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Habeas Blogus

Book reviews, more for my memory than anything else.

Location: Austin, Texas, United States

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

How Stressed Are You?

This article over at MSN has me asking a simple question: how fucking stupid can we be?

I'm sure I've been caught up in this... I haven't wanted to give the impression that I'm less stressed out than people around me because that would result in a net increase in my workload. But really... my career has been job after job of 8-hour nights' sleep, ~8-hour work days, and lunch breaks that afford me a nice outing. Sure, when I worked in the game industry I was putting in mandatory 12-hour days and never getting a chance to go home, but c'mon! I was 23 years old! No family! I do remember, though, that my boss at the time seemed rather proud that his team was putting in 60- and 80-hour weeks. Always seemed like a fucked-up thing to do.

I'm nearing the end of a year-long rewrite of our complete software product, a complex web application with hundreds of pages and thousands of different inputs. People around me are screaming and freaking out because we'll never make it out on time and the quality will be lower than it should be. I agree with all of that. But I'm still getting my sleep and taking the time that I need to take in order to recharge, because I would be a worthless employee if I didn't. I have way more to do than I could possibly do before the deadline, but what would I do if I stayed here all those hours? I'll tell you: I would get the same amount of work done as if I didn't, and so would you. There's a well-established body of literature that says it's all bullshit, this notion that working more equals more work.

So why do we get caught up in all of it? I'm certain that my co-workers, at every job I've had, have considered me a slacker. I'm certain that's true at my current job. I'm even certain that I've been laid off as a result of it. But I'm also certain that my quality of work is consistent, and that I get my job done the best I possibly can. More hours would change nothing. A Blackberry would change nothing. Skipping lunch would make things considerably worse.

We must stop this nonsense, and allow me to be the first: I generally get 8 hours of sleep at night. I arrive at work at 7am, I leave at 4pm. Some people have a problem with this because they work until 8 and 9 every night. It is they who should stop, not me. I want to work with people who have lives on the outside, who remain fresh and ready every day. Your stress is bringing down the quality of work we produce, and you've got to stop!

How's that for the beginning of a revolution! Shut up and relax!! We should be one-upping each other on how much time we get to spend with our families, and how many books we read last year, and how little vacation time we have left, and how much sleep we get!

Who's with me?!


Monday, November 27, 2006

I'm not going to win NaNo

This has the ring of the familiar... every time I try to do NaNo, I get a little farther before I reach this point. I keep thinking that if I keep trying, one day I'll be able to extend it out until he end of November.

But I don't want to think that anymore. Before I get into this, I want everyone to realize that this monologue only only relates to how NaNo affects me personally. Most of my best writerly friends have participated in NaNo, and a surprising number have won it. I have nothing against it, except that I've reached the firm conclusion that, for me, it is a bad idea.

Now, it gets me writing, which is never a bad thing. I've done some good stuff this month, stuff I can be proud of. The problem for me is the word count requirements. If it were just ever so slightly less aggressive I could do it. But 1667 words a day is, for me, not only unmaintainable, but I find that it's damaging. I've said it before and I'll say it again: I refuse to take the quality of my writing below a certain point. Wouldn't you agree that the joy of putting semi-graceful sentences together is one of the best things about writing? When I write something that I know is bad and I know I'll have to weed out later... well, I feel like I need to take a shower. I also refuse to write long swaths of words that have nothing to do with the story and that I know will be deleted anyway. Call me lazy, but I don't want to do that much work.

So, here I am, after 25 days and 35,000 words into a story which I enjoy, and which I hope may turn into something.

I don't want to write anymore. I don't even want to think about it. I want to stick it in a drawer and never look at it again. I'm completely burned out. I don't blame the writing every day: I blame the aggressiveness of the goal. When I wrote Red Beret and the Paris memoir, I did them in 1,000-word chunks every night starting at 9 p.m. I was able to maintain this pace for 3-4 months in both cases. When I looked over the previous night's work, I was happy with what I had done and I was ready to do more. With this project I don't care if I never write another word.

And that, my friends, is not, or at least should not be, the culminating point of NaNo. You don't want to work on something for a month and then drop it like a Columbia House subscription. You don't want to see a good idea whiff right past you while you're too caught up in the numbers and word count to see where you're going wrong.

I'm still planning to participate. I like the community, I like the energy and the good vibes, and I like the fact that someone is holding me accountable (by someone I mean that little number counter thingy) to be productive and write every day. But this 50,000 word goal is for the birds. If it was 35,000 or even 40,000, I could support it. So with that in mind, I'm still going to participate, and either spot myself 10-15k words, or just decide that not winning is acceptable.

Here's an idea, one I've bandied about and received no support on: NaNoWriQuo - National Novel Writing Quarter.

In my experience and in talking to people, the habit doesn't fully sink in after a month. People get burned out like me and stop writing. Not only that, but 50,000 words is too few for a novel, for all but a couple of genres (it's certainly too short for fantasy-science fiction that most people seem to be writing, anyway). Why not take 90 days and write 90,000 words?

It's the idea that a little bit every day will keep you interested, keep you fresh, rather than the head-first deep-dive you get caught up in here. I mean, there's so much emphasis on so many words, and so many of the excerpts I read are such crap... can't we all just slow down a little bit and give ourselves a chance at building something of lasting quality?

Well, that's what I'll be doing anyway. I'm taking a week or two off to get back on track with reading (still have 3 books to go this year), then I'm going to start the real process of trying to write a novel. In my heart I'm still jazzed by L'Esprit s'en fuit, no matter what my tired mind is saying. I need to do research, I need to start to do some in-fill of plot details, and I need to rethink one of the major character arcs.

I still may report word count here, because it's kind of a nice thing to see as it goes along, slow and steady, just as it should...


Tuesday, November 14, 2006

An Almost Love Scene

I like how this scene came out, and consider it high validation regarding my decision to do NaNoWriMo this year. I don't pretend that it's great or that it's the way it will be after a final edit. I just liked it and wanted to share, that's all. Nyah.

The only things you should need as set up are these:

  • I'm working with a style that's unfamiliar to me. It's much more dramatic and fun, but also a little strange. I'm using fragments and stream-of-consciousness blocks to convey more narrative emotion than I'm used to... all grammatical infractions are therefore intentional.
  • The narrator is Marc, younger brother (around 15 years old) of the main character, a French gentleman (a Vicomte) named Remy
  • When Marc sees white, it usually triggers fantasies about a girl named Charlotte
  • Remy is in love with Genevieve, but Marc has barely so much as looked at her before this scene

Remy stood in the doorway wearing his second skin, the blue jacket that had worn thin at the armpits and buttonholes. It was not quite six in the morning, and his face showed anger such as he never showed before at least 3 in the afternoon. It would be a long day.

“That cow can’t milk herself. We need milk, the butter is long gone, and you are the one who volunteered to—“

“I know, I know. You’ve told me every morning for the last...” I think I drifted off to sleep.

He jerked my legs out of the bed and threw my shirt at me, the one I’d been wearing for two solid months with only a few washings.

Stool, bucket, udders, squeezing, whiteness, milky, creamy... my Charlotte was my only thought. My Charlotte, my Goddess, her ankle and her slip. Her black eyes in the middle of white perfection. The crimson on her lips, the crimson [from the cut] on the back of her hand, the crimson of my cheeks when she looked at me.

Squeeze, crimp, pull, grip, grope, fondle, knead. Hands on skin, hands on white. Charlotte! Hands in white liquid, drinking her, spilling her out of my mouth, consuming her, every drop infusing my soul with her scent.

I imagined things I didn't fully understand. What do I do with my hands? What do I do with my mouth? How do I hold her? How does she lay? Am I supposed to be on top of her? Are we supposed to take our clothes off first? I might enjoy that well enough to prolong it for hours. Shoulder straps and lace. Pins in her hair, removed one by one, pulled out without a tug. Maybe a slight tug... I watch her eyes as they wince in pain. Then she looks at me, smiling and biting her lower lip. I pull another pin and this time I’m not careful. She gasps, her sweet breath hitting me like honey. I put my fingers on the back of her head, then run them up up up, weaving my fingers into her mane, pulling her head to me, gripping her roughly. She smiles, mouth open, and looks over my shoulder, looking in a daze as though her mind is elsewhere. But I know it’s not. I feel the skin of her breasts on my chest. I run my hand from her breast down her side, to her waist, to the curve that becomes her hip. I feel the bone there, sharp and perfect. Then my hand runs inward, down down down.

I run my hands under the milk as it comes out in spurts.The inhabitants of my father's estate, both permanent and temporary, will drink the milk of my fantasies.

Hands on my shoulders, soft hands. I’m not startled, in fact I expected it. My Charlotte has come for me, hearing me across the—

“Marc. I said, are you okay? Can you not hear me? Are you well?”

Genevieve stood in her peasant gown, a single layer protecting her from the world, from Remy’s hungry eyes. If only my white fantasies could be separated by a single layer, rather than an ocean. How I needed my living Goddess then!

Imagining Charlotte standing where Genevieve stood, concentrating all my desires in the world in that tiny woman, I could see how Remy could burn for her. I began to wonder if she was actually Charlotte, here in the flesh. I leaned in to her.

“Marc? What are you? What has gotten into—“

I kissed her full on the lips, I took her in my arms and felt—or did I just imagine it?—felt her slacken, give in, give me a fraction of a second of a glimpse into the world of sensual pleasure. Her lips were hot and alive, and as they parted I felt moisture, the essence of another human being, alive as my own and giving me energy. My cheeks flushed, my loins tingled, and my heart swelled with the certainty that she needed me as badly as I did her.

A fraction of a second is all it lasted. She pushed me away, teeth gritted and struggling.

“Marc! Let me go! Have you lost your mind?”

The room was black with night, lit only by a tiny lamp. The barn, broken down and half-burned, materialized in front of me. I realized that Genevieve’s softness, her yielding to my fantasies for the briefest flash, was a gift to me. She gave me this because she knew I was a man who couldn’t make it much longer alone. The offense she took now wasn’t sincere. It was her obligation. I had always considered her to be a saint, a helper of those in need, but I had never known just to what extent she understood the suffering of others in non-material terms. Had I not been so lost in love with my white Charlotte, I might have fallen for Genevieve as deeply as Remy had.

“I—I’m so sorry, Genevieve. I don’t know what came over me.”

She rubbed her shoulder, which I'm sure I bruised.

“I think we’re all on the point of starvation. You couldn’t help yourself.” She looked down. “Sometimes I’m surprised other members of the household haven’t taken more liberties.”

She said nothing for a moment. Something in the back of my neck burned. “Has someone violated you?”

Her lower lip trembled for a moment, then she looked at me.

“No, it was nothing. I shouldn’t have said a word.”

My fists clenched. I was angrier than I had any right to be.

“Who was it? Was it Remy? I’ll kill him, the—“

Non!” her eyes were wide. “No, it wasn’t your brother. You must know that he would never do something like that to anyone. It was someone... else.”

“Tell me now. Tell me so I can make it right, so I can make him pay.”

She looked up at me for several seconds. Her lip trembled and the saintly gloss normally in her eyes was replaced by anguish and tears.

I can’t tell you. You mustn’t tell anyone else, either. You can’t—“

“I’ll kill him! What did he do to you? Who—what have you had to endure?”

“It was just another man desperate for the touch of a woman. There are many such men in this part of the country, even in this house. The people have been so miserable for so long. Don’t you remember what life was like before they took the Bastille?” She looked toward the barn door behind me, as though through it she could re-enter the past.

“How can you talk this way? You are telling me that you’ve been raped, and you’re prepared to give your attacker the excuse of the revolution?”

“It’s over and there’s nothing I can do about it now. Bringing the accused party to some violent end wouldn’t help me any more than it would help him. I’ve locked it away in my heart forever, and I beg of you, do the same. For the good of this house, do the same.”

I said nothing. I felt more rage than I could describe. Rage, built from the day I bit the stranger’s finger off, to the pools of blood outside the Bastille, to months and years of near-death existence. I knew that I had to either fight somebody or, or do something I could never bring myself to say out loud. With the rush of emotions I had lived through just since I began to milk the cow, I deduced that I would rather kill a man than do the same as had been done to Genevieve. That is a flower I could never pluck.


Her eyes regained the look of the Saint as she looked back at me.

“You know that I don’t have it in me to do what—what he did to you,” I said.

“I know.”

“I don’t need the physical sensations. I need the warmth and human connection.”

She put her arms around me in a motherly embrace.

“You will have all of that which you could require. Don’t mistake my refusal as anything but an honor to my wedding vows. If you need to know you are loved, know that I love you like a--like a sister.”

My throat tightened and tears began to fall from my eyes. I let out a sob, then another one followed. Within a minute I had soaked her gown with my tears.

All the while, my sister, Remy’s Genevieve, stroked my hair and whispered to me in a language without words, the one I had heard her use so many times with her infant son.


Monday, November 13, 2006

Day 5, The Bookend to My Attempted Sensual Experience

I get out in a square that gives me the Times Square feeling again, just like Place Clichy, only oriented differently. Four separate roads intersect here, but rather than be crossed orthogonally, they run in seemingly random directions creating wide spaces and narrow buildings that grow wider down the street.

I take out my map and my other map. I’m trying to orient myself, but I can’t see any street signs. I’m standing in what seems like a little median strip, like an island in the middle of heavy traffic. I take a turn around the little shops and offices on the island, and come across an Asian lady, probably mid-40s. I ask her for directions in French, and I have trouble following her accent. She looks behind me and I immediately think she sees someone she knows, but she's actually looking at my hair. She grabs my ponytail and makes a few clucks with her tongue.

“You need haircut!”

“Well, I was...”

“You need haircut!”

“What, do you have availability? Can you take me in right now?” I look into the shop and see one other hairdresser with a customer. It doesn’t take me long to realize that the time is now. I’ve been talking about it for four years. I’m in Paris where, rumor has it, they know a thing or two about hair.

“How much is it?”

“Shampoo zenmassageof head an blowjry thirty Euros.”

“Wait, thirty Euros?”

“Yeah, no style. Massage head cut blowjry. Thirty.”

Unlike the earlier transaction at Frou-Frou, I think I can consummate this relationship.

She takes me by the hand and leads me back behind a black curtain. She helps me remove my jacket. She puts her arms around me to tie an apron around my neck. She sits me down in a chair and walks behind me. She gently pulls my head down, and I hear water running. I can watch from a mirror they’ve put on the ceiling. Warm water smoothes out over my scalp and the rhythm of it makes me feel warm in my toes. Her hands caress me behind the ears and in the back of my head, and I can feel the water-wetness cause her hands to slip around.The flip of the shampoo-bottle cap, the sound of a good squeeze, and her palms are slickery sliding over my crown and at the base of my skull. She stops and I open my eyes. She starts speaking, not French. She leaves me, I can see her leaving in the mirror.

I feel pressure in my chest, like I’ve been spurned. I decide to relax and close my eyes again. She won’t leave me here.

I may have fallen asleep before the hands touched me again, much more gently this time. She’s running her fingernails over my scalp, digging in a little, causing rivulets of pleasure to radiate between my ears and down my back. I have to fight from saying, “harder!” I open my eyes to find a different girl. She’s probably in her early twenties, and it occurs to me that she probably has less experience but more skill. She rubs behind my ears for longer than it would take to lather, then her hands go away. I almost moan.

The warmth spreads over my head again as she rinses. She cascades her hands and her fingernails up and down the top of my head all the way to the back. I’m praying that she’ll follow the third step of shampoo etiquette: repeat.

She turns off the water and says, “Okay.”

I stand up and move to the chair. I impress myself by being able to negotiate the style I want in French. I even try to switch to English once to explain the part where “I still want to be able to put it in a ponytail,” but she doesn’t understand a word. After she’s finished cutting she blowdries my hair and combs with her fingers. Using an actual brush to style it costs an extra 8E.I stand up, feeling about seven pounds lighter, and pay. The ladies tell me how much better I look and give me about thirty pieces of hard candy. I pay the 30E on my credit card and bid them farewell, after I ask them how to get to r. Mouffetard. They point behind the building we’re in and say “au revoir” about twenty times.

I'm off, and ready, finally, for Hemingway.


Stop reading this! You have no need for it!

This makes me want to cry. And yes, I am aware of the irony of posting a ~50 word post in order to complain that people can't absorb more than 100 words in a sitting.

So allow me to further complicate the message by reporting that I'm 18,942 words into my ultra-complex NaNo novel...

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

So it turns out I'm writing fanfiction...

I am no fan of fanfic. I don't have a lot of respect for it or for those who hold it as a credential. Now, I'm starting to come around to the concept because of incandragon. When someone of such talent, intellectual curiosity, and insight into the business of writing tells me I need to start paying attention, I know she's probably right. That's the only reason the first two sentences of this entry aren't the relentless screed you would have seen had I written this post six months ago.

I once quit a writer's group over fanfic. The de facto leader introduced herself to me as a published, award-winning author, and the proceeded to give me the most worthless, ignorant, and contemptable criticism I've ever received. If you don't know me, you should know that I love receiving good criticism from people I respect. The notes from Jill were just stupid. I kept her notes on a draft of my "Door Carver" story just so I could have a good laugh when I felt down about its progress. In that story, the main character has an active imagination, to the point that there is barely a separation between his play world and his real world. In her criticism, she told me that if I didn't specify "in his imagination" every single time he was making something up, nobody would understand.

"Treat your audience like they're first-graders," she told me. "That's how I'm able to come across so well in my work."

She and I seek different audiences.

I quit that group when I found out that "published" meant "posted a story to a web site", and "award-winning" meant "won a popularity contest on a Buffy fan forum". That was enough for me and I haven't been back. I've always wanted to write stories in the Twin Peaks universe, maybe even the X-Files, but it never occurred to me to cite any of that as a credential, or even tell anyone I had done it.

All that said, though, I do see how it could be a fantastic writing exercise: you're given the opportunity to work on your chops in description, plot, set pieces, etc., without all the responsibility of coming up with the background universe. It's a pretty cool idea, like a paint-by-numbers border around a centrally blank canvas.

Which brings me to the point...

My NaNo novel is a soap opera set in the French Revolution. It's going pretty well, because I get to narrate a scene from the point of view of a couple minor aristocrats caught up in the mob storming the Bastille on July 14, 1789. Eventually the guillotine will make an appearance.

But last night as I was inventing surnames, I couldn't think of one for the mysterious femme fatale, "La Marquise". I have a very clear picture of her, even down to the kind of jewelry she wears and the timbre of her voice. But as I went over the list of names, it occured to me that I didn't need it yet: my characters were running down an alleyway to escape the mob when they happened across La Marquise's driver, wearing peasant clothing and waiting near a small apartment in the wrong wrong wrong part of town. I realized that the name on the door wouldn't be her name at all: it would be the name of a lover she stays with occasionally when she feels like slumming.

My fingers started typing the name before I understood fully what I was doing. When I was finished I sat back and thought about all the implications, not of just using the name, but of inserting a small set of characters from a classic of French literature into my own. I don't know if I'm going to keep it this way if I ever do anything with the novel, but right now it's fun, it's subtle, and it allows me to play in a universe I've wanted to play in since I discovered the source material in 1988.

The name on the placard? Danceny.

Now here's the first ever Habeas Blogus "Internet Research" contest:

What story am I borrowing from?

The prize: you will receive some bragging rights, a digital pat on the back from me, and the right to be asked to help me do internet research should I ever need it. Good luck!


Monday, November 06, 2006

Day 5, The Morning After

My bed shakes. I hear something four inches from my ear and jerk my head up. A foot sits on my headboard. Then the other one lands. The calves are shaven, increasing the chances it’s a girl.

I'm too tired for an introduction, so I close my eyes and play possum. Zip, zip, shuffle, shuffle, and she’s out the door. I go right back to sleep.

I wake up with the bells chiming 9 a.m. again, but I look at my watch and it’s 9:20. I get up, throw on the day’s clothes, and head down the hall to check in on Our Gang in room 20.
The door is ajar, and Justin is dressing. Paul is asleep, and Nima is nowhere to be found.

“She didn’t come in last night.”

For a Stanislawski moment, I picture looking at my computer at work. I point at my face, neutral as Switzerland, and say, “this is the look of my surprise.”

“Where was she?”

“Dunno, some guy I think.”

“Hmm.” He looks down and doesn’t move for a few seconds.

“What are you doing today?” he asks.

“I’m doing the Hemingway walk.”

“Hmm.” He looks around and grabs his gloves. “Well, as much fun as that sounds like, I think I’m gonna go to the Musee d’Orsay. Look at some impersonators.”

“I think you mean Impressionists.”

He looks at me like I’m an idiot.

“Sorry, man, it’s too early for my sense of humor. Haven’t had breakfast yet.”

We go downstairs and there are young people everywhere. We make some joke about growing old, and suddenly I wonder if any of these girls could be my new roommate... but there’s really no way to know. Well, there’s one girl who definitely isn’t her, but it’s probably rude to say more.

The South Africans are here, as are the Brazilians and the Argentineans. And a few Aussies. I get my baguette and shitty coffee and sit with my tour book and a map.

Today will be difficult, but I’m determined to read the whole walk before I start. I didn’t do that on the first day and I think I missed some things as a result. Start at a metro station in the 5th, end up at another one in the 14th. They’re pretty close to each other if you’re walking directly, but the round I have to make is shaped like a large balloon stretching through the 5th, 6th, and 7th before ending up there. It says it’s a 5-mile walk.

After I finish breakfast I head back upstairs to collect everything. Nima is awake and getting ready. Paul is in there with her.

You have to really try to imagine Australian accents in order for this to work right.

“So do I smell like sex?” she asks.

“I don’t know, I haven’t been that close to you yet.”

She runs up to him and pushes his head between her breasts.

“Ew, my God girl! Get the hell away from me with that sex smell. You’re turning me off! It doesn’t smell like you, it smells like him!”

“Fuck you, ya fuckin’ wanker! I’m gonna get my new boyfriend to kick your ass.”

“I hope he can kick ass better than he can serve drinks.”

“I’m gonna tell my new boyfriend that you said that, that you impugned his job skills.”

“Tell him he can kiss my ass.”

“Roight, I’ll tell him he can kick your ass.”



“Get outta here ya fuckin’ skank. I’ll tell your new boyfriend to kick your ass while he’s at it. You’d probably like that, roight?”

“I don’t know, never tried it. But with my new boyfriend I’ll bet we’ll discover all sorts of new things togevah.”

“Did you ask your new boyfriend how many girls he has in a week? I’ll bet the bugger needs a snorkel to keep his head above all your fluids.”

“I didn’t ask him but how does he know I don’t lay just as many girls in a week?”

“You could have a competition!”

“You could be a judge!”

“You could kiss my ass!”

Paul gets up and runs toward her, arms out and hands grabbing.

“Get away from me fucko! I’ll get my new boyfriend to kick your ass!”

...and so forth.

Eventually Paul goes running. He’s going to England later in the evening after an extended stay in Paris, so he bids farewells, assuming he won’t see us again. Nima and I are left alone. We haven’t spoken since well before her evening with Peter.

“You remember what I told you about the Sun Also Rises? About the two main characters?”

“Yeah. Listen, mate. Could you help me here? I have to eat something but I think I’ve missed breaky. Do you think you could score me something?”

“I don’t think so, they’ve all gone. I may have something in my room or in the fridge, but I’m not sure.”

“Anything would be good. Goodonya, mate.”

I go downstairs to the refrigerator and take out the cheese I left there before. I don’t have any bread, but she’ll have to make do.

“Thanks. I’m a bit surprised I’m even up this early. Did you have a good time last night? I didn’t see you.”

“Well, I wouldn’t expect that you would! I gathered you were up to something.”

She looks at me, grinning out the side of her mouth. “Well, I wasn’t intending to. He wasn’t either, it was kind of a spontaneous thing, yaknow? Last minute.”

I laugh.

“What’s that?” She punctuates “that” with a near-S sound at the end, like “ts”. It’s something I’ve heard from a few Aussies when they’re really emphasizing something.

“Last minute? You’re kidding, right? It looked like you had been planning it all evening.”

“Nope. Paul and I were in there with Peter, then Paul left, and we were alone. I didn’t sleep much at all.”

“Have you ever heard the term cock-block?”


“I thought Paul was being a bit of a cock-block last night. I actually tried to divert his attention a bit to get him out of the way, even.” I neglect to mention Peter’s involvement. Something in the “guy” code of honor prohibits me.

“No, not at all. I was just in there having fun and knocking one back. I didn’t think he was being a cock-block. Jesus, considering the experience I could’ve used a good cock-block.”

Oh, shit.

My John Wayne American stereotype stands an inch taller. “Was he mean to you?” I ask.

“No, not at all, he just wasn’t very, well, nice to me. I’ve had worse, but I think I’m old enough now to know when I could have had better. I mean, he took care of me, he was just a bit of a, well, blah.”

“Interesting. Well, next time you need a cock-block, you let me know. I thought you were in all-out seduction mode.”

“God, no. I’m never in seduction mode. I don’t know how to seduce anyone, they usually, well...”

“They usually come to you. That’s what’s so attractive about you. You don’t understand... you. You’re like a sun that shines on people when you’re interested in them. It doesn’t take much, but any guy would be drawn in. I’m glad you don’t know your power, ‘cause this way you can still use it for good.”

“Well, I don’t know about all that. But you can certainly be my cock-block anytime. Any time."
I look at my watch.

“Are you going? Do you have to be somewhere?”

“Today is Hemingway day. No more excuses. I’m actually going this time.”

“Well, don’t let me keep you.”

I start to walk out.

“Hey, Marcus.”


“What was it you wanted to say, about Hem and the Sun Also Rises?”

“Well," I pause. There's really nothing I can say and stay safe inside my cozy life. "It’s a pretty interesting story, don’t you think?”

“I will have to read it.”

I go out the door.

I take the Metro to the station at Censier-Daubenton, the first stop on Michael Palin's Hemingway tour. During the train ride, three Spaniards get on the bus and begin to play guitars and sing. It's beautiful and I consider missing a few stop to hear more, but they get off at my station. When I reach the street, the mood is perfect for Hemingway.


Friday, November 03, 2006

Day 4, Night-night and Some Company for Nima

12:45 a.m.

Good story, everyone agrees. That’s when I notice the bartender is different. It’s Peter, the tall American who’s nice to people. He chooses good music too, at least for someone of my generation. Nima is leaning against the wall next to the cash register. She and Peter and Malcolm are deep in conversation and I can’t hear anything.

We order another round, and I start to complain about how little French I’ve used on this trip so far. Angie points out two guys sitting at a nearby table and says they’re locals. One has a buzz cut and glasses, the other looks like the lead singer of a rock band, with long black hair and a crooked mouth.

Before I turn back to face my table I call to them, “Excusez! Je vous invite de nous joindre!”
They look at each other and shrug that half-shrug that should be immortalized in sculpture as the most French of gestures. They barely speak English, and I’m the only one at my table who speaks any French, except one little guy from Argentina. The four of us shuffle our chairs around and split off from the main group. We introduce ourselves and talk about where we came from, etc. The little guy from Argentina can’t understand anything, and I can’t understand him. Eventually he sits back and half listens. He doesn’t speak English either. I feel bad for him, but I think there’s very little I can do. I hope he can pick up enough of one conversation or another to at least stay here. I buy him a beer.

The two Frenchman are interesting. I have trouble understanding the clean-shaven one; he’s more than three feet away and the music is loud. The long-haired one is very patient with me, repeating himself when I need it and bearing with me when I start to talk where my vocabulary doesn’t support me. After a while I recount the story about the brothel.

“So,” the long-haired guy asks, “you didn’t do anything there? Have you not since you’ve been here?”

“Nope, I’m married.” I show them Alex and K.

They look at each other with closed-lipped smiles. They shrug again in unison.

Mais,” the clean-shaven one starts, “mais, il faut profiter quand on peut. N’est-ce pas?

It’s my turn to shrug. “Ce n’est qu’une semaine. Je peux attendre.”

They act like I’m speaking a foreign language. Is this the way these people really think? My first real conversation with real French people, and they throw out this bomb!

Nima’s calling me over. She wants to buy me a drink. Malcolm wants to tell me about all the editing that my novel needs. I hate to say it, I don’t even admit it to them, but I’m kinda tired of speaking French. Nima wants to go upstairs and get a bottle of wine. Paul and I accompany her, and we stay in that room for a while. Paul is talking about the Simpsons, and Justin wants to talk about my Moorish carver. I show them my book on calligraphy, and they seem interested, despite the alcohol.

Back downstairs, the Frenchmen are gone and it’s about to be last call. Malcolm is gone too. I still have a paper cup full of Nima’s bootlegged wine, and Peter pulls me aside to tell me to throw it out.

I order a bottle of cheap shit red swill for 8 Euros. It’s an Australian Shiraz, and I’ll probably regret that for the rest of my life. My only other choice was a white not much better than Yellow Tail. Nevertheless I start pouring around the table and Nima disappears to talk to Peter again. Paul and I start in on Simpsons quotes again, and we all sing with Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” comes on. Every person in that bar knew most of the words, even the little Argentinean.

Paul’s favorite episode is the “Whacking Day” episode. For him it explores the most interesting elements of crowd psychology: normally reasonable people getting caught up in a barbaric ritual with dubious origins, and then following the leader in denouncing it the moment Barry White shows up. I tell him my current favorite is the Burlesque House episode and, aside from its timeliness tonight, it has great crowd scenes as well.

* * *
“Wait, people!”
Everyone stops.
“Sure, we could knock down the burlesque house--“
Immediately the crowd begins smashing and burning again.
“Wait!! I said, we could knock down the burlesque house, but then...”
Everyone stops.
* * *

And of course, Sideshow Mel acts as the voice of the mob in both cases. As I’m talking, a rain of warm liquid splashes on my hands and clothes and Paul jumps up. I’ve knocked over a wine glass, but it doesn’t break.

“Oh, shit, I’ve made a faux pas!” I run to get napkins.

This is only interesting because Paul then tells me the pants he’s wearing are his only pair. He’s been wearing them for three months and will wear them for six more if they last.

I say, “I find it hard to believe this is the first time you’ve spilled alcohol on them in three months.”

“It sure is. What an honor for ya, mate!’


The lights go out. It’s five minutes until two. Nima is behind the bar now, talking to Peter, just inches from his face. We shuffle out of the bar and into the courtyard. There are three South Africans out there I’ve seen a few times. I’m not tired at all, so I grab a chair. I’ve still got some more wine. I don’t think Peter was supposed to let me take it out, but I think Peter’s got other things on his mind than following these rules.

The South Africans talk about American Football and the Simpsons, then one of them starts being a little sheepish. I swear he’s almost turning his toes in the dirt as he looks down.

“So, what’s up with your little friend in there?

“Huh?” I say, knowing full well who he’s referring to.

Lakkebaude,” another guy says.

“What about her?” I ask.

“Well, you know she’s trouble, right? I mean... chhhhhhhhaaaat!” This sounds like the word “hot”, but with a sound like the “ch” in Scottish “loch” or Hebrew “challah”. A hard “h”. He continues, “You know, I spotted it wivin five minutes of seein ‘er. Maintenance like a bugger, but... chaaaaat!”

“Hot? Yeah she’s hot, but I don’t know much about her. What, were you thinking about tagging 'er?” Men talk like this. I’m not proud of it, just bear with me.

Lakkebaude,” the other guy says again. The ‘d’ sounds like the ‘th’ in ‘that’. I know because they spelled it for me later.

Lakketita,” the third chimes in.

They all laugh. My laugh is pretty hollow because I don’t know what they’re saying.

“What’s that?” I ask.

“Afrikaans. Lakke is kind of like, well when you’ve gone out gettin pissed, you’ve had lakke beer. This chick is lakkebaude, ‘cause baude, means ass. She’s lakke ass!”

The third guy, a clean-cut prep-school type, says, “I suppose you can guess what lakketita means.”

“Yeah, got it.”

“Anyway mate, you’ve been hangin ‘round her a lot, and I just wanted to make sure you know she’s trouble.”

“Lucky me.”

“Yeah, wivin five minutes, mate.”

“Well, I don’t think she’s aiming to be my problem anymore, if she ever was. She didn’t say much to me tonight at all. I don’t think I’m her type, you know, married and all.”

All three of them laugh. The second guy, tall rugby type, says, “Fuck difference that make in a place like this? Why your wife let you come ‘ere, knowin’ what kind a place it is?”

“I don’t think she knew. I don’t think I knew. Doesn’t make a difference though. I’m only here one more night after tonight.”

I see a flicker to my right. It’s coming from the bar, through the glass-paned door. Paul’s still in there, lighting a cigarette, with Nima and Peter behind the bar.

“What’s this?” the little South African says. “When’s the bar close?”

“Two o’clock,” I say.

“Fuck, it’s two-thirty now!”

He walks up to the door and taps on it.

Peter throws open a different door, one I hadn’t noticed before. He must have been on his way out here already; he was through it before the little guy finished knocking.

“What time you guys close in there?”

“Two o’clock. We’re already closed.”

“So what you doin’ inside?”

Peter closes the door behind him and surveys the four of us, eyeing me more than the rest.

“It’s just me, the girl, and the cock-block in there.”

I burst out laughing. I can’t help it; I’ve never heard the term used in context before. I don't think I knew what it meant.

Peter and the little guy start to talk in low tones while the rest of us tell cock-block stories. I don’t remember any of them.

The little guy comes over and starts whispering orders. He points to us, giving us each assignments. For some reason the words come back to me, “If given the right atmosphere, this young man could go far”. We’re going to heard Paul out of there, and for our services Peter is buying one more round. I do the math on my own: Peter is going to spend 12E and risk going to jail so he can get laid. Am I betraying some friendship with Nima to help in this?

Well, another beer sounds good.

While we wait for Peter to open the door, the tallest South African laughs. He speaks to me in a low voice.

“You know what’s so funny about this is how we’re all so true to our cultures: it’s the American who’s willing to buy his way to getting laid, while the Aussies try to sit around and tell stories. All the South Africans are into it for is to get fuckin’ pissed!”

I wonder where that leaves me.

The four of us crowd around Paul as I get my treasured 1664. We glance at each other from time to time and inch toward the back door. Nima and Peter are getting closer together as Peter counts the till.

Within five minutes Paul is out the door and he starts to complain about the cold.

I finish my beer and throw out the empty. Suddenly my feet feel four days’ worth of intense walking and my eyes hurt. And I realize that tomorrow is my last full day. I nod to the other South Africans and bid Paul a good night. I’ve done my job and been a good soldier. Up the stairs, through the open door, I see there’s someone new on the top bunk. I think it’s a girl.
I take two Tylenol and drink a half-liter of water. I fall asleep within ten minutes, snickering about the cock-block and hoping my upstairs neighbor can sleep through it.


Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Day 4, Queues, the Hooker, and Having The Floor

As the lovely British girl was saying...

“When a British person sees a queue, he automatically thinks, ‘gee, there must be something interesting over there. Got to get in the queue!’ and they do. That’s why British love traffic, yasee, because it’s one giant queue.”

I tell Angie and Nima and Paul and Justin and the Brazilians that I’m forming a queue. Nima tells me she’s not going anywhere, she’s too tired. The Brits are staying in. Paul and Justin are going to do whatever Nima does. My stomach is turning; I almost feel a personal insult. What caused all this to change so quickly?

Twenty minutes later I turn to Angie. “Well, do you want to go somewhere? You need to eat, don’t you?”

She looks at the floor. “I guess I’m just going to follow the crowd. But don’t let that stop you, by all means!”

I’m not going to. I have two nights left in Paris and I’m going to do something fun with both of them.

I leave my camera in the safe-deposit box and grab another metro map. I make sure I have my tickets and that my cash is all in the money-belt thing. I go out the door, and I can’t help but turn to see if anyone came out behind me, or if anyone even looked. It’s starting to get cold and I put my jacket on.

Down Felix Faure, I plan to go see Notre Dame and the other buildings lit up like they say they all are at night. I have less than two hours before the metro stops running, so I’d better make my choice fast.

Wait, I don’t have my camera. And Nima and some others said they’d like to see these things at night, and if we do the bike tour tomorrow night we’ll see them anyway. I think I’ll do something else.

Well, I guess I could go see the Moulin Rouge. That’s probably something special. I take the Métro to Place de Clichy. I’ve been there before, so it should be easy to find everything again.


I get up to street level, and there’s that Times Square feeling again, but it’s not lit up like I expected. The buildings are dark and the street isn’t very crowded. I see a very skinny man in skin-tight black jeans walking chewing-gum style up the street, carrying a large duffel bag. He’s got one hand out to the side, palm down, and he swings it in exaggerated arcs with each step. Okay, that’s probably what I should have expected. Keep walking and hope he doesn’t turn around.

I duck in a doorway at a peep show entrance, without going behind the curtain. I check the map, hoping this is the last time I have to do it. The Moulin is just up and to the right, but I can’t see it. I come out from the doorway, and see the entrance not twenty feet away. I don’t know what’s wrong with my eyes tonight.

I cross Clichy to get a better look. It’s red, sure enough. The blades are spinning, and I contemplate the concept of a windmill for a few seconds before moving on. I decide to walk up Clichy a bit, I guess because I’m feeling a bit adventurous. I pass r. Pigalle, and I’m about to cross Clichy again to get to the metro, when--

Note: I’ve told this story several times to several people, and I think it always changes a little bit. I do that because it’s a bit involved, and I usually don’t want to spend many words or minutes on it. What follows is the definitive version, the one that actually happened, as best I can remember.

“Hey, buddy!”

It’s a man’s voice. I don’t look.

“Do you like girls?”

I look. Why did I look?

“Do you speak English?”


Why the fuck did I say that?

“Come check out my club, called Frou-Frou. It’s just down there.”

I look down the street (appropriately enough, it’s Pigalle) to see a little black sign hanging from an eave, with “Frou-Frou” in pink neon.

“No,” I say. “I have to go meet some friends.”

“Come on, it will just take a few minutes. Quality, good, nice girls for you. Frou-Frou.”

I think about my mother and about my wife and about Nima and about all the nice people in the world who would wonder just what the hell I’m doing down here.

“No!” I say, a bit more forcefully than I intended.

“Oh, I see. You don’t like girls. Men, then?”

“NO!” I say, far more forcefully than I intend. “I really need to get going, because I need to meet some friends.” I start walking, ignoring him and not paying attention to my direction. He keeps talking, but stays on his corner.

I turn right, on to r. Frochot, and see more peep shows and restaurants. I notice that the restaurants seem blindingly normal even though they have names like “le resto sex” and “Horny Toad’s”. I turn right again, hoping to at least run the gauntlet and see this famous r. Pigalle. I’ll at least be able to say I’ve done that, possibly the only American ever to walk here and not get laid. I pass the Frou-Frou, its double glass-door entrance blacked out with what looks like garbage bags. I cross to the other side, hoping to avoid the barker, but I see him again before I even reach the intersection.

“Did you not find them?”

I can’t think of anything. I freeze up. I think about George Costanza, The Great Liar. What would Costanza do?

“Nope, didn’t find them.”

“Come on, sir. You like girls, you can go in and go out and still have time to get back to your wife at the hotel. The metros run until 2 tonight.”

Well that last part is bullshit. I know for a fact they don't run past about 11:30. But suddenly a part of me kinda wants to see what a French strip club is like. While I’m in Paris, of all places, maybe I should see something racy. Why not? If it’s anything like America I should be able to get in and out for less than 20E and still get to mentally evaluate the talent they keep in these places. Listen to me. Being snubbed by people I barely know has turned me into an asshole.

He walks me through the doors. I should remember that he pulls the doors open from the outside, but I don’t.

The bar is about as big as a hotel bathroom, with the bar on the left and two small tables on the right. Large men sit at the tables, and a large man sits by the door. A young woman approaches me. She’s dark-skinned and dark-haired, and sounds like she’s from north Africa. Her lips form a natural pout, and I suspect that is what men notice first. She speaks French to me, telling me her name is Algerienne or Tunisienne. I can’t hear very well with lousy techno music in the background. I’ll call her Algerienne.

“What do you want to drink?”


“No, really. What can I get you?”

“Do you have water?” I can be such a cheapskate.

She looks at me, then at the lady behind the bar. The lady behind the bar is much better looking, very thin and French. Her black hair is plastered to her head in a bun.
She pulls some water for me.

“Ten Euros.”

Well, that’s cover charge, I guess. I hand her the money. Algerienne takes my hand and leads me through a black curtain to another room about the same size. On my right and left as I enter are two rows of small tables, and men seated in each chair behind them. In the back right corner is a stage no bigger than a phone booth. The fireman’s pole just doesn’t seem practical, but it’s the only thing in this building that looks clean. The back left corner is another black curtain, and light shines from underneath it.

Algerienne sits down next to me in a chair. Her red one-piece dress looks like exactly the thing I’ve seen at the Yellow Rose in Austin. Probably two pieces of cheap material stitched up each side and bought off the stripper rack. Maybe I should ask her if it comes from a place called “the Stripper’s Rack”. That’s funny. Wait, she’s talking.

“The show will begin in a few minutes. Now, would you like to buy me a drink?”

I look around. Every man in this club has gray hair, and most are wearing horn-rimmed glasses. Their coats are high quality and they look well-groomed. It’s not exactly seedy, but something about it isn’t right. They look very comfortable in this place, and I stick out, well, like I’d stick out at the RNC convention. They look a bit like Mafia, but what would Mafia be doing at a place like this?

“Well?” she asks.


“Aren’t you going to offer me a drink?”

“Sure,” I look at the stage again. “What are you drinking?”

“That depends. What would you like to buy me?”

There aren’t any other girls around here. I guess Algie here is going to be putting on the show herself, unless the others are getting ready backstage. I miss the DJ guy, calling out the girls to the main stage and running down the list of strip-club clichés.

“Well, I don’t know. Do you like wine?”

“I like champagne. Would you like to buy me a glass of champagne?”

“Sure. What does that cost?”

“Fifty Euros.”

I look her in the eyes for the first time. Her eyes have a transparent quality that only comes with colored contacts. She has a half-smile, and she’s looking at me deeply, like I hold the key to her future.

“That’s got to me some high-quality champagne.”

“It’s for the show.”

“Well, what kind of show is that?”

“It’s, you know, a strip-tease. I dance for you, and zenamassageandzen I drink my drink. I love champagne.”

I can barely hear in this place, I barely understood any of that. “Hmm, well I don’t have fifty Euros. You can be sure of that. I have about fifteen after the ten I paid for this water.”

“Haven’t you been in a place like this before?”

I look around. Pathetic men, a small stage with a pole. Sure, it’s a bit small. “Sure, I’ve been places like this.”

She furrows her eyebrows. “I can drop for you, I can go to thirty Euros. Dance, drink, zenamassage.”

What was that last word? I don’t want to speak English, I’ll just let it go.

I make a big show of looking at my watch. “I have about twenty minutes until the metros stop running and I have to be back, otherwise I’m locked out.”

She stands up without a word and charges the black curtain. I follow quickly and meet the skinny French woman at the curtain.

“Sit down,” she says. “I want to talk to you. Finish your drink.”

I look back at the water. It’s very far away.

I keep walking to the front room.

She goes behind the bar and produces a laminated piece of paper. A menu.

Champagne 50E
Cognac 120E
Hennessey 150E
Combination 500E


I switch to English. “I’ve got to go.”

I turn around. Algie is already on to the next customer. The French woman grabs my elbow and pulls me toward the curtain. She speaks English too.

“You’re going to finish your drink. I want to talk to you. Two minutes.”

“No, I’ve got to go, you’ve got your ten bucks and you didn’t even have to give me alcohol. I’m getting the hell out of here.”

She tightens her grip. “Look, you get dance, you get massage,” she lets go of my elbow to open the curtain.

I take four quick steps toward the exit. The large men don’t move. I expect to hear a voice bark some command from behind me. I pull the door. Shit! Locked! I expect my life to pass before my eyes, but it doesn’t. I’m going to die. I pull on the door again.

The man behind the bar makes a pushing motion and starts to laugh at me.

I push the door and the fresh air of Pigalle hits me in the face. I practically run to Clichy.
A very beautiful girl comes up to me as I walk past. She’s wearing all black, a sweatsuit and windbreaker, and her blonde hair is tucked under a baseball cap. When she opens her mouth I know she’s American.

“Do you like girls?”

“I’ve got to get to a metro station,” I feel nearly drunk. "They close soon.”

“Come check out my club, called Frou-Frou. It’s just down there.”

I don’t know why, but I turn my head and look.

“I just came from there,” I said. She takes a step back and looks me up and down. “I didn’t like it that much.”

“Oh, I--I’m sorry. I didn’t realize. You didn’t, what was wrong with it?”

“I’ve got to go.”

I make it to Felix Faure before the metros stop running. I’ve been gone less than two hours, and I’ve got the story of a lifetime. How do I tell it? Will they appreciate it? It’s a good enough story, but something seems to be missing...

I arrive at the hostel and to my delight, people notice that I’ve been gone.

“Wheredya go, mate?” Paul asks.

“I just had to turn down a hooker, and I’m pissed because I had to use English to do it!”

Heads turn. I guess I have the floor again.