Friday, May 30, 2008

The Big Easy Love

I have a confession to make. There’s a new woman in my life. She is someone I met when I worked the barges on the Mississippi decades back. I thought I knew her then, but I didn’t. Not really. And this last week we met again. Needless to say, it was a sultry Saturday night.

I recognized her right away. She is older than ever, and she looks it. The cracks run deep through her foundation but she doesn’t seem to care. She’s shabby and worn, though that’s the essence of her charm. Her laugh is big and easy. Her embrace is sloppy and cloying. But I don’t care. She has a staying power that will keep a man up all night long.

Had I spent just a little more time with her all those years ago, without doubt my life would have traveled a different arc. I would have worn different robes, shot through with searing reds, voodoo greens, and shimmering gold. I could have been a dandy peacock. I could have been a fire-blooded mercenary. I would have been a different man.

If I’m going on too long, blame it on the clatter of desire. If I am willing to throw away everything I once cherished and give myself wholly to these new charms, blame it on the hot swoon of love. For I am now a man with two mistresses, master of neither, slave to both.

My new love, of course, is New Orleans. A dangerous mistress if there ever was, her levy system keeps the citizens from drowning in their own sorrows. Most of the time. A short drive out of the French Quarter and over the Inner Harbor Navigation Canal, and you will see those sorrows firsthand.

Three years after the flood, this lowland is a mixed bag of abandonment and neglect that surround pockets that glimmer with foolhardy hope. This is the truth of New Orleans.

Of course, the truth of New Orleans is more than drained swampland. It is the gawk of rolling tourism, in all its forms…

… and rambling old houses that snooze in wild gardens.

It is full-buffet steamboats and tuneless calliope ballads…

… and cranky old street cars named St. Charles.

It is a bell hop working the swing shift and dreaming of the great escape. It is desire on a signpost.

It is a blue dog with sad yellow eyes.

It is the sight of a beautiful girl within the blur of a street party.

But most of all, New Orleans is love. It is a love that begins with the quiet surprise that you’ve just tasted something completely right and perfect.

It is the zoom of love’s first bite.

It is the burn that seeps through your bones until it becomes a part of you, until, somehow you are filled to overflowing with peace. And as you give yourself over to this dangerous love—helplessly, willingly—you will undoubtedly concoct dreams designed to keep you as close as possible to this feeling forever.

And maybe, if you’re like me (after a few drinks, perhaps), you might tell your travel companion that it’s time to stop the never-ending road trip. That it’s time to sell the house back in Oregon. That it’s time to hunt for a run-down charmer on the coolest block in town. That you’ll get a job close by (anything will do). Build a network of like-minded friends. Make art. Write books. And never, ever leave.

But then came the clarity of morning’s light, and in that light I took leave of New Orleans, just as I did those twenty some years ago. But the love I feel for her lingers on, deepening as its texture and composition changes with the passing years. And in the bus, heading into the morning sun, I see that I have no need for different robes; I see that the love I feel toward this old mistress is, in truth, the love I feel for my best friend, my partner, my mistress, my everything.

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Cajun Steambath

The man guiding the swamp tour was talking about birds. An expert fisherman with an easy laugh, a B. S. in zoology and one in biology, and a profound knowledge of life in the Cajun swamps and bayous, we should have known he was also talking about something more than birds.

From his perch at the stern of the skiff, he pointed up through a tangle of Spanish moss. A stately black and white bird roosted on a deep nest, a squalling chick huddled under its white belly.

“That right there bird, it don’t look like much. But it’s good eatin’. Tastes like chicken that been feedin’ on crawfish.”

We leaned back in our low-backed fishing chairs, all ten of us tourists, and attempted to conjure a savory taste such as this. In a warm etouffee sauce. With a Tabasco-splashed andouille hash…

“But it’s a protected bird now. You can’t hunt it. They aren’t many of them left. But old man Thibadoux, he didn’t care. And you know what, the police, they caught him. With 89 birds. Thibadoux was selling them like I might sell redfish. The judge, he sentenced Thibadoux to 89 days in jail and a fine of $8,900. He served his time. He paid his fine. But do you know what happened to those 89 birds?”

We turned to look at him, our silence assuring him that we did not know what had become of the 89 exotic swamp birds that taste like crawfish-fed chicken.

“The police, they kept the evidence. They had themselves a police banquet to celebrate. It was a fine party, by all accounts. The judge was there. The chief of police was there—the very men who had been buying them birds from old man Thibadoux in the first place.”

The guide throttled up the engine of the skiff and nosed us deeper into the swamp.

“And this, my friends, is story of Louisiana politics. Now let’s see if we can’t find us some alligator.”

We rolled into southern Louisiana Cajun country under a booming thunderstorm. Though the storm didn’t last, we felt its swampy after-effects for days. In Lafayette, hunkering in the mid-day shade offers no relief. Idling through the air-conditioned shopping malls is a waste of time. The only solution is a dance party at night.

And, after flip-flopping through a breathless night in what can only be described as a microbus steam bath*, we raised the windows at 8:00 AM and jumped into a two-stepping zydeco dance party in Breaux Bridge, LA—the self-proclaimed crawfish capitol of the USA.

The party rages like this every Saturday morning. Go early to get a table. Or, if you’re like us, go a bit later, take your chances, and get lucky. Our dance photos are courtesy of Marlene and Byron …

… gracious sharers of tables and bonafide masters of the zydeco two-step (that’s them dancing in the background).

What’s more, the biscuit-muffins and the beignet (giant sugar-coated doughnut holes) are fantastic. Just ask Diane. She'll tell you about it when she's done...

Charged from the dance party, we glided through the afore-mentioned swamps, ending our bus drive eventually at Avery Island. It’s not much of an island, but you don’t go for the scenery so much as you stay for the pepper sauce -- the home of Tobasco (no kidding). And this, my friends, is the story of Cajun country.

*After the all-night Cajun steam bath, we wised up, put on our thinking caps, and got creative. What can we say? It works.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

It's Family, Man

I am convinced that history, the memory of things past and our interpretations of those past memories, is not set in some sort of metaphysical concrete. Rather, the past is gently set on the shifting sands of time. It is forever-changing, our changing bodies and evolving sensibilities causing the memories of past events to soften or harden or simply change as we, ourselves, change. This isn't a bad thing. Past events define us today. They inform our future. (Which, contrary to popular belief, never changes--the future hasn't happened yet!) As long as we keep the past alive, so too shall we live.

This is a long way to say that my father and me go way back. And if my memory of those past events play a few tricks on me, then I hope you'll forgive me. My father immigrated to the U.S. from The Netherlands in 1946. His entire family miraculously survived WWII and, together, willingly or not, they left war-torn Europe and set sail for a pastoral life among the farmlands of western Iowa. They spoke no English. They had no prospects. But they were able bodied and they had each other. So they worked. They made their way, working, moving again and again,
from Iowa to Colorado to California to Michigan and back to Iowa again in search of new jobs, new schools, and better opportunities. These children grew up, as they do, settled down and started their own families. It is no surprise I have family scattered in every corner and crossroad of this country. It is little wonder that I do not live anywhere near the town where I grew up. (Indeed, neither my father, mother or brother lives anywhere near their home town.) It is no surprise I feel right at home wherever we happen to be on our loopy road trip.

Today, my father lives in Houston, TX. He is a retired factory worker, scholar, minister, social worker, and probation officer who currently moonlights as a substitute teacher by day and church social scenester by night. His is married to a wonderful woman, Mary, who is the hub a large and vibrant family of her own. Their families inexorably intertwined, their home is filled with an ever-changing cast of visitors and guests. The doorbell is always chiming. The phone is forever abuzz. And everyone is always welcome. It is a place where strangers become friends, and friends become family. It is a house filled to overflowing with love.

No sooner had our bags hit the floor, we were off to see the greater Houston area and meet as many members of their extended family as would meet us. It was a week where both past and present merged into one rolling event.

It began with a tour of the shipping channel that flows into Galveston Bay, one of the busiest ports in the U.S. and a visit to the historic San Jacinto Battlegrounds (where the Texans routed Santa Ana's Mexican regulars in 1836 and earned a short-lived independence)...

... complete with a solemn study of the mothballed Battleship Texas, the veteran of many a world conflict.
A Sunday morning church service (where we were warmly welcomed from just about everyone in their congregation) and an early afternoon filled with family fellowship, followed by a boardwalk afternoon by the bay...

... capped with a bay-side stop to feed gulls on-the-wing.

Not to mention a swing through Galveston island...

... and a tour through the the butterfly sanctuary in downtown Houston.

Of course, the evenings were filled with fine dining (thanks Diane and Mary!) and the fellowship of friends and family.

After leaving my father's house, I am struck by the memory of my father.
I don’t see my father as often as I’d like or as often as I should. And I regret the accumulated years of silence between us. This is what happens when sons discover that they, too, can be men. It is an unchangeable truth of our personal history. But while I was busy trying to be a man, my father was always there, not hovering or haunting. Just there. Patient and waiting. Knowing, I’m now certain, that as I got older, as I grew up, that I’d remember at least a few of the lessons he taught me.

He knew I would remember that he, along with my mother, had attended every school music recital, sporting event, and ceremony I ever took part in. He knew that, through his good works in the church and social services, he had shown me what community service actually means. He knew that, as I struck out to find my own way in this world of endless choices, I would take the life-lessons of an immigrant as my boon. He knew that I would do my best in the world of work, that I would both flirt with failure and also enjoy the pleasures of success. He knew that he had taught me how to love my family with all my heart and to love strangers as best as I am able. He knew that I’d understand, finally, what he has known all along. That we are mortal. That we are flawed, all of us. That love binds us together for all our years but also frees us. That we are family.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Downtown Deb

Sometimes we don't know what to do in our lives. So we change jobs, we sell one house and then buy another, we move from city to city, we find new friends, we seek out the newest movies, the newest-fangled gadgets, and otherwise proclaim the latest statements on fashion. Some among us might even take to the wheel and go on the road to find IT. (A beatific tip o’ the pen to J. Kerouac. –ed.)

Of course, all of this to-ing and fro-ing is little more than elaborate busywork. What we’re really looking for is authenticity. The real and true. And this quest is personified in our friend Deb.

From Carlsbad, NM, the oil and hay fields of west Texas a blur in our windows, we hot-footed the yellow bus through the well-heeled German tourist towns of the Texas Hill Country...

... to flop safely in the comfortable spare bedroom of Deb’s Place in the big-treed historic district of San Marcos, TX.

She doesn’t just know the Austin, TX area, she is steeped in it. For her food is not just fuel, it is edible art (she is a professional restaurateur and cookbook author). Live music is not about the popularity of the act, it is about the integrity of the performer (she has worked for the TV show "Austin City Limits"—a showcase of the best music and musicians, and has many friends in the biz.) A house for her isn’t just a place to store your stuff, it is a part of a neighborhood . And people are never strangers to her, they become her friends.

Which is to say, Deb is one of those rare individuals who befriends everyone she meets, makes them her friend, and keeps them. She is a real friend to Diane and I. She is authentic. She is funny. She has a irrepressible zest for good food, good music, good friends, and good abodes. She herself says it best, as when she talks about cooking: “It’s all about the flavor.”

And so it is. And so it was. The week or so we stayed at Deb's Place was filled with flavor. (I should also mention we had the good fortune to see Deb's mother again, Jan, who herself was on an extended visit to Deb's place. Jan also visited Deb for a few months when we (namely Deb, Diane and I) lived on the Greek isle of Skopolos four years ago. But that's another story for another time.)

Deb took us to a shit-kickin' beerhall in the tiny town of Gruene (pronounced "Green.") It doesn't get more Texas than this.

The "dirtiest" old burger joint in Austin. All that remains of Dirty himself is a bronzed bust in a glass case, though the burgers are as good as ever.

A forgotten but still kicking watering hole in Austin's most upscale neighborhood where we shot pool, took in a great sunset view, played sad country tunes on the juke box, and watched American Idol.

A side-trip to San Antonio to remember the Alamo and to walk the river.

Not to mention top-notch home cookin'; a lazy tubing trip on the crystal-clear spring fed waters of the San Marcos river; crashing an old hippie mushy-food potluck in what can only be described as Sanford & Son's garden paradise (no pics, sorry); and a fantastic music show at the Saxon Pub that featured Paula Nelson (Willie's daughter) and Monte Montgomery--a fabulous acoustic guitar hero and stand-up comedian. (If someone plays music, and they play in Austin, they've played the Saxon.)

It was a great time that went too quickly. Diane got plenty of "girl time" with Deb & Co. I got plenty of "writing time" just out of earshot. We were very sad to go. But then again, it's only a matter of time before we see our wonderful friend again.