Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Excuses, excuses

Today I wrote the hardest excused absence note ever. We had an 11-year-old boy and his older brother, who both came to the clinic for minor complaints, and at the very end of the visit, when I was asking if there was anything else, the older brother was like, “well—we both need excused absences. I’ve missed a little bit of work and he’s missed a lot of school. A lot of school.”

After Katrina, their mother’s job relocated her to Monroe, but the older brother’s job is in New Orleans and the younger brother is in school in New Orleans. The brothers are constantly traveling back and forth from Monroe to New Orleans, and they don’t always have reliable transportation to make this trip.

The older brother says the whole family has taken responsibility for the little one’s education: brothers and cousins and aunties all go to parents’ meetings, sign off on homework, go over spelling words before dinner. He’s doing very well in school. But a few days ago the family got a letter from the school saying he’d missed over 15 days of school in the academic year (he missed maybe 18 days), and therefore he would not be allowed to move up to the sixth grade unless they could get a doctors’ note for every one of those days, because it would be breaking state law.

Are they kidding? Providing woefully substandard education to our children is completely legal, but if an 11-year-old child misses 18 days, to go see his mother of all things, even if he still gets incredible grades, he's breaking the law?

How on earth is it helping anybody to punish this child for missing school when the whole family is working day and night to support his education, and make sure they all stay connected with each other when they’re so scattered? Any why is medical illness the only valid excuse for missing school? I know so many privileged kids whose families ”take them out of school” for a few days or even a week, so the family can go to Florida or Jazzfest, for example.

And as a healthcare provider it’s hard to be in the middle of this crazy situation, because you can’t be dishonest, of course, and at the same time I totally wanted to advocate for this child. I feel like it’s my job. I feel very strongly that there is no necessity, and no benefit, in this kid repeating a year of school, and that in many ways--healthwise and otherwise--it has the capacity to make things worse for him and his family.

So this is what I wrote: “This child was seen at our clinic today. He is currently a patient under our care. We are aware that he’s had multiple absences from school, and we are excusing him from all of these. Please don’t hesitate to contact us with any questions.”

I hope it works.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Kung Fu, and why I'm glad I'm gonna be a doctor

Today I fell in love with every one of my patients. I love days like this, where somebody’s telling me about their arthritis and I’m sitting across from them or looking at their knee and all I’m thinking is, “You’re so amazing! Wow! Look how amazing you are!”

Today I got to meet a 60-year-old man who’s been living with colon cancer for the last twelve years and still gardens and fixes his neighbors’ cars in his driveway; he started writing songs and poetry after he got cancer, and he and his brother spend Sundays taking turns playing this old tinny Casio keyboard in the living room they share. “Everybody I go to chemo with, they died,” my patient told me. “Not me. It’s not gonna get me. It’s just the pain that’s hard. Everything else, I can live with it.”

Wow, right? How can you not love this man? And he had that kind of face where even his eyes, all by themselves, looked like they were smiling, his eyelashes like twinkly little mustaches.

I also talked to a lady we’ve been seeing regularly for diabetes and high blood pressure who told me as soon as she gets the feeling back in her legs she’s going to go walk around the whole neighborhood and ask everybody for a few dollars so we can stay open!

And another lady who lost a brother after he had a stroke a year ago. She and her sister decided they were going to “get healthy,” so they started eliminating high-cholesterol foods from their diets and eating more vegetables. Then her sister got the idea that they needed to incorporate exercise in their lives, so she bought not one but two exercise bikes, which she set up in front of the TV in the living room, and every night these two middle-aged sisters set up their meals of baked chicken and steamed green beans on the little reading racks on the exercise bikes, riding away for hours watching ESPN and gossiping while kids and grandbabies run and do homework and play catch all around.

After clinic I went to my very first Kung Fu lesson ever. I’ve been secretly wanting to learn martial arts for a few years and yesterday, it ended up, was the day. It was awesome. I ran into a few people I knew and jumped up and kicked stuff and hit stuff for a few hours. I thought I’d be most excited about things like Discipline and Mental Clarity, which you’re supposed to get from martial arts, and those things are great and everything, but really the hitting and kicking was pretty awesome. Who knew? I can’t wait to go back.

When it was over I drove home down Dauphine Street with the windows open, listening to Percy Sledge sing “Any Day Now,” which is actually a really sad song. And the jasmine’s so thick in the Bywater these days that I felt like it was spilling over in the car, and people were barbequing on their stoops, so the jasmine smell was mixed with smoke. And the moon hanging thinly in the velvety black sky like a fingernail, and the word “Help” painted in block letters on the asphalt, fading, like it was finally starting to be nothing more than part of the landscape, like it had been there a good while.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Just A Day

Here's what's happening today:

I woke up when it was still dark, threw on scrubs and poured dark grainy coffee into an old Mason jar, and went to work at the Latino Health Outreach Project's mobile clinic. It's amazing to see how much the work has grown since the last time I worked there, just shy of a year ago. Now there's a regular doctor, we work in teams with herbalists, and we're still consistently giving people information and supplies they need and can't get everywhere. I drove a man having chest pain to University Hospital, where they don't have interpreters or bilingual staff, but a Spanish-speaking nurse appeared, seemingly from beneath the reception desk, once we said "crushing chest pain radiating to the left arm." She kept patting my shoulder and telling me, "gracias, mi amor. We'll take good care of him," till I felt comfortable leaving.

I hope he's all right.

Today, also, The New Orleans International Human Rights Film Festival opens at venues all over the city, including Canal Place, One Eyed Jack's, the Ashe' Cultural Arts Center, and Zeitgeist; showcasing incredible films from all over the world. Check it out.

Today, also, Toni Morrison is coming to speak at McAllister Auditorium on Tulane's uptown campus. Whoa. 7PM. Free.

Today my cousin made a pledge to try to drink more fair trade coffee after watching what sounds like an incredibly powerful film called Black Gold (it had the same effect on some friends of mine a few weeks ago). Now there's all kinds of online mayhem in the family, but I think she's also realizing how many people support that choice. Me, I'm just excited that films have the capacity to affect people's decisions in such a direct way, and so proud to see my relatives making choices that have concrete positive impacts, however small, on people's lives.

And did I tell you there's not a cloud in the sky? Not one. It looks like thick, sweet blue gel up there, like you could reach up and grab a chunk and eat it.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007


Yesterday was my first day taking care of adult patients after three long and heartbreaking and sometimes ridiculously joyous months of pediatrics. The whole time I was on Peds, people would ask me why I was going to spend even part of my career taking care of adults and I’d always say, “ ‘Cause you know who my favorite patient is? The 80-year-old lady who comes into the clinic with all her medications in a crumpled up brown paper bag, and dumps them all out on the desk, and says, ‘Whoo, baby, lemme tell you about my pressure!’ “

I could talk to ladies like that all day.

These days, we don’t only talk about blood pressure, and diabetes, and cholesterol and walking and smoking and eating less fried chicken (“I’ll stop smoking tomorrow if you want,” one of my patients told me yesterday, “but if you tell me I can’t have beer and seafood on a Friday after a long crazy week of work, I’m telling you right now, I’m never coming back here!”).

Yesterday, in addition to all those things, my patients and I talked a lot about driving. People are still so separated, especially in the African-American community. Covering hundreds of miles to keep up relationships with loved ones has become part of the fabric of so many people’s everyday lives. I’m amazed how rooted New Orleanians are, how one man who didn’t cross Canal Street for fourteen years (a true story) is now driving three hundred miles almost every week just for a night of holding his daughter.

And our rootedness is complicated: it’s not only about this place, and it’s not only about each other. There's something else, something that's maybe even about the whole nature of how we’ve learned to love here. I think about how it’s only that deeper-than-the-deepest-part-of-your-belly kind of love that can justify such repeated, epic, most likely irrational hundred-mile journeys; and then I think about the almost amputated feeling people describe who’ve had to move away for jobs or schools ‘cause there’s so much less of those here these days. What does it mean to have to choose between doing the best for the people you love, and living in the only place in the world where you feel whole? What does it mean that so many among us are (still! almost two years later!) forced to make that choice? Can we legitimately say, under these conditions, that we're succeeding in rebuilding our home?

And people keep surviving. “I’m in a FEMA trailer outside my old place,” one patient said to me yesterday. He works 10-hour days as a gardner, and his wife and sons are living in Gramercy, where the boys are in school. Every other weekend, either he or his wife makes the trip so the family can be reconnected. “I decided, I’m getting surround sound for my TV. My son laughed so hard when I told him that. Surround sound in a FEMA trailer! But at the end of a long day outside, to sit down in my little chair—it’s a little chair—and kick back with a beer and feel like I’m at the movies? I want my family back together, i want my house back, I want my old job and health insurance and a place for my boys to get a decent education-- but I'll settle for that.”

Friday, April 06, 2007

A Long Thank-You Note

Lately I’ve been going on epic morning walks through my neighborhood, in the earliest beginnings of daylight, before the sky becomes blue instead of silver and all the sleeping turtles are still lined up in rows on the banks of Bayou St John. I’ve become accustomed to spending that hour outside, waking up while moving through the world, drinking coffee and shaking the foggy sleep out of my head, watching the bayou change colors while the sun starts to rise. I love having that time, slow and alone, to bring in the day.

Of course I’m not really alone on those walks. My cousin and aunt recently informed me, really really enthusiastically, that they see me walking Almost Every Day when they’re driving to school. Awesome, I remember thinking. There I am in my sweatpants and my coffee mug and my old clogs and that almost-awake look most of us have on our faces before we’re truly ready to face the world, and maybe it’s not only them; maybe there’s actually like forty more people I know driving by every single day and thinking, “Look, there’s Catherine!”


When my cousin and my aunt told me that, I was reminded, once again, of something I’ve been knowing since I was, like, five: For me, at least, there is no anonymity in New Orleans.

This is not because I am famous, or special, or even particularly interesting. It is simply because I was born here, and because people in New Orleans know about each other, and talk about each other, and keep tabs on each other in a way that seems claustrophobic to people who aren’t from here (or so I've heard). For me, though, I'm realizing, this has become one of my strongest anchors.

My cousins and I joke constantly about how we can barely go into a grocery store in New Orleans without somebody walking up to us and saying, “Darlin, I bet I know your mother.” This is how it goes here. Sitting at a table with someone you’ve just met, it’s probably only a matter of time before you figure out who in your family knows somebody in their family, and there’s probably a story about it one of you can tell; and, even if only for a second, the meal you’re sharing stops being about spending time together and takes on a whole deeper meaning about how we’re all connected in such strong and often concrete ways.

When I was younger, of course, this was a constant source of the desperate stress and frustration only adolescents can feel. We were all basically good kids growing up, which may have been because we were all really, you know, mature and responsible people-- but I think it was actually because we all knew that there was absolutely no way any of us would be able to do anything we weren’t allowed to without our aunts, or our neighbors, or our aunts' neighbors, finding out.

These days, though, I’ve been recovering from mono and heartbreak, and I keep coming back to the knowledge that there’s nowhere I’d rather be than home. Being home means that I have lunch with my dad on a random Wednesday, and dinner with my best friend from first grade the same night, and my mom and I go for long walks through the park (not nearly often enough), and my grandmother takes me to the grocery, and old high school friends move in down the block, and my niece knows me well enough to shriek my name when I walk into a room.

And being home in New Orleans? Especially this time of year? It's so special I can barely stand it. I go to the racetrack with my dad, and my brothers, and my friends from medical school. My old high school teachers run into me at the Farmers’ Market and tell me how proud they are that I’m going to be a doctor. I reunite with old friends at second-lines and Super Sunday. Longtime local organizers turn up at my kitchen table and spend hours asking me hard questions about healthcare, racial justice, and my long-term future plans in the struggle. My yoga teacher gives me a big hug at the end of class and tells me she’s glad I’m feeling better. I go see live music and maybe run into my cousins. I marvel at the springtime with my octogenarian neighbors, and they ask me what I think they should do about their arthritis. I jog past my teacher's house one evening, and he ends up offering me a beer and firing off questions about differential diagnoses on the stoop.

Evenings, lately, I grab a friend and a blanket and walk to the bayou with pounds of crawfish from around the corner. There’s so few mosquitoes out still, we can stay outside till well past dark. Last night we rode bikes to Brocato’s, to fight the boisterous, multigenerational crowds that gather nightly for the best gelato in the city. Our bikes clattered over potholes down streets that are still so hollow, houses still empty and yawning without their people back, and out of everything we could’ve talked about, surrounded by all that bleakness, we couldn’t stop saying how much we loved this neighborhood.

Being surrounded by so many people who really know me, ultimately, is not just about feeling ridiculously, overwhelmingly, sometimes undeservingly loved. At best, and I don’t really know if I’m there yet, it keeps me honest. It keeps me committed to this place that has created me and given me so much, and it reminds me, daily, that any authentic work I will ever do must, necessarily, take into account absolutely every community of which I am so honored to be a part. And it keeps me humble, because anything I'll ever accomplish will never exist without the scores of hands that shape me, all the shoulders I'm standing on.

The other night, when I came home from having dinner with Gerrish, who’s been my friend since her family moved around the corner when we were six, my roommate said, “Wow, I don’t know if I even know anyone anymore from when I was six. You have so many layers of people here. It really must be a full-time job, being you.”

“It is,” I said. “I’m so, so thankful.”

Thursday, April 05, 2007

Some Sort Of News

It’s been a week. That’s not saying too much these days. Used to be, about one thing would happen in this city per month. Maybe one thing per week, if lots was going on. Everybody’d know about that one thing; everybody’d be talking about it on porches and street corners, at bus stops and corner bars and coffeeshops, and that one thing would set the tempo for what you’d say to the guy at the crawfish place or the drycleaners that week. Edwin Edwards Is Going To Prison! The Saints Lost Again! You and the person and the crawfish place would shake your heads in mutual amazement, the way people in other places have collective bewilderment when the weather, say, isn’t doing what it’s supposed to.

Oh well. Those were the old days.

Now that we live in a fast-paced city, it’s been a little more challenging to keep up with the news. Thank the Lord I have so many active and involved housemates and guests living with me, otherwise I’d never know what’s going on. For those of you who don’t get to live with all these fabulous wellsprings of information, here’s some updates:

Updates from the fight to preserve New Orleans culture and the people’s right to return

Yesterday at a hearing, a city judge agreed to reduce astronomical security fees for this Sunday's traditional Easter parade by the Original Pigeontown Steppers after the Social Aid and Pleasure Club and its allies (including the ACLU), argued that the over 300 percent increase on fees would prohibit the parade from being out on the streets this Easter. This decision is the latest development in a long struggle by Social Aid and Pleasure Clubs across the city, who have been protesting the fee increases, which have made it increasingly difficult to carry on the centuries-old tradition. See an informative article by Katy Reckdahl giving context for this struggle, as well as insight into the likely racially-motivated decisions by the police department to charge these higher fees almost exclusively to second line organizations.

Also, I’m posting a link here about the city-sponsored demolition of Resurrection City, the latest development in an inspiring creative movement by public housing residents and allies for affordable housing for all New Orleans residents. For more about housing struggles and the Right of Return, visit Survivors Village and Justice For New Orleans.

And last, the bizarre and Orwellian

No, this isn’t about Elizabeth’s restaurant going through another one of those “We Don’t Serve Breakfast. We Never Served Breakfast” phases, which is just totally weird, not to mention disappointing during those times when only praline bacon will warm the drafty cracks in my heart...

No, this is about a pretty recent and more-than-slightly-alarming decision by Google Maps to go back to using pre-Katrina images in their maps of New Orleans. (Are they joking? Who do they think they’re fooling? People who aren’t from here, so they can feel totally comfortable because they can look on Google Maps and think, New Orleans is Coming Back? People in New Orleans who are actually looking on Google Maps ‘cause they need to get someplace and then they’re like, “Wait, is Ms Geraldine’s house down the block all finished up and back to normal again? That’s so awesome!” only to go outside and realize that indeed, reality is quite different from what we just saw of our city on satellite? Do they really want to re-traumatize us all over again?)

I just heard about this and about how, of all people, Congress was launching some inquiry into why Google was “airbrushing history,” and how a group of folks calling themselves--I am not joking— People For Post-Katrina Accuracy On Google Maps, had actually started an online petition to get things back to how they were.

Lest anyone be lulled for a moment into thinking that starting a ruckus about the things you care about won’t get results, I just checked out the satellite images for myself and, comfortingly or not, there’s hella blue tarps up on those rooftops again.


Wednesday, April 04, 2007


It seems strange, but on some level appropriate, that I’m restarting this blog after over a year’s absence, not with a bang but with—the Hare Krishnas? There’s New Orleans for you.

Last night I went to the weekly Hare Krishna dinner for the first time in almost a year. I went mostly because I was walking around the neighborhood right around the time they started serving and I had no food in the kitchen and very little money to buy anything else. Then I remembered that every Sunday evening since way before I moved to this neighborhood, the Hare Krishnas have been cooking pretty amazing dinners for anybody who wants to come by. It’s nice to give a donation but they don’t turn anyone away. Before the flood, there’d be months when I would go every single Sunday, and I always cherished it as a time for folks from all over the neighborhood (and beyond) to come together and share food and the long slow evening time in their flowery courtyard. Like many of my memories of how things were before the flood, I now think of those bygone Sunday dinners as idyllic: children running in and out of thick curtains of jasmine; multigenerational groups of neighbors laughing in plastic patio chairs, their smiles glittering across the yard in the day’s last moments of light.

Right after the flood I remember those gatherings as smaller, younger, and whiter, but at least at first, everyone who went was, if not from the neighborhood, at least from New Orleans. I remember going through a few months where many of us, for reasons that were likely both petty and noble, pledged to each other that we weren’t going to let anyone from Common Ground know about these dinners. I think at that point so many of us were still so fragile, still trying so desperately to carve out some carefree community space that we didn’t have to define or defend or interpret or explain, or maybe even just share, with people from out of town.

A year later, the secret’s out. This reality, like many feared eventualities, is both much more and much less cataclysmic to me now than I imagined it would be a year ago.

Last night, I heard the sounds of the gathering about a block before I actually made it to the yard surrounding the temple. Crowds of mostly young white folks were packed into a line that snaked through the garden and out the front gate. More people were gathered outside, talking on cell phones or unfolding large maps of the city. One girl was doing both; “take a right on Esplanahhd,” she said to the person on the other line. I didn’t see anyone I knew. At one point a tired-looking South Asian woman in a sari pushed her way through the line. “No smoking, please don’t smoke here,” she was repeating, never breaking her stride. I watched some people stamp out their cigarette butts in the footpath in the garden. After she passed by, the boy behind me lit up again. Finally I saw my roommate from across the crowd. I ran over to where he was, practically jumping over hedges to get to a familiar face. “It’s so weird here,” he said. “I haven’t been here in months.”

In the end, though, it was all right. We ate and the food was delicious; we ran into some people we knew; we got invited to someone’s party. I made friends with a ridiculously beautiful six-year-old with Down syndrome who kept leaping out of her father’s arms to give me wild joyous hugs. But it was crowded and loud and I just couldn’t stop staring at all those strangers.

Outside, I watched people talk, and I felt extremely aware of all the emotions happening inside me. On one hand, it’s still so draining for me to hear what’s now been hundreds of earnest mostly white people, mostly in town for a couple of weeks, saying things like, “Oh my God, this place is so INTENSE!”

On the other hand, though, I feel like I’m starting to get to a place in my heart where I can really appreciate, and not just on an intellectual level, that masses of young people, from multiple political orientations, have been profoundly transformed by their experiences of doing work in this city. And I really think that’s totally beautiful! At its best, this large-scale transformation has the potential to widely shape massive political movements against racism and injustice across this country. And, of course, for that to happen in a legitimate way, there’s lots more conscious, strategic work we all need to be doing.

On my walk home the streets seemed dark and lonely: stray cats scuttling beneath cars, the air still too thin for that heady springtime jasmine rush that’ll come later. I kept passing by groups of neighbors talking quietly on porches and thinking, “back in the day, we might’ve been sitting at a table together.” Somehow seeing all my neighbors out, but at their separate houses and not all together at a place where we used to all feel comfortable going, made this entire community feel much more disconnected than I think it actually is.

I felt a deep sense of loss for all the community spaces across this city that have been either destroyed or profoundly altered since the flood. Like everything, the impact of this loss is so much deeper in our low-income communities of color, where neighborhood centers for the arts and for community gatherings have been flooded out, evicted to make room for higher-paying mostly white tenants, or closed altogether. (See an awesome article by Jordan Flaherty for more detailed information and insight on the effects this is having throughout the community.)

White volunteers from out of town are not the cause of the fracturing I felt in my community that day; that comes from the racism, economic injustice and gender exploitation that have allowed the flood and its aftermath to put us in this situation in the first place. However, white people from out of town, especially those who are here in the name of promoting social justice, are also not exempt from taking responsibility for their impact on the larger community, whether this means respecting the physical places in which they find themselves, working in accountable connection with local communities, or honoring and learning about the long and vibrant history of social movements coming out of New Orleans, all of which will continue to exist and struggle in this city long after they leave.

Of course, ultimately this isn’t the point. After almost 2 years of engaging with how my own role in the struggle for justice has evolved since the flood, the predominant emotion I felt on my lonely walk home that night was not my annoyance at the behavior of those out-of-town people; and not my reintensified desire to minutely police all well-intentioned white people or non-local people in this movement who sometimes (like me and everyone else I know!) make less-than perfect decisions in the struggles we all share; and not my anger and grief over the loss of a beloved community institution, no matter how small; and not even my deeper and more profound sense of unresolvable loss when I am faced with concrete reminders of how my society has been irreversibly broken. Oh, no; not even that last one, which breaks my heart every day, even now; which I am finally beginning to understand I will never get over; which still causes me to well up in uncontrollable torrents of sadness when I listen to a sad song on community radio or drive by my neighbors’ still-empty houses, their molded chairs still perched on stoops, waiting.

No, it wasn’t any of those emotions that carried me home that night, not even that raw well of grief: it was a sense of commitment, deeper than anything I’d felt in a long time, to rededicate myself toward working for concrete, meaningful changes that will lead us all more closely to liberation. For this work we need everyone, and I have never felt more grateful than I do now to count myself among every single member of these multitudes of eager committed passionate imperfect people. For this work we have so much growing and work before us, and we need so much heart and strength to carry it forth. For this work I need to believe in every one of us.