Friday, June 29, 2007

Grist for the Mill

One of the things I’ve learned about writing is that it takes about a hundred books read for me to write one book. I can prove this by the stacks in the living room, bedroom, hall, backroom where I work, etc.

When I was working on The Old Mermaid'sTale I acquired stacks of books about the Great Lakes, shipwrecks, legends, Brittany, Breton folklore, maritime lore, music, Hindu goddesses, mermaids, architecture, and the city of Erie, PA. Most of those books are still here though I have managed to part with a few. It’s kind of interesting because I never really know what will come of such collections but it is fun watching it develop.

The collection for Each Angel Burns is quite different — Italian sculptors, sculpture, the history of the Jesuits, theology, mysticism, Pre-Raphaelite art, the Amish, Catholic saints, and a dizzying array of books on obsession and serial killers. Since the core of the book is an exploration into obsession — what obsesses people and why — there is a ton of books on psychology and sociopaths. The first draft of the novel is now complete and is with a trusted friend to be reviewed before I do another draft. But the stack of books is a reminder that I still have a lot to do.

Now, mysteriously, I see a new pile beginning. I don’t know exactly what will come of it all but the books seem to be accumulating and the data is being processed. New Orleans, voodoo, Salem witchcraft trials, American Luminist art, dance, the psychology of twins... I have an idea of what is going on but it remains to be seen what will happen.

I’ve always wanted to write about twins. I find them fascinating, particularly boy-girl twins. The only two novels I have ever read about them were wonderful. Pat Conroy’s The Prince of Tides is really about Tom, his twin Savannah is a minor player in the story but the soliloquy Tom writes about himself and Savannah in the womb is one of the most beautiful things I have ever read. On the other hand Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, possibly one of the most perfectly composed novels I have ever read, deals with the twins Charles and Camilla whose relationship is mysterious and, ultimately, perverse. I recently re-read the book and was astonished, once again, by the sheer beauty of it.

So I am collecting books and wondering where all of this will lead.

Last night my sister Anne called me. She had begun reading my short story collection, My Last Romance and other passions, and she was so full of compliments it stunned me. She absolutely could not say enough wonderful things and that was both lovely and humbling. She said something that surprised me. She said, “Good for you for having the courage to open yourself up like that. I think that would be very difficult to do.”

She is correct about that and I am pleased by her comment but I’m sort of surprised, too. I guess she knows me better than I thought she did.

So, for the next few days I will be sticking close to home while Fiesta goes on around me. Actually, I want to write about Fiesta. The whole notion of carnival, carne vale, farewell to the flesh, intrigues me. Well, I have the books on New Orleans... and voodoo... and mysticism ... and ...

Thanks for reading

Thursday, June 28, 2007

Viva San Pietro

Well, it’s about to begin again, the annual Gloucester bacchanal better known as Fiesta! It is a five day festival held on the waterfront that is a delicious combination of religious ceremony and drunken brawl. Mostly I stay home.

Among the Italian fishing community St. Peter is much venerated. He is their patron saint and who they call upon to guard them while they are at sea. St. Peter, and Our Lady of Good Voyage, are honored and prayed to and charged with the protection of those who spend their lives working at sea. It all began in 1927 when local fisherman Savatore Favazza commissioned a statue of St. Peter to be enshrined near the waterfront to honor St. Peter whose holy day is June 29. Out of that grew a series of novenas, public Masses, rosaries, feasts and the blessing of the fleet by the bishop. It is an ancient tradition in Europe. Actually, the original festivities are not dissimilar to the festival honoring St. John the Baptist among the fishermen of Brittany that I described in The Old Mermaid's Tale.

In my book Baptiste tells Clair about that festival and how happy he is that he was born on the feast of St. John the Baptist, coincidentally, June 28th, and was named for him. I actually wrote that scene before I ever attended Gloucester’s Fiesta but, once I lived here and had attended a few Fiestas, the scene came so much more alive for me.

Of course, over the years the carnival aspect of Fiesta has somewhat overshadowed the religious devotion. But the carnival aspect of such festivities has always been a much revered tradition in Old World Catholicism. The very word, carnival, derives from the Latin carne vale, “goodbye to the flesh”. Carnival is perhaps best known to most by familiarity with Mardi Gras as practiced in places such as New Orleans, Galveston and, of course, Rio de Janeiro. Mardi Gras, Latin for “Fat Tuesday”, is the final festival among the Faithful before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday every year.

Of course the party aspect of it is what has attracted most people whether or not they are believers and know the reason behind it. Still, it is a time-honored way of celebrating the delights of the senses while remaining ever-mindful of the other side of life — momento morti.

Of all the traditions of the local Fiesta, the one I most love is when all the fishermen walk in procession carrying the statue of St. Peter on their shoulders. People throw flowers and cry “Viva San Pietro!” Hooray for St. Peter. Hooray indeed.

There is something inexplicably beautiful and touching about such displays of Faith. It always brings tears to my eyes. I grew up Catholic, had 12 years of Catholic education and, for the most part, had good teachers — priests and nuns of good, if not always admirable, character. There were a few who weren’t what one might have wished but it is important to remember that they are human and sometimes humans fail. Like many kids raised Catholic I drifted away and tried other religions or just not believing at all. Then one day I realized that, even when I supposedly didn’t believe, in the back of my mind was the hope God would understand that. And I knew that, ultimately, I believe — even when I think I don’t.

So tonight we begin five days of honoring St. Peter. There will be rosaries and novenas, parties, and dancing, prayers and drinking, greasy pole walks, seine boat races, masses and all sorts of carrying on. I’ll stick close to home — go to a couple local parties — and I’ll say “Viva San Pietro!” Thank you, Saint Peter, for saving all those fishermen — and lobstermen — and those in peril on the seas.

Thanks for reading and VIVA SAN PIETRO!

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Sweet Memories

Yesterday my godmother called me. My Aunt Rosie, along with her late husband, my Uncle Buddy, were my godparents. She is my mother’s younger sister and, since the death of Uncle Buddy some years back, has remarried and moved back to Erie after a few years in Florida. It was lovely to talk to her.

She called because I had sent her a copy of The Old Mermaid’s Tale which is dedicated to Uncle Buddy because it was he who used to take me down to the public docks when I visited them in Erie. It was he who told me about how those ships came from all over the world and who taught me to look for their flags that told what country they came from. It was he who created the “Clair” in me.

She was very happy about the dedication. “What a lovely tribute,” she said. That made me very happy. I hoped she would be pleased. She was a very important part of my young life. She was the one who took me to the beach and taught me to jump through waves and build sand castles — she helped fuel those dreams too.

While she was talking she said, “I said to Jim (her new husband who is as dear as Uncle Buddy was) you never know what a child will remember or what will become important to them.” That is so true. I never knew those childhood experiences would grow the way they did.

I’ve talked to a couple of old friends since the book came out. They all say pretty much the same thing, “You never told me about this part of your life.” Well, there’s a good reason for that — most of it took place in my imagination but that is why it is a novel. Still, had I not had the experiences I did as a child, I would not have been able to create those scenes with such authenticity.

My dear old friend Ray emailed. He read the book in a couple of days and said parts of it brought tears to his eyes. That is a great compliment in my opinion for two reasons. First of all, I trust Ray’s opinion — he’s very intelligent and I doubt he would be moved by something that lacked depth. And also because we are old friends and there is much feeling between us. He has been through a lot in the last few years and it is good to know that something I did, something I created, has value to him. I love that.

I also talked to my old friend Lois last night. She was my faithful companion during the early stages of writing that book. After I had started work on it I was visiting her in Pennsylvania when we spontaneously decided to take a drive up to Erie to do some research. It was a fun day! We went to the Erie County Historical Society and found some great local books on ships and old buildings and the history of Erie. While there we talked to a woman whose father had once owned a beer distributorship. She talked about how he has delivered beer to many of the taverns I used as models for those in my book. She said he told many a story of how wild things could be there.

We also spent a good chunk of the afternoon in Sullivan’s Pub drinking beer and talking to men who worked down on the docks. By that time I was living in Gloucester and knew a thing or two about seamen so it was great tot talk with these men and to hear their stories.

So, The Old Mermaid’s Tale is beginning to travel and I am so happy. I loved writing that book, I loved remembering the things that brought me to writing that book and I still cry when I read certain passages. And I am glad it is touching the lives of people I love. There is nothing more a writer can ask for.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Mr. Tough Guy Stands Guard

When I pulled into Mark’s driveway last night he was standing on the sidewalk, barefooted in blue jeans and a t-shirt looking mad. “Damn crows,” he said. “They got another baby.”

A couple of weeks ago I noticed a wild, untrimmed bump in the hedge along the front sidewalk. Otherwise he had trimmed them quite nicely. He told me there was a nest of mockingbirds in that part of the hedge and he didn’t want to disturb them. Last week the eggs hatched and he has been standing guard ever since. The crows have been after those juicy little babies and he’s mad.

This is Mark I’m talking about, slayer of seagulls and deadly predator to lobsters. He may be every lobster-trap-invading wolf-fish’s worst nightmare but he is being awfully protective of those little baby mockingbirds. I love it.

There’s something sort of wonderful about the way new life can make even the toughest, tough guy get suddenly protective. Maybe it’s just that old genetic programming that tells the strong and the brave to stand guard over the young and the helpless. Nature knew what She was doing when She made us that way. I don’t know why we keep trying to deny that. Mark always calls himself a genetic throwback. Maybe he is. But that protective side of him is more charming than I have words for.

Love, I think, is inherent in human nature and you never know what form it is going to take. It is balm to the soul to see someone you care for showing their love even if it is by standing guard over some baby mockingbirds.

Friday night I was in Maria’s, my favorite little Italian restaurant, and there was a couple there with a little boy of about 3 or 4. He was carrying a stuffed toy — a funny, floppy, fuzzy cow — that was, obviously, very much loved. The cow’s furry hide was worn to nap and a piece of silver duct tape had been wrapped around one of his arms. One eye was looking a little worn and it was obvious his stuffing had deteriorated. But the little boy was holding him in the crook of his arm and it was obvious that Mr. Cow was never far from his side.

“That’s a nice cow you have there,” I said. He looked at me with his big eyes and said, “He’s been around for a long, long time.” I guess when you are three or four a long, long time doesn’t take long.

But he loved his cow. There is something just beautiful about old, worn, well-loved toys. I saw a photo exhibit one time that someone had made of such toys and those things were certainly loved indeed. It made me think of the story of the Velveteen Rabbit — whatever is loved becomes beautiful.

Ever since The Old Mermaid’s Tale has been being read by friends I’ve joked that, really, it is just a re-telling of The Velveteen Rabbit — but with shipwrecks and music and, well, sex. But the moral is the same. When you love something, or someone, it is beautiful.

So Mark is keeping watch over his baby mockingbirds and somewhere a worn out toy cow is being hugged by a sweet little boy and I am working on another book and hoping people will like The Old Mermaid’s Tale and understand that the world is beautiful when you see it with loving eyes — even with all its dirt, and crows, and dysfunctions.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Too Sensitive for Talk Radio...

It happened again today — I turned Jay Severin off. I’ve been trying to expand my horizons by listening with an open-mind to people whose political views are different from mine and Severin isn’t stupid but I just refuse to descend to the level of personal evisceration that has become his M.O. these days.

I’m not exactly Hilary Clinton’s biggest fan by a long shot and I am desperately praying that some presently unknown candidate is going to show up in the next year and save us from the current candidates that we have to pick from. However, I think there is enough to complain about with that candidate without calling her “Satan” and whining about her backside. I know Severin thinks that is in the finest tradition of political satire but it is the sort of satire that only appeals to the lowest form of listeners. Does he really think behaving that way makes him sound anything other than pathetically petty?

I have talk radio on a lot. It used to be that Michael Graham was the only one I couldn’t stand, not because of his rude comments, though he makes plenty of those, but because he is his own favorite audience. He just thinks he is absolutely hilarious. I figure he has so much fun laughing at his own jokes, he doesn’t need me to laugh at them, too. But lately Severin is approaching Graham in his ability to make me turn the dial. He seems like a smart guy who could make a very logical and intelligent case against anyone he chose to but his pitiful need to stoop to schoolyard taunts loses me. Oh well.

I still listen to Jim Braude and Margery Eagen although lately I’m beginning to wonder about her too. I’ve been trying to figure this out for a long time. Her speech is slurred and seems to get worse over the course of three hours. She dissolves into helpless, uncontrollable fits of giggling. She won’t let people get a word in edgewise (the day Nora Ephron was on I wanted to call and scream, “Shut the bleep UP, Margery!”) Well, I’ve started wondering what exactly it is she is putting in her coffee.

I like Braude even though I sometimes disagree with him because I’ve never heard him say anything gratuitously nasty about anyone. He makes cracks about dumb behavior and he certainly isn’t afraid to take on anyone who is up to arguing with him (which is not a lot of people, actually, he’s a smart guy and most people know that.) And even when Margery is at her giggling, ridiculing, slurring, motor-mouthing worst, he is polite to her. I give him all the credit in the world for that.

Mean is “in” and it is a sad state of affairs in American media. People watch shows like “The Apprentice” and “American Idol” just to laugh at people being ridiculed and rejected. I don’t know when gratuitous nastiness became entertainment but I was sort of hoping so-called news people like Severin were going to rise above that. It’s too bad. Violence is escalating. Hate crimes are on the rise. Severin, Graham & Co. are complaining every day about the crime caused by illegal aliens (and I am certainly not in favor of illegal aliens) but they refuse to look in the mirror and see how they themselves are adding to the culture of mean, nasty hatefulness that is spreading like a plague of locusts in the current media.

Maybe I’m too sensitive for talk radio. Maybe I need to listen to NPR or soothing music or audio books. I don’t know. But I have to say that I’m disgusted by media personalities who are so hungry for ratings that they will resort to insipid bullying instead of intelligent commentary just to keep their ratings up. And I’m more disgusted by the media audience that laps it up. Meanness is popular entertainment. Shame on us.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

Mermaid Mystique

A curious thing has begun happening now that The Old Mermaid’s Tale is listed on Amazon. I am getting emails and instant messages from people who want to talk about mermaids. The truth is I had no idea there were so many mermaid fans in the world.

Ever since I started working on this book quite a few years ago I knew it would be named something about mermaids because the main focus of the story is a mysterious tavern named The Old Mermaid Inn that Clair, the narrator, becomes fascinated by. I finally selected the title The Old Mermaid’s Tale because the plot turns on a story told to Clair by the woman who is the original “mermaid” that the tavern was named for. It helps Clair make the hardest decision of her young life. I think it is a good book title.

However, ever since I started talking about it I have been receiving mermaids as gifts from friends and family. They are all wonderful. Some are funny, some are beautiful, some are frightening. They’re all over my house and I really like them though are not something I ever set out to collect. I’m not much of a collector anyway (other than yarn, fabric and books).

Last year I designed a shawl which I named the Mermaid Shawl and had a knit-a-long here on this blog. The instructions are still posted in the sidebar and a good many people have sent me photos of their versions of the mermaid shawl. They are quite lovely.

When I was setting up my web site I did some research on URLs and Google search words and discovered that when I searched on “mermaid tale” the only two sites that came up ahead of mine are a tattoo parlor and a real estate development company. That’s fine.

But I’m quite fascinated by what it is about mermaids that people are so drawn to. Of course they are beautiful as in the paintings of the pre-Raphaelite painters such as Frederick Lord Leighton’s The Siren and the Fisherman which I used as the basis for my cover art. But I wonder, too, what it is about mermaids that draw us.

Mermaids are, of course, free and independent. They are very beautiful and seductive and have the power to both lure mariners to their deaths and to rescue them when they are drowning. That last part didn’t escape me when I was writing the book either. Baptiste, my lead character, is a former mariner who was injured in a severe shipwreck. He is, in more ways than one, a drowning man. But two women — two mermaids — come to his rescue. I’m not going to say more than that because I don’t want to ruin the plot.

I think there is the lure of unconscious female sensuality that tantalizes our imaginations when it comes to mermaids. They are lovely and seductive and sexual but there is a natural innocence and feral sensuality about them that both men and women find fascinating. Men because they dream of finding a woman like that, women because they dream of being a woman like that. We live in a culture that sexualizes women to a ridiculous degree. A woman who responds to her own natural inclinations with no thought to be seductive is often viewed as a tease, or a tramp. But mermaids don’t have to worry about that — they can be alluring and then slip away into the cool, quiet depths of their water world.

I am loving the responses I am getting to the title of my book — I hope people will enjoy the book as well. When Clair dreams of being a mermaid she dreams for all of us.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Characters, Stories...

Reviews of Michael Ondaatje’s newest novel, Divisadero, are everywhere right now. The reviews talk about his brilliant writing and then proceed to try to figure out the story. One reviewer made a remark that intrigued me. He said that part of the mystique of Ondaatje’s writing is that he never develops his characters very fully which makes it interesting for the reader to try to figure them out on their own. I had never thought of it that way before but it explained something to me I hadn’t thought before. I have a hard time with Ondaatje’s books for the simple reason that I never feel much empathy for his characters. To me his books are beautiful landscapes populated with ghosts.

I have been thinking I should re-read one of his books with that new perspective in mind and see what happens but that will have to wait. The stack of the books waiting to be read at the moment is too big for that. But it’s something to think about.

Why do we read novels? I suppose the answer to that is different for everyone. Some like to be swept into another world, some want to meet new people, some want to escape their own world. I imagine there are as many answers as there are book readers. But one of the things that fascinates me is the characters in books. I can forgive a minimum of plot for the opportunity to spend time with interesting people. So not developing characters is a thing that would seem off-putting to me.

Yet others do it and do it beautifully. Lawrence Durell is possibly one of the most beautiful prose-masters who has ever written. To read his Alexandria books is to spend hours in that city and emerge feeling as though you have been on a really great trip. And yet he too has a knack for never revealing too much about his characters. You come away from his books wondering who these people are.

I don’t know... this is a challenging puzzle to me. I have a tendency to become quite infatuated with my characters and readers have told me that they emerge from my stories feeling like they have actually met the person, that they are someone in their lives. And, of course, each reader brings to the experience of reading their own interpretation of character and motivation. That’s always interesting.

One reader was talking to me about a story of mine she had read and she commented that she always loved men with beards. That character doesn’t have a beard, I said, in fact there’s one scene where he mentions having just shaved. No, she said, you’re wrong. He has a beard, it says so. Well, hold on there. I happen to know what he looks like — I INVENTED him, for Pete’s sake. I showed her the part in the story where he is talking about shaving and she accused me of just adding that part.

I let it go. I figured if she was that immersed in the story that she had her own vision of the character that was a lovely thing. Why burst her bubble?

In The Old Mermaid’s Tale one of the characters, Franco, a merchant mariner, talks about his experiences working on barges and mentions how much he would love to get a berth on the Edmund Fitzgerald. I have had readers comment on Franco dying in the book when that ship wrecked. I never wrote that into the book but their minds filled in the blanks.

So I suppose writers have to remember that, in one sense, we are co-writers with out readers. We write with our ideas in mind and readers read with their own. I’ll read Ondaatje again some day and see how he does what he does. I always love learning from masters.

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Time Flies When....

They were here for a week and now they are gone. I will miss them but I am also ready to get back to my routine. It was a lot of fun and I have much to think fondly on.

One of the things I most love about Lisa’s boys is that they are insatiably curious about the natural world. Last night we sat on the seawall overlooking the marsh and watched the birds for a long time. Cal was thrilled by a great egret that was feeding in the marsh. He pointed out to me that the egret flaps his wings in order to drive the creatures in the water forward so he can then feed on them. I didn’t know that and was fascinated to watch him at work. At one point, while both Cal and I watched through our binoculars, the egret snatched a good sized frog and gulped him down. It was quite hilarious watching the big bulge in that long, graceful neck as it made its way to the birds stomach.

One of the most adorable things was when Lisa and I discovered that 9 year old Patrick had already started filling in his field guide to coastal North Atlantic sea life. The book is just lovely with beautiful color photos of all sorts of seaweed, algae, shells, birds, fish, critters, etc. Beside each entry is a lined area where you can record the date and location of your observation. Patrick purchased the book with his entire vacation stash of $30 at the Maritime Heritage Center. I was looking at the book and there, in his precise, tiny little-boy handwriting, were notations on the seaweed and seashells he had observed on Good Harbor Beach that morning. I can’t tell you how cute it was.

So last night, their last night here, I stopped at Captain Joe’s on East Main Street and got some lovely lobsters — both hard shell and soft shell. We sent for a pizza from Sebastian’s for the boys and boiled up the lobsters and had quite a feast! Mark came by and gave Cal an autographed copy of his book. That was quite a thrill for Cal because his mother had given him permission to read it and he had started reading her copy of it. I told Mark about this and so he wrote “To Cal Bretz” in a book and signed it and gave it to him. It is Cal’s first big-boy book and, while Lisa had to advise him that there are a few words in it that fishermen are allowed to use but teenage boys are NOT, he is going to read it.

I have always loved sitting around a kitchen table with the doors and windows open to the smell of saltwater-scented air, drinking wine and feasting on freshly boiled lobsters. When I lived in Marblehead a friend used to dive for lobsters and he’d often leave me a bucket of them. I’d boil them up, invite a couple friends, and we would sit on the porch overlooking Salem Harbor and pick those bugs apart while laughing, talking and drinking wine.

So the Bretz family is headed back to Pennsylvania and I am being lazy today. I deserve it. I am going to work on a manuscript, cook up the massive amount of rhubarb that Leslie sent me, and go out to dinner with “the girls”!

It is a wonderful thing to have people you love in your life. It is a wonderful thing to share summer and Good Harbor Beach and lobsters and thoughts and wine and one group of loved ones with another group of loved ones. I am grateful they were here and I am looking forward to getting back to my usual routine. What more can you ask for?

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, June 14, 2007


I’ve been a bad blogger the last few days because I’ve been being a good aunt. My sister Lisa and her two boys, Cal and Patrick, are here this week. I have discovered, once again, that the thing about having company for more than a couple days is that it points out to me what an oddball I am, a thing that I am 90% okay with but that I forget about for most of the year.

Once again they are staying in Mark’s lovely little cottage on the edge of the marsh behind Good Harbor Beach. That way they have the luxury of keeping their own schedule and having some privacy while I can continue to work and join them for dinner and their evenings and hear all about their day. That’s the fun part.

Listening to her boys talk about their experiences of the world I live in every day is both exciting and humbling. I don’t think I take an awful lot for granted in my beloved Gloucester but their exuberance and enthusiasm is delightful.

Yesterday while I worked they went to Bearskin Neck in Rockport, then on to Halibut Point Park and then stopped to visit Leslie. I went to Farmer John’s and picked up good Italian sausages from Revere, spicy linguica, onions, red and green peppers, grape tomaotes, Sclafani’s bread, and lots of watermelon, apricots, and cherries so I could make their dinner. While I cooked they told me about their day and what a day it was.

One of the things I most love about Lisa’s boys is their overwhelming love of the natural world and all the things they know about it. Walking the trails of Halibut Point, examining the quarries, and exploring the tide pools at the ocean’s edge is a source of endless fascination for them. They know the names of all sorts of sea creatures and birds and love to tell me what they saw. Both of them are keeping journals in which they write the discoveries of the day.

Cal, at 14, is a beginning ornithologist. He proudly showed me the bag his mother sewed for him with all sorts of pouches and pockets in which to keep his bird books and bird diary, binoculars, and this very cool little gizmo in which he can insert pre-programmed cards that play the calls of birds (and also frogs) so he can learn to identify them. We have been watching the marsh with binoculars and saw some snowy egrets Tuesday night which thrilled both of them.

Patrick, at 9, is quite a good little artist but is also becoming quite adept at identifying sea life and sea shells. He had saved $30 for his trip here and, with much confidence in the rightness of his choice, spent the entire amount on a beautiful, full color field identification book of shore creatures of the North Atlantic. There are wonderful pictures of all sorts of snails and crabs and mollusks. I loved the photographs of jellyfish and told him about my encounters with jellyfish on Padre Island many years ago. He listened with rapt attention.

So I cooked sausages with onions and peppers (I discovered a fabulous sun-dried tomato paste that made a delicious “sauce” when added near the end) and listened to their stories about their day. It was wonderful.

I am taking the afternoon off today and we are going to Salem and Marblehead. They want to go to the Pirate Museum there and maybe a witch museum as well. And their mother wants to go to Trader Joe’s afer hearing me talk endlessly about it. We will have a lovely day. Perhaps my eccentric life is a better thing than I thought because it provides these children with an opportunity to spend a week here and see and experience things they cannot see in their Pennsylvania hill country home. And that is very sweet.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 11, 2007

Good People / Bad Situations

Recently I was reading an interview with a popular author who was saying how much she loved to create bad characters — that they were much more fun to create than good characters. I thought about that for a long time and finally realized that I disagree. I prefer creating characters who are essentially good but who are faced with a very bad situation.

The thing about bad characters is, well, it’s sort of hard to like them. Even if I view them with all the compassion in the world they still aren’t people I’d like to have in my life. But good people in impossible situations — they’re fascinating. It’s a situation I’ve explored in both of my novels so far and now that I am beginning a third one that theme seems to be showing up again.

What do you do when you find the love of your life and then realize that to do the very best thing for that person requires that you let them go? Or what do you do when you have two loves and, while the second love needs you, the first love is what you need? Those are the dilemmas faced by characters in my first two books. Now I’m thinking about what happens when you make a great sacrifice for someone you love and that sacrifice turns out to be pointless? These are all interesting questions to me.

The truth is I really haven’t known a lot of genuinely bad people in my life. A few — enough to convince me that they do exist. But, for the most part, the people I have known have been good people who are in situations that make them question the limits of their goodness.

I have read lately about a book called Why Good Things Happen to Good People by Stephen Post, PhD. I took the quiz on his web site and found out that I am a “moderate” giver. Well, I thought it was a dumb quiz to tell the truth. There is a big difference in my mind between “giving” and being a “good person”. I have known people who were very giving who were not particularly good. They gave because it made them feel generous and self-righteous and as though they were building up brownie points in heaven. In the quiz he asked how much you give to your family and to your neighbors and how creative you are in finding ways to give to them. It sounded a little bit like the quiz should have been named “How Co-dependent Are You?” As a graduate of a lot of years in a 12-Step program for co-dependents I know that giving is not always a healthy thing.

But goodness is another matter. Goodness is the practice of trying to behave in a right manner. Of trying to put good, positive energy in the world through words and deeds and being a person who shares light and inspiration with others. Perhaps that is why I am so fond of the This I Believe series on PBS I mentioned yesterday. Those people, the ones who take time to write those essays and put them out into the world, are adding goodness to the world.

In Christopher Koch‘s book The Year of Living Dangerously the character Billy Kwan has a conversation with Guy Hamilton, who is overwhelmed by the poverty and need he encounters in Jakarta. He questions Billy’s continuing efforts to help a couple people when the need all around them is so overwhelming. Billy says, “I believe that all I can do is add my light to the sum of light.” I think that is a beautiful concept.

So I continue to believe that writing about good people in hard situations is a worthy endeavor. Maybe it helps someone else when they are in a similar situation. If nothing else it helps to add a little light to the world that has enough bad characters in it. One character at a time....

Thanks for reading.

Sunday, June 10, 2007

This I Believe: Admittance To A Better Life

I'm a big fan of NPR's beautiful and inspiring This I Believe series. The program today just knocked my sox off because this guy, a self-described "300 pound, semi-thug", said things that are very much a part of my own belief system. I hope you enjoy his words, too:

“It's odd to educate oneself away from one's past.
As an African-American male, I now
find myself in a foreign world.”

Admittance to a Better Life
by Michael Oatman
June 10, 2007 --- I believe that education has the power to transform a person's life.

For me, education was the rabbit hole through which I escaped the underclass. I squeezed my 300-pound frame through that hole expecting others to follow, and instead I find myself in a strange new land, mostly alone, and wondering at this new life.

For instance, these days for me, dramatic plays at local arts centers have replaced strip pole dancing at the local sleaze huts. I haven't fondled a stripper in years because now I see the stripper through eyes informed by feminist theory. It's hard to get excited when you're pondering issues of exploitation.

I still wonder what happened to that happy-go-lucky semi-thug who used to hang out with drug dealers on dimly-lit street corners. Well, I'm in the library parsing a Jane Austen novel looking for dramatic irony, while many of my old friends are dead or in jail.

I was lucky because I didn't get caught or killed doing something stupid. When I was on the streets, I never felt I was good at anything, but I wrote this poem about a girl who didn't care about me, and it got published. I knew nothing about grammar or syntax, so I went back to school to learn that stuff, and one thing led to another.

It's odd to educate oneself away from one's past. As an African-American male, I now find myself in a foreign world. Like steam off of a concrete sidewalk, my street cred is evaporating away, but I don't fight it anymore. Letting go of the survival tools I needed on the street was a necessary transaction for admittance to a better life.

I am still fighting, but in different ways. I've learned the benefit of research and reading, of debate and listening. My new battlefields are affirmative action, illegal immigration and institutional racism.

I believe I am the living embodiment of the power of education to change a man. One day soon, a crop of fresh-faced college students will call me professor. I may even be the only black face in the room, the only representative of the underclass. I may feel the slight sting of isolation, but I'll fight it off because I believe in the changes that my education has allowed me to make.

Independently produced for Weekend Edition Sunday by Jay Allison and Dan Gediman with Viki Merrick.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007


I still haven't seen it but Amazon has it available! I'm amazed! Please consider buying it --- I know you will love it! (I hope!!!)

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Adventures in Lo-Carb Living

I wrote a blog a couple weeks ago about the fact that I had decided to try lo-carbing it for awhile. After all the reading I have done over the years about nutrition, the lo-carb food plan (I REFUSE to call it a diet) seems to be the most effective and longest lasting. I tried Atkins some years back and lost quite a bit of weight. I don’t remember why I went off of it. This time I have decided I am not on a diet, I am simply changing the way I eat.

Several people have invited me to join various support groups either online or in life. I’ve thought about it but decided not to at present because I don’t want to think of this new way of eating as something that requires support to stick with. I am simply changing my attitude about food. That’s all. I’m not trying to lose weight (though as that seems to be happening I count it a good thing), I’m simply trying to nourish myself in a better, healthier way. Period.

I read somewhere that the important thing in changing your eating habits is to have a lot of variety. I’m not sure I agree with that. I’m the sort of creature-of-habit that is best off when I stick to the same, reliable and predictable stuff with a little room for creativity now and then. Once I get preparation for half a dozen easy meals down, and fill my kitchen with what I need to make them, I’m pretty content.

Right now for breakfast I have coffee with cream, no sugar (I never did put sugar in my coffee) and 2 pieces of When Pigs Fly Lo-Carb bread toasted with some all natural, unsalted peanut butter. I like it, it’s nourishing, it has about 12 carbs total and lots of protein. For lunch it’s always the same — salad with either my Mom’s home-made wilted lettuce dressing or a bleu cheese I make. I add canned tuna or salmon, a little tomato, lots of arugula, sprouts, cukes, and some canned artichoke hearts. Yum. Dinner gets a little more creative but is almost always grilled meat, chicken or fish with either more salad or veggies. I’m lucky that I love Brussels sprouts. I’ve also made the “faux-tatoes” with cauliflower and sour cream and chives.

So this is good but I keep finding interesting new alternatives that weren’t available when I tried this a few years back. The coolest discovery was last Saturday at a local pizza joint, LaRosa’s. I was having their delicious garlic chicken caesar salad but I mentioned to the waiter that I did miss pizza — a lot. He asked what I liked on my pizza and I said I liked roasted red pepper, onion, artichoke hearts and black olives.

He disappeared and came back in a little while with the most amazing thing! He took a whole wheat, lo-carb wrap (the kind used to make sandwich wraps) and used it for the crust. Topped it with sauce, cheese and my toppings and it was EXCELLENT. The crust has 10 carbs and then whatever is in the veggies so it isn’t exactly carb-less but it tasted heavenly to someone who had been pizza-less for nearly a month.

On the internet I found a site that offered a “lo-carb shopping list” that you could print out and take to the grocery store. I was surprised to see Spam on the list. I haven’t eaten Spam since I left home but, just for the heck of it, I bought a can. The ingredients aren’t as terrible as I thought they’d be and making scrambled eggs with Spam and green peppers reminded me of my Dad. But I don’t think Spam and I are destined for any kind of meaningful relationship.

So, so far, so good. People keep telling me I look good. Shallow person that I am, that’s good enough for me.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, June 04, 2007

On NO!!! More Characters!!!

How the heck does this happen? I have slaved over The Old Mermaid’s Tale for ten years and it is finally off to press. Then I went back to Each Angel Burns, a book that started out as a short story and now has passed 200 typewritten pages. In fact just last night I printed out the entire manuscript with the intention of giving it to Jane to read. She can tell me if it is any good and worth further work.

Okay. So I’m fine. I’m happy. I’ve got 2 books I need to promote and, if Jane gives the thumbs up, a third book to get back to work on to polish up for next year. And I have a business to run and money to make and work to do and company coming and my house is a MESS, and there is yarn and fabric in flipping PILES around here that needs to be made into something wonderful and....

Well, suffice it to say that another writing project is the last thing I need. But something mysterious happened Saturday night. I had spent the afternoon in a catalog review meeting at the art association and gone out to dinner and spent some time with Mark which I haven’t done in a long, long time and it was late and I was tired and I SHOULD HAVE GONE TO BED! However, in the words of John Belushi, “but no-o-o-o-o-o-o!” I had to start reading.

I found this interesting article about Deliverance Hobbes. Isn’t that a great name? Well, Deliverance herself was something of a horror according to writers of the time — the time being the time of the Salem Witch Trials. Deliverance Hobbes was accused of witchcraft (along with her daughter and husband) and she confessed and admitted she was a witch. She went to prison but was not executed. It’s a long story but then I had this bright idea:

There is a contemporary woman named Prudence Hobbes who is her direct descendent. Poor Prudence has lived in Marblehead all her life and has not had an easy time of it. She is an art historian but circumstances in her life have not been favorable. When she gets the offer to spend a winter on an island a few miles off the coast where a wealthy eccentric named Wyatt Ravenscroft built a mansion and has amassed a substantial art collection, she is happy to take it. Ravenscroft has recently died and his heirs want someone to catalog and appraise the collection. She will receive living accommodations and a generous salary.

Once on the island she finds there are two other occupants, Anjelica, the great-granddaughter of Ravenscroft and her father, Syd Jupiter. Syd Jupiter is a character who has been kicking around in my brain for a few years now. Jupiter is a mysterious man, a brilliant intellectual who gained fame as a pro football player and notoriety when he was convicted of murdering his brother-in-law Raven Silver, a much loved and magnificent dancer. Syd was married to Rachel, Raven’s twin sister — the mother of their daughter Anjelica. Rachel committed suicide while Syd was in prison serving 20 years for killing her brother... Well, you can see where all of this is going. Or maybe you can’t — that’s my job actually.

I didn’t need this! I need to work. I need to promote books. I need to have a doggone life, for crying out loud!

But, see, the interesting thing about Syd that nobody knows is... well, that’s material for the book.


Thanks for reading.

Saturday, June 02, 2007

An Honor and A Privilege

Every now and then I get a project to work on that is so delightful that I can’t believe they pay me to do these things. That is the case with the North Shore Arts Association’s Past-Present catalog. Not only did I get to design it but they also asked me to write the accompanying text and the article about it that will go in American Art Review Magazine. I am a lucky person to be able to do things like this and get paid for them.

The catalog is nearly finished and today we have the final (I hope) review. I think it is absolutely beautiful. But then I’m prejudiced. The covers are lovely and the inside is so chock full of amazing paintings and sculpture that it thrills me. It is exciting doing things like this because you get to work with the most wonderful, inventive, creative people.

The project was the brain-child of my dear friend Betty Lou Schlemm who has worked with me on it through the entire project. I have been happy to work with other terrific people too. Nancy Strisk, the wife of the late great artist Paul Strisik has been a wonderful help. She called me the other night and while we were talking she told me a wonderful story about her first meeting with Henry Gasser. There is nothing I like more than anecdotes about artists.

Daniel Altshuler has been a wonderful help in securing work by Charles Grafly, George Demetrios and Walker Hancock. I absolutely love the sculpture called “Pegasus and Warrior” by Hancock that Daniel helped us get for the exhibition. Daniel was Walker Hancock’s assistant for the last several years of his life and is a great sculptor in his own right. I expect to see more and more wonderful things from him in the years ahead.

And working with Don Mosher is always a treat. He and his artist wife Christine are treasures on the Cape Ann Art scene. I owe a deep debt of gratitude to Gordon Goetemann for his encyclopedic knowledge of American Art and for advising me as I worked on the article.

So the book will go to press next week and I will sleep for two days when it is gone. The artists whose works are featured in the book are: George Aarons, Albert Henry Atkins, Gifford Beal,N.A., Reynolds Beal, A.N. A., Cecilia Beaux,N.A., Theresa Bernstein, Alden Bryan, Mary Taylor Bryan,A.W.S., Gabrielle DeVeaux Clements, Jon Corbino,N.A., Paul Cornoyer,A.N.A., Howard A.Curtis, Roger W.Curtis
, Will Rowland Davis, George Demetrios, Henry Gasser,Ken Gore, Charles Grafly, Gordon Grant, Emile Gruppe, Lilian Wescott Hale, Walker Hancock, Samuel hershey, Aldro Hibbard, Eric Hudson, Anna Hyatt Huntington, Mildred C. Jones, Max Kuehne, Anna Coleman Ladd, Philip Little, John Manship, Joseph Margulies, William Meyerowitz, Frederick J. Mulhaupt, William M. Paxton, Marguerite Pearson, Elizabeth Wentworth Roberts, Marian Williams Steele, W. Lester Stevens, Paul Strisik, Anthony Thieme, Frederick Judd Waugh, Katharine Lane Weems, John Whorf, Harry A. Vincent, and Stanley Woodward.

Coincidentally, I got to the proof copy of The Old Mermaid’s Tale this week too. It is also off to press. And next week I am a very happy book designer and author — happy, blessed and exhausted.

Thanks for reading.