15 December 2009

A calm, quiet heroine is a challenge to write

I'm at Long and Short Reviews today, talking about the heroine of TIES THAT BIND, Tess, Lady of Bridswell. While Aedan is wild and reckless, she is centered and thoughtful, and somehow able to calm his restless. Come meet her.
Keena TIES THAT BIND--from The Wild Rose Press http://keenakincaid.com

12 December 2009

It's time to hit the reset button

A friend celebrated a milestone birthday yesterday, and as her "gift" she asked everyone to a lesson learned (or "what I know" to quote Oprah) and a resolution moving forward. 

What I know is we all need a reset button.

Like a computer, there are times when we become overwhelmed by demands on our time, health and wallet, by attempts to multitask, by disappointment, loss and heartbreak, by life. We freeze up. We stop working, and worries just spin through our heads like a Mac's color wheel when the computer stalls out.

A restart fixes the Mac. It's not so simple for us, but in these moments, we too need a reset button--a touchstone that reminds of us a basic, incontrovertible fact that helps us find perspective.

For me, the reset button is the Scarborough epiphany.

Several years ago, while standing amid castle ruins worrying about being 40, single, broke and unemployed, I had an amazing, unexpected moment of insight. The early Saints--God-touched and made mad by it--would have called it an epiphany. It was nothing earth-shattering, just one of those moments when head knowledge becomes heart knowledge.

I, like most people, want assurances that everything will be all right. We strive for security in work, in money, in relationship, but there is no such thing. It all comes with risk.

This thought rolled through my mind as I looked around the promontory defended and lost by neolithic peoples, Romans, Saxons, Vikings and Normans. No matter how secure their defenses, they eventually fell. And no matter how hard we try, we will, too.

The epiphany was:  Life IS the blessing; everything else is the cherry on top. And my attitude is a matter of faith. I either believe life without a safety net is an adventure for the soul or I live in the smallness of fear and worry all my days.

I'm glad my friend's request reminded me of my reset button. I've been letting worries get to me--and that is no way to live. So... excuse me while I restart.

10 December 2009

The accidental Christmas

On Sunday, I dug out my Christmas boxes to find my wreath. Door decoration is a competitive sport among my neighbors, and I fall way short of the mark most of the year. This season I wanted to try and meet minimal standards.

But I didn't stop at the door.

No, after I hung the wreath, I decided a bowl of ornaments on the table would look festive. Then I set out the mitten cookie jar, which meant I had to bake cookies to put in it. Then the ceramic medieval Santa. Then the Nativity (and somewhere my old Sunday school teacher is wincing at the order). Then the...well, you get the idea.

Days later my place is festooned for the holidays, a brand-new tree lights up my window, and most of the ingredients for Bohemian tea--a traditional winter drink in my family--clutter the kitchen counter (I need to buy oranges). But I can no longer go into my office because the unchosen decorations wait in ambush from their tissue-paper nests, determined to join the fun.

So now I'm staring at a huge ornament that I hung over the mantle when I lived in Charlotte and wondering if it's gauche to decorate the bathroom. Is it?

06 December 2009

Meet my hero: Mad, bad and dangerous (apologies to Byron)

Writing a book is a funny experience. I spend hours and hours trying to craft the perfect story, but in the end my characters tell the stories--and I am no more than just the scribe with modern equipment.

As many of you know, I hadn't planned to write my current book, TIES THAT BIND.  But Aedan, the younger brother in my first book, just wouldn't let "The End" be the end. He wasn't a small, nagging voice in the back of my head. He was loud, demanding and indignant. 

As a descendant of druids, one of Aedan's magical abilities is the gift of words. He can talk anyone into anything—including this author. The downside to his gift--and there's always a downside--is after a while, no one believes he's sincere.

He also is a minstrel. Music is both his curse and his salvation. He must play, but when he does, his regrets, hopes, joys, sorrows and anger are reflected in the music for anyone to hear.

Here's an excerpt of Aedan and his music from ANAM CARA:
As he waited in the lesser hall for his audience with the king, Aedan fumbled through the fingering of the chalumeau, setting his mind to the notes rather than his fate. Worry faded to the background as he concentrated on recreating the song that had almost pulled him from this world.

The tune idled in his mind, the sound pitch perfect in his imagining. He tested the reeds of the small pipe, blowing softly as he sought and found notes to match the ones in his head. He picked his way from note to note, until he'd replicated the song. It had been fuller, richer, more complex than his instrument could manage, but it was the beginning of his first composition.

Sitting on the floor, knees bent, he experimented with the pitch of the melody. He added a trill, surged toward the crescendo and slowed the beat to the rhythm of a dirge. With growing confidence, he played the tune again, adding his own swoops and flourishes until it swirled and dust motes danced like fairies at midsummer's twilight.

TIES THAT BIND isn't the easiest book I've ever written, but it's one of my favorites. The challenge of taking a self-centered character who always gets what he wants and thwarting him at every turn was fun, as was using the power of a woman's love to make him a better man.

It's release date is Dec. 18, although it's out now in paperback from The Wild Rose Press and Amazon.

30 November 2009

Confessions of an eavesdropper

Teen girl to friend: "I didn't, but I really wanted to."

Frustrated mother of children climbing down the riverbank: "Get back here! Now!"
Easy-going Dad: "Relax. "It's Sunday. It's not like they're going to drown today."

Exhausted woman: "That's because you don't have kids."
Annoyed sister or friend: "You're right. I still have some sense."

I love to eavesdrop. I try to be discreet when I do it (especially when I jot down what I've just overheard) but I can't help myself. People are interesting, and I can't resist the opportunity to take what they say out of context and build a story around it.

For example, does the father above really think his kids can't drown because it's Sunday or is he just tired of trying to control two exuberant youngsters. Either way, conflict, possible disaster, and the potential for heroism exists in that 30-second exchange.

One of my favorite passages in my book ANAM CARA is a conversation between my hero and heroine regarding her worries for her daughter. Part of it came from an overheard conversation. Here it is:

Bran tugged her hand until she relented, sort of.

Still frowning, Liza positioned herself slightly to the front and side of him. He shifted to put himself directly behind her, smiling when she stiffened at the idea of having him at her back. Too close, her body language shouted at him.

“Ye worry too much. ’Twill only gives ye more frown lines.”

“You do not worry enough,” she said, even as she smoothed a finger over her brow.

“When has worry changed the outcome of anything?”

“’Tis prevented much mischief.”

“A little mischief is fun.”

“Says a man with no daughters.”

“There is naught to mull over, Liza. At worst they share a kiss, and yer Tess has a sweet flirtation to remember when the years grow heavy and bitter.”

“I do not want her to have a sweet flirtation.”

Once again, she’d caught him off guard. “Why?”

“Because she will expect too much then. I do not want her to be disappointed.”

“As ye were?” Her look could have mutilated a less hardened man. “Disappointment comes with living. Ye can no more prevent it than ye could bruised knees.”

“You are not a parent.”

“Aye, I have perspective.”

Yes, I stole (and modified) the last two lines from a conversation overhead on a train while feeding my traveling addiction. The real-life conversation was between a woman who wouldn't leave her child (who looked to be about 2) with a babysitter and her sister or friend, who replied, "You're right. I still have some sense."

What struck a note with me was the arrogance of each perspective, i.e. you can't possibly understand because you haven't had this experience vs. I understand because I haven't been blinded by this experience.

I assume eavesdropping is a writer's habit, and I'm not the only one who listens to other conversations. So my question is: what is the best conversation you've overhead, and did you use it in a story?

29 November 2009

Hermit Week = Heaven on Earth

I am blogging about Hermit Week over at Lindsay's Romantics today.

25 November 2009

The tale of the trapped tourist

Guildford CastleIn April 2007, I traveled to Guildford, Surrey, England, for a client meeting. I arrived several hours before everyone else, so I did what I always do after a long plane/train ride--take a walk.

Guildford is a lovely, little town of upscale shops, insane traffic patterns that confused the Tom-Tom and fun, if dodgy-looking pubs that served great food. The spring flowers were in bloom and the scent of lilacs was everywhere. The town smelled as wonderful as it look. And in the midst of this spring riot sat the picturesque remains of Guildford Castle.

The castle started out as the typical Norman motte and bailey structure. Residents made improvements over the next two centuries and it became one of the country's most luxurious castles during the reign of Henry III. The keep served as a local prison, then a merchant's home before it fell into ruin. The city borough bought it in the 19th century and turned the keep and grounds into a city park.

The grounds were open, so I detoured through it and loitered, not paying attention to the time or noticing when the custodian locked the gates and went home for the evening.

Fortunately, I was not alone on the wrong side of the locks. Four other people--two with bikes--were in the same trap. We walked from gate to gate. All were locked with padlocks the size of my head. For a moment, images of bedding down with strangers and ghosts in a damp corner of the roofless keep flitted through my mind. I started to dial 999, but then we decided to try to escape on our own before becoming a segment on the evening news.

We walked the wall and found one ruined section that we could climb over and down to the road below. So we did, lowering each other and the bikes down one by one under the silent eye of a CCTV camera.

Somewhere there exists grainy, black/white security footage of me scaling the castle wall to freedom--proof that I've done what few have: escape Guildford's keep. LOL!

22 November 2009

100 days doesn't change everything, but more than expected

Although it may seem as if it's been a 100 days since my last blog, it's only been one-third that. The day job exploded, but in the few quiet hours I've had, I've watched the rest of the 100-Mile Challenge on DVR and thought y'all would like an update.

It turned out better than I predicted for the denizens of Mission, British Columbia, who hate only locally grown and produced food for 100 days. In practical terms, that meant no coffee, yogurt, bananas or wine. The challenge also meant a lot of creative cooking.

Some key things that participants found:
  • Grocery bills initially doubled, but returned to nearly normal once participants learned to cook
  • Carbon footprints increased, too. Participants often had to drive to the edge of the 100-mile radius to find "local" food
  • Sourcing and preparing food took up way too much time. Their days revolved around food, even to the point one participant took a vacation during the challenge to have more time for gathering
  • All of the participants "cheated"-- indulging in forbidden foods when out of town
  • Day 101 saw the immediate return of coffee, orange juice and other "global goodies"
But it wasn't a failure. In post challenge interviews, all of the participants said they planned to keep some of the habits developed during the challenge, i.e. fewer boxed goods, more fresh foods and more homemade meals. In general, most said they'd eat about 80 percent local.

Another plus? All the participants lost weight. Some 40 pounds. They ate differently and less processed foods with lots of sugar and empty calories. But none complained of hunger.

So all in all, it was an interesting experiment--one I may try with a provision for coffee--if I ever find I have the time to hunt and gather.

17 October 2009

No coffee? No challenge

My eco-warrior just laid her weapons down in defeat.
No, really.
For anyone who knows me, you know I can be a little too passionate about the environment and living a “leave nothing but footprints” lifestyle. The philosophy came about after spending a lot of time backpacking and ‘low-impacting’ camping while in college. You know the phrase, “pack it in, pack it out.” Now while I would build a fire if it got cold, I didn’t always.
This carries forward in my daily life in several ways: I never drive if I can walk it (and less than three miles is considered walkable), I use public transportation when possible, and I shop locally owned business whenever I can. Yes, this means I spend more for food than if I drove to the Super Walmart in the big-box shopping center at the far edge of the suburbs. But supporting my neighbors and not spending an hour in traffic is worth spending the extra 5-cents per item (I figured it out once, and the formula generally holds no matter where I’ve lived).
I have a carbon footprint that is half of the average, by the way, and if I could give up my car altogether, I likely would. But I draw the line at giving up my coffee.
Yes, I have an eco-price.
What revealed this character flaw is a new show on Plant Green called the 100 Mile Challenge. The show's premise is the people of Mission, British Columbia, will eat “local” for 100 days. As in any reality TV show, cameras will follow participants around, filming triumphs and failures for the world to see.
From what I saw in the premiere, it’s going to be a loooooonnnnnngggggg 100 days. 
Now there are many real and vital benefits to eating local. Food is fresher, the fuel cost of bringing it to you is less, and chances are you’ll be cooking more, so you’ll probably eat healthier.
But think about this… although it varies depending upon where you live, the bulk of what you eat and drink doesn’t grow within 100 miles of you.
Coffee? Not unless you live within a narrow, equatorial band.
Not in Florida? No, orange juice.
If you're outside the Napa Valley, forget wine (OK, maybe not all wine, but definitely some of the best we produce). Other items probably off your list: olive oil, almonds, and spices, as well as fish and shellfish (even fish farms tend to be located in the South).
And the little known zinger: chances are some of the produce, homemade jams and breads, and cheeses for sale at your local farmers’ market was trucked in from farms more than 100 miles away.
Staples such as corn meal, sugar and flour probably could be grown within the 100-mile radius, but are they? Not in British Columbia. One woman boiled up rhubarb to use as a sweetener with her morning yogurt.
Now, true eco-warriors would say I’m whining over the loss of indulgence and convenience. That there is plenty of nutritious, healthy food available locally. We just need to expand our palates, pump up our cooking skills and get serious about saving the planet.
And they are right.
Then I think of the ancient long-distance trade in spice, precious metals and silk. Ideas flowed from one town to the next along with pepper, salt and saffron. The lure of tea and coffee changed the world, politically and economically. The search for a shorter trade routes is why Europeans found the Western Hemisphere. I have the life I do because goods came from more than 100 miles away.
Yes, perhaps we are a too reliant upon a vast commerce network for every day sustenance, and we should pay attention to the environmental impact of our choices, but commerce isn’t the big bad evil. Neither is orange juice.
So, I will consume local when I can, and enjoy my morning cup of coffee guilt-free when I can't.

14 October 2009

Still too many darn potatoes

My 30 days of no grocery shopping ended Sunday, and much to my relief, PeaPod came to my door that morning with sacks and sacks of fresh, wonderful food. I immediately made a salad and spent the afternoon staring longingly at my green bananas, hoping they would ripen soon.

But I accomplished my goal, and I'm slightly proud of myself for not breaking down and going grocery shopping--although I did swing by Walgreens one afternoon to get more coffee (but that was allowed).

As odd as it was to not run out to the store, it was equally fun to dig through the pantry and get creative when it came to meals. I rediscovered the joy of baking (did you know that flour+water+yeast+salt=bread--LOL) and have a new appreciate for being able to actually find something in the fridge.

I'm not sure if I'll go through another 30 days without my friends at Costco or Harris-Teeter, but I have a feeling I'll be less inclined to grab the car keys whenever the first pass through the fridge doesn't satisfy me.

BTW, I still have too many potatoes, but at least I now have a few recipes for using them, and a new appreciation for how really simple yet filling they are.

12 October 2009

Spooked yet?

I'm collecting ghost stories over at Cynthia Eden's blog. If you have a good tale--or just like to read them, come visit.


10 October 2009

Roma: A Day in the Country

The other day while searching the bowels of my computer for a lost file, I came across a travelogue I'd written nearly 10 years when I went to Rome on vacation. At the time, I shared it with a few friends. And it seems appropriate to share it here now. Enjoy.

SPQR – Senatus Populusque Romanus. The Senate and People of Rome. Public buildings throughout the ancient city were inscribed with these words to remind Patricians and Plebeians alike of the good works brought to them by the government, never mind the insane emperors.

Nowadays, the municipal government uses SPQR, and you find the ancient seal on bridges as well as drain covers, trash cans and street cleaners.

Just 16 miles southeast of Roma, where the Tiber once poured itself into the sea, lie the remains of Roma’s first colony, Ostia. Abandoned in the 6th century for fear of barbarians and pirates, the town fell into ruin, which remain. Visitors are free to wander and wonder through the old city, which was once home to 50,000 men and women, merchants and children, slaves and sailors.

At the gates, a sign says “Senatus Populusque Colonae Ostiea …”

Ah, Roma spreads its wings.

Ostia was established, first as a garrison, to guard the mouth of the Tiber and grew to be the port of entry for the North African grain that kept the city in bread. Today, I follow the Romans to Ostia.

It is early as I hurry toward the Circus Maximus, site of the ancient chariot races (remember Ben Hur?). The races held here were the NASCAR of the day. My personal theory is the charioteers’ descendants are the ones now racing Vespas like Dante’s damned through the city.

I slog past the circus while rain follows me like a pet through this city. I nimbly avoid being splashed by puddle-jumping Smart Cars as I search for the metro stop to take me to the sea. Unlike Paris, this is a city that I do not instinctively know. I have gotten lost several times and once ended up at Hadrian's Tomb (my favorite emperor, by the way) when I thought I was walking toward the Circus.

Finally, I stop an elderly man and say, "excusi sir, dove le metro stazione?" Yes. Words from three languages. Surprisingly, he understands me, and gives me equally garbled directions that I, oddly, understand as well. I walk on, dodging Vespas on the sidewalk. I find the station, pay my 1,500 lira (about 50 cents) and get a ticket.

The train cars are brightly colored canvases for the graffiti artists. Mine comes screaming into the station with "Dukes Of Hazzard!" emblazoned across its side. OK, so the graffiti artists lack taste.

With my nose pressed against the glass, I watch Roma disappear into the suburbs, which means under the city (sub urbis) in Latin.  Originally, the poor and disenfranchised, not the privileged, lived outside the city walls. It is a practice that persists here. As the last ugly high rise disappears, the countryside begins to take on that European-look that I've only found elsewhere in the Virginia foothills. The land is brilliantly green as it spread out in soft rolls like a baby's blanket.

Ostia, on the other hand, is not a pretty stopping place, but I head out from the station, using the pedestrian bridge over the two-lane road, and follow my instincts to the outskirts of the town. There, a small arrow points me to the archaeological site and ruins of Ostia Antica.

Yes, by this time you'd think I'd be sick to death of ruins, ruins and more ruins. Really, what possible interest could I find in tumbled crypts, waterless baths and roofless villas? Ah, but if you take a deep breath and look around without focusing on anything, you can see what once was: the people hurrying to the theatre, the merchants arguing prices outside the baths, the bored soldiers who just want to go back to the city, the bread, the circuses and whores.

I spend hours poking among the ruins, returning to Roma just in time for supper. Yes, I realize belatedly that I should have been an archaeologist. To look at shards and see a pot is optimism at its best.

09 October 2009

Roma: Day VII

The other day while searching the bowels of my computer for a lost file, I came across a travelogue I'd written nearly 10 years when I went to Rome on vacation. At the time, I shared it with a few friends. And it seems appropriate to share it here now. Enjoy.

I have lost a day.

It is Nov. 23. I’m positive of the date, but the tour guide swears that today is the 24th. Kate says she’s right. She has a calendar on her watch. She shows me. Proof.

As we ride the bus toward the Catacombs, I mentally try to figure out when and where I lost 24 hours of my life, but can’t. I guess this is a sign of a good vacation.

Or alien abduction.

But onto the catacombs...with the conversion of Constantine, Roma became Christian, and the Church has been laying claim to the city and the surrounding countryside ever since.

It is odd to see young priests, nuns and monks walk through the city in habits and sensible shoes. In most parts of the world, the Church faces a dearth of servants. It's challenging to men and women willing to take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience and live a life of prayer.

Of course, traditionally, the church has had trouble getting men and women who keep those vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Obedience to whom? God? The Church? The crown?  Obedience has been the subject of many legal arguments, excommunications and a few pitched battles.

Chastity didn’t become a requirement until the 11th century, before that it had merely been considered a good idea.

And poverty? The Church owns a sizable portion of Italy; it holds the largest and best art collection in the world, and there is enough gold adorning the ceilings of the churches in Roma to feed Africa for a century or more.

The struggle between the ideal and the reality is an old one, and I sympathize with all who struggle between the two.

We are barreling down a portion of the Via Appia on our way to the catacombs with a tour group. The bus driver ignores all traffic rules – “we’re in Roma,” he cheerfully explains, “we can do anything” – to get to the underground chambers before closing time. We make it, barely, and are part of the last tour group of the day.

The catacombs remind me of an underground tower of Babel. A half-dozen guides, speaking in as many languages, lead groups of 10, 20 or more through the narrow passages where the walls are too close and the ceiling too low.

The ancient Romans cremated their dead, unlike the Etruscans, who buried their relatives and assumed they carried on the good life in the hereafter, minus sickness, pain or death. Roman law decreed that neither cremation nor burial were allowed within the city walls (Julius Caesar was one exception and the conspirators briefly lived to regret that decision). So, outside each old city is the necropolis, a cemetery of sorts with niches instead of graves, statuary instead of tombstones and detailed inscriptions instead of R.I.P.

The Christians, though, wanted to separate themselves from the Pagans and buried their dead. And thousands of tourists come each year just to take a peek at these early graves.

And on a cold, damp evening we follow the crowd and descend into colder, damper, miserably narrow tunnels and empty niches. The bodies are gone and the inscriptions have been moved.

Keeping with the theme for the day, we venture to St. Peter’s next. We listen to vespers in Latin as we stand in the piazza and marvel at Michelangelo’s perfect union of form and function in his design of the basilica.

Kate waxes poetic about Michelangelo’s architectural gifts, talking about form and function, balance and aesthetics, until I remind her that he considered himself first and foremost a sculptor.

Tomorrow: Ostia Antica

07 October 2009

Roma: Day V

The other day while searching the bowels of my computer for a lost file, I came across a travelogue I'd written nearly 10 years when I went to Rome on vacation. At the time, I shared it with a few friends. And it seems appropriate to share it here now. Enjoy.

Mad, Bad and Dangerous to Know Byron hung out in Rome. Shelly. Keats. Gibbons. Many writers came for the Grand Tour and forgot to leave. More than a few died here and are buried in the Protestant Cemetery, a belated papal nod to the Reformation.

On the northern edge of the city, beside the Spanish Steps, is a little tea shop called Babbington’s, where the fine tradition of English cooking continues. The eggs are runny, the coffee weak and the side of bacon a whole hog. The undercooked serving would feed me for a week.

But I am most interested in the coffee this morning. Last night, something shell-fishy was in the supper, and for a few moments, I thought I was going to have to test out the Roman healthcare system (I'm allergic to shell-fish, particularly shrimp).

But after doubling up on my Claritin, my allergic reaction isn’t too bad this morning. I can breathe easily again, even if my lips are still swollen to Angelina Jolie proportions (as Kate tells me with an evil laugh). My eyes only open halfway, and I can’t bear to look in a mirror. So my friend, who hangs with New York actors, screenwriters and directors when she’s not writing branding proposals, entertains me with tales of celebrity heroine addiction covered up by great make-up artists, suggesting, of course, that I should have done the same this morning.

I nod, do coffee shots and pick out the crispy bits of bacon.

Babbington’s is the only real disappointment in our choice of restaurants.

For the most part, the food in Roma is fresh and good, if a bit too reliant on pasta and sweet tomato sauce. We are not eating in the finest restaurants available, though, and the street vendors produce snack food nowhere near the quality of the Parisian sidewalk carts. However, wherever we go, the house wines are phenomenal. The whites are dry and unsweet. The reds are robust, nonacidic and you can almost taste the dirt in which the grapes were grown. I am in love.

After eating enough bacon to satisfy me for the rest of my life, we walk around the pink house where Keats died, peek in the windows of Byron’s Roman home and head toward gardens where English tourists have wandered among fake ruins for a century or two.

At the top of the Spanish Steps, we buy miniature watercolors from a deaf artist. I know a little sign language from my days of teaching a deaf student in my karate class, so I understand his final warning to us as we strolled toward the Villa Medici.

"Beware the gypsy children," he gestures.

Tomorrow:  What day is it?

06 October 2009

Roma: Day IV

The other day while searching the bowels of my computer for a lost file, I came across a travelogue I'd written nearly 10 years when I went to Rome on vacation. At the time, I shared it with a few friends. And it seems appropriate to share it here now. Enjoy.

A funny thing happened on the way to the Forum. Rain. 

No, not the gentle, amble-about-in-the-drizzle rain, but a New Mexican-style, gully-washer that breaks the umbrella. Three times I try to go the Forum, and each time it rains as if Noah has just completed the ark.

Today, I am going to the Forum, come hell or high water. Literally.

The morning is beautiful, sunny and almost warm. Kate goes to the Vatican – after being soaked twice earlier she vows to be indoors and no where near me when I defy the gods.

OK, I say, and take off walking. On the way, the blue skies disappear. Rain begins to fall gently, then harder. I hail a cab. By the time the driver drops me off at the temple of Venus, the rain pounds the ground so hard drops spring up and soak my shoes, my ankles, my knees.

I walk on. Soon wet to the waist.

I pass the gladiators who mug for photos in front of the Colosseum. They are sheltering in ancient alcoves, smoking. I trudge up the Via Sacre as the artists scramble past, their works stuck under their coats. I ignore the tourists huddled under the arch of Titus.

And then, at the ruins of the Basilica of Constantine, the rain slacks off. By the time I reach the Temple of Romulus, the clouds are thinner and the rain is light and pleasant, like Paris in the spring. At the Temple of the Vestals, I look around and finally notice that the place is deserted. The gypsy children are not out picking pockets. The tourists are gone. The souvenir hawkers with the replica colosseums that would make a great soap dish for my bathroom have closed shop and gone home.

I am as alone as one can be in the Forum.

I smile. The gods are with me after all.

Lost in thought I wander through history lessons. The temple of Saturn. Its builders used granite columns to keep the god bound so he would not cause discord. A temple built when young, beautiful Faustina of the talented tongue, died too soon. The Senate didn’t want her unique gift lost to the world, so they deified her (and I’ll leave her eternal pursuits to your imagination).

This small door leads to the cloaca maximus, the sewer of Roma. It’s large enough for an elephant to move through it, which happened thanks to the games in the Colosseum, and these ruts in the stones were caused by thousands of chariots over a thousand of years racing from the curia to the Palatine and beyond.

There is also something about rain and ruins that settle the soul. My my mind slows and quiets, and I understand what the Sibylline whispers.

In Greek mythology, Athena, the goddess of wisdom, springs fully formed from the head of Zeus. I always thought that was odd, even for the Greeks, but now I understand it. Insight comes not in increments, but in bounds, fully formed. Suddenly, we see what was before us all along.

I feel blessed. An Epiphany, like love and the perfect cup of coffee, is something for which you have to be awake.

The rain starts anew and I wander off, over the Capitol, past Circus Maximus to the Tiber and walk along the water as I head back to the hotel to dry off and get warm.

Tomorrow: In the steps of the English

05 October 2009

Roma: Day III

The other day while searching the bowels of my computer for a lost file, I came across a travelogue I'd written nearly 10 years when I went to Rome on vacation. At the time, I shared it with a few friends. And it seems appropriate to share it here now. Enjoy.

I feel like Meg Ryan in “French Kiss”, minus the charming thief for a companion.

Today, I walk around and just say, “beautiful, beautiful.” At some point I switch to “bella, bella” but still walk, amazed, across roads laid even and straight, at a time when my ancestors ran wild and painted themselves blue before battle.

This city, even in the rainy season that makes an umbrella indispensable, is a wonder to behold. Unlike Paris, it doesn't smell of urine and car fumes. True... the Vespas buzz like an approaching plague no matter where you are, but the streets are reasonably clean and the centuries of grime give the buildings character.

Much of Roma is new, only two or three hundred years old, although some sections of town stretch back to a Renaissance building spree. Most of its classical and medieval characteristics are gone, except for the street plan, and thus character and charm are unevenly distributed. Next to a Bernini monstrosity, you’ll find a 2000-year-old temple, light and delicate despite gouged marble and fallen arches. In thick, windowless churches you find works of art that make you weep. Steps that go nowhere rise from a hillside and traffic snarls under and around the Arch of Janus as if training for the NASCAR circuit.

Rome is made for walking, so I walk. Just walk. To the Fontana di Trevi, the Piazza Novana, the Pantheon. I wander, really, from relic to relic. I pay no attention to the people around me, except to be ware of the gypsy children, of course, who are purported to be able to pick your pocket with both hands tied behind their backs.

I lunch in a museum cafĂ©, and finding no spare seats, accept an offer to share a table with an elderly gentleman. We talk, sort of. His English is as bad as my Italian, but we’d both studied Latin and remembered just as little. He tells me the U.S. still does not have a president and asks if this was my first trip to Roma. Then he motions for me to follow him onto the terrace.

I do, and he shows me a skyline view of the city.

“There,” he points, “St. Peter’s. There, Hadrian’s Tomb. See dome? Pantheon. This,” he points again, “Marcellus theater, the forum and the Palatine.” He lapses into Italian and I do not understand the rest, but nod as if I do and look where he points.

Then I take his photo as a thank you and leave him to smoke.

I wander some more, lost in thought and look up in time to see a face that is eerily familiar. The boy is about 15, with dark curly hair and light gray eyes. His face hints at later angularity and beauty. It bugs me for a few blocks – where have I seen him before? – then I realize he looks just like the portrait of a Florentine youth that hangs in the National Gallery in Washington, D.C.

Odd, but logical, how faces repeat themselves.

Then I glance up and stop. There, on the horizon just as the road dips into a vale, is the Colosseum. Breathtaking in its brokenness.

I walk toward it, studying its arches, the numbers over its gates, the the holes where marble was attached to the brick. A young man walks past and smiles. Reflexively, I smile back and continue walking. Then I hear, “Buon giorno.”

I turn. It’s the young man who just walked by. He smiles again. “Hi,” I answer and turn back to the Colosseum “It’s beautiful,” he says, introducing himself and falling into step beside me, “like you.”

OK, I love this, even though it is a line (and Manual looks like a gypsy child now grown). American men never ever seem to just stop and say hi or introduce themselves to me. Other nationalities do. I’ve never gone to New York City without meeting a half-dozen Europeans. Last year, in San Francisco, I ended up on a pub-crawl with a group of Irish ex-pats, and the first guy I met in Charlotte was from England. In the airport while waiting to board the flight to Rome, I ended up chatting with Luigi, a French-Canadian on his way to Bali to spend the winter as a scuba diving instructor.

I don’t know if European men are just more confident or if they know that sometimes “hi” just means “hi.” Whichever it is, it’s fun.

Meanwhile, back at the Colosseum, Manuel takes me on an impromptu tour of the Colosseum, talking all the while, then he says: “You are too beautiful to look so sad.”

“I’m not sad,” I say, “I’m enjoying the view.”

“Are you here with your boyfriend?”


“Ah, you left him at home.”


“Ah, you are heartbroken,” he shakes his head and puts his hand on my waist. I pull my jacket close to make sure he doesn’t go for the purse beneath it.

“No. I’m here with a friend having fun,” I say.

This guy determined, though. “American men are so foolish. I live in America for a while,” he says, “and I learn that American men do not know what love is, they think sex is love. They confuse quantity with quality.”

“And you are talking to me because you want love?” I ask.

Busted, he grins, and it really is a nice grin. “I like talking to beautiful women. Now I should go.”

“Wait,” I say, and pretend to fumble for my camera as I check to make sure I still have all my money, passport, etc., and then take a photo with him just for kicks. With a European kiss goodbye, he heads up through the forum and I spend the rest of the afternoon smiling, having survived my encounter with a gypsy child.

Tomorrow: The forum, hell and high water

04 October 2009

Roma: Day II

The other day while searching the bowels of my computer for a lost file, I came across a travelogue I'd written nearly 10 years when I went to Rome on vacation. At the time, I shared it with a few friends. And it seems appropriate to share it here now. Enjoy.

Ah, the coffee in Rome (or Roma as the natives say. Roma has a beautiful ring to it, so I quickly adopt it into my vocabulary) is thick and strong without being bitter. Three cups and I’m wired. Four and I’m a restless wreck, racing around the city like a human Vespa.

Vespa, which means wasp (and they do sound like angry insects), is a brand name for those little scooters that zip through the warren of streets like toddlers without proper supervision. In Roma, there are no traffic rules. Scooters are on the sidewalks. They skip stop signs. Turn left on red, go the wrong way down one ways and routinely play chicken (and oddly win) with the little Smart cars and Peugeots that clog the roadways. Not even the lone Jeep Cherokee (deep green and dented) barreling down the street like a Sherman tank could scatter the swarm.

Hyped on caffeine, I do what I always do when I’m in a strange city where I do not speak the language. I go for a walk just to see what I can find.

I find the Capitoline.

Roma spreads itself out over seven hills, although one of them was destroyed by the Roman equivalent of a bulldozer (its army) during the reign of Diocletian to make room for some monumental building project. The Capitoline was the seat of power in ancient Roma, and it is the reason so many school children misspell the U.S. Capitol Hill as Capital Hill.
Gentle steps, designed by Michelangelo, lead to the top of the hill, where replicas of ancient statues of Castor and Pollux, twin gods worshiped by the Roman Republicans because they supposedly helped the army defeat bad king Tarquis, stand guard. Behind them are two museums that hold many of the surviving works of ancient Roma.

The Dying Gaul is among them.

So is the head of Constantine (the marble one, not the real one) and the Equine Statue of Marcus Aurelius, but those are stories for another day.

I climb the steps and my heart races. In heavily accented Frentalian, I buy a ticket and begin wandering through the marble corridors, making the acquaintance of headless gods, badly reconstructed athletes and disembodied heads of emperors, senators, and high-born Latin ladies.

Up the stairs. Straight ahead. Look right. There he is. The Gaul.

Now some people like paintings: oils, frescos, watercolors, the two-dimensional renderings of a world more colorful and static than reality. Others prefer architecture, the reach for a perfect balance of form and function, the conflict of man against nature stated in brick, wood and stone. But I am drawn to sculpture, marble brought one step shy of breath through chisel and hammer; our ideal form fashioned through violence by the hands of a man obsessed.

Phideas. Michelangelo. Rodan.

The Dying Gaul is the center of a room of warriors, and I wait until a tour group leaves before I approach. Able to get “this” close to the copy of the third century masterpiece, I study him intensely. The gash in his side. The tangle of hair that frames his face. The resigned look in his eyes as he gazes at the empty spot between his hip and hand. His hands are veined. His sword lies slightly behind him and he has fallen over his broken shield.

And I learn something new.

This Gaul, resigned to death, is part of a larger piece, now broken up and partly lost. Originally, the bodies of his wife and child lay in the empty space between his hip and hand, and they are what his fading sight fixes upon.

To his right, not far from his hand, stood another pair of figures that survive in a museum closed to the public. This Gaul holds his wife, whom he has just slain, in his left hand, pulling her close to his body even has he plunges his own short sword into his heart, going in just to the front of the collar bone. They die rather than face life as slaves.

In Italian reference books that I can only half-read, I find a drawing of what art historians think the entire grouping looked like when it adorned the hill, and there, captured in cold marble is life, death, war, and love - the best and worst of the human repertoire.

Tomorrow:  Keena and the men of Roma