Great Expectations: 100%

The collapsed Hard Rock hotel in New Orleans, January 11, 2020.

So, I finished Great Expectations at the very end of 2019. And I’m overdue in offering my appraisal of this book. So here goes:

Great Expectations has earned a pretty high spot amongst the ranks of my favorites, especially within the “classics.” Most likely because of Pip. He is such an identifiable character — everything from his fear when he first encounters Abel Magwitch as a child, to his shame and repulsion when he encounters him as a young adult, to his desire to become a gentleman all for the love of the unattainable Estella.

I figure Dickens was in his late forties when he wrote it, and I’m glad I first read it as a middle-ager. If I had read it as a younger woman, I’m sure I would have still identified with Pip, but I imagine I might have been sorely disappointed (spoiler alert) that Pip doesn’t wind up with Estella. Reading it when I did gave me more opportunity to identify with the storyteller, and the choices he made.

Because, let me tell ya, Dickens is no slouch when it comes to writing. I remember when I was reading Count of Monte Cristo, it gave me a yen to see the south of France. I didn’t get the same feeling with Great Expectations — because I felt like I was there, in the marshes of Kent, and then later in London. Dickens depicted those settings in such a way that I’ll never be able to see in real life, because time and place were so intricately linked in his descriptions. Unless time travel becomes feasible in my lifetime, I’ll never be able to see the Kent and London of the mid-19th century.

I’ll finish this up by tying in my choice to use the Hard Rock hotel as the image for this post. I saw it close-up for the first time this past weekend. There’s the obvious connection of great expectations dashed (and by no means am I trivializing the lives lost in this horrible accident, God rest their souls). But seeing it for the first time in real life, it reminded me of a Dali painting, especially the melty clocks in “The Persistence of Memory.” And with Great Expectations so fresh in my memory, it wasn’t too far a stretch to think of the stopped clocks in Miss Havisham’s house, and the ruined and rotted wedding cake in her dining room. Young Pip summed it up best, as he described Miss Havisham’s house:

“What could I become with these surroundings? How could my character fail to be influenced by them? Is it to be wondered at if my thoughts were dazed, as my eyes were, when I came out into the natural light from the misty yellow rooms?”

That’s it for now.

Happy 2020

The last sunrise of 2019, in New Orleans City Park.

It seems we all have a pre-programmed tendency to take stock of things, this time of year. Add to it the impending start of a brand new decade, and “taking stock” gets turbocharged.

I have just two personal reflections I’d like to share: one on the past decade, the other on the past year.

Regarding the decade: it will be forever inked in my memory as the decade I became a writer. And I mean that in the sense of finding my vocation. When I first put pen to paper, on March 27, 2010, little did I suspect the transformation that awaited me. There is something about giving my imagination a form, a shape into words, that has wholly changed me. It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly how I’ve changed, since there are multiple factors at work, and the cumulative effect of 10 years of living. The best way I can describe it is that I believe writing has made me both more of myself, and a better-defined version of myself.

And regarding 2019: it’s the year that reading finally resumed its rightful place in my life. I began Moby Dick on January 1, 2019, and actually finished it! (Sometime in March.) That experience, and the Serial Reader app, reawakened my appetite for reading. I read The Count of Monte Cristo, Great Expectations, the first two and a half volumes of the Wool series, and several shorter works, all digitally; and Sigrid Nunez’s The Friend as an old-fashioned book. This is pretty significant for me, since I’ve always been a slow, meditative-type reader. I plan to say more about Great Expectations and The Friend in future posts; I’ll just say here that they were my two favorite reads of this past year.

I’ll conclude with this: I feel well-positioned for the next decade. In the early days of my writing, something always nagged at me. I knew if I didn’t read more, my writing would never develop in the way that I want it to, the way I want it to improve. Some of that “not reading enough” was just not being able to make the time, and some of that was a fledging writer’s concern of being unduly influenced by another’s style. I feel like I might have finally arrived at a balance.

Happy 2020, y’all.

Merry Christmas

City Park’s Celebration in the Oaks, December 23, 2019

For the 4+ years I’ve been at this blog, this is the first time Christmas has fallen on a Wednesday. And since Wednesday is my posting day, I thought I would take this opportunity to say “thank you.”

Thank you to everyone who takes the time to read these musings.

Thank you for your generosity with likes and follows.

Thank you for coming back to this space, time and again.

I wish I could tell you that there are big plans ahead; that this blog will finally settle on a theme; that you’ll be amazed at the content you’ll see in 2020. But I can’t tell you that. There are plans, but they are small. The theme will continue to meander. Perhaps you’ll find some upcoming content amazing, but I firmly believe amazement is in the eye of the beholder. So I’m not comfortable making such a blanket statement.

Instead, I’ll just reiterate my gratitude, and wish everyone very happy and peaceful holidays.

City Park’s Celebration in the Oaks, December 23, 2019

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!

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.