The Ida Odyssey

Found at Inlet Beach, Florida, September 7, 2021

Hurricane Ida slammed into coastal Louisiana on August 29, about six weeks ago. I’ve had this post drafted for nearly the past month, but haven’t brought myself to finish it. There are a few reasons for this, I think. Like any great procrastinator, I’ve been able to find plenty of other things to do rather than write this. And every time I’d sit down to write, I found that the post-experience had changed. We were very fortunate, and did not sustain any major damage to our home, so “back-to-normal” came sooner for us. For friends whose homes and businesses were devastated, I just feel kind of insensitive writing about what happened to me in particular, when it was not particularly devastating.

So I’ve decided to keep the tale of this odyssey to just the first two weeks after the storm, when pretty much everyone who lives in Southeastern Louisiana had a shared experience of power outages, lines for gas, and the decision of whether or not to evacuate.

I will also include two items of note that are not shared experiences, but are particular to me. 1) August 29 is my birthday. And 2) Ida was my mom’s name.

Starting with those two weeks, from August 29 to September 11. We did not evacuate, and lost power in our house in the early afternoon of August 29. The storm blew in, and it was a wild one. We heard a crash outside, and looked to find a pine tree blown down, about two houses down from us. The worst part came in the evening, when my phone told me there was a flash flood warning. The levee failures during Katrina inundated our neighborhood (we did not live here at the time), and all I could do was pray that all the improvements that have happened since that time really did improve the situation.

They apparently did, because we woke up the next morning to wet, debris-strewn streets, but not flooded streets. The next decision became “should we stay or should we go?” We had a vacation in Florida, planned for months, set to begin Sunday, September 5. But we were looking at a long six days until then with no power, no services, and no place to go, since both of our workplaces were experiencing similar issues at a different scale. That made the decision easy. We couldn’t get into our vacation rental any earlier than the 5th, so we booked a hotel nearby our rental and left on Thursday, September 2.

One more detail to add. I waited for seven hours to get gas on Wednesday, September 1. All I care to say about that is that it was a lesson in patience and fortitude, and I hope to beat that time by a significant amount when I run the New York Marathon in 2022.

Our Florida vacation was really nice, definitely one of our nicer beach vacations. But it did have a bit of an Odyssey feel to it, like when Odysseus lives the high life with Circe while having no idea what is going on back at home.

I’ll conclude with those two items of note, mentioned previously. About August 29 being my birthday…I’ve written in this space before about what a bummer it can be. This quote from a post in 2017 about sums it up: “When your birthday falls at the height of the hurricane season, you get used to altering plans.”

And about Ida being my mom’s name. She died in 2014, at the age of 81. Her positive, beneficent, influence was really strong in our family, and still lives on. Thus, when a Hurricane Ida took aim at the places where a good number of her children and grandchildren live, the name of the storm was more than a detail. Ida is not a common name in our time. I’m still scratching my head over how a name I associate with such a gentle human being caused such mass devastation as a storm. Storms and people are very different things, obviously, but I guess they both have the potential for major impact. I’ll take the impact of having had Ida the person as a mom any day (and twice on Sunday).

Nutria: R.O.U.S.

City Park Nutria
Two juvenile nutria near the Big Lake in New Orleans City Park, July 20, 2019

Don’t think I’ve written about nutria before. Since I spotted two little ones this past weekend, it feels like an appropriate time to feature this long-time denizen of Louisiana.

While nutria have been around here for at least a century, they’re considered an invasive species. They were brought here from South America when the fur trade was still a thing. And, well, nutria don’t just thrive in our swampy, overgrown, landscape — they dominate it.

They look like small beavers when fully-grown. Some things I just learned: the nutria’s genus is “Myocastor,” derived from the ancient Greek words for a mouse or rat, and a beaver. Which is pretty fitting, since their tails are skinny and rat-like. And they have very prominent front teeth, like a beaver. Another thing: their teeth are orange. Really. Apparently because their tooth enamel has iron in it.

I had thought the orange, or rusty, teeth, were unique to the nutria. But the Internet tells me beavers have orange teeth, too, for the same reason.

You learn something new every day.

So, the tail is not the only way they differ from beavers. The biggest problem — unlike beavers, nutria are not industrious — they’re ravenous. Couple that with their prolific breeding habits, and you can imagine the threat they pose to our levees, drainage canals, wetlands. . .

While I like to think that an army of Westleys go out at night to take on these rodents of unusual size, there is in reality something called the CNCP to combat the R.O.U.S. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ “Coastwide Nutria Control Program” offers a bounty on nutria tail from November to March every year.

Nutria being fair game would explain a comment I received from a passerby, as I stopped to photograph the young rodents. He said, “breakfast.” I wasn’t sure if he meant the nutria were having breakfast, or the nutria would make a nice breakfast. He paused his run long enough to tell me that he once tried nutria tacos at a local high school’s annual “Beast Feast.” He said they did not taste like chicken, and the tacos were actually quite tasty.

I figure the two nutria I saw have about four months to enjoy before they get a price on their heads (or tails). Seems like there’s a lesson — or a story — in there somewhere.

They appeared to be eating when I happened upon them. They seemed unfazed by my presence.

Behind the Photo: Garden District

April 6, 2019, 2:38 pm

This may (or may not) be the start of a new blog feature: “behind the photo.” My thought is to give some context to the impulse that compelled me to snap a photo.

Truthfully, I do this very thing in this space all the time. Look for any of my “City Park” posts. So I guess the only thing that’s new is that I’m attempting to brand the effort. The marketer in me dies hard.

A quick Google search tells me that both National Geographic and Time use the phrase “behind the photo” for sections of their publications. But I don’t think anyone who stumbles across this post will confuse it for either one of those esteemed periodicals.

Anyway, on Saturday, I paid a quick visit to the Garden District of New Orleans, to run into the Garden District Book Shop. (If you’re curious to read more about this great independent bookstore, click here.) What captured my attention at this corner was not so much the sign, but the wall in the background, and in particular, the people there.

That wall encloses Lafayette Cemetery No. 1, one of New Orleans’s oldest cemeteries. As I drove past the entrance, I saw a large group of folks milling about. My guess was that they were sightseers, either about to embark on or just finishing up a tour.

My first thought: Only in New Orleans, do you see large crowds gathered around a graveyard.

But then I remembered a time in Paris, just two years ago now, where I wandered about with friends around Père Lachaise Cemetery.

My second thought: Maybe it’s a French thing.

One final observation to finish this up. Both the name of the cemetery, and the reference on the sign to the “City of Lafayette,” can be a bit confounding to the modern-day Southern-Louisiana dweller. To me, Lafayette is the city about 140 miles west of New Orleans, that one can reach via I-10. The Internet says it’s the 4th largest city in Louisiana, which sounds about right to me.

But apparently, a different city with the name Lafayette was once also a suburb of New Orleans. Back in those days, I think the name was pretty popular, given that the Marquis de Lafayette, or General Lafayette here, was “USA all the way” during the American Revolutionary War. By a very quick and non-official count, it looks like 15 of our 50 states have towns named Lafayette, or some close variation.

Back when Lafayette became part of New Orleans, what I know as Lafayette today was called Vermilionville. It didn’t get the name “Lafayette” until 1884.

So there’s your “behind the photo” scoop, and, bonus, a random Louisiana fact.

Communicating Distances

Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash

Later this afternoon, I’ll return home to New Orleans from Orlando. I’ve been here since Sunday, attending the Society for Technical Communication’s annual Summit.

I’ve traveled quite a bit in the last thirty days (Los Angeles, New York, plus a few local trips I’ll get to shortly). One remarkable thing is that only this last bit of travel, to Florida, has been for my day job. That’s certainly a departure from years past.

And in another departure, this travel hasn’t been for a trade show. Which leads me to something I’ve meant to mention in this space earlier, but I don’t think I have yet. I’ve moved out of the marketing department and onto a new challenge with the company who’s been good enough to employ me for the past eleven years. I’ve been learning the ropes of technical writing, which is a change that suits me just fine.

Communication has been the focus the past three days at this conference — the 65th version of this meet-up! It’s been eye-opening and very educational. Part of me regrets that it’s taken me so long in my career to turn in this direction; but there’s another part of me that feels like now is just the right time to get involved. There’s been so much change — just in the past few years or so — in how we communicate as a society.

I’ve been thinking of the term “the medium is the message.” When Canadian intellectual Marshall McLuhan coined that phrase back in 1964, was there any way he could have possibly envisioned the vast proliferation of mediums that exist today?

What it all seems to boil down to is this: I don’t need to craft a different message for every different form of media I use. I just need to be clear enough in what I want to say, and fluent enough in the nuances of the different media, to be able to “translate” the message into all its appropriate forms.

Therein lies the rub.

And this doesn’t seem clear at all, but I mentioned above some local trips I made recently. Far be it from me to leave that dangling. In the span of about 24 hours, I made round trips to the following southern Louisiana towns: Baton Rouge, LaPlace, and Ponchatoula. And when that was all done, I flew to Orlando.

In the interest of concise communication, I’ve edited out the reasons for those three local trips, and the incontrovertible timing each bore. If my life were a fiction, I’d try to work in some theme about how the main character (me!) likes to travel, and likes to write, and likes to think about communication. But when they all happen at once, some major conflagration happens, the m.c. overcomes the conflict, and everyone is significantly changed at the end of it all.

But thankfully, my life isn’t a fiction. So I’ll just conclude by saying that I’m very grateful for all the opportunities that have been laid before me these past thirty days, opportunities to do things I find fulfilling. But I’ll also be very glad to get home, stay in one spot, and enjoy the silence for a little while.



Louisiana Book Festival

Each autumn, the State Library of Louisiana puts on the Louisiana Book Festival at the State Capitol grounds in Baton Rouge. Weather in Southern Louisiana can go one of two ways in October—unseasonably warm and muggy; or, what most people down here look forward to each fall—seasonably cool, moderate temperatures. We were fortunate to have the latter this past Saturday. It was a blustery day and I don’t think it got above 60 degrees, one of the first really cool days of this 2017 fall season.

I made the seventy-six mile trek up to Baton Rouge with my writing friend Samantha (she drove). For me, some highlights of the day were:

  • William Joyce: He’s primarily a children’s book writer, but I know him as the artist behind The Fantastic Flying Books of Mr. Morris Lessmore. This incredibly moving short film won an Academy Award in 2011.  We heard him speak in the House Chamber of the State Capitol building, which is a really cool thing about this book festival—the venue.
  • Michael Farris Smith: He spoke in the Senate Chamber, and I bought his book Rivers. It’s a dystopian story I’ve heard a lot about. From the back jacket copy: “Due to years of catastrophic hurricanes, the Gulf Coast has been sealed off by a government-drawn boundary called the Line. Those who remain below the Line live hand-to-mouth in this lawless, unforgiving land.”
  • Karen L. Cox: A professor of history at UNC Charlotte, she just released a book entitled Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South. It’s about a notorious murder that took place in Natchez, Mississippi in 1932. The only person to go to prison for this murder has been largely forgotten by history. She was overshadowed by some whacked-out characters (who didn’t go to prison, despite their guilt), who captured the nation’s attention at the time and capitalized on their notoriety. Karen Cox gives some dimension to poor Emily Burns, the woman who was convicted as an accomplice and who did go to prison. The context is that this woman was hanging out with the wrong person, at definitely the wrong place, at the wrong time.
  • Hidden Figures: speaking of speaking up about the things history forgets…I received a free copy of Hidden Figures: The American Dream and the Untold Story of the Black Women Mathematicians Who Helped Win the Space Race. The book by Margot Lee Shetterly (that inspired the movie of the same name) is the 2018 “One Book, One Community” selection for Baton Rouge. The East Baton Rouge Parish Library was giving away copies!
  • The pecan pie cupcake I got from a food truck. I think the purveyor was Cupcake Allie out of Baton Rouge. Delicious.

The Louisiana Book Festival’s website says this was their 14th edition. I first found out about the festival just five years ago, in 2012. It was the early days of my writing journey, and I made the trek up to Baton Rouge alone to attend one of the “Word Shops” held in conjunction with the festival. Those four hours spent listening to the Pulitzer Prize-winning author Robert Olen Butler turned out to be a seminal moment in my writing career. Because it was then that I discovered what my writing lacked.

It was commitment.

If I truly wanted to put my work out in the world, and “go public” as a writer, I would need to find a way to put in the necessary hours. To negotiate the demands of job, family, life on Earth—and find a way, carve out the time needed to answer the call. The call to write had been a whisper for most of my life, but it began to shout insistently, smack-dab in mid-life.

While I’d love to say it’s been five years of consistent, steady effort ever since—I can’t. I still get derailed, it’s still a daily negotiation between the demands of job, family, life on Earth. But I’m not forgetting how far I’ve come in those five years: I’ve been published. I have writing friends. I have this blog. I even have an Amazon Author Page.

All these treasures felt like pipe dreams five years ago. I am exceedingly grateful to count them as part of my reality now.

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.