Monday, October 8, 2007

REMEMBRANCE OF THINGS PAST (originally posted 9/12/07)

As the plane took off from Santa Barbara, California, I danced a little jig and mouthed the chorus to the Go-Go's’ “Vacation,” while munching on my pre-packaged breakfast of Kashi. Oh, it was going to be fun!

Sure, I was heading off for work. But it was Labor Day - and Mark had the kids for this lovely long weekend. Yeah, baby! And even though my 80s pop song was serving as a sobering reminder of my age and my teenage years – both of which I sincerely prefer to forget – I couldn’t help but be excited. I was going to the Decatur Book Festival in Atlanta, Georgia.

I was going home.

Now, since my oh-so-literary opus, The Southern Girl’s Guide, hit bookstores in early January, I’ve had the privilege of speaking at several book festivals around the South. With their requisite author hobnobbing, these events are always a blast. Think great minds, great books, great conversation and great booze…er, food. But this weekend was sure to surpass them all.

It most definitely did.

Located a few miles from downtown Atlanta, Decatur calls itself “Mayberry with a Kick,” and it’s one of the best kept secrets in the South. Mother was a majorette at Decatur High, the same class as Roy Blount (1959 – sorry, Mama), another author at this year’s festival (albeit one far more renowned than little old moi). Roy remembers Mother’s legs, which were and are still fabulous, as she pranced around the football team. Go, Decatur bulldogs! My uncle Charlie once burned down the woods behind the family home on Inman Drive. Go, Decatur firefighters!

So maybe genetic predisposition had something to do with it, but as soon as Mark and I hit town ten years ago, we fell in love with Decatur’s historic architecture, art-infused culture and small-town-inside-the-big-city charm. I’d be there still, in fact, reporting on everything from the county CEO (think Ray Nagin without the hurricane) to the latest band at Eddie’s Attic (launching pad of more than a few famous musicians).

If only the Air Force hadn’t seen fit to move us to California. While I was pregnant. Just weeks after my Daddy was buried. Away from everything that I know and love.

Not that I'm bitter, mind you.

Of course, as my friend Dottie Benton Frank said, when I complained about the officer housing on base, which boasts mold and walls so thin you can hear the neighbors going potty, “That’s why they call it ‘the service,’ honey. Nobody said it would be fun.”

Ain’t that the truth.

After settling into my hotel on the Decatur Square, I donned a pair of shorts and headed for my favorite sushi place. They were, to my horror, completely out of sweet tea.

People, people, people!

Upon hearing my tale of woe, however (stuck in California, no sweet tea to be found, no real tea, even – except at Taco Bell, and God bless the Mexicans), they made more. I waited. Then I drank the equivalent of a Big Gulp in liquid gold.

Oh, blessed assurance, Jesus is mine.

Too bad that in my zeal to embark upon Proustian memories, I completely forgot the effect of imbibing sugar and caffeine at 10 o’clock in the evening. No doubt, I garnered more than a few glances as I worked that hotel treadmill at 1 a.m.

The next day, with 70,000 other attendees, I listened to fabulous lectures and concerts, ran my mouth in the author hospitality suite and generally had a ball, as my grandmother likes to say. It was, to say the least, wonderful to be back – especially with the kind of talent that festival organizers Daren Wang and Tom Bell had rounded up this year. You can check out the complete list here, but for today, I’ll focus on just one.

His name is Chris Rose, he’s a columnist with the “New Orleans Times-Picayune” and his first book, “1 Dead in Attic,” received tremendous national coverage after its recent release, which was timed to coincide with the two-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina.

The Gulf Coast. New Orleans. Katrina … Remember?

I met Rose at The Brickhouse Pub, where I was sipping on a Cosmo and eating my turkey burger, quietly minding my own business. (Okay, so I was talking to everyone in sight. Sue me. )
My girlfriend and I eventually moved to Rose's table, along with an Oregonian transplant named Jane -- clearly a masochist. And I think it’s safe to say that, along with everyone sitting near us, we had a howling good time.

There’s nothing funny about Rose’s book, however, which I read after listening to his lecture the following day. With heartrending truthfulness, he chronicles the aftermath of Katrina on himself and all the residents of the once-beautiful New Orleans. He’s a brilliant writer (he won the Pulitzer for his columns, which form the backbone of the book). And he nimbly engages in the kind of soul-searching honesty that most writers aspire to, yet rarely achieve – no doubt because of fear.

Unlike most, Rose conquered that fear and dared to recount not just the things he saw, but the things he felt. The dedication alone is enough to make you cry:

This book is dedicated to Thomas Coleman, a retired longshoreman, who died in his attic at 2214 St. Roch Avenue in New Orleans’ 8th Ward on or about August 29, 2005. He had a can of juice and a bedspread at his side when the waters rose.

Rose did something for me last weekend. Sure, he aided and abetted my vacation by buying two more Cosmopolitans (which, at $9 a pop, the Brickstore Pub is clearly discouraging). But, he also reminded me that New Orleans continues to be devastated by Katrina – a fact that has been casually overlooked by all the Britney-filled headlines.

In many ways, Rose said, the situation is even harder now than it was after the storm. Residents spend their days wrangling with reluctant insurance companies. Trash still fills the city, jobs are in short supply and crime has surpassed every city in the country. Even stoplights can be a roll of the dice.

And then there’s the post-traumatic stress disorder, a epidemic of mass proportions which threw Rose into a dark depression and has caused hundreds to commit suicide. Children as young as six are actually cutting themselves, in a desperate bid to ease the emotional pain. Unfortunately, with 80 percent of New Orleans’ mental health professionals gone from the city, this is no easy problem to solve.

Despite the lack of media interest, I should have been far more aware of Katrina's fallout. After all, our 1998 move to Atlanta was prompted by the inner city, where we spent years serving the homeless. Housing crack addicts and ex-cons, diapering dirty babies, feeding hungry first-graders – this was my mission, while my chaplain-husband worked the emergency room of Grady Hospital, dealing with the most horrifying heartbreaks and traumas.

As hard as it all was, I loved every minute. In fact, I often look back on that time when I couldn’t buy dinner and had to write in 98-degree heat with no air-conditioning as one of the best in my life. Life’s funny that way, isn’t it?

Of course, Decatur has never been submerged under water, either. And no one has ever written “1 Dead in Attic” on my house, while thousands wait to be rescued in the sweltering heat without food or water, for days on end.

In the past 30 months, I’ve faced the death of my father and mother-in-law; a high-risk pregnancy; a cross-country move that ripped me from family, friends, my home, my job and my beloved South. I became a military wife – something I would never have imagined. I also became a single mother during my husband’s five-month deployment to the Middle East and multiple separations. And, I’m still adjusting to a culture that makes the Bronx for a South Carolinian easy by comparison.

(Just trust me when I say that there’s a reason they call California “the land of fruits and nuts.)

When Katrina hit, I was weeks from giving birth and stuck at home with our toddler during Mark's 16-hour work days, wondering how I would ever finish the book that had just sold at auction to the highest bidder. But still, it took everything I had not to grab the kid, pack the minivan, empty our savings account and head to New Orleans to hand out water, food, clothes, encouragement, a prayer. Anything.

Meeting Chris Rose made me realize I should have.

I didn’t forget about New Orleans during the last two years, while life has been churning up its usually maelstrom of worries and woes. But I didn't really remember, either.

How about you?

Annabelle Robertson is an award-winning journalist and author. Her book, The Southern Girl’s Guide to Surviving the Newlywed Years: How to Stay Sane Once You’ve Caught Your Man, won the 2006 USA Best Books Award for humor. Visit her at, where you can download the first chapter.

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