Wednesday, April 30, 2008

too many to-do lists.

So much to do, such a small amount of time. The reality of moving has set in.

Selling one’s house is a major chore. We’re trying to get everything done in six weeks. Among “everything” is replacing our front door, replacing four columns on the front porch, possibly dry walling our ceilings, scraping/sanding/painting our front porch, making a door for the door-less potting shed, re-laying gravel in our little parking area, and the list goes on and on.

It's work just trying to become unattached to this little house we adore. And this little neighborhood we've come to love. Neighbors we know and like. (Of course there are those whom we are happy to get away from!)

A signal that there will be light at the end of the tunnel is that the houses on our street do not tend to stay on the market for very long – two weeks, maybe a month. Let’s hope we’re not the exception. Because the sooner our house sells, the sooner c. can quit his job and the two of us can head into the western sunset…Where we still need to find a place to live and where c. still needs to find a job. [EDIT: Where my fiction-writing career will begin and where c. will begin working at an architecture firm that truly suits him.]

All of this, in the midst of being very exciting, is slightly. No, incredibly. Overwhelming. Forgive me if my story-telling skills are not at their best in the next few months.

SONG: Changes, David Bowie

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

are you there, god? it's me, herpreet.

I think I have a crush. On Austin, TX.

Some of the things I've seen today that are contributing to this 12-year-old-giddy-in-love feeling: Pedestrians. Crosswalks that turn to a flashing-walking-man when I press a button. Cyclists. Vegetarian restaurants. The Onion. A vintage clothing store that rents clothes. A shoe advertisement that said, "We get it. You want to be earth-friendly. But not a hippie" (and I quietly related). Lots of bike shops and tattoo shops. Traffic. Traffic signs that read: Turning cars MUST yield to pedestrians. Turning cars that yielded to pedestrians. A write-up of a ten-day arts festival that focuses on art as communication. Extensive listings of live bands playing in Austin (not cover bands). A Texas outdoors magazine whose monthly theme was triathlons, in which I found an ad for a place called Tough Cookies Fitness that offers an all-women's 8-week triathlon training course. Dog parks. Outdoor patios at restaurants.

Now I am in a coffee shop called Metro. I'm drinking a milkshake made w/ 2 shots of espresso and Amy's Belgian chocolate ice cream. Yum. I haven't done a bit of work today, but I did drive by the LBJ Library at UT where I'm supposed to do work. I'll go there early in the morning instead.

Here is what Austin is: A real-live-city nestled into nature. It feels like it's got my name and c.'s name written all over it. ALL OVER it. It feels exactly like home. No. I feel exactly at home in Austin.

Can't wait to make the big move. Headed off to check out neighborhoods...

SONG: Las Nubes, Little Joe Y La Familia

Wednesday, April 16, 2008

dreams of my mother.

We are riding in a car. My dad drives the streets of New Orleans. Mom sits in the front seat. I sit in the back seat behind dad. Looking into the rearview mirror, I can see dad's eyes while he drives. It is like so many family road trips that happened long after my sisters were grown and gone - we have a seating order, the same way each family member knows his own chair at the dinner table.

Dad concentrates on the street signs, on following the directions. Occasionally, he looks at my mother and makes jokes. I don't know what he's saying, but when he teases, his eyes squint -one eye winks at her. His cheeks are rosy.

I can glance to the right and see my mother. She looks at dad, and she looks at me over her shoulder. Her eyes are alive, laughing and loving. She has a smile on her face. It's not a huge, wide smile like the kind you plaster on before someone yells, "Say CHEESE!" It's a soft, calm, thoughtful smile. A closed-mouth smile that reveals her inner thoughts. She's admiring us.

She is healthy. Not sick. Not old. Her hair is black. Her skin is young. She is so pretty. This is what I think when I look at her. My mom is the prettiest person in the world. She never speaks a word while we ride in the car.

Dad pulls over and parallel parks. We've reached our destination. It's an old house, the kind of mansion you see on St. Charles Avenue - imposing stone facade with a grand stairway leading up to a grander shaded porch. The house is gray. The fence is black. Unlike homes on St. Charles Avenue, it's not set back on a low sloping green lawn. It's right at the sidewalk. A stately mansion misplaced in the urban French Quarter. We look at a historical marker on the iron fence surrounding it. The marker tells us: This house is occupied by ghosts. This house is haunted.

When I wake up, it feels like she's been hugging me. I realize I've been dreaming of her. I tell myself, go back to sleep, and then I do.

The dreams are never enough. I used to beg for them. Now they come, but they are not enough. I want more. Next time, I want to smell her while I sleep. I want to smell jasmine. Lily of the valley. Baby powder. Maybeline lipstick. All these smells mixed together.

This desire makes me feel childish. When will I become an adult? Maybe it is a curse, being the youngest. Maybe you are doomed to forever think of yourself as the baby. Maybe you can never feel grown.

SONG: Things that Scare Me, Neko Case

Monday, April 14, 2008


We are in for sticker shock. I’ve been perusing real estate web pages for the city of Austin, and I’m finding that it ain’t cheap. This terrifies me.

Right now, what I imagine is that, at best, we’ll find a white-flight second-ring subdivision and, particularly, a Brady-Bunch-ranch-style house built some time between 1955 – 1977. A place we can renovate. Then, when I graduate and begin pulling a steady income again, maybe we can sell it and move into the kind of neighborhood we like.

i.e. The kind of first-ring, post-WWII subdivision we live in now, or even something older. Will we have to trade in our little cypress wood siding, 1947 3-bedroom with a front porch and porch swing and wood floors and high ceilings and built-in bookshelves by the fireplace and a tiny, manageable backyard for a TX ranch-style with a humongous front yard and back yard? Sigh. I can see making it work. I really can.

I close my eyes: I think I can. I think I can. C. dreams of buying a lot in the kind of neighborhood we like and then designing and building our own house. Totally contemporary. I can see that too. Or buying something old and doing a contemporary addition. I can see a lot of things. I think I can. I think I can.

What I know: We will NOT be going to the ex-urbs. No matter how affordable they are. Who would I be friends with there?

Another possibility is that we could end up buying a condo or a townhouse, which we could either renovate and flip, or hold onto it and rent it out when we're ready to buy. But even these properties cost about a billion bucks in Austin.

For the time being, we’ll rent.

All this anxiety about property is bringing about other anxiety.

1. Oh Baton Rouge, I am gonna miss you and your cheap real estate. And my neighborhood. And crawfish. And Cajun music. And ALL the music. Lots of music and music festivals. And food festivals. And the ugly, mostly-sleepy, occasionally-awake red stick downtown. And all the year-round-reasons, often even Catholic reasons – like Mardi Gras – to drink beer at 10 a.m. And humidity. And hurricane season. And swamps. And weekend trips to New Orleans. Mostly, my friends. My long-time friends.

2. Am I going to make friends in Austin? Am I in 4th grade? My god. Yes, this is one anxiety I’m currently experiencing, even though, no, I am not in the 4th grade. But I like my friends here, I keep whining to myself.

3. Is it going to be hard to sell our house? Another anxiety plaguing me. When we bought it I was 26, and c. convinced me we should do it. I was terrified. I thought it meant that I’d be stuck in BR forever. I also had no idea what we were doing, technically speaking. I remember loan officers sounded like they were speaking Chinese to us. But I plunged in – scouring the streets for a house that fit us. Now I’m older, and I realize that buying property means we are building the possibility for wealth. That our monthly payments to a mortgage company eventually come back to us, whereas monthly payments to a landlord never come back. But I wonder: What do we need to do in the next three months to get this house ready to sell? Why did we paint our bedroom red? Who wants to buy a house with a red bedroom? What house-fixing-up do we have to pack into our last months in BR,and how will we do this, when all we really want to do is enjoy being in BR? We want to spend our weekends playing, not fixing.

4. Then there is the writing anxiety. I dreamt that I was speaking to a professor at TX State about my plans to work on a novel. I remember that the professor, a woman, clucked at me and made a face that conveyed: I don’t think that’s such a good idea, dear.

5. Last week, my good friend a. who lives in LA and always sends me the best NPR links, sent me a link to a Fresh Air interview with Jhumpa Lahiri. The link contained an excerpt from her new book. Know what the piece was about? (Let me know if any of this rings familiar.) A widower. Know who the characters were? An Indo-American woman. Her American husband. Her newly widowed Indian dad. It was written in 3rd person. I read the exerpt and sat stunned. To laugh or cry? Later, I re-read and realized the excerpt was from a short story, that her new book is a collection of stories and not a novel. So I felt slightly better, but not entirely. At least my short story is the makings of a novel. Fucking Jhumpa Lahiri whose writing I love – even she is stressing me out.

All this anxiety is making me tired. Exhausted. Sigh.

And I have to wonder. Am I crazy? I just got a new freelance job, and between it and the two days a week working for the poet a., I’m going to earn more than I earned as a salaried employee. And I won’t be doing 70-hours a week. And I’ll still be able to work on my own stuff.

So here I am, tired, anxious and possibly not sane. Yet I know way deep down that the most exciting part of my life to this point is about to begin.

SONG: Things that Scare Me, Neko Case

Saturday, April 12, 2008

No Poetry at the Mall by Herpreet Singh

From Sweet Tooth, Issue #2, April 12, 2008

"The mall is not a public space.” It was two Christmases ago in 2006, but this is the proclamation Taylor James remembers the mall security guard making before she used her camera phone to capture his image.

Thomas Hinyard recalls the way the guerilla poetry began: "Our fearless leader, Anna-the-queen-of-poetry, and her sidekick xero asked us what we wanted to do for our Christmas party, a potluck at Anna’s house, or go to the mall and do poetry.”

Thomas is now an eleventh grader at Broadmoor High School. Taylor is an eleventh grader at Episcopal High School. Jessica Cole, a student at Glen Oaks High School at the time, is a freshman at Southern University. They are members of WordCrew, a group of poets who write and perform as part of the Big Buddy teen writing program WordPlay. They say it was a unanimous decision to perform at The Mall of Louisiana.

Thomas is animated when he speaks. "It was the last time we were going to get together for the year. It was just a normal Sunday. The sun was out, birds were chirping. I’d just gotten out of church.
"We ate dinner at the food court. It was about twenty of us. After dinner, we started… Everyone was lookin’ at us like we were crazy. People were guiding their children up out of the way like they were scared, like we were the Black Panthers and were about to have a protest.

"Then we moved upstairs. We continued spittin’. We went downstairs. Someone did a poem called 'The SAT is Not a Test for Poets.’ Finally, we had a big crowd. A circle.”

Jessica jumps in, "Someone else got in the circle to spit. Then the security guard comes up. He’s like, 'Excuse me. Excuse me. Whatever you’re doing here, spoken word, poetry, whatever it is, you’re not allowed to do it in the mall.’ Then he says, 'Have a merry Christmas.’”

They remember that Chancelier "xero” Skidmore, manager of WordPlay, asked, "We can’t perform poetry in the mall?” The guard answered, "No, sir.”

Anna West, Director of Teen Programs for the Big Buddy Program, remembers the guard declaring, "Sir, there’s no poetry in the mall.” They were told to either leave or disperse and stop reading poetry.
If the mall, practically a second home for many adolescents, is not a public space, and there is no poetry in the mall, what is the "right” space for youth spoken word artists in Baton Rouge? Where does any art form generated by youth and aimed at both youth and adult audiences belong? Is there a space for it, or are we just too scared of teenagers to allow for one?

I wonder if twenty teenagers banned from performing poetry in the mall is not symptomatic of a larger obstacle in a city striving to nurture a thriving art scene. Maybe Baton Rouge is not prepared to absorb art to its fullest spectrum. The knee-jerk-reaction is to deem work with which we are unfamiliar and uncomfortable to be out-of-place, weird, too risqué, too avant garde, ugly or just plain inappropriate. Isn’t this exactly what we do to teenagers all the time? Is there hope that Baton Rouge can eventually appreciate unfamiliar art forms before making judgments – even somewhere as mainstream as the mall at Christmas time?

Taylor, her voice softening to a near-amazed whisper, reminisces, "People were stopping to listen – just stopping what they were doing and watching. They were getting into it. They saw us snapping when we liked what was being said, and the audience just figured it out and joined in snapping.” She adds, "Poets are just like any other performer. You see them in rare form in front of an audience.”

I ask Thomas why he thought Anna and xero gave WordCrew the option to perform at the mall. "I think they wanted to test us, to see how we would showcase ourselves and how audiences would receive us. We’d been training for so long that they wanted to get us out there to show what we could do.”

The WordCrew All City Teen Poetry Slam is in its second year. It will kick off in April, and slam finals will take place at the Manship Theatre on May 2nd and 3rd. The four winning teen poets will go on to represent Baton Rouge at the national slam competition Brave New Voices.

*photo by Taylor James
LINK TO STORY: No Poetry at the Mall

Monday, April 7, 2008

documenting change: twelve.

a triathlete is born.

I can laugh now, but yesterday, it was not so funny.

My first triathlon. I woke up at 4 a.m. thinking, What if I forget how to swim? What if I freeze? Then I talked myself through the process. Keep your feet together, toes pointed, head down, use arms like a windmill that zip up your sides from hip ‘til they’re out of water, head out of water every 3rd stroke to inhale, when head’s in water blow out through your nose. There. You’ll know how to swim. You’ve actually gotten pretty good. I checked the clock and there were 15 minutes before my alarm was to go off. I closed my eyes and went back to sleep.

The night before, I’d gathered all my supplies. Bathing suit, tri shorts, towel, swim cap, goggles, bike helmet, running shoes, extra socks, change of clothes, sunscreen. The bike was in the car. I’d put bottles of water in the fridge. In the morning, I mixed my electrolyte powder into my water bottles, shook them good.

On the two-hour drive, I sipped some of the water, ate a banana to prevent cramping, ate 2 protein and carb-packed peanut granola bars. I stopped all eating at 6:45 a.m. Let myself sip a little more of the electro-water. SIP, not GULP, I remembered.

About fifteen minutes from the state park, I started picking out songs to get me going. I began with Funkadelic, “Can You Get to That,” a song I always like working out to. I played a couple of Jane’s Addiction songs, “Idiot’s Rule,” “Jane Says.” I played a Gorillaz song, “Dare.” I played one Madonna Song, “Like a Prayer.” When I realized it was about time to get out of the car, I switched back to “Can You Get to That.”

At the park, I signed in. A woman wrote my number, 106, on my arms and legs and my age, 33, on the back of one leg. I met up with my class. I got my transition station set up. Stretched a little. We were cold. We were afraid the water would be cold.

When it was time, we walked down to the edge of the water. The first wave of swimmers (men of a certain age group) went. The second wave went (males again, different age group). I was in the third wave. Men under 29 and all women. It was a small race, just over 100 people. I think there were maybe 30 in my group of swimmers.

In the water we had about two minutes to wade and acclimate. It wasn’t that cold. I took a lot of deep breaths. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

The man shouted, “GO!” We all began. My face hit the water. All I could see through my goggles, eyes wide open, was brown murk. Three strokes later, I was having a full on panic attack. Lungs constricted, I could not exhale through my nose. Not one bit. I pulled my head out of the water.

I could hear my instructor yelling, “Come on, Herpreet! Swim! Put your head down and swim!” C. says I said, “I don’t think I can do this.” I don’t remember saying that. I remember both c. and the instructor yelling, “Yes you can! You can do it!”

I heard a guy, maybe an official from the event, say, “She can walk if she needs to.” And I thought, There is no way in HELL I’m WALKING through the water. I made a billion attempts to swim freestyle and freaked out each and every time I went under and saw nothing but brown. Something about not seeing my own arms move through the water was beyond unsettling. Not being able to exhale under water made swimming freestyle impossible. You physically can’t come up every third stroke and INHALE if you aren’t EXHALING under water.

FINALLY, I thought, Just do the backstroke. I haven’t swum backstroke in a good six years. But I know it’s what you’re supposed to do if you’re winded or in danger of drowning. (I was unable to breathe, but not about to drown – the bayou wasn’t that deep.) I flipped on my back and swam. The whole time, staring at the blue sky and cypress trees, I told myself, Calm down. Breathe. Calm down. Breathe.

Whenever I thought that maybe I was ready to try freestyle again, I’d flip over, do 3 strokes and flip back over, unable to exhale under water. It was as if I was trying to exhale into the thickest water ever. And I couldn’t. Finally nearing the yellow buoy that marks the end, I swam a tiny bit, and felt myself blowing air through my nose into the water, humming while I did so – just as I’d had to do when I first started training. Hmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm, coming up from my diaphragm as air pushed threw my nose into the water making bubbles.

When I emerged, I was so angry with myself. And discouraged. I stomped slowly to the transition area. But my triath instructor kept yelling, “Don’t worry about it. Just keep going!” As I was putting on my shoes, still mad at myself, he was saying, “Hurry up. Get ‘em laced up!” Finally I said, angrily, “I FREAKED OUT in the water!” And he said, “Don’t worry about it. It happens to the best of us. Just keep going.”

When I was finally laced up, helmet on, running my bike out of the transition area, he said, “Have a good ride!”

C. said that when I was in the water saying, “I don’t think I can do this,” he was thinking: I didn’t get up at 4:30 in the morning and drive 2 hours for you to drop out now! I asked, “Did you say that?” He said, “No.” I said, “You should have. It might have put things into perspective.”

When I started riding, the panic ended, but the comedy of errors began. I rode – ALL of the other people so far ahead I couldn’t see them. I got to a fork in the road where there was a sign with a picture of a cyclist and an arrow pointing in the direction we were to head. Bear in mind that you’re riding FAST. I ride by – go where it points. And I second-guess my eyes. Did I read that arrow right? I was heading out of the park. I thought the whole event took place in the park?

I go a quarter mile. I get to the ranger station. I stop. In the middle of a RACE. I STOP. I ask the ranger (a girl who looks about 23), “Is this the right way to go for the race?” She stares blankly. “Did you see about 100 cyclists go by here five minutes ago?” “I don’t remember,” she says. You don’t remember, I think. Shit. I went the WRONG WAY. How could a person not see that? Staying calm, “Do you have a copy of the route for the race?” “No.”

I begin turning around, putting my free foot back into its pedal cage. My right foot is already in the cage, and I accidentally jerk my right knee away from the bike, my right foot basically attached to the pedal, which causes me to pull the entire bike DOWN. I crash. “ARE YOU OKAY?” says the ranger, a look of panic on her face. “I’m FINE!” And I take off. Back to the fork in the road. Only to find that I’d read the sign right the first time…I ride back in the direction of the ranger station. And out of the park.

When I reach a mile marker, I realize I’m headed in the right direction. Eventually I see a cyclist coming toward me. Here comes the winner, I think. Eventually, little groups of cyclists begin racing past me. I’m hoping I’m close to the halfway point. I get there. I turn around, head back toward the park entrance. One lone girl cycles by me, not yet to the halfway point. I’m not last!

I keep feeding myself little rules. Lean forward. Stay straight. Stay hydrated. At various points, I pull out my water bottle and sip (Sip, don’t gulp). I’m very impressed by my ability to stay balanced while riding and also pulling my bottle out of the bottle holder. Sipping without tipping. Good job. Now don’t let that girl get ahead of you.

I ride. I sip. Just when I’m ready to ride like the wind, I place my bottle into the holder, and I hear a thump. I look back to see that I’VE DROPPED MY WATER BOTTLE IN THE ROAD. Do I go back? Do I keep riding? What do I do? Do I go back? No. Keep riding. NO! I might NEED that! I might get dehydrated!! I turn around. I retrieve my water bottle. I place it in its holder. And I ride. Again. Don’t let that girl get ahead of you.

And she passes me.

Then, strangely, a red truck passes me. Pulls over. She pulls over. I turn back trying to decide: Do I stop? Does she need help? Keep going. Just fucking ride. And I do. Maybe she’s a volunteer? Maybe they have someone ride behind the last cyclist? I guess I am last after all.

Still I ride. Still I ride. (ha-ha)

I get to the transition area. Mount my bike. My feet are 100% numb. My legs are wobbling. You better start running before you fall down. I run a quarter mile. I hear myself complain: My shins hurt. I walk the next quarter mile. Two little girls, about five years old, are at the halfway mark holding out water cups. “You can do it!” they scream. “Good job!” they yell. What do you know. I think. But then I hear myself again. You better fucking run this last mile. And I do.

The announcer yells, “And our final triathlete from Baton Rouge, Louisiana is coming to the finish line! And I’m gonna butcher her name!” I turn to him, running, and shout, “HERPREET!” and he announces: “CAPRI!” I finish my first triathlon. I look down and see that my knee has a big red blood clot from the fall. The blood makes me feel sort of proud.

C. says that someone did drop out of the race. “Oh. She looked okay to me,” I say. Then he tells me, “I overheard some girl say, ‘Well, I did better than last year. At least this year I beat the 74-year-old.” “I didn’t beat a 74-year-old?” I whine. Then, silently: I-am-so-beating-his-ass-next-year.

It was our sixth wedding anniversary, so we stopped in Breaux Bridge on the way home and ate a huge Cajun meal together. My next triathlon is May 4th. The swim is in a pool.

SONG: Can You Get to That, Funkadelic

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

From Jerry Lee's Kwik Stop Comes a Slow Cooked Labor of Love by Herpreet Singh

From Country Roads Magazine, April 2008

The sign, a standard order strip mall accoutrement tacked to a run-of-the-mill strip mall, declares, “If it’s not Jerry Lee’s, it’s not Boudin.” In Baton Rouge, this may be an absolute truth. The staff at Jerry Lee’s Kwik Stop begins making not only boudin, but also cracklins, pork skins, hogs head cheese, smoked sausage, andoullie sausage, tasso, Italian sausage, green onion sausage, barbeque beef and smoked meat for gumbos and seasonings at the astoundingly early hour of 2 am daily, six days a week.

On the surface, Jerry Lee’s Kwik Stop is just another convenient store—its obvious distinction from countless Circle Ks being that it’s not a national chain. Walk inside, and you’ll discover a first-rate Louisiana specialty meats operation. Started in 1977 by St. Martinville native Jerry Lee Duplantis, and located next to a Mary Lee’s Donut shop on Greenwell Springs Road in north Baton Rouge, Jerry Lee’s Kwik Stop brings the distinct flavors of Acadiana to the Capital City.

One of ten kids, Duplantis grew up on a sugarcane farm where his parents also raised animals. “We were six boys and four girls, and we learned to do Cajun meats from boucheries. In the old days our parents would roast pigs and make boudin and hogs head cheese with the unused trimmings.”

In his own boudin, Duplantis uses pork roast and pork livers. The meat is ground on site, and the rice, gravy, and pork are each cooked separately. The ingredients are then mixed together and stuffed into natural casings before they go into an ice bath to cool.

Duplantis says he wanted his business to be more than a typical convenient shop, so he started making boudin. It took him a year to get the mix right and to get his business going. Over time, he added the other products. Though it isn’t visible from the storefront, at the back of his shop, there is a room dedicated to making cracklins and pork skins in gigantic cast iron pots. The cracklins are made at 5:30 am and cook for about two hours.

Smoked meats are the last addition to his business. Duplantis’ son, who is now grown and works with him in the store, always wanted to eat beef jerky as a kid. Duplantis decided he would try to make jerky himself, so he built a smokehouse. Showing off the smoker, Duplantis notes with pride, “No liquid smoke. We use real pecan wood.”

Cooking duty ends around 11 am, at which point the kitchen and production areas are cleaned and prepped for the next day’s cooking shift. While it’s called Jerry Lee’s Kwik Stop, and indeed, a customer stop-in is a speedy affair, Duplantis’ boudin and other products are a slow-cooked labor of love and local culture that warrant a long and steady gaze.

It’s easy to presume that strip malls breed no culture. But all-too-often, our most precious traditions and some of our newest cultural additions crop up, blossom and carry on within the walls of these non-descript exteriors. Where else in Baton Rouge will you find a more authentic boudin and pepper jack cheese poboy?

Culture is complex, layered, usually complicated; it evolves often, by making something from nothing. Occasionally, you taste culture before you see it—but it’s there, hidden in nooks and crannies, in this case, hidden cast iron cracklin’ vats and homemade smokehouses at the back of a strip mall.

LINK TO STORY: Jerry Lee's Kwik Stop