Category Archives: general nonsense

Time and Space and Everything in Between

Okay, okay, you got me. Last week’s Friday Ephemera totally got derailed by my unexpectedly awesome and busy weekend. Really, it would make more sense to do, oh say, a Wednesday Ephemera feature, but that just doesn’t have the same ring to it. But I’ve vowed to myself to get back on the wagon with them this week, and I think I’m going to write several at once this week so that I always have one handy in case unexpected photoshoots and epic bounce nights get in the way again.

But right now, since it’s Monday and not Friday, I want to talk about something different. This weekend I was preparing for one of the summer creative writing classes that I teach at CFTA. In the adult class this week, we’re going to be talking about the difference between setting and atmosphere, and how both of those elements factor into our writing. In Nikki’s Totally Made Up Fiction Writer’s Dictionary, those two terms are defined as:

SETTING: the actual time, place, time of day, and weather conditions in which a story takes place

ATMOSPHERE: the feelings and mood that the setting evokes

Practically speaking, the setting of [pretty much every] Edgar Allen Poe story is a foggy, stormy night in 19th century New England. The atmosphere suggested by that setting (and enhanced by the specific details given) is gloomy and ominous. Both the setting and the atmosphere work together to highlight the main character’s loneliness, madness, etc. and you get the feeling that it contributes to their ultimate decision to murder their aging relative or dismember their pet demon-cat. A well-rendered setting/atmosphere takes on a force of its own in the narrative; it digs its heels in and does enough heavy lifting to make it the unsung hero of many a novel. At some point you realize that the story couldn’t conceivably happen in any other time or place than the one described. It would be like removing the one deceptively-loose looking Jenga piece towards the bottom that sends the whole tower crashing to the ground.

Try to imagine The Great Gatsby without New York.

East of Eden without California.

Beloved without the Deep South.

Impossible, right?

One of the reasons I think rendering setting and atmosphere can be challenging is because it is so subtle and subliminal. We tend to take it for granted, and that got me thinking about the ways in which we interact with our real-life settings: the rooms, houses, neighborhoods, cities, countries, and hemispheres we inhabit. I realized that settings generate atmospheres in real life just like they do in fiction, and that very often I remain oblivious as to how the world around me is shaping my mood and outlook. But it is there, under the surface, subtle but powerful.

My fellow New Orleanians will back me up when I say that in the first year after Hurricane Katrina, the setting of flooded streets, destroyed homes, and deserted neighborhoods produced an atmosphere that was palpable. Sorrow pulsed like a heartbeat in my city, and you could see its effect on everyone’s faces. We were very aware then. But more years passed and the intensity of the feeling subsided…or maybe we just got used to it. Absorbed it somehow. Then along came 2010 and the Saints‘ first Superbowl appearance and win in NFL history. The atmosphere intensity was back, but this time it was way down on the other end of the emotional spectrum. Instead of sorrow, there was jubilation vibrating through the streets. Instead of hopelessness, there was optimism and rejuvenation. We felt it lifting our steps like a fall breeze, and it influenced everything from the fate of marriages to how you greeted the cashier at the grocery store.

Nowadays, I feel like my setting is a lot more balanced–there are pleasant details and ugly ones, places of promise and alleys still littered with ghosts. I can tend to get stuck deep in my own head much of the time, but I’ve been trying to step outside of myself long enough to take the pulse of my neighborhood. To see if I can read the barometer of this human atmosphere. How is Treme feeling today? How is New Orleans feeling? Louisiana? America?

As a Christian, this exercise helps me pray for my surroundings in a more sincere way. Kind of like finally shutting up in a conversation you’ve been dominating to discover that the other person has so much to say. As a writer, it teaches me to keep exploring the relationship between setting and atmosphere–to dissect it like a cadaver to learn as much as possible.

I guess this post wandered a little farther into the abstract than usual, but to me these are fun concepts to think about. Yes, I’m probably a weirdo. Yes, this is pretty much the only thing my English degree was good for.

And as long as I can write and teach and have nerdy conversations with my writer friends at Parkview, I think I’m okay with that.

- Nikki

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The Greatest Show On Earth…200 Years Later

Yesterday at a coffee shop I saw a flyer containing this information:

That’s right. The circus is coming to town! But not just any circus, THE circus to beat all other dime show museums and petty traveling shows–The Ringling Bros. and Barnum and Bailey’s Greatest Show On Earth. And this year, it’s celebrating the 200th anniversary of P.T. Barnum’s birth. Hmmm…anyone suspect what tomorrow’s Friday Ephemera might be about?

Of course, a huge part of me really wants to go to the show at the New Orleans Arena, but a couple other thoughts are also running through my head about it. For one thing, I haven’t been to the circus since I was very young. Probably five or so. I remember blurred impressions of the day–sticky cotton candy, the shuffling of the crowd, the smell of livestock, the lights and noises. As with many people, it exists in a kind of mythical place in my nostalgia and I’m not sure I want to dampen those memories with harsher realities that I’m sure I’ll pick up on as an adult, and a writer at that. I’m likely to spend my entire day being melancholy over the lonely scene I’ve concocted for the stable keeper with the missing teeth who I’m convinced will eat cold Vienna sausages out of a can in his messy trailer that night while listening to Hank Williams and crying over the woman who loved him and left him penniless in Topeka. See what I mean? It’s a problem.

So aside from the potential for the magic of the place to be somewhat distilled, I wonder too if I’ll be overly disappointed in how corporate and modern the circus has become. My fascination with the circus as an adult, after all, is centered on its hey-dey in the early 20th century and all the wonder and cruelty and turmoil that accompanied that era. A hypo-allergenic, politically correct, saccharine sweet circus may indeed be fun to visit, but it is a different thing entirely from the Greatest Show On Earth that exists in my Houdini biographies and Wikipedia articles, and I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Elephants on parade at Madison Square Garden

Of course, the elephants are a huge draw, and I may literally pee my pants if I got to pet one, but I also worry about the conditions that the animals are kept in, and I would want to research that before I gave money to the company and supported it. Does anyone know of a place to find reliable information about animal cruelty in the circus?

cast photo for B&B's Zing Zang Zoom, currently touring

Of course, I may not even have to make this difficult decision because the tickets are so expensive, but there’s still a possibility if I can hustle up some babysitting money before then. How about you? Have you been to the circus recently? What did you think?

<3

Nikki

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Garden Version 2.0, or Sometimes Jesus Isn’t All That Cryptic

If you’ve ever been to church or Sunday school for any length of time, you’ve probably heard someone teach on this parable of Jesus, the Parable of the Sower:

“Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up.  Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear.” – Matthew 13:3-9

As I headed outside this morning to work on (read: completely re-do) our garden, I couldn’t help but laugh when I thought of it. As many times as I’ve heard this story in my life, I have always looked at it in terms of its metaphorical value, trying to understand what Jesus was telling us about God the Father through this agricultural analogy. Never once did I stop and soak in what the parable is literally saying, what all of Jesus’ listeners would have looked at me and said “duh!” about because they were all farmers and dealt with these scenarios all the time.

RIP zucchini and squash plants. 3/11-6/11

So when all the vegetable plants in my front garden plot sprang up quicker than everything planted in the side beds, I didn’t bat an eye. Good for you, little guys, I thought to myself. Getting a head start. When my zucchini plants, so giant that they looked like something out of the Cretaceous period, began to take on a yellowish hue, I wasn’t sure what was going on. It wasn’t until the squash plants committed seppuku by falling over by their own weight and uprooting themselves that I realized that something had gone terribly awry. At some point while I was picking up the dried plants and tossing them into the compost, I was reminded of this part of the parable: “[Some] sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root.”

It’s so crazy how hard those of us who grew up in suburban or urban environments without having any connection to where our food comes from have to work to “re-learn” the fundamental principles that thousands of generations of people before us knew by heart and didn’t give a second thought to. Now I know how my grandparents felt when we tried to teach them how to program the VCR.

Tomato plants in the side raised bed, still going strong.

Thankfully, we got one good crop from the snow peas before they gave up the ghost, and this bowl of lovelies from the garden bean plants, although I suspect they’ll dry up too before I can get another:

This morning I weeded and tilled the open spots in the front bed, and tonight when Marc gets home we’re going to plant a few more things to give it one more try–swiss chard, spinach, and onions. They all say “full sun” on the seed packets, but I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. That’s one thing that I love about starting plants from seeds. At $2 per packet, they’re cheap enough to gamble with. I just never though I’d have to worry about the plants getting TOO much sun; I expected the opposite problem. Any other gardeners want to suggest some edible plants that would be hearty enough to survive the face of the sun, i.e. my front plot?

In conclusion, the parable thing still cracks me up. I know that the point of Jesus telling that story was to communicate something spiritual to his followers, but I can’t help thinking that in His omniscience He may have also been projecting some practical gardening advice a couple thousand years into the future to His clueless daughter, if only she had “ears to hear.” =)

Amusingly yours,

Nikki

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Woman vs. Beast

In rearranging our living room, I have decided that our blue woven rug looks best placed here:

Lucy, on the other hand, seems to like it better here:

This, my friends, is a battle of wills.

And I will not allow myself defeat.

Especially against something that licks its own butt.

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We interrupt our regularly scheduled programming…

So, I regret to say I won’t be posting my usual Friday Ephemera today, but I do not at all regret that it’s because I’m throwing the house into a tizzy trying to get ready to leave for Birmingham this afternoon, where I will help my middle school BFF Chelsea shoot her little sister’s wedding tomorrow. Macey has come a long way from tagging along on Chelsea and I’s mall adventures to find the perfect “costumes” from Rainbow to perform our homemade music videos (yes, evidence still exists…no you may NOT see it), and come to think of it, so have we.

Well, sort of. I don’t shop at Rainbow anymore, but I’ve developed a recent guilty obsession with Glee, which is kind of like living vicariously through fictional people’s homemade music videos. I try not to overanalyze it.

I’m going to go vacuum ALL THE THINGS now so there’s a fleeting chance that the house will not be a train wreck when I get back home on Sunday. There will be lots of pictures to share, I’m sure, and I’ll try to snag some internet at a coffee shop while I’m there to post a few.

Until then, I’ll leave you with a mini Friday Ephemera with no explanation.

When you’ve got that one figured out, let me know.

<3

Nikki

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In Which Nikki Will Get the 75th Percentile or Die Trying

If you went to grade school in the 90′s, you may remember encountering a little round blue patch with an eagle on it that looked something like this:

Depending on your interests, how many sports you played, and how many Kraft Handi-Snacks you may or may not have devoured over the course of a weekend Rocko’s Modern Life marathon, that patch would either be placed delicately in your quivering hands like some holy grail of adolescent achievement…or it would be pinned to the Girl Scout sash of your arch nemesis, who God cruelly designed to stand next to you during every significant school event because your last names were one letter off from each other.

Of course, if the latter was the case, you still got some kind of patch–a different color, slightly less epic-looking eagle, cheaper stitching–but we all knew that was the loser patch. The I-could-only-shuttle-that-stupid-eraser-twelve-times-across-the-parking-lot patch. Nobody wanted that one, and if you got it, you solemnly swore to spend every waking moment of your summer break pumping iron and running laps around the block (or, if you had parents like mine, up and down the driveway only) until you were poised to shatter those “presidential” records the following year.

Obviously this experience has left a, shall we say, deep impression on me. There were a couple of years that I got that coveted blue patch, but they were few and far between. I usually found myself mounted squarely in the slightly-below-average range of my peers in the area of physical fitness, a trend that has carried into adulthood. Always ever so slightly overweight for my frame, always tiring out a measly few minutes behind everyone else on the volleyball team. Just far enough behind to see the promised land of athleticism and drool.

Why am I dredging up these childhood memories of V-stretches and pull-up bars? My past month of cleansing and regular exercise got me thinking about the Physical Fitness Test and how I would stack up nowadays. Initially, I was rummaging around Google trying to see if there was a database where I could find my old grade school scores, but I ended up finding something even better:

The Presidential Adult Fitness Test

Oh yeah. That’s right. There’s an adult version! Not only that, but there are guidelines to test yourself at home and an online system to enter in your data so you can see what percentile of the population you rank in for each given category: aerobic fitness, muscular strength, flexibility, and body composition. I took one look at it and knew I had to use this thing to challenge myself. Like I said, I’m about a month into exercising regularly, and although I do love how I feel afterwards, I’m starting to reach that bored phase on some days. I needed a way to spice things up and set measurable goals for myself to keep it interesting, and this seems like just the ticket. I decided before I looked at my score that my goal would be to reach the 75th percentile in all categories. After testing myself yesterday, this is what my chart currently looks like:
The body composition annoys me more than anything, because I’m literally .2 BMI away from the acceptable range, but I still get the “overweight” label and a vague, ominous threat about diseases. I’m going to try my hardest to eradicate that one first. I’m already past the 75th percentile in flexibility (I always owned at that V-stretch thing), but it’s going to be a long way to go in muscular strength and aerobic fitness. Especially push-ups. My guns are more like water pistols.

As for a time constraint, I’d like to reach this goal by my birthday, which is July 18th. The plan is to keep up my aerobic exercise, start incorporating strength training a couple times a week, and re-test myself every three weeks or so to see the progress. And of course, blog about it.

I’m a little sad that there isn’t a patch if you score well on the adult test, though. If they were to design one, I would suggest replacing the eagle with something more like the picture below, because that’s certainly what I’m going to feel like if I’m able to beat this thing.

Aerobically yours,

Nikki

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Bizarre Book Review #2: The Secret Life of Houdini by William Kalush and Larry Sloman

It’s always been funny me how often that, in the process of becoming a household name, a person’s actual life story fades into anonymity. In Houdini’s case, his name is now synonymous with the art of escape, and very often the actual word for used to describe it, i.e. “That girl at the bar last night was a total Houdini. After I told her about my third nipple, she vanished.” Most people, however, would struggle to tell you anything else about Houdini. Like most legends, the actuality of his life and career has been distilled down to an iconic image of a man emerging from a steamer trunk draped in opened shackles. It was this realization, plus my constant fascination with all things turn of the century, circus, and vaudeville, that prompted me to pick The Secret Life of Houdini off the shelf of the cruise ship library that Marc and I raided while on our honeymoon. I spent the next several days totally absorbed in the thing–it was the perfect distraction from all those ill-advised bikinis and wrinkled military tattoos on the lido deck.

To tell the truth, I was surprised that I enjoyed the book so much. I love memoirs, but I’m not at all a biography person. All too often I find the tone boring and the narrator too distant to really bring the person to life for me. This was not at all the case here, although I guess you can’t give Kalush and Sloman all the credit–they pretty much would have have to consciously try to make a life like Houdini’s sound boring. Even more than learning about Houdini’s development into the greatest magician of his day and the thrills and close calls of his escape acts, though, I enjoyed the intimate details of Houdini’s life and personality that are offered up. And maybe that’s got a lot to do with the fact that Houdini was nothing like the man I had been envisioning.

Instead of being a pompous and egotistical vaudeville diva, Houdini may well have been the nicest guy to ever walk the face of the earth. Seriously, this guy was like the golden retriever of show business. Despite the nature of his career as a manipulator of people’s perceptions and imaginations, he was widely known for his honesty and integrity in his personal affairs and business dealings, even to the point of getting taken advantage of. He was an intensely loyal person, both to his family (Hungarian Jewish immigrants whose money woes were well taken care of after Houdini’s success) and to his wife Bess, who he married as a very young  man, sticking by her through her pain over not being able to conceive and her lifelong struggle with anxiety and depression. Possibly my favorite example of Houdini’s giant Care Bear heart, however, is contained in this excerpt from the book regarding Houdini’s remorse over a coincidentally correct prediction during his brief stint as a fake medium:

“Joe says he’s in a happy place. And he says ‘Don’t cry, Momma. There’ll be another one soon to take my place,’” Bess relayed.

The fact was Mrs. Osbourne was pregnant, a shrewd guess by Houdini since they were a young, grief-stricken couple. After the seance, an irate Harry Osbourne came backstage to give Houdini a thrashing.

“How could we know of your family circumstances if the medium was not clairvoyant?” Houdini asked him. Then he had Bess rattle off a number of other family secrets that had Osbourne mystified as he left the opera house. This incident made an indelible mark on Houdini. Twenty-six years later, Hallie Nichols, who had been in the opera house that night, went to see Houdini give a lecture on Spiritualism in Kansas City. Receiving a note that she had been in his audience in Garnett years earlier, Houdini asked her to come backstage after the show. She dined with Bess and Harry, and Houdini asked her if she was still in contact with the Osbournes. She said she was and gave Houdini their new California address. He eventually sent the Osbournes a long letter of abject apology for trifling with their emotions.

I mean, you just can’t help but like a guy like that, right? What supposedly sets The Secret Life of Houdini apart from other Houdini biographies are its conspiracy theory claims that Houdini worked as a spy for the British government and that he was eventually poisoned by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s thug gang of Spiritualists, but for me those speculations came in a far second to its ability to paint an intimate and rich portrait of the man behind the handcuffs. Because, really, if after reading a biography I don’t feel like I’ve just sat at a coffee shop with the person and had them pour their soul out to me over croissants and lattes, I don’t see how you can call it a success.

The Secret Life of Houdini was exactly that, and if you’re looking for a delicious beach book this summer that also satisfies your inner steampunk, this is your ticket.

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