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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

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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!

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imagesI was born and grew up in Indiana, graduated from IU and still identify with the term, “Hoosier.”  I know Indiana but I do not know, and in fact am sickened by, the right-wing farce it seems to have become.

The state’s  appalling “Religious Freedom Restoration Act,” quickly revised only four days after its signing by Republican presidential hopeful Governor Mike Pence, weirdly granted not only to actual people, but to corporations and all forms of business, the right to refuse service to anybody on the basis of its (the business’s) religious beliefs.  In Indiana, businesses are capable of thought, which can include the choice to espouse various beliefs. Among these beliefs is one insisting that no “Christian” gas station, pharmacy, restaurant, etc. should be forced under law to provide services to people whose personal identities do not meet the approval of the gas station/pharmacy/restaurant’s religion.

Okay, maybe I’ve been gone for too long, but this pathetic nonsense is not the Indiana I carry with me everywhere.  In the “real” Indiana there is only one rule – “Do the right thing.”  Everybody knows what “the right thing” is, and while it may be done uneasily, quietly, even covertly, it will get done.

Is Indiana racist?  Yes and no. Slavery (the enslaved were largely Native Americans and white indentured servants)  was constitutionally banned when Indiana became a state in 1816 and the few remaining black slaves of southern settlers were legally freed in 1820, long before the Civil War.  Indiana fought for the Union despite, at its southern end where I grew up, its shared border with mostly Confederate Kentucky.

But yes, there was and in places probably still is, racism.  Not the Jim Crow sort of the true South, but a queasy, uncomfortable sort that everybody knew was not “the right thing,” but nobody knew quite how to change.  The answer was to dress it up and hope that helped.

There had been segregated public schools in Indiana until the practice was legally abolished in 1949, so that by the time I was in grade school I had black classmates.  Well, I had one, and his name was Ronnie.  His dad was a porter at the train station and my dad knew Ronnie’s dad and thought highly of him.

The schools enforced a rule that demanded a birthday party  invitation to every child in the birthday kid’s class.  There was no idea of “private” birthday parties.  Either everybody was invited or there was no party.  And so Ronnie was invited to mine and I to his.  Except there was another, silent but zealously observed rule that forbade white and black people from setting foot over each other’s doorsills socially.

And so Ronnie’s mother, dressed to the teeth in hat and gloves, would arrive at our house and hand to my mother a beautifully wrapped gift at my party her son could not attend.  But she couldn’t come inside.  And for Ronnie’s birthday parties that I could not attend, my mother, also in hat and gloves, would deliver Ronnie’s gift to his mother at their home.  But she couldn’t step inside.

It was a fidgety, hybrid racism, although no less cruel for that.  And by the time a few hundred kids who’d chafed at the birthday party rule hit high school, it was over.  A new black family moved to town, including attractive teenage twins, Jeannie and Joey.

Basketball is a religion in Indiana, and Joey played first string while Jeannie happily taught us all the new dances learned in whatever enviably sophisticated big town they’d come from.  So we elected them homecoming king and queen, effectively ending at least one entrenched pattern of racism.  The whole town was relieved and the birthday party rule died.  Everybody knew it was The Right Thing.

Is Indiana anti-Semitic?  Not if anti-Semitism is perceived as The Wrong Thing.  All the grade schools had basketball teams, and all the boys (not girls) could play.  But in jr. high the only basketball teams were sponsored by the Y.  The Young Men’s Christian Association.  My classmate Eddie was Jewish, and as a non-Christian he was not allowed to join the Y in order to play basketball. Social death for an Indiana guy!

Eddie was devastated, but the jr. high principal, Tab Tolbert, quickly organized local business owners whose contributions supported the Y (including Eddie’s family) to urge a bit of alteration to the Y’s rules.  Eddie was suited up and on court within a week, and a few months later the entire jr. high attended a convocation in celebration of his bar mitzvah.  Eddie, in yarmulke and tallit, chanted in Hebrew and everybody cheered as if he were Eddie Cantor.

Hoosiers do the right thing.

Is Indiana homophobic?  Again, sort of but not really.  Not as long as the “right thing” decorum is maintained.  The accountant for my dad’s business and half the businesses in town was gay and everybody knew it.  The man was welcomed as a Mason and member of countless civic organizations,  He generously supported artistic endeavors and always showed up at diners and functions with a successful woman hospital administrator who may also have been gay.  Nobody cared and nobody would have dreamed of refusing to pump gas into their cars on religious principles.

But this was a long time ago.  So what’s happened?

Is Indiana full of religious fanatics?  It would seem so, although again it’s necessary to look at the root of “doing the right thing.”  That “thing” arguably derives from the Golden Rule, often attributed to the figure of Christ although in fact it is an essential tenet in every known religious or ethical system.  Hoosiers, as I know them and am, want to treat others as we wish to be treated, and probably were first introduced to the idea in churches.

Lots of churches.  Denominational identity was big when I was growing up there, and everybody knew who was Presbyterian, Catholic, Jewish or whatever.  There was no judgment; it was more a matter of, again, that frenzied need to know the right thing to do.  If you invite your Catholic neighbors over for barbecue on Friday, be sure to grill a few catfish filets because they won’t be able to eat the ribs!

But somewhere along the line Indiana seems to have fallen prey to a right-wing creepiness that’s antithetical to both churchly and secular Doing the Right Thing.  At least a sufficient number of people with sufficient power have managed to pass a law that makes a laughingstock of my home state and trashes what I know to be its core identity.

Indiana is strange, a relatively unknown place and culture within the larger American one.  It’s a jumble of at-times old-fashioned agrarian mores in the south, and old-fashioned immigrant mores in the north, but essentially it’s sort of stalwart.  A significant number of Hoosiers may be floundering in a maelstrom world spinning too fast, and for a moment may have grabbed on to the unstable bit of sociological flotsam that is right-wing fundamentalism, but I hope it won’t last.

Because it’s not The Right Thing.

 

 

 

One of many evocative touches at Butler Greenwood Plantation B&B in St. Francisville, LA

One of many evocative touches at Butler Greenwood Plantation B&B in St. Francisville, LA

In Louisiana and indeed the entire South, an elegant, if hidden, cultural doppelgänger exists.  Yes, the foreground is often a cacophony of political corruption, bad schools, dimwitted fundamentalism and deadly/delicious fried food.  But in the shadow of every pickup truck with a gun rack and Confederate flag, there’s something else.  It’s been there all along and is still there.  I think of it as a real and steadfast spirit of place and people only externally doomed by slavery, economic isolation and Civil War.  Impossible to define, Faulkner captured it in a line from Light in August – “…a luminosity older than our Christian civilization.”

Two weeks ago I was an honored guest of that luminosity in the form of the 8th Annual Writer’s and Reader’s Symposium in St. Francisville, LA., despite not being A Southern Writer.  I slipped under the wire as A Not-Southern Writer Who Wrote a Book About the South.  An Unremembered Grave is written from  the

That book

That book

point of view of a New York State history professor suddenly up to her teeth in Louisiana kudzu as well as a decade-old murder and the attentions of a neighbor who actually knew Descartes.

At the speaker’s table with me were, however, real Southerners whose work reflects that luminosity of which Faulkner wrote.   You’ll see it in Richard Sexton‘s breathtaking photographs, Moira Crone‘s novels and Ava Leavell Haymon‘s poetry.  Ava and I did an all-day writer’s workshop at Butler Greenwood a week after the big symposium, and sat up half the night before, dishing writerly dirt and discussing the sestina.  That is, Ava patiently explained what one is.  Ye gods, I taught upper-level English for years and had no idea!  Shameful.  (Learn about sestinas here.)

During the week I visited old friends in Baton Rouge, and was taken to an unusual plantation exhibit, the Whitney Plantation.  There are countless “display” plantations in Louisiana, but this one is unique in that it’s focus is on the lives of the slaves rather than the plantation owners.  I was mesmerized by the sculptures 20150226_111842of slave children, scrupulously reproduced from actual 1800’s lithographs by Akron, Ohio, artist Woodrow Nash.  They’re quite lifelike and eerie, forcing me to wonder long after we left – “What happened to them?”

20150226_110320

Even stranger, the Whitney includes, on slabs of black marble, some of Gwendolyn Midlo Hall‘s voluminous research that I referenced in An Unremembered Grave!  Column after column of engraved first names of slaves, but in keeping with the site’s mission, no recording of place or “owner’s” names, which would have been the slaves’ surnames.  Crazy-making for researchers like African Americans tracing their genealogies.  But I get the point – the Whitney is not about massa.

Also made my way to LA’s maximum security prison at Angola to visit Ben, a friend of my now nearly-five-years dead friend, Douglas Dennis.  The criminal perspective on some things is actually pretty compelling.  Only problem is, you wind up in a place like Angola.  I think I’ll stick to writing about fictional crimes.  Orange is not my color.  😉