48 Hours in Baltimore

Water tower space ship

Or rather, the outskirts of Baltimore. Have been on the run, more or less, since Sunday. I sent off a draft of The Conclusion on the Causeway (the final story in the Lacey Becnel trilogy, and my third novel) to an editor on Sunday evening, and then caught a flight to Baltimore. Attended meetings there (for my day job) Monday and Tuesday, and just returned home last night (late).

A few quick observations:

  • The water tower pictured above is in Hanover, Maryland, and is very near to the hotel where I stayed. I like how it looks like a propped-up flying saucer. This picture was taken at sunrise; at night, it has red lights around its perimeter, and looks even more like a flying saucer.
  • I was waiting until I sent off the above-mentioned manuscript before subscribing to another serial on my Serial Reader app. I’m now reading “The Social Contract” by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and it’s a tough one. Full of dense language like: “The Sovereign, merely by virtue of what it is, is always what it should be.”
  • Related to bullet #2: I’ve learned Jean-Jacques Rousseau was Swiss. I was curious about this author’s provenance, because his name sounds French, and I know “The Social Contract” influenced a lot of the revolutions of that era. Including the French one.
  • Related to bullet #2, part 2: Speaking of revolutions, amidst the dense language, there is also stuff in there that seemed to influence our founding fathers. Lots of talk of unalienable rights and the common good. And “the people” as a sovereign state unto themselves. Kind of interesting to read this 250-year-old text in a spot so close to our nation’s capitol.

Finally, I’ll leave you with my favorite quote from “The Social Contract” so far: “Moreover, truth is no road to fortune, and the people dispenses neither ambassadorships, nor professorships, nor pensions.”

 

The Count of Monte Cristo: 100%

Count of Monte Cristo 2002
I’ve never seen the 2002 movie version, a deficiency I plan to correct soon.

Well, that was an interesting read over four and half months. I just (finally) finished The Count of Monte Cristo on my Serial Reader app. While I can’t say I loved the book, I definitely feel enriched by the experience.

Here’s my two-sentence review: Edmond Dantes is a likeable character, the Count of Monte Cristo is not. The set-up for his vengeance takes up a boatload of the narrative, and the final pay-off for all that plot building is a mixed bag.

Since the book is really about two people, Edmond Dantes and the Count of Monte Cristo (okay, two sides of the same person, but, I’m going for theme, here); and I just gave a two-sentence review, I’ll attempt to keep up with the “two” lists.

The two characters I liked the best:

  • Maximilien Morrel: dashing, brave, loyal — I loved this guy. Though his mopeyness toward the end was very off-putting.
  • Abbé Faria: Witty, warm, full of faith — I like to believe he would not have been so bent on revenge, had he made it out of the Chateau d’If alive.

The two scenes I liked the best:

  • Chapter XXIV: “Dazzled” — When Edmond Dantes finds the treasure on the island of Monte Cristo.
  • Chapter LXXI: “Bread and Salt” — When the Count and Mercedes talk at her summer party.

Hmph. Don’t get me started on poor Mercedes. I really like the character, but I hate how Dumas ties up her story line. There’s a line in V for Vendetta, when Evey Hammond (played by Natalie Portman) says, after watching the 1934 movie version of The Count of Monte Cristo with V (played by Hugo Weaving):

Evey: …it made me feel sorry for Mercedes.

V: Why?

Evey: Because he cared more about revenge than he did about her.

Now I totally get what Evey meant.

I’m off the “two” kick now, because there are a lot of thoughts spinning around in my head, many more than two, mostly revolving around the nineteenth century world of Dumas. Slavery was legal (although not in France). Women were second class citizens. Dueling was a thing. All these things factor into the book in some way. And not as a statement, as they might if the story were written today as historical fiction. It was all just part of the story, part of the culture.

Invaluable for gaining insight into an ancestral mindset. And very troubling when regarding the legacy of that mindset.

To conclude on a more positive note, I did find the ending pretty satisfying. Of course, Monte Cristo leaves Maximilien and his betrothed, Valentine, without saying goodbye. It’s just like him to be so annoying. But he at least leaves a letter, which kinda makes up for it. I’ll leave you with that letter’s last lines:

…until the day when God deigns to unveil the future to mankind, all human wisdom is contained in these two words: ‘wait’ and ‘hope’!

 

Little Murders

Little Murders is a movie starring Elliott Gould, directed by Alan Arkin, released in 1971. It was first a Broadway play, written by cartoonist Jules Feiffer.

I’ve never seen the movie. But I have a vivid memory of seeing a local (New Orleans) production of the play when I was very young. Too young to fully grasp the dark satire underpinning the story.

About the story, here’s a brief synopsis, from Playbill.com: “Carol Newquist sees the world going to hell and taking his children with it, until the family is forced to shoot back at bullets coming through their home, in Jules Feiffer’s absurdist comedy.”

I remember it being set in a world (New York City) rife with random violence. And I specifically remember the ending, when the protagonist’s husband and brother take turns with a rifle, becoming snipers from an apartment window. I was probably younger than ten years old when I saw the play, and the depiction of senseless violence made an indelible impression on me.

According to Wikipedia, Jules Feiffer says the assassination of John F. Kennedy, and the subsequent assassination of Lee Harvey Oswald, were the initial inspiration for Little Murders. Both of those events pre-date me, and I was blessed to have a childhood full of love and adventure and absolutely no gun violence. So, personally, Little Murders was not a commentary on the 1970s, which were rather idyllic for me as a child. Rather, it was a terrifying prophecy of some future I did not want to witness. Or that I prayed would only exist in fiction.

Enter the very real era of mass shootings. Another vivid memory: waiting in Paris’s Charles de Gaulle airport in April of 1999, for an Air France flight back to the U.S., and seeing news reports (tout en francais) about something happening at a school in Colorado. I would return to a country reeling from the aftermath of Columbine.

Twenty years on, it terrifies me to write that this is indeed an era. There is no question of “if” a mass shooting will happen again. Two mass shootings in El Paso, Texas, and Dayton, Ohio. Just thirteen hours lapsed between the two. Just 1,500 miles separating these two cities.

And forty-plus years since a play planted a vision of a horrible future in a child’s mind. I hate that the future is now.

 

Silver, Blue and Gold

New Orleans morning
The color of the sky, I’m told

“Silver, Blue and Gold” is the sixth track from Bad Company’s 1976 album, Run with the Pack. Writing credit goes to Bad Company front man Paul Rodgers, whose distinctive vocals can be heard covering the lyrics.

It’s also a song that gets called up in my internal playlist under certain conditions. (If at all curious about my internal playlist, see also: While You See a Chance, or Pink Floyd.) Conditions this past Saturday were primed for a “Silver, Blue and Gold” appearance.

I headed out a little after 6am for some exercise. The sky ahead of me was clear, but a quick look over my shoulder revealed a threatening, dark grey, cloud. It looked ready to share, and it was moving in my same direction. Not one to be put off by a bit of rain — it’s usually welcome during a summer run in New Orleans, as long as there’s no lightning — I sallied forth.

Because the sky was uneven: gloomy in parts, dazzling in others, I was on the lookout for rainbows. Thus, the lyric popped into my head:

Give me silver, blue and gold,
The colour of the sky I’m told,
My ray-ay-ain-bow is overdue.

(Lyrics copied directly from Google, which had the British spelling of color. Also, that phoneticized version of rainbow. Which is exactly how Rodgers sings it: ray-ay-ain-bow.)

That last line, “my rainbow is overdue,” always gets me. I feel like it can apply to multiple situations. Any situation that feels like a constant struggle, with no easy button, and very faint signs of light at the end of the tunnel. Oh, say like, writing a novel, anyone?

So the rain did catch me, right at the mid-point of the run. It was fairly light, and for the heavier bits, I was under a forest canopy, anyway. All in all, not too bad. I’ve definitely been caught in worse. And there was a rainbow waiting for me at the end. It’s pictured at the top of this post, a little faint, it’s the best I could do with my iPhone.

It wasn’t even overdue; I’d say it was right on time. I’ll take that as a good omen.

 

Nutria: R.O.U.S.

City Park Nutria
Two juvenile nutria near the Big Lake in New Orleans City Park, July 20, 2019

Don’t think I’ve written about nutria before. Since I spotted two little ones this past weekend, it feels like an appropriate time to feature this long-time denizen of Louisiana.

While nutria have been around here for at least a century, they’re considered an invasive species. They were brought here from South America when the fur trade was still a thing. And, well, nutria don’t just thrive in our swampy, overgrown, landscape — they dominate it.

They look like small beavers when fully-grown. Some things I just learned: the nutria’s genus is “Myocastor,” derived from the ancient Greek words for a mouse or rat, and a beaver. Which is pretty fitting, since their tails are skinny and rat-like. And they have very prominent front teeth, like a beaver. Another thing: their teeth are orange. Really. Apparently because their tooth enamel has iron in it.

I had thought the orange, or rusty, teeth, were unique to the nutria. But the Internet tells me beavers have orange teeth, too, for the same reason.

You learn something new every day.

So, the tail is not the only way they differ from beavers. The biggest problem — unlike beavers, nutria are not industrious — they’re ravenous. Couple that with their prolific breeding habits, and you can imagine the threat they pose to our levees, drainage canals, wetlands. . .

While I like to think that an army of Westleys go out at night to take on these rodents of unusual size, there is in reality something called the CNCP to combat the R.O.U.S. The Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ “Coastwide Nutria Control Program” offers a bounty on nutria tail from November to March every year.

Nutria being fair game would explain a comment I received from a passerby, as I stopped to photograph the young rodents. He said, “breakfast.” I wasn’t sure if he meant the nutria were having breakfast, or the nutria would make a nice breakfast. He paused his run long enough to tell me that he once tried nutria tacos at a local high school’s annual “Beast Feast.” He said they did not taste like chicken, and the tacos were actually quite tasty.

I figure the two nutria I saw have about four months to enjoy before they get a price on their heads (or tails). Seems like there’s a lesson — or a story — in there somewhere.

They appeared to be eating when I happened upon them. They seemed unfazed by my presence.

The Writing on the Wall

A Knight’s Tale is one of those movies that I missed out on, for the first ten or so years of its existence. It has only been in the past few years that I’ve come to know and recognize some of its many charms.

Of course, I love the character of Geoff Chaucer (Paul Bettany). He’s a down-on-his-luck writer, who falls in with the rag-tag traveling crew of faux knight Sir Ulrich von Liechtenstein (Heath Ledger). Geoff is able to concoct the papers Sir Ulrich needs to “prove” his lineage, and he also uses his mad word skills to hype up the crowds in favor of Sir Ulrich.

This imaginative portrayal of the author of the famed Canterbury Tales strikes me as a true depiction of #writerslife. Centuries before hash tags were a thing.

I could probably go on about Chaucer, but I have another intention for this post. There’s a theme that comes up between Sir Ulrich (really, a peasant named William Thatcher), and his nemesis, Count Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). A “real” count with the bloodline to prove it, and a true villain. Adhemar suspects Sir Ulrich is a phony. When Adhemar takes top prize in their first tournament match-up, he serves Ulrich the very ungracious insult:

“You have been weighed, you have been measured, and you have been found wanting.”

This insult does eventually come around to bite Adhemar in the heinie. But again, I’m digressing.

The point I’m wanting to make: I hadn’t realized that “weighed and measured” was a biblical reference, until I encountered it both in Moby Dick, and The Count of Monte Cristo. It’s from the Book of Daniel, and the narrative account of Belshazzar’s feast. Apparently, everyone was enjoying themselves a little too much at this feast, when a mysterious hand appeared and wrote on the wall:

“Mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.”

Well, no one knew what it meant, not even Belshazzar’s wise men, and he was beyond freaked out. He sent for Daniel, who interpreted it as such:

  • mene — “God has numbered the days of your kingdom and brought it to an end”
  • tekel —  “you have been weighed. . .and found wanting”
  • upharsin — this one’s a little less clear to me, but, essentially, “your kingdom’s gonna be broken up, dude”

Melville uses “mene, mene, tekel, upharsin” to foreshadow the fate of the Pequod. Dumas uses it in reference to the letter that denounced Edmond Dantes. That he eventually gets his hands on and uses in service of his vengeance.

Two big lessons I take from all this:

  1. “The writing on the wall” is literally mene, mene, tekel, upharsin.
  2. In fiction, (as in real life), karma can be a bitch.

The Creepiness of Summer

I’ll state it from the outset —  summer is my favorite season, hands-down. Even despite the oppressive heat we experience in south Louisiana, there’s something about the freedom and abundance of the season that makes it number one in my book. Lush greenery, late sunsets, blooming crape myrtles, warm breezes off the beach; these are all things I look forward to, year after year. And there’s nothing inherently creepy about any of it.

So perhaps it’s because I’m watching season three of Stranger Things, which is set around the 4th of July, 1985, that I’m thinking about the flip-side of summer. Or the “Upside Down” of summer, if you prefer. Some creepy things about summer that have occurred to me:

  • Heat stroke seems much more gruesome that hypothermia. Thinking about my internal organs cooking inside of me just sounds excruciating.
  • Necrotizing fasciitis. Caused by flesh-eating bacteria. These bacteria apparently love warm water.
  • Flying, giant, cockroaches.
  • Sad clown balloons behind chain-link fences. (In all fairness, this particular piece of graffiti in New Orleans City Park has probably been there for a few seasons. But I noticed it for the first time as I was mulling over this “creepy summer” idea, and it felt like a perfect visual).
  • Grasshoppers contemplating abandoned cigarettes. (See note above. Except that I don’t think the cigarettes or the insect will be there very long).

Maybe this stuff feels extra creepy to me because of the contrast to all the things that I love. But I certainly appreciate the duality of it all. Bottom line: I don’t resent the creepiness; in a way, it makes me embrace summer even more.

 

Quarter Report 2019

Lacey Cypress

Hoping to find the exact path and the exact target week over week, quarter over quarter, is simply impossible. Despite knowing how to read the stars, sailors had to tack with the wind, leaving a wake like a zig-zag.–David Schwarz

David Schwarz is a founding partner of the ad agency HUSH. I encountered this quote last week, in a brief article he wrote for AdAge: “If I knew then what I know now … I’d sail more than strategize

Of course, the quote struck me as hugely relevant, with my propensity to “live my life a quarter mile at a time,” just like Vin Diesel’s Dom Toretto. And, the timing was good, as I had planned to post a special “Quarter Report” this week, anyway.

What’s so special, you may ask? The specialness concerns the cypress tree pictured above. It’s in City Park’s Couturie Forest, a spot I’ve featured in this space before (most prominently in The Summer Tanager, and City Park Pictorial, Part 3). That cypress is near a picnic table, and next to a very showy live oak — it’s in sort of a natural contemplation / stopping point.

Sometime last year, I really took notice of this cypress. Specifically, the texture of its leaves, or rather, its needles. They are lacy, and soft, just like every other tree of its kind — no revelation to anyone who’s paid attention. I suppose I had never paid such close attention before.

I contemplate my writing quite a bit during my walks in the Couturie Forest, and it was the laciness of the greenery that struck me. As I was trying to conclude a series featuring a protagonist named Lacey, it was a natural connection to make. I dubbed the cypress the “Lacey Tree,” and committed to capture all its deciduous glory over the course of the coming seasons.

So here you have product of that effort. There are a thousand correlations I could make. . . did I despair that I’d never finish the story as I gazed on its spindly, denuded limbs in December? Did the suspense of awaiting new growth in March threaten to distract me from writing?

The answers are probably yes and yes, but there’s a big difference between my writing and the Lacey Tree. I don’t know how old it is, but the Internet tells me bald cypress trees can live up to 600 years. So there’s a good chance the Lacey Tree has been shedding and regrowing its foliage for some years before I ever showed up. As well as a stellar chance it’ll keep doing its thing long after I’m gone.

My window of opportunity to write the stories I want to write is significantly shorter. And my seasons and their effects are not as reliable. Requiring me to do something the Lacey Tree, despite all its magnificent, seasonal, verdure, could never do: tack with the wind.

Back to Work

Monday morning, June 24, 5:49 a.m.

Here’s something I might have mentioned in this space before: how I spent the first two months of 2019 racing to finish a draft of the third and final installment in the Lacey Becnel trilogy. I referenced this “big push” in this post: (Whirly) Word Milestones.

I received a comprehensive edit of the manuscript last month, and had a very productive call with the editor right before I left for Ireland. I had a loosely held intention of diving into the rewrites directly upon my return from the Emerald Isle. But the re-entry back into my day job, and my day-to-day life in general, made it very loose indeed.

So here I am, ensconced back home more than three weeks now, and I’ve finally started the work. Named a new file, and begun the process of combing through the line edits.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the day I started the work is the same day astronaut Anne McClain returned to Earth from the International Space Station.

A few notes about the picture at the top of this post, before I wrap this up. It’s not just another random sunrise photo I’m so fond of taking.

  • The picture is facing east. Just to the north, or the to left out of frame, is the eponymous overpass from The Incident Under the Overpass, the first book in the Lacey Becnel trilogy.
  • So if the northern tracks represent my first body of work, what do the southern tracks represent??
  • Up on the elevated track, the smell of creosote, or coal tar, was overwhelming. The railroad ties are treated with it. The aroma brought me back to my father’s camp on the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain — a raised cabin resting on creosote-treated pilings.

The Internet tells me that creosote-treated wood has been banned in Europe since 2003, because creosote is a “probable” human carcinogen. I’ll try not to dwell on that, and instead focus on finishing up my third novel. 😮

 

 

The Count of Monte Cristo: 62%

Count of Monte Cristo
The unabridged, Robin Buss translation. Not sure this picture adequately conveys the massiveness of this volume. At 1,276 pages, this thing’s a door stop.

We’re almost halfway through 2019, and I have to confess, I’m pleased. Specifically, I’m pleased that I’ve “re-discovered” reading.

To be fair, I never really “lost” reading. But I definitely lost a regular reading habit. Many years ago, the advent of full-time employment delegated reading to those precious free hours tucked in and around the work week. Then when I decided to devote a fair portion of those free hours to writing fiction, reading for pleasure went out the window.

In my early days of writing, I was concerned about reading and unwittingly co-opting another author’s style or ideas. So overwhelming was the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing, I was afraid of confusing a process that was in a very primordial form.

I still might not know what I’m doing, but I’ve gained enough confidence to be able to look outside the confines of my own pages. Some part of me has always known that continued, deep, engaging, reading is absolutely necessary to any growth I hope to achieve as a writer. And I couldn’t be happier about finally arriving at that point in my writing journey.

So, a couple of quick observations about The Count of Monte Cristo, thus far:

  • While I’m still reading via Serial Reader, I discovered that there has been a recent translation, by Robin Buss, done in 1996 (I think). So the friendly folks at the Garden District Book Shop ordered the volume, and I picked it up from them. It’s been very helpful to refer to this huge paperback, when the public domain translation of a choice phrase has me scratching my head. I’m still an avowed fan of Serial Reader, though — because there’s no way I’m lugging around this rock with me. My phone is much lighter.
  • The plot reminds me of the soap operas I used to watch during the summer, when I was a kid. But the historical details make it a bit more educational.
  • I really want to see Tom Hiddleston play Edmond Dantes. All the capes, and the conniving behavior. . .it feels like a natural progression from Loki to the Count of Monte Cristo.

The thing about reading: it’s addictive. Moby Dick was like a gateway drug. Not content to just read one thing at a time, I just recently finished Benjamin Taylor’s The Book of Getting Even, a novel I began in earnest over a year ago. Loved it. “Literary” fiction that isn’t afraid to deliver a good story, and make you feel every last pang experienced by its brilliant protagonist, Gabriel Geismar.

And I’m more than halfway through Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend. The observations about writing that keep coming up in this story are just devastating. In a good way. Like this bit, referring to D.H. Lawrence’s quote:

“But what about ‘Trust the tale not the teller,’ and how the critic’s job is to save the work from the writer? By ‘critic,’ you know, Lawrence did not mean self-appointed. I would love to see the consumer review that saved a book from its author.”

Okay, I haven’t been this long-winded in a while. That’s it ’til next week!