Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Yo-Yo Mama

I was talking to my sister Lisa on Sunday and the whole time we were talking I was aware that she was holding the phone between her chin and her shoulder. This is by no means unusual for either of us. We both grew up with the busy-hands-are-happy-hands attitude of our grandmothers and mother — and no inconsiderable amount of nuns. While we catch upon each others’ lives we also cook, fold laundry, knit(me), cross stitch (her),and sew (both).

“What are you making?” I asked. She giggled and then said,”You’re going to laugh at me.” Yeah. So? What are you making?

“Yo-yos,” she said. “Remember those yo-yos ladies used to make out of scraps of cloth?” As a matter of fact I did so we had a good discussion about the right way to make yo-yos and she told me about the project she is working on — an American flag formed out of burgundy, navy and tea-dyed muslin with little stars all over them. “It’s so adorable,” she told me, “I’ve already made one and I’m making another one for my friend. I can’t believe how much fun I am having making these silly things.”

Since I have been vastly entertained lately making granny squares for my silk jacket I can’t very well say much about her making yo-yos and, in fact, I think it is quite wonderful. We talked about other projects we have seen made from yo-yos. Lisa remembers a clown that our Grandmother Werner once made from multicolored yo-yos. It had a wooden ball for the head and big jingle bells for the hands and feet. I had an idea for an envelope style evening bag made from yo-yos of different luxurious fabrics — velvet would be nice because it doesn’t fray.

“Isn’t this silly?” Lisa asked. “I mean it’s so old-fashioned. But I love doing it.” There is nothing silly about it at all, I said. In this crazy, hi-tech world what could be more of an antidote to all the craziness than sitting and stitching? Doing something creative, using your hands, letting your mind wander and just enjoying the process, thinking about the end result.

I am doing some work these days for a woodcarver/sculptor who makes fabulous things — everything from a ship’s figurehead to the ornaments that decorate the massive organs seen in cathedrals. I won’t tell you his whole story now because I am writing about that and it is quite a story to tell. But, in addition to his commissioned work he teaches woodcarving. He said that most of the people who come to him do so because they have jobs that are very analytical and the idea of spending time with tools and wood and making a thing of beauty is nourishing to their spirits.

I want to go online and search for a pattern for a yo-yo clown to send to Lisa. She has promised to send me pictures of her yo-yo flags and I am sending her pictures of my granny squares. It is a wonderful thing to love making stuff like this. There is a serenity and a contentment in it that isn’t readily found in the world. Lisa’s littlest boy, Patrick, is following in his mother’s footsteps. He loves to make things, too. It is a heritage worth passing on this business of using one’s hands and making things that make us smile while we are working on them. Sister Claudia was right, “Busy hands are happy hands.”

Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Suspension of Disbelief

When I was a kid my favorite thing to do was find a secluded spot, often this was in the closet under the steps back behind the coats, and get lost in a book. I learned very early about the magic of books and stories which is a wonderful thing. As children we can easily turn off our critical thinking and enter into a different world. As we grow older it is not always so easy. Often, when I am watching children playing, especially when they play alone, I marvel at the way they can tune out everything and enter into their play world.

Once while visiting two of my little nephews I was holding two of their stuffed animals and I started acting out a sort of puppet show with toys in my lap. The boys, who were 3 and 8 at the time, were completely engrossed in the play between the two animals even though they could see my hands holding them and my mouth moving as I spoke for them. The older boy, at 8, would occasionally look up at me and say “you’re doing that” as though to reassure himself that he knew the truth but then he would look at the toys and slip right back into the imaginary world. The 3 year old was completely captivated.

As I have grown older it has become increasingly difficult to let my mind disengage from “reality” and slip off into an imaginary world. Sometimes it happens during a really good movie or when I am listening to audio books and knitting. The best times are when it happens while reading. I love that feeling of getting totally absorbed in a story to the point where I am no longer part of my everyday life. But it is hard to allow myself that when there is so much that needs to be done these days. This weekend was different.

I have been putting in a lot of long hours lately and, while my work is not hard in a physical sense, it gets draining. Creativity is demanding at times. This weekend was bitterly cold with temps well below freezing and I have this new down comforter that I am completely in love with. Friday evening I shopped and got a good supply of groceries so I wouldn’t have to go out if I didn’t want to and Saturday I did what passes for cleaning around here. Then I picked up a book I had been saving.

I bought this book over a year ago after reading a review about it. It is over 700 pages long and, while I love long books like that, I rarely buy them because I think I’ll never get through them (exception made for the last three Harry Potter books). But this weekend a 700 page tome was just what I needed. I turned down the heat, made pots of tea and snuggled under my comforter and left this country and this century. It was wonderful!

There is something so nourishing to the spirit to just let go of all the things that we fill our lives with — all the worries and the plans and the “shoulds” — to just suspend your disbelief about time and location and slip off into story. It is as good as a vacation.

The book I slipped into this weekend is The Quincunx by Charles Palliser and it is wonderful. Palliser is a Scottish professor who writes about old England much in the style of Dickens and Jane Austen with a more modern sensibility. But the book, while responsible for my being able to let go, is less important than granting myself the time to do that. Being self-indulgent enough to get lost in a book for a couple days is a very good thing to do for oneself.

So today I am back at work and have plenty to do. I am only halfway through the book and know that I will be stealing time in the evenings this week to spend with it but the wonderful thing is there is this new little place in my mind filled with interesting people and amazing places that I had never been to before and lots of ideas. In rare moments I can go there and believe in it. And that is the magic that was an everyday part of childhood life. I’m happy to reconnect with it.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, January 26, 2007

The Men Who Invented Romance

Ever since I started work on LiteraryGloucester.com I have been trying to get an essay written to put up there. At present there are five of them — all wonderful and worth a visit. Peter Anastas, the consummate gentleman and appreciator of all things artistic, has contributed three essays — one each for his great friends, Charles Olson and Vincent Ferrini, and one for Jack Kerouac, who grew up in Lowell. My dear friend Nan Webber, the distinguished actress and artistic director of Theatre in the Pines, has written a lovely piece on T.S. Eliot who spent many a summer on Eastern Point here in Gloucester. Mark chose to write a great little piece on how he, as a beginning writer, found support and validation through the writing of Andre Dubus III of nearby Newburyport.

So it is about time that I get to work and write something, too. I want to write about Nathaniel Hawthorne who lived most of his life down the road apiece in Salem. Hawthorne was an interesting man, a fifth generation American when he was born in 1810. He worked for awhile in the Salem Custom’s House on Derby Street and it was part of my homage to Hawthorne that I made Baptiste in my novel The Old Mermaid’s Tale work part time in the customs house.

But, most significantly, Hawthorne invented the first American novel of the American Romantic tradition. A tradition I much admire and long for. Along with Herman Melville, from New Bedford, and James Fenimore Cooper, from New York state, this unique and wonderful literary form was born. (Slight aside: I found out recently that Cooperstown, New York, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, was founded by one of Cooper’s fore-fathers.) Their novels written in the middle of the nineteenth century were a significant departure from the literary traditions of England, Germany, and France. Rather than stories about people embroiled in society and all its complex hierarchies, bigotries, and rules, the heroes of the American romantics were men standing alone against a mysterious and unknowable world where rules were ambiguous and society was not yet formed.

It is a wonderful thing to imagine the world those men found themselves in — a young country not well-known. Of course by the mid-nineteenth century most of the continent had been explored but outside of cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, society was pretty loose. Their writing made good use of that by taking characters who had been formed by a particular society and setting them alone in a wild and mysterious landscape where rules were hard to understand. It is not possible to overstate the importance of the landscape in these novels and how it informs and shapes them.

The character of the great American Romantic novel has always enchanted me and is a far cry from the sorry state of what has come to be known as the “romance novel” — terrible things. In the American romantic tradition, love and relationships may or may not be figure into the story, but there is a mythic quality to the characters that is nearly archetypal and owes much of its intrigue to legends of the ancients. Arthur Dimsdale, the tragic hero of Hawthornes’s The Scarlet Letter, could be any man at any time in history who fell in love with the wrong woman. Ahab, the obsessed and despotic captain of the Pequod in Melville’s Moby Dick, could be any tyrant obsessed with a quest and with revenge. And where, in all of literature, is there a more purely romantic figure than Hawkeye, the white man raised by Native Americans, in Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans? All of these characters are men who are in some way alienated from society, filled with intense desires and personal complexities that seem nearly unfathomable and facing worlds that are raw and unformed without the rules and protections their literary cousins in England knew.

So, I have to write about Hawthorne and how his novels shaped my own objectives as a writer. And maybe thank him for teaching me to see more than what is right in front of me.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

My Wicked, Wicked Past

I have a confession to make. Many years ago when I was still young and cute I was a bellydancer. Yup, for about five years I took class with one of the most wonderful bellydancers in the country — Thalia of Sirrom School of Bellydance in Houston. Not only did I take class but I performed — in public! And I loved every minute of it too.

First of all I have to tell you that the only reason I took the first class was because the meditation class was full. A friend and I had decided to sign up for a meditation class to be given on Thursday nights and when we went to sign up the class was full. We were disappointed and, since Thursday night was the only night we could both make it, we asked what else was open that night. It was either bellydancing or introduction to Wicca. We picked bellydance. My friend dropped out after three classes — I don’t remember why — I stayed for five years.

Now, lest you think I was thin and hot back then, I wasn’t. I was, as my boyfriend at the time said, zaftig. As Thalia said, “You have to have a belly to belly dance!” I loved her from that moment on. But dancing was the very, very, very best thing I ever did for myself — especially with Thalia who is one of the warmest, sweetest, most supportive women I have ever met in my life. In her class I learned to stand in front of full walls of mirrors wearing a leotard and a chiffon skirt and move my body in ways that shocked me when I saw myself doing it. I loved dancing.

It took me a long time to get comfortable enough to dance in front of other people and I never was comfortable enough to dance on stage in front of an audience. But when I performed at street fairs it absolutely thrilled me to be able to dress in all those gorgeous silks and crystals and beads and move my body in ways that mesmerized. I danced at the Texas Renaissance Festival for three years and at the Mediterranean Festival in Houston. Perhaps the happiest moment of my dancing life came during a parade for the Med Fest. There were 30 of us dancers in the troupe dancing down the middle of Montrose to applause. When I came dancing into view a group of absolutely GORGEOUS dark-eyed Mediterranean men began to shout and applaud and ran out into the street to kiss me. “This is a real woman!” they hollered, “This is what a real belly dancer looks like!” My thin fellow dancers were in shock. So was I.

We live in a culture that depends on women being insecure about their looks. Our economy would collapse if tomorrow every woman in America woke up thinking, “I don’t need to lose weight, my hair is the perfect color, and I have enough shoes.” Girls as young as 8 now have “spa” birthday parties. Perfectly lovely women spend BILLIONS every year on various nip and tuck surgery to make them “more better” and, once a woman passes forty, she is doomed to either endless work on her entire physiology or the contempt of society — or so the media would have us believe. But I learned from Thalia, and from a group of gorgeous Mediterranean men, that I am beautiful without all that. That lesson has stayed with me throughout my life.

I got an email from Thalia —whose real name is Pat Wright — this week. We had been out of touch for twenty years until I located her web site and sent her note to thank her for everything she did for me. She emailed back within hours and said she not only remembered me but thought of me often. She is still dancing and teaching dance. I remember her dancing when she was 9 months pregnant with her second child. With her first child she taught class while she was in labor and then drove herself to the hospital — in a Corvette and a dance costume.

If you are very, very lucky, you get to have a Thalia in your life. It is a blessing that lasts throughout your life. If you are in Houston you can dance with her any time you like. She changed my life and for that I thank her. “You’ve got to have a belly to bellydance!”

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

The Writer As Citizen

Always late to the party, I have recently discovered that there are a lot of wonderful videos available to view over the internet. BookTV.org has a wealth of programs including their three-hour In Depth Interviews with distinguished writers. And if you go to Google and select their Video option, you’ll find hours and hours of programs with Charlie Rose, Bill Moyers, and other great public access programs. Last night I discovered the programs from Point Loma Nazarene University’s Writers Symposium by the Sea.

Now, for someone like me, who should have a bumper sticker that reads “My Heroes Have Always Been Writers” this is a treasure. When I read the list of interviews available I immediately clicked on Peter Matthiessen since he’s probably my number one hero among contemporary American writers. I saw him at a book signing here in Gloucester some years back but it was in a small and tightly-packed room and he seemed a bit overwhelmed. Who could blame him? So it was great to see him comfortable and relaxed. He’s very funny which I definitely appreciated.

He talked about his life as a writer that included a great deal of world travel and years spent as a commercial fisherman to support himself and his family while he wrote books. It wasn’t until At Play In The Fields of The Lord was purchased by Hollywood that he had the luxury of devoting himself to writing.

When that interview was over, I went back to the list and selected another hero, Ray Bradbury. His book Zen in the Art of Writing is one of the best books a beginning writer could read. He is another funny guy. It was a great interview.

What struck me as I watched these two great writers was how much their love of their worlds was an integral part of their craft. Mattheissen and Bradbury are very different sorts of writers but both of them write out of a passionate involvement with life. And a deep awe and sense of wonder about the world and about life. Bradbury talked about an experience he had of being on a popular night time talk show on the day of the first moonwalk. He fully anticipated that everyone would be filled with excitement and was stunned when no one mentioned it. The guests, one after another, came out and sang their songs or talked about their movies, or whatever other silly thing there was going on in their own lives. Bradbury became so disgusted he walked out. Good for him!

Among Matthiessen’s many accomplishments is the founding of The Paris Review, along with George Plimpton. Personally, I think doing that would be enough of an accomplishment for one lifetime. But he has been active in calling attention to marginalized people from Native Americans to the fishermen from Far Tortugas to Mauntauck. He is someone who watches the world with a keen and intelligent eye and uses his considerable powers as a writer to speak out.

What I thought after watching these two interviews was that writers, like many artists, are well aware of their beautiful muse — they world in which they live and which inspires their work. And as they study her in order to create, they cannot help but see both sides of her — the beautiful and the ugly. That awareness and those powers of observation is a gift they give to the world as they exercise their craft. It is up to us to pay attention. As Bradbury pointed out, who cares about pop culture when men are walking on the moon?

We have a beautiful world that we are doing a great job of destroying. We need to pay attention — stop the empty entertainment and pay attention to art. The artists are there. It’s up to us to pay attention.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 22, 2007

Ballets Russes

On the wall to the right of my desk there hangs a large framed poster from an exhibition at some museum of a drawing of a dancer done by Leon Bakst. Under the drawing it reads Diaghilev: Costumes and Designs of the Ballets Russes. I bought it because I loved the exotic costume and the pose of the dancer but I knew very little about the Ballets Russes. Recently I saw a wonderful documentary called Ballets Russes about the history of the company originally founded by Diaghilev with the participation of such geniuses as Nijinsky, Balanchine, Picasso, Miró, Matisse, and Stravinsky. It is a stunning film made all the more so because it is all true.

Last night Jane and I watched the film again at Clare’s house because Clare has a big screen TV. Clare, who lived most of her life in New York City, has a strong background in the arts. Jane studied ballet as a girl and still wishes she had been able to pursue it as a career. Me, I just find it gorgeous.

The film is a little masterpiece with ample vintage footage and interviews with 20 of the dancers who once were a part of that great company. Most of them are now in their eighties and nineties and yet the fire in them is so brilliant it outshines that of many people a quarter of their age. It is worth seeing just for that.

There is something magical about people who are consumed by the love of something — whatever that something must be. Watching this film you cannot help but feel that these people are the luckiest people on earth — many of them are still working, teaching dance and appearing in character roles with dance companies. Some of the younger dancers, Maria Tallchief and Raven Wilkinson, still dance. As one of the dancers, Irina Baranova, says in the film, “We had a wonderful time and sometimes we even got paid.”

Watching the vintage footage of these beautiful dancers the first thing I was struck by was the sense of joy and pleasure that they took in their dance. That is something that disappeared for a long time in contemporary ballet, mostly due to George Balanchine who didn’t want his dancers to show emotion, only to move a certain way. Yet, when you watch Nathalie Krassovska and George Zoritch dance you wonder what in the hell was Balanchine thinking? The emotion and fire between them only makes their talent as dancers all the more brilliant. Watching the sheer ecstasy with which Maria Tallchief loses herself in dance is an experience of pure transcendence. It is a sacred thing — something that takes us out of mere theater and into the realm of the spiritual.

I have always thought that to be a person who has a passion is the best way to live a life. I have a friend who is obsessed with Atlantic salmon fly fishing. I have no interest in that but when he talks about it be makes it sound like the best thing on this planet that you could possibly do. Most of the dancers in the Ballets Russes were little more than children when they joined the company. In America the Ballets Russes introduced dance to people in small towns that never knew about such things. It gave the world the first Native American ballerinas, Maria Tallchief and Yvonne Chouteau from Oklahoma. The film also illustrates one of America’s greatest shames, the bigotry and prejudice that caused the beautiful dancer Raven Wilkinson to leave the company because she was black and, at the time, her performances in the South caused too many problems including demonstrations by the Ku Klux Klan. How anyone could see nothing but color when that beauty danced is a mystery to me.

So Clare and Jane and I have decided we are going to make a regular habit of watching dance videos together. It is beautiful and inspirational and there is that joy and passion that we love connecting to. In our hearts we dance with them.

Thanks for reading

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Gathering Smoke

I have been savoring the essays in Writers [on Writing]: Collected Essays from The New York Times and I came upon one by Walter Mosley that is particularly beautiful. I loved the title before I even started reading ”For Authors, Fragile Ideas Need Loving Everyday”.His prose is even more lovely.

Mosley is one of those writers who writes everyday and is a strong advocate of that practice. Personally, I think it is a great idea but have never been able to find the time to do that. But his writing about the process of fiction making is wonderful particularly because his experience seems to be a lot like my own. He says that writing a novel is gathering smoke and that is the best description I have ever heard.

One of the things people always seem fascinated by when I have occasion to speak about writing is where do your ideas come from? There are a lot of ways to answer that but the real truth is, Who knows? Fiction writing is a very zen-like practice. You have to be alone. You have to get still inside and open yourself up and let happen whatever happens. You have to be there to receive the smoke, the wisps, the tremulous tendrils of images. And then you have to love them and nurture them and record them and polish them. It is a strange and amazing practice.

This book has a number of noteworthy essays. Alice Hoffman’s tender essay about how writing helped her through her battle with cancer had me in tears. I LOVE Alice Hoffman’s books and the thought of her fragile and so weak that she had to have a futon moved into her office so she could lie down while she wrote makes me marvel at her bravery.

John Updike wins the prize for the most entertaining title, “Questions of Character: There’s No Ego As Wounded as an Alter Ego”. And the title of Susan Sontag’s essay should be posted over every writer’s desk, “Directions: Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat Steps 2 and 3 as Needed”. If there is one bit of advice that most beginning readers need it is that. I’ve rarely met a beginning writer who didn’t think their first draft was good enough. It isn’t.

I loved Jane Smiley’s essay,”A Reluctant Muse Embraces His Task and Everything Changes”. The woman clearly has an absolutely WONDERFUL time when she writes and the fact that she can’t wait to write more so she can run out and read it to her patient and loving husband made me long for an ideal reader like that. In fact, before he was her husband, it was his patience and willingness to listen to her giggling and muttering over the characters that crowd her room when she writes, that won her heart and hand.

But it was Mosley’s essay that I loved the most. He says that reality will do battle with your dreams and this is a thing I know all too well. The world is full of dream-killers — some intentional and some are unintentional. There is just the reality of everyday life. Flat tires, running out of bathroom tissue when you wanted to spend the morning writing, phone calls that you can’t ignore, a friend having a weepy day. And there are the who-do-you-think-you-are-to-call-yourself-a-writer folks whose only goal is to make you as unsure of yourself as they are. But if you write you’ve got that other place, that world where other things happen and you are alone with the smoke and the dreams and the quiet voices and it all works out in the end.

Thank you, Walter Mosley. You gave me permission to spend more time in the place I love most. I didn’t think I needed that until you gave it tome.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Another Crazy Old Lady?

My new neighbor was ranting on the radio last night about childless women. He is apparently of the opinion that any woman who doesn’t bear children is mentally ill. Oy.

Now I do realize that these radio jocks have a set number of hours to fill and, when they aren’t getting any calls, they have to yammer on about something. I also realize that in this era of endless sensationalism, disregard for silly old-fashioned notions such as privacy, and total lack of personal dignity, it is a big challenge for these folks to get their share of attention. But Jay is approaching Michael Graham territory with me — the second I hear the dulcet tones of his whining voice I pop in a CD.

I’ll give Graham credit. He is polite and respectful to his callers. And he can be funny. He said possibly the funniest thing I’ve heard in years when, in a discussion about vegetarians, he said that soon the only meat that would be acceptable to eat would be the flesh of cattle that committed suicide in protest over the war in Iraq. I laughed for days about that one. But he just finds himself entirely too amusing. I have trouble with people who a.) mock others quite randomly and b.) dissolve in helpless giggles over their own jokes. Plus Graham HATES Massachusetts. Does he think he would be missed if he went back wherever he came from?

These guys crack me up. First of all, they need a co-host to talk to when the phones aren’t ringing. Even O’Reilly realizes that. It’s sad to listen to someone ramble on endlessly to themselves. They keep saying, “the lines are jammed” and then they prattle on and on and on. If the lines are jammed for heaven’s sake do us all a favor and ANSWER them!!! I repeat, oy!

So anyhow, my neighbor has decided that any woman who does not have children is going to bitterly regret it and that single women are the saddest people in society — despite all evidence to the contrary. Study after study after study finds that the happiest members of society (I am going to assume we are talking about straight society, I wouldn’t presume to speak for gay folks) are, in order: 1.) single women, 2.) married men, 3.) married women and, finally, 4.) single men.

I knew when I was eighteen that I was not cut out to have children. I LOVE children and am very glad that my family has been prolific in reproducing which has spared me the necessity of doing so. Kids are fun and endearing and all that stuff but I’ve never wanted one of my own. I know what it takes to be a good parent and I suspect I didn’t get that particular gene. I’m a creative person, my books are my babies and that is just fine with me.

But more than that, as my friends are entering farther into their fifties, the kids are leaving, they are getting out of inadequate marriages, and coming into their own as people I hear it over and over and over — “I never knew it was possible to be this happy!” It isn’t about what is wrong with men or with children or with the world, it is about discovering what is right and good and beautiful about YOU!

I love men and am lucky. With very few exceptions the men I’ve had in my life have been good ones and, even though a relationship wasn’t meant for the long haul, that doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a good one for awhile. I am very glad I know that. I am very glad I’ve taken the path I have — in some ways it has allowed me to keep my romanticism about men and about children and about life. It’s not for everyone but it sure has worked for me.

So, sorry, Jay, once again, you’re wrong. Oh well. I popped in a CD — Christopher Parkening playing Joaquin Rodrigo. It was glorious and nobody told me to turn it down or rolled their eyes either.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Hello, It’s Hollywood!

When a writer sets out to publish a book independently or through a small press, s/he does knowing that pretty much all the promotion and PR is going up to him/her. If the author is lucky enough to have a friend or two who knows a little bit about marketing, that helps. Branding knowledge is very useful, too. When I started Parlez-Moi Press I had no idea where it would go or even what exactly I would do with it but I had an idea, I had a good corporate background in branding and marketing, and I had the Internet and a few skills to make use of. Starting out PMP was just an online place to promote articles and short stories but eventually it attracted other writers and other readers and expanded to promote others such as poet Peter Todd and Gloucester Policemen and authors Larry Ingersoll and Mark Foote.

In 2004 we published our first hard-copybook, a collection of poetry by Gloucester’s lovely photographer/poet/animal advocate Lila Swift Monell, Split-Image Focus. That little volume was a success and sold close to a thousand copies — quite an accomplishment for a slim volume of poetry.

Also in 2004 Mark S. Williams called about a the book he was working on, a memoir of his life as a Gloucester lobsterman. As everyone who reads here knows, and is possibly tired of hearing about, his book F/V Black Sheep was published this past summer by his own independent press, Silver Perch Press, which is sponsored and hosted by Parlez-Moi Press. Basically, this was just a matter of allowing him to retain all rights to the book while using the assets already in place for PMP. I’ve written a lot about the good things that have happened for him since then but, of course, there are long weeks in between exciting events so, to those, directly involved on a day-to-day basis, it isn’t quite as eventful as it might seem to readers here.

Thanks to the great review he got in
National Fisherman, we have been pushing harder tog et into new markets and, yesterday, were out on Eden Road taking some promotional photographs to send with press releases. That was when the phone rang at his place. He didn’t get the call until he got back home.

No, it wasn’t Stephen Spielberg. But it was pretty good. The guy is a screenwriter who lives and works in Hollywood and has some very significant screen credits including three episodes of The Sopranos — doesn’t get a whole lot more impressive than that. He had a copy of Mark’s book that someone sent him. He read it. He loved it. He wanted to know more about it.

How can you not be excited by such an event? It’s what authors dream of and independent publishers don’t dare to hope for. After their phone conversation, when Mark called to tell me about it, I kept saying, “Are you being a jerk? Are you making this up? Are you trying to make me feel bad about the fight we had this morning?” (I told him he doesn’t have to ALWAYS be snotty to me.)

He told me the guy’s name. I Googled him. He’s for real.

Well, the guy was honest. He said it’s going to take awhile to make contacts and connections and try to get something rolling. He said, just keep doing what you’re doing and I’ll do what I can do. He asked for the first chance for an option. He said Mark was a helluva writer. He said his book is going places. He said keep writing. Hollywood called...... Wow.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Thinking About God and Other Such Stuff

I have been in bed for several days now with the most annoying bug — it’s just the usual mixture of gastro-intestinal nastiness that everyone else seems to be going through these days. But, as always happens when I am forced to spend long periods of time contemplating my own mortality, I’ve started thinking about God and stuff like that.

What brought this current series of random thoughts on was that quote in John Gardner’s book, On Moral Fiction. Basically he said that the purpose of art was to edify not to debase, to hold off for a little while the twilight of the gods. That really hit me hard because I have, for a very long time, been trying to figure out what in the hell is the matter with the art world today. So much of it is just plain awful. I understand that there is a lot of anger in many of the young people making art — anger that is well-deserved at a culture that venerates the cheap, the tawdry, the superficial, and the ridiculous. The problem is how does one turn all that anger and that energy into something that edifies. It’s a tough question.

And, as always happens when I am sick, I spend a lot of time just laying in a lump listening to the radio. I happened upon an interview with John Updike from some years back in which he was talking about his essays on art. He said that the problem with art today is that there is too much ”past”. That artists need to unlearn everything and start over. Not an inconsiderable task.

I have always believed that the arts are a spiritual practice. I grew up in the Catholic Church and, much as I have often questioned aspects of the Catholic religion, I have never been able to let go of my love and appreciation for what the Church has given to the world in terms of the arts — especially sculpture, painting and music. Even after my wildly agnostic college years, the first time I stepped into a cathedral surrounded by the beauty and the sense of Divine presence, I knew that I believed and always would in whatever THAT was — that being the magnificence, the transcendence, the elevation that great beauty and great presence inspires. I’ve never believed in a punishing God and I’m not even sure about the Devil, as such. I thoroughly believe that people are quite capable of endless evil without any supernatural influence.

Then yesterday I happened across an interview with Daniel Dennett, the Tufts philosopher and scientist. He is a self-described “bright” an athiest who has some very interesting beliefs. One of the things in his interview that struck me was his discussion of the sense of the communal and the elevation he feels in cathedrals. He loves religious music and iconography. He just doesn’t believe in God — or at least God as religion normally represents God. And the things he had to say reminded me powerfully of the great Christian mystics I have loved throughout the ages — I don’t know who this God guy is but I know that there is something magnificent available for us humans to be a part of.

St. Theresa of Avila and Julian of Norwich write in luminous language of their experiences of transcendence. For me those descriptions come closest to two experiences — great environments like cathedrals and great art, particularly painting and music. And in realizing that I realize that the purpose of art is the same as the purpose of life — to edify, not to debase. Spending our lives stewing in negativity is a good way to waste a life. Finding a way to elevate is a godly act.

I haven’t figured all this out and my virus seems to be pretty much over so I may not have time to think about it today. But I’m glad I had this time to mull things over. It’s a long and crazy path, this life thing, but I think I’m getting there.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Dolphin Tales

Ever since Mark’s book, F/V Black Sheep, came out, people have been intrigued by his story about dolphins in the last chapter of the book. Some are skeptical, others are thrilled and enchanted. As Mark says, “I was the only one there that day, what more can I say?” It’s true. But there is plenty of support for the story.

The ancients believed absolutely in the mysterious ability of dolphins to sense danger and try to help. Both Plutrarch and Herodatus wrote about strange and mysterious dolphin encounters by sailors who had been washed overboard or whose boats had sunk. A number of saints in early Catholic legends are said to have been rescued by dolphins and Thoreau has quite a supportive dolphin tale in Walden Pond. More recently there are no shortage of stories about remarkable dolphin encounters. My friend Ted, a lifelong lobsterman off the coast of Cape Ann, tells wonderful tales of dolphins he encountered over his many years of fishing here.

Recently I was reading an article by mystery/humor writer Carl Hiaasen who was bemoaning the fact that, as the world gets weirder and weirder, it gets harder and harder for a writer like himself to come up with good stories. As the saying goes, you can’t make this stuff up. As a reporter for the Miami Herald, Hiaasen covered a story about a couple of mischievous male bottlenose dolphins who had discovered a fun trick. People had recently started coming to Florida to swim with dolphins and were paying $50 a pop to do that. These dolphins were having quite a good time with their human admirers by coming up behind them and poking them with their — um — male appendages. The dolphins thought this was great fun and, at times, got quite a bit friendlier than the humans were prepared for. Hiaasen used the story in one of his novels as a means of disposing of a bad guy who had gotten too bad to be useful to the story. Death by dolphin love — nobody ever used that one before, I bet.

There was also a story in the news not long ago about a toddler who fell overboard while out boating with his parents. The kid was wearing a life jacket but, with the wake and a choppy sea, was soon way too far from the boat for the parents to reach him. A couple of dolphins rescued the little boy by coming up on either side of him and carrying him to safety. Quite a feat.

I don’t know what happens out there in the big salty when things get freaky. I’ve read so many astonishing stories about humpback whale encounters that it seems only natural that dolphins, who are alleged to have higher than average IQs, should be equally remarkable in their interaction with humans. Many of the old legends of rescue by mermaids were more than likely actually dolphin rescues. When you are half-drowned and out of hope, a dolphin that carries you to safety has got to look pretty good. The bottomline is this, dolphins know that humans are different than they are and that they have abilities that humans lack. And, for whatever reason, dolphins are willing to use their amazing ability to breathe in the water and to swim long distances to help out their frailer and less gifted fellow-mammals. A wonderful thing.

But the most fascinating thing I have learned since working on Mark’s book is that very often when a human has a direct dolphin encounter there is an amazing rush of memories that gets triggered. As if, in some way, the dolphin somehow releases a function in the brain that touches off floods of memories — to the point where therapists working with clients suffering severe memory repression are beginning to recommend a swim with dolphins.

If that is the case, it pretty much validates Mark’s entire book. The encounter with the dolphins was the beginning of a flood of memories that he began recording until they formed the 31 stories that make up his book. Everyone who reads the book will have to draw their own conclusions — but the more I learn, the more I am awed by how F/V Black Sheep came to be.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Genuine Evil

Last week when Saddam Hussein was executed I thought a lot about how it is possible for a person to become what he became. Surely he was once a little boy who laughed and played and had moments of pure lovability? Surely he wasn’t born a cruel, feelingless monster. I want to believe that but I wonder. Saddam is an extreme but throughout my life I have, as have most people, encountered people who are so purely mean and hateful that you wonder how they can live with themselves. Problem is, they can. They can without hesitation and that is what makes them so painful to deal with. They do what they do without a second thought to how it may harm another and, in fact, fins the process of doing harm to another all quite fun and amusing.

Some years back I worked in a small business run by a guy like that. He was by all accounts from people who worked there a little dictator who got his greatest satisfactions from making others feel bad. His operating theory seemed to be that the very fact that he had the power to hurt you meant that there was something wrong with you and, therefore, he was naturally superior to you because couldn’t hurt him back. On those rare occasions when someone did level a good blow — mostly this was by clients because his employees didn’t dare to — he would retreat into a god-awful sulk and begin some tale of woe about how pitiful he was and what an awful thing that other person did was. He had learned the first lesson of the true sociopath: Other people have feelings and will feel bad if you act pitiful. Sociopaths use pity as their greatest tool.

Recently I came across Martha Stout’s book The Sociopath Next Door and I see that behavior for what it was — the manipulation of a genuine sociopath. According to Dr. Stout, 1 in 25 people is a sociopath, someone with no feelings. Someone whose only joy in life comes from manipulation, domination and control of other people, someone who takes pleasure in tormenting others and finds great satisfaction and superiority in causing pain to their targets. It is a chilling book, more so because, as you read the case studies, you read about people who are frighteningly familiar.

Throughout the last several years of dealing with my own problem with an internet stalker and tormenter I have suffered from the delusion that at some point he would give up — that he would either realize how hateful his actions were and stop or turn his attacks to someone else. I know now that this will not happen. What I have seen is that over the years he has drawn different people onto his side, people he uses to perpetrate his attacks, but, over time, those people lose interest and drop out. They may be nasty people but they are not sociopaths. He, however, persists finding new and inventive means to keep up the nastiness. As a genuine sociopath he doesn’t know how to quit. His goal is annihilation, psychological or otherwise, and it is the focus of his existence.

The plain, sad truth of the matter is that good people are helpless to deal with a sociopath because it is not in our nature to understand how people can be like that. It is not in our nature to sink to those depths. We want to believe that at some point we can make them understand that they are doing something wrong and that they will repent and stop hurting us. It doesn’t work that way. Knowing that they are hurting us is what gives them what joy they are capable of in life. The only thing we can do is avoid, avoid, avoid and ignore. And work to minimize their power to harm us.

Dr. Stout has written a very good book — one that serves a great service in this era of social upheaval and internet access to others that we did not have before. Be forewarned, there are bad people out there. They will hurt you and enjoy doing it. Dr. Stout can help you understand the way out.

Thanks for reading

Friday, January 05, 2007

In Praise of eBay Yarns

By now I've talked about eBay yarns enough that most people who read here know that I love them and have a great time playing with them. What I love is experimenting with something new. If you are the sort of person who likes to know for sure what you are getting before you get it then this will not be your idea of fun. But I like it and have had some great results.

I haven't been knitting much lately but I've purchased a few new yarns and have knitted up swatches or the beginnings of "something" and thought I'd show the results.

The first piece is a beautiful thick and thin rayon in the most beautiful gold color. I have worked with this yarn before in other colors and it has a great drape to it. It is ideal for shrugs, shawls, scarves and cocoons. It also works up fast. I love the way it looks when knit in garter stitch as you see it here. This might just be another scarf for the stash. It comes in a lot of colors --- in fact I liked this so much I also ordered it in a rosy color that they call Tequila Sunrise. Yum.

The swatch you see at right is knit with 2 strands of 2 different eBay yarns both from the same seller as the Gold Rayon. One is a loopy wool blend in shades of violet and blue. The other is a cotton blend "tag" yarn from Astro Dyeworks in the prettiest pastels I've ever seen. A cone of it containing over 600 yards was $7.95. As you may be able to tell, I am knitting it up in an Old Shale pattern. I am thinking this may just be another of my much-loved bed jackets. I am starting to like them as much or more than shawls --- well, I have so many shawls that a bed jacket is a great alternative that can be worn over jeans and a t-shirt or over something much dressier.

And finally I have an Afghan to show. I've never made myself an afghan before and I wanted one for evenings spent with a book. This one is a combination of five HUGE cones of yarn bought on a whim from eBay sellers. Each one was under $10 and there is enough left over to make several more of these.
As you can see it is also in Old Shale. I knit it with a double strand on size 23 needles so it went really fast. The yarns used were a slate blue chenille and 4 S-yarns of mixed fibers in teal, periwinkle, cream and a lovely dove gray. This is the warmest, softest afghan but it is heavy. I'm glad it isn't too big --- about 50 x 60.

In the closeup you can get a better sense of the way I changed the yarns at random to create the pattern. It went really fast --- I think I finished it in a week.

So that's what my knitting has looked like lately. Hope you are having fun and that your needles are on fire!

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, January 03, 2007


Yesterday I discovered that Fodor, the travel books people, named my hometown, St. Marys, Pennsylvania, one of the FIVE top places to go to for American beer. This is because of Straub’s Brewery which has been brewing up all natural, pure mountain spring water beer since 1872 and is still going strong.

Like most kids who grew up in Pennsylvania Dutch communities, I started getting ”sips” of beer early in my life and I thought, from the time I was old enough to think about such things, that beer was a very fine invention. Since beer is made from the same basic ingredients as bread and since the Bible tells us that bread is the staff of life, it just seemed to follow logically that a.) beer was basically liquid bread and so therefore b.) beer was God’s way of making His children happy and showing them that He loves them. Consequently drinking beer is an act of religious devotion and gratitude.

As things always are in smallish towns, the poet is never recognized in his native land. The old timers in St.M drank plenty of Straub’s but us younger folks, when we got old enough to have opinions about such things, considered Straub’s declassé and preferred “classier” beers like Coors and Heinekin. Problem with that was that Straub’s was just so darn much cheaper. So, when nobody was looking, we drank Straub’s. And after 2 or 3 beers nobody was looking. Funny how that works.

There were a lot of ways to drink Straub’s. Most of the older folks in town had a keg on tap at all times. You never had to worry about disposing of an old refrigerator in St.M! There were always plenty of folks ready to cart it off to their basements where they would clear out the inside and install a tap so that the keg could be kept cold at all times. There’s nothing on earth like that first swallow of cold beer on a hot day — or a cold one for that matter.

Another good way to drink Straub’s, the one mentioned by Fodor’s, is at the brewery. They have a live tap and you can drink free during business hours. Luckily business hours don’t compete with bar hours. But there are guys who make it their business to make a daily trip to the brewery to have a few. The brewery itself is quite an impressive place. As I recall, our friend Ray took some pretty impressive photos in there some years back. Maybe when he checks in here he’ll read this an email one of them for me to post here.

“Greenies” were always the most popular back in my beer drinking days. Now, Straub’s also offers a “light” version. Personally, I never thought that was necessary since Straub’s always had a reputation for having a very “cleansing” effect — it sure worked for me! Making it’s usefulness as a diet aide somewhat noteworthy. But Straub’s also comes in a brown bottle. There was a story way back when that a St.M. traveling in California came upon a bar that advertised “We Have Every American Beer” (I assume this was prior to the micro-brewery craze) and the deal was, if they didn’t have your beer you could drink free. The St.M guy was thrilled, knowing as most St.M guys do, that a.) nobody has ever heard of Straub’s and b.) St.M guys can make any bar owner regret an offer to let them drink free. So the guy saunters up to the bar and says,”I’ll have a Straub’s, please.” The bartender looked him over and then said, “Greenie or longneck?” So much for that.

My friend, the late Mike Dollinger, wrote a song about Straub’s. I wish I could remember the words. Basically, it made fun of St.M’s luscious brew but the chorus line always went “...at least it doesn’t cost you quite as much.” So the next time you pass through St.Mary’s, Pennsylvania, stop at the Straub’s Brewery and take advantage of the Eternal Tap. It’ll do your spirits good — and give you a good cleaning out in the bargain.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Hello 2007!

Another year. How do they keep piling up? Still, as my father used to say, “It beats the alternative”. I had a good holiday season considering what a grouch I usually am over the holidays. Rebecca, once again, rescued me with the keys to her magical artist’s retreat in the woods and I got to spend most of my time there watching the snow or the rain or the sunshine on the quarry working on my novel and — I did it! I got through the final draft and now have only to send some copies out for review and comment, format the text, and make the necessary preparations to send it off to press. What a great way to start a new year!
Sunset, Dec.31, 2006 over the Quarry
I also spent a lot of time yesterday on the phone talking to people I haven’t talked to in a long time. My sister Anne for one and my sister-in-law Donna. They were good, long conversations and much overdue. So today, aside from the fact that I have no water because they are working on the sewer, is off to a good start.

One of the things that always happens to me when I have time and space to spend with my characters is that I become very sucked into their lives. I read once — advice by some writer — that it is a good thing for a writer to know a great deal more about their characters and their settings than ever shows up in the book. Because, though the actual specifics of this knowledge may not be used in the story, the knowing of it will add richness and depth to the story that will come through to the reader. I hope that this is true. While working on the first and second rewrites of this story I filled up notebooks with timelines, maps, sketches, diagrams, floorplans. I need to have a clear picture of these things in my mind when I write.

When I first began work on The Old Mermaid’s Tale I intended it to be set in Erie, PA because I lived there when I was in college and because that is where I worked in a diner like Clair, the main character in my story. But, as the story grew and took form I made diagram after diagram of the dock area and finally realized that, while the essence of the story was in Erie, this was a literary novel, not a historical one. My characters were refusing to stay within the confines of downtown Erie, PA of the early Sixties. Finally, I had to give that idea up. I drew a new map — one that arranged the buildings I needed to use in the places I needed them to be for my characters and, after much anguished deliberation, I renamed the city Port Presque Isle which retains the spirit of Erie but, I hope, will not offend the sensibilities of the people of Erie. The names of the streets are mostly the same and even the names of many of the businesses but the town is a somewhat gothic and mythic place of my own creation.

I thought about this a lot over the last few days as I took time to day dream scenes that do not appear in the book except in essence. In someways, the writing-ego in me thinks this is too bad, that those are good scenes and people might like them, but the real writer in me knows that they will be there in essence and that is all that is required. One of the challenges of writing from the perspective of a first-person narrator is that you can only know what that character knows. And because this narrative is one that is written from the perspective of a quarter century away from the main events, there is a lot that effects her story. So many things to take into consideration.

So this is 2007.Last year brought Mark’s book and my short stories into the world. With luck, this year will add my novel to that — for whatever that is worth. So I wish you all a beautiful new year filled with joy, peace, prosperity, creativity and, of course, lots of time to read.

Thanks for reading