A Strange Kind of Symmetry.
I don’t know what it’s like to write about South Louisiana from inside the state. It was 1999 when I started writing The Broad Stroke, my still unpublished first novel set on a fictitious version of the very real college campus that people now call the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. It was still USL then.
At the time I was living in Mongolia. I was a Peace Corps volunteer with a pre-internet computer and spotty electricity. When the power was on, and when it was my turn to use the one power-cord I shared with the computer teacher at the school I taught at, I sat back and imagined the campus in vivid detail. The characters did all the stuff I couldn’t. Drank iced coffee. Smoked weed. Walked among the red brick buildings and leaned against them in the shade, smoking cigarettes and talking shit.
Everything was right there in my imagination: the live oaks dripping with Spanish moss, the roots of the big trees busting up the sidewalks; the ornamental swamp contained by the low brick wall at the center of campus; the way cool winter mornings became warm afternoons. I lived in that place in my mind. The campus I conjured when I sat at my old DOS computer wasn’t real. It was hyper-real. Even better than the real thing.
Fast-forward a Couple Decades.
Just about every aspect of my approach to writing has changed in the twenty-plus years since that first awkward lurch into the lonely process of writing fiction. But one thing that’s strangely constant is the physical distance and the way it seems to supercharge the imagination. I’m almost fifty years old and here I am doing the same damn thing: seeing made up characters move through the very real Acadiana of my mind and doing my best to write what I see.
The first two New Bayou Books to hit the Amazon marketplace are mine. Both of the books are set in modern day Acadiana and feature characters you feel like you know, or maybe wish you didn’t. While I work on the next novel, I’m actively seeking other Acadiana writers to join the cause.
The mission of New Bayou Books is simple: to spark a literary renaissance in South Louisiana literature. The world needs more Acadiana-based literature, and I believe the specific brand of storytelling it’s clamoring for is the kind that me and my tribe are best qualified to tell. They are character-centered, modern stories with a jagged edge. And South Louisiana is always one of the supporting actors.
So anyway, here I am writing these colorfully weird South Louisiana tales from far away. It’s just like it was in the late nineties . . . except now I don’t live in central Asia. It’s Belgium now, where the beer is better and the electricity is far more reliable. I’m enjoying a middle class existence complete with a cute wife, a son too smart for his own good, and vacation days to spare.
And so the natural thing to do was take a trip back to South Louisiana to not only see how the environment really matches up, or doesn’t, to the picture in my mind . . . but to soak up as many new details as possible. I built my schedule around four big events: a library reading, a podcast taping, open mic comedy night, and the Black Pot festival. Strictly speaking, not everything I did during those 20 days related directly to my life as a creative writer, but as a practical matter, it’s all fair game when I sit down at the keyboard.
Call it a Research Trip. So, we can call it a business trip–not a fact finding mission, but one more concerned with impressions than truth–for New Bayou Books, cause that’s certainly how I’ll characterize it when tax season rolls around. I’m only just now getting over the jetlag that served as a very real reminder that those three weeks of festivals, readings, book signings, and heavy lunches did, in fact, occur. So don’t expect any grand insights in what follows. I will need more time for that sort of thing.
Think of this more like a public record. This is what happens when a middle aged writer is turned loose on his geographical muse with his own two eyes and an above average curiosity. I’ll include pictures and/or links where I have them.
The short novel I’m working on is about Colton Lacombe, a (fictitious) LSU-E baseball player with a hair-trigger temper and a sweet swing. It’s not a book about baseball, but the thinking man’s sport does feature prominently in the narrative. In fact, the story itself is told in innings rather than chapters or episodes. Anyway, Bengal Stadium on the edge of the LSU-E campus is something special. The park is beautiful, and the quality of baseball that’s played there is incongruent with the attention the program gets from the public.
On the day I went, I couldn’t even find someone to take my attendance fee. But what I did find was a home stand full of family and friends of the players. I sat in front of the center fielder’s dad and his sister, both there from Pineville to cheer him on. Sitting behind me was a woman who works at the cafeteria where all the LSU-E athletes eat. She thinks of every student athlete like one of her kids (since she feeds them everyday), and so, like a good mother, she attends every sporting event to show support. Baseball, softball, soccer. Even tennis! There were no strangers in the stands that day . . . just friends I hadn’t yet met. A big, extended family.
My 22 year old nephew Nick, a Marine Jocko-disciple and My Hope for the Future, ran what turned out to be this 8K race with me. Actually, he ran the first half with me. Once we reached Beaver Park, the midpoint of the out and back route, Nick sprinted ahead to see if he could catch the leaders. He didn’t miss by much. We finished 7th and 10th, respectively, overall.
We started and finished in Girard park, which is something like the Central Park of Lafayette. Adjacent to the University of Louisiana campus, the shady, meandering natural setting of the park has a pond, running trails, courts for basketball, handball, and tennis, and lots of open spaces. It’s one of the prettiest spots in the city in the center of what is already a beautiful city. Girard Park features prominently in that unpublished first novel I mentioned. It’s a comedy called The Broad Stroke, about a nerdy college journalist who accidentally discovers a prostitution ring at his university.
Anyway, the 10K was shortened to 8K because the organizers couldn’t secure the last part of the race course. Which was unfortunate but, if I’m being honest, somewhat of a relief as well. I was more than happy to shave about a mile from the expected 6.2 mile route. But I was disappointed in the way the race was administered. There were barely any distance markers on the course, and the ones they had were mile markers . . . which isn’t really helpful when you’re trying to manage your energy for a kilometer-based race. Also, there was not a single piece of fruit beyond the finish line. Who ever heard of a race without bananas? Nevertheless, it was a fantastic event that I was thrilled to experience with my gung-ho nephew.
Festival Acadiens et Creole.
So, the 10K that was actually an 8K was part of the overall Festival Acadiens activities in Girard park. This festival is a big deal in Lafayette. Think of it like a Cajun version of the New Orleans jazz fest. Only free (this year, there were actually two festivals–part of the organizer’s plan to get back on track in the post-COVID era). There were several thousand people on the grounds checking out Cajun and Zydeco bands on two different stages, three long rows of Louisiana arts and crafts, plus food . . . so much food!
After the race that morning, I spent a few hours recovering at my sister’s house on the edge of town (jumping in her pool was my favorite way to cool down after a workout), then cruised back to Girard park that afternoon in the van she loaned me for the duration of my visit (thanks for the wheels Denise!). My niece, Erin, joined me there and we spent a couple hours perusing and buying art (photography, a map showing the birthplaces of prominent Cajun musicians, and a festival poster) and checking out the bands. I also contributed to the delinquency of a minor–buying Erin the modern equivalent of what we used to call a wine-cooler.
At one point while we were listening to the Pine Leaf Boys, I wanted to get a picture with Erin, so I stopped the first stranger who appeared . . . and that stranger turned out to be one of my cousins from the town of Iota. This is how South Louisiana works. You meet your cousins at random festivals.
Baseball was a huge part of my life growing up. The sport dominated my childhood. I think Jason Isbell is right when he sings that it’s a boy’s first dream and a man’s first loss in “Speed Trap Town”. You play the game as a kid, and at some point, you are made to stop playing. When that happens, it’s a signal that it’s time to start confronting the real world. Every mediocre ball player knows that hollow feeling. For me that was 1992, my senior year at Eunice High School. The coach who presided over those last, special years of high school baseball for me was Clarence “Mo” Merricks.
Coach Mo seemed old to me when I first met him at 15. But the interesting thing was, he looked exactly the same in 2022 as he did back then. I mean, quite literally, he looked exactly the same. Same small, muscular frame. Same toothpick in his mouth. Same dreamy, folksy way of talking. I could write a book on what I learned from Coach Mo.
My sister Carol got his number for me and we spoke on the phone for at least 30 minutes one night. Then a couple days later, we met at the old high school field. The ballpark is gorgeous now (Coach says “if you can’t play here, you just can’t play”), but when I was at Eunice High, it was literally just a field. Part of our pre-season workout routine involved wielding shovels and rakes to turn the empty, open field behind the school into a proper baseball park. The “Bobcat field” I played on as a senior was barely a field, but today, 30 years on, it’s about as nice a baseball field as any high school player could hope to play on.
Coach Mo and I walked onto the infield and stood there in the soft, manicured grass while he told stories. I barely even had to ask questions. Coach just talked . . . about everything. He told me the story of how his Aunt rescued him from the sugarcane fields to go to high school in Opelousas. He was in his mid 20s when he started coaching. He only retired a few years ago. By then he had coached for 45 seasons. It was an honor to spend time with the 84 year old ball player who will always be just one word to me: Coach.
My big sister Jackie is the most epicurean of all my siblings. The woman knows how to live. Whether it’s food, books, or experience, Jackie always opts for quality. I love that about her. But the really special thing about Jackie is how her interest in a rich life extends to the spiritual realm. She’s a spiritual seeker. She is curious, a quality that, sadly, I found that not everyone has.
The first night I spent at her place, we got to talking about meditation, breath work, and various forms of physical and metaphysical rejuvenation. It wasn’t long before she was telling me about the new spa a friend of hers recently opened, the centerpiece of which is sensory deprivation therapy. Having heard Joe Rogan talk about the benefits of this newish therapy many times, I was immediately interested. So, Jackie being Jackie, she booked me an hour.
The spa was amazing. If you don’t know, the “chamber” is basically a big, oval bathtub with an egg-shaped hatch that closes down on it (think of the pod from Mork and Mindy). The bathtub is filled with warm salt water. I spent the first half of my hour floating in total darkness with the Foo Fighters cranked up to 10. Honestly, I was a bit worried about losing all sense of time, so I decided to have the Foos keep me company in three minute chunks. It was an interesting form of floating meditation rock. But after a little while, I killed the music and just laid back like a frog in a pond. It was especially cool once the water got absolutely still. With just the slightest twitch, I could break the spell and make the water undulate gracefully beneath me.
It was one of the most interesting hours I spent during my Louisiana expedition. Thanks Jackie!
Stand Up Comedy.
If you read the New Bayou Blog at all, you know I put stand up comedians on a certain pedestal. With smiles on their faces, comedians stand on the front lines of the ongoing battle to maintain the freedom of speech that writers like me rely on. Well, I aspire to be one of them.
And so on Thursday, 27 October I took the stage at the Jefferson Street Pub for open mic comedy night to–forgive the crudeness–get my cherry popped. I had prepared what I thought was a solid three minutes of material that turned out to be more of a meandering five minutes that finished with more of a whimper than a bang. Which is to say, it went badly.
Still, I loved it! My very best friend, the one and only Toby Frey, was there to participate in the fun and serve as a witness. When we got out of there shortly after my set, I felt like we had just pulled the prank of a lifetime.
Comedy–even bad comedy–is a subversive act. Here’s a link to my blog on it. Stand Up New Bayou Blog
My friend Katie Pennington at the Calcasieu Parish Libraries helped me hold a New Bayou Books event at the Sulphur library on Saturday, 22 October. I had a wonderful time connecting with new readers and even a few new writers. One of them was Kara Garofas Newingham.
My new friend Kara is a writer and a poet. In fact, she brought me a copy of her book, Gone, as a gift for me (thanks Kara!). But that wasn’t the only surprise. In what turned out to be a kind of gift for the audience, Kara agreed, right there on the spot, to read one of her poems. So we had this wonderful little surprise moment of vulnerability and sharing. It was beautiful. I really appreciated Kara’s courage.
Thanks to my new friend Jan Swift (who I’ll get to in the next entry), I was able to connect with Al Hebert, a TV personality folks in Acadiana know quite well. It was my pleasure–and a first for me–to spend a few minutes with their morning host, Ryan. You can view the clip at the link below.
Discover Lafayette Podcast Taping.
The substantive highlight of my Louisiana outreach activities was the conversation I had with Jan Swift, host of the Discover Lafayette podcast. Jan put me right at ease. She has an effortless kind of grace and a way of inviting a certain kind of open dialogue and exploration of meaning. At least that’s the effect she had on me.
We talked for about 45 minutes, as I recall . . . and even though I was mortified when my phone started to ring halfway through, the conversation just flowed like milk. I have to admit that I came away with a bit of a crush on Jan Swift. She’s bright, compassionate, articulate, and engaged fully in life . . . all the qualities I aspire to! I couldn’t have asked for a better first podcast experience.
Look for an article in the Advocate when the podcast is released.
Black Pot Cookoff.
This was one of the big ticket events of the entire trip. If you read All Saints Day of the Dead, you know at least a little something about the Black Pot festival, its role in Cajun culture, and my own personal infatuation with it. The festival is practically a holy day of obligation for the young people at the center of the Cajun music and cultural revival that’s been picking up steam for at least the last decade or so.
Like most of the other activities I enjoyed on this trip, the Black Pot was extra special because of the family members who participated alongside me. The special guests for this Saturday were my brother Keith, brother-in-law Mark, and my niece Shelbie. We entered the contest in the “sauce” category under the name New Bayou Bros. Keith did the cooking. Mark provided the cigars and the whiskey. Shelbie provided the young energy.
We established our cooking station in a choice spot under a big oak tree close to the second music stage. I was proud that everyone showed up with their New Bayou Books shirts to help me promote the company. While Keith cooked, I engaged new friends I had never met, handing out free books, tee shirts, and stickers. Just as I had hoped, the day was filled with food, music, and some of the best conversation I had on the whole trip. We all had a fantastic new experience.
One of the unexpected gems of the trip was the quality time I got to spend with my nephew Michael. He’s my kind of real life character–way more than meets the eye, with a deadly ability to fuck you up lurking just beneath the biggest heart you’ll ever encounter. I got a first hand glimpse of this lethal skill one night when, slightly drunk, I talked him into giving me a wrestling lesson on the mat that dominates the living room of my sister’s house (which should tell you something). In the few seconds before I ended up flat on my back, I was struck by the cold and immutable quality of his movements. Fighting against Michael’s body was like wrestling with a brick wall–there was simply no give. And the ease with which he manipulated my limbs to force me into a submissive position was . . . clinical, I believe is the word. Like a robot.
This ability Micahel has–to physically control another person–is especially intriguing to me because of the person he is. The guy is so compassionate and warm it’s almost unreal. If Michael were a character in one of my books, I’d have to make him meaner just so people would believe it.
Visiting Aunt Jackie and Uncle Larry.
No trip to Louisiana is complete with a visit to a certain house on the outskirts of Iota. The breath and quality of Cajun culture that’s come from this one house is eye watering. They were building accordions and resurrecting the old traditions of rural Mardi Gras back when Barry Ancelet was probably not even in grad school yet. The larger world knows them as elder statesmen of Cajun culture. I know them as Aunt Jackie and Uncle Larry.
This trip was especially cool because I also got a chance to sit down with my cousin Eric to get some invaluable insights into Cajun cooking. To show you how generous I am, I’ll go ahead and share that wisdom with you too . . . ready? The key ingredient in all Cajun cooking is time. Keep the dish simple, and give it time. You’re welcome.
Lunch at Aunt Honey’s.
Lots of people in South Louisiana, especially those from the previous generation, have nicknames that follow them to the grave (sometimes you don’t learn a person’s real name until you read it in their obituary). It’s especially common on my mom’s side of the family. I call her brothers and sisters Aunt “Cotton”, Aunt “Doll”, Uncle “Lolly” (as in lolly pop), Uncle “Boy”. The oldest sister is my Aunt “Honey”. And really, she is very sweet.
Aunt Honey lives in the little enclave of Mowata, which is not even really a village. Mowata is basically a church, cemetery, and little country store (like the BlackPot fest, if you’ve read All Saints Day of the Dead, you know a little about Mowata). A handful of families are scattered around the countryside in a five mile radius around those anchors of community. Aunt Honey married into a German family called Reiners. Her husband, Uncle Joe, grew up speaking German. And like pretty much all couples of that generation, they had lots of kids.
Two of them–Doris and Stephen–were my Godparents. In South Louisiana, there’s a particular way we refer to Godparents. Your God-mother is called “Nan” and your God-father is “Paran” (pronounced in the Cajun way).
Remember that cemetery I mentioned? Every year on All Saints Day, everyone gathered at the Mowata cemetery for an outside mass, rosary, and blessing of the graves. Uncle Joe was always the one who said the rosary. He was a typical Cajun man in that regard–a devout Catholic but also eager to get on with it, so he said the rosary as fast as possible, the words running together like a kind of rosary-auctioneer.
Anyway, All Saints Day was always a big deal for me because my birthday falls on the day after. So after the mass was said, and after Uncle Joe got done saying the rosary, and after the priest got done walking through the tiny graveyard dousing the graves with holy water–everybody making the sign of the cross as he passed–I had presents to look forward to. My Nan and my Paran usually had them in their cars, and so I would walk to the parking lot with them to retrieve my birthday loot.
Even though the presents stopped the year I turned 18 and their duties as Godparents were officially over, Doris and Stephen have both stayed in touch. So when Doris found out I was in town, she invited me to a Sunday lunch with the extended family at Aunt Honey’s house.
Of the 20 or more people there, I recognized four of them. But really, that’s what made the experience fun. It gave me a chance to quietly watch and listen to about a dozen distant cousins who all looked to be in their 20s and early 30s, talking amongst themselves as we all sat outside under the carport on a beautiful day, just shooting the breeze. Cajun people are funny. They love life, and so they love to laugh. It was so much fun to be a fly on the wall for the pre-lunch conversation. To hear the wit, the banter, and the love underneath all the dialogue. I’m so glad I had a chance to experience this obscure part of my extended family.
Communion with Jules.
One of the real pleasures of my extended trip was breaking bread, on two separate occasions, with a very special friend named Jules. I think I was probably 17 and full of piss and vinegar when we first met, and back then, Jules was by far the most interesting and most complex personality in my town. The guy had lived in Los Angeles and had the coolest CD collection you could imagine. You could talk normally to Jules, and he would meet you where you were. He would meet you with philosophy, with religion, with spirituality and truth.
After something like a 20 year absence, we re-connected as pen pals last year, and since then–through lots of long-ass, rambling letters from me and deep, dense wisdom from him–we have grown close. During the first week of my trip, we met at Don’s Seafood in Lafayette for an extended shrimp and fish-fueled conversation that almost dipped into the dinner service. Right there at the table, Jules dropped all kinds of ancient wisdom on me.
I first met Jules through Toby. Back when we were still teenagers, Toby was a protege to Jules. They were cut from the same priestly cloth. Jules introduced Toby to the deep end of the spiritual pool, and in turn Toby laid some of that on me in turn. So there’s always been a sort of spiritual triad among us. But Toby had not benefited from the rekindled reunion until a second dinner that I was proud to be able to arrange. The three of us met for some killer Vietnamese food at Saigon Noodles, and now the triad has been restored. Toby and Jules are reconnected, and I can tell the circle will remain unbroken. If I did nothing else during the visit, this one act of bringing these two important people together was well worth the price of the plane ticket.
- High School Reunion (sort of).
One of the weirder experiences I had in South Louisiana was a reunion of sorts with three old high school buddies. It came about mostly because of Coach Mo. When he asked about the other ball players on our team, I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t account for any of them. I have not done a good job of staying in touch. So the following day I employed my sister’s networking skills and within an hour I had a couple of numbers. Long story short, a few days later I found myself navigating to a franchise beer joint in one of those upscale, outdoor malls that are popular now.
I walked in, and there at the table was two guys, one of whom looked exactly like he did in high school, sitting next to another dude I spent many teenage hours with but would never have recognized. I shook the stranger’s hand and pretended I recognized him. It took a minute to reconcile my teenage memories with the middle aged reality, but eventually I got my shit together and we sat down for a beer. I was pumped for the discussion, even if I was caught flat footed for a minute, because I had so many questions. A lot can happen in 30 years, and I wanted to hear all of it: careers, girlfriends and wives, kids, interests and insights. I was thrilled for a chance to dig into the lives of these old friends.
But I got nothing. Not a thing! The conversation, which I watched like a spectator at a tennis match, went something like this:
“You remember Anne? She used to live across from Michelle.”
- “Oh yeah, she used to date Dave, right?”
“Yeah, that’s the one. Well, she ended up marrying Michelle’s brother.”
- “Oh really? You mean Chris?”
“Yeah, Chris. Not the Chris they call Booger, but the other Chris.”
- “You mean the Chris that works at Walmart?”
“Yep. That’s the one.”
And on, and on. I sat there for more than an hour, waiting for some interesting nugget of conversation that I could jump on, but it never materialized. At no point did any of these very nice guys offer any real insights into their lives, into who they are as people. Neither were any questions asked of me. Which was fine. I wasn’t nursing that Bud Light for an hour just to talk about myself. I was there to learn something. But for whatever reason, curiosity just wasn’t on the menu that night.
Once it was clear I wasn’t gonna learn anything, I got out of there. I’m sure there’s a lesson in the experience, but I don’t know what it is yet. A more skilled people-person might’ve been able to draw them out. Maybe that’s the lesson. Or maybe the universe gives you exactly what you need . . . maybe I needed those guys to be exactly that way in order to disabuse me of any illusions I might’ve had. Illusions of what? Hell, I don’t know. I went on the beer date because I thought it would be fun, but it wasn’t. Simple as that. Shit happens, I guess.
- Cafe Mosaic.
On several occasions when I was in Eunice, I grabbed my laptop and headed over to an amazing coffee shop in town. Cafe Mosaic is right there on 2nd street, the heart of old downtown Eunice. From the beautiful tiled floors to the old soda-fountain style counters, the place is charming and warm. I made friends with the baristas there, gave them some free books, and they were generous with the refills. Whenever I’m back in Eunice, I will make a point to spend some time and some money at my new favorite coffee shop in the whole world.
Last call. I spent eight weeks counting down to this big trip, which I’ve been dreaming about for at least a couple years. I had a list of at least three of four different activities that I might’ve done every day I was there. I didn’t get it all done, but . . . well, I got my money’s worth. Let’s just say that and call it good.
I probably could’ve written another dozen pages, but at some point you have to turn your glass over on the bar and walk out. So this is me doing just that. Thanks for reading. Stay in touch!