Wednesday, February 26, 2014


I'm in good company when I report that I like mysteries—presidents, attorneys, corporate magnates...all confess that reading mysteries is a form of relaxation for them. And those of us who're of the hoi polloi admit that we not only read a lot of this genre, we spend hours at week-end mystery marathons, now made possible by "streaming" entire mystery series that have appeared on public television stations.

I've written a few mysteries based in the South, and several years ago I fictionalized a true, unsolved murder that took place in Natchez, Mississippi. The book, Goatman Murder, was based on the macabre story of two aristocrats accused of murder who had fallen on hard times and lived in a decaying mansion with a passel of goats, next door to a bitter enemy murdered in her home one day in the 1930's.

We've visited Natchez many times and toured some of the old homes in the city, but we've never seen the home of the accused murderers who lived in Goat Castle as the dilapidated mansion was torn down years ago. A good friend of mine, who is adapting my mystery for a play, recently asked us to go on a mission to find the actual site of the Goat Castle. We've planned a jaunt to Natchez in early March, to revisit the sights in this historic city perched on a bluff overlooking the Mississippi River. Natchez was once a center of wealth and leisure, a place of opulent mansions owned by cotton planters who entertained in grand style. Today, the city has, as Harnett T. Kane once wrote, "blossomed into a series of plantation museums without parallel in the South."

We look forward to the trip and perhaps I'll be inspired to write another mystery instead of spending time watching mystery marathons and re-reading Raymond Chandler, P. D. James, Ruth Rendell, George Simenon and other masterful mystery writers.

Here's a poem I wrote two years ago, questioning why we're drawn to murder mysteries. It appeared in my book, Post Cards From Diddy Wah Diddy:


A question at the breakfast table,
the obvious key difficult to explain,
this storytelling about dark haunts,
long shadows in doorways
and a trail of blood
leading to a woman in a red dress
lying in the mist.

What are we working out
in the black and white film,
climbing a steep stair
to a walk-up that holds
the results of momentary madness,
flies buzzing on the window sill?

Is it the recognition of our own survival instincts,
an innate violence we aren't supposed to harbor,
or another game of checkers
where we plot how to capture
the last black round on the board?

Or is it the heavy step of justice on the stair?
a voice announcing case closed,
last appeal denied, tragedy averted more monsters under the bed.

Thursday, February 20, 2014


While sojourning at Sewanee this past year, I jumped track from writing poetry and sat on the front porch composing essays about one of my favorite subjects—porches. I invited my friend Janet Faulk-Gonzales to contribute some of the vignettes for a book I began compiling because she and I share a mutual liking for these outdoor appendages to homes. At Christmas, I usually give Janet a calendar featuring porches, and we spend a lot of time discussing the virtues of the porches photographed for the calendar.

PORCH POSTS contains vignettes and stories about the "so-called passive life that goes on in the porch world," and features eight whimsical drawings by New Iberia artist Paul Schexnayder, as well as an arresting cover, a photograph of a lovely glass piece done by Karen Bourque, a glass artist who lives in Churchpoint, Louisiana. The vignettes range from descriptions of porch structures to tales recounted on galeries, as the French in south Louisiana call them. The porch settings cover wide territory—from Louisiana and Alabama to Iran and Qatar, but all of these observation posts offer a different view of the world as seen from the vantage point of two porch sitters.

Here are two snippets from the Foreword of PORCH POSTS, the first is from me and the second from Janet:

"The word 'porch sitter' describes, in unflattering vernacular, someone who is a lazy, good for nothing person. However, in more sophisticated settings, porch sitters are people who enjoy their galleries for evening gatherings in a space where they can relax, talk, sip libations, create good memories, and elevate their spirits... My childhood memories include porches of various types and architectural design, ranging from a simple, round concrete floor, painted red, with a slight overhang that my father constructed when we returned from a foolhardy trip to California, to a large one with lacy Queen Anne posts that my Grandmother Nell called her 'gallery'..."

And from Janet:

"For the most part, when we think of porches, we typically think of outside spaces, but I see them as places that hold the point for transitions of all sorts. On the porch, one is really neither in the rain, nor out of the rain; in the night nor out of the night; might be leaving but not yet gone; might be returning, but not yet settled—neither in nor out... At this moment, I can say that the two things which make the porch THE PLACE, whatever its dimension and decor, are its propinquity with the natural world and the fact that unexpected time on the porch comes as close to the still point of presence as any time anywhere..."

Look for PORCH POSTS to appear next month. It will be available on, and I will provide a link at that time.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014


With winter blowing its icy breath everywhere in the U.S., I was amazed when I spied a tiny pollen cone on a tall slash pine in my front yard last week—a sure sign that Spring is imminent. The appearance of this male cone signals that it's ready to release airborne pollen to pollinate the female cones and cause seeds to be made. Botanists once believed that pollination was random, but research has revealed that the female cone is shaped to aerodynamically direct pollen to it when the male cone releases the pollen grains into the air, and that the pine tree's pollination is another part of Nature's grand design.

I'm partial to pine trees, and when I bought my present home in New Iberia, Louisiana, I was happy to see the tall, cheerful trees dropping needles in my front yard. As an adolescent, I lived in the piney woods surrounding Franklinton, Louisiana and spent many summers at a camp called Peter Pan, hiking in a pine forest. The resinous scent of pine needles has always invigorated me, and I cling to these trees even when tree cutters canvas the neighborhood and try to convince me to cut down the two in my front yard every hurricane season. It's true that Hurricane Andrew toppled a venerable one that fell a foot away from my bedroom window, but I shudder when I think of engaging someone to fell the remaining two stately trees.

Pines have long lives and can reach 1000 years old. When I discovered this, I thought of Great Uncle Ed Greenlaw who owned a prized longleaf pine forest near Ramsey, Louisiana, back in the early 1900's when the lumbering industry was at its zenith. He decimated the entire forest to benefit the Greenlaw Lumber Company, then sold the operation and pioneered the commercial motor vehicle transportation industry, introducing trucks and tractors to the transportation world and sponsoring a movement recognized as the impetus toward a good highway system in Louisiana. He was often referred to as the "Father of Good Roads in Louisiana" and obviously respected good roads more than pine trees. Great Uncle Ed managed the Louisiana Motor Transportation Association, as well as edited the Louisiana Digest, forerunner of a journal the Police Jury Association now publishes. His decimation of an entire longleaf pine forest was forgiven in the name of commercial progress, and he moved to West End Boulevard in New Orleans, away from the scene of his logging operation.

I suppose that the pleasant, clean scent of pine trees didn't have the same effect on Great Uncle Ed as it does on me, nor was he a collector of cones or other souvenirs of his business enterprise. Today, only the remnants of a kiln remain on the property at Ramsey, and his former home is a bed and breakfast where I once spent the night. The present owner of the home quickly told me how my Great Uncle Ed cut down so many trees that a person could stand on the front porch and see the town of Covington ten miles away. I could tell she was a lover of pines from the irritated tone of her voice when she related this story.

During the 90's, when we were on vacation in California, my botanist friend Victoria picked up a giant sugar pine cone in the Sequoias that we brought back to Louisiana and placed on the hearth. A few years later, following a vacation at Lake Tahoe and inspired by the discovery of that cone, we veered off course in search of the ancient Bristlecone Forest near Westgard Pass in California on a road that led toward the forest. The road was guarded by a giant sequoia planted in honor of Teddy Roosevelt in 1913 and meandered through high desert for many miles. We entered the road after reading a danger sign that told us not to proceed without water. Nine miles out, the car heated up, and we turned back, suddenly remembering Episcopal Bishop Pike who died in the desert of Israel following a car breakdown. We've never returned to search for the world's oldest living pine trees.

Some pine tree trivia: alternative medicine enthusiasts make a tea by steeping green pine needles in boiling water, and others have used them as a component in a Bach flower remedy, but there's no scientific evidence to show that these concoctions derived from the majestic pine tree prevent or control diseases.

Meanwhile, I try to exonerate Great Uncle Ed by maintaining the two pine trees in my front yard. I like to listen to them rustling in the winter wind, but I hope that I'll be in residence on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee if another hurricane blows this way 'come Fall. Pine trunks do snap easily!

Thursday, February 6, 2014


Allergies are two ways about it, allergies are awful. Through some genetic pipeline, I inherited most of my Grandmother Nell's allergies, and they don't improve with age. One of the worst allergies from which I suffer is an allergy to animal dander, a condition that makes me not only resentful but downright angry because it means I can't own a dog. Dogs were a vital part of my growing up and included a flatulent, half-breed cocker spaniel named Tee Nap that accompanied my family on a foolhardy trip out West when I was eleven years old. At that time, my allergy to animal dander wasn't in full bloom, and Tee Nap lay at my feet on the long road trip to Diddy Wah Diddy, unaffected by the complaints of three children stuffed into the back seat of a small, 1941 Ford coupe.

To make a long story short, the allergy to animal dander kicked in in earnest when I reached the age of 50, along with an allergy to my favorite food—shellfish. The allergy to animal dander began with a fit of sneezing over a cat that belonged to my youngest daughter and progressed rapidly to include dogs.

My family always owned female dogs, and I laughed aloud as I read an essay by E.B. White entitled "Dog Training" that describes his father's reaction to owning a "bitch" dog. White says that one day a mutt followed him home from school, and he persuaded his parents to let him keep it. It stayed with him only one night because the next morning his father took him aside and told him in a low voice that the dog was female and that it would have to go. When E.B. White asked why, his father, embarrassed, explained that the dog would be a nuisance and would attract all the male dogs in the neighborhood all the time. White wrote that this seemed like an idyllic arrangement to him, but he could tell that the new dog was doomed to live somewhere else...and was evicted. Nonetheless, in adulthood, when E.B. White bought his farm in New England, he also acquired two dachshunds and a wire-haired fox terrier, and with sheep to take care of, was "obliged to do my shepherding with [their] grotesque and sometimes underhanded assistance..."

Of course, during my childhood we just put up with broods of puppies when our female dogs beget, but nowadays, female parents are spayed. In the 40's, dogs didn't expect much in the way of medical care nor did they expect anything unusual in their diet—they subsisted on that food unknown to a dog today—"scraps," including chicken bones and leftover Rice Crispies swimming in milk, and their longevity was no less than it is today. In fact, they may have lived longer. I might add that they survived in doghouses of the same architecture that housed Snoopy in the "Peanuts" comic strip and were constantly breaking leash laws.

Back in the 90's, I was asked to ghost write a piece for the artist, George Rodrigue, about his dog Tiffany, and we met for an interview at Landry's Restaurant near Breaux Bridge, Louisiana where George had a small studio. The piece was never published, but I still have a record of the interview and the piece I wrote that was unused because Harper and Row wanted a fantasy told by Tiffany.  The two-hour interview included a lot of questions about "man and the psychic dog" that I had gleaned from a book entitled Dog by Patricia Green. Green says that a legend tells us how after the Creation, a gulf opened up between man and the animals that God had given names. Among the animals was this dog looking at the ever-widening breach and when separation was almost complete, the dog leapt across the gulf, taking its place beside man. I asked George if he thought that's what Tiffany did and he affirmed this idea.

In Dog, Ms. Green says that a psychic dog may be a devourer or creator, a wounder or healer, a contaminator or purifier and may represent the redemptive elements in man's life. It was interesting to me that Rodrigue painted the blue dog as a redemptive element. Tiffany always had to be in the foreground of his paintings.

I have friends who speak of dogs as being there for them when they experience despair or sadness and that act as an archetype in their lives. The dogs represent hope and healing, protecting their owners from danger.

I could go on at length about dogs, but the narration won't do any good as far as allergies are concerned. I'm seriously considering getting allergy shots so that I can find a dog like the one on this blog—a female black lab retriever. I already have a name for her. My black lab will be called "Kenyon" after the poet I most admire but who, unhappily, is deceased: Jane Kenyon.

I hope she won't mind being a ghost dog until I get my round of allergy shots... "Here, Kenyon..."