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I want to be a Mardi Grasdian

Many years ago, in junior high in Dallas, my history teacher asked why a classmate was absent.

“She’s at Mardi Gras,” another student said.

“Well, that’s not an excused absence.”

“Uh, yeah it is,” the student said. “It’s for religious reasons! She’s… Mardi Grasdian."

I didn’t understand Mardi Gras before I lived in New Orleans. The king cakes I’d tried were unimpressive, and the rest of it had a “Girls Gone Wild” feel. It didn’t help that my only pre-New Orleans Mardi Gras experience was during my freshmen year at college in St. Louis (home of the second biggest Mardi Gras in the U.S.), where it was freezing and I saw breasts. Yes, those are my two take-aways. There was also a parade.

And then, in 2006, I moved to New Orleans to work with the St. Bernard Project and had my first New Orleans Mardi Gras. As the (volunteer) volunteer coordinator, I had a second job waiting tables. The restaurant was on Bourbon Street, and everyone worked the five days leading up to Fat Tuesday. When New Orleans journalist Chris Rose says, "Mardi Gras is not a parade. Mardi Gras is not girls flashing on French Quarter balconies. Mardi Gras is not an alcoholic binge,” that is true, unless you’re working in the French Quarter with the tourists (you should read that column in full. Also, to get a sense of the mess of Katrina, you should read Rose’s 1 Dead in Attic. I’ve just finally bought it.) 

Drunks and rowdiness and waiting tables and all, I still loved it. I loved it because it was more than one parade on one day. It was a whole new world of my 60-year-old landlady-housemate and her costume trunk; it was Mardi Gras decorations popping up weeks before that big Tuesday, on pristine houses in the Garden District and on FEMA trailers in St. Bernard; it was learning about krewes and Mardi Gras ladders and Zulu coconuts and buying lots of king cakes because actually, they are delicious. Just read the Chris Rose column. That’s about it. 

I would like to go back and do Mardi Gras properly. I would also like to go to everyone else’s Mardi Gras/Carnaval/Fasnacht/Fasching. I have been missing Mardi Gras since 2008 and trying to create some Mardi Gras spirit wherever I am. Last year, we stumbled on a parade in Galveston, Texas, which was a pleasant surprise. We also went to a crawfish boil at Selena’s in Louisville. 

 Mardi Gras parade in Galveston, TX

Mardi Gras parade in Galveston, TX

This year, to brighten up the New England winterscape, I made my first king cake and listened to a Spotify Mardi Gras playlist. (This is the recipe I used.) Today, like every year, I am wearing my Mardi Gras-colored tie of beads. These are sad substitutes — there’s not even a baby in the cake. Yet as an aspiring Mardi Grasdian, the least I can do is remind you that it’s not just any Tuesday.

Happy Mardi Gras, friends. Keep your shirts on. They throw the beads anyway.

The Boston To Do List

I work better with deadlines and best when the deadline is near. We are now into the second part of the Nieman year, and while it’s too soon to say the end is near, it’s getting nearer. To make sure I see more of Boston while we live here, I’ve put together my Boston To Do List. Most of the destinations came from paging through Maria T. Olia’s “Little Black Book of Boston."

Museums (there are many)

Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum - When we moved, this was a top recommendation. I’ve saved museums for winter... so now.

 Chihuly at the MFA

Chihuly at the MFA

Peabody Museum - I walked by this museum nearly every day last semester, but I have yet to visit it.

Harvard Semitic Museum - ditto

Museum of African American History 

Institute of Contemporary Art 

Gordon Parks exhibition at the MFA - I’ve been to the MFA twice. At $25, it’s pricy, but your ticket is good for a second visit in the next 10 days. It’s free after 4 pm on Wednesdays and stays open until 9:45.

JFK Presidential Library and Museum - After visiting the LBJ library last year, we would now like to visit every presidential library. Their main exhibition halls are under renovation until mid-March, so I’ll wait until spring.

Robert Klein Gallery 

Paul Revere House 

Ship-related Activities (and actual ships)

Boston Tea Party ship and museum 

USS Constitution

Whale watching - after the seasickness on the boat to Provincetown, I’m concerned about how this will go. I figure I’ll take some Dramamine and ask someone to wake me up if there are whales. 

Libraries and churches

Boston Public Library -  It’s supposedly beautiful and I see there’s an exhibition on maps from imaginary literary landscapes opening today. 

Trinity Church and Old South Church - these are both at Copley Square by the library and were recommended in the guide book, so I figure I’ll just pop in and take a look. 

Christian Science Plaza, Mother Church, and the Mary Baker Eddy Library - the plaza looks lovely (maybe better in spring and summer), the church has one of the largest pipe organs in the world (13290 pipes), and there's a three-story stained glass globe (there’s a Groupon for it right now)

Boston athenaeum and skin book - Thanks to recent visitors, I’ve learned that the Boston athenaeum has a book about the highwayman James Allen, which is bound in his own skin (officially titled "Narrative of the life of James Allen : alias George Walton, alias Jonas Pierce, alias James H. York, alias Burley Grove, the highwayman : being his death-bed confession, to the warden of the Massachusetts State Prison”). This is weird and horrifying and I want to see it.

Things Outside

Mount Auburn Cemetery - I’ve been twice already, but it’s a huge, lovely garden cemetery. I want to see it in all seasons. 

Great Molasses Flood plaque in Puopolo Park - the now-defunct Louisville theater group Le Petomane taught me about the Great Molasses Flood, but I didn’t realize it took place in Boston until the guide book told me about the plaque. If you’ve never heard of the Great Molasses Flood, check out this recent Boston Globe story 

The Bunker Hill Monument - We’ve walked around the grounds at night, but I’d love to see the view from the top. You can climb the monument’s 294 steps for free. 

Fairsted (Frederick Law Olmsted’s home & office) - Because he is responsible for Cherokee Park in Louisville, I love Olmsted, without knowing much about the man or his life. Now I can visit his home and learn more. 

Back Bay Fens - Another Olmsted project. It’s looking a little rough at the moment, so I’ll wait until spring for this one, as well. 

And finally, I would like to visit the Massachusetts State House, but I didn’t have a category for it. There is a wooden cod suspended from the ceiling in the House of Representatives, symbolizing the importance of the fishing industry. It is called the Sacred Cod. I must see this sacred fish. 

Have I overlooked one of your favorite Boston-area destinations? Tell me about it! 

New England Adventures

Friday marks two months of Northeast living, and I’m long overdue for an update. 

During our first few weeks here, we had visitors, which meant lots of exploration (plus, everything was new, so it at all felt like exploring). Some highlights: 

The Boston Common and Public Garden

We visited the park on our first Saturday in Boston, mainly so I could see the Make Way for Ducklings statue. I could only get these three at the end, because the rest of the ducks were covered in children. I get it — I loved this book growing up and have started buying it as a gift for all the new babies in my life. 

We went back the next Saturday to read in the grass. We ended up people-watching: four weddings, one quinceñera, and one squirrel biting a tourist who spent 10 minutes trying to feed it. 

The Ether Dome

In October 1846, William T.G. Morton performed the first public surgery with ether in what is now called the Ether Dome in Massachusetts General Hospital. The hospital holds meetings in the space, but if it's open, you can take the elevator to the fourth floor (right for Ether Dome, left for Diabetes) and look around. There’s a small museum behind the amphitheater, and there’s a mummy inside the amphitheater. 

 His name is Padihershef.

His name is Padihershef.

If you wanted to take a themed walk, you could then go to the Public Garden, where they’ve built a monument to ether as well.

Walden Pond

Our trip to Walden Pond marked my most physical day in years. We biked roundtrip (40 miles, on the Minuteman Trail, through Lexington and Concord, past a pumpkin patch, the Louisa May Alcott Orchard house, and a biker taking selfies in front of huge sunflowers), and then I swam across the pond and back. Also — that’s a lake, not a pond.

It was cloudy the day we went, so I have only gloomy photos that don’t show the clear Walden waters. For a better idea, check out this collection from the Boston Globe

Provincetown

We took a fast ferry from Boston to Provincetown, and I learned that rough waters make me seasick. After some coffee and lunch, I felt better.

 Leaving Boston on a clear day, headed for nausea.

Leaving Boston on a clear day, headed for nausea.

We rented bikes and biked to Race Point Beach in perfect weather. Because the first ferry captain announced that they expected worse waters on the way back to Boston, we bought Dramamine for the ride home. I think the ocean was calmer, but I slept the whole return trip. Then we ate hot chicken

 Race Point Beach, Provincetown

Race Point Beach, Provincetown

In between these adventures, we spend our time in class, reading and writing at home, attending presentations hosted by the Nieman Foundation (and the Fellows), and trying noodle restaurants. I won’t lie. This is an amazing experience. I should be reminding myself that I am incredibly lucky every day; I’m averaging a few times a week. But I’ve developed a routine and find myself straying less frequently from the path connecting our apartment to campus. We have more visitors coming a few weeks — that should help us see something new. 

Worth a Visit: LBJ Presidential Library

"We're lucky we live in Texas, because if you kids wanted to see LBJ's boyhood home, you could just ask your parents to take you to the Hill Country."

I lived in Texas for about fourteen years, but my parents never took me to LBJ's boyhood home. I didn't ask them to, nor did I think to ask to go the LBJ Presidential Library and museum during a recent trip to Austin. Fortunately, I have a husband who loves presidents, and he did ask. 

I knew very little about LBJ. Vice-president to JFK, then president. Married to Lady Bird, who we can thank for the bluebonnet-covered highways (or so I was told growing up). Had specific orders for his pants

At the museum, you can listen to that call and others. Apart from an animatronic LBJ (creepy), the exhibits give a good overview of Johnson’s early life and career, his presidency, and the times surrounding his presidency. I especially enjoyed the Legacy Gallery, which presents all the awesome legislation LBJ passed. I paraphrase, but it’s basically: 

“Like seat belts? Thank LBJ! How about national parks? Yes, that too. Public broadcasting? LBJ.”

In the November 22, 1963 exhibit, there’s a copy of the moving letter Jacqueline Kennedy wrote LBJ the day after JFK’s funeral:

“I thought you would want to put things from Texas in [the Oval Office]. I pictured some gleaming long horns — I hope you put them somewhere.” 

I cried reading it and moved on to some things from Texas before the middle school field trip caught up. Like these His & Hers boots: 

If you’re in Austin, the LBJ Presidential Library is worth a visit. It’s open from 9-5 daily. Our visit sparked two new goals: visit all the presidential libraries and learn more about LBJ. We bought a presidential library passport and I’ve started Robert Caro’s monster of a biography, so we’re on our way to achieving these goals. 

Which presidential libraries have you visited? Do they all have animatronic presidents?  

Hot Chicken, Round 3

"An immediate onset of hiccups.

Throat coated, feels like it might close? 

Stomach feels like it’s going to be punched through (from the inside).

Nose sweating.

Eardrums feel like popping." 

These are notes from our most recent hot chicken foray in Nashville, again at Hattie B’s. After last summer's tango with the restaurant’s "Damn Hot" heat level left me feeling as though I’d burned off a layer of my esophagus, I thought it wise to back down. Unfortunately, I got confused and now realize that I thought we got the highest heat level ("Shut the Cluck Up") last time. So our attempts to scale back failed, and we actually just ordered the "Damn Hot" again. While I'm heartened by the realization that all those feelings weren't caused by the mere "Hot!" chicken, I’m also doubting the possibility (or just my ability) to “eat through” the heat. 

The first time we had hot chicken, it hurt. Then the burn subsided, and in my memory, my taste buds and other senses opened. Everything was clearer. After two times of only painful heat at Hattie B’s, I’m starting to think the first time, I just ate all the spicy skin and the rest of the food was less hot. My husband swears "eating through” is a real thing and has experienced it with spicy duck in Las Vegas.  

I like feeling like my food is going to punch through my stomach. When I ask for extra-spicy, most restaurants disappoint. Hot chicken never does. Still, when that food keeps burning a hole in my stomach four hours later, it’s too much. So next time, Hattie B’s, I’ll take it “Hot!” (really, this time). Or maybe I’ll revisit Bolton’s. 

Are you a hot chicken fan? What’s your favorite hot chicken place in Nashville?  

Some Things I Learned from Four Days in Portland

I traveled to the Pacific Northwest for the first time last week for work. I didn't get to explore much, but I did learn a few things: 

1. It rains so much. That's common knowledge, right? Pacific Northwest and rain? It rained every day I was there. I just checked the forecast, and it's still raining. Apparently it's seasonal. Anyway, since I checked the weather before leaving, I was prepared with an umbrella. 

2. Umbrellas are not part of Portland culture. This must be true, because I saw very few umbrellas besides my bright pink one. The person who shared this information acknowledged that sometimes it rains so much you just need an umbrella. 

3. I need a raincoat. To go with my umbrella.

4. No sales tax! 

5. You can only buy liquor at state liquor stores. If you can't find one, the "Menage à Trois" wine from Walgreens is tasty. 

6. Speaking of Walgreens, you can charge your electric car there.

7. There is no mailbox at NE 2nd and NE Weidler street. This website is a liar.

One thing I did not learn was the the name of this flowering tree. I sent a picture to my mother, Master Gardener, and she didn't know. Is it a camellia? 

I have a list of things I'd like to see if I return -- Powell's, Voodoo Doughnuts, Multnomah Falls, the Japanese Gardens. What do you suggest?

Morning Walk in San Francisco

Somehow, I get worse jet lag coming from the east coast to San Francisco than I do coming from Switzerland to Louisville. Waking up at 5:30 means I have plenty of time to read, do yoga, go for a walk, and get ready before work. Exploring side streets is a good start to any day (and especially when your home town is buried in snow).

February 4, 2014
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It makes my heart glad to see expanses of green and blooming, flowery trees after all the snow and gray in Kentucky. It was a gray morning here, but I can get over it when there are flowers and cacti taking over the sidewalk. 

SFFEB14 - 09
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And then there's always fun to be had looking into people's windows.

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It's probably optimistic to hope the snow at home will melt by Sunday, but I'll enjoy the temperate San Francisco winter while I'm here. 

Chaos I in Columbus

Remember the best museum ever? You don't have to travel to France or Switzerland to see a Tinguely. If you're in the vicinity of Columbus, Indiana, you can see one of his moving sculptures, Chaos I, in the lobby of the Commons.

IMG_0705.jpg

The entrance to the Commons is at Washington and 3rd Street. I'm telling you this so you don't confuse yourself with Google Maps and drag your friends through the rain looking for this place (it's NOT the Commons Mall, which appears to just be a Sears). 

If you time your visit right, you may get to see more action than the usual three or four whirring, spinning parts (still cool). Apparently the large metal balls drop between noon and 1 and 5 and 6 p.m.  

Chaos I is one of two Tinguely installations in the United States. The other is Cascade in the Carillion Building in Charlotte, North Carolina. After I watching this video, I will surely take a field trip to see this if I ever have an extended layover in Charlotte. Hopefully a cab driver can get me there better than Google Maps.