Friday, August 27, 2010

In the Summertime

For most people, the thought of California in the summertime conjures up images of sun, beaches, and babes. And so it does for me as well, ever since one of my sisters began taking her kids to California to see my parents for six weeks in the summer. Between her and my other sister, I am an aunt to five munchkins. Having grown up in California, I've never been a huge fan of the place, suffering from a mix of restlessness and the "grass-is-always-greener" syndrome. Nowadays, I look forward to returning to the place of my upbringing in order to see the munchkins.

I was in my early twenties when Estelle, my oldest niece was born almost twelve years ago. I remember how exciting it seemed that our family was going to have an infant in it. I remember playing with her when she was a smiley baby, already so beautiful and photogenic. Since then four more were born, and each with his and her own amazingly individual personalities, and each confirming my suspicions that children are pretty neat.

This summer three of them are old enough to enroll a month-long sailing course sponsored by the municipality of Long Beach. I watched Estelle and her younger brother Allen maneuver small, single-person boats by themselves. I even saw them flip over a few times, only to get back on and continue sailing. It was amazing to see children conduct themselves and their boats in such an independent manner; it seemed like just minutes ago they were babes in my arms.

Being an aunt who lives far away allows you the privilege of making your time with children an event. For the two girls, I applied facial masks and hair treatment to them in my parents whirlpool tub. We hung out in bathrobes and listened to jazz music as my mother brought us homemade mango smoothies. The girls, Betsy and Estelle, aged six and twelve, were thoroughly entertained and appreciative as if they were at a first-class spa. It amazed me that they could be so happy with so little.

Another perk of being an aunt is having the freedom to deliver my affection without the commitment and responsibility of a parent. Later in the week, I offered to take custody of all five children at my parents' house. I took them out to frozen yogurt and stuffed them with packages of gummy bears. I let them watch TV without end, knowing that I wasn't going to have to discipline these crabby, sleep-deprived kids the next day.

But after hours of inane Disney sitcoms, I took control of the mighty remote control and put on the discovery channel and the learning channel. We watched Cake Boss, the reality show about an old-school Italian baker in New Jersey who makes incredible sculpted cakes in each episode. We also watched a reality show about commercial swordfishing in Canadian waters.

More enthralling to me than the content of the shows were the reactions of my nieces and nephews, all of whom quickly became engrossed in these far away worlds where people were living their different lives working in these various trades. The children engaged in the stories and characters, and made commentary on these adventures we were watching, even moreso than they did for the Disney sitcoms. It was an adult world that interested them in a manner that most adults no longer can experience.

In my life there are times when I question the purpose and meaning of marriage. But since meeting these little people, to witness as a mother a child's fresh perspective towards life is an adventure that I hope someday to have. Eventually my nieces and nephews will become adults. I hope they read this blog entry then and learn that their development was an integral part of my own development in a positive and meaningful way.

For now, I look forward to my summers of California sun, beaches, and babes.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

No Angle At All

As part of an ongoing effort to balance my incredibly urban New Orleans life, I am turning to fishing. But without a car here, that takes some effort. Luckily there's backyard fishing, a concept suggested to me by the husband portion of my new friends and neighbors, Matt and Amanda, also recent transplants. Matt tipped me off to where he's spotted local fishermen around town, such as Lake Pontchartrain and the Riverbend, the latter of which is just a few blocks from our very apartment building. On my own I did some recon via bicycle, and confirmed his intel. Armed with this information I approached Matt and Amanda and we made a pact to gear up at a sports store in the nearby town of Jefferson.

A few days later, Matt and I do the shopping at Academy Sports, meandering through the isles and isles of rods. As luck would have it, Matt is even less of an angler than myself, and though I have caught my fair share of salmon and trout in the rivers and streams of Alaska, most credit is due to one of my ex-boyfriends who was a former fishing guide. Thus, I was familiar with but not fluent in the technological aspects of fishing. Matt and Amanda recently lived in Montana, where he began learning how to flyfish, but with zero bounty. Between the two of us in the sports store, it was the blind leading the blind.

Matt and I wander around, making jokes about our ignorance. Spying a fellow shopper, I ask,
"Excuse me, you look like a local angler...what type of rod should we be using to catch catfish from the banks of the Riverbend?" My victim looks knowledgeable but incredibly unenthusiastic in aiding us. After a minute (and no more) of consultation, he walks away from us saying,
"You need someone to take you out, really, and show you what to do."

I recognized the condescension in his voice. I have just moved here from Alaska, a place where gear was the primary topic of discussion at most dinner parties. Though I came to appreciate the convenience and necessity of certain types of outdoor recreational gear, by the time I left I was ready to leave behind that flavor of elitism.

Watching him walk away, I say to myself, No. No more techie crap in my life. I can do this. After all, it's not like I was asking for information about a complicated river or unusual location, or where I could find a pot of gold. People have been fishing for thousands of years without fancy rods and spiffy rigging systems and the like. Hell, Vietnamese people have been fisherman for thousands of years without this snobbery crapola.

Both of us determined to embrace this hobby, Matt and I look at eachother and shrug our shoulders. I beeline it to the customer counter where I happen upon Louis, the customer service representative who I've decided to cling onto until I obtain the information in question. I give Louis a synopsis of Matt and my fishing resumes, making it very clear that most of the fish I caught was by the grace of God, and also Mark, my ex-boyfriend. I talk about my internet-based suspicions that I need a Carolina rig, which includes swivels, beads, a cork, lures, and a few other toys.

Louis responds,
"Sure, you could do that..." but he doesn't look sold on the idea.
"What do you use?" I ask.
He looks hesitant but confesses,
"I go simple. A cork, fresh bait, some weights. That's about it."
I'm stunned.
"No swivel? No separate leader line? For real?"
He looks at me. Louis is clearly local, but is young, has all of his teeth, and is not wearing overalls.
"Look, I was born and raised here, lived in East New Orleans up until Katrina. The way my family fished was simple. Sure, what you're talking about works, but I'm just too simple to bother with that," he confesses.

It's at that moment that I conclude that maybe this is the next step in my fishing career. Maybe the meaning of fishing for me here will involve drinking daiquiris with my line out. Louis tells us that he is a recent college-grad from LSU, hanging out before grad school. He's no dummy and is a local boy who loves to fish on a regular basis.
"Sounds like a good day to me," he says after hearing the plan for fishing and daiquiris.

Matt and I both projected a bill of $70.00-$100.00. But Louis directs us to $25.00 set-ups.
"Where you guys are going, this is more than enough of a set-up. I'll show you the lures and the frozen bait, but hell, no sh****g you, once when I was a kid, I put a glazed donut hole on the end of my line and caught a cat-fish. They're bottom feeders, you know?"

Matt and I start laughing hilariously, and he reiterates,
"Crazy but it's true!"
Matt offers,
"How about a piece of cheese?"
Louis responds,
"Sure! The stinkier the better. Hell, make it sharp cheddar! It's been done before!"

Matt and I leave the shop with extremely tolerable tabs. While I am not about to pick up a box of krispy kremes to bait my line, I am appreciative of Louis' candor and thanks to him, I feel okay about going simple. It's a new style of recreational life for me, and already I am loving it. Now all I need is some fish.

Next stop...the riverbank.

At the Muddy Mississippi
There we were, about a week later, standing on the riverbank: the rear tire of the Blue Bayou Bomber (my bike) totally flat, having hit a broken bottle in the sand; my foam daiquiri cup with a hole in the bottom after bouncing around on the back of my rig; Matt and I standing on the riverbank, both befuddled by our tangled fishing lines. We could have made a good photograph for a fishing magazine of what NOT to do.

Amongst all this angling glamour, I have a flashback to last summer, spending my weekends with a handsome fishing guide, my boyfriend at the time, on the banks of the Russian River, or waist deep in the Kenai, salmon at the end of my line, which he set up for me. Where oh where is a fishing guide boyfriend when I need one? All I've got today is a married neighbor who has flat out told me that he's never pulled in a fish in his adult life.

I suppose I could have benefited from approaching the matter
more seriously. Maybe if we had left out the daiquiris, maybe if we had hired a guide, maybe if we had picked a less polluted spot on the riverbank to set up shop. Maybe if Matt hadn't loaded his hook with a miniature rubber chicken...


Resembling Calamity Jane, my first cast was my most ghastly. Having threaded my line over instead of under the clip, when I cast the rod, nothing, absolutely nothing, happened. I look over at Matt who's not faring much better than myself. But at least he has that rubber chicken.

I'm laughing comparing in my head this summer with my last, and reset my rod after some amount of deduction. Eventually, I re-cast and voila! There it was, that lightness of being that comes with the sound of a fiberglass stick and fishing line whipping through the air; that satisfaction that sets in when the cork, weight, bait and hook, dive into the water right at my desired target spot. And at that I am reminded of the benefits of fishing with a friend and equal, instead of a pro with whom I have an intimate relationship.

Matt and I cast and sip daiquiris for about an hour. As the 95 degree rays of sunlight beat down on us, we talk in fake southern accents about baseball (which I make up as I go along), and then revert our normal voices, discussing topics we do know about, like the upcoming film festival in town, the best place to get ribs and hear a brass band, and about him and his wife Amanda buying a house in New Orleans. Eventually the tide comes in, informing us that it is time to go home. We walk the Blue Bayou Bomber home, and call it a day.

As I cool down in the shower, I take mental stock of the days events. No fish. No bike tire. Good casting practice. Good getting outside. Good getting used to New Orleans heat. Glad I did it. Will do again.

So, I now fish, with no complicated gear and no pretense of knowing what I'm doing. No longer am I obsessed with catching my limit. Now I am an angler with no angle at all.

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Nights of White Linen, Days Filled With Trumpeters, and Streets full of Potholes

New Orleans is a city with particular priorities. It's got crumbling levees constructed on sand. The roads have enough potholes to make you feel like you're getting a full-body shiatsu massage if you ride your bike on them.

But, at the same time, it is a city that ardently cares about aesthetics and music.

For instance, while riding on these pothole laden streets one day, I noticed three men working on a public building. They were restoring an old drainpipe with a brand new one made of shiny copper. You know, the kind of copper they use to make gourmet pots and pans.

And while the public transportation here is less than stellar, there are free music festivals year-round, if you can get to them.

So, when a city like this holds a gallery walk night entitled "White Linen Night," the same weekend as "Satchmo Fest", you may very well have to watch your step when you stroll along the streets to enjoy either of them, but you can definitely find some serious partying, free of charge.

White Linen Night
Year-round every Saturday, the galleries in the the Arts District and French Quarter host an Art Walk, during which they open their doors and provide refreshments in the evening for gallery hoppers. White Linen Night is the Art Walk event held each August, designated as the informal kick-off of the summer season of the Art Walk Saturdays.

I had been to something like this before in other cities, but nothing on this scale. Over twenty galleries on Julia Street participate, as do others on nearby side streets or in the French Quarter. Streets are closed to traffic and bars are set up along the lane dividers on each block. Local restaurants have stands, and, of course, there is live music. And just in case that's not enough celebration, there's an official party at the Contemporary Arts Center later in the evening.

And, when they say "white linen", these Southerners are literal (much to my blue-cotton-dress- wearing chagrin. What can I say? White is not that flattering). The streets were chock full of men and women, young and old, donning their whites. The phenomenon was both charming in its tradition and mildly creepy in its uniformity, kind of like a sorority or fraternity.

And the art, well, it's art, right? Some of it cliched tourist stuff--impressionistic scenes of New Orleans, some of it modern and perplexing, some of it beautiful, some of it stimulating, some of it pretentious, some of it all the above.

Fortunately, I had the opportunity to see the work of a true local painter, Kathy Rodriguez, friend of my building-mates Matt and Amanda. Kathy was born and raised in the New Orleans area, has studied art at the graduate level and now teaches art. Most of her work at this exhibit consisted of quirky but slightly dark portraits of birds, displayed in antique-style guilt frames. She explains to me that the animals were an inspiration of her upbringing in a bird-laden city, where they were rather unwelcome by their human neighbors. I was refreshed by the fact that not all local painters are hung up on cityscapes of New Orleans.

While I enjoyed gazing at all of the canvases I saw that night,
both cheesy and authentic, I gravitated toward exhibits with a more tangible utility. There was a cool exhibit sponsored by GlobalGreen comprised of furniture and other items created from salvaged building materials. Bedframes, desks, and display pieces were constructed from salvaged trellises, siding, and other house remnants which are plentiful here in this post-Katrina era.

At 12:00am the parties were just beginning. But the next day was the last day of Satchmo Fest, held in honor of Louis Armstrong's birthday. New Orleans truly is one of those places where one of the toughest decisions one makes on a regular basis is which free music/art/food event to go to in lieu of another. In the end I decided to take off at midnight, in order to try to save myself for Louis, since I had skipped out on this evening's events for White Linen. It is, afterall, the man's birthday.

Satchmo Fest
So when I woke up the next day I asked myself, "To trumpet, or not to trumpet?" My answer was in the affirmative.
The Festival has been held for ten years and is centered around the Old Mint Building, where the federal government used to coin currency, a particular issue in the region during the Reconstruction Era just after the Civil War. Today it serves as a museum with both standing and rotating exhibits.

Today, the Mint serves as the festival grounds. On three sides of the building are separate stages serving up different venues of music. The fourth side of the building is dedicated to food, where numerous local restaurant sell small dishes. Neighboring bars and clubs also participate, some showing free movies or documentaries about Satchmo. The food comes at a price, but the festival's events are all free of charge.

I cruise around the smaller stages first and listen to a world-music type band, with trumpet, played by a former local, and another more modern jazz band on the third side. On the Red Beans and Ricely Yours stage, I see good ol' reliable local Kermit Ruffins, standing with eleven other trumpeters between the ages of 17 and 70. One of them looks Asian and I swear to you he does a great impression of Louis singing.
They end their set by playing a birthday tribute to Satchmo and free pieces of birthday cake are handed out by volunteers. Streamers are shot into the crowd, and there is a tangible aura of celebration. Residents from surrounding houses look on from their balconies.

I end the day with a piece of Louis' birthday cake. He seemed like a fun guy and probably would have liked such a party.

Walking back to my bike, I'm pretty impressed at the level of security of the entire weekend. The police presence at both White Linen Night and Satchmo Fest was apparent, and no fights or riots broke out in either of these congregations of people, each numbering in the tens of thousands. Clearly, the city beefs up the security at the high profile cultural events like these that make the city famous.

And then I ride home on my bike, with a free shiatsu massage...

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Po'Boy Perfection

For all the grief my nomadic lifestyle has caused my parents, it is only fair to say that I learned the ways of small time exploring from my mother. I was fortunate enough to be born to two working professionals who regularly were able to take a family of five on vacations. We were the Asian-American answer to National Lampoon's Family Vacation, but instead of Chevy Chase we had my mother, a small but mighty Asian woman who speaks (amongst other languages) broken Spanish, and has the ability to eat just about anything. I have memories of driving over the border from California to Mexico, my mom forcing my dad to pull over at the sight of a working-class man on the side of the street, asking politely and loudly in Spanish, "Excuse me, where do the locals eat?" On one such occasion we ended up at a non-resort, sea-side restaurant overlooking a visible rat corridor to the ocean, where some of the largest, most delicious lobsters were served. Then and every occasion after, we were the only non-Mexicans in that restaurant. Low on fancy, high on tasty, that was how my parents fed us.

I've adopted my mother's tactics wholeheartedly. In my quest for the ultimate po' boy sandwich here in New Orleans, naturally I turned to Rick, the plumber of my apartment building. He's a second generation plumber, millionth generation New Orleanian, and will show you the tatooed portrait of his daughter on his arm when you ask about his family. So when I saw him the other day fixing my gas, I enlisted his aid in my po'boy task. "Where do the locals eat?" I asked him.

The po' boy is native to Louisiana. Resembling a submarine sandwich, it distinguishes itself by using only crusty French bread, and often incorporating deep fried seafood. Typically they are gargantuan. Some claim that the po'boy earned its name as the meal of the working man, or poor boy, which translates to po' boy in Louisianan. Others claim that the words are a bastardization of the French words "pour boire" supposedly meaning peace offering. Under that version men would supposedly bring home these peacemakers to their wives after a long night of drinking and cavorting. Personally, I'm not sure if anything could bring me peace if my man came home blatto after an evening of womanizing. But if there was, the po'boy might be one of them.

At Rick's suggestion I head out to Parkway Bakery in the Mid-City neighborhood with my friend Joe. Despite its reputation as the preeminent po'boy spot, the restaurant has retained a rustic character, and not the Disneyland renovation kind, which is also common in New Orleans. The building itself is tucked away next to a NAPA autoparts repair shop, and back a bit so that its sign is only really visible to those are are looking specifically for it. And of course, it is a family establishment. Joe and I walk in and see a man in his fifties at the counter taking orders. I am ready almost immediately.

"I'll take the regular shrimp, dressed, and with a soda."
"Ok. Is that all?"
"No, I'm taking care of his too."
"Oh, well take your time sir," he says to Joe. He then looks at me and says, "You, you're ready because your hungry."
"Yeah well she just came from her boxing class. She worked up a good appetite," explains Joe.
"Yeah? You box?"
"Trying to," I answer.

The man then goes into a diatribe about the mysterious left-handed boxers, "Those south paws are like secret weapons." He and Joe reminisce about Joe Frazier, Cassius Clay (yeah, he's one of those), and good ol' Rocky Marciano. I'm sorta laughing at the ancient nature of this conversation but ever so happy to learn even just a little more about my new favorite hobby. He asks my weight, which, in this context, I don't take personally, and we discuss the welterweight, the middle-weight, and the likelihood of me getting punched in the face. After a little more of this, he says,
"What's your name? You know what? I'll call you Rocky. They'll call you when your order is ready."

Joe and I share a table with two middle-aged African-American women. From our seats we have a perfect view of the pick-up counter, behind which is a bustling kitchen with at least 10 staff scurrying away in a po-boy work trance. The call out "Rocky" to which I respond, picking up two "regular" sandwiches, each about 5 inches long, and a heaping "side order" of fries, topped with chunks of roast beef and lathered with gravy. The women next to us ask about the fries and we insist they try some, which they do. My sandwich is stuffed to the gills with golden-fried shrimp, touched with lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise. As I eat the sandwich shrimp are spilling out, providing enough on the plate for a whole other sandwich. Joe gets the roast beef po'boy topped with more gravy. Joe and I finish the fries, and take half of our sandwiches home. Drinks and all food put us out $23.00 total.

We say our good-byes to the man at the counter and to our new friends with whom we shared the fries, and head out with smiles on our faces. Like many of my memorable New Orleans moments, I walk away charmed by the personalities and my belly stuffed to the seams with good food. This is where the locals eat.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Cupcake Buddies

One of the many tasks I set out for myself since moving to New Orleans is to learn how to make a decent cupcake. How this fits into my future I'm not exactly sure, but I find baking relaxing, and I dream of a day when I can open a small cafe selling cupcakes and empanadas, and take time off when I want. I picked the almighty cupcake because it easy to make in batches, and generally a crowd-pleaser; Cheaper than bringing a good bottle of wine, good cupcakes are the perfect house party gift or neighborly offering.

Once, when I was depressed about breaking up with my boyfriend at the time, in an effort to console me, my friend Jill gave me the following wisdom: "Kim, what you need is a guy who likes to travel and can enjoy a good cupcake." Well I haven't found that man quite yet but I have made some good friendships with an offer of cupcakes.

But, after a while, like the rich, the famous, and the beautiful, sometimes I it me they want or is it merely what I have?

Why would you say such a thing? You might ask. Consider the following story. My new friend Jeff and I were in the car headed out to listen to some music in town when he awkwardly asks me,
"So uh, do anything cool last night? Like at around 11:00ish? Or were you sleeping?"
I had to search my memory for a bit before I answered,
"Uh, I think I was just getting home from the Rivershack."
"Oh, so it's not like you were woken up by anything, were you? Milo barking or anything?"
"Um no. Why?"

I was trying my best to decipher this cryptic line of questioning when Jeff confesses the following story which I am attempting to retell to you here. Please note that the names and identities of the parties have been changed to protect the innocent. From Jeff's point of view, it went a little something like this...

"It was a dark and stormy Monday night, and like all Monday nights in New Orleans, there was a multitude of things to do in the city. I went to the Circle Bar to see some friends play when I got a text message from Dan. He tells me that he and Chris were going to the Maple Leaf Bar and then jamming at Chris's house nearby. I had a few more drinks and then made my way to Chris' place, where they were practicing with a new bass player, Steve, who they were trying to start a band with. We smoked a couple bowls and I listened to them play for about an hour until about 11:00p.m. Chris is pretty beat at this point, Steve looks like he's ready to take off, but Dan is ready for more, and so am I.

"Ok, what's next?" asks Dan.
"Downtown? Frenchman Street?" I offer.
"Yeah, why not?" he responds.
"I'm way too tired to leave the house," says Chris, who, at this point is supporting his head on his conga drums, arms askew. "I'm out on this one." He looks really pathetic at this point.

Dan hesitates a minute before he says, awkwardly, "So uh, do you think we should call Kim?"
I smile saying, "I was just thinking the same thing! I know for a fact she made a fresh batch of cupcakes just yesterday. Three different kinds. I won't even tell you about the chocolate one I had the other day."
"No way," says Chris, hoisting his head up.
"Hey I'd head over to Kim's if we drive there, and someone promises to drive me home," Chris offers, generously.
"Yeah, screw Frenchman Street. Let's go buy some milk and head over to her house."
Newcomer Steve looks from one guy to the other.
"So um, what's the deal with the cupcake thing? Are they pot cupcakes or something?" he asks.
"No. But they're really good. Sorry, man, but I think you gotta sit this one out. I wouldn't feel right just taking a new guy over there without her meeting you first," I say.
"Yeah, that would be weird. Sorry man." Concurs Dan.
"No that's cool guys. I'm good. I'm just wondering what's up that's all." He looks back and forth to ensure that we're not being sarcastic about the entire thing.
"Yeah well do you think it's a little late though?" I ask.
"No way man. It's like a pot dealer. She's gotta expect late night calls. Occupational hazard."
"True. Anyhow, she's gotta be up, she's a total night owl. She told me so herself," I say.
"Let's go!" orders Dan.

We drove to your house, and turn off the car, when we realize that we forgot the milk. So we head back the opposite direction to the gas station, pick up a half gallon of plain and a half gallon of chocolate milk. We buzz ourselves into the building and stand in front of your door.

"Is this cool? I mean, is she gonna get totally pissed off or what?" Asks Chris.
"Yeah, what if she's sleeping?" Asks Dan.
"Hey, I see a light! Well let's knock really really lightly. If she's awake, she'll hear us. If she's sleeping, she'll keep sleeping." I say.
There we were, all hunched around front of your door, fairly stoned, half gallon cartons of milk in our hands. I knock really lightly on your door when Milo-dogg starts barking his head off. The three of us look at each other for a second, and without further ado we run from the building and back into the car, laughing our heads off! We weren't sure if you were there or not, but we knew that if you had been, then you were sleeping and Milo would have woken you up with the barking. We didn't want to piss you off so we ran, each man for himself at that point. We all make it back to the getaway car and couldn't stop laughing at how stupid we were acting..."

So is it my friendship they want or my highly coveted cupcake?

At the end of the day, like the late Michael Jackson (rest in peace), I'm happy to buy my friends, even if they are goofy musician potheads. Hell, at least I don't have to buy them zoo animals or mansions or anything like that. It's easy to be generous when you're serving up cream cheese coconut frosting... Or black-bottom chocolate cupcakes with ghiradelli chocolate chips on top... Or white frosting with almond slivers... Or a lemon bars made with real vanilla bean...