The Texas Renaissance Festival

“Leaf me alone,” says the Fall Faerie

So, I was in Houston this past weekend, visiting my sister Julie. Hurricane Harvey had something to do with this trip. After it dumped its biblical portions of rain on the Houston area, Julie and I carved out this time—a grateful acknowledgment of the fact that she and her husband were spared any flooding.

It took a little while for our schedules to coalesce. I had the trip to Greece last month, and Sister Julie had a bunch of work travel that just wrapped up. She flew to three continents over a four-week period, I think. One of her trips was supposed to commence the week Harvey hit, but airport closures pushed it forward.

As the fates would have it, I found myself in Texas during the Texas Renaissance Festival, for its Highland Fling-themed weekend. A note about this fair: Wikipedia tells me it began in 1974, on the location of an old strip mining site. Julie has lived in Houston for the past twenty-five years, and has been an avid fan of the TRF since she discovered it, shortly after her arrival in the Lone Star State.

Through the years, there’s been an assortment of our family that’s joined her on her annual trek to the festival, held every autumn, fifty-five miles northwest of Houston. I’ve been with her once before, five or six years ago, when I purchased a little owl figure at one of the shops.

There is a specific reason behind my relatively new fascination with owls. Shortly after I began this writing journey, I dreamt I had an owl as a pet. More a familiar than a pet.  In the dream, the bird was trying to tell me in an owl-lie type way that I needed to adjust my focus, and pay more attention to writing. As motivation, it sorta backfired—while I definitely give writing more focus these days, I also get easily distracted by images or depictions of owls whenever I encounter them.

Original Owlie, plus a new sibling from Greece

Anyway, Sister Julie was in a reflective mood at this year’s festival. It might have been the effect of finally alighting at home after her round-the-world travels. Or maybe because her children are all grown now. Her daughter, Niece Emilie, would almost always join her for the Highland Fling weekend. Em just started a graduate program at Yale, so a trip back home to Texas just for the Fling was too hard to swing. 🙂

Julie pondered aloud about why she’s always loved the TRF. Was it the time of year, the South Texas air finally turning cooler? Was it the clothes and costumes? Was it Tartanic, the group that bills themselves as “Insane Bagpipe/Drum/Dance/Comedy” performers? Personally, I’d put in a vote for the scotch eggs and pear cider.

I reminded her that she’s always been drawn to that historical period:

“Remember the term paper you wrote in high school, ‘Was Medieval Woman Really…”

“Mid-Evil?” she finished my sentence. “Yeah,” she said, “How do you remember that?”

“I guess that’s the kind of stuff I remember.” Growing up the youngest of seven kids, with a nascent ambition to write, I paid attention to my older siblings’ term papers, short stories, plays, impromptu comedy skits…

Really, it’s enough for me that the Texas Renaissance Festival is just something my sister loves. As well as a lot of other people, apparently—it was packed this past Saturday. And I love seeing all the costumes, which span far beyond the Renaissance period. (For more casual togs, I was not the only one in a Star Wars t-shirt. And Astros fans were also out in force.)

And finally, I like to think of the “reawakening” meaning of renaissance. Here is an old strip mine, reborn as a verdant, pastoral, place. And what a lovely venue, and event, for the people of Houston to return to each year.

Outfitted for Highland Fling
Blending in
Worlds collide
Admiring Julie’s new hair clip while waiting for the swings
The swings
Sunset at the TRF

Ghost Pumpkins

St. John the Baptist Cemetery, Edgard, Louisiana

With Halloween right around the corner, I feel like I should post something spooky. Showing a picture of an ancient, decaying headstone bearing the name I used for three-quarters of my life feels pretty spooky. (I went by Anne Mialaret until husband Tim and I married roughly twelve years ago.)

That grave belongs to the immediate family of my great-great-grandfather, Antonin Mialaret, who died in 1884. I found his grave marker, as well as the grave of my great-grandfather, Prosper, when I went upriver to visit the Whitney Plantation. I wrote about the experience last January. Discovering my ancestors’ connection to the owners of that plantation was not spooky, but sobering. And shameful.

Prior to that visit, my knowledge of Antonin Mialaret consisted of a photocopied genealogy that belonged to my father. I specifically remember a line in that photocopy, about Antonin Mialaret possessing a talent for retaining trivial (i.e. useless) knowledge. I have not been able to find anything online to back it up, but I stand by that claim, because I think retention of useless knowledge is hardwired into my genetic makeup.

To wit: ghost pumpkins. It being fall, and close to Halloween, I’ve been thinking about ghost pumpkins. They sound pretty spooky, right? While I like to think they contain the spirits of Halloweens past, they’re really just white pumpkins, whose skin lacks the orange pigment of their more ubiquitous siblings.

Here’s where the useless knowledge comes in: I can’t think of ghost pumpkins without thinking of Pavilions, a supermarket chain in Southern California. In the late ’90s, while I was living in Los Angeles, Pavilions used to run radio ads featuring a raspy-voiced woman. The ad I remember the most was the one promoting their ghost pumpkins. The woman sounded like Sally Kellerman, but there was this quality of sadness to these radio spots that didn’t quite match my image of Sally Kellerman.

And when I say sad, I mean you’d almost want to change the station when these spots came on, so you wouldn’t start blubbering on your way to work. Or the grocery. Or for whatever reason you happened to be in your car.

I can’t tell you exactly what was so sad about the ghost pumpkins at Pavilions. I think it was a combination of the music and the woman’s voice. And the ad copy might have said something about the pumpkins being lonely.

More about the spooky Mialaret capacity for useless knowledge: brother Jerry also lived in Southern California in the late ’90s. We, in fact, would talk about the sad ghost pumpkin commercials back then, in real-time. But it wasn’t until now, twenty years later, that we solved the mystery of the voiceover. From a conversation just a few days ago (because, yes, Mialarets will talk about decades-old radio ads, or Interstate signs seen in Texas forty years ago, or something a neighbor might have said fifty years ago):

Me: I always thought it was Sally Kellerman doing those voiceovers.

Jerry: No. You know who it was? It was the woman who played Harm’s mother on JAG. (Several Mialarets were big fans of JAG).

Me: OK. I’m on it. We’re going to find some YouTube clips for confirmation.

Believe it or not, “Pavilions radio spots from the 1990s” was not a well-used search term. But a bit of digging confirmed that the actress Christina Pickles voiced those radio ads. She did indeed play Harmon Rabb’s mother on JAG, but I knew her as Monica and Ross’s mom on Friends. And I found a YouTube clip of her talking about playing a sorceress in the 1987 “He-Man” movie, where she first met Courteney Cox. I listened with my eyes closed, and a tear came to my eye as I imagined her opining on the loneliness of ghost pumpkins.

The Spider Queen

There is a theater company here in New Orleans called The NOLA Project. They’ve been around for more than ten years now, so they don’t really qualify as “newcomers.” But I’ve seen many of their productions over the years, and I’m always struck by how they manage to keep things fresh.

Case in point, there’s their annual spring production in the New Orleans Museum of Art’s sculpture garden. A (sort-of) quick aside: the Sydney and Walda Besthoff Sculpture Garden is one of my favorite places in the city. There is something transcendent about the way the sculptures are seamlessly woven into the five acre landscape of mature oak and pine.

And an aside to the aside: the name itself features a bit of New Orleans history. Sydney Besthoff was one of the principals in Katz and Besthoff, or K&B—a pharmacy that dominated the New Orleans cityscape for most of the twentieth century. People of a certain age in this city will still describe a particular color as “K&B purple.”

I’m so inspired by the sculpture garden, I set the final scene of The Incident Under the Overpass there. But I guess I’m not the only one inspired by it. I have to believe The NOLA Project’s latest production, The Spider Queen, was at least partially inspired by some of its sculptures. It’s an original play, written by James Bartelle and Alex Martinez Wallace. James Bartelle is the Associate Artistic Director of The NOLA Project.

I saw The Spider Queen with two nieces on Friday. The play was staged on the patch of ground in front of a sculpture called “Spider” by Louise Bourgeois. It’s the one pictured at the top of this post. (That photo was taken about four years ago, during one of the three cold-ish months we have in New Orleans.)

The most remarkable thing about The Spider Queen was, hands-down, the puppets. There was a bird operated by two puppeteers, and a dragon that (I think) had five puppeteers. The ogres had just one puppeteer apiece:

And the production saved the best for last. Here’s the Spider Queen herself. I think she had six puppeteers:

So, back to the original point I was attempting to make, about The NOLA Project keeping things fresh. The spring production in the sculpture garden is an annual thing, and it’s something I’ve done with an assortment of nieces over the years.

For several years in a row, it was Shakespeare in the garden. It was during Much Ado About Nothing, as I recall, when we had messy crepes filled with speculoos and had to fend off a termite swarm. (The two things are not related. Termites swarm in New Orleans every May, regardless of what’s in your crepe. If swearing off speculoos would keep the termites away, I would do it. Reluctantly.)

As timeless as Shakespeare can be, I’m glad The NOLA Project hasn’t felt compelled to stage the Bard every spring in the sculpture garden. While I’m sure some of the universal human foibles that inspired Shakespeare are still around, it was a lot of fun to see a contemporary composition, inspired by one of the very same places that inspires me.

Not to mention, niece Kate can do a spot-on imitation of the ogres. Much better than I bet Shakespeare himself could have done.

Untethered

Yes, I referred to myself in the third person in the caption on the back. I think I’ve always been afraid I’ll forget who I am.

My father called it “re-entry syndrome.” That period, after a time away, when you get back into the life that was waiting on you while you were somewhere else.

Dad had big-time wanderlust. He would take us on really long vacations in the summer. I remember making our way from southern Louisiana to Glacier National Park in Montana in one three-week road trip. That might have been the summer of ’79, when we traversed a portion of the Lewis and Clark trail.

Back then, all that was waiting on me when we returned were the family pets. (Quat the cat, Rin the dog, and Bunny the bunny. Bunny had several nicknames—actually, all the animals did. “Bunny” was itself a nickname—but I won’t get into that here.) Sometimes there were swim lessons. So I had the pets, some swimming, and a lingering dread of the impending school year. That constituted my re-entry back in the day.

It was a different scenario for my father. He had his job as an Air Traffic Controller, his commission in the National Guard, and seven children to raise. That last bit was by no means his responsibility alone—I have to mention Mom here. She liked to travel, too, and was a gentle and quiet constant on all these “vacations.” But I suspect the marathon-no-frills road trips were purely the brainchild of my father. So he only had himself to blame for whatever re-entry awaited him.

After twelve days in Germany and France, I’ve been feeling a bit untethered. I suppose that’s my version of re-entry syndrome. It feels apropos, since my life, by my choice, is not as heavy as my father’s was. There’s a lot less to burn as I enter the atmosphere.

There are some changes happening at my place of employment that are factoring into the feeling. But the state of my writing life is also contributing in a major way. Two manuscripts are out of my hands, awaiting revisions. Lacey’s first story is with the new publisher, and a draft of Lacey’s second story is with an editor. I plan to take the rest of this month off before I start outlining and composing the third.

Some part of me knows that this untethered time is absolutely necessary. Especially for writing. It will give me needed distance from the material, so that I can come back to it with fresh eyes and renewed vigor.

But I miss the discipline of working on it every day. And what will happen if I let myself get too distant? Will my capacity diminish, along with my prospects? What if a big rogue wave comes up and displaces my little unmoored dinghy somewhere really far away?

Come to think of it, that might make a pretty good story. One person, alone in the ocean in a small boat. Though I think it’s been done a few times before. 😉

 

Crawfish Break

I’ve spent a fair amount of time this month squirreled away, focused on writing, getting Lacey’s story down and out of my head. But it was time to take a break this past Saturday, for my family’s annual crawfish boil.

I can’t tell you who first decided to pick up one of these little crustaceans and put them in a boiling pot full of spices. But apparently, they’ve always been plentiful in the swamplands of southern Louisiana. I figure some hungry, early denizen of these parts must have figured they were worth a shot.

By the late 1800s, crawfish were being sold commercially. This, according to the Louisiana Crawfish Promotion and Research Board. In those 100 plus years gone by, crawfish have grown into a pretty big deal down here. This time of year, not a weekend goes by where someone isn’t boiling crawfish somewhere.

With our mild winters and really (really) long summers, some clever folks have claimed that our seasons are different in Southern Louisiana. Instead of Winter, Spring, Summer and Fall, we have: Mardi Gras, Crawfish, Hurricane, and Football. (I’ll sometimes see Hunting instead of Mardi Gras, and Sno-ball instead of Hurricane, but Crawfish and Football are constants.)

To give you some idea of the scope of crawfish boils down here: as of this year, Louisiana has a crawfish “pardoning event.” Yes, like the pardon some lucky Thanksgiving turkey receives from the POTUS each year. On March 7, Louisiana’s Lieutenant Governor pardoned Emile the Crawfish to live out the rest of his days in Bayou Segnette. (Emile was named after Emile Zatarain [1866-1959], the guy who first packaged all the spices together. Seems a little ironic.)

The crawfish boil tradition in my family only goes back six or seven years. It’s definitely tied to the next generation—several of my nieces and nephews have birthdays in March. Since March/April is the height of crawfish season, it makes sense. It’s also a great excuse to get people to come visit, since all but one of those March birthday holders live outside Louisiana.

There’s a lot I like about this family event. I like that it’s something that’s been forged recently—it’s not some holdover from our family’s past. I like to see Husband Tim and Brother Jerry working together like Matt Damon and Greg Kinnear in Stuck on You. I like that it gets distant family and friends into New Orleans for a visit.

I could go on, but I won’t. There’s a quote from A Knight’s Tale that sums up my feelings nicely. (Uttered by Paul Bettany, from his brilliant portrayal of Geoffrey Chaucer): Days like these are far too rare to cheapen with heavy-handed words.

Indeed.

Year of the Rooster

Photo from Harbin, China, courtesy of niece Nicole. She's a Water Monkey.
Photo from Harbin, China, courtesy of niece Nicole. She’s a Water Monkey.

I was born in the year of the rooster. It feels presumptuous to claim “this is my year,” when, by a rough calculation, I likely share this designation with 1/12th of the population of earth. Give or take a few one-thousandths. But it at least feels noteworthy, and worth a blog post, since a rooster year only rolls around every 1.2 decades.

My mother was also born in the year of the rooster. She died during a year of the horse, but I’m not sure if there’s meaning there. There is supposed to be significance to the “type” of sign you were born under, aligning with the five elements of wood, fire, earth, metal, and water.

Mom was a “Water Rooster.” According to TravelChinaGuide.com, that means she was “smart and agile, sensitive, keen on art and niceness.” That feels pretty accurate.

I am an “Earth Rooster,” so, supposedly, I’m “active, perceptive, like traveling and making friends.” I’d like to think that’s accurate. I’m also a Virgo, which is an Earth sign, so I guess I have a lot of earthiness going on. I do have a fondness for geology.

Many years ago, I frequented a restaurant in Tucson, Arizona. (I was living there at the time, so it wasn’t like I was commuting thousands of miles to go to this restaurant. The sesame chicken was good, but not that good.) It used paper placemats with the signs of the Chinese zodiac on it. If you’ve been to a Chinese restaurant in the U.S. in the past twenty years, you’ve likely seen similar.

I would bristle every time I read my sign. It called roosters, or cocks, “selfish and eccentric.” I was okay with the eccentric part. But, selfish? Heavens, no! And certainly not my mother. How could a woman who always put her seven children ahead of her own interests be considered selfish?

chinese-zodiac-placemat-chinese-new-year-animals

In the intervening years, I’ve learned to take my placemat horoscopes with a grain of salt. Truth be told, I certainly have a greater degree of self-interest than my mother possessed, but I still don’t consider myself selfish.

And there are many positive traits of the rooster that I either hold, or aspire to. This, according to (again) TravelChinaGuide.com: “Rooster is almost the epitome of fidelity and punctuality. For ancestors who had no alarm clocks, the crowing was significant, as it could awaken people to get up and start to work. In Chinese culture, another symbolic meaning chicken carries is exorcising evil spirits.”

Fidelity, yes; punctuality, I aspire to; and if waking up early to write can be considered a form of crowing, then that applies, too. And if my writing can do anything to exorcise evil spirits, I’ll be pretty happy with that.

2017 is the Year of the Fire Rooster. According to MindBodyGreen.com, it means we’re moving past the tempestuous Year of the Fire Monkey, and “we’ll start to play fair again, realizing that ‘winning’ (and slinging mud) isn’t worth much if it comes at the price of our pride and personal relationships.”

That would be something to crow about.

Deo Gratias

anne_mcclane_abbey

So, I spent this past Saturday evening at a monastery. No, I’m not considering a change in lifestyle. I was there for a fundraiser, and the amount of food and drink available felt decidedly un-monastic.

Saint Joseph Abbey and Seminary College is about forty miles north of New Orleans. It’s been around since 1889, when a group of Benedictine Monks from Saint Meinrad Abbey in Indiana came down to Southern Louisiana to establish a monastery. In addition to the monastic life, the Abbey also houses Seminarians from across the Gulf South as they begin their journey to the priesthood or religious life.

I’ve known the place since I was very small. My father used to take us on picnics there, on the Bogue Falaya River, which runs along the outer perimeter of the Abbey. He eventually bought some land in the woods nearby, that became his personal retreat, The Point.

My Dad attended high school at the Abbey, back when they offered secondary education. He loved it, and he never lost his affinity for the place—I think that’s the reason he bought property nearby. He wanted to write a book about the Abbey and his time there. That’s what he was working on when he died.

The Abbey Cemetery is one of the most beautiful in Southern Louisiana, in my opinion. It’s different from the cemeteries New Orleans is famous for, because it doesn’t have the abundance of above-ground tombs. I’ve known the Cemetery since I was small, too—my paternal grandfather is buried there (he died many years before I was born). My Mom and Dad are also there now. The writer Walker Percy is just a few plots away from them.

There’s something else about the Abbey, which has left a distinct impression on me from a very young age: the murals by Benedictine artist Dom Gregory de Wit. I’ve always known the ones from the Abbey church, but I just got to see the ones in the Monks’ Refectory for the first time.

My Godfather (who was with us at this fundraiser) pointed out an interesting fact: de Wit liked to put some sort of anachronistic element in his paintings. This is from a mural of the Last Supper from the Monks’ Refectory:

dom_de_wit

Can you pick out the anachronism? (It’s sorta center frame)

Finally, the fundraiser is called Deo Gratias (thanks be to God). They have it every year, but this year, it took on special meaning. The Abbey was inundated when the Bogue Falaya flooded earlier this year, in March. (Yes, five months before the flooding that devastated the Baton Rouge area. This has been a terrible year for floods, and not just in Louisiana). The damage to the Abbey was worse than what it suffered during Katrina.

The recovery is well under way, but there is still a long way to go. That’s why I was really glad to take part in Deo Gratias (thanks be to my sister for her generosity). There is something truly transcendent about the Abbey—in its peacefulness, its solitude, and its reverence. It has stood for generations, and I need to believe that it will be there for generations to come.