Monday, April 30, 2007

Trying To Understand

If the Department of Homeland Security is paying attention to Amazon buying these days I am in big trouble. I have ordered over half a dozen books lately about mass murderers, serial killers, and other dark aspects of the human psyche. In the wake of the Virginia Tech massacre I admit to be being a little obsessed with why this is happening. Over the weekend I read James Alan Fox’s Mass Murder: America’s Growing Menace. It wasn’t a fun read.

The thing is, I don’t know what I am looking for — reassurance, understanding, some kind of belief that no one I know could be like this, could do something like this. I don’t know. I don’t know. There is so much anger in the world and so much nastiness. I’ve asked before and I ask again, why are we so mean? Why do we laugh at television programs that involve ridicule and snide, sarcastic rude behvior? What has gone wrong?

I talked to my sister about this over the weekend and she has also thought about it a lot. She is a teacher in a rural school district and she is very concerned by the amount of bullying that goes on. Even though the schools have all implemented programs to encourage kids to get along and tolerate differences and accept individual eccentricities (though I bet they don’t use those words), still the bullying goes on unchecked. The school administrators are reluctant to interfere too much because discipline in schools is touchy anyway these days.

And yet the thing that comes up over and over again in profiles of serial killers and mass murderers is that they were abused as children and/or bullied. They were treated in such a way that they lost any desire they might once have had to play fair. It is true that not all kids who are bullied take a gun to school and open fire but it is a thing that effects people for life. And the most important question in my mind is not what does it do to the bullied child but rather what do those who do the bullying get out of it?

The whole issue of people ganging up to attack another has been a big issue in my own concerns with cyber-harassment. It goes on and on and on. One of the things I have been particularly interested in is how a new person can come into the group and, even though that person has no particular prior knowledge of the “target”, they will absorb all the rude, snide comments being leveled by the bullies and, when they have a reason to take issue with the target, use all those remarks to try to hurt. What I wonder about is what they get out of it? Does it make them feel better to hurl a volley of nastiness at someone?

I watched a documentary over the weekend of an interview with a psychiatrist and mass-murderer/mob-hitman Richard Kuklinski who died in Trenton State Penitentiary last year while serving a 900 year sentence for multiple murders. Kuklinski is a fascinating case study because he comes across as intelligent, self-aware, and, in a weird way, likeable. A thing he was quick to point out. At one part of the interview he was telling the story of a hit that was not going well. He laughed as he told it as though he was telling a joke and the psychiatrist laughed too. Kuklinski fixed a dark look at the man and said, “Now, see, you’re laughing at this. You think it’s funny and I’m a nice guy. I am not a nice guy.”

Later in the interview he suddenly becomes withdrawn and brooding. He says, “Okay, I’m angry now. You just did something that upset me and now I want to hurt you.” The psychiatrist talks with him about this and they conclude that he suddenly felt like he (Kuklinski) was being judged and condemned and it triggered his killing-response. Once they worked through the situation, Kuklinski states, “It’s good you got to see that.” I was really impressed by that. What it says to me is we can learn, we can figure this out, if we pay attention and put our own insecurities aside, we can figure this out.

We just have to want to.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 27, 2007

Another Beautiful Light Goes Out

It is a sad day in the world of music-lovers because the great Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich died today. He was 80 and had been fighting cancer for a very long time but it is sad when such a great and shining light goes out. He leaves behind a body of work that anyone would be proud to claim. While exiled in the U.S. he was the conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra. But it is the sound of his cello, his passionate, fierce, fiery bowing, that the world will miss most. Thank heavens for CDs. Thank goodness we live in a time when the work of such artists cam be preserved.

Rostropovich was a man of great charm and sweetness who grew up in a musical family. His father, also a cellist, studied with Pablo Casals, and Rostopovich himself studied with Dmitri Shostakovich. Just typing those names gives me a shiver. Such great lights in the musical world!

One of the wonderful stories that Rostopovich liked to tell was about his mother. Rostopovich was not a handsome man by any means and he said that he asked his mother, who had carried him for 10 months, why, since she had carried him for an extra month, she didn’t give him a more handsome face. She replied, “Because I was busy giving you beautiful hands.” What a lovely thought.

Rostopovich played like a mad genius at times. One fellow musician described him as a roaring inferno when he played. His nature as a man was both sweet and fierce. It was his outspoken support of the Soviet dissidents that earned him a 20 year exile in the United States — particularly his support of exiled writer Alexander Solzhenitsyn whom he took into his home for 4 years while he worked to persuade his government that artists were required to speak out against injustice — that it is their work.

I was going to write today about Ulysses S. Grant whose birthday it is today. Everyone knows that Grant was a great soldier and a not-so-great President but what many do not know is that he was also a very fine writer. His Personal Memoirs is possibly the best memoir from a literary standpoint ever written by a U.S. President. And, like many writers, Grant had a bad time with his publisher. He left the presidency broke and ill and, even though he wrote a wonderful first chapter, his publisher was stingy and paid a pittance. Grant was discouraged. It was writer Mark Twain who came to his rescue and offered to publish the book and pay him a significant royalty. Grant, suffering from cancer, too, and in great pain, wrote his memoir and Twain paid him close to a half a million dollars in royalties — the largest royalty ever paid for a book at that time.

Rostopovich once said that he didn’t believe Bach and Beethoven were dead. He said when he listened to and played their music he was sure that they lived somewhere only in a different form. I think that when I read great writers — that their souls live on in their books. I cannot imagine that anyone who reads great writing, listens to great music, or spends time with great art can do other than think the same.

It is my belief that artistic creativity is a sublime and sacred thing. And the fact that artists support one another — as Rostopovich supported Solzhenitsyn and Twain supported Grant — makes me think that somewhere in the nature of artists there is an imperative that art comes before all.

So, adieu Maestro Rostopovich. Thank you for your music and your passion. It lives on.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Hurry Up and Wait

That seems to be my operating mode these days — hurry up and wait, hurry up and wait. It is frustrating but also makes me realize that good things are happening.

I have several projects right now that are exciting but extensive involving many components. One of these is writing and designing the exhibition book for the North Shore Arts Association’s autumn exhibition The Past & The Present. This is a wonderful exhibition featuring art work by over 50 artists of the past who were early members of NSAA. The paintings I have seen so far are stunning — many of them are in private collections and have never been exhibited before or at least not in decades. When they asked me to write the accompanying book I was a little overwhelmed, what do I know about early Cape Ann art? But, of course, I know a lot. I forget that sometimes.

Getting The Old Mermaid's Tale to press is going much slower than I hoped for too. It has to be out by the end of May --- I have several book signings this summer. But nothing goes as quickly as you hoped for.

Mark’s book has taken off in a wonderful direction too but, there again, everything is both exciting and nothing certain yet. The book is being read by two very impressive names from Hollywood. I’m sworn to secrecy at the moment but I recognized both names and, considering I never go to movies, that is good. But, it is the same situation — very exciting or maybe not.

All of this is an experience in understanding that life is loaded with potential, things can happen — even if they don’t always happen on time or in a way that we would prefer that they occur. The important thing is that we stay aware that there is always another opportunity behind the one we are focused on at the moment.

Leslie called this morning. She is doing great and I am so impressed with the way she has begun to aggressively market her jewelry. She discovered a rich market among knitters and other fiber artists and has been absolutely amazing in her efforts to seek out new venues and design new ways of marketing her work. Part of this includes offering workshops which she has been doing at a number of fiber arts fairs around the country. It has opened up a whole new world of potential for her and her beautiful, beautiful jewelry.

My friend Michael is another creative entrepreneur. I’ve known Michael for over 25 years and we have been through a lot together. Some 20+ years ago he had a heart transplant while we were living in Texas and his survival has been extremely impressive and a credit to his good old Yankee grit and determination. As he was recovering he realized he had to find a new way to make a living and he has tried a lot of things mostly involving being a vendor of various products at fairs and festivals. His latest venture is wooden roses and I just helped him get his new web site up and running. He lives in Honolulu now and spends his summers in Maine. He never stops and I’m always inspired by his positive attitude and adaptability.

What I have learned, both from my own efforts as a writer and a designer, and from watching the people like Mark, Leslie, and Michael that I am lucky enough to have in my life, is that creative energy is limitless — you just have to stay open to it and do the best you can with what comes your way. And find new ways to encourage stuff to come your way, too. Some things work out, some don’t. Some things happen in a big hurry, some things take forever. But it is all worthwhile because, even if a venture doesn’t work out, you acquire skills you didn’t have before. There is an old story that Thomas Edison once said he learned a couple hundred ways not to make a light bulb before he learned how to make a light bulb.

Amen to that.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

An Afternoon in Paris

Some years back a good friend who was suffering through a painful divorce went to Paris to nurse his broken heart. While he was there he sent me frequent emails talking about the city and what he was feeling. It was a good thing for him and he stayed for months and months.

One day while we were emailing back and forth I was telling him about a difficult thing I was going through and he asked if there was anything he could do. I said, Send me an afternoon in Paris. About a week later a small package arrived in the mail and in it was a beautiful black and gold tin of tea from a little shop in Montparnasse. The name of the tea was “Afternoon in Paris”. It was a heavenly concoction of black tea spiced with orange peel, figs, rose petals and spices. I savored every last bit of it.

I’ve been thinking about that because of a wonderful book that came my way recently. Of all the books I have ever read the one that I cherish the most is Ernest Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast. It is a memoir of his life as a young man written when he was an old man about his life in Paris among fellow artists and writers. It is beautiful because it is about friends who love each other and fight and who cheat and who make mistakes but are still always there for one another. It is filled with exquisite details as only Hemingway can write then — the taste of oysters fresh from the sea, the color of the liqueurs that Alice B. Toklas served in tiny crystal glasses, the magnificence of the paintings that were an everyday part of his life.

The book contains the lines, “If you are lucky enough to have lived in Paris as a young man, then wherever you go for the rest of your life it stays with you, for Paris is a moveable feast.”

The book that I just finished is Murder in Montparnasse: A Mystery of Literary Paris by Howard Engel and, if you are a fan of A Moveable Feast, it is a delightful little treat. In some ways, I suppose, it is a bit of a heresy because, though the writer is skillful and has much of Hemingway’s language down well, it is, after all, NOT Hemingway. But I still enjoyed it.

The basic story is that among the friends of the Paris café crowd there is a beautiful but scheming young woman who has an unpleasant habit of cozying up to artists and writers and then using their relationship to blackmail them. She ends up dead and, of course, the whole crowd is suspect. It is a fun read and makes use of the great blow Hemingway suffered when a suitcase filled with his manuscripts, including the originals, was stolen from a train. I have to say, I savored every page of the book.

One of the most wonderful things about a book you really love, as I do A Moveable Feast, is that you can never really get enough of it. And though the imitators are rarely as good as the original (a possible exception being Nicholas Meyer’s Sherlock Holmes books, it gives true fans the opportunity to spend time with beloved characters and see them in new ways. It’s fun.

It has been beautiful here the last few days and that makes me happy. I’ve been lucky to be busy lately with friends who are as tired of winter as I am. We go out to dinner and lunch and get together just to be outside and talk and talk and talk. My friends talk a lot about art and books. I am lucky. So this book was my afternoon in Paris for this year. If you could use one, and you appreciate Hemingway, you might give this book a try.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 23, 2007

After the Nor’easter

We had quite a nor’easter last week and this weekend was a most welcome break from that. Three or four days of incessant rain and gloom is enough to make anyone cranky. So two or three days of sunshine and warmth is a very welcome break from that.

Over the weekend I went out to Good Harbor Beach — so did everyone else north of Boston — and I discovered that the beach got bigger. It got bigger because the storm caused considerable dune erosion. I was stunned at how much was lost. And all along Nautilus Road the beach roses took a bad beating. The part of Nautilus Road by the swim club was completely underwater at high tide for several days. Men with shovels and rakes were out there putting the rocks back in the ocean and raking up the remains of the beautiful marsh grasses and the beach rose bushes. They will grow back, of course, but everything looks so open now.

Out along the back shore a backhoe was hard at work putting rocks the size of coffeetables back in the ocean. There too the beach roses were gone. I don’t know how long it will take them to grow back but I will miss them. That fresh slightly-rosy/slightly-astringent fragrance is one of my favorite parts of summer.

The bridge is out again. That is sad and the tidal creek is a great deal wider than it used to be. Mark told me that for the first time in 55 years of living in that house the water came over their seawall. Not badly, he repaired the damage with a shovel in less than an hour, but it was a shock.

It is an unsettling thing to see a world that is an everyday part of your life change so dramatically in just a few days. Still it is very beautiful. Over the weekend the tides remained quite high, though not over their normal boundaries. But the color of the water was breathtaking. It is as though all that pounding and hammering and crashing had a cleansing effect and the water, as it swept over the beach, was the most intoxicating pallette of colors. I wished I had remembered my camera. There was the clear, sunny blue of the reflected sky accented by areas of the most breathtaking azure, and low spots of a misty violet.

All the surfers were out. Those folks are nuts. The crazier the waves get the happier they are — a good reminder that what I might call awful is pure joy to someone else. It is fun to watch them pull up in their jeeps and trucks leaning out of the windows to study the waves and going into paroxysms of joy when they see how terribly high and wild they are. They jump out of their vehicles, scramble into their shiny black wet suits making them look like cartoon seals with bright surfboards, and run toward the roaring waves looking for that one that will give them the thrill they live for. I love to watch them. They are so serious about their happiness.

So nature once again has shown us a thing or two and now we have to adjust to smaller dunes, fewer beach roses, and the birds will have to adjust their daily schedules. But it is April and the sun is shining and life is good.

Today is William Shakespeare’s birthday. Shakespeare, more than any other writer of his time, loved and made generous use of words and language. His works contain over 30,000 different words some of which he created and which have gone on to grace our language even now. It is April. Anything can happen.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Orhan Pamuk's Nobel Lecture 2006

As is obvious to people who read here regularly I love Orhan Pamuk and cannot talk enough about his books Istanbul and Snow. Recently I came across his 2006 Nobel Lecture titled “My Father’s Suitcase”. It is very long. Here is the link for anyone who wants to read it. As I read it, particularly his remarks about writing and what it is to be a writer, I found myself nearly in tears at the accuracy of his words — at least for the writer part of me. I wish I was clever enough to say things the way he does — so beautifully and yet so simply. The words in italics are Pamuk's.

A writer is someone who spends years patiently trying to discover the second being inside him, and the world that makes him who he is. When I speak of writing, the image that comes first to my mind is not a novel, a poem, or a literary tradition; it is the person who shuts himself up in a room, sits down at a table, and, alone, turns inward. Amid his shadows, he builds a new world with words....To write is to transform that inward gaze into words, to study the worlds into which we pass when we retire into ourselves, and to do so with patience, obstinacy, and joy.

I have often thought that one has to be a little crazy to be a writer. It is a solitary business and requires tremendous ability to focus on that little light that demands attention and to see what it is all about and then to expose oneself to the world as you, in your aloneness and your introspection, explore what that means to you.

As we hold words in our hands, like stones, sensing the ways in which each is connected to the others, looking at them sometimes from afar, sometimes from very close, caressing them with our fingers and the tips of our pens, weighing them, moving them around, year in and year out, patiently and hopefully, we create new worlds.

Words are the tools of the writer like paint is the tool of the artist. Forming those words into a full expression of one’s thoughts requires a deep love of words and a deep reverence for how they fit together and what that then creates. It is my belief, and I say this with serious trepidation, that creating a new world with words is the highest act of creation imaginable. Maybe even more than creating a new life. That new world is a living thing and many of them outlive the fragile humans who create them.

I believe literature to be the most valuable tool that humanity has found in its quest to understand itself. Societies, tribes, and peoples grow more intelligent, richer, and more advanced as they pay attention to the troubled words of their authors.

I believe this too. Literature not only helps us to understand ourselves but it shapes our worlds and shapes our destiny. Think of Les Miserables. Think of A Tale of Two Cities. Think of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Think how different the world would be if they had never been written.

I write because I believe in literature, in the art of the novel, more than I believe in anything else...I write because it is exciting to turn all life’s beauties and riches into words.

I can say absolutely nothing more. This is why I write as well. I only wish I could write as beautifully as Orhan Pamuk.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Extreme Mean

I wrote a blog entry recently about “meanness” in popular literature. That was before the terrible events at Virginia Tech this week and it has been haunting me ever since. Yesterday I heard an interview on the radio with James Alan Fox (and Jay Severin, I will give him much credit for selecting that guest). Fox is a professor at Northeastern and the author of Extreme Killing among other books focused on mass murder and serial killing and other horrendous trends that seem to be increasing not only in our country but in the world.

What Fox said is that we are a culture that glorifies meanness. I could not have agreed with him more. He spoke of the popularity of “institutionalized bullying” in which popular entertainment is built upon being mean to people. He specifically cited all the people who watch American Idol just to see the vulgar host abuse and mock people. He mentioned the people who are entertained by Donald Trump screaming “You’re fired!” on a recent TV program of his and of another show (I didn’t catch the title) where people are voted “off the island” because they failed to perform to others approval.

All of this is entirely in line with my own disgust with the many forms of nastiness that have become ubiquitous and, sadly, entertaining to many.

Having recently been through a methodical campaign of cyber-bullying myself I know first hand how ugly these people can be when they have the opportunity to hide behind anonymity. What is even worse is the way the internet has created an environment where miserable people can create false identities and vent their hatred and meanness at anyone who crosses them. I’ve participated in a few message board/discussion groups over the years. Some are civil, some are insane. But what continually stuns me is the extremes of over-reaction on the part of some participants. Recently, in the context of discussion, I told one poster I thought her opinion was “naive”. I didn’t think that was particularly horrible. She reacted with an insane volley of abuse in which she called me names that insulted my heritage, my lifestyle, and more and proceeded to rant for over an hour justifying her position. All because I said her position was naive. Boy, am I mean.

I mention this because the more we, as individuals and as a culture accept meanness and find humor and entertainment in such things, the more we contribute to a culture that spawns sick, twisted individuals who take guns into classrooms and create horror.

Fox also spoke about the glamorization of such atrocities. The media goes into a positive frenzy to see which outlet can post the goriest, the ugliest, the most disturbing updates on the situation. And this perverse glamorization profoundly influences other sick, sad psychos who are also screaming for attention. In the wake of the Virginia Tech atrocity there were over half a dozen lock-downs at other high schools and colleges around the country. Some overly-cautious mistakes to be sure, but some were from genuinely scary people who were influenced by what happened in Virginia.

We have to stop this meanness! We have to stop thinking it is funny to insult, abuse and revile people on television shows and in the media. We have to stop sensationalizing and glorifying horror. It is sick and it is wrong and it is a very sad commentary on who we are as people.

Be nice today. Don’t take offense if someone says something you don’t like. Start a revolution against this meanness and this bullying. We are better than that — at least I hope we are.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

"Do Not Be Overcome By Evil...

...But overcome evil with good". That’s what it says in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Brave words. Words that seem facile in the face of great evil. Yesterday there was great evil in Virginia and now 32 people are dead because one man was overcome by his dark side. It is horrible.

I never know what to say or to think or to believe when things of this nature happen. Who does? Right away the know-it-alls start with all their “solutions” — make guns illegal, close the borders, why was the school so slow to respond. On and on and on. Everybody always knows what SHOULD have happened. As I sat here working on an art book I had the radio on and as the story unfolded and more and more was learned I kept thinking about Gregory Gibson, a local book dealer, whose 18 year old son Galen was murdered in another school shooting 15 years ago.

I’ve met Gibson. His shop, Ten Pound Island Books, is on Langsford Street in Lanesville not far from Walker Hancock’s studio. And he came once to our writer’s group and spoke. His book about the aftermath of the murder of his son is titled Gone Boy and is a book both painful and comforting to read. A young Asian student, Wayne Lo, obtained a semi-automatic rifle and went to campus and began shooting. School authorities had intercepted a shipment of ammunition to Lo and done nothing about it, they had received a warning and done nothing about it. Who can ever conceive of something so evil? I couldn’t.

Here is the awful truth, we live in a violent society and we are horribly disconnected from one another. Those words seem facile to me, too, but I can’t avoid the truth of them. The students at Virginia Tech, who were huddling in the next room from where their classmates were being murdered, spoke of the mad, chilling, insane laughter they heard along with the shots that were taking the lives of their fellow students. The shooter, who has not yet been identified publically by authorities, is said to be a male Asian student who lived in one of the Virginia Tech dorms. For whatever reason, this man took his gun into a classroom and opened fire as he laughed and laughed and laughed. The very thought of that is unbearable to me.

The world is just crazy. In an essay about guns and violence, written by Gregory Gibson some years after his book was published, Gibson talks about watching the movie Rambo one evening and finding the mindless violence of it somehow oddly soothing. He was somewhat shocked at himself for feeling that way given how violence had devastated his life. I don’t understand it. And yet I watch movie like that too sometimes.

We live in a time of war. We live in a country where people are entertained by TV programs like The Sopranos and 24. I watch them, too. We live in a time of road rage where people scream at one another in traffic because everybody wants to be first, everybody wants to be the one who gets ahead. I read the discussions on message boards about everything from the war in Iraq to their favorite pizza joints and people swear at one another and use foul, violent language and say horrible things. We are all mad. I don’t understand it. Nobody does.

So today 32 people are dead in Virginia. I don’t know how many are dead in Iraq, or on America’s highways, or on the streets of Boston. We are all mad. Paul says, “Do not be overcome by evil but overcome evil with good.” We should at least try.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 16, 2007

Storm Watch

I was driving out Atlantic Avenue yesterday morning and there was this big white van and banks of lights and all sorts of TV equipment and, sure enough, there was Jim Cantore — the Drama Queen of the Weather Channel — getting spastic over the storm headed this way. I wish the Weather Channel wouldn’t do this. Every time there is a storm scheduled they send someone up here to broadcast it and then everyone I know who lives in other parts of the country and who knows I live in Gloucester calls to make sure I am okay. I am okay. Jim Cantore is a little spastic but I’m fine.

I love the way weathermen get all lathered up over big weather events. That must be an occupational hazard — weather is your thing so you just can’t help getting fired up when it is acting dramatic — even though it also means that a lot of people are going to be miserable and maybe even die. Oh well.

Yesterday was also the eleventh anniversary of my mother’s death. Only the day she died was on a Monday and was, thus, the same day as the running of the Boston Marathon. That is happening today this year and I do not envy those poor folks considering what the weather is looking like out there. Personally, the idea of running a marathon is to me on a par with going to the moon but I know there are those who live for it and I wish them well out there in this wretched weather.

I had a nice day yesterday. I spent an hour on the phone with an old friend I hadn’t talked to in over 20 years. That was nice. Phyllis and I were friends when we lived in Houston. We took belly dancing lessons together and did a lot of partying together too. She’s in Baltimore now and planning on moving to Hawaii to go to work for our mutual friend Michael. It was Michael who reconnected us after all these years and it was great to talk to her.

It’s such a strange thing when you reconnect with someone like that because you start talking about things you thought you had forgotten and it seemed like no time has passed at all. Twenty years have gone by and yet, in a way, it is like yesterday. It felt so good to catch up on the lives of people I had all but forgotten about and a bit humbling to realize how much I have forgotten. But it was a lovely way to spend a rainy Sunday afternoon.

I heard on Writer’s Almanac this morning that today is the birthday of J.M. Synge who wrote the play “Riders to the Sea”. I saw that play when I was still in high school — probably a high school production — and I still remember it. It is distinguished in my mind because of the role knitting plays in it — the drowned fishermen are identified by the patterns in their knitted sweaters. Funny how that has stayed with me all these years.

So we have another stormy day ahead and Jim Cantore is in weatherman heaven. The Boston Marathon will be a trial for those poor souls. I have warm thoughts of a time 20 years ago thanks to a conversation with an old friend and, as always, there is work to do. So, as Garrison Keillor says, “Be well, do good work, and keep in touch.”

Thanks for reading.

Friday, April 13, 2007

Sober Thoughtfulness

Last night I sat down with the most recent issue of The New Yorker and discovered two treasures inside — an article by Orhan Pamuk and a short story by Marguerite Duras. Since I have written about both of them here in recent weeks it was quite a lovely surprise to find them both in my favorite magazine.

Pamuk’s article was a delightful little piece on getting his first passport at the age of 7 so he and his brother could go to Geneva to be with his parents. It was not a happy experience and he wound up going back to Istanbul where he stayed for the next 23 years. One of the things I love about Pamuk’s writing is what he refers to as “the Turkish national melancholia”. I liked that and have been thinking about it ever since I read his Istanbul. Melancholy is an interesting subject to me.

If you look it up in the dictionary, melancholy is described as depression and sadness but there is a third definition that I like “sober thoughtfulness”. I find that in Pamuk’s work as I do in Marguerite Duras’s writing. The strange thing is that, while there is that element of soberness, and wistfulness, there is an accompanying wry humor that lends a considerable amount of charm to their work. It’s as if they are saying, “Oh well, the world is nuts, what can you do? But isn’t it amusing, too?” And it is.

I remember reading a story by Duras about a young English pilot who was shot down during WWII in a small town in France. The war was days from being over and this bold young 20 year old pilot was launching his attacks on the German troops wherever he could find them. One night his plane was shot down and landed atop a tree in a French village. He was nearly dead and the people of the village had no means to rescue him. So they gathered around the tree with torches and what musical instruments they had. All night long they sang to him and prayed for him and kept him company until his spirt left this world. The next day they managed to free his body from the wreckage. He was only a boy of 20, they didn’t even know his name. But they carried his body to one of their homes, cleaned it and washed it and wrapped it. They buried him by the church and every day they put flowers on his grave. For years and years. When Duras visited the village in the 1970s they were still putting flowers on the grave of this young, unknown, brave British pilot and they spoke of him with tender affection and admiration as if he belonged to them.

It is a beautiful story and very melancholy in its own way. In the post Elizabethan era there was a cult of the melancholy and many poets, musicians and artists created out of the sort of sober thoughtfulness of the times. Later, the Romantics, and especially the pre-Raphaelites revived the cult of melancholy and painted beautiful but terribly sad women such as Shakespeare’s drowned Ophelia floating in a flower filled stream.

Maybe we need periods of melancholy in our lives to give us permission to feel the depths that we are often too busy to allow ourselves. Last night, after I read Pamuk’s article, I rummaged in my CDs until I found Gustav Mahler’s Fifth Symphony with it’s beautifully melancholic Adagietto. It was a lovely thing to listen to on a cold, sleet-filled night.

And it was a good reminder to me that there are times when we need periods of sober thoughtfulness to help us see the subtle beauties and craziness that makes our lives so rich. One of the old medical treatises on melancholia, when it was still considered a disease, prescribed, as treatment, “much music and some dance”. That might be a prescription we could all make more use of.”

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Neither Time Nor Space Can Separate Us

Thus wrote Robert Henri in describing the brotherhood of artists throughout time and throughout the world. This summer the North Shore Arts Association here in Gloucester will present a large and impressive exhibition titled Past & Present: Neither Time Nor Space Can Separate Us. The exhibit features over 60 works by more than 50 artists and sculptors who at one time were artist members. The names on the list are impressive indeed: John Manship, Katherine Lane Weems, Anna Hyatt Huntington, John Corbino, Henry Gasser (one of my favorite painters), Charles Grafly and so many more.

I am thinking about this because I have been working on the exhibition catalog and that is such a thrill. Getting to work with these beautiful works is so nurturing and such a treat. So far my favorite
of all the works is John Whorf’s wonderful painting of Gloucester fishermen mending their nets (left) — a favorite theme of mine anyway. I remember the days when I first came here over 20 years ago when the Italian fishermen would be working on the docks, mending their nets and the Angelus bells would ring from Our Lady of Good Voyage Church and they would pray the Angelus aloud and together while they worked.

I don’t think they do that anymore — I don’t even know if Our Lady still rings the Angelus. But every time I look at Whorf’s painting I think of that.

Gloucester is changing — it’s the way of the world I guess. The fishing industry is in decline and there are fewer opportunities for artists to make paintings like this one.

And art is changing too. I have mixed feelings about that. I know art has to evolve in order to stay interesting and worthwhile but I don’t like a lot of what I see. There seems to be a big movement toward intensely self-referential work and most of it is boring. Artists have always been interested in the self. Look at how many self-portraits painters like Rembrandt and van Gogh made. And art comes out of the self and, when that is done well, it is the best art that there is because, in exploring the self, we invite others into that place, too. But there is a difference, I think, between the self as the catalyst for exploration and the self as subject of exploration. I’m getting a little tired of the latter.

So what did Henri mean by The Brotherhood that neither time nor space could separate? That’s the question I have to explore in the article I am writing about the exhibition. Partly, I think that it is that those who follow a particular path — whether it is painting or writing or whatever — need those who have preceded them both as inspiration and confirmation. There is much to be learned in looking at the way artists of the past have seen and interpreted a particular subject and, as painters absorb the lessons of the masters of the past, elements of those works become reinvented and reinterpreted in the new works by the new generations of artists.

I suppose it is a sort of artistic genetics. The cells, the DNA, that shapes the work of past masters gets passed on into the work of future artists and, thus, those past masters become the ancestors of contemporary work.

I don’t know if the same will be true of Gloucester. As Gloucester changes and there are no more men left to stand on the docks and pray while they mend their nets, what will replace them? Is there a brotherhood for them? Maybe that is why the brotherhood of artists is so important now. We are changing — that needs to be seen and reinterpreted for the brothers yet to come.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Me Oh My, Rhubarb Pie

I have a confession to make. I’m eating a piece of rhubarb pie with my coffee for breakfast. I know, I know, I swore off sugar but yesterday was Easter and I didn’t eat any chocolate or those horrible marshmallow peeps that everyone else loves. But I bought a half of rhubarb pie to keep me company while I worked on a project I scheduled for yesterday and there’s a piece left over. It is breakfast.

I love rhubarb, always have. Where I grew up in Pennsylvania it is a rare yard that doesn’t have a clump of rhubarb in it somewhere. My grandmother’s house had several. My birthday is in July and there were many birthdays when the candles went on a rhubarb pie instead of a cake at my request. My mother made excellent rhubarb pie. She also made stewed rhubarb and rhubarb crisp. Sometimes she just handed us a stick of fresh rhubarb and a cup with sugar in it to dip it in. We loved it.

Every time I listen to Garrison Keillor’s Prairie Home Companion and they do their rhubarb pie ad I have to laugh. I understand completely — nothing tastes as good as rhubarb pie.

It’s a good thing that there are comfort things in the world like rhubarb pie. Yesterday was Easter and I was in no mood to spend time with friends for very long. The truth is I am still having a hard time with my emotions. It is partly the loss of my father — a big part — but there are other things too. One of my friends of over 20 years has stopped calling me and returning my calls. The same thing happened with her 5 years ago when my brother died. I don’t remember how it was resolved but it was. This time however it is harder for me to handle. And there are the usual business worries and the fact that winter is lingering. It was a mild winter but it is very cold still and looks to be that way for awhile.

And a couple of personal projects are just requiring more energy than I have to give them right now. I’m still having problems with the arthritis in my hands which means no knitting, my primary form of meditation. Just stuff. Y’know.... just life stuff. Everybody goes through it. Sometimes it seems terribly unfair but, on the other hand, there are those who have it so much worse.

So I count my blessings. I have some wonderful friends who are kind enough to keep checking up on me. I have some good work projects. There are lots of wonderful books to be read and I am writing again. I spent the better part of the day yesterday working my way through a difficult passage in Each Angel Burns. I think I worked it out.

Music is good. On Good Friday I treated myself to a CD of Brahm’s German Requiem, my favorite of all the requiems of that era. I’ve been watching DVDs of old Masterpiece Theater presentations — Rebecca and Bleak House. Both, coincidentally featuring that fabulously elegant, golden British aristocrat Charles Dance whom I have been mad about since I first saw Guy Perron in Jewel In The Crown.

So things are coming along. Each day gets brighter and a bit warmer and I have hopes that life is getting better. There is rhubarb pie and sunshine and friends and reason to believe, as Rilke says, that Life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Happy Birthday, M. Duras

If she were alive, today would be French writer Marguerite Duras’s 93rd birthday. She died in 1996 and her final work, titled simply Writing, is both an autobiography and a meditation on what it means to live your life as a writer. Who would know better than she?

Marguerite Duras was born in Saigon and educated in her parents native country, France. Her novels are a mesmerizing blend of the cultures of her two countries — France and Indochina (now Vietnam) — and have a dreamy, exotic quality for that reason. I don’t remember when I discovered her but I remember falling under the spell of her writing. Her best known work is, of course, The Lover which is partly autobiographical (all her work is, I suspect) about a fourteen year old schoolgirl who becomes involved with a young Chinese aristocrat.

I remember when I read it that I was both fascinated and horrified by the emotional intensity of the book, made all the more compelling by the spare, unadorned language that was so much a part of Duras’s style. The girl in the story was so child-like, I thought, like a frail little bird in her school uniforms and pigtails and yet the ferocity of her attachment to the young Chinese man she loved was nearly unbearable to me.

Later I read The Seduction of Lol Stein and Hiroshima, Mon Amour and a few others that I didn’t find as memorable. What I recall most vividly about my introduction to Marguerite Duras’s writing was that it either awakened in me, or stirred in me (I am not sure which) an indefinable longing that haunts me to this day.

There is something that happens to me when the weather is hot and a wind is blowing in off the ocean and everything is very quiet. In all my years of writing I have never been able to define or describe the mood that combination of heat, wind, and quiet stirs in me. God knows I’ve tried. But I know that when I read The Lover that feeling was everywhere in the book. It is a longing, deep and plaintive, for something half-remembered. Something that may never have been. It is mysterious and seductive and very solitary. I don’t know what to call it but I do know that Duras writes it better than anyone.

One time, many years ago when I was living in Houston, there was a day like that which I remember. It was summer and, because it was Houston, the temperature was climbing toward 100. It was Sunday and I was living in an old apartment complex that was built something like a fortress with square, brick buildings each built around a central courtyard. In the courtyard my apartment overlooked there was a large swimming pool, eight gigantic and very old weeping willow trees, bowers of wisteria growing over walkways, and hedges of holly in which all sorts of salamanders and chameleons lived.

On this day, the wind was blowing hot and fierce in off the Gulf of Mexico and no one was around. All was very still and very quiet. There was a man who lived across the courtyard from me whom I had talked to before and he and I were the only ones in the courtyard that day. I was reading and had brought a glass of tequila with lime out to the pool and he came out and joined me. He was tall and dark but not handsome with a heavy, Eastern European face and a faint accent. He always tried to seduce me and I always declined.

What I remember about that day was that we spent a couple of hours sitting there — flirting or negotiating — call what you will. It ended as it always did, with him telling me I didn’t know what I was missing and me assuring him I could probably live with that. I remember the mood of the day more than the man himself. It was a Marguerite Duras sort of day. I hope there are a few more of them ahead in my life.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, April 02, 2007

My Web Site Doesn’t Work!!!!!

In keeping with the tradition of the shoemaker’s children having no shoes, I have been so busy designing web sites in the last couple of years that I have neglected my own web site and am trying to find time, in between all my other projects, to do something about that. I can always tell when there is a slump in the economy because I start getting calls from clients saying ”my web site isn’t working, I’m not getting any calls.” Sigh.
One thing I have learned over the last several years of designing web sites for people is that the web is a vast and mysterious place in which you are competing with many, many, many (add as many “manys” as you can) other folks and everybody wants to be first. Can you blame them? Originally my business was design — making attractive, fast-loading web sites that both reflected their owners’ purpose and which were affordable for writers, artists and small business owners. However, along the way I’ve learned a lot about other things — mostly Search Engine Optimization, a technology that is utterly mysterious but which has tricks that can be implemented.

Just about every client I have done a site for has received the usual generic emails when their site goes up: Your site has great marketing potential and we can make you Number 1. Everybody gets that — including the top twenty people who are your competitors. If all of you subscribe to the service will you all be Number 1? You know the answer.

So I have been learning more and more tricks that I can offer to my clients for their sites and that has now become a standard part of my service. I’m trying to encourage people to think about who their customers are, who do you want to appeal to? Once you know that then the next step is to try to think like they do —what will they be searching for when the go to Google or Yahoo or whichever search engine they use (Google and Yahoo searches comprise about 95% of all searches.)

Once you have a feel for who is looking for you and, more importantly, HOW they are looking for you things get easier. Now it is a matter of making your site more available for those searchers. That’s where Search Engine Optimization strategies can improve your marketing goals.

For a long time artists told me that they never sold anything over the web but lately that is changing. I’ve had a couple of my artists call to tell me they sold paintings to people in other parts of the country who saw them on their web site. I think as people are getting more and more comfortable using the internet to search for the things they are interested in we will see more and more of that.

This is especially true for writers. Both Mark and I have sold books through our web sites and I have even gotten a couple of magazine assignments from people who saw my site and emailed to ask if I was interested in doing an article for them. I thought these were flukes but then last week another client called to say he had received an article request because of his site which has a sports/hobby theme.

So, little by little all of us are getting a handle on this internet thing. As I upgrade my web site I will be adding additional information on marketing and SEO. Take a look and see what you think.

Thanks for reading.