Monday Musings: “What’s Next?” Well, How About Some Big News?

“When I ask ‘What’s Next?’ it means I’m ready to move on to other things. So, what’s next?” — Jed Barlet, THE WEST WING

Yeah, I will seek out almost any excuse to quote from The West Wing, it being my favorite television series of all time. But as it happens, this is a question that’s been on my mind for a while now. In the show, “What’s next?” was more than a change of topic or a jump to the next agenda item. It was also used to turn the page after a setback, to refocus the staff after a triumph, even to look for a new beginning after tragedy.

As is the case with so much that happens in the course of the show’s seven seasons, the quote has long had great significance for me, and this is especially true now.

I know better than to think I can “turn the page” or “move on” from the past year. And even if I could, I’m not certain I would. But I am ready to restart my life, to venture back out into the professional and personal world, to find a new routine that makes room for all the emotional complexity of the new reality my family and I face.

In some ways, I have already started this process. I finished a book a few weeks ago, one I started back in January. It was sort of a work-for-hire, tie-in book, but it was fun to write. The plotting and character work proved absorbing, and because I started it later than I intended, the deadline kept me focused, motivated, and, yes, just a little manic. If it seems like I am avoiding telling you anything specific about the book itself, that’s because I am. Sorry. For now, I can’t really talk about it. When I can, you will all be among the first to know.

I have also written a novella for a new shared-world anthology that will be released this summer by Zombies Need Brains. And, as some of you have seen, I am again accepting clients for my freelance editing business. At the end of this month, I will attend ConCarolinas, my first convention since DragonCon last September. Baby steps. But steps forward, which is the point.

Today, I can also share some news about What’s Next that I think will please a good many of you.

First a little background.

Many of you will have seen my blog post about the trip Nancy and I recently took to Italy. If you haven’t, you should check it out. For the photos, if nothing else. While we were in Venice, I fell in love with the city’s narrow lanes, ancient bridges, and gorgeous architecture. It is, visually speaking, the loveliest city I’ve ever seen. And there are no cars — all travel within the city is by boat, by foot, or by bicycle. Walking the streets was like a journey back in time.

Street sign in Venice: "Rio Terra Dei Assassini"
Street sign in Venice: “Rio Terra Dei Assassini,” which means, basically, “Street-That-Used-To-Be-A-Canal Of The Murderers.”

We took tours of the Doge’s Palace and Saint Mark’s Basilica (both were spectacular), and one of our tour guides mentioned that while Venice is a very safe city today, once upon a time it was anything but. And as proof of this, she said, we should pay attention to some of the street names. “Street of the Dead,” “Lane of the Murderers,” “Street of the Head” (that’s not a typo), and more.

And, of course, this set my writer brain in motion. One thing led to another, and I can tell you now that I am beginning work on a new Thieftaker universe series set in 18th century Venice. I don’t know yet if it will be a spin-off or will feature Ethan throughout. I don’t even know how I am going to get Ethan to Venice, though I have some ideas about that. But I have already commenced my research for the books and I am totally jazzed. One publisher has already expressed interest in seeing a series proposal, so that’s good as well.

Thieftaker, by D.B. Jackson (Jacket art by Chris McGrath)What about the rest of my life? What’s next in other realms?

Well, we’re about to start doing some work on the house — I won’t say it’s overdue, but it comes at a good time. We have more travel planned for later in the year and several weddings to attend this summer and fall. We’ll see Erin. We’ll see other family and many friends. I’ll be at DragonCon late this summer. And we’ll continue to heal, even as we also look for ways to honor Alex’s memory and celebrate her life.

I look forward to crossing paths with many of you in the months to come. We have some catching up to do.

Have a great week.

Monday Musings: For One Night, Magic and Light Beat Out Doom and Gloom

Forty-one years ago, after an emotionally difficult sophomore year in college, I took a job as a camp counselor at a sleep away camp in rural Pennsylvania. I didn’t want to go home, and I didn’t want to stay in Providence, and I thought a summer of working and living and playing with kids would be good for me. It was, mostly. But that’s not what this post is about.

All the counselors at the camp had two essential duties. First, they were bunk counselors, living with and taking care of kids in a given age group. I was assigned to a bunk of twelve-year-old boys, who, I learned, straddle the line between “kid” and “teen,” ping-ponging from angelic to demonic and back again with breathtaking agility. And second, counselors had a specialty that they taught throughout the summer. I was an avid birdwatcher and nature enthusiast even then, so I was the nature counselor. As it happens, my fellow bunk counselor and I were both named David. He had been at the camp for several years, so he was “Old Dave” and I was “New Dave.” And my colleague in the outdoor program was also named David, so he and I were “Camping Dave” and “Nature Dave.” (It didn’t seem to bother anyone — well, except me — that I didn’t like being called “Dave” then any more than I do now.)

Near the end of the summer, Camping Dave and I organized a sleep-out for any kid or counselor who cared to join us, so that we could watch the peak of the annual Perseid meteor shower. Our plan was to have the kids sleep out on the huge soccer/baseball field, cook s’mores, watch shooting stars, and stay up past their usual bedtimes. Sounds great, right?

Except things didn’t go according to plan.

They went far, far better than we hoped.

Because that night there was a northern lights display that lit up the night sky up and down the eastern part of the United States. My brother was camping in Vermont that same night, and he saw it too. The kids thought it was very cool, though I don’t think they understood how special it was to see what they were seeing. A few were disappointed that the weird, curtains of light in the sky made it impossible to see shooting stars.

Dave and I, and the other counselors who were with us, were thrilled. Most of us had never seen the northern lights before. The glow in the sky was mostly green that night, at least it appeared so from where we were, and it danced and flickered and shimmered for hours before fading well after midnight. To this day, my memories of that night remain vivid and joyful. Before this past Friday night, it was the only time in my life when I saw the aurora borealis.

Aurora Borealis, May 10, 2024, photo by David B. Coe
Aurora Borealis, May 10, 2024, photo by David B. Coe

Friday night, found me in Tennessee rather than Pennsylvania, and yet, in a testament to the power of this year’s solar event, Friday’s display was every bit as spectacular as that first one so many years ago. And yet . . . .

We got our first hint of the possibility of unusually widespread aurora sightings a couple of weeks ago. Astronomers reported an increase in solar flare activity that they thought would soon peak at historic levels. On Friday itself, when the first of the huge flares occurred, scientists again noted that this could mean unusual aurora occurrences.

But those predictions were buried in news reports of quite a different nature. Most of the news outlets neglected to focus on what turned out to be a wondrously beautiful event that linked people all over the globe. Instead, most articles warned of what the sunspot activity and solar wind might do to communications satellites, electric grids, internet providers, and other parts of the electronic infrastructure on which we depend. And hey, I get it. Media outlets and the governmental and scientific institutions to which they turn for information when stuff like this happens don’t want to be caught off guard. They don’t want to be blamed for the dislocations caused by foreseeable problems. So they emphasize the expected bad news and downplay anything that might detract attention from those dire potential consequences.

As it happens, though, the few disruptions caused by Friday’s solar flares turned out to be minor. The real story turned out to be the phenomenal views of auroras enjoyed by people around the world in areas for which such sightings are usually quite rare.

Look, no one who knows me would ever confuse me for a Pollyanna. I am a lifelong pessimist. I am Mister Doom-and-Gloom. I am Eeyore. But Friday night was amazing, a night I will remember for the rest of my life. And I wonder how many people missed their chance to experience it because news of what was going to occur wound up buried in stories about terrible troubles that never materialized. Probably a lot. Which is too bad. Because the collective joy shared, across continents and oceans, by strangers who were fortunate enough to see the auroras, both borealis and australis, was an inspiring, albeit temporary antidote to the doom and gloom that confronts us on a daily basis.

I hope you were among the fortunate who saw the display.

Have a great week.

Wednesday Fun!: Our Trip to Italy in Words and Photos

The Forum in Rome. Photo by David B. Coe
The Forum in Rome. Photo by David B. Coe

Nancy and I are recently back from three and a half weeks in Italy, a marvelous trip that took us to Rome, Venice, Lucca (in north Tuscany), San Quirico d’Orcia (in south Tuscany), Florence, Orvieto (in Umbria), and finally back to Rome for a couple of nights before our flight back to the States. It sounds like a whirlwind, but really it wasn’t. We had plenty of time in most places (a person could spend six weeks each in Florence and Rome, and still not see everything . . .), and did a good deal of our in-country traveling by train, which reduced the stress of getting around considerably. (The one exception was Tuscany, where we rented a car for six days, enabling us to visit several small, mountaintop medieval cities that aren’t served by the train system.)

Rome, looking toward St. Peter's Basilica. Photo by David B. Coe
Rome, looking toward St. Peter’s Basilica. Photo by David B. Coe
Piazza di San Marco and St. Mark's Basilica, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Piazza di San Marco and St. Mark’s Basilica, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe

Faced now with the prospect of summarizing our trip for this post, I am a bit overwhelmed. We saw and did so much. Much of it falls into one of three or four categories — we walked A LOT; we ate A LOT and drank a bit as well; we saw many of the Sights That One Sees In Italy; and we hung out with friends in Florence, where two couples we know and love were on extended work-related stays.

The Grand Canal, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
The Grand Canal, Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Venice. Photo by David B. Coe
Venice. Photo by David B. Coe

No matter where Nancy and I go on any trip, we wind up walking long distances. We feel that the best way to get to know a place is to explore it on foot, and as it happens, many of Italy’s cities lend themselves to this sort of exploration. Sometimes we walked with destinations in mind. Our first two days, when we were in Italy and still struggling with a little jet lag, we walked from our accommodations to the Colosseum and to Vatican city. After visiting those sights, we walked some more, looking for places to eat, stopping in at interesting shops or at yet another gorgeous cathedral from the 1400s. When we moved to Venice, we walked even more. What a gorgeous city! Every turn, every new lane or alley leads to another canal, another beautiful foot bridge, another view of a gondola or some other boat. It is a playground for light and shadow, for color and reflection, and for any who fancy themselves photographers.

Apennine Mountains above Lucca. Photo by David B. Coe
Apennine Mountains above Lucca. Photo by David B. Coe
The view from Pienza. Photo by David B. Coe
The view from Pienza. Photo by David B. Coe

While we were in Lucca, we found a hike that took us high into the Central Apennine Mountains. It was, in a word, spectacular. We had a perfect day — clear, breezy, cool — and were afforded incredible mountain vistas and equally beautiful views down toward ancient Tuscan mountain villages. The trail itself was a little rough, but still, it was a memorable morning. Tuscany in general was amazing. We stopped in San Gimignano, Montepulciano, Siena, Pienza, and Montalcino, where we enjoyed a fabulous wine-tasting and lunch at the Poggio Rubino Winery. Each of these cities was breathtaking and steeped in history. If we go back to Italy at some point, I think I could spend another week in Tuscany and never grow tired of the landscape, the food, the wine, the people. We had a similar experience in Orvieto, in the neighboring region of Umbria. Also stunningly beautiful, also rich in history, cuisine, and winemaking.

Orvieto, Umbria. Photo by David B. Coe
Orvieto, Umbria. Photo by David B. Coe

Florence as a city offers a compromise of sorts between Venice and Rome. Venice, as I said, is visually captivating. But there is an emptiness to it beyond the beauty and the tourist culture, which is ubiquitous. It felt at times as if, without the shops and restaurants and tourism industry, the city would simply cease to exist. Rome, on the other hand, is so huge as to be overwhelming. There is a tourist core to the city — in the old sections around the Roman ruins and various museums and duomos. But there is also Vatican City. There is a vast, thriving fashion industry. And there is as well a bustling urban center, with business and industry, contemporary culture, and everything else one might expect a world capitol to have.

Florence skyline and Duomo from Boboli Gardens. Photo by David B. Coe
Florence skyline and Duomo from Boboli Gardens. Photo by David B. Coe

Florence is, in many ways, as beautiful as Venice and as historically and culturally rich as Rome. But it offers more than Venice on a scale that is more welcoming than Rome. And for us it was doubly special, because of the friends we had there. These were two couples from utterly disparate parts of our lives. But they both happened to be there at the same time, and, it turns out, they got along really well. So much fun!! We had companions for so many of our meals, several of our sightseeing ventures, and even a couple of shopping sprees. While in Florence, Nancy and I also took a cooking class, which was great. We learned a ton and made by hand, without any sort of machine, our own pasta, which we then ate with sauces prepared as we watched by a master chef.

Interior of the Duomo di Siena. Photo by David B. Coe
Interior of the Duomo di Siena. Photo by David B. Coe

As I said earlier, it’s so difficult to do justice to a trip of this length in a single post. But I have tried. I would offer a few other quick tidbits. We saw many, many duomos, cathedrals, county churches, etc. We saw Saint Peter’s Basilica and the Sistine Chapel. But I think our favorite was the Duomo di Siena, the interior of which was mind-blowing. One of the best things we did was attend a glass-blowing demonstration at the Murano Glass Factory in Venice. Extremely cool. We had so many terrific meals and tried so many new foods. My personal favorite was the pappardelle al ragù di cinghiale that I had several times in Tuscany. This is a broad ribbon of fresh pasta with a sauce made with wild boar — a traditional Tuscan recipe. Incredible. We also discovered the joys of Campari, Aperol, and other Amaro liqueurs. Campari, which is sweet at first with a strongly bitter finish, is the chief ingredient in a Negroni (equal parts gin, Campari, and sweet vermouth). Aperol is sweeter and less bitter, and is best known as the chief ingredient in an Aperol Spritz (Aperol and Prosecco). We drank a lot of both. And we fell in love with Brunello wines — delicious reds that are deeper and smoother in flavor than any wine I’d ever had before.

Nancy enjoying an Aperol Spritz.
Nancy enjoying an Aperol Spritz.
Me and my Negroni, my Negroni and me....
Me and my Negroni, my Negroni and me….

Hope you enjoy the photos!

Monday Blues: The Hardest Birthday

Yes, another post about our daughter and our loss. A part of me shies from this, wonders if I have written about her too much. “Write something upbeat,” I tell myself. “Something funny, something — anything — that isn’t about grief.” But we are grieving. Still. It’s been six months since we lost Alex. A bit more, actually. It seems like so long. It seems like nothing. And that is what my therapist tells me — that really six months is nothing. We remain at the very outset of a long journey, one that will be part of our daily existence for the rest of our lives.

So, yes, another post about our daughter.

As it happens, we are, generally, doing pretty well. We recently returned from three weeks in Italy (photos to come later this week), where we had an incredible time walking, learning, eating and drinking, seeing friends, and managing to live in the moment. We have more travel coming later this year. We have family and friends to see, weddings to attend, things to anticipate and enjoy. We have work to do, which also remains a balm.

But today, none of that matters.

Today, Alex would have — should have — turned 29 years old.

Today, I am shattered glass. Today, I am leaden skies and unrelenting rain. Today, I am a father bereft.

Tomorrow will be better. I know that. Next year will be a little easier. And the year after that more so. Today is the hardest day.

I understand all of this. But none of it makes this day any easier. As you read this, I will be off doing . . . something. Birdwatching, perhaps. Playing with my camera. Walking. Later, maybe, I will play some music. Mostly, I will be thinking of my darling girl.

I have nothing more to say, I’m afraid. I have no wisdom to offer. No deep words or insights. Today is a day to be endured, to be gotten through. I am simply doing the best I can.

Be kind to one another. Tell the people you love how you feel about them.