Thursday, August 27, 2015

I Know What It Means: Katrina Plus Ten

Dear New Orleans,

I never wrote a eulogy.

Even as reports of flooding broadcast over the airwaves, I never stopped believing. Even as the stories from refugees arriving to Nicholls from the Superdome filled my eyes with tears and my heart with sadness, not once. I was a New Orleanian. I was gonna stay a New Orleanian, even as the hell and high water settled into my hometown.

We didn't know the why, who, what, or when; but we knew the where. New Orleans.

And we doesn't refer to pre-Katrina. It refers to pre-everything. It takes a crazy person to build a city on so tenuous a strip of land, between two mighty bodies of water which hearken life and death, promise and poverty. So we live out Bienville's memory in the best way we can: party until the laws of man or nature stop us. New Orleans has always been a capital: capital of trade, capital of sugar, capital of sin, and capital pain in the ass to everyone who has ever flown a flag above it. Hell, we were even the capital of Louisiana for a stretch until they took that away from us and gave it to a sibling city up north. These days we'd like to be remembered as one more capital: the capital of rebirth. And through sallow, swollen eyes we tell you this.

Rebuilding wasn't always a walk in Audubon Park like the news outlets will tell you this week. A populous christened for celebration was faced with the most daunting urban recovery project since 9/11. Where many thought we would fail we didn't. Where many thought we would quit we ascended. And that was just in the Superdome. When you love something enough to call it home, no challenge is too big to succeed. Rhythmic sledgehammers knocking away moldy drywall turned to staccato hammers building new houses, the spirit of which became a second line on Mardi Gras Day. The journey of rebirth became a celebration in and of itself, a local knowledge passed down a sacred bloodline shared by all New Orleanians from the time of Bienville. We just had to experience it anew, alas in the most dire of conditions.

And even in the midst of the celebration, there are those we left behind. Those still struggling with the reality of a storm which severed an already gossamer existence, ethereal even more so than the dead whose monuments they must live near in a cruel juxtaposition of circumstance. Those which the politicians and revelers only see as a number, a metric on a dreary report. These are the ones we must remember. These are the ones we must not forget.

We are a new city. When Katrina went right, many went left: to Baton Rouge, Houston, Atlanta, and many other places where Katrina means a Fleur-de-Lis on the porch and a walk to the local sports bar to see the Saints. To those places, we say thank you. Perhaps the biggest outpouring of charity was not from those who came to New Orleans in the aftermath of the storm but those who cared for the broken hearts who had nowhere else to go. You selflessly opened your homes to us when we did not know where Home really was anymore. When we returned Home we returned with hearts mended by colors of all hue; and in true New Orleanian fashion we worked feverishly in our rebuilding with one eye toward personally inviting you onto our porch one day and returning the favor of unexpected charity with a bowl of gumbo and long conversation as excerpts from Louis Armstrong swirled the summer air into something magical.

We are a strong city. We even surprised ourselves. Well, not more than Drew Brees and the rest of the 2009 Saints. When we had no legs to stand on, they lifted us up. Out of our seats. Out of the Superdome. All the way to Miami. There is no hyperbole when I say I cried tears of joy until I was physically sick after Garrett Hartley sent us to the Super Bowl. Laughing and crying and heaving until I was on the floor. It was the best moment of my life. Sport is inconsequential in the grand scheme of life until it becomes a catalyst for civic change. In those rare moments when it transcends competition, sport has the ability to make anything possible and one night in February when I danced on the roof of a car high-fiving strangers is proof of that. A city scorned and left for dead in 2005 ruled the world for one night in 2010, and we've never been the same since.

We are a reverent city. Even beyond the cathedral, we respect our culture and the mores which made it so. Comus doesn't parade anymore (for all the wrong reasons), but still participate in the biggest tradition of Mardi Gras. Disney made a movie about us which turned into people asking me if singing alligators exist where I live. They do, sometimes. The dreaded g-word is tearing apart the fabric of our dear city. It seems as if the real threat of Katrina was not the water, but the attention. New Orleans finds herself a commodity. Authenticity can be bartered for, experiences paid. But the real locals, from the ones born and bred here to the transplants who fell in love and stayed, know that the authenticity of the real New Orleans experience takes no effort. If you're trying too hard, you might just want to try not trying at all.

Which isn't to say we don't try. Lord knows the last ten years has been a trying time. We have our problems and we have our flaws, but when the music is right and the food is good, you just can't help yourself. Maybe that's our ultimate hamartia: we'll never advance past a hot trumpet and a plate of red beans. But why would you want to? The world needs a place to relax. And when we empty the pot and the trumpet cools, we'll get back to work. Just like we have for the last three hundred years. And just like we will for the next three hundred.

Thank you for raising me a New Orleanian. Thank you for feeding me like a New Orleanian. And thank you for blessing my life with the most beautiful gift of all: your soul.



Saturday, August 1, 2015

How To Fail Successfully

"Failure is not an option."

Ever since I heard those words uttered in the film Apollo 13 I took a solemn vow to make the enormity of that phrase my life's work. 

I was five years old, mind you. 

But even for a child the meaning was clear and Gene Kranz (portrayed superbly by Ed Harris) pulled no punches in his delivery. There were three astronauts in a capsule over 200,000 miles away from home. A capsule which was mortally wounded and bleeding oxygen, the one thing necessary to sustain life in the vacuum which surrounded them. The engineers and scientists at NASA has less than a week to bring them home. Alive. No American had ever died during spaceflight and Kranz was not about to let it happen on his watch. Heady stuff for a five year old I know, but I absorbed it all and went gung ho into the world, ready to never fail in my life. Thirteen years later, that quote graced the Class of 2007's yearbook as my senior quote. That was a point of contention for me. There were other, more angsty quotes ready to go but I finally decided that that principle was the one which guided me to where I was and who I was and thus that settled the deal. I have no signatures in my yearbook, in case you were wondering. 

The truth is, of course, that failure is inevitable and it is necessary in order to grow. Five year old Paul didn't see that due to childish naivete and eighteen year old Paul also missed the crux of the meaning because he was too busy thinking he was the be all and end all of Creation. Luckily, twenty-six year old Paul finally figured this out after some painful first-hand experiences in falling flat on his face. The truth is, the crux of Kranz's quote is in what he doesn't say. 

NASA certainly isn't a perfect organization. The famous "normalization of deviance" pattern coined to describe the agency after the loss of Challenger has cost NASA seventeen astronauts to date. In each case these systemic, catastrophic patterns of failures led to a moment much like Kranz's; only the momentum of bureaucracy, pressure down the command chain, and a preventable malfunction ended in tragedy for the agency, country, and astronaut corps. NASA is haunted by "what-if" moments: the pure oxygen atmosphere of Apollo 1, the O-ring and weather conditions for Challenger, and the leading edge wing testing for Columbia. The background knowledge built through decades of close calls and process failures should have been enough for failure to not be an option and a proactive, life-saving decision to be made, but none was made at all and tragedy resulted. Failure, especially in the beginning, is acceptable. Not learning from failure is fatal. 

Which brings us back to Kranz. At his moment with lives in the balance, he called upon every background resource he had available to him. Every flight test, on-orbit maneuver, and diagram of the Apollo capsule was used to help the crew. The most valuable information gathered was when the capsule and lunar module were pushed to their operational limits. He let his team devise ingenious solutions to the problems which plagued the astronauts all while he maintained a calm yet commanding presence over the mission control center. Kranz and his team understood the problem, traced past failures, and used the knowledge accrued to bring the wounded Odyssey and Aquarius back home with three lives to spare. That's how you fail: normally at first then nominally when it counts. 

If there's a takeaway to my ramblings, it's this: be encouraged to push your limits and mess up. It's the only way you will discover what you are truly capable of, and when this is accomplished take note of your shortcomings and find a team who will complement you and cover all the bases. Do not be afraid to fail, just do not make it a pattern. 

Res gestae per excellentiam.