Feeds:
Posts
Comments

A Lunch in Paris

After weeks of gracious hosting by lovely people all over the Pays Basque and Provence, we were back in Paris and I had an entire Saturday to wander around by myself!  First stop,

o

Pain

the Bastille street market –  blocks-long aisles three-deep, offering every conceivable vegetable, flower, bread, cheese, fish, fungus, unpronounceable and mysterious sauce, jewelry, watches, CDs and DVDs in exotic languages, clothes, shoes, black market perfume and homeopathic remedies for an array of startling disorders, frequently involving the word, foie (liver.)  In France the liver is, apparently, the seat of most ills.  But not all, as I’m about to see.

18072009037

The Bastille Hippo

Next I sneaked into the corner Hippopotamus, a sort of French Denny’s considered too tacky for words by my hosts.  And it is tacky, offering Americanish food I can eat without the usual, hard-to-hide terror.  I’m deliriously happy, wolfing a Caesar-chicken sandwich and fries (without ketchup, a depth to which even Hippo refuses to sink) and looking forward to dessert – profiteroles gourmandes made with Ben and Jerry’s!  (Scroll down the menu in the Hippo link above to see photo of profiteroles.)

Still, this is not Denny’s and I find myself watching a peculiar drama at a table for two against the back wall.  A couple are sharing a little carafe of what looks like rose’.  His back to me, I see an expanding bald spot, leather coat and fashionable scarf draped over his chair.  They aren’t young, maybe late forties.  His back exudes confidence, a businesslike detachment.  He could be an accountant, insurance adjuster, bank officer.  But something’s wrong.

She’s facing me, her gaunt face scrupulously made up, big eyes made bigger with liner, shadow, fake lashes and mascara.  The makeup looks expensive and her short, dyed hair is either well-cut or a trendy wig.  But even though she’s painfully thin, her sweater is too small, as if she’s borrowed it from a child.  She’s so thin, and yet there’s nothing on their table but the squat carafe of pink wine, the glass-and-a-half size meant for one person.  It’s lunch time, she obviously needs to eat, and yet there’s no food on the table.  As I watch, she flirts with him.  Desperately.  She bats those big eyes, looks at him with vampy, retro-eroticism so often and with such clear intent that she becomes a caricature – Betty Boop as tragic figure.  He doesn’t seem to see or hear her, just relaxes with his wine.

I want to send her a note on a napkin saying, “Don’t do this!  I’ll buy your lunch!” but I’d never get the French right and I sense that I’m so “other” in her context as to be invisible.  I wouldn’t even qualify as an obnoxious, meddling stranger.  And I don’t think it’s lunch she’s after anyway.

The wine finished, they stand to leave and her coat slides from her chair to the floor.  He doesn’t lean to retrieve it, doesn’t seem to see either the fallen coat or the woman.  Shaking, she bends, her too-small sweater sliding up in back to reveal the bony vertebrae moving beneath transparent skin.  Her body, absent the makeup that has created her face, is a skeleton in a fragile veil.  A skeleton that has just played a dangerous game very badly, and lost.

He leaves a few euros on the table, shrugs on his coat and seems quite content as he walks out into the cold, bright day, never looking back.  She struggles awkwardly with her coat for minutes after he’s gone, her face still attractive but blank now.  The charade is over; she has no expression left.  Not a soul in this red plastic restaurant looks up as she passes and vanishes into the street.

And I’m left wondering if she was really there at all, but rather a ghost replaying some forgotten moment in which the one thing, or one man, that could have made a difference, didn’t.  The buildings of the Place de la Bastille are fairly recent, built in the late 18th and early 19th centuries but of sufficient age to have housed countless pivotal moments.  I choose to imagine this as one of those, in which long-dead bones in painted glamour and stolen clothes return to recreate with the oblivious living some amour fou or grim monetary transaction lost in time and unchangeable.  Unless, of course, the guy at the table had been able to see her.  ;)

 

The Tarasque

600px-Blason_de_la_ville_de_Tarascon_(13).svg

Town crest of Tarascon with Good King Rene’s castle and the Tarasque chomping somebody in the Rhone

Some years ago I wound up in Aix-en-Provence in the summer. (Don’t ever do this.) We were living in a cramped basement apartment that was at least a few degrees cooler than it was outside, and there was little to do during the heat of the day but read and listen to the eerie, omnipresent chorus of the million cicadas that are a regional mascot and a fixture in Provençal fabric design. (Gorgeous tablecloths depicting bugs, go figure. It’s just a Provençal thing.) I don’t speak French beyond the Ou sont les toilettes, s’il vous plait? level, but there was one book in English in the university library, a biography of Frédéric Mistral, the 1904 Nobel Prize-winning writer and lexicographer of Provence’s Occitan language and folklore.

I love folklore, search for it incessantly, regard it as the Rosetta Stone of all hidden mysteries. In the back matter of the book was a reference to a museum in Arles devoted to the Provençal traditions Mistral celebrated in his work. I would have walked the 49 miles from Aix to Arles just to see it, but fortunately we had a car.

The temperature was in the 90’s; the museum was empty, stifling and airless, but I popped a salt pill and reveled in it. The place was and is a trove of wonderful costumes, dioramas, santons (tiny statues of countless Provençal characters), Mistral’s framed Nobel Prize certificate, and a Tarasque! It was love at first sight.

1024px-TarasqueStatue

The Tarasque’s statue in Tarascon

The Tarasque is a mythic, amphibious creature who lived in the Rhone or in the woods near the Rhone and devoured people, mostly those unfortunates who fell into the river due to shipwrecks and that sort of thing. Armies of skilled hunters failed at every attempt to capture and kill the monster, but as luck would have it, St. Martha (of Mary and Martha biblical fame) had moved to France in 48 A.D. shortly after the crucifixion and lived

Abellon-Mag2

Note murderous townfolk.

nearby. She went to the Tarasque and sang to it, taming the beast and sealing its fate. The now-gentle creature walked with St. Martha back into town, where the townfolk immediately beat it to death. Moral: The Little Prince quite aside (“You become responsible forever for what you’ve tamed.”), wisdom lies in scrupulous attention to the character of potential tamers. Martha wasn’t up to the responsibility, and would have found no fan in Antoine de Saint-Exupéry.

The Tarasque became one of my many personal conceptual icons, and I included it in The Paper Doll Museum. But life strangely offered few opportunities to discuss Tarasques over lunch, and my interest, if not my fondness for the creature, faded. Until this trip.

Tarasc bookWhen, driving around the various ancient communes near Meynes, I saw a town name on a road sign -Tarascon. My beast has a whole town named for it! And a statue the size of a Volkswagen van, an annual festival in which it’s carried through town by men in colorful costumes, plus books and tourist gimcracks. I bought the refrigerator magnet. Our hostess Martine, no doubt uneasy at my sudden, frenzied ecstasy over an old French folk tale, graciously bought me the key chain.

There’s a castle in Tarascon that, unlike every even slightly perilous locale in the U.S., has

Tarascon gargoyle

Tarascon gargoyle watching the Rhone

no “Danger! Keep Out!” signs prohibiting exploration. It was built in the first half of the 15th century and does present certain dangers. But the French assume you’ll pay attention while climbing those crumbling spiral stairs five stories up to the roof from which soldiers of Good King Rene sent arrows and catapulted stones to fall on the invading armies of Aragon.

The roof affords spectacular views of the town and the church of St. Martha, in which her supposed relics may be venerated in a crypt supposedly built on the exact spot where her house stood. In the 1st century. We must assume they kept amazing real estate records! It’s interesting that Martha got the church, but the Tarasque got the town name, a statue and an annual festival that continues to this day. The official story is that the town feels guilty for having killed a tamed beast over 2,000 years ago. If true, the tale sheds light on the absence of the death penalty in France. But I don’t think that’s it.

The ungainly, impossible Tarasque with its spiked turtle shell, six legs, human-faced lion head and lashing, spiked tail, is a wonderful jumble of archetypal images. It’s a primordial,  nursery-brain dragon, both animal and human, lovable and deadly as we all variously are. The truth of the Tarasque is soon crushed into subconsciousness in three-year-olds by the slaughter of “reality,” but only after being tamed by a song. And always dimly half-remembered as the closest, most secret, scary and wonderful friend.  Because  the Tarasque is us.

 

20160122_154357_resized.jpg

And now it goes with me everywhere.  ;)

Alors…

AbbieMausoleumAnother sojourn in France.  At this point I can no longer claim tourist status and by default join the ranks of those terribly sophisticated Americans who spend half their lives running back and forth to France.  They write knowledgeably and with verve about wine, truffles and the joys of living in Provence for a year.  The New Yorker keeps them on commission and major publishers battle to offer six-figure contracts for their memoirs.  They have unusual names like “Braque” and “Tani” and all live in NYC where they ferret out obscure French restaurants between trips. But frankly, I don’t make the cut.

I prefer a German Riesling and only vaguely understand “truffle” to mean some kind of fungus that’s not a mushroom. I live as far as it’s possible to get from New York without falling into the Pacific and wouldn’t survive a week alone in Provence. I’ve just been there, though, so I can write about it. Unsophisticatedly. Sort of A Corn-fed Hoosier in the Drome Provencal, to ride the titling coattails of Mark Twain.

First, while Provence in summer is, per Braque and Tani, apparently a scented dream of lavender fields, smocked artists and seven-hour al fresco dinners of daube and fougasse, in the dead of winter it’s history laid bare. The country home of our hosts, Martine and Franḉois, is in Meynes and was built in the early 14th century when the town was a Templar stronghold against attacks by French King Philip IV (heavily in debt to the Templars) after the failure of the Crusades. Beneath the narrow, cobbled streets there are still secret tunnels used by knights fleeing a fiery death at the stake. In the wintery gloom you can feel those centuries-old stories still breathing in the worn stone buildings, hear the desperate footsteps beneath the streets.

And those stories, only last week, weren’t entirely unfamiliar. Almost six centuries after the Crusades, in my little Indiana river town with a French name, the term “Knights Templar” was in common use as a designation within the Scottish Rite of Freemasonry. Town businessmen were Masons and my dad (very) grudgingly went along, memorizing pages of Masonic text in the bathroom as he shaved. He was a “Knight Templar.” Later I also memorized Masonic text as a Job’s Daughter, and went to dances at the Masonic Lodge with boys who were in the Order of DeMolay. Jacques de Molay was the last Grand Master of the Knights Templar and burned at the stake in Paris in 1314, but as a child I would know his name as well as that of Abraham Lincoln.

Walking Meynes’ cobbled streets at night, I wondered if martyred de Molay had also walked there, and what he’d think of a bunch of southern Indiana farm boys in crusader’s capes reciting no-doubt-inaccurate versions of his story. I decided he’d love it. Who would object to being celebrated in the heartland of a country that didn’t even exist when you went up in flames?

Provence also remains the very soul of the domestic arts. Nothing on earth could persuade

20160102_091100

Martine’s Provencal ceiling in Meynes

me to eat foie gras, given the horrors inflicted on ducks and geese to create it, so I won’t talk about the food. But Provençal interiors set an international standard for “Country” décor. Wondering what to do with 119 of those soup tureen lids you’ve got stacked in the garage? Martine lines them up to great effect on beams that have been here since before Chaucer was born.

A few miles away and two centuries after de Molay, Nostradamus was born and lived in St.

Nostradamus

Martine and I and Nostradamus in St. Remy

Remy, now a mecca for shoppers in search of those gorgeous (and expensive) Provençal fabrics, bedspreads and tablecloths. I bought a single tablecloth weight in the traditional shape of the Provenzalin (Provençal woman, in the local Occitan dialect, which is not French but related to Latin, a vestige of that Roman invasion Caesar documented in his Gallic Wars. “All of Gaul is divided into three parts.” Actually there were five parts. Provence was in one of them.) I have no idea what to do with one tablecloth weight, but had to have it!

facing_horsesThen, although nobody else was remotely interested, I was graciously driven many kilometers on bleak but hair-raising little roads to Pont d’Arc, where the French government has meticulously recreated in a cave 30,000-yr-old prehistoric art only discovered in 1993 in another nearby cave. The original art in its cave is now wisely protected from toxic human contact, and the new cave “parc” is a little Disneyish, but nothing can diminish the eerie beauty of the animals drawn by prehistoric people of a culture called Aurignacian. They (the painted animals) all have expressions of near-beatific elegance and a sort of prayerful amiability, even a bit of mischief in some, like portraits of beloved, revered friends. The Aurignacians may or may not have worshiped the animals they painted, but they clearly loved them. I bought a (badly translated to English but nonetheless lovely) children’s book, Equinox, written from the perspective of the smallest painted horse who waited over 10,000 years in darkness for the return of humans. The book isn’t available here, but can be ordered online at http://lacavernedupontdarc.org/nos-outils/. Or watch Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams on Youtube.

Next: The Tarasc, my favorite French monster

The Make Way for Ducklings icon, Boston Public Garden

The Make Way for Ducklings icon, Boston Public Garden

Just back from Boston, where Bo Bradley grew up and the setting for Bone Blind and half of The Paper Doll Museum.  I can’t get enough of the place and will have to take Bo home at some point.  For the wedding, maybe? ;)

This time involved happily sitting on the ground on a trash bag for

Lear and the traditional Fool, not my Fool from last week.

Lear and the traditional Fool, not my Fool from last week.

a free production of my fave, King Lear, on the Common.  It was a slapdash affair, costume-wise, with Lear and the Dukes looking like they wandered in from The Student Prince, Goneril, Regan and Cordelia in trendy contemporary businesswear and the Fool in a vaudeville hobo outfit complete with bowler hat.  But after five minutes it didn’t matter, and the Fool was stellar!

But most interesting was, of all (usually boring) things, a house tour.  Over many years of spending huge amounts of time in Boston, I’ve always rented somebody’s third floor in suburban Newton Highlands.  Boston is so crowded and expensive that people who have the old Victorians

Annie Cobb house, Newton Highlands, MA

Annie Cobb house, Newton Highlands, MA

routinely do this, and the accommodations are quirkily wonderful, like artists’ garrets only big and airy and surrounded by trees.  I love Newton’s architecture and even based a whole mystery, Bone Blind, on it.  (The dead body found in a candlelit tower like one of these you see all over Newton, the police detective about to retire and go into restoring Victorians, and the horror novelist who writes about them.)

But what I didn’t know until this absolutely not-boring tour was that many of the houses I find so intriguing were designed and built by Annie Cobb, America’s first woman architect!  Architectural designer Laura Fitzmaurice has exhaustively researched Annie and her houses, all of which you can see here complete with photos.  But even if you’re not fascinated by Victorian architecture, scroll through to the end where Fitzmaurice provides a professional, delightful and refreshingly feminist biography of yet another woman who was almost lost to history.  If the Newton Highlands Historical Archive ever creates Annie Cobb t-shirts, I’ll wear one!

 

 

 

 

 

imagesYou know that book you wrote years ago, the one about going off to college and then coming home for Thanksgiving and then going back to college? Yeah, that one. Still have the manuscript lying around somewhere? Great. Find that sucker and burn it!

Why? You’ve got to be kidding me! Where have you freaking been for the last week? Never mind, just find the only extant copy of Go Tell It On the Bar Stool, the one you typed on a manual Smith-Corona your parents gave you when you graduated from high school because, well, all typewriters were manual back then so what choice did they have.

Yeah, I know, you kept it for sentimental value, because you might want to read it again some day. Except you never have and trust me on this, the thing is a ticking bomb. Find…and…destroy.

You want details? Fine, but sit down and brace yourself. Okay, here it is. You’re not immortal. Yeah, get a Kleenex, I’ll hold on.

Ready for the worst part? There are about twenty million medical things that can happen to you on that slide into the Big Farewell – aneurisms, strokes, dementias, don’t get me started. Bottom line – by then it’s too late; you won’t be able to obliterate that embarrassing piece of crap you wrote in one week while living on Seagram’s 7 and Lik-M-Aid.images

Oh, a trusted family friend has promised to take care of everything if you’re incapacitated. What’s her name again? Iago? Weird name for a woman.

imagesYeah, I guess regional names can be charming. But hey, you majored in English. Remember Othello? Just saying…

You just found the manuscript in the garage under a pile of old extension cords you’re afraid to use because the blades on the plugs are the same size? Wow, that’s some seriously antique stuff! So trash the cords, read your book and then build a fire out back. No argument! I’ll be there in an hour.

Yeah, I’ll bring the Seagram’s.

newdruwithhouseMandy Dru was created because deep inside I harbor a kid with, in the old southern tradition, two names – Mary Abbie. My closest pals were Joanie Sue, Donna Jean and Marilyn Sue, although she got away with just “Sue.” The boys all had names like Billy Bob and Ray Steve. I dropped the “Mary” the second I got away to college, but even now (several thousand years later) I haven’t dropped Mary Abbie’s hardwired response to a dare.

So when a writer friend threw down a gauntlet, saying, “You could never write a cozy!” I had no choice but to write one. Failure to do so would have resulted in my seeing an aging “chicken” in every mirror. The horror.white-chicken-md

Mary Abbie also loved the Nancy Drew books, and her fourth-grade mysteries carefully aped that “Carolyn Keene” style. (Keene was, for most of the early series, really Mildred Wirt Benson, who got $125 per book and was sworn to secrecy.) Those early stories of mine were, alas, to become lost in the mists of time, but my childhood identity with the girl sleuth remained robust. The solution was obvious: I’d write a Nancy Drew!

Except the name is heavily copyrighted and has been since 1930. I don’t know who writes the current Nancy Drew permutations, but the general consensus is that they’re completely lacking in that near-mythical confidence and savvy that inspired so many generations of American girls. Whatever, I was undaunted, and merely named my sleuth “Mandy Dru” with a cute backstory accounting for “Dru” as the youthful choice of Mandy’s father, who is, like Carson Drew, a lawyer.images

Mandy’s older than Nancy and a young woman of her time with a career and a new boyfriend who sleeps over, tearing the edge of the cozy envelope a bit. It probably tears further with secondary characters who swear, and plots that skirt perilously close to contemporary social issues. Okay, maybe my writer friend was right, but at least I toed the line on violence; there is none. So let’s see…

Cozy mysteries tend to involve an amateur sleuth in a small town and eschew profanity, overt sex and descriptions of violence. Gads. Mandy is training to become a legal investigator (like Kalinda Sharma on The Good Wife), so she’s not really amateur. Her investigations take her all over Southern California, so she’s not a fixture in a small town, and some characters use profanity. There isn’t and never will be anything like a sex scene, so Mandy probably gets a point for that, and there’s no violence. So do two out of five make a cozy?images

Hint: I will copy (with names deleted) all “yes” responses to the writer who continues to insist that I’m incapable of cozyhood. ;)

If you subscribe to my newsletter here, in addition to being informed when I publish new work, you can get an electronic copy of Mandy Dru Mysteries for FREE.

The Antithesis of Everything!

The Antithesis of Everything!

This is not a book review, although How the Mind Works is a book. This is merely an escape hatch for all who are made uneasy by the likelihood of a planetary takeover by robots.

I know; I wasn’t concerned about it either. If the incessant failures of our tv’s “record” system is any indication, it will be fifty years before any technological Artificial Intelligence will be able to boil an egg without incinerating four city blocks in every direction. Or else freezing the egg and then sending a coded message blaming an unnamed “illegal error” for which there is no remedy. Artificial Intelligence, I thought, is annoyingly stupid. We’re more likely to be taken over by wolverines.

But then I went to a play about Artificial Intelligence. It was a bad play, but beforehand the theater had arranged one of those “panels of experts” to talk about the play’s theme. I tend to enjoy articulate academics to the point of reverence, and one of the experts was an articulate academic, a professor of some esoteric hard science involving computers. And she said yes, it’s going to happen. It’s inevitable. Computer-generated Artificial Intelligence will replicate and quickly surpass human intelligence, probably within ten to fifteen years. We are doomed.

Having a lifelong aversion to mathematics as the visible face of something vast and horrible, I found the idea of being supplanted by machines that are nothing but mathematics deeply repugnant. A robot brain can’t “feel” music, wonder if we are alone in the universe or even experience the meaning of “alone.” No robot brain will Awesomeever stand in awe at a tree. I felt sick. There was nothing to do but find an opposing articulate academic who would refute the expert at the play.

Enter Steven Pinker, now my favorite science guy since Carl Sagan. How the Mind Works was published in 1997, isn’t new and is riddled with that fallacy common to all science writing. The fallacy that says, “The awareness of a person standing slightly behind you on the left is registered in the (whatever) area of the brain.” Okay, but if you have one of those not-uncommon moments in which you sense somebody standing slightly behind you on the left, but when you turn to look there’s nobody there, what was registered on the (whatever) area of your brain? Science fallacy says it could only have been some meaningless, misfiring synapse in an otherwise normal, orderly brain. I say who knows what it was, but it was something.

A tolerance for the fallacy must be cultivated if one is to read science writers, but it’s worth it. Thanks to Pinker I am no longer nauseated at the prospect of robots obliterating the essence(s) of all sentient life. In over 600 agonizingly detailed pages, Pinker has convinced me that there is not the slightest chance that Artificial Intelligence will or even can replicate the incredibly messy and complicated interacting systems that have evolved into the human brain. As an unforeseen side effect, however, he has also convinced me that maybe being supplanted isn’t such a bad idea after all.

It’s common knowledge that most men are at base pathetic, sex-driven idiots. But after the mind-boggling success of 50 Shades of Gray and its sequels (my reference, not Pinker’s), there’s no longer any way to pretend that most women aren’t also pathetic, sex-driven idiots. Per Pinker, the goals and practices of male and female idiotic behavior are very different, but the results are tediously the same – endless, imagesmindless reproduction. Gack. One wishes it were not so.

Still, How the Mind Works is fun to read. Pinker’s wit is droll and omnipresent, rescuing every potential slide into pedantry with impeccably timed one-liners that both make the reader laugh and solidify the concept being analyzed. And an unexpected spin from discovering Pinker is the discovery of Rebecca Goldstein, an intriguing (articulate academic) author who married Pinker in 2007. I’ve just ordered two of her novels – The Mind-Body Problem and The Late-Summer Passion of a Woman of Mind.

It’s summer and the movies are all dreck, so check out Pinker and Goldstein and settle in to read until October. Especially How the Mind Works if you’ve been worried about, you know – AI. It’s not gonna happen!

1366752938-campaign-to-stop-killer-robots-launches-in-london_1988856

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 428 other followers