Monday, November 30, 2015

Flashback to November 2011: Looking Beyond Caucasus Georgia - Plan A

Remembrance of a lovely coffee with "Mary 2" in New Rustavi, Caucasus Georgia. August 2011.

In November 2011, I was at the mid-point of my time in Caucasus Georgia. During my visit to the USA during the winter holidays, I interviewed for Teach for America. Below is my post for that time

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Looking Beyond Georgia: Plan A

I've completed half my tenure with Teach and Learn with Georgia (TLG), and I'm in the midst of the Teach for America (TFA) application process. My final interview for same is on Tuesday, November 29.

If I am invited to join the TFA corps (and if I accept), I'll begin teaching somewhere in the U.S. for the 2012-2013 school year. TFA "corps members" sign on for a two-year commitment to teach in a school that is in a low-income community. Might be rural; might be urban.

If I get in, I'm hoping to teach English language learners (ELL).

And if I get in, I suspect I'll need to brush up on my acronym skills. They're a bit rusty (TABR).

On January 17, I'll find out if I made the cut. If no, it's on to Plans B or C.

Talking about Plans A, B, and C gives me the opportunity to share a great quote from Ashley, a TLG colleague:
... I am a planner. I always have a Plan A, and am rarely caught without a Plan B. I plan for the most minor of externalities. Catch me at any consequential moment and I've usually got two plans and a lie already prepared.
Once I put the interview behind me, I'll be able to focus on a great Georgian party here in Missouri, where I can share the homemade wine, chacha, and churchkhela so generously shared with me. We'll make toasts to the folks back in the Caucasus and to ourselves and our loved ones.

... and a toast to another semester in Georgia!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Learning to Dance, Part 4: Signals

RR crossing, Lordsburg, New Mexico.

As the follow in a partner dance, I need to catch the lead's signals so I know what he intends to do next or what he wants me to do next.

As a novice dancer, it is common for me to misinterpret or miss a signal.

Sometimes I smile when I think about dance signals because it puts me in the mind of a horse and a rider. An equestrian gives the slightest physical cues to a horse, such as a bit of leg pressure on a horse's flank or pressure on both sides at once, or a subtle lead on the reins - all to ask the horse to turn to the left or right, or to move into a higher speed, or back up or move forward. 

Sharing this analogy with a dance partner could lead to a whole other category of signals, so I just keep it to myself.

This way. Highway 3. New Mexico.

The Mystery of the Right Hand  

In October, I was dancing with an out-of-town partner - let's call him Jacques - and in the midst of a dance, he suddenly said, "What, are you afraid of where my hand is going to go?"

In my rapid-fire wit, I said, "What?"

Jacques said, "You're grabbing my hand and moving it."

I said, "What?"

He repeated his statement, and I said, "What are you talking about? I'm not doing that."

Jacques assured me that this was exactly what I was doing.

I proposed that he tell me when it happened again so I can try and figure out the deal.

Presently, he did. And then I understood.

It was a signal mix-up on my end. When we were dancing in an open position, sometimes Jacques would put his right palm up and I knew that meant we would begin to dance with our hands held, but still in an open position. Other times, when we were dancing in the open position, he would move his right hand toward me, but NOT with his palm facing me. I hadn't put it together yet that when Jacques did this, it meant we would dance in a closed position, with his right hand on my left shoulder blade and my left hand on his right bicep or on his right shoulder blade. So what would happen is that - often - when I saw Jacques' right hand come up, I thought we were going to dance with hands held, but in an open position. Therefore, I would mistakenly grasp his hand while he was in the process of trying to put it around me and onto my left shoulder blade.

Consequence: We both jumped to inaccurate conclusions based on the misinterpretation of physical signals, me on the basis of inexperience and Jacques on the basis of a past experience with a dance partner who did accuse him of cheekiness.

A Brain Shift

A day or so later, I danced again with Jacques, this time in a different dance venue.

About halfway through the event, I noticed that Jacques began to execute a new-to-me hand signal. We had been dancing with both of our hands connected, but in an open position. He disengaged his right hand from my left, and flicked his partially-closed right hand toward his right. Jacques' movement had the appearance of a careless toss of junk mail that you're flipping over to a counter.

Somehow, I understood this was a signal for me to turn to my left, and I laughed and joked, "I guess the honeymoon is over," editorializing on the apparent carelessness, the laziness - the taking-for-grantedness - of the gesture.

Even though my teasing was truly in fun, it did reflect my limited knowledge of signals. You see, in previous dance lessons and subsequent real-life practice, I knew what it looked like when a lead dancer wanted me to turn right when we were in a one-hand-held, open position - he made an extended sweep of his left hand, almost pointing me in the direction he wanted me to go.  I hadn't yet been exposed to the movement Jacques made with his right hand.

Jacques took the teasing in stride, without comment, and it wasn't until later the same night or maybe at a different venue altogether, that I noticed exactly the same gesture made by other lead dancers.

And do you know, once I realized this was a signal used and recognized by experienced dancers, things recalibrated in my brain with the result that I saw it in an entirely new light - as a smooth, studied move and not a casual, careless one.

Now, isn't that something? That brain shift?

Related links: 

Learning to Dance: Solving for X
Learning to Dance: The Tao of Following
Learning to Dance: The Pause

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Opelousas: Breathe It: Sebastien's West End Seafood

When I saw the fish flashing, I wondered how I could have missed it so many times before.

Sebastien's West End Seafood. Opelousas, Louisiana.

Everything about the sign pleased me. That glittering like the sun. The black and caramel and mother-of-pearl-white of the fat fish. The cheeriness of the chartreuse border and the joyful blue dots and lines. Gosh.

Of course, I had to pull over.

And then I could see all the colors and textures of flowers and foliage in front and on the side. Bright apple green and deep burgundy leafy cheer of sweet potato vines. Happy yellow lettering on windows. A banana tree. With bananas!

Sebastien's West End Seafood. Opelousas, Louisiana.

And then, and then, when I walked into the store. ...  Deep breath. An aromatic slap from the sea, of fish dead and alive, that briny salty attractant-repellant somethingness that explains why a dog likes to roll in half-putrfied, dead fish on a beach.

A sensory storm, this place.

Below is a slide show:

A shout-out to staff member Walter and his colleagues for their friendly patience while I absorbed it all.

Monday, November 23, 2015

Louisiana: The Church of Zydeco

Performance center, Vermilionville, Lafayette, Louisiana.

Every Sunday afternoon, Vermilionville hosts the Bal du Dimanche ("Sunday Dance") from 1:00 to 4:00. Usually they alternate Cajun and Zydeco each week, with the occasional "swamp pop" or blues thrown in to the line-up.

I love both Cajun and Zydeco, mind you.

But. ... On every Zydeco Sunday, the same strange phenomenon occurs: I walk into the gift shop, show my membership card, get my paper bracelet, walk out of that building and into the courtyard, pass by La Cuisine de Maman's, and as I hear the Zydeco waft from the nondescript Performance Center in front of me, my mouth begins to form into a smile. It's an involuntary response, I tell you.

The nearer I get to the Performance Center, the louder the music gets as it flows through the cracks of the doors, and the wider my smile becomes. Heck, it makes me smile just writing about it.

A pale, pale sample of this phenomenon is in the video below:

On this particular Sunday in June, the Most High Reverend Mister Curley Taylor preached, along with his holy men, Zydeco Trouble.

Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble. Vermilionville, June 2015.

We celebrants confessed our sins and were blessed for another week. Or until later the same day for serious sinners, who congregated at Whiskey River. Or again that night, maybe at Randol's or O'Darby's or Feed n Seed.

Curley Taylor and Zydeco Trouble. Vermilionville, June 2015.

When a Zydeco band gets into a special groove, and the band members are in the music, and they lead us, the audience, up the road with them, and we add our energy to the band's energy, and the entire room thrums with a soaring, transcendent force, it evokes to me a trance dance that brings euphoria, of connection with humanity of today and humanity going back, back, back all the way to our very beginnings.

It's not just Zydeco music that does this, of course. Any music can do it. I remember a singular experience at the Lupus Chili Fest in 2013, in a garage. I described the feeling like this:
Sometimes when you listen to music, live especially, it pushes against you like an ocean wave or like a force of air, where you feel exhilarated and breathless at the same time, where your head actually falls back a little from the strength of the sound coming at you.  

This is what it felt like in the Lupus Garage when The Harvest Season played, as the band's flow rolled up and back in small waves, then pounded the shore in a rush against the beach.
If they had been calling to people at the back of the church to come to Jesus, why, I might have been tempted to do just that.


Friday, November 20, 2015

Missouri: Happenings On the Road

Sunrise on Highway 179, Missouri. November 2015.

Early one Sunday morning, I started back to South Louisiana from a visit to Missouri.

Here are some things I saw along the way:

An extravagant sunrise in video below on Highway 179, north of Jefferson City, with a cameo appearance by the Missouri River, accompanied by the sexy, bluesy Clifton Chenier waltz, I Am a Farmer (Je Suis en Recolteur):

South of Freeburg on Highway 63, in the video below, some wayward cows took a Sunday stroll along the road. I'm sure a farmer received several phone calls from local drivers-by: "Lloyd, your cows are out again!"

Just north of Rolla, still on Highway 63, was a crash scene that looked deadly: 

Scene of Highway 63 crash.

When I passed by the scene after about a 20-minute wait, I saw the crashed car, horribly mangled. It was a wonder there were no fatalities (which I learned by checking the Missouri State Highway Patrol crash page).

When I drive by such events as a crash or the cows being out, it makes me think about how travelers zoom by live scenes all the time. To us, the scenes are a backdrop to our day's "movie." So often, what are still photos from a traveler's moving landscape, could be life-changing moments to individuals we flash by.

On a bus trip in Ethiopia, from Addis Ababa to Gonder, I saw something I still ponder about. Out the bus window, I viewed several girls and maybe a woman running. They were running to a point our bus had not yet reached. They appeared alarmed.  Presently, our bus passed a man. He was on his knees. Or maybe sitting. I don't remember. But his mouth was open in pain. There was blood. The bus continued. I saw other girls, maybe women, running, alarmed. These women ran toward the man our bus had passed. What happened? Did he heal? Did his injury hurt the family's well-being? Did it look worse than it was? Was it worse than it looked?  

The crash on Highway 63, early on a Sunday morning in November - none of us gets up in the morning and thinks, "today I will be in a crash, and suffer serious injuries." I remember this when I embark on a long trip. I remember not to take safe arrival for granted. To not waste life-moments by revisiting the unchangeable past or projecting into an unknowable future. To pay attention. To seek beauty around me. To feel grateful. This requires work on my part because I am easily distracted by a brain that likes to stir up trouble.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

10 Gifts Under 10 Bucks for the Portable, Budget-Minded Minimalists Who Like to Travel

A budget-minded, portable minimalist's space, dressed by light. Opelousas, Louisiana.

The title sounds so specific that surely it's all about me, right?

In a way, yes. But only in that I'm using myself as a focus group of one. This is because travel gift lists tend toward the extravagant. "Living simply" gift lists tend toward the smug and expensive. And "frugal" and "budget-minded" mean different things to different people, mostly resulting in gifts that are still over my price range.

If I were to create my own list of gifts for the portable, budget-minded minimalists who like to travel, this is what would be on it:
  1. Write a letter with a pen and mail it to the recipient. Doesn't have to be lengthy or detailed. Might just be three sentences telling the recipient you were thinking about them, hope they are well, and that they have a wonderful year ahead.  
  2. Make a phone call. Express the same three sentiments as above: I was thinking about you, hope you're well, want to wish you a wonderful year ahead. 
  3. Cash. It fits everyone, is accepted everywhere (except Norway), and has no expiration date. Quantity unimportant. Five bucks- woohoo! There's a lot one can do with five bucks. 
  4. Whistle. For one, whistles are cool. They're small. They're useful for security (or at least a reassurance of security). They may or may not scare bears.
  5. Travel alarm. Sure, your recipient has a phone with an alarm clock app on it. But shit happens. The phone, for whatever reason is inaccessible or unusable. You inadvertently set the alarm volume to zero. (Not that I've ever done this. Not even three times.) You can get a perfectly serviceable, eminently packable travel alarm for less than 10 bucks. 
  6. Paracord lanyard. If you're crafty, you can make your own and distribute them as gifts. Otherwise, you can buy one. I like the idea of a paracord lanyard because of its utility, strength, and style. Search on "paracord lanyard" and you'll find lots of DIY instructions and also where to buy them readymade. 
  7. Drawstring bag (aka "sack bag"). I've come to appreciate my two cheap-ass drawstring bags, which I got free as promotional items from a booth at some event. They're lightweight, take up virtually no space in my car or apartment, and they attract no covetous interest by strangers. I use them on short hikes, at the grocery store as a plastic-bag substitute, and at dance venues, so I can take along a fan, bottle of water, and a few other items. 
  8. Small flashlight. Do some review searches for the best-quality small, budget flashlights. Sure, your recipient may have a camera with a flashlight app, but this assumes a charged phone when, where, and for how long she may need it. Besides, like whistles, little flashlights are cool.
  9. Duct tape. You can buy a travel-ready roll or you can create one for your recipient
  10. L-o-n-g clothesline. Cotton or nylon, whatever. Just the rope; no fancy-schmancy hooks or rigs. I say long (i.e. 20 feet) because it will still pack up compactly and offer maxium utility to the recipient: Camping, tying down trunk lid when transporting bulky stuff, hanging laundry in hotel rooms, etc. If necessary, the recipient can cut off a length as needed. I currently use my clothesline as a way to hang artwork on one wall in my apartment. The excess length is coiled neatly (kind of) in a corner.

But I'm not much for creating lists. 

Monday, November 16, 2015

Welcome to America, My Syrian Friend

I don't know you yet, but welcome to America, my friend! I am glad you're here. We are an immigrant nation, and you are our newest members.

In my travels in different parts of the world, whenever I ran into people who'd visited Syria, they told me how warmly you embraced them, how good they felt while in your company, and in your country. I thought, I must visit Syria some day!

But horrible events intervened, smashing your communities, your livelihoods, your families. You were forced to become rootless, wrenched from your homes, but lucky enough to be alive.

I wish we weren't meeting under such circumstances. But I'm happy we were able to make a place for you here.

A fellow blogger, Wandering Earl, was one of the folks who shared how he loved your country. Here are a couple of his posts about Syria:

From which I borrowed the title to my post today: Welcome to Syria My Friend (2010). An excerpt:
.... from the moment I crossed the border into Syria, just about every single person I’ve met, from the hotel manager to the falafel vendors to the shop owners to the strangers I’ve passed in the street to ‘Tony’, the old man who sits in a chair on the sidewalk every night puffing away on his shisha, has welcomed me with nothing but a cheerful smile and open arms. I am simply unable to recall any other country that I’ve visited where I’ve been so instantly and warmly welcomed and I still cannot believe how many people have approached me in the streets just to literally say the words “Welcome to Syria my friend!” (I’m not sure if they learn that line in school but even those who don’t speak English know these words.)

The Most Important Word in the World (2010). An excerpt:

Finally, I had found a town in Syria that was not as ridiculously super-friendly as all the rest. I had been expecting it to happen at some point, because, after all, it would be impossible for every single city, town and village in this country to maintain such a high standard of hospitality. ... 

And so, on my third day, while I was wandering the streets of [Palmyra] in search of a local place to eat lunch, I was no longer surprised by the lack of assistance I received. At one point, I simply gave up, stood on a street corner with hands on my hips and made the decision to buy some bananas from a shop near my hotel instead.
Of course, as most travelers would learn to expect, that’s also the very same moment that I heard a voice, in English, say “Hello.”
I turned around and found a middle-aged local man standing before me with a huge smile on his face and so I naturally returned his greeting, although all I could muster was a quick, mumbled “Salaam”. He then asked me if I was lost and when I explained that I was simply looking for some good local food, he didn’t hesitate for even one second before patting me on the back and stating, “Let’s go!”.  He then led me to his minivan which was parked across the street.
The next thing I knew we were speeding through the backstreets of Palmyra. ....

Welcome to America, my Syrian friend.

Credit: Refugees Welcome Music

Other posts related to Syria here.


Friday, November 13, 2015

A Visit Back to Missouri: A Barred Owl, Dead

Barred owl, Arkansas. November 2015.
I recently made a visit to Missouri.

There was a stretch of road in Arkansas with an inordinately high number of dead birds of prey. If I'd caught on to the trend earlier, I would have counted them.

Barred owl, Arkansas. November 2015.

 The beauty of this barred owl compelled me to turn around and go back.

Barred owl, Arkansas. November 2015.

A strong breeze riffed through the owl's feathers, suggesting a life that no longer was. Its head appeared to be gracefully tucked into a wing.

Was it the victim of a good intention?

Not long ago, I learned at a state park event that we drivers are discouraged from throwing food remnants, such as apple cores, out our car windows. We may think we are doing good - a lil mouse or rabbit or other creature will enjoy our largesse. But it's possible we've set into motion a series of events that ends in death. 

Barred owl, Arkansas. November 2015.

Apple core out window --> mouse steps to roadside for delicious snack --> owl spies juicy mouse eating said morsel --> owl swoops into roadway --> owl and oncoming vehicle collide --> dead owl.

Other recent carcasses include:

Dead frog. Highway 190, west end of Opelousas.

Dead snake. Convent Street, Opelousas.

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Opelousas: Happy Making at Briskett Baskett

Briskett Baskett owner, Wilfred Kinnerson, with his brother Wilbert Kinnerson. Opelousas, Louisiana. November 2014.

There are many ways to save the world.

Years ago, a friend described how the masses of blooming bluebonnets that Lady Bird Johnson sowed on the Texas highway meridians brought joy to thousands of drivers when they whizzed by.

She proposed: Do not such simple and relatively small acts have as much merit as other good works?  

Mr. Wilfred's sisters, Miss Linda and Miss Ramona, and their niece, Miss Deborah. Also known as The Briskettes.

It is in this spirit that I appreciate the smiling warmth radiated by Briskett Baskett owner, Wilfred Kinnerson, and his family members whenever I see them.

A happy Briskett Baskett customer. October 2015.

We can't measure the quantity or value of happiness moments we derive from natural beauty or from small gestures of loving humanity, but isn't it a string of such moments that contribute to a good life?

Fresh chicken from Briskett Baskett, Opelousas, Louisiana. October 2015.

On several days in November 2014, I cruised the streets of Opelousas looking for promising neighborhoods with rentals, in anticipation of my relocation to the town in February 2015.  On one such foray, as I drove slowly down North Market Street, I noticed, hey! A Briskett Baskett sign outside a building! Being around lunch time, I pulled in, where Mr. Wilfred and his brother, Mr. Wilbert, told me the building remodel wasn't quite complete, but they generously took me on a tour of the almost-finished restaurant.

Briskett Baskett front porch.

Mr. Wilfred described his vision for the future, which included good food and drink, a place for folks to watch the football games, a venue for some jazz and other musical evenings, and maybe a slot machine or two.    
Soon after I visited in November 2014, the Briskett Baskett restaurant opened for business.

Recently, Mr. Wilfred got his liquor license (a critical piece of paper in South Louisiana, sha!).  

Briskett Baskett food truck, albeit with previous owner's artwork

I always smile when I see Mr. Wilfred or one of his family members because I know that in just a few moments I'll be on the receiving end of some warm rays of human sunshine.

There are many ways to save the world.  

Monday, November 9, 2015

Opelousas: Street Fallings

'tis autumn.

Street fallings, Opelousas, Louisiana, near Vieux Village. November 2015.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Opelousas: The Palace Café Sign

The Palace Café Billboard, west end of Opelousas on eastbound 190, Louisiana.

When I enter Opelousas on eastbound 190, coming in from Lawtell, it pleases me to see the Palace Café billboard.

I like everything about it. The turquoise and coral. The title's Art Deco font. The ubiquitous crawfish jutting out on the side. The lines of shade and light that play from the tree behind. The coulee it overlooks. The red and white checkerboard header.

The Palace Café Billboard, west end of Opelousas on eastbound 190, Louisiana.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Opelousas: Morning Glories

Morning glories, Opelousas, Louisiana. October 2015.

I visited Briskett Baskett on North Market Street the other day and saw these sweet morning glories in the back yard. Technically, I think they are in the neighbor's yard, but let's not quibble.

Morning glories, Opelousas, Louisiana. October 2015