New Orleans in June

In New Orleans in June the air is heavy with sex and death, not violent death but death by decay, overripeness, rotting, death by drowning, suffocation, fever of unknown etiology. The place is physically dark, dark like the negative of a photograph, dark like an X-ray: the atmosphere absorbs its own light, never reflects light but sucks it in until random objects glow with a morbid luminescence. -Joan Didion, South and West

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It’s becoming that time of the year where rains are frequent and dead animals rot fast and nights are damp and dark and quiet. Summer in New Orleans. It’s hard to pinpoint its feel, other than hot and troubled. Fortunately someone else has ventured into this literary territory; Joan Didion’s new book South and West contains notes from a road trip she took with her husband in 1970, starting and ending in New Orleans, exploring towns and cities in Mississippi and Alabama in-between.

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The book was short and good. It is almost like a little collection of “casual observances” around the South, which, because they’re Joan Didion’s observances, are interesting. And the book hits home for me for a couple reasons. First, her impressions ring eerily true to the atmosphere of New Orleans (and the South) today – which is saying something, given that she traveled here nearly fifty years ago. She picked up on things that I have often felt, but haven’t quite been able to articulate:

It was a fatalism I would come to recognize as endemic to the particular tone of New Orleans life. Bananas would rot, and harbor tarantulas. Weather would come in on the radar, and be bad. Children would take fever and die, domestic arguments would end in knifings, the construction of highways would lead to graft and cracked pavement where the vines would shoot back. Affairs of state would turn on sexual jealousy… The temporality of the place is operatic, childlike, the fatalism that of a culture dominated by wilderness. 

…In New Orleans the wilderness is sensed as very near, not the redemptive wilderness of the western imagination but something rank and old and malevolent, the idea of wilderness not as an escape from civilization and its discontents but as a mortal threat to a community precarious and colonial in its deepest aspect. 

 

I have always felt that “nature” here is conceptualized very differently than in, say, New England, or California, or places where people go outside to get fresh air and hike and dream and invigorate themselves. “Nature” for me in NOLA feels more formidable and oppressive, less like an entity to lose my consciousness in and more like something I could physically lose my body in. The same could be said of traveling around the South in general. It’s not like renting a car in, say, New Zealand, or Croatia, or Oregon, where beautiful and exciting things manifest themselves on a frequent basis. This is the South. Didion’s book certainly suffers from lack of action; there are many sections that are slow and vaguely boring and completely gaping in plot. But on some level, I think, that’s entirely the point of it.

Didion took the month-long jaunt around the South thinking she’d write an article about it (hence all the notes). But you get the sense that she was ultimately disappointed. She confesses at one point that she didn’t want to drive to Jackson because it had one of two major airports (the other being in NOLA) and she knew she’d succumb to her desire to hop on a plane and get the heck out of the South. Her trip ended on a bitter note, an argument with her husband and a silent night spent in an airport motel. She never wrote the story.

…All the reporting tricks I had ever known atrophied in the South. There were things I should do, I knew it: but I never did them. I never made an appointment with the bridal consultant of the biggest department store in any town I was in. I never made the Miss Mississippi Hospitality Contest Semi-Finals, although they were being held in little towns not far from where we were, wherever we were. I neglected to call the people whose names I had, and hung around drugstores instead. I was underwater in some real sense, the whole month. 

And this is the second reason why this book hits home. I too took a road trip around the South in the summer (last summer, to be exact). I too took notes, recorded conversations, thought there might be a story. I never produced or published the story. Part of that is because I, unlike Joan Didion, am not a professional writer; but part of that is perhaps inherent to the nature of this place. New Orleans might fall into another category, and perhaps I am just making excuses for myself, but the bulk of the Southern feel – especially in the summer – contains the kind of melancholic somnolence that promotes porch-sitting over reporting, apathy over emotional investment, personal pleasure (bordering on a numbness) over personal growing pains. The energy that is required to report, construct, and publish pieces feels somehow heavier, more exerting, when the humidity reaches 100%, when the atmosphere is literally pressing down on you. “The weather around here must shape ideas of who and what one is, as it does everywhere,” Didion writes. Indeed, it does. The summer contains a darkness here. And it is difficult, I think it’s fair to say, to maintain a certain level of fire underfoot, the flames of ambition, the definitive sense of purpose to your work when the air is heavy with “death by decay.”

I can’t help but wonder what advice Joan Didion would give to an aspiring writer spending the bulk of her mid-twenties in the South. Perhaps she’d say, Get out of the South. Or perhaps she’d say, Who cares if the atmosphere is hot and slow and sad? Stop dwelling and get on with it! I would love to know. You always hear about how New York is the place that tests young artists, the place where you have to be composed of a tougher kind of substance to succeed. But what about the South, in the summer? (And making money as a landscaper, laboring outdoors by day and writing by night? Is this foolish and ultimately debilitating, or is region and atmosphere somewhat irrelevant at the end of the day?)

And perhaps I’m simply over-thinking it. My roommates and I were talking last night about the onset of the summer; one of them, who is from France, knew exactly how I felt; but the other, from Mexico, just laughed. “I’ve lived here for nine summers and it’s been fine,” he said, shrugging his shoulders. “Who cares? It’s just hot.”

 

on mardi gras, alcohol, photography, and honesty

For over two weeks I’ve been mulling over how to post my photos from Mardi Gras and kept hitting a wall. I wanted to post them, but I didn’t know what to write about. It is normally the other way around – I more or less know what I want to write and only later scrape together the photos in an attempt enhance my musings. But on Mardi Gras day, I took 643 photos and was left with no idea what to say about them.

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Sometimes photos can stand alone, of course, if they’re good enough. But for me, photos have mostly served as an adhesive to my writing, and a way for me to deepen my sense of scenery. I don’t really have the patience nor skill to master the technicalities of photo-making. I like to use my camera as a tool for observation; I don’t take photos to make art.*

The ironic thing about taking photos this past Mardi Gras, of course, is that I hardly used it to heighten my awareness and experience, because I was hardly capable of observing and internalizing what was happening around me, because I was copiously consuming this little substance called alcohol.

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This substance has actually been at the core of my dilemma when contemplating writing this post. How much am I willing to share? How much honesty and intensity do I want to dive into, versus something lighthearted, funny, simple? I didn’t really know until a few nights ago, when I was reading my friend Annie’s blog. She’s been writing about some pretty heavy personal stuff and it dawned on me that the best writing is always the most honest writing, whether it’s a novel or news story or letter or blog post, no matter the subject, no matter if it’s “heavier” hearted. At least it’s the stuff of the heart.

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So anyways, here goes a grand attempt at writing about my Mardi Gras honestly: I don’t remember taking half of those 643 photos; where they came from, who the people were, when it happened. Nothing. Haha, a lot of you are probably thinking. Yeah, it’s Mardi Gras, of course you drank yourself to oblivion. But somehow this time felt different and jarring in a way that others haven’t. Perhaps it’s because this time I was risking my EXTREMELY EXPENSIVE camera as I carted it around the French Quarter with my daiquiris and shots and free beers. (Reckless. Beyond. Belief.) But perhaps it’s also the nature of what the camera provided itself: Documentation. I had no idea how far gone I was until later when I scrolled through my photos and found faces and places that I felt like I had never seen before in my life. It scared me, and I wondered how many other times something like this happened but I didn’t have a camera, so I didn’t even know how much I had forgotten, if that makes sense.

DSC_4500DSC_4250DSC_4311DSC_4597.jpgDSC_4491Honestly (woo! the truth keeps coming), for a while now I have been very interested and concerned about my relationship with alcohol. Why do I feel like I need it? What benefits vs limitations do I incur from drinking it? How much of my consumption has been shaped by my culture and peers, versus a genuine desire to drink? What would I sacrifice versus gain if I gave up alcohol completely?

When I moved back to NOLA, I spent the first couple weeks hardly touching booze in an attempt to find answers to these questions. And I began to find them, because I was feeling so good – energized, engaged, healthy, happy, and like I was saving money. Okay, I thought. Sobriety is cool. I like this. I could maybe do this for an indefinite amount of time.

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But then… Mardi Gras happened. The weekends filled with friends and tall boys and tequila and parades, and I had a grand time, and actually kept things pretty in check leading up to Fat Tuesday – partaking in some drinking, but nothing crazy or out of control at all. It was just Mardi Gras day that everything unravelled, my control became undone. And though I’m not beating myself up about it, it has certainly got my mind whirring again, mostly on the question of, Quel est le point? Our culture has completely normalized this kind of behavior, and in New Orleans it’s especially normalized, not just for Mardi Gras but anytime, really; it’s acceptable and okay to drink heavily, frequently, for pretty much no reason. And I’m realizing more and more that I want nothing to do with it.

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So this is all to say that I’ve dedicated this month post-Gras to cultivating a very different lifestyle of ~mostly~ sobriety. Maybe someday I’ll go back to drinking drinking, but for now and the foreseeable future, I am enjoying this new habit of mine. When I say ~mostly~ sobriety I mean: Having a beer a party, or glass of wine with my roommates, infrequently (like one or maybe two nights a week). For example, last Saturday night I went out to Saturn Bar’s Mod Night and DJ Soul Sister at Hi Ho Lounge with my friend visiting from Florida, and I had half a Corona and a LOT of ice cream and a truly phenomenal time. Dancing has never felt so good, I went home at a reasonable hour, and I had meaningful conversations all night. Revolutionary! I know this might not seem like a big deal to a lot of people, but for me it’s exciting, and I feel like I’m on the brink of a big positive lifestyle shift.**

I could go on but I think that’s all I’ll say on this subject for now. Oh, I guess, just one last thing: If you live in NOLA and are interested in biking, running, rock climbing, cooking, checking out art shows, listening to live music, sitting in coffee shops, reading in a park somewhere, eating ice cream on a curb or DANCING of ANY kind please let me know… The goal of this new non-drinking lifestyle is not to sit alone in my house, believe it or not. One place in particular I’ve really enjoyed hanging out is a little urban farm in the Ninth Ward called Grow On, they host a ton of events and music and films and yoga etc and the people are wonderful, if you haven’t been you gotta check it out!

Thanks for reading this, whoever you are. And if for some reason you recognize yourself (or a friend) in these photos BY ALL MEANS let me know. For the record, beneath my shame for drinking myself into a wasteland, I do have one tiny glimmer of pride for being able to manually focus and compose these photos. There are lot more of these where they came from, too. I was having a good time apparently.

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*In fact, I don’t even have Lightroom or Photoshop. So far all of the photos I’ve posted have been unedited, save a few tweaks of brightness and contrast with Apple’s crappy editing software

**Note: I’ve heard the notion before of, “If you have to think about alcohol or if you’re hyper-aware of how many drinks you have, you’re an alcoholic.” I just do not believe this is true, mostly because I over-analyze and am hyper-aware of almost everything in life. For example: I usually count how many miles I go for on runs, how many hours of sleep I get, how many books I read in a year, how much money I spend on clothes, how much chocolate I ingest on a daily basis, etc etc. The list goes on, for better or for worse. It seems perfectly normal to actively think about how much I drink, when I actively think about most things I do.

 

and Mardi Gras keeps on spinnin’….

While the rest of the world gawks at last night’s Oscar blunder, chews on Trump’s latest budget proposal, and ponders going to the moon, New Orleanians continue to spin around the streets in these days leading up to Fat Tuesday. Mardi Gras. There is certainly something beautiful and sadistic about this holiday, this blatant shunning of reality and complete embrace of indulgence, gluttony, and something I think many of us strive for: reveling in the present. There is no talk of tomorrow (i.e. Wednesday), no angst for the past, just sheer joy for being free and alive right here, right now. The whole city shuts down to play; the air is thick with barbecue spits and booze (and piss); there teems an atmosphere of a reckless abandon of responsibility.

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To be honest, I dabble between love and loathe for this kind of human behavior. The amount of waste and trash and violence and empty, materialistic foolishness that results from large drunken crowds shoving each other for beads and dancing to shitty American pop music and waving hands in the air filled with “hand grenades” and octane daiquiris – to me, this scene is almost worthy of despondence. Masses of people, tight spaces, and aggressive hollering is a recipe for anxiety, not to mention fear of things like giant trucks plowing into us human sardines, like the one that hit Carrollton Ave on Saturday night. Terrors like that that make me think, what are we doing? And even without that, I still can’t help but wonder, Is this kind of tomfoolery worth it? Quel est le point?

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beads on beads on beads, everywhere
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some paraders looking less than enthused

But then there are the incredible costumes, the laughter, the openness, the energy, the marvelous display of human creativity that is incredible, invaluable even. Part of me wonders if it’s not one of the most genuinely human holidays there is. Something about it – when I look at the musicians in the marching bands, the people running down St. Charles Ave with boxes of wine, kissing each other’s faces, dousing themselves in glitter, embracing and enjoying the presence of pure strangers – it makes me feel as if it’s one of the most genuine, natural displays of humanity in existence. It’s hard to explain exactly why and how I feel this, but I do. It feels more human than many things humans do all the time.

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So it is beautiful or deplorable, depressing or uplifting? For me it is both, and I think it always will be. I will continue to partake in it as I partially condemn it. I don’t think I’m the only one to feel this confliction and hypocrisy, though some New Orleanians would probably condemn me for being absorbed in WordPress right now instead of celebrating le Lundi Gras. But to each their own, we all say here. If there’s one thing this city is good at embracing, it’s allowing each individual to live however they want, whenever they want.

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carnival? check.

so it’s been three weeks now, three bursting weeks back in new orleans. in a predictable fit of mania that tends to strike me upon new beginnings (“i can bike everywhere! i can work as much as possible and deck out my room and meet up with all my friends and run eight miles three times a week and buy a rock climbing membership and plan five different mardi gras costumes and read the new york times every morning and maybe just maybe even call my mom at some point”), i’ve been running around like a kinda crazy person. “you’re really embodying carpe diem,” my roommate jan told me this afternoon, with a mixture of admiration and minor abhorrence. she doesn’t know that in reality i’m just seizing this rare opportunity of extreme motivation that accompanies a fresh start and this shall not last long and starting around mid-april all i will be doing after work is sitting on the back porch with a book and maybe a cold beer, if i’m feeling frisky. but for now – shaun king speaking for free at xavier university? heck yes! an all-day permaculture workshop? sign me up! a free lecture on “permeable surfaces, vehicular rated”? not really sure what that is, but count me in! training to bird-dog a townhall meeting on public health rights? have actually no idea what bird-dogging is but WHY NOT! (and of course, music and plays and dancin’, check, check, check.)

it’s unbelievable, how many free events occur every day in this city, and how much there is to explore and tackle. i wanted to write a blog post about the excitement of becoming ultra-involved in different kinds of work again, and being a body who shows up to different talks and spaces, and PARTICIPATES in life in a way that is productive and empowering!…

dsc_3444BUT alas, amidst this fresh beginning and the brewing of new collaborations, it’s also…. mardi gras season. yep. time to put some of these frenzied ambitions on hold. i had almost forgotten how mad the weeks are leading up to fat tuesday, to the point where this past sunday morning my friend mario texted me about my parade plans, and i responded i was going to do yoga and some yardwork.

“While your mental and physical wellbeing are important, you should totally come hang,” he wrote back. “We will be around Tacos and Beer.”

yes, i should, and i did. thank you mario! here is a little taste of the mardi gras life. i’ll write more soon.

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