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Friday, December 30, 2011

My View of a Book I've Never Seen

   It started out like this: I was online, reading a review of a book on The book was about the building and design of our American Highway systems. The book, The Big Roads: The Untold Story of theEngineers, Visionaries, and Trailblazers Who Created the American Superhighways,by Earl Swift, was right up my alley. Or maybe right up my road. You see, I was sort of raised on the Interstates and U.S. Highways. For a time, when I was a kid, we didn't have a house; we simply lived in a van, then a motor home, while traveling from town to town. That was it. On a day-to-day basis, I was able to sit at a window and watch the Interstate roll by. Oddly enough...I loved it. And so, after reading the review, I knew I wanted to read this book.  I mean, it was a book about the design and construction of my boyhood backyard. Now, I was not at home at the time I read the review, so I emailed the name of the book to myself, so that when I arrived at home I could look it up on Amazon and buy it. What troubled me, when I did find it, was that it was too close to Christmas to buy it with a clean conscience. I really should have waited in case someone might buy it for me. So I added it to my Christmas wish list, and waited.
   I love books about building things. I read a book on the building of the Erie Canal, and one about the building of the German Dreadnoughts. I once read a book about the design and publication of the King James Bible. These kinds of things fascinate me. Mainly because I could never be the guy who says...hey, I think we could dig a tunnel from England to France. Okay, I might think of it, but I'd have no idea how to go about it. I mean, I still think that when my wife and I climb aboard that Air France flight to Paris this Spring, it will be sheer magic that gets that big, heavy, lump of metal off the ground and into the air. Magic! That being the case, I love to watch Modern Marvels, and I enjoy reading these types of books.
   Now, let's ignore all the patient waiting I endured, and certainly ignore the shaking and nervous ticks I performed as I forced myself to sit still and not click that buy-with-one-click button on Amazon. Suffice to say, I was a good boy and did not spend money on myself so close to Christmas.
   The good news is that Simon, my youngest, came through for me. He bought me the book, and it was nicely wrapped and waiting for me under the tree. Only the book was not really under the tree. I received a picture of it. You see, my son was fully aware that my wife had bought me a Kindle reader for Christmas. So, with great joy, I downloaded my new book.
   Within two days I was finished. Cover to cover. The book was a complete marvel. I would recommend it to anyone who has an interest in major engineering feats as well as a nod to the nostalgic. I could not have enjoyed it any more than I did. It blew the scale away.
   But here is the part that has me taking a step back in deep thought:
   At no time had I ever held this book. I'd never hefted it with one hand to test its weight. Never flipped the pages to take in the new-book smell while checking to see just how many pictures were in it. I had never set it on the table in front of me where I could look upon it with that simple joy that comes from buying a new book and seeing it in your home. Surely this meant I had not been able to enjoy it like I would have if I had physically bought the book.
   Maybe. That would be hard to prove. Difficult to disprove. I'll leave wiggle room here.
   However, I do know for certain that I loved the book. I couldn't put it down. It was a real page-turner. I was sorry to reach the end of the book. Even though it had no pages, and it was not a book, it fit all of these clichés. But at no time did I feel like I was missing anything. This was a surprise, since I was a scoffer when I first heard of the Kindles. I'm an old book-lover who just can't get enough of that old book smell. I love to hold a book in my hands, and all that sentimental hoo-hah. I mean, since I was about nine I've collected books. I was really proud of my old, dusty, hardback edition of Oliver Wendell Holmes The Autocrat at the Breakfast Table even though I had no idea what an autocrat could possibly be. It didn't matter. I had the book. I would often pull it off the shelf and page through it, despite the fact that I couldn't follow any of what was being said. Then I'd gently replace it, my eyes shining with admiration for it. I'm that kind of book lover.
   From time to time, I like to sit and look at the books on my shelves. I read the spines, and remind myself just how great or not so great each book was to read. They are like old friends to me. Will it be the same for this new book I downloaded? I don't know. Perhaps I'll begin to browse my list of books that I've read on Goodreads as a substitute for looking over my bookshelves.
   It is too early to tell. But for now, I can say that I think I'll transition into this brave new world of digital books without too much discomfort. Who knows? Perhaps I'll never buy another physical book again. I doubt it.
   I do worry about what I'd do if my Kindle died and I had no way to power it back up.
   That would transform this sci-fi story into a horror story.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

My View of a Winter's Night in Troubled Times

The following encounter could have happened as I wrote it, in Russia about one hundred and thirty years ago.  It could also have happened today.  Nights are still cold.  People are still rich.  And some people are still desperate and hungry.  I live near a casino, and this idea came to me one day while I was driving home from work.  Enjoy!

A Chance Meeting

Armand Gustave Houbigant's
Horse and carriage on Sledges from
 Customs and Habits of the Russians
(from Wikigallery)
            Porfiry Semyonovitch Merschenko was a rich man.  And as rich men often are, he was a big man.  He was rich by no act of his own.  In fact, his wealth, handed down from one Merschenko to another Merschenko many times over, came by no act of any of his family members, save the act of heir making itself.  All true acts of wealth making came by the acts of hard working peasants bound to Merschenko lands.
            No Merschenko peasant, however, could ever hope to compete with their master’s proclivity for largess.  In true aristocratic fashion, Porfiry never had trouble finding a substantial dinner, even in the coldest winters.  The only passion he held as dear as his time spent at the dining table was his time spent at the gaming table.  It was there he found the challenge that he lacked in everyday life.  Spending an evening away from his estate at the tables of his gambling friends was the only excitement he had ever really come to desire.  Chance was the one last facet of his life of which he had no control.
            After one such night of gambling, Porfiry headed home.  He was not half way along the forest road from Novgorod to his own estate when his driver pulled hard on the reins and stopped.  He was talking out loud, to whom, Porfiry knew not.  Resting his head against the side of the carriage, Porfiry had nearly fallen asleep, but he now lifted his head and tapped on the roof of the carriage.
            "Driver!  You—Goladki!  Why have we stopped?"
            There was no response.  Instead, Porfiry could hear the low, measured tones of his driver still conversing with an unknown voice.  Confident in his driver to handle whatever trouble had arisen, Porfiry sat back on his cushions and pulled his lap blanket closer about himself.  Since the carriage had ceased its rhythmic sounds of travel, Porfiry could hear the winds howl mournfully through the tops of the trees.  And hearing them seemed to make him feel them all the more.  Though there had not been any snow yet, it was late in the season, and they were due to get a large amount sometime soon.  The rich man looked out at the trees, mysteriously lit by his carriage lanterns, and thought he could feel the snow in the air, that it would come that very night.
            His curiosity was raised when he felt the carriage sway under the weight of the driver, who was disembarking from his front perch.  He then heard more murmured words, and the sounds of harnesses and tack being fussed with.  The reins must be twisted, or some other such nuisance, he thought.  Certainly it was something not worth looking into.  Yet, for all that, Porfiry could not remain inactive.  His image had to be thought of, so as not to encourage laziness, or insolence in his driver.
            "Goladki!  Speed up, you Tartar imp!  I'm watching you!"  Porfiry pulled up the fur collar of his long coat and smashed his plump head in the warmth of the sable.  He was watching nothing.  He thought briefly of jumping out and lashing the man, but the thought of the cold kept him in his place.
            Only a few moments passed before Porfiry briefly heard a sound like rumbling thunder.  It was, to his great surprise, the sound of one of his horses running off down the road.  The noise faded, and he realized the voices outside had ceased.
            "Goladki!  What are you about out there?"  Porfiry's voice sounded small and child-like in the empty night.
            The door to his carriage burst open, and a strange man stood silhouetted in the light of the carriage lanterns.  "Hello" he said curtly, leaping into the carriage and slamming shut the door.
            Porfiry sat with his mouth open, stupefied to silence.  He tried in vain to demand the identity of his visitor, but could not speak for a full minute.  In the silence, the visitor was pleased to sit in the warmth of the compartment, rubbing his hands vigorously.  He was a tall man, and sat hunched over the front seat with his extensive legs folded awkwardly.  In this way, he was forced to lean forward, partially over the reclining figure of Porfiry.  The combination of Porfiry's bulk and the visitor's height made an uncomfortable fit in the small carriage.
            The visitor was unshaven, dressed in a tight linen blouse and baggy trousers.  Over the blouse was a tattered vest of dirty material difficult to recognize, though it once may have belonged to a wool suit long ago.  The visitor wore no hat, and in consequence, his cheeks, nose and forehead were red with cold.  His black hair stuck out at various points, as did the hairs of what was becoming a beard and mustache.  His eyes glittered with a sort of playfulness that contrasted with his otherwise hard and determined face.
            "Where is Goladki—my driver?"  Porfiry was finally able to stammer.  "And who are you?"
            "I am a friend.  I have been waiting for you for quite awhile.  You're late."
            "I'm what?"
            "You've been gambling much longer than I thought you would.  I hope that won't be a problem.  Your driver, by the way, has wisely decided to travel on without us.  I explained we might be awhile."
            "Get out!"  Porfiry commanded, fully expecting the peasant to comply with his demand.
            "No, I won't.  Not yet.  This was your fourth night in a row at the gambling house, ah?  I can't say I understand that.  It escapes me, the allure it has on men like you.  You see, anything I have must be used to feed my family.  I've not had the opportunity to throw money, or anything really, around for my own entertainment.  That's not to say I would not enjoy a good game of cards.  That's what I'm curious about, if I would enjoy that sort of thing."
            Porfiry sat listening to this speech in fear of the imposing man who loomed in front of him.  But as he recovered his senses, his indignation rose, and grabbing for his oak cane, he tried to swing it within the confines of the compartment.  The visitor's hand grasped the cane, cutting short Porfiry's swing.
            "You like to gamble."  He easily pulled the cane from Porfiry's grip and set it down between them.  "I'm glad you do.  The odds were decent that you might have hit my head.  And with me unarmed, the odds were good that I would not strike back.  Now, I will raise the odds…in my favor."
            The visitor produced a long revolver, from where Porfiry could not see.  His face paled.
            "Don't look so afraid, Master Merschenko; I just want to protect myself.  I know you're name, ah?  Of course I do.  You owned me, as well as the factory I worked in.  Of course, now it is closed."
            "What are you talking about?  I haven't closed any factory."
            "Tell that to your people in Ruzhnik."
            "Ruzhnik?  That's not my village."
            "Yes, you're right about that.  You lost it in a card game last year, didn't you?"
            "What of it?  It’s no concern of yours."  Porfiry defended himself boldly, trying not to cower before the gun.
            "It was my concern when the new owner shut down the factory.”
            “So, now you turn to robbery.”
            “Robbery?  No.  Not for Onufry Chezerov.  I was aiming for something a little more legal—gambling.”  The visitor reached into the folds of his vest and withdrew a small cube made of bone.  “To begin with, I am very cold.  Waiting for you out in this weather has been unbearable.  What do you say we roll for your coat?  It looks very warm.”
            “Roll...?  I will not.”
            “Come, come.  You like to gamble.  You’ve been gambling for hours, over large sums.  This is only a little bet.  If I win, I get your coat; if not, I’ll leave.”
            Chezerov tossed the die onto the floor of the carriage.  Porfiry reluctantly peered over his belly to see the result.
            “A two!”  Chezerov read the number aloud and smiled.  “Maybe we shouldn’t roll after all, ah?”
            “Wait.”  Porfiry reached out to grab the die.  “I have thought about it, and you are right, it is only a little bet.  Why not?”
            He hardly shook the die before dropping it to the floor, between his boots.
            “One!  Incredible!”  Chezerov announced.  “Who could believe I would win with a two?  But I should easily have lost.  This gambling is risky—very risky.”
            Porfiry stared blankly at the cube with its single black dot.  Chezerov shook himself, still holding the pistol, and with his free hand rubbed himself and smacked himself for warmth.
            “So, I won the coat, ah?  Why stare so?  As you agreed, it was only a small bet.  Surely you are used to losing, more so than I.  Its better I won.  You still have the warmth of the carriage.  But you haven’t taken off the coat.”
            Porfiry stammered in hesitation.
            “You keep looking at the die.  As if it were an old friend who has risen up to betray you.  Maybe you are thinking you would have better luck a second time around.  What about your boots?”
            “What about my boots?” demanded Porfiry, aroused from his reverie.
            “Look at my feet.  What a poor excuse for shoes.  No good in this wet cold.”  Porfiry looked and found evidence to the statement.  “You, Master Merschenko, have an excellent pair of boots.  So maybe you want to roll for them.”
            “What would I get if I won?”  The words escaped Porfiry’s full-lipped mouth before he could stop them.
            “You keep the coat, of course!”  Chezerov sang out as he dropped the die.  It rattled to a stop.  “Beat that, and I leave empty-handed.”
            Porfiry could not help himself.  Scooping up the die, he tossed it eagerly.
            “One!” exclaimed Chezerov.  “Even to a newcomer like myself, I think it is remarkable to roll a one twice—in a row, at that.  But that is the fun of the wager, ah?  Who knows what will happen.  Your coat and boots—” Chezerov reached out a hand.  Porfiry pulled himself back against the wall of the carriage.
            “Get out you rascal!  You’ve no right!”
            “I have no doubt,” Chezerov said with a sudden glare, “that you paid all of your losses earlier this evening.”
            “Out!” Porfiry trembled.
            Chezerov stared at the large man.  He still sat leaning forward, and appeared for all the world as if he were going to spring upon his prey.  But to Porfiry’s amazement, Chezerov reached for the latch of the carriage door, and leapt out; slamming shut the door behind him.  Porfiry sat in stunned silence.  He had just concluded that the man Chezerov had complied from the ingrained habit of following orders, when he heard the jingle of harnesses.  He sat still, trying to understand what he was hearing.  His suspicions deepened as he watched the light of the carriage lanterns cut a dance across the windows.  A crash of glass sent flames from the lantern against the top portion of the carriage.  Porfiry sat immobile with horror.  The carriage was burning.
            Shaking in fear and terror, he fought frantically with the latch of the door, fumbling badly with it from panic.  Smoke curled into the compartment from unseen cracks in the walls, and Porfiry whined aloud.  With a determined push, he managed to broach the door.  In desperation, he dumped himself out of the carriage, through the angry flames, rolling his bulk onto the forest road.
            Chezerov was still with him.  Standing beside the burning carriage, his black hair highlighted with the glare of the fire, he appeared to Porfiry as some wicked forest devil—as some evil thing penned in a Pushkin epic.  Porfiry rose to his feet, the heat of the flames burning his face, and the cold of the mud clinging to his hands. 
            “Now, Master Merschenko, pay what you owe.  And be thankful I have only destroyed the carriage.”
            Porfiry grabbed clumsily at the coat, suddenly eager to be rid of it.  The boots he removed in the same manner.  Chezerov threw the coat over his shoulders, but left the boots on the road in front of him.  Without the coat, Porfiry noticed for the first time the extent of the cold night.  It was getting colder, and snow was beginning to descend in big flakes like falling leaves of the forest. 
            “You look rather excited, Master Merschenko.  Was I right?  You have enjoyed our gaming tonight?”
            Porfiry turned his face towards the fire in order to keep himself as warm as possible, ignoring Chezerov at the same time.
            “There is one other thing.  I was hoping to play for the horse.  Although I did unhitch it from the carriage before I started the fire, I still feel he is your horse.  But he is a fine horse, and would fetch a nice price from a trader.  Shall we?”  Chezerov held up the die, which he had apparently taken from the carriage floor, although when he did it, Porfiry did not remember.
            “Roll for the horse?”  Porfiry echoed mournfully.  “I’ve no coat, no boots, no shelter—and you want the horse?”  His voice rose in anger as he listed each item.  “You might as well roll for my life!  What chance would I stand out here?  If you take the horse, take my life!”
            “It is the same if I lose,” answered Chezerov.  “If I roll with you again, and lose the coat and boots back to you, what chance do I have?  A small one, but I am willing to wager on even a small chance like that.  No, if I lose, I do not want you to take my life.  But of course, if that is what you want... it is agreed.  We roll for the horse, and your life.”
            “The bet is no good, you devil!  You’ll kill me either way.  I know you, and can turn you in to the constables.  The roll means nothing.  If I win, you can’t let me go.  You will seal your own fate.”
            “No, whether I lose, and you report me, or I win and become a murderer, nothing will have changed. Fate has sealed me.  Long before this night.  A roll of the die can never change what life I’ve been given.  Now, let’s be done with such unhappy talk, and enjoy the thrill of the game!”
            “You’re mad!  I won’t do it!  No!  Oh Blessed Mary—a five!  I’m lost... you’ve rolled a five!  Help me!”
            Porfiry stood next to the shrinking fire, wringing his hands in fear.  He sunk to his knees, as if his great weight were suddenly too much for his shaking knees. 
            Chezerov stood beside him and pointed the gun at the sobbing man.
            “You’ve gamble enough with the lives of my people.  For this one time, you gamble for your own.  Roll.”
            Porfiry’s ramblings ceased as he scrambled to retrieve the die. 
            “I cannot look.  God in heaven have mercy!”
            He threw the cube onto the frozen mud and collapsed beside it.
            The cold woke him some time later.  The fire had consumed the majority of the carriage; a soft glow was all he could see.  Porfiry still lay in the mud.  Opening his eyes, he saw his pair of boots standing empty near his face.  His coat draped across him where he lay.  Lifting himself, he saw his horse standing tethered to an oak.  He could not see Chezerov anywhere.  As he reached to collect the boots, a small object caught his eye.  Chezerov’s die was stuck in the snow-encrusted mud.  In the dying light of the embers, Porfiry could just barely see six black dots.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

Two Reasons to Read a Short Story This Week

   This month, those of you who like to read short stories get two chances to read stories that I have written.  Next month you will get another chance, but that's next month, so don't worry about it right now.  Let's just concentrate on this month.

Image from Bewildering
Stories by
Christine Cartwright

   First of all, one of my earliest written stories is appearing in the online journal Bewilderingstories.comThe story is entitled Timeless in Winter, though it was not written under that title.  Please surf on over to Bewildering Stories and check it out.  All you have to do is click on the title above to go directly to the story.  It recounts the tale of a group of Russian soldiers in WWII who find a farmhouse full of German soldiers.  Though at first the Germans appear to be dead, the Russians soon discover that things are not what they appear to be.  I hope you enjoy it, and if you do, all I ask is that you tell your friends about it and pass the link along to them.  Also, please let me know what you think of it, since I love to hear reactions to my work.  Even if it is negative, I find all forms of criticism constructive.

This even has the fancy
"look inside" feature,
in case you want a sneak peek.

   The second story available this month can be found at, at their Kindle ebook webpage.  What's really cool about this is that you can type my name in the search window at the top and the new story will appear.  This story, The World that Slid Downhill, is a novelette that is available on the Kindle ebook reader.  Don't worry, it is also available to download to your iPhone, Android, or to your PC (with free Kindle emulator) if you do not own a Kindle.  This little novel (really just a little too long to be called a short story) is a fun adventure about a man who slowly begins to realize that the back yard of his home is slowly beginning to slide downhill.  I would like to think it is written in the style of a Roald Dahl story, though I may be a bit deluded on that point.
   Once again, I ask that if you do me the honor of reading this story, please let me know if you enjoyed it, or even write a review about it on the Amazon site at the bottom of the sales page.  And then tell your friends about it, tell your enemies, tell strangers, tell anyone who will listen.  Also, tell your friends in Germany, in Denmark, in France and Italy.  The story is available on all of Amazon's European websites.
  And that's about it for this post.  Today is mostly shameless self-promotion.  But I have it on the good authority of many well-known writers (who I will not name since I have not spoken to them previously to obtain their permission for the use of their name) that these stories are well worth your time.

   One more thing, today is the birthday of one of the greatest guys I've ever known: John Reeser, my father.  Happy Birthday, Dad!  As you can see in this picture, he's got that movie star look.  What a heartbreaker!

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

My View of Bookstores and Bathrooms

Photo from BAM
Corporate Website
   Yesterday, my beautiful bride and I went to one of our favorite haunts, Books-A-Million.  On any normal day we love to buy a cup of coffee (two café au lait's with skim milk, please), browse the magazines (she grabs copies of Chronicles, First Things, and the National Review, he grabs France, Analog, and Mental Floss), check out the clearance books, and make silly comments about the covers and titles we see.  As Christmas nears, we add pumpkin spice to the coffee order, search for Christmas presents for our kids and other family members (another book?), and ooh and aaah and giggle at the calendars.  (She always teasing that this year she'll get him that pinup calendar, he always knowing she's just teasing.)Here is where I would like to add an awkward bit to this quaint shopping scene:

   Neither he nor she had ever planned on walking up to the front desk and announcing that they had to relieve themselves in the bathroom.

   Yeah.  I know.  More than awkward.

   But as uncomfortable as it sounds, that is precisely the new twist to this experience.  You see, one of the corporate dingledobs at the big Books-A-Million in the sky has declared that at every BAM store across America, the restroom doors shall remain locked and inviolate.  At no time, shall any man, woman, child, or book-lover be allowed to enter the restroom of their gender without first consulting and procuring the authorization of the Books-A-Million Keymaster.  And yes, said authorization can only be procured by the verbal announcement at the front of the store that yes, you the customer, are in need of the bookstore toilet.  You could, I suppose, lie and ask for the key in order to wash your hands, but this would only be effective if you had little children wherin all within range of your voice would believe that the little brat that's been running amok in the store did indeed smear some sort of sticky substance upon your hands, arms, legs, or other less delicate part of your body.

   I blame the Occupy Wall Street crowd on this one.  I have a feeling that if I Googled Books-A-Million and Zuccotti Park I would find that they are directly across the street from each other.  And we all know what a nuisance those people made with their waste disposal issues.  More than likely they kept slipping out of their tents and into the bookstore to browse the fiction section.  We can speculate this because we know from their statements and poster boards that they have never been in any section of a bookstore that wasn't full of fiction.

   As a concerned customer of my local bookstore, already aware that such stores are losing business to the online giants Amazon and eBay, I quickly approached the store manager as soon as I realized two things.  One, that the restrooms were locked, and two, I had to use the one with the stick figure sans dress.  Oddly enough, the door with the stick figure wearing the dress was not only unlocked, it was slightly open.  I was not, however, that desperate to use the facilities.  Hence my calm, yet determined approach to the manager.

   He seemed less than thrilled to speak with me when I broached the subject.  I was polite, and simply stated my disappointment that the store had begun locking the restrooms, making a point to remind him this was generally only done in gas stations.  He was quick to make the point that it was a corporate policy.  The message was clear.  He could do nothing for me save pull out the key.

   I held my breath.  I was terrified that he would hand me the key attached to the complete works of Shakespeare.  It's not that I don't enjoy the Bard from time to time, I just wouldn't know which one of his plays to start reading while I was in there.  One can hardly be expected to make such an important choice at such an indelicate time.  To my great relief the key was not attached to any sort of book anchor.  Unfortunately, he did not hand the key to me.  He escorted me to the bathroom.  As I shut the door, I was hesitant to begin.  Was he waiting outside?  Was he, in fact, pressing his ear to the door to make sure I was not involved in any destructive shenanigans?  That kind of scrutiny can lead to certain inabilities that would leave the scrutinizer with a silence that would lead him to wonder just what the heck is going on in there?   I wanted to turn around and get out.  But then I realized that he'd wonder why I'd asked to be let in for just three seconds.  Would he think I'd just asked to go in as a prank?  Or worse?  Maybe he'd think I'd arrived too late!

   I did what I had to, making just enough noise to satisfy the man that my intentions were pure and true.  Making sure to run the water loud enough that he would be satisfied with my thorough hand-washing, I took a deep breath and opened the door.

   He was gone.  But another man was standing there, waiting to come in.  He was not a manager.  He was not an employee.  He was just another booklover like myself.  I began to move to one side when it hit me.  Was he really a book lover?  Or was he some graffiti artist, looking to spread his filth across the walls of the bathroom.  Those walls were my responsibility now.  The manager had let me in.  I was the bathroom user of record.  I would be blamed for any damage incurred.  But what did that mean?  Should I block the man until I slammed the door shut, thereby locking him out of the restroom?  A noble act indeed if the man had vandalism on his mind.  A rotten act indeed if the man had only seconds to make it to home plate, so to speak.

   This was all really more than I had bargained for when I decided to go into the bookstore for a coffee and a chance to browse the magazine shelf.

   I let the man in and walked away.  Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, right?  After all, the manager should have been standing there waiting for me to come out.  If not, what was the point?  Shouldn't he have checked to make sure I hadn't written free verse poetry on the stall door?  (Though if not there, where else would it be appropriate?)  Shouldn't he have made sure I flushed?  What is the point in asking for the key to begin with?  Would he have said no?  I'm sorry, you can't use our toilet.

current website logo.
I'm not kidding.
To protest the new
policy, write:
or call:
   Next time, I'm gonna be the second guy.  I'll just wait until someone else announces to the checkout crowd that they need to use the bathroom.  Then I'll saunter along behind them, and wait until they come out.

   Seriously, no one wants to have to tell the world they have to use the restroom.

   I gotta go.

Monday, November 28, 2011

A Post-Thanksgiving View

   Thanksgiving is over.  Which is a funny thought.  As if we've given our token thanks and can get on with our thankless lives.  I don't mean to sound harsh about that.  I mean, if I meant to be harsh I'd point out that none of us actually spent any time during Thanksgiving being thankful.  I know: thanks for pointing that out, right?  But that's not my point here.  And neither is it my point that we lead pretty thankless lives.  We don't, for the most part.  I just meant it sounded like that's what I meant when I said Thanksgiving is over.  I'll move on.  You can thank me later.
   Thanksgiving is really not much more than a pre-game warm up for the Christmas season.  We get a chance to reconnect with the relatives we've lost touch with over the year, as if to say "okay, so we know where to find each other for the upcoming festivities, cool."  The Thanksgiving meal is sort of a rehearsal dinner.  I mean, really, it is the same food, you know.  Set in the same order, the same dishes, and eaten with the same comments.  Which is cool, I'm not saying that's bad.  I mean, would we want it any other way?  We have that option, but never seem to take it.  Anyone make a big pizza Thanksgiving dinner lately?  Or maybe had a Chinese food theme?  Sure, the tradition of turkey and all the trimmings is a nod to the Pilgrims, so we might stick with that.  But at Christmas, we don't serve up Stromboli, or fajitas either.  And I'm pretty sure, without any Internet researching, that turkey, stuffing, and ambrosia salad is not a traditional meal based on the eating habits of first century Jewry.  (It's a word.  See my post on the Louisiana State Library for more details.)  Added to this pre-game atmosphere is the new rage of shopping the night of Thanksgiving.  I'll get to that in a minute, but just realize that the shopping is ostensibly for Christmas presents.  Taken as a whole weekend experience, I think my pre-game analogy is pretty accurate.
   The traditions of Thanksgiving, from my own experiences, go something like this:
   I always enjoyed the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade.  I tried to pass that on to my kids, with off and on success.  They weren't always interested, in fact, they weren't always up at that hour.  But if you ask them, they'll insist they love to watch the parade.  And for the most part that's true.  Me, I enjoy watching the floats more than the balloons, the balloon handlers more than the balloons, too.  I have not become a fan of the Broadway performances.  If they could perform them while marching in the parade, I would be a bit more impressed.  Attempting to drum up ticket sales on the side of the parade is a little less noble.  March, dance, sing, and chew gum at the same time, if you please.
   The smell of Thanksgiving is heaven, and it has nothing to do with eating.  When I smell turkey in the oven, the fragrance of mashed potatoes and gravy, the aroma of corn casserole, I slip through time back to the days at my Grandma Manier's house, or to my Aunts' houses, and certainly to my mom's kitchen (wherever that happened to be, depending on the year).  It doesn't just bring back the memory of eating.  That is a part of it, I suppose, but it mostly has to do with preparing it, and the associated fellowship of the women in the kitchen  and the men and kids scattered elsewhere.  I use to love to slip into the kitchen and listen to my mom chat with her sisters and her mother.  They were always very interesting, and usually ended up pretty silly by the end of it.  Add to that the sound of the electric carving knife and the picture is pretty complete.  This moment in my memory seems to last for hours on end at the start of each Thanksgiving.
   Cheering on the hapless Lions is pretty important for this day as well.  I have cousins in Detroit and so I always cheered for their team.  So many of those years we had the honor of being able to see Barry Sanders scamper about, which was always a treat.  I cheered for the Cowboys every year until Jerry Jones fired Tom Landry and America's team became...something entirely different.  Now we jeer the Cowboys with gusto, which has become quite the tradition in and of itself.  This all sounds exciting, but usually the Lions are losing by halftime and we fall asleep, and only wake up in time to see that the Cowboys are winning, which gives us reason to roll over and go back to sleep, or we see the Cowboys are losing, which gives us reason to scoop out a second (or third) piece of pumpkin pie with too much cool whip and cheer their demise.  It is, after all, a loving holiday.
   In the old days, we watched Mary Poppins every Thanksgiving night.  It wasn't available on blue-ray, DVD, VHS, Betamax, or Lasardisc.  But every year it was on TV, and we watched its heart-warming, slightly disturbing theme until it was time to go home.  My kids might have started a new tradition this year, as we all gathered around for the holiday-themed Die Hard, basking in the glow of its hear-warming, slightly disturbing themes.
   The tradition in my own little family is to spend Thanksgiving night trimming our Christmas tree.  We make a big deal of it, hanging the stockings on the staircase, putting together the fake tree, stringing out the lights and figuring which ones still work.  Drinking sparkling apple cider.  If we are lucky, it will be cold enough to wear robes or sweatshirts.  Christmas music plays as we hang the ornaments, the garland, and lay out the skirt.  When they were little, the kids loved to lay under the lit tree, watching the funny shadows cast by the twinkling lights.  It was all pretty magical.  Now, the kids have it down to a science, and the tree looks much more sophisticated, elegant, beautiful.  But I still sort of miss the tackier, goofy trees of yore.
   I'll admit to shopping at midnight this year.  But the funny thing is, I wasn't looking for any real deals out there.  I was about to go to bed, realized I wasn't tired, and asked the kids if they wanted to go shopping for the fun of it.  I really just wanted to see the loony crowds out there.  Yeah, I picked through the cheap DVDs at Wal-Mart, and bought a few random items, but mostly I enjoy the madhouse energy of crazy ladies rushing around trying to grab the big deal before any one else.  I actually have a fond memory of this, a few years back, when Alex and I got up super early and went to buy a big-screen TV.  Braving the crowds, we were able to get the one we wanted, rushed home, and had it hung on the wall and working in time to surprise everyone as they awoke with an early Christmas gift.
   I suppose the simple point here is that I had a great Thanksgiving weekend, and am incredibly thankful for the family I have and the chance to spend time with them.  All of my kids were home this weekend, and that is not always easy to do anymore.  I am sorry that I could not see my family up in PA, but I am thankful that I feel that way, since not everyone is sorry to have missed their family on any holiday.  All in all, God has been far too good to me.  Not that I'm complaining.  And I'll try not to be thankless throughout the rest of the year.
   (This post, as you might have guessed, was just a warm-up for my Christmas post.)

Monday, November 14, 2011

My View of Louisiana's Poets

Attendees of the Louisiana Book Festival take advantage of
the perfect weather on the grounds of the State Capitol Park.
A few weekends ago, our great state of Louisiana held a book festival in Baton Rouge.  The Louisiana Book Festival of 2011 was held on October 29th, on the beautiful grounds of the State Capitol Park, with panels and readings held in the Louisiana State Capitol Building.  I had the great privilege of attending this festival as the escort of one of the four poets invited to participate in the Louisiana's Poet Laureate's presentation of Louisiana Voices: A Poetry Panel.  I escorted, of course, my wife, Jennifer Reeser, who, along with Amy Fleury, Thomas Parrie, and Mona Lisa Saloy, read portions of their gifted poetry during an early morning panel in the House Committee Room on the first floor of the Capitol.  (It has been suggested that I am Jennifer's personal paparazzi.  Though guilty as charged, on this day I fulfilled this role for all of the poets.)

Julie Kane
    The panel was put together by Julie Kane, the present State Poet Laureate.  A Professor of English at Northwestern State University, Julie is the author of many books, most recently her fantastic poetry anthology Jazz Funeral, a wonderful collection of poems centered around New Orleans.  Julie is a great ambassador for poetry in this state, full of talent and graciousness in equal measures.  About the only disappointing part of the panel was the fact that she did not have time to read a few of her poems for those of us in attendance.

Amy Fleury
     Once the readings began, I was struck by just how fortunate Louisiana is to have such poets writing today.  Amy Fleury started things off with her insightful poetry from her book Beautiful Trouble, highlighted by an unforgettable piece about caring for her ageing father.  Though she is a native of Kansas, she is currently the director of McNeese State University's MFA program as well as the editor of The McNeese Review, and Louisiana is fortunate to have her now.  As a transplant to Louisiana, I appreciated her keen, newcomer's observation as she described the sounds of a Louisiana night, including the sound of the lazy mosquito truck passing by.  This is not something most people think about around here.  Amy, however, was able to weave that great audio image into her poetry in such a way that I actually smiled nostalgically at this usually annoying and always silly nighttime intruder.

Thomas Parrie
  Thomas Parrie followed up with several selections, the strongest of which honored the land and heritage lost when the Toledo Bend Reservoir was built in the 1960's.  The poem did a great job of focusing on Native Americans' struggles for identity due to such losses without devolving into a bitter rant.  Parrie, now in Tennessee, is a native of Monroe, Louisiana.  Though he did not say it in his introduction, his poetry made it very clear he has Native American blood running through his veins, and certainly his soul.  The often repetitive cadences of his verse put me in mind of the slow, drum-beat rhythms that once might have been heard around his ancestors' campfires.  (And, in truth, are still heard today.)  Hypnotic, they helped to drive the words deeper into the listeners' hearts.

Jennifer Reeser
 Next up was Jennifer Reeser, a poet dear to my heart, as you might imagine, who read several of her hauntingly beautiful poems about Louisiana, including one of my favorites of hers, Louisiana Broke My Sleep.  She finished up with the tribute Watching New Orleans Drown, which reminded us all of what our State has been through and just how important it is that these voices should be heard.

Mona Lisa Saloy
 To round out the panel, New Orleans native Mona Lisa Saloy, Professor of English at Dillard University and author of Red Beans and Ricely Yours, gave us a humorous, touching, and soulful look at growing up in the Big Easy.  She finished her reading with a song, a perfect way to celebrate Louisiana poetry and New Orleans.  Her local idioms meshed with her sharp observations kept me always on the verge of a smile, a laugh, or a lump in my throat.  As an outsider who loves New Orleans, it was quite touching to hear an insider's view.

Though Louisiana has been through a great many trials in the past few years, we can be assured that such occasions have not gone unheralded.  This is just a sample of the many voices of this State that are being heard as they tell of our experiences, our hopes, our disappointments, and our triumphs in a land that is always a little mystifying to outsiders. 

Monday, November 7, 2011

My View of the Louisiana State Library

Recently, I was honored to be able to accompany my wife to a gathering of Louisiana authors, in Baton Rouge, for the Louisiana Book Festival.  The party was held at the Louisiana State Library, just across the mall from the State Capital Building.  My wife was one of four poets who were participating at a panel being held the next morning.  The party that night was catered by Mansur's on the Boulevard and music was supplied by a very good jazz quartet.  We did not know too many of the authors in attendance but we had a pleasant time.
     However, I was in a library, or rather, the library of our state.  I could not resist the impulse to browse.  I did not stray far, sticking close to the food.  So with my camera in hand, I ducked into the nearest stacks and began to look for anything interesting.  It was a habit I'd developed as a youngster.  I still fondly remember browsing the stacks in the basement of my father's seminary, checking out the books available in Notre Dame University's massive collection (a book on concrete engineering that I spied there might just be the solid foundation upon which my love of books is built), and spending an hour in the library of Temple University dusting off copies of the Congressional Record while my brother attended his racquetball class.
     It didn't take any time at all for me to find what I was looking for.  I discovered I was in a massive section of Who's Who books.  Who knew there were so many categories of Who's Who?  Not I.  I found so many Who's Who that I needed a What's What in Who's Who to keep track of all the Who's found within.  I found Who's Who in Germany, Who's Who in France, a surprising number of Who's Who in Canada, followed by Who's Who in the Arabian World, in the Midwest, in the East, in the Orient, and so on and so forth and who knows who else was listed who might have distinguished themselves in Whoville?

     I came to a stop when I discovered the collection of Who's Who in World Jewry.  I have to admit, I hadn't even known that Jewry was a real word, let alone an acceptable word to describe the Jews.  After all, has anyone ever been accused of anti-jewry?  A quick check of the online definition of jewry gives the following as the first definition: A section of a medieval city inhabited by Jews; a ghetto.  This is actually the second definition listed at the, although it is listed first on Google's search page.  The first definition is simply The Jewish People.  I seriously doubt, however, that anyone of the Jewish heritage calls themselves a member of the Jewry.  At least as late as 1989 this series was being published, though I cannot find an edition produced beyond that date.

Who's Who in Library Service was the next little oddity I found.  This was a definite case of nepotism, as books go.  You have to wonder just how many people out there really cared about who was the latest, most important and influential people working in libraries in the Sixties and Seventies?  Okay, I'm sure someone did.  And that someone knew a big shot Who at Who's Who who gave the go-ahead to research, write, and publish a series of books (multiple latest editions, mind you) of who was tops in keeping books organized in 1966.  Of course, the fact is, judging by the size of the books available, there were precious few people in library service at that time.  But at least we know who the heck they were, right?

     I was pretty jazzed to find this next set of books.  If only I would have had the time!  Oh, to be able to sit and browse the list of the extraordinary men and women catalogued in the latest edition of the Directory of British Scientists.  Surely I would have come across the British scientists who had developed all of the awesome science they were doing (to steal a technical term from '60s science fiction movies) in 1964.  Or even better, the wilder, more astounding science done in 1966!  I'm sure James Bond himself had to check out one of these books in order to keep track of who Blofeld was going to kidnap next!  It is no stretch to suggest that the volume on 1964-1965 looks quite worn and heavily exposed to the elements.  There's no telling what kind of exhaustive research was going on as multiple library users combed the depths of this historically essential tome.  Perhaps the Hardy Boys had to check it out in order to discover who that guy was living down the street with the laboratory in his Gothic basement.

     Matching the theme of my interests in cemeteries, I had to stop and admire the Annual Obituary.  First of all, there's no ignoring the publisher's great taste in using the image of a dead tree as the identifying symbol for this list of the recently deceased.  Sure, the tree has died, but it still stands in the open, for all to see, slowly decaying in the exposure of the elements, waiting for the termites to eat out its internal structure until its eventual collapse.  Someone on the Annual Obituary's staff had a wicked sense of humor.  I tried not to puzzle too much over the fact that our library only had copies of this grave collection (oh, I'm so sorry about that!) from the years 1980 to 1987.  I can only guess that this was the reason:  The Eighties were indeed the greatest decade ever, taking into account the music scene of that time, and so it is no wonder that Louisiana wanted to keep a detailed record of those who died in those influential years.  Why stop in 1987?  Well, that was the year this song made it to number one in the charts , which was probably the beginning of the end for the greatest decade of music ever.  Music wouldn't be listed in the 1987 Annual Obituary, but it took its first steps in that direction that year.

     I shouldn't have been surprised to discover the large sections of criticisms aimed at Short Stories (most certainly written by editors!) and Literature in general.  As you can see in the photo on the left, the brown section is the vast collection of Contemporary Literary Criticism (more than 200 volumes in print) that the library keeps.  Since everyone has their own opinion on what they read, I doubt very much that anyone reads these volumes.  Who needs to hear what the critics think of any book that's been painstakingly written by those tenderhearted literary writers?  We can form our own insulting opinions and sling them across the Internet without the slightest effort.  This series, therefore, has become painfully obsolete!

     The last books of interest I was able to capture before we headed out the door was this great little series entitled What Fantastic Fiction Do I Read Next?  I often hear this question from my kids, who, bless their hearts, think I know a thing or two about books and can offer them advice on what great books are out there waiting for them.  If I should ever fail them in that endeavor, I can rest assured that they can always check out this volume and get some advice on what to download to their Kindles.  Or their laptops, or their phones (remember when those were for speaking to people with actual voices?) or to their Xbox 360's, or who knows what next?  Perhaps they'll be downloading books to their calculators.  Or even to their pencils, which will then write out the text onto space-age paper.  At any rate, I hope next year's edition of What Fantastic Fiction Do I Read Next? will include my own books which will soon be hitting the shelves in the coming months.