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The Stress Doc Letter
Cybernotes from the Online Psychohumorist ™

SEP 2005, Sec. II

Main Essay:

The natural and man-made horrors surrounding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast almost defy words.  Actually, it was best captured by the harrowing and heroic images that kept us transfixed to the screen.  Having lived in New Orleans from 1974-1990, this heart-wrenching season takes on added power and poignancy.  Selfishly, I feel some relief both knowing and believing my friends have made it out of the city.  And while the loss of family and friends is an unspeakable sadness and tragedy, no longer having a home or job is pretty damn high on the life-change trauma scale.  I had a small taste of this during my sixteen-year stay.  Within a three-year period the city experienced two "once in a hundred year" spring floods.  And both times I had twelve inches of water in my ground floor apartment.  Let me briefly share a memory.  During the first storm we were let out early from work.  Trying to drive home was like navigating a tortuous maze of barely passable thoroughfares and side streets.  I had to park a half-mile from the house, and then had to wade in waist deep water to get to my door.  I knew I was in trouble upon opening the front door:  my bathroom slippers were floating in the living room.  What can I say, when dealing with New Orleans comedy and tragedy and absurdity definitely make strange and wonderful bedfellows.  So I'm torn between fearing the worst for my beloved city and, in fine New Orleans tradition, defying logic and reality and trusting in the city's enduring and magical spirit.  So here's a personal remembrance, hopefully more love letter than eulogy to my soul city.

Do You Know What It Means…To Have and Possibly Lose a City of Your Dreams?
Reflections of a Former American in Cajun Paris

The "Big Easy," "Laissez les bonnes temps roulez," "The City that Care Forgot"…phrases that suggest the irreverent yet innocent as well as the self-absorbed and the devil may care attitude and ambiance of a true original.  The city with a pace of life that ranges from the graceful to the outrageous – from sipping Mint Juleps on an uptown verandah to being wiped out by a Hurricane.  (For the moment I'm talking about the French Quarter, Pat O'Brien variety, a definite Category 5 on the alcohol potency/human lunacy scale.  Aha, maybe it's not just the shape of the bend in the Mississippi River separating the east and west banks that bestows upon New Orleans the title of Crescent City.)  This city's sights and sounds and spirit bathed and at times overwhelmed my senses; after sixteen years of life and living, of being steeped and stewed in N'Awlins comedy and tragedy, the cultural cacophony definitely seeped into and found a permanent place in my heart.  Not to mention other organs…like my ears and stomach.  (Now what were you actually thinking?  Okay, there were many fine women as well.)  From the eclectic, indelible music – Cajun, R & B and of course, all that jazz – to the myriad incredible tastes – crawfish etouffe, oyster poboys (dressed or undressed depending on your preference for lettuce, tomato and "my-o-naze"), rum drenched bread pudding, bananas foster, especially when flambéed at your table, and the most wickedly smooth frozen pina coladas, to name a few of my favorites.

Just thinking of New Orleans is usually akin to starting up some kindling in a cozy psychic fireplace that quickly spreads a warm inner glow.  Now my immediate association is a mix of sadness, rage and fear.  (I will try to resist chronicling all the ineptitude of government institutions and economic leaders; all the powers that be who ignored musician Randy Newman's line about an earlier ecological disaster, "Louisiana, they're trying to wash us away."  I will note, however, that my favorite sign at the recent anti-war march in DC was:  "Make Levees, Not War!")  Right now I worry and wonder whether much of the heart and soul of New Orleans has been wiped out in Katrina's unimaginable wake.

Homes and Gardens and History

While it's not simply physical destruction that eviscerates a city, this is a good place to start.  For example, the architecture of New Orleans is so distinct; the justly famous Vieux Carre grillwork is merely the beginning.  My mind's eye immediately conjures all the pastel colored residences – from small shotguns scattered throughout the city to the oversized Garden District homes.  The latter, are more like mansions, yet, in keeping with the city's contradictory nature, these homes are usually built on relatively small tracts of land.  Nonetheless, with the antebellum columns and large, often wraparound front porches these structures always seem erect, expansive and regal.  And the high ceilings and ceiling fans, along with door-like windows opening to the porch, seemed to blur inside life from the outer world.  Which made sense…N'Awlins was a very outdoor city.

From it's tall coconut bearing palm trees and its lush green, great oak-laden parks to the clanging of the bells from the above ground St. Charles Street Car Line, along with the street musicians jazz riffs or funky sounds streaming out of the clubs, what was happening was often happening outside.  Of course, at times one needed to escape the blazing sun and near stifling humidity.  Still, on occasion, the swelter and sweat definitely heightened the sensual pleasures of certain indoor escapades.  (Made for great showers! ;-)

Unlike the city of Atlanta that often erects a placard to note an historical site, New Orleans has always preserved and paraded its historical treasures.  And while sometimes in the aftermath of disaster you can reconstruct a complex of buildings and shops, I wonder if you can rebuild history.  Surely books, newspaper clippings, the History Channel, photos, storytelling and a good imagination help us relive the past in important ways.  My fear is that a 21st century resurrection of New Orleans will result in a Key West-like clone, increasingly commercialized and soulfully sanitized.   (I remember thinking downtown Charleston a cleaned-up national chain version of the French Quarter, and feeling something was missing or inauthentic.)

Will we get a Disneyfied version of three hundred yeas of incredibly rich and complex, incredibly poignant, painful and playful intermingling of Cajuns and Creoles, along with former slaves and slave masters, 19th century Jewish merchants, turn of the 20th century Italian immigrants, and more recent arrivals from the Caribbean and Viet Nam?  (Even the old, self-mocking epithet for N'Awlins – a "Disneyland for Drunks" – retains some of the city's playfully cynical spirit and feels more genuine than the above neutered prospects.)

Food for Thought or Mumbo Gumbo

Of course, the heart and soul of a culture resides in more than its indigenous architecture and parks, its homegrown music and food.  Ahh…the food.  Let me linger here a moment.  The amazing thing about New Orleans is you'd get gastronomical delights whether at a world-renowned French Quarter restaurant or at a local hole-in-the wall.  Can't do much better than lining up a little ways off of Canal Street near the river at the narrow, somewhat dark always crowded, customers hustling in and out, Mother's for an oyster poboy.  Then there's the cozy uptown seafood eatery, Casamentos, with the sparkling green and white tiled floor and walls and the red and white-checkered table cloths.  And half the fun was being served by those southern, Brooklyn-sounding, Irish Channel accented "Where y'at, darlin" waitresses.

There's another reason why it's hard to let go of the food:  New Orleans, with its uncommon social-historical demographics and diversely home grown nexus of cultural sensibility and style, uniquely cooks and conjures up its own mirthful, maddening and, ultimately, magical retro-cosmopolitan gumbo.  You just throw things together; let the logical and technological be damned.  The more seemingly disparate and disconnected, brazen and backward the ideas and images the better.  In fact, some might say it's this penchant for the paradoxical and making the strange familiar and the familiar strange that contributes to that playful and creative N'Awlins state of mind.  As an American icon of humor, Mark Twain, noted:  "Wit is the sudden marriage of ideas which before their union were not perceived to have any relation."  (And speaking of unions and surprising relational offspring, in light of being born in Brooklyn, raised in Queens and high-schooled in Manhattan, I've often explained a move to DC after my extended retreat in the Big Easy thusly:  If New York City and New Orleans had a baby it would look like Washington, DC…though I haven't decided whether it's a love child!)

Consider these examples of a "gumbo culture" that coexists with if not encourages that confederacy of contradiction and absurdity.  (And if you haven't yet read John Kennedy Toole's Confederacy of Dunces, get ye to a bookstore or Amazon.com.  Just don't give up on this masterpiece of N'Awlins sense and sensibility; the first fifty pages left me a bit clueless. The rest of the book wove its magical and hysterical spell):
a) Checkerboard living.  While there are (or were) many large sections of poverty in New Orleans, especially, in New Orleans East and the surrounding parishes, in the Uptown area you had a checkerboard-housing pattern.  Rich and poor lived in close proximity.  And while this did not eradicate prejudice and racism, you can't deal with cultural diversity in the abstract.  A necessary first step toward real understanding and emotional connection is actual involvement – the good, the bad and the ugly – and all the economic and social-psychology factors therein.

b) What's wrong with this picture?  At the renowned Camellia Grill restaurant, just off the St. Charles Avenue streetcar line, the front door greeter (the place wasn't big enough for a maitre'd) had a prosthetic hook where his right hand had been.  This wasn't purposefully done for shock value.  It was just unconscious anything goes N'Awlins.

c) Jazz Fest. You can't find a bigger smorgasbord of delights – sounds, sights, smells and tastes – than the Louisiana Jazz and Heritage Festival held in the infield of a huge race track.  The music ranges from jazz bands from Japan, Cajun fiddling, and African drumming to locals such as the Radiators, piano man supreme Dr. John (in the early days) as well as R & B legend B.B. King (the crowd and B.B. singing  "My Ding-a-Ling" is an indelible memory) as well as folk icons like Pete Seeger.  And then there's the incredible selection of food situated in booths throughout the Fairgrounds – from oyster stew and pone bread to alligator soup and soft shell crabs.  Jazz Fest is hedonistic harmony personified.

d) Fat Tuesday.  Then there's Mardi Gras.  I'll confine myself to my favorite aspect:  dodging early morning walking parades to find a parking spot near the French Quarter before 9am to meander among the costumed revelers and the wide-eyed tourists.  The costumes ranged from the playful to the outrageous.  In the mid-70s, the gay beauty pageant definitely was out there.  But it wasn't just the formal pageant and the elaborately frilly, feathery and sequined outfits.  Preceding one pageant, a gay contestant was posing while "discouraging" the shutter-bugged tourists with, "No pictures, no pictures.  My mother thinks I'm a heavy truck operator."  He was having a ball.

Though perhaps the most outrageous costume in memory was sported by two men, each no more than three feet tall, brandishing black swords, black capes flowing off their shoulders and wearing only black leather jock straps along with black sneakers and black socks.  For me, Mardi Gras morning on Bourbon and Royal Streets etal., before the Quarter became totally consumed in drunken debauchery and the smell of various bodily outpourings, evoked associations to a 60s Frederico Fellini cinema carnival.  Totally surreal:  you were awake and floating in a dream state.  (Which is not so removed from one's normal N'Awlins state of mind.)

e) Urban pastoral.  And speaking of being out of place and time, there's Audubon Park, one of the boundaries of Tulane University, where I was both a graduate student and a part-time professor.  The park was an incredibly lush urban haven.  The many lagoons, the huge oak trees with draping Spanish moss, and the man-made stone waterfall-like fountain; the sound of running water soothing my hyper-stimulated brain.  But this was more than a wonderful retreat and meditation setting for an on the edge doctoral student.  Close your eyes and you were suddenly transported to the world of old Evangeline and the slower-paced, 19th century life in the bayou.

That Old Devil Muse

Not surprisingly this gumbo philosophy of throwing together whatever also fosters that devil may care, anything goes spirit.  And in contrast to a town of titles, degrees and credentials like Washington, DC, New Orleans seems to encourage doing your own thing (or, at least, it can be a great place to start).  For example, in the early 80s with no media experience I was able to break into radio and TV.  What I had was the buzzwords "stress" and "burnout," an expertise gleaned from having burnt out while unsuccessfully pursuing a doctorate in social work.  Also, my timing was impeccable.  Back then oil went bust and much of the state seemed to be downsizing and under stress.  (Now it's drowning and under stress.  The more things change…)

The Big Easy was definitely an inviting muse for nurturing a creative path.  The lower cost of living had a profound impact on artists, both fledgling and established.  For me, being able to rent a 5-½-room house (actually half of a fourplex, up and downstairs) along with a large garage-like space for $400/month meant I did not have to work full-time.  I ran a half-time private psychotherapy practice out of my upstairs waiting room and office.  And with my free time, I slowly began building a speaking and training program, started writing articles for publication and delved into radio and TV script writing and performing.

For a good friend, a gifted painter, New Orleans made him an offer he could not refuse.  In the 1960s, after a couple of years teaching at Sophie Newcomb (at one time an all-women sister school that shared the Tulane campus), Pat was planning to return to New York City, his place of birth and the hub of the art scene.  But then he was offered a professorship in the Tulane-Newcomb art department.  And when he realized that he could purchase an Uptown mansion, with enough rooms and size to house a huge art studio, for a fraction of what it would cost in the Big Apple…well, Pat laid down roots in that Big Easy swamp.  (The thought of his house or of the house of my friend Linda, a former art gallery manager, with all their wonderful art works and sculptures, being washed away is overwhelming.)

The Devil Is in the Demographic Details

As we've seen, all kinds of characters – artists, oddballs and outcasts – people who have a need to do or to develop their own thing have traditionally been attracted to New Orleans.  This may reflect its richly varied demographic roots.  Historically, you've had a blending of the races including the French and Spanish as well as the Caribbean and African cultures.  For many years the city has been an international port of call.  It has also been a cultural mecca of the Deep South, especially for folks who didn't fit in with small town, conservative, straight-laced Bible belt life.  (For years, apart from Atlanta, N'Awlins was the big southern city.)  And in the last few decades, the "Big Easy" has become a haven for creative types from all over the states and the world.  Not surprisingly, Jazz Fest is often the lure; one taste of this sensuous gumbo and it's easy to be hooked.

And almost any time, during the day and especially at night, you could experience this diversity at your local coffeehouse.  For me it was the Uptown PJs on Maple Street.  While the inside was not much larger than a master bedroom, out the back door was a fabulous courtyard – wrought iron tables and chairs, along with a ten-foot high fountain and several magnolia trees providing needed daytime shade.  A gumbo of personality types would engage in any and all topics.  There was Ivan, the mild-mannered and highly articulate Renaissance man, from the former Yugoslavia.  Ivan would share insights on architecture (his current profession) and on theatre direction (his former passion) while forever underscoring the backwardness of Eastern European Communism.  In the mid-80s, Ed, a tall-lean building contractor became obsessed by the AIDS epidemic, just breaking into public consciousness.  He was constantly reading up on the subject and predicting a worldwide crisis.  Ed also counseled me on the importance of taking vitamins after learning that a tumor had been discovered on the right lobe of my thyroid.  (Fortunately, a little cutthroat medicine confirmed that the tumor was benign.  I can still vividly recall sitting at PJs with my wacky and witty friend Dorothy, brainstorming a workshop on “Tumor Humor.”  My therapeutic adage after the lobectomy surgery:  "Half a lobe is better than none.")

Oh, how can I forget…Dorothy was also one of my female consultants for an unprecedented (and totally absurd) research project.  I was invited to appear on the Yvonne LaFleur Show.  Yvonne owned a local upscale boutique and hosted a combo interview/QVC-type early New Orleans Cable TV venture.  I was to discuss the psychology of women's shoes.  This was her idea for promoting a new product line.

I had two days to interview a number of female friends and, lo and behold, I discovered that every woman has a shoe story.  Actually, in our culture women's shoes are part of the collective and commercial conscious and unconscious:  from Dorothy's ruby red slippers and "The Red Shoes" (ballerina point shoes) to a little girl's first pump and a woman's first high heels.  (Not to mention Nancy Sinatra's boots made for power walking as well as having the freedom and good sense to swear off those towering heels.)

With all these ideas and images swirling in my head and time running out, finally an "Aha!"  Clearly, an "out of the (shoe) box" mode of expression was needed.  And I responded with my first attempt at a kind of bluesy lyric writing that, a decade later, in the early 90s, would undergo transformation.  More on this shortly, but for right now…

Those New Pair of Shoes

Well you got the blues, still you just can't lose
Cause you're ready to cruise
In those new pair of shoes.

Now you've paid your dues so your feet can choose
To amuse or make news
In those new pair of shoes.

Don't let them confuse your personal views
There's only one muse
Those Yvonne LaFleur shoes!

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2005
Shrink Rap Productions

Well the camera crew erupted with wild applause while Yvonne initially seemed dumbfounded, but then she broke out into a big smile.  This incongruity was, is and, hopefully, will always be New Orleans.  The Stress Doc being interviewed on Cable TV about women's shoes and flowing with the absurdity and poetry of the situation.  Laissez les bonnes temps roulez!

Lasting and Launching Legacy

The spirit of New Orleans certainly nurtured a signature media voice, a blend of thoughtful psychology with cutting edge and slightly outrageous humor.  Actually, it was in New Orleans that I truly came out of the creative and public performance closets – university teaching, writing and performing "Stress Brake" essays for radio and TV, performing monologues with a theatre group and a trial of standup comedy at a nearby suburban night club.  Again, I wasn't creating in a vacuum.  There were hours and hours of brainstorming, editing and rehearsing radio and TV essays with two of my dearest friends, Paul and Betsy, both in the medical field.  They definitely added some enlightened and light-hearted substance to my silliness.

In addition to an eclectic mix of uncommon friends, another lasting "American in Cajun Paris Years" legacy involved setting the stage for my pioneering work in the field of psychologically humorous rap music – "Shrink Rap" ™ productions.  The epiphany of the Shrink Rap title would come about three years later. However, in 1989, subconsciously building on my "shoes" debut of the early 80s, I penned an R & B-like lyric, "The Burnout Boogie."  (The lyrics were autobiographical.  For me, there were no more mountains to climb in the bayou.  It was time to shake up the puzzle.  And a year later I took a Visiting Professor position at Catholic University in Washington, DC.)

And all those years of Mardi Gras costuming and general outrageousness helped me overcome my reticence to perform those lyrics in my home grown rap regalia:  Blues Brothers hat, Black sunglasses and a black tambourine.

As you can imagine, the transition from New Orleans to DC wasn't always smooth.  The heartfelt saying, "Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?" definitely applied.  For example, let me illustrate a geographical difference regarding creative essence and ambiance.  My first year in DC I was looking to discover fellow creative types.  In New Orleans, between PJs and my artsy or wacky friends, my need for the artistic and the absurd rarely went unfulfilled.  I would tell Washingtonians that just rolling down so many Big Easy streets you'd bump into imaginative oddballs and larger-than-life characters.  By way of contrast, to quench my social-creative thirst in DC I had to join an artists support group!  While the years in DC have furthered the "sui generis" journey, there's no doubt where my metamorphosis took shape and flight.

Final Words

Shortly after Katrina struck the Gulf Coast, I briefly responded to a letter of sympathy from a long-time friend.  It makes a fitting summary and close.

I'm sort of in a state of low-grade shock and sadness.  It's hard to capture the magic of New Orleans as a place to live, to pursue or act out your dreams and desires.

The sense of creativity, playful absurdity, that gumbo mentality (just throw it all in and stir) permeates all aspects of life.  In a way it's an "oasis" (irony intended).  (For the most part) New Orleans exists in a kind of cultural and geographic isolation; there are no big cities nearby.  The closest are Houston and Atlanta, seven and ten hours away by car.  And, of course, historically it's always been behind the times, reveling in its history, often moving to it's own home grown beat and traditions as opposed to national cultural trends.  {However, at cynical moments I've referred to living in New Orleans as being behind the "iron swamp."}

A favorite writer of mine, Thomas Wolfe titled a novel, You Can't Go Home AgainAu contraire, cher.  I will make it back to New Orleans, whether or not the city can withstand the superficial-commercial machine.  When a place is in your heart and soul and in your dreams…as this essay reminds me, you always can go home again, or at least can conjure a nourishing reverie.  And once more I've discovered how writing and sharing is necessary for me to…Practice Safe Stress!


Heads Up:
  Successful Programs [References on Request]

1.  Wharton Business School Alumni;
Managing Stress and Discovering Balance

2.  Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Managers; Stress Management and Team Building

3.  Forty + (Career Transition Organization); Practicing Safe Stress in Times of Change

4.  Bowie, MD Municipal Employees, Luncheon Keynote, Diversity Conference; Managing Stress and Practicing Tolerance through Interactive Humor

5.  Society of Human Resources Management (SHRM)/Career Management Group; Managing Stress and Achieving success

Mark Gorkin, LICSW, "The Stress Doc" ™,
is a psychotherapist and "Motivational Humorist" whose Interactive Keynotes and Kickoffs draw wide and "amazing" acclaim - from Fortune 100s and Federal Agencies to around the world with Celebrity Cruise Lines.   An OD/Team Building Consultant, Mark is the author of Practice Safe Stress:  Healing and Laughing in the Face of Stress, Burnout & Depression and of The Four Faces of Anger: Transforming Anger, Rage, and Conflict Into Inspiring Attitude and Behavior.  Also, the Doc is AOL's "Online Psychohumorist" ™ running his weekly "Shrink Rap ™ and Group Chat."  See his award winning, USA Today Online "HotSite" -- www.stressdoc.com (cited as a workplace resource by National Public Radio (NPR).  Finally, Mark is an advisor to The Bright Side ™ -- www.the-bright-side.org -- a multi-award winning mental health resource.  Email for his monthly newsletter showcased on List-a-Day.com.  For more info on the Doc's speaking and training programs and products, email stressdoc@aol.com or call 301-946-0865.

(c)  Mark Gorkin  2005
Shrink Rap Productions