Friday, February 27, 2009

More Than 40 Days of Purpose; An Ugly Souvenir (Friday Roundup)

Lent is here ... and it's never to late to give up a bad habit, even if for just a trial run. I saw a news feature at 4 a.m. today (because I was awake ALL BLASTED NIGHT) about a group of teens who gave up Facebook for Lent. Brilliant! They admitted they had a problem (that's Step 1 from AA, isn't it?) and decided to go cold turkey. This is only the third day of Lent, and I'm guessing the story was taped Thursday, which would have been only the second day, and already, they were concerned about how difficult this sacrifice is to make. They were shown going into a computer lab at either a library or school, and the temptation was, they said, almost too much. So they had friends change their passwords for them. Even if they wanted to fall off the Facebook wagon, they couldn't. Like locking up the liquor cabinet and throwing away the key. Three words: Good. For. Them.

Of all the souvenirs I brought back ... from the Mississippi Gulf Coast, my least favorite has to be this bug that has made its way from my sinuses to my throat and now, to my chest. The iron lung is a real pain to get in and out of the minivan, sure, but with a little patience and an extra pair of hands, I'm still fairly mobile.

If my family would only let me sleep, I could probably get over it more quickly, but apparently none of them know how to get out of the bed in the morning, pick out their clothes (three of them wear school uniforms), make their lunches/snacks, etc. How did they get by without me for four days? Did they ever leave the house? Get out of the bed? Did they just stand in the middle of a room and ask, "Now what?"

Clearly, I am ticked off right now. All I asked (and yes, I ASKED) last night was, "Can I please sleep in and you handle everything?" I was assured that would be fine. And they were so convincing, too. I feel duped.

If I end up at St. Vincent's wearing an oxygen mask, I'm certain four young people and a disoriented husband will be standing at the foot of my bed, asking things like, "Where do you keep the spare deodorant?" and "Didn't you buy any more water bottles yesterday?" or "Are the dishes in the dishwasher clean or dirty?"

And I remove the oxygen mask, pull my weak and pale head from the pillow, prop myself up on my elbows and answer, in my new Lauren Bacall -- or is it Fred Gwynne? -- voice, "What am I? Your MAID?" And the nurses and orderlies rush in and demand to know what these people are doing in my hospital room and not allowing me to get my much-needed rest. As the kids are rushed to the door, each looks over his/her shoulder and shouts, "But Mom! Where did you put my gym bag?" and "You didn't sign my weekly folder!" and "Can I go to Starbucks after school?"

Their bewildered dad (escorted on either arm by two brawny men wearing head-to-toe solid white) shouts, "Wait a minute! Where are my keys? They were RIGHT HERE." And I put my frail arm to my brow and whisper, in my faint but now very masculine voice, "They're in your HAND."

At that moment, after everyone has exited, a very handsome respiratory therapist enters the room to whack me on my back for 12 minutes, and he nods an understanding nod as tears well up in my eyes. "You weren't kidding," he says. "They really ARE the most helpless individuals in the world."

It is the weekend. May yours be cough- and fever-free, full of understanding and empathy ... and very, very quiet.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mardi Gras Floats My Boat

Tuesday, Biloxi, Miss.--I'll dehydrate myself in order to avoid using a moving Port-a-Potty.

Don't drink anything, no matter how thirsty. Don't think how hot the sun is. Don't look at the ocean.

I found myself on a Mardi Gras float, performing the enviable job of throwing beads to the crowds. If I were to write a book of Best Jobs, this would be one of the top 10. Although it doesn't pay. And it lasts only three hours. And is available only a few weeks out of the year.

During a parade, you can't just ask the driver to stop so you can take a bathroom break. So having a Port-a-Potty on board makes sense. Still, I wasn't buying.

On other parts of our ship: a city employee stood guard on the top level of our float, alerting us to tree limbs and such, making sure we didn't knock our heads on traffic lights or decapitate ourselves on power lines. Sort of a nice courtesy, I thought. We had a brief tutorial on opening the bags, separating the strands, preventing tangles (I must have missed that session) and general Mardi Gras float etiquette. I felt like such an insider.

I've been on the receiving end of thrown beads, stuffed animals and Moon Pies. It's great fun to hold your hands in the air or point to your cute kid and have souvenirs tossed at you. Like a little victory. A score. But throwing beads from the top level of a float? Nothing like it.

I would imagine it's much like being the nurse who opens the waiting room door, everyone puts down magazines and books, looks up with such anticipation and waits for the name. The nurse has to feel smug and powerful. When you throw beads, you have an audience of thousands, looking at you with such great hope. "Please throw some beads. It would really make my day." You choose a cute kid, a person in a wheelchair, a Vietnam vet wearing a POW hat, a dad with a toddler on his shoulders. Then you sort of nod or point to the intended recipient, who returns the nod, then you throw and hope for the best. It usually works out, but not always.

Early in the parade, I aimed for a dad who was holding his red-haired little girl. She would look so cute with these purple beads, I thought, and I am about to make her day. I threw the strand of beads with such perfect aim that I should be recruited by somebody. MLB, maybe. But the beads slapped her in the eye, and I couldn't do anything except watch her cry while her dad consoled her.

I had better luck with a chunky strand that I aimed at a woman who didn't seem to have many beads. Her hands were in the air, and I hurled the necklace with such dead-on aim that it went right around her neck. I should have won a stuffed animal or something. She looked startled. I looked pleased.

Standing next to me was Al, exhausted and frustrated Al, who asked, "Don't you feel like you're riding in a helicopter in a movie, with families and crowds yelling to pick them up and save them? And you're having to say, 'OK, you, you and you, but not you or you'?"

And that description was so accurate and so funny that I had to put down my beads and sit on the bench in the middle of the float and wipe my eyes, or else risk falling over the railing because of compromised vision and abdominal pain brought on by laughter.

This was my 2009 Mardi Gras, surrounded by a group of writers and reporters. We operated in a constant state of interview and tried to make each other laugh. All. Day. Long. For three solid days.

And today, all are going our separate ways to our realities--to get some sleep, to eat a little less, to rest our throwing arms. It will be good to be home, but it was good to be here.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

North Meets South Again in Mississippi

Monday Night, Biloxi, Miss. -- At the risk of sounding like a big fat hog, I would like to tell you about all that I ate today. Because Mardi Gras calls for big eating. Like a competition. One that I am winning.

I kicked off the day with a little king cake (though not the one in my hotel room, but a different king cake) and attempted to balance it with fruit. Lunch was red beans and rice with andouille sausage, salad (why not?), corn bread cooked over an open hearth and a big slab of bread pudding drizzled with white chocolate sauce. Because lunch should be a light meal--just a little something to get you from breakfast to dinner. And maybe I shouldn't tell you that I had two helpings of the red beans and rice. But I just did. You would have done the same thing.

And then I had dinner. And appetizers. And dessert. What happens in Biloxi stays in Biloxi, so I won't tell you all that I ate in each course.

Within my group are several Canadians. All have adventurous spirits, a sense of wonder about the South and perpetual smiles on their faces. I think it's the food. The best quote from Monday, while eating lunch, "Southerners like pork, don't they?" Another: "Southerners really like bread, don't they?" I suppose both are true, although I never really considered it. Take away our pork and bread, and we would be sort of lost. Aside from the andouille in our red beans and rice, the large serving dish also had two huge hamhocks right in the middle. I didn't notice them. The Canadians, however, had a list of questions about the origin of a hamhock and its role in this particular dish. Southerners generally don't question such things.

Monday morning, we paid a visit to Beauvoir, home of Jefferson Davis. In a region steeped in Confederate history, you would think the Canadians would be shaking their heads and wondering what the hay we were talking about. Most, however, knew as much about the Civil War as I did. One of them even bought a Confederate flag to hang in his garden back in Victoria. Or was it Vancouver? Maybe I should know more about Canada.

One new friend carries around a bag of Canadian flags and lapel pins to hand out. Everyone, it seems, needs a souvenir from our neighbor to the north. It's like traveling with a Canadian ambassador. I joked last night that during today's Mardi Gras parade, he'll be throwing out maple leaf beads and maple leaf Moon Pies.

Today's agenda: More food, big parade, and yet more is, after all, Fat Tuesday.

Monday, February 23, 2009

A Late-Night Snack Fit for a King

Sunday Night, Biloxi, Miss.--I am working my way through a king cake with great gusto. And the really cool thing is that I don't have to be careful to avoid the plastic baby Jesus.

Baby Jesus, it seems, has posed a swallowing, or choking, threat to the more careless Mardi Gras eaters and has therefore been carefully and thoughtfully placed in the middle, the "hole," of the king cake. According to the note in my bakery box, it is up to the host to insert the plastic baby Jesus before serving. But seeing as how I am flying solo with this king cake and there's no "host" in sight, I'll just let him lie in his little doily manger in the middle. Peacefully. A good souvenir for the kids.

The history of the plastic baby Jesus is cloudy. But I did find this ...

According to As part of the celebration of Mardi Gras, it is traditional to bake an oval cake in honor of the three kings - the King Cake. The shape of a King Cake symbolizes the unity of faiths. Each cake is decorated in the traditional Mardi Gras colors: purple represents justice, green represents faith and gold represents power. A small baby, symbolizing the baby Jesus, is baked into each cake. In New Orleans, King Cake parties are held throughout the Mardi Gras season. In offices, classrooms, and homes throughout the city, King Cakes are sliced and enjoyed by all. Like the biblical story, the "search for the baby" adds excitement, as each person waits to see in whose slice of cake the baby will be discovered. While custom holds that the person who finds the baby in their slice will be rewarded with good luck, that person is also traditionally responsible for bringing the King Cake to the next party or gathering.

While Mardi Gras lore varies between the plastic baby being just a plastic baby or a more regal and noble plastic baby Jesus, you might be interested to know that it has even been a bean. A red bean is still used in place of a plastic baby in some parts of Europe, and I learned just today that in the States, the bean gained major popularity during the Depression. As the story goes, beans were cheap; plastic baby Jesuses, apparently, were not. So the bean played the part of the hidden treasure.

But there's a darker, more sinister side to the bean. As king cake rules go, the person who is served the piece of cake containing the plastic baby is responsible for making and serving the next year's king cake and maybe even hosting the entire Mardi Gras party. During the Depression, money was scarce, times were uncertain. So the sneaky king cake eater who found herself/himself with the bean would just quietly eat the bean. And why not? It was just a bean. And who wants to commit to hosting a dinner party one year in advance?

I imagine the dinner party would take a turn when the host looked at all the empty plates and wondered aloud, "Where's the bean? Who ate the bean? I know I put it in the cake. Who's hiding the BEAN?!" And then the Depression finally ended, and we returned to our conspicuous consumption and the plastic baby Jesus.

And now, times are tough yet again. People want to eat the cake, but they may not be so gung-ho about planning next year's party and making a cake. So, you see, eating this cake alone has its benefits. I don't have to share, I have nothing to hide, and I don't have to make any long-term commitments.

I'm not ashamed or embarrassed or marking up my 2010 calendar. Jesus is here, and He says He has my back.