Saturday, May 29, 2010

Strength From a Dog Story

It’s hard for me to argue with the statement, “A dog is a man’s best friend.” I’m convinced every time one lets me rub its stomach or unexpectedly kisses my cheek.

But if you’ve ever taken care of a dog, you know that it’s not all fun and games. Aside from their instincts to chew and urinate on everything you own, they also bake homemade chocolate pies that often end up on the bottom of your shoes and on someone else’s white carpet. So where do we get the patience for a four-legged diaper-less being with a full set of sharpen teeth? Where do we get the strength?

Several years ago, when I first came back home to Cow Island, my mom had a little collie, named Buster. Although his fenced-in yard was bigger than my apartment in Manhattan, I felt bad for the dog and begin walking him on a leash around the family farm. We bonded over our walks, and often sat underneath a big oak tree where I’d write, and he would patrol the area. I loved my best friend because he trusted me, was easy to care for, and reminded me that I wasn’t alone.

But due to an unfortunate incident, Buster and our walks were taken from me. I buried him in the backyard while fighting off the tears with each shovelful of dirt thrown on his body.

About a month later, a friend gave me a stray dog, named Redd. Her short fur is the color of her name, and although I don’t know her exact breed, she resembles a Rhodesian Ridgeback, (without the ridge). She is much younger than Buster, but the biggest difference between them is that while the little collie trusted me from the beginning, his replacement treated me like I was an enemy who badly needed a shower.

I understood that it would take time to bond with Redd, and so I patiently tried to gain her trust. First, by giving her treats and bowls of food. But not just any food. A family recipe combining the crunchy bits of puppy chow with the savory sensation of my mom’s world famous chicken stew. The tail started wagging.

Redd continued to keep her distance for several days, but joyfully ran towards me anytime I approached. Then, as if remembering pain, she’d stop and back away.

Summer was approaching, and with it, insects the size of humming birds, snakes as far as the eye could see, and sunlight that felt like it was shining through a magnified glass. Unless Redd and I bonded quicker, my dream of long mosquito-less walks through pastures with my new best friend wouldn’t come true.

So I began carrying a folding chair into the fenced-in yard, tiptoeing around landmines of dog manure, and sitting patiently. Redd seemed happy to see me, but still required a ten foot distance between us.

“You’re harder to read than a text message from a teenager!” I shouted at her on day four of Operation Sitting Dog. “I don’t know what happened to you, but you have to believe me that I’m not going to hurt you.”

A mosquito landed on my sweating nose, reminding that the clock was ticking. So I resorted to my most valuable asset once again, and heated up some of my mom’s chicken stew. This time I wore one of my dad’s old cowboy hats to block the sun, and brought along a copy of Reader’s Digest to prevent boredom. With the bowl of bribery at my side, I sat and read an article about male menopause.

By day seven, when Redd hadn’t gotten any closer to me, I began pretending that I was eating the delicious meal at my feet. She would raise her ears as if alarmed or concerned about my behavior. But the invisible wall separating us remained. So I started actually eating the stew (out of a plate, and minus the puppy chow) and would let the gravy drip down my chin.

“It’s soooo good,” I’d tell Redd as I’d clean up my face with my tongue. “You should really try some.”

Aside from a raw chin, this strategy accomplished nothing. Summer arrived, and I lost patience and interest in bonding with a dog like Redd. Her fear of something unknown pushed me away, and my fear of never having another best friend turned into anger.

On the day all of my strength was lost, I scraped some of the uneaten food on the ground. I stomped on the grains of stew soaked rice and failure, and then fed my tormenting friend a six-year old frozen Lean Cuisine.

It was over. I no longer sat in Redd’s yard, and her special meals were replaced with hard bits of Gravy Train and resentment.

After a few months, Redd ran up to the fence when I approached. She still kept her distance when I opened the gate to bring her food, but sometimes got as close as a couple of feet away.

One of these times, I noticed a scratch on her eye and some discoloration. It didn’t look good and I knew I had to get her to a vet.

So I brought a leash, cage and bowl of chicken stew into the fenced-in yard. I placed the bait inside the trap and then pretended to leave. I hoped that Redd would follow her nose, and I could close the door of the kennel behind her. But she followed her instincts instead, and went to the opposite side of the yard, let out a yawn and lied down.

I walked towards her with the leash, and she quickly jumped up and ran into a corner. Again, I went after her until we were running in circles like horses around a track. After several minutes, anger exploded from me in the form of choice words that had gotten me put on my knees during my childhood.

As if a Morse code message was sent to my mom, she appeared. While her eyes looked me over, mine lowered themselves to the ground, seeing sweat and anguish drop into the center of a freshly baked chocolate pie.

“Is there a problem?” my mom asked. “You seem a little upset.”

My sanity slowly came back to me. Shouting at Redd was not going to gain her trust. I needed to be brave and take control of the situation, regardless of the fear surrounding both of us. I had to find the strength.

Redd was in a corner as this point, so I placed the open kennel to the left of her, and her dog house to the right. I walked through the center of the triangle trap with strap of the leash formed into a lasso. The terrified dog let out a yelp that pierced my body like the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard. But I continued, fighting through fear until I captured what I hoped was trust, but felt like betrayal.

Redd’s eye healed quickly after her visit to the vet. But more importantly, so did our relationship. She began letting me pet her stomach and take her on long walks. She still has a mind of her own, and sometimes can’t be bothered with me. But I am grateful for what she does give me, and when possible, respect her need for distance.

I’m not sure what the moral of this story is except that maybe trusting relationships need patience and distance. Or perhaps it’s about how difficult it is at times to be accountable for another living being. It could even be about how two dogs positively affected my life and gave me a story to tell. Regardless, I enjoyed writing it, and hope it will bring you strength.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Chosen to be a Pastor

The stark white wooden sanctuary of St. Mary Congregational Church sits quietly on South Louisiana Street in Abbeville. Signs outside give the history of the property and structure, which was built in 1905 and is on the National Register of Historic places. It is also believed to be the first school in Vermilion Parish to educate freed southern slaves.

“The first pastor of St. Mary’s Congregational Church was James A. Herod,” says Reverend Kevin Williams, current Pastor of the church. “He is considered the father of African American education in Vermilion Parish.”

Reverend Williams has been the Pastor at St. Mary Congregational Church for sixteen years, but began preaching when he was only five years old. He has taken seminary courses, but says that one becomes a Pastor by calling, not by education.

“You don’t choose to be a Pastor,” says Reverend Williams. “You’re chosen.”

Reverend William’s duties as a Pastor include, by are not limited to, managing church finances, organizing and overseeing charitable events, and ministry. When necessary, he will also roll up his sleeves and pull out the vacuum cleaner.

“You have to remind yourself that you’re a servant,” says Reverend Williams. “One of the greatest attributes a leader must possess is the strength to stay in a position and disposition of selflessness. You mustn’t build yourself up so high that the fall will kill you.”

St. Mary gives back to its community by sponsoring drives for school supplies, collecting donations for those affected by hurricanes, and hosting dinners for the less fortunate. One of the church’s most successful creations is called, “Boys to Men.” For the past eleven summers, males aged nine to fifteen participate in a four-week long program involving military exercises and community service.

“The participants get paid at the end of August after they’ve been through the program,” says Reverend Williams. “It teaches them how to handle money and to be accountable.”

When I walk into any interview for this column, I carry a list of questions written on a white tablet. My hope is that they guide me to the story needing to be told. But when I began asking them to Reverend Williams, he said he had a few questions of his own.

“What do you hope to get out of this interview?” he asked. “Would you be willing to trust me so that we can take it to the next level?”

My initial intention for starting this column was to find out a little bit about different careers (and to get my mom off of my case about getting a job). However, I did hope to truly experience what it would be like to work in these professions.

“Um. I guess I just want people to know what it’s like to be a Pastor,” I responded. “And sure. I’ll trust you.”

Reverend Williams disappeared from the office where I was interviewing him and then returned with a long blue and orange robe. He handed it to me and then told me to put it on and follow him. When we got inside of the sanctuary, he asked me to step up to the altar and face the empty church pews.

“You can’t find out what it’s like to be a Pastor from a list of questions,” Reverend Williams said. “You’ll need to stand up there and let the people facing you know how much you love and care about them.”

Reverend Williams informed me that he was not going to make it easy for me. I was already beginning to perspire in the long robe, but my body temperature rose even more as the Pastor walked to different church pews and revealed characters and challenges.

“This gentleman doesn’t want to be here today,” said Reverend Williams. “He lost his job and family this week. He doesn’t believe that you care about him.”

There was a single mother, victims of domestic violence and others who didn’t believe that I practiced what I preached. With each new face, my goal of sending a message about hope and love became more difficult.

But I started enthusiastically as if I were writing a column for the paper. I hoped to dazzle the well-spoken Reverend Williams with my words, and imagined him asking me to preach with him one Sunday. But within a few minutes of my sermon, he began to snore, and then walked out of the church.

Reverend Williams came back moments later, and told me that I was boring him. That he didn’t believe that I cared about him. That a person who cared wouldn’t stand frozen behind an altar.

I tried to have a conversation with him, but one of the rules of my lesson was that I couldn’t speak back. People could only hear me through my sermon.

“You can’t just stand up there and tell them that you care,” said Reverend Williams. “You have to allow the Lord to use you to give people hope.”

I started over, but this time walked around the front of the church. New characters with new challenges evolved in the pews and told me that they didn’t believe me. They didn’t think I could be trusted.

This went on for over an hour. I was drenched in sweat, frustrated and ready to give up.

Why is he putting me through this military-like exercise? I wondered. Did he enroll me in the Boys to Men program? Surely, he doesn’t think I’m fifteen.

Then I got it. Reverend Williams wanted to give me a close-up look at some of the challenges a leader faces. But to also show me that I can’t become a Pastor just by putting on a robe and preaching. I can only become one by being chosen.

Even though I will never be known as Reverend Couvillon, I am grateful for my lesson on leadership from Reverend Williams. He helped me feel more grounded, and to not only think about the message I want to communicate, but its vehicle. I was not chosen to be a Pastor, but I was blessed by time with a leader.

St Mary Congregational Church is located at 213 South Louisiana Street. For service information, call 337-319-2846.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

Strength for Douches and Communication

Some of my favorite childhood memories are from the days when stormy weather would knock off the electricity in our house. Since there was no television for entertainment, my brothers and I would play games to pass the time. There were card games, guessing games and games like punching each other to see who could leave the biggest bruise.

For those few hours, my brothers and I were at our closest because we shut off all of life’s distractions and communicated. But in a world with television, computers and awkward situations, where do you find the time to talk? Where do you find the strength?

Several years ago I decided to expand my communication skills by learning French. I moved to Paris and rented a mattress on the floor of an apartment. The owner’s name was Philippe, whom I’d met through a friend.

I didn’t speak French when I arrived in Paris, and Philippe barely spoke English. So our conversations were limited to one word or short phrases like, “Bonjour,” “Au revoir,” and “Ou est la toilette?”

My first week in Paris, I stayed out of the apartment all day and most of the night to avoid having to talk to Philippe. He seemed very nice, but there were only so many times I could tell him hello, goodbye or ask for the toilet.

But then one day, due to a bad rainstorm, I had to go back to the apartment in the afternoon and face my French-speaking roommate. He was sitting in a velvet high back chair in what I called a “living room,” but what he called a “salon”. His feet rested on a bearskin rug, and in one of his hands was a cigarette on the end of a very long filter like the ones Hollywood starlets used back in the 1940’s.

‘Bonjour,” Philippe said when he saw me.

“Bonjour,” I replied. “Comment ca va?”

My French had improved and I was able to ask questions like, “How are you doing?” “What time is it?” and “Do you know a restaurant that sells good snails?”

“Voulez-vous un the’?” Philippe asked.

I surprisingly understood that my roommate was offering me some tea. I had a choice to go back to my room and lie on my mattress on the floor, or sit down in the salon and awkwardly try to communicate in a language I didn’t know while avoiding getting burnt by a three-foot long cigarette.

I knew that if I were ever going to learn French, I would have to try to speak it regardless of an uncomfortable situation. So I said, “Oui,” and took a seat on a sofa on the other side of the bearskin rug. Philippe disappeared into the kitchen and then returned moments later with a silver tray holding a small porcelain tea kettle, a couple of cups and saucers, and a stack of cookies.

We didn’t talk for several minutes. We’d only sip our tea and take small bites of cookies. The silence between us was painful like a high-pitched siren that makes you want to scream. I wondered if I should suggest a game, and then punch him to see if he bruised.

But then Philippe pulled a book off of a shelf behind him, and opened it. He smiled at one of the pages and held it up to me and pointed at a picture of a dining room.

“J’adore cette chaise,” he said.

I didn’t see a door in the picture, and realized that he must be telling me that he adored the chair. It seemed odd to me that someone would adore furniture, but no more odd than drinking tea with the skin of a very large bear.

“Moi, aussi,” I agreed. “J’adore cette chaise.”

Our small communication seemed to unlock something in Philippe and he began speaking non-stop in French. I would occasionally understand a word like, couchon (pig), chien (dog) and champagne (champagne).

But then my roommate spoke of something I understood, but couldn’t believe he’d said. It was the same word in America, but there was no need for two men to ever talk about it.

“La douche est cassee’,” he said.

Douche? I thought. Is this conversation really about feminine hygiene products? How do the pig and champagne fit in?

I couldn’t just smile and pretend like I understood. I had to respond to this, so I used a phrase that had become my best friend in Paris.

“Je ne comprends pas,” I answered. “I don’t understand.”

Philippe took a sip of tea and them smiled. He took a drag off of his cigarette while I ducked to avoid getting burnt.

“The shower is broken,” he said.

After a few weird minutes, I got my French English dictionary and looked up the word, “shower.” This is where I found an explanation for my friend saying the word, “douche.”

I began laughing so hard that I could barely catch my breath. When I did, I was able to communicate to Philippe my misunderstanding. This was difficult because he had never heard of a product such as an American douche and didn’t know the French word for it. Then he began laughing and we finished off the tea and cookies, and looked at pictures of furniture we both adored.

Every afternoon for the rest of my stay in Paris, Philippe and I would sit in the salon and drink tea. We butchered both the French and English language, but learned so much from one another. We are still great friends, and he has given me an open invitation to Paris.

Although my first few weeks in France were difficult, I would never trade them for anything in the world. It made me understand the importance of being able to speak to others despite differences or challenges.

It is so easy to turn on a television or computer to avoid conversations. But communication is a major component of survival. So the next time you find yourself in an awkward situation with someone, block out life’s distractions and try to talk. You will not only build a healthy relationship, but you will also find strength.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Love at a Distance

There’s nothing quite like eating fresh fruits and vegetables you grow yourself, cutting flowers from boxes hanging from your kitchen window or sitting under the shade of a tree you planted to celebrate a new home, or birth or just because you wanted to block out that nosy neighbor’s view of your driveway.

I believe there is a lot to learn from the earth’s gardens and the people who create and care for them. So for the next few months, I’ll explore different yards and outdoor areas of Vermilion Parish. We’ll hopefully learn gardening tips, gain insight on the world and enjoy some nice moments with the landscape surrounding us.

Our first stop is a hidden garden behind St. Theresa Church in Abbeville. Although the red bricked-in courtyard that leads to the Perpetual Adoration Chapel isn’t a secret, both are only visible to the adorers of a Eucharistic devotion.

“St. Theresa began its Perpetual Adoration Chapel in 2005,” says Becky Moss. “Maxine Scalisi and I coordinate the Eucharistic devotion. We try to have at least two adorers in the chapel at all times.”

According to Moss, about fifty or more people pass through the courtyard garden each day. One of these adorers is Mary Castille, who designs and maintains the space.

“I was walking through the courtyard one day and it felt so peaceful,” says Castille. “I asked Father for permission to start taking care of the garden because I wanted to give back to my church community. Two of the parishioners, Amy and Bill help out a lot and several others donate plants.”

Although Castille isn’t sure of the exact size of the courtyard, we both estimated it to be about the same area as half of a basketball court. The garden contains plants like Christmas Cactus, Easter Lilies, Angel Face Roses and Hearts of Jesus. English Ivy climbs a brick wall behind a large statue of St. Joseph. Holly and Japanese Magnolia trees decorated with wind chimes and Boston ferns provide shady seating areas for reflection.

“Some people come into the garden with a lot of problems,” says Castille. “The smell and beauty can wake them up and make them feel better.”

Small statues and plaques with inspirational quotes are sprinkled throughout the courtyard to provide hope and smiles. There is even a goldfish pond with a fountain that fills the air with the calming sound of water.

“You can’t give everyone flowers,” says Castille. “But you can plant a garden and give people love from a distance.”

According to Castille, the hardest part of taking care of the garden is during the fall when all of the leaves from the trees drop into the courtyard. Her favorite statue in the garden is one of an angel holding a bird up into the sky.

“She’s releasing love to all who are having a bad day,” says Castille. “This garden is a healing place and brings me peace, joy and happiness.”

During my interview with Castille, some of the adorers from the chapel came into the courtyard. But they didn’t walk straight to the wrought iron gate that would bring them back outside. Instead, they walked around the garden asking questions about certain flowers or taking moments to read the inspirational plaques.

I don’t know the adorers’ names or anything else about their lives. But I can tell you that they benefited from the few moments they spent in the garden, Be it a smile as they leaned over and smelled Confederate Jasmine, or the gentle touch of their hands against the leaves of Hearts of Jesus, they all felt love from a distance.

“When you’re planting a garden, put your heart into it,” says Castille. “Your heart won’t lead you wrong.”

To become an adorer, contact the office at St. Theresa Church.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

Strength to Believe in Yourself

When I graduated from high school and it was time for me to go to college, I decided to attend the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. To me, a little farm boy from Cow Island, it was the biggest and most intimidating city in the world. The people there spoke differently, drove convertibles on three lane roads, and had wonderments like bowling allies, super stores and a 24-hour pancake house.

The level of difficulty involved in the transition from one phase of life to the next varies depending on the person and the difference between the two phases. When I was eighteen, Lafayette and U.L. were the perfect places for me because of size, location, and culture.

But what if I had gone to college in the largest city in the U.S.? Where would someone who grew up in the country find the courage to handle so much change? Where would they find the strength?

When Prophet Gaspard, a senior at St. Thomas Moore High School, took her first swing at a tee-ball at five years old, she probably didn’t realize how much of a large part the game would play in her life. Chances are the Forked Island resident wasn’t fantasizing about becoming a pitcher or being on teams that would win national and state championships. But the sport fit her, and eventually helped to guide the young lady towards an ivy-league education.

“I wasn’t sure if I’d be able to play softball in college because of my size,” says Gaspard. “I’m only five feet two inches tall, and most division one universities want taller pitchers.”

But the young lady didn’t let size stop her when she applied to Columbia University in New York City for this fall. She chose this school because of its location and because of its world-renowned engineering college.

“I’m going to study environmental engineering because I’ve always been interested in earth science and math,” says Gaspard. “I want to experience the Northeast and the culture of New York.”

Gaspard received guidance from her St. Thomas Moore softball coach, Joy Weber LeBlanc. Coach LeBlanc contacted Coach Kayla Noonan at Columbia University to see if they had an interest in new players.

“It just so happened that Columbia was looking for a pitcher,” said Gaspard. “So Coach LeBlanc sent a tape of me playing softball to Coach Noonan. After several weeks, they both encouraged me to apply to the university.”

Although Gaspard’s pitching speed of approximately fifty-seven mph was an asset, it was her academic profile that helped her gain admittance to Columbia’s engineering college. In addition to having a high grade point average and SAT score, the young lady was active in Beta Club, and is a member of the National Honor Society.

Gaspard’s most memorable moment playing softball was during a semi-final game last year when she was pitching for St. Thomas Moore. Towards the end of the game, when the score was very close and the players were exhausted, hope and motivation emerged like a homerun hit with bases loaded.

“One of the school’s teachers has a son named Eli who has a spine disorder,” recalled Gaspard. “The team dedicated the entire season to him. During the last inning of the game, one of my teammates shouted out, ‘Let’s do this for Eli!’ It gave us strength and we won. But the moment was about something so much larger than winning.”

I had never met Prophet Gaspard before our interview, but had gone to high school with her parents, Patricia and Sindol Gaspard. When I heard about the young lady’s acceptance to Columbia, I was excited and jealous. She accomplished something that I hadn’t even fantasized about until many years later.

When Gaspard and I sat down for the interview, it was during the time period of her high school softball playoffs. Days later, St. Thomas Moore went on to win the state championship for the second year in a row. I don’t usually follow girl’s high school softball, but when I heard the news, I became as excited as I was about the young lady attending Columbia.

“Where are you going to get the strength to handle all of those people and so much change?” I asked Gaspard during our interview.

“I’m used to change and meeting new people,” she responded. “When you play sports, it’s a new team every year.”

I realized that there wasn’t much that scared this five-foot two-inch tall young lady. Then again, I guess not much would scare me if I could throw a ball at fifty-seven miles per hour.

But it’s not Gaspard’s remarkable physical capabilities that impress me the most. It’s that she possesses the most powerful strength possible; the strength to believe in herself.

If she had given up on the season dedicated to Eli, she wouldn’t have felt the power of something larger than winning. If she had let her size stop her from attempting to play softball at Columbia, she wouldn’t be preparing herself for future phases of her life. If she’d let change scare her, she wouldn’t be following her dreams.

I wish this young lady the best of luck as she transitions from the Intra-coastal canal breezes of Forked Island to the pulsating beat of New York City. I applaud and thank her parents for supporting their daughter as she pursues her educational and life goals. The Gaspard family’s lesson on the power of believing in oneself gives me strength.

Wellness in a Thrifty Way

One of the things that baffle me is how a pharmacist can read what a doctor scribbles on a prescription pad. It doesn’t resemble English, but instead a secret language that only a chosen few can translate.

“It’s not always easy to understand,” laughs pharmacist, Brady Gaspard. “But after a while, you learn a doctor’s handwriting.”

Gaspard and his wife, Tara, are the owners of Thrifty Way Pharmacy located at 100 North Cushing Avenue in Kaplan. The couple purchased the business in 2007 from Kerney and Gayle Bourque.

“I worked at Thrifty Way for seven years under Mr. Kerney,” says Mr. Gaspard. “I’ve known him for a long time because he and his wife were friends with my parents. When I was trying to decide what to study in college, Mr. Kerney suggested pharmacy because he knew I had an interest in the medical field.”

Mr. Gaspard has a bachelors of Science in Pharmacy from the University of Louisiana in Monroe. Before his career began with Thrifty Way, he worked several years at other pharmacies.

“The best part of my job is helping people with their everyday health needs,” says Mr. Gaspard. “The most challenging is all of the paper work involved. Healthcare is changing constantly, and there are so many policies and procedures to follow.”

Gaspard’s most memorable moment at Thrifty Way was the day Mr. Kerney retired. They had a party to celebrate the changes in both of their lives.

For the past couple of years, I stopped by the pharmacy on a weekly basis for various items. Each trip, I noticed something a little different about the place. Either shelves were moved around or there were new gift products available. But the most noticeable change was the outside of the building.

“We put shutters over some of the windows, and painted the building,” says Mrs. Gaspard. “We also re-planned the floor and changed up the merchandise mix to include more gifts.”

In addition to Thrifty Way’s health products like cough drops, pain relievers and allergy medicine, the store also has a gift section. The merchandise ranges from home d├ęcor to jewelry to baby items to graduation presents. Free wrapping is available for all gift purchases, and I’m sure if you ask nicely they’ll tie a pretty bow around any laxatives or Pepto Bismol.

Although Mr. Gaspard doesn’t know the exact age of the building, he does have pharmacy records dating back to 1929. Other reminders of the store’s long history are the beautiful antique wood display cases against the walls.

When I went to Thrifty Way for my interview, I was also able to visit with Mrs. Gaspard, an old friend from high school. She caught me up on her life and shared that she and Brady had three children and one on the way. Since I know this is personal, I asked her if I could mention it in the article.

“Please write that I’m pregnant,” she laughed. “I don’t want everybody to think I’m just getting fat.”

I knew Mr. Gaspard from my frequent visits to Thrifty Way. He and the other pharmacist, Jeremy Lartigue, were always available to answer any questions I had, even if I called. I learned about several healthcare policies from both of them, which is what made me interested in the career.

I was a little disappointed, however, that Mr. Gaspard didn’t reveal to me that, “Yes. The scribbling on the prescription pad is a secret language that only doctors and pharmacists know. We were chosen. It is our destiny.”

Regardless of my disappointment, I did learn that there were two forces destined to be together. That is Brady and Tara, or in their power couple name, “Brara.”

It was destiny that the two of them joined together to give us a place that makes us feel better. Be it with Aspirin, aromatherapy candles or a laugh, Brara and their friendly associates bring us wellness in a Thrifty Way!


Sunday, May 09, 2010

Strength for Diaper Changes and Dance Recitals

It still amazes me that my parents were able to raise eight children. There is a sixteen-year age difference between the youngest and the oldest, so at one time we were all under the same roof. One of us was in diapers, while another slept on rubber sheets. One waited for underarm hair to grow, while another shaved it off. One was using training wheels, and another was in a training bra.

I asked my mom recently, “Where did you find the strength to raise eight children?”

“I did what I had to do in order to survive,” she said. “It’s a whole lot easier to put up with y’all today, though. Now when my kids irritate me, I can just take the phone off of the hook and lock the front door.”

But what about a young mother who doesn’t have that option? How does she balance diaper changes, dance recitals and shopping for children who grow out of shoes and jeans every month? Where does she find the strength?

My sister-in-law, Jessica, is the mother of three children; Braxton, age 11, Brooke, age 10 and Brylee, age 3. To round out her children’s education, she spends a large part of her time driving them around to different activities like dancing, baseball, basketball, swimming lessons, catechism, karate, and roping lessons.

“The most challenging part of being a mom is not having enough time during the day to get things done,” says Jessica. “The best part is seeing the world through my children’s eyes and always having a house full of fun and laughs.”

Jessica believes in parenting by example. She gives all three of her children chores to do so they can learn how to be responsible.

“All you can do is teach them right from wrong,” says Jessica. “As they grow older, my role with them will change. I’m going to have to trust them more, and give them freedom and space.”

Jessica’s most memorable moments with her children are those of their birth. She says she can remember them like they were yesterday.

“There are too many special moments of being a mother to choose a favorite one,” says Jessica. “A new one is made every time I hear Brylee say, ‘I love you so much, Mom.’”

For about a week after Brylee was born, I picked up Brooke and Braxton from school and watched them for a few hours. One day, I decided to take them to Kaplan to get ice cream. My first indication that this would be an adventurous ride was while I was driving, and my nephew thought it would be hilarious if he put a magazine over my face.

We made it to the store safely, though, and when we did Brooke pushed her brother into a potato chip display, spreading Funyuns and Cheetos all over the floor of Piggly Wiggly. When I dropped the children off with their grandmother later that day, I never looked back and little bits of gravel and dirt shot out from beneath my back tires.

But Jessica takes a different approach in her parenting. She patiently practices baseball with Braxton, dances with Brooke, and does Sponge Bob imitations with Brylee. Her advice to a new mother is that being a parent is not easy, but worth every minute of it.

“There are difficult challenges,” says Jessica. “But that’s something all mom’s face. Knowing that I’m not alone helps me tremendously.”

I interviewed Jessica at her home a few hours before Brooke’s dance recital. The mom made time for me even though she had the responsibility to make her daughter look like a ballerina, and her other two children put on pants. When Braxton did put on jeans, the bottom of them reached somewhere between his knees and ankles.

“These are the only pants I could find,” Braxton said.

“That’s impossible,” Jessica replied. “I just bought those for you. How did you outgrow them already?”

The mom disappeared and returned a few seconds later with an appropriate sized pair of pants for her son. Then she brushed Brylee’s hair while simultaneously applying theatre make-up on Brooke.

My mother said that in order to be a mom, she had to do whatever it took to survive. When she told me this, I imagined a log cabin out in the wilderness. My mom was milking a cow while one child sat on her back, one on her knee, and one on top of the heifer named Betsy. Suddenly an intruder rode up on horseback and my mom locked her children in the cabin and grabbed a rifle.

“I’m a mom,” she said to the intruder. “Take one step closer and I’ll do what I have to do in order to survive.”

I realize now that there’s probably a good chance that this never happened. But it was my interpretation of a parent’s survival until my afternoon with Jessica. She took care of all of her children’s needs in stride, and never blinked an eye. She was surviving, and doing a great job.

“How do you handle the constant chaos of being a mom?” I asked. “Where do you get the strength?”

“From my own mom, and my husband, Jude,” she said. “I relieve stress by taking walks and cooking. There’s nothing like a good meal at the end of the day with my family. Being with them gives me strength.”

Portraits of Happiness

When I was a senior in high school, I had my portrait taken by the photographer, Jeff Nemetz. He was well known and had an excellent reputation, which made his name synonymous with the word, “photography”. In fact, anytime I pulled out a camera, my friends would make a joke.

“Who do you think you are? Jeff Nemetz?”

The real Nemetz began his photography career almost forty years ago in sales at a department store in Memphis, TN. Many of his customers were artists who wanted copies of their work.

“I would teach the sculptures and painters how to photograph the art,” says Nemetz. “After a while, they hired me to do it for them.”

Nemetz moved to Baton Rouge to study Broadcast Journalism at L.S.U. While in college, many of his friends hired him to photograph their weddings. He continued getting different photography jobs over the years and eventually decided to make it a career.

“The pull to go into photography was very strong,” says Nemetz. “So I opened my studio full time in 1984. It’s been a fun adventure.”

Nemetz’s credentials include over thirty years of studio work, as well as photography assignments with Evangeline Downs, the National Dance and Cheering Championship and the AAU Junior Olympics. His wedding and senior portraits have received awards, and his bridal work was honored with the National Fuji Masterpiece Award.

“The best part of my job is that I get to share in the happiest moments of people’s lives,” says Nemetz. “I help preserve the first memories of a new-born child and the tears of joy at weddings.”

According to Nemetz, the most challenging part of photography is learning to read the emotions of the client. He says that finding out what’s important to them is key.

“Even though the same pose might look good on everyone, it doesn’t meant that it’s the best shot for everyone,” says Nemetz. “If you try to force photography, it will diminish its meaning. Making people feel comfortable with themselves is vital.”

Nemetz’s advice to someone interested in photography is to not be afraid to take pictures. He says to keep a notebook of the shots in order to keep track of how the image was exposed.

“Photography is about waiting for the right moment,” says Nemetz. “It involves painting with light and telling a story.”
Nemetz joined the Abbeville Meridional three years ago as a features writer. He’s contributed many memorable pictures of Vermilion Parish ranging from children playing outside on the first of day of Spring to sunrises over rivers and canals.

When I interviewed Nemetz, he updated me on some recent changes going on in his life. He will soon be leaving the Abbeville Meridional and closing the photography studio he runs with his daughter, Amy Nemetz.

“Last fall I reconnected with an old girlfriend from high school on Facebook,” said Nemetz. “We’re getting married and I’m moving to Fayetteville, Arkansas at the end of the month. I’m going to open a studio up there.”

I had already heard of Nemetz’s plans, which made me especially interested in interviewing him. I’m a big fan of his work and was hoping for a little insight on photography and art.

Nemetz smiled the entire time he spoke and I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to capture it on film. But perhaps with my words, I can preserve this time in Nemetz’s life the way he did for me with my senior portrait.

Jeff, you look like a love struck teenager (Literally and physically). Your hair is more thick and full than mine was at twenty-five. (This bothers me). Your cheeks are red with the anticipation of a new life and adventure. You are smiling. Not because you have to but because you want to. This is one of the happiest moments of your life. I wish you the best.

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Strength to Laugh at Yourself

They say that many people are more afraid of public speaking than of dying. Although I don’t know for sure, I assume it’s because of the fear of embarrassment. It prevents some of us from ever attempting new challenges or accomplishing goals. So where do we find the courage to stand up to sweaty palms and a red face? Where do we find the strength?

A few years ago, I was asked to speak at the home of a woman who helped organize a book festival. My speech’s goal was to encourage people to attend the event, as well as offer financial assistance to the program.

It was about a month before my book, The Chicken Dance, was published and I was still nervous about speaking in front of groups. But I was more concerned about the impact my speech could have on my career as a young adult writer.

So I wrote down exactly what I wanted to say and memorized it. Then I practiced in front of a mirror, making sure that my hands didn’t gesture too much, and that I didn’t make any funny faces.

On the night of the event, I drove to the house early and parked my car nearby. I watched people walking in to ensure that I wasn’t under or over dressed. I was wearing khaki pants, a blue and white shirt, and a navy striped tie that I hoped made me look like a writer, and not like I was attending a first communion or going on an Easter egg hunt.

After I rehearsed my speech in my rearview mirror about four times, and I was sure that my clothes were appropriate, I got out of my car and walked towards the house. But as I stepped up to the front door, my reflection in the glass told me to re-tuck my shirt.

So as soon as I was inside of the house, I went to the bathroom and unfastened my pants to neatly re-tuck my shirt into a crisp fold. Then I stepped out into the party, introduced myself to a few people and found refuge by the food table. It was a beautiful spread complete with sandwiches, sweets and shrimp. I have a weakness for free food, (If it’s free, it’s me) but restrained myself because I didn’t want to risk staining my clothes.

When it came time for me to speak in front of the group, the hostess introduced me and I had the floor. It was not my reflection in a mirror staring at me anymore, but instead about thirty adults only a few feet away. At that moment, their opinions were all that mattered to me, and little beads of embarrassment rolled down my torso.

But I faced my fear and gave my speech exactly as I’d rehearsed it. The group laughed in the right places, and seemed to relax themselves as if hearing a longtime friend making a toast at a wedding.

When I was through, I stepped a few feet to the side so the hostess could have the floor again to talk about the book festival and to hand out souvenir posters. I had calmed down tremendously, and was glad that I hadn’t let my fear of embarrassment control me.

But right before I was just about to sneak away to the food table, I noticed a napkin on the ground. When I bent over to pick it up, something else grabbed my attention. It was an innocent, yet vulgar detail like a red wine stain on a carpet or a poison ivy rash making its way towards the crevice of my buttocks.

It needed to be resolved immediately, and because I was so interested in taking care of the matter at hand, I forgot where I was standing. I didn’t hear the party hostess speaking about how the book festival was going to encourage young readers and help writers promote their work. Nor did I see the group of guests gazing in my direction. These two facts were oblivious to me when I zipped up my pants and readjusted myself as if slipping on a warm pair of jeans pulled from the drier.

The sound of the zipper on its treads awoken me, and I realized what was happening. I had exposed and unexposed one part of myself, but another part was about to be projected like a movie on a screen. Would it be the courage of a writer who found the humor in it all? Or would it be the embarrassment of a young man who’d given a speech with the lid off of his jack-in-the-box?

In my mind, I’d destroyed my career and given all young adult writers a bad name. My actions would end up on Youtube, and I’d receive hate mail from J.K. Rawling and Judy Blume.

Every embarrassing moment I’d ever experienced flashed through my mind and pushed me towards the door to escape from humiliation. But as horrible as some of them seem, it occurred to me that they’d never killed me. I’d even recovered enough to write a book and be asked to promote a festival. I knew I had worked too hard to give up on my dream because of a zipper mistake. Plus, if I had left the party then, I would have missed out on the souvenir poster and free jumbo shrimp.

So I found the strength that night to ask the hostess for the floor again. Then I joked about my unzipped pants, and begged the group for their forgiveness. They roared with laughter, which dissolved the threats of embarrassment.

My momma often tells me, “If you don’t laugh, you cry. If you cry all of the time, you die. And nobody is in a state of grace to go anyway.”

I often find guidance in her words. They help me to accept mistakes, and to see the humor in life. Through them and the treads of a zipper, I find the courage to stand up to embarrassment, and the strength to laugh at myself.

The Concierge of Vermilion Parish

I once worked at a New York hotel as a concierge/bellboy/front-desk attendant/go stand out in the rain and whistle for a cab person. My job required me to be flexible and knowledgeable because I was the customer’s go to person when they needed information on everything from Broadway plays to carriage rides through Central Park to where to find a falafel at three in the morning.

Lynn Guillory, Executive Director of The Greater Abbeville-Vermilion Chamber of Commerce must be flexible and knowledgeable about everything offered in Vermilion Parish. Her job is to promote business members of the chamber by producing marketing materials, planning networking events and organizing informational seminars.

“I look at the chamber as if we’re the concierge of the parish,” says Guillory. “We get so many calls from people in other parts of the country asking about our economy and attractions.”

The Greater Abbeville-Vermilion Chamber of Commerce’s mission is to create a positive business and community environment. Their roots date back to the 1920’s, and they currently have 240 members.

“Last year we partnered with the Abbeville Tourism Center and produced our first ever Community Profile,” says Guillory. “It’s a magazine with information about resources, attractions and businesses in Vermilion Parish. It’s not only for local residents, but for tourists and people who are interested in re-locating.”

Guillory has thirty-three years of experience as a business teacher. She taught accounting and computer software courses at Lafayette Technical School and the Gulf Area Campus Technical School.

“The best part of my job is working with the business community and meeting out-of-town visitors,’ says Guillory. “So many guests to our parish comment on our hospitality.”

The Greater Abbeville-Vermilion Chamber of Commerce membership benefits include access to monthly networking meetings, marketing guidance and materials, bulk mailing discounts, and seminars on technology, advertising and basic principals of operating a business. The organization also offers a scholarship to students in Vermilion Parish affiliated with the chamber.

The chamber shares office space with the Abbeville Tourist Center in a long Acadian style house located at 1907 Veterans Memorial Drive. Both places offer a variety of information including evacuation guides, maps of the parish and brochures on local attractions. Other resources for chamber members include a small office with a computer, as well as a conference table for meetings.

During my interview at the office, I was fortunate to meet the chamber president, Ray Dugal. When he introduced himself, I thought he said, ‘Dugas’ and then told him a corny story about another Dugas I knew. He was very polite, and laughed even though my story had no relevance or made any sense.

“I really want to stress that we’re here for our community and the development of the parish,” says Dugal. “We want to help businesses grow.”

I was also fortunate to meet Guillory’s assistant, Shelly Choate. She asked me my mother’s favorite color in order to make a special surprise that would take six months to create. I was a bit hurt at that point because all I’d gotten was a glass of water and a hurricane evacuation guide.

But Choate made it up to me by giving me a Prescription Drug Card, which when used at participating businesses could provide discounts. All parish residents interested in receiving a card should call the chamber to request one.

It’s these types of resources that make the Greater Abbeville-Vermilion Chamber of Commerce beneficial not only to shoppers, but also to local businesses. Guillory’s passion towards promoting our parish and stimulating our economy is obvious not only in her enthusiasm, but by the programs she helps organize. She might not be able to get you front row seats to Mamma Mia, but she can help you advertise your business or guide you to the products and services you seek. Now that’s a concierge worth tipping!

For more information on the services offered by the chamber, call 337-893-2491 or visit