Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?

I’m reading 1 Dead in Attic, a compilation of columns that Times-Picayune columnist Chris Rose wrote in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Rose was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for the essays and shared the Pulitzer for public service that the newspaper won. 

In the winter of 2006, he self-published 1 Dead in Attic, and sold 65,000 copies before Simon & Schuster bought the rights. S&S published its trade paperback edition in August, 2007, two years after the hurricane that irrevocably changed life in the Big Easy.

I rescued 1 Dead in Attic from the pile of rejected books at my day job last summer. Evidently, nobody at work wants to read about Katrina anymore, except me. 

Rose’s stories are making me laugh and cry, sometimes within minutes of each other. Here’s an example:

“When I look back on the year 2005, nothing comes to mind more than the opening line of Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: ‘It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’

Except for that ‘best of times’ part, it describes New Orleans perfectly.”

Rose has a knack for finding irony in the smallest of details. I learned that the “Desire” bus line, which superseded the famous Streetcar Named Desire,  was scrapped after Katrina and replaced by the “Sullen” line. That pretty much says it all, doesn’t it?

In the genre that Rose has dubbed “history in a hurry,” this book is right up there with Edna Buchanan’s “The Corpse Had a Familiar Face,” the Miami Herald columnist’s tragicomic musings on covering the crime beat.

As an astrologer, I’m always combing books and blogs for birth times that can be used to calculate horoscopes. My feeling about astrology is: “Garbage in, garbage out.” The more accurate your time, the better your intepretation. And to those cynics who say astrology is all garbage, you’re on the wrong blog!

In a column called “The Surreal City,” Rose observes:

“If Salvador Dali showed up here, he wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of it. Nobody could paint this.

He did that famous painting of the melting clock, and our clocks melted at 6:45 the morning of August 29.”

Why did this grab my attention? Well, most of the charts out there for Katrina are set for 6:10 a.m., when the hurricane made landfall in Buras, La. Here’s that chart, courtesy of AstroDataBank.

I would argue that the 6:45 time is the defining moment for New Orleanians and their experience of Katrina. Using this time produces a much more dramatic chart than the 6:10 time.  Here it is, courtesy of Astrodienst.

This chart has the Sun in Virgo opposing Uranus in Pisces straddling the Ascendant/Descendant. In astrological parlance, the opposition is much more “angular” than in the 6:10 chart. In Uranian astrology, the Ascendant or Rising is the environment or experience of the native. And most astrologers, regardless of their “school,” would describe the Descendant or the seventh house cusp, as what’s coming at you.

In this chart, the Sun on the Ascendant is the physical body of New Orleans, represented by Uranus in Pisces, an apt aspect for a Category 3 hurricane that led to deadly floods.

Other highlights of the chart: Mars in Taurus, Mercury in Leo, and Neptune in Aquarius in a fairly tight T-square, highlighting the confusion, helplessness, and anger about the evacuation of N.O. residents. At first, New Orleanians, to use Rose’s words, thought they “dodged a bullet” because Katrina was weaker at landfall than expected. It wasn’t until later that the threat posed by the levees breaking started to sink in (no pun intended). The problem wasn’t the hurricane, it was the subsequent flooding of the city, much of which sits below sea level. Those residents who hadn’t left town and hadn’t heeded the advice to keep an ax in their attic were in great danger.

The Venus/Jupiter conjunction in Libra in the second underscores the cultural wealth of the city and the helping hand that artists have lent to relief efforts. The Venus/Jupiter conjunction trines Neptune in Aquarius, which I believe points to the financial outpouring from religious institutions, not to mention the hands-on assistance of church groups from across the country in replacing the housing stock of the city. I’m sorry to say that I didn’t go down to N.O. and help clean up after Katrina, but I did clean out my pantry that fateful weekend and contribute to a food drive that my local church was having. As The New York Times has pointed out, “faith” has helped rebuild New Orleans. Amen!

Some people might wonder why I’m thinking about Katrina and the Big Easy nearly three years after the storm. That’s a question I’ve asked myself. I’m not from New Orleans and I didn’t go to Tulane, as some of my friends did. During the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to attend the JazzFest several years in a row and see great artists like Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Bonnie Raitt, John Hiatt, Harry Connick Jr., and the Neville Brothers (not listed in order of importance).

One year at JazzFest, I was sure I had died and gone to heaven: I got to see Mavis Staples belting out the soundtrack of my youth, with Pop Staples (he was still alive then) backing her up on keyboards.

I love the egalitarian nature of JazzFest. Anybody with a general admission ticket can tramp through the mud (it always rained the day before I arrived) at the fairgrounds to a tent and score a seat for an amazing concert by a gospel choir.  In those days, the Gospel Tent at JazzFest was sponsored by black-owned Rhodes Funeral Home, which had a side business of renting limos. Before the music would start, a voice would come over the sound system and say: “Rhodes: They’re with you when you’re sad, and they’re with you when you’re glad.” I don’t know why, but that just cracked me up.

(From reading Rose’s book and surfing the Net, I gather that Rhodes was one of the many N.O. businesses dislocated by Katrina.)

For a little sample of New Orleans, click here: http://www.wwoz.org/listen.php. Radio station WWOZ is live at the French Quarter Festival broadcasting Amanda Shaw’s “Pretty Runs Out” right now (11:25 a.m. PDT on April 13) and will be at JazzFest ( http://www.nojazzfest.com/) from Apr. 25-May 4.

Evidently, there is a competition to operate the concessions at JazzFest. There was a bakeoff of sorts among all the church ladies in the city, who whipped up their best jambalaya, shrimp gumbo, and crawfish Monica to win a place at the fairgrounds. During one JazzFest when I was particularly obsessed about my weight, I stepped on the scale when I arrived in the Big Easy and just before I headed to the airport. When I announced to our host that I had gained 10 lbs. in the course of a single weekend, he replied in good ole’ boy fashion: “Honey, this ain’t no spa.”

Music, food, and drink, with a little voodoo thrown in: New Orleans is my idea of paradise. So it’s no surprise that the weekend that Katrina hit found me curled up in the fetal position, alternating between crying and sleeping.  This infantile reaction makes perfect sense to me: Katrina and I share a Cancer Moon. I was left prostrate by the impotence of our leaders  in the face of her fury. The conspiracy theory that the government allowed this to happen as part of a plan to turn multicultural N.O. into New White City sounded hollow to my ears. This was flat-out incompetence, not some neo-Aryan strategy.

Unlike Rose of the Times-Picayune, who holds the Army Corps of Engineers responsible for the levees breaking, I place the blame squarely on the shoulders of President George W. Bush.

One of the many mistakes that GWB made was putting unqualified cronies in key government positions and injecting politics into the civil service. In this case, his ill-advised decision to name Mike Brown to head the Federal Emergency Management Agency was lethal. Brown was forced to resign Sept. 12, 2005, but it was too late for the 1,836 individuals who died because of Katrina. (The figure comes from the Wiki on Katrina.) 

It’s popular in this country to be anti-government, but the U.S. has one of the most efficient — and until the arrival of the Bushies — honest cadre of government employees in the world. O.K., maybe Britain and France have a better educated government workforce than we do. But visit Latin America or Africa, where you have to grease the palms of the customs inspectors and baggage handlers to get out of the airport, and you’ll have a new appreciation of how well things work here.

Katrina was a turning point for the Bush Administration. America woke up and began to see that the emperor had no clothes. The resources that we had diverted to Iraq hindered the ability to respond to a domestic emergency such as Katrina. No amount of cheerleading was going to get us out of this one.

Now that we’ve explored my visceral reaction to Katrina and the failure of leadership, let’s look at why this problem isn’t going away. Saturn has been hanging around the Sun of the Katrina chart since late last year and will make its last pass on Friday, July 18. Saturn is the authority figure so maybe the government (federal, state, or local) will announce some measure to speed up the reconstruction of New Orleans around that time.

But since the Sun represents the life force of the Big Easy’s residents, I would say the city will continue to be depressed and that it is unlikely to return to anywhere near its former size until Saturn leaves Virgo in October, 2009. According to the Census Bureau, N.O.’s population declined by more than half in Katrina’s wake — to 223,388 on July 1, 2006, from 452,170 a year before.

Last month, city officials challenged a July, 2007, Census Bureau estimate that New Orleans had 239,124 residents.  Mayor C. Ray Nagin says the number is closer to 300,000, citing studies by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, which was assisted by the Brookings Institution. This isn’t a matter of haggling over statistics. The official population numbers affect the amount of federal government funding that the city receives.

Closer to home, I was dismayed when I sent a contribution to the Bush-Clinton Katrina Fund late last year and I received a letter that the fund was closed because its work was done. (I don’t have the letter in front of me so I’m paraphrasing here.) I haven’t been to New Orleans since Katrina, but based on what I read and hear, there is still much work to be done there, particularly in the area of community policing and witness protection. Such measures would help stop the crime wave that threatens to engulf the city.

This national treasure shouldn’t be left to rot because its laissez les bons temps rouler philosophy doesn’t mesh with America’s puritanical self-image. Of course, the images of New Orleanians trapped in the Louisiana Superdome didn’t do much to help the cause. Katrina survivors were portrayed as a bunch of lushes, lechers, and leeches not deserving of our help or sympathy. But if you put 10,000 Wall Streeters in the New York Stock Exchange with not enough food, drinking water, or toilets, not to mention rain coming through holes in the roof, things would get pretty ugly in that bastion of civilization too.

When I was killing time in the Houston airport last week, I was subjected to a rant about how Big Easy transplants have debauched the city. If I had brought 1 Dead in Attic with me, I would have passed it along to my friendly New Orleanian-basher. Maybe reading about folks who committed suicide because they couldn’t face starting over after Katrina would give him a little compassion for those who were looking for a handout in Houston. “And the way those folks ran up their FEMA credit cards, can you believe it?”

Funny how you don’t hear people complaining in airports about the government’s bailout of Bear Stearns. John Kenneth Gailbraith’s quote that “In America, the only respectable form of socialism is socialism for the rich” has been cited more than a few times lately in the blogosphere, but it’s worth repeating. 

Along the same lines, I love Don Henley’s observation in the 1980s song “Gimme What You Got” that “A man with a briefcase can steal more money than any man with a gun.” You’d think they would get that in Houston, the headquarters of Enron. Wouldn’t you?

The Führer’s Filmmaker

Hollywood director Steven Spielberg’s Feb. 12 announcement that he was dropping out of opening ceremonies for the Beijing Summer Olympics because of the mainland’s ties to Sudan got me thinking about another filmmaker inextricably linked to the Olympics: Leni Riefenstahl.

Best known for her Nazi party rally documentary Triumph of the Will, Reifenstahl was at the top of her game when she immortalized the human physique in Olympiad, her film about the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

I was only vaguely aware of Reifenstahl until I saw The Wonderful, Horrible Life of Leni Riefenstahl, Ray Müller’s 1993 documentary (released in German as Macht der Bilder) made on the occasion of her 90th birthday. At the time, I was blown away by Müller’s film, but I haven’t given Riefenstahl much thought since then.

During her life, which spanned more than a century, Riefenstahl was admired for her considerable talents and moxie, envied for her access to Adolph Hitler, ostracized for her involvement in National Socialism, and then accepted for her sheer staying power.

Spielberg’s decision to boycott this summer’s Olympic Games prompted me to do a little reading on Riefenstahl. To learn more about this chameleon who claimed that art trumps politics, I’ve been reading Jürgen Trimborn’s gripping biography Leni Riefenstahl: A Life.

I don’t know much about Trimborn other than what is in the jacket of the book and in the reviews indicating that this 2002 book is the seminal work on Riefenstahl’s life. I found myself wondering whether Trimborn was raised Catholic in light of his assessment that Riefenstahl’s life was incomplete because she never confessed her sins and never apologized for profiting from her association with Hitler and his hate machine. Obviously, an apology is preferable to denial, but it still doesn’t constitute atonement.

I want to read more about Riefenstahl, especially from a psychological point of view. In my estimation, she was both a textbook narcissist and a sociopath. When repeatedly confronted by courts, journalists, and filmmakers with her collaboration (at the very least) and crimes (at the worst), her strategy was: “Deny, deny, deny.”

I was quite eager to run Riefenstahl’s chart and was disappointed that Trimborn’s book didn’t have a time of birth. Biographies are great treasure troves for the astrologer looking for an accurate time of birth. Riefenstahl was born on Aug. 22, 1902 in Berlin, Germany. You can see Riefenstahl’s chart, thanks to Astrodienst, here.

Triumph of the Will could be the subtitle of Leni Riefenstahl’s story because her success, first as a dancer and then as the star of German “mountain films,” was due entirely to her own determination and her ability to attract patrons. The artistic life that she envisioned for herself was not what her parents, particularly her father, had in mind for their daughter. In freedom-loving, modern-day America, it’s hard to imagine the hurdles that Riefenstahl surmounted in a patriarchal society where women were controlled first by their fathers and then their husbands.

The self-directed, athletic life that Riefenstahl pursued epitomizes her Aries Moon, which I’ve seen frequently in the charts of female dancers, gymnasts, trainers, and sports therapists. Riefenstahl wasn’t merely mirroring Hitler’s misguided search for human physical perfection; her celebration of the martial beauty of mountain climbers, soldiers, athletes, and African tribes was part of her own aesthetic. 

If there was a time when Reifenstahl must have felt as if she were standing on top of the world, it was on Hitler’s birthday (April 20) in 1938, when Olympiad had its premiere after two years in the making.  In looking at the transits and progressions for this day, the main thing that jumps out is the opposition of Jupiter in Aquarius to her Leo Sun. Clearly, she was at the apex of her influence.

I’ve been studying astrology off and on for nearly 30 years, but I still don’t understand the significance of “unaspected” planets. Riefenstahl’s Sun is so late in Leo that it doesn’t make any connections to any other planets in her chart. Some astrologers would say the lack of aspects gives the Sun a renegade quality. Certainly Riefenstahl was an original.

What I found interesting in reading Trimborn’s biography of Reifenstahl was how she responded to the transits of outer planets in her life. She was certainly dragged through the depths as Pluto made its way through Leo during World War II. But after the war she grew interested in Africa and studying the isolated Nuba tribe of Sudan as Pluto came to oppose her Sun late Leo. (I’m speaking broadly here.)

Late in her life, as Neptune in Aquarius opposed her Sun, she discovered yet another career, as an underwater photographer, which she pursued until her death.

The 1993 Uranus/Neptune conjunctions in Capricorn opposed Riefenstahl’s Mars at 21 degrees of Cancer. That coincided with the international release of Müller’s documentary. The film in turn precipitated a brutal re-examination of Riefenstahl’s role in the rise of the Third Reich and whether the various tribunals that exonerated her after World War II were told the truth. Indeed, some of the damning documents and footage that Trimborn uses to make his case against Riefenstahl weren’t available until recently.

Although Riefenstahl maintained until her dying day (Sept. 8, 2003) that her films were art, not propaganda, clearly other artists, including Steven Spielberg, understand the dangers of appearing to serve a brutal regime.