Quarter Report 2021

Not following the arrow

I live my life a quarter mile at a time. — Dom Toretto

This is not the first time I’ve referenced this favorite quote in this space. Vin Diesel’s line is a running theme throughout the Fast & Furious franchise, and, to me, is a tremendously apt way to describe living in the moment.

My specific reference is not miles, but years. Having cut my teeth in the business world in the discipline of accounting, I’m prone to think of years in quarters. And as I find myself at the end of Q1 2021, it felt like a good time to post a quarter report. So here, in no particular order, are some particulars:

  • While I have not been idle, I have still not prepared the manuscript of my 3rd novel for public consumption. But I have set a fast (and furious) goal of having it prepared by end of Q2. Q2 2021, just to be clear.
  • I completed a “game-ified” course in the Python programming language through an app called Mimo. That’s all I have to say about that.
  • I discovered the writer Jess Lourey. I have not read her — I watched a webinar on editing she offered through Sisters in Crime, and was thoroughly impressed. I plan to take more of her online courses, after I finish my editing work (see bullet point #1).
  • I finished Don Quixote. I found myself thinking of the musical theme to Monty Python and the Holy Grail through most of it. And realized how much Terry Gilliam must have been influenced by Don Quixote. In fact, I discovered there’s a 2018 film, written and directed by Terry Gilliam, called The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. With Jonathan Pryce as Don Quixote, and one of my favorites, Stellan Skarsgard, as a character called “The Boss.” And Adam Driver as Toby, and my guess from his billing is that he is the eponymous “man who killed Don Quixote.”

Anyway, to wrap this up: I’ve added The Man Who Killed Don Quixote to my ever growing “to be watched” list. But, I close the book on Don Quixote thinking how little, and how much, has changed for writers in the past 400 years. And I believe it’s a net positive for writers in the current era.

How little has changed: there’s a scene near the end, in Chapter 62, where Don Quixote enters a book printer’s shop in Barcelona. Don Quixote asks an author he encounters whether he is printing at his own risk, or if he’s sold the copyright to a bookseller. The author answers that he would not give up his copyright so readily, and that he is printing at his own risk: “I do not print my books to win fame in the world, for I am known in it already by my works; I want to make money, without which reputation is not worth a rap.”

How much has changed: to me, the risk an author hazards in the digital era is significantly less than 400 years ago, or even 25 years ago. With an exponentially increased potential readership over 400 years ago, and a reduced out-of-pocket cost compared to 25 years ago, it seems to me that a writer has very little to lose by putting her works out there.

Or here.

Don Quixote: 65%

Photo by Cdoncel on Unsplash

I read John Kennedy Toole’s A Confederacy of Dunces last year. It was an effort that took about 15 years. I’d tried to complete it at least twice before, at the urging of folks who claim it’s a masterful comedy that captures the spirit of New Orleans like no other book.

While I feel like “masterful” is an apt descriptor, I’m less inclined to agree with the comedy part. Every time I tried to read it, I found it really, really depressing. It’s evident to me how much of himself Toole poured into the book, and I believe it was ultimately his undoing. And while it definitely captures a flavor of New Orleans that only a native could express so truthfully; it’s a bitterer flavor, and a meaner spirit than I hope to capture in my fiction.

Anyway, I steeled myself and managed to finish it. And it spurred an interest in reading Miguel Cervantes’ Don Quixote. How so, you may ask? Because, I’d seen more than one reviewer describe Dunces’ main character, Ignatius Reilly, as a 20th-century Don Quixote. So I marked Don Quixote as a “Read Later” on my Serial Reader app, with the intention of starting it as 2021 began.

And, so far, so good. I’m enjoying Don Quixote much more than A Confederacy of Dunces. And I definitely am NOT getting the sense that Don Quixote was Cervantes’ undoing. Here are a few observations thus far:

  • Two stories / ten years. Don Quixote consists of two parts, published roughly ten years apart. It’s my understanding that the the first part of the story was an unprecedented success for Cervantes, and led to his writing further adventures for his protagonist. (Fascinating bit of 17th-century intrigue: an impostor apparently published a “fake” story featuring Don Quixote before Cervantes released the second part.) But as far as Cervantes’ original, I notice a difference between the two parts, which I really dig. The humor of the first part seems to be more at Don Quixote’s expense; while he comes across as a stronger and more aware character in the second part. I feel more empathy for him, and like him better in the second part.
  • Life for a noble in 17th century Spain. The experience of reading Don Quixote has been very immersive for me. The world of the novel feels evident and tangible, more so than most of the classics I’ve read over the last several years, with the exception of War and Peace. But while Tolstoy’s classic dropped me off in Russia in the early 1800s, Don Quixote sends me back another 200 years! And even given the further time displacement, the climate of Spain and all the Catholic stuff feel very familiar to me, more so than the world of War and Peace. Plus, the fact that Cervantes philosophizes a whole lot less than Tolstoy has made it a more entertaining read.
  • Knights-errant / superheroes. One last thought: while most of the knights-errant of the chivalric romances — the objects of Don Quixote’s obsession — are unfamiliar to me, it’s been very easy to imagine them as superheroes. Heck, they even call Batman the Dark Knight. Just another thing that makes the world of Don Quixote seem a lot closer than 400 years ago.

The Amazing Swan

Sunrise over the Sculpture Garden on January 7, 2021

Winter is not my favorite season. Snow is rare in New Orleans, and winters here tend to be dank and gray. Cold, too, just not consistently cold. The later sunrises don’t suit my preferred morning routine, either.

If you’re picturing me as a curmudgeonly Bernie Sanders meme right now, fair enough.

I guess it’s just my way of setting up that I’m pretty excited about the approach of spring. And it seems there are more reasons than the return of bluer skies and greener land to be hopeful this year. Yes, the earth is still in the mighty throes of a pandemic, but pandemics don’t last forever, and we might finally be able to say we are in the waning days (months).

Some interesting bird sightings recently also have me thinking of spring. Appropriately: robins, robins, everywhere. But also a particular pelican and singular swan. The pelican, pictured below, was airing out its wings on a bridge in City Park’s sculpture garden. (Actually, the sculpture garden belonging to the New Orleans Museum of Art, which is located in City Park.) Not so unusual, except that it was stationary so long it seemed almost like a fixture.

Saturday, January 23, 2021

The swan requires a bit more explanation. There is a mirrored maze in the sculpture garden, that was designed to be walked through. The interior of the maze has been closed due to the pandemic, but you can still walk around it.

The same Saturday I saw the pelican, I spotted a large, white mass at the center of the maze. Because of the way the mirrors are positioned, it’s impossible to get a clear line of sight. But I could clearly make out white feathers, and what appeared to be a neck tucked into a wing, like it was sleeping. A couple of days later, I passed the mirror maze again to look for my fowl friend. Sure enough, there was a swan there, no longer nested at the center, but looking like it was ready to emerge from the labyrinth.

Taken from the exterior of the sculpture garden, January 25, 2021. Look just past the “Interior Closed” sign.
A closer view.

I can only speak for myself, but something about emerging from the maze feels terribly symbolic. 🙂

2020: Dream is Collapsing

Bayou St. John
Sunrise over Bayou St. John, December 27, 2020

Fear not! This post is not as dire as the title might have you believe. In truth, it’s the name of the song I listened to the most in 2020, if I am to believe Spotify. It’s an instrumental piece, full of drama and portent, by Hans Zimmer. Many memorable action sequences from the movie Inception are set to this piece of music.

And to prove that I was not all about ominous, reality-busting mythos this past year, my second-most-listened-to song of 2020 was “Wishing Well” by Terence Trent D’Arby.

But I have to admit, if I was to create a piece of fiction based on this past year, I’d be afraid to reference “Dream is Collapsing,” because it’s just a little too perfect.

When I think of my own particular ambitions for this past year, pre-pandemic, I can’t really say they collapsed — it’s more like they deflated. And I’m mindful of how fortunate I am in that scenario, so what follows aren’t complaints, just examples. Specifically about writing and running, two solitary activities that, in theory, could still go on with little interruption in our current environment.

Regarding writing, the best excuse I can give is that a combination of uncertainty, anxiety, and doubt kept me from settling into the necessary re-writes on my third novel. We’re talking another level of procrastination. And regarding running, I didn’t run the New York Marathon in November, because there wasn’t one to run.

I see a bright side to this deflation, though. I feel like I can see a little more clearly without all the puffiness of my aspirations getting in the way. No, I didn’t write as much as I “should” have, but I did read a bunch. Most notably: for sheer volume, War and Peace and David Copperfield; and, for giving me stuff to think about, Bhagavad Gita and Frederick Douglass’s Why is the Negro Lynched?

Running-wise, if I had run the marathon, I most likely would not have run the Trail-Zilla half-marathon trail run with nieces Nicole and Cece a few weeks ago. And I would have missed out on a really challenging, but fun, shared experience.

So I don’t regret my flat tires. Just hoping to get enough air in them to get me back out on the road before too long.

Norco
The view from Trail-Zilla

An American in Paris

An American in Paris

So, I was planning on posting something about David Copperfield (the novel by Charles Dickens) — I’m about two-thirds of the way through — but last night, I happened to watch the 1951 film An American in Paris. And I felt the need to pre-empt my previously scheduled programming.

I’d seen the film at least once before, a very long time ago. If my memory’s not faulty, I saw it on New Orleans’s local PBS station, WYES, tempted into the viewing by a life-long love of Gene Kelly and a burgeoning interest in Gershwin. Granted, life-long was not as significant a qualifier back then as it is now, but I’m happy to report that my appreciation of Gene Kelly has only matured and deepened. Like wine. Or perhaps cheese.

I guess that’s what I want to write about. The maturation process. What’s changed for me in the roughly 30 or more years between viewings. Of course, not about everything that’s changed, no one’s got time for that. I’ll limit it to a few observations about the film itself:

  • The music. Gershwin’s music was my biggest takeaway the first time I watched the movie. It’s what cemented it in my mind. Much like how Masaru Sato’s theme from Yojimbo stuck with me in the long years between my first viewing and my more recent renaissance with that film. Last night, I watched the before and after commentary from Brad Bird and Ben Mankiewicz, part of TCM’s The Essentials program. They talked about the iconic ending of the movie, how the ballet sequence was “one of the more perfect dance sequences set to film,” I think one of them said. But they didn’t say anything about Gershwin. I’d take it one step further to include George Gershwin’s music — it’s a pretty phenomenal visualization / realization of the composition itself.
  • The story. The first time I saw the movie, I’d never been to Paris. I was roughly the age Leslie Caron was when the film was made. I’d never seen Casablanca. So I didn’t catch the similarity between Lise being sheltered as a teenager by Henri during the war, and Ilsa’s connection with Victor Laszlo. As a matter of fact, I think the whole love triangle was lost on me first time around. Say what you want about love triangles, but Casablanca-variety ones are good for adding a touch of gravitas. And the movie has some great quotes: Gene Kelly as Jerry Mulligan — “Back home everyone said I didn’t have any talent. They might be saying the same thing over here but it sounds better in French.” Also, Leslie Caron as Lise Bouvier — “Paris has ways of making people forget.” Jerry Mulligan in response — “Paris? No. Not this city. It’s too real and too beautiful to ever let you forget anything.”
  • The actors. Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron are still as captivating as I remember them being. But I was so charmed this time around by Oscar Levant and Nina Foch. Oscar Levant plays the musician Adam Cook, and the scene where Jerry comes into his room singing “Tra La La La (This Time It’s Really Love)” is a new favorite. And I suppose, years and experience just give me an extra appreciation for everything Nina Foch brought to her role as Milo Roberts, Jerry’s art sponsor.

Everything else about the film — the costumes, the staging, the choreography — were just as enchanting as I remember them being. It’s such a lovely thing to revisit an experience from way back when, and have it not disappoint.

Retreat

St. Joseph Abbey is a Benedictine monastery about 40 miles north of New Orleans, on the more sylvan side of Lake Pontchartrain. I’ve written about St. Joseph Abbey in this space before, it’s a place that’s loaded with meaning for my family. A few weeks ago, I had the pleasure of attending a silent retreat there. The theme was: “Be Not Afraid — Finding God’s Peace Amidst Life’s Uncertainties.”

It sounded like just the thing for the very uncertain times we’re in.

And I definitely felt recharged, and more relaxed, at the end of the weekend. Here are a few observations about the experience, and why I think it worked for me:

  • Silence — I was not daunted by the prospect of remaining silent for two days. I was actually a bit relieved that I wouldn’t feel obliged to make small talk, something that tends to fill me with anxiety. Keeping silence gelled nicely, too, with the face masks we all wore. Also, it’s not like my vocal cords went unused. Community, out-loud, prayers from a booklet punctuated each day, and I read at one of the Masses held during the weekend.
  • Walking Meditation — the weekend’s agenda was very loose, and allowed ample free time for walking, thinking, and reading. Those days marked the first spell of cool weather we’ve had since the summer, so walking around the peaceful grounds was delightful. Also, I’m currently reading David Copperfield, and I did feel downright Dickensian as I visited my parents’ graveside, often throughout the weekend. They are buried at the Abbey cemetery, which is just behind the retreat house.
  • The Communion of Saints — bear with me on this one. I truly felt, at the close of my time there, that I had spent the weekend with my parents. I was particularly struck with this idea of “communing” when I first arrived, near sunset on Friday. Their headstones face west, and as the sun was sinking, I had a clear memory of sitting on the back stoop of our house with my father. The rear of the house where I grew up faced west, and once, many years ago, I had stopped to watch a particularly picturesque sunset. My father asked what I was up to, and when I told him, he replied something like “that sounds like a good idea,” and we both watched the sunset in silence together. It was not something we were in the habit of doing, nor did we make much of it moving forward. But it still remains an indelible moment for me, of just “being in wonder” with another human. Particularly a human like my father, who was many things, but Zen was not one of them.

There are a lot of other reasons why I felt closer to my parents — spending time in a place that meant a great deal to both of them, and feeling like they are well-situated in their eternal rest, to name a few. To tie this up, I’ll say that attending a retreat at the Abbey had been an idea in my mind for quite some time, and I’m glad making it reality was such a positive experience. One I’m definitely game for trying again.

The Abbey Church
A prominent tree in the cemetery that my father referred to as “Lady Oak”
The moon and Lady Oak

So Long, For Now

New Orleans City Park Summer 2020
The sun sets behind the New Orleans Museum of Art, September 3, 2020.

So, this is my last regularly-scheduled post. For those who have been paying attention, I’ve written and posted something in this space every Wednesday for the past 5 years. There have only been a handful of weeks that I’ve missed — I didn’t keep count, but I’m fairly certain the missed posts only amount to a true handful, five or less.

This decision to go on hiatus was not caused by our pandemic, or any other big world considerations. Nor did it come about abruptly: it was always part of the plan. After I published my first post on August 19, 2015 (here’s a link to that post), I had a nebulous idea that I’d give blogging a shot for about 5 years. The timing remained hazy until my 134th post. Then, it became crystal clear to me that I had reached the halfway point. From there, it was simply a matter of math.

And the math added up to today.

A lot has happened in 5 years (another MASSIVE understatement from me). But bringing that statement inward, to reflect on my growth as a writer, a lot has happened, too. I’m much more confident when I now state, “I’m a writer.” When I first began this journey, I was hesitant, phrasing the statement more as a question. With all these contingent questions: will readers think I’m a good writer? How will I find stuff to write about for the next 5 years? Will my family question why I’m doing this?

The short answer to all those questions is: it didn’t really matter. Over the course of these 5 years, I’ve become a better writer — or, at least, a more confident one. Somehow, I came up with something to write about, 267 times. And, regarding the “why” question, the only answer that mattered was my own. The lessons I learned regarding establishing a writing discipline, the importance of intent, how the right words can enhance your intended message, and the wrong words detract. . .these are probably the biggest benefits I’ve gained from this effort.

Here are some fun facts from this blog’s history:

  • I’ve published over 149,000 words here. That’s nearly the combined length of my published novels.
  • It’s had over 18,000 views, and over 11,000 visitors.
  • The only time I ever topped 100 views in a single day was with my 2nd post, way back on August 26, 2015. (here’s a link to that post)
  • My most-used tags: writing, #amwriting, New Orleans, and New Orleans City Park.

But just to be clear — the only thing that’s changing is the frequency. This website and blog will still be here, and I will still post to Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. I’ll also post here, but the frequency will probably come closer to monthly, rather than weekly. I still have plenty of books to read, and seasons in City Park to capture, and novels to finish, and I will return here to provide updates on all those efforts.

Just not every Wednesday.

It’s only slightly bittersweet, and mostly exciting, to close out this blogging chapter and start a new one. Finally, I want to express a huge THANK YOU to all 11,000+ of you who have visited over the years. I hope you’ve found at least a little entertainment, or lightness, (or light entertainment) as you’ve stopped in. I look forward to hosting you again in the new phase.

 

Isn’t this where. . .

C. S. Lewis

When I flipped the page on my calendar yesterday, I was greeted by this very hopeful quote:

“There are far better things ahead than the things we leave behind.” — C. S. Lewis

Given that we’ve already gone through eight months of a very challenging year (“challenging” feels like a MASSIVE understatement), this is a nice bit of light shining down on me from the left side of my work station.

And it’s got me thinking about C. S. Lewis, one of the first writers I ever read — I read The Chronicles of Narnia as soon as I could read stories of any length. My admiration of him as a writer has remained pretty constant. Here are a few of my random thoughts about C. S. Lewis:

  • According to Wikipedia, C. S. Lewis favored the writings of Scottish author George MacDonald. I am also partial to George MacDonald. While most of my reading of C. S. Lewis occurred in my childhood, I got on a George MacDonald kick sometime in my mid-twenties. I was an adult when I read The Princess and Curdie, and am still struck by some of the ideas and themes posited in that story.
  • Tim and I saw a staged version of The Screwtape Letters several years ago. To this day, Tim will still randomly call out “Toadpipe!” around the house.
  • I’ve only seen Shadowlands, the movie with Anthony Hopkins as C. S. “Jack” Lewis, once. I’m afraid to watch it again because the movie reduced me to a gloppy puddle of tears.

I’ll conclude with a little background information on that quote. I didn’t dig too deeply to verify this, but it feels credible. Apparently, it’s from The Collected Letters of C. S. Lewis, Volume 3. He wrote a letter to someone named Mary Willis Shelburne, who was in the hospital at the time. I think he was urging her, in his way, to not fear death.

C. S. Lewis died just a few months after he wrote those words to her. I suspect the intended solace was as much for his peace of mind as hers. As for me, I’m satisfied to take that hopeful message to mean there’s a light at the end of the 2020 tunnel (that’s not an oncoming train). 🙂

Vigilance and Stevie Wonder

From Sunday’s walk. I believe those were clouds related to the first storm.

Note: this post has nothing to do with vigilantes, a noun whose meaning is significantly different from “vigilance.” It’s a pity the words look so similar.

No, I’m concerned with the state of vigilance: “the action or state of keeping careful watch for possible danger or difficulties.”

And Stevie Wonder? I’ll get to him in a bit.

I have a propensity to be hyper-vigilant. Especially during hurricane season. This past weekend, with two storms headed toward Louisiana, my Hurricane Tracker app was definitely getting a workout. As of right now, the first storm has passed, with little to no impact on the area where I live. The second storm, Laura, is forecast to become a major hurricane and come ashore near the Louisiana-Texas border late Wednesday night, Aug. 26.

So I’m still hyper-vigilant right now. While the eye should pass well to the West, we are likely to see high winds and rain.

And in the midst of this, it occurred to me — I’ve been in a state of hyper-vigilance for the past six months. Checking the Louisiana Department of Health’s COVID-19 information site daily (but only during work days, I give myself a break on weekends). Watching the hospitalization trends, ventilator usage.

Here’s the crux: I’m not sure how this state of prolonged hyper-vigilance is affecting me. My guess is, it’s not a net-positive.

This is where Stevie Wonder comes in. On Sunday, I happened to hear a snippet of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” his #1 single from 1974. I queued it up on Spotify for a better listen, and it did NOT disappoint. It has everything I love about his particular style of funk. Here’s a link to the song on YouTube, if you’d also like to take a listen:

But I also paid particular attention to the lyrics, probably for the first time. They really struck me. Catch the opening line:

“Ow
We are amazed but not amused
By all the things you say that you’ll do”

I wondered if he had written it about Richard Nixon, and Wikipedia proved my assumption correct. Apparently, Nixon resigned two days after the record’s release (though I’m pretty sure the record was not the reason).

Personally, I think the song translates very nicely to our current era, but Nixon is the only Republican politician I’ll reference in this post. Instead, I’ll take the song’s accusation and tie it back to my personal life.

What if my hyper-vigilance, against forces of nature (plagues and storms), has caused a paralysis? Six months ago, when I found myself home A LOT more, I thought it would be a boon to my writing. So far, that hasn’t panned out. Regarding the necessary re-writes and edits on my third novel, to quote Stevie, “I haven’t done nothin.”

So I’d like to thank Stevie Wonder for what I’m reading as a fortuitous kick in the pants. While it’s not in my nature to lose the vigilance completely, I’m planning to be more mindful of its negative impacts.

The Celtic Twilight: 100%

View from our Dublin hotel room, at the end of May 2019. It was nearly 10pm, a much later twilight than I am accustomed to in Southern latitudes.

So, I finished W.B. Yeats’s The Celtic Twilight on my Serial Reader app a few weeks ago, but haven’t had the opportunity to share anything about it until now.

Overall, it was a mostly fun and light-hearted read, especially after slogging through ALL The Canterbury Tales. While most of The Tales felt undeniably real, the essays in The Celtic Twilight had an ephemeral quality to them. Case in point, in “The Friar’s Tale,” the devil in his green suit seemed like someone I could easily meet today. The faeries and “Sidhe” that Yeats wrote about felt as shimmery and fleeting as you’d expect such otherworldly creatures to be.

A few noteworthy items I took from The Celtic Twilight:

  • Yeats wrote about Ben Bulben, a mountain in County Sligo: “…the mountain in whose side the square white door swings open at nightfall to loose the faery riders on the world.” I love this idea. If I ever return to Ireland, I would love to go hiking there.
  • In an essay entitled “Dreams That Have No Moral,” Yeats lays out a rambling history of a young man named Jack and a series of giants who cry, “Fee-faw-fum, I smell the blood of an Irishman.” A little different from how I learned Jack’s story, and this tale had no beanstalk.
  • I’ll wrap this up with my favorite quote from The Celtic Twilight:

“Let us go forth, the tellers of tales, and seize whatever prey the heart long for, and have no fear.”