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. ­čÖé

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

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.

If the Path Be Beautiful

The quote on this month’s “Pathways” calendar page feels particularly poignant. One of the things that the stay-at-home guidance has afforded me is almost daily sunrise walks in New Orleans City Park. I have indeed seen some beautiful paths over the past 5+ months. And even though the paths are the same, the scenery does change, because the light hits differently as the Earth makes its way around our star. I’ve included a few of the more wondrous sights at the bottom of this post.

When I looked at the front of the calendar, to check its title, lo and behold, it features this quote: “Difficult roads often lead to beautiful destinations.” Attribution unknown. Could there be a better overarching hope for this singular year?

Just a few observations about the quote for August, before I share some of my beautiful paths. “If the path be beautiful, let us not ask where it leads” is attributed to Anatole France. Although I couldn’t find which work it’s from. I’ve also been curious about his name — a French writer with the last name of France — and found out it’s an assumed name. He was born Fran├žois-Anatole Thibault, which seems more likely for a child born in 1844.

Without further ado, here are some sunrise photos from the past several months.

April 13, 2020

April 24, 2020

June 2, 2020

July 4, 2020

Comet NEOWISE

I went looking for a comet last week. Didn’t have much luck.

Armed with my Sky Guide app and a telescope, I met up with three nieces at the Bonnabel Boat Launch on Lake Pontchartrain. Just a quick aside — the Bonnabel Boat Launch is just a few blocks from where I grew up. It has expanded quite a bit from the days when I used to run down there, looking for slate to skim on the typically placid lake.

While there were more people hanging out than I expected to see, we still had a clear view of the northwest sky. That’s where the Sky Guide app said to look for Comet NEOWISE. It came closest to Earth on July 22, and just a week or so had passed from that date, so I figured we should have had a pretty good shot at seeing it.

Except…we discovered the telescope was missing a critical component: the eyepiece. We were trying to look at Jupiter and Saturn, which were visible in the eastern sky. But without that additional lens, all we could see in the viewer were two dots, on a much smaller tableau.

The fair amount of light pollution in the New Orleans atmosphere, and my aging eyes, didn’t bode well for my chances of seeing it unassisted. My nieces thought they caught glimpses of it with their naked eyes. When I looked where they indicated, I think all I saw was a floater.

Having read War and Peace this year, where the Comet of 1812 plays a pivotal part in Pierre Bezukov’s epiphany, I took the Comet of 2020 to be a sign of some sort of modern-day pivot. What kind of pivot, I don’t know. And I wanted to see it while I still could.

Instead, I witnessed a beautiful sunset (pictured above) over the Lake Pontchartrain Causeway, with three of my most favorite and beloved people. I’d be good with more of those sort of pivots.

Marathon Update

Sunday’s first “hill.”

So, my last pre-pandemic post, in early March, was about how I had signed up to run the 2020 TCS New York City Marathon. Wha wha wha.

Cutting to the chase, the marathon was officially canceled on June 24. But even prior to then, I had deferred my participation to 2021. The good news? All of this means I can put off my 20+miles-in-the-heat-of-the-summer training runs until next summer.

I’m still following my training plan, but on weekends when I’m supposed to do a long run, I’m fudging on the distance, and aiming for a total time, instead. Like, go out for a total of two hours. I’m hoping to get out for three hours total at least once this summer, but I’ll have to start super early.

A super early start was not in the cards this past weekend. I started 2 hours later than I had intended, when the heat index was already bumping up against 100 degrees. So I scrapped all expectations on total time (I managed to stay out about 90 minutes), and thought to challenge myself with some “hills.”

“Hills” get quote marks, because anyone who knows New Orleans, knows the city is about as flat as a place can be. Flat and sinking. Training for hills in this city usually means running up and down the levees, and working the Wisner overpass into your route.

Wisner passes over Interstate 610, right at the boundary of City Park. An upgrade a few years back included a nice pedestrian path. This overpass just so happens to fall within the perimeter of my typical routes, though I usually exclude it from my outings (I know how to get around it). On Sunday, I decided it would be penance for starting late.

Herewith some more pictures from my “hill” run. That’s it for now!

The view from the top (of the Wisner overpass).

My second hill — Laborde “mountain” in the Couturie Forest.

A nice benefit to not being fixated on time or distance is noticing nearly hidden things (look right below the bright green leaf).

The very next day, on a recovery walk, I got judged.

The Very Next Day

Thursday, May 21, 6:03 am.

I witnessed a pretty remarkable sunrise in City Park the morning after I published that last post. I captured some photos over the course of roughly thirty minutes, and was very pleasantly surprised when I scrolled through those photos later.

The way the light and sky changed depending on where I pointed my iPhone, and the varied focal points — it all made me feel like I had covered far greater ground over a much longer time. I look at the photos now and still feel a certain sense of accomplishment, however unwarranted it might be. Hey, I’ll take it where I can get it!

This is my first time sharing these photos, and it’s also all I have for this post. I figure it’s the equivalent of 5,000 words…

Thursday, May 21, 6:04 am. Never mind the pond (rebel) scum.

Thursday, May 21, 6:11 am. I almost captured the full orb of the sun without tweaking the camera.

Thursday, May 21, 6:30 am.

Thursday, May 21, 6:34 am.

Within a Week

Saturday, May 16, 5:56 am. View of City Park’s Peristyle from across Bayou Metairie.

I considered titling this post “A Slice of Stay at Home,” but since only one of the pictures is from inside my home, I figured that might be misleading.

Maybe “A Slice of My New Normal” would be more appropriate. I was coming up empty on topics for this week — I haven’t read anything of note since Macbeth, and I’m taking a little break before diving into a new (for me) classic. It will most likely be The Canterbury Tales.

But I digress. In lieu of anything else, I figured I would share some photos from my iphone, captured over the course of a week. Most of them are from New Orleans City Park. I live a block away from City Park, and I’m very grateful for that!

Even pre-pandemic, I was in the park for exercise, maybe three times a week. Now, with no morning commute to contend with, and with the sun rising earlier as we move toward summer, I’m usually able to get out for a sunrise walk most days of the week. A bonus for heading outside that early: it’s very easy to maintain social distance.

I put my favorite photo of the bunch at the top of the post. The rest are in chronological order.

Monday, May 11, 1:50 pm. An uninvited visitor found his way to my home office.

Tuesday, May 12, 6:09 am. Sunrise over Bayou St. John.

Tuesday, May 12, 6:13 am. Still sunrise, still Bayou St. John, looking toward St. Louis Cemetery No. 3.

Tuesday, May 12, 6:22 am. Left the sunrise behind and headed home.

Monday, May 18, 7:27 am. Had to head to a different part of town for an early morning appointment. Got a view of the Mississippi River.

206 Years Ago

Sunrise, April 13, 2020.

On April 11, 1814, Napoleon Bonaparte abdicated the throne of the French empire, and was sent off to exile. The first time he was exiled, it was to the relatively accessible island of Elba in the Mediterranean. (Those seeking to be done with him would not repeat the mistake — the second and final time he was exiled, it was to the island of Saint Helena in the south Atlantic Ocean. This place is exceedingly remote, even by today’s standards.)

I feel like I’ve spent a lot of time with Napoleon in the past year. I read The Count of Monte Cristo in the middle of 2019, and that book is set in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon’s reign. And Napoleon’s all over War and Peace. I’m 89% of the way through Tolstoy’s epic, and currently in the story, it’s October 1812 and Napoleon is hightailing it out of Russia.

Napoleon’s doings seemed to be the cause of a lot of uncertainty back in the day. I’d never really thought of it that way before, I think because I tend to look back at history as a concrete thing. “This happened, and then this happened because of it, and these were the effects.” But reading War and Peace has put me right back in that time, as only good fiction can. I felt the uncertainty of the characters as Napoleon’s army came into Moscow, and I feel it as the French abandon a burnt-out city and country.

It’s hard not to draw parallels with our current level of uncertainty.

So on Saturday, when I read that it was the 206th anniversary of Napoleon’s abdication, it had a little more impact than if I had not spent the better part of this past 12 months in Napoleon’s world. It was like a reminder of the fact that the French really did leave Russia, and Napoleon was forced from public life, eventually. And, oh yeah, he’s been dead for almost 200 years.

The live oak pictured at the top of this post could have been around 200 years ago. It’s not far from some oaks that are believed to be between 750 and 900 years old. While it may not be too long before we can all say, “this is what happened as a result of our 21st century pandemic, and these were the effects,” that’s little consolation for our immediate anxiety. Thinking of what that tree may have been around for, and seeing it still standing strong, makes it feel like a beacon of hope.