NOLA Notes

First You Make a Roux

It started innocently enough. And certainly was not part of a bigger plan.

I attended a Johh Besh cookbook signing event, then stood in line to have him sign the books I’d bought. There was one that was for me. In the back of my head rattled Antique’s Roadshow saying that autographs are usually worth more when they are not personalized. So when Chef Besh asked who to sign the book for, I stumbled. I didn’t want my name on it. In the stumbled second, I thought, “Maybe if I have him sign it for Sun, she won’t toss it when I’m dead.” Yes, folks, I think about death a lot. It’s my day job. And so he signed it to Sun. And all my new local cookbooks gets signed that way now.

One day, years later, Sun was with me for such a signing.  And Poppy Tooker, sitting down, was eye level with Sun and spoke directly to her about what dish to cook from the cookbook. Sun claimed ownership of that cookbook immediately. Within days we cooked the dish Chef Poppy recommended. And Sun was happy and eager to go further.

Then we gave Sun kid Chef Eliana’s Cool Kids Cook for her birthday. She’s since cooked the “Baked” Fried Green Tomatoes. And she was HOOKED. So we bought her a kid-friendly knife set and a new for-cooking-only apron. Now that girl is cooking up a storm! This week, she made a quiche. It was perfection.

Thus, with all the hope in the world but no plan on how to have my NOLA daughter become a lover of NOLA cooking, my dream is coming true. I love even more my time spent in my kitchen: We talk; we teach; we learn. We mix; we stir; we grow. We cook. We live. We love.

All in the Family

They say New Orleans is a small big city. Everyone knows everyone. And tonight is just another piece of evidence to the validity of these claims.

I worked the sweets table at my daughter’s school’s cabbage ball game with three other mothers. As the night grew quieter, we got to talking. And one thing led to another and the topic of my grandfather came up and where he lives. Down to his street. One mother, Darla, asked his house number. Well, don’t you know this woman I have now been friends with for two years realized tonight that she and her husband lived NEXT DOOR to my grandparents for about two years. My grandmother invited this then-twenty-something-year-old to join her weekly pokeno game, and she did! My friend played pokeno with my grandmother! Darla knew of my grandmother’s “spells” with depression and she informed me that my grandmother was one of the few true friends she had in that neighborhood. My grandmother meant a lot to Darla and is remembered fondly by her.

Somehow my grandmother seems a little more real again tonight due to her generosity of spirit and friendship living on in my friend’s memory, too. I miss that woman, and tonight that ache is just a bit more acute.

But, wait. There’s more.

My other friend, Laurel, upon hearing my grandfather’s full name asks if I am related to Mrs. Fox, a teacher at my daughter’s school. “Mrs. Fox?” I ask, “I don’t know but we are related to Mrs. Batt. Very distantly, but definitely connected,” I say. “Mrs. Batt is Mrs. Fox’s nephew’s wife,” Laurel explains to me. And just like that. I am related to TWO of Sun’s school’s teachers.

And really? This is just crazy, even for New Orleans. And I love it!!!

The Secret to Life (No, Really, I Mean It!!!)

I spent a week at my 93 year old grandfather’s this month while our house had work done on it. It didn’t take long for me to realize I’d see very little of my grandfather. You see, he has a lady-friend he visits every evening, and we’d not get to his house after work before he’d have left for his date and we’d be asleep by the time he returned.

At a crawfish boil over the weekend, I mentioned our living arrangements to a friend and she told me about a recent visit she had with her grandparents. Overall, her impression was that they have their lives organized around doctor visits. Many of her grandparents’ friends have died, they have trouble getting around, and they just aren’t interested in doing too much. In the end, my friend made the comment, “It’s just the same thing week after week. It’s so sad.”

I thought to myself whether her description of her grandparents’ lives were very different from my own. My week-to-week is very methodical and similar: Work, carpool, appointments, housework, time spent with family. Rinse, repeat.

But then I thought more about my grandfather, who also is on a regime of week-to-week identical living. What sets him apart from my friend’s description of her grandparents is that my grandfather has his almost-daily dates with his lady-friend instead of appointments with various doctors.

And that’s when the Secret to Life was thus revealed to me, in all its simplicity: Life is best lived when we are looking forward to something. Period. It really is that simple.

Aren’t work days and doctors appointments mere formalities the week before a vacation? Don’t the hours spent in the office go faster when you get close to completing a major work project? When you see the light at the end of the tunnel and you KNOW it will get done, and soon?

Thus, if you are my friend’s grandparents who only have doctors’ appointments and being told what your blood pressure is and whether or not you’ll have to change your medications in which to look forward, life can certainly get dull and mundane.

We need joys in our life. But even more, we need joys in which we KNOW are coming, that are expected. Because it is that expectation that consumes our time far more than the actual realization of the joy itself. So I guess whoever said life is about the journey not the destination really knew what he was talking about. Especially if he gave that journey a whole lot of thought before setting out.

14-Day Challenge of Giving Thanks

Just under a month ago on twitter, Jude Boudreaux put an offer to me to send a hand-written Thank You note a day for 14 days. It took me a bit to get started, what needing to get new stationary and a few gift cards for the big ones.

Yesterday was Day 1. My first Note and Lagniappe was to my assistant at my office. She’s awesome and keeps me at the top of my game. Last year, I took on a project (that has an annual deadline) that damn near took away my sanity. She was the reason I stayed sane AND made my deadline. I could give her a Thank You note every day and still be in debt to her. Yes, I am lucky. And what’s even luckier is that ALL of the assistants I’ve had at my firm and all from whom I’ve ever had to seek help are as good as her. I really need to add the office staff as No. 14….

Today was a Note and Gift Card. This one was to a new friend that loaned us a small generator last summer so my husband could re-open his shop after Hurricane Isaac. She is a volunteer at my kid’s school and her selflessness knows no ends. She is a true unsung hero. So my small gesture was an attempt to hum, if not outright sing, to that dear hero.

Tomorrow, I’ll be giving the next Note and Gift Card to my 84-year old grandfather. He took my family in for a week when our house was having work done on it. And he took in our cat (and the cat box) and our dog in his backyard. We totally tossed a monkey wrench into his schedule. And he was nothing but a gracious host about the whole thing.

That leaves me 11 more (ten if I decide to do an official Thanks to my entire staff). And these were easy/obvious/overdue ones. I have at least five more off the top of my head I can send. And another week in which to send them and perhaps find a new occasion to warrant a hand-written Thank You. Turns out, it’s not all that hard to think of things/people for which to give thanks.

Oh, and I owe Jude a Thank You for presenting me with this challenge! And now I put it to you! Will you send a hand-written Thank You note a day for 14 days? In an America of such abundance, it’s refreshing to give thanks and appreciation instead of seeking out MORE. Join me and you’ll find you will be thanking me AND Jude!

 

Little Free Library

At the end of last year, Sun and I wrote an essay and won a Little Free Library. Since then, she and I have been the stewards of our very own LFL. And I do not overstate when I say it changed my life.

First, it brought Sun and I even closer together sharing the project of checking to see if books have come into or gone out of the LFL and working to replenish our stock. We’ve spent hours together walking the neighborhood handing out flyers. She’s been asking when we’ll be doing that again. I think we’ll be sending out a summer newsletter just as an excuse to do it again soon!

Second, it brought me closer to my neighbors. I’ve yet to hear anything negative about the project. Turns out, folks like free things and appreciate the sense of caring that a steward emits by the very act of stewarding. Even wizened neighbors I’d have thought would have scratched their heads at us young hippies have embraced us and our library. I’ve met neighbors that have lived doors down from me for over a decade that I never knew. It’s that nice feeling we New Orleanians get after a storm passes and we are all sitting on our porches with no electricity to pull us indoors. Humans connecting over a common bond. In this case, that common bond is books. The Marthas and Wendys and Dollys that you meet every other summer after a particularly bad storm. Except now we meet weekly, if not more often. We get thank you notes left in the LFL. My favorite was written by a young boy thanking us for the Star Wars book.  We also get notes of encouragement to keep up the good work. I keep every note. And we get offers of donations. Oh, the donations! I need an extra room for all the books we’ve amassed in under six months!

Third, I am a reading machine now. The quality (and quantity) of books being donated to this LFL is nothing short of astounding. Here’s a link to my Librarything account showing the LFL tag I’ve created for the books I’d not have read but for my LFL. And that’s just of the books I’ve read so far. I have just as many in my to-read pile.

Our LFL has its own Facebook page, its own bookcrossing account, a personalized embossed seal to mark the books, and, most importantly, its own heart. When I was away from home for a week, a neighbor did the stewarding for us. Because truly, it’s hers too. It belongs to this neighborhood. And we all know it. We are proud of this little box–what it means to ourselves, our children, our community. And we are grateful for the wonder it has renewed in us that we didn’t know we could so easily attain.

Shake It Up

My 5 year old imagines her future—a husband, three kids (two girls and a boy) living in an “upstairs house.” And it strikes me that her plans for a stable future are not all that different than what mine were. I was fortunate enough, somewhere along the way, to add my own career into that mix so I’d never be financially dependent on anyone. I spent the better part of my life setting that dream into fruition. And I’ve been happily married with a solid job for over a decade. I changed my mind about the number of kids and the desire for a two-story house. And All I Ever Wanted has been checked off my list.

And we’ve lived happily ever after.

In an often-times monotonous way.

Some days the monotony so thick in the air it is numbing.

Then I want to take my apparent picture-perfect world and shake the crap out of it like it was a snow globe letting the white flecks of perfection fall where they may. I want to get so stinking drunk that the room is spinning and the roar in my head is all I can hear. And then if I were to focus really hard, I would make that roar sound like the waves on the shore; and the spinning room look like the stars in the sky over the ocean. And in that chaos and destruction I know I will find the appearance of peace in the very ALIVENESS of my being. The numbness will be gone. My very skin will be vibrating.

But then I am honest with myself. I can no longer manage the bad hangover from hard liquor let alone the aftermath of truly turning my life upside down just to feel what I think must be a more ALIVE life. And so I drink another beer and not a shot of tequila knowing my world won’t spin off its axis no matter how much beer I consume. And I go another day. And another.  Biding time on going on that bender.

But then I am presented with a week where illness is all around me in folks I care about but aren’t too close to shatter my world; where financial ruin challenges others in my world, and where there is just an all-around absence of love in the world for so many of us. And I become confident anew in the decisions that have led me to my place in this world, realizing I need not shake that snow globe of that little life of mine. It will get shaken all on its own and I will be fortunate if it isn’t smashed to smithereens in the process.

There’s a price I’ve paid for my dream of a stable and calm life. And it’s good to be reminded that that price was NOT the cost of my soul. It is the human condition never to be satisfied for any length of time. You set goals. You meet them. You set new goals. Or you become vapid and lazy. The irony of having All of Your Dreams Come True is that it isn’t the Coming True part that matters. It is the striving to accomplish one’s goals that make the difference. And so now I have set new goals, new dreams. And that numbness has abated, even if just until my next dream comes true.  And I’ve come to believe that I don’t need to destroy all the dreams I’ve accomplished just to feel alive.

 

Popping with NOLA-Living (and Dying)

Tonight, Sun and I went out on the town. Ok, fine. We went to the main library. But it was at night! And to hear Poppy Tooker discuss her new book project, Mme. Bégué’s Recipes of Old New Orleans Creole Cookery! It was delightful. Poppy signed her book for us, inscribing it in Sun’s name while at the same time giving her this advise:   “I have the perfect recipe for you in the book. Have your mother make with you the Stuffed Eggs. They are delicious and fun to make.”

We sat down in the second row (Sun wanted to be front and center) and Sun flipped through “her” cookbook as we listened to the story of Mme. Bégué. It was sinfully simple and also decadent  We sat holding hands, with Sun’s head occasionally in my lap, listening and learning. And enjoying ourselves.

Then we hopped in the car for the short drive home.

“Mom, is Peanut buried in our backyard?” Sun asked out of the blue. “No, honey. She’s not,” I answered. “Well, where is she?” I didn’t have the heart to tell her the cat went away when she got sick and I really had no idea where she had died. So I lied: “She’s in Mrs. M’s yard across the street.” “Why?” she questioned, of course, because she is a five-year old. “Because,” I continued, on firmer ground with the truth, “she took to Mrs. M at the end of her life and it was there she wanted to die and be buried.” Satisfied with this line of questioning, Sun went further.

“Will we bury Beau in the backyard when he dies?” Sun asked. “Yes, honey, we will,” I promised. “Then what?” she asked. THEN. WHAT. What do I say to this question? I answered as best I could, I stalled: “Then what, what, Sun?” I asked in return to her question. “Well, then do we dig him up?” my sweet five-year old asked, stunning me in its ghastliness.  ”No, honey, no. We don’t then dig him up,” I answered firmly. “Why not?” she sincerely asked. “This is hard to explain. Do you remember the pumpkin you had that turned black and got smushy? (She had.) Well. It got that way because it was dead. And people and animals do the same thing. They get smushy and gross and so we don’t dig them up. Got it?” (She did).

Then she doubled down:

“Why can’t I be buried in the backyard when I die?” she asked. “Because they won’t let you. They have laws. You need to be buried in a cemetery. Like where my grandmother is, you know, Sunshine, whose name is close to yours. Remember visiting her grave?” I asked. “Yes, the small buildings,” she answered. “Yes, Sun, that’s right. We live in New Orleans, you know, and we have to bury our dead above ground in tombs and copings,” I explained to her again. She knows this fact cold now. And at last she seemed satisfied with this line of inquiry.

“So, can we pass to see if the king cake place is closed? I really want king cake.”

And it is not lost on me that my friends in Kansas and Colorado and Florida did not, and will never, have this conversation with their child. And I couldn’t be happier to be a New Orleanian.

Cloud Atlas, Or, Why Violence is Never the Answer

SPOILER ALERT! I discuss the end of this novel in detail. If you wish to read this book and not be spoiled, come back after you’ve read it.

A friend recommended David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to me over a year ago. I finally got around to reading it. The title of the book references one of its major themes: “[H]ow disparate people connect, and how their fates intertwine, and how their souls drift across time like clouds across the sky.” (Publisher’s description.)

Other descriptions of this book focus on the different “styles and genres” this book utilizes: “The novel as series of nested dolls or Chinese boxes, a puzzle-book.” (Michael Chabon.) And that certainly hooked me. It’s a series of six stores, “each is set in a different time and place, each is written in a different prose style, each is broken off mid-action and brought to conclusion in the second half of the book.” (Publishers Weekly.)

Yeah, yeah. So it’s clever and has an original idea as to HOW to write a story. And that’s cool. But that’s NOT what makes this book fantastic. It is, as any fantastic book must be to make it fantastic, the story itself, and the timelessness of its tale. And that story unfolds itself with deliberate slowness and a deft hand.

What this book was about to me was simple human nature. And the price the human race pays for the decisions of its selfish individuals.

In the fifth story, wherein an archivist interviews a clone, the clone makes the following statement:

Rights are susceptible to subversion, as even granite is susceptible to erosion. . . . [I]n a cycle as old as tribalism, ignorance of the Other engenders fear; fear engenders hatred; hatred engenders violence; violence engenders further violence until the only “rights,” the only law, are whatever is willed by the most powerful.

And in the first story, that, in turn, ends the novel, the narrator comes to pin things down to a system of beliefs:

Belief is both prize and battlefield, within the mind & in the mind’s mirror, the world. If we believe humanity is a ladder of tribes, a colosseum of confrontations, exploitation & bestiality, such a humanity is surely brought into being. . . . You & I, the moneyed, the privileged, the fortunate, shall not fare so badly in this world, provided our luck holds out. What of it if our consciences itch? Why undermine the dominance or our race, our gunships, our heritage & our legacy? Why fight the “natural” (oh, weaselly word!) order of things?

Why? Because of this: — one fine day, a purely predatory world shall consume itself. Yes, the Devil shall take the hindmost until the foremost is the hindmost. In an individual, selfishness uglifies the soul; for the human species, selfishness is extinction.

Is this the doom written within our nature?

If we believe that humanity may transcend tooth & claw, if we believe divers races & creeds can share this world as peaceably as the orphans share their candlenut tree, if we believe leaders must be just, violence muzzled, power accountable & the riches of the Earth & its Oceans shared equitably, such a world can come to pass. I am not deceived. It is the hardest of worlds to make real. Torturous advances won over generations can be lost by a single stroke of a myopic president’s pen or a vainglorious general’s sword.

A life spent shaping a world I want [my child] to inherit, not one I fear [my child] shall inherit, this strikes me as a life worth living.

Since my days of devout yoga practice, I have been repeating the mantra that violence is never the answer. That violence always and only begets more violence.  And Mitchell’s novel brings this point home in a poignant, stark way. What do we need in this world to give peace a chance? It can’t grow in a world that is consumed by fear and violence. By allowing such fear and violence to dictate our actions, our reactions, with more fear and violence, we are dooming our own future, our children, our very world.

It’s not easy to turn the other cheek, to not seek revenge, to not fear Others of whom we either misunderstand or choose not to understand. But by upping the ante with ever-more violence, we are ceding more and more power away from ourselves and to those in power, and not necessarily a just power or even a power concerned for the survival of mankind.

And to me, the novel reinforces that if enough of us put down arms (physically as well as mentally — nonviolence in our actions and in our thoughts), we can have a world of peace, a better world for our children. Or even just the survival of the world for our children to come to this conclusion on their own.

 

A Lifetime Supply of Hardware

When the call came, I thought it was just an odd question needing an answer. So I hit “Ignore” to answer once I was back from lunch. Then my phone beeped and I had a text message alerting me I’d been paged.

“Someone’s died,” I said. And I knew I was right. So I called the hardware store expecting to get Ernie. Lesa answered, and my heart sank. “You haven’t heard, then?” she asked. “Oh, no,” I sighed, “when?” “Last month,” she answered. “So I missed the funeral.” And I swallowed back tears.

It was Ernie who had died. He had seemed immortal, and this news hit me like a kick in the gut. Ernie was my first boss, my brother’s first boss, and my other brother’s first boss too, and the first boss of half my old neighborhood. Ernie told hunting stories and country stories and had a saying for everything.

“Variety is the spice of life,” he’d exclaim when I complained of boyfriend trouble.

“Don’t hoot with the owls at night if you can’t soar with the eagles in the morning,” he’d bleat when I arrived a minute before opening with bags under my eyes.

But when my boyfriend proved to me to be the loser Ernie knew him to be the minute he laid eyes on him, his kindness was palpable. And when I still stuck with the loser because I believed “love conquers all,” Ernie hugged me and allowed me my mistake. And when I needed $5 for gas because the loser lied and “borrowed” my car all night and left me literally on fumes, Ernie didn’t ask a single question. He could read it on the lines of my brow as he handed me a $10.

Eventually, and while still working at the hardware store, I did dump the loser. It was one of the hardest lessons I ever learned: Love is not all you need. But there were upsides to dating the  loser. It has keep me drug free for my life.  And it made me more independent. And all this made Ernie proud of me. Which was another upside.

After four years, I left the hardware store. It’d take me 15 years to stay at a job that long (and more) again.

I’ve never forgotten Ernie. His kindness. His generous spirit. His quiet fatherly love. His pride in his employees leaving him to accomplish bigger and better things.

The years I worked at Ernie’s store equipped me with the hardware I needed to face the world on my terms, without needing to imagine it ending solely as being the supporting role in any man’s life. I’ve used the tools I picked up there well. And I am a better person for having had Ernie in my life. And I will miss him for the rest of my days.

The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans, Part 2

David Lummis’s second installation of The Coffee Shop Chronicles of New Orleans was recently published. Whereas the first part, reviewed here, was more a “lighthearted and irreverent and even campy” (as Lummis himself describes it) romp in and around the French Quarter, Part 2 is a more serious work. A more serious tone, a more serious topic. And a more true voice, I suspect, of Lummis. And for that, a far richer gift to the reader. Lummis lays bare his soul as he writes of the tormented soul-searching done by the last son of an old-school blue-blood New Orleans family, and the struggle of those who love him to keep him from losing himself in the process.

As Katrina approaches New Orleans, B. Sammy Singleton is on the search for his missing friend, Catfish Beaucoeur. Sammy, in a role similar to Nick Carraway in The Great Gatsby, is the narrator but not the star of CSCNO2.  In his frenetic search for Catfish, Sammy encounters Lee Ann, Catfish’s oldest friend. And when it is clear Catfish is well and truly missing, Lee Ann decides it’s time for Sammy to know what Lee Ann herself knows to be the truth of Catfish’s tortured past.

And in this manner, Lummis takes us to 1970s New Orleans and pre-Civil War Louisiana. And the curses that were cast in the long-ago past and the long spidery legs that still stretch and scratch into the present.

Although it is Catfish who is the subject of the novel and for whom the reader will root, it is Lee Ann for whom the reader will relate: Her struggle to love, and be loved, in an imperfect way but in a way as pure as imaginable. Even when she knows it is utterly and completely hopeless.

Upon one reunion of the teen-aged Catfish and Lee Ann, with Catfish recalcitrant as always for having had to leave Lee Ann to fight his own darkness alone, Catfish extracts a vow from Lee Ann never to give up on him.  Here’s Lummis’s description of Lee Ann’s coming-of-age moment:

 And with that vow, Lee Ann felt herself letting go of all she knew she should do, not for Castfish, but for Lee Ann. And it was as if she were taking leave. And as she sat in the Firebird and listened to Catfish read “Old Glory” out loud, she saw the Lee Ann who knew better, the Lee Ann with the Lucky Strike rasp, open the car door and stride out onto the water. And as she watched herself go, this wiser Lee Ann kept on walking out onto that vast pool of night until she reached the center of Lake Pontchartrain, where she stopped and turned back as tiny waves lapped her calves. It was pitch dark in the Firebird and she was a long way from shore, but she could see Catfish plain as day, his eyelashes, the spray of freckles on the back of his hand. She could feel him too, his essence, his beating heart. Negating the distance, he was bigger than life, while the little girl to his right was scarcely a silhouette. From her marine outpost, Lee Ann waved but the little girl wasn’t looking, so she whistled, then called out. No response. The windows were closed and the words hit the windshield and flapped outward like Halloween crows. Her only chance of getting through to the girl, Lee Ann knew, was to return to dry land, but with the first step she comprehended her ability to walk on water was, like most things, imagined, and that all she could do to keep from sinking was to stay where she was, dead center on the lake. So this she did as Catfish started the car, and the headlights broadcast over the water, and the Firebird backed away from the curb and crawled along the shoreline, then winked red and disappeared.

This is not a cliff-hanger story-plot-twist of a novel. Rather, it’s one of strong character development among real-life afflictions and the struggle for regular folks to face life on its darkest days and push to get through to fight another day. And to love others enough to help them push on as well when they fail to find the strength on their own. CSCNO2 is at times lyrical, at times heart-breaking; and it is part historical fiction. But at all times, it is an attempt to explain who we are by where we—be it an individual, a family, a city, a society—have been. It is genuine and palpable. Written with a deftness so that the reader understands the love, and struggle thereto, Sammy and Lee Ann have for Catfish, and, more, to understand the demons that haunt Catfish. Even if the solution to exorcising those demons is not so obvious.

And best of all, it’s not the end of our journey. Part 3 is yet to come.