Brutalist Birthing Center

Or: How I learned to stop looking to live with reusable project pieces

For a time, my daughter issued an edict: I could no longer say “mid-century modern” or any permutation thereof, including but not limited to MidCentury, MCM, or the diminutive “mid-mod.” She had grown tired of hearing me gush about this warehouse find or that junk shop purchase.

Growing up in my grandparents’ house on Forsythe Avenue was a mid-century fan’s dream. My grandfather was a designer by trade, and like pretty much everyone else drawing house plans or designing office parks from 1955-1970, he favored the clean, simple lines, the low-slung roofs, and the high, thin windows made so famous by designers with  names like Neutra, Saarinen, and Niemeyer. A good friend calls them “Brady Bunch Houses.”

I’m an unabashed fan of all things MidCentury, from coffee tables (I have a Dutch-teak with pencil legs and gull wing edges) to art. (A recent prized find is a 40-year-old knock off of a Rothko I found at Goodwill for $15. It’s hanging in the dining room.) Even the cars get my motor running, and I’d consider killing for a 1967 Lincoln Continental — the one with suicide doors. I spent seven years rescuing credenzas from dumpsters and refinishing a Red Lion table, and I was forever sending everything on the back seat — and more than a few times an unwittingly unbuckled passenger in the front — sailing to the floorboard for an emergency breaking after seeing a Pearsal lamp or George Nelson chair in a junk shop window. One of the biggest mistakes of my life came when I sold everything to move to Nashville.

Unfortunately, I failed to take into account the strange temporal anomaly that allowed Nashville to escape pretty much all design choices from c.1950-1970. In other words: there is precious little of my beloved Mid-Mod. One curious exclusion to this Whovianesque escapement of bright colors and roman brick seems to be Nashville’s West End neighborhood–where row after row of massive concrete hulks sit nestled in a city park.

The c.1965 brutalist building in which my current employer's offices lie.
The c.1965 brutalist building in which my current employer’s offices lie.

The particular school of architecture — brutalism — relies greatly on clean lines, poured concrete and, well, a brutal adherence to a design motif. My day job takes me to one such brutalist masterpiece (pictured LEFT) each day. Cool, subterranean parking beneath a five-story mass of poured concrete, complete with the signature, exposed anchor bolt holes and tell-tale 4×8 squares of the old plywood forms greet me each morning as I wheel my car into a parking spot.

Interestingly, this building has been the home to a number of businesses over the years–from lawyers to music industry professionals. These days, there’s a dentist, another ad agency and a record label on our floor. One of the stranger tenants, though, is the birthing center on the ground floor.

Before we go any further, I think it’s important to note that I’ve witnessed the miracle of childbirth twice. It’s an amazing, albeit somewhat messy, experience, watching a new life enter this world. Childbirth is a beautiful occurrence, and it in no way gives me the willies. On the other hand, knowing that the McHipster Family is downstairs in suite three of a decidedly not medical facility squeezing out Sporty McHipster Jr. is just a little much for me, and so usually, I ignore the birth center’s presence, and it only registers on my radar on those rare occasions when I happen through the lobby to walk to Dose or Tzaziki’s for lunch.

My biggest problem isn’t the birthing center per se, but where the birthing center is in relation to my beautiful, brutalist haven. More precisely, how the birthing center’s location itself came to be–and what it used to be before it was what it was before the birthing center.

When the building opened in the 1960s, the entryway over the parking deck was a wide terrace, railed and, presumably decked with tables and chairs and ashtrays. This is, after all, the era of Donald Draper we’re talking about. But as West End became more dual-use (apartments and houses edged up to the busy business district), restaurants came in. Sometime in the early 1990s, this happened:

The terrace was built out into a copper-roofed, large windowed and–most inexplicably–a clapboard sided restaurant location for an Outback Steakhouse. Overlooking for a moment the somewhat disturbing notion that a birthing center exists in a steakhouse, this architectural aberration infuriates the purist in me, and occasionally when I do notice the place, I find myself wondering if the architect lived long enough to see this abomination explode from the side of his masterpiece of brutalist form. What did he think when he saw “Outback Steakhouse” emblazoned upon the sleek lines he spent so much time and effort perfecting and unifying?

Then, I remember that I use a gutted 1959 Saba cabinet to house my media center and a 1960 Philco Television cabinet is the wet bar, and I wonder about reuse and how we become so comfortable with certain forms of reuse but other upcycling efforts irk us. Sure it’s okay that I stripped the innards out of a T.V. set for a place to keep the bourbon. But the outside remained unchanged. Slap a coat of paint on that sucker, though, and now it’s fighting time. This touch of internal inconsistency bothers me, and it makes me consider the other things we repurpose in life.

Think about our kids. From the beginning, we pour ourselves literally and figuratively into making these little facsimiles of ourselves. We raise them up by staking them to a pole with discipline and instruction, guiding them, we hope, into fully realized humans. In essence, we’re designing the idealized versions of ourselves. Then, sometime in their teenaged years, they discover hormones and sexual attraction, their brains shrink by half, and they start globbing on new bits to the lovely façade of civil perfection we parents have created. Roof-top Rock-n-Roll delivered courtesy of Dr. Dre’s multi-colored plastic bits and a too-tight teeshirt showing off this muscle group or that set of curves we may kind of prefer not be there at all. Girls slap on a new coat of paint, coloring their eyes and lips, and boys move away from seersucker shorts and cute bib-shirts with Pokemon characters on it to shirts featuring what you hope is the name of a band but secretly suspect might be the name of a new terrorist cell instead.

Organic growth drives modifications to our handiwork, and in the end, we’re little more than that architect, driving down West End and trying to ignore the scores of people filing in and out of the post-modern Outback Birthhouse.

At least we have grandkids to look forward to.

When the heat is a sulter?

Or: On Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Faulkner and the English Language

There’s an old joke that goes something like this:

Why did the broke writer pay $5 for a latte at Starbucks?

How else would everyone get to see him writing his novel?

Sitting in a Starbucks before the mountain of pulp totaling some 350 pages, I’m slogging through the task of entering line edits on Anything But Ordinary, my third novel, which will enter its second edition printing sometime in July. I’m making good progress and am on page 55 when I stumble upon the sentence you see in the image to the left.  And that’s when my ego deflates. I forget in that moment three key facts:

1.) This book was a finalist for a major literary award and that manuscript included the word “sulter”

2.) This book was published and people liked it well enough to read it.

3.) I wrote this sentence in 2002, when I was the ripe ol’ age of 25.

I’m not exaggerating, either, that “..in spite of the sulter, the draw of the sun proves too strong,….” brought me to a hard stop. I know this isn’t a word. I don’t need Microsoft Office’s snarky squiggle to tell me that. And I don’t need my patient, serenely skilled editor’s gentle blue pen to confirm it. Sulter is not a word. Even WordPress’s rudimentary spell check and Apple’s overzealous autocorrect rebel at writing that word. (I’ve changed it back six times in this paragraph. Yet, there it sat, on the next-to-last line of page 54.

Given that I scored well on the vocabulary portion of every standardized test I ever took, that I have an above-average vocabulary, and that I work with words, I began a trek down memory lane. How did I come to write this sentence? I remember where I was when I wrote it: sitting at my writing desk that faced out the front window of 1107 D North Second Street, the apartment I was sharing with my friend, Brandi. I remember what was going on in my head: I wanted to confer to the reader the entirety that is a hot, New Orleans summer, the particular kind of heat that bears down oppressively on the city. And I wanted to do so with a flourish.

Sitting on that desk would have been a ragged copy of Roget’s Thesaurus and a decent Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Surely if I searched for the word, I would have looked for it in the thesaurus or the dictionary? Maybe, I give myself too much credit, I intended to create a new word, since none of the others seemed to fit. Yet, today, at 37 and a dozen years removed, without thought or reference, I immediately replaced “sulter” with “swelter”–which I know is an archaic noun used to describe an oppressive heat.

The word replaced, I cannot kill that embarrassment. Then I begin to wonder if Messrs. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, and Faulkner all felt the same way anytime a typo or poor word choice or grammatical error found their way into print. (And I assure you, a cursory search of the first editions of In Our TimeThe Great Gatsby, and The Sound and the Fury will reveal numerous typos…before even the end of the first chapter in the case of Fitzgerald’s “Gatsby.”) Those guys are of the kind of talent that makes writers stop writing–or to write harder, longer, and better until they reach the level of quality and literary integrity that puts them into that class.

Please for the love of all things holy do not misunderstand me. I’m not comparing myself to those literary titans. Even my titanic ego knows bounds. I’m simply wondering how they reacted to what amounts to little more than poor copy editing.

And then again, here we are, at page 54 and the sulter of a summer sun on a patio in New Orleans. I review the passage again, try to jog my memory. Did I labor over the words of this sentence when I wrote it, or did I just set the paragraph in my mind and toss the words down onto the page, only to glance over them once or twice in galleys? I try not to blush too much at this small embarrassment. Again, I can always blame it on youth and inexperience. Or I can blame it on rushing through a particularly swift patch of writing. At the end, I finally arrive at a realization: what does it matter? It’s there, in print, and will be for as long as the paper of that first edition survives.

–he said, just as he clicked “Publish” on a medium that, if the Internet Archive and/or NSA is to be believed, will live forever in the vast, digital wasteland of the Internet.

Note: There is a single, hardbound copy of the first edition of Anything But Ordinary still listed on Amazon.com. (link). You should buy it and save it as a collector’s item, in case one day I’m famous and it becomes valuable to possess the physical evidence of the time I attempted to create the word “sulter.” If you do, I’ll even sign it for you and initial “sulter” in the margin. – md

A family illness

While I’m a fan of many sports, and my following of these sports is quite tidal, there are three bloodsports in my life that return time and again. I will follow these sports rigorously for a time, take a break if the talent wanes, and return again at some point to again root for my team or participant. These staple sports are: Longhorns college football, championship boxing, and the Miss America Organization beauty pageants.

So it was with great enthusiasm a couple of weeks ago that I accepted an invitation to judge the final preliminary for the Miss Louisiana Pageant, the Miss Louisiana Jazzland pageant in Shreveport, La. The competition was Saturday, but it was going to be a long and grueling day. So I made plans to overnight in Shreveport and make a weekender out of it. Friday, we would go to Shreveport, we would arrive early enough to do some shopping, to hit the Nissan dealership for a wheel center-cap (missing for years before I bought my Altima), and maybe catch a show or a buffet at a casino.

We planned accordingly. I sorted out the clothes I’d like to take for the two-day trip. Kya put down extra food for the cats, fed the fish an extra time, and we packed our bags–even remembering to bring our toothbrushes. The one thing I forgot to do was to water her majesty.

For my 35th birthday, my friend and colleague Sunny Meriwether gave me a beautiful phalaenopsis known as Queen Beersheba, according to the little tag that she came with. She was in bloom when Sunny gave her to my keeping, instructing me on the proper care and maintenance of my new charge. I was to keep her watered well, but not so well that she got root rot. Also, orchid food was an imperative. Not too much light, but enough that she thrived. Not in the window, but near the window. Don’t let her dry out.

Before we go any further, understand this if you understand nothing else: I walk through a cemetery and the silk flowers wilt. Vinyl leaves start to drop from plastic stems of fake tropicals. I can’t keep dirt alive, much less an actual green plant–which is sad and virtually inexplicable, since a green thumb runs in my family. My grandmother could grow an oak tree from a well-varnished table leg and my mother once (quite legendarily, I might add,) kept the same English ivy alive and thriving for more than twenty years. That particular plant, a condolence gift during my brother’s funeral, only succumbed to advancing age last year after it got “shocked” during a move to Arkansas.

So when I say it’s inexplicable that I can’t keep plants alive, hopefully you believe me. And it’s not for wont of trying. I worked in a nursery one summer after high school and before college. They made me stack bails of pine straw because of an unfortunate incident in which fifty pallets of flowers died after a routine watering. The instructions from the owner had told me to turn the spigot to half, water for ten minutes, then come back and turn the spigot off. I did this precisely. Every day for three days, just as instructed. I added nothing, I took nothing away. Inexplicably, the plants all died and I was relegated to bail duty and loading bags of potting soil. Nothing doing with plants from that point on. It wasn’t my first failure. I tried every year, three times a year, to seed a yard growing up. Nothing. Those “roll out and water” flower mats? Still black and dead and buried now under someone else’s flowers, I suppose. Even the oak tree in the front yard of Sandy Halperin’s house eventually had to come down after a truly modest trimming of only the greenest branches.

Plants do not like me. Period.

Except Her Majesty, the Queen. She has thrived under my hand for 338 days, sitting loved and secure on the corner of my computer desk. She didn’t mind when she got relocated slightly to make room for the larger monitor. She just adjusted a leaf or two and went about her business of being green and preparing for a spring blossom which was, until this weekend, only days away.

Today, the postmortem:

Tuesday, she was fine. The mossy head of her pewter pot was still damp, but I knew she would need water in about a day. Wednesday, it was closer but a scare earlier in the year made me gun-shy. Thursday, I forgot to check. Friday, we left early. I didn’t come back to the desk until this morning, when I found her single, long spike yellowing and withered. Of the four large, succulent green leaves, only three remained. The fourth, having fallen to the bottom of the pewter pot, was flaccid and broken. A second leave seems to have a split near the stem, but I’m hopeful that it may recover or, at the very least, won’t destroy the rest of the plant. Also, the stem itself still has some green at the tip and near the base, so perhaps with a little luck she may survive. I don’t expect her to flower, though, which is a letdown.

I’m more than a little ashamed how all this has affected me, too.

I’m listening to Mozart, avoiding a pile of work I have to get done before midnight, and trying to will her back to health. (It’s not working.) Losing a plant should not be this sad, this depressing. Yet, it is, if only because of what she represents. Perseverance, attention to details, and repetitive actions have paid off. At the same time, this gift came at a time when I was expecting nothing and it meant so much. I’ve even said a little prayer for my plant today.

I’ll keep you posted on her progress. Wish me luck.

Technology Retrograde

Or: Why we need frontiers to succeed as a species.

One of my favorite television shows is AMC’s Mad Men. For the three people on the planet unfamiliar with the hit drama, the story revolves around the lives and work of a group of advertising executives at the height of the Madison Avenue golden age, also known as the 1960s.

The show is the brainchild of Matthew Weiner, Mad Men tells the story of an era of wonder, hope and progress through the jaded filter of Don Draper and his band of cohorts. So spoiled as a generation were these people by modern marvels like the microwave, color television, and the electric typewriter, they often failed to notice the Space Race and man’s inevitable march toward the stars.

I fail to notice it, too. But that has more to do with the constant march in reverse where exploration is concerned, and less to do with the wonder I demonstrate each morning when I push the largest of the three available cup sizes on my Keurig.

I clicked with great interest this Space.com story about the Boeing Corporation‘s latest and greatest spaceship, which the headline promised had undergone a very successful test. As I waited for the page to load, my mind conjured up images of sleek, gleaming slivers of metal and carbon nanotubes streaking through the sky. Of course, the latest and greatest spaceship should be powered by an ion pulse engine, so of course the beast seems to hover in mid-air by some sort of magic.

Then the page loaded, and what did I see? A capsule yanked from 1963.

Where was my shiny new spaceship? What about those ion pulse engines? And why was there a picture of an Apollo-era capsule crashing towards the desert floor?

Then it hit me. This is the latest and greatest. We’ve given up on the space race because we’ve given up on progress. We’re too comfortable, too laid back. Why do we need to fight for anything at all when what we have is so easily obtainable?

So I decided right then to give you a preview of the coming technological innovations:

1.) Don’t mess around with those silly bullets anymore! No! You need the latest and greatest in MUSKET technology! That’s right, load it yourself, pack in the powder and let ‘er rip! (And if you’re really lucky, you’re a fast enough on the reload to actually hit your target in the next volley. That is, of course, as long as your target isn’t a ravenous, rabid bear who closes the distance between the two of you before you manage to reload.)

2.) Gas stations are a drag. So is that awful smell! Avoid it all with the Buick Steemer. We at Buick pride ourselves on being the first to market with this new technology. A cast-iron pot sits above a fire pit. You fill the pot with water and the truck behind the driver’s seat with firewood. Strike a flint, stoke the flames, and in roughly two hours, you’re chugging your way to work powered only by WATER!

3.) Don’t you get tired of dialing numbers on those little glass-screened keypads? All that clikittyclickclick gets old. The audophone is for you. This do-it-yourself project is perfect for everyone. Two empty bean cans, a spool of twine. And voila! Mr. Watson, I need you!

4.) First, there was bipedal motion. Then came crudely fashioned strips of animal flesh wrapped around the feet. Now, the latest development in the evolution of human movement. Get rid of that 747. Park the yacht. And put away the keys of that Porche. Are you ready for…the stone wheel?

Yeah…I didn’t think so either.

So, Boeing, here’s a little message from little ol’ me to big ol’ you. Innovate already. I’m tired of us getting our collective asses kicked by communist China. Hell, North Korea’s on the heels of the technology you just “debuted” in the desert.

 

The joys of a french press

English: French Press
A French press service. (Image via Wikipedia)

For years, I was one of those people who looked at the glass and steel lines of a French press sitting in the corner of a friend’s fancy-dancy kitchen with about the same look of condescension that I shot at countertop pasta machines. I mean, seriously, people. Why does a simple cup of coffee require special cups and surgical-grade pyrex and stainless to prepare?

Then Starbucks quit brewing my favorite variety. And, to be quite frank, what passes as brewed coffee in a Starbucks is much more aptly described as “burned coffee bean husks in muddy water.”

So I complained. That’s when the helpful barista  changed my life.

“Why don’t you order a French press?”

Surely she was joking. Who on earth would want one of those effete phallus-wannabees on their table? Certainly not me. I was anything but convinced, so she pressed on.

“Really, it’s great! I’ll give you one on the house.”

Now was I in a pickle! While I thought the French press was little more than a poncey affectation the Frogs used to mask an obviously depraved cultural turpitude, I had spent a king’s ransom in Starbucks over the years. Here was my opportunity to put one over on Starbuck and those dandy hairdressers all at once. Then I took a sip.

Sitting on the corner of my desk, right now, is the poncey coffee maker. I’m still not sure how I feel about it, and I most certainly didn’t buy one of those stainless numbers. No, mine is a much more reasonable plastic-and-glass model by Bodum. But it makes damned good coffee, even from crap beans. Every time I make a pot, coworkers flock to my desk, their cups perched in their open hands like something out of Dickens.

Now that I’ve had a press for about six months, I do have to admit I was wrong. There is something infinitely relaxing about the hands-on nature of making a press. The plunger slides–no, glides–the plunger glides down, leaving in its wake delicious refreshment. The glass beckons quietly from that shelf in the kitchen, “Hey…pick me.”

And sometimes, I imagine what happens when I leave the house and it’s just the kitchen utensils and my three cats.

They’re on the sofa, listening as the Bodum argues with the Keurig about which one makes a better cup.

I’m glad I’m not expected to settle that particular dispute. They can discuss it amongst themselves, when I’m not there.

Papaw’s Typewriter

Papaw’s study is perhaps the most vivid of my childhood memories. Everything about that room — the heavy oak desk, the southeastern window, every surface piled high with papers — has a mystical pull upon the deepest recesses of my mind that walking through Office Depot will frequently turn into a trip back in time.

A glimps in the corner of my eye of that display of neatly ordered packages of Ticonderoga No. 2’s conjures up the quiet Saturday ritual that was Papaw making notes for Sunday’s sermon — surely a masterpiece, which would never get delivered. Inevitably, somewhere between the house on Gerald Street and the church on Hadley, Papaw would turn to Mamaw and say, “The Lord’s spoke to me. I’m not preaching on the commandments.”

They had just been married a few months. She, his third wife, was a quick study. Instead of asking, “What did the Lord say,” she would instead just nod and await the revelation herself, when her husband would step behind the pulpit, grow two feet taller, and chastise whichever of the sinners in the congregation to which the Lord had instructed him to speak. Without notes, without any readily apparent signs of thought, Papaw would open the old Nelson King James Bible, so worn and familiar it would virtually fall open to the verse in question sheerly by the power of his will — or maybe His will. Papaw would remove from his pocket the No. 2 pencil, lay it on the pulpit beside his Bible, and begin to speak.

For many years, Papaw’s backside languished in an old dining room chair, the tissue-thin green cushion tied to the spindles providing the sole respite from the hard, worn oak. When that chair gave out and its bottom split wide, it was replaced for at least some period of time by a folding metal chair borrowed from the church fellowship hall, to which he affixed the same green cushion. One afternoon, he came home with an old office chair. Oak arms, an oak bottom, five coasters. And into the bottom of that chair went the green cushion. If that cushion went to the grave, tucked neatly under his rump in the coffin, I would not be surprised. (Surely someone must have thought to send it along with him!) I often wonder how he would have handled selecting a truly new chair from a store such as Office Depot, with row upon row of comfortable, cushiony heaven.

The paper department of any office supply store leaves its own wake of eddies through my childhood. Those yellow, spiral topped notepads and the erasable pens — surely the pinnacle of modern productivity technologies, ranked right up there with Corrasable Bond typing paper — lived scattered throughout the study. And look, there on the bottom shelf, forgotten and collecting dust, is a box of Wilson Jones ledger paper.

I’m not sure what, exactly, was the source of the aroma of his study. An alchemist’s brew of paper, dust, moisture and the rich, earthy musk of grease and oil. It may have been tracked in from the shop out back, where Papaw spent endless hours rebuilding hydraulic door closures. It may have been the grease he slathered onto the springs and wheels of that chair to prevent it from squeaking late at night. But I like to think it is another culprit, an almost silent, faithful companion of his ministry and my youth.

 

The IBM Model D Typewriter, similar to the one Papaw contended I demolished on several occasions. His was blue and white.

If I close my eyes, I can still hear it humming away from its perch on the homemade wooden table behind the desk. A machine of such immense value that the mere act of an eight-year-old pondering even looking at it was enough to warrant: the IBM Model D typewriter.

That a typewriter has a smell is something that may be surprising to those unfamiliar with the workings of this pre-wordprocessing workhorse of Corporate America. A look at the underbelly of the Model D will give you some idea of the workings. For beneath the twenty-plus pound monster’s sleek exterior lived — no, raged — an army of gears and pullies, levers and knobs, all of which performed vital tasks like moving the carriage a single space, engaging rocker arms to trigger the strike of a letter, and dinging the bell at the end of a line.

To keep all of these parts moving required regular maintenance in the form of a small, clicking can of oil that lived on the window sill above the table, beside the window unit air conditioner. A single drop of oil applied to the right spot would restore pep to a slow carriage return or repair that nagging double spacebar register every third or fourth word.

I sometimes wonder if that Model D is the reason I wanted so badly from such a young age to become a writer. Was inspiration something inate to that typewriter, to the sound of the roller taking in a crisp leaf of paper, of the key clicking and the almost inperceptible moment before the letter struck the page. And there was that hum.

Always, anytime Papaw was in the office, that hum was there. Steady, rhythmic, alive.  And, always, anticipating.

This weekend, I started a quest to find Papaw’s old Model D typewriter. With any luck, it’s still somewhere in the extended family, languishing in a garage or a shed or the floor of a closet. Wish me luck. -md

Dreams of the Great Debate

NOTE: I’ve often heard or read of writers describing the vivid dreams that led them to write their great novels. Sadly, only twice have such dreams happened to me. The second occurred two nights ago. I’m just now writing about it. Enjoy. -md

 

There was a great debate raging in that space that exists only in the distance between consciousness and sleep. Twenty or so people crowded in around the table to yell their justification for why they are this character or that. In the corner, Maria Ramirez held her forehead in her palm, shaking her head in embarrassment. These are the people of her world, after all, and many of them are family.

Her father, Sam, is the next quietest one. He only occasionally steps forward to quietly contradict some edict issued by his wife. “What she meant to say was,” he states almost as effortlessly as breathing. That’s why he’s the King of Hearts.

Mrs. Ramirez seems to be in competition  with Susan Griffyn, the editor of University Press, which is anxiously awaiting the book Robert Felder is supposed to complete sometime in the next four months. Griffon and Ramirez and their increasing animosities only illustrate too well why one is the Queen of Hearts and the other is the Gryphon: they are both overbearing bullies who think theirs is the only judgement that should matter.

For his part, Felder is seated, Mad-Hatteresque, at the head of the table waving a solitary hand in the air, as if he is the maestro conducting a symphony of his own composition. He is blind, though, and cannot see the non-verbal cues suggesting what sounds like good, old fashioned arguing is in fact accelerating quickly to the point of a brawl.

There are faces, too, I do not recognize. These still-to-be cast individuals might carry some minor functionary role or could be the drivers of major, untapped plot-lines, the harbinger of some major, yet-unearthed theme or just a bit player in the larger tapestry my mind is weaving.

And somewhere between sleep and consciousness, in a cold-medicine haze, their personalities begin to take shape. Barbara Branden was right all those years ago when she told me writing is the work of the subconscious.

Now if I can get any one of them to stop yelling long enough to begin putting down their stories on paper, this new book will take shape.

Confessions of a bibliophile.

Or: Why the hell isn’t there a Bookaholics Anonymous group?

I have a secret. A dark, unspoken secret.

I am an addict.

My addiction is not to drugs. Cocaine will you not find in any blood panel. I enjoy a good drink, but I am not an alcoholic. I don’t even smoke very often. Yet, the truth remains. I am addicted to the rush, the ecstasy and the pleasure that is books. And I am not alone. We are all around you.

If Mister Gutenberg had only known all those centuries ago the horrors that would be unleashed in thousands of too-cramped apartments filled with the musky perfume of glue and acidy paper and heavy dust. Perhaps a cat surveys a room filled with shelves from his perch atop a stack of paperbacks in the corner. Or a dog lounges by the fire, lulled to sleep by the endless ocean waves of pages turning.

We are out there. We are everywhere. Go to any Barnes and Noble…or decently outfitted antiques district with a rare books store. You’ll find us there.

My apartment is on the second floor of my building, at the top of a single, steep run of stairs. When I moved in, my floors were level. They didn’t squeak. Now, walking through my apartment, you’re confronted by two immediate impressions:

– You are surrounded by books. Every surface, every table, every corner. Names like Coelho and Patchett intermingle with those godfathers of literati – Dickens and Melville and Hemingway. And more than a few dead Irish guys.

– The floor is sinking. The weight of the books and their shelf-homes has had a palpable welling effect on the floors, which now squeal with each step.

Despite a shocking “library value” according to the handily packaged “My Library” iPhone app, (pushing $22,000. If only I could liquify this asset!), I’m unapologetic. These books are my friends. I’m comforted by the pink binding of a recently gifted “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” sandwiched between a Hemingway biography (one of four I own) and the pulpit bible from a previous lifetime. I know just where to find that first edition of Ann Patchett’s “Bel Canto” (between “The Magician’s Assistant” and Thomas Cobb’s “Crazy Heart”). And I can tell you immediately if one of the girls wanders off with my copy of “The Great Gatsby” or “The Complete Poems of Edna St. Vincent Millay.”

My library is one of the chief deterrents to relocation; moving more than a thousand books  down the stairs, then into a new place, unpacking them and returning them to their assign slots on the 200 board-feet of shelves lining the study…and the hall…and part of the living room…and the bedroom. That’s just the ‘stationary’ library. We aren’t going to talk about my iPhone’s Kindle app…or iBooks. Or the PDFs sitting in my inbox. That extra six pounds in the backpack? My close friends can all count on one hand the number of times they’ve seen me without at least one book in my hand. Yes, I’m addicted and proud of it.

Just know this, all of you normal, non-book types: if ever the bibliophiles unite in uprising, we will have the wisdom of Solomon and the patience of Job on our side. But rest peacefully, for rare is the issue to rise us from that over-stuffed chair, where we bask in the pool of light cast by a good reading lamp and imagine ourselves tanning from that light reflected up and yellowed by the pages spread on our laps.

Life Blocks

A female American Bald Eagle (Florida subspecies) roosting in her nest in Ouachita Parish.

Everyone I know has been talking about Bucket Lists since the movie of the same name came out in 2007.  As if the concept of a ist of goals was new, everyone seemed to be obsessed with their own “bucket lists.” But I’ve had one for as long as I can remember, if by another name. 

Bob Alexander called the “life blocks,” that checklist everyone has of things they want to do before they die. You do something on the list and you put a check in the block beside that item. An example:

__ Meet the president.

__ Go backstage at a major rock concert.

__ Eat at The French Laundry.

And you place a check next to each one as you complete it. At the end of your life, you look back. If more boxes are checked than unchecked, good job. If you checked all of them, either you had a really great run or missed the point of the exercise all together.

In the interest of disclosure, the above four items are among the fifty or so items on my own list of Life Blocks. So far (from those four), I’ve done three. (Sorry Thomas Keller. I’m working on that one.)

The other day, I got to check off a major life block and I didn’t have to leave Ouachita Parish to do so.

Mike and I heard from a friend about the presence of an American Bald Eagle’s nest not far from Monroe. I’ve wanted to see one since I was lucky enough to have enjoyed a close encounter with captive eagles in a large aviary. To see one from four feet is amazing enough. Seeing one in the wild, though, would truly be something special.

We trekked out to the supposed area where “you’ll see it from the highway” and “you just can’t miss it.” True to form, there she was, towering over a field from inside a stand of trees. A mile away from the highway, the white head of a brooding mother eagle glistened in the afternoon sunlight.

A quick talk with the owner of the land and we had permission to get as close as we were legally allowed — 100 meters on foot or 200 meters in a motor vehicle. Anywhere we went around her nest, she watched us. Occasionally, I could hear her mate cackling away in the thicket. Then, we saw him too.

Soaring is such a cliched word, yet no other word quite describes it. Majestic comes to mind as well. Watching the male bald eagle wing his way over the field did little but reinforce my understanding of why our forefathers chose this bird as our national emblem.

Coming home that night, it left me wondering. If I didn’t have to leave the parish to check off that life block, was I maybe setting my sights just a little bit too low? Then I got home and looked at the photographs I had taken. There, staring back from the screen, was a resounding “No.”

___ See bald eagle in the wild. Check.

Happy New Year — and a hearty welcome to 2011.

Note: Way back in its heyday, this blog got about 400,000 independent readers and 250,000 page views a month. My resolution for this year is to write more, write often and to exceed those numbers. Wish me luck! -md

January 1, 2011

I woke up this morning with a hacking cough. I guess I earned it. I took Kya out for her first “adult” New Year celebration last night. Smokey bars and loud music. At least my ears aren’t still ringing.

Despite an alcohol consumption consisting of a tame Bud Light with dinner and what passes for an Old Fashioned these days (Bourbon and orange liqueur), I awoke with a throbbing headache and a creeping sensation that I hadn’t slept at all. Yet, here I am, showered and dressed and well-fed after a hot breakfast, waiting for what I hope will be the final of the “Christmas” celebrations that have consumed the better part of the last thirty days. It feels kind of strange to celebrate Christmas 2010 on the first day of 2011, but you take what you can get, I guess.

That’s especially true of 2010 — a year I am more than glad to see come to a close on so many levels.

Having celebrated now 33 new years, (2011 being my 34th), I’ve observed there are two kinds of year: the “good” years and the “bad.” And that assessment of a year’s merits or faults tends very little to vary between diverse groups of people. If a year was “good,” it was good for most. If it was “bad,” it was an equal opportunity offender.

Last night at dinner, as a varied group of individuals watched the belly dancer at Athena, we came to a general consensus: 2010 was indeed a ‘bad’ year.

No one could point to any single cause of the “badness” of 2010. There were no milestone deaths from which we had not recovered. The stock market did not crash and plunge us into a global recession.

Given that we were all sitting around a white-clothed table in the first of several different stops, we weren’t too aversely impacted by a sluggish economy. And none of us were suffering from debilitating, incurable health conditions.

Yet each of us delivered the same, harsh judgement upon the soon-to-expire last year of the first decade of the new millennium. Bob the economist delivered a rather insightful comment.

“There just seemed to be so much hate,” he said.

It was true. Political hatred, racial hatred, even the rarer personal hatred all seemed to come to a boil in 2010.
Matt the idealist said truth had suffered, too, at the hands of 2010.

It did not seem to matter what you said last year, so long as you said it with sufficient (and often hollow) passion to convince your audience you sincerely felt whatever it was you were saying.

Bob wondered if 2011 would continue a path of hatred. I don’t think so.
2010 was an odd animal. A mid-term elections year, a depressed economy and a nation straining under the stress of two increasingly unpopular wars all made the Hatred Tree ripe for the picking.

But in the last few weeks, a ray of hope sprung forth on the political spectrum. Those polarizing figures from opposing political factions all seemed to have been dealt a stern hand in the final polls of the year.

And the Stock Markets as well seemed to say, “Enough is enough, already,” and closed, finally above the levels after the post-bankopolypse crash(es) of 2008.

People are finding work and fewer people are losing their jobs.

At the end of the night, as the clock struck midnight (or 12:04 by AT&T time), I got to ring in the birth of 2011 with a renewed sense of looking forward to a new day.

Welcome to the Present, 2011. Your predecessor was a bitch. Please be nicer than 2010.