Flash to view this Flash video.

Happy Birthday Mom

Today’s my mom’s 70th birthday. I usually call her on the telephone but I can’t because right now she’s in Cambodia, part of a short-term mission team with the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. I’m somewhat envious, but hopeful that when I’m 70 I will have the means and health to visit faraway places. Many happy returns, Mom.

On Being XL

I wanted to record my thoughts on being 40 years of age, but I frittered away the year. Now I’ve only got a few hours left.

There’s not much to say, except that physically I feel pretty much the same as I did at 30. The long slow inevitable decline may have already begun, but I’m not feeling it yet.

Except for my eyes. In the last couple months I’m having a little trouble focusing on objects that are extremely near — like a couple inches from my eyes. I assume this may be the earliest signs of creeping presbyopia.


Today is Xy’s birthday. She wanted a Kurt Cobain lunch box (I am not making this up) so I went to FunRock’N on Magazine where said item had been spotted. After a comedy of errors (including being turned away from the store in error) I ascertained that they did not have the lunch box anymore. They even called their other shop on Decatur, but no luck. Not wanting to return empty-handed, I purchased instead a Kurt Cobain action figure. The look of disappointment on her face made it worth all the hassle.

Tonight: Dinner at Feelings.

A Birthday Party

A friend of mine celebrated her first birthday today. (Yes, I’m also friends with her mother, but after watching the girl bury her face in cake I feel a special bond.) What was really amazing to me was how many people showed up for the event with kids the same age in tow. There must have been six or seven infants and toddlers there, and three pregnant women as well. That was heartening, because I realize that if we are to be new parents in post-Katrina New Orleans we’re going to need all the help and support we can get. Just knowing we are not alone is helpful.

Too Bad on Your Birthday

Today is DJ’s birthday.

DJ Blows

But today is also the first day of school for most of the Recovery School District. And DJ is a teacher in one of those schools. So, as you can imagine, he’s not partying today. He’s working hard for little pay and little respect, doing a job that everyone agrees is incredibly important.

So happy birthday, DJ. You’re a hero.

Salcedo Street Party

The neighbors across the street had a birthday party for their three-year old daughter yesterday. It brought a touch of color and festivity to our neighborhood which remains about 75% uninhabited.


We gave the little girl a fiver. Later in the day they sent over some plates full of good home-cooked food: pork chops, jambalaya, pasta and stuffed peppers. Yum.

Paul’s Birthday

Today (Thursday) is Paul Gailiunas’s birthday. Even though he’s far from New Orleans he is not far from our thoughts. Some friends will be gathering at the Mother-in-Law Lounge tonight to visit and put together a package to send to Paul. Come by at 7 p.m. if you’d like to join us.

PS: I was shocked to see Paul & Helen in a recent tabloid story about Brad Pitt & Angelina Jolie.

Like It or Not

Like it or not — and I don’t like it, not one bit — I seem to have become some kind of spokesperson on the subject of violent crime. I didn’t ask for this, I don’t relish it, and I’m not prepared for it. Indeed the very prospect makes my stomach churn. Violent crime is an ugly subject to consider. Yet I just fielded two calls from two different media outlets setting up interviews tomorrow. I need to get my head around this.

Some people might expect me to just keep reiterating the same speech that I gave at City Hall, but I don’t think that works. The point of that event was to express a general sense of outrage and despair to our political class, but media interviews offer a different opportunity.

What are the key points to emphasize? What can I say to keep the positive spirit of last week’s march on City Hall alive, while addressing any negative perceptions or anxieties?

I feel in my gut that the key is to be expansive as possible. We must transform our society in a positive fashion. But another part of me says it’s good to have a very specific, focused point to make. How to balance this contradiction? I don’t know.

Off the cuff, I’d be inclined to emphasize the following:

We do not need an expansion of police powers, but effective community policing. The level of distrust between the community and the police is incredibly high. Most people I’ve spoken to, regardless of race or class, have had extremely negative experiences with NOPD. The checkpoints instituted last week are not helping. A friend of mine was issued a bogus citation at a checkpoint because he got mad and yelled at the officer. That, of course, is just the tip of the iceberg.

Better relations between community and police can only come when police are accountable to the community. Police are supposed to serve the community, after all. Put the community in charge. We need creative solutions — citizen oversight boards, perhaps.

Law enforcement is clearly a short-term measure. Some folks have said to me that there are simply no short-term measures that are acceptable. I was taken aback by this at first, but they do have a point: Our traditional system of arrest and incarceration simply reproduces the pathology of crime.

That’s why we need to think outside of traditional law enforcement measures and explore creative alternatives such as decriminalization of drugs. Pre-Katrina, 65% of New Orleans arrests were for drug offenses, while the national rate was 31%. Furthermore, two out of three convictions in our Criminal District Court were for simple drug possession. (I wonder if post-Katrina stats are available.)

But it’s a mistake to focus on law enforcement to the exclusion of everything else. We have to look beyond that in two directions.

On the one hand, the criminal justice system is broken. It’s worth noting that we have one of the highest incarceration rates in the whole world, but killers go free while we lock people up for non-violent misdemeanors. Something like two-thirds of prisoners are non-violent drug users who need treatment. They don’t get better in jail. Worse yet, the prison experience transforms petty criminals into hardened criminals. I don’t like the notion of locking people up, but I don’t like the notion of people killing with impunity either. I’m having a hard time with this contradiction.

On the other hand, we have to seek long-term solutions that address root causes of violence and crime: poverty, ignorance, hopelessness, lack of opportunity, lack of respect for human life, vast social inequities. In the wake of Katrina there was a lot of media hoopla about a dialog on race and class in America. It never happened, and it never will happen unless we make it happen. Furthermore, that dialog has to be truly inclusive across racial and class lines, or it’s worthless. If we want to talk about violent crime, we must acknowledge that violence afflicts certain communities disproportionately. We need to respect and listen to those who are suffering the most, and then we need to act upon that intelligence.

To stabilize our community we must re-establish basic public services. We should reopen Charity Hospital, reopen public housing, and provide quality education and job training for all. Each of these is a huge topic in its own right, multi-faceted and complex. But only through such long term measures will we ever achieve a more just and humane society.

A Man Prepares to Gut Home

Furthermore, it would be nice if I got a chance to clarify that I’m not a “leader” of a “movement.” The march on City Hall last week was a outpouring of mass outrage and sorrow. There was no coherent agenda, no set of demands agreed upon by all in advance. In fact, there was a diversity of ideas and agendas, with some in direct contradiction of others. Someone mentioned to me Monday that to stage such a protest without a coherent agenda was irresponsible. Well, perhaps so. Perhaps we have been made reckless by our grief. But then again, too many of us have been too complacent for too long. We need to find a balance and build a consensus as a community.

I don’t know. As you can see what I’m presenting here is raw and unformed. I could use some help. Your ideas are welcome. But please be gentle with me. I’m making 40 today. I’d rather be thinking about other things, but life doesn’t seem to be working out that way, and this is what I’m stuck with. Like it or not.

Update: I was on the radio this morning and Schroeder’s got the write-up.

Update: Will march help? in New Orleans CityBusiness.

Update: “Crime and Punishment: Rescue 504” appears is the January 27th cover story for Data News Weekly.