Coal Miner’s Daughter

Wednesday, and here we are, in the middle of the week suddenly. It’s also a new month; didn’t March seem to last forever, to the point where it actually felt like it wasn’t just March but Bataan Death March? Does anyone besides me even know what the Bataan Death March was? Americans’ grasp and knowledge of our own history is astonishingly slender and leaves a lot to be desired–which is why the same policies that have failed, repeatedly, throughout our history–“trickle down economics”, anyone–always end up coming back around and fucking us all over again, repeatedly, as new generations continue to be fooled by the desire of the rich and the corporations to fuck us repeatedly, counting on the knowledge that no one knows it has all happened before.

It is astonishing how no one studies the past so we can learn from mistakes made and not repeat them, isn’t it?

I’m actually not, as today’s title might suggest, a coal miner’s daughter but actually a coal miner’s grandson; my grandfather was a coal miner, and received disability until the day he died for the black lung disease he acquired as a result. Alabama isn’t known for coal mining, and I do know that he used to go away to work in the coal mines, so I’m not exactly sure where it was he went to do the work; as a child I didn’t really listen to the stories as closely as perhaps I should have, or it’s the old memory-sieve thing, but I do remember seeing Coal Miner’s Daughter in the theater when it was released, and thinking, when they showed the shack Loretta Lynn grew up in, how similar it was to my maternal grandmother’s house. The house my father grew up in–where my grandfather lived up till pretty close to when he died, I think–wasn’t as ramshackle as my maternal grandmother’s. It never dawned on me to think about how much poverty my parents grew up as children; my maternal grandfather died when my mother was around eleven, and so the only money they ever got was his military pension from serving in the Pacific during the war–and it wasn’t much. My grandmother used to make most of her children’s clothes as well as her own; when I was a kid I remember my mother had mad sewing skills, but they fell into disuse as we moved up the economic ladder as I got older. My parents were, in fact, a perfect example of the upward mobility, the American dream, as it used to exist in those decades that followed the second world war. They married young and moved to Chicago when they were barely twenty and had two small children; they both worked in factories while my dad went to school at night to finish his engineering degree. By the time they were thirty they owned a house in the suburbs and my father was on his way up the corporate ladder; my mom stopped working when he finally made it to management and we were transferred to Kansas. It was always ironic to me that when I was a small child my parents both worked while everyone else I knew’s mom was a housewife; when the economy shifted in my teens my mother became a housewife while most other families became two income.

I didn’t grow up in Alabama, but I grew up thinking of Alabama as home and was raised to have a fierce, deep pride in not only being Southern but in Alabama. I grew up understanding the importance of both Alabama and Auburn football to the pride of the state, and pride in that the fierce rivalry between the two programs was one of the biggest and best in college football. My love for Alabama has grown more conflicted over the years, as I began to reexamine things I was raised to believe in as moral and right and developed my own code of ethics, morality, and right and wrong. Writing Bury Me in Shadows is, in some ways, an attempt to regurgitate and make sense of that through writing. The vast majority of my writing has always firmly centered New Orleans, and writing about New Orleans is probably what I’m best known for, if I am known at all. I have written bits and pieces here and there about other places I’ve lived; I turned Fresno into Polk for the frat boy books, and Tampa into Bay City for other stories, and of course, with the exception of Dark Tide, which was set in the panhandle of Alabama, I primarily fictionalize where I’m from in Alabama as Corinth County–which is where the main character of Dark Tide was from.

Bury Me in Shadows is my first book-length writing about Corinth County; and I decided to show it from the perspective of a native who didn’t grow up there, whose mother moved away before he was born, and has spent very little time there–and hasn’t, in fact, been there since he was eight years old. I am having some fun with it–you can’t go wrong with a meth lab, a burned out plantation house, and the rural woods in northwest Alabama–but it needs some work, and I think I’ve been away from it long enough now so that when I do have the time to go back and start revising and reworking and getting it ready to turn in, my eyes and perspective will be fresh.

I am starting to get more tired though, and it’s harder to get up in the morning than it was earlier in the week. I am only working the morning shift today; this afternoon I have some errands to run and I am going to do some work at home. I think that will help me with the tiredness–the screening process can be draining–and if I get my work done early, I can maybe spend some time reading or writing. I was too tired to read much more of “The Archduchess,” the du Maurier tale I am trying to get through this week, but it’s very interesting. The darkness that always imbues her work is there as the story goes on, which is about a very small European nation whose spring water has some kind of mystical rejuvenating power, but I haven’t gotten to the meat of the story as of yet. But it’s interesting, and I am curious to see where she is going with the story.

I also have a gazillion emails to try to get answered at some point today.

Just thinking about it makes me tired.

And on that note, it’s off to the spice mines. Have a lovely, lovely day, Constant Reader.

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The Dance

Someone told me once, long ago, that life was a dance. You could either stand in a corner or off to the side and watch; you could find a partner and go out on the dance floor and participate, or…you could go out on the dance floor by yourself and celebrate your life. I spent the first thirty-three years of my life on the side, watching and envying the people out on the dance floor. At thirty-three was when I decided I’d dance with myself if I had to–and within a year I wasn’t alone out there, and haven’t been since.

The dancing metaphor has come in handy more than once–my lengthy essay in Love Bourbon Street  was titled “I Haven’t Stopped Dancing Yet”–and while I don’t actually go out dancing anymore–the noise! the people! the late nights!–I still think of myself as out on the dance floor of life, under the glittering, sparkling disco ball while the bass is thumping and some diva is holding a note for what seems like five minutes.

Yesterday wasn’t a bad day, all things considered–although I suppose a very strong case could be made for days being judged currently on a scale of degrees of bad would perhaps be the easiest way to do it–but I got through, as did we all, and that’s another day in the dustbin of history. I am currently in this bizarre space of being  in the midst of something–as is everyone, again to varying degrees of bad–that is so vast and overwhelming that it cannot be considered in its entirety, for that path is the darkest one and must be avoided at all costs so I have to keep it at as much arm’s length as I can in order to cope with what my little piece of its reality is.

As much as I tamp down on it, it bubbles up periodically and runs wild for a horrifying moment or two, before I can get the lid forced back on and held down with all my strength until it subsides again.

And then I get on with it, as one does.

I started reading another du Maurier short story yesterday, “The Archduchess,” which is interesting and different and quite unlike anything of hers I’ve ever read before–always part of the delight of reading her work for the first time–and so I read on warily, wondering what she has in store for me the reader. I also managed to burp up about 500 or so words on my short story “Condos For Sale or Rent,” my quarantine noir story that has come literally from nowhere and is currently demanding my attention, and its urgency is impossible to resist or ignore–despite having any number of other stories and various projects requiring, yet not receiving, said attention–and while I am generally fairly good at harnessing my creativity and making it do what I want it to do (with varying degrees of success, but it generally winds up doing what I want in some way), now I just don’t have either the will or the energy to wrestle my creativity into where it should be. Anyway, I like the voice and I like that it’s set in the NOW. It’s an isolation/quarantine story, yes, and it has some potential, quite frankly. But we’ll see where it goes and how it turns out–but for now, I am having some serious fun with it.

And isn’t that what matters?

We finished watching Season 3 of Ozark last night, which means tonight we are most likely going to either continue with the insanity of Tiger King or move on to something else; I am thinking either Locke and Key on Netflix, or perhaps His Dark Materials on HBO; or something else entirely. There is a lot of really great stuff out there, and so that makes it even harder to decide what to watch. Or I could just read some more. I have to finish reading the du Maurier story, and I would also like to start the reread of Ammie Come Home, which is, naturally, one of my favorite books of all time.

And on that note, tis time to get back to the spice mines. Have a lovely Tuesday, Constant Reader.

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Forever and Ever Amen

Yesterday afternoon I got sucker-punched; there I was, having a good day and getting things done and then–WHAM! Right between the eyes–Southwest sent me a reminder email about my scheduled and ticketed trip to New York for the Edgars at the end of April. The 30th, to be exact, but because of the symposium and other duties, I was going to be flying up there on the 28th, hence the reminder email. It didn’t help that the email reminded me that today would have been the closing for TWFest/S&S, and I got teary-eyed and sad and overwhelmed and had to get off the computer and away from the world for a little while.

It was out of the blue–I’ve said this before and it’s my own advice to other people (“remember something unexpected will happen–a tweet, a Facebook post, an email–that will catch you off guard and trigger something internal”) but it’s still rough when it happens, and it did, in fact, derail the rest of my day; there was no writing accomplished yesterday, and I didn’t really do much of anything afterwards, other than binge a few more episodes of Ozark (greatly enjoying this third season; the performances are stellar, particularly Laura Linney and Julia Garner) and then went to bed early. I slept fairly well, and this morning I feel even, but man–was that ever rough yesterday or what?

This week I have to go to work at 8:15 at our other building (campus?) every morning before leaving around noon to head to our other building (campus?) on Elysian Fields for the afternoon shift. Adapting to what is essential a 9-to-5 life isn’t going to be easy for me; it’s something I’ve managed to avoid my entire life until age fifty-eight, although I have to confess (as I said the other day) there really is something to eight hours five days a week. I like getting home earlier than I usually do (around eight), and I just have to  adjust to having those early evenings free. Hurricane season is coming, and so is termite swarm season and the time when stinging caterpillars rain down from the live oak trees like something out of C-level horror film from the 1950’s–usually the second bill on a drive-in double feature; you know the kind of film I mean–and then comes the heat and humidity of the summer. It’s already hotter this year than it usually is at this time of the year; I can only imagine how truly unbearable July and August are going to be this summer. There are but two days left in this hellish March, and then it’s April. (And I do hope nobody is foolish enough to play pranks on April Fool’s Day…)

I’ve decided since my attention span is so limited that it’s time to go back to both the Short Story Project (which I’ve been doing these last few weeks, really) as well as the Reread Project. I had considered rereading Mary Stewart’s This Rough Magic next, since I don’t really remember much of it at all, but have decided to reread one of my all time favorites, and definitely my favorite ghost story of all time, Ammie Come Home by Barbara Michaels. It’s been awhile since I read it, and it was, of course, the first novel by Michaels I read. I had originally watched the Made for TV movie that was based on it (The House That Wouldn’t Die, starring none other than the magnificent Miss Barbara Stanwyck), and then later found it in a volume of Reader’s Digest Condensed Books (remember those?) about a year or so later at my grandmother’s. I eventually bought a used paperback copy when I was either fifteen or sixteen and read the full novel, and it’s been a favorite of mine ever since. (In those days, I preferred her work as Barbara Michaels–it wasn’t until years later that I really got into her novels under the name Elizabeth Peters, and there was no turning back from that moment.)

I have a lot of emails in my inbox to answer–remember, I was in a flurry of responding to emails when I got the reminder from Southwest that derailed my entire day yesterday–as well as to sort and file. I’ve absolutely got to get back on that horse and dive into my emails headfirst today, and I’ve got to generate some others and consolidate all my notes and create an overall to-do list. My primary concern with so many seemingly endless tasks is that I am going to forget something important; I need to get my equilibrium back–hopefully getting used to my next work schedule will be helpful in that regard–and I need to get better organized.

I always seem to be saying that, don’t I?

Hmmmmm.

But the sun is rising and the world is gray outside my windows, and it’s about time for me to head into the spice mines. Stay safe, everyone, and have a lovely day.

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I Will Always Love You

Constant Reader should know by now that one of my favorite writers is Daphne du Maurier. I was a teenager when I first got my hands on a copy of Rebecca, and I have reread the book every few years ever since. Around this same time–I think I was thirteen?–I also got a copy of her short story collection, Echoes from the Macabre, and become forever also enchanted by her story “Don’t Look Now.” These short stories were kind of a revelation to me; I hadn’t read many short stories at this point outside of the ones I had to read for English classes (and quite frankly, forcing teenagers to read “The Minister’s Black Veil”, with all due respect, should be considered a violation of the Geneva Convention, as is making them read “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”), and her mastery of subtlety, and weaving small details that turn out to be hugely important later was one of the things I admired the most about du Maurier. Over the course of the next few years I would return to du Maurier, to read The Flight of the Falcon, Frenchmen’s Creek, The Winding Stair, Jamaica Inn, The King’s General, and Rule Britannia. I didn’t love these other novels as much as I loved (love) Rebecca, but I became an enormous fan of du Maurier and her writing style; I also loved how she subverted tropes and genre expectations with her novels. I also loved that she wrote across a broad range of genres and styles with her work; you never really know what you’re going to get when you pick up one of her novels.

I had gotten a copy of her short story collection The Breaking Point several years ago; it contains some of the same stories as Echoes from the Macabre (“The Pool,” “The Blue Lenses”–bloody fantastic story, and “The Chamois”), and opens with “The Alibi,” which I read as part of the Short Story Project a few years back (was it last year? The year before? Does time have any meaning anymore?) but the other day (was it last week? Two weeks ago? Time has no meaning anymore) when I was talking about “Death in Venice” in reference to du Maurier’s “Don’t Look Now” and someone asked had I read du Maurier’s “Ganymede”? I had not, so I looked it up and was most delighted to see it was included in The Breaking Point; I just hadn’t gotten into the book far enough, and it is sandwiched between “The Blue Lenses” (which you really must read) and “The Pool”; which explains when I never progressed further in the book, having already read those two stories.

So, having now read both “Don’t Look Now” and “Death in Venice”, I thought it was perhaps time for me to read “Ganymede,” which is the du Maurier tale most often academically associated with “Death in Venice”–but it is very different.

They call it Little Venice. That was what drew me here in the first place. And you have to admit that there is a curious resemblance–at least for people like myself, with imagination. There is a corner, for instance, where the canal takes a bend, fronted by a row of terraced houses, and the water has a particular stillness, especially at night, and hte glaring discordancies that are noticeable during the day, like the noise of the shunting from Paddington Station, the rattle of the trains, the ugliness, all that seems to vanish. Instead…the yellow light from the street lamps might be the mysterious glow you get from those old lanterns set in brackets on the corner of some crumbling palazzo, whose shuttered windows look blindly down upon the stagnant sweetness of a side-canal.

It is, and I must repeat this, essential to have imagination, and the house-agents are clever–they frame their advertisement to catch the eye of waverers like myself. “Two-roomed flat, with balcony, overlooking canal, in the quiet backwater known as Little Venice,” and instantly, to the famished mind, to the aching heart, comes a vision of another two-roomed flat, another balcony, where at the hour of waking the sun makes patterns on a flaking ceiling, water patterns, and the sour Venetian smell comes through the window with the murmur of Venetian voices, the poignant “Ohé!” as the gondola rounds the bend and disappears.

In Little Venice we have traffic too. Not sharp-nosed gondolas, of course, gently rocking from side to side, but barges pass my window carrying bricks, and sometimes coal–the coal-dust dirties the balcony; and if I shut my eyes, surprised by the sudden hooting, and listen to the rapid chug-chug of the barge’s engine, I can fancy myself, with my same shut eyes, waiting for a vaporetto at one of the landing-stages. I stand on the wooden planking, hemmed in by a chattering crowd, and there is a great surge and throbbing as the vessel goes hard astern. Then the vaporetto is alongside, and I, with my chattering crows, have gone aboard and we are off again, churning the water into wavelets with our wash, and I am trying to make up my mind whether to go direct to San Marco, and so to the piazza and my usual table, or to leave the vaporetto higher up the Grand Canal and thus prolong exquisite anticipation.

As Constant Reader knows, I spent a mere twenty-four hours in Venice on our trip to Italy back whenever that was (2014? 2015? Time has certainly ceased to have any meaning), and it was certainly not enough. Our trip was timed beautifully to avoid crowds of tourists I expected to see in Venice, Florence, and Pisa; it wasn’t planned that way but simply worked out for us. We arrived in the city on a bright sunny early afternoon; lugged our bags through the narrow streets to find our hotel, which was a charming family business on a back canal, not far from the Rialto Bridge and a very short walk to the Piazza San Marco. It did turn gray and start drizzling a bit as we walked around exploring the beautiful city, and I was completely enchanted by it; twenty four hours was certainly not enough. I did stand in the Piazza San Marco and say, quoting Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, “ah, Venice.”

I’ve also been writing a story set in Venice, which I’ve been wanting to do since I was there–and probably should have done before now. It’s called “Festival of the Redeemer,” and in some ways it’s yet another homage to “Don’t Look Now”, but it is also it’s own story–it was kind of inspired by “Don’t Look Now”, but as I write it it’s become something else entirely. So, I wanted to reread “Don’t Look Now”–and then of course moved on to “Death In Venice,” before coming around to “Ganymede.”

I can see why the latter two stories (“Death in Venice” and “Ganymede”) are academically linked; there are similarities between the stories: two older men coming to Venice on a holiday; the city wasn’t either’s first choice of vacation spot; and soon after their arrival they find themselves obsessed with a beautiful teenaged boy. In the Mann story, his main character is a rather stuffy and pompous author whose successes and literary brilliances have earned him an honorary nobility in Germany; in the du Maurier, he is a classics scholar, an utterly unbearable pretentious snob, and basically a pedophile with a taste for post-pubescent boys. In the Mann story, Aschenbach’s obsession with teenager Tadzio is portrayed as both something noble and pure and beautiful; no lust, nothing impure, nothing to see here; it’s an aesthetic and pure admiration for the young man’s classical and breathtaking beauty, which inevitably leads to Aschenbach’s death because he has become aware of the cholera outbreak but he cannot bear to leave his beautiful young man behind. The story has thus been embraced by academia as a classic–even though the entire story rings with a hollow inauthenticity that renders the entire thing a pointless masturbatory exercise on Mann’s part: by trying to make a bold sentence about aging and death and the pursuit of beauty and love in a pure form, it overlooks the simple, basic thesis that Aschenbach is drooling over the good looks of a fourteen year old. Aschenbach is nothing more than another Humbert Humbert, convinced that his “love” for a child is something noble and pure rather than its tawdry reality.

Du Maurier doesn’t have that same sentimentality and nobility of purpose than Mann apparently had when undertaking his tome; she saw right through it and saw the story for it was, and her pastiche–if it was indeed influenced by the Mann story, and not something she thought up herself–lacks sentimentality and doesn’t pretend to be anything other than what it actually is: the self-justification of a pedophile for what happened to him in Venice–and the damage his peculiarity of taste causes. But du Maurier’s unnamed narrator (another trick of which du Maurier was fond; not naming her main characters) reads much like Humbert Humbert; he is trying to justify his tastes, predilections, and desires for young boys as something noble–but du Maurier exposes the tawdriness underlying his unsavory tastes. The object of his obsession also goes without name other than Ganymede; which our pedophile starts calling him once he sees him waiting tables in the Piazza San Marco, and is reminded, not only by what he does for a living but by his youthful beauty, of the myth of Ganymede–the only time in Greek mythology in which the beauty of a young man so moved Zeus that he brought him to Olympus, made him divine, and replaced his female cupbearer, Hebe, with him. And so the young man becomes Ganymede in the myth being spun by our narrator.

Nor is our narrator the only villain in this tale; Ganymede’s uncle notes the narrator’s interest in Ganymede and thus prepares to exploit the attraction; one is never certain whether Ganymede himself is in on the scam, or is an unwitting prop in his uncle’s procuring. The story, of course, concludes with a tragedy–most du Maurier tales do–but unlike Aschenbach, our narrator does not die in Venice; but causes the death of his obsession. The story concludes with our narrator back in London, living in his two-room flat in Little Venice, remembering his experience and remembering his Ganymede and the tragedy that ensued…but the story closes with him talking about another young waiter at another restaurant, in this “little Venice”, one who reminds him of Ganymede and the delusions he built up around him; he is doing the same thing with this new shiny object that has crossed his path…it is clearly, as du Maurier makes plain, his pattern.

I greatly enjoyed this story, and while I can see the parallels, as I said, with “Death in Venice”, I feel du Maurier took a more honest and realistic approach to telling her story than Mann did with his. I will reread this story again–its a great story–and will probably dive into some more du Maurier this summer.

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Hey Good Lookin’

Hey there, Sunday morning, how’s about you doin’?

Well, we’re still here, aren’t we? That’s something to be grateful for, I suppose; I don’t know what horrors today might still have in store for me, or what fresh new ones await on the morrow, but for now–I am okay, we’re all okay, and it’s always okay to take a step back away when you need to because it can be so overwhelming.

Yesterday was lovely. I slept in, I read some emails, I did laundry and cleaned the kitchen. I organized the stuff on the cabinets on the stove-side (downtown in New Orleans) of the kitchen; I had a protein shake for lunch and peanut butter toast for breakfast. I worked on the laundry room shelves, and reorganized the bathroom vanity. I read Daphne du Maurier’s “Ganymede,” which was both creepy and charming at the same time–which only makes it creepier, doesn’t it? I made a shopping list for the next time I go to Costco. I made progress on getting organized, despite the on-going irritations with my computer which finally resulted in it doing a deep crash, but now it seems to be working just beautifully. I didn’t lose anything but time, and well–the one thing to come out of the dramatic shift and change in my work schedule is eight hour days, five days a week–and despite getting up early and having to go to bed early as a result–I find myself with more free time than I had before. There’s no sports to watch on television; this weekend I would have been running around getting exhausted (but having a great time doing it) at TWFest/S&S. That’s correct; that is what would have been the normal madness of life I associate with this time of year–part of the reason, I suspect, I feel so unmoored most of the time; this is anything but a normal time–and I also know, from past experience,  that normal is going to be different from now on. There’s no going back to December 2019, when we were all looking forward to the end of an annus horribilis; we had no idea what horrors our eldritch reality had waiting in store for us in 2020.

An innocent, more carefree and hopeful time. Hard to believe it’s only been three months since Christmas.

But yesterday I stayed away from the news and scrolled past it on the rare occasions I ventured into the Internet yesterday; it made for a much more relaxed day, and I even refused to worry about how many bad things might be happening while I wasn’t paying attention–and then realized with luck, some of the stuff that probably shot by in our daily dystopian news reality, the stuff I’ll never go back and get caught up on, hopefully won’t be necessary. The only news I want to hear at this point is that this whole situation has miraculously resolved itself and everything is back to normal, and if that were the news, I’ll find out soon enough, right?

Right.

But it was lovely to feel like it was my life again, and a normal Saturday. I could feel the tension slowly easing itself out of my shoulder blades as the day passed and I grew more and more relaxed, as the ease of repetition and mindless work put me into a more zen-like state, where my mind could release itself from its bonds and be creative; think creatively and solve problems and get organized; and of course the memories from AFTER Katrina, of going to the gym to develop a routine for every day and sticking to that; setting a routine of things to do to keep me occupied, my mind focused elsewhere than what the reality was outside my front door. None of this is possible now, of course; but I am going to start stretching every morning so at least I am doing something to take care of my body. But I am trying to adapt and change to a new system, a new normal, a new reality; and finding time to write–which I am going to do today–goes a very long way to reestablishing a new reality for me.

We finished watching The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and I already miss it. It’s quite an excellent show; and as I mentioned already, Kiernan Shipka is perfectly cast as Sabrina (I also kept thinking, as I watched, what a good Nancy Drew she would make); in fact, everyone is pretty much perfectly cast, and the high production quality of the show is something to see indeed. After we finished Sabrina, we started with the third season of Ozark, and if you haven’t been watching that show, you need to start from the beginning and go to binge-heaven. Cleverly written, beautifully directed and filmed, and remarkably cast–Julia Garner as Ruth is a particular stand-out–Ozark is one of the best shows of the last few years. And then we moved on to Tiger King, the docu-series everyone is talking about, and wow–what an interesting show. The funny thing is I had always wanted to write a book built around the Big Cat Rescue organization run by Carole Baskin; I had a base idea formed around it, and when Paul and I stayed at the Saddlebrook Tennis Resort north of Tampa a few years ago (probably more than a few years ago; I think it was 2012? 2013? Time holds little to no meaning to me anymore) I had considered contacting them to do some research while we were there. The name of the book was going to be The Stripes of the Tiger and I actually came across my file with notes a few days ago when I was organizing and filing in the kitchen. (I often have ideas that hold my interest for a little while and then I see another new, shiny object and move on)

“Ganymede” was a chilling and charming story, as I mentioned earlier–and I can see why it’s compared to “Death in Venice’; there are definitely similarities under the surface of the stories; an older tourist comes to Venice on holiday, becomes obsessed with a much younger, extremely beautiful teenager, and the end result of both stories is death. The Mann story, of course, ends with the death of the tourist from a cholera outbreak; the du Maurier ends very differently. Naturally, I prefer the du Maurier story, which is dark and twisted, and I’ll say it if no one else wants to make the comparison: “Ganymede” also has a lot in common with Lolita. I’ll have more to say about “Ganymede,” but I think I’ll save that for a dedicated post.

And on that note, I am heading back into the spice mines. Have a lovely Sunday, Constant Reader.

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The Silky Veils of Ardor

As Constant Reader knows, Gregalicious loves short stories. He regrets deeply that they are much harder for him to write than novels (I’ve often joked that I find it much easier to write a novel than a short story; the word count limitations are hard for me as I always tend to write probably more than is needed to illustrate a particular point–take this sentence, for example), and I am sure part of this insecurity comes from my oft-told tale about my first writing professor, who earwormed his petty nastiness into my brain and soul. (But also this gives me an enormous sense of personal satisfaction in that I know I’ve published more fiction than he did during his time on this planet; to this date, I still cannot find a single fiction publication for the prick.)

And while I am a firm believer in the mentality that writers should always be paid–even if merely a token–for their work, I will often write short stories if requested, and don’t mind donating a story for a good cause. The two stories I had in Bouchercon anthologies weren’t paid, nor was my story for Murder-a-Go-Go’s; like I said, when I am asked to write a story I am genuinely so flattered that the editor thought enough of me and my work to ask. I like writing short stories, even if they are a struggle for me, and there aren’t many places where one can get them published these days.

I was enormously flattered to be asked by short story master Josh Pachter to write a story for his anthology of stories inspired by the music of Joni Mitchell. The irony, of course, is that while I am familiar with Ms. Mitchell and her work–and I like what I know of it–I am not as familiar with her canon as I am with women singer-songwriters like Stevie Nicks, Dolly Parton or Carole King; I also realized that the songs of hers that I could name off the top of my head–“Free Man in Paris”, “Help Me”, “Big Yellow Taxi”, etc.–were the same ones anyone could; I wanted something not quite as famous and perhaps a little more obscure, something to which a Joni Mitchell fan would say oh yes, of course you chose that song.

So, I did what I often do in these situations: I asked my friend Michael Thomas Ford (aka That Bitch Ford), and he immediately came back with “You should pick ‘The Silky Veils of Ardor.’ It’s about that hot guy all the high school girls fall in love with and breaks their hearts.”

That was definitely intriguing, so I looked up the lyrics and listened to the song several times as I listened to Joni’s sweet voice singing them…and I knew immediately what story I was going to tell.

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The elevator doors opened. Cautiously, her heart thumping in her ears, she stepped out into the hotel lobby and took a quick look around. At the front desk, a young woman in uniform was checking in a couple. They didn’t look familiar. But it had been so long since she’d seen any of them…would she recognize anyone?

She didn’t notice she was holding her breath.

She walked across the lobby to the hotel bar entrance. A reader board just outside said WELCOME BACK BAYVIEW HIGH CLASS OF 1992!

The black background was faded, the white plastic letters yellowed with age.

The urge to head back to the elevators and punch at the UP button until the doors opened, get back to her room and repack her suitcases—everything she’d just carefully put away neatly in drawers and hung in the closet—was strong. She resisted, recognized the need as irrational, closed her eyes, clenched her hands until she felt her ragged bitten nails digging into her palms.

You can do this you can do this you can do this you can do this….

A dull murmur came from the hotel bar, laughter and talking, the rattle of ice against glass, the whir of a blender. From where she stood, she could see the bar was crowded, cocktail waitresses in too-short black skirts and white blouses with trays balanced on one hand maneuvering expertly around groups of people.

Maybe no one there was from the reunion. Maybe she was early. Maybe—

You can do this!

She’d always had social anxiety. Had never made friends easily, couldn’t make small talk, sometimes said the wrong thing, alienated people without even knowing what she’d done. Parties and dances had always been agony. Even with friends, people she felt relatively certain actually did like her, there was always the irrational fear she’d say the wrong thing, forget a birthday, commit some horrific social faux pas that would turn them against her, show them what a damaged, worthless person she actually was. She’d started seeing a therapist after college, years after she should have, but her parents thought therapy was all touchy-feely mumbo-jumbo for the weak and all you had to do was suck it up and forget about it, not worry, lock it all away in some dark corner of your mind and move on.

I have never attended a high school reunion, and frankly, have little to no desire to ever do so–with no offense intended to anyone I went to high school with. Our school was very small and remote, for one thing–my graduating class had only 48 students, and at that point, were the largest graduating class in our high school’s history. It’s not easy to get there–one would have to fly into either Kansas City or Wichita, rent a car, and drive for at least an hour just to get to the county seat, and of course, my high school was about nineteen miles (give or take) north of the county seat. I do think about going back from time to time, more to take a look around and see what’s different now as opposed to then; to refresh my memories a bit for writing about the region–which I’ve done somewhat already, but not nearly as much as I could. Using Google Earth has already shown me that my memory is faulty–I’ve fallen into Google Earth wormholes frequently–so while there is some idle curiosity about going back, there’s very little desire or motivation. It’s difficult, I think, for my classmates to understand that I really don’t have much desire to revisit that time of my life; it’s certainly not their fault but the four or five years I spent in Kansas also contain some of the darkest periods of my life.

I wrote a short story about a high school reunion under my Todd Gregory pseudonym; “Promises in Every Star,” which eventually became the title story of my Todd Gregory collection. I first had the idea for that story when I received the invitation to my ten year reunion, back in 1988; the title is a lyric from one of my favorite til Tuesday songs, “Coming Up Close,” from my favorite album of theirs, Welcome Home, which I can listen to over and over again, and have, many times; it’s definitely in my Top Five favorite albums of all time. I don’t remember where I originally published that story, but it was many, many years later, after I had the original idea and wrote the first draft (in long hand), and after that, I figured I was finished with high school reunion stories.

Until “The Silky Veils of Ardor.”

As I listened to the song, the more the story began to take shape in my head; a high school reunion, twenty-five years later; returning to the town where she went to high school for the first time since she graduated and moved away with her family. I had already written the opening, for another short story; as I revised and retooled that particular story, the character grew and changed and wasn’t the timid, nervous, medicated woman she originally was–but I loved that original opening, and decided to lift it from the initial drafts of that story onto this one. I found the original word document of the first draft, erased everything after the opening few paragraphs, and renamed the file THE SILKY VEILS OF ARDOR. The rest of the story flowed out of me after I finished rereading and tweaking the original opening to fit the new story, and I was off and running. I revised the story several times, and one of the things, one of the points, I was trying to make with the story is about how differently we see high school than our friends and classmates did–which is an idea I’d been toying with after an exchange on social media with some of my classmates after I’d posted something–a status update or a blog post, or something along those lines–about how miserable I’d been in high school; my friends were all astonished because how remembered high school was very different from the way they remembered it, and me. I remembered feeling isolated and lonely, like an alien from another planet set down into their midst; a freak everyone kept at arm’s length. They, on the other hand, remembered me as being popular and well-liked by everyone.

And that, my friends, is where this story came from. I still think about those tricks our memories play on us; our inability to see what was right in front of us if we could just see clearly.

The book will be officially released on April 7th from Untreed Reads; you can preorder it at any vendor that sells ebooks. There’s a stellar line-up of writers, and some of the proceeds are going to charity.

And thanks again to Josh Pachter for inviting me.

Here’s a link to Joni singing the song–this is the video I listened to for inspiration.

The Gambler

Saturday morning, and we’ve made it through yet another week, Constant Reader. It got a little hairy here and there this past week–Wednesday afternoon I was literally hanging by a thread and barely in control of my temper–but having Thursday to stay home and collect myself was absolutely lovely. I got rested, got my equilibrium back, and so yesterday I was fine. I managed to make it through an entire eight hour shift at work with aplomb; I was even able to spend some time getting some of my data entry work accomplished. There were some difficult times yesterday, I cannot lie; it’s going to get harder and harder as the epidemic continues weaving its evil, viral way through our parish, and as more and more people get sick. I also believe the city is reaching its tipping point with the hospitals close to being overwhelmed; they are preparing the Convention Center with beds to turn it into a makeshift hospital ward for those who are sick and need care, but don’t need ventilation. This, of course, brings back horrible memories of the days after Katrina; so far there’s been no word about the Superdome being used in this capacity, primarily because it’s not as easily accessed as the Convention Center–you can walk inside the Morial Center from the sidewalk, whereas at the Superdome you have quite a climb and walk to get inside, so it’s probably not practical for use in that manner.

Yesterday I had to stop at Rouse’s on the way home, and I was expecting–well, I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting. Since I made the Costco run on Lundi Gras (which in hindsight was probably one of the smartest decisions I’ve made in my life; certainly the most important decisions I’ve made in 2020), toilet paper isn’t a concern so I didn’t check that aisle at all; but as picked over as the bread aisle was, I  managed to get two small loaves of Bunny Bread (the local Louisiana version of Wonder Bread, don’t judge me–it makes excellent toast and grilled cheese sandwiches, so back off). I also noticed that Rouse’s bakery is now making fresh bread, cut for sandwiches, and only charging 99 cents per loaf.

I do love my friendly neighborhood Rouse’s.

And as our case numbers and death toll continues to rise in New Orleans, I am pleased to say that the city is doing what it always does in times of crisis: it is pulling together. No matter how scared people might be, no one we have to turn away from getting tested for not having the applicable symptoms becomes irate or angry, even out of a sense of being scared or frustrated–they all accept it with aplomb, thank us for helping the sick, and promise to keep checking to see when we have more testing capacity.  Restaurants are feeding service workers who no longer have incomes. One of the hotels in the CBD has opened itself to the homeless population, to get them off the streets and put a roof over their heads and giving them access to running water and a bed. Everyone in Rouse’s, from the customers to the staff, were all pleasant and polite and kind to each other.

I don’t think I will ever get used to getting on I-10 at 5 pm and seeing no traffic–I certainly hope I don’t ever get used to it, at any rate.

Last night, we continued our binge-watch of The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina and my God, how addicted are we to this show? It doesn’t hurt, of course, that all of the men are incredibly hot, but the character of Sabrina, and the way Kiernan Shipka plays her, is the heart of the show. It’s become increasingly more and more fantastic, as any show dealing with the supernatural inevitably does; but Shipka manages to root her performance–and thus carry the show–in reality, which makes it work perfectly. All of the acting is stellar and top-notch, and while it plays fast-and-loose with a lot of things having to do with the dark arts and dark magic–it’s still kind of cool to see the world-building taking place, and that it all seems to come together and work on the show. I also have a HUGE crush on Luke Cook, the Australian actor who plays Lucifer. (Do yourself a favor and do a google-image search for “Luke Cook shirtless.”)

I also love the way Sabrina is the center of the show–and the way the men inevitably wind up doing what she tells them to.

And–as weird as this may sound–I find that my best coping mechanism to get back to my own center after getting home from a tough day at work is to watch highlights of LSU games from this past season. I also particularly enjoy watching the last five minutes of the first half of the Alabama game (as LSU took a 16-13 lead and in under five minutes turned it into an unsurmountable 33-13 half-time lead) or the final ten minutes of the first half of the national championship game against Clemson (when LSU went from trailing 17-7 to a 28-17 half-time lead; scoring enough points to win the game before half-time). As I said to Paul last night as I cued up that Clemson game yet again, “You know, this is the last time I remember being completely happy.”

These are, indeed, strange times in which we are living.

Today I am going to step away from the Internet (once I finish this) while checking in periodically on social media, and instead I am going to spend most of the day organizing and cleaning and hopefully getting some writing work done. I have the tops of the other cabinets to organize and make tidy; and I may start working my way through the kitchen drawers. I slept extremely well last night and I slept till nine this morning, so I feel rested; I am going to use my massage roller to loosen up the tightness in my back and I am also going to do some stretching this morning; just because I can’t go to the gym doesn’t mean I can’t do stretching exercises. I also forgot two things at Rouse’s yesterday–cat food and charcoal–so I am going to walk over to Walgreens at some point and see if they have both at a reasonable price; if they don’t, I am going to walk to the Rouse’s in the CBD and take pictures of the deserted streets as I go. I feel like I should be documenting these strange times here in the river city; and am probably missing golden opportunities to take pictures of landmarks and so forth that could be used for book covers and so forth because there are no tourists to photo shop out of them.

Maybe I should walk down to Woldenberg Park and also take some pictures of the river. Lost in all this COVID-19 stuff is the fact that the river is very high right now–we may need to open the spillway again this year–and of course, hurricane season is just around the corner….but I am not allowing myself to think about that just yet; there’s plenty of time to worry about storms when the time comes.

And on that note, tis back to the spice mines. Have a lovely day, Constant Reader, and STAY SAFE.

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