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A Star in the Beast December 7, 2011

Posted by The Typist in New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street, Xmas, Yule.
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The rain falls in a dismal Oregon mist, a drizzle so fine my Fargo-raised son says it feels like snow. It is not. It is only in the low fifties out, and it is raining, the steady, penetrating damp of New Orleans winter.

It drives Northerners nuts. Before moving here she said: I’ll never get to where my sweaters, looking at that hope chest full of good Norwegian wool. Yes, you will, I answered. They come from the north expecting palms and balmy breezes and instead get a cold so bleak I wonder if this is how Ernest Shackelton’s men felt marooned on Elephant Island. I expect to pass a restaurant chalkboard and see Booby Soup featured.

When I lived up North the great moment of vernal excitement was when “the ice was off the lakes.” It then commenced to rain instead of snow, the icy rain of clouds off the North Pacific riding polar air masses south, on days cold enough to wear a sweater even if the sun were shining. This they called Spring. For someone from New Orleans, it was a second winter, more depressing than six months in an igloo, a winter without the pristine joy of fresh snow still a wonder to a Southern boy after a decade.

Granted that here in New Orleans we all might be swimming in Grandma’s pool come Christmas Day, but December is one of the city’s cloudiest months, and near the top for rainfall. This is the month when I remember and wonder: we almost moved to Portland, attracted by an guaranteed job with the company I worked for. My Portland-based boss and co-workers would have been pleased if we had come. I had looked at houses on the Internet, studied the tide tables of the Columbia River thinking of sailing on strongly tidal waters. Then I thought of endless drizzle and clouds. Then the Flood came, and all other plans were off. I was coming home.

I stood in a bar last Saturday, and fell into conversation with a group of Canadians. The day’s high had reached into the fifties but begun to fall outside. They all wore light fleece, the sort of thing one wears in “Spring” or in the warming house in the north. I have had this conversation two dozen times before: would we trade 50 and drizzle for a clear and windless 10 degree day, the sound of snow shows biting through the crust, the swoosh of cross-country skis?

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Tuesday was another gloomy evening of drizzle. As I turned to take my shortcut through City Park along Roosevelt Mall to get to Esplanade–car heater blasting like Satan’s chimney, blessed seat warmers up on high–I was greeted with the sight of a new set of Christmas lights in the park: an avenue of blue stars with white comet tails hanging from the oaks. I took my foot off the gas and let the car slowly roll beneath them. I was struck with the wonder I felt as a child visiting the Centanni House on Canal Street, oblivious to the weather, crunching into a candy apple from the several vendors who gathered there. When Salvador “Sam” Centanni died, king of over-the-top Christmas lights Al Copeland sent a lighted Christmas wreath instead of flowers, addressed to “The real King of Christmas.”

Once the children abandon Santa the way you left the church behind years ago, Christmas is a strange season: dinner at the in-laws stretched from hours to days, an obligatory Mass where you hope no one notices that you don’t even bother to mumble anymore to the Apostles Creed. Catholics are rotten singers but there was still something about midnight mass, waiting impatiently to bellow at the end Gloria in Ecelsis Deo over the woebegon Catholic pioneers around you. There was a ballooning joy in seeing the children’s faces when they opened their presents on Chritsmas Eve but I never quite got over the idea that presents belonged to Christmas morning. For half my life Christmas Eve was a time for parties and visiting neighbors, my father and my uncle drunkenly assembling a bicycle after midnight. But the great pleasure of the season wherever I lived was the mid-winter carnival of lights.

When I first got home to Mid-City, I would drive down City Park Avenue and look at the tangle of torn wires in the oak trees, all that remained of the Celebration in the Oaks. Over the years it has slowly recovered, and the site of the chase-light candy cane tunnel over the miniature train tracks no longer leads to my slamming on the breaks at Marconi. I am sad they moved the dragon far back into the lagoons and replaced it with the swans at Wisner and City Park. That dragon blown akimbo by the storm and left in the lagoon for seasons was for me not just a a memory but a promise, that mythical creatures still have meaning, manifest themselves in our lives if only by the magic of lights strung on a wire frame.

I don’t believe in a star in the east, but I do believe in the power of a hundred thousand glowing bulbs–the CO2 soaked atmosphere be damned for a month or so–to lift the cold-soaked soul toward the heavens.

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November Blooms November 21, 2010

Posted by The Typist in 504, New Orleans, NOLA, Toulouse Street.
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It’s Odd that as our few deciduous trees shed their leaves, the cypress blazing in the only show of color, that the neighborhood is full of blooms. Mostly I don’t know their names. I took up gardening when I lived in North Dakota to fill the emptiness of that expansive yard of lawn with something more thatn lawn, to tear down the ubiquitous evergreen shrubs that surrounded the street-side of the house, to fill the empty time. I never made close friends in Fargo, lacking some grace peculiar to the Lutheran soul. The neighbors were all pleasant enough but my sense of being an emigre in another country stood like an eight foot fence between us.

So come the short season I would work like a dog to fill my own bit of the landscape with color, would battle the rabbits that somehow wintered over in the harsh climate which took the perennials I planted as a bunny buffet. I was astounded when the antique rose the prior owners had asked to dig up and take with them (it was originally their grandmother’s; what could I say but yes?) came back from the deep hole they had left and I had filled and would bloom every June on my birthday.

I ripped the monstrously over grown evergreens from the front of the house with a tow rope, pulling up tremendous root balls with my car and a borrowed tow strap, replacing them with a small Karensansui garden of rocks and a few evergreens, a horizontal juniper (Prince William I think it was called) that mimicked the bent evergreens of Japanese painting, a globular conifer the name of which I forget , ajuga and sandwort and bits of Irish moss that never really took.

Because I never gardened in New Orleans all but the most common plants here seem at once alien and familiar, and I walk through the surrounding streets like an astronaut on a strange planet, marveling at the native life that thrives in such a climate, the carnival blocks of unseasonable (to me) flowers and bracts spread beneath the bare water oaks and blazing cypress. The camellias are familiar but I am forced to troll the internet to name the cassia and golden rain tree, wonder at the shrub with the Odd blooms that seem neither flower not bract, a tight cluster of blood red stamens without visible petals that look like cuttings from another planet.

After last year’s freeze that left everything brown and gray, the colors of Fall in the far north, the colors of the Fall of 2005 when generations of landscaping drowned, I think I understand why I spent so many hours in the yard during the short growing seasons of Fargo, why I struggled to keep that potted jasmine alive inside through the winter. To go from New Orleans to a cold climate meant to sever my connections to an endless and lush green, to surrender endless months of perfume for the charcoal landscape of evergreens in a snow white landscape, at once museum beautiful and laboratory sterile. I missed the softer pastels of banana and palm, ginger and camellia: a sensory deprivation as striking as the long dark nights of 47° north, closer to Ultima Thule than to the equator.

The Ghost of Christmas Past December 13, 2008

Posted by The Typist in Toulouse Street.
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The last Christmas with real snow and frost on the windows that did not come from a can. A place where you could cut your own northern pine if you had enough hair on your balls to haul yourself out into the woodlot at twilight as the temperature plunged toward the wrong side of zero. The last Christmas with a real fireplace crackling not some video loop on the CW with bad Christmas carols.

It was a good life, one that helped make my children the fine people they are today. It was a good place full of good people, and my wife who brought me there the best of the lot. And still I would sit late at night, perched on the bricks in front of the fireplace sneaking an inside cigarette as the draft sucked away the smoke and I sipped a midnight whisky, hearing this song and dreaming of trees draped not with lights and tin balls but faded beads.

Two Landscapes December 8, 2007

Posted by The Typist in cryptical envelopment, Dancing Bear, Fargo, New Orelans, New Orleans, NOLA, poem, Poetry, Toulouse Street.
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I have known both these places, have walked in emptiness and felt that which fills the emptiness like water rushing into a bowl. In some places we call this god, and in others we call this ghosts. At the dark of the year, I struggle to see the difference.

1) I have heard the inevitable noise in the signal called silence, the crisp, static rustle of snow falling upon itself in perfect stillness far below zero.

2) I have seen what some call ghosts, the emptiness that outlines the shapes that make a place in a landscape, the space without which there is no form. I have felt the haunting when there is nothing in the landscape but the shape of a place and its essential emptiness.