Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Saturday, October 05, 2013

Meet Mr. Economy

So when I was in Seattle pitching my memoir to agents, I made all kinds of blithe promises, including “I use the economy as a character in my story.” Now that I’m preparing materials for agents, I’m all “Holy crap, I have to use the economy as a character in my story. Who the hell does that?”

That meant I actually had to think about what kind of character the economy — specifically the economy of March 2007-March 2008) would be. Would Lord Economy be like Sauron, a dark, malevolent shadow over the landscape, occasionally sending out the Nazgul of Foreclosure or the Witch-King of Mortgage Derivatives? Or would we have Miss Economy, like the Queen in Narnia, who cast a spell over our happy land, forcing up oil prices and credit card rates? I was tempted to create an Economy God, a reckless, vengeful Poseidon whipping up economic storms to prevent our hero from reaching a safe harbor. But not even I was paranoid enough to consider myself an Odysseus, unjustly persecuted with hidden bank fees.

In the end, I settled on Mr. Economy, a mighty, well-meaning, but none-too-bright giant. In March 2007, our Mr. Economy was strong and confident, almost too confident. He was reckless, shrugging off any restraint, running faster and faster. He was a gambler, hopped up on easy money, greedily gobbling up debt instruments. The sun is warm, the grass is soft and it never enters his pea-brained mind that things could ever change.

He looked so strong then, but of course that strength was illusory. Real strength comes through discipline and training and experience. Truly strong characters develop sound judgment and act purposefully, willing to practice moderation and prepared for setbacks.

In March 2007, Mr. Economy was a happy camper, with corporate earnings growing big.  He notices a small pain in the housing market (foreclosures up, home sales down) but pays it no mind.

In June, he notices another pain, the investment banks, who suddenly are worried about their sketchy, risky investments.

But in July, he still feels great. Everything’s fine, the Dow hits 14,000 for the first time.

In August, Mr. Economy starts feeling sick to his stomach. He’s been gobbling up all this shifty debt and he’s having trouble digesting it. He behaves erratically, up one day and down the next.

In September, he’s getting some headaches from housing, retail and financial industries. But he won’t listen to the Federal Reserve asking him to pretty please be responsible with the foreclosures. He’s starting to bleed jobs.

October brings a high fever, and of course, hallucinations. Everything’s rosy! Dow hits record high of 14,087! The worst is over! But infection has set in.

In November, our Mr. Economy is feeling really bad. Banks are hammered, everyone says recession is coming.

By December, Mr. Economy is breaking down before our very eyes. One million U.S. homes are in foreclosure. Our giant falls to his knees — he’s tapped out and can’t run any more.

In January 2008 he’s crawling along. Oil is at $100 a barrel, the Dow is weakening. The Fed slashes interest rates, but even with mass transfusions of money, Mr. Economy hasn’t felt this bad since 1974.

By February the vultures are circling. Credit card lenders jack up rates and fees on consumers and inflation rises.

In March, Mr. Economy is hardly moving, crushing consumers beneath him. He now has a choice: will he take his nasty-tasting medicine and get stronger faster, or will be just lie there, still crushing consumers and hoping he’ll slowly get stronger?

The answer, of course, is that the Fed doesn’t administer strong medicine, like allowing big financial institutions to fail and imposing new regulation. Instead, the Fed and the government administered massive transfusions of taxpayer dollars and a few weak restraints and called it a day. 

Which is likely why, although officially this recession ended in 2009, the recovery has been weak and why a wounded Mr. Economy continues to limp along, no matter what the stock market says. 

Thursday, September 05, 2013

Better Living Through Dorkiness

So apparently Benny needs to know all the U.S. states and capitols by Sept. 13. Actually, the entire fourth grade needs to know their states and capitols. The school's really serious about this; we parents had to sign a little form saying we would help our children learn this lesson and not allow them to sink into state-and-capitol-less despair.

The form even had fine print, which I didn't really read but might say that if Benny fails, Social Services will turn up and place him with a new family that knows the capitol of Connecticut is Dover. I mean Frankfort. Hartford?

I realized tonight, as Benny and I were eating dinner, that I had a captive audience here and could address this topic in my own dorky way. So I started reading off states in alphabetical order: if Benny guessed the capitol, great. If not, then I would tell him not only the name of the capitol, but how the city got that name, on the theory that knowing the history behind the name would help him remember it. Well, I don't know if it works, but it was a fun way to learn new facts while listening to Benny moan every time I said, "Okay, let's look it up!"

After a while I didn't want to stop and that's how I learned about the following state capitols:

A piece of the Little Rock at the Arkansas capitol.
Little Rock, Arkansas
named after a little rock on the river that was a navigation aid for boats.

Hartford, Connecticut
named after Hertford, England, but pronounced Hartford.

Tallahassee, Florida
Indian name for "old fields" because earlier Indians had cleared a bunch of land already.

Atlanta, Georgia
I thought it was after the woman with the golden apples in Greek mythology. Actually, it was named by a railroad guy who called it Atlantica-Pacifica and it was shortened to Atlanta.

Des Moines, Iowa
Named after the Riviera Des Moines or "River of the Monks" in French, but I don't know what the monks had to do with anything.

Baton Rouge, Louisiana
French for red staff or stick, maybe after the big cypress tree on the site

I end with Lansing, Michigan, our home state.
Lansing was originally some lame little settlement named after some guys' hometown in New York State. But in 1847 the state leaders wanted to move the capital further into the interior away from hostile British Canada, which had taken Detroit in the War of 1812. Michigan's other big cities vied for the honor, but they chose some flyspeck village with 20 people.

Stay tuned for more dorkiness tomorrow!

Sunday, August 25, 2013

How I Started Chapter Five by Freaking Out

I need to write Chapter 5: Recessions I Have Known, but I'm scared. I’ve done everything but write in the last 40 minutes. I’ve posted on Facebook, changed my Apple password, bought a Seal album, helped Benny create a birthday card. And now I'm at my desk again. It's scary.

Who does stuff like this? Who sets their lives against the economy, who strings together the major events of their lives using recessions like fat beads on a string that winds and knots? I’m going to tangle this up.

I’m feeling some pressure. I want to send this out in September. Chapter Five was supposed to be a light revision and now it's a whole new chapter, possibly one of the most important chapters in the book.

The god Pan.
 I’m trying to remember everything; the events, the memories, the history, the personalities. I’m having trouble focusing. I'm hyperventilating. It’s 10:52 and I’ve done nothing. I can’t stop thinking about the other things I need to do. I’m in a panic. How do I start a chapter about recessions? I'm in a panic. 

I'm in a panic.

Panic: a a sudden sensation of fear so strong as to dominate or prevent reason, replacing it with anxiety. A Greek word from the shepherd god Pan, who liked to frighten goats and sheep.
The frying Pan.

It’s also an old-fashioned word for a financial crisis, like the panics of 1857, 1873 and 1907. All triggered by worries over gold, silver or copper. Panic. All the goats and sheep scattered.

I'm trying to write about the 1973-75 recession. But it wasn't a recession, it was a Panic. 

Yay! I'm on my way! An hour later, I'm still typing madly.

There's got to be an easier way to do this.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Puzzle Pieces

We never really know anybody's life, do we? Even the nearest and dearest, we only know a piece of what's going on. We reveal little snippets here and there in conversation and on Facebook and in our blogs. We don't really know anybody's day but ours, the whole picture, the shape of the day, how we feel in the morning, how we feel about the day or the life.

We ask "How did you sleep?" "How was your commute?" "How was your weekend?"

Then later, "How was your day?"

What do we answer? We say what we think they want to hear, what we're willing to share, the highlights, but we don't truly answer. We all have secrets. Some of us have big secrets. Some of us have a secret so big that we carry it around all day, touching it lightly with our fingertips to remind ourselves that it's really there.

My own secrets are becoming a little problematic because I'm writing about my life. I'm writing a memoir about a year in my life and I'm skimming over some sticky parts. This is fundamentally dishonest. It may weaken the writing. So when I finish the first 75 pages and they are all polished and prettified and sent out and I can start writing rough again, I will tell all my secrets, get them out on the page. I don't have to show them to anybody.

Right now I'm telling myself that many personal details don't matter in this memoir, that this memoir is about the financial life and this might be true. Or it might be a cop out. The only way to find out is to let all the secrets out. Maybe I'll have to include some and hurt people. There's only one way to find out.

At any rate, I can't keep censoring myself. If I keep doing that, than the final picture of my life will be alike a puzzle with missing pieces, gaping holes where meaning is missing.

I am all the puzzle pieces. My life is all the puzzle pieces. Write every puzzle piece, no matter how ugly or awkward the shape. If you don't, then you won't have a prettier picture. You'll just have a picture with an awkward, ugly hole.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

PNWA: The risky businesses of journalism and publishing

Beaten and battered, but still fighting.

Journalism and publishing are two very different industries, and the differences go far beyond the whole double-spacing-after-a-period thing.

Journalists work in a fast-paced environment and our jargon reflects this: scoops, headlines, cutlines, pull quotes, banners, leads (or leads), deadlines ... see all those verbs? We scoop, we cut, we pull, we lead and then we drop dead.

If journalism’s time reference is quick and human, publishing’s time frame is more … geologic. An epoch can give way to an era between a book’s conception and publication. At last month’s Pacific Northwest Writers Association’s conference, we were “authors” not “reporters” who wrote “manuscripts” not “copy” to be “published” not “printed.” The jargon was more sedate: advance, slush, pitch, royalty, galley.

But despite these differences, the two industries face similar challenges these days, a clash between the old and the new, as traditional professionals fight to be heard above online newcomers. In journalism, these newcomers are called bloggers or “citizen journalists,” the latter embraced by online newspapers as a cheaper, faster way to get content.  In publishing, those new guys and gals are self-published authors.

In traditional journalism not so long ago, a story was pitched to an editor, the editor followed up on the story’s progress,  the story was submitted and edited, then copy edited, then proofed. Then and only then did the story go public. Errors and typos still slipped through, but the process worked to create the most professional result possible. Ideally, the finished result would be a professionally produced work, the product of a group collaboration, not one single mind, no matter how talented.

Similarly in publishing, for a book to hit the shelves, the writer pitches an agent who sells the project to a publisher. A whole table of people vet this acquisition: editors, marketers, production staff, publicists … they all have to sign off on it. Again, the final product, while not perfect, is professionally produced, the result of a group of talented minds.

Furthermore, both journalists and book writers have a formal apprenticeship, years of writing before you get the plum assignments or the book contracts.

The Internet has changed all this, of course. Now traditional newspaper writers compete with bloggers and “citizen journalists.” Traditional book authors compete with self-published authors. These nontraditional writers often display great creativity and talent and are formidable competitors not to be underestimated.

But with the barriers to entry in both industries partly dismantled, readers are flooded with books and articles in various stages of professional development. It can be difficult for readers to distinguish between a professionally sourced news story and an amateur blog post. Book readers surfing on Amazon’s wave of titles may lump together the professionally agented, edited, marketed and designed books and their self-published counterparts.

At the PNWA conference,  I repeatedly heard speakers say today’s books have to “break through the noise.” I hear this phrase in online journalism too. So the question for both journalists and book writers becomes, how do we uphold the traditional standards of  our industry while still innovating and accepting change?

One thing is for sure, looking down our noses at self-published authors and citizen journalists may make us feel better but won’t help anyone. My newspaper recently wrote about San Francisco International Airport’s crackdown on those newfangled ridesharing companies. In an effort to protect the taxi drivers who take passengers to and from the airport, SFO has conducted citizen’s arrests of Lyft and Uber drivers for trespassing.

Well, as a taxi passenger who has waited an hour for a taxi, endured baffling, circuitous routes to my destination or has had to scrape up cash because the taxi driver’s credit card reader was mysteriously broken, I say the traditional taxi industry in San Francisco has left a gaping customer service hole large enough to drive a gleaming, black Uber car through. Ridesharing companies are filling a need, or they wouldn’t be so successful, and taxi companies ignore this at their peril.

Traditional journalists and book writers can’t be like those taxi drivers. We can’t close ranks against the newcomers. They are now part of our culture and our dialogue. I believe in traditional publishing; I choose to prepare my memoir for agents. But I believe in self-publishing too, although it is not for me.

There is one word I don’t hear much of in either the journalism or publishing industries, probably because it was so self-evident. That word is “risk.” My newspaper is currently making enormous changes and taking huge risks. Publishers take big risks every time they acquire a book.

Bloggers, citizen journalists and self-published authors are considered the risk takers these days. But as bookstores and newspaper stands close every day while my own articles and book manuscript inch along the longer path to readers, today’s traditional journalists and book authors remain the biggest risk takers of all.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

PNWA Conference: Christine's tips

Well, I'm back from the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in Seattle. I've been to exactly one writer's conference now in my adult life, so of course that makes me an expert.

So here are Christine's Top 10 Tips to a Successful Writing Conference:

1. Fly in the night before the event begins.
Everybody is boring the first two hours after they get off the plane. I could immediately spot the folks who flew in Thursday morning, staggering around all haggard in wrinkled clothes. I met a nice man that day with an undoubtedly fascinating novel, but he'll forever live in my mind as "The Guy Who Spent 40 Minutes on the Tarmac."

2. Want to make friends? Drop your registration packet while standing in line for pitch session registration. With any luck, you'll scatter the detritus at the feet of the host organization's president. It worked for me, although I lost two pens and an event ticket.

3. Don't wear a bright color or a vivid pattern on the first day. I met a woman who's writing a paranormal romance with pirates. Unfortunately, she was wearing a lurid orange shirt on the first day and I never caught her name or memorized her features. I never found her again.

4. For the love of God, figure out what to do with your business cards. First I had a special pocket, then I tried a special baggie, then I wrapped a rubber band around them. Finally I used my brain and stuffed a bunch into my name badge — problem solved. Then I could look on smugly while new friends ransacked their pockets and bags looking for cards to give me.

5. Linger after sessions. This is how I nabbed three of the four agents I pitched before my official pitching session. It's slightly more dignified than pouncing on agents on the elevator or in the bar. Plus you get to eavesdrop on the people in line in front of you.

6. This is a trick from my days covering board meetings as a reporter:
Draw a little map of panel participants first thing. That way, when the Question and Answer starts, you know who said what.

7. Never abandon a muffin to get to a session on time. You’ll end up surreptitiously crunching peanut M&Ms from the bottom of your purse at 8 in the morning just to survive the 90-minute session. Crinkly candy wrappers can be very loud in a hushed conference room.

8. Crash different genres at the Writer’s CafĂ©, where there’s a Memoir table, a Romance table, a Literary Fiction table, etc. I always like to know what’s going on in the galaxy at the Science Fiction table. Gene manipulation and artificial intelligence are apparently very hot this year.

9. The plot of your book should be a closely guarded secret. Plots take forever to spin out, and pretty soon people’s eyes start glazing over. If you start describing the climax of your book, and a certain person named Christine goes off to get another drink and look at the appetizer menu and she gets back and you’re still in the climax, it’s time to tighten up your book pitch.

10. If an agent you’ve pitched says “Fine, send me something” or better yet, gives you his or her card, this is your cue to disappear. I’d read this advice already from the fabulous Anne Mini, but that didn’t stop me from babbling some more to the first agent I pitched. Some people just can’t take yes for an answer!

Saturday, July 06, 2013

Pretty Nervous Writing Aardvarks Speak Out!

Now that I'm back from Europe and life has settle down somewhat, it's time to think about my next trip: The PNWA Writers Conference in Seattle on July 25-28. That unpronounceable acronym, by the way, stands for the Pacific Northwest Writers Association. I call them the Pretty Nervous Writing Aardvarks so I can keep the letters in the right order.

I hadn't planned to attend the conference; it seemed like an indulgence so soon after Europe. But on Memorial Day I received a call from the Writing Aardvarks: My unfinished memoir, Too Small to Succeed, is a finalist in the Nonfiction/Memoir category. The PNWA lady (I was so amazed I now can't remember her name or hardly any other word in the phone conversation other than "finalist") asked me if I was attending the conference in July. Well, I am now, I wanted to stay, but mustered my manners and said I would very much like to attend.

So now I'm going, and I haven't been to a writing conference since I was 10, when I won a school writing contest with a poem about World War II. It went like this:

That crazy Hitler, he started a war,
and I have no doubt that there will be more. 
They won't be by him, because he is dead,
but from my point of view he had rocks in his head.

The poem went on for pages, I'm sorry to say, and my mother actually sent me a copy recently. Well, Benny liked it, anyway.

Anyway, this means that Too Small to Succeed is no longer just a Weird Little Project on the Side. I wrote the first two chapters in 2010 and then dropped it for two years, picking it up again last year. I kept working on it even after rejoining the Business Times in January and it's passed the 30,000-word mark now.

To help things along last summer, I joined a local memoir group. You know you're in a heavy crowd when your recession memoir tracing the country's financial collapse is the most lighthearted of the group. The other writers' topics ranged from sex cults to the Holocaust, much to the disturbance of other patrons at the Berkeley cafe where we met. The memoir group's leader ran a tight ship, necessitating a constant stream of emails and long phone calls about my writing purpose after I missed a few meetings.

So I ditched the memoir group, but I still needed feedback, so I entered the memoir's first 27 pages in the Writing Aardvark's literary contest, lured by the promise of detailed critiques from two judges.

Be careful what you wish for, for now my finalist status, the critiques and my preparations for the conference are making me self-conscious. Yesterday I read my 11 chapters for the first time in over a month, and while they hold up all right, writing new stuff has been difficult. I spent six hours writing yesterday, muttering at my laptop while Benny watched Sponge Bob and read his Percy Jackson books, hoping that eventually I'd produce something that wasn't terrible.

The results are not great: Chapter 12 is about September 2007, a month full of adjustments to our new apartment, my new editing job and Benny's new preschool, not to mention a horrifying pile of bills that added up to more than Ron's monthly take-home pay. Shiver. Throw in a Sept. 17 deadline to write 24 Latino Business Awards profiles in my spare time and this chapter makes me want to crawl under the dining room table with the cat. Not so funny. I'm having difficulty maintaining the amused detachment of earlier chapters. That humorous tone the judges liked so much is nowhere in evidence in Chapter 12, so now I must decide whether I've lost my voice or whether the story has simply shifted in a new direction.

This, of course, has happened before and as Stephen King says, sometimes writing feels like you're just shoveling shit from a sitting position. You just have to have faith that something good is buried in there, and if there isn't, that what you're shoveling will eventually lead to something good. In times like these, any encouragement helps and so thank you again, Pretty Nervous Writing Aardvarks.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Denny and Me

Basilica Saint-Denis.
After lunch the downpour ceased and the sun came out. I traded my soaked shoes for a pair of sandals and pulled out my damp and battered Lonely Planet guidebook, for I had one last destination: The Basilica of Saint-Denis.

I took the subway nearly to the end of the ride, about 20 minutes and popped out on a sunny square. No tourist hordes here; Saint-Denis was off the beaten path, even if nearly all the French kings and queens are buried here.

The Last Judgment Portal at Basilica Saint-Denis.
Saint-Denis is a very early Gothic Cathedral, built in the 1130s. Like Notre Dame, there are three portals in front, but see how more rounded the Saint-Denis portals are, looking a little more Romanesque. Like Notre Dame, the center portal depicts the Last Judgment. Christ is the judge, surrounded by apostles. Overhead the good guys are on the left side of the arch and the damned on the right.

Basilica's interior.
The basilica was nearly empty: just me, a few local school groups, and a bunch of European senior citizens. It was smaller than Notre Dame, but exquisite, with sunlight pouring through the stained glass and casting bright blotches on the floor. I admired the nave, then headed over to the Royal Necropolis ("Royal Death City"). 

Sunlight through the stained-glass windows
cast colors on the floor.
The tombs were a quick quiz in French history — I'd read "La Belle France" the month before, but I was still hazy on the Charles and Philippes, not to mention all those Louies.

Charles V (in wig), Queen Jeanne (with crown)
lying with other French royalty.
I admired the tomb statues of Charles V and his wife Jeanne of Bourbon, who is shown holding her pouch of entrails close to her heart.
During the Crusades and in medieval times French royalty would dither for years over where to be buried and would often write complicated wills commanding that their heart be buried in one place, their heart in another and the rest of the body in a third. Even the Pope's objection to cutting a body up couldn't make them stop until it finally fell out of fashion.

Childebert I.
More royalty, including Pepin the Short and Louis III.
The Frankish king of Paris Childebert I, who fought the Visigoths and died in 558, was there, and Charles Martel (died 741), the founding figure of the Middle Ages who helped develop feudalism and knighthood.

King Henri and Catherine D'Medici.
I saw the tomb of Francois I, the king who met Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn at the Cloth of Gold, and Henri and Catherine d'Medici, whose sickly son was briefly married to Mary Queen of Scots.

Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette.

The heart of little Louis XVII.
Revolutionaries desecrated many of the tombs during the Terror, but afterwards the bones were reorganized and put in their proper places. Statues of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette were brought in, and even the remains of their 10-year-old son, Louis XVII, who died in prison, were brought to the basilica, including his heart, which is still on display in a glass urn.

Saint-Denis was my last sight on this European trip and I lingered, not wanting it to end. I thought of returning to the apartment and helping Ron and Benny pack up our big backpacks again. I didn't want to fly back to San Francisco. I wanted to take the Metro to the Gare du Nord and catch the next train to Prague the next day. Ahead of us was a 20-hour day full of security lines and flight delays and officials digging through my backpack only to find that the threatening object inside was Benny's six-inch tall Big Ben figurine. The Brits apparently didn't trust the French and required an additional security check before they'd let us transfer to another plane, and the airline kept the gate number for the flight to San Francisco a state secret until 15 minutes after it opened. But our flight landed nearly on time and we were the first through customs.

"Two weeks?" the customs officer repeated. "And that's all your luggage?"

"Yup," we said proudly.

But that was all ahead of me. I had a glass of wine on the sunny square before the Basilica Saint-Denis, my bag on my lap and my head stuffed with medieval carvings and French history. It was time to go home, I thought. We were almost out of money, energy and clean socks. Next week Ron had a biotech panel, Benny had tennis camp and I needed to prepare for a writer's conference in Seattle. Au revoir, Europe.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Notre Dame, or Mary Goes to the DMV

Well, it's time for literally the mother of all Gothic cathedrals, Paris' Notre Dame. It's on the Ile de la Cite, the center of ancient Lutetium and medieval Paris. In 1160, the Bishop of Paris decided to build a new church to Mary using the new, cutting-edge Gothic style. Notre Dame is an early Gothic church, so it isn't as big and pointy and airy as the later cathedrals. (The Basilica of St. Denis, where French kings and queens are buried, is an even earlier Gothic, but we'll get to that later.)

You can see how solid and imposing the front is; it still feels a little Romanesque. Benny, Ron and I sat on bleachers in the sunny square while I read out loud about the facade. You've got a big rose window that looks like a halo on the Virgin and Child statue in the middle. Below that is a row of 28 kings of Judah, Mary and Jesus' ancestors.

Portal of the Last Judgment.
Then we have three large portals. The center portal is the Last Judgment — Christ is in the center, and Michael weighs the souls of the dead and assigns them to heaven or hell. The souls to Christ's right head off happily to heaven in an orderly line (Medieval artists had a huge thing for orderly lines) wearing little crowns and looking at Christ. The damned souls are shoved off to Christ's left by nasty demons, all clutching a chain. This led to all kinds of uncomfortable questions from Benny, many of which would require two theologians and a Bible to answer properly, but Ron and I did our best.

The right portal featured Mary sitting in state like a queen, with a crown and sceptre and the baby Jesus. The left portal shows Mary's death, her ascension into heaven and her crowning as Queen of Heaven. Throughout this cathedral are numerous depictions of Mary's life, from birth to motherhood to death and ascension, over and over. I half expected carvings of Mary doing laundry, making dinner, going to the DMV, etc.

Little boats in the fountain at Luxembourg Gardens.
We actually didn't go inside the cathedral that day. The place was mobbed and it was just too bright and sunny that day. Instead, we walked around the Left Bank and had a picnic in the Luxembourg Gardens. That place was a just heaven for young children: they could sail model boats on the fountain, play on the playgrounds and the carousel, ride ponies and more.

An ominous cloud front over Paris.

The next day we rose early and started the 20-minute walk to Notre Dame. The skies were ominous and as we crossed a bridge into the Isle de la Cite, the clouds burst open and it just poured. We arrived at the cathedral soaked to the skin and squishing with every step.

And so we had a dripping look around the Cathedral: the incredible nave and various statues of the Virgin and Child. Outside was a severe statue of Mary, stiff and Romanesque. The central statue is 19th-century, showing a new mother juggling a baby on her hip. Finally we have a romantic statue of Mary, all sweet and windblown with a cherubic Jesus.

Here's a shot of the high altar, and the modern bronze altar by Jean et Sebastien Touret, another example of how Europe incorporates modern art into its historic sites.

After a while we became tired of dripping water all over a priceless religious and historical site and left, sloshing through the downpour back to the Rue de Rivoli. We swam along the Rue de Louvre to the post office, where I mailed some sodden postcards and a package. (I forgot the word for air mail and hand to flap my arms to get my point across.)

Then we had a quick lunch and returned to the apartment. Ron and Benny were finished for the day — we were flying out of Charles de Gaulle the next morning and the apartment was just trashed. But then the sun came out and I thought there was time for one more medieval church. But that's a story for another post.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Biking in Versailles

Benny and I in front of the Grand Canal.

Big day today, for today we go to Versailles. I woke up pretty jazzed at 5:30 a.m. and couldn’t go back to sleep. I was excited about leaving Paris for the day, excited about touring a sight I hadn’t seen before, and this wasn’t just a sight, it was Versailles, the extravagant palace of Louis XIV, the Sun King. Marie Antoinette and Louis VI lived there too, and were dragged from Versailles back to Paris by a mob during the French Revolution where they were later executed.

Versailles holds a vital place in French history. It was the center of political power, not Paris, from 1682 to 1789. Louis XIV transformed it from a hunting lodge to an opulent palace. It remains the symbol of the ancien regimewhere Marie Antoinette played at being a milkmaid with porcelain pails embossed with her crest.

So I just couldn’t wait to see it for the first time, and prowled our tiny studio until it was time to wake Benny and wheedle him into dressing and eating breakfast. “No,” I repeated. “Versailles isn’t just a museum. We’ll get to ride bikes.” 

Well, those were the magic words, because Benny perked right up and agreed to walk through the Tuilleries Gardens to the Seine, then cross the Pont Royal to the Museum d’Orsay. (“No Benny, we’re not going into this museum.”) The train station to Versailles, actually a suburban rail line — rather like BART for Paris — was in front of the Orsay. 

The train was feeling kind of Muni that morning, though. A small crowd of tourists gathered, milling around, looking at the departure boards and trying to buy tickets. The station attendant at the one open ticket window announced there were computer problems, pulled the window shade down, walked away, and didn’t return. But I didn’t even consider giving up — our museum passes were only good for Friday and there was no way I was going to Versailles on a Saturday. Finally, after multiple tries, I managed to buy three tickets and we ran for the 8:34 train. 

One of Italian artist Giuseppe Penone's tree sculptures in the
Versailles gardens, created to blur the boundaries between nature and art. 
We were dismayed to find a middling-long line, maybe 70 people, waiting in the courtyard. This was the ticket holders line, there was no escape, so we patiently shuffled along as Benny repeated, “Where are the bikes?” I had to break it to him that we were seeing the chateau first, before the tour groups arrived. (My pathological horror of tour groups really came through on this trip. You’d never guess that I’d traveled in one of those groups myself, with my own dorky red “Globus” bag.) Anyway, only a few giant buses were disgorging passengers, and I wanted to get through the chateau before the 10:22 senior group from Chantilly showed up.

We were just in time — soon after we arrived, the line just exploded from a lazy little winding worm to a giant python, growing fatter by the minute, stretching out past the front gate. The only amusement was watching people come up the harried French museum guy at the head of the line. The scene was repeated endlessly: 

Vistor: Where is the line for ticket holders?
Museum Guy: Zis iz the line.
V: No, for ticket holders.
MG: Zis! Zis iz the line!
V: (horrified) This line?
MG: Oui! This line!

Then the visitor would linger a bit, perhaps hoping the Museum Guy would change his mind, (“Mon Dieu! But of course, you can enter by this secret ticket-holder line!”) then trudge halfway to Paris to join the back of the line.

We entered the chateau before this scene had time to pall, shuffling through a series of rooms that brought to mind Prague’s Baroque cathedrals (and I thought those places had a lot of cherubs). Every square inch was covered with either crystal, gold gilt, Roman gods or Louis himself. Sometimes all four at once, with Louis as the God of War, wearing a gold helmet and a crystal spear. 

Benny had fun for a while identifying the various rooms: Ares, Hermes, Athena, Apollo, etc., but bikes were never far from his mind. We had audioguides this time and shuffled from treasure room to treasure room, simultaneously impressed and appalled. No wonder the French revolted.

Finally we took pity on Benny and headed outside. Ron and Benny sat in the sunshine while I bought souvenirs, then we walked through the gardens, eating lunch at a little outdoor cafe. We were a good half-hour ahead of the hordes, who were still gaping at Louie's bedroom, and the day was warm and sunny. We strolled over to the Neptune Gate to rent a bike, but alas! the bike rental booth was only open on weekends. Benny was devastated. "Let's go north," I suggested, thinking of the central square with a gift shop, restaurant and electric vehicle. "Maybe that bike booth is open."

Well, I felt like a hero when we got there, because the bike rental booth was doing brisk business, with waves of tourists wobbling off on their bikes, barely avoiding pedestrians. Benny's face when he saw the row of children's bikes was priceless.

Apollo Fountain.
I hadn't been on a bike in six years, so I did a little wobbling myself, but Ron wiped out first, hitting the dirt to avoid a car. For a time it looked like we'd have to leave the bikes and the garden and find a pharmacy. (The scrape was quite deep and bloody, and there were no first aid facilities at Versailles.) But Ron cleaned up the wound in the men's room and I wheedled a few bandages out of the nearby restaurant.

Then we headed off once more, taking two hours to circle the gardens and the Grand Canal. Benny was in heaven; the bike ride ranked right up there with the ferry trip, the Roman museum and the London Eye.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Sneaking into the Louvre

Benny and The Wedding Feast at Cana in the Louvre.
I woke up in Paris to the sounds of a garbage truck coming through our apartment’s tall, open windows. Ah, just like home. Ron was out on an early morning run, so I made a cup of tea, moving around quietly so as not to wake Benny.

We were going to the Louvre today, and Ron and I were placing bets on how long we could keep our 9-year-old son in the building. Benny is pretty game for cathedrals and outdoor sights, but museums have been a slog. He liked the Tower of London, Dover Castle and Roman Canterbury museums, but big institutions like the British Museum have left him cold and I had no illusions about the Louvre.

My only hope was to gain admittance as early as possible and ply Benny with French treats to keep him moving. To this end, I planned to avoid the long line outside the Louvre’s glass pyramid by sneaking in through an underground tunnel. Apparently if we entered the Carousel mall, went down a couple of escalators and turned left at the Apple store, we’d find the Louvre's secret entrance. It was worth a shot.

Benny with Winged Victory.
Ron returned all glowing from his run to the Arc de Triumphe, and I hustled the whole family out of the apartment and on the Rue de Rivoli by 9 a.m. We entered the mall and by gum, it was just as I’d read: down the escalators, past the handbag stores and Apple outlet and there was the Louvre entrance, with a short line of other savvy patrons. 

Within minutes we were in the glass Pyramid, debating which wing to enter first. We headed for the Mona Lisa before the tour buses showed up, but the path to Mona was paved with Winged Victory and long galleries packed with Renaissance art. Nearly every painting depicted one of four scenes:
1. Madonna and Child.
2. The Crucifixion.
3. David and Goliath.
4. St. Sebastien.

I didn’t quite understand the obsession with St. Sebastien. I could answer Benny’s questions about the other scenes; I even could talk about how David was sometimes portrayed as a little wimpy guy with a slingshot, or a godlike warrior with a sword. But St. Seb had me beat, at least until I could get Ron’s iPhone and look him up on Wikepedia. A Roman emperor had orded Seb killed with arrows, so they tied him to a tree, but no matter how many arrows the soldiers shot, he could not be killed. For some reason, Renaissance artists loved to paint this. Sometimes Seb had arrows sticking out all over like a porcupine and sometimes just the wounds. Sometimes he was dressed and sometimes naked, but there was always the rope and the tree.

I couldn't find The Raft of the Medusa, but I did find one of Gericault's preliminary sketches.
I know you’re thinking: How could Benny not be enthralled by such scenes? I know, it baffled me too, although he did like the statue of a boy riding a turtle.

After a morning of classical sculpture and Renaissance art, we took him to the cafe for crackers and water (all we could afford, at those appalling prices). Then we managed to coax him into Napolean III’s apartments, which were nothing compared to those of Versailles, according to a nearby tour guide. But that was it. It was 1 p.m. and Ron left with Benny to find some real food.

Which left me alone and at large in the Louvre. I walked through the medieval galleries, then toured the Dutch and Flemish paintings. I couldn’t find the Giotto picture of St. Francis, which first introduced early Renaissance features like facial expressions and natural movement, as well as a flying Jesus that looked like a giant bat. But I did find the The Dying Slave and Venus de Milo and the Rembrandt self portrait. 
Anne of Cleves

I even found a nice surprise -- the Holbein painting of Anne of Cleves, the painting that so dazzled the English King Henry VIII that he agreed to marry her sight unseen. (Boy was he disappointed when he saw Anne in person. He gave her a quick divorce and Hever Castle and she considered herself lucky.) 

I saw one of my favorite paintings, The Cheat Holding the Ace of Diamonds, and too many more to count. I spent nearly four more hours there, limping near the end from a fruitless search for the Raft of the Medusa, and returned the apartment exhausted but happy.

The Cheat Holding the Ace of Diamonds. The servant, courtesan and card player are conspiring to cheat the young nobleman on the right.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Top 20 Things Christine Figured Out Today

Walking along the Seine.
You find me on the field of victory tonight as I gorge on French pastries after dinner.  Today in Paris I learned how to ...

1. Turn on the shower.
2. Turn off the shower.
3. Open my apartment door. (There's a little knob on the side you pull out.)
4. Turn on a hallway light so we don't keep bumping into walls.
5. Open my building door. (There's a little button you push.)
6. Find a Paris laundromat in the Latin Quarter.
7. Run the clothes washer. You pick a washer, pile your clothes in, add soap, then go over to a machine across the room to pay and start the
Paris from the Arc de Triomphe.
washer. Don't just hit washer buttons randomly and curse under your breath. (Another lesson learned: when the pay machine won't accept your euro note after you enter your washer number, don't keep entering it feverishly. Reread the little screen and consider that "validate #" might mean "enter #.")

Benny eats a hot-dog-in-a-baguette at a Latin Quarter cafe while we wait for our laundry.
8. Order lunch.
9. Read the restaurant receipt (tip is included).

I also figured out ...

A French lawn mower in the Tuileries Garden.
10. Which Greek goddess is guarding the Tuileries Garden with a handful of wheat (Demeter).
11.Which bus line gives the best tour of Paris.
12. How to pay for a bus ticket.
A Paris mailbox. I thought it was for paper recycling.
13. How to validate your ticket.
14. What a message beginning with "nouvelle destination" means and whether you have to leave the bus.
15. Whether the stuff at the market in a little yellow tub is actually butter.
16. How to call the U.S. from France.
17. How to find the secret underground entrance to the Louvre.

18. Where the closest post office is and what a Paris mailbox looks like.
19. How to open the drain in my apartment's bathroom sink so I can swish out some clothes. (There's a tiny lever in the back of the sink.)

... and finally ...

20. How many euros I can get out of the ATM without hitting my daily withdrawl limit.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Dover to Calais

View of the Channel from Dover Castle.

On the train to Dover.
Our trip to Dover was quick and easy, although I tried to enliven things by lingering by the vending machine as our train pulled into Canterbury East Station. (That Coke machine had my 2 pounds!)  Ron and Benny stood on the platform yelling and waving my backpack and we hopped on the train with seconds to spare. They probably would have left me there, but I had the tickets.

Benny at the Churchill House.
We pulled into Dover Priory station and marched up the hill to Churchill House, a B&B just below Dover Castle. All the rooms were named after Churchill's family or favorite homes: Clementine, Patricia, Blenheim. We stayed in the Winston Room, which turned out to be our favorite B&B room in England — it was a shame we were only staying for one night. We wanted to catch an early ferry to Calais the next morning so we ordered the earliest breakfast possible R 7 a.m. which the B&B owner reluctantly accepted. ("We were hoping for a bit of a lie-in," he said mournfully.)

View from Dover Castle.
We had two orders of business that day: buy tickets for the Tuesday ferry and tour Dover Castle. Ron and I had given the castle only a cursory look when we drove around Britain in 1997, but it deserved more. But first we went to the city's tourist center, which was housed in a tall, ugly public-housing-looking building on the edge of town. This building reminded me of Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass, where Alice keeps walking toward a hill, but never gets any closer. I never saw such a town for getting in the way of such an ugly building, which was playing peek-a-boo around all the historic buildings. Finally we cut through an alley and found ourselves there and bought tickets for the 9:25 a.m. ferry and entry to Dover Castle.

St. Mary in Castro and Roman lighthouse.
Dover isn't a single castle, but an extensive complex, from a Roman lighthouse to the medieval towers. Underneath lies a network of chalk-cut tunnels originating from medieval times and extended during the threat of a Napoleanic invasion. Military personnel worked in the Secret Wartime Tunnels during World War II, especially during the evacuation from Dunkirk and the Battle of Britain. The exhibit on Operation Dynamo, where the British evacuated a total of 338,326 allied soldiers from Dunkirk almost exactly 73 years ago (May 27-June 4, 1940) after France fell, was especially vivid. Scenes were projected on the tunnel walls as narrators described the evacuation. We also toured the medieval walls and keep, built by King Henry II, and admired the views, then we checked out St. Mary in Castro, a 1,000-year-old Saxon church next to a Roman lighthouse.

So close, and yet so far.
The following morning started with a great breakfast, where we met an American military contractor who just arrived from Germany and debated internet privacy with the B&B owner. He said the ferry terminal was just a short way around the castle and Dover Harbor, but he must’ve been used to directing car drivers, not pedestrians with big backpacks. We trudged and trudged, looking in vain for signs, until we stood on the wrong side of a spaghetti bowl of roads, looking hopelessly at our ferryboat on the dock. We tried to walk along the harbor to it, but were stopped by fences, so we circled around and went under an overpass until we saw the small station for foot passengers.

The ferry itself was wonderful ... we sat on the deck and ate crackers and apples since we were too cheap to stand in line for overpriced ferry food. From the port we took a bus to the train station, where I haltingly bought three tickets for Calais to Boulogne, then to Paris. We arrived at Paris' Gare du Nord at 5 p.m. — rush hour — but fortunately all everyone was going the opposite way. We took the subway to the Tulieries station and found the apartment on Rue St. Roch with no trouble. The apartment owner Mario introduced us to our tiny studio, I handed over a big pile of euros for the week, and we collapsed on the sofa. Then we dumped all the contents out of our big backpacks and stuffed them in the closet. No more traveling -- we had a week in Paris ahead and wouldn't need those big bags until we headed to the airport on June. 18.

Calais from the ferry deck.