Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Monday, October 31, 2011
After showing up for work at a Garden District coffee shop at 6 a.m. to work the morning shift a couple of Saturdays ago, my friend Sam shook off his midday fatigue and rode his bike to City Hall to march in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. As the march proceded through the French Quarter, some visitors to our city were displeased with this particular attraction, yelling "Get a job," to Sam, who, among the hundreds of others in attendance, was holding a "We Deserve Better" sign and chanting "We are the 99%."
The implication of the heckling — that people only complain about the system because they are too lazy to make it work for them — has been proved false in the past two months of Occupy protests. Here in New Orleans and at "occupations" around the country, all kinds of hard-working people have shown up to air their discontent with the current state of affairs. The past few years of un-natural disasters and economic collapse have made it plain that millions of people who play by the rules, go to school, work hard, buy a home and try to grab on to their small piece of the America Dream, have lost to powers and circumstances far beyond their control despite their efforts. Go ask shrimpers and oystermen along the Gulf Coast (how their livelihoods fared) after the BP spill, anyone who bought a house in 2007 before the market crash, a recent college graduate searching for a first real job, or someone who has tried to get health insurance after surviving cancer.
Friday, October 14, 2011
The first few paragraphs are on the Believer's website and pasted below but, consistent with the Believer's belief in print, you will have to buy the magazine to see the rest.
Burden of Proof
A Tale of Innocence and Accusation at Summer Camp
by Billy Sothern
I decided to go to Camp Eagle Hill for one more year. I was fourteen and had been going there for five years. I had been a little boy in the lower camp and then, nearly half a life later, I was one of the older kids, hanging around the Lake Side bunk house with David and Ian before heading out to play basketball or tennis or blow off sports altogether and hit frogs with our tennis rackets against Big Red, the gymnasium where we played deck hockey and had “Sing,” the final event of Color War.
I was too old for camp, really. I had become leery of Billy Joel, thought “Sing” was corny, and was developing a strong adolescent impulse against having things required of me. But camp was still a salve, a place where nothing went wrong beyond the occasional broken bone, and where I, like it or not, belonged. The camp plaques in the dining hall proved it. There I was, Billy “The Gangster of Love” Sothern, among the campers in the “Fly Skimmers,” in Hill Top 6, summer of 1987. There again, Billy “Southern Comfort” Sothern, in Club Clueless in Hill Top 8, the following summer, and so on. People were not suspicious of me here, unlike in my new hometown, where an eighth-grade curiosity about marijuana and huffing Scotchgard had gotten me a reputation for being a “druggie.”
For this reason, when our counselor’s money went missing—a couple hundred dollars in tips from a recent parents’ weekend—no one suspected me, though we were all certain that one of the boys in the bunk had taken the money. Our counselor, Brian, devised the kind of justice that makes sense only at camp, and demanded that we all gather a hundred yards away from the cabin. He explained that he did not want to know who took the money. He only wanted it returned. He said that each of us would go back to the cabin, enter it, spend a minute inside, and return, and he asked that the person who took the money use this opportunity to return it to a drawer in his music-cassette storage box. We all agreed.
To read the rest of this piece, please purchase this issue of the Believer online or at your local bookseller.
Billy Sothern, a Louisiana death-penalty lawyer, is the author of Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City. He is working on a memoir about becoming a criminal-defense attorney after years of feeling like a criminal.
Monday, October 10, 2011
In the spirit of Studs Terkel and the WPA photographers, Jack Chapman traveled the country in 2010 taking portraits of people, including me, Nikki, and Rosie, and interviewing them with the same questions about their backgrounds, lives, and hopes. The first volume is online.
Friday, October 7, 2011
A month later, here it is:
Refusing to let the 9/11 anniversary be owned solely by horror
By Billy Sothern, The Lens contributing opinion writer |
On September 10, 2009, my wife Nikki was at her midwife’s office hoping to get some indication that our baby – four days past due – would come soon, ending her mounting pain and discomfort.
It wasn’t until Nikki got back from her appointment that I saw the possibility that my daughter could be born on September 11, the eighth anniversary of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon. Nikki told me that a woman we had met in our birthing class had been at the midwife’s office as well. And though she was a full week past due, fixing to burst and desperate to have her baby, she had postponed her induction because she didn’t want her child born on such an inauspicious date.
I had moved to New Orleans from New York City a month before the attacks; family and friends worked in the financial district, fast by the Twin Towers, and my father and step-mother were on New York bound-flights that fateful morning. And so the date – 9/11 – was likely to be forever etched in my mind as a day of horror and anxiety, made only worse by its exploitation as a pretext for war and the curtailment of civil liberties.
But my wife was in agony so I quickly reconciled to the idea of our child sharing her birthday with that mournful American anniversary. When I got home in the late afternoon, Nikki’s labor had become much more pronounced. We left for the hospital a little after midnight.
In the birthing room, I tried my best to comfort Nikki during her ordeal, playing Bach’s Cello Suites and Nikki’s favorite arias from the St. Matthew Passion on the little stereo she had bought for this purpose a couple of weeks earlier, when it all seemed so distant and theoretical. At a certain point, she began to seem really focused, in a distant place all by herself, and I started playing Philip Glass’s Solo Piano Works. She had speculated days earlier that Glass’s familiar, round, cyclical musical forms might reach her at a time like this.
When that selection ended, with Nikki clinging to my shoulders and neck from her birthing tub but still, evidently, hours away from delivering the baby, Addy, our doula, asked what we should put on. I told her that there was an opera by Philip Glass on the iPod, and that it was long enough to keep us from having to change the music again. “Satyagraha?” she asked. I hadn’t remembered the name. Without even glancing at the liner notes, I had burned it onto my computer, from the New Orleans Public Library’s music catalog a few years earlier. In the scores of hours I had spent listening to the opera, its music and Sanskrit libretto, though unintelligible, seemed truer to life and the thoughts passing through my mind than any music I had heard before. “That’s it,” I told Addy.
It begins with a low voice and a deep stringed instrument that wound around the room. Sometimes urgent, sometimes slack, at times the music almost disappeared into the rhythm of Nikki’s contractions and then her pushing. When the baby’s head finally emerged and then I held her against my fatigued but triumphant wife, the final act of Satyagraha pulsed in the background, and then stopped, unnoticed.
I sent news to our friends and loved ones by text, “Rose Mae Sothern born at 4:57. I am in awe of mother and child.” I consciously omitted the date, not wanting to associate the sad anniversary with the miraculous birth of my daughter.
But as time passed, and I was able to spend hours and then days with this new life, it became clear to me that it was seemly and even necessary, for Rose, and others, to have been born on this date, for things to occur that could create new anniversaries that might someday eclipse the tragedy. I sent out another email, this time owning the date: “Rose Mae Sothern was born at 4:57 a.m. on Friday, September 11, 2009, weighing in at 8 lbs., 10 oz., and altogether transforming the meaning of that date in our history for me.”
I got a response from Rebecca Solnit. I had met her when she visited New Orleans while researching her book, A Paradise Built in Hell, on the magnanimity of people in the face of disaster. She pointed out that September 11, 2001, had been, for the most part, “a day that people behaved beautifully under the most extreme circumstances in New York City, millions of them in contrast to the 19 who sought to destroy.” But she made another observation, which gave rise to a sense of wonder, beauty, and synchronicity that tempts me to believe the world is not simply spiraling meaninglessly but instead is ordered, even blessed. She told me that September 11, 1906, is the day that Gandhi began to harness non-violence as a tool against oppression in South Africa, a method of resistance called “satyagraha,” a Sanskrit word meaning “the Force which is born of Truth and Love or non-violence.”
Without any of us knowing it, Nikki labored and Rose was born on the anniversary of satyagraha, to the rhythms and sounds of an opera that Philip Glass wrote in honor of Gandhi and a vision of social justice through non-violence.
As my daughter’s second birthday approaches, and with it, this terrible tenth anniversary of a date that swallowed her birthday as its name, I do my part to remind people that as much truth and love exists on that day as any other. Approach me in the park, as she romps by, and ask me, “How old is that precious little girl?”
I will tell you, stressing the date, “She was born on September 11, 2009. So she’s almost two.” My hope is that you will see in her face that satyagraha exists – as it did in 1906 and, yes, 2001 – and that its power is undiminished.
Billy Sothern is a criminal defense attorney and the author of “Down in New Orleans: Reflections from a Drowned City.”
Thursday, June 16, 2011
Nikki and I watched and enjoyed Woody Allen's new Midnight in Paris tonight, a film that plays with and examines the nostalgia that saturates so much of his work (and the imaginations of so many of his fans, myself included). The movie takes place in modern day Paris but the main character travels back to the Paris of the 1920's which he glorifies and loves from books.
The movie reminded me of a sketch from an old Woody Allen stand up record that I have, where Woody imagines himself hanging out with Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, and the "Fitzgerarlds." It is very clear to me that this 30 or 40 year old stand up routine is the germ of the idea that became Midnight in Paris. And its also just really funny.
Friday, June 3, 2011
The realistic portrayal of the lives of the characters (and their drinking, which also seemed true to life) reminded me of a favorite writer, Raymond Carver. And then there was a scene, where in intoxication and frustration, the male character pulled his wedding ring off his finger and threw it into the grass, which I remembered from a Carver story and which I took to be a conscious reference on the part of the filmmaker.
In my recollection, the character in the Carver story, in a burst of drunken and momentary animosity and foolhardiness and in the presence of his spouse, pulled off his wedding ring in threw it off a deck out into a field. He immediately regretted it and realized that he could never find the ring, or repair the damage that he had done to his marriage.
I have looked for the story but, as near as I can tell, it does not exist, at least not as I remember it. Instead, in a wonderful story called "Chef's House," about a couple who are long separated because of drinking and strife, they come together at a summer house after the husband goes on the wagon and they remember what they loved about each other, only to see it fall away again. In that story, in his book Cathedral, Carver wrote the following paragraph, the only one in his work I can find about thrown wedding rings:
We drank coffee, pop, and all kind of fruit juice that summer. The whole summer, that's what we had to drink. I found myself wishing the summer wouldn't end. I knew better, but after a month of being with Wes at Chef's house, I put my wedding ring back on. I hadn't worn the ring in two years. Not since the night Wes was drunk and threw his ring into a peach orchard.I guess its possible that I made up the other details, or filled them into my understanding of this moment in Carver's spare and brief narrative. Whether or not it was a conscious reference or a reference at all, I still regard the film as Carveresque, which is to say beautiful, true, and as sad as life.
Tuesday, May 31, 2011
WNYC has a recording of the panel discussion on its website and highlighted the following "bon mots" from the discussion (not all of which I agree with):
Billy Sothern, a New Orleans anti-death penalty lawyer and author of "Down in New Orleans: Reflections From a Drowned City," on understanding New Orleans: "I think there are many who view NOLA as this exceptional place and some of them are the city’s biggest fans. But I argue that instead of its exceptionalism, the rest of America needs to be concerned with New Orleans because it's highly representative of the problems of the rest of the country ... These kinds of issues are coming to a neighborhood near you — they may already have but they are going to get worse. Instead of a metaphor, I think it's important to not say we have this 'New Orleans problem' with the schools and crime. Instead, we have this 'American problem' that is tragically magnified in the city of New Orleans."Because PEN had proposed a New Orleans-based project, the panel drafted a statement reflecting the kind of project that we believed could be beneficial as well as some general statements that we felt should guide any effort to "help" New Orleans:
Nicholas Lemann, a New Orleans native, staff writer for The New Yorker (among other magazines), and Dean of Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, on race: "The fabled white elite that controls everything in New Orleans are probably the least powerful white elite than you'd find in any big city in the country. Not because someone took their power away, but for various cultural reasons. New Orleans has no locally controlled major economic institutions, so the infamous New Orleans white elite does not have the inclination to do what one would want done in New Orleans. And if they had the inclination, they would not be able to do them."
Sarah Broom, a New Orleans native who wrote "A Yellow House in New Orleans," on local pride: "I think this 'love of place' is really just from people who are stuck in a lots of ways. There were very few opportunities for [career] advancement. It's almost impossible for a highly-educated person to move back to New Orleans and find some sort of intellectual rigor. That is just the truth. Part of it is that Hurricane Katrina forced a lot of people from New Orleans and now they don't want to come back. This population of people who can't come back because they can't afford to are also made up of people who don't actually want to return."
Fatima Shaik, who is the author of four books of fiction set in Louisiana, on writing about New Orleans: "I think writers after Katrina were thrust into the roles of sociologists. People who are from New Orleans are likely to write about it. I think those people who are not from the city and want to write about it should focus on writing across the cultures and writing accurately. People don't have a conversation across cultures. Writers can do that."
A few things we don’t want to do: we don’t want to be redundant, meaning we don’t want to start a service or project that already exists locally. Even worse, we don’t want to compete or confuse. There was a consensus in our group that education is of paramount importance and should be a component of PEN’s work in New Orleans. One way of doing this is to expand upon initiatives already in place within PEN, such as the children’s education program, prison writing and folklore projects. Where such programs exist we think there is a pressing need to implement them in New Orleans in an aggressive way. Ideally we would hope for PEN to extend these projects into New Orleans, while at the same start a new, unique project. It’s crucial that this process leads to real results.
The project should be mindful of the fact there are major human rights failings in New Orleans that have not been addressed adequately by the local and federal government and the criminal justice system.
Some ideas for projects to be implemented with PEN’s help in New Orleans:
1. Books are not allowed in New Orleans prisons. PEN should aggressively advocate to change that policy, especially given the incredibly high incarceration rate.
2. PEN should continue to support the MLK Visiting Authors program financially.
3. PEN can launch a mapping project. We would like for students to be involved with the technical and creative process of creating maps of their local neighborhoods. We could partner with the (potential) forthcoming publication, “Mapping New Orleans.”
4. Science and engineering can be a venue for storytelling. We can begin an initiative to create a workshop to bring together scientists, engineers, and writers and teach research methodology to writers—perhaps in the form of a lecture series.
5. Introduce the Prison Writing Program into New Orleans prisons.
6. We would like to launch a movie series in various parks and neighborhoods by pairing local documentaries with films that are about New Orleans in the hope of drawing a large public.
7. A regular reading series that could be held in outdoor places around the city—perhaps we can partner with local reading series, arts markets, and farmers’ markets.
8. A PEN/New Orleans literary prize should be established, for a writer, a student, or a group of students.
9. Establish a relationship with local radio stations as well as the Times Picayune, following the example of the StoryCorps project two years ago. The Times-Pic featured selected stories from that project.
10. We can try to launch a series of guest editorials in the Times Picayune by influential PEN Writers, which could be connected to another of the projects mentioned herein, where applicable.
11. Once we have identified projects on which to focus our energy and funding, have a PEN author write an editorial in a national publication to draw attention to our efforts.
12. PEN should provide a page on its web site for people who are coming to New Orleans and may be interested in doing nonprofit or volunteer work in the city, including partner organizations: a page of links to local projects.
13. Some local organizations that PEN can partner with include Tulane’s Center for Public Service, Times-Pic, MLK School, Neighborhood Story Project, Xavier, Loyola, Dillard, New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, Louisiana Endowment of the Humanities, the American Folklore Project (Maggi Michel, a representative of the American Folklore Project has expressed great interest in helping), the New Orleans Film Society, and Patois.
We would like to stress the importance of bringing into underserved schools professionals in the arts, sciences, technologies, and engineering.
All programming should be forward-looking and should not dwell excessively on Katrina.
We hope this will be the beginning of a practical discussion about what steps to take and how to implement one or several of these projects effectively. We hope such a conversation can take place within the next two months, whether at a meeting or through a web conversation. In many of the proposals given above, we have much more to add, including contacts and local organizations with whom we are in touch and who can bring about immediate results.
Monday, May 30, 2011
Monday, May 9, 2011
From the Times Picayune:
Fourth marijuana conviction gets Slidell man life in prison
Thursday, May 05, 2011, 5:51 PM
By Ramon Antonio Vargas
Cornell Hood II got off with probation after three marijuana convictions in New Orleans.
He didn't fare too well after moving to St. Tammany Parish, however. A single such conviction on the north shore landed the 35-year-old in prison for the rest of his life.
State Judge Raymond S. Childress punished Hood under Louisiana's repeat-offender law in his courtroom in Covington on Thursday. A jury on Feb. 15 found the defendant guilty of attempting to possess and distribute marijuana at his Slidell home, court records show.
Sunday, March 27, 2011
I have a collection of old, home recorded records that I found at various junk and thrift stores. I found several recently, all apparently recorded by the same person, at the Latter Library book sale. My favorite of the bunch is labeled "Wayne, Jack and Brian - 3/24/47". Wayne and Jack both introduce themselves as students at the "Audubon School" and gave their last names as something that sounds to me like Laszlo.
The record is very sweet with the eldest, Wayne, reciting two nursery rhymes for his dad, then Jack, slightly less sure, and then, finally, little Brian, unable to talk above a squeak as his dad encourages him to say a few words for the record so that his grandparents can hear him.
These little boys would all now be past sixty. I would like to give them their record back. Anyone know a Laszlo family, or something like that, with three boys, Wayne, Jack, and Brian, all born in the thirties or forties and from New Orleans.
Wednesday, March 16, 2011
Government data estimates that an accident at Waterford 3 would lead to 96,000 deaths and 279,000 injuries within a year, as well as 9,000 cancer deaths over the lifetime of the exposed population. The cost of such an accident was predicted to be $131 billion in 1980.The crisis in Japan is the world's second (and far biggest) environmental disaster to strike the world, greedy for power, in the past year. When we were facing the BP spill last year here in Louisiana, I was reminded of Moby Dick, and the lengths that we have gone to historically to keep the lights on. (An op-ed in the New York Times beat me to the punch in employing the metaphor.)
The power from Waterford 3 keeps my air conditioning on all summer long in my drafty, inefficient New Orleans home. Realistically, I do not expect that my concerns about where my energy comes from, or its consequences, will change my thermostat. And if we are unwilling, I can be pretty sure that others, less concerned, will not change there behaviors. But clearly with consumption of energy growing these energy related disasters will continue until we identify energy sources that don't spoil the seas, rape the earth, and rise the tides.
I expect, or at least hope, that these past few days have tipped the scales on the cost benefit analysis that keeps us dependent on dangerous means of energy production.
Monday, January 31, 2011
Meyers suggested that the founding fathers would be too "freaked out" by cars, planes, and the fact that all of the slaves had been freed to even engage these weighty issues in modern American life. It's too good to miss.
Tuesday, January 18, 2011
Here are the first few paragraphs of the book, posted on The Brooklyn Rail (which is serializing the book, a chapter a month):
Chapter 1I drink my coffee and stare out the window at the cars passing by on the highway. I remember the old Kerouac line: whither goest thou, America, in thy shiny automobile? It was all open roads and possibilities for that guy. A wide-eyed, down-to-earth madness that rolled from one coast to another. Football-playing kids with books of poetry by their beds. I grew up in Kerouac's America. He was my guy. One of the first things I did when I got to New York was take the train up to Columbia so that I could walk in his footsteps. I lived for his idea of what we were supposed to be. But there are no angels anymore. No more saints. No visionary catholic supplications or prayers to make to god. No more optimism. No fantastic smiles. No great west. No more cowboys or jazzmen, unless they're in a Visa commercial. I would love to go moan for man, but the credit cards would sue me and the student loan companies would put me in default. No need to go looking for Dean Moriarty, because he works for the collections department of an insurance company in Delaware. He hates his job and would quit and hit the road, but can't afford to miss a mortgage payment. And he's not really in traveling shape anymore, but about 80 pounds overweight. Too big to fail.
I turn away from the window, go back to the Sallie Mae website and finish with the electronic forms for my second-to-last deferment. After this one, I'll be coming in here to Starbucks looking for a job. I can see myself filling out the application at the wobbly table in the corner, wallowing in the glory that really never was, then sitting there with a stupid smile on my face as the 21-year-old assistant manager holds up a mirror to more than two decades of overeducated bad decisions. The goatee with the first signs of grey, crow's feet around the eyes, and the tattoos no longer anti-establishment cool, but mile markers on the road to nowhere. I never expected or even wanted my life to be a straight line, but thought that if you put the time in and paid your dues, then you wouldn't end up back in the same place you were 20 years ago.
I put away my laptop, finish the coffee and head out the door. I walk past the California Pizza Kitchen, the Chipotle and up the sidewalk toward the Target. The way the sun glistens off the minivans is spectacular, haunting. I enter through the sliding automatic doors into the fluorescent lights and cut through rows of candles, heaters, curtains, blinds, slipcovers, mirrors, humidifiers and pet supplies. I stop to ask a salesclerk about the soy milk. The man is maybe 75, thick coke-bottle glasses, splotchy face and crooked back. He should be off somewhere playing shuffleboard and bitching about the young, not spending the last years before the grand exit struggling in the belly of a big box store. It takes him 25 seconds just to walk across the aisle. "I'm sorry to bother you, sir. But do you know where the soy milk is?"
"No sir, the soy milk…."
"No sir, the soy milk."
I feel like the most bourgeois, pretentious yuppie that ever lived. Ohmygawd, you've never heard of soy milk? Didn't you read the article in Salon about the dairy industry? There's as much suffering in a cup of milk as a pound of beef! "Oh wait, sir, hold on…I think I see it right over there! Thank you!" I take off through maternity, outerwear, plus sizes, women's shoes, accessories, luggage, infant, toddler, patio furniture and into the refrigerated food section…Like a liberal in Texas, it's surrounded by chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. I take two half-gallons off the shelf and tell myself how wonderful I am for making the enlightened consumer choice, but really the soy milk is made by a subsidiary of a publicly-traded company that's owned by a conglomerate with its headquarters on a space station that controls the factories that make the chicken nuggets, buffalo wings, sausage patties and microwave-ready cheeseburgers. There is no escape from complicity when you're an American. All we can do is turn down the volume from 11 to 9.
Thursday, January 13, 2011
Greek Revival Townhouse with Men Seated in Dourway, New Orleans
Silver gelatin print
I went to The Ogden Museum to see the Walker Evans show on its final day up, January 2, 2011. I have been a big fan of Evans' work since college, when I fell in love with Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, on which Evans collaborated with James Agee.
The exhibit comprised three rooms of architectural photographs (the one above was one of very few with any people captured). The first room was New Orleans photographs and the other two rooms were photographs of plantations in southern Louisiana. All the photographs were taken on trips to Louisiana in 1935 and 1936 and are part of the actress Jessica Lange's collection.
As described by the museum, the photographs were intended to document real life during the Great Depression:
Working in what he called the “vernacular style,” Evans forged an approach that preferred the everyday to the precious and the factual over the artful. Although he often photographed inanimate objects, with architecture and signage being among his most lasting subjects, he also captured the harsh realities of American life in the grips of the Great Depression.
But viewing the exhibit in 2011, it struck me that it was nearly impossible for a contemporary viewer to see the photographs in that spirit. It was hard not to see the photographs as historical documents or curiosities from the past. (I was, for instance, excited to see an eighty year old photograph of a house that I like a lot on Esplanade Avenue.) And I worried, as I viewed the photographs of the crumbling old Greek revival plantation houses, that viewers would see the photographs with some measure of nostalgia, something that I suspect would have troubled Evans. (Though these buildings were many decades old when he photographed them and had little bearing on the "harsh realities" of the Great Depression. So I wonder what he found in them?)
Check it out.