MUSINGLY By Karen D'Or

Writing Portfolio, Travel Stories & Other Diversions

Category: Narrative Essays

Falling down in NOLA

September 9, 2016:

 On a sweltering Friday, a year ago today, I briskly packed boxes — alongside Larry and the guys from Precision Moving — to get stuff out of a crumbling house in New Orleans. 

Fortunately, it wasn’t a natural disaster like a flood or hurricane, but it was our family disaster that could have been a tragedy. On August 28, 2015, a 22-year-old drunk hit our house while driving 80 miles per hour, knocking it off a brick-pier foundation (that had survived major hurricanes) and cracking the house in two.

School in New Orleans starts in August and my teacher daughter and her teacher friend/roommate had to be back at work in their classrooms after a few days off; they needed me to move their stuff out of a dangerously precarious home.

Each of them was suffering PTSD from the crash, as well as other whip-lash related injuries, caused by the truck ramming into the living room wall and throwing them four feet off the couch that fateful night.

Fortunately, no one in the house was maimed or killed, but the ramifications of that drunk driver’s mayhem were felt across the entire neighborhood: debris from the crash injured bystanders on the sidewalk, electric poles cracked in half causing power outages for thousands, and several parked cars were totaled.

August 28, 2015

Our little family house near the muddy Mississippi, bought just six months earlier, was in shambles.

Not surprisingly (when you see this photo) it was a year-long struggle to heal from the horrors of that night.

My musingly blog, my New Orleans travel writing, my creative expressions have all been sorely neglected since the accident. (My brilliant cousin suggested that I keep a journal about this incident, and its implications, but I was too distracted with insurance firms, attorneys and builders to keep that commitment.)

So, dear musingly readers, I hope you stay with me for a series of much-needed musings on the year-long saga of healing and rebuilding.

The Muddy Mississippi: My Journey to New Orleans

 

karenhathappyGrowing up in a spacious home amidst the woodsy hillsides of Marin County, I had no true understanding of this corner of our country. Sure, I was aware of heated politics and civil unrest that were occurring in ‘The South’ because our family watched the images marches and riots on Walter Cronkite’s evening broadcasts.

As the daughter of a staunch Republican attorney, I nevertheless developed a liberal outlook that embraced pacifism, feminism and equal rights; yet, social justice issues were somewhat hypothetical from my Bay Area baby hippie perspective. However, with my expansive worldview and better than average vocabulary, I was the darling of my high school philosophy and social studies teachers: erudite Jewish educators who loved to quote Eric Fromm and Rollo May. In 1972, these wonderful high school teachers at the new alternative school, Nexus, encouraged me to think big, to write poetry, to take hikes in Point Reyes, to attend a liberal arts college, and even to see the glorious cathedrals in France. But they never even suggested I visit New Orleans.

mississippi-112000_1280

Forty-three years later, I buy a residence not far from the Mississippi: the home is in the southernmost part of Uptown New Orleans very near a wide curve of the River’s crescent – and so the nickname Crescent City. From our front porch, if you just wander across the Rouse’s Market parking lot, hop over a few railroad tracks, cross Clarence Henry Parkway, mosey through a cluster of container yards, you’ll find a bunch of behemoth cranes loading up the freighter ships that travel to the Gulf.

 

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acupuncture

Pins and Needles

acupunctureI cannot recall a new year starting off this bleak. Outside the weather is often sunny, and unseasonably warm, but inside my emotional climate is wretchedly stormy and fogged in — even as February has come and gone, marred by hurtful words and sudden distancing.

I have been quietly frantic for weeks, unable to get beyond sleep deprivation and anguish. Some kind of indistinct, pristine, and static image of my marriage (now starting year number 18) has dissipated into the storm. I feel lost, and my overactive brain is congested and confused.

In the midst of great personal pain, I discover acupuncture, and although it has not yet cured my sleeplessness, dry eyes and parched skin, the regular treatments are moving something around.

The discovery of a local community acupuncture clinic is helping me to get out of my head, somehow anchoring my saddened self back down into solid muscles. I can run to this clinic to feel again the warm flow of lifeblood, and an appreciation of my body’s solidity and strength.

The tiny needles are pumping my blood, churning some chi, and sometimes leaving invisible pinprick bruises that I later examine in the mirror.

Although the acupuncture is helping me to heal, I see these tiny dots as vestiges of my love’s harsh and scornful glances— looks that have lately punctured my spirit and turned me into a needy, dejected shell of my true self. At home, we are both pushing the limits of closeness and distance and I am surfing some very frightening waves of anger and love, fearing the worst in the middle of the night.

Seeking relief, I find our local community acupuncture clinic and make an appointment for the next day.

The clinic sits in a flat-roofed commercial building near the shopping mall adjacent to one of those dungeon-dragony retail outfits whose windows blocked by stacks of dusty boxes covered with rather bloodthirsty and jarring Gothic images.

Once I enter the acupuncture clinic, it appears the antithesis of its Goth neighbor — a place people come to relax and heal. It is noticeably warm inside, the music is soft and new-agey and—behind a bamboo screen— ten large plush reclining chairs face each other in a circle. According to the map in the bathroom, there are hundreds of community acupuncture clinics across the country. It is a modest clean spot with a sliding scale payment system; it seems to work because instead of high-rent, fancy private offices, the practice takes place in the common room.

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Cycling Back Through Nice

Cycling Back Through Nice

In the tiny Cote d’Azur town of Agay, the tired brown brick hut that was once the rail station is shuttered, and the single plastic overhang on the far side of the rails doesn’t offer much shelter as a soft rain begins. Bullet trains race past the platform. My husband and I find cover alongside well-dressed strangers, both of us hoping we haven’t missed the coastal train bound for Cannes, Antibes, and Nice. A little before eleven o’clock in the morning, second class tickets in hand, we embark the #3 TER (Transport Express Regional) train, settle in with a late-morning picnic of baguette and prosciutto, and watch out our window as the red ravine landscapes give way to famous port-filled colonies.

Red mountains above Agay, France

Red mountains above Agay, France

This is our second visit to Nice, and as the train nears the central station, I’m struck by the city’s urbanity: freeways, indistinguishable chain hotels, and gray apartment buildings congregate on the city’s outskirts before the train veers north and enters the downtown station. I know that Nice is France’s fifth largest city, and the country’s second most popular city for tourists, but this second entrance is startling, for I recall a very different arrival back in 1998: we arrived from Venice on a summer night train, with two teenagers– his son, my daughter. That first journey was only one year after I married Bob and our family was just forming, and still fragile.

It was a steamy August night, on an express overnight train chugging through tiny countries that still had kings. I awoke early, exhausted from a sleep interrupted by Italian porters who roused Bob and I repeatedly to check our documents as our children slept. (Predictably, we hadn’t loaded enough lire on our family rail pass, but after handing over all the bills we had, we were allowed back to our sleeping car.) Disheveled and groggy, I snuck out of our compartment, and tiptoed down the corridor to the vestibule window to find one of those transcendental travel sights: an ochre-hued Mediterranean sunrise illuminated sandstone apartment buildings perched between the narrow sea cliffs and the rail tracks. I lingered there alone, as the train crawled slowly toward the edges of Nice, and caught intimate glimpses of lush backyard patios, and men in yellow hard-hats getting ready to start the work day.

On that long-ago trip, Nice welcomed us with butter-pastry mornings, afternoons watching pretty sunbathers while their children negotiated the waves, long evenings trying out exotic gelato flavors, and warm nights at the quirky Hotel Canada, a divey apartment-style hotel, just two blocks from the city’s rocky beach. Nice seemed to me manageable, family-friendly and quite middle class.

I am hoping to recapture the achingly beautiful memories of that summertime “grand tour” when our teens were obedient, and still curious about grown-up beverages like coffee and red wine. All these years later— our young adult children now off on their own exotic travels — Bob and I arrive in the same Nice Ville train depot, but this time the platform looks cavernous and unwelcoming. We each drag our bags through squeaky metal turnstiles, the rooftop rattling as the storm begins to intensify.

It is only noon and already we are arguing about the best way to get to our hotel.

Approaching an empty taxi, we interrupt the driver’s lunch break — he holds a fragrant plate of rice and lamb — asking hesitantly if he can take us the scant mile to our hotel. With the grace of an expert, our driver guides us through a harrowing twenty-minute trip, a scene of streets brimming with rainwater, erratic streetlights, and shopkeepers shuttering their doors. Paul tells us this is a particularly violent September storm. At the hotel, drenched tourists who were huddling in the doorway jump out to grab his cab, but our driver firmly turns them away to go home for the day, “You are my last customers, it’s not safe!” he tells us as I hand him our Euros, and Bob wrestles our still-damp luggage onto the curb.

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Six-Year-Old-Karen

Gray Matter

“People will treat you differently,” said my hairstylist, Robert.

I’m face-up in a tortuous salon chair, my neck vulnerable like I’m lying upside down in a guillotine. Robert is a hair color artist and a tolerant man, so I’m shocked and feeling defensive. I’ve decided to stop dying my hair.

It was a visceral decision after watching Emmylou Harris sing on a warm July night. Wondering if I’m the only one with this gut reaction, I size up the trendy brewery’s crowd. Truly, I can’t take my eyes off of Emmylou for long— she’s a 66-year-old alt-country goddess who brings me to tears with her otherworldly, twang-tinged voice. There are plenty of gray hairs in the crowd, though none match hers.

Emmylou Harris

Emmylou Harris

Her hair is long, full, lightning-colored, and fitting for a stunning music icon. She’s dressed in a short black tunic, maroon cowgirl boots, strumming a very large acoustic guitar. My hair won’t ever look like Emmylou’s, but the vision is too tempting — right then and there, I decide no more color, no more highlights, nor more lowlights. Done.

I realize the source is somewhat suspect, but a 2008 Clairol® study says that 75 percent of American women dye their hair, and 88 percent of them feel their hair impacts their confidence. Of course it impacts confidence. We’ve got How to Not Look Old author Charla Krupp —a young, blond style expert — saying things like, ‘Go gray at your own risk…Going gray is step one of letting yourself go.” She goes on, in a Today Style interview[1], “Women cannot afford to go gray in this economy.”

I’ve been coloring my hair for nearly three decades.  Since entering the business world in my twenties, I’ve shopped stylists trying to find that perfect blond color: the match for my six-year-old shiny, streaky, out-in-the-sun all day hair.

Six-Year-Old-Karen

Six-Year-Old-Karen

I’ve done box color, bargain salons, and upscale salons, with a spectrum of results. For the three years before the Emmylou epiphany, Robert got it just right. He is a master. And so it was understandable that Robert doubted I would stick with my pledge to unblond.  He was not the only one. My best friend thought I would look like a raccoon, or maybe it was a skunk. My husband was supportive, but when he and I were courting even he colored his hair! My daughter saw me, after six months, and she called the look “ombre.”

I haven’t colored for almost a year. There have been some awkward, too-short haircuts, as Robert impatiently axed the old color. I struggle with the texture, trying to tame wirier, un-dyed hair. The transition went by quickly: now the salon women offer compliments when I walk in, and tell me that gray is the newest color for Hollywood starlets. Robert, once skeptical, is now proud.

Of course, I miss Blond Karen. Her hair was often very big. She was a sexy cocktail with a smart shot back, although sometimes she hid her true talents behind that hair.  Now, I have these silver-grey-blond-mercury colored strands. Thinner, harder to handle, I love my true color.

If people are treating me differently, I cannot tell. In fact, the only person whose behavior has changed radically is Robert. He doesn’t even spend half the time he used to with me.

Roadside Llama

Vertical Shift

Wearing tight jerseys announcing their most recent cycling event conquest, six petite women straddle their shiny carbon-framed bikes and cluster together inside a meager circle of sunlight in front of the Pink Box bakery in Santa Rosa.  They are the Hilly Jillies cycling club gathering on a chilly Saturday morning for their monthly beginning level bike tour through Sonoma County’s pot-holed wine roads. But the women’s pricy equipment and tight-lipped welcome leave me skeptical that this is the route for a novice athlete. Having started late in life, leisure cycling is a weekend sport I’ve grappled with for years, trying to find the right balance between leisure and cycling.

But the Hilly Jillies are serious, lean, and driven, and I am about to discover how they got their name.

vineyards With little ceremony or chitchat, the Jillies and I embark on a 37-mile trip east to Sonoma Valley. I quickly fall to the back of the queue, huffing and puffing just to keep up with the group that is easily flying up the first grade. Our terrain is renowned: Sonoma County is one of the top five bicycling destinations in the world, and cycling is the number two tourist draw. To me this morning the landscapes are indistinct. I’m so focused on keeping up that I barely see the new growth on the vines, and so intent on taking deep breaths that I don’t hear the robust grunts of the wild turkeys flushed out of oak groves. Already, before we even get to the steep grades that will summit this route, I’m getting discouraged as I see the entire pack of Jillies disappear around the bend.

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