Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Weeping for New Orleans

If you can help the people devastated by Hurricane Katrina, please do so by clicking here.

Last Spring my friend Kevin and I were in the pool swimming lazy laps and discussing the world. “I’ll tell you something,” he said, “before this summer is over we are going to lose a major American city.”

At the time we thought we were talking about terrorism but today, as I watched the videos on the CNN website of the water rising through beautiful New Orleans, his words echoed in my brain. Who would have thought this possible? And yet, what city in all this country, has always been more fragile? I don’t have a television and, at times like this I am glad that I do not. Because today I would have been glued to it. Watching the videos on CNN’s web site were bad enough. Those poor people. Those poor, poor people.

Yet, when you look at the aerial footage - on one side vast Lake Ponchatrain, on the other the torrid Gulf of Mexico, and along the length of the city, the Mississippi River - it is a wonder it ever existed at all. Isn’t it always the way that those things most fragile and vulnerable are somehow always most beautiful?

I’ve never spent any length of time in New Orleans but made enough weekend trips there when I lived in Texas to have a deep fondness for it. There was a mystique about New Orleans that always tantalized. I spent time exploring the densely hot and strange Cities of the Dead crowded with marble and sheltered by plantain leaves so thick it could be dark as late evening in the middle of the day. My story Asa came from one of those places.

Once my Mother went with me to New Orleans. We stayed in the French Quarter and she carried a guide book with her everywhere we walked and read paragraphs to me about the houses we passed. “Do you know who lived here?” she would exclaim stopping dead in the middle of the street and staring up at the black wrought iron balconies dripping with bougainvillaea. We had an adventure there, my mother and I.

We were sitting in the courtyard of a café drinking iced tea and writing out postcards to send home to Pennsylvania. There was a jazz band playing nearby, kids break-dancing in the street, and, across the street, Christmas carols jingled from the doorway of a year round Christmas store. Two men were sitting at the table next to ours and asked if they could join us. They were visiting from Germany and were very friendly. Very friendly - very, very friendly. My Mother, who never met a stranger, was a little overwhelmed by their generous offer to spend some time with us - perhaps have dinner and go to a jazz club, make an evening of it. I, being more experienced in these matters and less friendly, strong armed her away from the table and across the street to the Christmas shop on some dumb pretext. She was absolutely dumbfounded when I informed her that they were trying to pick us up.

“Oh, I don’t believe that!” she huffed and then, considering it, she added, “do you really think so? Oh, I can’t wait to tell your father.”

I bought a pink ceramic Mardi Gras mask with a unicorn horn in a gris-gris shop and a bunch of candles in tall glass votives painted with the images of saints I’d never heard of. My mother talked about our adventure for the rest of out trip.

On other visits I attended performances at Preservation Hall and shared a candle-lit dinner at Brennan’s with an Australian photographer named Nigel there. I never went much farther than the French Quarter but why would you?

In the earthy rituals of some ancient cultures there was a practice called Days Out of Time. The people believed that those days - used for feasting and revelry of every sort - were days that were off the calendar, that what happened on those days didn’t count, and any child conceived at that time was a child of the Gods with no mortal father. I always felt that my trips to New Orleans were like that.

Hemingway said of Paris in the Twenties that it was a Moveable Feast and that if you were lucky enough to have been there then, it would always be a part of you. New Orleans will re-build. It will be beautiful again. But there will always be two New Orleanses - before Katrina and after. No one knows what the future holds but New Orleans before Katrina was a Place Out of Time and if you were lucky enough to have known it then, it will always be a part of you.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Writing, Re-writing, Re-re-writing, etc.

Yesterday first thing in the morning Mark said, “The book is finished. I can’t work on it anymore, everybody likes it. It goes the way it is.” He was grouchy because it is very humid and, despite living in Louisiana for several years, he has no tolerance for humidity.

Last night he packed up his manuscript and several edit copies and paper and pens, got in his truck, and headed out to one of his secret writing places to keep working on the book. For someone who only started writing a couple years ago, he is a typical writer.

I know writers who say they prefer re-writing to writing the original draft. “This is where the fun comes in,” my friend Susan says. “When you write the first time, you slog through without a compass. But when you re-write you get to really have fun with your story and your characters. You get to shape them.” I admire her perspective but I’m one of those who has the most fun the first time around.

The thing about writing - at least fiction writing - is that you get to create entire worlds and there is something very thrilling in that. Slowly, as your characters take form, and their worlds become more real, it becomes so easy to slip into those places and live there and create all sorts of wonders and mischief and experiences there. Of course this is also how characters can get unruly and take off on their on directions but that’s part of the fun, too.

For me re-writing is tedious and painful. If I like my characters I don’t want to mess with them. If I don’t like them, I don’t want to be around them. Yet I re-write and re-write and re-write. I want these worlds I make to come alive to the reader, too, and am rarely satisfied without endless rewrite. My friend Jane says, “If I picked up one of your stories in China, I’d still know it was yours - you are a very visual writer.”

Mark writes non-fiction - mostly - though his tangents into dreams and fantasies are frequently fictitious and he he does a good job with them. He’s a natural born story-teller - that’s something you can’t just teach someone. I tell him he is at his best when he is writing about his life at sea. When he lets himself slip into those long days and nights on the ocean when his mind had nothing to do but wander as his hands and muscles and body did the practiced work of hauling and setting back lobster traps, he is at his finest. He is the sort of person who notices everything - the flight of birds, the movement of clouds, the patterns of the waves, and his brain compares and analyzes. He has to figure out why that works the way it does. It makes for good reading when he writes it down.

To me there is something so fascinating in the human need to record our perceptions and experiences. Whether it is writers writing or artists painting or photographers shooting picture after picture we long to capture something and preserve it. That’s very beautiful, I think. It means we value our experiences and find meaning there. We want others to share in that. It is inherent in human nature, I think. When children get that first taste of independence, toddling away from Mommy on chubby, sturdy legs, they gather up something - a shell, a rock, a dandelion - and bring it back. Here, I saw this and I want to share it with you.

And as we mature in our craft we want to make the sharing an experience that those we share with will enjoy. So we write and then rewrite and then rewrite again. I have to get to work on my short story The Haven now. This first re-write is going slow. I keep finding reasons to avoid it. Mark says he would rather be working on his new book but he can’t quite get finished with the first one yet. One more edit/rewrite - that’s all, just one more. And then it’s done.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 29, 2005

Marking Time

This weekend was a sweet time. It often gets like this in late summer when we suddenly realize that time is passing - swiftly - and the precious balm of summer afternoons are soon to be gone for another year.

This has been a beautiful summer - warm afternoons but not too warm. Lots of time to spend on porches with friends talking. Time to sit in the sun and read or knit or dream. I haven’t taken advantage of it as I should have.

What I haven’t done is write enough. Work has been plentiful which is good but I haven’t made time to spend at the page and that is disappointing to me. My priorities need readjustment - again. You get to this point in life where you realize that time might be eternal but your own time is finite and what you do with it is important. I saw Domenic DeStefano in the parking lot of the art association yesterday. He was walking around looking for something to paint. We talked for awhile and he said he has painted more this summer than in a long time. “I’m 82 now,” he said. “I wonder how many more of these painting summers I am going to get.

Eighty-two? I would have guessed 10 years younger. That’s one thing about painters - they always seem years younger than they are. Theresa Bernstein died at 107. I think those who are fortunate enough to have a passion and wise enough to indulge it shamelessly are the best at using time. I need to follow their example.

My father was a carpenter. His shop was a place of total wonderment to me. He spent many many hours there - evenings and weekends. Mostly he worked, sometimes he sat at a dust desk and read blueprints and trade books or drew plans. He had an interesting way of marking time, too. He nailed things to the support beams - calendars from feed stores, articles from magazines, pictures drawn by children, holy cards of various saints, articles from the newspaper. And he wrote on the furnace. Everyone loved the way he wrote on the furnace.

“June 17, 196_ - 26 degrees, built a fire”, “September 6, 195_ - got a new Beagle, named Rowdy” - all my Dad’s dogs were named Rowdy. Maybe in a way making this blog is like Dad writing on the furnace. It gives me a reason to sit and think about my days and acknowledge their passing and what distinguishes one from the next.

So I have to make more time for writing. The blog is good. It gets me started but it is just a beginning. I am starting a new experiment. In the morning when I get up and come to the computer to blog I will post the blog but then - leave the internet! It’s a time waster. Leave the message boards where the same predictable people have the same predictable arguments over the same predictable subjects - all of them ending the same predictable way. Let the email go until it is time to get to work and deal with it then. Don’t cruise around checking all the web sites I have decided are important - eBay will survive without me for awhile. Just log off and write. That’s all there is to it. Writing comes first.

Time speeds up at this time of year. It’s a strange phenomenon - the more beautiful the days and the more silky and fragrant the nights - the faster they slip by. It is time to be mindful. It is time to honor that by using it well. Write the day. Savor the moments. Write and knit and think and savor. And share - always share.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 26, 2005

The New Girl Order

One of the pluses to being “wounded” (my hand is still a mess) is that I read more when I can’t knit or write or sew. Last night I was reading the Bust Magazine Guide to the New Girl Order by Marcelle Karp and Debbie Stoller. It is an eye-opener.

I worry a lot about many younger women today - it seems that the feminism of our generation has won them a lot of legal freedoms but they have come at the cost of a lot of societal protections. Even though girls (if Bust can call them “girls” I can call them “girls”) take for granted sexual, professional, and social freedoms that my generation had to fight hard for, they don’t necessarily have the emotional security or the mental toughness to use them wisely. For some of them this freedom is a blessing - they use it well and wisely. But for a lot there is a kind of lostness to them. They feel the need to be sexually active before they are emotionally ready for it and they have not learned the skills to protect themselves because there was no one to teach them. Even most of my generation wasn’t quite sure how to manage certain freedoms once we achieved them.

That’s why reading this Bust Guide has me fascinated. For one thing, the two writers, who founded Bust Magazine, wrote under pen names, Betty Boop and Celina Hex, for much of the magazine’s existence. They were writing in very fresh and in-your-face ways about difficult but ubiquitous subjects - menstruation, sex, masturbation, sexual identity, being a girl in sexually confusing times. They also write about solo pregnancies, abortions, fear of boys, betrayal by girlfriends, buying and using sex toys, media idols and the struggle to find role models in a confusing world. This is eye-opening reading.

What I am surprised by - and surprised that I am surprised - is how much bigger and scarier their worlds are than the one I was raised in. If it didn’t happen in my neighborhood, chances are I didn’t know much about it. Even though my parents weren’t Ward and June, they were there and they expected a certain standard of behavior from us. Boys were fascinating and usually disappointing - but most of them were at least grudgingly well-behaved and respectful. Sex was for when you were grown-up and married - or at least grown-up.

These girls grew up under the constant influence of the media - they knew there was life beyond their direct experience and what went on it. Parenting patterns were incomprehensible to me - missing parents, travelling parents, partner switching parents, same-sex parents. Boys were to be acquired, pleased and to be let down by and sex was a constant. It boggles my mind and makes me wonder if my fellow girls all those years ago were as clueless as I was. But as much as we talked I think they might have mentioned it.

Still, I love how sassy and adaptable the girls writing in this book are. They have the attitude that, if they encounter a problem, somewhere there is an answer for it. I doubt they worry what the neighbors will think. Especially interesting to me is who they chose as role models - Madonna, of course, and Courtney Love. But surprises like Yoko Ono, and Japanese B-movie diva Tura Santana, and porn star Nina Hartley. They like women who kick butt.

I like this “new girl order” - or, as they call it, “chick manifesto”. These are not our-generation feminists, they are feminists-who-had-no-choice. They are cool and funny and occasionally confused but undaunted by that. Makes me wish I was a good deal younger.

Or not.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 25, 2005

Life in Gloucester, Part I

I swim nearly every day at a nearby health club which is part of a motel complex. Now, at the height of summer, there are people there from all over the country and, when I tell them I live here, they sigh and say, “What’s is like to live in Gloucester?”

Well, it’s great. That’s why I live here. When I moved here in 1987 - first to Salem, then to Marblehead, then here - I wanted to be as close to the sea as possible. I didn’t understand what motivated me, I just knew I had to do it. I grew up in Pennsylvania’s hill country but I have always loved seasides best. That does not make me unique - many people say that. Most of them don’t understand it either.

But of all the places I’ve been, Gloucester has the most unique character. Because it is still, despite heavy government regulation. An active seaport with a considerable fishing population, there is that earthy, working class side of the town that is dwindling in the seaside communities that have become too precious with their adorable shops, gaudy mansions and “private” beaches. Great piles of lobster traps line the harbor when the lobstering is poor and there are still many working boats among the sailboats and recreational boats that fill the harbor.

However the economics of a town like Gloucester are problematic. Last year we lost our Ames store and nothing has surfaced to fill the gap. Everyone had dreams about a Wal-Mart but those of us with backgrounds in business knew that wasn’t going to happen. When a company like Wal-Mart does a feasability study, they count on the population of the surrounding area to support the business. Since Gloucester is at the tip of a peninsula - an island technically speaking - over 200 degrees of the “surrounding area” is blue and wet and populated by finned creatures who don’t do much shopping.

Gloucester has traditionally had two industries - fishing and art. Artists came here because of the quality of the light and the beauty of a working harbor. Now it may be the artists that provide the future of this town. For a couple years now I’ve been involved with a group called SEArts (Society for the Encouragement of the Arts) and people are beginning to get it that the Arts bring people into Gloucester and get them to spend money.

Cultural tourism has become very popular in recent years. People from inland areas are spending more and more time and money visiting places where history and the arts provide a view into a life they have little experience of. SEArts is working to make Gloucester such a destination.

I love Gloucester. I call it my “hometown of choice”. And I want to see it retain its unique character as much as possible. Summer is winding down now and autumn brings leaf-peepers but once winter settles in Gloucester goes back to being Gloucester - with fishing boats coming and going and fishermen sitting in coffee shops bitching about the terrible fishing. Only the year-round artists remain and the line the harbor bundled in polar fleece painting snow piled on boats from the backs of their battered old SUVs. I think of artists Joe Rimini now who painted from inside his station wagon for years. He had a makeshift easel set up in the passenger seat and could be found parked all over the island on freezing days painting inside his car. I saw him one day pulled over on Nautilus Road just staring out at Salt Island and the Thacher Light Houses. “I sure am gonna miss it,” he said to me as I walked up beside him.

“Where are you going, Joe?” I asked. “Well,” he said, “I don’t suppose God is going to let me stay here forever!”

Joe’s gone now - but somehow I suspect he really isn’t.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Wounded!

This happens periodically and always at a most inconvenient time. I am having another flare-up of tendinitis in my right hand which makes life awkward, work painful, and knitting impossible. Over the years I’ve tried everything that was either recommended or that I thought would help but it boils down to one simple truth that I found on a tendinitis web site - when you get it, you are in for three weeks of pain. Period.

So this started on Saturday which means I have two and a half more weeks to go. I use an MSM spray, Blue Emu oil, a brace, and Advil but those are only temporary. Otherwise it just plain hurts.

The interesting thing is, however, that it forces me to live life a little differently than normal and we all can use an occasional shake up. Last night, instead of working or knitting or some other project involving my hands, I drove down to Marblehead which I don’t do often enough.

I lived in Marblehead for seven years. It is a pretty town with tiny, curious neighborhoods tucked in odd places. I still have friends there I do not see often enough and getting a chance to visit and catch up is a joy. I had a lovely evening and the added bonus of stopping at Trader Joe’s on the way home.

Sometimes I think about the different places I have lived in my life and what I left when I moved on. Of course, when you are about to move, you are just thinking about the adventure ahead and not what is being left behind. A few years back I went back to Sangerville, Maine for a wedding and was reminded - quite pointedly - that life goes on even when you have chosen a different path.

When I spent time in Sangerville, it was with my friend Michael and his daughter Ashleigh - in fact, it was her wedding that I went back for. Michael comes from a family like mine - large, close, amusingly dysfunctional, with lots of generations and lots of personalities. I really loved them and, when I went back to visit after several years away, was reminded that here, in this place, a couple hundred miles and several years removed, was a whole bunch of people who cared about me and were happy to have me back among them.

That’s a very special thing. It’s so easy to move on in life and not really look back. To forget that there are people you share a history with and who miss your presence in their lives. Last night when I stopped at my friend’s house in Marblehead she hugged me and we sat in her pretty, warm, familiar kitchen and talked over tea. “Do you still take milk and no sugar?” she asked. I was surprised she remembered.

When I lived in Marblehead, I was sitting a house that overlooked the ocean. From my bedroom window I could see three real lighthouses and one fake lighthouse (supposedly a lookout for Nazi submarines in World War II - I don’t know). As I lay in bed at night, the light from the Baker’s Island Lighthouse would sweep across my walls. I always left the drapes open so it would be there in the room with me all night long. Last night, sitting in my friend’s kitchen, I watched the familiar sweep of that light across her walls, too. I hadn’t noticed it when I lived near her but the same familiar pattern and timing, unchanged by the intervening years, went on. We had a good visit and I returned to Gloucester remembering that I am lucky.

Baker’s Island Light sweeps the coast night and day. My hand will heal. There are people I love and who love me. I will knit again soon. In the meantime there is much to rediscover.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

“Bless me, Father...”

For the last several days I have been involved in yet another pointless discussion about the Catholic Church and the clergy sex scandal that always comes as a result of such discussions. I am genuinely tired of it. My point is simple (I think) - bad things happened and that should never have been allowed. Terrible mistakes were made at a time when much of America couldn’t even bring itself to admit that such a thing as pedophilia exists. My bottomline is prosecute sex offenders to the fullest extent of the law. Don’t wait for someone else to do it. Don’t wait for some old guys in another country to do it. Prosecute here and now.

But do NOT paint all clergy with the same brush. Someone in the discussion said, “Now, every time I see a priest I am suspicious.” That is past stupid. By that line of thinking, since the largest numbers of sexually abused children are abused in their own homes, wouldn’t it be more logical to say, “Now, every time I see a parent I am suspicious”? Things like this make me crazy.

In the midst of all this discussion I happened to read the online version of my hometown newspaper with an article about the 50th anniversary of the parish I grew up in and the following photograph:
Front row: Fr. Leon Hont, OSB; Fr. Flavian Yelinko, OSB; Fr. John-Mary Tompkins, OSB; Fr. Daniel Wolfel, OSB; Fr. Jeremy Bolha, OSB; Fr. Noel Rothrauff, OSB. Back row: Fr. Kurt Belsole, OSB: Fr. Meinrad Lawson, OSB; Fr. John Kuzilla; Fr. Eric Vogt, OSB: Fr. Matthew Laffey, OSB: and Fr. Chrysostom Schlimm, OSB.

What wonderful memories it brought back! So many of the priests pictured above were much a part of my young life - all the memories are happy ones and I am glad to have had this reminder. The biggest surprise was seeing Fr. Flavian again. He was our pastor when I was confirmed. Fr. Flavian loved my Dad and liked to come and hang out in Dad’s workshop where Dad worked on cabinets while guys from the neighborhood sat around and talked in the evenings. I think in his heart Fr. Flavian longed to be a carpenter (a respected tradition among Catholics) so spending time with a carpenter pleased him. He was a funny, warm, charming man.

Also in the photo are Fr. Daniel, who is my cousin and who presided at my sister’s wedding, and Fr. Kurt. I have childhood memories of both of them before they were priests and were just fellow kids - Fr. Kurt especially. Back then his name was “Jimmy” and he and his brothers and one sister lived out in the country and had a barn, which I thought was a wonderful thing, and horses. On summer Sundays my Mother would pack hampers full of food and we would spend the day with their family picnicing in their back yard and riding horses. The house and barn Fr. Kurt grew up in is much the model for the setting of Treat Yourself to the Best, the short story I still need to rewrite for my collection.

I was very happy to see Fr. Meinrad and Fr. Noel in the photo. Fr. Meinrad was from a later era, when I was first out of college and teaching Sunday School at Queen of the World. Fr. Meinrad was a young priest then and we all thought him very cool. He had a beard and wore sandals and, during that late hippie-era, of the Seventies, was a little shocking in our part of the world. But most of all I loved seeing Fr. Noel again. As a kid I thought him terribly handsome. He was quite tall and dark with a quiet serenity that made silly junior high age girls giddy with fanciful ideas. I remember sitting in church with my friends Patty and Marcia and Sue waiting to go to Confession and hoping we would not have to go to Fr. Noel because we were sure we would absolutely die if we had to tell him our “sins” - terrible things like talking back to our mothers and thinking “impure” thoughts (whatever they were).

My memories of Fr. Noel and his aura of otherworldliness have stayed with me all these years and he was often in my mind when I was creating Father Peter Black in my novel-in-progress, Triad.

It is another of those great cosmic mysteries that this photo should turn up at this time in my life. The Lord moves in mysterious ways...

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 22, 2005

Women and the Sea

The West End Theater in Gloucester’s historic Blackburn Tavern building is turning into quite an appealing endeavor. I’ve attended half a dozen performances there over the last couple years and have consistently been impressed. Friday night’s Women and the Sea was as fine a performance as you could ask for anywhere.

The play, written by Shelly Berc and Anita Stewart, is constructed entirely of actual quotes from women in the Portland, Maine area who Berc and Stewart interviewed between 2000 and 2002. Told in sixteen different voices enacted by six very accomplished actresses, the play was far more engaging than I had expected - partly due to the gifts of the actresses and the clever staging but more so because of the stories themselves.

Throughout the narrative we meet fishermen and the wives of fishermen, wharf workers and fish packers, clam diggers and a 100 year old lighthouse keeper, the captain of a ferry boat, an aquaculturist, and well-known swordboat Captain Linda Greenlaw. All relating their experiences - warm, funny, crude, and heartbreaking. I just loved every minute of it.

Since long before I moved to Gloucester I’ve been intrigued by people who live their lives at sea. When I was in college I worked in a diner where a lot of seamen came to eat during brief periods of shore leave. I loved talking to them for many reasons not the least of which was that so many of them just were happy to have someone female to talk to for a little while. They were well tired of the company of men. During that time one of my friends lost a brother who was working on a barge on Lake Erie. It was caught in a “muzzler” - the sudden fierce ice storms that the Great Lakes are famous for - and half the crew was swept overboard.

Later my nephew Mark told me a harrowing story about the time he and my brother Jack were caught in a similar storm on Lake Erie. Hearing the story from this boy I have known all his life made the reality of it far more immediate than any story I had heard before. I had heard of storms that came up so fast there was no time to prepare but always found that hard to fathom until Mark told me his story.

I well remember the so-called Perfect Storm. I was house-sitting a house on the ocean in Marblehead and stopped on my way home from work to see my friend Judy. It was Halloween and she said there wouldn’t be any trick-or-treating that night. She said I should go home and “batten down the hatches”. By the time I got there the waves were crashing half way up the lawn and when I went out onto the porch to bring some chairs in the wind was so violent it sucked my breath away and I had to work keeping my back to the wind and my head tucked into my shoulder to finish what I needed to do. I’d been through a few hurricanes in Texas and decided to ride it out in the house. During the night the house shook so badly the water sloshed out of toilets and I had to mop floors.

The next morning when I came downstairs everything was quiet and dark - the windows were so plastered with leaves I couldn’t see outside and when I opened the door to the deck over the ocean I couldn’t believe my eyes. The pier was gone. The yard was completely covered in jumbles of lobster traps, gear, ropes, and assorted junk. A 35 foot cabin cruiser lay on its side on the beach. It looked like a bomb had gone off.

Later that afternoon my friend Trudi and drove up to Gloucester to see how they had fared. We were sitting in a restaurant listening to men tell stories of storms they had weathered. While we listened a young guy came in and pulled up a bar stool.

“Did you hear?” he asked.

What?

“The Andrea Gail is missing.” The room became very quiet.

So that is my contribution to the on-going stories of Women and the Sea.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 19, 2005

Salt Water Breezes

I was lazy this morning. We are more than half way through August and I have a hard time getting out of bed when the curtains are billowing on breezes rich with the fragrance of salt water. I just want to savor. I can’t believe it is Friday already and I have not had much time this week to just wallow in the gorgeousness of late summer warmth and beauty.

I can’t believe how early it is beginning to get dark. That is what I like least about this time of year - dark closing in when I am about ready to leave the house and go find a place to read or knit in the last of the day’s light. I have thought about changing my work schedule to winter hours so I can take a few hours off mid-afternoon to be outside but somehow, once I do that, I never want to come back in and get back to work.

This blogging business is a strange one. As soon as I wake up in the morning I think “what am I going to write about?” Last night I spent a couple hours looking at other blogs - mostly knitters but also general lifestyle blogs. I wonder what it is about this medium that compells us to want to document our lives and then put them out there to share.

I found one blog by an avid knitter who had been living in Paris (she was an American) but was now moving back to North America - this time to Canada. I was unabashedly jealous of her talk about browsing yarn shops throughout Paris but I realized reading it that, had she not kept that blog, I would never have known there was an American girl who lived and knitted in Paris and I like knowing that.

In her blog I found pictures of a shawl I want to make. It is called the Forest Path Stole and it is beautiful. I have to order the book with the instructions.

I got a big order from KnitPicks this week. Some of it I will keep, some is going back to be exchanged for other stuff. I love the idea of wool but, no matter how soft it is, it makes me too twitchy to touch. However, I got several balls of a cotton yarn from them called Shine and the color is breathtaking. It is called Sky and is the clearest, purest blue. I was experimenting with patterns last night and think I am going to make a long, shimmering scarf in the pattern called Frost Flowers. So I need more of that.

Among knitters and sewers there is an acronym - S.A.B.L.E. Stash Accumulated Beyond Life Expectancy. I am a well-qualified member. I don’t even apologize for it anymore. It makes me feel rich and luxurious to have all this vibrant, luscious yarn and fabric ready to be turned into something luscious. I still dream about the Renaissance Shawl - which I have the directions for.

So the air is cool and smells of the sea. I have work to do but have accomplished a lot this week so will feel okay about taking some time off to revel in the day. Tonight Leslie and I are going to the West End Theater to see “Women And The Sea” which my friend Gail is stage manager for. And it is a beautiful day. And the world is filled with promise.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. I found a picture of the Forest Path Stole in black on another blog - I ordered the pattern this afternoon.


Thursday, August 18, 2005

Story Time

Last night the art association had the third event in their lecture series. They called it “A Stroll Down Memory Lane” and, indeed, it was. Nancy Strisik, photographer and widow of the great painter Paul Strisik, brought slides of photos she had taken over the years of her life with Paul - photographs of fellow artists, many long gone now. What made the evening particularly wonderful was that other artists who have lived and painted here for decades came and, when a slide of a particular artist was shown, they stood and told stories about that person. It was wonderful.

Nancy is a beautiful photographer. Some of the images of those faces of people who loved art, and spent their lives making it, told stories on their own but when a face appeared on the screen and a fellow artists said, “oh, that’s so-and-so, I remember the time...” There is magic in that.

I don’t remember a time when I was not enchanted by stories. To me there is little in this world more delightful than listening as another person weaves a tale - whether true or imaginary. When I was little my father was my favorite storyteller. “Daddy, tell about your adventures in darkest Africa,” I would say. And he would spin a yarn. He was the one who started that. “Did I ever tell you about my adventures in darkest Africa?” he always said. And I would sit mesmerized as he took me on some thrilling journey into darkest Africa. I didn’t know where darkest Africa was, but I knew it must be wonderful.

I think I was in high school before I figured out that my father had, in fact, never been to darkest Africa and that most of his stories were suspiciously familiar to the plot lines of Tarzan movies. But what did that matter? I’d spent countless hours there in my imagination, thanks to his stories, and it was truly a wonderful place.

So last night the artists who were there shared stories from their lives as painters living and working with painters now gone. “That’s John Cicutti,” Nancy says and Charlie Movalli stands and tells about how he dealt with people trying to pay less than the asking price for a painting. “This is Jack Callahan” and Bruce Turner stands and tells a story. Bruce has a lot of stories - and people tell a lot of stories about Bruce, too. With every face that came on the screen more stories were told. Ron Straka and Nancy Alimansky and the Tutweilers whose legendary parties were the background for more than a few stories, all join in. Nancy has some gorgeous slides of Emile Gruppe and everyone has stories about him. I get to tell one of my favorite stories about Roger Curtis, one his son David told me.

Roger was a great marine painter, famous for his paintings of thundering oceans and crashing waves. He raised three sons who became painters as well - David, Alan and William. One time when all the sons were home from their various travels, they got the idea that it would be great for the four of them - father and sons - to go somewhere and paint together. They settles on a beautiful pond in a serene location and went there to paint for the day. The sons were having a wonderful time painting but Roger couldn’t settle down and find a subject - pacing around and offering advice on their work. Finally he had enough and exploded - “how can you stand this?” he yelled. He was used to the excitement of the ocean and pounding surf. A quiet pond held no appeal.

Domenic DiStefano was there too and he and I had a chance to talk before the program began. Domenic is the subject of one of my most recent and very best stories - a story I told to a reporter from the Gloucester Daily Times and it wound up in the paper. Domenic LOVED that.

On a Saturday morning a few weeks back, the great art teacher Charles Gruppe was teaching a class in the parking lot at the North Shore Arts Association. After his demonstration he walked around giving advice and tips to members of the class as they painted. He approached one man who was working on a watercolor and said, “Gee, you’re off to a good start.” The man thanked him and Charles commented on the strong lines in the painting. The man chuckled and introduced himself - it was Domenic, of course.

“Oh my goodness,” Charles said, “I have your book! It’s one of the best.” I was standing right behind them when this happened and snapped a photo as Domenic stood and tipped his hat to Charles.

I love telling that story.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Encounters with My Face

I wonder how many people there are in the world - women anyway - who like the way their face looks. Years ago I worked with a woman that I thought was too beautiful to be real - we were both in our twenties then. Now I think, who isn’t beautiful at 24? But one time in the ladies room I noticed Barb didn’t look in the mirror. I made some dumb comment about it and she said, “I can’t stand looking at that mess.” I was absolutely stunned. She was gorgeous! What mess?

When I was in art school we often took turns sitting for one another in portrait classes. I never liked doing that and was always very reluctant to look at the results. Once, when given the assignment to paint a self-portrait in oil, I chose a relatively small canvas and painted my face straight on, filling up the whole canvas. My teacher said it was a “defiant” painting but he liked the boldness of it.

Defiant and bold. Well, I guess it could have been a worse critique.

A couple weeks ago I was at a painting demonstration in the parking lot of the North Shore Arts Association. It was early on a Saturday, my hair was a wild mess as always, I wore no makeup (as usual), and was just wearing a plain white T-shirt. Another artist attending the demonstration took a picture of me. She said she liked my face and wanted to paint me. Oh no.

Some days later she emailed a photo of the painting she did. I wasn’t sure I wanted to look at it but she is a talented painter and a lovely person and I was sure her natural graciousness would come through in the work. When I opened the photo my first thought was “Oh God! She painted my mother!!!”

Last night I was out at the NSAA where the Exhibition III is being hung for the opening on Saturday. Kelly, the assistant gallery director, said, “You should go upstairs and see your portrait, it’s beautiful.” My knees went weak. “I’ll come back tomorrow,” I mumbled and made an excuse.

What is it about our own faces that is so frightening? Partly it is that we have this image of ourselves, I suppose, and partly it is just all the messages of the world. I’ve heard them all - fat, ugly, plain, homely - you name it. Now in my fifties, you’d think I’d be used to it.

I came home and looked at the photo she sent again. Kelly said she loved my wild hair and the way the light fell over my shoulder in the painting and softness of it. I tried to see that, too. I sat and stared at the image on my computer monitor for a long time and suddenly I realized something new. That face in the picture - it’s not just mine. It’s the face composed of generation of women who went before me. There’s my Aunt Bonnie’s full, slightly wild, feminine intensity that she kept even into old age. There’s my dear, kind Aunt Mary Dippold’s round chin and cheeks always ready to laugh. There’s my beautiful, wise Aunt Helen’s intelligence and, above all, there’s my Mother’s dignity and proud bearing in that picture. I am a composite of all the women who shaped me.

The painting was done by Lenice Strohmeir and I am very proud of that. She is a beautiful woman and a beautiful painter and has given a gift that I only now appreciate. Tonight I’ll go to the art association and see it hanging on the walls of that building I love so much. I owe Lenny a deep debt of gratitude for showing myself to me in a way I didn’t have the ability to see myself before. I’m a work of art composed of all those women who fashioned the woman I now am and that is very beautiful.

Thank you, Lenny.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Down at the Fish Pier

I had to get up earlier than usual this morning to take the trash out and go buy a trash sticker. I didn’t do it last night and so... it was a good thing. Today is beautiful - clear, dry, cool with the promise of heat later in the day. Sparkling sunshine. I bought coffee and a Boston Globe with the trash sticker and went down to the state fish pier to read the paper.

I love the fish pier. I wrote the first draft of my second novel there and rewrote many of my short stories. It is hard not to write the fish pier into these works because it is so intense and immediate when you are there. This morning men had yards and yards and yards of thick rope spread out in huge, looping trails all along the pier and they were repairing worn places. The herring boats were out but a couple gill netters were in and the gulls were going mad swirling around them in high, squawking clouds dive bombing the nets for tasty tidbits.

All the piers and landings have been piled high with lobster traps all summer. A sign that the lobstering must be bad - as it often is in July. But this morning I saw a few boats headed out loaded down with traps. Either someone is very optimistic or very broke. I never knew how rough and complicated lobstering is until I met Mark and began working on his book with him.

We had one of our famous head-butts yesterday. He is getting impatient with his book and just wants to get it printed and move on to the next one. I am annoyed by that because it needs tightening up, trimming down, and one more good, hard edit before it is ready to send off in my opinion. He says his friends have read it and tell him it is fine the way it is and they are eager to buy it. I tell him if he wants a bigger audience than his friends he needs to work a little harder at it before it is ready. He doesn’t want to hear that.

As long as there have been book publishers there have been vanity presses - the sorts of places people go to have books printed at their own expense just for the vanity of having them out there. Now, because of the abysmal state of publishing, and the emergence of new technology, the micro-press has been born. Parlez-Moi Press is an example of that. I know I can’t compete with Random House but that doesn’t mean I’m willing to accept lesser quality. While we were squabbling I told him maybe he should just take his manuscript to a vanity press and pass it out to his friends.

So I am sitting at the fish pier thinking about all this. These men perform arduous work when they pull those huge nets off the back of their boats, spread them out - acres and acres of them - and examine every part for a flaw that could mean lost catch when they are floating out in the ocean. They walk up and down the pier examining the nets foot by foot and, when they find a damaged place, they take out their tools and repair it. There is a lesson in that.

My father used to say “good enough isn’t.” I believe that - at least where writing is concerned. Good enough doesn’t exist. It is either the best it can be or it isn’t.

I don’t know how this situation with Mark will be resolved. I love the way he writes but I want him to be more particular and discerning in his prose. But I cannot make him want something that he doesn’t want for himself. There is a lesson in that, too.

So I leave the fish pier and the men mending their nets and I come home to begin my day’s work. I will try to do the best I can today and repair the weak places and hope for the best.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Watching the Sun Go Down

The other night I met Mark in the parking lot of the art association to sit and talk and watch the sun go down. We do this a lot - meet somewhere to talk while the sun sets - but both of us particularly love the art association parking lot on Pirate’s Lane because it is a special place for us if for different reasons.

When I first moved to Gloucester in 1994 the North Shore Arts Association was one of the first places I visited. I got involved as a volunteer during the Mulhaupt Retrospective and shortly afterwards was elected to the Board of Directors. The NSAA has filled my life and made a lot of connections - both personal and professional - for me. Pirate’s Lane has been a part of Mark’s life since, as a kid, he worked for his Uncle Howie who had a lobster pool there. He moored his boat, F/V Black Sheep/ down there for all the years he fished and, once he gave up fishing, he sat in that parking lot in his truck writing what has turned into his book.

We talk a lot about writing while the sun sets. I’ve been writing since forever and have attended countless writing seminars and workshops, writer’s groups, classes and more. Writing is relatively new in Mark’s life. Once he stopped lobstering he didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. He would sit in his truck and look at the harbor and think about all the things that had filled his life for 17 years as a lobsterman - storms and dangerous creatures and feuds with fellow lobstermen and women, too. Finally he started writing them down. He didn’t realize he had a book in him at that time. He didn’t realize that he had a gift for narrative and a way with words that was compelling either.

In one of the chapters in his book he wrote these two lines: My house sits on a tidal marsh in back of Good Harbor Beach. I work on my lobster traps there and watch hawks soar.

The first time I read those lines they brought tears to my eyes. I told him that there were people who could write their entire lives without writing two sentences as perfect as those. He thought I was daffy.

Now, over the past year and a half of spending time together he has gotten used to my observations on his writing. In fact we talk about writing a lot - about craft, about other writers, about this strange need to get it down and get it right. In some ways we are a lot alike - both committed loners who like having special people in our lives but need a lot of solitary time. We are both tough and earthy and yet oddly romantic in our view of the world. But it is this bond of writing that fascinates us. This obsession with story and why that story matters.

From the NSAA parking lot we watch the sun set behind the Gloucester skyline, directly behind City Hall. Mark’s book ends in that building. In a way, my life in Gloucester began there. I was a volunteer at a sculpture show held in the auditorium there. For eight months I spent Sunday afternoons sitting at a table selling tickets and looking into the stairwell. The stairwell of City Hall in Gloucester is famous for what is written on its walls. Names, over five thousand of them. Names of men who died at sea. It begins in 1716 with Jeremiah Allen. Some of the names are wonderful - Nehemiah Elwell. Abraham Thurrell, Ebenezer Parsons, Duncan McMillan. Some are horrible - Thirteen Unknown. I read those names over and over and over imagining what their lives had been like and marveling that, over all these years, names continued to be added to the wall in homage and respect and the simple human need to write things down lest they be lost.

Mark went there, too. I won’t give away the end of the book but he went to look at the blank spot on the wall where his name could have been written. I am extremely grateful it is not there.

So we sit, and talk, and watch the sun go down behind the tower of City Hall, and think of the names written there - and the name not written there.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 12, 2005

Eros Reconsidered

A few days ago I wrote about the precariousness of writing about sex and sensuality and how people always want to know “did you do that?” Since then I’ve been thinking about that story of true erotica that I wrote but was glad that it was never published. Stories do that. They’re like children. When you want them to behave, they won’t but, if you ignore them, they will bug you to death.

The story is called Being Fifty and was written about the summer I turned fifty and was in a very passionate relationship with a guy who was no damn good except in one area. Thank God for men like that. The reason I wrote it was because during that affair both he and I turned fifty and we kept making jokes about it. How could two fifty year olds keep behaving like we were? - but we loved it.

After the affair ended - and believe me - that’s a story I won’t write, I had mixed feelings about the story. The thing about having a sexually thrilling affair is that it leaves you so vulnerable and devastated when it is over, even if you knew from the beginning that it was a bad idea.

Now, rethinking that story I wonder if maybe I shouldn’t re-write it a little, change a few names and details, and include it in the short story collection I am working on. It certainly would fit with the others. But am I ready to be that vulnerable before the world? Tough question.

Eros is a tricky thing. It is power, that is for sure, and it is exciting. For years I had a quote from poet Audra Lord on my wall, “The ecstatic offers a well of replenishing and provocative force for the woman who does not fear its revelation, nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough.”

“Nor succumb to the belief that sensation is enough” - therein lies the problem. If we forget that eros is a power that we own, and that we can direct however we wish to direct it, then I think we are in danger of falling under the spell of sensation.

Now sensation is a fun thing and I certainly don’t want to deny the pleasure of that, but, ultimately, it’s one of those self-perpetuating experiences that can lead you into really stupid places. The whole “if it feels good do it” problem. Feeling good is also a good thing but if you don’t know that you own the power to create feeling good, and that you can direct it in a lot of different directions, it is easy to get hooked on the thing that made you feel good instead of the feeling itself. That’s the trouble with mere sensation. Sensation is a lot like chocolate - yummy and luscious and I-want-more.

So all of this comes back to eros and its inherent power. When I was involved with the man I wrote about in Being Fifty I spent an entire summer in a state of erotic delirium in which life was just what I did in the times between being with him. The problem was he became the source of supply for that erotic delirium - without him I was without the luscious sensation. But all those feelings were mine and still are. Now when I reread that story I get glimmers of the truth that Lord wrote of - he helped me find my erotic power but maybe he didn’t take it with him when he left. I know when I am writing and writing well I feel just as heady, just as delirious, as I did when I was with him.

I’m thinking about getting that story out and dusting it off. Maybe there’s something in it that needs to be shared. I just have to think about how much vulnerability I can handle. But that’s what being a writer is about anyway.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

Ingeborg

I first met Ingeborg Lauterstein in 1988 at the Marblehead Arts Festival where she spoke at a writer’s symposium. She is a tiny woman with a sweet face and a halo of fair curls. She speaks softly in the delicious accent of her native Vienna. I bought her first two novels that day - The Water Castle and Vienna Girl - and I still have them, autographed, in my bookcase. As is evident from her novels, Ingeborg has led an amazing life.

Later, when I moved to Gloucester it seemed I ran into Ingeborg wherever I went. She would be in Leslie Wind’s jewelry studio when I stopped in to say hello, or at Betty Lou Schlemm’s house for dinner when I was invited there, or swimming at my swim club. Like me, Ingeborg is an almost daily swimmer. There is something about her that I found so intriguing - whether it was that soft, alluring accent or all this power and presence coming from someone so small, I didn’t know but I loved it every time I ran into her.

Ingeborg grew up in Vienna during the Nazi occupation. Her first novel, Water Castle, is based in that childhood and was praised by critics in Europe as one of the few novels set in that era that gave a realistic depiction of what life was really like at that time. In the late 1950s Inge came to America to attend Black Mountain College. Her original plan was to be a painter but at Black Mountain she met poet Charles Olson who was to be her mentor. She continued to study painting and dance but writing became her great passion.

Today Ingeborg lives in a beautiful, stately home in Rockpost but she writes in a tiny cottage hidden away from the rest of the world where she can be alone and focus on her work. Yesterday we met in the kitchen of her cottage with another friend Cynthia Fisk and over homemade blueberry pie and tea we discussed the confusing state of publishing today.

All three of us are novelists. Inge has published three novels, her first two through New York publishers and her most recent one on her own. She told us that after the success of her first two novels in the 1980s when she began to seek a publisher for her third novel, Shoreland, she was told her books were too literary - that today not many Americans are interested in literary fiction (I have been told the same thing about my novel The Old Mermaid’s Tale). After several years of frustrating experiences - agents who refused to return calls and then just disappeared, publishers who said her book was wonderful but there was no market for it, literary reviewers who said they no longer wrote reviews because they couldn’t stand reading most of the garbage that is being published as a novels today, Ingeborg was read to give up.

She told us she just wanted to focus on writing and forget about publishing. But, she discovered, a writer of her caliber who doesn’t publish feels incomplete. After years as a respected author and a leader in the Boston Literary Guild she had to either take a different route or give up writing. She chose to publish on her own.

“All the big publishing houses are now owned by one publisher in Germany and they have no interest in the American reading public,” she said. “They say people today don’t have time to read.” Yet dedicated fiction readers are always asking for book recommendations. It has been estimated that 5% of the American public buys 90% of the fiction published in this country.

I admire Ingeborg. She is a remarkable writer and a tough lady despite her diminutive stature. Shoreland is beginning to make the rounds of bookstores and libraries - it remains to be seen how it will fare without a big publishing house promoting it. In the mean time Inge has begun work on her fourth novel based in her life as a dancer, writer and teacher in New York City in the late Fifties and early Sixties.

“Being a European in New York City then was like being an American in Paris,” she says. I know her book will be magical.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Mathematics, Knitting, and Quantum Physics

I have been reading Linda Skolnik’s The Knitting Way. This is not your grandmother’s knitting book, folks, this is very heavy stuff. Skolnik is the founder of the stunning yarn company Patternworks though she sold the company some years back. I don’t often buy from them - their prices are intimidating - but I love the catalogs and do order just often enough to keep them coming. They have a wide variety of fine hardwood needles that I can always add to my collection.

But the book is amazing and slow going. There are so many things to think about which is exactly her point. That when we spend quiet hours with our hands busy, our minds often go to the most interesting places.

There is a lot of math in knitting if you are not the sort of person who relies on patterns. I have a copy of the famous Knitters Magazine Issue 9 Winter 1987 which I bought at the Spirit of ‘76 bookstore in Marblehead shortly after moving to New England. In it Elizabeth Zimmerman introduced her now-famous “Pi-Shawl”, a circular shawl designed on the mathematics of pi. I’ve read the directions a dozen times and am still baffled when I try to explain them - the circumference of a circle doubles as the radius doubles. Oh. But what this translates to is you double the number of stitches on your needles every time the rounds you have knitted double. How simple is that?

But that’s sort of the beauty of this book and of knitting itself. When I was a novice knitter I made scarves - dozens of scarves. I graduated to ski caps and knitting in the round and that was kind of interesting. Then I discovered mittens. Now that was cool because of the gusset you had to make for the thumb. Well, I was thirteen then and didn’t know much.

Over the years I grew as a knitter progressing to sweaters and socks and then to complex patterns - Faire Isle and Nordic ski sweaters - then on to Kaffe Fasette designs. I made his Southwestern pattern coat in jewel toned mohairs one winter and still trot it out for a trip to the store on chilly autumn days. Learning to knit Aran sweaters was probably the most interesting. I made dozens of them all in my own concoctions of design combinations. Shortly after moving to New England I put in ad in Yankee Magazine’s “Swop” column and spent a couple years traveling around to B&Bs all over New England swopping handmade Aran sweaters for a few nights at these lovely inns. That was fun.

But Skolnik is an intellectual knitter. She contemplates the cosmos in her knitting and creates amazing designs based on her ideas gleaned from mathematics and quantum mechanics. The Moebius scarf has become popular in knitting circles but she takes it a step further by knitting in triangles emulating the way August Moebius created the form when he first discovered it. I was never particularly tempted to try a Moebius scarf until I saw her triangle-pattern.

She also has a hat called The Hat of Infinite Possibilities constructed of two Moebius Bands stitched together. Now, let me tell you, I have done that many times while lining jackets and blouses and there is nothing entertaining about it so I’ll pass on that but I admire her creativity anyway.

There is so much to think about - and to write about. Knitting has become a form of meditation that lets my mind free to wander. I’ve never been good at navel contemplating but when my hands are busy my mind soars. Skolnik is a brilliant woman who adds an intellectual dimension to the humble art of knitting. I’m glad to be in her company.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Did You Really Do That?



I am mostly a fiction writer. I write non-fiction for articles on art and other subjects for a specific purpose but, when I write for my own books, I write fiction. It is safer for someone like me. I am by nature fairly reclusive. People find that hard to believe because I have a “big” personality, as one of my friends put it. But I am generally happiest on my own - left to my own thoughts and fascinations.

The thing I am discovering about fiction is that people want to believe it is true anyway. Right now I am working on a collection of short stories with a central theme - the longing that is at the core of our lives. A longing that doesn’t seem to fade as years past. My friend Jane says it is like erotica for over-fifties. Well, I appreciate her idea but I’m not entirely comfortable with the word “erotica” either.

Writing sex is hard - fiction or non-fiction (I wrote one piece of non-fiction erotica for a collection that was never published. I’m glad it wasn’t published and I doubt I’ll ever do anything with the story.) I cannot imagine doing much writing without there being sex involved - sex is so integral to a passionate life - but even when it is written as fiction, readers think it is from your own experience. “Did you really do that?” they ask. I never know how to answer. The thing is, for me, there is a fine line between sex and other sensual pleasures.

If you live in the world with a high level of sensuous appreciation it is sometimes hard to know what is sexual and what isn’t. So much of what you experience is right on the edge of the erotic that it is difficult and, in my opinion pointless, to try to differentiate. I wrote two short stories that I doubt will make it into this collection but which I may find a use for some day.

One, titled Heat, is about a woman vacationing alone in a villa on a tropical island who is so lost in the sensual pleasures of the warmth and the ripening fruit and light reflected on the water and the singing of birds and cicadas, that she does not even notice the crude attempts at seduction of a man who is staying there too. “Did that really happen to you?” Mysterious smile.

The other, titled Silk, is about a woman fashion designer who is in love with luscious textiles. She collects silks, fine cottons, and other sumptuous fabrics and dreams about all the fabulous garments she can fashion them into. There is a man who loves her but whom she tends to take for granted until he finds a way to use the fabrics to tease, arouse and seduce her. It’s a fun story. “Did that really happen to you?” If it didn’t, it could have.

The thing about writing sex is that it is never about sex per se - it is about who we are as people - or who our characters are. It is about how we experience the world and experience life. I have read some very dismal sex scenes that left me grateful that I had no context for such bleak experiences. And I have read some that utterly thrilled me. Well-written sex scenes teach us about the writer but more about ourselves and our own responses.

I don’t know if I would ever feel comfortable writing a non-fiction sex scene for publication (the unpublished one would have been anonymous). Something about that is almost too depressing. Better to write about the erotic experiences of characters I invent and let people think what they will. “Did you really do that?” Mysterious smile.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 08, 2005

“Nearly” Wet Paint

Saturday night was the second annual art auction at the North Shore Arts Association here in Gloucester. This auction is called the “Nearly” Wet Paint auction. It used to be the Wet Paint Auction. I have been involved in the auction as a worker for several years now and I love them.

Our building at NSAA, for those who have never been here, was originally a livery where freight was unloaded from the boats and stored until it could be transported to wherever it needed to go. We don’t know when it was built - probably in the latter part of the nineteenth century - but the location is fantastic, right on Smith’s Cove and Gloucester Harbor (above) overlooking Rocky Neck Art Colony, Gloucester Marine Railways, and the Gloucester skyline which is dominated by our distinctive City Hall, famous the world over for the names of 5000 fishermen lost at sea stenciled on the walls of its staircase.

The problem with such a magnificent location is the very thing that makes it so desirable - being situated on a huge, deep harbor full of very salty, very wet water. Consequently the building is in a constant state of disrepair - hence the fund-raising auctions.

The original Wet Paint concept was great fun. Artist members of the association would agree to spend a day painting at various locations around town on the day of the auction. Maps would be made of their locations and people would pick them up at the gallery and then drive or walk around to watch the artists paint. At the end of the day all the paintings would be hung inside and people bid on them - a good deal of money was made.

However, over the years things changed. Artists who lived at a distance couldn’t make it to Gloucester to paint that day but still wanted to contribute. Some artists were getting older and couldn’t paint outside when the weather was hot or wet. Some artists are simply not plein air painters. And some didn’t have time on the specified day but wanted to contribute anyway. So the decision was made they could drop off paintings ahead of time. However this bred a new problem. Paintings contributed ahead of time tended to be completed work that had the benefit of extra time to be worked on. The artists who painted the day of the auction couldn’t count on having time to finish or of being sure what they had to offer was their best. Competition among artists can be fierce.

So the auction was changed to “Nearly” Wet Paint. Some artists painted on Saturday. Bob Aiello, one of my favorite artists, was the most visible - painting at the entrance to Pirates Lane right under the NSAA sign. But even some of the artists who painted live had a completed painting on reserve to hang in case they didn’t like their painting of that day.

Saturday night was fabulous. There were 110 paintings, the most ever, and there were close to 300 people in attendance. The buffet was incredible, wine and beer flowed freely, the pre-auction entertainment was superb and auctioneer Senator Bruce Tarr (right) was as entertaining as always. It was a fun evening and we raised a lot of money but somehow much of the spontaneity was missing. Those who don’t remember the days of artists elbow to elbow rushing to finish their work, last minute hangings, and successful bidders walking to their cars trying to figure out how they were supposed to get this wet, fragile thing home without making a mess don’t miss that. There is much to be said for offering the very best you have to offer but there is also a charm to working without a net, taking your chances, and living with the outcome. It’s all there in the word “nearly” - wet paint or “nearly” wet paint. Best effort or “nearly” best effort. Risking or “nearly” risking. It’s a tough call.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, August 06, 2005

Made by Hand

There is a great magazine for younger women called Bust which I am in love with. I love the attitude of the writers/editors - being a girl is great, sex is fun and natural, making things yourself is cool. The ads alone are worth the price of the magazine. I’m a little old to be a Bust-girl but I love the way they think and write. There are frequent articles about knitting, sewing, cooking - all those homely arts that the mothers of these young women, my generation of feminists, rejected. A recent article on hand sewing was titled “Hand Jobs”. I loved it.

In one article about knitting the writer said that her mother was a fifty-something feminist (my generation) who thought things like sewing, knitting and baking were demeaning and so she, the writer, had never learned them. But now those skills have become very popular and each issue of that magazine has articles about them. I’m so glad.

When I was a girl I learned to sew from my maternal grandmother and my 4H teacher, to cook and bake from my paternal grandmother and mother, and to crochet and knit from the nuns. I’ve continued to practice them all my life and never felt demeaned. I held corporate jobs most of my adult life and evenings spent sewing were the perfect antidote. However, it wasn’t until recently that I started talking about it much.

There was a lady who lived in our neighborhood named Marsha. I babysat her kids a lot. She was beautiful - tall and elegant - and always wore beautiful clothes. She made them herself. I loved babysitting there because she had these amazing, fabulous sewing magazines called “Elegance”. I never saw them anywhere but at her house. They were oversized and thick with gorgeous photographs of gorgeous women in gorgeous clothes. On the opposite page there would be suggestions for patterns by different pattern companies - mostly Vogue and Butterick - and samples of amazing fabrics you could buy from them that would be suitable for the garment.

The prices of the fabrics were outrageous but we lived in a small town and the only fabric store was in the basement of Kanter’s Department Store and everything available was chosen for durability, low price, and ease in washing - nothing you’d see in Vogue. Sometimes Marsha would talk to me about sewing but she didn’t want people to know too much about her skills as a seamstress. She’d been embarrassed often enough when she walked into the country club in some stunning creation and a woman would scream across the room, “Oh my God, don’t tell me you made that, too!!!”

It seems peculiar now to think about that but back then I knew how she felt. Back them home-made was equated with being poor and not able to afford store-bought. I felt the sting of that a few times myself. “You MADE that?????? Oh God, I couldn’t be bothered!!!” I dreaded those words.

Not so today. I so admire this young generation of knitters and sewers! They have reclaimed their feminine handiwork with zest and flair. I love the new knitting pattern books and the adorable things these young women have designed - funky hats and sweaters, lacy camisole tops and bikinis, “cozies” for cell phones, iPods and PDAs. And they are all colorful and funky and wonderful. I carry my knitting with me everywhere these days and knit proudly - on the beach or in my car. And when people admire my new rose-colored velvet t-shirt or a pair of lemon yellow linen drawstring trousers I proudly announce “I made them!”

I hope Marsha, wherever she is, does too. BTW, thanks, Marsha, for introducing me to Elegance - both the book and you.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, August 05, 2005

Enthusiasm

My friend Mary Ellen and I talk a lot about writing and about the business of publishing. She has an academic background and has recently completed her second book. She founded her own publishing company, Atlantic Path Publishing, and, as with any small publisher, is putting a lot of effort, money, and energy into getting it up and running. She is supportive of my ideas about Parlez-Moi Press.

“What you have going for you,” she told me recently, “is your enthusiasm.”

I take that as a compliment, as she intended it, but that was not always the case. Back when I was young and being blasé was cool I hated it that I was so enthusiastic about things.

Ennui, boredom, artfully cultivated blasé skepticism is very popular among the young and among those who don’t want you to think that there is much in life to get excited about. It’s a soul-killer and I pity those who fall under its spell for very long. I’m a big fan of people who do a really good job of being artfully crabby - I appreciate that. But that affected ennui that always lets you know how boring and/or trivial everything is can rot the heart and mind.

The word “enthusiasm” comes from the Greek entheos which means “a god within”. Isn’t that a beautiful thought? Writer Marc Gafini said that the opposite of “holy” is “superficial”. We live in a superficial world where much is done merely for the sake of appearance without depth or commitment or passion. Nowhere is this more brutally apparent than in corporate America where the notions of commitment and loyalty - despite their super-abundance in “mission statements” - is increasingly lacking.

In fairness it should be noted that it is very hard to be enthusiastic about jobs and lives that are entirely at the mercy of fickle corporate whims that can end a way of life and plans for the future with the stroke os a pen. I worked at Enron - I know.

But maybe that should tell us something. Maybe we are at a point in time where we need to start a little revolution. Maybe it is time to decide we will not live lives that requires us to work without passion, live without enthusiasm, and exist without joy. This is a peculiar paradox because we treasure the free enterprise system of our capitalist culture where anyone with a dream can make it come true if they try hard enough and never give up. That is the beautiful side of capitalism. The ugly side is the endless consumption by a consumer market place that is required to support it. Stuff, we need more stuff - lots and lots of stuff and it needs to be highly disposable so it has to be replaced regularly so we can sell more stuff.

My sense is that corporations are becoming like dinosaurs - they are so huge and ponderous that they are getting to the point where they simply cannot consume enough to support themselves. Like the brontosaurus they eat and eat and eat all day long and still cannot nourish themselves enough to survive. So, in all the ruckus of that consumption, new little markets are falling by the wayside and those who have decided they’ve had enough of ostentatious display and conspicuous grandiosity can quietly back out and say “I think I can make a go of it without them.” And as you begin to reclaim your dream and work passionately toward your desires the little god comes back and reclaims its place inside you - entheos - and your enthusiasm bubbles up and fills your life with excitement.

Who needs a McMansion to live in when a god lives in your belly?

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Where Do They Come From?

In Zen in The Art of Writing, one of the best little books about writing I know of, Ray Bradbury said that when people ask him how he gets ideas for stories he tells them, the problem is not “getting” stories, the problem is not tripping over them when he gets out of bed in the morning. I love that and I know what he means. Sometimes I wish I could turn my brain off long enough to finish what I am working on before another bright idea shows up.

I had dinner with my friend Lisa last night. She was one of my first readers for the latest version of The Old Mermaid’s Tale and she loves it. We were talking about web cams and I mentioned the web cam in Erie that shows French Street. In my novel Baptiste takes Clair to a little restaurant on French Street on their first date. Actually within a block of the web cam. (The idea of “Baptiste” and “web cam” even being in the same paragraph cracks me up.) Lisa said she absolutely loved those two characters and said “where did they come from?”

What a difficult question for a fiction writer to answer! Where do they come from indeed? And how do they become so real and so alive once you commit them to the page? It is a very great mystery to me.

I think the telling of stories is probably the oldest form of entertainment known to man - bearing in mind that procreation was once more of an imperative than entertainment. I can imagine ancient people, back from a hard day on the veldt, sitting around camp fires and saying “there was this guy who...” and the first character was born.

I have this sense of another dimension filled with characters. I don’t know where they came from but if God made us (through many millenia of tinkering with the original design) why couldn’t s/he make a world full of characters? My sense is that they live in there with these incredible stories inside them and are ever watchful for a willing scribe in our dimension to stop, listen and record what they have to say.

Writers often say that, upon re-reading something they just wrote, they think “where the heck did that come from?” I’ve had that happen a lot. I think the characters do it - they just use my fingers. Writers will sometimes talk about an unruly character who goes off and does his/her own thing and pretty much screws up the writer’s plan for the story. I’ve had that happen, too. “Hey, you! Get back here.” Doesn’t happen. Certain characters have minds of their own. When Clair hauled off and punched Karen in the nose nobody was more surprised than I was.

One of the best characters I ever created is Ruby in My Last Romance. And all I can say is she just showed up one day and said “hey, write about me.” The only credit I can take for her was not dropping my pen while she was using it. I have a long ago memory of seeing a blonde woman in a pale blue convertible with a pink silk scarf wrapped around her hair and dark glasses driving down the Strand in Galveston. When I pulled along side her she turned toward me and I realized she was a lot older than I thought - but still gorgeous. Maybe that’s when Ruby was born. I don’t know.

Or maybe Ruby put that memory in my brain along with the rest of her story. Characters can be sneaky. You have to keep an eye on their shenanigans or they can get you into trouble.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, August 03, 2005

Windows into Other Worlds

One of the things I most love about the internet is the growing presence of web cams. I find them totally enchanting - little windows into places I love, or have not seen in many years, or have never been. Right now I have half a dozen web cams set as desktop items and as I work during the day I can take breaks to see what is going on Gloucester harbor, on The Strand in Galveston, at Niagara Falls, and in downtown Nantucket - a few of my favorite places in the world.

I don’t know who thought of this idea but it is truly entertaining. Of course the Gloucester cams (there are four that I know of) overlook places that I see every day but that doesn’t matter - I still check them. During a particularly intense storm last winter I kept an eye on the waves breaking over Dogbar Breakwater while I worked at my desk by repeatedly refreshing the image. I have seen people I know passing in front of the cams and gotten a chuckle out of that.

Discovering the Galveston web cams was a treat. When I lived in Texas Galveston was a favorite weekend getaway. When I was working on My Last Romance I kept the Galveston cams on my desktop and refreshed them often to help remember details of this city that I loved so I could record it more faithfully in the story. There is a web cam now that pans The Balinese Room which is the setting of much of the beginning of the story. The Balinese Room captivated me from the first time I visited it in the early eighties. The murals of island people that line the walls and the column painted to look like palm trees seemed deliciously retro back then. I’m happy the new owner has kept and refreshed them. Maybe I’ll get back there one day.

The Niagara Falls web cam, on the top of the Sheraton is simply spectacular. But of course The falls are simply spectacular - you get to see a lot of weather on that cam! Ice clouds in winter, storm clouds sweeping up the river, intense sunlight creating long shadows across the water and rainbows - many, many rainbows. The Falls was much a part of my childhood. Nearly every summer we would make a trip there to don yellow plastic coats and walk under the Falls, ride the Maid of the Mist and gaze in total astonishment at all that water.

“Where does it all go?” I asked my father. “What happens when the Lake gets filled up?” I don’t remember what he told me but I stopped worrying about it.

Toward the end of The Old Mermaid’s Tale Clair and Baptiste reunite at Niagara Falls. That is one of my favorite parts of the book. Thinking about the old hotels there where honeymooners consummated their union against the background of thundering water made the writing of that scene exciting.

The Nantucket web cam is so interesting that I can’t keep it open on my desk. It is a live feed on a busy street in downtown Nantucket and for a compulsive people watcher it is delicious. I have watched shoppers rest on a bench while eating ice cream, parents trying to gain control of rambunctious children, lovers kissing, and have several time seen people - male and female - expose themselves to the camera. Whoopee!

Then there was the bicycle. Last fall a very nice looking bicycle was chained to a lamp post near the cam. It was always there - early in the morning, late at night, in the rain. Sometimes it was turned the other way. For the better part of last autumn I kept an eye on that bicycle. When I was working late at night, I would check in on it to see if it was still there. A couple times I saw people studying it, presumably and concerned about its welfare as I was. Leaves fell on it and collected around its tires. The first snow dusted it. Then one day it was gone. Another mystery to ponder.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, August 02, 2005

Ohrvel’s World War II Sketch Book

There is a saying that everyone has a book in them. These days it seems a lot of people are determined to write that book. This is a good thing, I think, but it has certainly changed the publishing world - it remains to be seen if that is for the good or not.

When Sven Ohrvel Carlson was a little boy he lived in New Jersey. He liked to draw. His father often took him in to work with him and Ohrvel would spend his time making sketches of the people and the things he saw there. It was the beginning of a habit he has kept throughout his life.

One day he drew a portrait of the man his father worked for. His father’s employer was so impressed he signed the drawing for the young artist. Ohrvel still has that drawing framed and hanging in his studio. It reads “To Ohrvel from Thomas Alva Edison” and hangs above the great inventor’s upright piano. For Ohrvel it was the beginning of a remarkable life.

As a young man he longed to travel but it was the Depression and he lacked the means. So he
stowed away on a ship bound for the Orient and, after scrubbing decks and washing dishes, he wandered through Asia filling sketch books. He returned to America as World War II began and enlisted. He was at the Battle of the Bulge, the Battle of the Hurtgen Forest, and at Normandy - he filled sketch book after sketchbook - over 260 sketches in all. Wonderful drawings of the faces of soldiers, of people dancing and drinking in USOs, and of trucks and tanks rolling onto battlefields and of soldiers being carried off of them. His drawings are living history as no one else could show it. He and his pen were there and he captured everything he saw.

Today Ohrvel is 94 years old. He lives in Rockport, Massachusetts with his wife Carol and daughter Laurie. They run a small bed and breakfast and Ohrvel keeps a busy schedule. Ohrvel plays the violin, accompanied by a friend on cello, in area nursing homes several times a week. He continues to paint and wins awards at the art association exhibitions he participates in, he is working on his memoirs. And he has made a book of his war sketches.

Ohrvel walks with a cane now - two outside of his house. But he takes a walk every day. When I talk to him on the phone I think I am talking to a man half his age. His voice is deep and light, his thoughts come quickly, he laughs easily. He takes a nap when he needs one but he is a busy man.

His book is a collection of the sketches he made during World War II. They have been scanned and reproduced and collected into a spiral bound book that he and Carol sell for $20 to anyone who calls asking for one. It is a book deserving of a much more distinguished format and far wider distribution.

To me it seems a sad commentary on the publishing industry that a book containing these remarkable pieces of history should be so humble in appearance and distribution. I spoke with Carol yesterday and she said they received a call from Senator John Kerry’s office expressing interest in the book. I offered to help reformat it. We are going to meet to discuss ideas.

Sven Ohrvel Carlson is an amazing man who has lived an amazing life. His World War II Sketchbook is a fascinating representation of just one part of it. We are keeping our fingers crossed and hoping to bring it to a wider audience. It certainly deserves it.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, August 01, 2005

Monday Morning

It’s Monday again. And today it is raining. I am not a morning person. I love working late at night when all the world is still and the phone doesn’t ring. Listening to the wind in the trees and the sound of the train a few blocks up the hill is a delicious part of working late at night.

But mornings are just annoying. I leave the phone turned off until I have my first cup of coffee and my email attended to. Then I can see by the little blinking light that people need to talk to me and I can scan the caller I.D. list and return calls.

I just got caller I.D. What an amazing invention that is! Why ever did I wait so long to get it? Now when I want to write for an hour or so I only need turn the ringer on the phone off and keep an eye out for the blinking light.

So it’s Monday morning and it is raining and my coffee is still dripping and I am wondering why on earth I thought it was a good idea to blog anyway. Is it really self-indulgence? Someone said that to me this week - who cares what a bunch of self-indulgent bloggers have to say? Who needs their opinions?

But I’m a long time 12 Stepper and I remember those first few month listening to people go on and on and on when I felt the same way. Who cares what you have to say? Get a hobby! And then one day a man I had noticed for several meetings began to talk. He was a cute guy - I’d noticed him before. So I paid attention and something happened - I heard what he was saying. He could have been me.

The Program talks about “identification”. I had my first real experience with identification and over the years that identification became so healing for me - I’m not alone. Someone else feels what I do. Someone else knows what it’s like.

So now I blog and, judging by my traffic stats, people are reading - some even return to read.

Underneath everything we share a common humanity - that feels so trite as I type it. But surely out there is another middle aged woman who wants more time to write and who struggles with mornings and loves the sound of rain in the trees. She’s the one I’m writing for today.

Thanks for reading.

Share It