And if you feel just like a tourist in the city you were born
Then, it’s time to go
And you find your destination with so many different places to call home
Those are lyrics from “You Are A Tourist,” a song from alternative rock band Death Cab for Cutie. It’s from their 2011 album Codes and Keys, and it’s quite possibly one of my favorite songs of this decade. Easily in the top ten.
The song has been in my head since this past weekend. My friend Stacey (featured in Greece 1 and Greece 2) was in town from Los Angeles. We spent the weekend dining, browsing (and shopping) in local spots, taking a French Quarter ghost tour, and marveling at New Orleans’ holiday decorations. That last part—the holiday part—is something I almost never do. More than anything, that might be what had me feeling like a tourist. It was fun!
Pictured at the top of this post is something that caught my eye at the Roosevelt Hotel in the French Quarter. This hotel always does an amazing holiday array, and the lights really set off this statue. It’s called the “Mystery Lady Timepiece,” and its nameplate indicates it was displayed at the Paris Exhibitions of 1867 and 1878.
Concluding with those opening lyrics, for a few days, I did feel like a tourist in the city where I was born. And at earlier times in my life, I definitely felt (and answered) the call to “go,” finding different destinations to call home. But I realize now, writing is the journey that calls to me. The different destinations exist only in my mind’s eye, and it’s up to me to bring them to fruition.
Who knows. . .the “Mystery Lady” seems like she might have an interesting story. What has she witnessed between Paris in 1867 and New Orleans in 2018? Enquiring minds want to know. . .
The hawks were yelling at me. I don’t think I stumbled upon a quarrelsome moment amongst the raptors; I’m fairly certain they were aiming their shouts my way. And I’m pretty sure they were telling me to “Go away.”
It all began when I went out early one morning, just after sunrise. Just a jaunt around the neighborhood, to get a bit of exercise.
Headed north on Marconi Drive, I strayed to see if I could get a better look at Popp Fountain and the Arbor Room. I’ve seen Popp Fountain before, it’s one of those City Park staples that’s been around since 1937. But I’ve yet to see the Arbor Room from the inside, it’s one of the newest event venues in City Park.
As I approached an oak tree near the fence line, I heard a very distinctive cry coming from its branches. Not a chirping, not a raven’s “caw,” but similar in cadence. Higher-pitched and not as caustic as a raven, and it finished with a bit of a whistle.
Looking for the source, I spied a large bird with a white speckled breast, maybe twenty feet dead ahead and twenty feet above. A hawk! I scrambled for my phone, but the best I was able to capture is the picture at the end of this post. The hawk took its squawking to a higher, less visible branch of the oak tree right after I took that photo.
But it got me thinking–so much of what I love about meandering through City Park are the sounds.
So in the interest of “show, don’t tell,” here’s an attempt to “show in words” some sounds I noted on that same jaunt.
The haunting notes of a train horn, miles away
The staccato beats of a woodpecker across the lagoon
The caustic caws of a pair of ravens (yes, I realize I’m re-using that description)
The subversive trill of crickets below
The “ga-dunk” of cars passing overhead, as I traversed under the I-610 overpass (yes, this is a direct reference to my novel, The Incident Under the Overpass)
As I concluded my exercise loop, I returned to the hawk’s oak tree, to see if the bird of prey was still there, hoping to get a better photo, if so. And to conclude this post’s loop, I’ll go back to the beginning. Said hawk was still there…with reinforcements. And they were yelling at me. At least two birds aimed their plaintive cries my way. And by plaintive, I mean pretty wretched. My guess is they were protecting a nest, and didn’t want curious bi-peds (or predatory quadrupeds, for that matter) lollygagging around.
-Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening, by Robert Frost
There was nothing snowy nor frosty about the Couturie Forest, when I finally returned there one morning in early June. But it was so quiet and tranquil, the “lovely, dark and deep” line immediately popped into my head. I felt my mother with me—she was always one to quote poetry, or song lyrics.
I was glad the magical power I experienced there, during my trip last month, still held. To recap, the Couturie Forest is a part of New Orleans City Park, described on the City Park website as “the perfect place to escape from the city without ever leaving town.”
Indeed, the transportation spell is cast as soon as you cross the bridge into the forest. The sounds from the nearby road disappear. Signs of pestilence dissipate. (Prior to entering, I had some really bothersome horseflies after me. They did not follow me into the forest.)
The pictures featured here are all from the visit I made two weeks ago. I’ve returned once more since that time, and I intend on making many more visits in the days ahead. When there’s a surefire way to recharge my spirit in such close proximity, I’d be a fool to stay away.
On Memorial Day morning, I got up with the sunrise, with the intention of capturing some photos in City Park’s Couturie Forest. I visited there a few weeks ago (without a camera), and wrote about the experience here.
For the next several weeks, I intend to post more picture-heavy posts, rather than word-heavy posts. I’m going off the old adage of a picture being worth a thousand words. Because I really need to get cranking on the third and final story of the trilogy I’ve been working on. For what feels like forever. Certainly longer than I’ve had this blog.
So anyway, the intention with the pictures, is that maybe I will channel the writing energy into the novel, while still sharing glimpses of the things I find compelling about this strange and wondrous city.
As it turns out, the Couturie Forest pictures will have to come at another time. A pad-locked chain link fence kept me from entering Monday morning. I suspect it doesn’t open until after 7 a.m., and I was a bit early. So I trekked about another half mile north to the City Park Fishing Pier. It was a beautiful morning, and early enough so that it was still cool.
I checked the Couturie Forest gate on my way back from the fishing pier–no joy. (It was still a few minutes before seven o’clock.) I will try again next weekend.
Last Saturday began with no agenda, other than to get out and get some exercise. And to do this unplugged. I walked out my front door, maybe fifteen minutes after the official sunrise time of 6:14 a.m.
The next hour (plus) went a long way toward recharging my battery. Funny how unplugging can do that. The only reason I missed my phone was for its camera. It might have been nice to capture some photos of the eastern sky, which was awash in color for the first part of the walk. But I did get one shot before I left the house:
On the latter part of the walk, I took a detour into City Park’s Couturie Forest. It had been years since I’d ventured into this sylvan escape, even though I pass by it multiple times in any given week. Even on my more ambitious runs of days past (Saturday’s excursion was maybe 30% run, 70% walk), it didn’t make sense to venture into the forest. The paths there are definitely not meant for running, and I never felt I could spare the time to meander.
That feels foolish on my part, in retrospect.
Here’s a description of the Couturie Forest, from City Park’s website: “. . .the perfect place to escape from the city without ever leaving town! Combined with Scout Island, the 60-acre Couturie Forest is a nature-lover’s haven filled with native trees, scenic waterways, and fascinating wildlife — all in the heart of the New Orleans.”
It really is magical: you cross a small bridge, step onto a path, and instantly, the canopy of trees overhead muffle the sound of the roadway, no more than forty yards away. Well, that’s a guesstimate. . .the road is close, I know that much.
The highest point in New Orleans lies within the Couturie Forest. Climb Laborde Mountain, and you’ll be 43 feet above sea level. That was my first stop. There’s not much of a view, because the spot is surrounded by trees. But it sure is quiet up there.
There’s a lot more to write about the Couturie Forest, and I plan to visit again soon (with a camera). In the interest of not getting too long-winded, I’ll skip to my sighting upon exiting the forest. Around the bridge that marks the entrance (and exit), I saw a bright red bird, pecking away at the ground. It was still early, so maybe there were worms.
“A cardinal!” I thought. ‘Round these parts, I see robins, and blue jays, and these very loquacious green parrots; but cardinals are a lot rarer. But this little one didn’t have the features I’d associate with a cardinal: no black markings on the face, nor the comb atop the head.
I thought of my mother. . .while she wasn’t a birder, she was always one to pick up on the details of flora and fauna. I also thought of fellow blogger Dr. Rex, who wrote a lovely post about the meaning behind red birds and cardinals. (I hope you don’t mind me linking here, Dr. Rex!)
After conducting some sleuthing when I got back home, I decided the little red bird was a Summer Tanager, a member of the Cardinal family. Cornell’s Ornithology Lab has a very robust online library, that’s where I picked up the picture at the top of this post. (I hope I covered all the proper photo credits).
As often happens, I want to tie some direct spiritual or metaphysical meaning to my sighting of the Summer Tanager. It’s an exercise I have to remind myself, just as often, that’s fraught with peril. Trying to correlate cause and effect to these types of things never works out like I think it might. So I’ll just tie it to feelings. The things I was thinking and feeling during my unplugged walk, and the things that jumped out at me as I looked for the bird on the Internet:
I’m anticipating a convergence of my family members, coming into town for an upcoming wedding. It’s my niece’s wedding, she’s the second one of the next generation to get married, but it’s the first one my mom won’t be around for.
The first person I thought of when I saw the Summer Tanager was my mother.
The first line in Dr. Rex’s post about red birds is: “A cardinal is a representative of a loved one who has passed. When you see one, it means they are visiting you.”
So without going any deeper, I’ll just say that I’ll take this as an article of faith: that my mother will be with all her family as they gather here in the next week or so, in our hearts and memories. May her gentle spirit bless all the proceedings.
On a run through New Orleans City Park this past Saturday, something caught my eye. My runs these days are a sorta walk-run combo, so I’m not opposed to breaking my stride to satisfy my curiosity. I’m at a point in my life where finding the unexpected is more important to me than reaching some particular cardiovascular fitness milestone.
I was pleased to find a few thistles blooming, right at the shoreline of the lagoon. When you think of New Orleans flora, “thistle” is not one of the first plants to come to mind. Not for me, at least. So these prickly, lilac-colored-bloom beauties were a pleasant surprise.
They were in a fairly secluded area of City Park, set back about fifty yards from the nearest roadway, but only a few feet off the paved walking path. I don’t like to run with my phone, so I made an intention to return the next day for a more leisurely picture-taking expedition.
That’s where the story comes in.
I was out and about early on Sunday morning, so I cheated and drove to the thistle spot. Or rather, I parked near there as I made my way back home. Traipsing the fifty yards across the grass and fallen oak leaves, I could see someone was already there ahead of me. I first thought it was a photographer, setting up to get their own thistle pic. (Photographers are definitely not a rare sight in City Park.)
As I approached, I could see it was a man closing up a backpack. It looked like a nice, solid backpack, not something cobbled together. And he seemed pretty intent on his task—striking camp, I assumed—and not so interested in the nearby runners and / or amateurish iPhone photographers.
But still, I had to do one of those instant threat/need assessments. You know, all the questions and answers that run through your head in a split second. “Does this person look dangerous?” Maybe, but he’s behind and bent over his pack, so it’s not like he’s lying in wait. “Does this person look like they need help?” He does not look like he needs or wants help. “Is this person supposed to be camping here?” Probably not, but I’m not about to call him out on it.
So in that instant, I decided to proceed with a few quick thistle pictures, but not dally doing it. I told him “Good morning” as I approached the lagoon’s edge. He looked up, but didn’t respond. (That’s when I got the idea that he neither needed or wanted any kind of attention). I took the photos, and then hightailed it out of there.
Being a fiction writer, I’ve had nothing but possibilities running through my head ever since. Daylight savings time had begun just about seven hours earlier, so did backpack man think he was striking his camp earlier than he actually was? Was he wondering why so many runners, walkers, and just general people were out so blooming early?
And then, don’t get me started on the thistles. Are they a sign for off-the-grid backpackers, “Here You May Camp”? Kind of like the scarlet pimpernel? Or does some scout come and seed them for off-the-grid backpackers? Is there a Secret Society of the Thistle?
Reality still creeps in. I don’t want it to seem like I am making light of this person’s circumstances. I get the gravitas. Outdoor living is tough, and especially so if it’s not by choice. My sense was his was mostly by choice. But my sense has been wrong before.
Which brings me to one of those things I’ve learned about writing, my writing, in the eight or so years I’ve been at it. And here it is: ideas for fiction—even the zaniest ideas, especially the zaniest ideas—are rarely worth pursuing if they aren’t backed up somehow by the weight and gravity of the real world.
Last weekend was jam-packed with writerly endeavors. I spent all day Saturday down in Houma, Louisiana, at the Jambalaya Writers’ Conference. But Friday and Sunday each had significant entries, too. So herewith, in chronological order, the highlights:
Friday at Community Book Center: I had the pleasure of meeting Jan Miles of Brown Bird Books. She presented The Post-Racial Negro Green Book, which documents acts of racial bias against African Americans in the U.S., from 2013 to 2016. She read from a list of incidents—some from the recent years captured in the book, and some from the Civil Rights era—and had the audience guess the century they occurred. We got many wrong; it was an amazingly eye-opening exercise. She compiled this archive “for the sake of review, consideration, discussion, and action.” I would love to do my part to help spread the word.
Saturday at the Terrebonne Parish Main Library: This library hosted the 15th Annual Jambalaya Writers’ Conference. Houma is about an hour’s drive southwest of New Orleans, and this was my first time attending this event. I was so impressed by all the new voices I encountered; here are a few who stood out:
I started the day with a presentation by Chanelle Benz, author of a story collection titled The Man Who Shot Out My Eye Is Dead. These stories feature a wide range of characters from different centuries, so she was the perfect person to present the topic: “Write What You Don’t Know: Finding Diverse Characters.”
Maurice Carlos Ruffin, a New Orleans-based writer, moderated a panel on setting (called “Where to Hide the Bodies.”) He did an admirable job of making sure all the authors on the panel had equal time. (I recall him saying he’s a lawyer in addition to a writer, I think he was using that set of skills). Random House will publish his first novel, We Cast a Shadow, early next year.
R.L. Stine, author of the Goosebumps series, is certainly not a new voice. While I definitely know who he is, he’s never been in my sphere, since I was far from the target demographic when Goosebumps hit its peak popularity. But it was great to hear one of the best-selling writers of all time talk about his writing process, how he got his start (as a humor writer, Jovial Bob Stine), and read from the really funny letters he’s received from children over the years.
Sunday at home: You always hear how writing is a solitary pursuit. That’s one of the reasons I’m drawn to it, I think. So, there had been a lot of people and lots of activity the twenty-four hours prior, and I HAD to finish the manuscript for my second novel. I had promised to submit to my publisher before the weekend was up.
I spent the entire day at my computer, only getting up to run two loads of laundry, and put a Costco lasagna in the oven. It was a beautiful day outside, it would have been perfect for a run. And, I could hear bands all day, at the finish line of the Rock’n’Roll marathon, just a few blocks away in City Park. But, I got into a massive disagreement with Word and inconsistent formatting of quotation marks, which ate up the break time I had hoped to take, for a quick jaunt into City Park.
All’s well that ends well, though. I submitted the manuscript around 10:30 pm Sunday, and had a contract in my inbox by 7:15 am Monday morning. The Trouble on Highway One is tentatively set to release in September. 🙂
The 2018 Mardi Gras season just concluded yesterday. Today is Ash Wednesday, but I’ve written about that before. I marched in the Intergalactic Krewe of Chewbacchus on Saturday, February 3. It’s a sci-fi themed Mardi Gras parade, and it’s a good fit for me. As it was my fourth year participating, I’ve written about that experience before, too.
I realized I’ve never written about Endymion, though. The Krewe of Endymion is one of the self-proclaimed “Super-Krewes,”—gargantuan, extravagant parades that punctuate the days leading up to Mardi Gras. I don’t know the exact parameters of a Super Krewe, or who determines that designation. Growing up, Endymion was always the big parade that rolled the Saturday before Mardi Gras, and Bacchus on that Sunday.
Those two parades still own the Mardi Gras weekend. But in the decade and a half that’s passed since I returned to New Orleans, three other parades have become a pretty big deal. Orpheus, which rolls the night before Mardi Gras (Lundi Gras); Nyx, on Wednesday a week before Mardi Gras, and Muses the next night, Thursday. The Krewe of Muses was the inspiration for local writer Bill Loehfelm’s latest novel, The Devil’s Muse.
It’s one of those things about living in New Orleans, and being from New Orleans, that must seem pretty alien to those not from around these parts. This innate knowledge of all the different krewes, and the components that make up a New Orleans Mardi Gras parade. There is a fountain on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain, the Mardi Gras fountain, that I used to love as a kid. Our dad would drive us out there some evenings; and when the fountain was turned on, and the lights were a-blazing, it was a pretty impressive sight.
I took a walk out there this past summer, and perused all the placards that line the fountain. One for each krewe that has paraded during Mardi Gras, going back about a century. Many of those krewes are not around any more. I had a thought of making a blog post about each of those krewes—I’d have more than a year’s worth of material.
But, obviously, I didn’t give it much more than a thought. I knew I’d get bored with the subject matter pretty quickly.
So, anyway, Endymion. This parade runs a different route from all the other big parades in New Orleans. (Chewbacchus also runs a different route, but it’s not a “big” parade.) Whereas the big parades roll Uptown, and along historic St. Charles Avenue, Endymion rolls through Mid City. And for the decade and a half that I’ve been back in New Orleans, I’ve lived right at the start of the Endymion parade.
The parade’s floats line up alongside City Park. This past Saturday, I took a walk with sister-in-law Christie, and mother-in-law Aprill, and captured a few photos of the dormant creations, before they were loaded with riders.
Rain threatened all day, but we managed to stay dry for most of our walk. We only had to employ the umbrella in the last few minutes before we made it back home.
Wherefore no man grows wise without he have his share of winters—from The Wanderer, an Old English poem
As my first post of 2018, I was going to write something about how I resent New Year’s resolutions, yet feel compelled to make them anyway. And work in something about how I began this year as I began the last, with a walk in New Orleans’ City Park. But how the big difference was the weather.
So, I’ll start there. It’s cold! From the morning of January 1:
Okay, okay, I know this is downright balmy compared to some spots in the Midwest and along the east coast. But it’s all relative, right? The average January temperature in New Orleans is a low somewhere in the ’40s, and a high in the ’60s. (Fahrenheit, of course.) See, my app said it felt like 14 degrees! And apps don’t lie. (Do they?) And how about all those hard freeze warnings!
Anyway, I bundled up and took my walk. It wasn’t so bad, except when the wind started to blow. That’s when it must have felt like 14 degrees. I got some nice wintry pics of City Park, so it felt worthwhile.
On to resolutions. They’re awfully “should-y.” As in, “I should exercise more, I should eat more healthily.” It always makes me think of Yoda’s admonition to Luke in The Empire Strikes Back: “No! Try not. Do, or do not. There is no try.” It’s like the difference between intention and resolution. I had intended (not resolved) to swim some laps (in an indoor heated pool) before work yesterday morning. But it was really cold, and it was tough to get out of bed, and my throat was a little sore (maybe from that cold walk). So I did not swim laps. Thanks to Yoda, and the line of demarcation between intention and resolution, I don’t feel like a failure. If I had resolved to swim laps, and hadn’t, then I might be feeling like a failure.
It’s also why I’m hesitant to apply resolutions to my writing. In 2018, I’ll see the conclusion of my eighth year of this fiction-writing journey. Early on, I made writing resolutions—both New Year’s and Lenten—to write something every day, or to finish a short story. Things along those lines. But as I’ve come to view writing as a vocation, resolving to do these things feels like resolving to show up to work when I’m scheduled. It’s an unnecessary resolution. Showing up at my job is something I just have to do, or do not. And be ready to face the consequences if I do not.
So that’s where I find myself this winter, this extra-cold start to 2018. I’m deep into the re-writes for my second novel. I need to make the time to finish these re-writes, in short order. I intend for my time spent “doing” to far outweigh my time spent “do not-ing.”
I’ll go back to the beginning to conclude this post. That quote about wisdom growing through your share of winters is something I remember from high school. I must have encountered it in English Lit, and it’s something that has stayed with me ever since. I hadn’t remembered that it pre-dates the Norman conquest of England—thanks for that, Google. While I’m not that old, I’ve seen at least thirty winters since I first read that line. I can only hope that I’m wiser now for having seen those winters through.