Thursday, November 27, 2014

Rites of Passage, Rituals, and the Communal spirit.

Wedding Plans:

I will be married soon, the first time around for me and for him.  Neither of us is the proverbial spring chicken, and I used to think that any kind of formal wedding was for the young and inexperienced—kids too naïve and/or stupid to be jaded by the real world.  In my moments of true radical analysis, I’ve even condemned myself for engaging in a bourgeois ceremony that is anathema to my personal philosophy: why are spending a small fortune on ourselves when people in this world are starving or tortured, victims of war, famine or crippling poverty? Why are we celebrating an institution that seemingly has lost its importance in this century? Half of all marriages end in divorce.  Children become the pawns in the divorce game; one or both partners are destitute even before the papers have ben served.  Two people who once loved each other sometimes leave a marriage bitter, angry, or disillusioned.  Besides, he and I are true bohemians and free thinkers, unencumbered by much of the conventional thinking of our society.  Those thoughts spun around in my mind as we began planning the ceremony and reception. Why cave into societal norms?  Oh, I wanted to marry the man whose existence had become entwined in mine like a vine, but I truly wanted to run off to some isolated place and share our love in private.  Until. . .

Until I experienced a revelation! The ceremony shows our unity and our willingness to display that unity among our family and friends—even though we are no child bride and groom. As one of my relatives stated, “It’s good to get together for a wedding and not a a tragedy or a brawl.” As we age, we attend far more funerals than weddings, and often, families argue over trivial things. Too often we only see our family and friends on special occasions, and too often, those occasions are sad.  Even the happy occasions are too infrequent.  In our society, we can argue that marriage too often ends in divorce, that the money spent on most receptions could be better spent on something more practical, and that—especially for an older couple—such extravagance is misplaced and even an ostentatious display; however, my relative’s comment resulted in an epiphany of sorts. 

At a funeral, the community joins to mourn with the deceased’s family and friends.  We cry and sometimes smile through tears as we remember the one who has been taken from us. A wedding is also a coming together of the community, but it is a celebration, a coming together of the populace in joy and hope.  The assembled members of the community will gather in the church and later in the hall to meet those they haven’t seen in a long time, to toast the couple (us, in this case), and to share in the communal spirit of hope the union of two lives inspires.  Such a union takes courage as well as hope.  Merging two lives that have been separate entities is scary no matter the age or experience of the parties involved, and that blending of souls is a risk that two people are willing to take—not only for one day—but also for the rest of their existence.  So, the community gathers to applaud the courage and hope we bring with our decision to stand before God at the communal altar and declare our willingness to support each other for as long as we live.  Just as we need the rituals of mourning, we need those rituals that inspire hope and joy. The ornate wedding dress, the wedding rings, and the cutting of the cake are not empty tokens; they are important symbols of unity and commitment often disregarded in a world too ready to dispose of others, too ready to look for easy answers with the click of a mouse.  Those symbols are pulsing, burning representations of love, devotion, and faith.

Sunday, November 9, 2014

The Irish Famine and its Modern Legacy

On November 7, 2014, my fiancé and I attended a block party/parade at the Irish Cultural Museum in New Orleans commemorating the Irish Famine. Clergy, Hibernians, historians, documentarians, and general French Quarter folk attended the event. The Poor Clares, an Irish band, reunited for this event, and partygoers paraded from St Louis Cathedral to Conti Street, the home of the museum. Local eateries lined the street, enticing revelers with samples of their food as the band played.  Inside, a minister spoke on the shame of such a blatant form of genocide while people wearing shamrock necklaces drank Jameson on the blocked off street.

These are my people. We come from a fable country that many call the Emerald Isle, a land of green fields and fierce conflict.  The British invaded this country thousands of years ago, suppressing the native Irish and tossing them off their land.  This genocide gained momentum when England embraced Protestantism under the Tudors and grew even more in intensity when Cromwell came to power as the Lord Protector; however, the Brits could never completely break the spirit of Ireland’s people.  We are a feisty, stubborn, and determined bunch.  Still, in spite of our perseverance, one period in this sad history of beautiful Ireland nearly brought these proud people to their knees.  The Irish Famine, or The Potato Famine, as it was often called, was genocide on the Irish people, a punishment on them for their refusal to bend under the English yoke.  To the Brits, this was a dirty and unwashed race—different in religion, in language, and in customs.  They sought to destroy the Irish.

When the potato crop failed in the 1840’s, the Irish poor lost a major staple of their diet.  Ironically, Ireland was still exporting large quantities of food to Britain, enough to feed the whole population, and many British officials remained deaf to the plight of the Irish people.  Sir Charles Trevalyan declared the famine a “judgment from God” and a “way to decrease the surplus population.” His words stink of genocide.  The Catholic population had few rights: they could not vote, hold public office, or even own land.  The education of their children was curtailed, and though 80% of the population was Catholic, they lived in the direst deprivation.  They worked for landlords who were often absentee, and the native population could be thrown off the land when a bad crop threatened their mater’s profit.  In the “Famine Years,” one million people died, and another million left their homeland.  Like many, some of my ancestors died with lips dyed green; they had eaten grass in a vain attempt to survive.

Still, others made new lives for themselves. My man’s ancestor was only in this country ten years when he was in the Louisiana State Legislature.  My late great-grandfather eventually was a foreman in a brewery.  These people and others like them journeyed to the United States, Australia, and Canada, contributing to their new homes and communities; nonetheless, they remained proudly Irish, keeping the memory of the Emerald Isle beating in their hearts. We their ancestors feel the pull of our ancestral land, reveling in its beauty, gracious hospitality, mythic history, and rousing ballads. We often journey back, seeking the spirituality of Patrick, the heroism of Brian Boru, and the courage of men like Wolfe Tone.  Though we rejoice in the lands our forbearers adopted, we still feel pride in the fight of those men and women who went before us.  We remember brave souls like Robert Emmet, Wolfe Tone, and Grace O’Malley as we dance to the Poor Clares, drink Irish coffee, and eat potato soup in a block party in New Orleans.  We can only hope that we make them proud--never fearing to fight the good fight, run the race, or defy the machine that threatens to kill. 

Saturday, October 25, 2014

“I read the news today, Oh Boy”: Murder, Swindling, and Cheating

“I read the news today, Oh Boy”: Murder, Swindling, and Cheating

Another school shooting. . . The trial of a young woman who murdered her

two children. . . Political kickbacks. .  . Intrigue in the workplace.  .  . Elderly people abused or manipulated. . .The moral corruption continues throughout the news media and in our personal lives. 
            Some people shudder when I use the term “moral.”  Please understand that I am not some prude. No, I realize that moral values often vary with a person’s background, religious upbringing, or cultural perspective; however, most sane people probably can come to some agreement regarding ethical conduct that encompasses shared values.  If we agree, let me ask this question: When did we all become so damned crazy? If you don’t agree, tune me out, but I think many of us will agree that we live in a world that has derailed or that turns limply on its axis. Today’s news was full of crazy, often sick people. The New Orleans Advocate ran a front-page story on a young woman who murdered her children so they wouldn’t grow up as she did—struggling in the grip of poverty.  The newspaper depicted a jury entranced by the confession she provided a New Orleans police detective, hanging on the gory details of the case. What will happen to that young woman, so clearly disturbed? We can all judge her. Surely we would never kill our children and described the murder in such coherent but irrational lunacy to a NOPD cop. The woman must be a freak or cold-blooded murderer, or—MAYBE, just maybe she was a person without hope, living in a roach-infested home in Gert Town with two children she could barely feed. Remember Sethe in Beloved? She’d rather her kids die then live in slavery. Maybe the poverty to which this young woman was consigned was akin to the kind of slavery facing Sethe, the escaped slave. 
            Then, yet another school shooting dominated the later headlines of the day.  A disturbed young man opened fire in a school cafeteria, killing one young girl before turning the gun on himself. Sweet Jesus, I remember Columbine and Newtown.  The faces of Newtown’s children and Columbine’s teens--of hero teachers that look like kids themselves--still haunt me. When did we get so crazy that we had to take a gun to people who disappointed us or hurt us? My mother used to tell me of strict nuns who put the boxing gloves on the boys who had conflicts and told them to settle it before coming back to class.  Hell, I respect those old nuns. Fight out your problems according to the laws of boxing, settle it, and return acting like gentlemen. Even in my days at school, students fought like dogs, but we didn’t use guns.  In fact, in a few hours, we soon reconciled.  When did our society so fail children that they now feel the only way to resolve a dispute is with murder? Did we give them so much that they can’t stand failure? Did we take away their work ethic so that the minute they no longer had what they wanted, they reacted not only like brats but also like killing thugs?
            Of course, not all types of moral corruption end in murder—at least not directly. In Louisiana, one politician is currently under scrutiny because he allegedly was too rough in the sack with his soon-to-be-ex-wife. Still, others say the whips and chains were consensual and the wife only wants a big payday.  Who’s lying? Who knows?  Frankly, who cares? This whole sordid story is an example of mini-murder—of people so consumed with themselves that truth, privacy, or compassion have fallen victim to greed and lust.
            But are these tales of murder and mayhem any different from the stories we hear of people who manipulate or defraud others through intimidation or fear? Are they ultimately different from the murderers or rapists when these cheaters use or intimidate lonely, elderly people into submission, reaping the monetary rewards of their dishonesty?  Are the murderers and rapists motivated by a different mentality than those employers who abuse their employees? Are they different from opportunistic, younger employees who hope to oust older people from their jobs, starving them in the process? Yes, I know these crimes are different in degree. Some can be classified as minor and some as capital, but my point is that the motivation is the same.  Too many people are motivated by selfishness and the desire to remove anything or anyone they see as inconsequential, mere bugs on their way to success or comfort. Too many are willing to brainwash or manipulate others into their way of thinking, even if it means people suffer. 

            I read the news today, oh boy. . .

Monday, June 9, 2014

Art and the NOPD

Art and the NOPD:

The New Orleans Police Department is again the subject of controversy but not the kind typically associated with New Orleans’ sometimes-infamous police force.  This latest dilemma involves an artist-police officer who committed a serious lapse in judgment.  Det. Charlie Hoffacker is as well-known in the art community as he is in the police department.  His artwork—often depicting the violence of the city streets—hangs in prestigious galleries and is often purchased by people wearing exotic finery, not crisp police uniforms.  What has brought Det. Hoffacker into the news is no gun battle with a street kingpin.  No, the officer’s artistic sensibilities mingled with his frustration while at the scene of a grisly murder. Hoffacker drew in the blood of a crime victim, and according to his superior officers, possibly compromised the crime scene.

This publicity for the officer/artist—possibly a mixed blessing—has resulted in a debate about artistic expression, crime, and the manner in which an artist may take liberties with his or her subjects.  Hoffacker’s paintings are no simple depictions of lovely landscapes.  Rather, they take a harsh gaze at the city’s underworld.  Homeless people stare out from his canvas, painted onto the very signs they use to panhandle.  The artist buys them for $5 from often very grateful homeless people.  A fuel junkie pumps gasoline into his arm in yet another artistic creation, and amorous Klansman are held up to ridicule.  Terry Hankton, New Orleans’ most dangerous kingpin, stares out from Hoffacker’s canvas, his mugshot recreated from bullet casings.  The young detective’s art hangs in upscale restaurants as well as in galleries frequented by the Uptown and/or New York crowds.

What I find most interesting is the commentary on the artwork.  Hoffacker certainly should have done nothing to compromise a crime scene, but any artist or writer sometimes feels compelled to express his or her artistic leanings. Some people, however, have focused on the art in condemning Hoffacker and not his actions at the scene, claiming that his art glorifies crime.  Such comments are misguided. Many authors and/or artists depict violence in their work.  Illustrating the violence of the world is the artist’s function and even duty. The earliest poets, dramatists, and artists recreated the violence as well as the beauty of the culture in which they lived.  Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Hamlet, and Titus Andronicus are violence-filled.  And we cannot forget the history plays in which Henry V vied for the throne of France or Richard III plotted to retain power.  Violence in literature predates Shakespeare.  Who could forget the violence but powerful beauty of Euripides’ plays or the tragic majesty of Virgil’s epic? And in visual art—no one could deny the power of Rubens’ Massacre of the Innocents or Goya’s Saturn Devouring His Son. Such is the purpose of artistic creation. Not all of these artists were violent people, but as artists, they depicted what they’d experienced in their society, their education, and/or their religious faith. 

When I wrote my historical novels, I found myself treating some of the most horrific events in history.  Love at War, set during WWII, showed humanity at its worst; nonetheless, depicting the events surround that conflict as anything other than brutal would have been dishonest and insulting to those who’d experienced the traumatic events of the time.  When I wrote From Ice Wagon to Club House, I illustrated the horror and unseemliness of Storyville, the bloodbath that was WWI, as well as the poverty deriving from the Depression and the misguided laws of Prohibition.  Many of those events were not glamorous, pretty, or times to be glorified; however, they illustrate important aspects of our culture and should not be ignored. Through my novels, I show the strength as well as the frailty of humanity and the lasting power of the spirit. 

Maybe Det. Charles Hoffacker’s actions were questionable at that crime scene; however, his artistry is undeniably brilliant, powerful, and a masterful commentary on the urban landscape. 

Friday, May 30, 2014

Claire Domingue and the Shape of Sounds

The Shape of Sounds, the newest release by singer-songwriter Claire Domingue, is a revelation and treat from a talented young artist.  Skillful, intricate piano interludes frame this original album of folk-rock influenced music by the gifted pianist/guitarist and her equally gifted band. Domingue’s lilting vocals bring the songs to life, giving power to her strong lyrics.

Several songs stand out on this album.  Chief among them is “Glass,” a song of isolation and heartbreak.  The lyrics advise the young persona to “break through the glass, and you’ll finally be free.” In addition to the powerful lyrics and provocative vocals, the song also is anchored by strong, innovative guitar work on the part of Coby Tate and Lenny Austin. Domingue and her band are proficient on several instruments, and many of the songs, especially the haunting “Quelquefois” and the pulsing “After Everything” profit from the addition of violin or cello to the brilliantly rendered guitar, piano and percussion work on the respective works. 

Domingue’s lyrics speak to many young people—or any persons-- experiencing doubt about the direction their lives are taking.  In “Losing It,” Domingue sings that “My biggest fear is waking up and everything is the same.” Anyone wanting a new direction would relate to such a fear.  Of course, one of the best tracks on the album is the deceptively simple, “In Her Way,” a tale of unrequited love and loss.  Riveting guitar work and a haunting mandolin drive this sweetly sad piece, accenting Domingue’s lovely vocal rendering. 

This album is something any true lover of music should experience.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

Change, Risk, and Hope

Change: I find myself writing about change a great deal. Too many people are resistant to change, electing to grow old, shiver, and die before taking a risk.  Some are too narrow to feel regret, but for those timid souls who would have loved change but never moved on their gut feeling, regret can be a heavy chain weighing them down.  Too often these people deteriorate into grotesque caricatures of themselves, becoming stilted as well as stifled.  Since Katrina and the death of my mother, my life has undergone radical change. Losing my mother was the most horrific loss I’ve ever experienced, but she always wanted me to move on and be strong.  I did so, immersing myself in writing, sending out my books, and risking rejection.  Well, I could decorate a Christmas tree with the rejection slips I received, but the risk and temporary defeat led to success. I’m now a published author.  I never would have experienced such happiness without my desire to change my life and my willingness to take the risk. Too many people told me not to take risk.  They thought I was too weak to handle any defeat or controversy—not that it was any of their business, but we all know what is said about opinions.  . .

Then, I met Ben, and when most women are on the road to becoming “Red Hat Ladies,” I’m embarking on a new chapter of my life with him.  No quiet lunches wearing my red hat. We listen to music in the Maple Leaf and Carrollton Station, making out like teens.  When we’re ninety, someone will still be wheeling us in to hear Tommy and Dave Malone, Raw Oyster Cult, The Last New Beginning, and Papa Gros Funk. No change can occur without a willingness to take the leap into the Unknown, but for me, taking a risk on a guy I met at a Danny O’Flaherty Concert in the Deutsches Haus has led to some of the best times of my life. Now, I’m wearing his ring, but none of this would have happened had I not been willing to take a risk and look to the future with hope.

What makes some people lose hope while they stare into the future with bright smiles and others lose even their desire to live? Who knows? In the newspaper recently, I saw an article about a young woman who gave birth to her first child even after suffering a devastating stroke some years earlier.  Even though she almost died, Sarah Abrusley decided to look to the future.  She and her husband bought a house and had a baby.  Sarah knows she will have to adapt to certain situations not typical of her situation; however, this woman has moved on with her gaze set firmly on the future, thumbing her nose at the skeptics along the way. 

Why do some people lose hope? Recently, the news reported the tragic death of designer L’Wren Scott. Unlike Sarah, L’Wren Scott lost hope. Rumor has it her business was in severe trouble, and the talented woman committed suicide in her apartment.  Rather than face the possibility of defeat and humiliation, Scott wrapped a scarf around her neck and took her life. Her ending is tragic, and I understand her desperation.  Until I concentrated on my writing and moved on with my personal life, I was in danger of stagnating within my sameness.  The people speculating on her death and dancing on her grave should be ashamed.  The loss of hope can envelope us all, but like Sarah Abrusley, I choose to hope. 

Check out Viola Russell at 

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Oogum Boogum Review

“Oogum Boogum”--a delightfully Rhythmic Style:
 Ain’t no Cadillac, the debut CD by New Orleans-based Oogum Boogum, is a treasure of pleasant vocals, intricate melodies, and intricately crafted arrangements. Band members are George Felton on guitar and vocals; Donna Schlaudecker on bass and vocals; Chris Polachek on guitar and vocals, and Tom Woodin on djembe. These talented musicians have recreated a collection of old favorites and original music that boasts their own original style and yet—in the case of the covers—retains the spirit of the original piece while simultaneously fitting into the new Oogum Boogum sound.

The CD opens with the delightfully quirky “Deuce and a Quarter,” written by Owen and Gordon. Wonderful guitar riffs intermingle with pleasing vocals throughout the Country/rhythm and blues influenced piece.  Tom Woodin’s djembe provides an appealing percussion sound.  Another standout song is Chuck Berry’s “Nadine.”  The band members do not try to compete with Berry.  Rather, they make the song theirs with a wonderful rhythm and almost country vocal feel.  “Who’s Been Talking’ is a musical gift.  The plaintive vocals and riveting instrumental work honor the acclaimed Chester Burnett without becoming a fawning imitation. “Bob’s Rag” by band member George Felton boasts impressive guitar work by band members as well as guests Mick Schaferkotter and Tommy Malone.  Dylan’s “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” receives a spine-chilling rendering, an elegy of time and place in its sad finality. The song also boasts impressive bass support form Donna Schlaudecker, the lone female band member. 

An impressive guest list adds to this amazing new musical foray.  In addition to Malone and Schaferkotter, David Stocker lends his skillful keyboard playing to “Who’s Been Talking” and Andy Forest adds his harmonica to “Who Do you Love” and “Who’s Got the Katy.” This music is very worth the CD purchase or download. No one will be disappointed.