Since I’ve moved back south, Alabama childhood memories have been surfacing, which led to this essay, “Skin Deep: The Story of Dr. Dr. Bentley and Me.” In it I reflect on how the former dermatologist/former Alabama governor once did battle with my skin afflictions.
All Things Laura and Other Things
In southern Louisiana, fall means the oranges are ripening on the trees, becoming full-fledged fruit instead of weird, round looking limes. The palm fronds are turning brown and a giant camellia shrub/tree is about to bloom outside of my window. The A/C is still blasting at work. Oh, and hey, you, that slime mold spore who stole my Slanky, I hope you have to wear it forever in hell.
Saturday was the monthly Lafayette Art Walk, and I try to be a communitarian, especially when there’s free wine. It’s starving artist protocol. And a perk of being a nonfiction writer is that I’m supposed to have adventures and investigate. No, I’m not a sad person with no friends. I’m an intrepid journalist on the beat.
After a few stops at places where I pretended to admire pastel beach landscapes while I topped off my glass, I strolled down to the Acadiana Center for the Arts which did not have free wine, but did have a coffee shop featuring Stumptown roasters out of Portland, my second favorite coffee in the world. The first is at Le Petit Outre in Missoula, Montana. Although to be fair, Montana makes coffee taste better
Naturally, I was drawn upstairs. I ran into a friend of mine with kids and they seemed into it. Always follow the kids.
Next, I went to the exhibit, “Trivial Pursuits: Obsession’s Allure.” My friend’s kids then got in trouble for throwing M & M’s and and they had to leave.
There were posters, albums, macrame hats, flyers…I was transported to my Freshman dorm where we all had Rumors on repeat as we guzzled Strawberry Hill.
The library also had free wine.
I went to a violin store, some more galleries, and averted my eyes from a Subway franchise. Why are they EVERYWHERE?
Another artsy buzz kill was that people were talking football everywhere, which I know is standard Deep South fare. Sometimes I am continually amazed at how out of touch I can be with Southern obsessions. I grew up in Tuscaloosa and should experience a spidey sense tingle when A Game is on. Then I realized that there wa as a game. Tonight. And I had been completely unaware.
My friend who I saw at the Arts Center is from Romania and grew up under the rule of Communism. When she first moved to Lafayette and experienced Game Day, she wondered why anyone would dress up in red and march around on purpose.
Clearly, I needed a southern tincture to ease the malaise. In Athens, Ohio, I had a cadre of bourbon drinking writers who I could pretty reliably find downtown if I needed that social gap filled. I don’t have that here. If I want to go in a stinky bar and drink I am on my own. Those who read my book know that on my Laura trip, I simply couldn’t face going into a bar alone. I was too terrified. Although to my credit, the Laura dress pretty much ruled out any hope of a low profile and Ma Ingalls would have been horrified.
For the first half, I experienced life as a sports dude at a bar. Not bad, actually. There’s beverages and the game eliminates need for awkward conversation. You just hang.
Eventually, though, all the “swoosh” noises followed by not-so-subliminal plugs for Home Depot over and over and over wore me out. By the second quarter I could tell Bama would win and lost interest.
That morning, my Romanian friend had given me hand-crocheted gloves, stitched by her Romanian grandmother, the thread pulled from clothes the grandmother wore in the early 20th century. They look kind of nice next to a glass of bourbon.
Where I last lived in Athens, Ohio, Halloween is a Big Deal. In fact, it is such a Big Deal, that the town can’t even celebrate Halloween on Halloween anymore. Kid’s trick or treating takes place on the 30th and the block party is a weekend early. That’s because Halloween is such a Big Deal, if celebrated on the actual day, everyone would probably explode.
Security advice for weekend partygoers includes “not exposing genitals,” as well as not wearing any fake genitals that “an officer would need to examine.”
I haven’t seen much fall anything around here in Lafayette. Probably because we’re still experiencing highs of 80 plus degrees and going down to the okra patch just isn’t the same. Although can I put in a vote for a sugar cane maze?
What does grow here, are pigs. So I went downtown to the annual Boudin Cookoff. Now, I will say straight up that I first had boudin five years ago in New Orleans…and it’s not my favorite. Boudin has rice, which gets kinda mushy, and the preferred preparation is to boil the links, which doesn’t help the mush. Then there’s the business of the organ meats. Anyhow, my tastes run to BBQ char on the pork loin. That being said, I was at a boudin cookoff and I had a fistful of hot pink tickets burning in my hand.
What I liked even better were the balls, which are rolled up, dredged in flour, and then deep fried. The only problem is by this point I had been to exactly one stand, and I was already with boudin child.
I didn’t take a picture, but another favorite was Ronnie’s smoked boudin, because the of the rich flavor and texture. Smoked was good, but I still maintain if one person went for the grill they’d be the fav. And next time, I’m bringing my own mustard bottle, which would imply this sausage is growing on me, since I said “next time.”
And what do you want after a bunch of rich, spicy pork? Ice cream sandwiches. And Blue Bell was handing them out. For FREE.
Best of all? No pumpkin-flavored anything to be found. Although I will miss the real Athens Halloween parade, which is the walks of shame taking place the next morning.
This past weekend I was the visiting writer at Penn State Harrisburg. Maybe famous writers sigh about the travel and the talking, etc. Not me.
It had been an especially trying week of teaching composition. The time has come where the first papers will be returned and the slackers are about to get their due, which doesn’t mean they like their due, or appreciate me for doling it out. Instead, the slackers are angry with me because I’m not like the cool teacher they had last term who showed Simpsons clips. Why can’t I be like that guy? No offense, but he was cool.
Here in Louisiana it’s too hot for me to put on my leather jacket and convince the kids that 18th century British poetry is like rap, yo. I have to remember to focus on the non-slackers, which are most of my students, and take deep cleansing breaths on my way to the wine store.
Thus, the chance to sit in a circle with other English majors, who love to read, and want to talk writing and publishing and reading and all the things that got me in this business in the first place is replenishment. These are the treat students. The goodies in the grab bag.
So I took out the dress, shook it out, and re-read Chapter One out loud for the first time in about a year, which was an exercise in multiple déjà vus. Nonfiction is a strange genre in that the person in your book is not the you who wrote the book or the you who exists today. And there I am trying to field questions about that me who left for Montana and decided to put on this prairie dress and drive around. What made me want to do that? Even now the best I can come up with is that I was like the goat who went over the mountain.
Hey there! I have an essay up at Alimentum: The Literature of Food about how Krispy Kreme doughnuts saved me from an eating disorder.
Moving involves a ton of sweat and sweat pants. For weeks I worked construction, packed up a house, prepared said house for renters, weeded out five years of stuff, packed up a trailer etc., etc., all the while dressed in weird little outfits pieced together from a thrift store I like to call “Stretchytown.”
In all this I noticed a weird phenomena: a higher percentage of lecherous men leering about. To be clear, I am no longer twenty. Looks that might once have been described as shabby chic or grungey would now be the cover shoot for Modern Bag Lady. Yet here I am dripping, my hair all sticky, sporting Yeti legs, and the geezers are all coming out of the suburban shrubbery.
Then I got it.
Monday I leave the Midwest, the place of my preoccupation for the past five years, and return South. A week later I begin teaching at Southern Louisiana Community College, three times a week in Lafayette and twice in New Iberia—Dave Robicheaux country for James Lee Burke fans.
I have noticed how with each move I become more ruthless. The situation is akin to cropped work in my writing, I never miss the edits once they are gone. I suppose I do feel the occasional ping of resentment over the hand-woven rug that a garage sale picker eroded down from an absurdly low price to theft. Then there’s the woman who haggled over my piano only to drive off in her Mercedes Jeep, which she had parked down the street.
But this is the price of starting anew. And with every trip to the Goodwill where I close my eyes and dump, I am lighter. The house is airier. I am relieved.
Another side benefit: I get more done in a day than I did in the past five years. Usually one call to the Athens Water and Sewer Department would have me down for the afternoon. Today, by ten in the morning, I had made a multitude of such soul-crushing calls (four). This weekend, with the help of friends (well, actually they did the job and I helped), my attic bedroom floor was finally renovated, a project that’s been on tap since I moved in.
My life continues to follow the Laura Ingalls Wilder path in that leaving this beautiful room reminds me of when the Ingalls family left Kansas. “A whole year gone, Charles,” Ma sighs. Pa, Laura, and the mustangs, of course, are all about the next adventure. They know that the fun in Little House on the Prairie (the book) is all in the building of the house—the chimney, the walls, the floor, etc. A book about a family sitting around a nice attic bedroom wouldn’t be very interesting.
I do move secure in the knowledge that I’ll be living on a Mardi Gras parade route. Although I am moving in, for the first time, to an apartment I’ve never checked out in person. I feel good about the place (Mardi Gras! Sun room!), and my landlady totally got me by dropping in French words, but I suppose we’ll get to find out together what the apartment is really like.
What worries me most is this sunflower:
When developing my website, I purposefully left off an “events” page for fear it would be depressing. What if I had no events? A blank events page is like a party with no guests.
In the past year I’ve discovered a second problem, which is that when I am busy with events, the last thing I want is to blog. After a long day all I want is to shut the door, plop on the hotel bed, and watch the Die Hard marathon on cable.
So this was an eventful year:
I completed my comprehensive exams; wrote a dissertation; applied for a gazillion teaching jobs; Skyped for interviews in Iowa, Idaho, and Topeka (among others); traveled for interviews to Chicago, Seattle, Cullowhee, Chattanooga, and Little Rock; contemplated living everywhere from Muncie, Indiana, to El Paso, Texas; didn’t get offered any of these jobs; defended my dissertation; and in the final hour offered a job (more on this maybe later). I ate raw Puget Sound oysters and steamed Baltimore crabs. I feel as though I’ve been on an endless Gravitron ride and just got spit out, the carnies all laughing as I wobble around trying not to hurl.
This morning I had a chance to let my middle ear settle out. I lay on the floor with my cats in front of the fan, soothed by the whir of the blades and the slow blinking eyes of Theodore and Sniglet. As I let reflections wash over, I had to admit that for these months I have, even if I am exhausted, been living the writing life I imagined when all young and dreamy.
The Writing Life:
1. Be poor.
2. Sip Bourbon in a glass with two cubes of ice.
3. Sit at a wooden desk and type moodily.
4. Go to bars with my other writer friends and wittily debate matters of the arts.
5. Read from my work to applause.
7. Walk brick pathways on campus where students chirp, “Hey, Professor Ferguson!”
I also dreamed I’d live in a one room apartment in Italy furnished with only a cot and a typewriter that has one window with one white linen curtain blowing in the breeze overlooking the Mediterranean. I didn’t dream of Ohio. But so long as there’s wine, conversation, and dark chocolate, maybe the exact location isn’t as important.
During a job interview recently, I was asked,”The title of your book says you found yourself. Well, what did you find?” My Life as Laura isn’t exactly a spoiler alert kind of book, so I think it’s fine to say that what I discover, is that like Laura, I can be brave. I can move and start over and make this new life work. Bravery isn’t necessarily inborn, it’s a skill developed by taking risks. Throughout the series, Laura gulps and moves on. Laura’s bravery has always helped me be brave.
In the wake of my dissertation defense, a time during which student Kelly is passing on and Dr. Kelly is being born, my requirement for books right now is that they don’t require a highlighter pen. If I read Nabokov, for example, I can’t not mark lyrical passages, or want to crawl inside that big brain. Thus, at an airport this week, I put aside my Important Work of Literary Significance and bought Divergent at the newsstand. I’ve realized that one requirement of the airplane read is that you can follow the sentences as you are being throttled around inside a metal tube. I love David Foster Wallace, but Consider the Lobster and Other Essays was one of my worst choices for an airplane read—ever.
Divergent did the trick. I was engaged and overall my response fits with most my friends—way better than Twilight (NO, thank you), but not as good as The Hunger Games. Or in my mind, nowhere near as good as A Wrinkle in Time or The Earthsea Trilogy. If you haven’t read those classics, get on it. I wasn’t surprised to see that L’Engle was on Veronica Roth’s list of most admired authors.
*Note: While I have been living under this giant, grad school rock for five years, even I am aware that this huge, giant, mega blockbuster also called Divergent came out this week but, as always, I am talking about the book. The Book.
What works for me in Divergent (even if the romance plotline is absurdly predictable), is that while I might not be a teenager, I am navigating my next huge life transition. I am graduating with a terminal degree. I have to move wherever a job takes me. I have to make hard choices. The train tracks are running out and I’d rather jump that just fall off the edge.
My favorite climatologist, Barbara Mayes Boustead, helps us process the cold through this interview with Michigan Public Radio. Laurati might know Barb from her blog Wilder Weather, which explores weather as told through the Little House books, or maybe they’ve seen her rockin’ karaoke at Laurapalooza.
Maybe today’s research shows that the weather wasn’t “forty below” in South Dakota as often as Laura claimed, but it was really, really cold back then, and the Ingalls family needed serious survival tips. Barb shares the wisdom, and I’m going to go check on the livestock (okay, cats) right now.