Friday, March 30, 2007


Wednesday, in the middle of writing the previous post, my vision suddenly went funny. I had arrived at work early and was spending a few minutes at my laptop, thinking about passion flowers and how great my life is, when everything started to swim and then went totally fuzzy. It was terribly frightening, and lasted about 25 minutes, during which time I conversed with colleagues and prepared for my first session (I know, I know, how stupid does this sound?). The vision issue eventually resolved but was immediately replaced by a headache and copious vomiting, at which point I promptly and rather foolishly drove myself to the emergency room. (The fact that I choose to put myself behind the wheel while in such a grievous state is a testament to both my state of mind at the time (scared shitless) and my complete inability to ask for help--but I'm working on it. ) I decided upon Oschner, despite the fact that Trinity is mere blocks away from Touro, because I could not bear the thought of scrambling for parking in the middle of the Garden District so close to lunch hour. And then there was just the tiniest voice whispering inside my befuddled head, reminding me that I did not want to be in Orleans parish in the midst of a personal health crisis. And so I evacuated to Jefferson.

Turns out I was having an ocular migraine--something I had never before experienced and hope to never re-experience. At the time, though, I thought I was having a stroke. The docs at Oschner thought I might have a brain tumor, and they sent me for a CT scan pronto. Afterwards I was sent to an exam room to await the results of the scan, where I passed the time reading a chapter in which the esteemed psychiatrist Irvin Yalom encourages therapists to help their clients explore death anxiety. After almost an hour of exploring every nook and cranny of my existential despair, I looked up as the doctor rapped loudly on the door and stepped inside. The first thing I noticed was that he was not smiling. Ack.

"You know how in a moment everything can change?" he said.

Now, call me crazy, but this did nothing to dispel my anxiety. As I stared at him staring at my chart, I began to think about how I was going to break the news to my family. I thought about my baby, my beautiful, soft, innocent, tow-headed girl, and started to get pissed: I would NOT be denied the privilege of watching her grow up! She needs me! What kind of God would force a child to grow up without her mother? It seemed I had I skipped entirely over the initial stage of Kubler-Ross's grief model, past denial (see, I told you I always expect the worst will happen) right on over to anger. No way was this doctor--wait a minute, his badge said he was a physician's assistant!--going to tell me my life was over. No way.

The P.A. was shaking his head. "Things change around here so fast," he lamented. "You know that family doctor I was telling you about? I guess she's not taking new patients after all."

Wednesday, March 28, 2007


Near the top of the long list of Things I Wish I Could Do But Can't (drawing, sewing, typing, tap dancing, surfing, etc, etc) lies gardening, a skill--nay, a talent--that has always seemed to me to be an enigma. Plants are, in my experience, petulant organisms; they'll turn on you for no good reason, simply because you plucked a stem on the wrong day or turned the soil 47 times instead of 50. They require extraordinary patience, and vision, and faith that this barren branch or fistful of seeds will take root, will bloom and flourish according to plan. I have always been enthralled by the sight of neighbors on their hands and knees on a weekend morning, faces and arms smeared with dirt, hauling bags of soil and mulch and wrestling with serpentine water hoses. What compels this behavior? How did they learn to do this? Or, more importantly, how do they know its going to work?

It has never 'worked' for me, that much is certain. Until a couple of years ago, a triad of Crinums constituted the bulk of our domestic "garden," which is apparently nothing to be proud of: I've heard more than one expert state something to the effect that if you can't keep a Crinum alive, you'd better just give up and hire a professional. Crinums are hardy; they are Chrissie-proof. They are beautiful, but they were here before we got here and they bloom spectacularly independent of any amount of attention or maintenance.

But the passion flowers, they are a different story. I discovered the passion flower on a trip to England in the summer of 2004, in the cottage garden of a friend of Cade's just outside of Cambridge. I sat on the patio and ate Cadbury's Milk Chocolate Fingers and spied, among a tangle of dark green vines, the most brilliant and complex flowers I had ever seen. They seemed completely alien, so intricately designed that they made me doubt my doubts about God. Someone had to be responsible for this impossible beauty.

I was extremely skeptical of Sean's claims that the flowers required minimal tending, and even more skeptical of Cade's mother's suggestion that we transfer some clippings from her own garden to the sad, barren flower boxes adorning the front of our house. Who was I to take on such a task? Those flowers, those passion-inspiring flowers, were so far out of my league I felt I should not even be looking at them, let alone assuming responsibility for their survival.

But before I could say passiflora incarnata, Cade's mother had sent us home with several pots of small, frighteningly delicate-looking passion flower tendrils. I watched as Cade planted the wispy vines, next to several thick, thorny bougainvilleas that seemed equally doomed to withering expiration. I did my best to ignore their presence--not wanting to get too attached, too hopeful--even when the tiny tendrils began to creep upwards, to wrap themselves around the sides and bottom of the ugly iron structure, even when Cade had to build copper scaffolding to support the vine's weight and to encourage further, upward growth. Now we were talking details: Should we put in a third piece of copper, to form a sort of arch, thus encouraging the passion flower to take over the entire facade? Should we plant more, on the other side of the house, to maintain balance, a feng shui with foliage? And lastly--this is the real kicker, here--should we prune the thing, or something? We have passion flower everywhere!

This, like so much in my life, is an unexpected abundance. Perhaps--no, not perhaps, for sure--I do this to ward off some anticipated and seemingly inevitable disappointment, but I tend to assume that the worst will happen (to me). I have never understood the people whose husbands or wives or--it pains me just to write this--children die tragically and/or suddenly and who subsequently proclaim that they never thought it would happen to them. I always think it will happen to me. I fully expect that I will die in a plane crash, or my car will plunge into the Mississippi River, or that Cade will die young or our house will burn down or I will be diagnosed with a lethal tumor of some sort. It is macabre, and I am loathe to admit it, but its true.

And its also why good things, particularly an abundance of good things, have always come as a surprise. Cade came out of left field; I was fully prepared and quite content to remain single, as I never for one minute assumed that I might meet my soul's mate. I mean, what are the chances of that? And having children was out of the question, as I never for one minute imagined I would be given such an enormous gift. It just seemed out of the question.

And yet, despite all my skepticism, I am continuously rewarded with unexpected gifts. Our success with the passion flower is but one example, and I am reminded of it every time I walk through the front door. I guess you could say it keeps me humble.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Free Fall

Yesterday, on the way to drop Sydney off, Tom Petty's "Free Falling" came on the radio. The song's opening bars never fail to engage me: the slow, measured thrumming of a guitar, a sonic tease, giving way to Petty's signature whine. She's a gooood girl/loves her mama/loves Jesus/and America too. I love the song for so many reasons, not the least of which because it speaks to that part of me that yearns endlessly for freedom, for escape, from whatever, whomever, whenever. I always, always pull a Jerry Maguire when I hear the song; I crank up the volume and scream to no one in particular that I'm gonna free fall/out into nothing/gonna leave this world for a while with the windows rolled down completely and, before I kicked the habit, a lit cigarette in my non-steering hand.

Although I no longer reach for a cigarette in moments such as these, the urge to give myself over to the experience remains. To free fall, or rock the casbah, or ramble on, or--my personal, absolute favorite--to join Mick Jagger in protesting that I will never, never be your beast of burden. Yet opportunities such as this are hard to come by these days. As was the case yesterday morning, I am often prevented from entering into this most assured bliss by the tiny, impressionable little person seated behind me. Sydney may enjoy a good Mardi Gras Mambo, but I suspect that forcing her to endure the sight of her mother rocking out to tune after sodding tune, at top volume, with the windows rolled completely down (no cigarette though, no cigarette), would qualify as totally bad parenting. And so I refrain.

Tom Petty sings about the exhilaration of personal freedom, and I squelch my own desires in the face of my responsibility to another. The irony is obvious.

A quick caveat: I l-o-v-e being a mother. No regrets, here. But with the decision to have a child came an extraordinary amount of sacrifices--not just the obvious sacrifices, like time and sleep and the ability to read sad books involving children without dissolving into a mass of anxiety and fear, but the more subtle and insidious things like this: like the constant squelching, the muting of desire, the scattering of self, the abdication of personal freedom.

I have always been a mover, a nomad, an explorer, a seeker. My birthday falls smack in the middle of Sagittarius country, and though I would not profess to believe squarely in the stuff, my astrological sign seems to summarize fairly well the more distinct facets of my personality (except, of course, the bit about Sags being opinionated, stubborn, and judgmental; that is patently ridiculous):
  • Traveling
  • getting to the heart of the matter
  • Freedom
  • Laws and meanings
  • the general 'feel' of things
  • Off the wall theories
  • being tied down domestically
  • Being constrained
  • cooling your heels
  • bothered with details
Do I value traveling, and freedom, and 'getting to the heart of the matter?' Well, sure. Absolutely. That is me in a nutshell. And do I dislike being 'tied down domestically?' Do I strain against the bonds of married life, of motherhood? Do I stifle the urge to flee, to move somewhere, anywhere, else? Do I find myself watching shows like Lost and thinking gee, that looks nice, I'd like to wake up on a remote island far, far away from anything and spend my days foraging for coconuts and investigating the mysterious Others? Do I visit the websites of towns I know I will probably never have the opportunity to visit and dream of an unencumbered life? Do I dislike being constrained?

Absolutely not! I mean, what kind of person would that make me?

Thursday, March 15, 2007

New Orleans Baby

The other morning, on the way to daycare, I popped in the Putamayo World Playground CD and scrolled through the tracks looking for something to wake Syd from her cranky stupor. I am not exaggerating in the least when I say the child went nuts when 'Mardi Gras Mambo' (Track 6) came on. The song starts with a blast of brass, which Sydney instantly recognized. She waved her arms in the air, kicked her legs against the car seat, and gave a single yelp of sheer delight. We sang and did the seatbelt boogie all the way to Oak Street.

Now that is a New Orleans lady.

Monday, March 12, 2007

Cherchez la Fete

Behind every exhausted mother in New Orleans there is a street festival.

We made it to the Fete Francais this past Saturday, just as the food was running out and the keg of Abita was tapped. The place was packed with people, families and singles and young couples cuddling on the sun-drenched lawn. They had a dozen or so vendors and some cool activities for the kids, including an area packed with easels and paints and brushes. (I watched as a young girl ran up to her parents, her hands and arms and face smeared with paint; instead of reacting with alarm, her parents thought it was hilarious and had her pose for a series of photos showcasing her body art. You gotta love that.) My mom was in town for the weekend and she remarked on the diversity of the crowd, articulating a thought that sometimes forces its way past all the worries and doubts I carry in my conscious mind: that this is what makes living here worthwhile. New Orleans + Springtime = Festival after Glorious Festival.

I first came for Jazz Fest in 1994. It was the end of my first year in college and some friends were leaving Sarasota on a Thursday, after class, driving all night through the fog to crash wherever and hopefully score some tickets (we had no idea that tickets to J.F. don't sell out). It was one of those trips where sleeping was optional; if we didn't have somewhere to stay we'd just sleep in the car. Turns out one of us had a friend who lived somewhere in the city--for the life of me I can't remember where--so we crashed at her place at night and made our way to the Fairgrounds each morning, with just enough cash for beer and a french fry po' boy. It rained on afternoon and I stood in front of the Acura stage and listened to BB King in the rain and thought I might come back someday soon. New Orleans was a pretty awesome place.

And I did come back, many times, for Jazz Fest and other things, until I eventually realized that I could come back for good, that people actually lived here, that I could wake up every morning in this town and that I could someday, if I worked hard enough, call this place my own. I would work hard in the fall and miss my family during the holidays, but when Spring rolled around I would be here, down the street or just a bike ride away from the festivities.

God help me, but I do love this town. And, for the record, so does Angelina Jolie.

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

The Entertainer

Billy Joel rocked the house last night. It was, by far, the best live show I have ever attended. Joel is in his mid-fifties now, slightly paunchy with a spare white tonsure, but his energy was infectious. He began the show by introducing himself as "Billy's dad," but you would never have guessed that this amazingly vibrant performer had done this sort of thing hundreds of times over the last 3 decades. He was just that good.

I bought my first Billy Joel album (a cassette), in the summer before my ninth grade year, at a small shop in Bar Harbor, Maine. There, in a bin in the corner, I found a copy of Piano Man, Joel's second album. Jen was taking tap lessons that summer and when we got back to their house--a large structure with wood floors that Arn had built himself before Jen was born--we put on the tape and Jen tapped away to 'Ain't No Crime' and 'Travelin Prayer.' I had been taking piano lessons for a couple of years at that point and had just begun to break away from the sheet music and tomes full of music by talented dead guys to see what I could do, if I could play something I'd heard on the radio without seeing the sheet music first. I sat in that house in Maine and watched my beautiful friend dance and tried to imagine what it would be like to have people listen to me play.

Sing us a song, you're the piano man,
Sing us a song tonight
Cause we're all in the mood for a melody
And you've got us feeling alright.

Less than a year later I fell hard for a boy who sat next to me on a piano bench during a party and played that song. I had listened to the song so many times I could play it with my eyes closed, but along came this boy who could somehow play it better. I felt instantly connected; here was someone who got it, who understood how the music gets under your skin, wriggles through your veins, makes you light-headed, compels you to a mostly untouched piano in the living room of a friend during a party in which sing-a-longs are most certainly not on the agenda.

I have so many memories like this, of times when this man's songs defined a particularly spectacular moment. In high school we discovered a copy of the sheet music for 'She's Always a Woman to Me' (or, as I like to think of it, 'She's a Manipulative Bitch but She's Always a Woman to Me') in the mailbox of a dowdy math teacher, delivered there, we surmised, by a secret admirer. Oh, how we cackled. Our 10th grade history teacher, Mrs. Thanski--married to Mr. Thanski, the physics teacher, who according to popular folklore, made all of their clothes himself--gave the class a choice: take her infamously impossible final exam, or use the lyrics of 'We Didn't Start the Fire' to tell the history of the modern world. (Most of us chose the latter.) And one of my most vivid memories from that era is of my friend Josh, who I met at Peace Camp (don't say it), going absolutely postal on the air guitar in my cabin as we blasted 'You May Be Right' over and over on the boom box. And Nicole, who confessed that she grew up hearing "you maaaade the rice (da-duh da-duh da da da), I maaaade the gravy."

There are so many memories. The last time I saw Billy Joel in concert, over a decade ago, in Orlando, I had just had my heart broken by the boy who played 'Piano Man' during that party many years before. I was shattered, breathless, confused. How could that connection I felt turn out to be false? How could this happen to me? Why didn't he love me? That bastard! When Joel stood under the spotlight and sang 'Innocent Man' I felt as though he was speaking directly to me, apologizing on behalf of this other person who had left me so devastated.

Some people say they will never believe
Another promise they hear in the dark
Because they only remember too well
They heard somebody tell them before
Some people sleep all alone every night
Instead of taking a lover to bed
Some people find that its easier to hate
Than to wait anymore.

Last night, as I stood with the other people on the floor of the Arena, I was flooded by memories, some bitter, some sweet, almost all a combination of both. Drawn in by the energy of the performance, I felt pulled back and forth between past and present, memory and reality. In the middle of a brilliant rendition of 'River of Dreams,' Joel and his band broke into 'When the Saints Go Marching In,' and the crowd, fairly contained up to that point, exploded. It was sheer exhilaration. When he played 'New York State of Mind,' I thought about how it feels to love a place so completely that you could never imagine living anywhere else, despite crime and disaster and rampant poverty. And later, when a 350-pound guitar roadie by the name of "Chainsaw" took the stage for the first time ever to belt out his version of 'Highway to Hell' (with Joel on rhythm guitar), I had a moment of such complete happiness that I briefly questioned what was really happening. Was I dreaming? Could I possibly make something like this up?

I left with the final bars of 'Piano Man' ringing in my ears. Today, the ringing has stopped, but the memories linger, all those songs and all those moments, my own personal soundtrack.

Friday, March 2, 2007


Last weekend we traveled to Houston for the wedding of Cade's cousin Ruth. It was this family who gave us shelter during our initial evacuation, from NOLA to Houston, this aunt--Cade's mother's younger sister--with whom Sydney shares a name. They are truly great people, some of the best I've met; they opened their home to us in our hour(s) of pretty dire need, they fed us gourmet meals, let us cry on their couches as we watched our city drown on CNN. I waddled around their house, 9 months pregnant and totally numb to the horrors that were unfolding, while they called upon friends and family to help me prepare for the baby's arrival. Parry, Cade's uncle, is an anesthesiologist, and at night when he would return from the hospital he would make the rounds in their living room, checking our blood pressure, making sure I was feeling the baby kick.

This weekend their oldest daughter got married. It was a beautiful wedding, elegant and relaxed. It was the first time we'd all been together since The Storm and it felt good, really good. It was a joyous reunion.

But it also felt strange, going back there. Houston is urban sprawl at its finest, a massive jumble of highway and shopping centers. Sure, I stumbled across a fair share of lovely mini-landscapes during the month we lived there, a beautiful park or a shady, serene neighborhood tucked away in the midst of it all. But I spent the majority of my time there cringing in the passenger seat of a car while its driver zipped confidently through the traffic cramming 610, or wandering the labrinyth that is the Galleria, staring absentmindedly at all the overpriced stuff and enduring the barely polite stares of passers-by. The baby was pressing down on my sciatic nerve, and the pain would often stop me in my tracks, in places like the Galleria, where the sight of a hugely pregnant woman doubled over in pain in front of Dillard's caused more than a few people to look twice.

As Cade expertly navigated the highway leading into the city ("I drove this every day," he told me, as I stifled gasp after panicked gasp and stamped the imaginary brake like an adolescent's mother), I showed Sydney the city in which she was nearly born. There was the Zone D'Erotica, its pink neon sign looming high above the interstate. There, at the end of the half-mile or so of bumper-to-bumper traffic, was the Galleria Mall. There, somewhere in the distance, not visible from the interstate, was the Hobbit Cafe--anyone who even casually knows my husband will know why this is important--where we went for gingerbread pancakes and fantastical escape. There was Meyerland Plaza, where Jamala and I spent many an afternoon, most memorably the afternoon of August 31st; while New Orleans drowned, we browsed the racks at Old Navy, as I had just figured out that I would need to buy some baby clothes.

And there, in the way off distance, the medical complex towered over Rice University. There was the place where Sydney was to make her much-anticipated arrival. As late as the morning of September 21st, when we left just ahead of the Rita traffic nightmare, I expected that my child would be born a Texan. The OB was a nice enough guy, whose utter cluelessness was illustrated in part by the way he responded to my phone call that morning. "I think I need a copy of my medical records, " I told him, as Cade's family scuttled to and fro packing their overnight bags and I thought no no no, two days' clothes is not nearly enough. There was a pause on the other end of the line, then: "So you don't want to be induced?" I sure as hell did not want to be induced, for more than one reason, but I merely repeated my request and he agreed to see me an hour later. When I arrived at his office, while Cade waited with the engine running in the parking garage, the good doctor insisted upon a full examination. He acted as if nothing was going on, as if the city and the media weren't in the throes of a full-on panic attack. When I told him we were leaving town, he looked at me curiously. I actually had to explain to this man that a hurricane was coming and it was not safe for a pregnant woman to stay.

I did not get to say goodbye to Houston. I did not get to say thanks. I see the bumper stickers and they don't seem sufficient. Last weekend was a fine return, a joyous reunion, but there is unfinished business that deserves attending.