Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Hanging Out with Salman Rushdie

Last night I watched a 2004 interview with Salman Rushdie conducted at during a conference at my old Alma Mater, Penn State. I love Rushdie because he is a great writer but also because he is one of the most witty and articulate writers in the world today. He once made the perfectly accurate but disconcerting statement that American are more interested in writers than they are in what they write. I admit he makes a very good point with that — I’m always trolling Google Video for interviews with writers (actually that’s how I came across his). But I also love books so I excuse myself on the grounds that if I spend 20 hours with a writer’s book and 1 hour listening to him talk that is just fine.

I’ve only read 2 of Rushdie’s books, The Satanic Verses, of course, and Midnight’s Children. Both early works but filled with brilliance, rich language, dazzling metaphor, and his trademark sly humor. Brilliant enough to make me forgive him for marrying that gold-digging super-model. Okay, okay, I’m over it. Unfortunately so is she.

But anyway, in the course of the discussion someone asked him about the sorry state of publishing in America today and he said that it’s not really as bad as people tend to think. Publishers have always whined and complained about not being able to sell books. He said the bigger problem is getting people to read books worth reading. Someone asked him what he meant and he replied, “Two words. Dan. Brown.” I nearly kissed the screen!

Ever since I slogged through The DaVinci Code I have been mystified by how it got to be such a phenomenon. The writing is stiff, the characters are stiffer and just plain weird. And the plot... well, what plot? The subject matter was fascinating — I’ll give him that. But turning the ideas he was working with into a “thriller” was dopey and rang false. It reminded me of a belly dancer I once knew who choreographed a belly dance to the Moody Blues “Nights in White Satin” — the song is great but the execution was bizarre.

But I also know that it was the subject matter that thrilled everyone. There is something very compelling about conspiracy theories, especially when they involve gorgeous settings, famous people, and Byzantine mysteries. You put the Louvre, the Vatican, a couple of medieval cathedrals, and a bunch of Knights Templar in a novel and it could be about training cats and people would buy it. Just look on Amazon. If you go to the page for The DaVinci Code and look at the People Who Bought This Book Also Bought section you will find literally hundreds of novels in the same vein. The difference between Dan Brown’s book and most of those is that it is just much easier reading and spells everything out. The majority of American readers don’t like loose ends.

Rushdie mentioned that Americans also do not buy novels that are translated from another language. Less than 3% of books sold in the US are translations — compared to 8% in England and 17% in France. Having recently fallen in love with a Spanish novelist and a Turkish novelist, I am proud to be in the minority. Umberto Eco is twenty times the writer Dan Brown is and The Name of The Rose did catch the public imagination but there are a lot more books of that quality out there. They need to be explored.

Rushdie openly admitted that his own fame is, embarrassingly, more because of the fatwa his book earned him than the quality of the book itself, which is a shame. That has ended and he is on to writing more books and participating in more conferences. Now if we can just keep him away from beautiful but unscrupulous young beauties....

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

This Morning at the Lighthouse (Pérez-Reverte, Part II)

This morning, as is my Sunday morning habit, I took my book and a some coffee and toast out to Eastern Point Lighthouse. I love the parking lot at Eastern Point Light. Even when it is cold it is beautiful and I can sit in my car and read the paper or a book and enjoy the words on the page in the presence of a beautiful lighthouse, two castles on the far shore and many, many species of birds. It is a wonderful place and, at this time of year, nearly abandoned.

I had only the final couple of chapters to go in Arturo Pérez-Reverte’s The Seville Communion and I was utterly, utterly entranced. This is my new “favorite book” — at least in the last year or two. Partly because he writes beautifully and his descriptions of Seville are just transportive. Partly because he has concocted some of the craziest characters — an aging flamenco singer and the buffoon who loves her, a broken-down bullfighter/boxer whose taken a few too many to the head, the crankiest priest in creation in conflict with the sexiest priest (at least since Fr. Emilio Sandoz in The Sparrow), and a nun-to-be-reckoned-with. Oh, and the slut who is trying to seduce my beloved Fr. Quart. Did I mention she’s a slut?

So I am deep in my book totally transported when a car pulls up beside me honking and waving and out pops Carleen — a friend and artist whom I like very much. She had two foreign students with her whom she was taking on a tour of Gloucester. It’s always fun to see Carleen — she has more joie de vivre than seems possible. So we are chatting and she is introducing me to her friends and I am trying to resist the urge to say “go away, I want to read my book”. And one of her friends mentions she is here from Spain. Well, didn’t I just perk right up!

“Spain,” I said, “have you ever been to Seville? I’m reading a book about it.”

Oh, yes, she said, I live near there and love Seville, I go there all the time. What are you reading? I held up my book and she lit up like the Giralda Tower. “Arturo Pérez-Reverte!” she exclaimed, rolling her “r”s with such Andalusian aplomb that I could have hugged her, “he is wonderful! In my country, he is very important!” Well. Instant friends.

So we had a great talk about Arturo Pérez-Reverte and she, a bit of an Andalusian beauty herself, agreed with me that he is both brilliant, creative and damn hot-looking to boot. What are the chances of running into a Pérez-Reverte fan from Seville in the parking lot of Eastern Point Lighthouse on a Sunday morning? How would you even start to calculate something like that.

Eventually they went off to walk the breakwater and I settled back down into my book. I won’t give the story away but it was everything and more than I expected it to be and not until the very, very, very last sentence did Pérez-Reverte solve the final mystery. I had a feeling that little slut would have her way — priest or no priest, he’s a man (and what a man!), and I knew he’d save that little church the way he did, I saw that coming. But the final surprise was really a surprise. Excellent.

So Fr. Lorenzo Quart joins Fr. Emilio Sanchez and Julian Cash and Henry Winter and a few other rare characters in my pantheon of characters I wish I had created. And he has given me a fresh perspective on my own Jesuit, Fr. Peter Abelard Black. And I am ready to get back to the page and that is a gift. A gift from Spain... at a Gloucester lighthouse, of all places.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The King of (Literary) Spain

One of the things any genuine book-lover lives for is finding a book that s/he can sink into and forget about the world and everything else, too. And when that book is written by an author that a.)you have never read before and b.)has produced a number of books, you are in heaven. This happened for me last summer when I picked up a copy of Queen of the South by Spanish novelist Arturo Perez-Reverte. I don’t remember how long it took me to read the book, I just know it was some of the best time I’ve spent between the pages in a very long time.

Subsequently I read Perez-Reverte’s The Nautical Chart which was even better. The lead character, Coy, was one of the most seductive characters I’ve encountered on the page in along time and the theme, a sailor without a ship, a rare treasure map up for auction, and a sunken ship owned by Jesuits loaded with gold was something I wish I had dreamed up. In addition, Perez-Reverte’s passages describing being at sea are some of the most beautiful I have ever read.

Next I chose The Flanders Panel which will delight any chess lover. The plot revolves around the restoration of a restoration of a mysterious Flemish painting of chess players and a series of murders that follow chess moves from the painting. Really cool stuff.

Now I am about a third of the way into The Seville Communion and Perez-Reverte has me again. His descriptions of Seville, an intriguing city anyway, and the plot centered on murders in an old church in the process of restoration, is the kind of stuff I love. His protagonist Fr. Lorenzo Quart, a brilliant but emotionally paralyzed Jesuit investigator for the Vatican, reminds me very much of my own Fr. Peter Abelard Black from my current w.i.p.

Last night I came across (okay, I went looking for it) an interview with Perez-Reverte and he is, as I knew he would be, an intriguing man. In the interview he said that the reason his novels follow such mysterious and faintly gothic themes is because those are the things that interest him as a person — sailing, chess, art, antique books, fencing. In fact he has written a non-fiction book on the art of fencing and his novels, The Fencing Master and the his Captain Alitriste novels are filled with duels and swords and all that great stuff.

He also talked in the interview about the importance of novels — good novels — and their ability to spark the imagination and take people into worlds that the cannot enter any other way (except maybe by writing them). This is something I passionately believe. We live in a time when there is terrific competition for our attention what with television, movies, the internet, iPods and all those gizmos, etc. And there is a sort of snobbery around reading fiction among many people. “Oh, I never read fiction,” a guy said to me recently, “It’s all just something that somebody made up.” Well, duh. Isn’t that the point?

It’s more than something that someone made up — it’s something that someone crafted and created with great skill and ability to draw together disparate themes and devices to create a universal story — at least that is what one finds in well-crafted and well-written novels like those of Arturo Perez-Reverte.

I’ve had a couple of literary gifts in the past year — Orhan Pamuk, Vikram Seth, and now Perez-Reverte. There is great comfort in knowing that, whatever life may hand us, there are books to help us through. I appreciate Perez-Reverte’s mind and the best part is, I haven’t even read half of his books yet. That’s something to look forward to.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


A couple of weeks ago two fishing vessels from our area were lost at sea. The Lady of Grace out of New Bedford was lost with all hands and then, just a week later, the Lady Luck which was shrimping in the Gulf of Maine disappeared with her two man crew. This area knows a lot about that kind of loss. Every time I drive by the cenotaphs surrounding the Man at the Wheel statue on the boulevard or the towers of city hall where the names of lost fishermen are stenciled on the walls, I think about it. So many men — so much loss.

It is perhaps Ironic that my own loss should come at this time with the death of my father. It has been nine days now and I am still painfully aware of the fact that he is no longer in the world all the time. I know it is better that he is gone considering the way he has been the last couple of years. A man like he was should never have to spend two years in a hospital bed being washed and fed and handled like a baby would be. Many was the time over the last two years when my sisters and I have said, if only he could just let go, if only he could pass on. It killed us to see him like he was. And as bad as it was for us, it was all that much worse for him. I truly believe that is why he finally let go of his mind and just retreated into so much sleep and an endless fog.

The night before he died, when they called and told me he had pneumonia and was miserable, I lay in bed trying to connect my spirit with whatever I could of his spirit and I kept telling him, “Let go, Dad, let go. You did a good job, we’re all fine, we don’t need you to hang on for us. Just let go.” A few hours later he did.

So I am not sorry he is gone but I am sad and it is a deep sadness — not a sadness that can be dismissed. We had a good relationship most of my life. For years I called him every Sunday morning at 9 and if I didn’t call at 9 he called me at 9:10 and said “what’s wrong?” I never overslept on Sundays. Even after he was in the nursing home I called on Sunday mornings until he got so bad he couldn’t even hold the phone. That was a bad Sunday morning for me. But I am grateful for the memory of all those Sunday mornings that went before.

So I have lost a father. And the sea has, once again, claimed some fishermen whose wives and children and parents and friends and relatives have lost someone they love. Loss is inevitable. Loss is the price we pay for having.

I want to say that we must be grateful to have someone that we hold so dearly that we are miserable when they are lost to us but right now I’m not quite there. My brain knows the truth of that but my heart isn’t there yet. It will be. But it will take time. When my Mother died 10 years ago it was so abrupt and sudden that it was months after she was gone that I even became aware of the loss I felt. When my brother died five years ago I didn’t even let myself think about how awful it was to lose someone so magnificent. With Dad I have been anticipating his death and yet — and yet.... On Tuesday morning I was putting a book back onmy bookshelf and I noticed a framed photograph that has been there for 10 years. It was taken when I was 3 or 4 of my parents and Jack and I in black and white in our Fifties finery. And it occurred tome that I’m the only one from that photograph still living. And that was hard.

They buried Dad with full military honors. The entire honor guard turned out and I, weather-bound here in New England, did not get to see it which is just as well because I would have cried miserably. I am told everyone talked about how fine he was — what a great craftsman, what an honest man, what a sense of humor, what a great friend. He leaves behind six children, seventeen grandchildren, five great-grandchildren, and a town full of houses that he built with his own hands. He is in a better place, or so I believe. He loved Gloucester so I am guessing he has found some fishermen up there to swap tales with and he will love that. And I will miss him for a very long time.

Thanks for reading

Saturday, February 17, 2007

My Original Valentine Leaves the World

This is the obituary for my father that ran in my hometown newspaper on Valentine's Day --- quite an irony. This has been a strange week --- the ice storm on Valentine's Day gave me a good excuse to stay home and just sulk. Next week will be better. Until then, I wanted to share this:

John J. "Tino" Valentine

John J. "Tino" Valentine, 89, of 641 Evergreen Road and a resident of Pinecrest Manor, died Monday, Feb. 12, 2007, at the Pinecrest Manor after a lengthy illness. He was born Dec. 14, 1917, in St. Marys, son of the late William and Minnie Cable Valentine.

John J. "Tino" Valentine
On Oct. 16, 1948, in St. Mary's Church, he married Mary Ann Werner, who preceded him in death on April 15, 1996.

He was a lifelong resident of the area and was a graduate of St. Marys
Public High School, class of 1936. He was a self-employed carpenter. He
was a member of the Queen of the World Church and a veteran of World
War II having served in the Army Corp of Engineers in the South Pacific.

He is survived by five daughters, Kathleen Valentine of Glouster,
Mass., Ann, Mrs. Andrew Neubert of St. Marys, Lisa, Mrs. Douglas Bretz
of Coudersport, Christine, Mrs. Will DeNayer of Vandergrift and Beth,
Mrs. Casimir Pellegrini of Pittsburgh; two sons, Wayne W. Valentine of
St. Marys and Matthew J. Valentine and his wife, Linda of Monroeville;
a daughter-in-law, Donna Valentine of Kersey; 17 grandchildren; five
great-grandchildren; and a brother, Thomas Valentine and his wife, Mary
Rita of St. Marys.

Besides his wife and parents, he was preceded in death by a son, John
K. Valentine; four sisters, Viola Struble, Helen Wolf, Bonita Marrone
and Theresa (Tressie) Cuneo; and two brothers, William Valentine and
Henry "Burr" Valentine.

A Mass of Christian Burial for John J. Valentine will be celebrated in
the Queen of the World Church on Saturday, Feb. 17, at 10 a.m. with the
Rev. Michael Ferrick and the Rev. Kurt Belsole as concelebrants. Burial
will be in St. Mary's Cemetery.

Full military rites will be accorded by the St. Marys Servicemen's Burial Detail.

Visitation is at the Lynch-Radkowski Funeral Home on Center Street on Friday from 2 to 4 and 7 to 9 p.m.

Memorials, if desired, can be made to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation,
6931 Arlington Road, Bethesda, MD 20814; The American Diabetes
Association, 1701 N. Beauregard St., Alexandria VA 22311; or the
American Cancer Society, Elk Unit, 117 N. Michael St., St. Marys, PA

Monday, February 12, 2007

Wild Hearts: A Tribute

I originally wrote this column in 2001 after the incident described in the story. It is the best tribute I could write for my father. He died today after a long illness and, though I will miss him terribly, I am so glad that he doesn't have to suffer any more. I love you, Dad, and I'll miss you. You made me a much better person than I would have been without you.

To John J. Valentine, 1917-2007

My friend Sam says he counts it a good thing to have a character for a father. If that is true I am abundantly blessed. My Dad, born with name Valentine in the heyday of silent screen romantic heroes and thus called Tino by his friends, can be cantankerous and contentious but is never boring. Now, at 82 and a widower, he lives in the Allegheny Highlands whose miles and miles of woodlands he hunted, fished and camped since boyhood.

Gloucester is not a town in which I can claim any special knowledge of the icy fear that knots your gut when a phone rings and a voice says, “they’re missing”.

For me it was a February morning - cold enough here but well below zero in Pennsylvania. “They” were my Dad and his 98 year old, nearly blind friend Clarence. Both of them grew up in the woods and have always loved it. One of their favorite past-times is driving the hundreds of miles of backcountry logging trails that thread their way through those rich timberlands.

Around three o’clock Dad bought a dozen donuts and headed for Clarence’s house. When he did not return home that evening my brother started making phone calls. By midnight the State Police, the area rescue units, friends, family and countless others with flashlights and pickup trucks were combing the Allegheny Forest.

It was a very long and fruitless night.

The helplessness that eats at you in endless hours of waiting is mind numbing. You need the comfort of familiar voices but you are afraid to tie up the telephone. Your mind becomes your enemy. An endless litany of “if onlys” plague you. If only I had stopped him, if only he had waited, if only, if only….

Minutes drag. Hours rush by. You try to steel yourself or find consolation. You think, “If he has to go let it be quick rather than his being hurt and hungry and freezing somewhere.” You try to force bravery and nobility on yourself - “it would be better for him to go in the dense beauty of the woods that he loved than in the cold sterility of a hospital ward.”

Comfort is hard to come by. But somewhere in the reckoning of all this a realization dawns. This is happening because he is who he is. His love of the beauty of his world is fierce and tenacious. He is true to the wildness in his heart.

A strange paradox perplexes us today. We long for passion, excitement and adventure. But we want it safe and definitely well insured. Movies filled with slaughter and devastation leave our senses stunned as we drive home in air-conditioned mini-vans. Amusement parks, adventure lands and flashing video games offer the illusion of thrills and chills. We are voracious for entertainment. Make it intense. Make it dazzling, bright and glitzy. But make it safe. Artificial environments and engineered entertainments allow us to buy a sense of having lived. We are besotted with cravings for fun. We call that life.

But for hearts with a taste for the depth and lushness of authentic life it is a sorry substitute. For those who savor the thrills of the soul, idle entertainment has little attraction. The wildness of the world beckons. And I cannot help but wonder if a life with depth and authenticity is possible without risk. Whether it is the risk of speaking our mind, baring our soul, following our bliss, or choosing to live life on our own terms - without regard for the safe and the sensible - is a safe life a life that honors the heart?

My story has a happy ending. I am lucky. Dad and Clarence returned home on their own - unaware of the ruckus their disappearance caused. They were driving down a steep grade when a wheel went in to a hole. Failing to dig it out they spent the night in the woods, running the heater just enough to keep from freezing, talking, wishing they hadn’t forgotten the donuts. Mid-morning two young hunters in a 4x4 came across them and pulled them out with a winch. They drove to Clarence’s house for hot baths and lots of hot coffee. They were embarrassed by the fuss.

“My God,” Dad said, “they act like I’ve never spent a night in the woods before.”

Days later, when he was rested and a little humbled by the rescue efforts, we talked. He talked about the still, quiet beauty of the frigid night. Stars as big as sparkling plums. Moonlight slipping round snow laden fir trees trailing sparkles across frosted branches. He spoke of the mysterious call of night birds. Of the fine fairy dust of snowflakes shimmering through the dark.

“I’m sorry I caused so much trouble,” he told me “There’s no way I can repay everyone. But, I have to tell you one thing; I never thought at my age I’d get to spend another winter night in the woods. It was just so beautiful.”

A heart that wild will never die.

A Swan Surrender

Last night Jane and Clare and I watched a DVD of the 1966 performance of Swan Lake with Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn. It was ... exquisite. All three of us, Jane, Clare and I, are ballet lovers and have attended our share of them but since we were all pretty young when Fonteyn retired we have only ever seen her dance on film. Still watching Fonteyn dance on film is better than watching the majority of dancers perform in your living room.

Nureyev is beautiful, of course. He dances with a grace and a precision that makes you wonder if he has figured out the secret of anti-gravity. When he danced Swan Lake with Fonteyn he was 28 and she 47. There is something sweet to me in that — the exquisite, aging ballerina whose passion for dance was reignited by encountering the perfect dance partner. Even though there was 19 years difference in their age, they moved with such perfect attunement and such tenderness that you cannot help but wonder if there wasn’t more... he a 28 year old homosexual and she a 47 year old married woman but ... oh!

I think that is one of the wonders of great art — especially dance. we live in the world in which we are accustomed to thinking of things in very conventional terms. Nevermore so than when it comes to love and sex. But what goes on in art is something so far beyond the conventional that we can often only grasp it by trying to shape it into terms we understand — love, sex, affairs, the stuff of tabloids. We don’t always understand that in that other realm, in that realm of art, convention isn’t a factor. The sublime manifests and the result is something so far beyond the ordinary that it becomes a sacred thing.

Fonteyn is glorious. No matter how wonderful Nureyev is, when they are together he is little more than her support, her prop, the thing she makes use of to be exquisite. She flutters, she floats, she faints into his arms with such total abandon that you cannot help but gasp. Everything about her, from the solitary preening to the curling up and folding into him, is performed with such a lack of self-consciousness and sweet surrender that you cannot imagine it is a performance. It seems more that those moments are all that is real in the universe and that everything else is somehow contrived.

I think there is nor greater satisfaction in all of life than the capacity to let go of everything and turn yourself over with complete abandon to whatever fulfills you — whether it is love or art or dance or writing or working in the garden or baking bread or nursing a baby... the list is endless. Those who have had the joy of letting go and slipping into that other place discover in it the paradoxical joy of letting themselves go completely and, in the process, finding themselves totally. We live in a culture that teaches us a lot of control, that we have to be in charge of ourselves and our actions at all times. And, because of our madly frenetic pace of life, we try to compensate by finding release in mindless entertainments. All you have to do is watch somebody sitting in front of a slot machine shoveling in coins and pulling that lever, time after time after time, to see this. It can be frightening when the thing a person turns themself over to is so lacking in personal involvement. Their person becomes nothing more than the machine that keeps the distraction going.

And then you watch someone like Fonteyn dance. She is extraordinarily skillful and accomplished, of course, but she has mastered her art so well that she can lose herself in it and, in doing so, become the embodiment of surrender. Sweet, sacred surrender.

Thanks for reading

Thursday, February 08, 2007

Mid-Winter Hibernation Mode

It is now after Groundhog’s Day and the little varmint has predicted a short winter this year which is fine with me. It has been very light on precipitation this year which is also fine with me but it sure has been cold the last few weeks. I am grateful for the down comforter and the down featherbed I bought this year. What great ideas those were.

I admit, I have been holing up and not going out any more than I have to lately. Last Saturday night I went out to dinner with Jane and Claire and it was so darn cold I couldn’t wait to get home. I’ve been working a lot. Mark sends emails saying “what up?” but I just tell him, I’m cold, I’m staying home. And I have a lot of work right now.

Maybe that is fortuitous. It seems that everyone who had been dawdling about their work all last fall when I could have used the work is suddenly in a rush to get their sites revised and updated and I am putting in long, long days trying to accommodate them.

There is something wonderful in a way about being able to live like this — at least for someone like me who is naturally a bit of a hermit anyway. I go out to the store and lay in provisions and the things I think I will need to get through a week and then I just stay home. Betty Lou stopped by to check on me. People call and I say I am working, I am hibernating and they say, okay, call me if you need anything. These are wonderful friends to have.

In the morning I make coffee and oatmeal and get to work. Around noon I make a salad or a sandwich and some iced tea and read my favorite blogs and message boards and then get back to work. That is one of the great things about the internet — you can be a complete hermit and pretend you have a social life thanks to message boards and interest groups. I work through the afternoon and into the evening and then, around 8, stop for dinner — usually a broiled meat or fish and baked potato or veggies and a glass of wine. And then I putter around the house. It’s a simple life and would make me crazy in warm, sunny weather but when the thermometer is having trouble getting above the teens I enjoy it.

It is a good thing to be okay with being with oneself. As someone who has always cherished alone time I didn’t know for many years that there are those who don’t like that — people who have to be in the company of someone else. My need for solitary time has made relationships difficult. I lived with a man for awhile who nearly drove me crazy. In the beginning the relationship worked because he worked on an offshore oil rig and he would be gone for 7 days at a time, home for 3 and then back out. But when he changed jobs the problems started. I thought it was a personality clash but now I realize it was just my need for lots of alone time.

One Sunday when we were together he informed me that there was an important football game on and he would be spending the day in front of the television. I said that was fine and planned to spend in the dining room sewing. I got my machine all set up and was getting to work when he came in carrying the television. He set it on the sideboard and pulled a chair up next to me and started to watch the game. “What the {bleep} are you doing?” I asked. “I didn’t want you to be alone,” he said — somewhat pleased by his own thoughtfulness and consideration. Sigh.

Well, that relationship had other problems too and I didn’t much miss it when it was over. And it made me realize something important — I’m weird, leave me alone. So during hibernation periods like this I remember that and think that, when it is warmer and I am ready to see people again, I will enjoy them so much more.

Thanks for reading

Tuesday, February 06, 2007

Abandoned Places

When I first moved to Massachusetts I did a lot of temp work until I could find a job that was a good match. I taught for awhile in a psychiatric hospital on a locked ward for adolescent males. It was an interesting job because the boys seemed like normal, healthy, rambunctious kids until the switch got flipped and then — well, that’s another story. But the facility was on the grounds of the old Danvers State Hospital which was once a so-called insane asylum with a long and fascinating past.

The building I worked in was a new, plain brick, institutional place but the old building was a long, serpentine, gothic structure that perched on top of the hill and looked about as malevolent as anything Stephen King or Shirley Jackson could have dreamed up. There were spires along the length of the building, tall barred windows and that brooding air of evil that those of us with a naturally romantic disposition like to project onto such places. At night when I left a guard would escort me to my car but I would always find a reason to turn around in the drives that surrounded the old building just to get a closer look and wonder about it.

Recently I have come across a couple of web sites created by photographers who share my fascination with buildings such as this and over the weekend I spent a little too much time just looking at the pictures and thinking about them. I’m not sure what it is about images of abandoned places that is so evocative but it settles deeply into my soul and I find myself dreaming about these places as though they had once been an actual part of my life.

In between all my other reading I am still reading Ohran Pamuk’s lovely Istanbul: Memories and the City. It is one of those books that is so lush you can only read a few chapters at a time but then need time to savor it. Pamuk grew up in Istanbul at the end of the Ottoman empire when the city was in decline and populated by hundreds of abandoned palaces and temples and mosques. His book is filled with the sentiment that Turks refer to as ”huzun”, a sort of melancholy longing that haunts one’s personality and underlies life. I think it is a beautiful concept and something that I think I understand.

I also finished reading Charles Palliser ‘s The Quincunx which is set in London in the early nineteenth century and filled with abandoned buildings including an overgrown temple buried in a garden and an abandoned mansion with its own chapel where one of the crucial scenes — a forbidden marriage and a deadly duel take place. Wonderful stuff.

The house I live in was built in the early eighteenth century — quite new and modern by Istanbul’s standards — but I love it. Much of the original woodwork and fittings have been preserved and in the fireplace in the livingroom there is an iron hook hanging down from high in the chimney where once kettles of water must have been put to boil. I think about the life of that room over the past three centuries often.
I guess there is in us a natural connection to those who have lived here before us and we see these places, these places where they once lived there lives and did their work and were either happy or sad and we realize that they were not so different from us even though they would certainly not know what to make of this world that we live in now.

Danvers State Hospital has been purchased by developers and the acres that were once home to that strange building and all its sad inhabitants will now feature condos and townhouses. But I like to think about a story that was told to me by a man who had been a boy in that strange gothic structure. His father was head psychiatrist there for awhile and they had an apartment in the asylum building. All he remembered of the places was the tricycle races he and his brother used to have through those long, winding halls. “It was the best place to be a kid,” he told me. “We’d go flying down those halls and all the patients jumped out of the way when they saw us coming. But they laughed when they did it.” Nice thought.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 05, 2007

The Indiana Jones School of Knitting

One of my favorite movies is Raiders of the Lost Ark. In it there is this great line when one of the characters asks Indiana Jones, “What do we do now?” and Indy (played by the utterly luscious Harrison Ford) says, “I don’t know. I’m making this up as I go along.” I LOVE that line!

This past weekend was very cold and I was very tired — I had an intense week last week. I find that these days, when my week has been highly productive creatively, my weekends are very lazy. I spent a lot of time puttering in the kitchen, reading (finished the over 700 pages of The Quincunx, more about that later), and watching movies and knitting. I am working on another bed jacket because the Bed of Roses one I made a few months back has become my favorite garment. The couple of friends who have seen my work-in-progress have said they want me to show them how to make one.

I always balk at that because I don’t know how I’m making it! I’m making it up as I go along.
I think there is something wrong about following instructions too closely — at least for knitting. I guess if you are mixing up a molotov cocktail or assembling a thermo-nuclear device then you should follow directions closely but for knitting — nah!

Elizabeth Zimmerman was a great proponent of the Indiana Jones School of Knitting. I got an original copy of her Knitting Without Tears for a quarter at the Rockport Garden Club’s Book Sale and it is about the best book on knitting that there is. She teaches the method of knitting — not how to follow directions. There are two reasons I think this is important — one is that it makes it possible for knitters to knit for anyone with anything and not be a slave to absolute sizes and types of yarn. But more importantly it just makes knitting more fun! It frees you up to be creative and have adventures with your knitting needles instead of just being a production knitter.
I know a lot of people are afraid of making mistakes or that they’ll complete the garment and then it won’t fit the intended wearer.

And so many people are afraid of wasting time and yarn. I learned in sewing that you have to be prepared to make occasional sacrifices to the fabric gods. That’s just how it is. Mistakes happen and then, well, you get to be creative with that too. And yarn is much more forgiving than fabric is. With few exceptions it can almost always be ripped out.

This is how I made my Bed of Roses jacket and the one I am currently working on. For both of them I worked with two strands of yarn held together. For the Bed of Roses Jacket it was a strand of KnitPicks Pima Cotton and a strand of silk eyelash from eBay. For this one I am using two eBay yarns, a fine, loopy wool in variegated shades of blue and purple and a funky rayon “tag” yarn that is a single strand with little, shiny squares strung along it in rainbow shades. I measured across my back a couple inches under my arms and cast on enough stitches to achieve that with ease. I knit up to the neck and then divided the stitches in half for the front, allowing a couple stitches for the back of the neck and then knit down to just under the arms. I knit the right side of the front, added enough stitches for ease under the right arm, picked up the back stitches, added stitches for under the left arm, and knit the left side. I knit back and forth until I achieved the desired length. I went back and picked up stitches around the armhole and knit in the round, decreasing for the cuff. This was easy because I want the sleeves to be loose and just past the elbow. I did the same for the other arm.

I’m finishing up the first sleeve now so won’t know for a few days if it will work but I’ll let you know. I’m hoping it will turn out great but if it doesn’t — well, there’s always next time. Indy would approve.

Thanks for reading

Friday, February 02, 2007

Everybody Hates Bill O’Reilly

They do. Just ask him. Of course it is only because they fear his power as king-maker and are jealous of his position at the top of the heap of American television (right up there with American Idol and Dancing with the Stars). Actually, I’ve never hated him and, in fact, I kind of miss listening to him in the afternoons on 96.9. Not as much as I miss Mike Barnicle but that’s a different story.

When 96.9 chose to screw up their daytime programming I tried it for awhile but then was forced to change to WUMB-FM which is an NPR program. It’s actually excellent. There was a great interview with Norman Mailer yesterday. So I won’t complain that their new schedule ruined my day. Mike Barnicle is now on for an hour in the morning but it is at the time I am usually writing this blog so I miss him. Then we get two hours of Michael Graham laughing at his own jokes, whining about Massachusetts, the only state that would give him job, and telling us how full the lines are while he babbles on endlessly trying to fill those two hours. Enough already.

Jim Braude and Margery Eagen have three hours now and I like them even though that girl desperately needs elocution lessons. I like the way Jim doesn’t take himself seriously and the fact that he’s smarter than all the rest of the talk jocks put together (except Barnicle). After them we get the aging ladies-man Jay Severin but since he is only interested in talking to fit, attractive, very young women I disqualify myself and listen to Terry Gross instead.

O’Reilly now comes on in the evening so I rarely get to hear him but the other night I happened to be in the car and I tuned him in. He was talking about all the people who hate him — again. “Boy do they hate me,” he says,”ha, ha, ha, they sure hate me.” He talks about that a lot. I often feel like calling him and using one of my father’s lines, “Don’t paint a target on your chest if you don’t want to get shot at.” But he’d probably think I was picking on him.

I have to give O’Reilly credit, he often picks causes that I think are admirable — particularly in the area of childhood abuse. And he’s a total genius at marketing. In fact I’m thinking about following his example from his latest book Culture Warrior. Here’s the way I see it, you think up a bad guy, someone America needs to be protected from. Then you write a sort of field guide to identifying those bad guys and you set yourself up as the first line of defense against them. O’Reilly’s bad guys are the so-called Secular Progressives, a term that he admits he “coined” (sort of like olbert‘s “truthiness”). He then spends his whole book proving that his invented bad guys, the S.P.s, are bent on the destruction of America. It’s a good thing to add in the elements of paranoia and patriotism which are sort of the nitro and the glycerin of hysteria.

So this is what I’ve decided: there are people in this country who hate the color white. Let’s call them the W.H.s. I can prove that they exist and intend to do that by exposing the trend of people moving to warmer climates to get away from snow (white) and not doing anything about greenhouse gases which would eliminate snow (white). Plus look at the booming diet industry and how anti-carb it has become — no potatoes (white), no pasta (white), no rice (white). And look at how old people now color their hair (white). I’ll demonstrate how the interior decorating industry has convinced Americans to paint their walls bright colors instead of the respectable white we once favored, and then there is the War On Virtue (white). Well, I am definitely onto something here.

The only problem is when my book comes out there will be people who hate me for exposing the W.H.s. That will put me in competition with O’Reilly for being hated. He’d hate that.

Thanks for reading