Saturday, July 27, 2013

...The Power Of Scent Is Undeniable.

Over time I've learned that the sense of smell is a pretty powerful thing.  If you want to be pulled back into time, then there is nothing quite like scent to do it...unless you have a time machine, of course.

But for the rest of us who have to rely on riding the wings of nostalgia to get to the past, scent is an invaluable tool.  Whether you've just stepped into an old room you haven't seen in a decade and are transported back ten years, or whether you've stepped back into the kitchen where you just made a delicious dinner and are transported back ten minutes, it's all due to some aroma drifting up your nostrils and somewhere into your brain.  Since I'm an English major and not a scientist, I'm going to assume that's how it works.

A week ago I had a scent-y experience myself when I went to visit family in Connecticut.  The last time I had been there it has been the chilly month of January and I had been enamored with Les Misérables.  I had just seen the movie a few weeks prior, I had just finished my first full listen of the International recording earlier that morning, and I had just bought the enormous novel by Victor Hugo later that morning.  My entire world was filled with Les Misérables.  I heard the songs in my head all day and by night, I read the text.

Now, going back to my grandparents' house in July, quite a few things had changed.  It was beastly ninety degree weather, I had a new full time job, and I was in the process of buying a house with my boyfriend.  And while I still loved Les Misérables, it no longer occupied all of my waking thoughts.  I was, in fact, on an Abraham Lincoln learning kick.

Carrying my bags, the flush from the hot weather, and a Mary Todd Lincoln novel, I walked up the carpeted stairs to the third floor guest room I always stay in.  Halfway up the steps, I was hit with a blast of scent so enormous I could have sat on the stairs for the next hour and contemplated January.  Because the wonderful, familiar scent of the guest room where I had so diligently expanded my Les Misérables knowledge brought back roaring memories of January and that beautiful time when I learned of hope, redemption, and a wonderful man named Jean Valjean through Mr. Victor Hugo.

And so, next time you enter a building or room, take a moment to sniff the air.  You never know what moment you'll be brought back to.

Saturday, July 13, 2013

...Paul McCartney Doesn't Need To Be Young.

It started with an hour and a half of seated anticipation, followed by remixes of Paul McCartney songs and Beatles songs.  Next came the smoke and the soft purple lights.  And finally, the man himself!  Paul McCartney walked out onto the stage with his trademark bass guitar, waving to the audience, and immediately he and his band broke into "Eight Days A Week."

I reacted much as I did the first three times I saw Paul McCartney.  I screamed a bit, then couldn't seem to force any more sound from my mouth so I cried a little instead, and felt completely and undeniably happy (if ever there was a feeling where it felt like your heart had literally sprouted wings and flown off somewhere, I believe this would be it).

Now, in all of the times I've seen Sir Paul live, I've written to people about it, spoken about it, and thought about it, but I've never published something about it.  I believe it's time.  I took my literary mindset along for the musical journey and it sat on my shoulder the entire time, enhancing my experience.  Here we go.

First and foremost, Paul McCartney is seventy-one years old.  What do you think of when you think of a seventy-one year old man?  You may think senior citizen, possible owner of a cane, white hair, and frailty.  Paul McCartney looks awfully good for a seventy-one year old man.  Although wrinkles do line his famous face, his thick hair is a light brown and he has the physique of someone much younger.  I think it's completely safe to say he has much more energy than I, in the way he played nonstop for almost three hours, jumping and singing and moving and grooving.

When I first became a Beatles fan in 2003, I couldn't help but feel very sad that Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were old.  I had fallen in love with the twenty-something versions of themselves and my thirteen-year old brain could not grasp the fact that they were grandfathers.  I regret to say I often wished them young again.

But on July 9, 2013, as Paul McCartney played and sang and pleased a crowd of thousands at Fenway Park, I forgot about his age.  Or rather, the years fell away from him.  The lines disappeared from his face, his voice sounded better than ever, and when he smiled it reminded me of the younger Paul who I had gotten to know first through CDs, books, and DVDs.  I will never wish Paul or Ringo young again.  While I may often wish myself back into the sixties to see them play then, I've found that I love them both now just as much as my thirteen-year old self loved the younger Liverpool lads.

And so while the years dropped away from Paul as he played, I thought maybe the years dropped away from me, too.  There is something so wonderful when music becomes so familiar to you that you know every word, every guitar lick in that lead guitar solo, and every sounding chord of the bass part.  It's magical to hear a great song for the first time, but even better when you know what's coming; when you know the way Paul's voice will rise an octave on the next chorus or the exact direction that the guitar solo will travel or the part where he will ask the audience to sing along.  They know it by heart, you know it by heart, and everyone just comes together.

At the risk of sounding slightly clique, I must say to see Paul McCartney live is magic.  He puts on such an amazing show and I believe his energy extends to other people.  Even the most shy people in the audience let loose and start to clap or sing or at least lip sync.  I don't sing in front of people and I don't dance in public.  But I do at a Paul McCartney concert.

One of the most memorable things about this specific concert of his "Out There" tour were the songs he played.  He did, of course, play fan favorites and familiar staples.  But there were a few songs that he pulled out that I would have never expected and he breathed new life into them.  For example, "Lovely Rita" and "Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite" had never been my favorite songs as a teenager.  Although I still loved those songs and would listen to them, they weren't favorites compared to say, "All My Lovin'" and "And Your Bird Can Sing."  But when Paul suddenly pulled them out of his sleeve that night (or rather, out of his band), I was excited.  They sounded phenomenal live.  They sounded brand new.  They deserved to be played just as much as the others.

Furthermore, Paul did two tribute songs; "Let's hear it for John Lennon!" he said before playing "Here Today," and saying the same before playing "Something" for George Harrison.  It has always made me sad to know I will never see John or George alive and so I cannot thank Paul enough for giving me the opportunity to give them each a standing ovation at his concert, although I will never be able to do so at their own concerts.

In closing, another absolutely amazing show by Paul that I feel so lucky to have attended.  I remember the huge banners welcoming him back to Boston, I remember how we got so close to seeing him get out of his arrival car, and I remember the music and the love.

And so, until next time, Sir Paul...

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Victor Hugo-isms: #7

#7: "A faith is a necessity to man.  Woe to him who believes in nothing."

Where: Page 521.

What's Happening: This is another point, like the previous Victor Hugo-ism (#6), where not much is happening plot-wise.  Hugo is still giving us background information on the convent that Jean Valjean and Cosette will seek refuge at and additionally, giving some examples of why faith and work done with the mind is important.

What I Learned: First and foremost, the second sentence is absolutely beautiful.  "Woe to him who believes in nothing" is musical, it is powerful, it is true.  And although Hugo's thoughts here certainly stem from information and reflection on the convent, I think that this statement can go beyond religious faith.  I do certainly think that religious faith is an important aspect of Hugo's remarks here, because Jean Valjean believed in something; he believed in God and this is one of the things that helped him turn his life completely around to become such a good, loving, philanthropic man.  But I also believe that faith in anything can be a necessity to human beings.  There is faith in your family, in your significant other, and your friends; most definitely a special belief in those closest to you that nurture those relationships.  Furthermore, faith in love, in life, in goodness; these forces aren't human and don't have eyes or ears and can't talk back to you, and yet we put our utmost faith in the hands that we can't see.  Or faith in a favorite band ("Don't stop believing!  Hold on to that feeeee-eeeeeling!"), in an actor, in a superhero; people who are almost larger than life and people who we might quite possibly never meet in person, but whose work touches us in some huge way and instills some kind of faith, no matter how small, in us.  There are so many different kinds of "faith" and I agree with Hugo that it must be horribly sad and truly unfortunate when a man has absolutely nothing in life to believe in.  There is always something, even if it's only tomorrow...and of course, to me, that is one of the biggest triumphs in Les Misérables: tomorrow always comes!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Victor Hugo-isms: #6

#6: "The Unknown is an ocean.  What is conscience?  It is the compass of the Unknown.  Thought, meditation, prayer, these are the great mysterious directions of the needle.  Let us respect them.  Where do these majestic irradiations of the soul go?  Into the shadow, that is, toward the light."

Where: Page 517.

What's Happening: Plot-wise, not a whole lot is happening here.  This is a sort of transitional period in the book where Hugo is giving us a lot of background information on the convent that Jean Valjean and Cosette will eventually begin a new life at.

What I Learned: This passage is obviously very deep.  Although only a mere seven sentences, there is a world of meaning behind the words.  The first sentence is the part that resonates the most with me, because I sincerely agree that the Unknown is one vast, limitless ocean.  I can't tell you how many times I have gazed at an ocean...actually, come to think of it, not many times.  I don't live anywhere near an ocean and so I think I must rephrase and say that I can't tell you how many times I have seen an ocean on TV and thought to myself...what an enormous body of water that is!  How deep is it?  How far does it extend?  We can see straight to the horizon, yes, but how far away is the horizon and where does it go? Limitless.  And the Unknown - all of the mysteries of life, as well as all of the knowledge and information that there is to know about on this Earth - is just as vast and just as difficult to measure.  But although the ocean and the Unknown are immense and we human beings are very small, we can still feel connected, by thinking, meditating, and praying...three activities that bring us closer to a spiritual existence, and thus, harmony with the things that can't  yet be known...and are still there to be discovered.  We are spiritual sailors, navigating on the ocean of life through the waves of knowledge, sailing steadily to the light.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

...There May Be More To Alice In Wonderland Than I Initially Thought.

In the past few days, I have been faced with inner conflict.  No, it’s not very serious inner conflict, like telling someone if they have something in their teeth or not or shall you go to the post office on Monday or Tuesday? when you really don’t want to go at all.  But my inner conflict is still thought-provoking and I have set out on an experiment to sort that out.

The conflict: How do I feel about Alice in Wonderland?

I suppose this is the moment where my mother would dramatically (but good naturedly) roll her eyes and tell me that some people have real problems.  And I agree whole-heartedly.  But this is an issue I’ve been mulling over day after day, sometimes in the car, but mostly when I am traveling along the wooden-floored hallway of my family’s home in Savoy.  Yes, this is a hallway problem.

Like countless numbers of adults across the world, I grew up with and have very fond memories of Disney movies, except perhaps one which always made me feel kind of…odd.  Even now as I think about the 1951 animated version of Alice in Wonderland, I get an uncomfortable feeling, like something is stuck in my throat or there’s a piece of dust in my eye or something crawling down my back.

I think we need to go back to the beginning first, to where this conflict began.

Exactly a week ago today, a very good friend of mine asked me if one evening during the week, I would like to come visit her and watch Tim Burton’s 2010 version of Alice in Wonderland.  Absolutely! I said.  Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was wonderful and I loved it immensely and after the first time I saw it, I spent months after thinking of it, researching it, and writing about it.  I saw it in theaters a total of four times.  And that Tuesday evening, we had a fantastic time re-watching the film, accompanied by tall glasses of chocolate milkshakes and great big amounts of Goldfish.

And just like the very first time, three years ago, I began to think about the film again and what I liked so much about it.  I wanted to learn so much more about it and I decided…why not read the original books?

I don’t know exactly how it happened, but I think it began with a Wikipedia article on The Mad Hatter.  I saw original illustrations of him and read a synopsis about his role in the original books and it brought roaring memories back of the 1951 film (along with that uncomfortable I-just-stepped-on-a-tack feeling).

I have not seen the animated version of Alice in Wonderland since I was a very young child and yet, I still have strange memories of it.  And suddenly faced with these remembrances, I was forced to compare it to the Tim Burton version that I loved so much.  So, here we go.

What I recalled from the 1951 film was darkness everywhere, Alice crying, the creatures being quite sarcastic towards her, a mean, smoking caterpillar, and walrus babies being eaten.  I never, ever had an urge to visit Wonderland and that was that.  I never envied Alice in the least.

And then there is the 2010 film, so filled with themes of friendship, courage, and hope.  Believing in oneself! That is the Wonderland that I would love to visit.  Everyone welcomed Alice back (at least, they did when they learned she was the “right” Alice), there was nothing foreboding about that land, except maybe the Red Queen and the terrible Jabberwocky, but that was to be expected. 

And of course, there’s the Mad Hatter.  The only similarities that I could see between 1951 animated Mad Hatter and 2010 Mad Hatter played by Johnny Depp was that they both were mad, they were hatters, and they attended tea parties.  The 1951 Mad Hatter was short, with white hair and evil-looking eyebrows and he seemed almost kind of rude to Alice, if I remember right.  He poured tea into his collar and it came out of his sleeve and he had a large, ridiculous three-spout tea pot.  And that "Unbirthday Song!" That has wedged itself somewhere into my subconscious and I was surprised to find I still knew the words to it.

The 2010 Mad Hatter is Alice’s dear friend who believed in her unconditionally.  He is obviously a little crazy, but we are given a back story so that we understand exactly why he is the way he is.  I suppose he is a tad schizophrenic in a way, but he is brave, sweet, and loyal.  And he is played by the phenomenal Johnny Depp and perhaps this is where I’m a bit biased, since it seems I can’t help but unconditionally love any character that Johnny Depp plays.  There is just more to this Mad Hatter.  The animated Mad Hatter creeped me out, while Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter intrigued me.

And there it is, The Inner Conflict.  It dawned on me that Tim Burton’s version suddenly seemed so incredibly different from the Disney movie and Lewis Carroll’s original books that I almost decided not to read them.  And yet…Tim Burton’s inspiration, as well as the inspiration of the screenwriters, had to come from somewhere. 

And so the experiment begins!  I ordered a copy of The Annotated Alice last night, which includes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, as well as many notes and a treasure trove of background information.  I also ordered a book dealing with Alice in Wonderland and philosophy.  I find now that I want to dig deeply into this world, that I’m excited to discover something new and to make connections!

Who knows, maybe I can shed that uncomfortable, itchy sensation I get when I think about the 1951 Alice in Wonderland.  Perhaps I’ll be able to link The Mad Hatters.  What I hope is that I’ll be able to find exactly what everyone else has found when they read the books: an incredible world, child-like wonder, and a tale worth re-telling.

Sunday, April 7, 2013

...Oz Has A Cemetery.

The famous yellow brick road.  Magical ruby read slippers that gleam.  A good witch and a bad witch.  Cute and kindly Munchkins.  Lions and scarecrows and tin men, oh my!  The Wizard of Oz, which first made an appearance in 1939 with Judy Garland as its star, has since become a movie classic.

Now, almost 75 years after the land of Oz was epitomized in the 1939 Victor Fleming-directed film, another movie has come out in theaters, ready to whisk viewers away to the magical land once more.  Oz the Great and Powerful, starring James Franco as Oz, stays very true to the beloved 1939 film.  It is a different story altogether, transporting viewers back many years before the events of Dorothy's adventure, and with all of the new movie technology and CG effects, it looks much sharper and fantastical.

But it is, without a doubt, the same land of Oz, and this new film parallels the old.  In 1939's The Wizard of Oz, beginning events of the film are shot in black and white and color is only introduced when Dorothy reaches Oz.  In 2013's Oz the Great and Powerful, the beginning of the movie is also shot in black and white and doesn't become colorful until Oz lands in the land of Oz, via hotair balloon.  In the older film, characters of Oz represent people in Dorothy's life back in Kansas (Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch of the West, Hunk is the Scarecrow, Hickory is the Tin Man, and Zeke is the Cowardly Lion).  In the new film, characters from Oz also represent the people Oz left behind in his reality (his love interest Annie is the good witch Glinda, his assistant Frank is the faithful monkey Finley, and the girl in the wheelchair he cannot cure is the China Girl who he can fix with glue).  The Munchkins return and when Theodora transforms into the Wicked Witch, her sharp, green features mirror that of Margaret Hamilton's Wicked Witch from 1939. 

Two totally separate films with two entirely different directors and two absolutely unconnected casts...but the concept is shared and linked.  Yet there is one difference...or rather, addition...that completley floored me.

The land of Oz has a cemetery.

I suppose this fact shouldn't be as suprising as I find it.  In our world, there are cemeteries in every town of every state of the United States and that's not even mentioning the numerous, uncountable graveyards in other parts of the globe.  People die and they must rest somewhere and I guess magical lands are no different.  But to see the tombstones, the various shades of darkness, a witch about to enter through the wiry gates that surround the entire cemetery...I think this discovery could be added to the list of Things That Set Nicole's Imagination On Fire.

Who is buried in this Oz cemetery and is it the only cemetery in Oz?  Maybe it's the main cemetery, the one that is the most occupied and the most crowded.  Perhaps, like the town of Savoy where I live, there are other small graveyards sprinkled throughout the land in the most obscure places; on hillsides, deep in the woods, in backyards, in posion ivy patches.  For certain, we only know one Oz individual who is definitely buried in this cemetery and that is Glinda's father, the king.  We know this because she visits him in the film, along with Oz, Finley, and the China Girl.

But who else?  Perhaps this is where Munchkins and Winkies are laid to rest and kings of past ages and good witches, too.  I have not yet read the books by L. Frank Baum and I know there are many other inhabitants of Oz and so there really are endless possibilities of who occupies this cemetery.  As for wicked witches and evil flying monkeys, they might have one of those hidden graveyards deep in the trees...or no resting place at all.

Now people might think to themselves...okay, Nicole, Oz has a cemetery.  So what?

It is fascinating to me that Oz, with it's Emerald City, Munchkin Country, and yellow brick road, has something as eerie, as necessary, as normal as a cemetery.  The power of creation is adamant here; authors and filmmakers can create all sorts of different worlds with fascinating individuals who have fantastic adventures and still place within their magical boundries things that are ordinary.

I, as a reader and writer and dreamer, love Other Worlds.  I am a proud American, but I love lands that aren't this land, worlds that hold characters who don't dwell anywhere in our world, places where things happen that will never happen here.  Oz is one of those lands, somewhere vastly far away and unreachable, unless you either have a tornado in your near future or a vivid imagination.  Anything that makes lands like these appear more real makes me a happy and fascinated individual.

So, to get to the gist of things, cemeteries are a fact of life and a common occurence on Earth and if a land like Oz has a cemetery, then it is just another link we have to that magical place.  And the more links there are, the more of a connection there is.  The more of a connection we have, the more magic there can be in daily life.

And plus, the cemetery was eerie and beautiful and wonderful.  The perfect place to get chased by evil, flying monkeys.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Victor Hugo-isms: #5

#5: "While we come and go in our native land, we imagine that we are indifferent to these streets, that these windows, roofs, and doors mean nothing to us, that these walls are strangers to us, that these trees are like any other trees, that these houses we never enter are of no use to us, that the pavement where we walk is no more than stone blocks.  Later, when we are no longer there, we find that those streets are very dear to us, that we miss the roofs, windows, and doors, that the walls are essential to us, that the trees are beloved, that every day we did enter those houses we never entered, and that we have left something of our affections, our life, and our heart on those paving stones."

Where: Pages 446-447.

What's Happening: Jean Valjean, knowing that he is being pursued by Javert, has taken Cosette and left the secluded garret, and is "threading" through the streets of Paris, so as not to be followed.  Hugo, who was away from Paris in exile, takes this opportunity to describe the once familiar streets.

What I Learned: This was another epiphany moment (and I am extremely grateful to Victor Hugo for providing me with so many of these).  I feel like it is completely true that in the course of everyday life, we become so familiar and comfortable with our surroundings that we don't think twice about least not until we're far away from those places.  I know that one day, when I move out of my family's house to be on my own, I will vividly miss and remember things that I don't really think twice about now.  I'll miss how tiny our little wiener dog looks when he's waddling through the grass.  I'll affectionately think of the big ole' tree a few feet away that I was always afraid would fall on the house during a storm.  I'll remember how silly I thought the front door was because it was painted red and I'll rejoice on the days when I can walk through that red door once again.  The shapes of the windows, the placements of the door frames, the impact of listening to fifty Bruce Springsteen songs in "The Pink Room" (the sitting room that is now green), where the cereal was kept...Victor Hugo describes his version of these things in nineteenth century Paris perfectly.  There is nothing quite like nostalgia, especially when nostalgia is linked to places.  And I love, love, love the idea of “we did enter those houses we never entered.”  It makes me think that those places became so familiar that we entered them in our minds.  I believe the bottom line here is that we leave a bit of ourselves everywhere that we go, but we also take a bit of those places with us on our journeys into the future.

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

...I Should Feel Free To Jam In Empty Supermarkets.

I am one of those people.

You know, those people.  The intensely shy, frustratingly self-aware, prone to the ultimate of awkward situations, think-very-carefully-before-you-act-and-speak, look behind your shoulder...those kind of people.

But such is life, right?

Well, I didn't realize what a problem this was...well, I lie, because I do know what a problem this is...but I didn't realize recently what a problem this had become until I encountered an interesting situation last night. 

I don't sing in front of people.  I don't dance in front of people.  I'm one of those people who can't seem to let out musical energy in front of people for fear of looking stupid.  This is entirely normal, there are plenty of those people out there.  But here is the kicker: I couldn't even dance or sing in the middle of a deserted aisle in the center of an almost empty grocery store last night.

It was around 10 p.m, not a customer in the store, and I was performing the least-exciting task ever: mopping the floor.  Journey's "I'll Be Alright Without You" came on over the speakers, a song I hadn't heard at work before, and I was almost instantly transformed.  The sixteen year-old me - the one who has become buried by adult issues,  college, and time - instantly emerged, threatening to come out of my mouth by way of the lyrics.  I held the mop tightly, aware that my co-worker was only feet away, and waited for an opportunity when I could celebrate this song that I hadn't heard in literally years.

I had my opportunity when I went to dump the mop.  I walked through an empty aisle with the mop, heading to the back room, but alas, I had my excuse - the mop would be a burden, you cannot possibly air guitar with a mop in your hand, you cannot sing a power ballad and take yourself seriously if you are holding a mop.  I dumped the mop and headed back to the empty aisle.

Oh, perfect opportunity! My arms and legs tingled, I felt a weight in my throat (the song obviously trying to get out), and I kept thinking, this is my chance to jam to Journey at work!  Nobody was there to look, there were no cameras in that section of the store, the jars of Skippy peanut butter would not judge me, the boxes of Cheerios would not tell anyone, the pancake mix would never was my moment to be sixteen again, to recapture a part of who I am, to break free, to be something that was not boring or anxious...

I reached the end of the aisle without uttering a note, without opening my mouth, without celebrating, and went back to work.  I could not even sing or dance in an empty supermarket.

This was my epiphany, if you will.  I deeply admire people who burst into song in random moments, but I couldn't admire myself enough to belt out the chorus of a Journey song in front of nobody.  I respect people who don't care what people think of them, but I couldn't respect myself enough to not care what the empty air thought.  I love people who have fun, but I couldn't love myself enough to have a twenty-second, uplifting moment.  I could have chosen character, I chose fatigue.

It may sound a bit harsh, but it's true.  Do I want to tell any potential, future children of mine that I used to drag myself through supermarket aisles at ten o'clock at night, trying not to fall down, or do I want to tell them I danced and sang the length of an aisle every Tuesday night and was a better person because of it?

My pledge now is this: next time I encounter an empty aisle and a Journey song, I will take advantage of it.  And who knows, maybe one day I'll advance to choosing a crowded aisle.

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Victor Hugo-isms #4

#4: "Nothing is so charming as the ruddy tints that happiness can shed around a garret room.  In the course of our lives, we have all had our rosy garret."

Where: Page 437.

What's Happening: Jean Valjean has just rescued Cosette from the
Thénardiers and has taken her to live in a very secluded spot.  They are living in a garret (tiny top floor room or attic room) and their father-daughter bond begins to develop and they grow to love each other.

What I Learned: I was instantly drawn to this phrase with what felt like some sort of magnetic force.  The message here is simple: you don't need to be living in a fancy mansion(although fancy mansions are one of my favorite things ever) or on some tropical island or in a glamorous, rich city to be happy. The garret where Cosette is living with Jean Valjean is rundown, poor, and definitely not pretty, but it is pretty to her because it is her safe-house from the awful Thénardiers, the dwelling of her savior, and the beginning of a new life for her. If you are truly happy, wherever you are dwelling in life will be enough for you and will hold very fond memories. and hence, seem rosy and wonderful.

Saturday, March 2, 2013

Victor Hugo-isms: #3

#3: "Nobody walks alone at night in the forest without trembling.  Darkness and trees, two formidable depths - a chimeric reality appears in the indistinct distance.  An outline of the Inconceivable emerges a few steps away with a special clarity.  You see floating in space or in your brain something strangely vague and unseizable like the dreams of sleeping flowers.  There are fierce shapes on the horizon.  You breath in the odors of the great black void.  You are afraid and are tempted to look behind you.  The socket of night, the haggard look of everything, taciturn profiles that fade away as you advance, obscure dishevelments, angry clumps, livid pools, the gloomy reflected in the funereal, the sepulchral immensity of silence, the possible unknown beings, swaying of mysterious branches, frightful torsos of the trees, long wisps of shivering grass - you are defenseless against all of it...Forests are apocalypses..."

Where: Page 388-389

What's Happening: The young Cosette has been sent out in the night by the nasty Thénardiess to fetch a bucket of water from the well in the woods.  She is very afraid and her surroundings are being described to us.

What I Learned: First and foremost, this entire paragraph is stunning.  If this passage doesn't paint a vivid and animated picture, then I don't know what does!  It is simply so much fun to read this beautifully crafted paragraph.  And second, it's also very true.  Thank you, Victor Hugo, for writing down in extreme detail exactly why Nicole Knapp does not go into forests at night.  I had originally thought that I didn't venture outside at night for fear of either being eaten by bears or abducted by creepers, but now that I've read this passage and thought of it...there is something very strange about the forest at night.  While I do think the forest at night is mysteriously beautiful, I also think that it can be the stuff that nightmares are made of, if we let it.  Dangers - whether real or imagined - follow you as you step through the endless trees and the endless darkness.  And getting back to the language - the way this is written is just so cool.  The dreams of sleeping flowers, frightful torsos of the trees, forests are apocalypses...these phrases speak for themselves and emit a literary power of their very own.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Victor Hugo-isms: #2

#2: "If you wish to understand what Revolution is, call it Progress; and if you wish to understand what Progress is, call it Tomorrow."

Where: Page 349.

What's Happening: I've heard people who have read Les Misérables say that Victor Hugo often goes off on long tangents on specific subjects and while that is true, these tangents are important to the story.  This quote appears in one of those "tangents," when Hugo is recounting the Battle of Waterloo.  It is in a chapter titled "Should We Approve of Waterloo?" which goes into detail about revolution and its role in Waterloo.

What I Learned: It took a tad bit of thinking for me to grasp this one, but it does make perfect sense.  Why does one start a revolution?  Because they want something to change and if something is changing successfully, it is progress.  And progress doesn't happen overnight.  The progress that one seeks isn't necessarily found in the past and it might not even be found in the present, but I believe it can be found Tomorrow.  Change takes time and there are many tomorrows to witness progress developing.  I also link this quote to the musical's wonderful last line: "Tomorrow comes!"  There is hope in the future, in change, in tomorrow!  Revolution is an important part of the story of Les Misérables and so is the idea of tomorrow.

Thursday, February 28, 2013

Victor Hugo-isms: #1

Victor Hugo is, in my opinion, a wonderful, wonderful man, writer, and thinker.  I am more than halfway through Les Misérables, of which I have been enjoying an almost two-month long infatuation with.  I am almost ashamed to admit that I was never very interested in reading novels from the nineteenth century (I loved the stories, but didn't quite want to read them), believing the language would be so different, difficult, stiff, unimaginative, and dull.  How wrong I was!  Victor Hugo's Les Misérables is exciting, incredible, beautiful - I could rave for pages about it.  And when I am reading and suddenly it's time to go to work, or go to bed, or go wherever, I do have a hard time forcing myself to put the book down.

I have a small, wrinkled little receipt that I have been using as a bookmark and which is now filled with page numbers.  There are phrases from the novel that are so beautiful that I need to write down the page number so that I can reflect later.  But alas, where to put this little collection of mine?  Since I now am maintaining a blog, I figured it would be fun to create a little series called Victor Hugo-isms.  It is my hope that Les Misérables fans will stumble across them and enjoy them and perhaps it will encourage those fans of the musical who have never read the book to give it a try.  It is my hope that non-Les Misérables fans will find something special in them, as well.  And if that is not the case, I have them here for me to look back on and cherish, always.

And so without any further ado, I begin this series, below.

#1: "He believed that faith gives health.  He sought to counsel and calm the despairing by pointing out the Man of Resignation, and to transform the grief that contemplates the grave by showing it the grief that looks up to the stars."

Where: Page 17.

What's Happening: Monsieur Myriel, otherwise known in the show as the Bishop of Digne who gives Jean Valjean shelter, freedom, and a chance to become an honest man, goes to comfort those who are dying and those who have lost loved ones.

What I Learned:  When I read this quote, I think I literally gasped out loud/smacked a hand to my chest in awe/had an epihany/let the air know how pleased I was.  I learned that perspective is important.  When we lose a loved one, we can deal with it in two entirely ways.  We can be shriveled by grief, staring down into a deep hole in the ground, bitterly wondering where everybody ends up, wallowing in pity and fear and despair, and letting death conquer our thoughts.  Or we can use grief to reach a higher place and instead stare up at the sky, at the eternal stars, using hope as medicine, and conquering the thought of death with faith.  Or, I suppose, you could think of it this way: one can believe that everybody dies and ends up in a hole in the ground only, or one can believe that everybody dies and gets the chance to soar through the sky.  The bottom line is that Monsieur Myriel was an extremely positive man who gave his fellow men the gift of faith and hope and comfort and I, personally, would rather look up than down.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

...Inanimate Objects Have Adventures, Too.

January 24th was an excruciatingly chilly day.  It was one of those days where the temperature was in the single digits and the weather forecasters warn you to bring your pets inside.  I was to spend the day in ultimate comfort, blasting the heat on my three and a half hour drive to Connecticut to visit family, eating Star Wars gummies and listening to my newest favorite musical, Les Misérables.

But this tale isn't about me, it's about a baked good. 

In the earliest minutes of my journey, I stopped at Barnes and Noble to buy Les Misérables, the novel by Victor Hugo.  As I stood at the check-out, so excited and so proud to be purchasing such a fantastic story, a higher-up employee, who must have been some kind of manager, walked by behind the counter.  He plunked a tiny silver tray onto the counter and said to the cashier, "I leave you in charge of selling this last cookie."

It was sort of an ugly cookie, but it still looked scrumptious.  It was a Christmas sugar cookie, wrapped tightly in plastic with a maroon sticker on it that announced: 50% OFF.  Already a month had passed since Christmas of 2012, so this was an old, forgotten holiday cookie, indeed.  I wasn't even sure what the cookie was supposed to be; it was obviously a face of some sort and I'm guessing it was supposed to be an elf, although it looked more like a creepy ventriloquist doll.  It was decked out in red frosting and had the coldest, blue eyes that reminded me of freezing, freezing icicles.

"I'll take it," I said very suddenly.  Only three seconds had gone by since the man had clunked it down on the counter in front of me and although I would have preferred a snowman or Christmas tree cookie, I could not stop the words from coming.  I'll take it.  I'll take it?  Yes, I suppose I'll take it.

The man and the cashier, obviously glad (and almost a bit incredulous), laughed.  It was clearly a victory for them.

I shrugged and smiled.  "It looks good."  And I did mean that.  It looked ugly, but it did look delicious.  I figured I'd want a cookie at some point during my three and a half hour car ride.

So after establishing myself as probably the most bizarre customer of the day, I walked out of Barnes and Noble with my book and my cookie, laughing to myself.

After living at Barnes and Noble for who knows how many months, the Christmas cookie embarked on one last adventure, with this author.  In the comfort of a toasty warm jeep, the cookie rode shot gun all the way to Connecticut.  It most likely did not see much scenery, but it got to listen to almost the entire score of Les Misérables and hear occasional bursts of frustration from me, aimed at either my own driving or somebody else's.

That night, the cookie's long shelf life ended.  I didn't eat it at home, microwaved and with a cup of tea like the cashier had recommended.  I ate it at midnight, in the cold bathroom over a sink, after waking up with an extreme craving for sugar.

Alas, inanimate objects can have lives, too.  Strangely, I will forever associate that trip to Connecticut with my discovery of Les Misérables and the purchase of an old, forgotten cookie that needed desperately to be taken away from the quiet of a bookstore, to the freedom of the open road.

Monday, January 14, 2013

...Edith Wharton's Forest Holds Treasures.

When merrily strolling through the woods on the grounds of The Mount with my boyfriend on Friday, I came across a few strange things that I think are worthy of a mention.  I discovered three oddities and although I'd like to write a poem, a short story, and novel on each of them, I'll have to settle for just a few paragraphs each for now.

The mysterious woodpile in the woods.

Oddity #1: The Woodpile

I  suppose there isn't anything too weird about a woodpile in the middle of the woods, considering the wood came from trees and trees aren't hard to find in forests.  And logs may be needed to put in fireplaces to create nice, cozy fires and yet...this woodpile is nowhere near any buildings.

Matt and I had turned off the little road that leads to the mansion and walked into the more dense area of the forest to see where it might lead.  It didn't really lead anywhere; it was a dead end that stopped at the noisy main road.  But that is where our woodpile is residing at this very moment.

Now, let's assume that this woodpile is a log stash for The Mount.  An employee would have to walk down the side path into the woods and then transport wood to either the stables or the mansion, both which are a small distance away (unless they were driving, but it's simply no fun to assume that).  It appears more likely that the woodpile would be placed right outside those buildings, where it could be accessed easily and immediately!

Matt suggested that perhaps someone had cut down a tree and left the wood stash there.  I think this is entirely plausible, but when I look at the above picture, I see a neatly stacked pile of logs, covered in a blanket of snow, and I can't help but think that they have a purpose.

The snake branch.
Oddity #2: The Abnormal Branch

Matt gets the credit for finding this one!  This tree with the strange branch was just a few feet away from the Mysterious Woodpile.  The tree itself isn't particularly extraordinary, but the the green, mossy branch that twists around it sure is!  The branch starts off towards the bottom of the trunk, and winds it's way up to almost the very top.

What makes this branch so much fun is that it doesn't even seem like it belongs to the tree and it isn't firmly attached; it is suspended out in the air.  It stands out in stark contrast, doing it's own thing, as if it were only visiting for a short while instead of being a permanent fixture.

And where did it come from?  It wasn't put there; it had to have grown there! 

Oddity #3: The Tree With The Face

This was located on the edge of the deeper forest instead of in it, but it stood out to me instantly!  When I first looked at this tree, I saw a gaping mouth (the dark, oval hole at the bottom) and an eye (the knotted elbow of the branch sticking somewhat up on the right).  It also resembles a wailing ghoul to me and this is very appropriate, considering that The Mount is allegedly haunted.

I guess this isn't that odd, since it only looks like a face and isn't actually one.  But it still makes me wonder about the life of this tree.  Was it once a handsome, tall, straight tree with lots of green brances?  How did it become the way it is now, all gnarled and misshapen and sad?  Only Elder Tree, as I named it, and the trees around it know.

I guess this would also be the time to mention that whenever I looked into the trees in this part of the forest, I could have sworn I saw a house in the distance.  It wasn't the mansion, since we weren't facing in the direction of it's location and the structure I thought I saw was a deep, brick red, not white.  However, Matt did not see this, so I could have been hallucinating.  Just another oddity to add to the experience!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

...About Adventure One: The Mount.

The Mount is, without a doubt, one of my favorite places in the whole world.  It has numerous beautiful and mysterious qualities, which I will list below:

-It's a mansion.  Mansions are my favorite.
-It was built and occupied by a writer, Edith Wharton.
-It was built in 1902 and is therefore old, historic, and important.

A fork in the road on the forest path that leads to the mansion.
-It is supposedly haunted and this intrigues me to no end.
-It is buried somewhere in the woods in Lenox, MA  (you cannot see this wonderful, wonderful house from the road).
-On the second floor at the back of the house is one of the most beautiful libraries I have ever seen.

And so, all of the above qualities = Nicole's imagination on fire.

Although the mansion, stables, and bookstore are closed to the public right now, The Mount still welcomes visitors to tour the grounds.  Matt and I have been to The Mount three times, three Octobers in a row for the nighttime Halloween ghost tours, but we have never been there during the day.  This was the first time.

A view of the stables from the forest.
As I already mentioned above, the Mount was built by author Edith Wharton in 1902 and she lived there with her husband, Teddy Wharton, until 1911.  I suppose part of my fascination of The Mount stems from harmless envy - I, too, would love to be an author who lives in a mansion with a magnificent library (in fact, when I one day own a house, I want an exact replica of Edith Wharton's library, which was based on her own father's library).  And I love to imagine what life would have been like for her all those years, living in such a beautiful, slightly isolated place, surrounded by nothing but trees.  Seriously, it must have been the best place to concentrate and write!

Matt and I arrived during the last hour of the morning and parked down near the mansion.  We got out and immediately began our walk around the grounds.  Although I was slightly anxious, not dressed warm enough, and paranoid about falling down, I enjoyed myself immensely.  To map out our entire walk in a very quick fashion: we walked down a random path into the woods to greet a dead end, strolled up to the stables and snapped some photos of the front and back, and made our way back down to the mansion.  An employee drove by us as we walked and although I was too busy trying to look busy and not suspicious, Matt informed me that he waved.

As we continued down the road, the mansion became visible through the trees (as you can see in the picture to the left).  We had walked this road many a time before at night with a group and somewhere to the left, there is a pet cemetery, where Edith Wharton's dogs are buried.  I wanted to try to find it but there was no path leading to it and the gravestones were most likely buried in snow.

The winding road through the trees that leads to the mansion is one of my favorite things about The Mount.  The mansion is almost entirely hidden until you get a first glimpse of it through the trees and it gradually reveals itself as you walk even further.  Although walking along that road and all over the grounds at night in Autumn on Halloween night is unbelievable amounts of fun (for me, at least!), exploring it in the daytime and on our own was a wonderful experience.

I would be lying if I said I wasn't disappointed that the mansion was closed, but I came fully expecting not to be stepping anywhere inside and only going as far as the doorstep.  In fact, I stepped upon the door step and stared at the wooden door, trying to envision Edith Wharton doing the same.  I didn't dare lay a hand on the door, although I wanted to, for fear of setting off an alarm.  I then turned and made sure to get a photo of the little doorway in the gate that looked back out into the forest.

On the night tours we had been to, we never got to walk around the back of the mansion where the gardens are (it was simply too dark and dangerous).  Even when walking back to the small parking lot at the end of the night, I always tried to look around the building, to see what the gardens looked like and what Edith Wharton would see when she looked out her back windows, but I only saw pitch black. 

I looked forward to seeing what the "backyard" looked like.  Would there be more paths, more of the winding road?  Would there be dense, thick forests surrounding the house?  Would there just be very beautiful, elaborate gardens?

We only went as far as the side of the mansion.  The back consisted of a large hill with shin-deep snow (and I had made the unfortunate choice of wearing sneakers and the thinnest socks imaginable).  But Matt still helped me through some of the less dramatic drifts of snow and I was able to look out in the back and see something I hadn't expected.  Beyond the gardens were trees, like I had expected, but there was also rolling hills!  And very far into the distance, it looked like there were more large houses.
Although happy to make this discovery, I was still hit with another pang of longing to go into the mansion and look around, but instead I busied myself with memories of walking through three floors of dimly lit halls and rooms on Halloween evenings.

That concluded our adventure for the day.  After an hour of exploring, photo-taking, and re-imagining (as well as searching the dark windows for any signs of ghostly faces!), I came away from the experience very happy indeed.  Matt and I have already planned to take another trip back in April, right before it opens back up to the public in May, so that we can finally journey all the way into the back grounds (that is, if there is not much snow and mud).

Edith Wharton was on my mind almost the entire time.  I thought about how one of the tour guides told us one Halloween how Edith Wharton's bedroom on the third floor looked out upon the pet cemetery, so that she could keep watch over her precious dogs.  On those tours, I would also look out the windows, hoping to see anything - the pet cemetery, ghostly figures, or mountains in the distance.  I would imagine myself spending an evening in her gorgeous library, surrounding by leather-bound volumes and glowing light, and slowly drawing back the long curtains to look out into the dark, letting my imagination soar.
The author emerges from behind a tree!

Thursday, January 10, 2013

...Tolkien Fantasy Is A Sea.

"Drowning, in the sea of love, where everyone would love to drown." - Fleetwood Mac

In the past few weeks, since I first saw The Hobbit in theaters, I have taken a dive headfirst back into the sea of Tolkien fantasy.  This is very exciting for me, because this is a sea I haven't explored in about ten years, since the last Lord of the Rings movie (Return of the King), arrived in movie theaters in 2003.  Perhaps over the years, I've dipped a toe in or even waded in up to my waist, but I've never fully taken the plunge back in, until now.

Although Lord of the Rings has always held a special place in my DVD library, on my bookshelf, and in my soul, I never really bothered to think about what it was that drew me to it like some sort of freakish magnetic force.  I was content enough to love it, to gush to people about it, and to watch it...over and over again.

I saw The Hobbit on a cold, snowy night a few weeks ago and as soon as the end credits began to roll, I felt an enormous weight in my chest (seriously, I might as well been carrying a hobbit on my shoulders, that's how heavy it felt).  I carried it with me to the restroom, out to the parking lot, and into my car it got with me.  It did not go away until I burst into tears and told my boyfriend through ridiculous sobbing fits how happy I was and what a phenomenal movie it had been.

If anything felt like stepping back into a long-forgotten past, it was seeing that movie.  At the risk of sounding corny, clique, and crazy, I must felt like coming home.  The Hobbit brought back for me all those wonderful pre-teenager memories of watching the films continously, anticipating when the next one would come into theaters, and bonding with my friends over it (or being playfully teased by my cousin over it).  Nostalgia is a very powerful emotion and I seem to be the owner of some kind of abnormal nostalgia gene that is extremely fond and grateful for past enjoyments.

Back in 2002, I had been drowning in the sea of Tolkien, completley helpless and entranced by something I found incredibly exciting and beautiful.  And I feel the same way now, absolutely powerless over a love of something from long ago and a little confused as I venture to explore more of this world.

When I was younger, I had read The Hobbit and I may have started to read The Fellowship of the Ring, but that is where I banged into an iceberg somewhere in that Tolkien sea and apparently didn't get back on the literary path.  But this time, I've found that I want to read all the books, watch all the movies (in their extended versions!) all over again, and go a bit further and see what else Tolkien has written about Middle Earth (this is where the confusion comes in, since there is so much material and not a clear place to begin).

I have even come to the realization that if I were two or three feet shorter, lived in a hole in a hill, and actually liked to wear the color yellow, I could be a hobbit.

But as it is, I am 5'5, I live in a hilltown rather than a hill, and the only thing yellow thing you will ever find me wearing is socks (maybe).  But I have books in my library and DVDs on my shelf that detail the adventures of hobbits and that is quite enough for me. 

Drowning in a sea of love is all very romantic and fine, but I'm perfectly content to flail about in a sea of Tolkien's fiction, until I finally learn to navigate my way once again and swim confidently to the conclusion.  And someday, years after I have already once again pulled myself from the Tolkien sea and thoroughly dried off, I'm sure I will eagerly run back to the beginning, and dive in once more.