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Monday, April 29, 2013

My Re-View of The Last Blog (Tango) from Paris

It has been one year since we said goodbye to Paris.  For new readers of Room With No View, today's post is a look back at the last post from Paris.

  For those of you who follow my blog, you know how little I knew about France before I began this journey.  As we prepare to leave I can honestly say that we pulled off this trip with only the bare minimum of setbacks and the most spectacular time of our lives.  I would never have thought I would be standing outside the palace of Versailles just a few years ago.  It was very humbling to walk where Kings have walked.  In the United States we do not have this opportunity.  Our history only goes back so far.  Yet here, in Paris, the people are much more accustomed to being around history that reaches back to so many different centuries.
   For a brief time, the people of Paris allowed us to feel as if we actually lived here.  Instead of living out of a hotel, we lived among the local Parisians, shopping with them at the grocery store, and passing by them on the streets and in the stairway every day.  We know that we were really outsiders, but it did not always feel that way.  The French are a very kind people, and they are pleasant and easy to interact with.  During the American war of Independence, it was the French who came to our assistance.  I can understand this.  They seem so willing to help.  So willing to accept strangers into their midst.  There were a few times when this was not so: we had a few waiters who could be labeled as surly.  There were a few times when French tourists were not easy to get along with.  But if you've ever taken a vacation in New York City or Chicago, you know that this can happen.  And it happened far less than if we had been in those cities.  We have recently vacationed in both of those cities and I know of what I speak.
   Just at the far end of the Tuilleries Gardens, by the Place de la Concorde, there is a small candybar/drink stand with public toilettes that cost .50 euros to use.  I bought a Coke Zero and told the pony-tailed attendant--a funny guy who joked around with Jennifer--that I wanted to pay for the toilettes.  He charged me, made change from the cash I handed him, and then as Jennifer tried to get in line, he told her no, she needed to pay.  He did not realize I was paying for her.  When we finally cleared this up, he was so embarrassed that he had given her a hard time, he put one arm around her and apologized, then allowed her to use the reserved handicapped toilette.  He made a silly face by way of apologizing to me, and I told him not to worry, he was now her hero.  He shook his head, with an exaggerated frown and lift of his shoulders.  Shortly after that, the manager of a cafe had to apologize to Jennifer that it was taking so long to get her the coffee she had ordered.  He was short-handed, he explained, some of the help had not come in.  He made the coffee himself, with an exaggerated frown and slump to his bearing.  He had obviously been having a bad day.  Jennifer cheered him up with her encouragements in French.
   There is no denying that Paris has some of the most beautiful landmarks and works of art in all the world.  But I have to say that of everything I have seen, I was most impressed with the people who make Paris their home.  I could not miss the fact that everywhere we went, whether it was on the Champ de Mars, the Luxembourg Gardens, or at the Saint-Sulpice fountains, the people of Paris were always out enjoying their city.  As the couple in the photo to the left made their way through the Luxembourg Gardens, I could not help but watch them.  They were out for a simple Saturday morning stroll, in one of the most beautiful gardens in the world.  How many times had they done that?  Did they mind that I-- a tourist-- was invading their garden, taking pictures from a camera hanging from my neck?  (I only ever took pictures of people with my zoom lens from a distance, where it would only look as if I were snapping shots of the scenery, so as not to bother them.  However, as you can see in this shot, the old man looks like he is on to me.)
     It is a hard thing to say goodbye to this city.  We do not know if we will be back.  We can only hope.  But we will forever remember the warmth and welcome that we found here.  And we would encourage anyone who has the chance to come and see Paris.  It is more than the Eiffel Tower.  It is more than Notre Dame.  It is more than the City of Light.  It is a city you will never forget.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

My View of Spring Landscaping

Landscaping in the spring is a national craze this time of year.  For some of us, it started last month, for some of us, we're just now getting out of the house to see what sort of damage Old Man Winter managed to wreak as he passed through our yards like a vagrant who had time on his hands and a child's urge to spray water everywhere while hitting everything in sight with a thorny, dead branch.  I've never seen a vagrant do this, actually, but I imagine if he did, it would look a lot like many of our yards in late March.  It might even look the same if a rich, fully-employed pillar of the community did the same thing to our yards.  I didn't mean anything by using a vagrant in my analogy of Old Man Winter.  I'm sure there are some vagrants out there who are far more noble than some of the scandalous pillars of the community we hear of.  I won't argue the point.  However, I did consider that there are going to be far fewer vagrants reading this blog online than pillars of the community, and so I suppose I just felt like it would offend fewer people to take a shot at vagrants instead of community pillars.
  I've forgotten what I was writing about...
  Spring landscaping! point was that now is the time to get out and make that yard beautiful.
  But as we all know, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.  And what I consider to be a beautiful yard is not the same as, say, what my wife considers to be beautiful.  And that's okay.  We're all unique, and have our own unique ways of expressing ourselves.  Fortunately for our neighbors, my wife's expressions of beauty end up in our landscaping.  My own, uh, unique ideas, don't make it out the front or back doors.  But today I'd like to offer up my ideas of creative and exciting ways to beautify our lawn.
  Let's start with the basis of a lawn: the grass.
  Grass is a weed-like growth that, unchecked, will take over every inch of your property.  This includes your driveway, and your flower beds, and your utility/wash room.  Great care must be taken to prevent this invasive, sentient organism from its evil schemes.  Allow me to toss out a few suggestions:
  Diesel is getting too expensive to use as a deterrent against this pernicious graminoid.  (Look it up--I've provided the link to ease your research.)  And though gasoline is not cheap either, it is still a fantastic choice for killing grass.  There is only one little problem with this.  Be sure not to use too much of it.  It will burn you if it finds an ignition source, which is easier than you might think.  Gasoline evaporates like the money in your 401K after Ben Bernanke reports on yet another dour, doom-and-gloom statistic.  But unlike your money, which you can never find again, the gasoline is still there, just waiting to ignite.  All it takes is the spark from your car's spark plug when, say, your wife jumps in the car to run to Home Depot for more flowers and plants, to ignite the gasoline fumes that hang over your yard in a pattern similar to the one you made when you poured the gas along the borders of your property.  This is a very bad thing.  In fact, now that I think of it, perhaps gas is not the best way to control the growth of your lawn.
  Dead leaves.  This can work if you have a lot of trees on your property, or your neighbors have lots of trees and don't want their leaves.  Just rake up all the leaves you can find, leave them in big piles wherever you don't want grass, and leave them there.  That's right: leave the leaves.  Just make sure you did not pour gasoline on the ground before you rake the leaves into a pile on that spot.
  Campfires.  Kids love campfires.  And if you want an excuse to kill the grass in a particular spot, here's where you can involve the kids, everyone will have a great time, and no one will suspect you're just trying to kill the lawn.  Grab all the big branches you can find that Old Man Winter tore out of the trees, build a bonfire, stuff as many of those leaves you raked into and around the dead branches, and light 'er up.  Now, go get hot dogs, marshmallows, chocolate, graham crackers, donuts, or anything else you want to stick into a fire, take some of the little branches you did not stick into your bonfire, whittle off all the funny little, teeny baby branches, and you should have a fairly straight, flexible but durable hot dog/marshmallow/doughnut stick.  After everyone has eaten too much of this fine, State Fair fare, and once the fire has burned itself out, and after the kids have all gone to sleep while watching a movie, and after one or two of them wakes up and throws up on you as they shake you to tell you they don't feel so good, your lawn will be blackened, charred, and unable to grow grass for several months.  
  There are two things to remember about the fire.  One: if the fire is not big enough, and does not produce enough ash, the grass will not only return quickly, it will come back thicker, and greener than ever.  Do not fail to make a big fire.  Two:  If you were foolish enough to pour the gasoline as a grass killer--pay attention here, please--DO NOT light the bonfire.
  Having read back over this post, I'm beginning to get worried that one of three things might happen.  First of all, the EPA might fine you for polluting your lawn with gasoline.  Secondly, it is very possible you could end up burning down your house.  Worst of all, and thirdly, you might injure yourself, or even worstly, your children.  So I'm rethinking all of my advice here.  It may be safest to go with this last suggestion.
  Concrete.  This is more expensive than diesel or gasoline.  It is not as fun as a bonfire.  And like the bonfire,  it is only temporary.  Strange as it may sound, grass will eventually come up through your concrete.  However, this will take longer than the grass growing back on the site of a large bonfire.  So for a while, anyway, the grass will stay away.  And the best part about it is that as far as I know, concrete is not combustible.  And to date, the EPA has not banned the use of it.  Though in the future, who knows?  They love to ban all the good stuff.
  So take advantage of this while it is still legal and pour concrete over every square inch of your property.  Don't worry about our need for grass and plants to create our breathable air.  There are plenty of people out there who love to grow grass for the sheer joy of cutting it every five days.  They are sick people, to be sure, but there are plenty of them.  Their grass will continue to produce plenty of oxygen.  And you can sit on a lawn chair on your concrete, and watch them struggle with their weed-eaters and mowers and edgers with the satisfaction of knowing you don't need to pollute the air with such noisy, mechanical devices.  Because, honestly, paving your yard is the greenest choice you can make.  You just might need to paint it green to fit in with the neighbors.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

A Monster in Paris: A movie review that took one year to write.

  A Monster in Paris is one of those movies that caught me completely by surprise.  A French animated movie that took an odd path to the shelves of American stores, it has already found an audience, despite the fact that is has been nearly impossible to see in the United States for over a year.  Not only was the movie difficult to view, but it had several other factors that should have kept me from seeing it.
  First of all, I am increasingly suspicious of most animated fare that gets stamped onto DVDs all across the shopping spectrum.  Even if an animated feature is given screen time at the local cineplex, I've learned that this hardly is any sort of barometric measurement of its worth, Horton Hears a Who being the last time my high hopes of enjoying a modern animated "classic" were dashed.  (And just as a side-note, please, please, please stop calling new movies classics!  No one can label something new a classic.  That is something only time can determine.)
  Secondly, I'll be up front about this, Bibo Bergeron's directing experience does not impress me.  He is the man who brought us The Road to El Dorado, and Shark Tale.  These looked so bad, I never sat down and watched them completely.  I stood in front of the screen, leaned on one foot then another as I tried to find anything worthwhile in them, almost sat down during Shark Tale, but that had more to do with how tired I was, then walked out of the room on both of them.  So I never really saw them.  And for all I know they were better than the few moments I gave them.  If I'm wrong about them, let me know.  The point is, however, that my knowledge of Bergeron's movies was both limited prejudiced against them.
  So how did I end up watching this new, modern, animated film from Bibo Bergeron?  Funny you should ask.  Let me tell you a little story.
  On the flight back from our two week trip to Paris, I was unable to sleep.  I'm six foot something or other and the seats were basically built for five footers who have no something or other to add to their dimensions. So as most of the people around me struggled to find that perfectly skewed position from which they could grab a little sleep, I played around with the small viewscreen that stared at me from the back of the seat in front of me.  It was a whiz-bang little device which allowed me to watch movies, see the nose of the plane as it flew through the black night, and play tic-tac-toe.  I opted to watch a movie, and tried a few that didn't really interest me.  Then I came across A Monster in Paris.
  This French movie could be viewed in its original French version with English subtitles.  Having just spent two weeks in the most wonderful city in the world, I was already missing it, and looking for anything that would ease the pain.  A cartoon set in Paris was good enough for me.  I would have watched French TV commercials.  Anything to see more of Paris.
  Okay, I'm rambling, I know.  Let's get to the review.
  This delightful movie has a number of themes mixed in that make this a great adventure for more than just children.  As a monster movie, it is much like the old Phantom of the Opera, with a dash of King Kong tossed in, as well as those old Universal Monster movies like The Invisible Man, or any other movie where science has run amok.  At the same time, there is a wonderful nostalgic feeling of the old Paris as it was recently showcased in Midnight in Paris, Hugo,  and Julie & Julia.  The animation backgrounds are flawless, extravagant, and capture the enduring spirit of the streets of Paris.  I can say this with great confidence, since we'd just been walking those streets the two weeks prior seeing this movie.
  The characters were just as well crafted.  We meet Raoul, a deliveryman/inventor whose suave, charming personality is a poor disguise for his excitable, low self-esteem.  He walks among the fashionable people of Paris wearing a fur coat that everyone thinks is made of hay.  Never mind that is really is made of hay, he denies this emphatically, all the time.  His best friend, besides his strange truck which he has named Catherine, is Emile, a shy movie projectionist who spends his days dreaming of slaying the dragon for the love of his life-- a woman he works with every day and is too afraid to ask for a date.  Emile is something like a cross between Bob Newhart and Woody Allen.  He's nervous, mumbles a lot, and comes off as the sort of guy you'd love to have as a friend.  His character reminded me of one that was actually played by Bob Newhart years ago: Bernard, the mouse hero from The Rescuers.  These two characters, both of whom could be seen as losers, keep a strong measure of dignity about them regardless of their weaknesses.  This is often something that is lacking in children's movies today.  The tendency is to make buffoons out of the leads, who fail to engender any empathy from the viewers.
Lucille examines her makeover of Francour
  Lucille is the heroine, and she walks yet another fine line that is often crossed by other animated films.  Come to think of it, this line is usually crossed by most films, animated or not.  The trend today is make the heroine a strong, feisty woman who is actually stronger, smarter, and more competent than the male leads.  Then we often get an absurd helping of excessive fighting skills tossed in for good measure.  I'm thinking of Kate Blanchette riding around in armor as Lady Marian in the 2010 Robin Hood, or Keira Knightley dashing about in the 2004 film King Arthur, with blue paint smeared all over her as she cuts Roman soldiers to pieces.  Those are extreme examples, but the basic spirit of these roles has taken root in many female roles since.  But in A Monster in Paris, Lucille, voiced by Vanessa Paradis in both the French and English versions, manages to be strong, intelligent, sweet, and a bit vulnerable all at the same time.  She even manages to be one part alluring and one part tom-boy at times, which is hard to pull off.
  Often movies like this fall apart when the villain is introduced.  He is often too silly, or too mean, or simply not interesting.  The villain here is Commissioner Maynott, who is wonderfully droll.  As expected from the villain, he is arrogant, though his own self-doubt shines through in odd moments.  It is something I've never seen before in a character like this.  The writers, animators, and the director have done a great job of making this work.  Watch for the scenes where this loud, commanding politician suddenly deflates, as the other characters in the scene seem to ignore him, or at least confuse him, and he stands with his hands at his side, at a loss for words, obviously unsure of himself.  It might easily be missed with all of the quick dialog and spectacular animation, but if you catch it, you might just find it as endearing as I did.  Maynott's inevitable descent into madness is certainly comedic, but I was able to sympathize with him a little with this added quirk to his personality.
  The star of the show, however, is the monster, a giant flea.  Francour, named for the passage in which he is found, dresses like the Phantom of the Opera, sings like an angel, and plays a mean jazz guitar.  He's pretty light on his feet as well.  Kids will love his chirps and trills, which make him adorable, and adults will love his trendy music.  (Sean Lennon's voice adds an ethereal quality to this overgrown Phantom Flea in the English version, though I thought the popular French singer -M- was a better fit in the original.)
  The humor is often quick, more often dry, and at times decidedly French.  But I don't want that to worry any Americans out there.  There is lots of slapstick and plenty of belly laughs.  What separates it from Hollywood is the lack of bathroom humor and cruelty.  All of the characters have a healthy dose of sincerity, which is so lacking in many Hollywood family films.
  The movie mixes its musical scenes into the narrative quite well, keeping the pace moving along even as it detours into a montage or two.  With Paris as the background, there is nothing dull or corny during these interludes.
  Having been won over by this impressive film, I watched it a second time on the AirFrance flight with Jennifer after she woke up.  She loved it as well, and we came home and raved about it to the kids.  The problem was, it wasn't available in the States then.  We kept looking for it, but there was no information on it.  Scores of people were on the movie's IMDB page, asking when it would be released in the US.  No one knew.  A DVD came out later in the year, but it was only made for Europeans, and the disk wouldn't work with our Region 1 machines.  There are ways to get around that but I am not that tech-savvy, so I had to wait until the film finally reached America properly.  It finally hit the stores yesterday, April the 16th.
  The Blue-Ray version is flawless, of course, though the original French version is not on it.  I was disappointed at that.  The English voice actors did a great job (standouts include Danny Huston as Maynott, Adam Goldberg as Raoul, and Bob Balaban as Maynott's assistant), but the French songs are far better in their original form.  My wife and I are pretty sure that one song was cut from the original, though there seems to be some question of this.  At any rate, we intend to purchase the original French soundtrack soon.
  So if you're looking for a great family film, and enjoy comedy and adventure in the midst of a beautiful city, be sure to check out A Monster in Paris.  It's an instant classic!  (Okay, I'm guilty.  I know.  So sue me.)
For those of you in the United States, the link on the left will take you to the English version.  For those of you in Europe, the link on the right will take you to the original film.

Monday, April 8, 2013

A View of The Myrtles Plantation

The Myrtles as seen from the entrance.
Louisiana is well-known for its array of antebellum homes scattered along the banks of the Mississippi river.  Louisiana is also famous for its many ghost legends, primarily centered around New Orleans.  And while many plantations can be found just upriver from the Crescent City, one of the most legendary haunted plantations can be found not in New Orleans, but in St Francisville.  Located about thirty minutes north of Baton Rouge, The Myrtles Plantation has received wide attention for its colorful and mysterious history.  On the first weekend in April, our family gathered from our scattered homes to meet at this hauntingly beautiful estate.
  A short drive up U.S. Highway 61 out of Baton Rouge will deliver you to the small community of St Francisville.  Pass through this and you will quickly see The Myrtles on the western side of the highway.  As you drive onto the grounds, you'll immediately be treated to a view of oak trees heavy with Spanish moss.  If you arrive in the afternoon, as we did, the sun will pour in from the west providing a perfect golden glow for a backdrop.  And you'll want to arrive in the afternoon if you are interested in one of the Mystery Tours held on Friday and Saturday nights.  These are held at 6, 7, and 8 pm both nights.
  If you arrive early enough, you can have dinner at the Carriage House Restaurant, which is located on the grounds.  They have a traditional Louisiana sampling of shrimp etouffee, oysters, catfish, and other seafood.  You can also add some gumbo, boudin balls, and crab cakes if you're hungry enough.
  The grounds surrounding the house are immaculate.  Crepe myrtles and azalea bushes hide beneath the shade of massive oak trees, with plenty of space for the sun to splash through onto the lawn.  There are walkways and benches for visitors who wish to stroll about this pastoral setting, and there are several wide open spaces for the kids to run around and expend their energy.
  On the backside of the house is a brick court yard with a fountain in its center.  From here you can visit the General's Store gift shop, enter the Carriage House Restaurant, or queue up for your tour of the main house. If you like cats, you might want to chase them around, as one young boy did for most of his time there.  Another popular activity is snapping as many pictures as you can in the hopes that you'll catch a ghost on film.  (I wonder if ghosts are not as easily caught on digital cameras as they are on film?  I have no way to prove this, but I suspect that spirits don't show up on pixels, and it is really the chemical properties of film that trap their images for all the world to see.  But that's just my own theory.  Feel free to float one of your own on the subject.)
  It was here, in this court yard, that the infamous Chloe photograph was taken back in 1992.  The new owners of the estate were taking pictures for insurance purposes.  In one photo, a shadowy figure could be seen on the porch as if it were heading toward the old kitchen.  It is somewhat transparent, and the theory is that this is an image of the ghost of a slave girl who was hanged for murdering two of the plantation owner's children.  It is a sad, tragic tale that seems to contain all of the usual suspects: lust, jealousy, betrayal, retribution, and the desecration of the dead.  (And don't forget the moral tossed in on the evils of eavesdropping.)  You'll hear all the Gothic details on your tour.  And if you're not into the night tours, there are plenty of daylight tours throughout the week.  You'll get the same details from the day or night tour.
  The tour guide will spend about thirty minutes showcasing the first floor of the house, entertaining the large group with stories of the various deaths that occurred in the house as well as the ghost stories associated with those deaths.  While our guide assured us that many members of the tour-groups have experienced strange phenomenons during the tours, our group did not, unless someone did and was not eager to volunteer such information.  It was my first tour of the house.  I was with a family member who had been through during a daylight tour and it was his view that the daylight tour was better since you could see the rooms better and enjoy the antiques and artwork.  I'm pretty sure he is right, since I was disappointed during the tour that the lights were kept so low.  This was an effort to increase the mystery, but I would have rather been able to enjoy the historical aspects of the tour over the supernatural.  I was also disappointed that we were not allowed to take pictures on the tour, with the exception of the front hall.  But you know how much I like to take pictures.

  In the front hall you will see another celebrated piece of their haunted legend.  A large mirror sits atop a bureau in an ornate gilded frame.  It is said that the mirror has been changed out many times over the years, and yet a stain/etching has returned after each restoration.  Mirrors play a big role in old superstitions at times of death, and the legend is that this one was not covered after the murders of the children, hence the visual evidence of someone trying to "come through" the mirror.  I'm not entirely sure what that means, since we were also told that you can see the silhouettes of the children on the roof in the Chloe photo.  Perhaps I didn't understand the story correctly.  I admit I wasn't paying close attention.
  I did enjoy the stories of John Leake and William Winters.  Both men died in the house, the first from his wounds in the Civil War, and the second from a cowardly murder one tragic night.  The tale of William Winters was the most interesting of all the stories, I thought.  Both of these men had lived in the house for a time, and their rooms are available for guests.  But be forewarned, many stories of strange happenings have come out of those rooms from guests.  But if you aren't afraid of someone tugging at your foot in the night or porcelain dolls joining you in your bed, then you'll have no trouble sleeping in the rooms.

And sleeping in the house is one of your options.  There are six rooms available to be rented in the original house.  There are also an assortment of other homes on the estate that have rooms available.  Notably, there are four new cottages that face the main house, with porches looking out over a pleasant pond.  I imagine it would be a great place to wake up and drink coffee on a cool morning.
  To find out more about The Myrtles, just use this link to see their website.

The court yard at night.  I never caught sight of a ghost, but
I did see plenty of people enjoying the evening.

This idyllic setting is perfect for photographers.  A wedding party had
been on the grounds the day we arrived.  You couldn't ask for a more
romantic backdrop.

There are many wonderful touches to the landscaping here.  These
little guys stand guard over the porch steps at the front of the house.

From the front porch you can see the order and peaceful view
found on the estate.  It is impressive, peaceful, and a great way
to experience Louisiana at its best.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

My View of Jury Duty

I've never been known to have traditional interests.  Scouring graveyards for inspiration is often cited as one of my more, uh, non-traditional interests.  I don't recall when it started, but since I was aware of the possibility, I've been dying to be chosen for jury duty.  After all, I've spent a lifetime watching Perry Mason, Matlock, Law and Order, and so many other television courtroom dramas.  Twelve Angry Men, Miracle on 34th Street, To Kill a Mockingbird, A Few Good Men, Primal Fear, The Caine Mutiny, and of course My Cousin Vinny all provided me with valuable experience as a trial lawyer, a judge, and certainly a juror.  From them I've learned that whichever hand a man writes his name with is the hand with which he pummels his daughter, if the postal service recognizes you then you do indeed exist, no self-respecting Southerner would use instant grits, Tom Cruise can't handle the truth, and Humphrey Bogart loves strawberries.  That being said, I think I'm well qualified to be an exemplary juror.
  So ever since I turned 18 I've been ready to adjudicate.  As a bonus, having raised five kids, I've learned something of the wisdom of Solomon.  I've got an eye for who's lying, who's telling the truth, and who's deflecting suspicion by telling on his little brother.  At all times, no matter the date, season, or circumstance, I'm at the Parish's, State's, or even Federal Government's disposal.
  Most people are not.  They live in fear of that little white paper that comes in the mail with the ominous words Jury Summons stamped across it.  This is a mystery to me.  At work, I hear people who have not been summoned confer with fellow jury-phobes about the best schemes to escape the juror's box.  Some of them seem as desperate as John Cusack in the John Grisham film Runaway Jury.  If you haven't seen it, Cusack spends a lot of effort trying to get off the jury.  He whines, he pleads, he schemes, all to no avail.  I cannot relate to this in any way, shape, or form.
  Once, many years ago, I was excited to finally receive my first jury summons.  At that time, I lived in a different parish.  (That's a Louisiana county for all you plain folks who are not privileged to live in this mystical Catholic state.)  I pinned the notice to our cork board, circled the date on the calendar, and was crushed when a follow-up notice arrived to inform me that I was no longer needed.  Hard news, indeed.
Herman Munster (okay, I know it's Fred Gwynn) lays
down the law for the irreverent Joe Pesci in My Cousin Vinny
  So life moved on, I watched co-workers called up for jury duty with envy, wondering what made them so special.  Wasn't I willing?  Wasn't I eager to serve my local government?  I certainly wasn't one of the unfaithful begging his doctor to write out a fake diagnosis with some jury-duty prohibitive injury or illness.  I was their man!  Why couldn't they see that?
  At this point, let me make a small proposal.  I think it would be fair to set up a volunteer sheet that citizens can sign if they want to be on a jury.  Honestly, this should be standard practice.  Perhaps I'll run for local office and make this my major campaign promise.  I'm thinking it should win over the voting public.  Vote for me and I'll make sure Everyone gets Jury Duty!  I should win in a landslide.
  But there is no volunteer option.  And so I waited on the sidelines.  Even my wife was chosen before me.  She was back home in an hour that day, which did not bother her.  It didn't bother me either.  I didn't want her on the jury.  I wanted me on the jury.
  But as they say, all things come to them that wait.  And finally, sweet rapturous joy--my summons arrived!
  Now, I immediately ignored the fact that my summons ordered me to arrive at the jury pool room on April 1st.  There was no way this was an April Fool's gag.  If it was, someone was going to be in serious trouble.  I love to joke around as much as the next guy, but don't tease me about jury duty.  Don't go there.  And I was sure Calcasieu Parish was not in the habit of spending money mailing out jokes.  So I circled the date, informed my employer I would be temporarily unavailable to perform my job since I was needed to adjudicate what was likely to be a very tricky, bombshell of a trial that would have far-reaching consequences in the legal world.  I rather expected I would not be back to work for long, long time.
Do you think it would hurt my
chances to be selected for a jury
if they knew I'd written a book
entitled Jury Rig?
  The legal system needed me.  And as you know, I was more than willing to offer up my expertise.
  The morning arrived.  I was up early, four hours early in fact, ready to do my duty.  I left with plenty of time to spare, just in case a long, slow train blocked my path, or traffic attempted to thwart my efforts to assist the legal system.  Nothing was going to get in my way.
  When I was settled in my seat in the jury pool, I surveyed the room.  There must have been three hundred people there.  It seemed all so unnecessary.   I could hear them muttering to each other, wishing they could think of an excuse to leave.  One lady had brought a baby, and some of the less patriotic amongst us asked her if they could borrow the baby so they too could have an excuse to be let go.  Such a shocking suggestion inflamed my sense of moral, righteous, and civic outrage.  I would have stood up and denounced them for the cowards and traitors that they were, but I was savvy enough to realize that if these reprobates could succeed in escaping the jury, then my chances of serving were that much better.  So I held my tongue, and tried not to sneer at their willful negligence of civic responsibility.
  I felt the first stirring of doubt when the kind jury lady announced that the two civil cases had been settled out of court.  Settled out of court?  What kind of nonsense is that?  Who said these people could resolve their differences without me, the jury?  This sort of cooperation between plaintiff and defendant will get out of hand.  Before you know it, the courts will stand empty of conflict and accusation.  In no time at all, lambs will be lying down with lions.  It isn't right.  That's supposed to be reserved for heaven.  Not appropriate behavior for this Earth, I can tell you.  Someone should look into this.  Put a stop to it.
  But there was still hope.  There supposed to be two criminal trials, so at least people were still breaking the law and it would be up to us wise, Solomonic jurors to weed out the innocent from the criminal.  The good guys from the bad guys.  The cowboys from the...sorry, I forgot.  (I know, I know.  Cut me some slack, I was raised in the 70's.)
  We waited a little longer, the suspense hung in the air like the heady odor of movie popcorn at the theater.  I could taste it.  The juror's box was mine.  All those years of listening to Matlock's closing arguments, all the time spent studying Herman Munster's portrayal of a judge, it was all going to be worth it.  I was going to decide a fellow human's fate.  The scales of justice would be in my hands.
Co-workers suggested I might not be the best guy to stick in a room
with eleven other people under pressure.  They thought I might get
into an argument or something.  I don't know what they are talking
about.  I'm easy to get along with.  (Scene from Twelve Angry Men)
  The kind jury lady steps to the rostrum again.  She looks over the crowd.  She announces that she will call out fifty names.  The field is narrowing.  Surely they've been watching us in the room, surely they've seen who is worthy and who should be flicked out of the room like an ant from the sugar bowl.  They didn't belong, and the officers of the court would deal swiftly with them.  Then they would turn to me, and a few other worthies, and admit how much they needed our assistance to keep the wheels of justice moving.  Oh, it was there, within my grasp.  I had only to wait for my name to be called, and I would take my judgement seat with a humble attitude and a firm resolve.
  Who am I kidding?  I knew before she read the names I wouldn't be chosen.  But I listened intently, just in case.  I watched her call the names of those who had been bartering for the baby.  Lucky vermin.  Where was justice when you needed her?  Blindfolded and half-drunk, it seemed.  She's not very bright, that's for sure.  She completely jiggered the whole thing.  Never called my name.  I was left with only the smallest measure of hope; there was one more criminal case.  I might still be needed.  I might still be allowed to perform my duty.
  But what's this?  The not-so-kind jury lady offers up a lame explanation of the second criminal case.  She says something about it, with no specifics.  Mostly it sounds like the judge just wasn't going to deal with the case that week.  I still don't know what she meant.  But before I could point out that justice was nothing to be ignored, that a case must be handled in a timely manner--she dismissed us.  Just like that.  We were sent home.
  Twenty-five years of waiting.  All for naught.  I couldn't help wishing that crime had been a bit more prevalent in our district.  How can a city this large have only one criminal trial?  This can't be good for society.
  But I won't give in to despair.  I'm back home now, ready and willing to serve.  And if it takes another twenty-five years, I'll still be ready.  By then, I'll have the wisdom of a grandfather.  That ought to put me at the head of the line, don't you think? 

Monday, April 1, 2013

Room With Paris View

A year ago, I began posting snapshot views of Paris during our trip to that wonderful city.  Since then, I've heard from many people who enjoyed those posts.  Encouraged by the positive comments and interest, I spent the summer writing a manuscript that detailed our exploration of the City of Light.  At the time, I was not sure if it was for personal use or if I planned to share it with others.  The project grew to include travel tips, historical anecdotes, and my views on art, waiters, movies, writers, coffee, and much, much more.
  There's something here for everyone--those who have always wanted to visit Paris but think they'll never get the chance, those who plan to visit Paris, those who have already been, and even those who say they wouldn't be caught dead in Paris.

   Excerpt from Room With Paris View

The Hôtel de Sens is not well known by Parisian tourists.  It is out of the way, just off the main Rue de Rivoli.  It has a fairytale appearance, like something you might see in Beauty and the Beast.  It was built around the same time as Hôtel de Cluny, from 1498 to 1519.  At one time, like many historical sites in Paris, it had become extremely rundown, but it has since been restored.
As I circled this treasure—taking photographs, as you might guess—a man about my age approached and asked if I would mind taking his picture in front of the hotel.  I was happy to, of course.  Though I found his conditions sort of odd.
“Would you please take it with all these bushes showing in front of me?” he asked, indicating a row of shrubbery on the street opposite the Hotel.  His accent was British, and he was in fact driving a Land Rover which he must have brought over on the Chunnel Train.
“No problem,” I answered, promptly lining up the shot and snapping the picture.  He quickly scanned the results.
“Uh, if you don’t mind, I just need…” he turned and bent his knees, to show me the angle he wanted.  With the camera in hand, he framed the shot and pointed where he wanted to be in it.  Half of the shot included the shrubbery.  I couldn’t help but think about the Knights of Ni! who demanded shrubbery from King Arthur in that old Monty Python movie.  I kept a straight face and did as he asked.
He was happier than a fifteen-year-old boy at the Moulin Rouge.  Maybe he was a landscape artist who was writing a book.  I dunno.  But I was glad to help the guy out.  It seemed unlikely that two men from separate worlds would meet on the same day as they visited an out-of-the-way old house in the middle of Paris.
We chatted a little, expressing our admiration for the wonderful old palace, then went back to our separate worlds.  Somewhere in London or Surrey there is a photograph on a wall of a man in front of the Hôtel de Sens with a great shot of shrubbery in the foreground.  I know, I made sure the shrubbery looked good.  It obviously meant a lot to him.
If you should take the time to look up this wonderful jewel, be sure to notice the cannonball stuck in the wall just off to the side of the left turret (it’s left if you’re facing the main gate).  Some idiot during the July Revolution of 1830 not only pointed a loaded cannon at this irreplaceable landmark, but he actually fired the stupid thing.  Thankfully, the walls were stronger than his intellect.
The day I made this tour was Sunday, April the 22nd, a Presidential Election day for France.  What intrigued me most was that you would not have known it unless you were paying attention.  Just across the street from the Hôtel de Sens was an old school building bearing the words École Primaire Communale des Filles, which means it was a girl’s elementary school many years ago.  It is still a school today; a paper sign tacked to a bulletin board at the entrance reads École Élémentaire Ave Maria.   Interestingly enough, the original stone inscription shows heavy damage, as if someone had chiseled or hammered away at it, which is likely, considering the passionate uprisings that have occurred over the years.  The French like to make all of these signs and symbols in permanent stone, then go to great lengths to erase them when they become enraged.
But this election was quite peaceful, and I watched old people and young men and tired ladies stand in line at the school for the chance to cast their ballot.  It looked much like our own elections at home, where little old ladies run the election process to choose the leaders of a superpower.  I’ve always been fascinated by that fact.  I could not see who was running the show in the school but I would not have been surprised to find a few tough old birds like our League of Women Voters.
There is one last little irony about this voting location.  The school was built against a portion of what was once King Phillipe-Auguste’s Wall (1190 to 1210 AD), which he ordered to be built for the city’s defense against the Plantagenets of Norman England while he was away on the Third Crusade.  The wall was covered for many years, and it wasn’t until a row of houses was torn down that it was discovered.  So King Philip’s wall now shelters a voting booth for the French democratic government.

For more information on the book, please visit the Saint James Infirmary Books website.

You can also order the book from Amazon (both print and Kindle editions are available).