Saturday, November 21, 2009

The Order

Scroll down to "The Beads" to begin from the beginning of the NoLa trip.

The Band

I grew up knowing about Preservation Hall. My grandfather, Percy Smith, owned a bazillion records, then a bazillion cds, of rare jazz, blues, swing and big band tunes from every generation. His people, my people, are from Mississippi, and he felt connected to the music on an almost compulsive level. I knew “Dream a Little Dream” before I knew “Row, Row, Row Your Boat.”

So of course, we stopped by Preservation Hall. Right off Bourbon, this small square, wooden bench setting acts as a one room schoolhouse for those about to be taught some real music. On our way to line up for entrance, the rust colored sky broke open, and soaked us with a cold November rain. It was the first sign of weather since our arrival. We ducked under an awning and watched water shoot out of gullies and downspouts, silently imagining what had been. By the time we found our spot on the floor of Preservation Hall, the room smelled like damp basement, cold metal, and German tourists.

We stayed as long as our cold jeans allowed. They played “Petit Fleur” and “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and “St. James Infirmary.” The drummer spent the 60’s and 70’s in Ray Charles’s band, the trombonist kept pretending to knock the front row squatters in the head, and the bassist worked with his eyes closed. The clarinet player’s cheeks puffed like a puffer fish, then flattened out, showing layers of intricate muscles. The lead for the night, a kid named Mark somebody, spoke with reverence and humility, and played trumpet with power and speed.

It whet our appetites enough that the next night we decided to go track down the next generation of New Orleans musicians. On a tip, we headed out to Frenchman Street, behind the French Market. We found a little dive called the Spotted Cat, and walked into the year 1928. A slender brunette and her loose tie wearing partner waved and swung and kicked and swirled around a tiny little space on the concrete floor, while a five piece band played fast and loose with swing tunes. The lead singer snapped her suspenders on her slim frame; when she threw her head back to belt out a note, you could see tattoos covering her torso. More and more souls wandered in the open bar door. A jaded bartender flung beers at patrons while hiking up her strapless bra. “These things are a bitch,” she said. No one in the room (minus us) appeared over 30 years old.

When my grandfather lived, he loved to buy me music. One of his favorite gifts to me was a copy of the first Squirrel Nut Zippers cd. Because I was in this town, and because I miss Percy, I asked Husband to go over to the trombonist and request a song from that album. He looked at me with those “don’t get sappy on me” eyes, and walked over to the edge of the platform. I saw the trombonist lean close to listen, then lean back and laugh. I saw him come in to Husband and say something, and then Husband leaned back and laughed.

“Wisconsin Trade Federation?” I asked when Husband returned.
“He won’t play that song,” said my love. “He said he only plays that song with his other band.”
Okay, I said “What’s his other band?”
“The Squirrel Nut Zippers,” he said.

Oh, Percy, I thought. Glad you could join us.

The Eye

Our hotel in the Quarter meant we spent a fair amount of time walking up and down Bourbon Street. Barkers yell beer prices for something called a “Big Ass Beer,” goosepimply underage girls saunter back and forth in front of the nudie clubs, and tattooed women encourage you to share what I called “swine flu shots.” They have these little test tubes of neon colored liquids that are supposed to be liquor shots. A shot girl will find a willing victim, usually an underage and wide-eyed boy, and stick the closed end of the tube in her mouth. He’ll suck on the other end, drinking the shot, until their lips touch. For this pleasure he pays $3, and she pays in future years of regret and self-loathing.

The guy who ran into me probably had a few swine flu shots. As I stepped down off the sidewalk, a much taller individual in the usual frat-boy uniform of untucked button-down shirt with jeans lost his equilibrium. Several things happened at once. The full weight of his shoulder cracked into my eye cavity. I yelled and covered my face. Husband grabbed dude’s elbow and held him up with a death grip, and the two cops standing not two feet away yelled “Hey!” and took their hands out of their jacket pockets.

When I looked up, I looked directly into dude’s face. His eyes wandered around in his head, completely unable to focus. The only thing holding him upright was Husband’s death grip, but he held dude out the side a little bit, like you’d hold an unwanted varmit, while he focused his attention on my poor little eye. Dude was a lost cause—he didn’t know what he’d done and might not remember it until several days later, when he was brushed with a faint sense of guilt and he couldn’t identify the five dots of deep bruising on his right elbow. I pulled Husband away and left Dude to mumble at the cops.

For the rest of our visit, my eye continued to bloom with various shades of red and purples, a crescent-shaped smudge matching the crescent of the Mississippi that so bruised New Orleans. I felt kinda like a bad ass, really, and we made up a few stories whenever anyone asked. On the levee one morning, eating beignets and drinking café au lait from Café du Monde, a trio of polyester pantsuits asked us to take their picture, which Husband did. “And can we return the favor for you two?” asked one of the women. Then she looked at me again, double-take on the eye. “No thanks,” I said, “we don’t want any evidence out there.” They hurried on while Husband giggled at my outright lying meanness.

The Rose

Without industrial waste sites festering all around Rome like underground bowls of fermenting fruit, Husband and I would not have been sitting in the oldest bar in the nation on Monday, sipping on Class 5 Hurricanes and acting as counsel to a young, Matt Damon-esque bartender with personal issues.

(This year, New Orleans hosted the government-sponsored Brownfields conference. For him, this annual gig means several workshops over several days on how to clean up and move on after someone knocks over a big glass of crap on your city. For me, it means a petite getaway with the man of my dreams, plus a few hours to myself during daylight hours. For the kids, it means a chance to spend some quality time with their grandparents.)

The pirate bar, as we call it, is actually a former Blacksmith shop run by the in/famous pirate/politician Jean Lafitte. When I say “former,” I mean like as in 1770’s “former.” On the corner of Bourbon past the “gay block,” as one local put it, the place looks as low and sagging as a round Hobbit house. The copper-topped bar covers dark, oil shined wood. All around the walls behind the bar, nooks and niches hold bottles of Jameson or Bombay Sapphire, Cuervo varieties and gazillons of flavors of Vodka. The original blacksmith fire pit makes a little sitting spot in the center of the bar, and on this night, a group of couples leaned in around the pit and yelled at each other over the din of music and bar chatter. A baby slept in a stroller next to one of the women, who kept one hand draped over the baby’s stocking foot.

Husband used to tend bar. He watched Matt Damon try to tuck a bottle of Dewar’s back into its place in a triple-stacked line along one wall of the tiny bar. “That’s got to get old,” he said to Matt. “Yeah,” says Matt. “You should see how we have to get the kegs back here. I told my uncle every one of us has back problems now, but the old man won’t spring for a longer line or a handtruck.”

Turns out Matt’s uncle owns the bar. Matt’s sister is the sole cocktail waitress, and their best friend/roommate also tends there. They live across the river, near Gretna. When we asked them where they went to school, they said “Gretna High.” That seems to be as much school as school gets. We dropped the subject. Husband asked about another drink, and Matt cocked his head at us. “Have you had a Hurricane yet? Let me make you a real one. I’m going to take care of you, sir. I’m going to take care of you.”

Rather than tip in the cheap well brand of rum, Matt loaded up Husband’s glass with Bacardi 151, a faint dash of sweet red mix, crushed ice and sliced oranges and cherries. He set it on the bar in front of us. “That’s done right,” he said. (Apparently it was done right, because later that night Husband got the idea that he could move people off the sidewalk and out of our way using telepathy.)

Matt’s little sister made her rounds between tables inside and out in the little courtyard, then back to a dim piano bar in the hull of the place. (About the piano bar, there was a moment with a biker dude and singing priest, but I’ll save that story for later). The sister and Matt spoke in hand gestures and nods, most of which seemed to center around the theme that she did not do her fair share of work around the place. At one point Matt asked her to go get a bucket of ice, and she stuck out her lower lip at him. Just then, an old black man appeared at Matt’s sister’s side holding a red garden rose. She smiled and crinkled her nose at Matt, and Matt rolled his eyes. “Hey Smooth,” he said.

“Whatchu need fuh me to do?” said Smooth. Matt’s sister asked him to get the bucket of ice, and he handed her the rose and shuffled off to do it. “That’s Smooth,” smiled the sister, before turning to take a tray of beers to the couples at the pit. “He brings me a red rose every night.”

Smooth looked like a sixty year old man living in the body of an eighty year old. Deep gullies ran down both cheeks, and he leaned to one side like he’d been thrown into a wall and never quite straightened up. Matt told us he served many years in the state pen. They don’t know what he did—he won’t talk about it. Because he was so good at showing up at the most advantageous times, he earned his nickname. After release, he went to work as a bodyguard for one of the sheriff’s deputies, and if you have to ask why a lawman needs a bodyguard you’ve never been to the Big Easy.

I looked up from my own drink to see Smooth nod at me, then turn and walk away. I forgot about it until we were almost ready to leave. I turned on my creaky, rusted barstool to find myself face to face with Smooth holding a pale white garden rose. The stem curved, with two long thorns, and an unopened bud branched away from the full bloom of the fragrant flower. “I brung you one, too,” said Smooth. “But I brung you a white one, cause you’s married.” I kissed his wrinkled cheek, and he chuckled and shuffled away.

“Yeah,” said Matt. “That’s why they call him Smooth.”

The Beads

She looks good, the old girl. We cross the Pontchartrain Causeway into Canal Street, fretting a bit, feeling like kids come to visit an old aunt in the nursing home—will she look unwell? Will she be unkempt or confused? Will she remember us? But by the end of our visit, Husband and I settled on the belief that on the surface, New Orleans seems okay. No fresh wounds, and she’s done well to cover her scars. Below the shiny plastic surface, however, is a whole ‘nuther story.

On the balcony overlooking Bourbon Street, we ate oyster po’boys at Johnny White’s and watched the second half of the UGA game. Husband watched the TV. I peeked over the edge of the wrought-iron balcony, ogling the clusters strollers below. If you visited even before Katrina, you know Bourbon Street long ago shifted away from the historic jazz-and-blues nightclub format that made it famous. Now it has all the charm of a frat house bathroom: drunk blondes, cheap porn and lots sticky fluids.

Still, I love to watch people. Even on a Saturday night in the middle of November, middle aged women seemed willing to forgo dignity in favor of a set of plastic beads. I sipped my beer and watched an older woman in stiletto boots wobble along the center of the street, gripping her beau’s arm. He wore a mullet and white jeans. They walked with their heads tilted back, scanning the balconies for permission for what they seemed to come here determined to do anyway. As soon as someone hollered at her, as if calling on an eager pupil, she popped up her top to reveal her goodies. After some modest yelling, someone tossed down some beads. The couple continued their evening stroll, and I turned to Husband. “I don’t want any beads the whole time we are here, okay?” I said to the side of his face. “Mm,” he said.

Monday, October 26, 2009

A Legacy of Bailing

We met in a bar named after one of the snarkiest authors still occasionally banned by marauding groups of public library picketers. Twains, in downtown Decatur, hosted the first night of our class’s twentieth year recognition that despite our occasional efforts to the contrary, we did, in fact, graduate from high school. We left Decatur High School, but as you know, dear reader, reunions find a way to remind that some of high school still hasn’t left us. Over the weekend, I found myself visiting with various ghosts of myself: the girl with the weird conversation topics, the girl who takes advantage of her parents, the girl with no curfew, and the girl who picks the cute guy on the couch rather than a night out with friends.

Since conversational stall-outs comprise my special brand of social ineptitude, I brought along a bag of tricks to Twain’s bar and brew pub to rev chatter whenever needed. Anything to avoid the “so…um…how have you been,” routine. I dragged out my senior yearbook from a box in the attic. Husband had to come, of course, because he generally excels at banter and has been known to keep it going, single-handedly, for hours. Just in case, I also decided to drag out both sons as some of my favorite conversational props. And, for insurance, I invited my parents. Plus my sister. And her husband.

This worked well. We took up a table for eight, creating our own party no matter who else turned up. My family dispersed through the crowd like kindly deflector shields, absorbing most of my awkwardness and spinning it off into the dark corners of the bar. The night progressed, sister and her husband took the boys home for bed, and Mom and Dad offered to be our designated driving team. I no longer depended on my human props, as copious microbrews convinced me of my wit and grace.

We told all your high school stories, dear reader. You know, the one about the accident, or when the party got busted by the cops, or when she dated him or he dumped her. We told the one about the cheating incident, or when Mr. so-and-so got fresh, or when you drove your parent’s car as fast as you could up and down that cut-through street in order to destroy the senior float and now you feel a stab of guilt whenever you pass drifts of white paper trash along the side of the road. Okay, maybe we didn’t tell that one.

At some point someone ordered shots in flavors circa 1987. My dad passed along the message that he’d be asleep in the car. It was time to go home, but hey—I really enjoyed the evening.

Which made the next day that much harder. I woke up feeling thick-tongued and dizzy—that was to be expected. But I also woke up feeling like in general, I was done; I felt even more alienated and distant from my high school persona, like a picture of yourself you don’t remember being taken.

Another event loomed for that night—another night in a bar in downtown Decatur, this one formerly owned by a perverse, obese restaurant owner who chastised me for wearing loose jeans while serving his lonely, perverse customers back in the 90's. It all seemed like too much—too much of me, too many different me’s, all in one place, vying for my limited attention.

Curled up on the couch under an old family quilt, I polled the family for guidance. To stay in, comfortable in my 38-year-old skin, wearing my sweats and comfy bra? Or to go, try another night of social skills, and put on the push-up deal? They tried various angles. My sister, always the belle of the ball, thought I should go early and do the just-staying-a-minute routine. My mother thought I might should go later so I could enjoy dinner with the family first. Dad, ever the realist, pointed out that no matter which option I choose I would regret my decision. So helpful.

“Well, what would you have done in high school?” asked my astute brother-in-law. “If this is to be a true reunion experience, you should act now as you did then.”

Of course. Perfect, I thought. I pulled the warm quilt up over my shoulders and snuggled in closer to Husband on the couch.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Tired of Waiting?

Wander over to the food blog. Think of it as hold music, while you wait for me to get my thoughts together.

Driving, this would be the part where you fall asleep for half the state of Tennessee and I keep myself alert by singing songs from The Muppet Show. In my head.

You'll wake up soon. Then we'll talk.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Bitch One and Bitch Two

Joey started by asking his passengers if we had kayaking experience. Mary and I raised our hands. So did Bitch One and Bitch Two. He asked about kayaking at night. The two blonde college girls raised their hands again. We did not. Joey nodded, issuing a little warning about how different this might be, kayaking at night, in the ocean, through mangrove channels, in a tandem kayak. “The most important part is to listen to your partner,” he warned. “Paddle right. Paddle left. Listen.”

The tour van shuddered and twitched along the road from San Juan to Fajardo, where our crew would meet up with tour guides for a night kayaking trip to a lagoon filled with bioluminescent creatures. Mary and I talked about this possibility before we left Rome, and we caught the only available tour on the spur of the moment and with about ten minutes to spare. Spontaneity is the soul of good travel.

In Fajardo, we all climbed out of the van. Bitch One and Bitch Two, two sisters from Jacksonville, Florida, came to experience the glowing plankton with their little brother, a high school kid, and their father, Chuck. Mom stayed back at the hotel to rest up. Apparently she still felt woozy from leaving her iPhone in the back of a cab on their first day of the trip. “We called her number over and over, but the guy never answered to bring it back!” lamented Chuck. Imagine. Along with the Jacksonvillians, we met a pair of spunky older women from Houston, one named Peggy and one named Sue. I could not keep them straight. I called them Peggy Sue. Who wouldn’t?

Joey described the drop-off point at the beach in Fajardo as a national park area, restricted to public use in order to protect the little dinoflagellates spinning and shining in the water. The beach looked the same as any other beach: same fried food vendors, same groups of families, same deteriorating public bathrooms. Along the rocks by the shoreline, rows of tandem kayaks rocked in the surf. We let ourselves be strapped into life vests, and a guide named Kevin called everyone together for instructions.

He paired us up, making sure everyone had a partner. He looked at Peggy Sue. “Are you both okay going as a team, or would you each prefer your own guide?” he asked. Kevin looked maybe twenty, eager, sweet, but perhaps a little naive as to the attitudes of Texan women in their sixties. “What is THAT supposed to mean?!” Peggy/Sue retorted, one hand gripping her kayak paddle. “Do you think we are LESS CAPABLE, Kevin? Do you think we can’t do it because of our age? Huh? Why don’t you ask some of them if they want to go with a guide? Huh? Huh?” The crowd laughed nervous ha-ha-ha’s. Kevin started saying “No no no nononono” with Puerto Rican speed. Another guide said to Peggy/Sue “You’ve got the paddle, ma’am, whack him!” I momentarily pictured our kayaking trip being delayed by a riot of tourists in life vests pummeling a young Puerto Rican biologist for his ageist comments. Instead Peggy/Sue held her paddle aloft and screamed “Girl Power!!” Tension: diffused.

Bitch One and Bitch Two rolled their eyes and checked their fingernails.

Once in the kayak, Mary and I took about two minutes to figure out that game. Perhaps on some level, as travel partners, we had already formed some sort of telepathic bond when it came to Paddle Left, Paddle Right. Regardless, we were silent and swift and probably ready for Olympic kayaking competition. Other boats spun in circles across the ocean waves, smacking into docked boats or each other. Dusk turned sky and sea a milky blue.

As we made our way into the mangroves, the sound of the surf faded like someone had closed the door to the sea. Over the swish of paddles moving water and the startled squeaks and crunches from some other boat running into the mangroves (never ours--okay, maybe ours once or twice), we heard Bitch One and Bitch Two.

“Oh my GOD! Quit paddling! What the hell are you doing?! That guy ran into me! What an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD, sir, YOU are an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD! I can’t believe you just called that guy an ASSHOLE! Oh my GOD, I SO don’t care! This trip is SO LAME! Why are you paddling on the LEFT?! Paddle on the RIGHT, you IDIOT! Don’t CALL me NAMES, it’s NOT my FAULT, it’s that ASSHOLE! AND it’s DARK! I CAN’T SEE!!”

Without ceasing.

And these are the two who raised their hands regarding kayaking experience. Meanwhile, Mary and I paddled as fast as we could to get away from the girls, the asshole, the screaming, whatever cloud hovering back there turning the experience murky and dark.

Have you ever seen moonlight through a mangrove landscape? Imagine Picasso’s blue period, Van Gogh’s Starry Night, and a midnight voodoo ceremony with stark white bones. Mangrove arms draped down to brush the top of the black water; the moon sat on the top of the trees, except where it spilled in rings around the curve of the paddle. Every shift of the channel felt like farther into some Conradian heart of darkness, our eyes adjusted to this new shade of night, and then....everything opened up. We reached the lagoon.

My only reference for lagoons is the 1980’s movie with that effeminate looking guy who made most preteen girls envy Brook Shields for being the one to teach him how to talk. Blue Lagoon.

We saw no sign of Brooke. The water shimmered with surface light from the moon and a lighthouse in the distance, but this was supposed to be the bioluminescent bay. The water was supposed to shimmer with light from below.

One stroke later, it did. Our fellow kayakers discovered this almost simultaneously, and a soft chorus of “ooo’s” and “aahs” rippled across the water. With one stroke, a million bazillion little pinpoints of blue light vibrated underwater. Mary and I dipped in our hands, wiggled our fingers, stroked back and forth. The blue lights shivered and danced underwater. These are living creatures, little bitty plankton, and generally what kayakers do is annoy the heck out of them. Our fascinated strokes and splashes set them aglow with aggravation. It was delightful. It made us giggle. It made everyone giggle, except you know who.

In the van on the way back to San Juan, Joey asked everyone about their trip. He asked if we had trouble maneuvering, if we had listened to each other and figured out a rhythm for paddling. Immediately, Bitch One and Bitch Two set in. “It was TOO HOT! BUGS kept BITING me! It was TOO SHORT! We couldn’t stay with the glowy stuff as long as we WANTED! It was TOO EXPENSIVE!” These two were like Goldilocks if she never found any of the “just right.”

Mary and I smiled at each other in the back seat of the van. “Well,” said Mary, “I thought it was FABULOUS! I would GO AGAIN!” I said “SO would I. It was AMAZING.”

The girls took out their iPhones and started texting away. They weren’t listening.

Advice for Going Out at Night in Puerto Rico

—Check your bank balance first. This will be expensive.

—If you head towards Old San Juan, wear flats. Seeing other women jam their spiked heels into the old cobblestone streets is quite entertaining, but not something you want to try yourself.

—Order mixed drinks with caution. Some bars get a bit too creative with the “mixed” and toss in some extra stuff just to stretch the bottle.

—Watch out for the guy with the parrots.

—Plan on music selections from the Allman Brothers to Justin Timberlake. Do not expect anything remotely Puerto Rican. Or even Spanish. Or even Latin.

—If you want to run with “La Gente Linda,” the beautiful people, head for the strip of bars and restaurants in Condado.

—But wear a scarf. Tall buildings=wind tunnel.

—If the mayor of San Juan bumps your table, don’t expect him to apologize. Don’t look at his security detail with a look of disgust that says ‘did you see that guy?’ They saw him. They’re watching you, too, buddy.

—Let go of the concept of a jigger or shot glass as a measuring device for alcohol. Bartenders go more by color. If the drink is slightly clear (tequila) with a bare hint of green, it counts as a margarita.

--Take an escort, just in case you have more than one margarita.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

La Comida

Sometimes I crave an ambience more than a cuisine. When someone asks me what I want to eat, I have trouble naming a particular food but I can describe perfectly the setting I want to surround it. On the rare occasions when Husband and I decide to venture out of our own house for a date night, he’ll ask me what I want for dinner. “I don’t know,” I’ll answer, “but I know I want it on a white tablecloth that blows slightly in the breeze of an outdoor café with hanging baskets of pink flowers and a view overlooking a cottage garden.” He’ll respond with “I’m in the mood for Chinese.”

Every meal we ate in Puerto Rico satisfied my hunger for aesthetics as well as nourishment. After Uncle picked us up from the airport and shuffled through traffic to home, he sat us at the kitchen counter and served us bowls of silky white bean soup, habichuelas. We needed that simple dish to help settle us in while we simmered with excitement and plans for the week.

Language also plays a big part of our food experience; I love the way some dishes have the perfect names for what they are. Think “steak.” Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, utilitarian. Steak. This follows in other languages, and one of my all-time favorite dishes prepared by our Puerto Rican family epitomizes this trait: Papas a la Huancaina. Say it with me. Papas. A. La. Wan—ki—EEE—na. Now say it fast: papasalawankieena. It sounds like fun, right? Something based in comfort, yet playful, full of unexpected ingredients or little surprises, right? Exactly. Originally a Peruvian dish, my Puerto Rican family introduced us to this potatoes and cheese sauce creation years ago. Pillowy lumps of mashed potatoes sit on a bright bed of Romaine lettuce leaves. A turmeric-rich, golden cheese sauce coats the dumplings and whole olives get tucked into niches and edges. That hit of vinegar and salt deepens the richness of the sauce.

Uncle made this for us, as we begged him too, as we always do. He halved hard-boiled eggs and placed them like students in neat rows. Dairy, protein, carbohydrate, vegetable. Done. And once the name gets stuck in your head, you’ll hear it like a music lyric all day long: PapasalaHuancaIna, papasalahuancaina, papas, papas, papasalahuancaIna.

My cousin Cynthia cooks like I do: gladly. We both enjoy eating, but we love the cooking part just slightly more. With young children still at home, Cynthia measures out her day according to meals. Mary and I reaped the benefit of this, spending time watching her fry tostones and bake chicken and hold the baby and answer our questions in English while answering her daughter’s questions in Spanish and wipe up the water on the floor with one foot on a paper towel all while looking beautiful. You know: motherhood. She pan-fried pork chops marinated in ginger with limes, picked from the tree in their yard. On the day we went kayaking (story comes later), she fixed us canoes—baked whole plantains stuffed with a rich beef filling and topped with melty cheese. Mary and I returned salty and sticky, bug-bitten and exhilarated, and stood at the counter telling our stories and eating canoes.

The day we made it to Naguabo, we ate lunch at a little stand on the side of the road. They call it a boardwalk, but it isn’t really that. It’s more of a hodgepodge of scraps of wood and metal, layers of plastic sheeting, bungee cords and two of the most important elements: a bar and a deep fat fryer. These pop up along most of the beach areas—the one in Luquillo beach stretches for a quarter mile and offers coco frio. (Green coconuts kept in a fridge, then brought out to have their ends chopped off with a machete. Stick a straw in to sip out the rich milk then use the straw to carve out soft tubes of white coconut meat. I watched the machete part and missed Husband).

As we pulled into the strip in Naguabo the sky started to turn a shade of lavender, and the stray dogs moved from their spots in the middle of the street to flop under tables and benches lining the beach. The snack stand/bar smelled of fried things, seawater, beer, cigarettes, hot sauce, old wood, hot metal, aftershave. Perfect. Uncle ordered us plates of fried whole red grouper, beans and rice, doughy pockets of crab and shrimp, sweet strips of fried ripe plantains, and cold beers. As we picked apart our fish, pulling out flaky sheets of white meat, the sky opened up and tucked us into that cozy atmosphere of being dry when the world is wet.

Back home, Mary and I call each other with frantic questions. “What was in that sauce again, do you remember?” “I think it was….bay? Was it bay or oregano?” We know we can both turn to the internet for help, Googling various dish names and sight-reading recipes like music—does it have enough garlic? Does it seem too heavy with the tomato? Finding the recipe, the nuts and bolts, the basic instructions for how to season and fry a fish like the red grouper we ate in Naguabo—that I can do. Where are the instructions for conjuring up rain hammering a tin roof awning, the worn wood of a picnic bench, a puppy curled up sleeping under a barstool? I want the recipe for a white skiff anchored offshore, nodding to the ocean as it rocks in the surf.

Friday, August 7, 2009

(Brief Interlude)

Happy Anniversary Husband!

Hill? Check. Coyotes? Check.
Just waiting on the time.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Where Did They Put That Road?

My uncle fell in love with a Puerto Rican woman. After shuffling around the globe with his missionary parents for eighteen or so years, he dug his feet into Puerto Rican sand and committed his life to her. He calls himself a gringo still, but I can’t tell what singles him out among Puerto Rican men his age. He has the same olive skin, the same gentle weathering of his features, the same penchant for hyperbole in his stories, pronouncements and warnings.

One day he took us driving. Locals call this ‘going to the island,’ as the city of San Juan feels too metropolitan and global to be of the same geography. We began with a stitch through the right half of the island, wrapping around the central mountain range toward Juncos. Flamboyan trees waved us along with their spiky red and orange feathery boas. Some sort of purply-pink flower competed for attention. Uncle knew exactly where he wanted to take us, but he could not remember exactly which way to go to get there. Mary and I shared a thrilled look that said “oh goody, we might get lost!”

We dropped down from the mountains and skimmed through little towns. As the asphalt curved and dipped, we tunneled through a tree canopy and caught only brief glimpses of pasture on the other side. Humble country houses in pinks and greens sat along the edge of the road reminded me of old women in housedresses waiting for a bus into town. I sat in the back seat snapping pictures, trying to catch that sense of motion and privilege that comes from letting someone else drive. My eyes blurred; I watched the greens, pinks, reds, yellows flash by the open window like an old movie backdrop replaying the same footage over and over, trying to make it look like the actors were headed somewhere.

We planned to stop in Naguabo for lunch. Naguabo, the town, pulls itself up the edge of the hillside like a girl trying not to get her skirt wet. One side drops down, however, and lands right in the surf. This means they have good fried seafoody things. We were on a hunt for good fried things to eat. Uncle turned right and left trying to pick up the right thread of a road; I watched more scenery, Mary told stories of family back in the States. We passed through the sweet kiss of an afternoon downpour, and rolled up the windows. The rain stopped and we rolled them back down. The air smelled like lime popsicles as the tree canopy disappeared and we reached the peak of the mountain. Below, the surf.

Back in the car, we found Naguabo the same way one comes into Summerville: suddenly, and without fanfare. It’s an “Oh. Here we are.” Not an “Yeah! We made it!” The town looked like a cluster of painted cinderblocks piled at precarious angles, and chickens jutted back and forth across the road. We were in Naguabo, but we had not found the beach. Uncle pulled over to ask directions from a guy walking down center of the street. In his lilting, perfect Spanish he asked the guy if there were still places to get fried things on the beach. “Yes, yes,” said the guy, “just go down here, take a right….” etc. All in English. Even in this tiny town, where chickens own the streets, a native speaker recognized a Gringo and decided to test out his own half-decent English, even after that Gringo had given the island most of his meaty years and it had taken the love of his life. He knew he would never be seen as Puertorriqueño; others knew it, but his nieces just could not see it. He just seems to belong.

Uncle found the spot with the fried things. I can’t wait to tell you about it, dear reader, but that gets into a discussion about food, which deserves its own entry. Tomorrow, then. Tomorrow I’ll tell about food.

From the Enchanted Land to La Isla del Encanto

On the ride from the airport in San Juan to my uncle’s house in Condado, Puerto Rico, cars swirled around us on the highway like determined gnats. I noticed a lack of license tags promoting one cause or another. I found that refreshing; the stateside fascination with promoting love of cats or dolphins or the teacher’s union via an additional two bucks on the tag fee really has gotten out of hand. On the island, the majority of license tags offer identical dingy white backgrounds, identifying numbers, and the pertinent information: Puerto Rico, Isla Del Encanto. Puerto Rico. Island of Enchantment.

I live in Floyd County, I thought, as a taxi swerved across three lanes of traffic to turn left in front of us. Floyd County calls itself “The Enchanted Land.” I do not bring this up for the purpose of comparison; one does not compare tropical island vs. Northwest Georgia. But the coincidence flashed through my mind, along with brief snippets of my childhood, as we whizzed through another risky intersection. My cousin Mary and I, both currently residing in the land of seven hills, three rivers, two sushi restaurants and a host of loose cannons, flew down for a week-long vacation at the home of our very generous cousins. We went without an agenda, other than to spend some time on the beach cooking from light biscuit to golden pie crust. We wanted to spend some time getting to know our cousins’ lives and loves. We wanted to explore, get lost, drink something cold and eat spicy food. I loosened my grip on the car door, leaned my head back on the seat and got ready to be enchanted.

It did not take long.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

Just Because You Can....

Name the last time you used the word “alacrity” in conversation, dear reader.
How about “supercilious”?
What about “staycation”? “Frenemy?”

As I type these last two, a little red worm burrows under the neat Times font on my computer screen. Little does my outdated laptop know, staycation and frenemy were both recently added to the Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, and I did spell them correctly. The Collegiate Dictionary used to separate itself from Webster’s Regular Dictionary by being chock full of words you needed to know to get into college. Now it is chock full of words college kids made up.

Of course, language adapts. Especially in our electronic society, word meanings shift and change with all the fluidity of a bumper car ride; I have explained “gay,” aka homosexual, to my grandparents, and “gay,” happy, delighted, bright, to my kids. Our tendency in recent years has been to imbue our language first with made-up words or phrases, use them for a while, then remake them with a sense of bitter irony or distain. “OMG” may have been clever text when first used; now it represents a self-deprecating, false or sarcastic enthusiasm.

This makes me doubt the staying power of “staycation.”

The head honcho guy at Webster’s, or at least the guy speaking to news outlets, claimed that certain words gained such widespread use in recent years they could not be ignored. Crocs sandals gained widespread use in recent years, too, and a dedicated band of us continue to ignore them. I bet you even money dear reader that within a few years Crocs will be synonymous with the Termites sandals craze of the 1980’s. Good riddance. (Even though Termites were very sexy for a 6th grader who wasn’t even allowed to wear lip gloss).

Words are not shoes. My question runs thusly: If we’re going to be making up words and tossing them into bona-fide dictionaries, can we come up with something a little less lazy than “staycation”? Most of the new words added consist of two perfectly fine if somewhat ordinary words brutally torn asunder, then jammed back together and sent out into the world like a soulless monstrosity. Words like “vlog” and “webisode” demonstrate our disturbing lack of collective creativity. Rather than digging a little deeper for some royal nugget of English’s French or Spanish roots, some buried gem of Latin syllable to polish up and refine to say exactly what we mean it to say, we pick up a few stray easy bits right off the top of our language. We’re cannibalizing what little vocabulary we use.

For a few months, the words wander through popular culture, showing up on “The Colbert Report,” in status updates for Facebook, and then, eventually, making their way into “real” media like “even the New York Times,” according to the eager Webster’s guy. If their plan is to continue to rate that paper as a pinnacle of proper language use, perhaps they should stop feeding it zombie-like versions of hybridized words. Some may say I’m too sensitive on the subject; that in fact, this is just part of the “green collar” culture (another added term) and does a fair job of reusing and recycling; words are renewable resources.

No. I prefer to see this doctoring of our words as short-sighted. Call it “Frankencabulary.”

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Remember family vacations of your youth? They began at an hour so early it could not be defined by clock time; it was still-dark, still-cool, damp-grass early. Dad paced in the driveway waiting for everyone to climb into the packed car so he could fly out of the city before a horde of other vacationers flocked like Nazgul to the highways. In our Dodge station wagon, the “way back” could be a place of privilege or exile, depending on the mood of driver. We used the open trunk bed as a bunk or a fort, a picnic spot for our Happy Meals, and a control tower for any trucker in our sight line on the highway, pumping our arms for a honk or pretending to talk on cb radios to warn the Bandit away from Smokey. All the while, Dad drove.

Twenty years later, seatbelts, i-pods and cup holders for each passenger ease some of the risks and boredom of long car trips. But the anticipation, the general discontent, the leg cramps and the group phenomenon of spontaneous punchiness remain. One other difference between the past and our recent trip up to Maryland for a cousin’s wedding: this time, the kids did most of the driving.

Husband and I, my sister and brother-in-law took turns shuffling between cars and zoning out behind the wheel while counting mile markers up and then back down I-85. Of course the wedding was beautiful, the bride delightful, the weather pleasant, yada yada yada. We met up with extending family and dominated the lobby of a Hampton Inn, playing Settlers of Catan and various card games under the blue glow of a perpetual lobby TV. At some point someone said “Oh, Sarah Palin just quit.” Then it was someone else’s turn to deal. We were in the family vacation bubble. News of the world just seemed far away, and minor. Making sure everyone had the right wedding clothes (one of mine forgot his, of course, good grief, kids these days, etc.) seemed much more pressing than the whims of Our Lady of Wasilla.

On the way home, driving again, the rest of the minivan napped as I tried to make time through North Carolina. As one gets older, I’ve noticed, one begins to appreciate sleep. Sleep becomes an event. One even reminiscences on great naps of the past (that one time on the back porch) or plans how to maximize a sleep experience in the future (I’m going to try tonight with some white noise in the background). As a kid, sleep was just something that happened to you, uncontrollably, and not fully with your consent.

But naps in the car while Dad drove were some of the best naps ever. That little bubble of safety, your family all within arm’s length, your sister’s head nodding gently on your shoulder. Leaning on a pillow propped on the vibrating car door, each exhale made a little cone of haze on the window. On this trip, I checked the rear view mirror more than a few times, keeping an eye out for Smokey and watching my parents sleep as I drove them home.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Bits & Pieces

If you are new to the blog: Welcome! Scroll down for the first days of the trip, or use the navigation bar on river right.

Check back throughout the week for more pictures! And, if you paddled, send a comment with what you'd do different next year. I want to compile a list. For example, I'd pack more sunscreen, ziploc bags and my own jar of sunbutter for lunches.

Working River: Day After

One week ago 300 people settled their bums down into kayaks and canoes, shoved off from our put-in point in Ellijay, and tossed and bumped along the smooth rocks of the Coosawattee at the beginning of our 92+ mile journey. New paddlers, experienced river rats, lean bodies and chubby buddies, teachers, mechanics, fishermen—people of all sizes, shapes and personal hygiene standards spun out onto the water with the common goal of communing with the rivers. This morning I write from my usual spot in my sunroom, overlooking a very crispy flower bed. My garden and I both miss the water.

The personality of the rivers change from Ellijay to Rome, just as the personalities of our companions changed over the course of the week. The first day found people focused, fast, with a tinge of wariness. The Class II rapids along that section demand attention, and since this was our first day together people were concerned about embarrassing themselves or holding up the group. I know I felt that way. By the end of the run, paddlers leaned back a little in their boats, relaxed with the fast day behind them and miles of beautiful water ahead. We passed palatial spreads and vacation rental property, decks with hanging baskets overlooking the cool, quick water.

The Oostanala River coming into Rome works hard. As the bed widens, the banks grow steep and muddy. Cows blink lazy eyes and the sight of sunburned paddlers munching on potato chips. Blonde fronds of corn silk wave from just beyond the tree line along the river, and farmers run belching generators to pipe the Oostanaula up onto their crops. No more cedar decks cantilever out over the water for summer cocktail parties; instead, bare patches in the river cane offer spots for cinderblocks, a rusty pole, and an orange line down into the water. After a day of splashing, picnicking, Father’s Day fun on Carters Lake, the river gets to work.

This delineation between vacation river and working river surprised me the most on this trip. (Besides the condition of the girls’ locker rooms at Armuchee High School. Poor girls! Where is Title 9 when you need it? Any girl playing any sport for the Indians deserves extra cheers for where she has to rinse off after practice.) I overheard complaints about the rivers from others in our brigade; paddlers unfamiliar with the Rome area. Why can’t you see the bottom of the river, one paddler asked Husband, and does it ever clear up? No, Husband replied. But sometimes it gets worse.

For all her muddy waters, the Oostanaula is still a beautiful river. I think of her as possessing great character, and when you do take a dip (because it is perfectly safe to do so, fellow Romans), you come out sparkling with bits of mica and quartz silt like you’ve been dipped in gold. Gar still flop along the mouth of Armuchee Creek, and turtles stack like pancakes along the smooth limbs of driftwood logs. The river could be cleaner, yes, but generally she’s a healthy old girl. And as Husband and I sat on the bank in Heritage Park last night, our fingers greasy with fried catfish and our shoulders warm with late afternoon sun, we watched her flow by without her 300 recent fans. As good as it feels to be home, I think I could get back in the boat today and paddle a little farther, just to see what’s around the next bend of the Coosa. Leader Joe always says you never step in the same river twice. And isn’t that the best part?

Friday, June 26, 2009

Off River: Day the Last

Fried catfish. Hot sun. Long week. Now I'm home, and you or your loved ones may be home as well.

Look for a wrap-up Paddle Georgia blog coming after I've got my boys back and a cup of coffee at my home computer in the morning. I will miss our coffee guy, though. And will I still wake up at 5:30 am, do you think?

In the meantime, listen to a quick snippet of Husband & I giggling like kids from our day at Armuchee High School. Go to about minute 16 or so.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Pictures by Joe Cook

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Scroll down for today's words.

Next Generation Paddlers: Day 28 or so

Housekeeping: Dear Reader, I wanted to give you an entire slide show of pictures but Husband's computer won't let me. Here are a few, a taste, a tease. I'll send more on Saturday morning, from the air-conditioned comfort of my own home!

Here at summer camp for grown-ups, certain times of the day find the residents a bit edgy and irritable, a bit tough and tired, and generally difficult to be around. This time of day usually correlates with our disembarking from the bus, damp, dirty and slightly dehydrated, to find the showers completely full and a line at the coffee guy’s iced mocha station. Only one person in this entire camp seems to hold a permanent smile, an enduring grin and full-faced welcome to any passing paddler. Little Odessa, the youngest camper and the new baby daughter of a Paddle Georgia coordinator, wins the prize for the cutest, smiling-est, cooing-est baby I did not birth. It warms one to the core to see her laughing eyes and fluffy black hair, to see her being passed around and clearly enjoying every lap she happens to grace.

Watching Odessa this afternoon, for the first time I had the thought “I could do this again next year.” Can you believe that, dear reader? What would possess me to live with 300 other people, in June, without decent shower facilities, ever again in my life? Curiosity, I guess. I want to check in with Odessa at a year and four months. She also reminds me of another little girl I’ve watched for a number of years: Ramsey Cook, the vivacious and lithe daughter of our patient Leader Joe. Between the two of them, these young ladies turn my thoughts to the kids of Paddle Georgia. What’s this whole thing like from their eyes?

I miss my boys, so in general, I’ve avoided the children participating here. I am not one of those meet-and-greet-every-child type adults who likes to carry on conversations and find out the favorite ice cream flavor of the boy on the bus next to me. I think kids appreciate me more for not taking up their time, anyway. The kids here seem especially busy and clever at figuring out ways to entertain themselves. For example, today I walked into the gym and found a group of about six of them taking turns spinning each other down the halls in a rolling, commercial sized trash can with a fresh black liner. (When Husband saw that, he said “oh, yeah. That’s what I would have done, too.) They play tag, ducking behind vending machines and crouching below the bleachers. They hula’ed with Hula Girl’s hoops, until they got bored with it.

On the river, the kids play pirates. Sometimes we’ve come upon a canoe of them tucked into a tributary or under an overhanging rock, ready with their pumps to ambush some other boat. We paddled for a while today behind a canoe with three boys in the age range of six to ten. They dipped their paddles in the water here and there, but mostly the conversation tended towards establishing the rules and order of the canoe domain. Farther down river, as the sun burned our skin a light pink and the cows came down the bank to blink their slow eyes and all the paddlers, a boy hollered for his dad. With panic in his voice, he yelled “Dad, Dad! There’s a spider in my boat!” The father responded with a concern as slow and lazy as the river, asking “Is it bigger than your hand?” His son ignored him, claiming “I told you there were bugs in my boat.”

Listening to this, watching the kids find their places and establish a comfortable domain in the midst of all these wacky strangers, one thinks of the next generation of paddlers. What confidence they will have; what comfort with their surroundings and the outside world, as comfortable as little Odessa is now with any fawning adult who springs into her line of vision. They may not remember all of this experience (come to think of it, I hope I don’t remember all of this experience), but it shapes them. I’ll certainly remember one image from the day, even if I don’t know any of the kids’ names. Stopped at a testing site for water monitoring, Husband and I found ourselves alone on the river. From around the bend came a little girl, one of our group, standing on her kayak like a raft. She looked to be about six or seven. Her blonde hair wisped behind her like spider webs; she kept her eyes focused straight ahead, standing with one foot on either side of her blue kayak. Her paddle dipped first on one side, then the other, making tiny whirlpools in the water behind her. We watched her pass us, a tanned sprite, a Huck Finn concentrating on her own private journey. Then she was gone.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Fish Out of Water: Day…I Lost Count

Quick housekeeping: Tomorrow night I'll post pictures!

From here on into Rome, the river scenery stays just about the same from day to day. Between last night’s margaritas, a heavy rain shower around midnight, and some guy in our campsite with the most obnoxious, thundering, pass me a defibulator type snore, it seemed like a good day for me to check out the other side of Paddle Georgia. After the paddlers load the school buses in the mornings, toting their full Gatorade containers and shiny with sunscreen, what happens back at camp? How does a sudden influx of 300 or so people camping out at the high school affect the town? If Paddle Georgia aims to raise awareness about the rivers, how does our immediate presence impact those directly in contact with this bunch?

The most convenient place to start seemed to be the nearby Laundr-o-rama. Right around the corner here from the high school sits a low brick building about as big as a minute, humid and thick with lint in the air. I took my bag of wet things, some quarters I changed with our coffee vendor at camp, and a good James Lee Burke novel to pass the time. As soon as I had loaded my laundry and settled down on a bench in front of the building, an older black man came and sat down beside me. He wore beat-up old Pumas and a worn baseball cap advertising some auto mechanic. “Hey,” he leaned over to me, “Hey, you know anybody’s got it made?” “Excuse me?” I responded. “You know anybody’s got it made,” he repeated, like a statement of fact. I thought about it a minute, and then said no, I did not personally know anyone who has it made. I know of such people, but none of them are personal acquaintances. I asked him if he had it made. He said no, he didn’t, but he knew a guy who had a nice truck, and that guy probably had it made. Then the old man started to ask me about various people, did I know so-and-so or this guy or that guy. I kept repeating that I was not from Calhoun and didn’t know anybody he was asking about, nor was I likely to even if he kept asking. Finally, he cocked his head at me and said “You one a them people over at the high school, right? I seen them tents. You going out on the river or something? Why you wanna do that?”

A similar conversation occurred after I tucked my clean and folded clothes back into my dirty, odorous and now baking tent. We set up our spot right in a breezeway of the school; from the creative nametags around the doors it looks like we sleep right outside of the art classroom. As I gathered my things to walk into town, the teacher showed up with her cup of coffee and set of keys. She seemed nervous, as if she were invading my space. I tried to communicate deference, since I was so obviously invading hers. Finally she set down her mug and a deep look of concern crossed her face. “I’m happy to have you here,” she started, “but I really don’t think this is a good idea.” I assumed she meant taking over her school campus and tracking river mud through her hallways gave her some consternation, but that wasn’t her issue. “I worry about so many people in that river,” she admitted. “What about all those toxins they found last year? What if you all get sick?”

I walked up the street, past the refurbished train depot that sits like a guardhouse on the edge of downtown, and found a cute little place to eat called JD’s. A sign taped to the window of the restaurant read “Welcome Paddler Georgia Participants.” Inside, a few locals enjoyed French fries and hamburgers, hot dogs and homemade desserts. I watched them, eavesdropping some, as I ate my cheeseburger (so amazingly delicious after a week of slightly warm and damp turkey salad sandwiches). I heard a conversation about a woman losing her job at a local plant. Another table talked about a mutual friend who might be sick. As I paid my bill, I told the waitress I wanted to bring people back that evening for some of the homemade desserts. “That’s fine, hon,” she said. “We’d be happy to have you.” Window-shopping my way back to the campsite, I noticed the welcome paddlers sign taped to many of the doors and windows. I was the only paddler left in town to shop.

People worry these days. They worry about illness, money, jobs, things they can control, and things nobody can. Some in our group operate from an education perspective; they shift into little lectures with the custodial staff or the local Chamber of Commerce ladies about the good this trip does for river awareness. That’s just not ever going to be me. I want the rivers cleaner, too. I guess it just doesn’t feel like my place to come into their town and give them something new to worry about. All I can do is be a polite guest, toss a little money into the local economy, and hope to generate some interest in what goes on between the muddy banks. Because I don’t know anybody who’s got it made, do you?

Monday, June 22, 2009

Moving Day: Day 4

Tonight’s blog may be a little sketchy, dear reader, as your reliable narrator did find a lovely margarita in the local Mexican restaurant (within walking distance) of the high school in Calhoun, Georgia. After eight hours of sun a shot or two of tequila will do wonders for your sunburn.

We moved camp today. Starting at a red sky early morning (sailor take warning), clanking aluminum tent poles and zipping Gore-Tex echoed across the dewy grass of the Gilmer County High School practice field. On our way down to the one coffee station, we dropped our three tons of stuff off at the semi trailer truck hired to scoot belongings from Point A to Point B while the group spent the day shuffling down the Coosawattee (pronounced Coosa-Wah-TEE if you are a cool kid).

Ah, the group. I mentioned on GPB that this entire experience reminds me of a grunge version of a pleasure cruise. We’re all stuck together, and even though there are different activities on different decks (or gym rooms) for your continued entertainment, we are all stuck together. That means sharing showers, breaking bread at the same time, and facing difficult and unexpected conversations at inopportune moments (such as, “Hey, do you know where they keep the plunger?” while I’m finishing my peach cobbler). This level of intimacy sets my teeth on edge, generally. But it has been interesting to watch certain characters bloom in this environment, kinda like bacteria in a Petri dish.

For example, there’s Locker Room Lady. Locker Room Lady hangs out in the showers, naked, with all her wobbly bits exposed for heavens and paddlers to see. She puts on sunscreen while naked; she discusses her menopausal characteristics while naked; she looks for her lost contact on the floor while naked. She’s earned it, she claims. Like others of her ilk, she believes in a correlation between hard work during the day and loss of modesty at night. “Who would be modest after all we’ve been through together,” she asks, while digging through her mesh bag for a spare travel bottle of shampoo. Sorry, lady, but drifting down a river in a canoe does not count as “all we’ve been through,” in my book. I’m showering in my swimsuit.

Another personality I’ve enjoyed on this trip is Hula Girl. Hula girl brought hula hoops to Camp Paddle Georgia. She’s probably in her 40’s. A forty year old woman brought hula hoops. I know. I thought the same thing. Anyway, hula girl represents that ultra-fun strain of persona who cheerleads every minor accomplishment (“hey, we’re getting on the bus, yea!”) and spontaneously burst into song while paddling across the lake. Most of the time she picks especially annoying songs, like anything by the Beach Boys. Nothing makes you want to flip your canoe like hearing Hula Girl sing “Ba-bra-An-a-an.”

Today I spent the day with the Adopt-a-Geeks, aka Adopt-a-Stream testers. These guys work their way through Paddle Georgia, conducting water tests and chemical analysis tests at various spots along the river. Wise boaters watch the nerds to see if it’s safe to take a dip and wash off the extra sunscreen; if the water testers are dry, stay out of the river.

Big props to the city of Ellijay for taking in all of these characters, and good luck to Calhoun. So far, Calhoun High School rocks. Someone has music playing in the bathroom all the time, which is great for erasing the memory of Hula Girl’s singing, and they even sprung for shower curtains. And if you find yourself in Calhoun, I highly recommend El Pueblito for margaritas on Monday night. Day on the river or not, a drink on the rocks is a great investment, and could really help one get along with all the characters.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Father's Day at the Lake: Day 3

My dad taught me how to canoe. His older brother, a master carpenter, built his own canoe many years ago, and I think Dad marveled at it so much Uncle Dave finally just said here, take it. I remember sitting in the bottom of that cedar boat, my 1970’s style orange life vest bumping up around my chin, trailing my fingers in the water. Dad appreciates cold mountain streams and smooth river stones and a bump down the rapids, but he also likes a good lake. On a camping trip up to Lake Santeetlah many years ago we loaded my whole family in the canoe, five of us, and set out on an afternoon expedition across the wide expanse of water. About halfway across, we saw the water start to shimmer and vibrate in a straight line from shoreline to shoreline, as a sudden downpour advanced towards us. We kids screamed and pointed, but it was one of those moments where children glimpse the truth of their parents’ utter helplessness. Dad’s rowing power seemed to know no limits; the man could row for hours just tooling around the lake until my siblings and I started picking at each other and wiggling in the boat for lack of other activities. But Dad couldn’t stop the rain.

No rain on Carters Lake today as the Paddle Georgia brigade made our way across this nine mile stretch. This morning, in line for the yellow school bus with the ex-Nascar driver who shuttles us back and forth (and clearly does not get paid by the hour), a fellow paddler commented that lake miles count like dog years: for every one mile on a lake it feels like you’ve paddled about seven. My shoulders attest to that tonight.

Of course, Husband and I like to stretch our dollars as much as possible and really get our money’s worth out of this trip, so we took off from our launch site going the wrong direction. We paddled an extra two miles or so back towards yesterday’s rapids before he finally caved into the readings on his GPS and turned us around. By that time, the thirty or so other paddlers also drifting upstream like salmon returning to spawn figured out this mistake as well. A sense of misgiving followed by sudden epiphany wrinkled through the group at once. Lots of yelling and whistling ensued. We all eventually found the right channel, thanks also to our very patient Leader Joe. (If you read this blog to keep up with the daily exploits of another paddler on the trip, be warned. If you ask your paddler about the lake day and he or she responds with a shuffle and mutter, he or she probably spent the morning in our same situation. It is not an easy thing to get lost on a big open body of water. It takes special talent.)

Some fathers spent today on the lake, pulling their kids around in circles behind a motor boat and yelling critiques of the kids’ skiing techniques. Some fathers spent today on the lake hiding in a shadowed cove, trying to coax a fish onto a hook. (These fathers appeared most content with their choice of the day’s activities). Husband spent his Father’s Day drifting from island to island, curve to cove, as we took our time just studying the lake from a canoe’s perspective. Just like Dad taught me to do.

As we crawled alongside a red clay bank stacked with layers of jagged shale, I caught a glimpse of one father with a skinny blonde boy who looked to be about ten. They were breaking down a campsite together. As they started to tote the last of their gear up towards the road, the boy turned and gave the lake a last look before trotting to catch up to his dad. It made me miss my boys. It made my breath catch with how much I love my dad, and how much I love theirs.

Saturday, June 20, 2009

Of Rapids and Chutes: Day 2

(*Quick note: Tonight's blog comes to you faster thanks to Larry and Kathy Robinson, owners of Cartecay River Trading Company in downtown Ellijay. If you get a chance, stop by and they'll take care of you.)

Today I discovered how appropriate it is that the temporary name of this blog is “Canoe Chronicles,” replacing (for a week) the usual moniker “Minivan Chronicles.” Canoes are the minivans of river travel. Big and bulky, kind of slow, and usually overfilled with all kinds of odds and ends one does not need on the river any more than one needs all that crap in the van while driving from home to work. Canoes carry sets of people, usually two big people on the ends and sometimes a little person in the middle. They serve their function on the river, and what they lack in snaziness they make up for in reliability. If only canoes came with more cupholders.

Kayaks, on the other hand, are the speedy little hybrids of the waterways. Kayak “drivers” dash in and out of the current, paddles flashing silver as they catch the light. I remember an insect we saw today on the river, a cute little bug called a whirligig who spins in quick circles and seems to know his purpose in life. Kayaks move like whirligigs. The perfunctory nods that pass between kayakers and canoers communicate each boater’s understanding of his purpose: I win on speed and finesse, nods the kayaker. Yes, but I’ve got enough stuff in here to make it to the Gulf of Mexico, returns the canoer.

After an oh-so-tasty breakfast of soft scrambled eggs and crunchy orange juice, the navy set out for the first leg of the Coosawattee River. This section challenged most participants; a warning of class II rapids and a hearty sprinkling of sharp-cornered rocky shoals infused our helmeted argosy with a healthy dose of nerves. Between the mandatory helmets, the mandatory life jackets, and the thirty minute safety talk the night before, I think most of the paddlers woke up this morning fairly freaked out. Meanwhile, for all the Paddle Georgia protectionism flung like a net over our brigade, other non-PG river goers showed up on the river in nothing but their skivvies and flip flops—to their eventual detriment. We watched a couple of Gilmer County residents tube down the same chute we bounced through, and I appreciated not having my backside quite so exposed.

Husband and I make a good team in a canoe. We did not flip once, and we managed to avoid the deep raspberry sunburn that some of our Paddle Georgia brigade achieved today. Along the route we watched a Green Heron dart from bank to bank, as if policing the entire brigade. At one point, the river to ourselves, we startled a gaggle of Canada geese who could not have been more offended by the presence of our canoe on their waterway. My favorite bird, a Kingfisher, swooped alongside of us towards the end of our river journey. We navigated a few tight spaces; not so much a part of the river as a part of our marriage. Rocky spots, poor communication—I’ll leave you to carry on with your own metaphors, dear reader. Tomorrow he promises to quit with the mental telepathy he believes I can hear, and I promise to try to learn my right from my left.

Tonight the group shuttles into Ellijay for a Gilmer County hootenanny. The city pulled out all the stops, I am told, and plans to treat us to dinner and a festival atmosphere while all of us who spent the day navigating splashy water wander around in a bleary-eyed stupor. Tomorrow’s agenda puts us on Carters Lake all day, with stops for swimming and perhaps some ice cream at the marina. Lake paddling works like interstate driving: tedious, a little dull, but could be fun if you pick interesting stops along the way. And of course, for interstate travel, nothing beats the family minivan.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Camp for Grown-Ups: The Check-In

Remember that first day of summer camp? Cool kids, camp veterans, hang out in the drop-off parking lot and play 4-square. They eyeball this year’s crop of newbies. The first-timers try to pull off calm confidence while their eyes dart around, trying to figure out where they are supposed to be. They hold tight to their duffle bags and backpacks.

I’m into hour five of Paddle Georgia 2009, and so far it feels like the first day of camp. Camp for Grown-Ups, with a few adjustments. For example, I don’t think my bunk-mate, Husband, brought any Snickers bars or SweetTarts to sneak after lights out. That works out, however, because I don’t have to go through all the trouble of flirting with the lifeguard, getting burned when he dates my best friend, and then finding the “nice guy” who brings me a bouquet of allergy flowers from the nearby meadow. I skipped ahead to the nice guy part.

That first all-camp dinner brims with bland announcements and safety talks, punctuated by a few well worn camp jokes that the director starts to tell and the camp veterans finish from the audience. We sit on the bleachers of the Gilmer County High School gym tonight while Joe Cook, Paddle Georgia leader, mumbles a few words of welcome and occasionally jumps up and down as if to communicate excitement. Around me sit paddlers from Florida and North Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia. Joe warns one couple from Minnesota “not to come down here and tell us how to canoe.” He fills the role of the genial yet slightly disheveled camp director, quick with a hug or a joke for everyone while most of the time forgetting what he was about to do. Over dinner, BBQ plates and slightly mucilaginous banana pudding, I look out over the crowd and try to guess other paddlers’ stories. Who will turn out to be the camp jokester? The camp flirt? The camper who gets sick/sprains an ankle/gets sunburned so bad he has to go home?

Tomorrow morning starts early, dear reader. Your faithful chronicler will be up at six, count them, six thirty in the morning for breakfast in the cafeteria of the Gilmer County High School. Mmm-yum. Then we hop into our canoes, dive into the Coosawattee, and see who flips their canoe into that white, cold water first. When we return here tomorrow night there will be stories to share and more familiarity and instant comfort between people than each of us has had since summer camp as kids. I only wish there were s’mores.

Good Guys vs. Bad Guys: Prequel

Tonight Husband and I spend our first night in the tent in Ellijay, official members of the Paddle Georgia brigade. I wish I had bought a pirate flag to sail on our canoe.

Anyone want to meet me at Heritage Park with a pirate flag?

Something about this trip makes me want to be a pirate. Paddle Georgia raises money to save the rivers in this state; Georgia River Network works to raise awareness and educate and lots of other things that good guys generally do. I assume most of the people going on this trip, my co-canoers, will also be the good guys. Good guys recycle and participate in volunteer clean-ups and shop local organic food stores and appreciate hemp. We should all be such good guys.

Why does this make me want to fly a Jolly Roger and be a bad guy?

The environmental movement suffers from a distinct holier-than-thou snobbery. Intellectually, one can sit through Al Gore’s little film and appreciate the wisdom and research, but goodness sakes—wouldn’t we all rather sneak into Transformers in the theater next door? They sound like they are having a ton more fun. Sometimes the refrain of environmentalists’ ballads chime in my head like a mother’s nagging: Styrofoam? What are you thinking? I don’t care if it costs $5 for one cup of coffee, it’s shade-grown! Don’t you flush that toilet, little lady—do you think this world is made of water? Think about the dehydrating giraffes in Africa!

This week I join the good guy navy. I already know I love with the gentle gliding of the canoe, the sound of water over rock, the brief glimpse of a heron leading around the next curve. Perhaps all this, experienced en masse, will also translate into a greater appreciation of the Green Dream. Perhaps I’ll figure out some way to appreciate the good guys without all my personal, non-Green guilt getting in the way.

If not, someone send a jet ski out to a little island on Carter’s Lake. I’ll be the sunburned one with a bandana around my head, yelling “Why is all the rum gone?!”

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Bathing Suit Shopping for Paddle Georgia

Modern society gives us beautiful and surprising gifts; things like tub butter, HOV lanes, and little plastic balls of lemony freshness one can drop down the garbage disposal to get rid of that off odor. Surely someone could also devise a better way for women to shop for bathing suits.

Of course, once a woman passes the age of 35 or bears her first child she no longer sets aside time to shop for the season’s bathing suit. Shopping for that season’s bathing suit only happens when it absolutely must, which makes the whole event more like the peak scene from a Bond film: cut the wrong wire, buy the wrong suit, and the whole mess will blow up in your face.

Many major department stores moved their seasonal swimwear displays down to the lower levels of the store, the levels that dump out into underground parking decks. They do this to eliminate the shopper’s contact with the outside world. Cell phones drop bars midway down the escalator; they’ll be no calling your husband or your sister or your momma to cry desperately about your physique, or lack thereof. You are entirely on your own.

If it is crying you want, the bathing suit section of most major department stores provide some background wailing for your shopping enhancement. A newborn baby or a toddler on a people leash usually comes with a mother who is perpetually “at the END of her ROPE.” Sometimes she her own mother joins her and you can witness generations of poor parenting skills while you browse through MiracleSuits and GodCouldYouBeFatterKinis.

No fitting rooms are ever available in the actual swimsuit section of the basement. For trying on, you must gather your bundle of mesh and lycra and truck over to the “Intimates” section, where Sylvia Sidney guards each room and growls at you if you don’t return the suits to their proper hangers. A hospital-like florescence lights each dingy cubicle, coating your body with a greenish tinge as appealing as the skin on a cafeteria pudding. The last thing in the world it makes sense to do in this room is take off your clothing.

But take it off you do, expect for the bare minimum, so as to save your tender parts from coming in contact with anything that might have touched anyone else’s tender parts. Even the sexiest, most petite model tries on suits designed to cling to her body with stray bits of underwear puckering out of the top and a security tag the size of a cordless drill dragging the whole suit slowly down her leg.

When one finally leaves with the trophy swimsuit, one has no idea what the suit actually looks like in the light of day, on her own body, where she will wear it in front of her friends and family and/or a flotilla of Georgia canoers. Except, of course, she won’t. Because one of the other most clever trends of our modern society stylishly saves her: the tent-like, floor length, bathing suit cover-up. I wonder if I could still paddle in one of those?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Start of the Canoe Chronicles

Yes, faithful readers, the rumors are true. For the next week or so Minivan Chronicles tries out a greener mode of transportation and becomes Canoe Chronicles. Starting Friday, Husband and I attempt to spend six days together in a small boat as part of the Paddle Georgia argosy.

Let’s parse this a bit, shall we?

What possessed me?

I could spend the week sprawled in a rusty aluminum lawn chair in my backyard, sipping on Bacardi & Cokes and re-reading old Robert Parker novels. Instead, I chose to join the crew of Teva-shod paddlers who will float the 92 miles from Elijay to Rome down the Coosawattee and Oostanaula rivers. There will be group camping, and sweating, and bugs, most likely some questionable food choices, and sixty -year old women who glare at me if I look like I don’t recycle as much as I should. Why?

Two words, dear reader:

Michelle’s. Arms.

I am assuming that to get from there to here at some point along the way I will be encouraged to pick up a paddle and row. In the past, our marital canoe trips consisted of Husband sweating it out in the back of the canoe while I held my parasol aloft and gave villagers on the riverbanks my best Lady Di wave. Wrist, wrist, elbow, elbow, pearls, lap.

But my upper arm region could use a little change, and it doesn’t hurt my motivation to know this fall brings a major high school reunion year for me. To spend a week reconnecting with my best beloved and working on my triceps and my tan seemed too much to forgo.

So stick close, dear reader. It promises to be an interesting trip.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


Today is my birthday.

Birthdays don’t scare me. Any holiday worth celebrating is worth celebrating with utmost gusto, and birthdays count as personal holidays. Streamers, balloons, big fun food, marching bands, airplane banners, it’s all on the table when there’s someone to celebrate.

And none of my excitement about my own birthday belies a false bravado about aging—the aging part of birthdays pretty much sucks. I learned recently, for example, that when one stays up all night chatting with good people around a campfire, it takes several days to revitalize all one’s 38 year old brain cells. Also, my hands are starting to look kind of beat up, and my knees pop when I jump up too fast.

None of this disturbs me.

The only dark cloud over my birthday today will be the nagging edge of self-doubt, the pesky awareness that perhaps, at 38, I have reached some sort of blank and uninspiring plateau. The five years from 34 to 39 seem like the long, dull stretch of I-75 from Middle Georgia down to Florida; there’s just not that much to see. The major milestones of my youth fall behind me like rest stops: kids? Done. College? Done. Career choice? Done. Grad school? Done. Until I hit the next major milestone of living on this earth for 40 years, it’s all just going along to get along. I’m not gearing up for much of anything.

Well, that’s not true. Tonight the males in my household are making me dinner, cake and homemade ice cream. I’m geared up for that.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The Day I Went to Alabama

Have you ever been driving down country road, perhaps through the middle of a little country town, and seen a shirtless old guy, leathery brown skin all puckered around his belly, riding an inappropriately small kids’ dirt bike? His knees bow out to the sides to keep them from hitting his wrists while he pedals, and every so often he spits out to the side as if to mark his way, like Hansel and Gretel did with the gingerbread crumbs. Have you ever wondered about this guy’s life, and how he got to a mental place of feeling comfortable weaving all over the country road, sucking on a plastic Sprite bottle and riding an uncomfortably small kids’ dirt bike? Well, over in Alabama this guy works for the Department of Transportation. He’s their road engineer.

Because I love cheap junk and odd people, a student who knows a bit about both suggested we head over to Collinsville and check it out sometime. Collinsville is not that hard to find—just start out toward Centre, Alabama, find a truck with a bed full of puppies, chickens, or rusty farm equipment and then follow that truck. You’ll wind up in Collinsville, along with a good number of tough-looking country folks who look like they could kick the swine flu’s ass. Along with the livestock, farm equipment and grown things, trade day in Collinsville also offers a variety of “things that fell off the back of the truck.” Rows of white socks stacked like marshmallows, industrial size rolls of commercial toilet paper, and poorly shrink-wrapped DVDs and video games cover aged plywood tables. Husband and I talked our trusting son out of a few “bargains,” but we did spend $4 on used books. Books. How elitist are we?

After Collinsville, we got back in the van and headed towards Lake Guntersville to meet some friends. According to the shiny, only moderately grammatically correct brochure on fishing in Alabama, Lake Guntersville is the largest lake in the state. I wonder, then, why the heck it is so hard to find? At the largest lake in the state, one would think we’d just keep driving that direction and eventually fall in the damn thing. Apparently the old guy on the dirt bike had other plans, and his roads took us every direction except toward the lake.

After giving up on GoogleMaps and our 1998 state map of Georgia with a tiny sliver of Alabama on the side, we stopped somewhere on 227 and asked a couple of guys working on the side of the road if they were familiar with the largest lake in the state, and whereabouts it might be located. They were extremely helpful tanned gentlemen who I guess also work for the Department of Transportation—they seemed to be working hard to take down every road sign at the intersections along 227. One of them gave simple directions like “go up a hill and then down a hill and turn where the car dealership used to be,” while the other preferred an alternate route. He suggested we backtrack some, then look for the signs to some other town, then go through that town until we came to a road that could be 431 or 441 or 414, he couldn’t remember quite which, and then turn one way or the other on that. Again, he couldn’t recall, but he was pretty sure it was a left turn.

After a few more turns and several up-and-down hills, we came up to an intersection with a traffic jam the likes of which we hadn’t seen since the Collinsville Trade Day parking lot. Three or four cars in each direction, and all we could see were red lights flashing. I assumed an accident had occurred, as I think most drivers would, and I slowed down out of concern. In fact, it wasn’t an accident at all. With two fire trucks parked on the embankments, the local VFD had stopped traffic in all directions to ask each car for donations to their cause. Worse than Shriners! I pulled up and started to get out some money, because even though I resent this type of fundraising, when you are lost in Alabama the last people you want to offend are the firefighters. Since we seemed to be paying for it anyway, I asked the woman firefighter holding her boot for further directions to the Lake. “Lake?” she said. She had a fluff of gauze hanging out of her right ear, and a trail of what looked like yellow betadine solution dripping down her neck. “LAKE GUNTERSVILLE?” I repeated.

After some back-and-forth, with several lines repeated due to her compromised hearing and the honking of cars behind me, we headed on to the lake based on her revised directions, which involved “heading over to the four way stop and then turning left.” I like it when people say things like “four way stop” when giving directions. It clears up any confusion that might come with phrases like “major intersection,” or “the corner where Pappy used to sell his vegetables before he died back in ’93.”

We finally did make it to the largest lake in Alabama, and once there enjoyed several other adventures which I will share at a later date. My fingers grow weary, dear reader. Of course, once there, we had to make it back. Since we did not have any real clear idea of how we got there to begin with, we decided to go home a different way. We asked a camper in the park for suggestions. That camper asked her neighbor, who consulted with a friend, who suggested another map, which lead us to a ranger station, then a Sheriff’s deputy, then, at dusk, on our way on 227 with directions to “stay straight.” Whatever we did, we were supposed to stay on 227 going straight back to Collinsville.

Who ever heard of a guy on a kids’ dirt bike heading straight? There is no straight. Straight isn’t even an option.

Eventually we gave up, ate dinner in Gadsden, and followed a federal highway up to a familiar road. The feds can’t do much right—we all know that. But when it comes to roads, they’re doing a lot better than the guy on the bike.