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4 posts from January 2013

NOLA! January 29, 2013

New Orleans was better than I expected, and I'd had pretty high hopes to begin with. 

What I expected: a Disney-fied city full of lights and magic and people who only cared about making a tourist buck. 

What we found: a working city full of lights and magic and people who cared about their city and the people visiting it. 

We stayed at the Hotel Villa Convento in the French Quarter on Ursulines. I'd just finished reading Heads in Beds (which was awesome, by the way, plus being half-set in New Orleans and written by someone who loves the city), and I was obsessed by this advice: Always tip the front desk clerk. 

Now, I was a front desk clerk for years. I worked a tiny hotel in San Luis Obispo, a sweet place where I made four loaves of bread every night before going to bed (we shut the desk from 11pm-7am, and I slept in a back dorm, staying from Friday night until Monday morning) so that the guests had fresh bread when they woke up. Every once in a while, I got a tip, and to that person I was grateful though I was sometimes confused. 

In the book, Tomsky says that you should always tip the desk. What's a twenty going to get you? Maybe nothing, but then you're only out twenty bucks. But hey, you might get an upgrade, or an extra perk, like a bottle of wine. I wanted to try it, but I was nervous. What if the clerk carefully picked up the bill between two fingers and sneered, "Is this a bribe, madam?" (Tomsky said this never happens.)

So as soon as we got to the small desk at the very old hotel, I said, "Hi, checking in, and uh, this is for you." I slid the bill across the old, scarred wood.

The darling man behind the counter said, "What's this?" (Worst nightmare.) 

I said, even more nervous, "It's for whatever you can do for us. [Stammering] You know, for a nice room, maybe?" 

"You're the last one in, and the only other room I have is the budget room." 

"Okay, then. That's just for you. I used to work front desk and I know how people can be." 

Oh, my friends. The look on his face! He just melted. "Oh! I NEEDED this. It's been SUCH a day, you have no idea!" 

I wasn't trying to buy a friend, and I know we would have made fast friends with Vincenzo anyway. But that just made it faster, right? Twenty bucks very well spent. I will absolutely do this on all my future trips. 

So our new bestie Vincenzo sent us down the block for a drink (I'd been up for literally 48 hours at that point, but really wanted to see a little of the city before we went to bed) to his favorite place, Pravda. At Pravda, we had a wonderful cocktail waitress named Lucy, who was so friendly it was unreal (we're from Northern California. We do politely disinterested, at best). She said, "Oh, you're not from here? Can I tell you some places to eat?" We expected her to return with a printed list of recommended restaurants. Instead, she brought us this. 

Dante's Kitchen, best meal we've had in memory

And then she proceeded to take the time to tell us what she liked at each place and how to get to each one. ("Well, you could take a cab, but it would be better to take the streetcar. What you do is...")  This was Friday night after Mardi Gras season had just started. (Lala and I kept looking at each other and saying, "What? Are we in Canada or something? People are so nice.") 


Speaking of Mardi Gras, we NEVER would have booked a trip had I known that Mardi Gras is not a day or even a week, but apparently a month or so of crazy-pants-time. But we were innocently clueless. Lala had an old friend there, and we met up with him and friends (awesome friends! Adopting them!) and did a local's night, watching the Petit Rex parade. A whole parade of little tiny floats! Plus bands! Jayzus! 


And, oh, oh! We did a bike tour with Bob of Big Easy Bike Tours. This cannot be highly stressed enough: if you go to NOLA, go on a bike tour with him. Read his reviews there on Yelp. The man knows everything, and is passionate about the city.

Bob, at the cemetery, talking about how the crypts are built. 

Three hours, pedaling through the (mercifully flat) town, we got miles and miles of information. The stories he told us about Congo Square in Armstrong Park made me teary, and I'll always think of that as the spiritual center of the town.


His excitement was contagious, and the most important part was that he told us about THE DOG PARADE which was happening on Sunday. 

The Dog Parade (Barkus)! With New Orleans jazz bands? What? HEAVEN. 


You know that game you play at the bar? "Who would you go home with?" We played "Who would you adopt?" This was the one I'd have taken home.


She was very small, very short like a French bulldog with a head like a pittie and legs splayed like a cowboy long months on the trail. I fell in love with her joyous waddle. 


Dachshunds are natural peacocks, after all.


Her sign says "Show us your ticks!"


Mr. Smartypants here would like Miss Idaho.


We saw Bob!! He gave us a football for Clara.


There is a very cute moment when Lala gives herself over to something. Example: She's going to LA. Fine. That'll be fun, she thinks. Then, when she's there, she's all, "DID YOU KNOW ABOUT HOLLYWOOD? THE STARS! THEY'RE AMAZING!" There's hand-flapping, friends. It's awesome. At the dog parade, at first she said, "Nah, no beads, no worries. Don't need 'em. Just here for the dogs, thanks." And as the children continued to throw them at us from their dog-mobiles, she turned to me and said, "THIS IS AMAZING. I LOVE THIS SO MUCH. I WANT MOAR BEADS MOAR." In the above picture, she was finally (regretfully) culling her Mr. T. stash. 

It was the best freaking parade ever. 

I also got a very funny shirt while there: 

If you don't get it, that's okay. 

New Orleans, it turns out, is Lala's Venice. She wandered at night, long after I'd gone back to the hotel, jamming on the banjo with some punk kids, losing herself in the streets. She's in love. (And in a particular way, New Orleans reminded me very much of Venice. A city that runs on tourist dollars yet still retains stubborn civic pride; a city falling down, crumbling at the edges but still beautiful; a city that smells of diesel and stagnant water and pastries; a city gorgeous in its unapologetic debauchery.)

We packed so much wunnerful stuff into a single weekend. And I adore the fact the fact that we'll be back. 

Miss AngelJanuary 23, 2013

This story is from my friend Katie. My day (and my life) is brighter because of it. This is her story, and it's best told in her words, with her permission. (This is the good stuff, friends. This is what it's all about.)

* *  * 

I live in the historic downtown of a small town in the central valley of California. Hanford. You might have seen the sign on the I-5 or even driven thru it on the way to Sequoia. It is the county seat, which means this is the only place where you can get welfare or mental health help or free meals from churches.

We have a huge homeless population, and because I'm out early in the mornings, walking the dogs in the alley, I see pretty much everyone. I'm not talking about the guys standing at the stoplight out by WalMart. I'm talking about the guys who are sleeping behind dumpsters wrapped in trashbags. People who have lost their jobs and been evicted with all their belongings in a Target bag.

This winter has been particularly wet and rainy and foggy and dreary. I was taking out the trash and saw a young woman with two kids...proably school-age but just, so maybe 5 and 6. They were wearing a half dozen t-shirts all on top of each other for warmth because they didn't even have sweatshirts on. They were digging through the dumpster for something to eat and the kids had on FLIP FLOPS. It is rainy and they are digging thru trash for food in flip flops. Mom wasn't even dressed as warmly as the kids and they all had that skim milk colored skin...sort of white and blue at the same time.  Broke my heart.

So I wrote a little note on Facebook, asking if anyone had extra anything could they drop it off at the back of my building. I'm on an alley, so you hardly even need to slow down.

A couple of days later, I park my car and this raggedy guy is digging thru the one cardboard box I have out there and asks me if I'm Miss Angel. Rachael, I am so far from being the A in Angel that I'm the end of the Russian alphabet. He said he had heard that Miss Angel had a box for poor people; a box they could just look thru and get whatever they needed. He had found a pair of pants that would fit but he had found two pair of socks (old ones of my son's) and wondered if it would be okay if he took both of them so his boy could go to school in dry socks. I told him I could not see any reason on earth why that wouldn't be okay.

Then I wrote another little note on Facebook, telling about this guy and within a week, there are four or five boxes of clothes and blankets and stuff being dropped off at the corner of my building. Last night, I saw a little family...dad, mom and a little boy about four (I taught kindergarten, so I can tell when they are little about how little they are.) I'm upstairs with the window open, just checking on things because I don't want some professional yard sellers to be driving by and just scooping this stuff up.

So the grownups are digging through the boxes---people have put blankets in trash bags so they will stay dry--and they find some little blanket that is blue and drape it around the little kid's shoulders. Then, the dad pulls a little teddy bear out of one of the boxes and you would have thought that money was raining down on them. The last little bit I saw was the kid, wrapped up in his blanket, snuggled up on dad's shoulder, clutching his teddy bear. Heck, I don't even know if they were a real family...I just know a little boy had a dry blanket and a teddy bear to sleep with.

In the meantime, people drive by, drop off boxes or bags of stuff as well as little bags of hygiene items...those travel sized toothbrushes and tooth paste and soap.

I'm not running a charity. I'm trying to stay out of it as much as I can but the outpouring of abundance is just amazing me. Two months ago, I was finding crack pipes in the alley. Now I'm finding blankets and socks and tampons...because even homeless women have periods. Someone even dropped off a big box of Tampax (did  you know homeless women use socks and ripped-up tee shirts?) 

I know there are several shelters here in town and also several churches who provide hot meals. But these people are on foot and so transient that they don't have anyplace to keep anything. So the people in my little town are dropping off not huge boxes of fur coats, but extra socks or blankets or sweatshirts. It has sort of taken on a life of its own. I still see home guys in the alley when I take the dogs out and they still will tell me to not go east down the alley because it's not safe. But here? They say it is safe because they keep an eye on it, making sure that the wimmens and chillern can find something dry for the night.

And sometimes I findt little notes...little bits of paper saying "Thank you, I havent had dry feet in so long." or just little scraps of paper saying "Thnk u"
Does it just blow you away? Homeless people around here are not like they are in San Francisco. They are invisible. They sleep behind dumpsters or in the little spaces between buildings or in the little alcoves of the back doors of buildings.....and those are just the ones I see because I'm out with the dogs. I see a lot of homeless guys I had in class in prison....and I feel safer because I know they know I'm a person, just walking my dogs.

All I did was write a couple of little posts on Facebook.

So there is the whole story. If all it does is make you feel as good as it makes me feel, fine. If you decide to share it, dandy. I guess what I'm saying is that even a teeny little bit of help is good for you, for your self. And if people who have yard sales every weekend of the world come in and take every last little bit...that is on them.

But the world is not as bleak as I thought it was. And my life is not as hopeless as I sometimes think it is.


* * * * 

Katie mentioned in a follow-up email to me that there have been SEVENTY-FIVE boxes dropped off silently and anonymously in her alley so far. 

EngagedJanuary 18, 2013

Usually I do an end-of-year recap, don't I? 2012 was rough on a lot of folks, and it seems like we were ready to boost it out the door. I'll throw a quickie out there and call it good. 

On the low end of things, I had a hysterectomy for medical reasons, discovering in the process a life-threatening condition that hurtled me into full menopause at 39, and tried depression on for the first time (it doesn't suit my coloring, I found out). Good times! 

On the higher end of things, I traveled to Pittsburgh and San Luis Obispo to teach creative writing, went to Italy by myself, finished writing two novels, camped in the great outdoors, and bought the SmartCar of my dreams!  I sewed a lot and bought many pairs of glasses on cheap internet sites. I changed my diet completely (to an anti-inflammatory regimen, which is amazing), and I dropped thirty pounds as a result. I spent more time with family and friends than I had in years, which was the best part of all. 

The word for this coming year? ENGAGED

Last year, much of the time I was present but not engaged. It was a symptom of the depression (and it took me forever to recognize that). I hated it.

This year, I want to connect. I know it sounds trite and easy, but I'm really serious about it. I mentioned it a while back, but the volunteer work I've been doing at the George Mark House (the hospital for children with chronic, life-span-limiting and terminal illnesses) is blowing my damn mind. I can't give particulars, naturally, out of respect for both the patients and HIPPA regulations, but take a look at their website if you're curious. And in a couple of weeks, I'm training there to work with the palliative aquatics program! Eee! 

The above video has a bunch about the aquatics program and a little about the house itself. 

And you know what I'm MOST excited about this morning? I just signed Clara up for the first step in training her to be a therapy dog! She's the most empathetic dog I've ever met--she plays hard with exuberant kids and big dogs and is beyond gentle with timid children and animals. And if she gets certified, then she can come with me to George Mark! 

So this year is already lining itself up to be a good one, as I hope it is for you.

(And apropos of nothing but thinking about awesomeness, my new favorite yarn in all the wold is Cascade Eco Cloud. I haven't felt like this about a kind of yarn in years, literally. I want all of it. Check it out if you haven't already.)  

Craft ADDJanuary 8, 2013

I have craft ADD going on right now. I always get this way when I start writing a book. First drafts are rough for me, and I flap about during this stage, searching for anything else I might be good at so that I won't have to write. 

I'm deep into being in love with metalworking at home. I want to make jewelry! Like the darling Kate Richbourg does in her great Craftsy classes (highly recommended). I bought the tools but I'm kind of being a chicken about starting, and I'm not sure why. (I was this way with my serger, too. It took me a full week to get the guts to take it out of the box.) 

I'm also sewing my little fingers off. Made this today at Sonya Philip's studio: 


It's yet another dress for my Uniform of Tunics. It has flashy gold on the bias tape, which I love. 


And I made Tiramisu by Cake Patterns! It turned out great in $3/yard sale fabric. 


I was so inspired by that success that I tried to make another one in quilt cotton. IT DID NOT WORK, YO. The whole dress was beyond hope. So I tried to make some zippered bags to make myself feel better and put the zippers in upside-down. You take the crumbles with the cookies, right? (I think I just made that up. Because it doesn't make sense, I'm willing to bet this isn't a common phrase.) 

I've been painting, too! 

I painted Clementine for Lala for Christmas.

(Tangled by the neck in the jasmine. As she does.)

Want to know what's funnier than that painting? The fact that Lala painted me a picture of Digit. Same size frame, mat, everything. We laffed. It's the anti-Gift-of-the-Magi! 

(She even got his cranky expression!) 

I swear to you, I'm doing everything I can not to write. I'm knitting both Madroña and Lady Marple. Oh, and four different socks. 

And yet, even with all the ways I try to get out of writing, somehow I still get my grumbling ss to the cafe and get my writing done in the mornings. Because someday a first draft will be a second one, and I love revising. And then a revised draft will someday become a book!

That's the best bit of all. And it's my favorite craft.

(Except for knitting.)