Saturday, September 29, 2012

Love Letter to NM

Autumn envelopes the high desert and mountains. It tingles bare arms with a cool breeze; it tinges the aspens and cottonwoods with gold. Despite being one of the financially poorest states, New Mexico is culturally wealthy. Its gold may be in chamisa or rock formations, but it is also in the multiplicity of cultures continuing to vie for survival and stretching their roots ever deeper into the sand. I will always be an outsider to the pueblos or cathedrals or mountains or vast desert that I visit, but I feel welcome nonetheless, as if this part of the world is somehow a memory of home.

As I walked, meandered, tasted, breathed deep, and meditated, I composed a love letter to northern New Mexico. These photos summarize the top nine reasons why someday I’ll return.

1. The land is sacred, and Spirit is overwhelmingly present everywhere I go:

near a monastery or cathedral

(St. Francis of Assisi Walking on Water statue)

with representations of yei

or from within a favored place to meditate, sheltered from sun in the desert.

I also briefly visited a mosque atop a mesa; I glimpsed the rooftop ladders leading into kivas. The West is big enough to accommodate many beliefs.

2. The natural world will not be ignored, even as the subject of art. The crows and ravens share their voices throughout the day,

a jackrabbit hides from a possible predator,

the flowers demand careful appreciation,

and a coming storm is reason to stand in awe and await the rain.

3. I once lived in a black-and-white world but, like Dorothy, stepped into my own colorful Oz.

4. After visiting Abiquiu and Plaza Blanca, I respect Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistry all the more.

5. Recording the landscape has been a preoccupation of artists for centuries—not only O’Keeffe, one of my favorite American artists, but also filmmakers. Standing in the creek bed where Daniel Craig tried to outrun aliens (Cowboys and Aliens) gave me a new perspective on Plaza Blanca, as did photographing Chimney Rock and Gates of Heaven on the ranch where Billy Crystal herded cows in City Slickers. I was told that, down the road about a hundred miles, Johnny Depp is filming The Lone Ranger. Our cinematic preoccupation with this stretch of New Mexico crosses genres and time periods but still can’t capture the essence of being surrounded by these formations and all that sky.

6. Even the desert provides unique tastes, from the sharp vitamin C tang of the two-pronged piñon needle or its mellower seeds (blue corn-piñon nut pancakes are a must) to the inner kernel of salt in a “salt bush,” nature provides a feast for those who know where to look. Chiles are everywhere—hanging outside groceries, celebrating “Christmas” (red and green chile on the same plate) in September, surprising tastebuds in everything from chocolate and pizza to traditional salsas.

7. The limitless skies offer plenty of breathing space—and the dry, clean air makes breathing worthwhile.

8. There is time for the solace of solitude, to sit on a garden bench in the late afternoon or to perch on the trunk of a fallen tree, the perfect picnic spot along the river.

9. Tenacity is paramount. The world is changing yet again. The plazas and markets remain centers of commerce, and the tourist centers herald the clash of cultures as well as the battle between the technological world and Mother Earth. In this autumn, there is a feeling of change and the uncertainty of what the future will reveal, but the desert often is a harsh place to live, and the people who have survived environmental, political, and social upheavals for thousands of years undoubtedly will find a way to persevere. They, like the trees that take hold in the most precarious places, survive in beauty.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Riding the Rails through Hocking Valley

Family legend has it that my grandfather and his brother hopped a freight train to travel from Illinois to Indiana in search of work. More than eight decades later, my brother and I more casually and safely boarded the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway in eastern Ohio in search of history. Our ride was shorter and much more pleasant.

Over the years I've enjoyed another historic train ride (in Winnipeg) and hope to take one more this year (in Santa Fe). I've traveled with Amtrak from Toledo to New York and, heading the opposite direction, to Seattle (although on that ride I was stuck outside Minot, ND, during a freak May snowstorm). I've lounged in sleeper cars and dined in the club car or a more formal dining car. I used to spend as many afternoons as my job and budget would allow riding VIA from Windsor to Toronto, where I'd indulge in theatre or hockey. Trains in my past got me where I wanted to go. Trains in my future are far more likely to be a sentimental journey.

So, on a summer Sunday, the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway became a great excuse for a family-friendly great escape along rivers and fields. We stood in the open car to feel the breeze and get closer to nature (my niece pointed out a deer darting into a cornfield). We smugly waved to cars waiting for the train to pass. We watched much of Ohio's history, from farm to brickyard, rush by us. During a stop at the local college's recreated pioneer settlement, we visited homesteads and--my favorite--the school, complete with oil lamps and slates. Then it was a short journey back to the Nelsonville station.

Although a live historic commentary lets passengers know what we're seeing (such as the lone chimney and kiln from a once-thriving brick industry), even more informative is a conversation with the conductor, a train enthusiast who knows just about every other train route worth taking in the eastern US.

Train travel, like most transportation today, isn't as glamorous or accessible as it was in its heyday. I miss the ambiance of the great old train stations, including my favorites Chicago (home to a climactic scene in The Untouchables) and Toronto (where Due South's Benton Fraser fatefully encountered the dangerous Victoria). They've lost much of their historic flavor to modernization. Still, special journeys like those offered by the Hocking Valley Scenic Railway keep the trains running for enthusiasts who want to get away, if only for an afternoon.

Life is Looking Up...and Around

On a recent visit to Florida's Treasure Coast, I refused to bring any work with me and let my gaze wander away from Facebook, email, and drafts of good ideas awaiting editing. Perhaps I've reduced the natural beauty of Florida to clichés of birds, clouds, and surf, but I photographed what caught my eye on walks around Vero Beach or Sebastian Inlet. The silences surprised me most--long stretches of time broken only by the stutter-crash of that mythic big seventh wave or a hawk launching itself from dry palm fronds and crying a greeting as it ascended. And then there was a chance meeting with my first land crab, who was casually crossing a gravel road until I insisted on a photo op. The crab immediately straightened to its full height to glare at me in fighting stance, a pose for which I thanked it. Two days removed from everyday stress and I'm philosophizing that not every cloud may have a silver lining, but occasionally there's that one golden epiphany that makes everything seem all right.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

The Tale of a Book: Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century

Ideas for potential books constantly tease me, and I seldom wake up each morning without an outline for an article or a chapter nagging me. Much of the time that first coffee of the morning will convince me that either I don't have the time or experience to leap into another writing project that day, but some ideas hit hard and refuse to go away.

So it was with my latest book "baby," Sherlock Holmes for the 21st Century: Essays on New Adaptations, which has just been published by McFarland. (Inserting shameless plugs for the book's McFarland, Amazon, and Amazon UK pages here.) I first heard of the BBC's Sherlock during a trip to Cardiff, when friends asked if I'd seen the series yet and then explained just how much I was missing. When PBS broadcast the episodes a few months later, I was hooked, and since then I admit I've become something of a Sherlockoholic.

During the Popular Culture Association's conference in San Antonio a year ago April, I stalked presenters talking about any adaptation of Holmes and, in the process, learned a great deal about ACD canon. I still pity the McFarland representatives who listened to me discuss a potential book more than once during that conference and who encouraged me to submit a proposal.

In the week after the conference, I received enough abstracts from the enthusiastic presenters I'd accosted during the conference and, by then, had developed ideas for four chapters and written an introduction for the proposal. McFarland reviewed the proposal and, after a bit of discussion and modification, approved it.

Although I don't want to minimize the many hours that went into the making of this book--from research to writing to revising to editing to proofing to indexing--I still have to say that "Sherlock" has been my easiest book "child" so far; "he" is my lucky 13th. During my research, I took a wonderful tour of Holmes' London, thanks to Brit Movie Tours, and I talked to fan/scholars at Holmes-themed restaurants, museum exhibits, and, especially, at 221B Baker itself (the Sherlock Holmes Museum). For about a year, Sherlock Holmes has been a big part of my daily life. However, as is true of any child, I can't take full credit; I certainly couldn't have done it on my own. I can only hope this book brings enjoyment and, ideally, some insights to those who read it.

Carlen Lavigne, Anissa Graham, Jennifer Garlen, Kayley Thomas, April Toadvine, Francesca Marinaro, Ana La Paz, Rhonda Harris Taylor, Svetlana Bochman, and I cover a wide range of topics and adaptations. The book's back cover describes the chapters as evidence why "Holmes and Watson are more popular than ever" and "destined to be with us for years to come." The adaptations we analyze include the Guy Ritchie films, BBC's Sherlock, the novel The House of Silk, and Neil Gaiman's stories, but we also discuss the nature of television and fandom, cinematic tourism, science and technology in canon and adaptations, and recent pastiches.

So today I announce the book's release, but that doesn't release us--as writers or Holmes fans--from the spell of Sherlock. We look forward to seeing the next chapters in the Great Detective's development, and we suspect that more adaptations will give us even more to "talk about" in print.