Saturday, June 30, 2012

Goodbye June!


Paradoxical Dogma


The liberal mind, to me, is paradoxical. Want a major example? On one hand, they want to regulate our health – can we agree that liberal politicians and lawmakers led the charge against smoking in public and are at the forefront of legislating how and what we can eat as far as our dining experience? Consider the efforts of New York City’s Mayor Bloomberg (a declared “Independent” though very socially left) to ban foods containing partially hydrogenated ingredients and most recently to ban 16 ounce sodas.

On the other hand, whatever you do with your genitals is sacrosanct for the liberal politician. Everything from Get Your Rosaries Off My Ovaries to gay “marriage” to this whole manufactured scare over birth control not being paid for by insurance policies (specifically those policies provided by organizations morally opposed to birth control). Anything and everything is fair game south of the belly button.

Why the rigidity with what we choose to do with our bodies regarding food (and smoking), and the give-me-liberty-or-give-me-death stance regarding our private parts?

It seems to me that the best way to get a 16-ounce cup of soda in New York City is to publicly proclaim that regular mass consumption of the carbonated beverage gives you a sexual rush …

Friday, June 29, 2012

Hot Reads


When temperatures reach the high 90s, as they are expected to do this weekend, I often recall scenes from my youth. I know at some point we got an air conditioner (“we” meaning my brother and I), probably when we moved up into the refurnished attic bedroom. But for the first ten years of my life, we lived on the first floor in a small room between my parents’ bedroom and the bathroom, and I don’t recall any air conditioning there.

We sweated, and I have vivid memories of sweating. Probably why I can’t stand perspiring to this day.

Anyway, I also have vivid memories of what I read during those sweltering summer nights in that bedroom, in the top bunk bed: Star Trek novelizations, authored by James Blish.

I guess I was a trekkie back then. I know Star Trek, the original series with Kirk and Spock, aired regularly on Sunday evenings in reruns, and over time I saw them all. Blish’s novelizations were usually about 50-page treatments of those episodes, usually three in a paperback. Though I can visualize the covers in all their detail in my mind’s eye – the black border, the slanted Star Trek typography, the single picture on the cover in a dominant color (green, red) – I can’t recall with surety which episodes I read. I think the one about the Horta-blob, I think the one about the flying pizza that lands on Spock’s back.

And I lovingly read these books, seemingly only at night, only in my top bunk bed, and only when the mercury rose above 95 degrees or so.

Interestingly, writing this another old memory popped to the frontal lobe: watching Star Trek: The Motion Picture in the thick humid heat of my childhood home, melting on the blue couches. This was the first Star Trek movie, the one with the bald chick and V’ger, the great “alien” entity that Kirk and Spock et al had to keep from swallowing up the solar system. I liked it back then. Haven’t seen it in at least twenty years; may be due for a re-evaluation and a blog post.

All these memories aside, you can bet your bottom dollar that I will be reading this weekend with my air conditioner cranked into overdrive.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Vacation, For Them


Very early tomorrow morning my wife, my mother-in-law, and my two little ones are leaving on a 10-day vacation.

Me, I’m going to work. I’m also going to work all next week, with the national holiday July 4th excepted, of course.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m sad I’m not joining them. I need time off, too, despite having a week off last month to go overseas. But I’m only in this job not quite eight months, and have no PTO accrued. So I leave the house at 8 to slave in the cubicle mines and get home by 6 in the evening. Such is my existence.

I will be coming home to a quiet house for 10 days straight. Now, don’t get me wrong on this point – at first I will love it. I will savor the quiet. I will enjoy the solitude. I will thrill to the lack of “Hey Daddys” and the absence of crying and whining and fighting. I will be able to eat what I want, when I want, and I will only be cooking for and cleaning after myself.

In other words, I will be a bachelor for 240 hours.

Yet this is all ephemeral. Sooner than I like to think (I’m wagering by Sunday night), the loneliness will creep in. I will go from room to room, reminiscing about the times there were actual children playing within them. Well, that might be a tad bit histrionic, but the quiet will guilt me. Why wasn’t I a better dad, it will say to me. And I will say, I am, I just need time off, too!

Don’t weep for me, though. I will survive. I will speak to my children and my wife every night. I will go with my buddy to see Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Slayer. I will have plenty of human contact during the eight or nine hours every day I’m at work – perhaps too much.

I plan on keeping busy. Aside from my standard chores and the honey-do list, I want to finish the WW2 history book I’m reading and watch the World War 2 In Color episodes I DVR’d off the military channel. Don’t know why I’m fascinated about this topic, but since it follows so closely on the heels of my interest in the Civil War, I’m thinking it has something to do with my new-found awareness of mortality. Some men my age buy Corvettes; others leave their wives for trophy women. I study warfare and ask myself how I would fare in those soldiers’ shoes.

That Hidden Meaning of the Lord of the Rings DVD arrived a few days ago, and I’ll watch one every night. Might even start re-reading the trilogy if I am so moved – I’m leaving that an open question to my fickle whims. Of course I’ll blog every evening and – who knows? – I might even go for a walk if the weather’s bearable. I gotta lose a bit of my heft to fit into my work golf shirts.

Weep not for the Hopper, children! Many a page shall be turned this next half-a-week-and-week!

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Anything But Jobs







As someone once famously said,

“It’s the economy, stupid!”

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

My Beloved Impala


What happens when you buy a used car?

Everything goes bad on it all at once. Right?

Right.

Fourteen months ago we purchased my wife’s company car. Three good reasons why.

(1) My wife, for good or ill, was the only driver (with me on occasion)

(2) Her company paid for regular maintenance, which she had done on it

(3) They offered it to us at about a grand off the Blue Book value

Over the past year I did regular maintenance every three or four months. Primarily oil changes, but I did have the brakes looked at a while back. Overall the car ran fine, with one exception. Suddenly, out of the blue, the car became impossible to turn. Physically impossible. Arnold Schwarzennegger and Lou Ferigno couldn’t turn the wheel if they both tried at the same time. Well, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but you get my drift. Turns out it was the power steering pump, a common failing in Chevy Impalas. So common, in fact, that Chevy warranties ‘’em. We took it to a dealer back in October at zero cost to us and that was the last major thing to go wrong.

Until June 2.

I took it in for an oil change and when I picked it up I was handed an estimate of $2,064.00 for repairs.

Now, apparently, my beloved Impala needs –

* New shocks

* New struts

* New control arms

* New tires (4)

* And a 4-wheel alignment

What the heck? Did my wife go four-wheelin’ in my beloved Impala?

First however: we purchased a 5-year extended warranty when we bought the car. Second however: I guarantee most of these items will be “wear ’n tear” items and thus not covered. We’ll see.

The problem I’m facing now is that my wife wants to take my beloved Impala on the Great American 2012 Triangle Tour: 650 miles west to Toledo, Ohio; 1100 miles southeast to Hilton Head, South Carolina; and 850 north to Northern New Jersey. And the problem they’ll be facing is exploding tires due to the “wear ’n tear” of beaten-down shocks, busted struts, broken and bruised control arms, and an out-of-alignment undercarriage. And the problem I’ll then be facing is the Wrath of the Wife.

So, a few phone calls made, and it turns out if I dish out $176 in cash I can buy two new tires to replace the most-worst ready-to-blow wheels on my beloved Impala, and get the car in decent-enough shape to complete the Tour, God willing.

Another hand reaching for my wallet and another thing to keep me staring at the ceiling as post meridian clicks over into ante meridian.

 
 
 
Don't drive on these at home!

Monday, June 25, 2012

Creepy


Came across this old photo while reading through one of my World War II books …


It’s Hitler with Speer and some other Nazi flunkies posing with in Paris on June 24, 1940, two days after France surrendered to Germany.

Note that big tower in the background.

At first this startled me, because I was almost certain that I (obviously unintentionally) stood at this exact same spot nearly 72 years later during my recent vacation in Paris. 

See?



On further analysis, I seem to be posing against the wall maybe a hundred yards behind them, seen between Speer and Hitler. It’s hard to tell with the graininess of the older photo.

Either way, this really, really creeped me out.

Curly


I have both little ones with me this past Saturday doing our errand runs. To try to spark some conversation (and to keep them from bickering with each other) I ask: “What’s the weirdest animal you’ve ever touched?”

“Weirdest?” they ask.

“Yeah. Weird. Strange. Different. I’m not talking about dogs or cats or hamsters. Something weird.”

I know they both touched a chicken; Little One even carried one in her arms when some traveling petting zoo stopped by at her day care center. I also know they’ve both caught worms and slugs, because, despite being girls, my two have such a rabid fascination with digging up bugs up out of the ground in my backyard. Hopefully, it’s just a fad that’ll soon end. I can’t envision my two girls running around in the mud of the rainforest in Steve Irwin khakis chasing scorpions and pythons and other slimy nasties. Well, maybe Patch.

And sure enough, Patch reminds me that she’s touched a worm before.

But I’m wondering – did either of them touch a dolphin? Have they ever been to Sea World or something?

Then Little One says, “I’ve touched a tarantula.”

A tarantula! A tarantula!! My mouth is agape. I absolutely hate spiders! And my daughter has touched one? “Explain,” I demand.

Apparently, one Mr. Larry from the local conservatory has visited my daughter’s classroom, bringing all sorts of insects and odd little animals the children may never have seen before.

“His name is Curly.”

Mr. Larry takes Curly the hairy arachnid out of its box and lets it crawl on his arm. None of the children would go near, except Little One. She volunteers to come up to the front of the class and … blech! … touch Curly as it’s prowling along on the zookeepers arm.

I can’t believe this. Or maybe I can – this is the girl who called spiders “ladybugs” when she was a one-year-old and tried to touch them back then.

Thinking nothing can possibly top that, I announce that she’s won the Weirdest Animal prize.

But – “Daddy, I can top that.”

“You can top a tarantula!?

“Yup.”

“What?”



“I touched dinosaur poop,” she says with a huge grin on her face. “Fossilized dinosaur poop.”

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Hidden Meanings


Okay, I don’t do this very often. Probably once a year, at most. But remember a few posts ago, when I was feeling that Tolkien urge again? Maybe to re-read the trilogy again, eighteen months after I finished my second reading?

Well, what do you think comes in the mail, but this catalogue from CatholicCourses.com. I’m thumbing through it last weekend over dinner with the girls, when I see the ad for this course:




The Hidden Meaning of The Lord of the Rings
The Theological Vision in Tolkien’s Fiction


Whoa! Holy Cow!

I held it up to my wife. “I’m buying this,” I say, flatly, and there’s no discussion. I, who agonize over buying a book if it costs more than five bucks (’cuz of our tight financial budget), have to buy this, no matter what the cost.

So I did.

So there.

Now, the ladies are leaving on a ten-day voyage with my mother-in-law on the Great Triangle Tour in less than a week: 600 miles west to Toledo for a wedding, a thousand miles southeast to Hilton Head, South Carolina, then back up north to New Jersey. I will be here, solo, alone, working, my only time off being the evenings, the weekends, and fourth of July. Needless to say, there won’t be any keg parties here. No, I was wondering on ways to fill the void, and now, now that these DVDs have arrived in the mail, now I have one.

And I still may re-read Tolkien for a third time!

Friday, June 22, 2012

Top 13 SF Authors


Reviewing To Die in Italbar yesterday got me a-thinking … have I ever listed my top SF authors of all time? Surely in the 4+ years of existence of the Hopper I would have gotten around to something as monumentous as that. I remember a list of top-something SF movies, I remember a gigundo list of my all-time favorite reads (to the left, there). I suppose I could do a search of my blog, but that’d take the fun out of it. I wanna make a list!

So … what’re the criteria for greatness here? Technique? Vision? Popularity? Meaning? Hard SF vs. Soft SF? Memorable plots, characters, twists of fate? Cultural impact? Hmmmm. For a good while these thoughts kept the old mental clutch disengaged, and I couldn’t figure out how to tackle the problem.

Then, it came to me, simply and elegantly. Since everyone’s list will differ, even the most exacting ways of measuring “greatness,” my criterion will be:


ENJOYMENT


These are my top SF authors simply because I enjoy reading them. I look forward to reading their books and stories. I snatch their books off the store shelves when I come across them. These authors are the best enablers of my chronic disease of escapism.

Here they are, thirteen in all in no particular order, with the estimated amount of books / anthologies of theirs I’ve read in parentheses …


Roger Zelazny (6)

Robert Heinlein (5)

Isaac Asimov (8)

Philip K. Dick (7)

Philip Jose Farmer (4)

Brian Aldiss (4)

George R. R. Martin (5)

Lin Carter (4)

Gary K. Wolf (3)

Robert Silverberg (7)

Ray Bradbury (6)

David Gerrold (2)

Alan Dean Foster (7)



13 authors
68 books / anthologies (many read more than once)

Addendum: On the shelf behind me, the On Deck circle of books soon to be read, sit 1 Zelazny, 1 Heinlein, 1 Asimov, 1 Martin, 1 Carter, 2 Bradburys,2 Fosters, and 3 Silverbergs. Along with about forty-five other books by other authors …

Thursday, June 21, 2012

To Die in Italbar



First: a personal puzzle.


I originally read Roger Zelazny’s To Die in Italbar sometime in the late 70s as a wee youngin’. Then, nearly twenty years later, I came across the book again, recalled the title, and re-read it. A few years ago I put it on the Acquisitions List and just recently acquired it for a third go-round.

Why?

Well, despite the supreme awesomeness and noir-ish suavity of that title, for the life of me I could never remember what the story was about. It was as if Zelazny incorporated a brain-wipe formula on the last page that forever and completely erases any memory of the 180-or-so pages that preceded it.

It’s something that’s stuck with me, well, all my life, I guess.

But Zelazny’s brain-wipe formula, like those allegedly used by the Grays when they abduct us for their nefarious night-time genital exams, is not failsafe. In my case, with this book, three items and three items only seeped free.

(1) Hero / antihero Miles Malacar is doing a raid on some futuristic government depot on another world.

(2) He’s assisted by a furry telepathic creature

(3) He says the word “capital” – meaning okily-dokily – at least twice in the novel

That’s it. But there’s one other element which terrified me when I perused these pages for the third time last week – my second bestest novel has a hero / antihero raiding a futuristic government depot on another world assisted by another creature! Ah! But it’s just the one scene the novels share in common. The accomplice is not telepathic, and my heroine does not say “capital” ever. Heart, slow down.

Let’s discuss To Die in Italbar, shall we?

A man mates with (or, perhaps, is mated by) a goddess of healing/disease and transforms into a conduit for her power over life and death; Miles Malacar wants to use this walking contagion as a weapon; Malacar’s old army buddy, now a psychic artist making clients’ dreams incarnate, wants to stop him; an undead doctor and the universe’s richest man (whose vast backstory is only hinted at) watch and act at varying intervals. There’s telepathy, insanity, pathology, archaeology, politics, a stoning, double-crossing, a tough-as-nails-yet-vulnerable chick, and Good Old Time Pagan Religion.

How can a mix so memorable be forgettable?

What I love about reading a Zelazny book (and his oeuvre encompasses a broad range from pulpy quick writes to award-winning classics) are the characters. The ingenuity behind them. Life stories, life circumstances, heck, this one even had an undead character, plausible from a scientific perspective. They seem very real to me, and when characters are such lifelike, it becomes quite easy to fall lost in the story. The pattern holds here; I kinda liked these characters; I felt I was planet-hopping with them. In fact, perhaps the biggest drawback, in retrospect, is that I wanted to know more about them.

But for those sufficiently interested (and I very may well be), that question might be easily solved. Apparently, Italbar is part of a series. I think. That’s only because one of the main characters, Francis Sandow, appears in more than one Zelaznian book. Again, I think. Who knows – perhaps I read that other book, decades ago, and Roger slipped another anti-forget-me-not in the final pages?

All kidding aside, a good, short, sweet SF adventure. Intriguing themes, three-dee folks, a neat … ending … I guess … Confound it! I can’t remember what exactly happened!!! And it’s only been five days!

ARGHHHHHH!!!

Grade: B+

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

The Hunchback of Notre Dame



How fortuitous for me to read this book while visiting Paris!

I imagine a good portion of the populace knows the story from the classic black-and-white 1939 flick with Charles Laughton in the eponymous role. You know – hunchback Quasimodo is a bell-ringer at the Notre Dame cathedral; gets publically flogged for some reason or another; gypsy girl Esmeralda gives parched him sip of water; hunchback falls in love with her; saves her from the angry mobs of Paris; she rides off into the sunset with another guy, while he sits perched amidst the gargoyles:

“Why was I not made of stone like thee?”

Or maybe you don’t.

If not, may I be so bold as to suggest a rental from Netflix or borrowing from a local library? Even better, may I recommend Walter J. Cobb’s translation of Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame?

I’m often hesitant when I’m drawn to a classic, a translated classic much more so. So much is in the hands of the translator. I could only wade through a fifth of Tolstoy’s War and Peace a few months ago, and who should I blame, except the guy paid to turn Russian words to English? Certainly not myself, veteran of Moby Dick, Frankenstein, Siddhartha, Steppenwolf, Poe, Verne, Wells, et al. Well, perhaps partly myself.

Anyway, I felt our wonderfully fortunate trip to Paris required some like-minded reading. It was either this or Dumas’ Man in the Iron Mask. Thankfully, I chose Hunchback, and most of my down-time in France was spent with it. And it was a great, great read.

Being there helped. Famously, it’s been observed that the city of Paris plays a central role in the story – indeed, is a character in the tale. As is, just as famously, the Cathedral of Notre Dame. Both have long chapters devoted to their histories, their genesis and genealogies, their personalities, their secrets, the virtues and their vices. The cathedral itself is particularly anthropomorphized with the feminine naming of all its bells. Try reading the forty-plus-page-long life of Paris (up to the end of the fifteenth century, that is) whilst in that glorious city; it’s impossible not to be fascinated. Similarly, reading this novel in the shadows of the great cathedral only thrills the imagination and enables one to vividly visualize the events as if they are happening along the streets and landmarks you passed short hours ago.

This is all not to say that I would not have enjoyed Hugo’s work had I not been vacationing in its setting. What a master this writer is! (Forgive me, it’s my first reading of anything of his.) The novel has the inherent good of a leisurely, unhurried pace that is the mark of the true storyteller, and a rarity even among published authors. There are long scenes of dreamy-fantasy-of-sorts, where I doubted what I read was real (“the court of miracles”). There are long, heart-rending and poignant stories-with-stories (the origins of Esmeralda, her mother, and Quasimodo) mercifully peppered with laugh-out-loud humor (fat boy “Eustache” who just wants to eat that cake). And the death of a major character at the hands of the hunchback during the storming of the cathedral absolutely shocked and surprised me with its grim, seemingly unwarranted violence.

And here’s a rare treat, so very rare in the pop culture I find myself submersed within: a villain who doesn’t go around twirling his moustache, doing evil for evil’s sake (or because he’s a capitalist, businessman, Republican, rich guy). No, the heavy in The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a real person – the product of bad choices, good intentions, and delusions, all of which to varying degrees we all succumb to. Hugo masterfully brings him to life (I originally thought him a “good” albeit peripheral character). You know why he does what he does and why he’s become what he’s become.

The novel is substantially different from the movie; while the film retains the gist of the story, it’s not really the story. Hugo’s tale, despite the humor, despite the surreality, despite the slow ambling through Parisian streets, is dark. The very ending, the “reveal” so to speak, is downbeat and somewhat macabre (I’m referencing the ultimate fates of Esmeralda and Quasimodo). As is the villain’s comeuppance – much more soul-stirring than what was committed to celluloid all those years ago.

However, the conclusion of the movie – Quasimodo’s existential cry to the gargoyles – comes about ¾ of the way through the novel. So, kudos to the scriptwriters for that realization.

But the novel – simply, superbly excellent. Grade A+. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and I give generous props to Walter Cobb, for the readable, wonderful translation. How much is you and how much is Hugo (I’m gonna go with a 20/80 ratio), I will never know, but I give thanks to you both.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Why My Job Is Awesome


Well, perhaps clarification is in order. How about: Why The People I Work With Are Awesome.

Why?

Because so many of them PLAY INSTRUMENTS!!!

We got a veritable band over here. I’m envisioning a Hendrix-like Band of Gypsies thing, as you’ll see in a moment:

In the space of two days last week, I found out that working side by side with me are –

• A drummer

• A “percussionist”

• A guitar player

• A singer

• And a kid who’s teaching himself guitar and keyboards

Add me, guitarist-extraordinaire-without-a-guitar, and you’d have quite a band.

You ask: What about bass? What about bass?

Well, I played bass in 1988 for my first two live shows. It was fun and easy and I’m up to the task, as long as the task is laying down a basic, pentatonic bass line. Or we can have the other guitarist switch over or alternate low-note duties. Or we can have the kid switch to bass. This early in his development means a whole lot of technique he won’t have to unlearn.

The drummer and the singer regularly gig out in NYC. I can add thirty shows worth of experience from 1988 to 1991 (wonder if it’s like riding a bike …)

The singer, though, is Spanish. Very, very Spanish, very, very Latin. I send his child support payments to Puerto Rico.

So maybe we wouldn’t resemble Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies. Maybe more like Santana, with me a young mutton-chopped Neil Schon.

I can dream, can’t I???

Monday, June 18, 2012

Cytherean


I just learned of this word today … what a beautiful mellifluous lexeme!

Started Ben Bova’s Venus yesterday during the Father’s Day Leave-Dad-Alone-a-thon, almost 80 pages in, a fifth of the book shot down in flames. I read his Mars about fifteen years ago, and see his other planetary-appellated books on the shelves of my various haunts. While I had some thematic problems with Mars, it was hard science in a more forgiving way than, say, Hal Clement’s work is, so I really, really enjoyed that angle, and am looking forward to more of the same from Venus.

During a lull in the action this afternoon I went to the Wikipedia article on our sister planet. Just for background data, mind you. But my biggest takeaway was –

What is the word for all things Venus?

Venusian?

Yes … sort of. That’s the common-law adjective that we all know and use.

But then there’s the Latinate descriptor for the Morning-slash-Evening Star: Venerean.

Ah! That explains all those Soviet probes, Veneras 1 through 16, all dating from the exciting exploratory years of 1961 to 1983. But there’s something I don’t like about that word, and after a bit of thought, I think it’s its proximity to the adjective venereal. Though the roots are the same if one travels back a lexical millennia, I would kinda feel like showering if I had to use that every time I wrote about the brightest, most brilliant planet in the skies.

Then, I come across … cytherean

A bird song! A gentle breeze whispering in the ear! A view which causes the heart to break!

Cytherean!

What it really means is beauty. And thus it applies to my auditory, kinesethetic and visual examples, as well as to the silvery orb that follows (or precedes) the Sun in twilight. Cythere is another name for the Greek Goddess of love, Aphrodite, hence an adjective more self-referential than Aphroditish or Aphroditeatic.

Now don’t fall into the same trap as I did. I originally pronounced the word with accent on the second syllable (in my mind; my coworkers would think I’m nuts [well, they’d finally learn the truth] if I blurted out cytherean every ten seconds):

si – THEER – ee – an

But I learn that’s not correct. Consulting dictionary.com, I find out that it’s the third syllable that’s highlighted, so my angelic utterance becomes:

sith – uh – REE – an

Still breathtaking, but … I like my pronunciation better.

Since I intend to use this word as frequently as possible (perhaps once a week on this blog and once a paragraph on the Bova book review), please mentally bear with me and throw the accent on the second syllable.

It’s so much more cytherean!

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Book Score


My mother sent me a Father’s Day gift of $25 the other day. What do I do with such monetary munerations? Go to Home Depot? Goodyear Tire and Auto Supply? Catch a ball game?

Nah. I’m not that kind of a Dad. I go to the bookstore.

I went this afternoon with half-a-mind to buy J.E.A. Tyler’s massive and overhauled The Complete Tolkien Companion. Because, wait for it, I think I may re-read the trilogy again, barely eighteen months after finishing a second, well-traveled read. Now, it’s big and brand-spanking new, so I can’t buy it in good faith since we have so much debt. Normally. But since I got this gift from Mom, I figured I could splurge on Tyler’s book as a companion for my re-read.

But they didn’t have it in stock! Argh. And it seems they won’t until October 2, 2012. Double argh.

So I wandered about the store looking for something to jump out at me. And it did. Four somethings.

I stumbled across the $1 book bin, and it was recently restocked with something like two or three hundred paperbacks. Excellent. Within ten minutes I selected my four, and when I left the store, my net worth was $3.60 lighter.

What did I get?

Interestingly, three which were quickly turned into movies …

A Bridge Too Far, by Cornelius Ryan – my favorite war movie as a kid (due to it being played nonstop on HBO).

Magic, by William Goldman – that creepy 70s slasher flick about the ventriloquist (Anthony Hopkins) and his psychotic dummy (Corky) that creeped me out nonstop as a kid.

Seven Days in May, by Charles W. Bailey II – saw this on TCM only once about a dozen or so years ago. Worth a read, I would think.

And the fourth book I actually thought about buying as I was walking in the door to the store, and then I go find it in the used book bargain bin – Go figure!!!

It’s actually Weaveworld, by Clive Barker, and this weirdly fantastical supernatural book completely enveloped me during the winter of 1988. I wanna see if it still packs a similar punch.

So now my backlog is about sixty books. So many books, so little time!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Domestic Squabbles


This is what me and my wife look like when we argue ...


I'm the one on the left.


Thursday, June 14, 2012

Prometheus


(warning: spoilers)



Take Bill Gates’ net worth and multiply it by Mark Zuckerberg’s. Multiply that by the combined assets of Jobs, Wozniak, and, oh, let’s say Paul Allen. That’s now the grand total of all my bank accounts, domestic and overseas, for the sake of this review. In other words, in this thousand-word post, I am a multi-gazillionaire.

Take my age and double it. I am now pushing ninety and though my mind is sharp, my body is in decline.

What suddenly comes to my attention reading through the science-y mags? Why, there’s this boyfriend-girlfriend archaeology power couple who’ve come up with this theory, based on cave paintings, I think, that we need to journey to a certain four-star system to find who seeded earth. Not God or whatever Name you give the First and/or Final Cause. Not some primordial meteorite containing organic molecules that crashed into molten earth millennia ago, if you don’t believe in spontaneous generation (aside – who generated those organic molecules?) No, an advanced alien civilization this pair calls “The Engineers” created us from their DNA. All this deduced from cave paintings. I dunno. Must be a persuasive argument, ’cuz it made a True Believer out of old multi-gazillionaire me.

So I decide to invest a trillion of my dollars – that’s $1,000,000,000,000.00 – on making this star voyage happen. A trillion dollars! You know how much a trillion dollars is? You’d have to spend a little over $19,000.00 a minute, every minute of every hour of every day of every year to get rid of it all in a century! Can we agree that’s a lot of coin?

Considering that massive expense of my personal fortune, would I …

Not tell the crew the nature of the mission until they arrived at the four-star-system?

Not psychologically test the crew in advance, i.e. how they react to stress, how they problem-solve, how they get along with authority figures, how they get along with members of the opposite sex, how they get along with androids, etc., etc., etc.?

Not even ask them the following question – “If a giant wheel was rolling toward you and could crush you to death, would you run in a straight line in the direction it was traveling, or would you take a couple steps to the left or right and allow it to pass?”

Allow the joined-at-the-hip archaeologist couple who specialize in cave paintings run the scientific end of this mission?

Make sure I hire geologists who have no sense of direction and exobiologists who freak out at new life forms? Or, as a corollary, hire exobiologists who show no adherence to basic security and self-preservation measures when encountering overtly hostile life forms?

Let the missions proceed without any thought-out protocols, i.e. “wing it,” like exploring a vast subterranean complex with only six hours of daylight left simply because we just landed?  Let everyone break up into small groups or go solo to experiment on this and that, with no coordinating meetings or discussions about progress, results, conclusions?

Allow the landing party to walk into alien spaceships (or whatever) completely unarmed, even for self-defensive measures?

Hire crew who think that just because sensors tell them there’s oxygen in the atmosphere, it’s okay to instantly chuck off their helmets, microbes-be-damned?

Think it okay to override any strict quarantine procedures, i.e. dissecting alien body parts without wearing masks, bringing menacing vats of black goo into the ship, having no decontamination air locks, using flamethrowers as really the only safeguard against alien microbiology?

Have the only futuristic surgery machine calibrated only to work on males (especially since I’ve hired at least three women for the mission)?

Send my spaceship out onto its voyage of exploration and discovery … unarmed? (But well-stocked with booze.)

Even send out human crew when android technology is so advanced that just three robots (as opposed to 17 human crewmembers) would have the strength, intelligence, ability, and obedience to carry out all my objectives logically and dispassionately? (Although I will concede that the Android Dispassion Chip is prone to malfunction.)

Not send in robotic equipment to record and explore any dark, slimy places before allowing the human crew to step foot in them?

And, finally, would I spend all this money to make a hologram film of myself addressing the crew, secretly stow away on board the ship, and when I get to meet one of these “Engineers,” who my scientific geniuses say created life on earth, would I demand the secret of immortality from them? How does one necessarily follow from the other? Or is this all just a trillion-dollar roll-of-the-dice wish fulfillment long-shot?

Oy.

Beautifully and wondrously filmed movie, some incredible sights committed to celluloid. No argument there. It’s light-years ahead of all it’s Alien-ish predecessors. And some of the most tense, edge-of-your-seat, almost-too-painful-too-watch-yet-can’t-turn-away scenes created in recent memory. I’m thinking of the medical pod as well as the “alien-cobra” scenes.

But man is Prometheus one stupid, stupid, stupid dumb movie. Nothing any character does is believable. Indeed, many go to extremes against human nature (and these are the humans we’re talking about!), what normal people would do and say. And the “big ideas” of the film – extraterrestrial seeding, who seeded the seeders, how this all links in to the Alien quadrilogy, immortality – none of it is developed in any coherent manner.

So, my initial review coming out of the theaters was A-minus. After a few days of thought, I have but no choice to adjust that grade downward to … oh … how about a B-minus? (I’m a sucker for awesome visuals in an SF flick and nail-biting scenes – deep thoughts and realistic characters I’ll get from my SF books, normally 20+ years ahead of Hollywood, anyway.)

Prometheus:  You’ve been warned!

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Welcome to My Nightmare


This past Saturday the family and I spent a pleasant day down the shore visiting my father-in-law. He and my wife and girls went down to the beach while I stayed at his pad and read for like four hours, then napped. Heaven all around for all of us. They returned, we watched the horse race then left, got home a little on the late side to put the girls down. The wife and I watched some bland teevee, then both of us passed out by 11, 11:15.

Or so I thought.

Immediately I found myself on the deck in my backyard. It was cool, dead-of-night. A large fat moon in the sky illuminating fast-moving whispy clouds. I was surprised to see my buddy there. He had one of those red laser beam pointers. “Wanna see if we can reach the moon with this?” he asked. “Sure,” I replied. It was easy to hit the high treetops ringing my backyard, and I was a little puzzled realizing the house behind mine had been replaced by a thick, dark forest. Oh well.

Holy cow! We were able to see the red laser beam dancing along the lunar surface. I was truly amazed at that. Then my friend spotted something in the distance and called my attention to it. Something moving in the sky, moving closer … helicopters. Helicopters. What would helicopters be doing flying at night … and dark. No lights, not even those flashing red or white ones to avoid collisions.

Then, abruptly, bright searchlight beams erupted from the bellies of the helicopters, so close so quickly. They weren’t running silent, but their motors were kinda muffled. I could see the search light beams tracing frantic circles over roofs in the near distance, over backyards, the spaces between the houses, the spaces between the trees in the new forest behind my house.

A bad feeling spread outward from my gut. I had the feeling they had noticed us, perhaps the red laser beam pointer had given our location away. I told my misgivings to my friend, who tried to play it down, but I could tell even he was starting to get nervous. The helicopters were awfully close. Finally, I made a decision. “We gotta run. I’m going back into the house.” He said he was going to go back to his, and disappeared.

But instead of going in through the back door on the deck, I stepped off the deck and dove through a gap in the bushes into my neighbor’s yard. A helicopter was almost right on top of me. The circle of bright light was seeking me out, having detected motion. I ran around to the far side of my neighbor’s house, tried the side door, found it unlocked, and went in, seeking shelter.

The house was dark, but rooms within it were lit, creating a very ambient, twilight atmosphere. I heard talking somewhereabouts. I found a hallway, proceeded in very slowly. There were toys everywhere … stuffed animals, children’s books, worn out boxes of games. Something told me this was a children’s hospital. How sad …

Then I was in a room in the children’s hospital, muted, dark, carpeted. A nurse had her back to me. There was a child on the table, sleeping. The nurse was in the middle of talking to me. “We have your children,” she said with menace in her voice. “We have your children, and you have to play by the rules.” Then, she turned around and I knew exactly what she was going to look like. That bad feeling in my gut transformed into cold icy heart-palpitating fear. She turned around –

And she was one of those grey aliens! With the clammy grey skin, upside-down pear for a head, black wrap-around almond eyes. Ahhh!

I woke up in my bed in the darkness, yet I couldn’t wake up. I had sleep paralysis. Some part of my mind told me that if I made enough noise or movement my wife would wake up and then wake me up. It was so much effort to make a simple grunting noise, so much energy expended to move my head an inch to one side. Fear was exponentially building in me, and I couldn’t wake up. Finally I was able to turn my head to the right slightly, toward my beside table, and I saw a dark hand coming down slowly on my forehead.

Then in a blur I snapped out of it, reached over, turned on the lamp. My wife was not in bed with me. I was alone in the room. It was 12:30 at night.

Motion caught my eye … or did it? I looked across the room at my wife’s closet door … and it was slowly opening! Why is it slowly opening? How can that happen? Unless – unless something just ran in there and didn’t close the door all the way!

AHHHHH!

This was too much for forty-four-year-old me to handle. I literally leaped out of bed, thrust open the door to the hallway, bounded down the stairs two at a time to the living room.

My wife was there, laying on the couch, watching the Jim Carrey movie, The Mask. Apparently Patch got her up earlier in the night with a coughing fit and she couldn’t get back to sleep. She stared at me as if I had three friggin’ heads. What could I say? I collapsed next to her and told her my dream, leaving out the part about them having our children.

It was the scariest dream I’ve ever had in my adult life. I have no idea what brought it on that night.

Postscript. I was not able to get back to sleep that night. Indeed, in some bizarre self-destructive psychosis of masochism, I went back upstairs and watched a marathon of Paranormal Ghost Stories Caught on Tape. Freaked me out even more! What’s wrong with me? My wife came up at 6:30 to catch a little shut-eye before the little ones woke up. I went down to the basement, to the writing office, and surfed the web for two hours. Then I went upstairs to the smells of eggs and toast, kissed the girls good morning, had breakfast, and went upstairs, where I crashed for three hours.

Later that day me and my buddy, same buddy from the nightmare, went out and watched Prometheus

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Upcoming ...


Prometheus review …

Hunchback of Notre Dame, by Victor Hugo, review …

… my most recent and scariest nightmare EVER! …

… and an awesome revelation about what’s going on in the place I spend more time in than anyplace else ...



Hum?

Monday, June 11, 2012

Ice Girl


Here’s a neat short story by Little One, one of the many projects we saw two weeks ago at her school’s Art Fair. What an imagination on her! What talent! Even though I am biased, I foresee some guest blog postings by her in the not too distant future.

From the genus person with super powers, species tortured antihero, may I present to you the saga of …

Ice Girl!





And here is our misfortunate heroine –


Sunday, June 10, 2012

En Bateau


I listened to this piece composed by Debussy on the flight back from Paris two weeks ago. While not quite the arrangment I heard (the piano and/or harp parts were more a plucked lute-like instrument), it seemed to me, at the time, perennially French. Although that label could be applied to just about anything and everything written by Debussy. Thus so, it both recaps and encompasses in an emotional-musical way my entire trip to Paris.

Enjoy …




Saturday, June 9, 2012

Ray Bradbury (1920-2012)


Rest in Peace, Master! 

I am sure you are making the angels and even God Almighty weep in wonder at your storytelling …
I aimed a mirror into a mirror, but at a slight angle so that I could peak in to see what was being said.  In like fashion, this post contains a post which contains another post, all in tribute of the man who I, gun held to my head, would have to vote as my all-time greatest influence and inspiration ….


* * * * *

I don’t remember specifically the first “adult” science fiction I read, but I started reading some around third grade, age eight or so. There were the Asimov books, short stories and novels, Pebble in the Sky, The God’s Themselves, Nine Tomorrows, The Bicentennial Man, and The Caves of Steel. I got them one Christmas and burned through them nonstop, finishing up during our family’s Lake George summer vacation.

That spring there was also Logan’s Run, by William F. Nolan and George Clayton Johnson. Nothing like the movie – which was absolutely fascinating to me. (Though when I re-read it in 2005 I found a lot of the 60s-isms cringeworthy.) I bought it in the bookmobile and that paperback was my constant companion walking to and from grammar school. I would read it waiting for the crossing guard to stop traffic for me.

And finally, that summer, I came across a copy of The Martian Chronicles at my grandparent’s house, and read it during those long, lazy days in between bouts of running bases and watching Get Smart and Family Feud on the tubovision.

Ah, Ray Bradbury! My literary master!

Yesterday was the master’s 90th birthday. Yes, he’s still alive, still writing, and recently said some things of a political nature which sound strikingly tea-partyish.

Anyway, a while back I wrote a pretty fine tribute to the author I find the most pleasurable to read. So, rather than trying to top it by restating the same stuff in different permutations, here’s the original post:

(ahem)


Ray Bradbury is my favorite all-time science fiction writer. I can vividly recall reading The Martian Chronicles for the first of several times during the hot late-70s summers. The well-worn paperback was my constant companion at my grandparents’ house, and I devoured those stories curled up under the shade of a tree or spread out among the cushions in the screened-in porch or chilling down in the cool cinderblock shelter of their semi-furnished basement. (I was not thumbing through novels perched atop houses, yet.) The anthology, as well as its cousin, The Illustrated Man, would help me survive numerous trips to the mall two decades later with my wedding-crazed wife, then just my fiancé. Stealthily leaning against a column, unobtrusive and inconspicuous among the racks of hanging dresses and gowns, I flipped page after page after page, attention firmly set in Mr. Bradbury’s world despite the half-eye kept out on watch for my better half.

But there’s no fooling her. One of my wedding gifts from Mrs. LE was a mint-condition hardcopy Martian Chronicles, autographed by Bradbury himself. I still have it, of course, sealed in its original package. (It survived the recent flood.)

Of course I read Fahrenheit 451 as a school assignment. But unlike the majority of my classmates, I enjoyed it. Ten years later, for two straight weeks, Something Wicked This Way Comes kept me company on the NJ Transit trains traveling into and out of New York. I still keep a couple of short-story anthologies on the bookshelf behind me, too: A Medicine for Melancholy, The Golden Apples of the Sun, and The Fog Horn and Other Stories.

He’s the writer, if I had my greatest wish fulfilled, I would like to be compared to.

Bradbury’s a science fiction writer, yes, surely, but those of us that read SF know he’s what’s called a “soft” SF writer. In other words, you won’t chance upon him writing about quantum fluctuations or time-space continuum shifts or even transistors or LEDs or supercomputers. Robots, perhaps, but you won’t get a detailed description of the positronic brain. Aliens, yes, but you won’t understand their anthropology or sociology or their breeding habits. Bradbury is an enthusiastic commentator of the human condition, of the mind of man, and, in a sense, his stories could be set anywhere. But to truly explore what happens when the weird assumes control, it’s best to set your tale in a world where you make all the rules. Bradbury’s science fiction is a mirror to show us the intriguing possibilities, good and bad, of man.

The single striking thing about his writing, to me, is something I strive for, too. Poetry. His sentences sing off the page, the images dance in your head, the dialogue has the power to tug at your heart or set your jaw granite-tight. It’s picture painting with the written word, and I can forget myself in his writing every time I read one of his stories.

A while back I borrowed a book of his on the craft, Zen in the Art of Writing, and took a couple of pages of notes. I recently found them. Care for a few tips from the book? Okay, how ’bout three. The first thing I noted was his simple observation that writers need to read poetry. Every day. The astute literary buff will note that many of his titles come straight out of the poetry world. (Two in this blog post alone – Something Wicked from Shakespeare, and Golden Apples from Yeats.)

Second, it was the first place where I learned of the writer/editor dichotomy. Those of us that write are aware of this well-known dilemma: How do you silence your inner editor as you’re rushing through the first draft of your magnum opus? To paraphrase my idol, you gotta write with excitement. Gusto. Zest. Passion. What wonderful words! So, if you aren’t, you are writing about the wrong things. Instead, you must: Write about what you hate. And I mean, hate. Similarly, write about what you love. What you really love. Be passionate, and repercussions be damned!

The last little tidbit I’ll tell you is the word game. Simply, be aware of words, cognizant of their personalities, their ethnicities and genealogies. Write down those of them that … stir a little something in you. Words that are comfortably unsettling. It’s impossible to define, precisely, but you’ll know it when you start doing it. For example, I did this around 2003 or so and soon I had a list of about fifty or sixty words. Words such as Armistice, Amplitude, all the way to Zephyr. Then, when you got you some writer’s block, pick a word and start typing. I wrote an 8,500 word short story called “Armistice” in a week or so back then. It’s okay, a little embarrassing and by far not my best, but it really taught me the power of a single word. I wrote a story based on a single word.

So … if you are a writer, read the book, especially if you’re a fan. It can’t hurt. Oh, and a bonus tip: Mr. Bradbury highly recommends purchasing and studying On Becoming A Writer, by Dorothea Brande (he did). The book is an arm’s-length away from me, purchased at an Unnamed Used Book Store for the simple sum of three dollars.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Paris: Miscellanea


A Cast of Thousands:

 
Arsenio Hall, Clay Aiken, Agnes, Indian Petitioner Girls, Elise, Kevin, Serge, Victor, Cigarette Smoking Girls, Flower Guy, Winston Churchill, Champs-Élysées Trashcan Mugger, Victor Hugo, Cat-sized Pigeons, Stinky Trinket Street Vendors, Atlanta Folks, Egyptian Mummies on Park Benches, Timid Asian Girls In Search of a Route to the Arc de Triomphe, The Little French Pony-Tailed Girl, Felicienne Foulard, The Japanese Coco Chanel Fan Club, The Pigeon Shouter, the Louvre Crew (Thomas Aquinas, Napoleon, Mona Lisa, Venus de Milo, and Rameses III), Be-capped Taxi Driver, Absolute Minimal Effort Du Lys Concierge, Frantic Asian Frenchman at the Du Lys, The Pants Barker, French Stomp, Beggar Lady #1, Asian Guitarists, Middle-aged Mad Max café waiter, Bald Brasserie Waiter, French-Learning Rosacea Guy, Dazed Bicycle Victim, Super Post Office Lady, Beggar Lady #2, Jules Verne-ish Bookseller, Chanel Counterlady at Le Bon Marché, Madame L’Oisseau, French Lurch, Old Guy Who Refused to Smile Getting His Picture Taken In Front of Notre Dame, Drunken Seine Polluter, Gelato Guy, cute toddlers riding trains, 24 French soldiers armed with submachine guns, American Airlines Drill Sergeant, and … Matt Damon

 

 

Top Six (Personal) Sights of Paris (in no particular order):

 
  • The interior mosaics and stained glassworks of the Basilique du Sacre Coeur
  • The exterior façade of the Notre Dame Cathedral
  • Anywhere facing the Seine (any of the bridges, stone walls, or cobblestone pathways where you can hear the water flow) 
  • The tree-lined paths of Les Jardines des Luxembourg
  • Overlooking the sparkling Eiffel Tower at the top of any night-time hour 
  • The Italian painting wing of the Louvre

 

 
Beret Sightings:

 
2 (one by me, one by my wife)

 

 

Blue/White Horizontal Striped Shirt Sightings:

 
1 (by my wife, not me, alas)

 

 

Cigarette Smoker and Scarf Wearer Sightings:

 
1,981 (give or take a couple dozen)

 

 

Incidents of Overt Rudeness:

 
0.5 – slight roll of the eyes by a waitress; could be directed at a lack of spousal indecisiveness ordering lunch rather than an over attempt at anti-Americanism.

 

 

What I’d Do Next Time in Paris:

 
  • Climb the heights! Notre Dame (410 steps), Arc de Triomph (248 steps), Eiffel Tower (elevator, thank God!) 
  • Take a boat ride on the Seine 
  • Spend an entire day appreciating the Louvre 
  • See Napoleon’s tomb in Les Invalides 
  • Visit the Cimetiere du Pere-Lachaise, the famous cemetery on the outskirts of northeast Paris (burial site of composers Bizet, Rossini, Poulenc, Chopin, writers Balzac, Comte, Proust, painters Seurat, Delacroix, Modigliani, and singers Maria Callas and Jim Morrison) 
  • Take the little ones with us!

 

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Paris: Day Five


We woke up around 9:30 Saturday morning, well-rested and refreshed. The night was not that hot; neither was the tiny room despite both windows being sealed shut while we slept. Not knowing if complimentary breakfast at the Hotel du Lys ended at 10 or 10:30, we wasted no time showering and dressing and negotiated that treacherous stairway down to the lobby.

A flustered bald Asian man was both the chef and the busboy. (I also spotted him gathering laundry and I assumed he cleaned the rooms during the afternoons.) The small lobby was a little cramped with tables, about half of which were occupied by other guests. We were the last ones down, and for a minute I didn’t think we’d get breakfast as the remaining guests were all getting up to leave. But the little man came out shortly and placed a tray of rolls, croissants, jellies, butters, coffee and juice in front of us.

While we were waiting I went over to a middle-aged French woman behind the desk and asked her the best way to get to the Charles de Gaulle Airport. Our flight was due to board at 5:10, and I didn’t want us all stressed out getting lost trying to get there. The day before my wife asked a third desk employee if the B Line took you to the airport, and he said it did, depending on which terminal you need to go to. Uh oh. Our e-tickets had nothing indicating terminal or airport number on them. While this woman couldn’t clarify that question, she did say that you needed special tickets for the B Line Metro, ones that cost a bit more, since it went all the way out of Paris to the airport itself.

We returned to our room to pack up our clothes and possessions. An frustrating choice faced us. Being only 10:30 or so, we still had time to do one thing before the need to get to the airport became imperative. What to do? Lunch didn’t seem appealing right after we ate breakfast. We had seen all the nearby sights, some many times considering our marathon walk the night before. My wife wanted to visit the Galleries Lafayette in a mission similar to yesterday’s reconnaissance work at Le Bon Marché. Had we a full day, I’d agree, but a visit there would entail two Metro lines, and I didn’t feel our expertise coupled with our limited time would yield a successful visit and stress-free trip to the airport. The problem was, I couldn’t come up with an alternative.

The clock was mercilessly ticking. By 11 we decided to journey out to the airport, but take our time and enjoy the view – the final views we’d be seeing of this great city.

I overcame the challenge of hauling 100+ pounds of luggage down those uneven, tilted steps, nearly a hundred of them, without falling and tumbling down, breaking a neck, arm, or ankle. There was a moment of panic when, checking out, that same French woman asked how I would pay for the rooms. “Don’t you have my card on hold?” I asked, fishing around for my wallet. They did, but they wanted to run a card while I was there. Fortunately, I brought the one card I had notified I’d be traveling abroad. Once paid up, we checked on out, handing back the room key on the massive block of wood.

We wheeled our luggage up the street, traversing the Rues Serpente et Danton and the Boulevard Saint Michel one final time. We crossed that busy street and descended the Metro stairs – tricky, with all that luggage. Not only didn’t want to break neck, arm, and/or ankle, but didn’t want any thieves to run off with our bag(s).

My wife camped out with the baggage and suggested (ordered) me to go and get tickets, find out where our train platform was, and go back and get her. Truth be told, it was a little too much for me. Figuring out those French machines, that is. I followed the tunnel about twenty or thirty yards, came to a fork, took a right turn, went down more stairs, and voila! There was a ticket booth with a person in it. But since I don’t parle francaise, and my femme does, I went back and got her and our luggage.

But when we returned, there was a shade down at the booth! Ahhh! Victims of public servants taking early lunch breaks! Fortunately, there were electronic ticket machines there but unfortunately they would not accept the paper euro currency I had left. A second time my wife suggested (ordered) me to seek tickets elsewhere, and come back and get her.

I went back up to that fork and took the other path. After descending more steps, I finally spotted at a live person in a ticket booth. You’d be proud of me. I was able to convey to her that I needed two tickets, B Line Metro, to Charles de Gaulle airport. And you know what the funny thing is? Steve Martin is right. When you’re speaking English to a French person and trying to get them to understand your language, you adapt a French accent. Weird. I did, and I’m not proud of myself.

Finally ticketed, we were able to locate the B platform and board the train. The only potential problem was which terminal our flight was going to leave from. This was solved when I just happened to notice a helpful sign for Charles de Gaulle posted on the other side of the cabin. It listed which airlines went with which terminals, and, to our relief, I discovered American Airlines was listed with Terminal 2. We had been planning on debarking at Terminal 1.

There was a very cute three-year-old girl standing across from where we sat. She definitely wore an air of sneaky playful troublemaker, doing the old Yes! No! Yes! No! with her older sister, all smiles as she busted the older one’s chops. Though in French it’s Cie! No! Cie! No! Then, the older one got off at one stop and it turns out our little jokester was not related to them at all, just ships passing in the night, or little girls on a train. It was a funny little episode that made us think of how nice it will be once we get home to our little playful troublemakers.

The whole Metro journey took about a half-hour, half of that above ground in the outer environs of Paris. We exited at Charles de Gaulle 1 and line-fed into an escalator up a level. While I retain no notion of the shape or pattern of the airport, it seemed humongously cavernous walking it. More escalators followed, followed by long empty corridors, until we finally found ourselves in front of the empty American Airlines counter. We were the only ones there save for an older male clerk, who told us the counter wouldn’t open until 1:15, about a half-hour away. So we waited, first on line of a line of two.

I people-watched, and in this airport, the people I enjoyed watching the best were the soldiers! Loved their presence. They would patrol about in groups of four, decked out in their camo gear, sub-machine guns cradled in their arms. Chatting easily among themselves, but I knew they were watching, noting, examining the crowds of travelers they’d pass. How reassuring it was to see them! While we waited on that line (actually turned out to be over 45 minutes), I saw three groups of soldiers mosey on by.

Finally we were checked in by a hardcore bald black man who worked for the airlines. In one sentence he’d be all laughing and joking, and then when you laughed and joked back, he’d get all deadly serious. I guess that’s okay; I felt that I had to really work to convince him I packed my own luggage and didn’t let it out of my sight over the past two hours, and I felt he still didn’t hundred-percent believe me. My wife felt the same way, even more so, as she felt she bonded with him, not having learned that this man ran hot-cold, hot-cold. Better safe than sorry; that’s my motto in airline travel. I respected the tough grilling I got from the drill sergeant.

Our luggage tagged and taken, we took our carry-ons and headed towards the passport and security checkpoints. We made it through without any problem. Indeed, those parts of the airport were basically empty. A large escalator greeted us beyond the screeners and at the top – wow! – I found myself back in Le Bon Marché … the Duty-Free shopping center. My wife glommed the last bit of euros we had – about fifty – for gifts for the people who’d helped us on these journey: coworkers, my mother, her father, and our friends back home. She told me to head forward and find the Business Class lounge.

Well, that intimidated me a bit. I did walk forward, but took advantage to sit at a couple of funky colored cushion couches every hundred yards or so and further people-watch. Then I found myself in a hot curving corridor leading into a spherical building. Ah! I remember this building from five days ago when we left the incoming plane half-asleep. Soon I found myself in a wide, dark waiting room, with a hundred empty chairs. I felt that a good place to wait for my wife, and broke out my Sacred Heart book and read half-heartedly.

Twenty minutes later my wife appeared, laden with gift bags for friends and family. “Why are you here?” she asked. “Let’s go to the lounge! We got first class tickets, let’s use them!”

Business Class Lounge for American Airlines is actually called the “Admiral’s Club.” Okay. We went down a long escalator and pressed a button at the bottom. The walls pulled apart, secret agent-like, and I felt like I was entering Blofeld’s sitting room. A uniformed man and woman verified our boarding passes, and, once we proved our worth, pointed us in the proper direction, all smiles. When I entered the next room, we were all smiles, too.

To the left were magazine shelves floor to ceiling. Beyond were refrigerated cases of beer, wine, harder stuff. Beyond that were coffee, tea, sandwiches, apples, bananas, cookies, nuts, chips. All free! All self-service! On the right were massive, cushy black leather couches and windows overlooking planes being refueled and loaded with luggage. There were flat screens in the corner flashing news and business channels. When we stepped in, there were only two or three other people in the entire room, a room big enough to fit a hundred.

The Admirals Club rocks!

I had myself a Baileys on the rocks, my wife had a glass of wine (chased by three glass of champagne – shame on you!) We each had a mozzarella and tomato sandwich with some cookies for dessert. I read a newspaper cover-to-cover for the first time in at least a decade, I think it was USA Today but I’m not sure, and Newsweek for an article on the early universe by Brian Greene. The club started to fill up. Hard to profile a first class / business traveler. Some were dressed as slobby and slovenly as possible, others were dressed tennis preppy. Definitely an older clientele, but not to the point of the place resembling a senior early bird special. We stayed there for a quite pleasant hour-and-a-half before we heard the overhead call to begin boarding.

We ascended the escalator and got on line to board when who do we find ourselves in front of – yes! The bald, black drill sergeant from two hours ago! Again with the jokey-laughy-third degree inquisition. My wife inadvertently kept joking with him as he entered his cold phase, so I had to basically interrupt and prod her to answer correctly. Finally we were allowed to pass, and walked down the corridor to get on our plane. Au revoir, France!

Outbound business class treatment was pretty much as awesome and incredible as it was during our arrival flight. The boarding first, the complimentary glass of champagne, the drink once we’ve leveled off, the three-course dinner. I had champagne, of course, and another Bailey’s once we were in the air (there was no delay on the runway this time). For dinner I had that shrimp-salmon appetizer we had on the first flight. The main dish, chicken in some type of cream sauce, wasn’t up to par, but that’s okay. I was pretty full at that point. I brought out my Sacred Heart to read and was getting into it when, about an hour or so into the flight, the stewardess, a pretty blonde woman much more personable than Agnes, switched off the lights. I turned on my overhead light, but it was way too bright, and the woman across the aisle from me was trying to sleep.

Instead of reading, I focused on the entertainment center built into the seat in front of me, which I neglected on the trip out. I put on the (free) headphones and began by sampling their CD collection. I started with the very Gallic Claude Debussy, music that started me reminiscing while still in French airspace. Then I listened to, of all things, “Starship Trooper” by Yes, “Astronomy Domine” by Pink Floyd, and “Third Stone From the Sun” by Jimi Hendrix. Next to me my wife was watching a chick flick, so I decided to sample the movies. I was stunned to see that over twenty flicks were offered to me (not to mention teevee shows and documentaries). I selected the teen-angst-meets-telekinesis Chronicle. While not the greatest piece of cinema I’ve ever seen, it did make 85 minutes fly by, pun intended.

Lot more turbulence of the way home, though for most of the flight we were an hour ahead of schedule. Go figure. We cruised higher, faster, and colder – 36,000 feet, 590 mph, -63 outside the cabin – than on the way out, according to flight data on the flatscreens. I had a few moments of panic when I thought I dropped my Rosary into the mechanical innards of the seat (if I don’t hold my Rosary when we take off, the plane will crash). But it was only entangled around my headphone line. An hour out of New York the stewardesses brought out little pizzas for us to munch on and some diet soda to caffeinate us. We landed at JFK Airport without incident around 7 pm Eastern time and debarked the plane soon after. As business classers, we were allowed off first, while the flight attendant fought back the hordes of sheep in Coach.

Good to be back on solid land again. We headed the mad rush to customs. All we had to declare was some chocolates, four children’s gifts, a can of fois gras, and two bottles of French champagne. About $180.00 or so; there was a form we filled out in advance on the plane. We were fed into the Citizens line and were quickly processed with pretty much no hassle at all. No cross-examinations, nothing. It was basically painless.

The luggage area was almost empty; we were about the third or fourth couple to reach it from our flight, and, miracle of miracles, our luggage came out within five minutes. We headed out the nearest exit onto the loading street beneath the terminal and stopped in the moderate heat and humidity as my wife called her dad who, luckily, was already en route, having anticipated airport traffic (it took him a couple of hours to get back home after dropping us off five days ago). Again we were fortunate. Twenty minutes later he was there to pick us up and drop us back off at our house an hour later.

And the best sight of all on our 2012 Trip to Paris was our two little girls in sun dresses, barefoot, running across the long grass of our front yard, screaming “Mommy! Daddy!” and rushing up to give us massive hugs and kisses before we even got out of the car.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Paris: Day Four (part II)


After our first exposure on the Champs-Élysées / Place du Concord run, and after negotiating the B Line from Saint Michel to Gare du Nord and back, we were now jaded Metro pros. Well, that’s an exaggeration. We had some competence navigating from point A to point B. So we hopped the underground train at the Sévres-Babylone Metro station just across from L’Oisseau and found ourselves back at our hotel in less than a half-hour.

Exhausted. Hot, sweaty, sleepy, and exhausted.

Our room at the Hotel du Lys was not quite as stifling as it was on Thursday, the day before. Overall the day was cooler and breezier, and that helped cool our air-conditioning-free abode. My wife lay on the bed that took up 70 percent of the free space and was out cold in five minutes. I, too, I must admit, fought fatigue and heavy eyelids. I parked myself at that shelf that doubled as a desk, overlooking the drab yellow stucco-like wall fifteen feet away outside the open window. I read some more Victor Hugo, but my head drooped. I turned some pages in Devotion to the Sacred Heart, but my eyes dropped. Surrendering, I spread our blanket out on the floor and laid down, using one of our carry-on bags as a pillow. Darkness closed out the world, and I took some deep breaths – and was wide awake.

Oh well. These things happen to me. Frequently.

I returned to the desk. All this shifting and shuffling about disturbed my wife. I worked on my idea list that I began the sleepless night before on the bathroom floor. Glacially, time passed, until it was close to 7. Time to decide what to do with tonight, our last night in Paris.

My wife thumbed through some of her guidebooks and settling on a small place called Le Reminet, which promised a view of the Notre Dame Cathedral. I was game. We did the whole shower-get-dressed ritual. Surprisingly, we did not slip out a window and fall six stories to our deaths squeezing past each other getting ready in that tiny room. By 7:45 we padded the cool, twilight streets of Paris. And twilight in Paris lasts about two hours.

We repeated our journey from eight hours ago, heading up to the Quais, then east to the looming Cathedral. Instead of crossing the Pont Notre-Dame, though, we continued on, walking the side of the street opposite the Seine. My wife mentioned that she was sad for me that we never got to see Shakespeare & Co. Book Store, written about so glowingly in Frommers or Fodors or whichever one of the books we had. It’s a store custom-built for me, she said. Suddenly – there it was! I saw it first, recessed a bit behind the store we were passing, and pointed it out to her. “Go on in,” she urged, and eagerly I went.

As I entered, I immediately envisioned a great used book store of outstanding quality and character. Uneven floors, narrow aisles, multiple levels, shelving stuck everywhere: from floor to ceiling, corners, tables, doorways. Little handwritten subject signs, stuck here and there as unobtrusive guideposts. In stores like these I seek out three such guideposts: Philosophy, Religion, and Science Fiction. After staking out a plausible route through the tiny, packed store, I found myself at the Science Fiction section … and was disappointed. Two columns from floor to ceiling, but no dog-eared books. No, everything seemed new, or “second-hand” new. Not 1970s ancient. Not even 90s ancient. I knew anything I picked off the shelves would be too expensive, especially with the plus-thirty-percent exchange rate penalty. And it was true. I did note a greater selection of PKD books than you’ll find in an American store, and believe me, I was tempted. Around the corner I found Religion, and it was two simple horizontal shelves, each four feet long, one above the other. Nothing of note (when it comes to Religion, it’s gotta be written before 1960 to be worthwhile; all the books here were modern). I glanced across to Philosophy – ah! Larger, almost a whole wall. But there was a man and a woman examining those books ahead of me, and he in a wheelchair … a quick mental calculation realized the payoff wouldn’t be worth the effort.

So, I went out and located my wife sitting on a bench, admiring a view of the Cathedral across the street and over the (unseen) river. We traveled another block east and then there sat Le Reminet, sandwiched between two other open-air restaurants, on the opposing side of a diagonal street, just behind a fourth eatery, which just happened to block any appreciative view of Notre Dame. Oh well. We walked up to the entrance and stepped inside.

A tall, skeletal, deep-voiced man with little personality immediately greeted us. French Lurch I dubbed him, though he also reminded me of that “Time Warp” hunchbacked guy from Rocky Horror and resembled in passing Sasha Baron Cohen. Anyway, French Lurch asked us if we had reservations – darn! – we said we didn’t, and he told us to “wait here.” He returned and said we could be seated inside. Le Reminet was a narrow restaurant more than twice as deep as it was wide, and we sat at the table farthest back. After bringing us drinks – my usual 50 cl of Kronenbourg, the wife a Sauvignon Blanc, if I’m not mistaken, French Lurch ran through the specials. One of which was – pigeon! Yah! Part of me sorta kinda considered it, but recalling all the fat little guys pretty much owned Paris, how could I? I even joked that one of them swiped my passport off me while I wasn’t looking and I had to fork over a euro to get it back. But, no, neither of us indulged in that bird, opting instead for more traditional fare of salmon and scallops.

Dinner was superb, our conversation was great, the atmosphere was pleasant. Then, a party of six Americans sat down next to us. Two older couples, all at least in their sixties, and two girls in their late teens or early twenties, who sat on the side of the table next to us. They talked like girls in their late teens or early twenties tend to do, loud, proud, and without a care of how anyone outside their social group perceived them. Which is to say, I didn’t mind listening to their loud banter, they very actually very amusing. You see, they didn’t know we spoke English. We learned the one girl got accepted to NYU and was looking forward to attending. Then, the other glanced over to our table and they starting discussing our dinners. “I think they’re having the salmon,” one of them rather loudly said to the other.

“Yes, we are,” my wife said, “and it’s excellent!” They were surprised and perhaps a little embarrassed, but we all had a good laugh. They chatted a little bit about their trip, we of ours, small talk, only for a few minutes. Then we wished each other well and resumed our dinners, us finishing up, they just starting.

We left Le Reminet around 8:30 pm, the sun still above the horizon somehow, keeping the day alive. We crossed the street north and slowly walked west, passing by the Notre Dame Cathedral (one last time!), savoring every view from every angle. Were we here only eight hours ago? Time passes funny in Paris … too fast, yet every moment seems a lifetime.

Before long we were before those bookseller stands, now all closed and locked up for the day. I decided we should go down a nearby set of stone stairs and walk along the Seine – what is a trip to Paris without a walk along the river Seine, especially as the sun was setting? My wife agreed, and we strolled down on the cobblestone pathways, passed couples and groups of friends sharing bottles of wine, loaves of bread, cheese, fruits, sitting on the stone wall a few feet above the waterline. Every now and then a group had an instrument, someone strumming a guitar, or there was a radio; it was a very festive yet remarkably low-key affair. Couples arm-in-arm passed us by. We passed people taking pictures of the scenery; they passed us when we paused to take it all in. We had to dip our heads as we walked under each of the several bridges that spanned the Seine. Massive tour ships as well as four-man motorboats thrummed up and down the river at regular intervals. We watched in dismay as one jerk on the northern side of the river emptied a bottle of champagne or wine into the Seine, then dropped the bottle in. Sacrilege!

The sun now set, we climbed another stone stairway back up to the street. I distinctly began to feel the clock ticking; our last night in Paris was dwindling down to only an hour or two. We walked west on the Quai Saint Michel all the way up to the Pont Neuf, which our taxi drove us over to get to the Hotel du Lys nearly thirty-six hours ago. Then we crossed the street and walked back in the other direction, back towards the fountain. My wife decided she wanted gelato. We passed many eateries on the way, but none had what she wanted. Finally, we took a right off the main road and strolled through the winding, narrow, cavernous side roads, some eerily deserted, some with groups of two, three, four walking to some exciting destination. We passed an art gallery in the middle of showing an exhibit. The night life was starting to develop exponentially as it gradually got darker and darker. Then, just off one of the side streets connecting that triangle of bistros by our hotel, we found – if not exactly gelato, then a very good soft ice cream place. The attendant was so nice and friendly I let him keep the change. I think it was two euros in coins, and he gave me a look like Christmas came early. We walked a block over and sat on a stone wall eating our ice cream.

On the other side of the street, set in the sand-colored wall of a nondescript building, was a strange door. It was strange not because it looked to be made of dark oak in a medieval fashion; it was strange because it was only four feet high! An Asian couple hovered about it, and eventually the man took the plunge: he opened it and crawled in, dropped down on to unseen steps. His companion followed. Must be a restaurant, we surmised, but that entrance was definitely intriguing. Perhaps if we had another night …

By now it was dark. Must’ve been a little past ten. We thought a bottle of champagne – a half-bottle, really – would be the best way to end our trip. A toast to Paris! So we began walking again, in ever-widening circles, around our adopted neighborhood of the Saint Michel triangle. Oddly enough my feet didn’t hurt anymore. We walked past the fountain, south down the Boulevard Saint Michel, passed the book stand under the canopy, then turned right, this time west on the Rue de Ecole. We headed northwest up on the Saint Germain, then found ourselves at the Seine again, the Quai Saint Michel. Crowds were forming all over, people waiting in line for restaurants. We were dowsed in cigarette smoke as we passed countless open-air eateries. I saw the first movie theater in Paris. (Forget what was playing, but there were posters everywhere in Paris for Prometheus and David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, starring that creepy Edward dude.)

Our search for champagne was in vain, for two reasons: we wanted only a half-bottle (no hangovers trying negotiate the Metro to Charles de Gaulle airport!) and we wanted it relatively inexpensive. No place could fulfill both qualifications. So we kinda moseyed on here and there, commenting on people, places, and things. I remember passing a Canadian-themed pub, several Indian and Japanese style eateries, a gaming store (castles and figurines in the window), a 50s-style Americana joint, a Gentleman’s club called, er, Gentlemen’s (of which I threatened to go several times later on that night). My wife thought it would be a spectacular idea to open a Mexican restaurant in Paris. I agreed; it seemed the only national cuisine not represented in our wanderings.

Every day in our Parisian travels we would hear that European siren, be it ambulance or police, that EE-aw, EE-aw, EE-aw, and it would echo throughout the streets and landmarks and you could never quite pinpoint where the vehicle was. Every day, walking, sitting at an outdoor café, in a large park like the Tuileries, every day we heard that siren. And every time I would remark, “There goes Matt Damon!” You know, Matt Damon of Jason Bourne fame, hijacking police and EMT vehicles from various European countries, fleeing the scene after taking the authorities on very expensive (in terms of body work and collision damage) wild goose chases. That night I uttered my last, “There goes Matt Damon,” and still my wife smiled at the lame, overused joke.

Finally, all good things must come to an end. We found ourselves back at the Rue Danton for the third or fourth time, and then, a couple buildings on the Rue Serpente, we were opening the big plate glass doors of the Hotel du Lys. ’Twas a bittersweet denouement. Tired yet contented we did our best, we scaled those six flights of spiraling stairs to our room.

Which was remarkably more cooler than the previous night. Thank God! We showered, changed into some dry sleep clothes, called the girls back home. I was exhausted again, as usual, as was my wife, I’m sure. This time we decided to sleep with the windows firmly closed; the heat shouldn’t be so bad, and I was willing to wake up a little sweaty in exchange for a solid night’s sleep. Lights went out sometime after midnight, and you know what? So did we.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Paris: Day Four (part I)


After finally drifting off to sleep, sometime between three and four in the morning, slamming doors and stampedes up and down the stairs outside our door woke us … a little after ten. Sacre bleu! We were sweaty and disheveled and in no condition to make it downstairs to complimentary breakfast, factoring in how long it would take us both to get showered and dressed. I didn’t mind; I was exhausted and my body was really starting to feel it. My wife did mind, however, though I suspect memories of Crillon continental breakfasts may have been skewing her breakfast anticipation.

We compromised on – Starbucks! Yes, the omnipresent company I hate and my wife loves had an outpost two blocks away, on the Boulevard de Saint-Germain. Plus, we’d pass a post office and could mail out the half-dozen postcards she filled out the day before. By eleven we ourselves were stomping down those treacherous Hotel du Lys steps and were out in the warm sunlight of the Rue Serpent. This time we turned left on Rue Danton, and walked into our first French post office.

Which wasn’t too different from its American counterpart. Instead of a single feed line, though, there were four or five manned one-man counters, plus a smattering of self-service computerized stamp machines. My wife beelined for one of these, but we quickly proved unequal to the task. Much more difficult than negotiating a Metro ticket machine, since we had no idea how to figure out overseas postage amounts, and everything was in French. Fortunately, a helpful and cheerful woman who worked there spotted us in our plight, came over, and, without speaking a word of English instantly knew what we needed and prompted the machine to spit out the required stampage. We thanked her in our limited francaise and dropped the cards in an outside bin.

We crossed the busy Saint-Germain and the wife went into ’Bucks while I people-watched for fifteen minutes. What a gorgeous day! Temps in the seventies, no humidity. The sky was an absolutely crystal clear beautiful blue with no clouds about. My eyes rested upon the particularly French busy tiled roofs, the sandy shades of the buildings, the black-outlined windows with billowing drapes over flower boxes. Fifty or twenty bicyclists rode by, some in suits rushing to work, most in dresses or jeans. Lots of tourists and locals walking by; truthfully, it was hard to tell the difference. There was some construction going on an intersection away, plastic walls in a circle like some modern makeshift fort, but I didn’t see any activity there. My wife came out and ate at a nearby table while I plotted today’s strategy. Learning from our errors of yesterday, she bought a 64-ounce plastic bottle of water.

Notre Dame – that was our immediate target, walking distance about a half-mile away over the Seine on the Ile de Cité (City Island). We headed back east on the Rue Danton, past the post office, the Rue Serpente where our hotel lay nestled, past the triangular intersection of out-door eateries, past the Saint Michel fountain, up to the Quai Saint Michel / Quai de Montebello, the east-west thoroughfare that overlooks the Seine. On the southern side of this busy street are touristy gift shops; on the north side, straddling a long stone wall where you could see the river twenty or thirty feet below, were two dozen book stands. Apparently, dating back decades, peddlers are able to sell books from these olive green, permanently-installed giant cabinets attached to the stone wall. Overall, the book selections were eclectic. It was at one of these stands I spotted A Voyage to Arcturus in French. There were a lot of heady, classic stuff, philosophy, both Greek and French, lots of old, old paperbacks. Yet there was kitsch, too. One notable was Les Femmes du Dallas, with a picture of J. R. Ewing on the cover surrounded by six Texas blondes. One stand sold what seemed to be every single work ever written by Mary Higgins Clark. Another sold a dozen or so dog-eared copies of Ellery Queen. I did not check to see if these latter two collections were in French or English.

And ever-present, lording over us in all its medieval splendor, huge yet still far away, was the Cathedral of Notre Dame.

We crossed over the Pont Notre-Dame, the bridge onto Ile de la Cité, the birthplace of Paris over a millennium-and-a-half ago. There were crowds, but it was never crowded. The cathedral was drawing us forward, rather than us moving toward it. It’s surrounded by an odd, sandy lot, where a long line of sightseers snaked back, awaiting entrance into its cool interiors. Every now and then the wind would kick up a dust devil. There was one of those Harryhausen Titan giants to our right. As the line advanced, I came upon another black-clad beggar woman, but I couldn’t get my money out in time without halting the line and calling attention to myself. I promised to myself that I’d drop a few coins in her cup on the way out. (Alas, when we came out, a half-hour later, she was gone. “Off to the bank,” my wife playfully remarked. “Off to the Chanel Boutique,” I countered, which garnered a punch in the shoulder from her.)

The outside architecture of the cathedral simply enraptured me. I had read the description in Hunchback, but nothing does it justice except to see it up close in person. The three great arched doors (though the one on the left has a curved, not pointed, top), the row of 27 life-size carved statues of (kings? saints? angels?) above the doors, the enormous, 200-foot-tall towers, dividing the daytime skies, the mocking gargoyles, tiny-heads way, way up there, the spires, the drainage pipes, the stained-glass windows. Off to the river-side of the cathedral, jutting up from the roof, is even a clock, keeping accurate time. The exterior of the Cathedral of Notre Dame was probably, Louvre-excepted, the most incredible sight I saw during our trip to Paris.

At the entrance, similar to the Basilique du Sacre Coeur, were signs asking us to refrain from picture-taking and talking and to wear modest attire. Food and beverage was banned, but I wasn’t going to give up my 64-ounce bottle of water just opened, so I stashed it under my shirt quite conspicuously. Inside, the temperature plummeted a comfortable ten degrees or so, and a gentle murmuring susserance effused the darkness. Quickly my eyes adjusted (it seemed candles – or soft incandescent light – and whatever rays came through the stained glass windows provided all the interior illumination) and we began an easy, clockwise tour of the inside similar to the Basilique. However, Notre Dame, to me at least, seemed a lot more commercially-driven, or if “commercial” is not the best word, then let’s try “tourist.”

Every twenty or thirty feet there was some sort of “exhibit”, whether it was a cordoned-off area to some saint or pictures of Jesus (the famous image from the Shrine jumped out at me) or a display highlighting the life of St. Therese of Lisieux. There were machines that gave you a medallion of the Cathedral in exchange for a euro, similar to the gumball machines you see outside supermarkets. (My wife said the Basilique had them, too, but I don’t recall seeing them there.) A gift shop, and offices off the middle left and right sections. Disappointingly, the altar was distant and inaccessible, and though the view above was majestic in its height, there were no mosaics or other artwork, only dirty tiles of different colors, no doubt the testimony of centuries.

The main art of the interior of Notre Dame is its architecture. That is the feast for the eyes. There is a whole second tier above where we stood and walked, columns and arches and more stained glass windows. I imagined Quasimodo running above those passageways en route to the bells in the two top towers. My description cannot do it justice, simply because I do not wield the architectural vocabulary and experience to do it so. But it was inspirational and awe-inspiring in a different way than Sacre Coeur. If I lived or worked in a nearby store or building, I’d spend every lunch hour in this amazing house of God.

Too quickly we found ourselves back at the exit. Nature was calling, and there were public restrooms just off to the right of the Cathedral. However, I spotted a sign which pointed out how to reach the top of the towers (and the deck below them). It cost something like ten or twelve euros and there was a warning that “410 steps will have to be climbed,” and I believe that warning was even in English. I really wanted to do it, really wanted to see Paris from a hundred or two hundred feet up, but, truth be told, those 410 steps were a real barrier to my aching feet, much more so than the 24 euros (or 12, my wife is willing to sacrifice a lot for me and my whims, but climbing to the top of Notre Dame may not have been one of them). So we walked over to the public restrooms, which were clean and well-maintained despite being underground, and I did not begrudge the woman who held out her hand for a euro tip as the men divided off from the women to use the facilities.

We meandered back over the bridge, back west on the Quai de Montebello, this time on the southern side, cruising the shops for some gifts for our girls. We found an Eiffel Tower music box for Patch (to go with the Paris snow globe we got Little One during our Crillon days), plus a bracelet for her and Eiffel Tower earrings for her older sister. My wife decided we should see the large and fairly well-known Jardines des Luxembourg, about a mile to the southwest. So, at the Boulevard Saint Michel we turned left and headed south, past the Rue de Ecole (where we ate at the Balzar Brasserie the night before), and walked a few more blocks. The sun was extremely hot and potent, and my wife made fun of me seeking out the shadier sections of the sidewalk. We passed a small park filled with lunching Parisiens. We passed some type of medieval archaeological dig, something I was curious about enough to inquire of its authenticity, but not enough to spend time on. Then we headed west on the Rue de Vaugirard, past several outdoor bistros, tempting our growling tummies. But they were all facing the glaring sun, and the Jardines were just before us.

Next to the Tuileries, the Jardines des Luxembourg were possibly the grandest parks in Paris. There were ten-foot high wrought-iron gates encircling the gardens at the point we entered. And I stepped into such plush coolness I thought I entered Narnia! Please excuse the hyperbole, but after all the sun on my fair self, I delighted in the forested passageway we entered. Trees planted regularly along the walkway reached up high and over the path to shade us as we sought a bench for a breather. At the entrance, behind us, was another Harryhausen-ish Titan, only of the god Pan (or perhaps just a happy faun) dancing with one leg up in the air. I thought for a moment to imitate the pose for a digital picture, but was feeling very self-conscious and touristy as we were in sight of lots of other folks. On the bench we called back home, 7,000 miles away, and my wife spoke with my mother. I did my second-favorite activity in France, people-watch. It was a very restive, relaxing fifteen minutes I spent on that bench.

It must’ve been around one, and since we were not quite hungry we felt like exploring a bit. So we upped and headed further into the Jardines. Fifty yards down the path opened up into a shady, sandy picnic area. Perhaps a third of the tables were full. There was a pavilion, and beyond that, it opened up into the Tuileries part Deux. We walked down some steps into the sunlight and stood in front of a large, circular pond, a hundred yards across. Around the circumference stood pedestaled statuary shading those in chairs. Sunbathers orbited the pond. A middle-aged woman with an easel was painting the whole thing. Off to the right sat a humongous castle or mansion, the Luxembourg Palace, as we later found out. We walked part of the arc around the pond, then forked off to the southernly path. More lines of trees, much more sunbathers. We walked slowly down its length, then paused at another bench to decide on a further plan of action.

Some colleagues of my wife’s suggested she check out some of the major shopping centers in Paris. This request was partially work-related, reconnaissance-work, and as my wife won our trip to Paris at her company’s sales conference, she felt obligated to do so. Of course we had no money for shopping, but she was looking forward to doing some stealth research, to see how the other side worked, how they played on the home field, so to speak. So consulting our maps, we decided, despite feet throbbing and bellies rumbling, to hoof it over to Le Bon Marché, about a mile or so in a north-westerly direction. I felt it doable, though that may have had a lot to do with a pleasantly uplifting state of mind from the visit to Notre Dame and our present location.

At a bench next to us appeared to be a vacationing couple about our age, also consulting a map. When I looked further, though, I saw that the woman was in a wheelchair, her legs withered. That touched me for some reason, I don’t know why, but I’ll probably remember that scene for a good long while.

Anyway, after another ten-minute interlude in the shade, we hauled ourselves up and headed back via a parallel pathway toward the large pond. After a while the Jardines became more wooden and woodsy, and paths forked out to the north and west. We passed a day care center, with all the cute little ones wearing caps to ward off sun damage from whatever rays made it through the foliage. We passed a cluster of tennis courts, and the wife paused to evaluate the players. Good, could be real good, if one had relocated to Florida and hired a serious tennis coach. I joked about Frenchman sipping red wine from little glasses between points. We passed a handful of children as the path widened playing some sort of organized game resembling tag or capture the flag. Then we were at the gates facing the Rue Guynemer. Bonsoir, Jardines des Luxembourg!

The trek over the next forty-five minutes brought us through quieter, more residential neighborhoods. Still the bright colored buildings, still the narrow streets and narrower sidewalks, but a very tangible sense of peace and quiet. Not much motorized traffic. Nor bicycles or pedestrians or such. Most of the buildings, I assumed, held apartments, going up six or seven stories. There were some doctor offices, a bookseller as ancient as Jules Verne must be, some delis and croissant shops, but these were widely spaced apart. The skies were still blue, the sun beaming, the humidity manageable. Then we came up to a major street, the Rue de Sévres, lots of traffic and buses and bustling Paris people. My wife pointed around the corner: “There it is!” Le Bon Marché, a large, very, very ritzy, upper-class shopping “mall” – though it was more, I suppose, a department store which melded modernity with classic French architecture in very agreeable proportions.

My wife went to work; I only went along for the ride. Jewelry, perfumery, skin care, hair care, Chanel and Dior and other brands I’ve heard her speak of but can’t quite call to mind now. And that was just on the first floor. Escalators criss-crossed in the distance bringing shoppers into the upper recesses of the store. We just circled that first floor, my wife chatting up counter managers and snapping digital pics from various angles. Me, I just sought out a padded bench somewhere, anywhere, to rest my feet, but wherever I wound up I always felt out of place. After forty-five minutes or so, my wife satisfied, we left.

Now, nearing three o’clock in the afternoon, we were really getting hungry. For the first time in Paris we passed a full-fledge grocery store, but a quick run through came up blank for what we were looking for – lunch. We left and walked a block north up the Rue de Sévres, and came to an open-air bistro whose name I forget. It did have lots of vowels in it, French-style, so, right or wrong, I’m going to call it L’Oisseau.

We got a booth to escape the exhaust fumes of traffic. There was a woman running the place, forty-ish with dirty blond hair. Apparently this was not a big tourist hot spot, as she spoke no English. And though she wasn’t unpleasant per se, I sensed a low tolerance level emanating from her, which factored in my ordering. My wife was debating between two choices and asked her to give her a few more minutes. I caught a slight eye roll from Madame L’Oisseau, still a far cry from the stereotypical tourist-hating Frenchman or woman I’d been warned by more than a few people back home. I mentioned none of this, because service was prompt and the food was delicious. I had my 50 cl Kronenbourg (Ah, beer! Is there anything better on a hot sunny day than a cold mug of beer?). I had a chicken sandwich with some type of sauce that was simply delicious. And, of course, the thorn bush of fries, sans ketchup (Yes – the French don’t eat ketchup!). The wife had a salad again, again with a glass of wine.

We ate leisurely over the next hour, commenting on the French news on the teevee hanging just above and behind me. Seems that there’s an epidemic of child kidnapping in France, something on the order of 50,000 a year. I found that an impossible figure. Perhaps something was lost in translation. Anyway, after paying we spotted a Metro station across the street, and soon we were subterranean, heading back to the Hotel du Lys …