Friday, February 09, 2018

The War Against Christmas Nobody Talks About

Yeah, yeah, war against Christmas. I got another one for you.

In New Orleans, which holiday is bigger? Christmas or Mardi Gras?

Phfft! It’s Mardi Gras, hands down. Christmas? Maybe you get half a day off from work on Christmas Eve, and then Christmas Day. At Mardi Gras, you get half a day off on Friday (or maybe even the whole day!), because who wants to work when the whole city is going nuts? And then you are off Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday! And maybe even Wednesday, if you want to stretch it to take the religious holiday of Ash Wednesday. Some of the private schools now close for the whole week, to accommodate those families who’d rather go skiing or to the Caribbean and skip the whole thing.

Mardi Gras is a religious holiday, too – my out-of-town church friends spit their coffee across the room at that one, but it’s true; it’s the last feast day before Lent. Monday became a widely recognized holiday some years ago when the city started putting on free outdoor concerts and other activities on Lundi Gras (Monday).

For the last week, the entire city (the news media, anyway) have been obsessing over what the weather will be like on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, Monday, and Tuesday. The bad news is: it’s gonna rain. The worse news is: it’s gonna rain hard on the big superkrewe parades, Endymion and Bacchus, Saturday and Sunday nights. Booo!! The good news is, the die-hard Endymion parade fans have set up tents on the wide neutral ground (median) on Orleans Avenue so they can watch the parade in the rain. And camp out there to save their prime spots.

One year when I sadly lived Somewhere Else, the church I attended had a special evening event for Mardi Gras. They had a Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper! I kind of watched the whole proceedings with my mouth hanging open. I guess there is some tradition somewhere of eating pancakes on the day before Lent, but the reasoning escapes me. Why a meatless meal BEFORE the beginning of Lent? I don’t get it.

In New Orleans, we do not eat pancakes on the day before Ash Wednesday. We eat king cakes, not pancakes. Also hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecued chicken and ribs, boiled crawfish, jambalaya, and of course one’s favorite beverage in a plastic go-cup. When we go to the parades down on the corner of St. Charles and Napoleon, that smell hanging in the air is not pancakes on a griddle. It’s chicken and ribs on a barbecue grill. My mouth waters just thinking about it.

(For the uninitiated, a king cake is a cinnamon-roll-like ring or oval decorated with purple, green, and gold sugar and icing, sometimes stuffed with a sweet filling. A plastic baby is hidden inside. Whoever gets the baby – supposedly the baby Jesus, as the official first day for king cakes is Epiphany, January 6 – in their piece of king cake gets to buy the next one. Or whatever custom you want to use; it was traditionally used to determine the queen of the first Carnival ball, but the young woman who amazingly got the favored slice was already selected behind the scenes.)

My mother used to say, "Mardi Gras is for children," another saying that makes my out-of-town friends spit their coffee across the room. They think "Mardi Gras" and they picture "Show your wits!" leaning over a balcony on Bourbon Street. But I see extended families on the neutral ground on St. Charles Avenue, the kids up on specially tricked-out parade ladders or on their daddy’s shoulders (as I once was), or running around grabbing for beads being thrown off the floats. Blankets are spread on the ground (or on top of tarpaulins if the ground is muddy), and families are sprawled on them, eating all those things I listed above.

And there’s music everywhere. It comes from the bands, it comes from parade trucks blasting loudspeakers, it comes from boom boxes as people wait for the parades to arrive. A lot of the songs are the classic Carnival standards like "Go to the Mardi Gras," "It’s Carnival Time," and "Mardi Gras Mambo." So much for singing Christmas songs. We’ve got our own, and we know the words, too.

You put a nickel, and I’ll put a dime, and
We can get together now and drink us some wine.
Ah, because it’s Carnival time...

A nickel and a dime? Did I mention these were OLD songs?

Happy Mardi Gras, y’all. Sorry about Christmas. That was so last year.

Monday, January 29, 2018

The accidental vacation

So yes, it was 19 degrees (so they say) when I was expecting 28. So yes, I thought leaving two faucets running was sufficient. Hah. The toilet lines froze. The hot water lines froze. We made a Walmart run for buckets and filled them with water from the two faucets that were working so we could flush the toilets.

And then the temperature began to rise above freezing.

I was outside, checking on the yard, when I heard the hiss of water. I peeked around the north side of the house, where the sidewalk was still slick with ice, and saw the water running from under the house. Uh-oh.

So we had to shut off the main water line to the house. Now what?

We couldn't stay in the house if we had no running water. I remembered that's what finally got the last holdouts living in this unflooded neighborhood to leave the city four days after Katrina: when the city shut off the water. So we made a few phone calls and found a hotel nearby. The dog had to go to the vet. Sweetie the diabetic cat, who needs insulin every twelve hours, went with us. The other cats stayed in the house. We were close enough to come back to check on them during the day.

And so we went on an accidental vacation. It would have been fun if it hadn't been so stressful: life on hold until the plumber could get to us. Don't let the cell phone get out of reach, in case the plumber calls.

But we did have a fun dinner in a Mexican restaurant that had water. By then, of course, the city was under a boil water advisory because the water pressure had gotten so low from people running their faucets -- and, of course, the broken pipes. So the restaurant had to boil water for ice, etc. And the hotel was handing out bottled water to guests so we could brush our teeth.

The son of a good friend from the New York City area was coming to town that weekend. All I could think, gritting my teeth, was how hard the city had struggled to get past "Third World and Proud of It." And now this New Yorker was coming to a city where you couldn't drink the water.

Fortunately, the boil water advisory was lifted by the weekend and the city had some semblance of normalcy again.

And the plumber arrived Saturday morning. There were so many pipes spurting water ("leaks" is a word that does not do it justice) under the house that he lost count: "seven or eight," he said.

But we were able to check out of the hotel and get the dog back from the vet. The accidental vacation was exciting, to say the least. But there's no place like home.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Winter. Yes, in New Orleans

We are having an ice day. Not a nice day, but an ice day. Well, the sun has been shining, and that's nice, but last night the temperature went down about ten degrees lower than it was supposed to. 19 degrees is not the same as 28 degrees, especially not when you have exposed water pipes under your house and you only left two faucets running just in case.

Thank goodness for those two faucets, because that's the only running water we have today. It has gone up to a steamy 35 degrees, which isn't enough to melt the frozen pipes that are, shall we say, where the sun don't shine. hot water. No shower. Toilets, yes, but we have to fill buckets with water from the running faucets to flush them. No dishwasher, no washing machine.

Shut up and be glad the power is on, I tell myself. It went off for a few minutes in the middle of the night, and there are people today who don't have power. Or heat.

The powers that be have been telling everyone to stay off the roads because of icy conditions. Last night we had sleet, lots of it. Snow is pretty. Sleet isn't. Be glad the ancient power lines outside our house, the ones that survived Katrina, didn't get enough ice on them to break.

It's supposed to get very cold again tonight. And then, surprise! It will be warm by the weekend! (Winters in New Orleans are like that.)

Warm again too late for my plants that froze...the ones I thought I could leave outside if it was "only" going down to 28. Those two pots of lavender were so pretty. They aren't any more. And I think it is time to harvest the frozen broccoli.

And when the thaw does come, I'm going to find out if any of those pipes under the house froze. The local plumbers are going to be soooo busy for the next few weeks!

And I have a new name for the cats: Organic Portable Lap Heaters.

Friday, July 15, 2016

She writes!

After a year and a half, I return to Cattown. It's hackneyed to say what a long, strange trip it's been, so I'll just say it's been quite a journey, down a dark night's road into the graying light of a new day.

Retirement. It's just not something "we do" in my family. We don't retire. We evolve.

I rebel against the very idea of retirement being "the end," the period at the end of the sentence. I've had two careers -- journalist and minister -- and now I'm embarking on the third: novelist. I thought I knew all about writing. I've been doing it all my life, since the age of six, when I penciled a primitive form of a graphic novel about my kitten, "Little Runt May and Her Mother Molly in Adventuretime." I went on to write horse novels, heavily influenced by Walter Farley, in study hall from the ages of ten to thirteen.

In high school I decided I wanted to be a magazine editor, and that decision led me to Syracuse University's program in magazine journalism and a summer internship at Advertising Age in New York City through the Magazine Publishers Association/American Society of Magazine Editors. (It was not long after Don Draper's era in "Mad Men": from things I learned at the magazine, I understood the in-jokes of the industry in that show.) Originally I thought I'd work for one of the hip magazines for young women in New York after graduation, but when I learned that pretty much everyone started as a secretary, making coffee and running the copy machine, and the pay was minimal, I decided I wanted to be a business journalist. (This was the heyday of the feminist era. Serious journalists, in my opinion, did not make the office coffee.)

After college, I moved to Atlanta and worked for several business and technical magazines. Along the way I got an MBA, which never brought me the big bucks I'd hoped to make when I spent those long semesters struggling through cost accounting, finance, and macroeconomics. (I still have nightmares about a final exam in macro, when I haven't been to class all semester and don't even know when or where the exam is.)

But the MBA did help me understand the ins and outs of institutional investing when I became the editor of a magazine about pension funds. Sounds boring, but it wasn't. I liked to say the pension industry never had a conference in Cleveland. No, we went to Hilton Head, the Cloister at Sea Island, or Hawaii.

Midlife brought changes. After struggling with the decision for fourteen years, I left the world of journalism and went to seminary. My friends in the publishing industry were stunned. My friends in the church said, "Oh, yeah. Of course." I spent four arduous years going through the process to be ordained in my denomination. A number of my classmates managed to finish seminary but never got through the tortuous (not tortuRous, although it was that too -- tortuous means "twisted") process.

As an ordained minister, I served three churches, each one somewhat larger than the last. It was hard work, with long hours, but I had the joy of knowing I had made a difference in some people's lives. Oh, yeah, I served for six years as a director of the denomination's pension plan. We met at the Ritz-Carlton in Philadelphia. It was fun.

And I got to write sermons every week! Terrifying at first. There were many dark nights at four a.m. when I'd be struggling to get through those sermons, my writing path just as dark as the night outside. Over time, it got less frightening. Sometimes I was blessed with a sermon that seemed to write itself. Sometimes I stared at the blinking cursor until I fell asleep at the keyboard, then woke up in a panic.

It took a few years, but I developed a system for writing a sermon, just as I had learned a system for writing news stories and feature articles years ago. It worked.

And then the last ministry ended and I came home to New Orleans. I knew I didn't want to relocate again to take a position. I wanted to be home. So I officially retired from ministry and started getting a pension.

What happens to one's identity when one decides to "retire"? Poof? Or not? That has been the struggle of the last two and a half years. Who am I now? I decided I wanted to be a New Orleans Novelist.

I thought I could write a novel in three months, no sweat. I knew how to write. Wasn't I writing novels in study hall back when I was ten years old? Hadn't I been writing all my life, as a journalist and as a minister? Hadn't I written short stories over the years?

I discovered I had a lot to learn. There is a huge difference between writing a five-hundred-word article, a two-thousand-word sermon, a five-thousand-word short story, and a seventy-five-thousand-word (or more) novel. It's the difference between a hundred-yard dash and a marathon.

It's been a learning experience. I'm grateful for the workshop leaders and participants at the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for their help, as well as an online class in story structure I took through Stanford.

The novel's not done yet. But I know where I'm going, and that's half the battle. I'm awed when I scroll through the manuscript and see how much I've written so far.

The novel is a story of life in New Orleans before, during, and after Katrina, told through the eyes of two women, one white and one black. The white woman, Maggie McBride, is the narrator, and the black woman is her housekeeper, Eloise Jackson. Both are widowed in the aftermath of the storm.

I've started another blog, fictional Maggie's blog of life after Katrina. The title for now (subject to change) is I'm Still Here.

And, oh yeah, I'm preaching again. And writing new sermons, because the old ones don't always fit the state of the world today. What did I say about retirement? In my family, we don't retire. We evolve.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

What I read in 2014

In my first year of retirement, I read thirty books! I kept a list! Looks like at this point in my life, my favorite choice is mysteries.

In order:

Monday Mornings by Sanjay Gupta
Five Days at Memorial by Sheri Fink
The Famous DAR Murder Mystery (Borderville) by Graham Landrum
Eat Pray Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
Classified as Murder by Miranda James (Dean James)
The Night of the Comet by George Bishop
Baptism by Max Kinnings
Kinsey and Me: Stories by Sue Grafton
My Life in Middlemarch by Rebecca Mead
Creole Belle by James Lee Burke
The Obituary Writer by Ann Hood
Still Life with Bread Crumbs by Anna Quindlan
A Thousand Acres by Jane Smiley
The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd
What the Dead Know by Laura Lippman
The Glass Rainbow by James Lee Burke
Light of the World by James Lee Burke
Swan Peak by James Lee Burke
The Silkworm by Robert Galbraith (J.K. Rowling)
Difficult Men: Behind the Scenes of a Creative Revolution: From The Sopranos and The Wire to Mad Men and Breaking Bad by Brett Martin
Dollbaby by Laura Lane McNeal
The Tin Roof Blowdown by James Lee Burke
Learning to Walk in the Dark by Barbara Brown Taylor
How the Light Gets In: A Chief Inspector Gamache Novel by Louise Penny
Soil and Sacrament by Fred Bahnson
The Bone Clocks by David Mitchell
The Beautiful Mystery: A Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery by Louise Penny
The Mockingbird Next Door by Marja Mills
The Story of Land and Sea by Katy Simpson Smith
Misdiagnosed: One Woman’s Tour of – and Escape from – Healthcareland by Jody Berger

Which one was the best read of 2014? Five Days at Memorial. For me, it was personal. The hospital is located a mile from my home, and if it had been built on my block, it would never have flooded -- and I say "never would have" because it's been flooded time and again since it was built in 1927. It was personal because most of my immediate family spent their last days there -- it was, after all, the local neighborhood hospital. And I was hospitalized there just months before Katrina. Two of the doctors who treated me are mentioned in the book.

What happened at Memorial never should have happened. The disaster that happened there over five days before, during, and after Katrina happened as a result of a lot of bad decisions by a lot of people, but if I had to point a finger in one direction, it would be at the corporate level of the hospital's owner. It's significant that Tenet ended up selling all its holdings in Louisiana and getting the hell out of there. Their reputation for care and compassion was, well, it wasn't. Not after what happened at Memorial. That particular hospital is now owned by Ochsner and has had its original name restored -- Baptist. And it's slowly coming back to life.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Easter lilies!

Back when I was in my first parish, I took pity on the Easter lilies that didn't get picked up after Easter. I brought them home and planted them in the yard. I quickly learned that if I kept adopting orphaned Easter lilies, it wouldn't be long before I had a yard full of them. So I gritted my teeth and let them go...some of them, anyway.

The year we had a heat wave just after Easter, I went into the sanctuary at the end of the week after Easter (like most sane pastors, I took the week off after Easter) and found the abandoned lilies dead from the heat and lack of water. That was sad, tossing out all those dead lilies. But I learned to steel myself and not take responsibility for lilies other people had failed to take home with them.

Anyway...ten years later, I'm retired from ministry and gardening like crazy. And I now have three patches of Easter lilies in my yard. Guess what? They multiply over time.

And this week they came into bloom, two weeks after Easter, dozens and dozens of lilies. If we hadn't had such a long cold winter in New Orleans, they might have bloomed for Easter, since it was almost as late as it can get this year (April 20).

Do see the post in my blog New Life in the North Country, July 23, 2013. In the North Country, climate zone 5b, they bloom in July. At least in New Orleans, climate zone 9b, they bloom during the Easter season!

Oh by the way...for all my New Orleans friends...everything else may be running two weeks behind schedule, but tonight, May 10, the termites are swarming around the outdoor floodlights. They must have calendars. Right on schedule!

Monday, March 24, 2014

What I'm reading

This is my first attempt at writing a blog post with my iPad. I've been having difficulty working in Blogger with IE10, so I thought I'd try working in Safari. Seems a lot more compatible, but I can't say     I'm not crazy about writing on an iPad keyboard. Yes, I do have a "real" keyboard for this thing, but I've forgotten how to use it. But that is another blog post.

     The Tennessee Williams/New Orleans Literary Festival was terrific. This was my first time attending, and I was duly impressed with the professionalism of the presenters. There were several tracks to choose from. I attended the Master Classes and literary panels. I purchased books by two of the presenters (some of the titles sold out, which is a Good Thing if you are a writer!) -- Laura Lippman's Tess Monaghan, P.I. Novel What the Dead Know and Knitting Yarns, a collection of essays by writers on knitting, edited by Ann Hood. Today I picked up her novel The Obituary Writer at the library. I've added a couple of other writers' books to my Amazon wish list. I think I am set for reading for the next few months.

    And yes, I'm working on my own novel right now. The classes and panels gave me a much-needed boost in that department. When I read what I've been working on and think it's dreck (now there's a word I haven't seen or heard in a long time!), I remember that these authors' novels that I hold in my hand are the result of multiple revisions and didn't start life as brilliant works of writing. It takes time. It takes multiple revisions. It takes patience. And, as one author told us, it takes a thick skin. Words to live by.