Friday, February 29, 2008

documenting change: nine.

confessions of a triathlon trainee.

Confession 1. I skipped my Wednesday bike ride. I could not bring myself to ride around in the cold, dreary weather. I also could not bring myself to the gym to ride stationary. I could not. This is the first time I’ve skipped a workout, and I felt pretty guilty.

Confession 2. I feel like a big dork when I wear a helmet. Today, as if to make up for the fact that I skipped a workout this week, and also simply because it is a beautiful day, I rode my bike to the coffee shop. I did not wear a helmet. Why should I be worried about whether I'm a dork or not? Who cares, right? (Me, me, me, I care.)

My triathalon instructor, who is a young and sort of soft-spoken guy, says, with as much authority as he can muster, “There are only two kinds of cyclists. The ones who’ve crashed and the ones who haven’t crashed yet.” Somehow seeing this young guy get all coach-like makes me feel like laughing.

Maybe it’s just the rebellious student in me. Maybe it’s generational; I did not grow up with the helmet, and I’ve secretly mocked little kids who have to wear helmets while riding around their neighborhoods. Poor sucker, I’ve thought to myself.

Confession 3. This evening I’m supposed to do a 45-minute run. I’m looking forward to it. This is tremendously out of character, but I am really, really looking forward to it. Am I beginning to enjoy running? Is that possible?

There is a 15-year-old girl who is a super-cute in my class. On Tuesday, a few of us practically dragged her by the sleeve to make her finish the run with us. She hates the running and cycling. It is apparent on her face and in her body language in the way that only a 15-year-old is capable of demonstrating disinterest, boredom and dislike. Top lip curled up, eyes narrowed and vacuous at once, arms folded beneath chest, shoulders slouched forward. Loud sighs every few minutes.

One day as our triathalon instructor was saying to her, “Come on V.! Finish the lap!” she responded, in a tone of suffering and injustice, “I’m only in HIGH school!”

Thursday, she told me she’s not doing a triathlon anymore, so she’s only going to come to the swim classes from now on. In fact, the only reason she’s taking the class is so she can get her lifeguard certification to be a lifeguard at her neighborhood pool this summer. She needs to have swam a certain distance consecutively before she can be certified. Truthfully, she doesn't act like she enjoys the swimming all that much either, and I don't know if I'd want my kid to go under with her in the lifeguard seat.

I tried to convince her she should do the triathlon that I am doing since the distances are so short for all of the events. Our conversation went like this:

Her: Yeah, but I’m not athletic AT ALL.
Me: I’m not either.
Her: No, I mean, I’m not at ALL. Like all I ever do is homework. And watch TV.
Me: I’m really not athletic at all either.
Her: But I mean, were you ever? Like in high school, were you ever on any kind of track team or anything?
Me: Never.
Her: I mean anything? (Exasperated.) Like did you at least walk around your block? Cause I don’t even do that.
Me: My high school P.E. was yoga.
Her: I don’t even take P.E.

So. I couldn’t convince her. I really like having this 15-year-old in the class, with all of her feigned disinterest. I love that feigned disinterest toward life.

Maybe I should be a lifeguard at a neighborhood pool this summer? Just kidding. Sort of.

Monday, February 25, 2008

between realities.

For some time now, I’ve been wondering, Why won’t my mother show herself to me. Why won’t she come to me in a dream, communicate with me, let me know I am loved?

And I’ve been mad. How can she have died? How can my dad have remarried? How can the make up of my family suddenly be altered? Yes, I’ve been mad. I’ve been kicking and screaming and wailing inside like a banshee unready for these changes. Even a year and six months after my mother’s death, I'm like a tantrum-throwing girl expectant of the luxury of seeing my mother - having her hurl love my way in some tangible form.

Sunday morning, 8:30 a.m., I woke to myself sobbing. Heaving and sobbing and confused by the blurred line between dreams and reality. By the eerie sense of living between realities, which is exactly as I’ve been feeling for many months. To wake sobbing from a dream managed to punctuate that sensation.

In my dream I am leaving a job interview, and I am driving home. I am driving to my childhood home. I’m passing houses, and noticing how old they look. All the while, I’m aware that I’m driving not only home, but also into the past. I get to an odd fork in the road, and have to work hard to remember how to take the fork to get to my house. On my street, I notice nearly all of the houses are for sale. I pause at one to take in how unlived in, how decrepit, it’s become – a reflection of the whole neighborhood. When I get to my house, it’s frozen in time. It looks alive, lived in, loved, and exactly as it had in my youth.

My dad is there. Two cars are in the carport, and dad's in the process of moving one because he doesn’t like how it’s parked. So I wait on the street while he adjusts the car, and when he’s done I pull into the driveway. When I get out, he asks me, “How did it go? Did you get the job.” “I think so,” I tell him.

We go inside. I notice a cell phone. It rings. The ring tone is the intro to the Beatles song “Come Together.” I watch it ringing; John Lennon starts singing. I start laughing and look at my dad. He laughs. I say, “You have a Beatles song as your ring tone?” He laughs at himself again and says, “You know. I like the Beatles.” We’re looking into each other’s eyes. I think to myself, Why didn't he choose “Let it Be” as the ring tone (a song I’ve heard him comment on numerous times). An instant later, I think, He must’ve barely known how to download a song and picked the first Beatles song he could find.

Suddenly, we are in my parents’ bedroom. It is the same room it was when I was five, same bedspread, same curtains. My dad is talking to me in a very matter-of-fact manner about when his new wife arrives. He’s talking to me about the things she’ll need to learn when she comes from India. My mom’s closet is full, just as it was when I was growing up. He is emptying it to make room for his new wife. He is removing clothes and making a pile on the bed. It’s all very practical. He knows he needs to make room for his new wife, and he also doesn’t want my mother’s good clothes to go to waste.

At one point, he takes out a sari that is folded up. It has white-on-white satin stripes running horizontally. Over the stripes is a pattern of red flowers. It’s a sari she had made in the mid-80s, and he holds it up. When he holds it up, I see my mom’s body appear dressed in the sari. I don’t see her face, I just see the form of her body, pre-stroke. I say, looking at my mother’s body, “I don’t want you to give her that one.” My dad says, “Okay. I won’t.” And he puts it on the bed, apart from the give-away pile he has created. I have a moment of thinking it’s going to be difficult for me to see anything red. My mother loved red, and she looked amazing in it.

He continues to pull out clothes, still talking to me about the things his new wife will need to learn when she comes here from India, English, how to drive, etc. Another red sari comes out. This one is older – from when I was maybe five or six years old. It is a more bluish-red, and it is silk. He holds it up, and again, my mother’s younger, healthy body appears to me draped in this sari. Again, I say, “Dad. Don’t give her that one.” He says, “Okay. I won’t.” And he sets it on top of the other sari.

Then, I remember seeing some of her American clothes come out of the closet. He sets them down. He’s still talking to me. I recognize every article of clothing that’s leaving the closet. He pulls out a mauve Indian suit. It’s a newer outfit. He says, “if I give her these [referring to the newer Indian suits], they’ll be too big. They’ll have to be taken in here and here.” He shows me the seams that will need to come in. He’s trying to decide what to do. For the second time, I look him in the eyes. I say, “She can take them to a seamstress. Or, if she wants to learn how to sew, she can get someone to teach her and she can take them in herself.”

I see a look of realization and surprise come over his face, as if it had not occurred to him that perhaps this woman could learn to sew. He says, “Really?” He seems struck by the idea that someone besides my mother might alter these clothes, particularly, this new wife. It is as if this is a place he’s reserved only for my mother, and this new wife is supposed to be different, not a seamstress. Not an artist working in the medium of fabric, thread, yarn.

Then he pulls out a midnight blue silk suit with white and silver embroidery around the neckline. I am doubly-struck by this suit. I hadn’t been so surprised that the red saris had affected me. But the blue suit is so startling. Her body appears, and her younger, smooth face – eyes dark and alive, hair perfectly set, lipstick on lips. She looks happy to see me. She is smiling and not speaking. She looks at me with admiration and pride, with warmth and soothing. It feels like she is there to mediate. To say, It’s okay. You’re dad has a special place for me. I know this. You should know it. And I panic, “Not that one. PLEASE don’t give her that one,” I say of the blue suit.

My dad sees my panic. He says, “Okay. Okay. Don’t worry. I wasn’t giving this one away.” He says it to let me know that he too holds her sacred. I look at where he lays the suit on the bed and see that the pile where he’d put the two red saris has grown. That while he’s been talking to me, he has been adding articles of his own accord to this pile. He adds the blue suit to the top of the pile.

I fall to my knees on the floor and bend over the pile. I am sobbing and begging, “Please don’t give these things to her.” Then I am hugging the pile of my mother’s precious clothes against myself as I sob and beg. I want to hug the clothes as hard as I can, as if I can turn them into her flesh against my own.

That was the dream. It made me sad and bleary. When I woke up, I never even opened my eyes. I just snapped awake in my head and then sobbed for real.

I remember that when my sisters and I were sorting through my mother’s clothes after she died, it had been so important to me to get a photograph of her closet. Since childhood, her closet has been a special place for me. The collection of her own creations and personalities and moods. It was the one place that was not neat or kept. In fact it was crammed, hangers always poking out or hung backwards. Garments pressed tight against one another.

Every now and then, I would clean her closet out for her. I remember, when I moved to Virginia to care for her, going through the ritual of again, sorting and organizing her closet. This time it was with the specific intent that she should know exactly where all of her items were, how to access them so she could easily dress herself and choose her outfits on a day-to-day basis. Little things you don’t think twice about when you are healthy and fully mobile.

I loved my mother’s closet. The way it smelled and sparkled of only her.

SONGS: Come Together, The Beatles and Dreamaniacs, Bettie Serveert

Saturday, February 23, 2008

blue skies, brown skin.

This morning, when I woke up, I could see a piece of the sky through the window where my curtain is pulled back a bit. Clear and blue. Yesterday had been a red-stick-tease. It began cloudy and gray; around mid afternoon, it turned sunny and warm; by early evening it returned to gray and the temperature dropped to a chill; finally, by evening, the clouds moved just enough to let the sunset come through, but the chill remained.

It was 43 degrees when we woke, and now it’s in the high 60s, for sure. I am sitting on the soccer field of my high school Alma matter. I only live about seven blocks away, and I come here both to practice running for the triath and to let my dogs loose. Earlier, I let the dogs run the field, but now they are leashed up and sitting beside me. I’m typing and we’re all three basking.

People are walking the track that surrounds this soccer field. Two boys are playing football. Cars are in the parking lot, so I assume there is a play practice going on inside the school, or maybe students are taking the SAT – is it time for that, or was that last semester? There are also two teenagers who’ve created a makeshift ramp in the parking lot, and they are skateboarding.

Today is a “recovery” day – meaning no exercise. Yay. Yesterday I ran for 45 minutes. I had to break it up like this: 20 minutes of solid jogging, 5 minute walk, 15 minutes of jogging, and another 5 minute walk. The joy came in this – I’ve never run 20 minutes straight before. I managed to do 7 laps around the track in that time, which is 1 ¾ miles. My triath is a super sprint – i.e. it is abbreviated distances for all events. So I’ll only have to run 2 miles.

I’m feeling really good right now about the biking and the running. So I’ve just got to get better at the swimming. Once I’m there, I’ll be working on combining/transitioning between the three. On Thursday, in my class, we swam a total of 1000 yards (my triath is only 350 yards - 14 lengths of the pool). My husband c. asked me, “Did you feel like hopping on a bike after you were done swimming?” Ha. No. No I did not.

Today, c. and I went to the farmers’ market. We managed to purchase some of the best tasting spinach I’ve ever eaten (I used it in a sandwich today), tomatoes, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, chorizo sausage, carrots and fresh crumped oatmeal, along with 2 cups of coffee, all for under $30. We’ve got our veggies and my breakfast for the entire week – and we’ll use the chorizo to make a bastardized version of grits and griads (a Cajun dish of grits and beef stew – think polenta with savory stew if you need it to sound fancy). We’ll eat that with spinach.

Then I went to the grocery store and spent another $30 bucks on 2 ½ gallons of milk from two local creameries (one an artisan creamery, one not – I like skim, c. likes 2%), locally caught drum fish, native oranges and grapefruits, and some really good bread that is made at a bakery in Lafayette, LA and delivered down to BR three times a week. Okay, I bought a frozen pizza and some yogurt too. (And a powerball ticket – send good vibes!!!)

Along with some asparagus, pork and orzo we already have, we’ve got groceries for a week for the two of us for only $60 – and most of it was locally grown and processed. I am pretty proud of this accomplishment.

So, speaking of exercising and farmers’ markets – I’ve been reading a blog called STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE. If you read the comments, you’ll see that it clearly offends some people. But I think they need to lighten up and admit their fulfillment of the stereotypes. It lists things including: farmers markets (check), microbrews (check), bicycles (check – the only reason I didn’t suggest we ride bikes to the market today is because it’s a recovery day, and I’m not supposed to exercise except maybe yoga/stretching), yoga (check), sushi (check), dogs (check), wine (check), indie music (check). The site also lists gentrification as one thing white people like – and I know about gentrification inside and out from my previous life as a planner – the social, economic, cultural aspects; none the less, I fit the stereotype of purchasing in an “authentic” neighborhood, etc. It also lists the top ten hip-hop songs white people like – I think c. and I have all of them, and it lists Common as a musician white people like (again, check). I don’t know if alt country and classic country are on the list, but they should be.

As I read and laugh at this blog, I find myself wondering: How did this brown girl get so white? Then, my brain not skipping a beat, wonders: How did this brown girl get so southern? And yes, I am so southern…I smile at strangers. Say hello to them on the sidewalk. Break into spontaneous conversation with strangers in the grocery line.

This past Christmas, I found myself conversing with friends about the “southern-ness” of one of my good friends, a., who lives in LA. We were amused by how embarrassed a. was getting because we were, in a public bar, talking about various forms of birth control. We were commenting on the exact face a. makes when she wants you to stop talking about whatever it is you’re discussing. It is a very polite, restrained smile, and her eyes are communicating that the topic is totally inappropriate. Very southern. So we were discussing this, and laughing about it, and commenting that she is, in some ways, so like her mother. (I’m sure she is cringing, but also hopefully grinning as she reads this.)

This leaves me wondering more – where’d I get my southern-ness? (Not my mom!) On the night of my birthday, a friend – also an a. - was, jokingly, wearing a condom tucked into her bra so you could see it peeking out from beneath her shirt. It had been irking me all night. Finally, I plucked it away, and said, “Uh-uh. You have GOT to get rid of that.” It was my very own brand of southern reserve, a degree of etiquette which compelled me. She looked stunned and amused and said, “You know I’m joking.” And I just said, “Trust me. I’m doing you a favor.” I felt very much like a sorority girl telling her sorority-sister she isn’t allowed to smoke in a bar. Or like a debutante preaching about the no-white-after-Labor-Day rule (not one I go by.)

Now I’m on the hunt for blogs about STUFF BLACK PEOPLE LIKE and STUFF INDO-AMERICANS LIKE. I suspect I could check off quite a few items on those lists too. Here is the link to STUFF WHITE PEOPLE LIKE. Enjoy it! It’s funny for god’s sake. Laugh at yourselves. Or at white people. Or both. I do it all the time.

SONGS: Blue Skies, Willie Nelson and Brown Skin Lady, Black Star

Monday, February 18, 2008


How did it happen that, "I'll get it to you by Friday," turned into Saturday at 11, turned into Saturday night, turned into Sunday morning, turned into 12:30 a.m. on Sunday night/Monday morning?

Let's just say it happened. And that I work better under pressure.

Today, the editor sent the story back to me - he had managed to cut out 500 words and needed me to get it down another 600. Blah. I managed to make it work. I think I managed to cover the big issues surrounding the food we eat in a way that is very much about local farmers and farming practices. I was even able to touch upon the migrant workers without judgment or accusations, but in a manner that simply raises questions, and more importantly awareness.

I could not be more pleased with my article.

And, no, that chicken was not the chicken I ate. The brown chickens are egg layers, and the white ones (at the farm I visited) are used for poultry. But I'll say that I ate my chicken joyfully. My intricate knowledge of how it had been raised, what it had been fed, and the fact that a couple who lost everything in Hurricane Katrina are the people whose livelihoods I was helping support - as they were helping nourish me - made me feel deeply connected to an amazing symbiotic cycle. And it was the best tasting chicken I've ever had.

Joy, joy, joy. Now I'm going for a swim.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

documenting change: eight.

triathlon trainin'.

Last Friday I was so very proud of myself because it marked a full week of training for my triathlon every single day, beginning with the Sunday prior. Sunday was a bike ride, Monday was a swim, Tuesday was a run, Wednesday a bike ride, Thursday a swim, Friday was a run, and Saturday was a REST day.

This week - on Sunday we did another bike ride. I think the biking will prove easiest for me. I can do 10 miles easily, and my ride is only a 12 mile ride. In fact, on Sunday, I was telling my husband c., "I'm really not worried about the triathlon anymore. I think it's going to be easy."

Then last night happened. Last night my triath training class was a "hard" workout. This is what the instructor said. He said, "Tonight, we're going to do a 'hard' workout, and tomorrow, you'll do a nice easy cool down workout." I don't know why I am writing *quote* hard *unquote* - because the workout was just this: HARD.

Midway through, I was listening to this internal dialog:
"Why the hell did you sign up for a triathlon? Are you crazy? Who are you trying to impress and what are you trying to prove?"
"Well, I was trying to impress...just me. I wanted to prove something to me."
"You don't need to impress yourself. You don't need to prove things to yourself. What's the point of that?"

Also midway through the HARD. workout, I thought I might need to stop and throw up. I did not.

This is what we did: 2 slow warm-up laps around the track. Then the painful stuff began: 2 laps around the track ran with intensity - 20 crunches, 15 push ups, 20 super mans (where you lay on your stomach and quickly lift your legs and arms simultaneously, stretching the legs out to the back and the arms to the front), 20 bicycles (where your lay on your back and move your legs in a pedaling motion while you move your elbows to opposite knees). All of that happens FAST. And when we were done with the first set, we did FIVE MORE JUST LIKE THAT.

While I was making my third set of laps around the track, I thought, I can't do this anymore. I can't do this anymore. But I kept going. I finished it all, was huffing and puffing at the end. I said, "Can I lay down now?" and our instructor said, "No - Don't lay down. Now ya'll go do two cool down laps around the track."

Internal dialog:
"Is that man crazy?"
"Am I?"

I called c. after and told him what we did. c. says, "You did 100 push ups!?" I stopped to calculate. "No, I did 90 push ups." I calculated more. "And I did 120 crunches, 120 super mans, 120 bicycles and 16 laps around the track!!!!"

I drove, stunned.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

here at home on this globe.

Today I took a drive to Ponchatoula, Louisiana where I visited a strawberry farm. I interviewed a farmer about the economics behind a family farm. Particularly, I was trying to better understand how large corporate farms in California and the sales of California berries here impact his business as sole proprietor of a small farm in Louisiana. I left with more clarity, but also more questions.

Seeing the nine Mexican migrant workers picking berries and filling flats struck me. The farmer said he houses the workers, and I refrained from asking what he pays, if he insures their health, if they are legal, and if not, how he gets around the immigration laws to hire them. I didn’t ask these questions because I am writing for a publication that wants me to raise the issue of local food chains in a “friendly” manner. They haven’t said so, but the intent of this publication is to make people feel good about our rural to rural-ish landscapes and lifestyles. I get it; I know my audience.

As I left the interview, I thought, Someday, maybe I’ll conduct oral histories with migrant workers. Someday, maybe I’ll tell the story of agriculture in a different way. It will be about backbreaking work and traveling long distances; it will be a love story, and it will be about the nourishment of souls.

On the drive back into Baton Rouge, I listened to a cheesy soft-rock station. I turned the volume up when "Crazy for You" by Madonna played. The image of bright red strawberries and brown skinned migrant workers was vibrating in my mind’s eye like white spots blinking behind closed eyes after you’ve stared at summer sun and then shut your lids.

Listening, I remembered that it is almost Valentine’s Day. One beat later, I remembered that today would have been my parents’ 45th wedding anniversary. Not that I’d forgotten, but I permitted this knowledge to slide from the background to the forefront of my consciousness.

My dad is flying to India today. The woman he married has not been able to obtain a visa to travel to the US, so he is going there to stay until May, when he hopes to return with her. Last night I was talking to my sister on the phone, and she said she’d wished him a happy anniversary earlier in the day, or maybe over the weekend while she was visiting him. I thought, He has a new anniversary now.

She said she’d asked him if he intentionally planned to travel to India on this date. He said, “No, it just worked out that way.” I could not help but think, Huh. Well, he’s got rotten timing. Travel dates don’t just “happen.” You choose them. Dad chooses rotten timing.

Then, my interior dialog went rampant. This is what you get - American man makes hasty decision to marry Indian woman, and lives with the consequences, the way it has to shake his life, the way he has to travel across the world for months-on-end to a place he can hardly stand to be for a single month to ward off a corrupt immigration system for his new bride.

And this is where I am with it all. Stalled along the roadside, my engine still overheated, still silently blowing smoke all over the place.

The farmer had narrated to me what this day has been and will be. The pickers began harvesting strawberries at 6:00 a.m. They filled eighty flats by 10:30 a.m. They stopped to take a break. When they return to the crops, they’ll clean the plants – remove dead brown leaves. There are rows and rows and rows of plants – over twenty acres of strawberries. As the last act of the day, they’ll cover the crops to protect them from today’s expected rain and the temperature that is to plummet from today’s 70 degrees to 40 degrees tonight.

Ponchatoula is the strawberry capital of Louisiana; yet there are only five strawberry farms there now. Ten years ago, when the man I spoke with began farming, there were about ten berry farms. Twenty or thirty years ago, he told me, there were at least a thousand people farming berries in Ponchatoula.

These remaining five strawberry farms do not survive without the migrant workers. The farmer told me, “Without them, there would be none of this. There’s no such thing as local labor. It’s a myth. No one else wants these jobs.” Just as he explained to me that, even though he is not an organic farmer (organic farming, in our year-long growing season of heat, humidity and heavy rain, would cause the berries to rot from mites and fungus), everything he does meets federal regulations.

“Produce you purchase in grocery stores that was grown in Chili, Mexico, who knows what standards there are or what laws govern regulations? They could be watering crops with sewer water. You purchase imported items from these countries, and you don’t know what you’re eating.” I considered this. Then I thought about the migrant workers – I wondered if lax regulations regarding pesticides, fertilizers and fungicides is in line with lax regulations regarding workers. Are labor standards more lax than our own in the US (as the farmer was implying to be the case regarding the use of chemicals)? We certainly hear a great deal about factory workers in other countries. Is it the same with agricultural workers?

These people all over the country and all over the world, from dawn into the heat of the afternoon, handpick each and every berry, apple, cherry, and orange – hand cut each banana bunch, artichoke, broccoli head, lettuce head, asparagus stem we devour, digest, nourish ourselves with. Are they better off in the US, all these human beings who have literally touched our food? Are our regulations a step up? This would be the hope. I didn't get a glimpse of the housing the farmer provides his migrant workers. It was nowhere in sight. I strained my neck to see.

The farmer’s other implication in the statement, “no one else wants these jobs,” did not escape me. By “no one,” he meant, poor black people. Of this, I could not help but ponder the legacy of slavery and whether there exists a cycle of inherited, warranted resentment among southern African Americans over having been virtually kidnapped and imported to the US - as slaves, as property - to work the white plantation owners’ fields. I wondered, Would I want to pick berries if my great-grandfather had been a slave and if my grandfather had been an indentured servant? Would working fields today be too insulting for me, even in the most dire straits?

Considering this importation of human beings, I had a revelation - Hasn't there always been a globalization? Cultural, social, environmental, economic globalization- ethical or not?

I made it back to Baton Rouge before the storm began. Back to the comfort of home. By now, the migrant workers have cleaned and covered the strawberry crops. There are reports of golf-ball sized hail and a tornado in Tangipahoa Parish – the county in which Ponchatoula resides.

My dad boarded his plane a little more than an hour ago – same time as the rain started falling. He has a two-hour layover in Chicago where it is 20 degrees and where snow showers are expected as part of the winter storm in the north. He told me last night that he hoped the weather in Chicago would not delay his flight to India, that nothing would cause a stall. He is anxious for his life to begin again at home.

SONG: Crazy for You, Madonna

Monday, February 4, 2008

discipline and debauchery.

Last night, in a moment of decadence, I cooked a meal. I made mussels steamed in a white wine, butter, challot, garlic and lemon grass broth. We dipped buttered French bread into the broth. After, we ate mashed potatoes and sautéed spinach and seared scallops smothered in a thick butter and garlic sauce. For dessert, I made poached pears set in dark chocolate sauce and topped with fresh whipped cream. I haven’t had dessert in my house since August (except Thanksgiving). But it was time to indulge. In celebration of accomplishments, attitude changes, the meaning of mardi gras. And in preparation for more discipline to come. A triathlon, school, an art show my husband c. is preparing work for.

When I woke, still feeling full, it was cloudy. But sky and sun pushed through, broke the blanket of gray into scattered puffy pillows that have been gliding all day – floating away from us.

The day has been strange and lovely, and it has teased, maybe I’ll rain, maybe I won’t. It’s been the kind of day one should take advantage of by walking outside, running, riding a bike, sipping coffee and reading on a porch swing or napping on a hammock.

A few things I did today – the highlights.

I went to my class at the Y. [We have a new teacher, and I’ve been trying intently to like her. But I hate the music she plays (extended mix versions of songs no one should own to begin with). I don’t like her nasal, childish voice, or that her boobs are most certainly fake. Mostly, I don’t care for the particular way she teaches the class. A rant. I’m still trying to like her.]

I swam 600 yards. [Yesterday was the first day my triathlon training became a daily thing. I began last week on Tuesday, then Thursday. But as of Sunday, I’ll be doing something each day w/ one rest day per week. So. Yesterday was an hour bike ride. Today, swimming. I love to swim, yet I am a terrible swimmer. My form sucks. So in my 600 yards today (20 25-yard laps – I rested in between every other. i.e. I stopped to heave in and out as I poured water down my throat.), I practiced some drills my instructor gave me last week. The good news is that I could tell my form was improved by my last lap. I am determined to become a good swimmer. Someone who loves the water the way I do has no excuse for bad form. That’s what I’ve decided.]

I went to the grocery store. [Something I used to suck at that I’ve become really good at. I make a list of dinners for the whole week. I list what I'll need, and I mark which ingredients I'll buy from the regular store, and which I'll by from Whole-Paycheck Foods. I can manage to get to both stores and home within one hour. I feel very self-impressed by this.]

Now I’m going to go home and eat dinner. Something healthy. And stretch out. And read. And prepare for tomorrow. It’ll be Fat Tuesday. I begin working on two freelance stories – more time inside my own head. I’ll revel in it while revelers chase beads, hoard debauchery. I've already had my debauchery. I ate it last night.

impossible descriptions of nuances.

I got a letter from Sarah Lawrence today. They say they will mail out notifications of acceptance no later than March 17th. Sarah Lawrence and NYU are more and more my dream schools, along with UT Austin. New York and Texas, two places so different from each other, and also so different from my hometown.

I’ve begun thinking of all I will miss in south louisiana.

I will miss erratic weather and the way past and present and future and you and me and they and we twist into one another. Braid and unbraid like language. ya’ll, youwall, yawl, youwall, ya’ll.

The way it dips from 75 degrees to 30 degrees overnight during the month of December and again in February. Thunderstorms that violently swallow every bit of existence – the houses, the streets, the trees – until they simply STOP. Like a punctuation mark on paper. A period writ in bold print. You’ll miss humidity and high temperatures in July, 99 degree moist heat that incapacitates you. No good public pools, just expanses of uninviting swamp water-bayous of mosquito larvae. Hurricane season in late summer and early fall that binds you to your house to drink white Russians and mint juleps while you play cards.

I will miss the way a person cannot go anywhere without knowing someone. Just as I was typing those words, a girl I know walked through the door of the coffee shop I am sitting in. I smiled and nodded recognition. She waved hello. When you leave the red stick, you'll feel it sharply – how you have suddenly been displaced from the closest thing you’ll ever be able to call community. Even people you don’t know, strangers passing on the sidewalk, will say, “hello” as they pass. “Hi. How’s it going?” “Great. Thanks.” All these words formed and sounded out while you both continue to move. Then you pass one-another, move toward the next stranger with whom you will interact. Leaving BR, you’ll be displaced from the top-two asked questions, “Are you from Baton Rouge? Where did you go to high school?” For years, it was excruciating to you – you used to try so hard to not notice all the people you knew you knew in the grocery store, at the bank, at restaurants. But you’ve embraced it in recent years – knowing all these people who are not your friends, but who know you enough to say “hello,” enough to acknowledge your presence in generic spaces.

I will miss the Spanish Town Mardi Gras Parade, and every other excuse in the world, or rather, in southern Louisiana, to dress in costume. [This past Saturday was the parade. I wore the cowgirl ensemble again, but I wasn’t happy with being labeled “The Red Stick Ho.” I’m not a ho, and I don’t play one at parades, either. Even though I couldn’t pull together the pink sari, I’d say to people, “Hi. I’m Bobby Jindal’s little sister. Betty.” It went over very well. As I anticipated, there were Spears-family floats a-plenty.]

I will miss crawfish season, and festival season in general. Springtime filled with food, music, perfect weather.

I will miss the LSU and City Park lakes – grimy as they are. The year-round praying white herons and the annual meditating pelicans that bless those still shallow waters.

I will miss the rawness of this place. The relationships between brown and black and white. The way you know a white woman who was raised by a black woman, her nanny or maid or both. The way she loved that person like a mother throughout the day, then rode in the car in the evening when her real mother dropped this surrogate off to her own neighborhood. The way you listen to this woman, your friend, who could be many women here, narrate her confusion when she saw there were other children – the nanny’s own – who went without while their mother was away at a white woman’s house to mother white children. Her house. Her as a child.

The way it was to work in restaurants. White and a couple brown and maybe a couple black female waitresses, black male kitchen staffs – each staff spitting curses back and forth at one another. Each crew pissing out all of its toughness at the other – later, the way you sit at the end of a shift, no longer angry at the fuck-up the kitchen made with your table’s order. The kitchen staff, no longer angry that you let a steak sit too long in the window. You sit together, drink some beers. In this reality, because you are not the 50 or 60-something woman remembering and passing on, you are the 20-something college student – in this reality, you might take one of the kitchen crew home. Drive through poverty to its front door to drop off. Then it is up to you to make sense of it all.

I’ll miss the way I see and am part of these cycles still, the way I observe and feel them shift ever-so-slightly, not quickly enough. The way I sit brown in a mostly-white-bar on Monday nights to hear mostly-black poets perform words. The way the crowd is always slightly mixed but grows more and more mixed. The way, for a $5 cover, everyone respects everyone, even as the white people in the crowd squirm occasionally to be minorities in a room, to experience that discomfort first-hand. To have to make sense of what it felt like for those two black kids and those 3 asian kids that where in their English class in high school.

The nuance and complexity of race relations that has been part of my life for so long. Those nuances not reported on the news, never a part of a collective consciousness. I’ll miss being among friends who know these nuances intuitively, and who equally work intentionally to create shifts, shifts, shifts, that move us forward. Not so much the dirty south as it is the messy south. There is a white Baton Rouge and a black Baton Rouge. More often than we even recognize, there are points of experiences of, intersection. In these points, there is real beauty, there are serious challenges, often there is a level of comfort – sometimes helpful comfort, other times harmful, enraging comfort.

I fear stereotypes and inappropriate boiling-down that may be splashed in my face outside of this state. I fear that people will want me to, in my writing, validate their perceptions, rather than write my truth about experiences I am barely capable of articulating with justice.

I will miss the greenness of this place – the quality of light and color I have lived under for so long. Umbrella of dark green above brown water, pink azaleas and japanese magnolias dotting the horizon - what only a painting can properly capture. maybe impressionistic, maybe realistic.

Everything in south Louisiana is erratic weather. people and their interactions. food we eat. music – r&b and zydeco and jazz crossing paths. fusing and diverging, weaving in and out of one another. thick braid of humid, wet, spicy, spiteful, ignorant, forgiving, friendly, suspicious, industrious, common-sense and no sense – all these parts that occasionally melt into each other, rain down while wind blows hot then cold then hot and if you're lucky a spray of rain will touch your cheek, wet your eyelids.

Friday, February 1, 2008

When What Seems Ordinary, Isn't by Herpreet Singh

From Country Roads Magazine, February 2008

here are moments when history/ passes you so close/ you can smell its breath/ you can reach your hand out/and touch it on its flank,” reads a stanza in Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change.”

The poem reflects on our proximity to historical events and matter, and particularly, it draws attention to our inability to recognize seemingly ordinary moments as significant until the moments have passed. In other words, hindsight is 20/20.

Certainly, historians stitch together timelines, geographical paths and even cultural norms of a period by evaluating written records, but it is the distinct work of archaeologists, once history is made, to physically locate even the most pedestrian objects and to further draw out the historical relevance that underlies those objects.

If historians narrate what happened in the past, archaeologists seek tangible evidence that confirms, or potentially negates, historical narrative. More importantly, in uncovering physical links to the past, Louisiana Division of Archaeology’s southeast regional archaeologist Dr. Rob Mann explains that archaeologists “tell us a different kind of history—what general life was like,
how people lived, food they ate, how they got along with different cultures.”

In an LSU Union leisure class Mann will begin teaching this month, it is literally the everyday artifacts of living—utensils, ceramics, food remains—which he will show students how to unearth and evaluate in order to pinpoint the exact location of the eighteenth century Canary Islander settlement Galveztown. Not only will laymen gain a hands-on opportunity to learn the ins and outs of an archaeological dig, they will be contributing to real research.

Located in Ascension Parish at the confluence of Bayou Manchac and the Amite River, Mann explains that the hardships Canary Islanders faced in the 1779 Spanish-founded community are well documented. However, no excavation has ever taken place to confirm the sites of the Galveztown village, cemetery and fort. Initially created by the Spanish to protect their territory from the British who occupied land on the other side of Bayou Manchac, Galveztown was not only doomed from the start, but it virtually disappeared after a mere twenty-year existence.

Unable to convince their own countrymen to colonize the site, the Spanish enlisted destitute Canary Islanders with few options to migrate to the territory. In January of 1779, fourteen Canary Islander families settled the village. The fifty-five members of these families arrived by traveling through New Orleans, then across Lake Pontchartrain and finally, up the Amite River to Bayou Manchac. By April of the same year, over four hundred Canary Islanders were living in Galveztown.

Mann says that initially the Spanish were good at setting up the Canary Islanders. It is also known that, over time, the colonists were continually writing letters to the Spanish to complain that they were short on supplies. When the British were no longer a threat to the territory, it became expensive for Spain to continue supporting the colony.

Challenging living conditions and increasing reluctance on the part of the Spaniards to supply Galveztown caused it to dissipate. By 1798, only a hundred colonists remained. According to Mann, “By 1804 the village was on decline… By 1820, there was nothing recognizable as a settlement out there.” A historical marker placed by estimation sometime during the early twentieth century is the only visible contemporary indication of the ghost-settlement.

Yet, there is living evidence elsewhere of the Canary Islanders—the Lombardos, Pinos, Rousmans, Landrys, Martins, Hernandezes, Diazes, Bruns and others who inhabited Galveztown. In the face of destructive hurricanes, annually flooding crops and a smallpox epidemic that killed children in droves, the remaining inhabitants migrated to land granted by the Spanish. There, they settled into still-thriving Spanish Town, Baton Rouge’s first neighborhood.

The class will focus specifically on the location of the village and everyday life in it. Mann hopes he and his students will uncover remains of Canary Islander homes. It is known that these structures were wooden and thirty-two by sixteen feet in dimension. Mann will also instruct students in the search for items including glass bottles, religious paraphernalia that demonstrate the Canary Islanders’ conversion to Catholicism and beads that may have been traded with Native Americans—commonplace matter that illuminates day-to-day life with surprising intricacy.

Mann says that because it is known the residents were short on supplies, “we would hope to find out if they were having to eat local game, turtles, hunting evidence.” One goal will be to find evidence of the hardships that have been documented. “Might we find British goods that would demonstrate a black market trade with the Brits on other side of Bayou Manchac?” Mann asks, suggesting that these discoveries will not only answer questions about how the colonists survived, but that they will also demonstrate how the Canary Islanders interacted with other cultures.

The leisure class, which Mann hopes to continue over subsequent semesters, is the first of its kind to be offered through the LSU Union. Mann is giving the course as part of his work with The Louisiana Division of Archaeology. The state office, which exists within the Louisiana Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism, in a joint program with state universities, employs a regional archaeologist at each of five partner universities. These regional archaeologists conduct research particular to their personal interests and to the region in which they work. Partner universities are the University of Louisiana Monroe, Northwestern State University in Nachitoches, University of Louisiana Lafayette, Louisiana State University and most recently, the University of New Orleans.

Mann’s area of expertise is the French colonial period of Louisiana archaeology. As a regional archaeologist, he conducts research, performs public outreach, responds to calls from the public who know of archaeological sites. He also assists public agencies in getting sites excavated and documented.

Most often, when excavations are scheduled and volunteers are needed, Mann says he will seek volunteers through the Louisiana Archaeological Society, a group comprised of people who have a strong interest and some background in archaeology, but who are not professional archaeologists. The leisure class is being offered as one way to pique the interests of people who may have no prior background in archaeology.

In addition to conducting the first excavation at Galveztown, beginning this fall, Mann will do work in a Point Coupee Parish French settlement. He will also research some plantation sites on the west bank of the Mississippi River where a private property owner has asked for a survey of a nineteenth century home.

All of the research conducted by Mann and the other regional archaeologists for the state is housed with the Louisiana Division of Archaeology, which acts as the gatekeeper for archaeological findings. The division has produced projects that impact how we understand Louisiana history. For instance, the division has played a key role in protecting Poverty Point, a large prehistoric Native American settlement located outside of Monroe in Epps, Louisiana.
Poverty Point has since been nominated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, of which, there are only 871 in the world.

The division has also been prominently involved with the creation of a Louisiana Indian mounds trail which will include a driving map of over seven hundred Native American mounds in northeast and central Louisiana. This project, conducted by a collaborative group of archaeologists, is still underway.

Asked why archaeology is a relevant method to understand history, Mann says, “Most human history is only accessible through archaeology … Historians domain is typically the written record that they compile into written history. Archaeologists deal with material culture primarily, what people left behind … It’s the only way we have access to what life was like before there was written language.”

Of archaeological excavations Mann says, “There are lots of clues in soil about what we’re finding or not finding. Color, texture, these things give many different meanings. Students will become detectives and note-takers. It is a physical pursuit. You dig, shovel, strain soil; but it’s also a mental pursuit. Without this kind of thought process, you’re only treasure hunting.”

LINK TO STORY: When What Seems Ordinary, Isn't