Long Story Short: Looking at and for bayous — blue and otherwise

When I was 13, I had never seen a proper bayou but felt a connection to them nonetheless — especially blue ones. All thanks to Linda Ronstadt.
I would sing that song to the top of my lungs over and over and over again.
I’m going back some day, come what may, to Blue Bayou. Where the folks are fine and the world is mine on Blue Bayou.
I recognized back then that Linda Ronstadt had a perspective I didn’t have. (I also knew she was from Arizona — a lot further from any bayous than my Mississippi home.)
The point was that there was something about that song that resonated with me. Maybe I had a premonition that some day I’d live on a bayou.
This fall, I’ve thought a lot of that song and the call of the water. In a matter of weeks, I’ve had unexpected opportunities to spend more time than usual on the water.
First, it was the small stuff. I went canoeing at dusk on Lake Martin. Friends and I spotted a bald eagle and watched him perched atop a water tupelo then swoop through the cypress toward a large nest. The trip barely lasted two hours, but I came home refreshed and armed with something I had never seen in Louisiana — a bald eagle.
Shortly after the Lake Martin canoeing, other friends asked if I could join them moving their catamaran from Cypremort Point to New Orleans. How could I resist? Traveling the Intercoastal Waterway was a thing of beauty (especially compared to the hours we spent stuck in the gunk of West Cote Blanche Bay). Let’s just say the new-up-to-date charts weren’t exactly accurate on the depth of the water. Thanks to experienced hands on deck (mine not included), we made it out of the bay and eventually were breezing along the Intercoastal.
Unlike Ronstadt, I am unfamiliar with the sunrise. I learned that boating hours generally begin earlier than the part of the day I know well. However, if my sleepy eyes were able to cast upon the morning light hitting the tall grass of the marsh, I might consider adjusting my biological clock. The sight was such a thing of beauty that I suspect the quiet of the morning and the specific shade of the green in the warm glow will stay with me for as long as I remember things.
Our trip up the Intercoastal included passing tugs, barges, a mountain of salt being loaded, a rope ferry, a couple of gators, fish jumping and many birds — including more bald eagles than we could count. The trip was a taste of a whole different world than I operate in on a daily basis — yet all within an hour’s drive from my home. Because of our foray into the muck of West Cote Blanche Bay, we didn’t make it all the way to New Orleans and docked in Morgan City instead. Turns out, Morgan City was for me, in my limited experience, an incredibly interesting place to dock.
Continuing the water fall, my dad decided to rent a houseboat out in the middle of the Atchafalaya Basin for the week of Thanksgiving. I spent considerable time wrapped in a kiwi green fleece blanket on an old Army cot at the edge of a tiny porch of an old red houseboat docked in a cove bursting with water hyacinths. Sometimes I thought and talked with family and friends. And other times, I just looked at the silver moon.
I felt the world was mine even though the bayou wasn’t blue.

Long Story Short: Gathering your thanks

A few weeks ago, a friend told me he was working on his Thanksgiving List — that’s right, with a capital T and a capital L.
I asked the obvious question.
“What’s a Thanksgiving List?”
He explained that his father had been a longtime Thanksgiving List-maker. Thankfully, his father’s list grew longer each November.
My friend had been working on his list for several weeks. Diligently, his wife was making hers. In fact, every member of their family was working on a Thanksgiving List to bring to Turkey Day.
Here’s what they do:
For every year lived, each family member writes down a moment — a memory — for which they are grateful.
Not necessarily major accomplishments. Not necessarily spotlight moments complete with trophies or prestigious awards, but the other, more personal moments that have staying power.
I asked for an example from his list. Here’s what he had to offer.
He, his wife and their two daughters live on the East Coast. They were snowed in several times last winter. On the morning after an epic snowstorm, he decided nothing was going to keep him and his 3-year-old daughter from missing a Washington Capitals game. Despite the blanket of snow, they took a train into the city.
About three miles from the arena, the train had to stop. Too much snow. Everyone debarked and set out on foot. He put his daughter on his shoulders and began to walk and wonder what he was going to do. The situation was becoming dire.
He walked by a cab.
A driver was in it.
He asked the driver if he would take a fare. The driver said he would.
So, in a very deserted nation’s capital, my friend and his young daughter made their way to the hockey game in the lone car on the streets.
After a nail biting finish, the home team won. My friend went on to tell of amazing things that followed — involving the rescue of nearly frozen goldfish and lackluster room service, but events that eventually worked together to create lasting and life-changing friendships.
However, it was that simple act of walking on perfect snow with his daughter on his shoulders that stayed. As he told the story and even still, I’m pretty sure I hear the snow crunch.
The rules of The Thanksgiving List are simple.
Figure out how old you are. Start thinking. Then, using whatever writing mechanism you prefer — from crayon to ipad. Write down moments you are thankful for — one for each year of your life. The moments don’t have to come from specific years. Just look back over time and consider moments small and large, meaningful and seemingly insignificant — but figure out the ones you are most grateful for.
Then, wherever it is you’re celebrating Thanksgiving, take your list. If you’re able, tell your fellow-Thanksgivingers of your plan in advance.
If not, be bold. Take your list anyway. At some point during the meal — and I believe you’ll recognize the moment when it comes, pull out The List. Explain it. And, share the first one. (It would super-terrific if you were wearing a corduroy jacket with suede elbow patches and an interior pocket to pull The List from.) However, The List is effective in any form. Even if others don’t come to the table prepared, they’ll be able to decide upon a moment to share.
Thanksgiving offers the perfect chance for everyone to try on a little shared gratitude for size

Past perfect music goes to the highest bidder

“You need to find six strong men,” my mom said over the phone. She was one hour into the four-hour drive to my house with a 100-year-old piano in the back of a pickup, tied up Clampett-style. “We’ll be there by 7. We’ll have to get the piano inside tonight.”
Two days earlier, my father had called nearly breathless about the possibilities of the auction of an old house and its goods near where he lived as a child. A boy named Norman, who was my dad’s age, grew up there. Norman, according to my dad, was the kid who had all the cool toys.
“If I could have had those toys. Man,” my 68-year-old father said, as his head went swimming with the possibilities of childhood. “They’ve got some fine things in that house — lots of beautiful china.”
Over the course of life, there is much I’ve missed. However, I’ve learned if my football-coaching father is passionate about the possibilities of porcelain, it’s time to be excited.
My parents, technologically speaking, are dinosaurs. Therefore, after our initial auction hysteria, I spent considerable time online looking at the auction catalog and translating information over the phone.
Their goal was to buy a set of china for each grandchild. Focusing on antique dinnerware, I couldn’t help noticing the listed piano. I casually said, “If the piano is absolutely perfect — and only if it’s perfect — bid on it for me.”
I’ve also learned that old pianos are never perfect.
By the time Mom got a chance to see the goods, she called in a dither.
“Jan, the piano is perfect,” she said.
“Mom, the piano can’t be perfect.”
“But it is,” she said. “Norman is here. The piano was his grandmother’s pride and joy. She had it tuned every two years. Willie Mae Mitchell played a recital on it. I’ve checked every note. A hundred years old — and it’s still in tune.”
Mrs. Mitchell, my first piano teacher, was old 40 years ago when I started taking lessons from her. I’ve since learned that she did, in fact, play a Hungarian rhapsody called Falling Leaves by Koelling on this very piano. (I spoke to her sister-in-law, who was able to verify the information because she happened to have a copy of the 1926 recital’s program. That’s the way things work in a small town.)
Even without a complete provenance, I knew what to say to my mom.
“Bid.”
And so my mother did.
A day later, I gathered an unlikely crew of nine, young and old, to move the piano. They stood in the dark waiting, discussing and deciding on the best approach to move the heavy music machine. Much hilarity ensued. Watching the group of fathers and sons, friends and strangers work together was a thing of beauty. It reminded me of an Amish barn raising — people coming together to accomplish a goal that a family couldn’t alone.
It made me happy.
After a 15-year-old son removed a door handle and a 14-year-old son shortened a doorstop, the piano fit through the door with one-eighth inch clearance. Then, with a whopping quarter-inch of wiggle room, it fit into the nook I had picked out for it.
Stars aligned. Everyone seemed to realize we were in the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
Once in place, three of the burly muscle men took their turn at the piano.
The music was beautiful.
It was, in fact, perfect.

Long Story Short: Skin deep.

Real books with real pages and stiff covers are still my preference, but electronic readers like Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes and Noble’s Nook have some cool advantages — especially when traveling.
The ability to take a stack of books inside a tiny mechanism that weighs about half a pound is a beautiful thing, but my favorite feature of electronic readers is their built-in dictionary.
Put the cursor on any word and, voila, the definition appears — and learning new words makes me happy. Even at this age, I find that the magic of new words still exists. When I learn a word I didn’t know, I hear it or have opportunities to use it frequently — just like I did when I was a kid.
So last week as I read Alexander McCall Smith’s The Charming Quirks of Others, I was delighted to learn a word that made me want to sing. The word: palimpsest— a manuscript that has been reused one or more times after earlier writing has been erased. Occasionally, the older writing peaks through.
The word is derived from ancient parchments prepared from animal hides. Scribes would scrape off a layer of writing to use the parchment again.
Unlike yesteryear’s animal hides, today’s newsprint wouldn’t hold up to the scraping off of many layers. However, if there was a way to convey the layers of this week’s column — how many times I scraped off words with my cursor and delete button, we would have a virtual palimpsest.
Through 10 years of writing, I’ve learned and re-learned a lot about going about the business of developing a column. I have to remind myself of what W.H. Auden said, “Some writers confuse authenticity, which they ought always to aim at, with originality, which they should never bother about.”
For me, creating a column is about getting to that day’s authentic piece of truth — which may or may not be something I want to write about.
My truth today falls into the “may-not-be-something-I-want-to-write-about” category. My reasons are valid. I’m hesitant to reveal what a wuss I really am. Plus, I don’t want to whine or make much ado about very little.
But here’s the truth, the phone call I got from my dermatologist’s office this week would not, in the broad scheme of the medical field, register on the Richter Scale, but it freaked me out a little bit. Someone with a name like Brandy called to tell me that the biopsy they did on the pimple-like blemish on my forehead was, in fact, basal cell carcinoma — the most common type of skin cancer.
In the dermatological world, I sense that basal cell carcinoma registers about as much anxiety as having to wait for an iced tea refill during lunch.
Or maybe less.
But that was before they told me I had it. Which is how it works, isn’t it?
I realize that this type of skin cancer is a minor road bump in life — and I’d be perfectly comfortable exposing that piece of me.
However, if I peel back the layers and reveal my most authentic self, the word cancer scares me silly — and that’s certainly not original, but getting to that truth took some work.