Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Catholic Guilt

I was raised Catholic. While I attend a different church these days, the guilt still comes in handy and seems to be remarkably effective when raising children.

The other night when we had company, my little son had been a bit squirrely. Later, he and I had a discussion about it. He’d found his sister’s ring—a little gumball machine gift from a Mexican restaurant—and was sitting in my lap engrossed in the image on the ring’s plastic face.

“I see Jesus!” said Tiny Man.

“Yes, that is Jesus. Jesus sees you!” I said.

“Jesus sees me?” he gasped.

“Yes, he sees everything you do and saw you at the dinner table.”

“Dear God,” began little Tiny with his eyes closed and head bowed, “I will be good at dinner and a good boy in school. Aaaaaamen!”

Amen to that!

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The No No List and the Dish on Love

Once upon a time, I listened to my husband encouraging one of his daughters. He was dispensing relationship advice to her. Her dilemma wasn’t should she break up with a certain young man, as she initially seemed to ask, but how. All I can say after picking up odds and ends of this conversation are that cute feet cannot sustain a relationship. (Don’t ask.) Her keenest recognition of her own circumstance was this: That love shit doesn’t last. It wears off.

I love teenagers. I am intrigued by their points of view, the urgency in which they feel they must romantically love someone, and the infinite trouble they suffer as a result. No matter how progressive we think we are in the 21st century, these liaisons are the training ground for marriage, and there is so much I wish I could tell both my husband’s daughters about this. Out of respect for them and their birth parents, I draw the line at interfering unless directly asked for advice.

Last year I was dining at the home of a good friend. Around the table were ladies ranging in age from teenage to maybe fifty-something. One of the young women asked what warning flags she should recognize in her current relationship. This question in itself suggested imminent disaster. We entertained ourselves immeasurably with this conversation and accrued a list that began with obvious deal-breakers, such as someone else’s lipstick in his truck. Between bouts of laughter and the pouring of wine, the most notable points made included considerations that are easy to overlook. As a young person I would have disregarded these completely. In fact, I know I did.

1. Have you met his friends? What kind of people are they? Does he ever hide his friends from you?

2. Take a good, long look at his father. You’ll end up marrying that. And there is hardly ever an exception to this rule.

3. In particular, how does he talk to his mother and father? Those are our first authority figures. How he speaks to them, he will speak to you (if not now, then someday). And there is never, never, never an exception to this.

I think women tend to make excuses. We want “the love shit” to last, and often enable misbehavior. I have made this mistake before. I won’t make it again. We tend to think that conduct is a temporal flux of sorts. We tell ourselves that what we are seeing will stop when he grows up, changes, settles down, finds a job, the ex goes away… whatever. We make a lot of excuses about how he treats others (or ourselves) saying that he was under stress or the treatment was deserved in some way. We might assume certain of their responsibilities to avoid conflict or embarrassment. Lo and behold, a cycle is born.

What you see is what you get. And if you see others suffer at the hands of your mate while you seem to skate fairly peacefully at a distance, be wary. This peace is short-lived. My step-daughter is right—the aura of your love does wear off, and you may find yourself, as I once did, trying to understand how you became the person who accepts being told you are “less”.

The human brain does not fully mature until the age of 25. I have often pondered this and thought marriage should be discouraged prior to this point, but who am I to say? My husband’s daughter recently described someone as being the cookies to her milk. The sweetness of this statement should not overwhelm the profoundness of the realization. This young lady already sees love, knows it, feels it, gets it. And I get it, too. After all, her father is indeed a heaping plate of warm cookies to my milk. He brings to my life sweetness, innocence, goodness, and comfort.

This kid’s going to be all right. She is tougher than I ever was and I cannot see her accepting sarcasm or disrespect from anyone. She has other demons, though, that she has yet to discover about herself. I look forward to a conversation with her years from now when she has a handful of wriggling toddler, a mortgage, and she has just coached her future spouse through a job loss or death of a parent. I want to know what she really finds underneath what wears away, and how she feels about the love of her life seeing her in her own moments of vulnerability. I hope the cookies and milk will still be there.

Monday, March 29, 2010


My mother just sent me a note. A friend and co-worker of hers died yesterday. The woman, who had been suffering from cancer for three years, had written her own obituary in preparation for death.

Life and the end of it comes with touching vulnerability and bittersweetness. An obituary written by the dying is a form of prayer for the living.

There is simply nothing else I can say.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Cheese Touch and Other Socially Damaging Behaviors

I cannot believe I am posting this...

We just went to see Diary of a Wimpy Kid, a comedy about life as a middle schooler. I remember this stuff, both as a kid, and then watching it unfold in the classroom from the perspective as a teacher. Things really don’t change. The scene dealing with “The Cheese Touch” was probably based on truth, which, as you know, is always funnier than fiction. I won’t describe it. You simply need to see this yourself. In another highlight of the film, Fregley, whose character probably was inspired by truth as well, hauls his shirt up to showcase a gross, hair-spiked mole. He is exactly the kind of gleefully oblivious child one finds in middle schools everywhere as one or the other gender, and with variations of crass behavior. I went to school with a Fregley or two over the years.

I attended an all-girl Catholic school in uptown New Orleans for both the middle and high years. As the new kid among a set of students that had been bonded since kindergarten, I was certainly not immune to the great social disparity that existed between me and these other girls. I was a little geeky. I didn’t come from money. And I was shy. Somehow, I quickly made friends with Bridget who warned me about certain kids—two in particular. Their names have been changed to protect the not-so-innocent.

“You don’t want to sit near Mary,” whispered Bridget to me one day as she slanted her eyes toward the offending party. “She farts. In grade school, I had to sit behind her and she farted every day.”

It seems as though Mary had her own version of “The Cheese Touch” and I was not about to fall prey. Not once did I sit behind Mary—not in middle school nor the four years of high school that followed, at least not if I could help it. There is a hierarchy of geekdom that even geeks follow. I may not have walked with the perfectly polished pretty set of girls, but I would not be caught getting contaminated with Mary’s gas. I was afraid the stink would stick to me.

There was another kid that existed on the fringes as well, but in a slightly worse capacity. Mind you, we can forgive Mary for the wayward gas that she might not have been able to control, but Cayla lives forever in punitive memory for picking ear wax and eating it.

(Are you dying yet? As I sit here and write, I cannot stop laughing. In fact, I’m crying over this… and there’s more…)

Cayla completed middle school and moved on to another institution. She was conveniently replaced, in Fregley’s ever revolving spirit, with Maddy. Maddy did things with a pencil that just should not be done. By high school, young women are well aware of appropriate social behaviors. Our worst offense should be nail biting or picking at cuticles. Maddy was seen scratching her privates through the slit of our kilt-style uniformed skirt… with said pencil. And on occasion, I did have to sit beside this unfortunate girl. Let’s just say, I never once came to class unprepared. If Maddy was the last person on earth with a pencil to lend, I would have made my own damn pencil by chewing a branch from one of the great oaks out on the school grounds.

Yes, I survived those years, always considering myself an outcast even though, in reality, I had quite a number of nice friends. These girls, who are gathering for our twenty year high school reunion without me as I write this, remember each other far better than I would have thought possible. Most of them seem to have forgiven the worst of the crimes by the Fregleys in our class. Some of them are now coaching their own kids through middle school and may even have Fregleys of their own. Thankfully, we all outgrew our middle school awkwardness.

Girls, I salute you, but take this advice: be careful from whom you borrow a pencil. Fregley is out there… and waiting.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Try Not to Take the Rabbit So Personally

On occasion, I hear the rabbit hissing insults at me as I do the laundry.

“I don’t like you,” he says.

“I don’t like you either,” I reply.

“You like me. Admit it. You think I like you, but I don’t.”

“I never thought we shared mutual affection, rabbit. And by the way, I need to clean your cage tomorrow.”

“That’s why I don’t like you.”

Once, when I walked back there to do the laundry, he was standing with one paw on the poop pile holding it just so. Yes, truly.

“Don’t move a pellet,” he said. “It’s perfect.”

I ignored him, bent over the dryer to locate a stray sock and I heard him again.

“I don’t like you.”

The dog told me our rabbit uses foul language. I believe it. This explains why the dog won’t even look at the rabbit anymore, but the rabbit brightens up each time the dog and I pass, glances innocently at me, and then when my back is turned whispers negative thoughts to the dog. Now, I do recall a certain incident where my dog clamped her teeth around the head of the rabbit to carry him. This could explain a bit of the animosity, but my dog is not clever enough with her feet to have done otherwise. The rabbit, on the other hand, even thumb-less, can hurl a pellet with fierce top spin through the wires of his cage, file his nails, and apparently, neatly stack his pellets into a pyramid.

This morning, watching the rabbit scoot around his cedar chip palace, I asked him if it was time to refill his water bottle.

“Yes, but with electrolytes this time.” I don’t know how he tells the difference. I pouted for a moment.

“Rabbit,” I said, “I don’t like you. I don’t like you at all.”

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Business Speak and Defining Work

I took my work to a café and was sitting there, plugging away with research and draft corrections over a rich cuppajoe… the one from the $11,000 machine I blogged about earlier this month… and could not help but overhear the conversation of two businessmen interviewing each other next to me. While I heard words such as market, promotion, Wachovia, and software, the rest of the conversation was unintelligible. Each question one man asked the other was answered evasively and no concrete information was ever exchanged. Questions about one’s own activity were answered with a story about what an associate was doing. At the end, they shook hands, and thanked each other for the shared time, and promised to talk again soon. What was accomplished here? I think the meeting was an excuse to drink the coffee and be late to what seemed like a fairly arbitrary kind of job. Regardless of the business speak thrown around, their occupations were never made clear. They were, however, wearing very nice suits.

Years ago, my sister was dating a man I couldn’t stand. I asked him what he did for a living. After hemming and hawing, he finally answered, “Consulting.”

“So you buy and sell people,” I said. I might have been twenty years old, young enough to be rude and get away with it, but I had a handle on the shadiness of his work.

I love “consulting”. How do you consult and how do you get paid for that? I can see this in the classroom:

“What do you want to be when you grow up?” a teacher may ask a child.

“A consultant.”

Exactly. Most likely, I sat next to two consultants today.

There is something to be said for blue collar workers. They were uniforms. They have name tags. They make things and fix things. If you ask the child of a blue collar worker what his father does, he will answer clearly, “Daddy is a plumber.” Or a fireman. Or a cable TV installer. Measureable, definable careers.

Once, to see what my own daughter would say, I asked her what her father does for a living.

“I don’t know,” she said, “but he sure does use the laptop a lot.”

This year, I finally explained to my daughter what her dad did for a living—in nice simple terms she would understand because there is a certain degree of abstraction to his upper management job. Then I asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“A writer like you, Mommy!” She beamed proudly. It’s precious, really, although I’m certainly not raking in measurable amounts of cash yet, but she sees manuscripts come and go from time to time. We discuss subject-verb agreement and editor’s marks. I could just eat her up.

I cannot ever see this child as a grown-up dangling vague business speak with evasive tactical maneuvers over brand name java. I hope whatever she chooses, she can describe it confidently and with a healthy dose of pride. And I really hope, it doesn’t have the word consultant in the title.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Sweets, Meats, and Eats

I had the most incredible burger a couple of weeks ago in Georgia. Quality beef mingled with ground chorizo sausage and a layer of egg over-easy between a toasted bun, mayo, lettuce, and garden tomato. It was an award-winning taste bud-popping highly notable experience. The salt, the tender beef, the slick texture of running, rich yolk—a foodgasmic experience.

I love food. Really. I just loooove good food. I love the entire five-sense stimulating encounter, the mélange of the tasting with socializing, and, as any mother would, the dependence on paid help to prepare, serve, and clean the dishes. There are many places where I have enjoyed meals both fancy and earth-grounding, so to speak. Here are some of the ones most prominent in memory:

Fried chicken from a Texaco in Hazlehurst, MS… ordered in desperation, tasted cautiously, then inhaled in high appreciation for the fried chicken that only a southern mama could cook to perfection. I used to stop here years ago while passing through a portion of country. Does only the South have outstanding kitchens in their rural gas stations? I have had perfectly peel-able and succulent crawfish from a Baton Rouge gas station as well, and tenderly cornmeal fried oyster po boys from another fill-up stop near Delacroix Island, Louisiana.

The richest, meatiest, chunkiest crab cakes, aside from my Aunt Irma’s, have to originate from the upscale kitchen of Hemingway’s, a restaurant attached to the Hyatt Grand Cypress Hotel in Orlando, Florida. Once, at a business dinner in the Midwest, I met a young man who was talking about his father’s culinary-inspired travels. He said his dad just had been praising the most incredible crab cakes from a trip down south. At the same time, we named the same restaurant. There is no such thing as coincidence.

Lavender and honey ice cream, produced lovingly and presented with pride, can be ordered on occasion from Gertrude’s in Colorado Springs, Colorado. I once savored this extraordinary blend of unusual flavors after an elegant meal in Gertrude’s renovated bungalow. I have never had such creamy and perfumed ice cream since.

Luz del Sol, the best cake I have ever had, is available on a random basis at Kuba Kuba in Richmond, Virginia’s Fan neighborhood. Imagine a sweet coffee-soaked flan layer over a yellow cake. The liqueur trickles down into the bready fluff and pools on the plate. Even flan-haters love this cake. It’s like crack; eat it once, and never stop craving it again. And one does not just desire the taste-- the texture, the journey from pudding smooth to delicately grained and heavily soaked cake. I can't stand myself as I write this.

Oh, there’s so much more—there was a duck and white cheese pizza I once had from a restaurant that is now closed in Colorado and there was a lovely ahi-tuna dish from a biker bar/upscale diner in Indiana that is also now closed. I have had succulent roast duckling from a pub somewhere in England. And the best Vietnamese meal? I enjoyed it in Paris.

I’m not going to tidy up this blog with a neatly written paragraph closing the food list. Instead, I would be most delighted to continue it with a list of your best meals discovered both at restaurants and at home. After all, someone’s home cooking often inspires the opening of a great eatery. I see Jay the Piper has been shoving beer cans up chicken bums, by the way. Rock on, Jay! Hope you had a good porter with that meal.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Rabbit Association Suffers Tragic Loss

On occasion, I feel the need to update the general public about the rabbit.

Back in the den with him today (he claims the laundry room in cool weather) we had a discussion about a recent tragedy in the neighborhood. I had discovered that one of his fellow Rabbit Association members died in a reckless attempt to cross the street. Horrified that such a fine beast should be left in a most undignified manner, I pulled the car over, emptied groceries from two bags in the trunk, removed him with the help of the bags, and put him to rest elsewhere.

My own rabbit, wearing his black arm band and sniffing gently with loss, told me there had been a private service, and that there had been much talk of the short lives of city rabbits.

“There is no guarantee,” he said, “of longevity in any case, but the city rabbit faces much adversity in regard to automobile traffic.” He suggested a kind of campaign and asked my help with using the computer to design a flyer. (If you haven’t read Click, Clack, Moo you can do so here, as the local fauna have found this most inspiring: I suggested road-caution education classes for little bunnies with refresher lectures for the older set.

He chewed on this briefly, nosed around the cedar chips in his house, and said he would inform me as to the progress of the association. I’ll keep you posted, as I have promised to support his cause with my continued work in the biped arena, but do me a favor. Don’t tell him I had to bag his pal and put him in the garbage can. I can’t afford another set-back in our relationship.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Articulate Eggs

Each time we buy a new carton of eggs, I write my husband a message—one word per egg. It cracks him up—no pun intended—and is a little gesture of affection. Recently I wrote: The way you stare at us makes us nervous. Besides this group of eggs were tidbits of previously cracked and emptied shells. Last week I wrote: Do you think white makes us look fat? And on another carton: Oh my God! Which one of us will be the next to die? Two weeks ago there was something about how he was eggsactly the right person for me, which inspired a few egg-themed jokes and comments when he posted it to Facebook. This sure has put playing with one’s food on a whole new level.

I can’t look at eggs at the grocery without wondering which pack will better suit the length of the message I plan to write—12 or 18 eggs. And if I were to get the brown eggs, would that lead to a whole series of statements about representing minorities? I usually get cage-free vegetarian fed hens' eggs. Maybe I should play on this, too. “We endorse soy and meat-alternative choices,” they might read one day, “so put the chicks down.”

The eggs one buys are actually unfertilized products. They are chicken-wannabes stopped tragically mid-cycle. They are peepless wonders of perfection to me. I love their smooth ovals and have spent time photographing both whole eggs for the beauty of the light caressing rounded surfaces and cracked shells for their qualities of translucence. It is an examination of simple things, simple wonders. Yes, there is certainly a simple joy to opening a fresh carton of eggs and finding, as my husband did this week, two perfect rows of animated faces drawn on waiting eggs. I hope the chickens understand and forgive us both.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Patron Saint of Napping Bundles

Today I had the honor of being a Patron Saint of Naps; I subbed at my son’s school during rest time. These kids are three and four, but under their blankies, sleep entranced, and lips pursed, they are once again babies. I had the pleasure of sitting between the two most nefarious nap-fighters, my son and his best friend. The instructions I was ordered to follow included: lay them tummy down, rub their backs, discourage noise. The boys were restless, but true to the promise of his teachers, sleeping and making little whuffles and buzzes after 20 minutes. Their partner in crime, a third boy of whose stubborn qualities we had not been warned, refused to co-operate at all and was not so precious. There was kicking. There was prodding. There was poking. There may even have been some grunting. The other mother in the room became exasperated and so I escorted the wee tyke out to the hallway.

“Buddy, you know there are sleeping kids in there.”


“And I know you cannot sleep today, but you need to be still and quiet.”


“Bud, you can’t kick the floor and make banging sounds. It’s disrespectful to the sleeping children and to the teachers.”


After a few more words of level-headed logic, I scooted him back to his cot, tucked him in, and started adjusting the blankets of his friends. Apparently, I was not as effective as desired. Of course, you knew this was coming. Boomp, boomp went heavy feet, poke, poke went little hands, and the other mother, after another diligent effort on her part, picked the child up, and carried him out and away from the lines of sleeping and more cooperative little people.

We never saw him again. He may have been bussed out and sent to stay with detainees at Guantanamo Bay as a form of torture—for them.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Salon Speak and the Vietnamese Nail Factory

America’s cities and suburbs are dotted with Vietnamese nail factories to which women flock regularly and in great numbers for a mani-pedi. Comedienne Anjelah Johnson’s routine on the Asian owned salon is exactly on the mark for capturing the experience of what is essentially fast-food for the nails. You can see her interpretation here: . Every word she says is true.

My sister and I went this weekend to a salon located in a strip mall with an all glass store front, just as most of these places are. There’s usually a Patrick Nagel-inspired graphic of a woman’s face with a long-nailed hand placed theatrically across it. This one, however, had black window tinting obscuring any view within. I stood under the neon open sign and said, “If this place is a bar, I’m leaving,” but I opened the door to a bright, clean, busy interior. A half-dozen or so ladies were being tended by a slightly smaller number of Vietnamese bent over their hands or feet. The drone of footbaths, the sharp scent of acrylic, and the faux marbled fixtures invited us inside. Every salon interior is just like this one.

“What you need today?” sung out the manager. I could not help but think of Anjelah Johnson’s routine and wondered if I’d be asked about my marital status, which is usually the first question I get once seated in places like this, but the woman who took care of me was fairly quiet that day. Her English was extremely limited, so we did what most do in this situation--smile and nod at each other a lot. At one point, she turned the spa chair on. Truthfully, I don’t like the chairs that much. Those things get going with all the kneading, massaging, and buzzing action and I practically get thrown out of my seat. Once in one of those chairs, the upper back zone kicked in just in time for a male customer to sit down right next to me and my incredibly vibrating breasts. I was mortified. This time, I asked the woman to turn the chair off.

“Okay,” she smiled and nodded. Then she reset the chair to turbo and gave me the remote.

“No, please, off. I’d like the chair off.”

“Okaaay.” More smiles, more nods. The chair stayed on. I examined the remote closely. There was no off button.

Minutes later, when a man appeared to file my fingernails, I asked again. More smiles, more nods. The chair was reduced to a more subtle prodding motion and stayed on. I gave up.

Within the hour, I was polished and groomed, and stood before leaving to admire the spectacular sight of fresh pink, moisturized skin on my hands and feet. In all the professional shops I’ve been, no one does a longer lasting polish than these places, nor as quickly or cheaply. It’s what keeps us Americans coming back. The manager scurried up to me, uttered a few flowing lines of Vietnamenglishese, smiled, and held the door for us. We smiled back.

“What’d she say?” asked my sister.

Anjelah Johnson came to mind again. I can see her talking about the customer service and how nice the ladies are. “Whatevah you like, we do for youuu,” she croons. No promises of good English though.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Silver in the South

Nothing comes between a southern woman and her silver.

My sister and I were discussing this as I helped dig through her storage unit—a surprisingly small accumulation of goods considering her recent move to a much smaller home. We were talking about everything we’d done to pay bills, provide for family, and simplify our lives over the couple of years or so. In need of cash, I had parted with a number of items that I no longer needed—sporting goods, décor, artwork, furniture. Some of those things had incredible memory attached to them. I cried when I put the violin up on the market, but fortunately no one bought it. I listed but could not sell two antique parlor chairs I had reupholstered myself—a blessing really, and maybe something I can pass down one of my children one day. The last item of true value though, is my silver pattern, Gorham’s La Scala, a tribute to Italian opera in delicate scrollwork and engraving. I could not bring myself to part from it. My mother would have me shot anyhow.

The silver pattern accumulated through the marriage isn’t just a wedding gift. It’s a heritage. Women in my family buried their silver to hide it from British soldiers during the 1815 Battle of New Orleans. Other women packed theirs away to soften the hard memories of widowhood. Some women managed to save it during the Great Depression. My sister doesn’t even have an everyday flatware—silver is all she has because, she says, it’s so pretty it must be used to be enjoyed. Her husband packs his lunch for work—Tupperware, insulated lunch bag, and a silver fork—much to the amusement of his co-workers.

I can put a new spin on the phrase “born with a silver spoon in her mouth” because we might have had nothing else, but somewhere in the house, carefully stored and preserved, was a family silver pattern. Hardship is temporary. We know that when we survive our wars, widowhood, divorces, market crashes, etc, and when our homes and lives are back to some degree of predictability, we’ll have regretted selling the silver. My own pattern is still neatly packed and stored safely. I’m not ready to bring it out to regular use yet, but just knowing it’s still there is a piece of priceless sanity.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Gumbo the Way God Intended

I love food. I love food the way some chaw smackin' trailer shackin' men love Nascar. I had the most amazing burger this weekend... will have to write about it sometime and made some serious observations about quality fries, but in the meantime, here is something I wrote for a step-daughter this Christmas:

Recipe: Gumbo the Way God Intended

I don’t order Creole or Cajun food outside of Louisiana that much. People have such misconceptions about what it should look like, taste like, and professional chefs think creative license gives them the right to kill it. Any coon ass worth his salt knows that good gumbo is an art only for the patience of browning roux and allowing food to mellow in the pot. Certain ingredients, however, give it the right texture and consistency. Okra, celery, and oysters are essential for the recipe I prefer. Picky eaters can go straight to hell and stay there if they cannot scoot the okra quietly to the side of their plates. And if someone asks you to pass the salt and pepper, you have my sworn permission to shoot them. Tabasco and gumbo filé powder is the only suitable additive post-serving. For crying out loud!

Anyway, here is my Uncle Joe’s recipe, but I tweaked just a few things. What you should know about Joe was his capacity for love. He was my father’s paternal uncle and had served in World War II where he met my Aunt Marty, an Army nurse. Having no money, the two married in a simple ceremony in Germany during the war. Joe gave Marty a promise for a ring—a nail bent in a circle—that she wore or carried until he was able to give her a traditional band. Their daughter Beverly told us that when Marty died, Joe having passed some years prior, she assumed the duty of dividing Marty’s belongings. In the jewelry box was the original ring—the nail Joe had salvaged from some European ruin somewhere. Beverly often has said that the two had an incredibly passionate relationship forged by the bonds of war, and they were in love even through death. Joe embraced life just as fervently as his marriage and loved all of us so much that he wanted to leave us a gift to hand down for generations. He wrote us a cookbook and I still have mine through every state I have lived in. The pages are grease spattered and crinkled. I often copy the recipes and send them to friends when they want “genuine” recipes from true natives of South Louisiana. This book is one of my most treasured possessions and still bears with it the letter he wrote me when he sent it. I extend this same love to you, and the same hope for love in your own relationships.

Anyway, this is gumbo the way God intended—full of good intentions, fragrant, delicately seasoned, but sure-tasting, belly warming, and conversation engaging.


1/3 cup vegetable oil or a half stick of butter

1/3 cup flour

1 cup green onions

1 cup chopped white onion

½ cup celery

1 tbs. minced garlic

½ cups chopped bell pepper

1 can okra (do not drain can) or a half bag frozen okra (if you dig okra, add more)

2 cups peeled, deveined, and raw shrimp (you can buy it in a bag already done up this way, but I prefer to peel it myself and meditate on the long line of cooks I come from, plus I boil the shells in some water and use it for shrimp broth in this recipe. My Aunt Kay just rinses the shrimp bag and later pours that in the pot, but that is cheating. We are slow in Louisiana for a reason—you cannot rush a good thing.)

Jar fresh oysters plus broth

Small jar crab claw meat (do not use faux)

1 tspn. Worcestershire sauce

½ tspn. salt

½ tspn. pepper

1 tspn. thyme

3-4 whole bay leaves


1-2 tspn gumbo filé powder (ground sassafras leaves) which you can find in the soul food or ethnic section of the grocery—my cousin Mark says that grocers should just call it the Coon Ass Shelf and be done

Box of instant rice


1. Heat your burner to medium and pour your oil in the bottom of a good four quart pot. Let it get good and hot before you add the flour. This is called a ROUX. You are going to stand over this for around ten minutes, so be patient. Stir slowly with a wood spoon, pause, and stir again. Watch it brown. Stir. You want a nice dark brown and this takes a while to achieve but it is key. You want it almost as brown as shoe leather. No white, no beige. Your finished product will reflect this deep color, so consider that as you deliberate when to stop browning by moving on to your next step. As we would say in Louisiana, listen to your belle-mére. Trust me on this.

2. Add the chopped vegetables and cook for at least another five minutes. Let the vegetables change color and soften a bit.

3. Add the shrimp and crab. Let cook a few minutes or so. Stir frequently.

4. Add 1 quart of water (or shrimp broth) and seasonings. Let cook a few minutes. Stir, stir, stir.

5. Add the okra and the oysters. Add all the seasonings and Worcestershire. Stir. Let cook five or more minutes.

6. Add more hot water to achieve the consistency you desire. Cook on low, covered with a lid for about twenty minutes.

7. Right at the end of this, check the taste. Add Tabasco and the filé. You can go heavy on that sassafras and won’t hurt a thing.

8. Cook rice according to box directions.

9. Serve a nice bowl of gumbo with a small scoop of rice in the center of each bowl.

White wine is really, really nice with this. Get good crusty bread, too.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Mama Says No!

Mothers are my heroes. This story comes courtesy of one of my mom-friends whose ex-husband gave her twelve year old son a few air guns. It’s not a gift choice the mother would have made, but seeing as how the son lives with his father, she felt she could do little about it.

Not so long ago, the mom, the boy, and his sister went for a walk in the park by the river. The boy, shortly before leaving for the park, had asked his mother permission to bring an air gun from his dad’s house, and she had said no. He sulked for a while, and then, backpack in hand, smugly joined the group. Moments later at the park, the daughter complained of being shot with pellets. Mom found the boy, escorted him to the bank of the river, demanded to be given the gun, and promptly heaved the weapon into the water.

I love good mothers. I would have paid money to stand on the bank and watch the gun fly in a graceful arc from mother’s arm to the waiting waters. I’d pay more though, to hear that child as a grown man able to laugh at his own foolishness and celebrate his mom’s ability to stand her ground with him.

The gun story brings another one to mind. Some years ago, a boy and his sister were playing on my front lawn with my daughter. The girl was never exactly the sweetest child and had a reputation for being really manipulative. Her brother had a pellet gun and was about to shoot her with it when I leaned out the front windows of my home and called out his name.

“Son,” I continued, “I completely empathize with your desire to shoot your sister, but not on my front lawn. Get on now and take that gun home.”

Thinking later about how funny that had sounded, I was glad I had been the mom who had been home at the time to intervene in a potential eye-loss situation, but I would have loved to have been the actual mother of the boy to swoop in, grab the weapon, and heave it somewhere in the woods where we lived.

Don’t hold your breath too long. My son isn’t even four yet… his time is coming.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Small Acts of Compassion

This week, I contracted the nasty stomach flu. Several hours and retchings later, I lay semi-comatose and feverish on my bed, but recovered enough to let the children see I was not dead. The youngest child, our Tiny Man, crawled up beside me, took a damp rag from the bedside, and proceeded to sponge me with it. He said he wanted to clean my eyes, my ears, check my hair, my skin. He wiped gently and murmured the entire time that I was getting better and that I was okay. He sat with me for around ten minutes, giggling and pressing his cool feet against my burning skin. He kissed my forehead, my lips, and my chest, patted me with his little cool hands.

Oh, to be loved by a child. Makes everything better.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Endearing Qualities

Endearing qualities are things regarding our partners that cannot possibly be appreciated fully by others. Quirky becomes charming when accompanied by love. Since my last post poked fun jabs at my husband, I thought I should tell you about his most endearing qualities. I adore him for all of these things, including his druthers about pots and pans, sponges, and toilet seats.

• When he concentrates in thought, his lower lip fairly well disappears under his upper one.

• Both his earlobes are creased.

• He wears reading glasses perched down at the edge of his straight nose so he can see when he eats. He also wears them when he is wearing his other glasses… and walks about the house this way as though it is normal…Mr. Six Eyes.

• When he drives, his left hand rests against his leg so that his fingers rest top-knuckle-side pressed against him, but his palm folds upright about 90 degrees. It looks most uncomfortable, but his long graceful hands are relaxed in this manner.

• He always polishes his shoes before taking them off after work.

• He repairs what is broken and uses it until it is either too shabby or no longer repairable. This goes for the belt clip of his cell-phone carrier, the heels of his shoes, his glasses. He is not wasteful and is not quick to trash what can still be used. He is a big fan of Gorilla Glue and duct tape. This week, he W-D 40’d my truck locks without being asked. I was grateful.

• He warms my side of the bed with his own body on cold nights. This is the most adorable act of love I have experienced, and so now I like to warm his side of the bed in the same manner on the nights I am first in bed.

• He makes, as you know, my favorite coffee, and brings it to me in bed each morning.

• He teaches my son the kinds of airplanes his toys actually are… B-17s, P-51s, Twin Otters, PBYs… and has taught him the parts… wing, tail, vertical stabilizer, float.

• He naps on the floor next to the dog at night sometimes.

• He will stand toe to toe with me and bend his head to touch mine in a wordless gesture that conveys unlimited love, gratitude, and/or sympathy, depending on the situation. He will also just cradle my cheek in his hand. When he does this, the world becomes still and silent.

There’s a passage in Corinthians that states, “Love bears all things,” which can be interpreted so many ways. Love is the cushion for hardship, love brings with it a hundred other emotions, love creates circumstance, and love makes it possible to bear your spouse’s preference for sponge use and toilet seat lids. Love teaches you to find traits in your partner unique to his personality and cherish them. So, cheers to you, beloved husband, to your perfectly shined shoes, the gorilla glue on your cell-phone carrier, and to the fine lines etched in your earlobes. I love you.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Married... with Separate Sponges

My husband has funny habits. Of course, he thinks mine are funnier, but we know better.

He has some kind of phobia of cold, wet sponges. On occasion, finding one that is sopping and full of slimy bacteria as it rests in the kitchen sink, he will make some kind of “heeeeeeeeeeewwwww gross” noise, pull it out with two slender fingers, cringe as he squeezes it dry, and then fling it into the microwave for a good radiation treatment. I asked him once as he was dancing with revulsion at yet another soaked sponge why he could not bear it. “You’re a veteran of war,” I said, “Haven’t you seen grosser stuff?”

He has solved our sponge differences by buying his own set (no kidding), the bulk of which he hides above the fridge so that I can continue to gross out the household by leaving my wet sponge in the bottom of the sink while his sits lean, dry, and haughty on the rim by the sprayer. I did ask his youngest child about this, to which she snorted, “You’re just finding this out?” Periodically, just to make myself smile, I’ll clean the whole kitchen with his sponge.

There are rules and regulations for pots and pans as well. In his previous life, my lovely man had purchased his own pans and housed them on top of the fridge with a cloth towel between each pan. He had tired of coming down into the kitchen to see that one teenager or another had scrambled an egg and left the skillet all fried up and crusty for someone else to scour. Or maybe the kid had scratched it with a metal tool. My first thought when I heard about this was: Your kids scramble their own eggs! Only to be followed by: Really, you had your own set of pans in a married household. But, because I completely respect the idea of caring for things we wish to last, I developed a nice system for storing his pans neatly on their sides in a rack that does not allow them to touch and scratch. The other day, I held one up to the light and deliberated running it through the dishwasher instead of the usual hand washing, but then decided I better to be safe than sorry. I’d hate something to happen to the cast iron skillet that I have babied and kept seasoned and rust free for 15 years. Retribution via dishpan abuse isn’t pretty.

I have also been amused by toilet seat lid policy, which states that lids must be placed closed at all times except, of course, when in use. I had never thought about this. For me, dealing with the lid, the less I have to touch the toilet, the better. So I would leave it up, but doing so really bothered my spouse. One day, finding some kind of Wings of Blue Parachute Team sticker on the bottom of the lid like a warning (if you don’t lower the lid, you’re tandem jumping with me next weekend), I threw out the sticker and threatened to buy a pink fuzzy toilet seat cover for our bathroom. I did wind up acquiescing to lower the seat lid after use, but announced that I would not bother training the children to do this because frankly, I was happy enough that they both peed in the toilet, especially the youngest child. I think the kids have enough to worry about, so let their toilet be, well, their toilet. In the meantime, I focus my energies on true crimes such as wet towels on the floor and blue toothpaste on the ceiling.

It’s funny what newlyweds learn about each other that first married year. For example, I have some kind of problem fastening lids on anything (I did not notice—my spouse did) and dog hair upsets me terribly (the husky sheds twice a year and it’s gross). What’s funnier is the projected future reversal of habits, preferences, and aversions, because this always happens when people are married to each other for a long time. People trade things about themselves. In the first marriage, I broke spaghetti before tossing it in the pot and closed the kitchen cabinet doors after my husband. At the end of that ill-fated marriage, my husband habitually broke spaghetti noodles and ran after me to close the cabinet doors. His jaw would hit the floor to know that I cannot leave the bedroom without making the bed and that I clean my prep dishes as I cook so that the post-supper bust and scrub session is quick. Makes me wonder what I’ll be doing ten years from now… maybe hiding my skillet from the kids and hording sponges.

Saturday, March 6, 2010


Why do we marry, asks Elizabeth Gilbert in her recently released memoir, Committed. She explores marriage as a means of protection and survival or as an expression of class and rank in certain cultures. She discusses romantic love and the absence of it in certain marriages. And she documents her own path to re-marriage, a journey fueled by a complication in her husband’s status as a foreign visitor to the United States. She comes to terms with rituals and the need for formality, the permanence of a publicly made and witnessed promise. She rises to the final conclusion that I could have told her simply and from the start: we marry because it feels good to be loved and we want that love recognized. Yes, we can reap the benefits one receives as a married couple in society. And of course, if one has children, the bonds of marriage become the walls of the house in which those children are raised. But the best answer to this question of why do we choose a life partner has to be what I learned from Mark Twain’s The Diaries of Adam and Eve. Adam says, finally and after much frustration with the creature called Eve, that life is better outside the garden of paradise with her, than inside the beautiful garden without her.

I heard Twain’s above line at a theater production, a series of vignettes about love. Selected readings from Diaries bonded together each scene with comedic and finally the dramatic reality that love can end when life does. Sitting in the darkened theater, my husband’s profile lit with the jewel-toned lights cast from the stage, I was caught in a moment of tearfulness. Our marriage, still new and flecked with moments of hardship, is the relationship I choose because life with him is far better than living without him.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s own sentiments on love are quoted below as a direct reflection of why I married again despite the challenges of merging two families and any of the general troubles that might plague a marriage:

I love you not only for what you are, but for what I am when I am with you. I love you not only for what you have made of yourself, but for what you are making of me. I love you for the part of me that you bring out.

Interestingly enough, Mrs. Browning married her love despite her controlling father’s objections. Wikipedia mentions that she lived happily ever after, if there is such a thing, especially considering her troubled health. She penned those beautiful words approximately 200 years ago when marriage meant assuming certain domestic roles from which women have found limiting both then and now. I find her choice thrilling and hopeful.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Blog Worthy

We have nicknames for certain people in our lives: Kenny G, Bigfoot, He Who Must Not Be Named, Hey Baby… just to give you an example of at least four of them. My daughter, without blinking an eye, just asked me if I had seen Hey Baby recently. The fact that this rolled off her tongue so easily sent me howling with laughter, but she wasn’t kidding.

“Really,” she wanted to know, “Where is he these days? Whatever happened to Hey Baby?”

We called him Hey Baby because of how he crooned those words to each female that happened into his presence. To get an idea of how much of a problem this was, take this example:

My husband once told him lightly, “I wouldn’t trust you with my wife.”

Hey Baby’s response? “I wouldn’t trust myself with your wife either.”

Let’s just say that Hey Baby is most definitely blog worthy, even just for his nickname alone. When I asked if my husband had any recent news about Kenny G and Bigfoot, he chuckled about that being worth a blog, but in this case, to protect the innocent, I’ll just stop with that reference.

It’s funny what triggers a blog. Mine are usually inspired by well-timed conversations. There is plenty to write these days, but often I write without publishing it. Some things are just too private or perhaps, I save it to be reworked. I have an article I wrote last year that has expanded and collapsed, been decimated and restructured, and will cycle again through that series of punishments. It may never see the light of day, or if it does, it just might be two short paragraphs for a year’s worth of thought. It’s about the Hooters mothers on the playground one day last year.

Yeah, definitely blog worthy.

Thursday, March 4, 2010

Pink, Puke, and Pedialyte

My son has a stomach bug.

Let’s just say I won’t be eating vegetable soup for a while. Or cherry-flavored Fruit Chillers for that matter. In fact, pink will have taken on a rather unsavory association for quite some time. Yesterday afternoon, Little Man was devastated when his puke was no longer colorful, his system having violently eradicated the vegetable soup for good. We solved that problem with the unwise choice of the Chiller for dinner. He woke twice since that semi-digested meal to explore what pink does on blue sheets, white towels, his mother’s clothes…. And all of upstairs reeked with bittersweet cherry odor.

We bathed the little tyke three times in six hours, and myself once. The third set of sheets is now on his bed, which put me in a tizzy because the first set had not even made it to the dryer when the second set was stripped from the bed. More laundry passed through those machines in a few hours than in the last month. A carpet I had rolled up to donate to Goodwill was an unfortunate victim of spew as well, and I heaved it into the alley by the garbage last night sometime between one spell of his vomit and an ensuing spell of diarrhea.

At one point, I banned my husband to the home office because someone in this house needed to remain well enough to care for the next puker, which I guarantee will be me in 24 hours. He supervised the damage and patiently performed concierge and nurse duties (Ginger ale, please! Bath water, please! Pedialyte, please!) only to decide that tonight just might not be a night for romance. He’d had a surprise, he said. I’m hoping it wasn’t a pink nightgown and cherry-scented bath oil.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010

Barks in Translation

The family dog prances up and down while we pour her food into the bowl each day. She scoots immediately to her dinner dishes, sniffs to make sure her meal is there, looks at us, and calmly walks away. The kibble still rests untouched in the bowl. Why? Why does she do this?

There are some things I cannot understand about the dog, such as why she insists on pooping under the piano at night, or why she pulls paper out of the garbage cans during the day. I have asked her why, but she does not give a reason.

She is our dog, one of our pack, so there are some things that I can translate having spent much time with her the last couple of years. If I come home and she is waiting, she will howl something that sounds much like this: Where have you been? Why were you gone so long? And why did you leave me? And then she will lie down suddenly grudgeless and content, her behind touching the chair of my desk. She can roll her eyes, just like my daughter can, in an expression that reads, “Can you please take the small boy off me?” She has learned to tattle on him, too. She barks at him and then runs to look at me with those large, perfectly blue eyes and says, “Hey, did you see that?” She’ll even sit in on the resulting discipline of my son and smile gently about it. My favorite thing she says is the clear and enthusiastic ROWF in the middle of the day when she says it’s time to play outside. Yes, this ROWF is why we have a dog. We love her and the way she talks to us.

These days, she is an old dog. She heaves her stiff legs and bulky body up the stairs at night and will glance back at whoever is chaperoning her ascent as if to say, “Dude. Why did you put the bed up here?” In her age, she has gained wisdom, and will lie close to us when we need comfort. She cannot tell us how to solve our problems nor can she bring medicine, but she knows her warmth and fuzziness somehow make it all better.

I love this dog, understanding or not. She was my husband’s before she was ours, and I love her for that, too. Considering our often hectic schedules, she is a constant presence, and a soothing one. I cannot imagine life in this house without her. My husband, knowing that we will be lucky to have even another year with this dog, is moved to silence when he strokes her, conveying through the pressure of his moving hand, all his love for her, something that is perfectly understood.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Neighborhood Ninja

Sometimes, I am a bit impulsive. Last night, startled awake by a mysterious squeaky grinding sound, I checked on the children, glanced out the window, and spied an idling car parked in the middle of the street. Bolting out the front door and yelling at the car’s owner as he or she moved up and down the neighbor’s walkway was probably not the wisest idea. I did this without the expected wife-nudge that is supposed to be customary when there is a prowler in the middle of the night. You know what I mean… saying, “Hey, baby,” as you poke your spouse in the back, expecting him to club a stranger and duct tape him into obedience. All the while, the wife drifts back to sleep without so much as calling 911 or moving from the bed at all. No, this is not me.

My poor, patient spouse eased himself downstairs and into reconnaissance mode as I sat, post verbal-assault, twitching in the arm chair by the window. The prowler? Our newspaper delivery lady, who apparently parks in the middle of the street and walks the block to deliver the papers. Looking in the mirror before retiring for the rest of the night, I winced at the sight of me—my hair, bed-matted and spiky, and my robe hanging crookedly about my shoulders.

“Don’t people pitch the papers from the car window anymore?” I asked, as if this would explain my behavior. It doesn’t matter. I am just glad that the paper delivery was not sabotaged by the wild-haired neighborhood ninja.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Coffee Talk

A man at the café heaved himself into the sofa opposite mine, planted his latte squarely in front of him, and then proceeded to load the cup with at least six packets of sugar. I looked at him and without any sense of decorum whatsoever asked, “Did you really just put all that sugar in there? Is that a world record or something?”

When he stopped laughing, he led me into a wonderful conversation about coffee. Just this morning, he said, he’d been to the home of a little old lady who was pouring coffee and balking loudly at his request for milk and sugar in his own cup. She was an old school coffee drinker, he mused. And then he asked about my preference.

I grew up drinking it au lait with sugar, but was not a regular coffee consumer until college when I studied late at night. True to my Louisiana roots, I still prefer a quality coffee. Good strong coffee with chicory, like CDM, and preferably produced in the Holy Grail of all coffee systems: the French press.

My husband brings me a steaming cup of exactly this each morning. He adds a generous portion of half ‘n half and turbinado sugar to his heavily steeped concoction. It’s so filling that I can’t eat breakfast till 10 AM, but I love his coffee so much that I have started to associate my bed with it. Each night, I jump into bed grinning to myself that right here, in about 8 hours, I’ll be sipping a cup of CDM while piled up to my elbows in pillows. This coffee has ruined me for anyone else’s java, including Starbucks. It’s nearly thick enough to serve with a fork. It’s chocolate brown. It beckons with its come-hither fragrance. It is dessert first thing in the morning.

Last year, I had a routine of cleaning the office kitchen as a courtesy for my co-workers before our shift began. One morning, feeling extra nice, I decided to start a pot of java for the employees that were beginning to stream into the office. Mistake. I thought it was just right, but I can still hear my boss: What is this? How much you put in here? It’s oily. I’m pouring it out! He liked his coffee looking and tasting like tea. I glanced at the directions on the canister and showed my boss. One tablespoon per cup, it read. He told me never to put more than four tablespoons in for a full pot (note: twelve employees and a 10 cup pot) and spent the rest of the day joking about my trying to kill him. I decided to slowly accommodate the staff to a stronger brew by adding one extra teaspoon at a time in the hopes that one day the java would not be-- transparent. I don’t think it worked. There were a few of us die-hard full-blooded coffee fans that simply brought in our own anyhow. Everyone else probably regressed gratefully after I left.

Waffle House has coffee that looks yellow when creamer is added. Krispy Kreme and Duncan Donuts both came highly recommended, but really to a coffee connoisseur, isn’t worth the extra miles on the car to go find it. Starbucks char-roasts their beans, which makes a highly acidic black cup to me, but a great latte. A neighbor and I were discussing local brews when she recommended a new place (well, new to me) and I took the kids with me to investigate. This is where we met the aforementioned sugar fiend.

A clerk of indefinite gender and with multiple piercings took my order and his/her co-worker, a white Rastafarian wanna-be, delivered it. Bohemian environment? Maybe. Upper echelon provisions? Definitely. In fact, it was a fork-worthy brew from an $11,000 coffee machine. No kidding. It took the edge off the amused looks and sardonic, “Oh, just take your time,” the clerks gave me when my son began climbing the walls mid-order. It was a wonderful cup of coffee despite the fact that I drank it with one arm attached to my child to keep his fingers out of the foam in my cup. This is a place where no one would complain that they were being served turbo coffee or army coffee, as I have heard others call the family brew. No one here would tell me I could “save money by adding water to this” as I was once waywardly coached by a former in-law. There’s nothing like finding a cup of home when away from home.