Friday, December 30, 2005

The Passion of Christopher Lydon

To those of us who have been fond of Christopher Lydon for years there is one thing you can’t miss about him – he really, really, really likes people, in all their idiosyncracies and strangeness. Listening to his “Passion Week” broadcasts on NPR’s Open Source this week, I was reminded of how wonderfully refreshing it is to be in the presence – if only over the airwaves – of someone who likes what he is doing. I used to think that about Charles Kuralt, too, when he was the host of Sunday Mornings and On the Road with.... I always watched and loved the way he loved the goofiness and peculiarities of the people he interviewed. It’s a beautiful thing to behold.

Christopher Lydon’s “Passion” programs have paid homage to those in the world who just totally love something – knitting, birding, candy, cookbooks... the list goes on. As I listen to the programs I am recognizing a bit of myself in all of them and I think that is a good thing. As Diane Keaton says, “I like that about me.” If you look up the definition of “passion” it derives from a Middle English word meaning “to suffer”. That’s depressing. The word “passion” evolved from the notion of suffering under one’s desire for something – or someone. But over time it has evolved to mean something more akin to enthusiasm, one of my favorite words. It derives from “en theos” or “the God inside”.

So what are all these passions and what is the point of them. Basically, what I have decided after listening to four of these programs now, that passions are a way of taking total joy in something and allowing your life to become richer and more full through that passion. I can certainly speak to the passion for knitting. For me knitting is multi-dimensional, as I said yesterday. It is meditation, relaxation, centering, creative, and connects me to others who share my passion.

Last night the program was A Passion for Birding. Though not a passionate bird-watcher, I am an appreciator of passionate bird-watchers. My friend Jim Barber has taught me about that. Jim is a guy who has a hell of a story to tell about his life and birding, his total love of birding, has helped him change that life. When I met Jim I knew very little about birds and, over the years, through emails and his wonderful message board, For the Birds, I’ve learned a lot. I would shoot him an email: “Hey, Jim, there’s a funny looking bird at my feeder, it looks like...” and he would shoot back an email: “Sounds like a Downy Woodpecker” accompanied by a confirming photograph. Jim is the organizer of the annual Cape Ann Christmas Bird Count – you can read all about it on his board.

A Passion for Cookbooks was wonderful, largely because I have at least a hundred of them, once wrote one, and, like Jane Kramer who Lydon interviewed, read them like I would any other book, whether I plan to cook anything or not. Kramer does something that I find remarkable. She selects a cookbook and then cooks her way through it until she has made all the recipes in it that intrigue her. She has cooked her way through Paul Prudhomme and much of Julia Child among others. Now that’s passion!

I haven’t heard The Passion for Perfect Clothing program but I can certainly expand on that by confessing to a passion for luscious fabrics in beautiful colors. I may just wear sweatshirts and drawstring trousers much of the time but the sweatshirts are made of creamy, soft cashmere and the trousers are silk. I sew to savor my passion for fine fabrics.

Passion is a beautiful thing. It makes the world a much more interesting and delicious place. I’m so grateful to Christopher Lydon for allowing his passion for human idiosyncracies to create this series.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 29, 2005

A Passion for Knitting

I was in the kitchen last night sauteing red and yellow pepper strips in GOOO (Garlic, Onions, Olive Oil) when Jane called. “Turn on the radio,” she said, “Christopher Lydon is doing a program on knitting. It’s fascinating.”

Actually, somewhere in the back of my mind I had filed away the information that this program was going to be on NPR’s Open Source, I’d just forgotten about it. Open Source has done a very clever thing – they are using their blog as a resource for developing stories. The more I blog and the longer I enjoy the world of blogging, the more I am realizing what an amazingly versatile tool it it. (For an excellent blog article on the benefits of blogging for writers see Joe Clifford Faust's Blogging as Writing ). What Open Source has done is start a blog in which topics are introduced and then those willing to join the blog by providing their names and a valid email address can add their comments to the blog. Out of the response they can build the components of a program.

Last night the program was A Passion for Knitting. Among the guests were Debbie Stoller from Bust Magazine (one of my favorite magazines) and the author of the Stitch’n’Bitch books and Joe Wilcox of Queer Joe’s Knitting Blog, a blog I visit regularly. What a treat to listen to these people talk about their love of a craft that I have been practicing for over 40 years now.

My brother Wayne taught me to knit. He learned from one of the nuns in school and my knitting technique was refined over the years by a couple other of the Benedictine nuns from St. Joseph’s Monastery back home. Because those women had learned to knit from their German mothers they knit in the German manner – holding the yarn in the left instead of the right hand – and I still do that. It is a much easier way to knit, I think, but makes following directions on complicated lace patterns a little awkward. I’ve adapted.

On the program they talked about the history of knitting and the variety, the zen-like tranquility of it and the sublime satisfaction of making something with your own two hands. I’ve often thought that I am addicted to knitting – if I don’t find time to knit in a day I feel restless. It is like meditation (I’ve been saying that for 20 years). I need the quiet, calm, centering rhythm of it to de-stress after a busy day.

One caller compared knitting to binary code and that made my ears perk up - what a perfect analogy! Binary code, that magical, astonishing technology that brings us the very medium through which we are currently communicating is composed of 1 and 0. That’s all. 100011001010100110101010 – it goes on endlessly bringing us quick communication, music, news, science, fun, sex, information, jobs, finance - everything technology is capable of transmitting all through a 1 and an 0. Knitting is composed of K and P (knit and purl for you non-knitters). The combination of K and P comprises thousands of patterns from Aran-style cables to dainty knitted lace and is the basis for all the T-shirts, sweaters, socks, cardigans, turtlenecks, etc. etc. made by the thousands every day - whether by machine or by hand. Incredible.

So, check out Open Source’s web site and you can even replay the program on your computer. In the mean time I have to show you what I have been doing since Christmas. I call this my Barbie Rose scarf. The yarn was purchased from Handpainted Yarn, a woman’s collective in Uruguay. I fell in love with the color, called Barbie Rose, and it arrived all the way from Uruguay on Christmas Eve. I’ve been happily knitting by Christmas tree light ever since.

P.S. I've added a photo of the yarn so you can see the thick and thin quality of it.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Nabokov’s Words

“Swept out of the valley night by an inspired oneiric wind, I stood at the edge of a road under a clear pure-gold sky, in an extraordinary mountainous land. Without looking I sensed the luster, the angels, and the facets of immense mosaic cliffs, dazzling precipices, and the mirrorlike glint of multitudinous lakes lying somewhere below, behind me. My soul was seized by a sense of iridescence, freedom, and loftiness: I knew I was in Paradise.”

Thus begins Vladimir Nabokov’s story “The Word”. Those lovely people at The New Yorker Magazine have given us, as a Christmas present, the first-ever translation of that work in this week’s International Fiction Issue of their magazine. After being so thoroughly depressed by Lolita I was very happy to see this story in the magazine when it arrived the other day and last night I read it again just to savor the beauty of Nabokov’s words without the disturbing content.

I think there is something magical about the ability to use words well. Though I have never been a great one for reading much poetry I remember my first awareness of the beauty of words came while reading some poetry by Gerard Manley Hopkins when I was in school. Later I had the same reaction to Dylan Thomas but it is prose fiction that dazzles me most when the words are finely, magnificently used.

A.S. Byatt is one of my favorite writers. She has a gift for pouring music into her words and making descriptions so delicious I get so caught up in the visual impressions that I can forget about the story. In Possession, Maude and Roland enter the decayed and crumbling part of Maude’s ancestral estate house and venture into the room that had been Christabel’s where she hid her love letters in the bottom of a cradle full of dolls. That passage is so exquisitely crafted that I could swear it is a memory of a past experience of my own and not something I read in a book. I love the books of Isabel Allende for the same reason. Not long ago I read Regina McBride’s The Nature of Water and Air and was so mesmerized, so enchanted, by the imagery woven into a tale of a strangely haunted woman – half-human, half-“selkie” – that I failed to notice that the story had some flaws that didn’t surface until I tried to tell a friend what the story was about. Such is the power of well-crafted prose.

Mark and I have been talking about this a lot lately. He is (I hope, I hope) nearly finished with his last rewrite of F/V Black Sheep during which he has been working on refining his prose and rewriting trite imagery. For a guy who has spent his life at sea – either under it or over it – he has a natural gift for language. Maybe that comes when you don’t do a lot of talking. In one of my favorite passages in his book he says, “my house sits on a tidal marsh in back of Good Harbor Beach, I work on my lobster traps there and watch hawks soar.” What beauty from absolute simplicity of language! Recently I had pointed out a trite descriptive phrase in one chapter and suggested he change it. He did and the imagery he chose just stunned me – it is that beautiful.

Russians have a reputation for being great visual writers. Nabokov certainly illustrates that. They say that the Irish and the Russians are the best lyrical writers. In the Twentieth Century a good many South Americans joined that group. I wonder what it is that makes some nationalities more gifted in a particular discipline than others. The Germans have produced few brilliant painters and many brilliant composers. The French and the Italians, well, they can do anything.

In the same issue of The New Yorker there is a memoir by a contemporary Russian, Tatyana Tolstaya which ends with these words:
“Clench a fragment of Yorick in your fist–milky and chill–and the heart grows younger, pounds faster and strains; the suitor wants to snatch the young lady, and water spouts like a fountain to all ends of the sea, and the world circulates, whirling, spinning, wanting to fall; it stands on three whales, and splits away from them into the head-spinning abyss of time.”

Ah, words!

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Reading "Lolita"...

After reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran, and reading Robert Ellis’ blog about Nabokov’s Lolita, I decided I wanted to read it and am trying to. It isn’t easy. Ellis said he read it after reading Jane Smiley’s Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel which is also on my to-do list. So many books, so little time. I can understand why it is a great novel if only for the beauty of Nabokov’s language. He loves words and plays with them beautifully, musically, carrying you along through some truly revolting ideas with mellifluous language.

I am about two-thirds of the way through, and will finish if only to assure myself that Humbert does indeed die, but I don’t ever recall disliking a character more than I do Humbert Humbert. Which begs the question, how does one handle reading a beautifully written and constructed book filled with revolting and unsympathetic characters? I guess I’m sticking with it to find out.

I wrote a blog some weeks back about sad, depressing books with no redeeming value but this book does not fall into that category – I think. The redeeming value, apart from the beauty of the writing, is still eluding me but I’m willing to trust that a novel that has withstood the amount of time this one has, did so for a reason. I have yet to find any of the characters to be sympathetic but am also aware that, because Humbert is the narrator, it may be his inherently detestable nature that makes them seem so. His descriptions of women – other than his adored and salivated-over nymphets – are scathing and he doesn't have any more tolerance of men. I have to give Nabokov credit, he has gotten inside the head of a thoroughly revolting human being and brought him vividly to life. I admire Nabokov for that though do not envy him. I doubt I’d have that amount of courage.

The central issue of Humbert’s character, of course, is his overwhelming erotic obsession with “girl-children”, his nymphets over which he rhapsodizes endlessly, and his possession of Lolita, the 12 year old daughter of a woman he married who was conveniently run over by a truck a month later -- leaving him with this child. Now, the thing is, Charlotte, the mother, as seen through Humbert’s eyes, was a really nasty piece of work and his observations on her may not be entirely unfair. Her treatment of Lolita is disturbing and her scheming to snare the single Humbert when he comes to board with them is embarrassing. So she’s no prize. And, apart from her physical allure for him, Humbert doesn’t much like Lolita either. She’s a spoiled, whiney brat and one gets the sense that he would be much happier if she were entirely stupid and completely lacking in a will of her own.

In one paragraph Humbert muses over the fact that he only has a couple of years in which to “enjoy” her before she turns into a teenager, a “detestable creature”, and then a “revolting, heavy-bottomed co-ed”. He muses about how he will dispose of her when that day comes but then does entertain the notion that it might be worthwhile to keep her until marriageable age so that he can legally marry her, get her with child and begin breeding himself a second Lolita, a daughter/granddaughter, with his "own blood running in her lovely veins”, who might become old enough for him to use for his pleasure while he is still virile enough to do so. He even goes so far as to fantasize about maintaining his masculinity long enough for the violation of a third generation - a Lolita III.

Clearly, I am having problems with this book. I don’t think I’m alone in that and, to a certain extent, I think it is an important book for the inside-the-head look at a pedophile it provides. I know there are Humberts in this world, though I wish there weren’t, and I think Nabokov, in some strange, subtle way, is illuminating something else, something more than the eroticization of girl-children in many segments of society. Humbert is an arrogant, self-absorbed man who sees no reason why he should not have what he desires. Maybe it is that alone, more than his sexual obsession, that differentiates him from too many others. That is the truly frightening part.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 23, 2005

How to Write About Christmas?

Like everyone I have been thinking a lot about Christmas and trying to sort out my feelings about it. Christmas is hard to write about without slipping into sentimentality or romanticism or grouchiness. I grew up in a big, Catholic family and Christmas dominated at least a quarter of the year. It began when the first aunt or cousin said, “I’ve got most of my Christmas shopping done already” (this happened sometime after the Back to School Sales signs were taken down) and ended with the dismantling and disposal of the Christmas tree sometime after Little Christmas or Epiphany.

There is a lot going on in between those dates - Halloween, Thanksgiving, Advent.... life - but Christmas was decidedly the Holy Grail of annual Catholic family life. The thing about Christmas was that there was so much to think about -- presents and baking being the main ones. In our family they were about equal in importance. And of course there is decorating, and then there is the lists and lists and lists of people you have to remember – teachers, coaches, business associates, far-off relatives, the guy who helped you fix a flat tire last summer. And cards, don’t forget cards. You have to buy them and chose the right one and write little notes and address them and lay in a supply to be sent out in a hurry to those folks you forget but who didn’t forget you.

Well, suffice it to say Christmas required those three months to prepare for and the extra couple weeks to clean up from. I liked Christmas when I was a kid and, even after I left home, always went back for Christmas for a good many years. Even when I lived in Texas I flew back each year until the Christmas came when the man I was with said, “I wish you would stay here this year.” That was when Christmas began to change.

That turned out to be a difficult Christmas for me. For one thing I wasn’t used to Christmases where people came to dinner wearing shorts and we ate outside at a picnic table. Talk about culture shock! It was fun but I felt like I missed something – something important.

Since then Christmas has changed a lot for me. Some years I have gone back to Pennsylvania to be with my family. Other years I have stayed wherever I was to be with friends. For awhile I tried to maintain the traditions I grew up with, then I tried to create Christmas traditions of my own. In recent years I have no idea how I feel about Christmas. There is a little nostalgia for a past that is long gone. Christmas has gotten to be a competitive sport among too many people and I can’t handle that. I’m religious enough to not want to let it go and yet not so religious that Christmas has great significance beyond a sweet reminder about an infant being born in a stable. I love the story, the legends but I am educated enough to know that it is largely symbolic and so the actual date of the celebration is something mankind has created.

Christmas is “loaded”, y’know? You want the fairy tale but reality isn’t up to that. You want the romance, the sentimentality, or you reject it altogether. My best times have been spent with a few people I like cooking, talking, laughing. I’ve learned that I have to do Christmas on my own terms not to resent it. Making gifts for special people in my life, making my truffles and passing them out to those who don’t expect them, calling someone to say ‘I’ve been thinking about you’ and be reassured that they have thought of me too. And then just being quiet.

So I play music that I love. I’ve attended a few parties and have a couple more ahead. On Christmas I am making beef
bourguignon, one of my few specialties, to share with a few well-loved friends. Otherwise it is a time of quiet and peace and contentment for me. Maybe by next year I’ll have this Christmas thing figured out but for this year things are going well. Life is good. All is right with my world.

Merry Christmas, to all of you and yours. May your holidays be beautiful and may the New Year bring peace, love, and prosperity to you all.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Winter Solstice Sunset

What a gorgeous sunset! I think the blog today is just going to be a tribute to the longest night of the year, last night, and the glorious sunset that it began with. All of these images can be enlarged by clicking on them. The first image was taken from my favorite place, the fish pier, that's Gloucester's working waterfront across the water.

Below is the Man at the Wheel taken from Stacy Boulevard.

I took this at Niles Beach and that bright spot in the sky is Venus. The bright spot on the horizon is Logan airport in Boston.

This is just a little farther down Niles Beach, the trees there are so wonderful in winter. Venus is visible through the tree branches.

What a glorious night.

Thanks for reading.


Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Winter Solstice & Tino’s Truffles

Today is the Solstice, the shortest day of the year. It is a day I try to stay mindful of. From this day forward there will be a few extra moments of light at the end of the day. It is a turning point and that is something to be aware of. I think it is a good thing to stay aware of points were changes happen in the natural world, it helps us stay connected to our source.

The ancient had rituals for these times and out of those rituals grew the traditions that many of us continue to this day. I’m not prone to lots of Christmas decorations and all the brouhaha that some people thrive on over the holidays but I am glad other people do them. It is a sweet reminder of our ancient selves.

Yesterday I mailed off the last of my Christmas gifts that are going elsewhere. The shawls, complete with Leslie’s beautiful pins, are flying through the air thanks to the USPS reindeer – along with other treasures. Most of my gifts are handmade which is a tradition that I value. Other than that I give a lot of books – naturally.

Last night I stopped at Trader Joe’s to pick up the last things I need to finish making my gifts and tonight I’ll celebrate the Winter Solstice by making my father’s favorite treat, handmade chocolates that I call Tino’s Truffles, after him.

I don’t know where this recipe originated, it is one of those things that has gone through many evolutions throughout time and always seems to get better and better. I’m not a great cook – I can’t remember when the last time was that I baked anything – but I make these chocolates every year and mostly for the men in my life. Even though women have a reputation for craving chocolate (my sister Lisa claims there are times in the month when she would pay $10 for a Hershey’s Kiss), I’ve yet to meet a man who didn’t go nuts for these. I make scarves and shawls and bath products for the women I love but the men get these chocolates.

Now the trick to all of this is using the best ingredients that you can find. It isn’t a cheap operation but I only do it once a year so I try to do it right. I started out using grocery store chocolate chips many years ago but now I prefer Trader Joe’s Pound Plus 70% Dark Chocolate from Belgium – it is not expensive at all and is fabulous. So this is how Tino’s Truffles are made:

Brew a small pot of very strong, very good coffee. Break the chocolate into small pieces and put it in a glass bowl over a pan of hot water. As it melts stir in 4 ounces of the strong coffee. When the chocolate is melted, remove from heat and add 4 ounces of excellent bourbon. Stir well until the mixture begins to cool a bit. As it cools stir in two sticks of the best quality, unsalted butter that you can find. Make sure the butter is at room temperature.

In a blender or food processor, pulverize enough ginger snaps to make a cup of crumbs. I’ve used all kinds of ginger snaps over the years and, once again, like Trader Joe’s the best. They are very spicy and “gingery”. Fold the crumbs into the chocolate. Add any extras you like – raisins and walnuts are good – but the chocolates are delicious plain. Put good powdered cocoa in a soup bowl, stir in some cinnamon, and scoop the chocolate mixture out with two teaspoons, pat it into a ball and roll it around in the powdered mix. Set on wax paper or place in little paper candy cups. When all are ready, put them in the fridge to chill but let them come to room temp before serving.

For me a good deal of the fun of this project is finding the ingredients – stopping at a gourmet shop to check out their cinnamon and raisins, the trip to Trader Joe’s. I think that these chocolates are a lot like all of life for me – it is the little extra additions of love that makes it so delicious.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

Maxfield Parrish Skies

My friend Karen was the one who first introduced me to Maxfield Parrish. She sent me a postcard from somewhere - she always went to the most wonderful places - with a scrumptious blue and pink sky. They made me think of my favorite crayon in the Crayola box, Sky-Blue Pink.

Later I found a huge book of paintings by Parrish on a book store rummage table. I brought it home and our love affair began. I loved the simple beauty of his illustrations -- like something out of a fairy tale I had dreamed about. Sweet girls in wispy dresses, bits and pieces of temples and castles, adorable boys who were so in love. And always there were those skies!







I had been living in New England for a few years before I heard about the Currier Museum in Manchester, New Hampshire. What an extraordinary jewel that is! Not only do they have a collection of Parrish's work but a few years back they had a wonderful exhibition of Parrish murals. While reading Parrish's bio in one of the books I bought, I found that, as a child, he had come with his father to Gloucester to summer and to paint! Well, that explained where he got those sky-blue pink skies of his!

I know there are beautiful skies in most places but somehow the skies in Gloucester seem exceptionally gorgeous to me. Especially as winter closes in, it seems that Nature tries to compensate us for the oh-so-early sunsets by making them extra beautiful. I took the four photos here around four in the afternoon one day last week. Today the sun set at 4:11... but it did so beautifully.

The picture at the top of the page was taken from the parking lot of Eastern Point Lighthouse. The sun is setting over Dogbar Breakwater in colors that Parrish would adore.

The next photo is of Eastern Point Light and the Coast Guard Station keeping an eye out for Gloucester fishermen headed home after a hard and, hopefully prosperous, voyage. By the time I shot those the sun had set but I love the way the trees are twisted and gnarled by the seawinds -- a thing you appreciate better in winter when their leaves are gone.

And finally there is beautiful Good Harbor Beach with Salt Island in the distance, the Twin Lights of Thacher Island on the horizon, the tidal creek in which Mark spent a good chunk of his childhood -- and a rising moon.

Maxfield Parrish died in 1966 at the age of 96 leaving behind a remarkable body of work. He was a genuine original, following no school or tradition but carving out a singular and unforgettable style of his own.

Personally, I think that all stems back to Gloucester....

Thanks for reading.

Monday, December 19, 2005

Writers Write II

I have been reading Henry Miller On Writing and it is just wonderful. Ironically, Robert Ellis over at Mystics of the Ordinary and I discovered this book at the same time and have both been reading it. He has blogged about it before. There is just noone like Henry Miller – for better or for ill – but, even at his most raw, Miller manages to be likeable. Hemingway once said, "There is no malice in Henry." Miller was critical of much of Hemingway’s work but then admitted that he never would have gone to Paris had it not been for The Sun Also Rises.

But Miller loved writing and in this book, culled from segments of his other work, he talks about that over and over. His oft-repeated premise is that writers must write and not give a damn what people think of their writing. If you write you do so because that is what you do and whether or not others approve of what you have to say or how you say it is immaterial. I certainly appreciate his sentiments. "Being an artist," Miller says, "is a process of stripping away. A successful artist dies completely naked."

I’ve been thinking about that a lot because I know how true it is and how hard it is. In order to survive in any art form you have to develop a very thick skin and not give in to the soul-killers and the wet blankets. I suppose that might be said of any endeavor that is worth pursuing but in the arts it is particularly necessary – in no small part due to the fact that for ever artist there are fifty critics and, as has been pointed out time and again, scratch a critic and you’ll find a failed artist.

Julia Cameron says there are artists and shadow-artists. I suppose that is not unlike the shadow side of the personality in Jung – the dark side that most people don’t want to own. Those without the nerve or tenacity or plain old bullheadedness to stick with their own art are often the most brutally critical of others.

So how do you strip away the layers, bare the self, and maintain a tough hide at the same time? Good question. Miller would say, just do it. Just write and don’t worry about who reads your work and what they think of it. God knows he didn’t.

When I was much younger and read his Tropic books I, like many people, was dumbfounded by his graphic talk about sex. Later, when I understood more about writing (and about sex) I understood that all Miller’s painstaking descriptions of his own sexual exploits were a somewhat clumsy attempt to unveil a greater, more profound reality in the sexual act. Now, considerably older, more experienced and wiser, I think Miller was on to something but that he made one very bad mistake in his endless sexual passages – he tended to forget there was someone else there with him. Still, it is hard to miss the celebratory tone of his writing – he wanted sex to be brought out of the Victorian closet it had been stuffed in for so long and appreciated for its own sweet sake. I wonder what he would think of the state of American sexuality today!

Miller once said, "I feel that America is essentially against the artist, that the enemy of America is the artist, because he stands for individuality and creativeness, and that’s unAmerican somehow." Interesting sentiments in these schizophrenic times! American duality is everywhere – we celebrate the notion of individuality but deplore people who chose to veer from the norm and go their own way. We use sex as a standard of everything - success, attractiveness, entertainment – but we deplore immorality. We make an entire industry of entertainment but belittle artists who don’t give us what we want. Miller had it right.

But writers write, painters paint, dancers dance, and singers sing. And the shadow artists carp and complain while life – and art – go on.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, December 16, 2005

Evil happens...

This isn’t going to be one of my usual cheery blog entries but I think it is an important one. I have long loved a quote from Victor Frankel, “Evil happens when good people do nothing.” Consequently, I decided that what I have been going through for the last year needs to be talked about and information made available for others who may be experiencing the same thing.

As regular readers here know – especially in the last few days – this board has been plagued by comments from flamers that were so nasty and so persistent that I put the board on Moderate Comment status. These flames are just the latest in a long series of harassing behaviors directed at me by a very small, but very persistent, group of people. The situation began on a message board I was once active on. It was the sort of board where a lot of insults and jabs were traded. At first it was funny but a few people took it to a new level and it became increasingly ugly. All of that would have been tolerable but a few of those people began a second board where they had a positive orgy of nastiness largely directed at me. By last estimate there were close to a dozen threads on that board – which I never made so much as one post on – some of which were evil, invasive of my privacy, and outright libelous.

At the urging of some friends, and with the help of a legal professional, I began to look into the legal protections from such behavior a couple months ago. While I won’t detail what is going on in my situation, I can tell others who are experiencing such abuse what they can do about it.

First of all, save everything! Save the pages of the abusive and defamatory threads on the message boards, save emails, save private messages, save comments to blog pages. Virtually every message board records the IP addresses of the people who post there even when they post under a screen name. On boards such as Yahoo groups, EZBoards, Ikonboard, etc. there is an IP address feature that is usually only visible to the administrators. But those IPs are a permanent part of the record and can be tracked. The same is true of emails even those mailed from web-mail sites like Yahoo and Hotmail. Blogs and blog comments are the easiest to track, especially if the blog resides on the blogger's own FTP, as mine does.

Many states now have laws against internet harassment, defamation, and cyber-stalking, etc. Threatening behavior, abusive comments, defamatory comments, etc. are defined as “unwanted contact” and are against the law. Most police departments today have access to cyber-crime divisions and/or resources and what they can do is amazing. The police professionals in these departments are very helpful and they do not trivialize the threat of cyber-harassment. I was absolutely astonished at some of their capabilities.

Once you contact them and submit message board posts, emails, blog comments, etc. they can identify the IP addresses and track them. A few, isolated communications may not be threatening but repeated, defamatory, abusive harassments are logged, the ISP contacted, and the customer identified. Big providers like America Online, Earthlink, etc. are highly cooperative. When an IP address is identified as belonging to someone engaging in repetitive harassing behavior, their names and addresses can be logged and their harassing behavior tracked. My hosting service automatically logs all referrers (visitors to my sites) and allows me to “flag” ones that I identify as problem visitors. From that point on I can always tell when they post or attempt to post comments to my blog.

This isn’t a fun thing to be involved in but, as Frankel points out, if you let people continue to behave in a criminal manner, you contribute to their evil. If the unwanted contact persists, you have legal recourse – whether it is something as common as filing a restraining order against them to pressing charges.

One very good web site for gaining information is the National Center for the Victims of Crimes - Cyber Division . I am also accumulating other references and resources at: Information for those being harassed and stalked online. (more info added 12/17).

As I have been talking more openly about my experiences with cyber-harassment, I have discovered that I am not alone – others are going through the same thing. Whether it is someone directly threatening you or just using the internet to perpetrate lies, ridicule you, or in any other way defame you, there are resources available to stop it. Leslie Wind and I are planning a Know Your Neighbor type event to inform people in this area of what we have learned about fighting cyber-crime. It is something that needs to be identified and talked about.

I just want to be able to have a nice blog without having to be under siege from flamers. I realize that there will always be those who don’t like what I have to say and register objections – that is fine. But telling me my ideas are crap is a far cry from impugning my character, telling lies about my behavior, denegrating my character and my person, etc. Fortunately, I got good advice and steps have been taken to identify and monitor those perpetuating the harassment. If you are in such a position I urge you to begin keeping a record NOW, check out the laws in your area, and contact your local authorities. Internet abuse IS A CRIME! Help stop it.

Thanks for reading.

Related article: "Hate Fans"
Punk Rock Knitter and Knitty Kitty give their opinion on this issue:

Regarding trolls and anonymous bitchbabies. I love these girls!

Thursday, December 15, 2005

Good Neighbors

This morning, as I stood waiting for the coffee to drip, I watched the sunlight creep into the cemetery behind my house. It is a cold morning and the frost makes pretty patterns on the storm window. The neighbors out back are quiet – they usually are. The large headstone closest to my house reads, “Erected to the memory of Moses Morse who was drowned at sea in his 42 year. 1827.” Poor Moses, he’s not out there of course but I always think of him when I look out my window and see his headstone. I wonder what he was like.

I grew up in a neighborhood where everyone knew everyone else. We were in and out of one another’s houses all the time and the neighbors’ homes were just extensions of our own. Later when I lived in Texas I was lucky to live amidst friendly neighbors but that is not a difficult thing to find in Texas – everyone is friendly. I got invited to barbecues while standing in the checkout line at Foley’s. However, when I moved to Marblehead things changed. I lived out on Peaches Point, a lovely neighborhood, but other than waving as we passed in our cars, neighbors didn’t interact much.

When I decided to move to Gloucester I was having difficulty finding a place to live. My friend Jude, who is very into such things, made me do visualization exercises. She swears by them – I’m not as sure. But I kept imagining a white room with a big white fireplace with lilacs outside the window. On weekends I was driving to Gloucester to look at apartments that were either too small, too dark, or too far out of town. Finally, one woman who was showing me a place said, “Well, I have one place that might be open by when you need it but I’m not sure.” I asked to see it anyway.

The street was quiet and narrow, just two blocks from Main Street. The house was huge and very old but beautifully kept. It was built in the late 1720s, she told me. There were iron boot scrapes on the door step and bottle glass windows in the door – and lilac bushes. When I stepped into the living room it was white, with a white fireplace. I knew then it would be mine.

I have lived here happily for years now and love it as much now as I did when I moved in. The house was loving restored by the father of the present owner back in the Fifties using many of the original doors, hardware, and trim. Inside the fireplace is an iron hook to hang a kettle from, the iron latches on the doors click when you lift them as they did nearly 300 years ago. And behind the house is an ancient cemetery – the oldest Universalist cemetery in America.

I love this neighborhood and, through the years I have grown to be equally fond of my neighbors. I have watched the kids grow up and head off to college, spent mornings on porches drinking coffee and hearing about the old days, taken pies to doors when someone close had died. Last winter when I had a nasty flu Eleanor went shopping for me. Maria and I stop and catch up with each other’s lives whenever we are arriving back home at the same time. Recently I have been helping Sandy edit papers she is writing for college classes she is taking. She brings me fish from her husband’s boat – the best fish I have ever tasted. This past summer Veronica organized the neighbors to clean up and clear out the cemetery. It is pretty as a park these days and all day I see people walking their dogs and stopping to read headstones. Even the sounds have become treasured and familiar – young Joe practicing on his skateboard on summer nights, the predictable thunk when Ralph’s Boston Globe is delivered early in the morning.

It is a beautiful thing to live among people you know and care about. We live in an era of alienation when everyone is so busy that they don’t often have time to be neighborly. I count myself blessed to be among people who still treasure that old value. It is a rare gift these days.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Three Shawls, Two Pins

Well, Christmas is approaching faster than I wish it would but then I'm not the world's leading Christmas celebrant anyway. I love the events, gatherings, concerts, and plays but I'm not real crazy about the whole shopping thing. Consequently I often make a lot of gifts. I've been considerably cheerier since the advent of the internet and the invention of cyber-shopping.


But three special people in my life will be receiving handmade shawls this Christmas and I wanted to post pictures before they go off to their new owners. The one at right is going to Erie, Pennsylvania to my dear godmother. Her name is Rosie and this yarn matches her name beautifully. It is a very soft blend of mohair, wool and sparkly metallics and rayon that I bought from an eBay vendor in Hawaii. It is a simple rectangle -- the center knit in garter stitch on the bias for super, snuggly drape. The border is Old Shale, the most adaptable of all stitches.

In the photo above is the shawl pin that will be going with it! This pin and the one on the shawl below were handmade by my lovely friend Leslie Wind. Leslie is a metalsmith par excellence who hand makes each of the pins and sells them in her shop in Folly Cove or through her web site www.LeslieWind.com. She has six styles available in bronze and silver. Each can be engraved and they start at $25. All you have to do is call her at 978-546-6539 and she'll send them to you!
The shawl above right and left is going to Crested Butte, Colorado to live with my friend Trudi. Trudi and I met when we both lived in Marblehead close to twenty years ago and have been friends ever since. Even though she now lives in Colorado we still talk several times a week. The shawl is another rectangle made of wool, mohair, alpaca, and silk yarns carried together. It is a simple Old Shale with a Seed stitch border. Trudi often calls me to tell me that it is 20 degrees below zero and the coyotes are freezing to the driveway. I figure a warm shawl is a good thing to have in such a place.

The shawl at left is going to Pittsburgh, PA to my darling niece Emily. Emily, her husband Joe, and two little ones, Drew and Claire, live there. Joe is a professional baseball player who pitched for the Pirates for a couple years. It's a busy life for a young family as Joe is with different teams all the time but they are based in Pittsburgh and this shawl just looked like Emily when I finally finished it.

At right you can see the shawl with another of Leslie's beautiful pins on it. The fiber the shawl is made from is a blend of wool and angora, is unbelievably soft, and a lovely, delicate natural shade.

Below is the shawl spread out. I used the instructions in Meg Swansen's Snowdrops and Snowflakes but instead of the snowflakes pattern in the center I used Ostrich Plume. The photo below gives a pretty good idea of the stitch definition.

And again I want to say how beautifully Leslie's Shawl Pins compliment the fibers. She made one for me and I wore it with my Mermaid Shawl to a dinner last night. Not only did it look great and afford me many compliments but it held my shawl in place on a very chilly evening. Ever since I became a convert to shawl-wearing I've used an old moonstone and garnet hair clasp as a shawl pin (above, left). It's a beautiful piece that I received from an old boyfriend many years ago when I had very long hair. It makes a good shawl pin but it is a little heavier than a good shawl pin should be. If you are giving shawls and scarves, or if you just love wearing them, a Leslie Wind pin is certainly an elegant accent.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

In the Novel as in Life...

In a recent interview novelist Jane Smiley, who won a Pulitzer for her novel A Thousand Acres, made the observation that novelists are not only different from other writers but different from other people. And that a person cannot really be understood apart from the information that they are a novelist.

I have been thinking a lot about the power of the novel ever since hearing Joe Orlando speak at the library recently. His observation that novelists have changed the direction of history -- think of Victor Hugo and Harriet Beecher Stowe -- has stayed with me. The difference between someone who writes a novel-length book telling a true story and a novelist is that the non-fiction writer writes about a specific group of people, in a specific situation, at a specific point in time. The novelist, at least the skillful novelist, tells a story about people who could be anyone, anywhere, at any place in time.

Novelists are watchers. They are people who pay attention to the way people talk and interact. It is an often made observation that the reason there are so many novelists who come from working class backgrounds and from rural areas, particularly in the South, is because the people in those groups tend to interact with each other more than in more affluent segments of society, and they tend to be more tolerant of individual peculiarities. Novelists are made by reading novels, not by leading interesting lives, Smiley says. But they shape characters and dialogue from their attention to the world around them.

Novelists are often controversial people because the very fact that they observe those around them the way they do can cast a pall of suspicion and speculation among acquaintances. But while most novelists may observe the behaviors and mannerisms of those around them, their use of what they observe is done on a much broader scale that may have little to do with those they watch. It is the fact that novels speak of truths far greater than any single work of non-fiction that gives the novel -- the good novel -- its power and longevity. Is it therefore any wonder that throughout history oppressors have demonized artists -- especially novelists?

I recently finished reading Azar Nafisi’s Reading Lolita in Tehran. It is a powerful book - not a novel but rather a memoir about how novels helped make sense of a world gone mad, the world in her case being life in Tehran from the time of the overthrow of the Shah, through the Islamic Fundamentalist Revolution and the war with Iraq. Much in the book disturbed me.

Under the Shah, Nafisi was a professor at a university in Tehran and, like other women in Iran at that time, enjoyed a very pleasant quality of life. They were well educated, wore clothes that were fashionable and attractive, held good jobs, and had active social lives. Over the next twenty years all that was stripped from their lives and the oppression of women we now hear so much about came to dominate these women’s lives. Through this Nafisi and her students, who gathered -- illegally -- in her home to read and discuss novels by Nabokov, Fitzgerald and Austen, made sense of the madness in their society through the universal language of these novels.

Using Humbert’s gradual usurpation of his 12 year old victim’s life in Lolita, Nafisi sorts out the usurpation of the lives of the women of Iran by the rebel Fundamentalists. Everything – the slow and then more powerful demonization of all things liberal and progressive, the rallying cry for a return to traditional values, the condemnation of protest as being unpatriotic – all the tricks that the rebel Fundamentalists used to send their society back a hundred years are chronicled in Nafisi’s book and explained in relation to the theft of Lolita’s young life by the pedophile Humbert who Nafisi says is made a villain by one fact, the fact that he has no ability to understand the feelings, wants and/or needs or another person.

If ever the power of novels was made clear it is in Nafisi’s book. Her experiences, and the novels she employs to clarify their universality, is something we would do well to pay attention to. Now more than ever.

Thanks for reading.

Postscript: If you are interested in more observations on Nabokov's Lolita, I would recommend Robert Ellis' blog entry on it. Ellis' blog, Mystics of the Ordinary, is a good blog if you are a book lover.

Saturday, December 10, 2005

Tonight's Sunset

Despite our snowstorm yesterday, today was just wonderful. I happened to look out the bedroom window just at sunset and this is what I saw............ not bad........

And check out: SilentMenSpeaking.com --- more to come........
Hope your day was wonderful, too.

Friday, December 09, 2005

What Writers Talk About

There is an old adage that art critics talk about art but artists talk about where to get the best prices on canvas. That isn’t entirely true, artists also talk about art but getting canvas at a good price is often a big consideration. I was thinking about this last night after I left the Hovey House Writer’s Group meeting. It was a smaller group than usual, only nine people, but, as often happens when the group is smaller, the talk was both lively and productive. We didn’t break up until after ten.

Writers work in many genres – fiction, non-fiction, technical, how-to, poetry, technical – but all writers face many of the same challenges, publishing and marketing chief among them. Last night’s discussion, which had originally intended to focus on fiction writing, covered the gamut.

Four of those present are fiction writers – each of us with at least one completed novel to our credit. Of the lot I have known Cynthia the longest. She and I met in a writer’s workshop over ten years ago when I first moved to Gloucester. We have met periodically to compare work and discuss publishing issues. Most recently we did this at Ingeborg’s house. Ingeborg is our star within the group having published two novels with BNYPs, one of which was nominated for a national book award. Inge has recently self-published her third novel, Shoreland, and Cynthia and I have considered this so Inge’s input on this controversial topic is most instructive.

Mary Ellen and Jane have published several books apiece through their own small presses. The discussion began, as it often does, with the changing face of publishing. Less than 25% of books published by major presses in this country even break even let alone become best sellers and, in this day of investors’ bottomlines, that is increasingly discouraging news for writers.

The upside is that the internet, technology, and innovative printing methods have leveled the playing field in many ways. Doug is a tech-wiz and always has fascinating and heartening information. Rebecca has been working with Inge to market her latest novel and has become a walking resource on publishing technology.

One of the two new members to our group, Stan, is an advocate of blogging, as am I. Both of us began blogging in the last year and have seen the astonishing results this strange practice can yield. Within six months I have seen traffic on my web sites triple and more and have acquired business which is directly attributable to this blog. Stan has seen the same thing. We’re both converts.

We talked about writing specifically for marketability as opposed to writing “from the gut”. For me writing what I am drawn to is the only way to write. For others writing to appeal to a market segment is a useful and productive tool. I found their observations encouraging. That is something I need to cultivate more of.

And we talked about craft. Some of us are obsessive re-writers, like Inge, Cynthia and Mary Ellen, I obsess over every word. Whatever the talk turns to it is helpful. I always learn something. I always come away believing that to write is all that matters. The rest will take care of itself.

I love writers. I have always found them to be generous people who can rise above personal differences in deference to their art. It is a beautiful thing to be a part of. I have been talking with Joe Orlando, author of The Fisherman’s Son, since his talk at the library last week. He has agreed to come to the next Hovey House meeting to talk about the process of getting his book into print. He’s a warm, generous and interesting man. As always, I look forward to being there.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, December 08, 2005

Starting Over

Well, it just wasn’t working. I tried my best to make things better, I tried to be clever, subtle, patient, softer – nothing worked. Finally I had to make a hard decisions, I had to call it quits and now, alas, I am starting over. Lady Eleanor and I have to begin again.

Yup, I ripped the whole thing out. Sigh. I had such an amazing vision of what my Lady Eleanor Stole was going to look like by using a strand of hand-painted, sport-weight silk and a strand of hand-painted, lace-weight wool but the result wasn’t what I wanted. The color transitions were too obvious and the fabric was just a tad too light. It didn’t have that rustic, heathery look I envisioned so — ri-i-i-i-i-ip.

Now, I am starting over using the silk and two strands of wool switching the colors on a rotating basis and, so far, I like the results. Plus, because I am knitting it on size 8 needles instead of size 5, it is going much faster. See what you think of the results.

I was plowing through my stash recently looking for a few more yards of an ivory colored angora I needed to finish up a project. I opened a bag that looked like it had something that color in it and discovered, much to my amazement, a very large hank of a gorgeous silk/rayon chenille in a color called “Pearl” that I bought at Webs in Northampton some years back. I had forgotten all about it! Originally I made a triangle shawl out of it that I ultimately gave to my friend Caroline. I had completely forgotten I had a lot left over.

So I got out my finest needles and started a simple scarf on size 2s. It is just gorgeous! Unfortunately the photo doesn’t show it off the way I wish it did. Maybe when it is longer I’ll re-photograph it against a dark background.

So it is almost Christmas and I am trying to finish up a few projects. I have three finished shawls which will be winging their way to their new owners next week. The Snowflakes and Snowdrops angora and wool shawl I posted pictures of here is going to my niece Emily. There is also a shawl for my godmother and one for a dear friend that I need to photograph before they are gone.

As for the Mermaid Shawl... I haven’t forgotten about the requests for directions, I’m just abysmal at writing them so I am thinking about starting a knitalong for it after the first of the year. The whole idea of knitalongs appeal to me. I have been following the progress of a couple of them on other blogs and think that might be the best solution.

So it is another cold day and I have a mountain of work ahead of me. Lady Eleanor is looking good – I am optimistic that this time the relationship will prove lasting.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

Know Your Neighbor: M. Lynda Robinson

Leslie Wind has more ideas than anyone should be given in a lifetime. And the astonishing thing is, she not only acts on them but creates some genuinely amazing results. Her jewelry studio is a perfect place to meet interesting people anyway. I always tell her it is the Folly Cove equivalent of the neighborhood barber shop. I have rarely been in there that there weren’t several people gathered to chat.

Some years back Leslie got the idea to create an event where people in the community could gather to listen to one of their neighbors speak about their life. She called the program Know Your Neighbor and the beautiful Ralph Waldo Emerson Inn in Rockport agreed to host the events. Over the years they have grown in popularity and now attract a sizeable group of local people who gather to enjoy coffee, tea and treats while listening to a neighbor talk.

Last night the guest was M. Lynda Robinson, an actor, director, writer, and producer who is the current program manager of the West End Theater in Gloucester. Robinson has a distinguished background in the performing arts having acted in both the theater and on screen. She is a former artistic director of the Gloucester Stage Company. In the past year she directed WET’s production of The Vagina Monologues and Women and the Sea.

I’ve never understood the urge to act. When I was in college I did a little bit of it and afterwards belonged to a community theater group for a few years but acting is too frightening to me. Consequently I have a great respect – a respect that borders on awe – for the people who do it. As a writer, I know what it is to leave yourself behind, get inside a character and re-experience a situation. But writers do that in the safety of our little rooms – not on a stage or before a camera where people will actually be watching us. That takes big courage.

Lynda Robinson has remarkable energy. It is fascinating to watch. Her humor and her grace is captivating. I suppose, like most people, I think of acting as something that is always done in a theater or in movies and television and, though Robinson has done all that, she certainly expanded my knowledge of what a professional actors career consists of. From voice-overs and trade shows to writing plays and monologues, teaching, directing and producing, she has done it all.

She talked about the variety of her experience and answered questions throughout her talk. Her most difficult
acting job, she told us, involved appearing nude on stage. ‘That was hard,’ she admitted. When asked what her favorite roles were she immediately replied, ‘Tennessee Williams – The Glass Menagerie and A Streetcar Named Desire.’ When asked role she would most like to play she admitted, ‘I think I’m going to have to write that.’

She spoke very frankly about the challenges to women who act once they pass forty. The pressure to hang onto a youthful appearance through surgery is intense and the roles that are of interest are few. But she is continually finding new venues, new challenges and new adventures.

The best part of the evening was when she performed two monologues she wrote and is developing herself. The first one, “A Cup of Tea” is a delicious reminiscence of an aging woman savoring a cup of tea while she muses over an adventurous and considerably improper life. The second one was one side of a telephone conversation between a frustrated, exasperated, and weary actress and her therapist. Both were simultaneously funny and poignant.

Leslie never fails to find interesting people to introduce in these evenings and, in Lynda Robinson, she demonstrated once again that Cape Ann harbors many treasures, chief among them the people who live here.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Snow Days

It snowed last night. Not a lot about enough to turn the world white and give that lovely sense of quiet to the world. Since I began working at home and don’t have to get out and commute I have come to love snow days. I dug out a couple of my Solstice CDs and put a pot of Trader Joe’s Wintery Blend coffee on. The house is warm and fragrant and I have to get to work but need to take a few minutes to write.

Yesterday Mark and I spent a couple hours down at the fish pier watching two draggers being unloaded and making sure the world keeps turning properly. You have no idea how many of the world’s problems get solved during our fish pier sojourns. 'See that boat,' Mark said, ‘I helped the guy who owns it bring it back from Nova Scotia after he bought it.’ Gloucester fishermen seem to put a high value on Novi boats. Mark’s boat, F/V Black Sheep, on which most of the action in his book takes place, is a Novi boat that he brought back from Nova Scotia alone.

‘O’Reilly’s off his rocker again,’ Mark told me. He is a conservative and listens to talk radio during the day, a thing that he introduced me to. I was fascinated for awhile but eventually lost interest. Mark keeps me informed of the pressing issues of the day. Bill O’Reilly is one of our favorite talk-jocks to discuss. I used to listen to him regularly but got tired of his melodrama.

‘All the stuff going on in the world and O’Reilly’s freaking out about Christmas trees.’ Mark said. Yes, I’ve heard him.

It occurs to me that we’ve lost all sense of proportion in this world. Everything is cataclysmic and extreme. That same morning I had been in the grocery store which was packed with people buying provisions for the coming snow storm that was bearing down on us. We got maybe 2 inches. Granted this has been a year of extreme weather but this coming-storm obsession with clearing out the Poland Springs aisle has been going on for years.

I like the simplicity of my life these days. The little pleasures of making a kettle of soup on a snowy day, going to the library and coming home with my book bag full of treasures, attending local entertainments where I know half the audience, spending a few hours with a friend I love sipping coffee and discussing life and all its vicissitudes is wonderful.

Yesterday I had a spat, carried on through emails, with someone I barely know. In the midst of it Leslie called. She has been my friend for years. We are the same age and both single businesswomen who are very involved in the community. We have spent countless hours discussing our lives and our ideas. I told her about the spat and read her one of the emails.

‘My God,’ she said, ‘I can’t believe anyone would even think that way. He sounds nearly hysterical.’ Like O’Reilly, I couldn’t help but think. ‘How well does this guy know you?’ she asked. We’ve met maybe three times, I told her. ‘You and I have been friends for years,’ she said, ‘and I can’t imagine anyone thinking about you that way. It’s painful to even hear.’ Yes... well...

It is a snow day. A quiet, beautiful day filled with snow is a good time for snuggling in, getting quiet, calming down and appreciating our world. Bill O’Reilly will rant about something today but I won’t listen. Others given to histrionics and massive drama will exercise their craft. I’ll make soup and do my work.

The world will keep on turning.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, December 04, 2005

Silent Men Speaking

Please see Carl's new web site for performance information: SilentMenSpeaking.com

During the Viet Nam War I was either in high school or college at Penn State. None of my brothers served. I only knew a few guys from my home town that went. At Penn State I knew a lot of returning GIs who were in college by then. There was something mysterious about them to most of us. They walked around campus in their green Army jackets with beards and long hair and tattoos and looks on their faces that I was too young and naive to understand.

Later I fell in love with two Viet Nam vets. Both relationships ended badly – at the time I didn’t know why. I do now. I regret that I was as unaware of what hells they had been through but then, at the time, they themselves didn’t know the tolls those hells had taken.

Carl Thomsen is a beautiful man. He is tall and muscular and rugged looking. Until tonight I had never seen him dance and, I have to say, I have never been as devastated by a performance in my entire life. His performance of the dance he wrote and choreographed, Silent Men Speaking, is mind-numbing. From the minute he appears, alone, on the floor, until the dance end some 65 breath-taking minutes later, his body and what his body can do, is the only thing that exists in the room. He speaks the words of the stories he is telling and there is a soundtrack that he moves to and they are fine but it is his body, his movement, his metamorphosis, that is the focal point.

The West End Theater is a perfect venue for this dance because it is old and battered and hard - a bare wood floor, brick walls draped with black fabric, spotlights that follow him as he carries his audience into a world where no one would want to go except in the safety of art. His body is a helicopter, a machine gun, a soldier in boot camp, rain hammering mud, bullets splattering mud, parts of bodies, broken bodies, bodies in chains being tortured — dead bodies. You cannot tear your eyes away and, unless you are blind or dead inside – you cry.

His stories are culled from the stories of four Viet Nam vets, David Bianchini, Allen Gaskell, Marc Levy, and Robert Vinson. They tell the stories of a little boy who played with little green army men and then became one; a priest who left the seminary to become a helicopter pilot; a boy who became a medic because he didn’t want to be a butcher and came to believe there wasn’t much difference; and a kid from a terrible home who became a soldier, a prisoner who spent six months in solitary confinement, an alcoholic and then a mountain climber. All the stories are achingly honest.

The sound collages by Jeffrey Steele are perfect – the sounds of helicopters and jungle birds and machine guns and rain is interspersed with Steele’s own music and excerpts from Credence Clearwater Revival’s “Fortunate Son”, Billy Bang’s “Tet Offensive”, and the requisite Doors and Buffalo Springfield snippets. Thomsen moves with unearthly grace and ungodly power through them all.

His Dance of the Burning Monk is shattering. I found myself scarcely able to breath – I remembered all too well images in the paper and on television of those monks so devastated by the war that they set their own bodies on fire in protest. And Thomsen’s final dance, The Wall: With every one of them a piece of me died... reduced me to sobs.

I wish I had the power to make this performance available to everyone. I wish anyone who thinks that war has good purpose would experience it and, for Christ’s sake, learn the lesson. Carl Thomsen has created something extraordinary that deserves a much greater venue than The West End Theater in Gloucester. Maybe a few might learn...

My father served in World War II, a war that was necessary if ever a war was necessary. Later in his life he used to watch World War II movies with John Wayne and Robert Mitchum and Burt Lancaster. I often watched them with him. We didn’t talk about it but it was a thing we did together. One time in the middle of some heroic moment my father looked at me and said, “You know this is all bullshit, don’t you?”

Bullshit? I didn’t know what to say. “Yeah,” he said, “they like to make out like it’s all glorified heroics but it’s not.” He sat silent while John Wayne did some amazing thing. “War is waste,” he said at last. “It’s waste and bullshit and vanity.”

I forgot about that until I saw Carl Thomsen dance tonight. I’ll never forget either of those things – my father’s words, or Thomsen’s dance again.

Thanks for reading.

Please see Carl's new web site for performance information: SilentMenSpeaking.com

Thursday, December 01, 2005

Writing Gloucester: Four Novelists Speaking

One of the many things that Gloucester has to be proud of is the tradition of the Lyceum that has been alive in this town for 175 years. The concept of lyceum is distinguished anyway. It got its origins in ancient Greece where informal schools were held for anyone who wanted to attend. Lectures were given and all were invited. It was both a social and an educational event. The lyceum came to New England in the late 18th century, mostly in small towns such as Gloucester, and citizens could gather to hear speakers on a great variety of topics. In Gloucester we are fortunate that this tradition has been kept alive and flourishing.

Tonight the Sawyer Free Library hosted a Lyceum featuring four local novelists. Over fifty people crowded the main floor of the library and John Ronan, the host of a local television program called The Writer’s Block, acted as moderator.

Peter Anastas is a friend and I have previously written about his books No Fortunes and Broken Trip. His book At the Cut is a memoir of growing up in Gloucester in the forties, a little Greek kid in a town full of Irish and Italian kids. Broken Trip is a lean, spare novel about the rougher side of Gloucester – the drug addiction, prostitution, alcoholism, fractured families, homelessness and general dysfunction that is an aspect of life here that many would like to deny.

Kory Cucuru is a young guy, barely thirty, who quit college to become a stand-up comic and to ultimately write St. Peter’s Fiasco, a comic novel satirizing both the revered St. Peter’s Fiesta here and Sebastian Junger’s popular The Perfect Storm. I have not read his book but intend to now. Cucuru is from an old Italian Gloucester family with more than a few names on the walls in City Hall. He published the book on his own and said he sells more copies in bars than in bookstores.

I read Joe Orlando’s book The Fisherman’s Son a year and a half ago when it first came out and liked it. Orlando is a local attorney whose office is just a couple blocks from my house. He is also a Gloucester native and, despite being a lawyer, has the heart of a novelist. “The novel,” he said, “is the art form that can change the world.” Since this is a belief that I hold dear, he immediately won my appreciation. He said that when he was a boy and read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin he knew he would want to write novels some day. And when he read that Abraham Lincoln once said to Mrs. Stowe, “so you’re the little lady who started this great big war” he knew that the novel was more powerful than technology.

Anthony Weller is the only novelist of the group who is not a Gloucester native though he has been visiting here since he was a boy. He is a beautiful man with a multitude of gifts. I have not read his book but I have heard him play the guitar with Herb Pomeroy’s Trio. He has published four novels, including The Siege of Salt Cove, with major publishers and has traveled the world as a journalist.

Listening to these four men speak was a treat, especially to a fellow, albeit less accomplished, novelist. They spoke about the novelists who influenced them (Weller loves V.S. Pritchett, Cucuru prefers Vonnegut, Anastas mentioned John Collier). They talked about loving Gloucester (“it’s full of anarchists,” Anastas said) and about how Gloucester’s earthy, gritty island mentality has captivated them.

But most of all they talked about writing, all the things writers always say - write every day, write what you know, writers write. But there was more than that. In listening to them I heard the love of what they do – more than love, a passion for the written word, the need to say “this is what I have to say and I’m going to say it.” As one who shares that passion for the written word I was proud and humbled to spend a little time with them.

Thanks for reading.

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