writing exercise #52: I always see ghosts

I always see ghosts. I can’t help it. I lie awake at night staring above me – how many times will I count the ceiling tiles? – and alternate between conversations with my great aunt, uncle, grandparents, cousin Joseph who passed away last year, and scolding myself for my imagination.

Your thoughts are not who you are, I tell myself. I know this because I am reading an article in a magazine in the doctor’s office about how to worry less. I want to worry less. I worry so much. That’s why I’m here to see the doctor.

All my girlfriends take Xanax. For anxiety. They say it’s great. Some of them go through it quickly then complain the doctor won’t refill their prescriptions fast enough, others make a single prescription last for a year. “I just take it when I’m traveling and can’t fall asleep in a strange place,” one says. That sounds fine to me. Except I feel like I’m traveling every time I curl up in bed, one pillow under my head, another between my knees. I might need more than the doctor is willing to provide.

The door opens. My name is called. I rise, shifting my purse strap on my shoulder and clench the magazine in my fist. I realize I am clenching, take a breath and hold it more loosely, like a woman on vacation contemplating sunscreen. “Hello,” I say, walking forward. The nurse – is she a nurse? Assistant? I have no idea these days. Whatever she is, her smile is kind as she ushers me to the scale and lets me take my shoes off before stepping aboard.

Her smile remains steady through a blood pressure check and a pulse read. I wonder why they never tell you the numbers and whether they’re good or bad, just take your vitals, make their notes and move on. Who doesn’t want to know? High? Low? It’s insulting to have to ask, so I don’t.

I’m left sitting on a paper-covered table, feet dangling like a child’s, back aching from nothing to lean against, flipping though this magazine I’ve glommed onto. Apparently I am not moisturizing my skin enough. I should also be consuming more olive oil, but less sugar. Here is a smoothie with olive oil and apples and, of course, kale. And lemon. If I drink this every morning, my skin will glow.

My grandmother comes into the room. “I told you to eat lemons,” she says. Her eyes shimmer bright green like they always have. “Look at my hands,” she says. “All those years cooking for the family, you’d think they’d be nothing but dried up prunes, but no. Every meal I used olive oil. Every time I poured it in the pan, I rubbed it into my hands. Look. Do these look like the hands of an old lady?”

I look. Her hands look suspiciously young. “Maybe they have special lotion in Heaven,” I joke.

Grandmother narrows her eyes, her brows knit together. “You mock at your own peril,” she says. Before I can protest, explain, she vanishes.

My heart lurches a bit. I always loved her, admired her beauty and no-nonsense way. She would yell at my grandfather to help with the dishes when all the other men were hunkered down around the TV, hollering at the football game.

My mouth feels like sandpaper. Probably the residue of last night’s margarita binge. I search around for a paper cup, no luck, so I angle my head under the faucet, turn on the tap and inhale. The water tastes disgusting.

“You think that’s bad,” cousin Joseph says. “You should have come with us to Manzanillo in ’87. Man, that was an excellent trip, even if I did spent two days puking because I drank the water. Too much tequila, woke up in the middle of the night all cotton-mouthed, did what you just did, sucked the water right out of the tap. Only difference is, I could have died. You’re just put off because it’s not some kind of artisanal H20.”

I want to argue, but, well, he is kind of right. While I mull it over, he leaves without saying goodbye. Ghosts are like that.

Finally the doctor comes in. Asks me a few questions, makes a few notes. I stammer asking for the Xanax, overexplain my anxiety and why it would be okay, I’m not the addictive type, I don’t want her to think I’m some sort of junkie. She pauses, looks at me, opens her mouth like she wants to say something, then closes it. Finishes scribbling out the prescription, hands it to me.

I thank her. Hand the receptionist the $20 co-pay on the way out. Take the magazine with me, nonchalantly, the way I used to walk out of the drugstore with a tube of mascara and bottle of 151.

I’m not an addict. I’ll get the prescription filled tomorrow. I can wait. I drive home with Aunt Jane in the passenger seat telling me I need to eat more, am looking thin. The rearview mirror glows orange as dusk turns to evening turns to dark.

The sun sets and that was that.

coconut flour fails as a wheat replacement, threatens my identity; other news from the kitchen

I make cookies. It’s one of my things. I make iced oatmeal cookies better than your Mother’s, snickerdoodles soft as heaven and chewy chocolate chip cookies with browned butter that make almost all most other chocolate chip cookies taste like a faint idea of what a chocolate chip cookie should taste like.

That may sound like bragging, so I will share the reason I excel at making cookies: I find good recipes and follow them. Anyone can do this. Here, make the cookies yourself.

The key words are “good” and “follow.” If the recipe is only mediocre, obviously your friends will not be amazed and grateful and salivate like Pavlov’s dogs every time you walk in their office because they’ve become trained to associate you with sweetness. And a good recipe can always be ruined. Baking, in particular, demands respect to the measurements and tolerates few substitutes.

Which I was reminded of yesterday when, in the midst of mixing cookie dough – the aforementioned Astoundingly Good Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies – to make cookies to take to our friends’ house for a taco night potluck, I realized I was almost out of white flour. Well, hell. And no time to run to the store. I don’t bake nearly as much as I did when the children were small and every day was pancakes, waffles, cookies and crepes, so I don’t pay as much attention to what supplies are on hand.

What I had was an unopened bag of coconut flour I’d picked up cheap at Grocery Outlet – you know how it is when you see normally expensive items there. You grab them, sure they’ll come in handy some day. So I said to myself, “What the heck!” and dumped two cups’ worth into the bowl.

This result felt gritty instead of the usual smoothness, and a bit dry, but I forged ahead, squishing blobs together with my hands and shoving the pan in the oven. When I took them out, this:

IMG_0002Do those look like Astoundingly Good Chewy Chocolate Chip Cookies? No, no, they do not. Did they taste good enough to take over anyway? Should I abandon the cause, race to the nearest liquor store for a bottle of tequila instead? They were… okay. Which was sort of worse than being inedible because it meant I would show up with mediocre cookies instead of my usual amazing ones.

They swore that the cookies were good and the coconut flavor delightful (they were kind), and I didn’t lose sleep over this, but it did make me think about how when we figure out something we’re good at in life, how we focus on those things and they become what defines us. One batch of failed cookies is nothing much itself, but in the context of me fulfilling my role as Bringing of Things Sweet and Facilitator of Good Times and How Does She Possibly Find Time To Bake The Best Cookies?! the disappointment gave me pause.

Identity, how we’re perceived by our peers and others, ourselves, fascinates me. Once people have labeled you, trying to define yourself differently can feel impossible. And yet individuals redefine themselves all the time, some blatantly – I had a friend who would morph into a new person with each fresh boyfriend – and some simply because they evolve over time. Or because the role they’d been trying to fit into never really suited them and eventually they settled more into themselves. So much of life is that figuring out who we are and what that looks like and how to be this person inhabiting us when maybe we wish we were smarter, skinnier, more successful, richer, more confident, anything but the actual goofy flaw-ridden human being actually hanging out in our head. Factor in growth and change and challenge and devastation and success and love – no wonder some people seem stunned by life and others hardened or transcendent, depending.

I assess myself and move forward.

This morning’s kitchen moment fared better – although someone please tell me a trick for getting all the goat cheese off the plastic without making a huge mess. Unlike baking, random cooking can handle some experimentation, and I’ve been on this kick of making fancy toast (a slice of good bread layered with nut butter and thinly sliced apple, yogurt drizzled on top) or breakfast tortillas, which today resulted in a heated corn tortilla smeared with goat cheese and carefully cut Bartlett pear (on sale at the Co-op) with a dash of Humboldt Hot Sauce, Island Style.

How to do the cheese less messy?

        How to do the cheese less messy?

I recommend.

surf sessions #12, #13: Shelter Cove, Bandon

(If you haven’t read Ryan Burns’ story on Shelter Cove, please do that now. It’s well worth the scrolling.)

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#12: I found myself paddling out at Deadman’s for the third, maybe fourth time. I haven’t spent much time at the Cove, just a taste here and there. It’s the kind of place that even if one isn’t catching waves, to be in the water, with that view, is enough to make you believe in a benevolent universe. And then a set comes, that south swell rolling in all burly and spitting, and you think you’re going to get epic and instead you catch a rail and get smashed into the bottom and your husband’s going to be annoyed that, once again, you’ve dinged up his board, but jesus, what a view.

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#13: I’d never surfed in Oregon before, so what fine luck to be invited to a house on the beach with a surf break right in front. Rights, even. We marched over the morass of velellas, plunged into the 49 degree water, angled into what looked like a channel along the rocks, paddled through the oncoming sets and eventually reached the outside.

I love California, am loyal to the Golden State, but the way Oregon’s coastline sweeps around, jagged seastacks and rugged cliffs, never fails to impress. A fine place to wait for a wave. After a few false starts, I dialed in the takeoff spot and caught a fine right that held up long enough for me to think, “This is great!”

It was great, great enough that despite the remainder of my attempts resulting in failure – the waves started pitching and I’d paddled out on my longboard and couldn’t make the drops adequately, wiped out repeatedly, found myself freezing and over it a mere 45 minutes into the session – that the experience felt like a success. 

surf session #11

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yellow sand verbena, a nice break from the trash

Hard to tell which I’m doing less of – writing or surfing. Definitely not doing much writing about surfing. Here I am, trying to remember a week later when it was that I surfed. Before the horrible north wind came up. (Yes, yes, I know, the wind does some good things and is not wholly horrible outside of making what would be a lovely sunny day miserable and junking up the waves.)

So, yes – I surfed for the 11th time this year. Eleven out of 122. But eventually summer will kick in for real, the wind will die down and elation will be an emotion I familiarize myself with once again. I’m committed.

The water temp had dropped to 49, too much cold for my weathered wetsuit to keep out. I paddled around constantly to keep my legs and arms from stiffening up. What was warm was the vibe – older and newer friends floated in the lineup, catching up and grinning at the day. A few sets excited us, made us think the place was going to turn on as the tide dropped, but the waves ended up mushing out more often than not. I caught a few, had a nice time, finally gave in to the cold and returned to shore.

The sharper story revolves around a day I didn’t go surfing, couldn’t go, because I had beach cleanup duties for Surfrider and the NEC. I trekked along Old Navy Base Road, around the Samoa boat ramp, picking up plastic bits and cigarette butts while truck after truck zipped by, loaded with boards and a sense of anticipation. Bitterness swept through me – “Goddamn it,” I thought. “How many times have I been unable to go surfing because I’m doing something for Surfrider? Way too many. No one even cares. Why am I doing this? I’m resigning the second I get home. Next time someone calls about access issues or trash or organizing a benefit or whatever, I’ll tell them, ‘Not my problem.’I t’s going to feel so good.”

But the time I returned home, the burnout had faded and I’d pep-talked myself back into sticking with Surfrider until October, a perfect time for elections as it would mark the seventh anniversary of the chapter’s reconstitution. Apathy had led to the chapter fading before and I can’t let that happen again. I think about Glenn, his passion for surfing and rightness, how he influenced me to be better, smarter, have more fun, both in the water and out. We brought the chapter back largely in honor of him and as a way to funnel some of the sadness over losing him into a positive force for good. Like he was.

So on we go.

on Salon’s forgiveness column

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I read this column by Mary Elizabeth Williams – “My imperfect forgiveness project: How writing a memoir forced me to deal with old resentments on forgiveness a couple days ago and have been thinking about it since” – a couple days ago, and it’s stayed on my mind since. Like this part, which was instantly familiar:

And I felt freshly stung by the people I had loved and trusted who hadn’t been [steadfast and kind]. That’s when I realized I had to get to work.

So I gathered a bunch of friends together for some drinks and a healthy reality check of the abundance I do have. I worked more consciously on keeping a daily gratitude list, one of the easiest and most life changing things a person can do to feel good. I made a concerted effort to find opportunities for small acts of generosity I could do for others. And I asked a few wise friends how they have gotten through their own hardest moments of resentment and betrayal.

I wrote about forgiveness myself, back around Christmas, a column that prompted several positive emails and Facebook messages (and was also referred to in a Craigslist rant as “one of the saddest things I have ever read”). My first point, that you don’t have to forgive someone, especially if you’re a woman who’s been conditioned to always be the peacemaker, often at your own expense – this troubled some people, despite my later emphasis that we don’t get to be bitter and my agreement with the larger notion of forgiveness as a way to bring peace to ourselves. What I was fighting against with that opening salvo is this pressure we put people under – You Must Forgive! – as if one can wave her hand, announce, “It is done!” and then move through the world like Ben Kingsley playing Gandhi, all grace and bliss and impervious to the lesser emotions.

Williams writes this:

Forgiveness is a long process, one that takes place in fits and starts, one that often occurs without ever even hearing the words “I’m sorry.”

And that, that bit about “fits and starts,” so important. We have this romantic notion that we should be able to turn our lives on a dime. You know, this kind of stuff: “And then one day I woke up and decided it was time to be the person I wanted to be and from that day forward, I have been patient and kind, rich and thin, happy forevermore.” And sure, people have epiphanies from time to time, find God, quit drinking, discover the outdoors, and can pinpoint their new selves to a particular moment. But even when a specific event triggers the desire for change or the need for forgiveness, incorporating it into one’s busy life, overcoming one’s default programming, isn’t easy.

I spend a lot of my time wondering why human beings struggle so much to make what are clearly better choices – why do we order French fries if we’re hoping to lose weight? Why do we have a third drink when we know in the morning we’ll regret the blurriness of the night? Why do we peruse Zappo’s when we’ve told ourselves that we must pay off our credit card debt? Why do we stop and clean the house in the morning instead of running out to the beach when the later is clearly the one that brings us joy? (By “human beings,” I mean, of course, “me.”)

Changing habits is hard. Changing who you are is even harder. Grudge-holding runs in my family and overcoming that impulse is something that I’ve only been able to do successfully because I’m already too busy to remember what I meant to pick up at the Co-op, much less recall if I’m supposed to actively resent the person I’m passing in the canned beans aisle. Also I’ve grown up enough to realize that if people judged me on a sole act or impression, I’d likely have far fewer friends; humbled, I try to return the favor.

As Williams writes:

We all have things we need forgiveness for, and we probably have things we don’t even know we need forgiveness for. I’m sure I haven’t won any gold medals at the Sensitivity Olympics in my time. And remembering that keeps pain from turning into self-righteousness.

Ah, the slip into self-righteousness – it pains me to admit that’s a path I’ve slid down a few times for sure. The initial foray comes from a place of wanting, desperately, to be understood. If I can explain why something hurt/offended/damaged me in a way that hits home within the person I’m explaining to, then I’ll know my feelings are valid and that I have a friend on my side.

And I think that’s okay, this wanting to check in about my own reactions, to get perspective, to assess who I am and who my friends are. But if not done well, the discussion can turn into an argument about who is right – and if you’ve already been wounded, having to defend the fact that you’re clearly bleeding from someone else stabbing you, feels insane. Likewise, if you’ve been raised to be polite about the fact you’re bleeding all over the place, the effort of speaking up about it might take all your bravery and leave you unable to continue rising to defend yourself.

To find oneself in the position of saying, “I’m a victim and you suck for not getting it,” frustrates in so many ways. If you’re not the sort of person who revels in victimhood, for example. If you’re keenly aware of your own imperfections. If you care about navigating through life’s challenges with as much grace as you can muster.

Williams sums up:

I have to keep putting into practice, every day, the three toughest challenges of my adult life: patience, acceptance, mercy. It doesn’t mean letting toxic people into our lives, or forgetting the past. It just means putting pain and anger and disappointment in its place, and moving forward.

And I love that, too – her words reflect my own feelings and the complexity of forgiveness. To practice “patience, acceptance, mercy” does not require embracing those who’ve detracted from your life or pretending things that happened, didn’t. You get to make the call, every day, of who and what is worth your attention – I’m particularly keen on the who – and that’s the key. As the story goes, don’t feed the hate wolf.

It’s early in the day yet and I have two beach cleanups and a big nonprofit party to attend, all full of good people doing good work. Later I have a best friend’s party to go to, then maybe some kickass live music with my husband. A lot of work and logistical planning awaits as part of all this, but I’m optimistic the happy moments along the way will be worth the effort – today and all days, I strive to move forward.

surf session #10: tiny plastics (not fun), small waves (fun)

Thousands of tiny pieces of plastic, a few millimeters in diameter littered the sand, dotted the seaweed left strewn by the tide.

We were combing Point St. George’s beach for trash and anything that might have washed up from the 2011 Japan tsunami. This included part of a buoy, several plastic water bottles, a lot of rope bits and other random debris – several buckets’ worth of garbage. But the microplastics defeated us – too numerous and too small for us to make any but the slightest dent.

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All fun and games until someone loses an…

In the meantime, the sun shone, a light northwest breeze picked up and the tide swelled in. Conditions looked promising for our next move – a quick surf at South Beach. We’d been warned that a jet ski contest might compromise our good time and parked at the north end to minimize any interaction. (The controversy over the contest had resulted in poor attendance, which worked out very well for us.)

Bobby came out with me for the first time in months and, of course, caught a wave within a few minutes of paddling outside. I envied his easy athleticism for a moment, then was awash in happiness to see him having a good time. I caught plenty of my own waves, easy waist-high, longboardy rights that seemed like they might fade out, but kept peaking back up until I was almost to shore. Ridiculously fun.

I watched a couple preteen girls catch whitewater on softtops and flashed back to all the times we’d brought our kids and their friends to South Beach. Nostalgia threatened to flatten me for a moment. Oh, my little children! Now all grown up and catching waves in Santa Cruz, Santa Barbara. I miss them, miss surfing with them. But glad they took this gift I was able to give them out into the world. I smiled, and paddled for the next wave.

surf session #9

It’s taken me a week to get around to chronicling this!

I wonder how different my experience would be if I’d started surfing as a child. Would I be less hesitant, less hung-up? Or is that just an unshakeable part of how my brain is wired? Given how much I love being in the ocean, why would I ever sit on the beach thinking, “Oh, I don’t know. It’s cold. Look at all those people. Ugh.”?

The ghost of the shy kid I was lingers.

Another truth: One’s comfort zone is determined by the regularity of engaging in the activity. When I’m surfing daily, the hesitation fades – I’m tugging on my suit while sizing up the waves, perhaps unsure how it will be, but not going ceases being part of the conversation. I paddle for more waves, sit deeper, assert myself better.

And given the burgeoning crowd at my favorite spot, there’s no room for anything less than the confident taking of a wave. Given a choice, I’d ask for a nice day full of head-high rights and the occasional overhead set with me and maybe six familiar faces in the water. Reality, on this day, was overhead lefts, no rights to speak of (but the lefts were glorious) and about 35 people crammed into a 10-foot takeoff zone. I did not recognize many faces. And I’m still babying my shoulder. And I lack confidence because I’m not surfing so much. See? All the usual hangups. It was good to be in the water, to paddle, to readjust my attitude and reacquaint myself with the scene, but I did not catch many waves, just a few leftovers – my fault, as I opted to hang on the side and wait for something to swing wide instead of planting myself in the pack.

But even if I were more competent, having to fight for waves undercuts the joy of being in the water – and joy is the point. The only solutions are to either surf elsewhere, in lesser quality waves, or be good enough that the crowd issue ceases to be so significant.

Although – irrespective of my own situation – this was the worst etiquette I’ve ever seen at this spot. Several times, multiple people dropped in on a wave. I saw boards fly a few times as surfers jerked away trying to avoid collision. A friend who was out commented that although she doesn’t endorse bullheaded localism, some old-fashioned regulation sure would be helpful.

County Health Rankings – What living in Humboldt looks like

When you have kids, or your own chronic health issues, medical care factors into your life the same way eating, sleeping and breathing do – as a potentially life or death component.

I think about all this stuff a lot, especially since I’ve rarely had the right kind of insurance, but the five years in which I did was amazing. When you’ve had nothing or nothing but Medi-Cal your whole adult life, having legitimate insurance is akin to miraculous. Medical staff treats you better. You have options. (I was very sad to see all that go.)

I’ve written before about my hospital experiences over the years. I’ve asserted that the one good thing to come out of being slow to diagnose Nick’s diabetes is that because he was so sick, they flew him to UCSF, which meant we had far better care than he could have received here. Of course, it also meant that we had to drive 560 miles roundtrip each time he had an appointment, but such is living somewhere rural – right?

And maybe we don’t have the broadest, most cutting-edge array when seeking health care here in Humboldt, but we do have all the ingredients for a healthy lifestyle: fresh vegetables, plenty of water, all kinds of outdoor exercise opportunities, strong communities, a relatively mild climate (at least here on the coast) and a culture that supports mediation, yoga and seeking the highest level of emotional health. The bad elements – drug addiction, limited mental health resources, violent crime – those could happen anywhere. Right? And even if you live somewhere with plenty of doctors and advanced technology, if you don’t have the right kind of insurance, you’re still going to end up at the poor folks’ clinic.

So when I saw the latest county health rankings had been released, I looked to see where Humboldt wound up: #34 out of 57.

It’s fascinating.

  • We do well on “Quality of Life” (#9, just below the #1 overall healthiest county, Marin, at #8), but only have about half the number of physicians per capita – although we’re right in line with the state average.
  • We do badly on “Length of life,” coming in at #49 out of the 57 California counties – but we’re improving, which means we have less premature deaths than we used to.
  • For a people surrounded by all the aforementioned healthy lifestyle ingredients, we do surprisingly poorly on “Health Behaviors” – a pathetic #41.
  • Measures by which we are getting worse include obesity, number of people uninsured and number of children in poverty.
  • Measures by which we are getting better are, as mentioned, length of life (do you really want to live forever?), plus we’re getting more physically active, have fewer preventative hospital stays, better diabetic monitoring (yay!) and increasingly good air quality.

The report is wonderfully interactive – again, you can check it out here.

Below, a snapshot of #34 Humboldt vs. #1 Marin.

Humboldt v Marin

insomni-uhhhhhh

At this point, it’s more like, “Wow, sure got up early today!” but I spent an hour lying in bed wishing I could go back to sleep and wondering what the hell is wrong with me that I can’t sleep, seemingly ever, and I’m going to lose my mind from either sleep deprivation or the worrying that not sleeping allows, or maybe both, and in any case, it’s unfair because I did everything right: I started yesterday early, I went to the gym, I didn’t drink alcohol, I drank nice herbal teas in the evening, I spent an hour reading (paper not a screen) before bed, I didn’t go to bed too early or too late, I practiced meditating, I expressed gratitude, I made a charitable donation to a friend’s fundraiser, I had several perfectly nice social interactions, I ate yogurt and avocado (not together) and to all appearances my children are alive and well, and we have enough money that we’re not going to lose our home and I like my job and I spent an hour as a volunteer reader in my friend’s kid’s class and loved having a chance to read from Light in the Attic again (they seemed cool with it, too) and even my achy knees have been feeling better and I really, really, really want to sleep so that I can wake up and dawn patrol because being tired while surfing, even if my knees aren’t too achy, is no fun at all, although not as bad as just lying in bed the riddled with anxiety, replaying old conversations, making up new ones, imagining and trying not to imagine phone calls alerting me to disaster befallen one of my far-flung children – having children is truly an invitation to heartbreak and I don’t understand why people would put themselves on the line like this – and so after an hour of tossing, of turning, of nudging Bobby for snoring, well, here I am, unloading onto a screen once again.

Notes on New Orleans

IMG_8551It started out simple enough.

“Hey, I’m going to a conference in New Orleans,” my friend Deidre said. “There’s an extra bed in the hotel room. Want to come?

“Yes,” I said. A free place to stay has inspired almost all my travels, and exploring the music, history and vibe of New Orleans certainly appealed.

As the departure grew closer, a Sacramento meeting cropped up, then one in Point Arena. Also, my daughter Kaylee opted to tag along during her spring break, but would need a ride to San Francisco from Santa Cruz.

And then my other daughter, Chelsea, needed to come back to Humboldt to regroup and prepare for her next chapter. She and her dog would be in Santa Barbara awaiting pickup.

Bobby and I worked it out.

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It should be noted that I was working from the road, stressed to the gills, up until Kaylee and I Ubered our way to SFO. Grant report? Check. Weight off shoulders? Check.

Tuesday

St. LawrenceOh, yum. Also, not altogether unlike being in San Francisco: “Our kitchen prides itself on creating simple, thoughtful dishes that showcase the fresh, local and regional produce that serves as the divine crux of our ever evolving menu. We offer a chef-driven, respectfully playful take on Southern and New Orleans classics with an international flair.” Gouda grits!

Bourbon Street. Here’s what I imagined: burlesque and booze and jazz for blocks. Here’s what it was: strip clubs and big-ass beers and terrible cover bands. For blocks. I anticipated historical decadence, not a Spring Break cliché. Live, learn.

IMG_8550Maison Jazz: You could mostly hear the jazz trio over the sound of the partying outside, although every so often, the sounds of “Don’t Stop Believing” or “Psychokiller” bashed their way in from the surrounding clubs. But Maison Jazz provided the first example of what I thought New Orleans would look, sound and taste like. (Rye with bitters.)

The Swamp: Good grief. Do we want three terrible beers for the price of one? No, just no. What we wanted was a balcony. But not like this.

Wednesday

Daylight brought the view. Sometimes I stay in hotels that are nicer than I am. I wish I’d remembered a swimsuit.

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Commerce: Came recommended, but was closed due to a movie being filmed. (Al Pacino. Indie flick. That’s all I remember. Deidre took notes.)

Dress It: Omni hotel café, where, instead of menus, they hand you order forms and you build your sandwich or omelette. Like a deli counter at your table. It was fine.

City Park: They say it’s bigger than New York’s Central. It didn’t feel that way, but I didn’t measure. Ponds, a botanical garden, sculptures, an art museum, the usual accruements. The street car ride leading to the park had passed through nondescript urban zones. Where was New Orleans’ personality? I wondered.

Meanwhile, my friend Ryan sent me a photo of the new Journal. Oh, wow. Suddenly, instead of being sad that I was missing the cover story I’d worked so hard on, I was relieved. This would have been too weird, so much me, all over town.

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Green Goddess: Being a vegetarian in New Orleans limits one’s options. I inhale sea food, but Kaylee is strict – this place, with it’s “uninhibited cuisine and spirits” offered beyond the usual mac’n’cheese options. Like this: “Burutta Pane Grigliato – 1/4 pound of Burutta cheese over fresh made grill bread, topped with pesto and a red gravy both garnished with xtra virgin olive oil, served with a nice arugula salad with fresh local assorted greens, roasted beets, lemon and Sicilian orange oil dressing.” See? Very happymaking. Also, again, like being in California. I was not sinking my teeth into the New Orleans food experience yet… Nonetheless, authenticity-seeking aside, when offered French toast stuffed with dark chocolate and gouda, say yes.

Magnolia Praline Company: Oh, god. The sugar. The nuts. Yes. And a taste legit to the South. A turning point.

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French Quarter, beyond Bourbon Street: Walking around Decatur and Royal and Jackson Square better acquainted us with who New Orleans is. Flowering balconies. Charming buskers. Classier bars – to-go cocktails still available in a plastic cup, of course, but at least the ratio of fine cocktails to hurricanes had increased.

The Sazerac Bar: We put on our fancy clothes. Worth a drink, although at $14 a pop, not necessarily two.

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The famous Cafe Du Monde: Earlier in the day, the line stretched around the block, the expansive patio bursting at the seams. But at 11 p.m., plenty of seating! Decaf chicory coffee and beignets that lived up to the hype. (The “hype,” of course, being that fried dough covered in sugar is going to trip all your deepest pre-evolution wires.)

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Thursday

EnVie Espresso: This exists: “Rumchata,” which is exactly what it sounds like, horchata-flavored rum. If you add Earl Grey tea to it, you will find yourself drinking a “NoLa fog,” which is a perfectly reasonable way to start the day in New Orleans.

(Booze is always an option in New Orleans.)

Carousel Bar: My brother Tag and his wife, who is also named Jen, had flown down from New York. This place was their idea and it was brilliant, like the bar itself, a very merry-go-round, especially with a French 75 in hand.

Frenchmen Street: This is the street you should be on instead of Bourbon.

We took the streetcar to the cemeteries.IMG_8644

IMG_8646Wandering through the crypts and mausoleums may cause you to wonder about your own burial. Advertisements in the restrooms, then, are admittedly well-placed.

tumblr_nm70nbN9EU1qzp87ao2_1280(Via my brother’s Tumblr.)

Bamboulas: Say you’re hungry and thirsty from strolling cemeteries. You want a nice place to sit with some music and cocktails and fried pickles. This would be an extremely suitable choice.

Bywater: If Bywater were in New York, it would be Brooklyn. If it were in Los Angeles, it would be Silverlake. If it were in Texas, Austin. Which is to say, dining, drinking and coffee options are attractive and plentiful. I can’t figure out if the locals are friendly or not. The waiters speak with that honeyed molasses drawl that I want to eat up and the waitresses call us, “baby” and “y’all,” but pass someone on the street and a “good evening” is rare. (Except the older gents. But older gents always say hello or mention how beautiful you are or, as one fine fellow dancing alone to music blaring from his car did, offer to help you with anything you might need.)

We went to a crazy thrift store.

Sbisa: My favorite of all the bars we went to. In addition to tasty cocktails and a pretty balcony, when searching for the restrooms, we discovered that the building apparently goes on forever, with all kinds of staircases and endless nooks.

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Bourbon House: Here is where you will order a flight of rye whiskey and discover you enjoy the Smooth Ambler best.

(Good) Friday

Huck Finn’s: Tried for Commerce again, but it was closed for Good Friday, so we ended up here, served by a 20-something waiter with the aforementioned sweet accent to die for. I wanted to record him, but that seemed a little too weird. And not in a good, New Orleans-weird, kinda way.

Honey Island Swamp Tour: We did see a mama alligator and a baby alligator. I could not get a decent photo of either. The tour included pickup from the hotel and a discourse by the driver on the damage done by Katrina – I couldn’t hear as well as I’d’ve liked, but we passed through areas where the damage had been extensive. (I need to watch that Spike Lee joint.) We also happened to pass by a Good Friday celebration that included three live men tied to crosses. That was a thing.

Jimmy J’s: From the outside, looks touristy. OK, it is touristy, but also boasts an excellent eggplant sandwich and serves breakfast all day. Do not, however, ask the waiter if they happen to have soy milk. You will never quite recover from the eye-rolling. We had some bonus drama when a woman parked just outside backed her SUV into a scooter, knocking it over and flooding the street with gas. (Unlike California, gasoline on the street does not trigger the appearance of a Hazmat crew.)

Royal Street is fun. Especially with people you like.

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Back to Frenchmen Street…

Snug Harbor: Welcoming, hopping little spot. We met up with Deidre and her compatriots from the conference, Olga from the Ukraine/Kansas and Pierre from France (obv). Managed to score the entire front section of the bar, which lent well to long discussions about academia, culture, travel and the sort of related discussions that happen when you’re all drinking whiskey into the night.

Dat Dog: A veggie dog option made me happy because a veggie dog piled with sauerkraut and cheese serves so well as a late night alcohol-absorbing snack. We sat on the balcony and applauded our extremely patient waiter. We decided waiting on drunks is very much like parenting – you need a lot of patience dealing with irrational and easily distracted people.

Saturday

Freret Street Festival: Rollicking brass bands, garlic fries, praline balls, arts and crafts made as if someone cares, strawberry-basil margaritas. I bought Bobby a super-soft T-shirt that says, “I want to be Bayou.” 

From there, the Garden District by way of Lafayette Cemetery No. 2 and No. 1.
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We also took a jazz boat tour.

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This was our last night all together. Some people thought Hand Grenades were a must-have. Another person opted for the more sensible Maker’s on the rocks. Guess who was the least hungover in the morning? Not the people who had to catch a 5 a.m. shuttle to the airport!

Sunday

Everyone else left. I shifted locations to the Faubourg-Marigny district, hunkered down in a little studio rented through Air BnB and spent most of the day writing – because that’s what writers do, even if they are in New Orleans, yes? – except when I put on my blue-and-white dress, the most Easter-y dress I’d brought with me, and ventured out to Tableau (per my host’s suggestion) for a ginger lemonade and fingerling potatoes breakfast and then to Preservation Hall, where the mostly a cappella tunes of St. Cecilia’s Asylum Chorus moved me to tears – an unexpected loneliness had pervaded upon the departure of friends and family.

Later, stomach growling, I forced myself to take a break and tripped back out to the highly recommended Verti Marte for a BBQ shrimp po’boy. Along the way, the New Orleans Gay Easter Parade took me by surprise.

Monday

The Country Club: The morning’s mugginess had me dripping with sweat by the time I arrived, but a cool bowl of gazpacho and watermelon salad on the veranda quickly refreshed. And then I bought a pass to the pool in the back and spent hours alternately swimming, sunbathing, dipping in the hot tub, drinking Bywater Sunrises and reflecting on what good fortune brought me here.

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