Wednesday, November 30, 2005

Stuff III

From time to time I like to post stuff that is going on around here that people might be interested in. Since I have a busy day tomorrow, I thought I'd write tomorrow's blog tonight:

• Tonight (Dec. 1) at 7:00 the Sawyer Free Library will present Writing Gloucester, an evening with four local writers moderatored by Writer's Block host, John Ronan. This program will be on the main floor of the library. The featured writers will be Anthony Weller, author of The Seige of Salt Cove, Kory Cucuru, author of St. Peter's Fiasco, Joe Orlando, author of The Fisherman's Son, and my good friend Peter Anastas, author of Broken Trip, which I recently wrote a blog about. There is no charge for this event and all are invited.

• Carl Thomsen of Dancers Courageous is not only an amazing dancer and choreographer, he is also vitally concerned with the world we live in. He has created a performance titled Silent Men Speaking:
True experiences of veterans of the War in Vietnam which he will perform at the West End Theater this Friday, Saturday and Sunday, December 2, 3 at 730 pm, December 4 at 5 pm, 1 Washington St, Gloucester, MA, $15 adults, $10 for seniors and veterans, for reservations: (978) 281-0680. Music will be performed by Jeffry H. Steele, Billy Bang, and others. Poetry by W.D. Ehrhart, Yusef Komunyakaa, Elliot Richman, Bruce Weigl. From an oral history by David Bianchini, Allen Gaskell, Marc Levy, and Robert Vinson. From an oral history by David Bianchini, Allen Gaskell, Marc Levy, and Robert Vinson. Written by Marc Levy and Carl Thomsen.

"Many, many combat veterans have told me that what happens in war is unimaginable and incomprehensible... they know too much. They know much they don't even want to know, literally unspeakable things. Brain imaging studies have demonstrated that when traumatized combat veterans attempt to share their war experiences, they become overwhelmed with emotion and thoughts concerning their trauma, and the speech centers of their brains shut down." - Michael J. Gatton, Ph.D., Clinical Psychologist, and Director, Indianapolis Healing Art Project, Richard L. Roudebush VA Medical Center, Indianapolis, Indiana

About the performance, Carl writes, War has a very human face. Estimates indicate as many as 25% of vets from the Iraqi War will be disabled with PTSD. Dance approaches the unspeakable. Please come experience... "SILENT MEN SPEAKING"

Leslie Wind's popular Know Your Neighbor has planned another evening at Emerson Inn By the Sea in Rockport, December 6th, 7:00pm with M. Lynda Robinson. Lynda has been a Cape Ann resident for 20 years and is very active in the arts community. She and Gordon Baird program the events and shows at the West End Theatre where she also currently teaches Acting. During this past year, Lynda produced, directed and performed in "The Vagina Monologues" and "Women and the Sea" in which over 20 women from Cape Ann were involved as actors, designers and tech. The talent and contributions of these amazing women helped to make both shows successful & raised money for 2 non-profit Cape Ann organizations. Lynda has been working in theatre, film & TV for the past 25 years. She has performed in many theaters in the Boston area including the Nora, Lyric, Wilbur, Huntington, Provincetown, Merrimack, Gloucester Stage, Shear Madness, Stoneham, New Rep, among others, and was honored with the Outstanding Boston Actress Award at the 1993 Elliot Norton Awards. Lynda has been a Guest Artist at Rollins College in Florida and locally at Gordon College in Wenham. She is a published playwright, and the recipient of several Playwrighting Awards, She has performed in hundreds of commercials, corporate videos, live trade-shows, and voice-overs as well as performing principal roles in film and TV. Her most recent film work includes the independent films, "Treading Water," "The Retreat," "Dead Silent," and "Johnny Slade’s Greatest Hits," and the new Showtime TV series "The Brotherhood" coming out in the summer of 2006.

• Looking for an excellent Christmas gift? Give the gift of Cape Ann!!! Talented photographer Les Bartlett has created an outstanding DVD of his beautiful photography of Rockport, Cape Ann Trail. The DVD is $24.95 and can be ordered at Les's web site Follow the Gleam.

• And if you are looking for a way to celebrate the holidays, here is one excellent concert to plan on:
Mother & Child is a concert of motets, mass settings, and music of Hanukkah and Christmas. Some caroles you'll know, some will be new to you… they are all "Joyful Music of the Season." The singers will be joined by piano, organ, bassoon and 2 flutes! Please join plan on attending on either Dec. 3 at 7:30 p.m., Christ Church of Hamilton & Wenham, 149 Asbury St., Hamilton, or on Dec. 4 at 4:00 p.m., St. Paul's Episcopal Church,166 High St., Newburyport.Tickets will be available at the door or you can purchase them from me or online and receive a discount. Adults $20 Seniors $15, 21 and under free. Visit their web site for more information Cantemus

• For simplicity's sake this blog is now accessible at In a few short months we have acquired about a hundred daily readers and many of those, according to my stats program, have bookmarked this site. But, if you forget, if you can remember my name you can now find the site. Thank you from the bottom of my heart for making a place in your day for this blog!

• In the what's-all-this-brouhaha department, I was recently informed that my blog entry titled The Anthology Curse was being discussed on a Yahoo Group,
The Short Mystery Fiction Society. Apparently one of their members took exception to my blog entry (and also misinterpreted it) and posted to the group. I had never heard of this group but one of their members sent an email about it so I took a peek. It was pretty interesting. Fortunately several people had also read my entry and understood exactly what I meant and said so. I joined the group and posted an explanation but, I have to say, it was a bit disconcerting to see my opinions being discussed on a board I previously had no knowledge of. Still, it seems to be a very cool group and I'm glad I now know about it.

• And finally, I spoke with Carol Gray at the Sawyer Free Library today and we are planning a book signing/reading event for Windchill this winter. Some of the contributors will be there and it should be fun. I'll let you know when it is time.

Thanks for reading.

Confessions of a Recovering Smart-Mouth

When I was a kid my brothers and I loved Mad Magazine. We bought every issue with money saved from paper routes, baby-sitting and lawn mowing and we often fought over who got to read it first. We would wind up all huddled together reading. “Don’t turn the page, don’t turn the page, I’m not done yet!”

One of our favorite features was called “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions”. A so-called dumb question would be asked and then a bunch of “snappy”, i.e. rude, sarcastic, and demeaning, answers would be listed. We loved them and tried to think up comebacks of our own. To kids, being able to reply with a snappy comeback feels really cool. It has the unfortunate side-effect of earning a swat or getting your mouth washed out with soap at times but you just have to learn who it is safe to use your newfound powers of wit on.

Satire is as old as the arts. Much of the ancient Greek theater was based in satire and, throughout history, satire has been effectively employed to call attention to social inequities and political wrongs. Satire is usually extremely clever - it had to be if its authors and performers wanted to avoid the noose. (Did I mention that today is the birthday of two of the world's greatist satirists, Mark Twain and Jonathan Swift?) Sarcasm, on the other hand, is somewhat less clever and generally falls way short of proving one’s intellect and/or superiority but it is ever-so appealing to kids. Most of us fail to outgrow that.

Most of my life I took a certain pride in being a person who could be counted on for a quick retort. Occasionally I got lucky and my comebacks were witty and clever but more often than not they were just sarcastic and rude. It took me a long time to appreciate the difference. Once I got past the time in my life where I felt inferior, less-than, inadequate, and all those other personal monsters that plague our lives, I began to realize that the things that sometimes flew out of my mouth were often hurtful and, frankly, stupid. I made a choice to stop doing that - at least where it concerned other people.

It’s a tough undertaking to start taking responsibility for your casual remarks, especially after a few decades of cultivating being a smart-mouth. The first thing I had to discern was the difference between sarcasm directed in general as opposed to that directed at people. I had a big epiphany around this a few years back while attending a so-called “comedy club” where the star performer was a guy who stood on stage and ridiculed, abused, and reviled his audience. People were roaring with laughter but, after the first few jabs, I thought the guy was a moron. And I wondered why we were paying to endure this. That night I watched the faces of this “comedian’s” victims and, while most of them were good sports and did their best to play along, once the spotlight was turned to someone else it was hard to miss the flickers of hurt on their faces.

We make a big deal in our society about being a “good sport” and being able to “laugh at yourself” but I wonder why? Why is this a good thing? We say, “oh, don’t take yourself so seriously” and “would you get over yourself?” but those are essentially stupid observations. Most people would do well to take themselves a little more seriously, pay more attention to who they are, what they do and how they interact in the world. Both the world and they would benefit.

I’m trying to give up being a smart-mouth, at least where the feelings of others are concerned. I’ve gotten over all those old adolescent insecurities and it’s time to act accordingly. Besides, I’ve been told that nastiness gives you wrinkles. Can’t have that.

Thanks for reading.

P.S. Though I am making every effort to ignore (and delete) the flaming of the unabashedly crass, while still trying to refrain from being a smart-mouth, I want to thank Punk Rock Knitter over at You Knit What? for her comments today on the Anonymous flamers. I agree with you whole-heartedly, PRK - bravo!

Tuesday, November 29, 2005

Interesting Characters

For me it all began in 1975 with Nicholas Meyer and The Seven-Per-Cent Solution. I had just read all of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books and was looking for more about the aloof and effete but brilliant fellow. Holmes has the interesting distinction of being a literary character entirely created by one author, Arthur Conan Doyle, who has had more books written about him by others than were originally written by his creator.

So, anyhow, what fiction writer needs to invent characters when there are ready-made characters waiting for them? In The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, Meyers also makes use of another interesting character, Sigmund Freud. If you haven’t read the book, you should. Later Meyer created The West End Horror in which Holmes met up with George Bernard Shaw, actress Ellen Terry, and the actor and later writer Bram Stoker.

These were my introduction to a genre of fiction that has never lost its appeal for me, alternative history. The author, if he is genuinely clever, develops intriguing characters from historical characters, puts them down in a well-developed setting and builds a plot around them which is fully in keeping with the period and the characters. Reality and fiction blend seamlessly when it is done well – as it does in life.

One of the best books of this sort that I ever read was Paul J. McAuley’s Pasquale’s Angel, a thriller set in the Renaissance with “performances” by Leonardo daVinci, Michelangelo, Raphael (around whose mysterious death the plot turns) and a snoopy, Columbo-like detective named Niccolo Machiavelli. It’s a fun read.

The thing about alternative history is it can be very good or very bad depending on the skill of the writer. At its worst the historical figures seem to have been plucked, unformed, from a textbook and plopped down in the story, presumably to fend for themselves, based solely on the familiarity of their names. However, when done well, the characters sparkle and come alive in a way they never did in history books - at least not the ones I read - but more than that they give a genuine appreciation of the times in which they did whatever they did. Caleb Carr does a wonderful job of this in his Dr. Lazlo Kreizler mysteries with the tough but progressive New York City police commissioner named Theodore Roosevelt.

I recently finished Matthew Pearl’s delightful The Dante Club, set in nearby Cambridge, which pits a villain perpetrating copycat murders using the punishments described in Dante’s Divine Comedy against three formidable sleuths James Russell Lowell, Dr. Oliver Wendell Holmes, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I have to tell you, I loved every single paragraph. I am familiar with all those names from grade school and I have spent many hours in Cambridge but neither the city nor the characters ever seemed as interesting to me as they did in Pearl’s delicious book.

I haven’t been particularly impressed with some of the recent novels about artists – Tracy Chevalier’s The Girl with the Pearl Earring, Susan Vreeland’s The Passion of Artemisia and Sarah Dunant’s The Birth of Venus seemed dry and lifeless and, frankly, I didn’t much care for the characters. Maybe it is the sense of playfulness, and of course the mysteries, in the other books I loved.

Yesterday at the library I picked up Passion by Jude Morgan, a novel about Byron, Shelley and Keats. I haven’t started it but I am hopeful it will be good. I guess I figure if you are going to swipe your characters from history, you should do a good job of making them interesting. Just because a character was once a real person doesn’t give them an excuse to be dull.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 28, 2005

Choosing Honor

One of the great things about the holidays is making time to spend with people you care about, people you like, people you want to get to know better. Conversation at these gatherings is always fascinating to me. I am a willing listener. At one such event there were several teachers present and the discussion turned to bullying among children and their opinion that it is on the increase. Some time back I read a fascinating book, Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons , which discussed the issue of bullying, particularly among girls, and why it is sometimes the prettiest, most popular girls that are also the worst bullies. The psychology involved is complex but it is basically centered on power, and exercising that power out of fear of losing it.

This is an important discussion in these times of terrorism when it seems the entire world has lost a sense of proportion. The tragedy of 9/11 is that it was an act on such a colossal scale that it destroyed not only thousands of lives, but also our sense of safety and our sense of proportion. Four years later, floundering around to find footing in this confusing “war on terror”, we are still fearful and searching for reason.

I bought this week’s Newsweek magazine specifically to read Senator John McCain’s article on torture and it is worth reading. All politics aside, Sen. McCain is an American hero who himself was tortured while serving in Viet Nam and, therefore, has more to contribute to any such discussion than most of us. The bottomline of what he said was that torture is a physical process with deep psychological impact and far-reaching ramifications. I won’t go into detail, you can read the magazine article, but what struck me most was his statement that the prisoners being tortured took great strength from the belief they were Americans and, as Americans, they were honorable and would not have done this to those they held captive -- that they were different, and more honorable, than those who were torturing them.

This moved me a lot as it is something I often think about. How can anyone – an enemy interrogator or a bratty kid in a schoolyard spat – do egregious and unwarranted harm to another and be a person of honor at the same time? Granted it is a far stretch to compare grade school bullying to wartime torture, but the principles are the same. And I fear, that in this era of fear, hostility, and all loss of proportion, that sort of behavior is becoming more acceptable to the general masses. The old-fashioned concept of being a person of honor, of holding oneself to a higher standard is eroding from daily life and, consequently, from the lives of our children.

Abuse of power seems ubiquitous – CEOs of companies abuse financial accountability, clergy abuse the trust of their flock, the internet has caused a proliferation of every sort of abuse from rampant pornography and racist hate-mongering to chatroom flaming and cyber-stalking. The whole notion of people making the choice to behave with honor and respect for people they don’t know seems almost comic.

There is an old saying that “class” is how you behave when no one is looking. I learned long ago that the security of anonymity can often bring out the basest and most ugly cores of individuals. These days, between constant awareness of abuses of power and growing insecurity and fear that “we”, as individuals or as a nation, are losing power it seems there will be no end to justifying cruel behavior. And yet, through it all, there are those who will make the choice to be honorable, to be better than they need to be because they hold the belief that there is merit in goodness. Honor is a choice we make in every interaction. It is never too late to chose to behave with honor.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 24, 2005

Thank You

Last night I was driving back from the market -- picking up those last few things I need for Thanksgiving -- and, since it was almost sunset, I decided to take a quick drive around the backshore. It was a beautiful evening and I had my camera with me.

The waves along the back shore (left) were high and the light along the horizon turning them rose-colored. I remembered something else that Sam Keen said in Fire in the Belly (which I talked about yesterday). He said there are three important questions everyone must ask themselves: 1.) where do I want to be? 2.) what do I want to do there? 3.) who do I want there with me?

He said it is particularly important to answer those questions in the right order or you will make a lot of turmoil for yourself. Well, it has taken me long enough but when I moved to Gloucester ten years ago I knew this was where I wanted to be. I still think that.

The waves were hitting the rocks and the seaspray splashed up over the bittersweet bushes and onto the road (right). It was beautiful.

By the time I got to Niles Beach (left) the horizon had turned gold and you could see Boston on the far shore against the rose and gold. I have seen Boston this way a thousand times but it still dazzles me.

And I thought that I just have so much to be grateful for -- to give thanks for -- because I have Gloucester, and I know I want to write and design and I am supporting myself doing that. Not extravagantly but enough to live in Gloucester and to buy silk and cashmere to sew and knit with and to be happy -- genuinely happy, deep in my soul happy.

I drove out the state fish pier -- I do that so much that my car does it automatically without my permission. From the end of the fish pier I took a photo of the Paint Factory with the rose-filled sky behind it and the flash of Ten Pound Island Light (right). What will become of the Paint Factory? Ever since I have been here its fate has been up in the air and it is hard to imagine Gloucester Harbor without it sitting there at the entrance.

There was a big ship unloading directly in front of City Hall (left), its lights sparkling in the water. The air was filled with gulls and the little harbor seals were nosing around the sides of the boat.

Written on the walls of the tower of City Hall are the names of the thousands of Gloucester fishermen who have been lost at sea in Gloucester's three hundred and eighty-something year history. There is also a place on that wall where a name is not -- Mark's name was nearly there twice. Both times he was saved just in time. I give great, great thanks that his name is not on those walls.

And so it is Thanksgiving. And I am in Gloucester. I am writing and I am with who I want to be with. This is my 100th post in this blog. Thank you for coming here to read my ramblings. Happy Thanksgiving.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

The Frost is on the Pumpkin

I grew up over a woodshop. My father was a carpenter and cabinetmaker and his shop was on the ground floor of our house. There was a huge furnace in the shop and he burned the scraps from the cabinets he made, along with locally mined coal, through the winter. On cold mornings he would get up early and go downstairs to fix the fire. My mother and some of us would be in the kitchen listening to the rattling and clanking of the furnace as she made coffee, baked the bread she had set to raise, and her famous cinnamon rolls. Soon the house would smell like woodsmoke and coffee and baking bread and cinnamon–-it was a fragrant childhood.

My father would come upstairs saying, “Oh boy, the frost is on the pumpkin today!” I asked him what that meant one time and he said I should look it up. That was a favorite phrase of both my parents’s–-“go look it up”. Our living room, which my father had paneled with one of the last lots of wormy chestnut milled after the great chestnut blight of some years earlier, was filled with encyclopedias and reference books. Our whole house was filled with books.

“It’s a poem by James Whitcomb Riley,” I told him after having looked it up.

“That’s right,” he said, “When the frost is on the pumpkin and the lumber's in the shop, And you hear the cluck and gobble of the strutting turkey-cock, And the clacking of the guineys, and the clucking of the hens, And the rooster's hallylooyer as he tiptoes on the fence; O, it's then the time a feller is a-feeling at his best, With the rising sun to greet him from a night of peaceful rest, As he leaves the house, bareheaded, and goes out to feed the stock, When the frost is on the pumpkin and the lumber's in the shop.

He had learned the poem as a boy and never forgot it though he was apt to change the words as it suited him. It was years before I knew the correct words were "the fodder's in the schock" instead of the lumber's in the shop".

Both of my parents were interesting people. People who, if they lived today and had not grown up in a small highland town, would have led lives very different from the ones they did, I think. They were both extremely intelligent, valued learning, appreciated beauty, were fiercely passionate in their approach to life, and, though they were very bad at expressing it, loved each other. Over the years I have thought about their relationship a lot. There was plenty of fighting and hollering in our house at times. Many years later I was reading Sam Keen’s A Fire in the Belly, he spoke of marital fights as an expression of “the fierceness of love”. When I read that phrase I began to understand my parents for the first time in my life.

My mother bore and raised eight children. She loved to bake and to can fruits and vegetables–-to make relishes and preserves. Yet, she told me that she wasn’t sure being married and a mother was the best way to spend your life. She was proud of me for staying single, travelling, pursuing a career. She lived a little vicariously through my independence. She had great, great dignity–-a quality of hers it has taken me years to appreciate. Both of my parents had that quality and it was a thing they valued in their children. In a fashion true to my origins, I looked-it-up.

“Dignity: The quality or state of being worthy of esteem or respect. Inherent nobility and worth. Poise and self-respect.”

I have been thinking a lot about my parents and the gifts they gave me. It is a good time to think about that and to be grateful, to give thanks for those blessings. My father taught me to see the beauty of the world, to value learning and creativity. My mother taught me that independence was a blessing and something to be proud of. Both of them gave me a sense of my own worth and the dignity to rise above, pursue my dreams, and not let the soul-killers and dream-destroyers have their way.

So, in this time of thanksgiving, when the frost is on the pumpkin, I give thanks to Jack and MaryAnn for their intelligence and their love and all the virtues they gave to their children with great passion and dignity.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 22, 2005

The Lady Eleanor is begun!

I am among the many who fell madly in love with Lady Eleanor when Kathleen Power Johnson introduced her in Scarf Style. I have never knit entrelac though I’ve watched Meg Swansen do it with my mouth hanging open (she can knit BACKWARDS!!!) However, as I contemplated undertaking this project, the biggest drawback to me was what kind of yarn to use. Much of the charm of the original Lady Eleanor is the woodsy yarn, a 100% wool vegetable-dyed yarn called Forever Random in a shade called Faerie Queen. The yarn alone costs over $300!

Considering the size of my stash, I was sure there had to be something in there that would work. My first thought was several skeins of vegetable-dyed 100% silk that I bought from Blue Heron a long, long time ago and have been picking away at but have never really used fully. However, it is very fine yarn and I felt I needed to combine it with something else to give the right weight to the finished shawl.

I had recently purchased a few skeins of laceweight 100% wool that was also vegetable-dyed from Handpainted Yarn, a women’s collaborative from Uruguay. I loved the shades of the yarn and decided to try knitting the wool and the silk together. It proved to be an excellent combination. The wool gave the knitted fabric a slightly rustic look and the silk added drape and shimmer. So I started knitting.
Entrelac is a confusing business but once you get the hang of it, it becomes addictive. Since you are only working on 18 stitches at a time, it seems to flow and playing with the combinations of colors is great fun.

I have a feeling that this project could take a long time. I am knitting it on #5 needles so it is fine and close knit but so far I love the way it is turning out. I imagine once it becomes heavy enough to make continual turning impractical, I’ll experiment with Meg Swansen’s backwards knitting technique.

This is good practice. I’m also drooling over the Forest Path Shawl which is also knit in entrelac only using lace patterns in each square. I have a bag of a lavishly beautiful super-fine alpaca in a color called Morning Mist put aside for it. So much yarn, so little time, as every knitter I know loves to say. Well, as Marilyn, everybody’s favorite Knitting Curmudgeon always says, “Shut up, I’m counting.”

Crabby is as crabby does.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 21, 2005

How Myths Get Made

The very good thing about having friends who like to hear your stories is that they tend to remember them even when you don’t. Recently at our needleworkers’ group my friend Rebecca said, “Tell them the Blonde in the White Convertible story.” She had to remind me what it was but, when I told it, everyone laughed.

I drive a white Sebring convertible. I absolutely love it. I’ve driven convertibles ever since I moved to Gloucester–-they just seem to go together. And, thanks to L’Oreal, I am a blonde. I am also a writer. Writers are interested in a lot of stuff–-that’s part of the deal. From the day I moved to Gloucester I have been fascinated by our working harbor and, in the last couple of years since leaving the corporate world to work here on the island, I spend as much time as I can lapping up the endless fascinations of this town.

The state fish pier is one of my favorite places. I write in my car there early in the morning and I often take a break to go down there to eat my lunch and soak up the sunshine. I love to watch the boats coming and going, unloading and re-outfitting. The entire business of maritime industry intrigues me.

I write a lot about working men. Doctors and lawyers and corporate-types don’t really intrigue me and besides enough people write about them. I grew up in logging country among carpenters and gunsmiths and stone masons so I know a lot about what they do. Fishing is new to me. When the boats first come in loaded down with their catch the entire process–-from docking the boat to hosing it down–-is interesting to watch. I spend a lot of time doing it.

Last summer I was invited to an outdoor party. I pulled up and parked near where the women were gathered and joined them. A couple hours in to the festivities I was introduced to a nice woman who seemed very interested in me. After we had been chatting awhile she said, “Do you spend time down at the fish pier?” I admitted I did. She then proceeded to tell me that her husband worked on the big herring boats I often see docked there unloading their catch.

“The guys all talk about you,” she told me. “They see you down there watching the boats and studying them but they say you never talk to anyone.”

I told her the truth, I’m a writer and several of the stories I am working on have a fishing or maritime setting. I am always trying to learn more about how that business works and what the men do.

“Yes,” she said, “that’s what Davya (our hostess) told me but the men think there’s more to it. They think you are looking for someone.”

“Really???” I loved that. “You mean like The French Lieutenant’s Woman? They think I’m searching for a lost love.”

“Well,” she said, “that’s what they think. They keep trying to figure it out. They say that when they say hello to you, you say hello back but then keep going so it’s not like you’re a hooker or anything.”

Whew, I thought. That’s good.

But the more I thought about it the more amusing I found it. The guys were just as quietly interested in me as I was in them. It also explained something that had happened a year earlier.

I met Mark through a mutual friend who gave him my phone number and suggested he call me about our writing group. As a Gloucester fisherman, Mark is more than a little acquainted with the goings on at the fish pier. Often when I was down there he would show up and we sat and talked–-sometimes for hours. Everyone there knows him and they exchange greetings. One day as we were gabbing he noticed several guys studying us as they passed by. He kept giving them that what’s-your-problem-buddy look and then, suddenly, he grinned and stared at me.

“Oh my gosh,” he said (well, actually, what he said was considerably more colorful), “You’re the Blonde in the White Convertible!” He grinned. “No wonder I’m getting the evil eye.”

I didn’t get it at the time but that was before I knew I was a legend. It isn’t easy being the stuff of myths. ;o)

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

The Veteran’s Day Blog I Meant to Write

I had intended to write this for Veteran’s Day and got sidetracked but here it is anyway.

Like most Baby Boomers, I was born after World War II but grew up in continual awareness of that war and all it meant to the people of my parents’ generation. It was an integral part of my young life. Back then it was “the war”. They didn’t have to say “World War II”, they just said “the war” and everyone knew.

My father (left) served in the Pacific. All three of his brothers did as well. My Uncle Burr died
there, my Uncle Tom spent the war in a Nazi concentration camp. All their cousins served, many as pilots. Some didn’t get to come back. The War was ubiquitous even years--decades--after it was over. As my friend Mick, who served in Viet Nam says, “Once you’ve been to war, it is never over.”

Also like many of my generation, I don’t like the idea of war. Now, having lived through Korea, Viet Nam, Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf, Iraq, etc. I simply cannot believe that after all these millennia of human evolution going over there and blowing people away is the best we can do. But that is how it is. And on Veteran’s Day it is important to remember that, whether we like the idea of war or not, the veterans who served in all those wars and conflicts still deserve gratitude, honor, and respect. Back during the Viet Nam War, I was among those who wanted us out of there immediately but I was equally horrified by the treatment of returning Vets–-first by the general public and then by the government that cut every program, as it continues to do, that had been promised to those who served.

In recent years Gloucester has been embroiled in a big controversy about the erection of a monument to the veterans of World War II. Some take issue with the design of the monument, some with its location, some don’t think it should be erected at all complaining that it glorifies war. Gloucester contributed a disproportionate share of its young people to the war and those veterans who remain, now almost all in their eighties, have been deeply wounded by the controversy. It is a great shame.

At first I avoided involvement in this situation because, not being from Gloucester, I thought it was not my concern. But it was painful to watch the bitterness grow as objection after objection was raised. I couldn’t see what the problem was–-give the veterans the respect due them and move on. One of the issues was the design of the monument. But time was of the essence and options were disappearing. Memorial Day was approaching and the groundbreaking ceremony was scheduled for Kent Circle and, though there were ideas about what the monument would look like, there was no tangible vision.

Roger Armstrong, who is both the President of the North Shore Arts Association and a member of the WWII Monument committee, is a friend of mine. I have designed promotional materials for his galleries and I like talking to him. One day when I stopped to visit his gallery he showed me a photograph of a beautiful eagle that he said was his proposal for the monument. It was not at all what I had heard it to be–-instead of a smug eagle perched pompously atop the globe, it was a beautiful, soaring creature just about to alight as though in an attempt to rescue. I asked if he needed a hand bringing his vision into a tangible form and he said that would be so helpful. I am not a sculptor but I have been a technical illustrator for years and certainly know how to illustrate a prototype. I brought Roger’s photograph home and fired up the ‘puter.

And so, with the help of Black and Blueprints of Gloucester, we created a huge poster-sized illustration of the monument. It was displayed at the ground-breaking ceremony and now hangs in banks around town to help raise the funds. The project is moving forward again.

This is the point I want to make: when I made that illustration I didn’t do anything special except use the skills that I have been given to help make a vision tangible–-it didn’t matter how I felt about the project, it just needed to be done and I knew how to do it. In this world we are called upon to do things and, if we are a person of integrity, we do them. That is why people, whether or not they believe in the purpose of a war, chose to serve the country they live in. You are needed, you serve. You give what you have. That is honorable. That deserves respect.

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, to all who served. You are heroes.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

Necessity is the Mother...

One of the wonderful things about hanging out with creative people is getting a first hand view of how endlessly creative they can be. Every painter I know has a variety of widgets and gizmos they keep in their paint kits for various purposes and to achieve certain effects. When I was studying watercolor with Betty Lou Schlemm she taught me this really cool trick to make great water effects. She kept a piece of hard but flexible plastic in her paint box and when she wanted to make the reflection of the side of a building or a pier in still water she just positioned the plastic strip directly below the edge to be reflected and made a quick swipe across the paint. Voila! A perfect reflection.

My sister Lisa is a talented quilter and she is always telling me about her latest tricks for making perfect corners or precise piecing. Her work is gorgeous and when I hear some of the inventive things she comes up with to accomplish her goals I’m always impressed.

I spent most of Sunday evening in my little sewing room turning a pair of luscious 100% cotton brocade sheets into a lovely duvet cover. I was using a flat edge screwdriver to make sure the corners came out neatly when I had to laugh at myself. I wonder how many other seamstresses and crafters keep their toolbox at hand when they are busy with their hobby. The truth is, I’d bet most do. People who are creative in one area tend to be creative in many ways.

This reminded me of a discussion on a knitting list I used to belong to about winding yarn. Those of us who are lace knitters know a lot about this because laceweight yarn almost always comes in skeins as opposed to pull-out balls and has to be wound. The conventional way to do this is with a yarn swift and a ball winder which is fine if you have a yarn swift and a ball winder but if you haven’t made that investment yet you get to be creative. I recently got a big bag of gorgeous handpainted laceweight wool from Handpainted Yarn and spent the better part of a rainy afternoon winding and winding and winding.

Unlike the mermaid in the drawing above I don’t have a tail and so my method is just to place a large fluffy pillow on a chair with a low straight back, place the yarn over the back and start
winding. It is peaceful work. However, the inventiveness of some of the women in the list amazed me. One woman came with an utterly ingenious method of using her kitchen mixer to accomplish this and detailed the method she devised, complete with photos, in her blog. This was picked up by and is available at Make Your Own Yarn Winder. I actually tried it using my hand mixer and it was fun but I really just like doing it by hand.

But my favorite method was described by another member of our group. She used her husband’s power drill and a chopstick. She inserted the chopstick into the bit of the drill, taped the beginning of the yarn to it and - vroom, vroom - began winding. This proved moderately successful but, because she didn’t have a yarn swift to hold the yarn she kept having to stop to unwind yarn from the skein. So her creative juices kicked in and she took one of her living room lamps and placed it on the floor. She looped the skeined yarn over the lampshade (you have to have one that flares out at the bottom, she explained) then loosened the screw-down finule so the lampshade could spin around as the yarn unwound.

She said she was blissfully at work congratulating herself on her creativity when her husband happened to walk into the room. There sat his wife with his power drill complete with chop stick winding up yarn as it spun merrily off of a whirling lampshade. She said he laughed so hard she thought she’d have to stop her work to give him CPR.

People are just plain jealous of the truly creative. ;o)

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 14, 2005

The Anthology Curse

Before writers are published they think that publishing will solve all their problems. Once published they realize what a happy, but dim-witted, illusion that was. And, of course, there are all levels of publication–-local newspapers and magazines, national periodicals, inclusion in chap books and anthologies, and, the crème de la crème, a book of one’s own. I’m still pining for the last one.

Last year when my short story “Asa” was included in Level Best Books’ crime anthology, Riptide, I was just so darn happy to be included that everything else just seemed like more cream. Now that I have had a few weeks with their Windchill: Crime Stories by New England Writers, in which my short story “Homemade Pie & Sausage” is included I am being sucked into the Anthology Curse a.k.a. “Is Mine Better?” There are twenty-two short stories in the book. At this point I have read about half of them and, with each one I read, the old green-eyed monster sits on my shoulder making snide comments. Blyech.

When the books first arrived I gave copies to two of my most reliable readers. My neighbor Eleanor is one of my favorite people to show my writing to. She is bluntly honest but she always tells me how good my work is. What’s not to like? She read the entire book in a couple days and then said (oh, I do love her!), “Yours was the best one in there.” Thank you, thank you, thank you. That’s why she’s my friend.

Of course, I am smart enough to know that the appreciation of friends is a beautiful thing but don’t count too much on it. For one thing, the people who are your friends already have learned to accept you as you are and like you anyway. This is a thing I tell Mark all the time. After working on his book alone and then with just me for a couple years he finally passed out copies of the manuscript to eight friends for feedback. They were highly complimentary and appreciative. That is a wonderful, beautiful, encouraging thing–-but it’s not the same as the critiques of readers who are focused on craft and literary merit. Like all of us, he prefers to believe his friends are much more objective than they are actually capable of being and, like all of us, he hopes that all readers will enjoy and appreciate the book as much as his friends have. I hope that for him, too, but, being more experienced in this process, I am more jaded and less optimistic.

So as I am working my way through Windchill I am having to do battle with the standard author’s challenge of comparing my work to that of others. Brendan DuBois’ story “The Forever Reunion” is wonderful but, well, he’s been writing crime for a long time and he did win the Al Blanchard Award. Then there is Susan Oleksiw’s “What He Should Have Known”. Susan is just a fabulous writer, that’s all there is to it. She has lived in India, she knows more about that culture than I will ever know and she uses it brilliantly in her story writing, so I can’t compare there. Mark’s story “Imprisoned in Maine” is great but I’m the one who suggested he submit it so that doesn’t count. “The Spare” by Woody Hanstein and “Visions” by Leslie Woods had me enthralled but... well, we are very different sorts of writers. And on and on and on....

What is this need we all have to hold ourselves up for comparison with others? Why isn’t it sufficient to say, hey, I did this, and people like it? Why do I have to be better?

I am the oldest of eight children–-I blame that a lot. We live in an excessively competitive culture. I blame that, too. But more than anything, I suppose, it is that inborn desire to be special. To be the chosen one, the one that shines. My mature self tells me that I’m ready to let go of that but the third-grader in me is jumping up and down in her seat, frantically waving her hand, and mentally screaming, “Pick me, pick me, pick me.”

Oh well.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

As Cathy would say, "AAAWWWWKKKK!!!!!"

I hadn't intended to blog today. I was sitting at the computer, minding my own business, trying to get back to work on a manuscript, when this came my way:

Kathleen Valentine and Dan McAlister are on a promotional tour for their very different viewpoints—she’s a sensualist and he’s a moderate. Everyone thinks they’re strangers, but the hot chemistry between them is the lingering effect of their long-ago affair…the one they’re tempted to rekindle. And when these two extremes meet, the result is explosive!
He jerked open his eyes and saw Kathleen. Naked. Dripping wet. Heat and ice washed over him at the sight of her body, just as she had appeared in so many guilty dreams. He turned away quickly, but he’d caught it all...every sexy inch of her. Desire spiked in him and the only thought running through his head was how much he wanted her."

That is from Going to Extremes by Dawn Atkins, a "sizzling" (her definition) romance novelist. The person who sent it to me was doing a search for my blog when she came across the above and thought I'd enjoy it. Well, I do. It has absolutely nothing to do with me except my name but I'd rather have my name in a steamy romance novel than in a book about serial killers or corporate lawyers.

It reminded me of something that happened with one of my characters a few years back. I had posted exerpts from my first novel on a web site as a promotional project while courting agents. One of my favorite characters in that book is a tough, roguish former-mariner-turned-tavern-owner names Sal Testaverde. I chose the name because I had a friend back in Erie, Pennsylvania (the setting for the novel) whose last name was Testaverde and I love the name Sal, Salvatore, because of its meaning--salvation. A few weeks after I published the site I got an email in my Inbox from one Sal Testaverde. You could have knocked me over! I didn't know Sal knew how to use email!!! well, it turned out to be a very nice guy who had come across his own name on my site and got a kick out of the description of Sal in the exerpt posted. We carried on a brief correspondence and I sent him a few sections from the novel in which Sal had a prominent part. He wrote back to say that he enjoyed reading them, was looking forward to reading the whole book and concluded by saying he wished his life was adventurous as my Sal's was. What fun.

I always knew there was a Kathy Valentine who is part of the popular rock group The Go-Gos. She is cute and talented and cool. However, this "Extreme" Kathleen Valentine is quite different. She sounds intimidating. Now I'm wondering if I have the courage to read what she is up to.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Sweet November

I don’t know what it is about November but I have always loved it. It is a quiet, sweet month for me. I love summer and September and October are beautiful and bright. December has always been so dominated by The Holidays that I have mixed feelings about it. By the time winter comes I’m just in survival mode but November is quiet and clear and crisp. A time for contemplation.

The weeks between All Saint’s Day and Thanksgiving are always a time of preparation for me - not for the holidays but for winter. I stock up on books, get out the quilts and comforters, check the pantry for soup-making supplies. This year I’ve treated myself to some new, luxurious bedding and have made a couple trips to Trade Joe’s (the only reason to go across the bridge, in my opinion) to lay in provisions. But mostly I have been spending quiet evenings reading and knitting and writing.

Yesterday Mark asked where I have been for the last couple weeks. “Home,” I say. “Working.” He is writing, too. That is good. We met out on the back shore, the waves have been high and seaspray spatters the rocks and the people sitting on them. What leaves remain are brilliantly gold and that is another thing I love. Much as I love trees, when the leaves are down you can see so much more of the sky. Sun reflecting off the carpets of gold leaves makes everything so bright. We live in a beautiful world. Sometimes that’s all I need.

When I was younger I expected a lot from life. I’ve never been a person who needed a lot to make her happy but I thought that was how life was supposed to be. In all honesty, for much of my life I felt a little ashamed of the fact that I wasn’t particularly interested in acquisition. I’ve gotten over that now - most days anyway. I’ve been thinking a lot about what people expect for their lives.

It’s all this immediate gratification stuff that has screwed us up. I saw a T-shirt that said, “If it’s not immediate, it’s not gratification.” How sad. A lot of what makes a life happy is finding joy in private pleasures. Whether it is reading or cooking or building a book shelf, playing the piano, or hiking a woodland trail, the ability to do those things on your own and revel in the doing of them is gratification on a whole new level.

There’s a lot of complaining going on these days. Everybody likes to point fingers–-it’s “their” fault whoever “they” are. When all else fails there is always God to blame. “How could a God let this happen?” Especially these days after the devastation of Katrina, Rita and Wilma, earthquakes in the Far East and tornados in the midwest, what kind of God lets his people suffer so? That’s one of the oldest complaints on earth.

Writing about The Sparrow by Mary Doria Russell in yesterday’s blog I started thinking about my favorite part of the book–-the part that literally changed my life. After enduring horrendous abuse at the hands of his captors and seeing the death of his fellow team members, Sandoz is returned to the Jesuit monastery in Rome only to discover his mission has been totally misunderstood and he is now th object of scorn and hatred. As he is recovering he has an interview with the Father General of the Jesuits in which Sandoz confesses that his pain is compounded by the fact that immediately prior to his capture he had finally found Faith after years of doubting. He questions how God could have done such a thing to him. The Father General tries to reassure him that through all his torments, God was with him and he quotes the passage from the Bible where Jesus says that “not a sparrow falls that your Father does not mark its passing.”

Sandoz thinks about this and then says, “But the sparrow still falls.” Yes, the Father General tells him, the sparrow still falls.

At the time I read that my beloved brother had just died of cancer and I was furious with God about it. Reading those lines I realized that all sparrows fall. It is inevitable from the moment a sparrow is born that it will eventually fall out of the sky and be gone. But does knowing that make the flight any less sweet? November is a good month for thinking about that.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Writing About Men

After yesterday’s blog I got a couple emails from readers who asked me to tell them which contemporary books, written by female authors, had male characters that I thought were well-done. What an intriguing question! First of all, I think becoming fascinated by a man in a book is not entirely unlike becoming fascinated by a man in real life. What intrigues one woman may not appeal at all other women. I tried to think which male characters lived in my mind long after the book had ended and, strangely, the four that came to mind were a pair of sheriffs, a killer and a priest.

I’ve always liked the men in Alice Hoffman’s books. She has a penchant for creating men with deep flaws who are interesting and basically good - sometimes reluctantly good. I pretty much fell in love with Julian Cash in Turtle Moon - his ugliness and his bad-boy past and his hermit-like existence made him delicious to contemplate. Similarly Gary Hallet, the strong, silent-type cop in her Practical Magic was memorable for his struggle between being a good cop and loving Sally. Alice Hoffman is a unique writer. In her books the plot is secondary to the inner lives–-the hearts and souls–-of her characters. She draws you into landscapes that are characters onto themselves but when the book is over, it is the characters you remember, though not necessarily the plots.

Henry Winter in Donna Tartt’s The Secret History seems to have captured the imaginations of more women than mine. He is a big, handsome, effete, brilliant, amoral college-age man who sees no particular problem with killing one of his classmates for his own good. I can’t say what it is about Henry except that for someone so physically and intellectually gifted he is astonishingly naive. I called him “amoral” but that might be the wrong word. He has standards, very high standards, he just believes that a friend who does not live up to his standards might be better off dead.

I fell hopelessly in love with Emilio Sandoz in Mary Doria Russell’s The Sparrow. Emilio is everything lovable, a boy with a terrible past who is handsome, funny, charming, intelligent, and ... a Jesuit priest. Russell’s book is just plain brilliant. There are few books I have ever read that kept me as totally enthralled as did The Sparrow, in part because of Sandoz and in part because of the books abundant wisdom. And, too, I have wondered if Russell chose his name deliberately. “Sandoz” was the name Emile Zola gave the characters in his books that were himself. Just as Zola became the sacrificial lamb in the scandalous Dreyfus case, so Sandoz was sacrificed by the Church for his particular mission. Emilio Sandoz is as real to me as any real-life person I have ever met.

I haven’t mentioned Jamie Fraser from the Diana Gabaldon novels who is certainly memorable but, since he has a literally thousands of pages devoted to making him so, lies a little outside the parameters I was considering. Still he is delicious.

Writing about a character in Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s Memories of My Melancholy Whores last week, John Updike said “the woman present in the flesh, the wife or surrogate mother with her complicated, obdurate reality and pressing needs, is less aphrodisiac than the woman, imagined or hired, whose will is our own”. Maybe that is true of all imagined characters–-male or female, from books or from fantasies. A writer who can create a character that tantalizes the imaginations of his readers has given them an opportunity to explore aspects of themselves that life might not otherwise provide. That is why many of us read in the first place.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 09, 2005

What is this Chick Lit Thing Anyway?

In this month’s Writer’s Digest Melissa Bank, author of the very successful Girl’s Guide to Hunting and Fishing, was asked about her books being classified as “chick lit”. “The term ‘chick lit’ sounds more chick and less lit,” she responded. “It sounds derogatory to me–-that it’s not serious or substantial or wouldn’t be of interest to anybody who isn’t a ‘chick’.” I’m glad she said that. I haven’t read her book and, in truth, part of that is just because I kept hearing it described as Chick Lit. Not being a chick–-or at least an old chick–-I tended to pass it by. Not that I haven’t read a good deal of chick lit, but what I have read hasn’t seemed very substantive to me. It seems a sort of genre, like romance novels, that you read in quantity on the T or the beach and toss in a barrel before moving on to the next one. That’s too bad.

In the article Bank compared the public perception of chick lit to that of African-American or gay literature and she has a point. While some readers may not discriminate against such classifications there are a lot more who will. This has an interesting consequence, on the one hand readers not intrigued by that category my overlook it, on the other, there is an audience for these books and that audience is eager for the latest addition. It contributes to its success.

Having just finished The Mermaid’s Chair by Sue Monk Kidd, I can say that, like other books called chick lit, it was a bit of a disappointment. It is beautifully written and many of the ideas in it are delicious but I found the ending way too tidy. That’s a tough call sometimes. I like endings that are satisfying–-nothing makes me crazier than a book where the ending leaves me feeling like I wasted my time reading it. But something about The Mermaid’s Chair bothered me and I realized it is the same thing that has bothered me in other chick lit books–-it’s the men.

Maybe that’s what this whole chick lit thing is about, writing for women in a way that shows the inner life of the women at the center of the book but with men who are either one dimensional, pre-fabricated, or outright horrible. Perhaps this is a natural evolution in the post-feminist era. Women now have many of the legal protections and the lack of societal restraints that my generation had. Many of the women writing these books cannot even remember a time when when there were different rules of behavior for males and females.

When I was in college men and women lived in separate dorms and the only time you were allowed on the “other side” was from 1 to 3 on Sunday afternoons and room doors HAD to be kept open. Women had curfews, men did not. Women had to sign out to leave campus, men did not. Women were not allowed to keep cars on campus, men were. When I told this to my college-age nieces they thought I was joking. I mention this only as an example of how differently the experiences of a woman my age are from those of these young women writers who find such limitations unimaginable.

I admire this new strength in young women, sometimes I wish I had their self-assurance and expanded boundaries. And I understand the appeal of books filled with characters they can relate to and empathize with. But I’m a little surprised that all this new freedom and lack of constraints seems to have resulted in less interesting men–-at least in the books. I’m still trying to understand if this new trend, this chick lit consciousness, is so female-centric that it hasn’t made a lot of room for male character development or if that is truly how men are perceived by them. I guess that remains to be seen–-perhaps we can look forward to a second wave, this time of “guy lit”.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 08, 2005

Swatch What You’re Doing (Warning: Knitting)

Now that the sunsets come early and those long, gold-washed evenings of watching the sun go down while talking about writing are but a memory, I have been contemplating new projects. As a knitter I have often plunged into projects before I really gave them adequate preparation and then tried to compensate for that for fudging as I go along. This has resulted in some truly ugly items.

Maybe things are just getting less urgent as I age but I genuinely love taking my time and testing things out before I begin a project. There is something pleasantly leisurely and undemanding about it. I don’t feel compelled to get it right because I probably will just rip it out anyway.

Lately I have been “swatching” - trying out new yarns and trying to teach myself new patterns. The tremendous variety of lace knitting patterns astonishes me. I have a stack of books full of them. So I have set about trying to teach myself a few patterns before I actually begin the projects I have in my head. I was trying to photograph them with the digital camera but found laying them on the bed of the scanner actually worked better! So here are the current fascinations:

1. Traveling Vine - This is a beautiful pattern that I once mangled hopelessly. It would make a gorgeous long scarf with deep fringe so I am working here at getting the pattern down before I begin the scarf. It is knit in Knit Picks’ Cornflower Andean Silk and I think this may be ideal for the scarf I have in mind.

2. Rose Trellis - Ever since I saw the Mediterranean Shawl in A
Gathering of Lace I have been wanting to learn this. I’m not sure what it will be eventually - it is a complicated pattern to learn. Here I am swatching it in the Russian Wool/Angora I got on eBay and I am starting to get the rhythm of it. Whatever it winds up in can’t help but be beautiful.

3. Shooting Star or Frost Flowers - in A Gathering of Lace this is called Frost Flowers but in my old Vintage Knitting Patterns they call it Shooting Star. This is another of those challenging patterns. I decided to try it in Knit Picks’ Sky Shine because of the gorgeous stitch definition of this silky Pima cotton. Again, I don’t know where I will use it but I’m loving learning the pattern.

4. Random experiment - Ever since I saw the Lady Eleanor Stole in Scarf Style I’ve been
wanting to make one. However much of the charm of the stole in that book is the soft, woodsy colors of the yarn they used which has been discontinued. Plus it looks to be a heavy shawl and I’d like it a bit finer. I have searched knitting sites on line and seen some genuinely awful versions of the Lady Eleanor - glaring colors and abrupt color shifts. So I got the idea to try it using half a dozen shades of lace-weight wool from Handpainted Yarn and use two strands together, changing one of the two yarns on each successive tier. That way there will be a softness and continuity. This is just one sample using their Jacinto and Emaral Blue together. I’ve also purchased Violetas, Barbie Rose, Thistle, Fuscia, and Cuarenta to alternate.

So that’s what’s on my mind today. We shall see how the swatching progresses.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, November 07, 2005

Mermaid Tales

When I wrote The Old Mermaid’s Tale, I named it for one of the characters, Tessie, the proprietor of the inn that is the central feature of the book (and of the obsession of the book’s main character, Clair). I chose the name because the tavern that had captured my fascination in my dream-filled girlhood had been The Mermaid Tavern. The entire story grew out of that name. It wasn’t that I had any particular fascination with mermaids and their lore, it was just a name that worked.

Since then I have read countless stories and legends and articles about mermaid symbology and they have become ubiquitous features in my life. On a shelf of the desk at which I write this there is a collection of ceramic mermaids given to me by various friends. So, when Sue Monk Kidd’s book The Mermaid Chair was published a lot of people asked me what I thought of it–-I hadn’t read it. I read The Secret Life of Bees a few years back and had a mixed reaction to it. Kidd is a fine writer with a gift for lovely prose and I very much appreciate her underlying themes of spirituality. It is a thing I much admire in writers, especially these days.

However, I read the book at a time when I was fed up with the “poor, abused and neglected little girl” genre that I’ve ranted about before. And I was somewhat put-off by the Southern Chick Lit label that was a part of nearly everything I read about it. As much as I admired Kidd’s writing, I wasn’t up for another book about abandoned but spunky little girls and a pantheon of kooky but wise older women. Still, enough time seems to have passed and, when I was at the library on Saturday, I picked up The Mermaid’s Chair and started reading it. It is beautiful.

One of the friends who had given me her opinion of the book mentioned the “disturbing subject of a woman’s marital infidelity” and said that was why she hadn’t finished the book. She added, “But if you aren’t opposed to infidelity it might not bother you.” Hmmm. Not opposed to infidelity? I’m certainly not in favor of it. What did she mean? And since when did the objectionable theme of the book disqualify the book from serious consideration?

Among my married women friends marital infidelity is a highly taboo subject. It is something we hear too much about in the media and, in a culture where women over 40 may well be lauded for professional and academic accomplishments but sexually are considered passé, thinking about wandering husbands is too intimidating. Kidd’s book is not about a wandering husband but rather a wandering wife.
Since I recently finished work on a short story, “The Haven” which is also about an unfaithful wife, I felt an immediate kinship with Jessie in Kidd’s book. “The Haven” also has a hint of mermaid lore in it and I was immediately captivated by Kidd’s passages about Saint Senara, the Celtic mermaid saint, after whom the abbey in her story is named. I immediately went online and was pleased to find information about St. Senara. There is in Cornwall a sacred well named for her and, in the town of Zennor, a church in which a mermaid chair  much like the one described in Kidd’s book. Legend says that St. Senara was based on the story of the Princess Asenora of Brittany who was wrongly accused of infidelity and nailed into a barrel that was tossed into the sea. The angels intervened and brought her food and tended her until the barrel washed up on the shores of Ireland. Interesting legend.

I think there is in most women, married or not, a deep sea of emotions, desires, yearnings, and other passions that often go unarticulated in a world that judges women harshly. The mermaid is thus an excellent symbol of the deeper, unrevealed parts of a woman’s life. The mermaid is the beautiful, mysterious but also frightening self that lies beneath the surface. Those passions are very much a part of a woman’s mystique and, when not acknowledged and explored, can drive her to behaviors that she never thought herself capable of.

I’m glad I am reading The Mermaid Chair, it is a beautiful book filled with wisdom. In “The Haven”, Stash tells Christine that when the mermaids sing to a man he has no choice but to listen to their song. Those are wise words for women to heed as well.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, November 04, 2005

O Horrors! Marketing!!!

Last night we had the first meeting of a group that we are temporarily calling the Cape Ann Independent Publishers Cooperative (we have to come up with a better name, something with a great acronym - Cape Ann Regional Publishers Exchange or C.A.R.P.E. - now what do we do about the “Dieum” part?) It was an inspiring evening. The five people there, representing four publishing houses, all have published books through their own micro-presses and the quality of the books is impressive. All of us have plans to publish more.

We talked a lot about our hopes, plans, goals, frustrations with BNYPs (big New York publishers) but the single issue identified by all participants was marketing. How do you do it? What works and what doesn’t? And, most of all, how daunting a task it is.

As someone who spent twenty-some years of her life in the marketing and advertising department of businesses ranging from big energy companies (Enron and Pennzoil) to ad agencies to fiber optic manufacturers, I am the only member of the group who doesn’t find marketing mysterious and intimidating. I am not thrilled about having to spend so much time doing it but it is definitely something I’m used to.

There are a lot of basics that I can teach them - know your market, distinguish yourself and your product, use available tools, cultivate contacts, network, identify alternative markets, etc. etc. But the one thing that is the hardest to overcome for many of us is just the necessity of putting yourself out there. That’s a tough thing to do.

Years ago, in a workshop, a business woman was speaking about her own trials and tribulations in marketing. She was an interior decorator of considerable skill and had been urged by her friends to start her own business. I remember her saying, “I thought I would just go to people’s homes and make them absolutely beautiful and they would give me a bunch of money and that’s how it would work. Was I in for a surprise!” The comment got a laugh but it was a laugh of recognition - particularly among creative folks. We often tend to think that our ability to make something wonderful is enough. Alas.

I work a lot with artists, designing web sites for them and other marketing tools - brochures, postcards, exhibition books. I love having the privilege of working with creative people but I usually see in them something I know all too well in myself. We pour all our energy and passion and personal resources into the work that we do whether it is painting, writing, designing gardens or clothes - whatever - and feel that in doing that, we’ve done our work. But that is just the beginning.

Putting it out there is tough. We live in a world of heavy competition and, even worse, frequent indifference. It is a personal challenge to get over one’s own fears and go out in the world and say, “hey, look at what I did, look at what I can do.” For every person who says “wow, that’s cool” there is one who says “who cares what you did, you self-centered jerk” and two who totally ignore you.

There are two things we all need to remember when it comes to marketing our creations. First, it is going to be work but it can be inspired work when you are marketing something you love. And, second, more importantly, our creativity, in whatever form it takes, is a gift we have been given, a gift that the world needs and may well be somewhat resistant to but that doesn’t matter. The gift deserves a place in the world and we have been burdened with the unique task of putting it out there. Ironically, we come to discover, even something as commercial as marketing, is ultimately an act of Faith.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

So Long, NSAA, See You in the Spring

Today is the day that the North Shore Arts Association closes for the winter. I always find it sad in a strange way. The artists who winter here will still be around. The snowbird artists left weeks ago. Trudy and I will continue to meet for pizza or Chinese food through the winter, meetings will go on as usual, Mark and I will continue to rendezvous in the parking lot to watch the sunset and talk about writing, the building will still be there - just closed. I’ll miss it.

There is something about that building, especially for those of us who served on the board the last few years and spent countless hours discussing its physical health and well-being. The outside hasn’t changed much in the past six years but just come inside!

The first time I entered the NSAA it looked exactly like what it was - an old livery converted into an art association. The wooden floors were rough, battered and stained from close to a hundred years of use. The walls were rough, the lighting was barely adequate, as to climate control - ha! The interior in six years has changed dramatically with gleaming, highly polished floors, sparkling track lighting, carpeted walls, ceiling fans and wall heaters. It is a beautiful, warm, welcoming place. In the summer Trudy, Ruth, and Helen make sure it is filled with flowers. And of course there is the art.

The porch of the art association is still one of my favorite places on earth (above left showing Rocky Neck Art Colony and Gloucester Marine Railways in background). I have spent many, many hours there reading, writing, talking, and just savoring the view. That porch has been a joy in my life. From it I spent time watching the restoration of the Mayflower II at Gloucester Marine Railways across the cove, and saw the Bluenose make its entry into the harbor from Lunenberg, Nova Scotia. On summer evenings we have gathered there for picnic dinners and wine.

One summer we experimented with sangria which we made at home and then brought there to drink as the sun went down. I’ll never forget a luscious white sangria made from a particularly fruity chardonnay poured over halved white grapes and fresh sliced white-flesh peaches, steeped overnight, and then enhanced with a cup of peach schnapps. The sunset that went with that one had tough competition in the scrumptiousness department. (Right, sunset behind Gloucester's City hall from the NSAA porch)

We often hear music coming from the clubs across the water on Rocky Neck. One night the music was especially good and the crowd wildly enthusiastic. We learned later that Billy Joel had stepped in off his yacht for dinner at The Rudder and allowed himself to be persuaded to play that evening.

Tuesday night we had an end of season dinner in the Gordon Grant Room. Everyone brought food and Terry made a memorable shrimp scampi. We ate and drank too much wine and told stories. The telling of stories is one of the art associations finest traditions. Every time a few members gather it seems to happen. Someone will tell a funny story, “I saw Bruce Turner last night and we got talking about the time that...” and then it goes on and on. “Tell about the time Emile Gruppe tried to go painting with Aldro Hibbard” and “remember that story about Don Stone painting the grass”. It can go on all night.

Mark moored his boat, F/V Black Sheep off the art association (left) for all the years that he fished from it. It is still moored there, now owned by another lobsterman. Mark wrote much of his book sitting in his truck in that parking lot. When we first met I thought it was an astonishing coincidence. We have promised ourselves that over the winter we will get that book to press. By the time the art association opens in the Spring, F/V Black Sheep will be a book as well as a colorful boat moored there. As always, I already look forward to Spring.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, November 02, 2005

Reclaiming Romance

When A.S. Byatt, that most erudite and distinguished fiction writer, titled her 1990 novel Possession: A Romance many of us hard-core romantics rejoiced. She opened her book with a quote from Nathaniel Hawthorne’s preface to The House of the Seven Gables which included, “The point of view in which this tale comes under the Romantic definition lies in an attempt to connect a bygone time with the very present that is flitting away from us”.

I loved those words and I loved that she had called her novel “A Romance”. When I finished (or so I thought) my first novel I titled it The Old Mermaid’s Tale: A Romance of the Great Lakes in homage to Byatt and also to support the effort to reclaim the word romance to its rightful meaning.

Much of early American literature was written as romance in the original sense and gobbled up by Europeans who savored the blend that Hawthorne defined, the connection of a bygone time with the present. James Fenimore Cooper, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Herman Melville wrote richly of a mysterious new world that was both confounded and enriched by the past. The American Romantic Novel was a fresh and exciting form.

When I first began marketing my novel to potential agents and publishers I was astounded by how many replied with a curt, “We don’t handle romance novels.” I was stunned. What were they talking about? Hadn’t they read my synopsis? How could they call my novel a romance novel? But it was the subtitle that they saw and they went no further - A Romance of the Great Lakes = romance novel = automatic rejection. I had failed to take into consideration the power of the contemporary romance novel which is a formula genre with very specific rules, a very specific audience, and which is dismissed by many publishers outside that genre. Like other specific genres - mysteries, science fiction, westerns – romance novels have their place in the publishing world and that place is carved in stone.

I’ve never knowingly read a modern romance novel but I know a little about the form - fiesty, ambitious, and beautiful woman struggles against daunting odds to find love and success and, after overcoming a variety of roadblocks, achieves both with the man of her dreams. The End. It’s a depressingly trite evolution of an ancient literary form.

The original romance novel grew out of the medieval romantic tradition of the adventurer setting out on a quest. In the pursuit of his goal he encounters challenges that test his virtue, his resolve and the very fiber of his being. It is what Joseph Campbell called The Hero’s Journey. When the romance novel moved to America it was given a fresh new face in a world that was mysterious and fraught with dangers and all the more exciting for it. Now the hero had to not only test his mettle but do it in a setting where there were no guideposts, where fresh dangers were uncharted.

Over time, as the New World became tamed and more familiar, novels with a romantic theme evolved but still retained that lush, sensory timelessness where myth and reality merged, and love and adventure existed in tandem, characters were faintly archetypal and their quest was plagued by moral dilemmas that tested their virtue and their ethical resolve. It is an honorable form.

Maybe the challenges of virtue and ethics are problematic for contemporary readers. Maybe a simple form like the contemporary romance novel is as much a challenge as they want. Its predictability is comforting. But I still believe there is a place for the other romance novel, the traditional romance novel. I want to take that word back from its current definition and restore it to its earlier meaning. Not an easy task, I realize, but traditional romantics have never been interested in what is easy.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 01, 2005

Feast of All Saints

Today is November 1, All Saint’s Day, a Holy Day of Obligation in the Roman Catholic Church. It is a day in which the Church pays homage to all the saints who do not have days of their own on the Liturgical Calendar. It is also a reminder that saints are everywhere and one never knows when one might be called to act in a saintly manner. It is a high, but challenging, calling.

I sometimes wonder if there are still saints in the world - people capable of total self-abnegation, people who have the capacity to turn themselves over to God’s Will without question. Not that saints are perfect by a long shot. I think the current perception is that a saintly person is always self-sacrificing and, above all, nice. That’s not saintliness that’s co-dependence. I could write a book about it. In fact, I think I have.

But true sublimation to God’s Will? How would you ever know? Like most people I have a strong and crafty will that is capable of convincing me of anything if I give it enough reign. We live in a tough world where most of us know more than is probably good for us. I tend to think that the reason so many of us surround ourselves in walls of noise - from the eternal chatter of television, to music blasting through headsets, to the general cacophony and pandemonium of daily life - is to shield ourselves against such callings. Does the voice of God stand a chance of getting through all that? If God has a message for most people He has stiff competition from their iPods.

During all the upheaval in the Church in recent years I have found myself getting very defensive on behalf of the thousands and thousands of good, kind, devout, self-sacrificing clergy around the world who have devoted themselves to doing God’s work. For every abusive priest there are hundreds who have given their well-being and often their lives to serve. I was talking to a woman recently, a former Catholic, who said, “Every time I see a Roman collar now my skin crawls. I just want to scream ‘pervert!’.”

I found that nauseating. One could just as easily see, in that Roman collar, all the martyrs, and all the saints who have done Christ’s bidding in feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless, comforting the afflicted. But righteous indignation is very fashionable these days. We are so outraged at the behavior of “them”. It’s a good retreat from the sure knowledge that we are only marginally better when we continue to support a culture that lets abuse exist.

But I meant to talk about saints and saintliness. I recently read a biography of Padre Pio. He was, by all accounts a very cranky and contentious man. Certainly very far from being “nice” but I wonder if that might not be something a genuine saint cannot avoid. Doing God’s Will is not easy, it requires sacrifice and doesn’t want to hear excuses. No bad-hair days on that path, let me tell you. For someone like Padre Pio who endured constant battles with the forces of evil, the whiney concerns of many pilgrims could well seem pretty bratty. My Mom taught me the first rule of saintliness when I was four - “QUIT WHINING!”

So today is the day we remember those blessed souls who acted with courage and faith in a world that has little tolerance for those virtues. It is a beautiful day here in Gloucester, warm and sunny with the fragrance of smashed pumpkins rising from the pavement. A good day to stay quiet, say a prayer or two, find a quiet place to retreat from all the noise and listen. Someone may be trying to get your attention.

Thanks for reading.