Tuesday, September 27, 2005

In the club

This one.

Not one I wanted to join. Not ever. I am so very, very sad, and afraid.

Monday, September 26, 2005

Bleak House

I've just returned from a few days away at a conference, and the house is dark, silent, and empty. My husband and daughter have been staying with family while I have been away and I got in too late for them to come back tonight.

There are new and ever more frightening complications on the horizon; severe liver problems that are scary enough in themselves, but even worse since they appear to rule out any more chemotherapy, and our available alternatives are fewer and fewer. I have the awful feeling that the doctors are just waiting for the next opportunity to tell us there's "nothing more they can do"--and I suddenly realize how much of my strength in this ordeal is denial, pure and simple. Most days, I can forget there's this likely impending tragedy, and that life has dealt us this awful, awful blow. I'm afraid I'm not going to have that luxury--of forgetting for a few hours that things are this bad--for much longer. I want to hope, but can't find many numbers or plans to hang that hope upon.

For now, more tests, more drugs, and more pain.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

Tempus Fugit

It turns to fall here in a week, often less; the days lose that lazy drawn-out feeling of summer, evening comes sooner, bringing clouds and fog. The shadows lengthen in the backyard much sooner now than they did. The air is clear and the sky is radiantly blue, but tinged with that deeper shade that promises the cold will come.

Today we had a picnic in the park. We sat on a bench in the weakened glare of the late September sun, watching the ducks and the squirrels in their fall preparations. My daughter and I chased her soccer ball around. Her version of "soccer" is to hurl herself full length on the ball and shield it with her body: "She's a goalie," my husband says. She laughs incessantly as she chases the ball, and as I chase her around on the brilliantly green grass. We eat sandwiches and potato chips. A forward squirrel comes right up to us, begging for provisions to stock her winter larder. She's a mother too, so I share our granola with her (it has dried raisins and cranberry with a sugared glaze). The duck pond has a small "island," so my daughter and I cross tiny bridges and disturb the tranquil ducks. Then we "sneak up" on Papa, who pretends he hasn't heard our daughter, shrieking with joy as we approach him.

Afterwards, my daughter and I bathe together, in the tub that barely holds us both, and she insists on having all of her legions of bath toys. We scrub and rinse each other's backs amidst the clutter of garish plastic fish, turtles, toy boats while Papa takes a nap.

Fall's portents seem especially poignant now. The shortening days and lengthening nights suggest a cold much deeper than winter. Lymph node involvement. A liver lesion now seven centimeters. Constant back pain. The MRI is inconclusive for new treatment, at least for now. We put our faith in the next round of chemotherapy, but winter looms very near.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

What Outsourcing Means to Me

(Alternate title: My husband is a very funny man)

(PHONE rings)

MR. DORCASINA: Hello? (coughs) Hello?

VOX: (Faintly, as though from the other side of the world) Allo?
Allo? Is this Mr. Dorcasina?

MR. D: Yeah. This is Mr. Dorcasina.

VOX: (Now clearly with an Indian accent) Oh, that's great. I'll
tell you, Mr. D, my name is Robbie Johnson, and I'd calling from
Bank of [unintelligible].

MR. D: Okaaaay.

VOX: Hey, that's great. So what it is I would like to ask about
is your new mortgage at three nine zero five...

MR. D: Look, I gotta tell you...

VOX: That's a fixed rate loan, right?

Out of the mouths of babes...

I guess we're really back in school (it's the third week--I think!). I passed two attractive female students yesterday just as one said to the other, "You know, being hung over on a Wednesday morning is not a good thing."


Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Laughed til I cried

Or was it the other way around?

The floor plans for Trent Lott's rebuilt dream house.

Monday, September 12, 2005

Dorcasina's adventures in Wonderland

Because Dr. B recommended it, I've been reading Sheryll Cashin's excellent The Failures of Integration: How Race and Class are Undermining the American Dream. Cashin's basic premise is interesting because not only does she explore the psychological, economic, and social factors behind our continued segregation, she attributes it largely to our "winner take all" society and the grotesquely competitive attitude it fosters toward conspicuous consumption. She's very persuasive in pointing out that our increasing comfort with tremendous disparities of wealth between classes (often but not always contiguous with race or ethnicity) may very well spell the death of any kind of meaningful democracy. I haven't yet come across anything shockingly new or unfamiliar in her arguments, and she relies a bit too heavily on a few studies and anecdotal evidence, but her book has the tremendous benefit of being lucid, quick-moving, and free of the kind of finger-pointing that might make white folks too eager to dismiss her. She's also candid and nuanced about her own position as an African American woman, and about the social and political conditions in which most of us are, however sadly, far more comfortable among our own race (a reality even more true for white people, who tend to become uncomfortable when they are not in the significant majority at any gathering).

I've just finished her section on the few genuinely "multicultural" or diverse areas we have in the U.S., and serendipitously, I paid a visit to just such an area this weekend. In some ways, had I not just been reading her book, I would have dismissed this area out of hand. It sits on the fringes of my beloved Cosmopolitan Metropolis, where the last outposts of the "city" dissipate into what was obviously unincorporated county land (my husband called it "the place where building codes come to die") and then encounter the sprawling suburban city next door. Aesthetically, the area (it's too large to be a neighborhood, but encompasses parts of several actual "towns") is wildly uneven: ramshackle cottages peer from behind years' worth of overgrown shrubbery, many of the roads and alleys are unpaved, and few of the older homes have seen a coat of paint in the past decade. These homes are too far from the center of CM to figure in its cultural imagination, and the only way to CM's large shopping districts is up the single arterial and through the ghetto.

Just past this neighborhood that time forgot lie ostentatious new housing developments with pretentiously meaningless names like "The Hillsides at La Riviera" and "Toscana Tristesse," interspersed with miles and miles of shopping centers, mini-malls, and auto showrooms, each surrounded by acres of concrete parking lot and capped by a garish logo. The 8-lane roadways here accommodate an ungainly mix of urban and suburban types: young black men in gigantic, lowered American cars; Asian guys in hopped up little imports; ancient black women in their Sunday best, painstakingly maneuvering their magnificent and unmarred Buicks; and fat suburban "mommies" in sweat suits and frosted hair piloting massive SUVs.

Sounds like hell, right? But as I stood in the bankline, with 15-20 other people, I realized that this area embodies many of the functioning elements of genuine diversity. It is home to a long-time population of middle and working class black families, prevented by custom, economics, or prejudice from buying into the more desireable neighborhoods closer to the city center. It has a sizeable population of eccentric "rural" white folk who prefer to live free of the most insidious regulations city living brings. Its affordability and population density have made it a welcoming spot for various Asian and African immigrants, who in turn provide most of the alternatives to the corporate outposts. Finally, as city prices have edged up, and up, and up, it's become a haven for young white professional families, as well as for the blue collar families of all backgrounds who are employed at the nearby heavy industry. A single income can still buy a house here; a professional salary or two incomes provides entry into the area's "gated" subdivisions and its thriving, if not outstanding, schools.

And these folks are not merely tolerating each other. They may not all be friends yet, but there was more cordiality and warmth in that small group--no crowding, no complaining--than in the "nice" white neighborhood we used to live in. The bank tellers themselves were a microcosm of the line: an older white woman, a young Asian man, and a slim and stylish African woman. The center may not hold. The increased demand for those subdivision dream homes may well spell displacement for the original residents--black and white--who can no longer afford to hold out against gentrification. Or the black population might feel the friction of being pressed up against the new Asian influx, against whom they are so often disfavorably compared. As Cahill points out, the challenge with a truly diverse neighborhood is to hold onto it; in so many cases, the diversity is a mere moment in a larger transition from one demographic to another, and not a stable characteristic. But on this one morning, I got a tiny glimpse of what it would mean to have communities defined by something other than economic, racial, and cultural homogeneity. I hope I can go back, soon.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Extra credit

With great thanks to /e, who brought this link to my attention in the previous comments. Frankly, I should make this one required reading, as well.

I would call this piece Why we are all "poor"; or what the hell is wrong with us?, but I didn't write it. From Dissent Magazine.

Required reading

And yes, this will be on the final exam. If you managed to resist Dr. B's exhortations on behalf of this post, it is now officially required reading. I don't know to what extent we can blame Bush's "personality" for his pretty obvious unconcern as the post-Katrina disaster developed with agonizing inexorability, but it's hard to believe that a genuinely decent and deeply caring human being, of whatever ideology, could fail to betray that compassion as completely as GW has done throughout his presidency. There's a plasticity to the Bush family: Laura Bush looks more like a Tussaud figure than a breathing human being, and the daughters, too, give off the "replicant" vibe (think, Blade Runner's Sean Young) rather than the natural inconsistencies of young women.

I was briefly pleased to note that Bush has become grayer, his simian features more furrowed, during his presidency. I had hopes it might mean that the moral and ethical weight of his decisions had in fact sunk in. I'm afraid not. Miss Alli suggests in your required reading that Bush is perhaps motivated by a cynical political disdain for black, traditionally democratic New Orleans. I'm afraid it's not even that calculated. I believe that for this president, as for several of my own extended family members, those folks who are suffering are simply outside of his definition of humanity. For him, as for too many Americans, the "human race" has shrunk to encompass only those who can afford the trappings of middle-class life. It's a direct outgrowth of the insane faith Americans place in our supposedly merit-based society. By redefining the poor, too many of whom are, in fact, people of color and the descendants of prior generations of the poor, as moral failures, the prevalent public discourse has removed them from contemporary definitions of "Americans." By refusing to see the institutional and systemic causes of generational underprivilege, and waiting instead for some kind of epiphany of the middle-class work ethic among those for whom "the system" has never worked, today's neo-conservatives have managed pretty effectively to erase compassion (except when directed at embryos or those poor, over-taxed super-rich) from the public discourse. In further refining the historical American belief that success is genuinely available to all, the pro-Bush factions have managed to persuade (and not had to work very hard to do so) many middle-class Americans that most of those who suffer--in the floodwaters, in the ghettoes, without healthcare, living in cars, skipping meals and medication--do so through their own economic failings. They have further reasserted the moral implacability of one's economic condition: to be poor is to be immoral, and the "greater good" has become the "good of the greater."

Friday, September 9, 2005

Worth thinking about

From The New Republic On-line. Registration is free, but I include the text here. I'm about to go teach, so can't comment right now, but I am looking to thinking more about why we live where we live, and how our nation has come to this sorry state:

Poverty Line
by Noam Scheiber
Post date: 09.09.05
Issue date: 09.19.05

It took a few days after New Orleans flooded for the press to
breach the mental levee blocking comments on the victims' race
and class. But, once that levee finally broke, it washed away
pretty quickly. In a furious rant on Thursday, CNN's Jack
Cafferty lashed out at journalists' unwillingness to take on the
"elephant in the room" and complained that "almost every person
we've seen, from the families stranded on their rooftops ... to
the people holed up in the Superdome, are black and poor."
Thereafter, the major networks got in on the action, and, by
Sunday, a Fox roundtable was debating Condoleezza Rice's
concession that "we do, I think, at some point, need to see that
people couldn't evacuate who were poor ... [and] understand
better how to make sure that that doesn't happen again."

The good news is that we're about to have a long overdue debate
about poverty in this country. The bad news is that most of the
commentary so far has focused only on poverty as an economic
condition. Cafferty observed that "many of [Hurricane Katrina's
poor victims] didn't follow the evacuation orders because they
didn't have the means to get out of town." Former Senator John
Edwards stressed the low rates of car ownership among New
Orleans's poor and their need to protect possessions they
couldn't afford to replace. That view was echoed among
politicians further to his left. "There's a whole segment of
society that's being left behind," wrote Representative John
Lewis in Newsweek. "When you tell people to evacuate, these
people didn't have any way to leave."

Implicit in these arguments is the idea that poor people are
pretty much like everyone else, just with less money. From this,
it follows that the remedy is primarily financial. Consider
Lewis's proposed solution not just for New Orleans but for the
problem of urban poverty in general: "[I]n rebuilding, we should
see this as an opportunity to rebuild urban America. ... There
must be a commitment of billions and billions of dollars."

But, if anything, the flooding of New Orleans teaches the
opposite lesson--that the problem of poverty isn't just
economic, it's also sociological. On Monday, The New York Times'
Jodi Wilgoren bylined what may be the most important piece of
Katrina coverage to date. Wilgoren followed two families
struggling to evacuate New Orleans in the flood's aftermath: one
white and middle class (though hardly affluent, as Wilgoren
notes), the other black and poor. The outcome of the story will
surprise no one. The first family quickly found comfortable
accommodations in a northern Louisiana hotel, then a
semi-permanent home in a nearby town. As of Saturday, the second
family was still shuffling from one endless line to
another--hungry, unshowered, unsure of its next move.

What's fascinating are the ways in which the two families
navigated, or failed to navigate, the crisis. The matriarch of
the middle-class family, a local court clerk, tapped a cousin to
secure a low corporate rate at the Lafayette Hilton. She paid
for it with her American Express card. The woman then worked
connections in local government and churches to land a scarce
rental property. She even won a dispensation from local
authorities to sneak back into her abandoned house in a
quarantined area so she could rescue some televisions and

Needless to say, the poorer family had no such advantages. The
husband had never been out of New Orleans before; the wife had
never flown on a plane. Neither appeared to have contacts
capable of assimilating them into another community; in any
case, the concept of doing so seemed altogether unimaginable to
them. And, while the family had $2,000 in savings, they didn't
have a bank account. Their money burned up along with their
apartment in a fire that followed the flood.

Clearly, a lack of money is far from the only handicap
afflicting the poor. They lack the basic life skills, social
networks, and general sense of agency that even the slightly
more affluent--working-class people--take for granted. The poor
black family in Wilgoren's piece certainly could have benefited
from a car or a few hundred dollars in aid. But much more
valuable would have been instructions beforehand on how to open
a bank account. Everyone else learns these sorts of things by
following the example of relatives, friends, and neighbors. The
problem with acute concentrations of poverty is that they afford
few such examples.

Sociologists, of course, are keenly aware that poor people need
to be integrated into society as much as they need financial
help. But, sadly, there isn't much of a political constituency
for this idea. Liberals like Lewis tend to focus either on
redressing racial grievances or on the immediate needs of their
constituents: food, health care, a subsistence wage. And, with
the needs so great, it's hard to blame them. Conservatives do
frequently invoke sociology in their analysis of poverty. But,
too often, they do it either as an excuse for not spending
money, or out of a preoccupation with personal morality. Yet,
while out-of-wedlock births, for example, are clearly a problem
in New Orleans, they don't entirely explain why so few poor,
black New Orleanians were incapable of protecting themselves
from the flood. (The black couple in Wilgoren's piece was
married, after all.)

It turns out that poverty, like disaster relief, is one of those
problems that demands pragmatism and technical competence rather
than ideology. In the 1990s, technocrats in the Clinton
administration ramped up initiatives like Hope VI and Section 8
housing vouchers--two highly effective programs for integrating
the poor into mixed-income neighborhoods. Technocrats outside
the administration have led the way since then. In Washington,
for example, two former management consultants recently founded
a publicly funded boarding school called SEED, which imparts
life skills and career expectations every bit as much as it
tends to the economic privation of its poor, urban students.
SEED graduates attend college at remarkably high rates. Both
programs reflect the spirit of nonideological problem-solving
that has been out of fashion amid the hyper-partisanship of the
Bush era. Now that Katrina has revived our interest in poverty,
it'd be a shame if she didn't revive that spirit, too.

Noam Scheiber is a senior editor at TNR.

Sunday, September 4, 2005

thousands of tragedies

According to PETA, animal welfare groups are not being allowed into the disaster area to rescue abandoned and injured pets. And those already traumatized are being forced to leave beloved pets behind. Many of those evacuated are young and frightened, or elderly and ill, and many stayed behind to care for their animal friends--only to be forced to choose between their own survival and leaving their non-human friends to starve. Please use PETA's handy form to find your senators and representatives, and urge them to put pressure on FEMA to allow these animal rescuers to save at least a few of these four-legged victims. It's one small kindness in the face of insurmountable tragedy and despair.

I'm even going to paste in my maudlin message below, so if you like, copy and paste it into the web form that pops up through PETA's useful "find your representatives" link:

Dear Senator/Representative:

Please help to evacuate the animal victims of Katrina! Many elderly and destitute people have lost everything but their beloved animal friends. Others stayed in the wreckage for days rather than leave their pets to an awful death by starvation. Now I hear that people are being forced to abandon these same pets in order to be evacuated themselves. This is unconscionable, for the pets and their devastated human owners.

Please support efforts to allow animal relief agencies into New Orleans and other affected areas immediately, before this tragedy escalates further. This is still the United States--if any nation can demonstrate compassion for human and animal victims, it must be us.

Your constituent



Today, I am giving in to despair. Every channel is alternating "retrospectives" of Rehnquist's glorious career with more coverage of the "heroes" who finally have the chance, nearly a week later to try to pull the living from amongst the dead in New Orleans. Don't get me wrong--I have nothing but respect and admiration for the rescue teams, the national guard members, the city servicepeople, and the emergency workers on the front line. What appalls me is how little they have been allowed to do before now. Tucked way back in the end of the front section of our local papers are little news stories like the one about the navy ship with 1200 sailors, hospital beds, and the capacity to make that sat, for days, off the coast "waiting to be asked for help" while the young, the old, the sick, and the overwhelmed died in the heat and the filth of New Orleans's streets. Also buried: the righteous indignation of New Orleans's mayor, who pulls no punches in his anguish over the decimation of his city, its residents, and the rescue workers who have begun succumbing to suicide in their despair at our collective failures.

Rescue workers speak of plucking the few living from among the numberless dead, of knowing that for so many they came just a day or two too late. One man told of being dropped into a hospice where half of the residents had already died, and those who lived on lay among the bodies. Weeping mothers tell of their missing children, friends speak of those who died right before their eyes, waiting for the help that never came. How, in the richest and most powerful nation--bar none--that the world has ever seen, can anyone possibly believe that this is anything less than a cavalier disregard for the value of certain human lives, or that this motivated "incompetence" is the price of our national obsession with wealth, and with the so-called Christian sexual morés at the expense of the basic compassion Christ himself would have us practice?

I feel very, very far away from this country right now--perhaps farther than I ever have. Before, I've always believed in our ability to rekindle and live up to our ideals. Now, I doubt everything but our national greed and hypocrisy. I know that there are lots of caring people opening hearts and wallets right now, and that there are many who feel outraged like I do. But instead, I can only feel like I've run into the wall of intractable American racism in its 21st century incarnation. I feel guilty for not having had to face the brunt of it more fully before now, even as I have been well aware of its presence. I'm sick of living in a country where the hypocrisy is so blatant, and where it's so easy to dismiss the criticisms of the very obvious racism underlying this tragedy as the talk of the lunatic leftist fringe, or as the product only of divisive African American voices (like the mayor, like Kanye West).

We hosted a family gathering yesterday. Although my in-laws are not particularly warm people, it was, overall, a relatively pleasant event. Except for the moment when the football game was interrupted by footage of the desperate poor still trapped in New Orleans. At this point, two members of the family exchanged a series of unspeakably racist comments about the relative "uselessness" of the victims, and their unfittedness for a new life somewhere out of the cesspool their homes have become. "We've supported them for years," said one family member; "I can't believe people are going to want to pay to get them back on their feet."
"We've supported them for generations," commented the other, referring, presumably, to the historical effects of welfare and the disproportionate poverty and blackness of the victims. "They're not the kind of people anyone [i.e., anyone "decent"] would want in their communities. I don't know where we could put them."

What astounds me about this encounter? I knew these people were bigots. I know they consider themselves the arbiters of "decency" and are firmly convinced that by the state of man's lawn wilt thou know his soul, that "good people" wash their cars every week and that plenty of folks of other races are fine as long as they are "just like us" (refer to state of lawn, above).

It's the casual dismissal of an entire group of people, and their utter lack of embarrassment about it. Their total complacency at writing off thousands of helpless men, women, and children because their skin is the same color as that of several of the looters and lawbreakers featured on TV. Their absolute ease at saying something so hateful, at never mentioning the word "race" because, at this all-white family gathering, it would be so patently obvious that victims this depraved could only be black. Have we lost so much ground in the war on racism that we don't even have to pretend any longer that we are not racist? Evidently for a lot of white folks, the answer is yes. Bush is in the whitehouse, the leftys are on the run, and we can all feel good about blaming the victims. Human kindness is only for those who can get along without a functioning government in times of disaster.

Welcome to the era of "neo-individualism." If your family fate, like our president's, is to be legacied into an ivy-league school for which you are intellectually unfit, to be given corporations to run into the ground until one succeeds despite you, and to be handed the presidency by the morally bankrupt machinations of your father's wealthy friends, the new "individualism" is gonna look pretty great. If, however, your "legacy" has anything to do with bad luck, ill health, poverty, or dark skin, you might as well get used to being roadkill.

Do I need to mention that the family's representatives of evangelical Christianity, who are so holy that they usually forego family events to be with their "Christian" family, said nothing. Remember that golden rule? I guess we'd better make that the "pearl rule": Do unto white people as you would expect white people to do unto you. Wasn't that what Jesus (clearly a white man) said?

Is this a great goddam country, or what?

Saturday, September 3, 2005

Oh, shit

Apparently Rehnquist has died. Now on top of the debacle in the Gulf Coast and the gaping wound of Iraq, we get to play Supreme Court Roulette--again.

Friday, September 2, 2005

With deep shame

I'm still thinking of Badger and Badger Boy pretty much constantly. Thank goodness for Academic Coach, who has found some practical means to help in this unspeakable loss.

I'm horrifically upset by what has happened (and continues to happen) in Louisiana and Mississippi--which is nothing less than a full-scale collapse of whatever social and political systems once promised to support this poor excuse for a nation. The photos, as plenty of people have observed, look like the third world--which, in fact, much of urban and especially black urban America is. The mere idea that Americans are dying for lack of services, after being left to their own nonexistent means to escape this catastrophe, makes an abominable mockery of every claim we have made to truth, justice and freedom. Every one of us has these deaths on our conscience, even if we have voted against Bush and his predecessors as they sliced away every thread of the safety net.

The fact is, these people Do Not Matter to those in power today, or to their "fellow Americans." They are (as depicted in stereotype by the corporate news) old, sick, chronically unemployed, resistant to authority, undereducated, and black. They are "lawless" and "defiant" and "criminal"--and they are, we are supposed to believe, responsible for the devastation that has now come upon them. I lived in San Francisco back when they suffered their devastating earthquake in 1989, and not once did I hear the kind of blame-the-victim bullshit that is rampant on all the news programs today. San Francisco had already been the victim of almost complete destruction in 1906, yet its intrepid residents chose to fly in the face of nature and rebuild on its fault-riddled ground. Horrific wildfires are a near-yearly occurrence in wealthy neighborhoods in the bone-dry Southern California hills, but no one talks about the man out there with a hose spraying water on his million-dollar estate as lacking "personal responsibility" or "disobeying evacuation orders" while the authorities "did all they could."

I hang my head in shame at the thought of the rest of the world's seeing the disorder in our national house. At the same time, I know the problems won't go away without becoming visible, an embarrassment to the Bush whitehouse and the American rhetoric of "self-sufficiency" that is but a thin veneer for greed and racism. We went to war for the 2000 victims of the World Trade Center bombings. What will we do to honor the people whose crisis our national neglect has caused?

I finally saw an article on race in the coverage of the hurricane aftermath. It was this one, from the Washington Post (free registration required), that merely confirms the negative impressions of the victims through the handy lens of a black spokesperson. It doesn't mention the virtual apartheid the characterizes most American cities, including every liberal city I have ever lived in, the poverty that trapped many of these people in their homes, their disproportionate access to information services and aid, their logical antipathy toward governmental structures that bring them no benefit.

Jonathan Kozol, continuing advocate for the poor children of color who make up the bulk of city public school students, has an excellent and heartbreaking essay in this month's Harper's. Our schools and communities are more segregated today than at almost any time in our history--as the devastation of New Orleans, and the overwhelming demographic of its victims, clearly reveals. The ground of racial harmony we gained through integration and the Civil Rights movement has apparently been lost, washed away by American greed and indifference as surely as the doomed levees of New Orleans.

For shame, America.