Saturday, May 23, 2015

Saturday Serial: Captain America #13

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Once upon a time, I gave Tommy a ring.

He was eighteen and about to move away to college; I was seventeen and about to be left behind. It seemed like the sort of life event for which one might reasonably give mementos. Also the sort of life event that would enable the recipient to avoid one for the rest of his life, if it turned out that one was bonkers and really shouldn't have done that.

This was terrifying. I did not have a good track record with sentimental gift-giving. Affection was weaponized in my house; there was the obvious Pavlovian conditioning in effect, and also the sort of profound narcissism that led my 'loving' parents to more or less ignore whatever I did unless it suited them to pay attention.

In grade school, I once gave another girl the other half of those matched-set "best friend" necklaces. She looked at it rather skeptically, awkwardly said thanks, and I never saw it again. Important lesson here: If your parents have to tell you that you're best friends, you probably aren't.

(I complained to my mother that I didn't have any friends. She told me I didn't need friends. She never had any friends, and she turned out fine! Then she launched into tales of the things she got up to in high school. With her friends.)

The ring I got Tommy was a claddagh. Mainly jewelers push them as wedding/engagement rings, but traditionally they're used as sort of general tokens of attachment. The heart is for love; the hands, for friendship; and the crown, for loyalty. The design is unisex and his family is as Irish as mine is, so I thought it would be appropriate -- or, at least, about every third thought was that it would be appropriate, interspersed with all the thoughts that I was mad for thinking anyone would want to remember me after they successfully left me behind, and that I was making an utter fool of myself for pretending otherwise.

Given the DEFCON 1 levels of terror involved, it was not my brightest idea to try giving him the thing in the middle of the auditorium after a performance. I was maybe not good at planning as a teenager, come to think of it.

The best result I thought I could expect was that Tommy would accept it graciously, throw it in his luggage, and every once in a while run across it in the back of a drawer somewhere and spare a thought for me. I bought myself one, which I fully intended to wear; I could get away with that, I figured, because Tommy wouldn't be around enough to notice or think it was weird. I'd already long since gotten used to quietly thinking of someone as a friend from off in a corner, where I couldn't bother them with it, and I didn't owe anyone an explanation for my choice in jewelry.

This, as it turns out, was wildly uncharitable to Tommy. Probably the best commentary on why is to note that he did wear the ring I gave him, right-hand, emblem facing out. Most references will spend half a sentence admitting you can use claddagh rings as tokens of friendship before giving all the various meanings in terms of single/dating/engagement/marriage, which annoys me no end. Tommy wore his in the fashion they say means you're single, despite at the time having a girlfriend (not me) and a best friend (in retrospect, very definitely me). The real meaning is "my heart is open" -- that is, that you welcome new people, and the possibility of new attachments.

That was one of my first concrete lessons in the fact that perhaps my parents were bonkers, and perhaps I was not a completely unlovable loser. The original set of rings have long since been lost somewhere, but Amazon does have a selection of them, and I do have a debit card.

(Moggie, if anyone is wondering, gets cat tchotchkes, and books on murder. It's weird, but hey, whatever makes her feel loved.)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Monday Mystery: Murder on the Métro

In the spring of 1937, a young Frenchwoman in a green suit boarded a train at la Porte de Charenton, headed into Paris. She was the only passenger in the first-class carriage when the train departed at 6:26 pm.

The lady in the green suit was found a minute later, at the next station, a 9" dagger buried in her neck. She died en route to the hospital. She had never named her killer.

The case of Laetitia Toureaux is a quintessential locked-room mystery: She was alone when she boarded the train, and alone when she was found, and yet in between stops someone else had apparently entered her isolated car and committed a brutal murder.

There does not appear to have been much of an investigation, or at least not much of a competent one. The inspector in charge had a temper and was furious when he found a young gendarme pawing stuff at the scene with his bare hands, destroying fingerprints willy-nilly. He did manage to stop everyone before they got their mitts all over the victim's handbag, which contained little more than her makeup, keys, some small amount of money, and a letter about a rendezvous that evening. Her ID said she was (Yolande-)Laetitia Nourrisat Toureaux, and gave an address in Paris.

Toureaux, a young widow, proved to have an interesting life, which for the 1930s meant she was very pretty, and frequented dance halls of questionable repute. Unusually for an unsolved case, it seems to be widely known who dunnit, or at least who ordered it done: A shadowy political cabal called ''La Cagoule," or "the Hood", who spewed revolutionary -- usually fascist -- philosophy in random directions in between the wars. After losing her husband to tuberculosis, Toureaux apparently took up undercover police work in both the figurative and literal senses, taking a series of lovers from the revolutionaries until she could infiltrate La Cagoule itself.

I haven't seen anyone name a specific assassin, although supposedly someone confessed via anonymous letter to police in 1962, supposedly from a doctor in Perpignan. Translated from the Zig Zag article:
Mr Commissioner, I do not know if this letter will reach you. Perhaps you will toss it into the (waste)basket before you, as the work of a madman, and maybe it would be better off that way. No doubt you remember the assassination of Laetitia Toureaux, which took place in the Porte de Charonton, in the Métro, on the 16th of May 1937. I am the assassin of Laetitia Toureaux...
I could find only one source (from my lazy spot here at the desk, without spending any money) that gave the autopsy results for Toureaux. Translated from Paris mystérieux et insole (pp 255-6)
The next day, the 18th of March, Dr. Paul, the medical examiner, delivered the results of his practical autopsy of the cadaver. The report, in glacial prose, excluded the hypothesis of suicide, which was equivocal. The examiner's conclusions were formal: It was medically in-con-cie-va-ble. The report was without doubt on the subject: "Death was due to a knife blow given with extreme violence, which, striking to the right of the nape, transected the carotid and jugular, and damaged the spinal cord. The slice followed one direction from high to low, from right to left, and from back to front, and indicates that when Mme Tourneaux was struck, her head was turned to the left. The sharpness of the wound proves that there was no fight." 
The most interesting part to me, frankly, is that I've never heard of this before. I read about creepy unsolved crime things all the time and this my first encounter with the name. From what I can see of the Preface to Murder In The Métro, which is part of the Google Books preview, the authors are bound and determined to tell an exciting story. The last time I saw someone recount such dramatic resistance to their pawing through countless boxes of moldy government paperwork was in Holy Blood, Holy Grail, so you'll forgive me if I take some of their conspiracy theory cum grano salis.

Sources:
http://ww2.odu.edu/ao/instadv/quest/MetroMurder.html
http://listverse.com/2014/03/28/10-completely-mysterious-deaths-well-probably-never-solve/
http://www.pariszigzag.fr/histoire-insolite-paris/le-meurtre-de-la-porte-de-charenton
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/La_Cagoule

Brunelle, Gayle K & Finley-Croswhite, Anne. Murder in the Métro: Laetitia Toureaux and the Cagoule in 1930s France. LSU Press, 2010
Lesbros, Dominique. Paris mysterieux et insolite. Editions de Borée, 2005.

Thursday, April 30, 2015

The beginning of cherry blossom season in Boston. Many varieties of cherry have flowers that conveniently color-coordinate with common allergy medications.

(Not pictured: Sunshine.)

It took me an embarrassingly long time to connect the dots in re: cherry trees. I was aware that cherry wood was a popular option for New England furniture, and that American cherry trees did in fact produce the fruit that you eat. But being as the Japanese make a very big deal of sakura petals and New Englanders don't, I was unaware that all varieties of cherry bloom copiously in early spring, even the North American ones, until I got up one morning a few years ago and noticed that it had snowed flowers while I wasn't looking. The drifts accumulate through early-mid May. Cherry trees must grow well out here and need little maintenance, as they seem to be the default choice for things like road medians and sidewalk planters.

Weeping willows also bloom during 'mud season', as the locals refer to it. The flowers are yellowish-green and run all the way through the strands of 'hair' that dip down to the ground. They don't seem to smell particularly good, as the cherry blossoms do, and I am at least no more allergic to them than I am the sakuragi.

Yankees also do not make a big deal out of willow trees, so it hadn't even crossed my mind to wonder if they had those out here before I moved. I probably could have guessed; I know Wind In The Willows is English in origin, and pretty much anything that will grow in UK swampland will also grow here. Willows pop up with some regularity in Japanese artwork, where their sweeping limbs contrast to the sakura, which reaches straight out, and in archery, where willow wood is used traditionally to make arrows.

There are a few willows down by the River Charles, but there's a much larger stand of them next to the swan pond in the Boston Public Gardens. The swans are usually magnanimous and will let you sit under them, although the geese are complete assholes.

These photos are all from the Esplanade, which is the result of a large Victorian public works project that was commissioned by people who clearly did not have enough to do. If you go scare up an earlier map of Boston, that entire riverbank didn't exist; there was a lot of water, and then there was a giant dam with Boylston St on top of it, and then someone got the idea that they liked the Back Bay and there should be a lot more of it, so they leveled several hills and dumped the results right off shore. The Esplanade is a solid mile of landfill down the south bank of the Charles.

There are a lot of cherry trees there, Some of them were gifts from the Japanese government. Both the initial construction of the park (late Victorian) and the major expansion (1930s) took place during eras in which the Western world was fascinated with the Far East; I suspect this is not a coincidence. The stone bridges are -- I think -- original to the lagoon design, and about halfway between English and Japanese garden in style.

You are in fact allowed to swim in the lagoons, and in the Charles itself. I think there may be a temporary moratorium declared on that after heavy rains. (You can swim in the Mystic, too. It flows north of Somerville, and there's a similar, smaller, riverbank park that runs along it.) I personally wouldn't, but mostly because it's incredibly silty. It's not uncommon to see kids sitting on the edge of one of the docks, dangling their feet in the water, or people tossing tennis balls out into the shallows and letting their dogs paddle around.

I also see people fishing from time to time, although I don't know if anyone bothers to eat anything they catch at the city park. It does get a bit hazardous to fish or swim around late June; the lagoons get choked up with lily pads, and hopeful kayakers trying to avoid running into them.