Old Home Week

Hi, I’m Alison. I used to blog regularly here at Nola Studiola; remember that? The summertime interview blog based in New Orleans?

Well, as an interlude between John David Harding and our next curatorial installation, I’m popping in to say hello, catch you up on what I’ve been up to, and immerse you in lots of carbohydrates. Yes! Fitting for Thanksgiving week, right? And you teachers and students out there have all sorts of time to peruse my post, since you are out of school! Hooray for holidays!

I live in Denver now. Yup. I nanny for a small boy, and I live with a cousin and her husband. This cousin is my own personal Nancy Drew—resourceful, positive, independent, and very good at seeing the big picture. So I’ll just call her Nancy, and her husband is Mr. Drew.

I am lucky to land on someone who loves me and knows me, and really gets that right now, I just sort of need a place to crash. I feel disoriented, awkward, and, well, sort of free. In a cold, dry skin, squinty-eye-in-the-bright-sun sort of way. I remember feeling this way when I moved to Los Angeles. (Los Angeles gets cold at night! Something my mother had a hard time believing until she boycotted jackets on a visit once, and learned her lesson the hard way.) Feeling free, to clarify, does not feel like curling up in front of a fire with a good book, or taking your dog on a walk, or holding hands with your best friend. The free I’m talking about is the sort of free you feel when you sit in a white room or when you peer out of a window and see a lot of open space. This freedom is lonely, scary at times, exhilarating, and definitely pushes you to stay in the moment.

Something about being west of the Mississippi River unshackles a few of the weights I drag around with me. Maybe I’m making this up. Is it psychosocial historical baggage of east coast culture? Wide open spaces? The absence of humidity? I’m not sure what it is, but the last time I felt so free I was west. Living in Louisiana, I felt happy, crowded, safe, and sort of like I was doing flips in the belly of a creaky old beast. Like I was hunkering, or feeding my muse, storing up for something sparse, dry and lined with blank canvases. I reverted to some bad old haunting habits in my life as grad student and post grad student down there. I think it happens to the best of us. School tends to bring out some of my worst qualities. Louisiana is a lot of things, but it’s no blank canvas…oh no, it’s a picture that’s long lost the need to be framed. It’s a jungle jungle-gym, a patina on a patina. A wet in-between space.

I’ll never forget the moment I crossed the state line from Texas, most of my stuff crammed into my Honda Civic (the rest scattered in friends’ homes and alleys behind friends’ homes in L.A.—sorry for never picking up that chair I refinished, CL, and for those weird reading lamps, E & RM) and I rolled down the window and blared the Fighting Tigers fight song (Thanks to a friend KJ who knew I’d need to learn that—I had just purchased season football tickets online after outwaiting a network busy sign for two hours in a Starbucks somewhere east of Austin). An only child with an anxiety disorder and a fair amount of time spent in all-female settings, I was ready to see how the other half lived: co-ed, football loving, biscuits and gravy munching, south of the Mason Dixon. Real south. Not Maryland south. Thanks to my cousin in law, Doug Becker, I arrived in Louisiana already sort of in love with college football (and Traveler, the USC horse); I just didn’t really understand much of it (and still don’t.) However, I loved it enough to snag a certain guy’s attention long enough to make him my boyfriend. Yes, college football has done wonderful things for me.

On that first afternoon as a resident of Louisiana, flying down the I-10 by Slidell, I breathed in the rotten egg smell of the marsh, and I relaxed. Marsh smell makes me feel comfortable. Summers spent on Assateague Island, maybe. But I do think I’ve got a thread in my cosmic history buried and braided in some dank crevice down there in the third coast, because things just sort of…make sense to me there. Which is pretty twisted, I know. I pulled into a gas station, where an old dude with a few teeth missing in a crusty pickup gestured wildly for me to roll down my window. I did so, convinced that some roadkill from west Texas was stuck graphically under my bumper.

He laughed gleefully. I bit my lip, and wondered, maybe there was blood on my car from the all-night drive. There had been lots of animals on the road I hadn’t seen before they sort of shot under or around my lone vehicle.

“Hey there,” he shouted, and leaned his elbow out his driver side window. He didn’t need to shout, but it felt right.

“Hey!” I shouted back. This was fun. Hot, humid, marshy, and shouting. Yeah!

“I gotta tell you somethin’.”

“What’s that?” My heart pounded.

He shook his head and his eyes twinkled. “It’s just that, well, I don’t think you’ve got enough shit,” he paused for effect. “In your car!”

And I realized that’s all he wanted to say. That he found it hilarious that I had lamp shades and bags of spices and all kinds of crap poking the back of my head from the backseat, and very little visibility.

My first half an hour in Louisiana, I laughed my ass off in a gas station with an old dude who was happy to poke fun of me. And I was happy to enjoy the moment, and open to taking myself a little less seriously.

That’s how I came to Louisiana, and that really sums up the magic that brought me there. Graduate school’s stress and attendant anxiety about what I was Supposed to Be When I Grow Up, along with what I think might be a biological clock ticking and all of the crazy shit that seeps out of my eyeballs and brain when I’m in a Relationship capital R—all these things warped and distracted me from my intention there. I kinda left the Alison I like and re-entered scared, confused, worried Alison.

I’m in a new place, and I don’t know if I want to extend the effort to make all new everythings. New friends, new acquaintances, new random people you smile at in the café, new favorite bars, grocery stores, bookstores, pastimes. And all my demons have come out to play—my fear, and loneliness, and this thing I call the Textbook Gremlin, which is this way of seeing my life where it has to follow a textbook of should’s. When I think of it that way, I’m really tired. I want to retreat, and go home. But I don’t have a home, is the thing. I’m working on this Alison’s-home-is-inside-of-her process, and me is who I turn to in my hour of need. Denver is great, but so are all the other places I’ve lived. Seems like I move somewhere, stay four or five years, and then tear myself away. I’d like to change that, or at least change how I see that pattern. I’d like to prioritize what I’m doing that makes me happy, instead of prioritizing what locale brings me joy. Because I think I am just always gonna show up, wherever I go—it’s me I need to adapt to, accept.

There are stretched out spaces in my heart, with Louisiana’s scrawly handiwork stamped all over them, my love of marshy stuff—the tangible and the murky in-betweens, it’s all still here, safe. I take it with me everywhere.

Denver Alison

That brings me to Denver Alison. Denver Alison isn’t committing to anything or anyone. Denver Alison might leave, or she might not. Denver Alison doesn’t have her own kitchen. Denver Alison spends most of the week with a tiny boy named Wild Boo, Nancy Drew’s son. Denver Alison is trying to figure out how to shake off the head trip she gave herself about writing, Writing capital W, and fearing stuff like life. Denver Alison kayaks and jogs and paddleboards and hot tubs and Denver Alison is trying so damn hard to get her joy back.

Denver Alison–okay, enough with the third person thing. It’s been hard to change everything all at once in my life–location, time zone, relationship, friends, career, um, clothes. I have a hobby I turn to when life’s uncertainties threaten to get the best of me: cooking. And recently, life’s uncertainties almost got the best of me. I don’t give it up that easily anymore—the best of me, that is.

Magic happened last week, in the form of a sloppy stack of books in a dusty old bookstore. It delivered Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte. (See more of Amanda in her week at the Studiola.) I fell into her book—aptly subtitled “A Food Lover’s Courtship, with Recipes” when it caught my eye-level glance, in a pile of hardcovers leaning precariously against a handwritten “Fiction Classics” sign.

If that’s not kismet, to be united with a Studiola participant through her food memoirs, I don’t know what is.And the way she talks about food—how it is just frankly joy filled, I felt permission to re-connect with that, too. Thank you, Amanda Hesser, for Cooking for Mr. Latte.

Denver Alison had her first dinner party when Nancy and Mr. Drew took Wild Boo away for the weekend. Denver Alison must have been emanating food joy, because in addition to Hesser’s superb herb dressing (She’s not kidding when she calls it a chef’s dressing. I’ve never worked that hard for a salad dressing before, and it was worth every pan I had to clean. You can find it in her book.) I also found several new recipes online, through the LA Times’ ten favorite sandwiches list, and a studied online search for the best way to season baked fries without piling a bunch of dried goop on top of them from the spice drawer.

Denver Alison’s Debut Dinner

Baked Fries w/Garlic Infused Olive Oil-sort of my adaptation of a few online recipes.

Fried Cod Sandwiches on Pumpernickel with red cabbage, raddichio, capers and olives spread.-LA Times.

Scallops seared in vermouth and lemon-Mom Barker

Three-pot shallot vinaigrette-Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte

Chocolate toasts with fleur de sel –Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte

While I cooked, I could feel my body relaxing, and my mind settling on things like the scraping sound of the grater and the hue of simmering shallots. I focused on the syrupy consistency of the vermouth glaze on plump scallops, and I focused on the burst of juice from a Clementine segment coupled with the salty shot of a greek olive. And I found four other people to share my cooking with, who laughed and ate and drank and hot tubbed and stayed in this space of unabashed enjoyment with me, late into the night and into the next morning.

I have found two proper coffeeshops; one is great for crowds and Wild Boo and music and $5 wines, and the other is great to be alone and focus and be a coffee snob—this place might be Denver’s answer to Baton Rouge’s Magpie Café. Pour overs, your choice of hand roasted beans, crazy sweet potato pudding and tarragon lentil salads.

Here’s a snapshot of my life right now: markers for the little boy replaced pens at some point in my purse. But I’m still carrying around a manuscript and a laptop.

Books that are filling up Denver Alison’s (ahem, my) eyes and brain right now:

Amanda Hesser’s Cooking for Mr. Latte, Barthelme’s Dead Father, Susie Bright’s memoir Big Sex, Little Death, Robin Sloan’s Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, Susan Hubbard’s Society of S (vampires!), Brene Brown’s I Thought It Was Just Me (But It Isn’t), Richard Russo’s That Old Cape Magic, George Saunders’ The Very Persistent Gappers of Frip, and sometimes, Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury.

I’m thankful for it all, the newness and the old demons and the spaces in between.

Let me know what you’re thankful for in the comments!

3 thoughts on “Old Home Week

  1. I’m thankful for all of the cooking I get to do for loved ones, both on holidays and plain old Wednesdays.

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