Saturday, October 31, 2009

Bumper Crop

Following some severe and prescient trimming by Nikki a year or so ago (I don't have her stomach for plant brutality except when it comes to our wisteria, which won't bloom no matter how much I abuse it), our citrus tree produced a bumper crop of fruit this year. (Last year we got about three satsumas. The year before we only got one.) The fruit set, small and green, many month ago and only recently starting turning lighter green, then orange. I was reluctant to start cutting them down because I wanted them to become as sweet as possible but they recently started dropping (with the tops of the fruit pulling right off and the fruit dropping to the ground "open") so in the past couple of days I started to harvest the fruit.I didn't quite realize how much fruit was on the tree until I started clipping them off. Over the course of a half hour or forty five minutes, I filled more than two shopping bags (taking the fruit that had either turned orange or which felt like there was some "room" between the rind and the meat) and there was still a ton of fruit still on the tree. (The above photos were taken after today's harvest.)One thing that is remarkable about the tree is how it supported the weight of so much fruit without snapping its limbs. In the above photo, I am holding two bags of fruit, each bag weighing almost twenty pounds. They were pretty heavy, even for a strapping young man like me. The tree's thin branches hold five times that and while they have bent over, some nearly touching the ground, none have broken even if the recent heavy winds. The only exception was a branch snapped by our carpenter during the recent installation of our shutters and even that branch stayed attached to the tree and produced fruit that ripened slightly sooner but were delicious none the less. (These provided some of the juice for my recent cocktail experiments.)While I take great pleasure eating food grown on my own land (a fairly grandiose way to conceive of my Irish Channel driveway), these fruit would be a delicious treat that I would enjoy even if they were shipped in from South America and I had to pay big bucks for them at Whole Foods.

The fruit is sweet and firm, with few seeds, and is so juicy that they burst when you peel them.

Apparently I am not the first New Yorker to get swept up in the excitement of Louisiana citrus. I found this 1899 article about the prospects for citrus production here ("The people of New Orleans - right here in this city - do not know wht they have, but the Eastern people are beginning to learn what this country is."):In any event, as must be clear, I am a neophyte to citrus trees and farming. I was wondering whether anyone might know with some precision what variety of citrus my tree is. I call them satsumas because they are greenish and because that seems to be the predominant local citrus. But these are much more orange than most satsumas I see. Any citrus experts out there?

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Raised to believe that all men are created equal . . .

Philip Spooner is a World War II veteran who served in the Battle of the Bulge. He was raised on a potato farm north of Caribou, Maine to believe that all men were created equal. He has four sons, all of whom served in the military and one of whom is gay. When asked whether he believed in equal rights for gay people recently, he thought about his experience with life, war, and its purposes, and responded, "What do you think our boys fought for at Omaha Beach?"

He's my kind of patriot.

From down here in Louisiana, it's inspiring to see progressive values close to victory on the state level on these kinds of battles, when here things appear to be moving in the opposite direction. Hard to believe its the same country.

I very much hope that my friends and family up in Maine make it out to vote against the November ballot measure repealing same sex marriage rights there. You are lucky to live in a state that reflects values of decency and tolerance. Keep it that way!

*As the husband of a expatriate Maine nationalist, I also like another Equality Maine advertisement , beginning, "Something happens when you cross the border into the state . . ." Reminds me of Nikki arguing that Maine, and maybe Vermont and New Hampshire, is all that truly remains of New England. What about Massachusetts? "Those flatlanders?" Connecticut? "Isn't that part of New York?"

*I first saw this video on Humid City, where it was posted by Loki.

UPDATE: I don't know if it appeared in today's New York Times or will appear in tomorrow's but there is an article about the ballot initiative and its national significance on Sad to see that the Catholic Church is financing the initiative. You'd think that they would render this one unto Caesar so long as they can conduct marriages as they see fit in their own churches.

Friday, October 16, 2009

Baby Rose Mae

I have created a baby blog for friends and family who have demanded a greater web presence for Rose Mae Sothern. At, Nikki and I plan on posting photos and stories about Baby Rose. I may do some cross posting on Imperfectly Vertical but want to, for the most part, keep my musings about Bushwick Bill and Manson chicks separate from my little baby.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Mother to Son

Since Nikki became pregnant, and even more so since Rose's birth, I have been trying to figure out what kind of father I want to be and, more to the point, what kind of father I will end up being no matter what kind of father I want to be.

I remember when my friend's mother passed away a handful of years ago, I sent him Langston Hughes' Mother to Son, which summed up something for me about the love that a parent might give to their child in letting them know the troubles of world and helping make them strong enough to bear them.

Looking at baby Rose, I am entirely committed to protecting her from everything awful and bad in the world. But I also know that the world has a way of toppling the levees we build around our precious things. In the end, I hope that I can teach her that while life isn't always a "crystal stair" that, if we keep climbing, we find landings for rest and comfort and occasionally turn corners that flights down we could never have imagined. Like the one I just turned.*

"Mother to Son"
Langston Hughes

Well, son, I'll tell you:
Life for me ain't been no crystal stair.
It's had tacks in it,
And splinters,
And boards torn up,
And places with no carpet on the floor --
But all the time
I'se been a-climbin' on,
And reachin' landin's,
And turnin' corners,
And sometimes goin' in the dark
Where there ain't been no light.
So boy, don't you turn back.
Don't you set down on the steps
'Cause you finds it's kinder hard.
Don't you fall now --
For I'se still goin', honey,
I'se still climbin',
And life for me ain't been no crystal stair.

* I am slightly worried that my broader, personal reading of this poem sets aside, a bit too much, its racial and social justice message. But my poetry consultant, certified poet Jill McDonough, assures me that "Mother to Son has plenty of room for racial equality readings and personal readings and also things-are-easier-for-the-next-generation readings; none of those interpretations cheapen it, I don't think. I think it's about the giving up, as well as the kinder hard; we all want to give up sometimes, but it's useful to realize other people went before us and didn't quit. And are still going, even."
So breathe easy. And read it however you like.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Charles Baudelaire and Bushwick Bill

A couple of weeks ago I read at the ACLU's Banned Books event at the Bridge Lounge here in New Orleans.

I read from Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal, which upon publication in 1857, was seized and Baudelaire and his publisher were fined for the inclusion of six poems - Lethe, Jewels, Lesbos, Damned Women, Against Her Levity, and Metamorphoses of the Vampire. (These titles, and the poem below, are all from Richard Howard's translation.)

I read Lethe, Against Her Levity, and Metamorphoses of the Vampire, along with Baudelaire's introduction, Au Lecteur ("To the Reader"), which I have always liked because of how it confronts the reader ("Stupidity, delusion, selfishness and lust/torment our bodies and possess our minds,/and we sustain our affable remorse/the way a beggar nourishes his lice."), and his Epigraph for a Banned Book, which appeared in the 1868 edition and quite clearly told off his unappreciative readers. ("Inquiring spirit, fellow sufferer/in search, even here, of your own Paradise,/pity me . . . If not, to Hell with you!")

The idea of flowers of evil has always had great potency for Nikki and me. Whenever we like something that is tragic but beautiful or awe inspiring - a kind deed by an inmate doing life in prison, crumbling, old New Orleans houses (or pretty much anything else in this city, for that matter), courage in the face of injustice - we tell each other, in shorthand, that it was a "fleur du mal".

Before the reading, I told my friend Barry that I was going to read Against Her Levity and I told him about the crude rape fantasy that closes the poem. It reads:

You tilt your head and smile - as if
across the countryside
a breeze had rippled through the grass
out of a brilliant sky.

The sullen stranger you brush past
stops, turns and relishes
that radiant health which aureoles
your shoulders and your arms.

In all that panoply of silks
that colors you parade
awaken in our poets' minds
a giddy valse des fleurs -

garish gowns which designate
the motley of your mind:
infectious folly! all I loathe
is one with all I love!

Often, when I would drag myself
into some leafy park
and when the sun like a rebuke
would lacerate my breast,

so deeply did the Spring's new green
humiliate my heart
that I would punish in one rose
all Nature's insolence . . .

I'll come like that to you some night
when lovers ought to come,
creeping in silence till I reach
the treasures of your flesh,

to castigate your body's joy,
to bruise your envied breasts,
and in your unsuspecting side
to gash a gaping wound

where in final ecstasy
between those lovelier
new lips, my sister, I'll inject
my venom into you!

Barry told me it reminded him of a Geto Boys song that got them kicked off of their record label. That song, Mind of a Lunatic, includes an account of a brutal rape, murder, and necrophilia, just like Baudelaire's poem, rapped by Bushwick Bill, a one eyed, alcoholic, depressive dwarf who could have easily been the subject of a Baudelaire poem or, at the very least, would have been good company for Baudelaire as they consumed bottles of Bordeaux or everclear (150 proof grain alcohol), depending on whose house they ended up at. While Bushwick Bill's song is more overt, it is not quite as nasty as Baudelaire's, whose depiction of raping a woman through a knife wound he inflicted would lose him his book contract even if it was written today (and especially if he was a black rapper and people couldn't tell the difference between what he wrote and who he was).

You be the judge.

From Mind of a Lunatic (on You Tube):

Lookin through her window, now my body is warm
She's naked, and I'm a peepin tom
Her body's beautiful, so I'm thinkin rape
Shouldn't have had her curtains open, so that's her fate
Leavin out her house, grabbed the bitch by her mouth
Drug her back in, slammed her down on the couch
Whipped out my knife, said, "If
you scream, I'm cuttin"
Opened her legs and commenced the fuckin
She begged me not to kill her, I gave her a rose
Then slit her throat, and watched her
shake till her eyes closed
Had sex with the corpse before I left her
And drew my name on the wall like helter skelter
Run for shelter never crossed my mind
I had a guage, a grenade, and even a nine
Dial 911 for the bitch
But the cops ain't shit when they're fuckin with a lunatic.

Lest you think that Bill is just a nasty, heartless bastard, unworthy of comparison with one of the nineteenth century's finest poets, check out his song Ever So Clear in which he details losing his eye, while drunk of everclear and weed, to a partially self-inflicted gunshot after a suicidal scuffle with his girlfriend in which he tried to get her to shoot him dead. The song ends, "But it's fucked up I had to lose an eye to see shit clearly."

A flower of evil, don't you think?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Satsuma Cocktail

Folks around the country may not be aware of the availability of terrific local citrus here in Louisiana. Though they have taken a beating in the past few years, orange groves abound in south Louisiana, especially Plaquemines Parish, which creeps south of New Orleans along the Mississippi toward the Gulf of Mexico. In addition to oranges, we have satsumas, which are like sweet, mostly seedless mandarin oranges or clementines.

At our house on Jackson Avenue, and our old place on Kerlerec Street in Treme, we have had satsuma trees. After a couple of lean years, it looks like we are going to have a bumper crop this year. The fruit is not quite ripe yet but some have fallen from the tree regardless. Lest they just rot on the ground unloved, I instead have been squeezing them (as well as some other early satsumas that I have been getting in my box at the Hollygrove Farmer's Market), adding some gin, simple syrup, and sweet vermouth, shaking vigorously with ice, and serving them up on the rocks in a high ball glass. The drink is pretty close to the Bronx cocktail, which some of you may (or may not) remember from my thirtieth birthday party a couple of years ago.

I got the idea from a recipe in New York Magazine for something they called Franny's Satsuma Cocktail, and which used Carpano Antica Formula, instead of the cheap sweet vermouth that I had on hand. My low brow variation, using Hollygrove and Irish Channel satsumas, needs a better name. Maybe Lil' Wayne's Juice and Gin (Lil' Wayne is a Hollygrove native)? Or the St. Thomas' Fallen Fruit? (My house backs up on what used to be the old St. Thomas Projects, which I wrote about for The Nation.)

Here is the recipe:

2 ounces Beefeater gin
1/2 ounce sweet vermouth
1 1/2 ounces fresh satsuma juice
1/2 ounce of simple syrup

Combine ingredients in a cocktail shaker with lots of ice. Shake until it so cold it burns your hands. Pour into a tall glass with ice. Enjoy.