The Man Who Invented Christmas

Having been ensconced with Dickens for the past month or so, I’ve had a renewed yen to see the 2017 film The Man Who Invented Christmas. I wanted to see it when it released two years ago, but never did. As luck would have it, there were a bunch of limited-time, free movie channels available on my TV this past weekend. It was playing on one of them, and, while I didn’t catch it cover-to-cover, I saw about two-thirds of it (including the ending).

The Man Who Invented Christmas stars British actor Dan Stevens as Charles Dickens, fairly early in his writing career. He races against time, and his own personal demons, to write and publish A Christmas Carol in time for the Christmas holiday in 1843.

I found the movie charming and clever. Here are the probable reasons why:

  • Dan Stevens’ portrayal of Charles Dickens reminded me an awful lot of Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka. The manic energy, the hair, the frightening turn when you disturb him. Since I’ve loved Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka for pretty much my whole life, it was hard for me to not be charmed by the similarity I saw in Dan Stevens.
  • As Dickens creates the characters, they appear “in real life.” In his study, and about London as they follow him as he goes wandering in search of inspiration. He bickers with them, and they bicker with each other. Christopher Plummer as Ebenezer Scrooge was especially fun.
  • The struggle Dickens has with how to end the story felt very relatable. He wants Scrooge to remain irredeemable. It isn’t until he comes to some reconciliation in his personal life that he’s able to write the ending we all know. I have to think the story would not have achieved the popularity it did, if it ended with the visions of the ghost of Christmas future realized.

Who doesn’t love a redemption story? God bless us, everyone.

Great Expectations: Thanksgiving Edition

So, I’m 53% of the way through Great Expectations. And since tomorrow is Thanksgiving, I figured I’d focus on what I’m grateful for, regarding my reading of this work.

I’ve realized this year, 2019, has turned out to be my introduction to several 19th century classics. All published within a 20-year span during the mid-1800s. The Count of Monte Cristo was published in 1844, Moby Dick in 1851, and Great Expectations just ten years later, in 1861. Monte Cristo and Moby Dick are both relatively fresh in my mind, so I couldn’t help drawing comparisons between the three in my “gratitude” list:

  • I’m enjoying Great Expectations more than the other two. It’s definitely funnier. Granted, I don’t think Dumas or Melville were going for comedy, but their stories could have withstood being a touch less self-serious.
  • Pip is certainly the most relatable character in the three novels. Written in the first person, it begins when Pip is just a child. So many of Pip’s experiences, as Dickens relates them, ring true and timeless. Check out this quote: “In the little world in which children have their existence, whosoever brings them up, there is nothing so finely perceived and so finely felt as injustice.”
  • Speaking of injustice and timelessness, my ire hasn’t been raised as much with Great Expectations, as with the other two. There’s no getting around Melville’s racism, especially in the chapter “The Whiteness of the Whale.” Or Dumas’s misogyny — in my numerous posts about Monte Cristo, I went on at length about how much I hated how Mercedes’s character and story line were handled. While Dickens is hardly a model of modern sensibilities — I’ve already read at least one dreadful depiction of a Jewish person — if I were to weigh the three works, I feel like Great Expectations has less to offend.
  • On a lighter note, I might be most grateful for the Serial Reader app. It’s reawakened my reading habit in more ways than one. I’ve found that I like reading on my phone so much, that I downloaded the Kindle app. I’m about halfway through Hugh Howey’s Wool series, all read on my phone. (Wool has been on my TBR list for years.)

I could go on, but I won’t. For everyone celebrating the holiday, have a happy Thanksgiving!

Bald Eagles in City Park

I saw the large bird of prey just minutes after snapping this photo.

I’m fairly certain I saw a bald eagle on Sunday. Either that, or I saw a pelican who’d dipped its head in something white. In any event, I saw a very large bird soaring not too high over my head, with a white head. The tree canopy at the spot where I witnessed it is the only thing causing my uncertainty.

Bald eagles, City Park, and me…we go back a ways. The first time I saw one — it has to be close to 10 years ago, now — it soared right over my head, and there was no mistaking its form. I think it might have tried to scoop me up, if I’d only been a touch smaller. I don’t remember it having quite the impressive wing span of the one I saw on Sunday, making me think (through faulty memory) that the first one might have been a juvenile.

There’s something about a bald eagle; they’re so imbued with meaning. For better or worse, in good times and in bad, they’re symbolic of the U.S.A. It’s nice that they are apolitical (elephants and donkeys don’t have it so easy). And there’s no getting around that bald eagles are just really majestic animals. My sightings stick with me.

Years after that first time, I saw another bald eagle while I was driving on Harrison Avenue. That’s the same road I was running on Sunday. There was no tree canopy in the spot where I was driving, and it was pretty clear — large, soaring, bird with dark feathers on its body and white feathers on its head. But since I was driving that time, there was no stopping to contemplate where it was headed.

There wasn’t much to contemplate about the one on Sunday. It was flying a straight shot to open water, and it would have taken me a backward, circuitous, route to head in its direction.

I’m not even sure what caused me to look up when I did. I’m just glad that the mire of my thoughts didn’t prevent me from turning my eyes skyward.

This would have been my view if I’d tried to follow the bird.

A Day of Firsts

So, I ran a 10K race this past weekend, and I think it ranks near the top of my favorite race experiences. Not because I ran a personal best — my fast times are several years in my past, now. And not because the course was  picturesque — outside of a short part along Lake Pontchartrain, with some pelicans flying about, the course was mostly along an access road.

What made this race such a stand-out was that it was the first 10K for my nieces Nicole and Cecelia. They are training for a series of races in Disney World in the months ahead. In April 2020, I’ll be running one of those races with them. This 10K was part of the prep.

Running, like writing, is a solitary endeavor. Also, running any distance over a few miles is something that bestows a certain patience upon any non-competitive runner (like myself). The effects and the benefits can be hard to elucidate. Running the same race is one of the best ways to share the experience, and it was a delight to share this experience with such bright lights as Nicole and Cece.

Plus, we went to Panda King for Hot Pot that evening. It was the first time trying the popular Asian dish for me, but not for them. I loved it! I also loved that we ended a day of firsts together.

Checking in on the Bright Side

A fall-ish scene in City Park.

It feels like I’m in the home stretch of this super-busy period for my day job. It also feels like I’ve been going on about it (read: complaining) for these past few weeks, so my apologies. As I see some light up ahead, I sense my default mindset — I’ll call it a blend of realism and optimism — returning.

Just another ten days or so, and I should be able to get back to my preferred pace, which is a lot less class-five rapids, a lot more babbling brook.

But I also find, while I should have lots of stuff to write about, I have nothing to write about this week. No spark of inspiration, no anchor to wrap a post around. In lieu of that, here are some pictures from this past weekend. The first two from a run in City Park, and the last from the new Louisiana Children’s Museum, which recently reopened in a new location (in City Park).

Come to think of it…if I didn’t have City Park so close by, I’m sure I’d have a harder time finding stuff to write about. I also wonder if my default mindset might not be a little less optimistic…thanks, City Park!

The remaining attractions from Scout Island Scream Park are visible across the bayou.
I’ve always loved butterflies. The optimism of rebirth and renewal.

The Fourth Age

Photo by Jeff Finley on Unsplash

I had some time to reflect this past weekend, and a phrase occurred to me: the fourth age. I applied it in very personal terms, which I’ll get to in a bit. But first, the references.

The first thing that came to my mind was Tolkien. Though I’ve read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy (many years ago); and I’ve seen the LOTR movies more times than I can count, I couldn’t tell you exactly what transpired in Tolkien’s “Fourth Age.” I just knew the term sounded very LOTR-ish.

The Internet tells me “the fourth age began when Sauron was vanquished and the One Ring destroyed.” Meaning the events depicted in the books (and movies) happened at the end of the third age.

But the Internet also revealed some meanings I was not aware of. There’s a book by Byron Reese that came out last year, titled The Fourth Age: Smart Robots, Conscious Computers, and the Future of Humanity. It appears to be about the times in human history when technology has reshaped our world. Sounds interesting enough, but it’s not what I’m getting at.

There was also a search result that stated the fourth age is “an era for the final dependence, decrepitude, and death.” Yikes. Still not what I’m aiming for, but perhaps a little closer.

No, it occurred to me that I am entering my own, personal, Fourth Age. As I look back, I can identify two, roughly three-year periods, that encapsulated major personal transformation. The first, when I was 16 to 19-years-old, the time when I left home and headed west. The next, the years from 32 to 35, when I returned home for good. If that pivot to home was the start of my Third Age, I sense I am at the end of it.

So if I am smack-dab in the middle of my shift to the Fourth Age, what do I expect it will bring? I don’t anticipate a physical move, the return to New Orleans was always intended to be permanent. But I do hope it will contain as much reading as my first 1.5 “Ages” did. I also hope it will contain more of the special type of magic I always sensed around me, as a child growing up in this magical place. I still sense it, but the obligations of adulting (sorry to use that word) can deaden that faculty.

But most of all, I intend for my Fourth Age to contain more writing than any age that preceded it. I can think of no better way to tap into that magic and share its wonder with a weary world.

Great Expectations: 4%

“As soon as the great black velvet pall outside my little window was shot with gray, I got up and went downstairs” — Great Expectations, Chapter 2

So, not much has slowed down since I last posted here. I’m still struggling to find the time to put the finishing touches on The Conclusion on the Causeway, and my hopes of having it ready for public consumption before the holidays are dwindling.

But — I’ve started a new book on my Serial Reader app. I found I was missing the 15 to 20 minutes I put aside each day for the specific sort of reading Serial Reader enables. That little chunk of time is like an anchor, connecting me to my writing vocation, and helping me not drift too far on the currents of my day job and other obligations.

Up ’til now, the authors I’ve read via Serial Reader (Herman Melville, Alexandre Dumas, et al), were completely new to me. I’d never read any of their works before. I can’t say the same for Dickens. I remember enjoying A Tale of Two Cities when I read it in high school, and I remember really liking Sydney Carton.

I was considering David Copperfield, because it’s supposed to be a semi-autobiographical account of “a young man’s journey to becoming a successful novelist.” (I’m hoping to pick up a few tips.) But Great Expectations is about half the length of David Copperfield in Serial Reader issues. So I can reasonably expect to finish Great Expectations by the end of this year.

My way of managing my own “great expectations” into at least one goal I’ll be able to reach by year’s end.

Stolen Time

Sunrise, Burlingame, California. 7:14 AM

Last week, I was in the San Francisco Bay area for my job. Said job has been keeping me pretty busy of late.

To put it mildly, it has been challenging to find the time to put the finishing touches on my third novel. I’ve discovered I need a certain type and amount of headspace to sit down to this work, and it’s been harder and harder to come by. It’s a temporary situation — I should get back to a better rhythm before the end of this year. So for now, I’m just trying to manage my own expectations (regarding my writing).

My last morning in the bay area, I did steal about 30 minutes for a sunrise walk. Herewith, some pictures from that jaunt.

It was low tide, and the rising sun caught the edge of it.

Three Years Later…

A group of competitors. That’s me and my teammates on the left.

I competed in a triathlon this past weekend, as part of a relay team. I’ve done this race as part of a relay twice before, the last time in 2016. I wrote about the experience here: Quarter Report 

So what’s changed in the past 36 months?

  • Despite ample preparation, I’ve gotten slower. I swam twice a week throughout this past summer, logging miles in the pool. While I noticed that my mile time had slowed from years past, I thought I could still get a quick time for the roughly 1/3 mile of this race course. Not so much. In 2016, I completed the swim course in 15:04; it took me an extra 42 seconds in 2019.
  • Luckily, my teammates have not gotten slower. We finished in 2nd place for coed teams, and 2nd place overall for relay teams. We were behind 1st place by a couple of minutes. I should probably work in more speed drills next time I train for this race.

Which brings me to a reflection on writing. Last time I did this race, it was less than six weeks after becoming a published novelist. Everything was so new, and I felt a great deal of uncertainty about how to continue to write and publish while still making a life and a living.

I still feel that uncertainty, but I think there’s less of it. I’ve published a second novel in the interim, and am very close to getting the third one out into the world. I still feel the pressure of self-imposed deadlines, but when making a living (my job) gets stressful, I try to ease up on myself in spots where I have some flexibility. That means my writing.

So I guess it comes to this: I’d like to be a faster swimmer, and it seems reasonable to expect modest improvements in that area with the right kind of preparation. But I don’t think I want to be a faster writer. If you’d asked three years ago, my answer would have been different. But 36 months of “working the balance” seems to have taught me that flexibility, not speed, is my key to making a long-term career as a writer.

I’ll finish this up with a few more pictures from the weekend in Pensacola:

My swimsuit decided to call it quits (part of the lining busted). I think it had a good last run.
After the race, Tim and I watched the LSU game at the Frisky Dolphin.
The morning after the race.

 

Happy Birthday, Ghost in the Machine!

The original (Christmas?) gift. Note the Invisible Sun in the upper right.

The Police released their fourth studio album, Ghost in the Machine, 38 years ago today. October 2, 1981.

I happened across this fun fact last weekend, when I had a yen to hear “Spirits in the Material World.” Spotify obliged, and even gave me the opportunity to listen to a few more favorite songs from The Police.

And then I got to thinking about when I first heard this music…the time in my life (and the world). Both Spotify and Google pegged the release date at October 2, 1981. I was in my final pre-teen year, and beginning to develop my own particular ear and tastes. But too young and unfunded to go shopping on my own. My guess is that I asked for (and received) the album as a Christmas gift that year.

While I occasionally post about music in this space, I feel like Pink Floyd makes the cut more often than most. But The Police were definitely my first favorite, and their music still holds significant resonance with me. I was pleased to discover I’ve referenced this album at least once before, waaaay back in the early days of this blog. (Frogs, Lizards, and the Ghost in the Machine)

I’ll conclude with a couple more fun facts:

  • The term “ghost in the machine” dates back to 1949, when philosopher Gilbert Ryle coined it to describe René Descartes’s concept of human consciousness existing separate from the human body, or brain.
  • It’s taken on additional meaning with computer programmers, to describe when a program appears to run independent of the commands it was designed with.
Vinyl. One of roughly a dozen I’ve hung onto through the years, even though I no longer own a record player.