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What is in my Flask

thoughts on life from Brian Van Brunt

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That old abyss…

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NOLA, March 2019

Last year, I taught a doctoral class at a university on the topic of violence in written communication as it related to the likelihood of targeted, mission-oriented violence. One of the assignments was to analyze a fiction writing sequence to assess the potential for leakage related to violence. As I like to use my life in my creative work, I used a scene from Wolf Howling to give the student’s some source material to analyze. I won’t spoil what scene for those who haven’t read it (but come, on—you should read it), but think green light, a ghost tour and little red riding hood. They liked the assignment and offered some insightful analysis.

One of the students, a particularly bright one—shared some observations. She said, “An overall tone in this writing sample makes me think the author doesn’t see the best in people, but instead, the worst. Everyone, from the tourists to the murder was described in a way that focused on their negative qualities. Racist t-shirts, dismissive parenting, suffering from loneliness, and a pervasive sense people are out for their own interests. Very few had characters had any redeemable qualities.”

As you can imagine, this has been floating around my mind for the better part of the year. Kafka wrote, “A book must be an ice-axe to break the seas frozen inside our soul.” And this got me thinking, is that true for writers? Are we exploring our own frozen seas? Crafting our own axes?

I’ve been a therapist for over twenty years. I’ve often wondered what this did to me. I know what we do, what we see, our careers and work have an impact on how we see the world. The things we do sneak into our hearts. Bartenders considering the barfly’s drinking habits and addictions, nurses talking to patients who are slowly killing themselves with sugar, cigarettes, or nicotine. Has working with people who are struggling to stay alive and overcome their mental illness created a, shall we say, depressing view of human nature for me? Has that drifted over into my books?

The short answer is, probably. As I’ve worked on Samsara, one thing has been clear to me. This project is more than a book, it’s part of me. The writing has been a process of exploring who I am and what lays in front of me. This is why I’ve enjoyed seeing which characters people resonate the most within the story. Are they drawn to a reflective Wagner, the mysterious woman with the dog, Ella and her hard-as-nails persona, Albert with his obsessive and chaotic mind, Dalton as he collects the world’s beauty, Kara as she exploits herself and the men she comes in contact with, Cooper and his naïve optimism and creativity, Liv and her sadness and depression, or is it the mystery of sharks, Mr. Conrad, and Valentine’s cold, enigmatic presence? Dealer’s choice.

To me, there’s a cost to experience; a cost to creation. How do we understand (I’m looking at you, Hawthorne) where the observation changes the observer; how the author’s mind creates and is—in the same way—created, where the therapist heals and when they suffer, how the teacher teaches, the professors profess, how those who have been hurt, in turn, hurt others. What exists, at the heart of it all, and what’s the payment to the yellow-eyed demon at crossroads? There’s a Ying-yang to it all. We’re at the poker table, pot-committed, though unaware of cost for entry and what, ultimately are the stakes we are playing for in this game of life.

So, I keep writing, because this is what I do.

Tell next time.

 

 

 

Dreams and Prophecy

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New Orleans, Bourbon Street, 2018

My lovelies,

There are times when I think I am actually writing to the future. Samsara holds within it a circular arc. Readers approach the vortex and find themselves in a bit of a Rorschach test; driving them to resonate with or reject the stories, themes and characters they encounter. One of the harder parts, I think, is figuring out how much of this is for me and how much for the reader.

This past week, I introduced to you Monique, a voice actress who has done exceptionally well in creeping me out when she appears in her dark outfits, candlelight and tells stories with her intense eyes. I’ll be using these for the next few months to help advertise the book, so I hope you enjoy. If you can’t tell, I like the idea of blending reality and fantasy and the interplay between how we create and what already exists.

This writing has made me think more about the process of creation. How much of it is inspired by others and how much is fed by our dreams and the stars. I’m not quite sure I’ve come to a resolution on this. But it is one of those things that causes a sweet pain, like prodding a loose tooth as a child. Even then, you knew the pain would produce something. Pain is the midwife to creation, to art, to life.

I was walking the streets of New Orleans last month and saw Sean Friloux, the artist who created the cover for Wolf Howling. I commissioned the piece from him to create an alley with a black cat. He does these powerful, dark and haunting landscapes and has a love for the city that equals my own. I love the way it came out and I have the original hanging in my apartment on Bourbon. Sean was showing some new pieces in the Pirate’s Alley near the Cathedral. Nothing made me happier than seeing he had some paintings for sale with black cats in them. It’s that interconnection again of art and artist; of admirer and participant. Which came first? The painter or the writer? The alley or the cat?

I’ll end with a dream I had last night. It’s likely this will find its way into either Catching Opheliaor Oracle Gazing. I tend to work in these sketches—a flash or idea that drives my creative process.

“I see,” she said, with the faintest nod. “I truly appreciate your dilemma here.”

Her voice sounded soothing, but that wasn’t how it made him feel; not in the least. He staggered back, increasingly unsure of his safety. The panic started when she crossed the gloomy, February-desolate, street to block his path. The panic had risen with each of her approaching steps; giving rise to a more palpable, inexplicable terror.

“If I may be so bold,” she stood in front of him now, blocking his path, “allow me to explain the birthplace of your current predicament.”

He tried to place her accent. Something Australian or British, but even exotic. She had dark skin and braided hair. The braids were tight and dark, like so many small snakes, speckled with gold rings printed with symbols and words he couldn’t begin to recognize. She was eloquent, but there was something underneath that hummed in a more primal way, like the background noise from a television playing static in the hour of the wolf; that time between night and dawn.

“The sticky wicket here, forgive the expression, is your assumption that our encounter is greeting; a hello…perhaps even an introduction.” The gold bands with their intricate and ancient carvings, glimmered in her hair from flickering gas light above them. She held a confident smile on her jade-painted lips.

Everything in him wanted to run, though the most he could muster was a deep inhale; an unconscious preparatory action prior to flight. The air he took in was heavy with electricity and it left the smell of ozone thick in his nostrils. He felt the storm approaching and was desperate to find shelter. Yet, he remained motionless.

“Our encounter is not a greeting between new friends…” She came closer, her body against his, and raised her left hand to his neck. She smelled of old earth, of vanilla and spice. He did not resist her touch. He could not protest.

She continued, “…but rather, a departure.”  Her hand caressed his neck. He was certain she could feel his pulse, hammering against the artery walls like a rabbit being chased by a wolf.

Her right hand came up and rested on the center of this chest. She then slid it slowly above his heart. Her wrist was encircled with a woven gold and burgundy colored gems. She smiled as she felt the rush of blood throbbing beneath her touch. She drank in his fear and finished with, “This is not my hello…but rather your goodbye.”

Her hand snaked around to the back of his neck and he shuddered at her touch. She kissed him with lips that were full, soft and very cold. She parted her lips briefly to permit her tongue to explore him. She drew back and they each inhaled and exhaled several slow breaths; sharing the air between them like a sacrament.

He dove into her eyes with while the taste of juniper and rosemary lingered on his lips. Her eyes held visions of death; of an immense and ancient void crawling with hungry, massive forms in the glacial blackness. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t think. He couldn’t breathe.

A vertigo rose to meet him, and he began to sway. He tried to grasp at fragments of his reality, but he found them cracked and splintered; falling from his consciousness to be consumed by the dark gravity her center.

He had a fleeting sensation of weightlessness and a then a sensation of falling movement, sliding very quickly down a massive chute. A deepening, unimaginable terror unraveled the remaining strands of his sanity. The darkness rose up and took him.

“Valentine,” she said to the empty street.

“My name is Valentine.”

http://www.samsarabook.com

 

New Year Cheer

 

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New Orleans, 2015, Absinthe House

I started a tradition a few years back. On New Year’s Eve, I’d have a drink each hour and dedicate it to a friend I was thankful for in my life. Sometimes, I’d try to make a drink that was inspired by their personality, other times it was just a drink (it’s just a duck). I never really been a resolution kind of guy, but I do like the idea of reflecting on the year and acknowledging the people I cherish and love.

To that end, I think there is a perception I spend my entire life created drinking and hanging out at bars. As my partner Bethany tells me, people tend to assume all I do is travel to exotic locations to sample beverages and food. I assure you, this is only partially true. There was a lot of work this year, many challenges and lots of seltzer water consumed.

Although—we do choose the masks we wear, so I take some responsibility for encouraging this perception of ‘party’ Brian. I think it probably comes from missing out on social drinking and parties in high school and college (damn church)— however, I realize that at 46, perhaps this explanation (excuse?) is losing some of its luster.

Anywhoo…fast forward to New Year’s Eve. I’m lucky enough to be spending it in New Orleans with some close friends (Doug and Jeanne) and my wife. For those who know New Orleans, they know there is a festival, pub-crawl, crawfish boil, BBQ, cocktail event, parade…for just about every occasion. You can imagine my happiness last month when I saw on there was a pre-Christmas dive bar pub crawl. While I couldn’t attend (something about me being with my family on Christmas), I did get inspired.

This past year, 2018, has been the worst in my life. While I have so much to be thankful for—my book being finished, a great job, amazing kids, and a smoking hot wife….it’s also been a year of grief, loss, sadness that has tested me to the limits. While I tend to be public with much of my life, I don’t always share how bad the depression and grief has been with the world. What has helped me, more than anything, has been my friends. And to that end, I want to acknowledge them here. With booze.

If you are out and about in the Crescent City on December 31st—please consider joining us tomorrow. If you are home, please consider following this festivus- adjacent tradition of thanks. I’ve included the schedule for tomorrow here. I’ll plan to post on Facebook at each stop. After New Year’s, I’ll update each of these stops with the FB posts here on the blog. For those of you who have also had a hard year—perhaps you can raise of glass of cheer to those who have helped you in your life this past year.

I am lucky to have many friends. If you aren’t acknowledged here, please attribute this to my liver’s limitations. There are so many of you whose friendship has been beyond wonderful.

I am reminded of a play that had this great line in it. I’ve lost the name of the play, but the line stuck…“Every ship at the bottom of the sea had a map.” The list below is a starting place for us—my Babe Ruth pointing at the outfield with his bat. Whether I smack this list out of the park remains to be seen…this is our map, we may sink.

11-12pm Who Dat Café: 2401 Burgundy St (Bloody Mary)

12pm-1pm Cane and Table: 1113 Decatur (acquiring pineapple, salty dog goodness)

1pm-2pm The Abbey:1123 Decatur St(beer and a shot)

3pm-4pm Coop’s Place: 1109 Decatur St. (acquire fried chicken and ABITA)

4pm-5pm Santos:1135 Decatur St (dealer’s choice)

6pm-7pm Tiki Tolteca: 301 N. Peters Street (Zombie)

7pm-8pm Snake and Jakes: 7612 Oak St. (PBR, yo).

8-pm-9pm Good Friend’s Bar: 740 Dauphine Street (new bar, dealers choice) and Rawhide 2010: 740 Burgundy Street (Bloody Mary?)

9pm-10pm Lafitte’s Blacksmith shop: 941 Bourbon Street (Hurricane) and Café Lafitte’s in Exile901 Bourbon Street

10pm-11pm Cat’s Meow701 Bourbon Street and Oz: 800 Bourbon Street

11pm-12pm Potions: 733 Bourbon (Absinthe cocktails!)

12:01 Spike pineapple on Touchdown Jesus fence, chant British things

My flask is full.

~B

 

The thing I love about you

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San Francisco, Pier 39, Sept 2018

At the center of it all, when everything else is processed and parsed, it really comes down to this. You accept me. I know it’s an odd word to use to describe love; so far away from passion, commitment, kindred ideas, patience, kindness, friendliness, shared goals for the future, long-suffering. But this is the thing I love most about you. That you accept me for who I am.

And this acceptance, more than anything, requires knowing me. It’s hard to accept someone you don’t know, hard to lean into something that might give way. But you know me.

And this acceptance isn’t synonymous with being agreeable. That mask can only last so long, though our masks are what we choose them to be. You are formidable when you take a stance; when you dissent and resist; when you fight against the harmony of it all; when you convey that sense of commitment to me. You don’t lose yourself, but rather share your vulnerabilities and fears. You bring them to the harvest table to be consumed with mine.

I crave those Counting Crows conversations, when the lights move about the room and the music comes from the darkness. We hope and dream; heartsick and panic-verged. We listen to the ghost whisperer in the speakeasy; telling stories of bones together, chalky and white, resting eternally in the Caveaux. I think about us, mixing our contemplations and truth together, Palmer and Gaiman style, no bed song here for us.

You know me. My passions and appetites, worries and fears. You know my grandest moments and most catastrophic slides. Fallen Azazel, hand on your throat. Candlelight and sand; those lingering moments. Deep passion and quick anger, the fox bites when he is cornered.

You know I accept too quickly. I love too quickly. You know that about me, watching the girls in their summer dresses.

And that, in a roundabout way, is what I’m saying. Your acceptance of me, a faith in who I am. This is what I love about you. A willingness to stay by me; to tolerate me at my best and cherish me at my worst.

This is the thing I love about you.

Istanbul (Not Constantinople)

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Istanbul, 2018

I really like this city. I’ve been once before, though for too brief of a stay to fully enjoy it. Sadly, this trip had an element of the bitter-sweet to it, as my travel companion lost her mother the night before the trip. But I tried to make the best of it.

Given the recent explosions of late, the airport created a little stress for me. While I know it’s safe and I’m much more likely to be killed in SO MANY other ways, I did have a moment while waiting in the customs line. Someone left a rather dubious looking package on the corner of an airport pillar. My exchange with security went as follows:

Me: “Ma’am? Someone left a bag here on the corner next to this pillar.”

Teenage Girl working security: *shrug*

Me: “Not a security worry?”

Teenage Girl working security: Meh *shrug*

And…off we go.

First, full on kudos to Miranda for picking the hotel. This lady knows how to pick a solid hotel. The hotel was named FER and is in the heart of the city. While much of the city was explored through Brian picking his way left or right out of the hotel and wandering, I do feel like I was never more than two blocks to something I wanted to see. I’d highly recommend this place in the future.

I had been to the blue mosque once before and while I was bummed it was closed this time, having seen it made this a bit more palatable miss. I did get a chance to visit the Hagia Sophia, or Holy Wisdom, museum. This was a church, then another church, then a mosque and museum over the centuries. Apparently, another 500 people had the same idea to visit, so as I waited in line a tour guide approached me and offered to take me to the front and give me a guided tour for 150 Turkish Lira. Sold.

Ok, another thing. They accept Turkish Lira, USD and Euros. Which makes everything super confusing. 1 US dollar is 1.2 Euros. 1 Turkish Lira is around .25 USD. So, overall, I have been a mess with money this trip. It was suggested I download eCurrency app. But where is the fun in that?

Anyway, so 150 lira for a tour was like $40 USD, I think? Which, for a half hour tour and skipping to the front of the line seemed worth it to me. I’ll have to get back to you on Miranda’s feelings on this as I’ve once watched her berate a Nepalese taxi driver over .25 for a ride. I mean, with love, of course. Miranda is classy that way.

One of my favorite things to shop for here is the misbaha, or Turkish prayer beads. You will see people carrying around all forms of these throughout the city. These are used (as I understand it), by Christians and Muslims alike. Either in reciting prayers or simply keeping God on your mind. I’ve liked it for that, kind of a spiritual fidget spinner. I worry some about the cultural appropriation of this, but overall I think people seemed more generally appreciative of attempts to understand their culture. I found a really nice set made from amber, which apparently is a thing beads can be made out of over here. They are from Poland.

I also truly love the Muslim culture. The call to prayer throughout the day echoing from the minarets, the beauty of the mosques and the kindness in the people. For many reasons, it saddens me the way many in the U.S. see these people. I know I am just touching the surface here, but I do enjoy the way we all strive to reach for God in our way. Even if our way is not reaching.

The Turkish tea is another wonderful, bitter and enticing delicacy over here. You can sweeten it or have an “apple tea” if bitter isn’t your thing. But I would encourage you to try it as it comes first. It is an acquired taste. The tea traditionally comes in rather unique pear shaped glass with a little sugar spoon.

The sea market, or Arasta Bazaar, was a fun wandering stop. Lots of little shops to check out. Iranian Saffron is something sought after here and I ended up picking some up. It makes this brilliant yellow saffron tea and is amazing in rice. It is quite expansive, however, ranging from $8-$12 a gram. I’m also told it is easily duplicated, so finding a reputable (re: permeant) shop is ideal.

The Grand Bazaar is a challenge to describe. It is entirely enclosed and seems to be made of up 4-5 football fields in size. There seem to be districts dedicated to antiques, designer clothing, gold and silver exchanges and jewelry. Spices and Turkish delight are displayed in colorful shops that would make Edmund’s head spin. Many of the streets and sloped and worn with age. Metal detectors and guards are posted kind of informally at each gate, giving some balance to security concerns.

Food wise, Turkey offers an amazing variety. Three of my kids are vegetarian, so I’m always on the lookout for different options.  In Istanbul, many of the foods are based on nuts and fresh fruits. Hummus and kebabs are readily available as well as stews and many vegetarian dishes. Grilled vegetables and many vegetarian dishes are available. Street venders sell grilled corn (Kestane) and roasted chestnuts (Misir). My favorite is a round pastry like a pretzel covered is sesame seeds that is called Simit.

Next trip I’d love to see the spice market, cistern and the blue mosque again. My favorite memories have been sitting quietly and having a tea and shisha while watching the world go by me.
I hope this blog encourages you to try Istanbul. It is a wonderful place with a kind and giving people. The airline Turkish Air offers a pretty reasonable roundtrip flight from Boston around $900 and taking the red eye (leaving Boston around 11:30pm) was one of the easier international flights I’ve done. It’s a short ride from the airport to downtown and many hotels will offer the transfer as a service.

In summary, things Brian learned this trip:

  • The general perception of American’s wandering around Istanbul is we want 1) a tour, 2) a carpet or 3) a leather jacket.
  • While marble looks pretty, it is my opinion that the city may need to rethink doing all of its streets in marble. Cause when it rains, super slippery.
  • People with laptops in a café are not a thing over here. Well, insomuch, that I am doing it. So, trendsetter.
  • No shorts in the mosque. See previous New Orleans comments “no babies in the bar”
  • Head scarves around town are pretty hit or miss. So ladies, your call.
  • Apparently, if I have a shisha, I like watching football. This may apply to other things I previously didn’t think I liked.

Obligatory song reference here

The Play is the Thing

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New Orleans, Madame John’s Legacy 2018

My wife and I wandered into a unqiue theatre experience while in New Orleans. One of my favorite things about the city is how it’s always changing; just this constant flux of people, restaurants, entertainment and weather. You never quite know what is here. A moveable feast, indeed.

The Stranger Disease and was billed to be about the 1878 yellow fever epidemic that struck the city taking over 20,000 souls. It was billed as an immersive theatre experience set throughout a courtyard in the 1788 Dumaine Street residence, Madame John’s Legacy. Rest assured, there were many comments between us about the potential lack of seating and concern over impromptu interpretive dance performances (only further encouraged when we arrived to learn that the play was done in cycles…calling forth the Dude’s landlord’s Marty dance cycles in The Big Lebowski). But our fears turned out to be unfounded and the play was a truly deep and disquieting experience.

You were given a choice to either stay in one place such as a basement hat shop, bedroom in the upstairs of the house or out in the courtyard. Alternatively, you could follow one of the actors around to see how their individual story developed. While I’m sure there are deeper academic roots to this theatre process, it was reminiscent of a video game open-sandbox style adventure that allowed you to choose what to focus on throughout the night. You could spend time watching the hat maker agonize over writing a letter alone in the basement, another characters praying for salvation from the plague, or someone folding the laundry or engaged in a heated argument. It created this sense of anxiety that you were always missing something or only getting part of the information you needed to understand what was happening. Which, in the end, was exactly what the characters were feeling as they started to come to realize the coming yellow jack plague, quarantine and hard choices they had to make about leaving loved ones or staying in the city. Kind of a brilliant design.

There was also something in it that reminded me of The State of Siegeby Camus. Maybe it was the chaos of pending disease or perhaps the way both plays break down the traditional audience/ performer barrier. For me, both evoked these unsettled feelings around our current political climate, the role of incomplete information, authoritarian rule and the fear of a lurking apocalyptic event (albeit nuclear war rather than yellow jack). I found The Stranger Disease equally moving and disturbing.

As is a mark for any good play the true goodness of the performance and writing snuck up on me after some reflection. It took me days to process and the layers and quality of the performance and the larger messages. It is running until April 22, 2018, if you happen to be in the city. Don’t miss it.

600 words

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New Orleans, St. Ann Street

I sit across from the couple by the window. She is young, and full of energy and happy. She wears a black dress with red cherries and I can tell it’s the kind of dress that took her some time to choose. You can see her, right? Back in her apartment, casting off the green dress on the chair and then tossing the less form fitting, flowy black one across the bed? You can see her, debating which shoes to wear; flats or heels. She knows flats are the smart choice given the uneven streets, but heels make her legs look amazing. You watch as she paces back and forth, a different shoe on each foot, holding each out in front of the floor length mirror, trying to decide. She doesn’t ask him which looks better, not because he won’t give her an opinion, he’s totally the kind of guy that would give an opinion. She just wants to make this choice on her own tonight. She picks the heels. It’s a good choice and she is confident now, sitting comfortably across from him, free from her previous uncertainty. Her confidence is vibrant and attractive, and you can tell from the way he looks at her that they are very much in love.

It’s a small restaurant, in the heart of the quarter surrounded by old buildings and gas street lamps. They sit at a table by the window, dressing the restaurant for those passing by; those recovering from a day of drinking and excess with lent and ashes. He notices she is low on wine and he pours her more from the bottle with a twist, just so. They laugh and tell stories and eat. They are relaxed and happy, enjoying each other’s company.

She rests her hand in the middle of the table. It’s a fine hand, beautiful and thin, laying on the white linen between them. She sets it past the bread and the carefully poured wine; past her mostly untouched pasta and shrimp dish. She rests her hand on the table, crossing the expanse that separates them. He pours more wine, cuts into his food, and smiles at her and they laugh. It isn’t that he rejects her hand, he just does not take it.

I want to pull him aside. I want to tell him, as we pass each other on the way to the bathroom. I want to tell him to take her hand. And that’s even more than he needs to do. Just reach out and touch it. Reassure her. I want to shake him a bit and tell him its plain to see this is what she is asking for. Just the briefest touch. I don’t say this, of course. In case you are concerned. I never would. He would think me intrusive. Or that I was a crazy person. He would tell me there is nothing wrong between them and they are very much in love. And all of this would be correct. I’d have nothing to say back to him. He is right. Everything is fine.

After a few minutes, her hand slowly retreats. She brings it to her hair, adjusting a stray lock or brushing it back past her ear, it doesn’t really matter which. It was one of those two. She smiles at him and listens as he tells a story about a friend at work who didn’t get a promotion that he was supposed to get. They are happy and drink their wine and eat their food. They are content and in love.  Anyone can see it.

Makin’ Gumbo

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The Dudes Abode, Gumbo time 2017

It’s been four years and, with the holidays coming, I thought I’d write a blog about cooking something. My favorite something to cook is gumbo. Though, this isn’t my favorite thing to eat. Actually, it’s probably not even in the top ten, but there is something calming and peaceful for me about cooking it. Which is why I’m writing a blog about cooking it rather than just cutting and pasting a recipe. Gumbo cooking kind of requires a narrative.

I first learned to cook Gumbo in New Orleans at the School of cooking. Which, BTW, is a bit of a misnomer ‘cause you don’t actually cook at the school of cooking, but rather watch them cook and then eat what they cook. Which, when all is said and done, is really better. Also, free beer. But I’m getting off topic.

First, Get yourself one of those rotisserie chickens. I know, I know. You can roast your own chicken. But this is easier and really, pretty much the same. Don’t get any weird flavors like BBQ, just the regular. Then, just kind of go to town pulling off all the chicken and put it in a bowl for later. Break it up into bite sized pieces. If you are lucky enough to have a strainer pot, you can put the chicken in a strainer with like, maybe, a gallon or so of water. Then break up the chicken parts and just let it boil for an hour or so. The longer the better. You can add some salt if you like—or even some garlic sliced up. The school of cooking sells some cool dried sliced garlic that I use in the broth. You could also add prawn/shrimp bodies here, if you wanted to have a more seafood tasting broth.

Get a bunch of celery, onions and bell peppers. I usually buy like two onions and three bell peppers, and then however many stalks of celery then cram into those bags at the store. Cut them all up into small pieces and then set them aside. If you happen to have a sous chef, then this part is easier, or if you live in New Orleans on somewhere in the south where you can just buy pre-cut pepper, onion and celery, then again, you are golden here. But otherwise, ya gotta get to cutting.

Next up, the fun part. It’s roux time. You can do this different ways, using oil or butter. If you use oil, use vegetable oil and not olive oil. Butter can burn faster, so oil is more forgiving. But butter tastes better. I’ve even heard of some folks using bacon grease. I just use a stick of butter and a cup of flour. If you are making a lot, you can use two sticks of butter and two cups of flour. I recommend a nice cast iron skillet if you have one. Melt the butter first and then stir in the flour. Then you stir pretty constantly with a spatula or wooden roux spoon for about 10-15 minutes until it has this amazing smell and looks like a chocolate color. Don’t burn the roux.

Once it’s done, you can add the trinity of peppers, onions and celery to cool down the roux mix. Turn the flame down and stir occasionally. Next, either strain your broth or just pull the top of the pot out that has the strainer. Basically, you want a nice clean broth. I add a few cups of broth to the roux and pepper, onion and celery mix and let it sit and cook for a few minutes.

I’m a fan of browning the chicken in the pot I’m gonna cook the roux in. So, I do that with some oil, salt and pepper. For me, it’s good when the chicken leaves some marks on the bottom of the pot and is nice and cooked (don’t burn it, but that kind of crisp brown look). If you like a sausage gumbo along with the chicken, you can do the same to the sausage here. Most recommend a hard andouille sausage. I find that sausage overpowers my gumbo and prefer just a straight chicken.

Once the meat is cooked at the bottom of your soup pan, you add the chicken broth (should still be hot)—and stir off the chicken stuck on the bottom of the pan. Kind of your call on how much broth. I like a thinner gumbo with a darker roux taste and my favorite part is the broth, so I make it more that way. If you do less broth, you are basically making closer to an etouffee, which is a thicker and meatier version of gumbo great over rice.

Once you have your broth quantity figured out, then you add your roux mix with the celery, peppers and onions. Do yourself a favor and give that a taste. Its hot, so don’t burn your tongue. If you have something like Kevin’s hot stuff or the New Orleans School of cooking spice mix, I’d add some of that here. Remember you can always make it hotter, but you can’t take away the spice. If you don’t have the mix, you could do something like this: 2 tablespoons of paprika, salt and garlic powder, then 1 tablespoon of onion powder, black pepper, cayenne pepper, dried leaf oregano and dried lead thyme. Some add white pepper, thyme and basil—that’s your call.

Now you are pretty good to let it simmer for a stretch. I usually do about an hour. But again, the longer the better. If you like shrimp in your gumbo—I’d add them about 15 minutes before serving so they don’t overcook. Timing here depends on the size of the shrimp. As an aside—if you are into the shrimp and seafood, you could get the full prawns and add the bodies to the stock with the chicken earlier if you like.

The traditional service is with a ball of rice in the middle of the bowl and then pour the hot gumbo around it. Enjoy!

(Today—my flask has a nice Cabernet Franc called Brave and Maiden)

sketches

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Bethany figure drawing, 2017

I’ve always been jealous a bit of those who could sketch. Which is extra annoying since my wife and daughters sketch better than I could if someone gave me decades to practice. But at least I write, and I enjoy that. While sketching seems to be a term initially limited to drawing, I think it’s fair to talk about sketching in other ways. I’ve been working on a novel for some time (I know, I know, it’s taking forever!)…and I thought I would share some of the recent sketches I’ve been working on. Like drawing sketches, they are incomplete without rhythm or reason.

Mama

She was a tall, thin woman with an old brown, long-haired Chihuahua. She reached for the dog wrapped up in a pink and black, TSA approved, dog carrier and held him in her arms. The carrier was tattered and well-worn, much like the woman. She had a slight shake to her hand as she cradled the dog in a blanket on her lap. They sat across from me in the airport waiting lounge.

I was tired, coming off a red-eye flight from LAX. We were in Chicago and headed to Philadelphia. A young, black woman sat down next to her on the right. She started playing YouTube videos with the sound turned up way too loud for a public waiting room and was clearly oblivious to this social folkway. The dog eyed the black woman.

She stopped looking at YouTube for a moment and turned to look at the dog. The dog growled at her and the tall woman pulled him close within the pink polka-dot blanket and said “Aw, you stop that now” in a vaguely condescending and reproachful way. The dog snuggles deeper into the blanket and regard the black woman with disinterest.

The tall woman addresses the black woman. “See, he don’t mind you.” And then to her dog, “Don’t know why you are growling. They are the same.”

I find this statement slightly racist, like the tall woman was clarifying all of this out loud to convey she hadn’t raised a racist dog. Which, for me, made it seem like she had, in fact, raised a racist dog.

She held him even closer, “Mama will keep you warm.”

While I’ve always had an affinity for long-haired Chihuahuas, I did not have as much of an affinity for the owner. As I watched her more, I noticed most of her teeth were gone and she had a poorly done script neck tattoo that was faded and difficult to read. I figured meth was the likely culprit here.

She cooed again to the dog and I remembered this story from a Buddhist teaching. It implied that all people were all really the same people. There was no death, but instead we would come back as another person. There was no self, but instead this universal connection between everyone. There is no individual, but we are each other. I thought about this some. Could it be that I was this tall woman, that I was the young black lady watching her YouTube clips turned up too loud? That we were all the same. Maybe. I closed my eyes and waited till we boarded.

Sad eyes

I sat up near the front of the plane and I watched people line up and wait. The line slowed down as passengers attempted to cram their bags in the too small spaces.

I noticed a young, blonde woman waiting for her turn to progress in the narrow aisle. I was drawn to her sad eyes, like she had reached for help too many times and always came up empty. Her hair came down in tangles and she wore an over-sized sweater that hid her frame. It didn’t surprise me when she stopped and paused two rows down from where I sat. I had seen this before. She would look down at her ticket, and she did. She would calculate which number and letter combination lined up with the window or aisle seat, and she did. She made eye contact with me and I stood, letting her make her way to the window seat in my row.

I used to like the window seats. They were cozy and they felt like losing yourself in a movie as the plane took off and flew through the clouds. I suppose current aisle preference on flights echoed my current malaise. Now, I just wanted an extra few minutes to move to the front of the plane when the bell dinged at the end of the flight and the plane was settled at the gate. The plane gave this kind of bounce right before the bell and then the race was on. There was a loss here, I suppose. The same kind of loss when you stop marveling at the wonder of flight and think more about whether or not you will make your connection. I thought back to that point where I stopped looking out the window at the clouds and started to look more towards where I was going when I landed. It made me sad, too.

She settled in with her green, Jansport backpack pushed neatly under the seat. We smile again, briefly, and I wondered some at this. The convenience of kindness, the shared stuckness between Minnesota and Salt Lake. Embarking to in-between towns and cities, hubs people passed through. I thought about her cable-knit sweater and how it would be too warm for most people on the plane, but she seemed to disappear underneath its warmth. I closed my eyes as the plane hatch was closed, as we rolled back from the gate and flew to our in-between places.

State of Siege

I open my eyes and there is an older woman with a red-sweater moving across the aisle in front of me. She has on homemade jewelry, round-aqua stones with gold circles closing in on themselves in a kind of fractal design. She coughs twice. It’s that kind of deep chest cough that is the either the early stage of bronchitis or pneumonia. I’m sure it would have scared the country doctor in the early 19th century, but apparently is not as debilitating as it once was. She launches immediately into a story about cough drops, sharing too much, with everyone around her.

“I hate those people who cough all the way through the show. I usually remember to bring cough drops, but I didn’t this time. And I feel just terrible.

She continues to move across the aisle in front of me. She is a large woman, but not enormous. She struggles to fit in the seat and announces to everyone again, “my hips used to be able to fit in these seats. But that was a long time ago.”

She settles into her seat and begins to scratch at the back of her head with an intensity – as if searching for some kind of relief that never comes. Her breathing is labored from the coughing and she inhales deeply, as if never quite getting enough oxygen. She apologies to the two elderly women sitting next to her and claps her hands together in an odd gesture, with her fingers outstretched.

“Would you like some gum?” one of the elderly pair asks her. “I don’t have any cough drops, I’m afraid. But I have some gum.”

“Oh! I suppose that might help.” She takes the trident gum from the woman and repeats herself for no clear reason. “I hate those people who cough at the theatre. I find it very annoying. And then when they have a cough drop, they take so long to open it. Just rip the wrapper off, I say. Be done with it.”

She carefully unwraps an extra piece of gum and places it in her pocket. She says, “I’ll save that for later. And it’s unwrapped. So that won’t be a problem.”

I wait for play to start. It’s by Camus. I haven’t seen it before and I wonder if it might have already begun in front of me.

 

Gas Lamp

I’m walking outside of the theatre and someone calls to me. “Hey.” I keep walking.

“Hey! I smoke cigarettes. It’s a bad habit, but you know. Do you have any?”

The voice is slurred and I walk by quickly. The guy stumbles and his friend holds him up and back some from pursuing me more.

“Nah, man.” I say without skipping a step. I’m not scared, more annoyed at the hassle of them.

“Billy!” his friend chimes in, he’s been drinking too, but isn’t drunk. Not yet. “Billy, you sound like a crazy person asking for cigarettes that way out here.”

The conversation fades out as they stop walking. I keep moving and glance back across the 20 yards separating us. The friend is trying to hold it together but it’s clear he’s fighting a losing battle. Billy focuses on his feet, somewhat amazed that they seem to hold him up.

“I just need a smoke.” Billy says.

“I know, but when you ask like that you sound like a homeless, crazy person wandering in the Gaslamp.” The friend replies.

As bad luck would have it, the pair pass a tall-lanky man wearing ill-fitting sweat pants and a ram’s t-shirt says, “What the actual fuck did you say?!?”

Billy’s friend goes into overdrive. “Oh no, man. He wasn’t talking to you.” Billy looks around confused, clearly lost on the nuisances of the miscommunication.

“I’m not homeless,” sweat-pants says, raising his voice. “I have a home right over there at Covenant house.”

Their voices fade as I continue to walk away into the night.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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