Tuesday, July 31, 2007

The New Wild West

Wired Magazine came yesterday. I actually don’t remember subscribing to it but I’m glad I get it because there is always something interesting in it. Last night I read an article about how the Internet is changing the media and thus society. America is a society very shaped by the media and, as it changes, so do we.

The internet has been around for quite awhile now and some people have learned to use if effectively. Some people, like me, couldn’t stay home and work without it. Every year more and more business is being done on the Net to the point that malls and stores are feeling the pinch, especially around the holidays. Smart shops are learning to do business both in their stores and on the Net. Most banks offer internet banking. Most bills can be paid online now. And the media is catching up.

One of the biggest issues, as hard drives have more capacity and transfer speeds increase, is the piracy of movies and other videos. Kids figured out how to share music a long time ago and it has lead to a revolution in the music industry. Bands that once didn’t stand a chance of getting a recording contract now make their own music and market it via CDs and music downloads all over the internet. Now the same thing is happening with movies and television shows. And everybody wants in on the action. The Writers Guild of America is threatening to strike when their contract ends in October if the studios in Hollywood don’t figure out a way to cut them in on the video being sold over the Internet. It’s wild.

But I was most interested in how newspapers are evolving. I read the Gloucester Daily Times online for the simple reason that it takes all of ten minutes and then I don’t have to find something to do with all those newspapers. I’ve also got a selection of other news publications I cruise for information. I have a whole list of blogs. Now major newspapers are trying to find ways to make up for the loss in paper sales online.

There is a big push toward interactivity. Publications find that people want to participate. They want to add their 2 cents, upload their photos and videos, and have their say. They are finding interesting ways to accommodate them. Of course that then brings in the question of standards. How do maintain editorial standards and basic civility when your publication is being co-authored by anyone who knows how to log on? There have to be stated standards and those standards have to be upheld through monitoring.

As I’ve written before I’ve participated in a number of discussion groups over the years. Only one of them, a local one, is unmoderated and, predictably, it is the only one that gets nasty. During the day it isn’t too bad but at night it gets out of control.

That’s a phenomenon, too, that amazes me — people, adults, not kids, who spend every evening online for hours in chatrooms and/or on discussion boards interacting with faceless “friends” they wouldn’t recognize in real life. I don’t get it but I’m still learning.

So what do we do about this Wild West of communication, business, entertainment and socialization? It’s definitely the future. How do we use it? Those are things I’m learning, too. The music industry is already transformed, and now the movie/TV industry is changing. Publishing is still in process but small, independent publishers are gaining strength and internet presence every year. It’s exciting.

The big thing I am finding is the same thing as before — marketing. Getting attention, letting people know who you are, what you have and how to get it. That’s the challenge now. Always fascinating.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 27, 2007

And Now It’s Over

Well, I finished the last Harry Potter book. Sigh. No more Harry books to look forward to... I thought it was great. There were a few loose ends that I’m a little fuzzy on but, as a writer myself, I know the simple truth that even the author doesn’t know EVERYTHING and that there are things that readers latch on to and want answers to that are only passing comments to the writer.

I loved the Epilogue. Reading the comments on the Amazon Discussion forums I’ve noticed some people complaining about that. They didn’t like the way it wrapped things up but I loved it. In fact, having written a not entirely dissimilar Epilogue of my own, it made me very happy.

I won’t talk about the ending because I know people are still reading it but I can honestly say there weren’t many surprises. As I’ve said many times before, this is the classic Hero’s Journey that Joseph Campbell talks about. The hero sets out on a path that will test every aspect of his being. All his support systems are stripped away and he must confront the darkest parts of himself. And, in order to be the hero, he must conquer these challenges before good can triumph over evil.

Rowling has said that eventually she may write a sort of “encyclopedia” of Potter lore and terminology but not for a very long time. She is the richest woman in the British Isles. She gets to enjoy that for awhile. It does make me wonder if she will want to go on writing after this. But that’s the thing about writers — writers write.

The thing I wonder now is what will the Harry fans read now. I’m a reader who loves Harry Potter — but I also love a lot of other things so I’ll read as much as I ever did. I wonder if those who have read evey single word in the 700+ pages of the last few volumes will go on to read other things. I sincerely hope so.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the characters she created. What makes them so delicious is that they are so perfect in all their imperfections. That’s what makes them so lovable. I read somewhere that Rowling said she came close to killing Arthur Weasley in the last book but then couldn’t do it and I absolutely LOVED her for saying that. He’s one of my favorites and I would have had a hard time forgiving her if she had killed him. The whole Weasley family is just perfect as they are.

There is something about flawed characters that I adore but then there is something about flawed people that I adore. Case in point was Sirius Black, the handsome, brilliant powerful wizard who was Harry’s godfather. Tall and dark with his patrician good looks and rich-boy elan he was also impulsive, impetuous and something of a daredevil — which got him killed in the end.

Her dialogue was also wonderful. That’s a real gift. Not every writer can do that but she has the knack for making her characters talk like real people talk.

Of all the scenes in the entire series, I think my favorite was when Fred and George Weasley stood up to the evil Dolores Umbridge in “The Order of the Phoenix”. I still go back and read that section sometimes when I need a good laugh.

So, Adieu, Harry. Fare thee well. I will miss you but generations of readers have yet to even meet you. Lucky them.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

The Real Magic

A charming thing happened yesterday. I called my brother Matt at work around noon. When I call him at work I usually try to do so around lunchtime because he isn’t quit as busy. We talked for a few a minutes and then he said, “Can I call you later?” I said sure, it’s not a big deal. I just called to say hello. He hesitated for a minute and then he said, “I know I sound pathetic but I’m reading the new Harry Potter book and I only have half an hour.”

I just about did internal damage to myself laughing. What a great brother he is! Master’s degree in geology, a principal in a terrific environmental consulting firm, father of three young kids, devoted husband. And he loves Harry Potter. How cool is that?

We talked for a few minutes (we are both at about the same place in the book) and then I said good-bye. Can’t keep a man from his Potter fix. But it made my day. I honestly didn’t know he was a Harry Potter fan and was amazed to discover he knows all the books better than I do. For the next hour I enjoyed myself thinking about Matt lost in the magical world of Potter-dom.

Here is the thing about Harry Potter — it is magic. Yeah, I know you knew that but what the real magic is that there are these little black marks on a cream-colored page. These little black marks, that’s all. And when our eyes interpret these little black marks magical, amazing wonderful things take place inside our heads and we are swept away into another place and another time and we meet incredible people and we have remarkable adventures and we experience astonishing and frequently surprising feelings. And it’s not just Harry Potter — it’s any book that we can slip into and let our imaginations unfurl like the petals of a Morning Glory touched by the sun on a summer morning and these magical things happen inside our heads. What joy.

Recently I discovered Cara Black. She is a wonderful writer who writes a series of detective novels about Inspector Aimee LeDuc who is a spiky-haired fashonista living in Paris and gets into all kinds of trouble there. I heard that Cara Black wrote so vividly about Paris that you could come away from her books feeling like you were there. That is true. I have been bemoaning the fact that I haven’t been away on a real vacation in a few years and I’m dying for one.

I picked up Cara Black’s Murder in Montmartre and for three evenings I was glued to the couch prowling the back streets, bistros, businesses and “restos” of Montmartre with Aimee. We crawled across tile roofs and climbed down fire escapes to flee the bad guys. We looked out on the Moulin Rouge from inside the moulin, the windmill. I loved every page.

I remember some years back when my friend Marion introduced me to the Diana Gabaldon Outlander series. I was so sucked into those books I missed an entire summer. I spent the whole summer snuggled into the side of a sand dune on Good Harbor Beach completely and totally lost in the Scottish highlands with Jamie Frazier and Claire and, oh, the adventure of it all! Later, when my sister Chris was visiting, I gave the books to her. She was going through a difficult divorce and was very sad. I remember watching her curled up on my couch with those books in her hands, still and relaxed and totally lost. And I remember thinking that, even though I had been as absorbed in those books as she now was, I envied her because I wished I could go there again. And I will.

Harry Potter can do magic. But JK Rowling can do greater magic than he can. And so can Cara Black and Diana Gabaldon and all the other writers who make those little black marks on paper that enter through our eyes and into our minds and sweep us away and make endless, breathtaking, incomparable magic inside our minds and our hearts.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

A Generous Endowment

There was a comment on one of the posts here from Wandering Visitor, another blogger, so I stopped by her blog and found an interesting blog entry she had written on men and penis size. It was about some research that had been done on something called “Small Penis Syndrome” and it was interesting though certainly not surprising. What kind of intrigued me about it though was that there is, concurrently, a lengthy discussion going on over on the Amazon Romance Readers Discussion Board about romance books in which the hero is — well — hung. Well hung.

Seems a lot of ladies who read romance are attracted to books in which the hero wields a mighty weapon and that they even chose their reading material based on this. I had a momentary flash of a new kind of rating system that could be used on these books. You can use your imagination on that I’m sure — the graphic would be fun to design.

I have read probably thousands of books in my life and there have been few occasions when I recall mention being made of the hero’s assets but, I swear to God, I’ve never picked up a book and thought “wow, I’ll bet the guy in this story is HUNG.” Actually, I’ve been trying to recall books in which it was mentioned and the only one I can think of is Quoyle, the bumbling hero of Annie Proulx’s The Shipping News. Thank God the poor guy had SOMETHING going for him.

In my own books there are several penises that show up attached to men I hope are interesting for more than that. And anyone who writes frankly about sex and how characters talk about sex can’t avoid writing about that. In The Old Mermaid’s Tale one of the bar-gals refers to Baptiste saying that she bets he has a “dong the size of a baseball bat” but that is just colorful language and is neither confirmed nor denied by the rest of the story. That’s how some people talk.

The thing that entertained and amused me about the Amazon discussion group was that there are, as of this writing, 52 posts to that particular discussion and it is loaded with suggestions for books that feature leading men with big schwantzes. It appears, in fact, that there are writers who specialize in this particular feature. Little did I know. It also amused me that if you go to the Amazon page for my novel and scroll down you will see the discussion forum featuring the title of the thread, “Romances in which the hero is very ‘well endowed’”. It would be nice if a few people thought that applied to my book.

Well, I’ll be honest. Big penises are fascinating. Without making reference to my own amotory past, I can say that there is an allure there. It isn’t really about sexual pleasure so much — I know plenty of women who got out of relationships because the guy was just “too much” for them. What it is about is that whole mythology of what constitutes maleness. It is part of the allure of the beast I talked about in my last blog entry. It’s hard to imagine Rochester or Merlin or Vincent or even Holmes with a little derringer. You just KNOW they are toting around a cannon. It’s silly but it’s life.

Of course the big question is how important is it to the overall story? That’s what any writer has to take into account. Is the hero’s attribute relevant to the story line or not? I can imagine instances where it is in that it effects his behavior outside the bedroom. But is a description of a mighty missile necessary for a bedroom scene? Guess it all depends on who your readers are... I learn something new every day.

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Harry-Mania & What About Jane?

Tomorrow is a great day for booksellers! They will probably make more money tomorrow than they will for the rest of the year. The latest and final Harry Potter book is about to be released, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows. I have mine on pre-order from Amazon so I’m planning on spending a lot of time with, as my mother always said, my nose in a book once it arrives. I admit, I love Harry and I love the characters that surround him. I think J.K. Rowling deserves every dime she has earned.

Having said that I am about to bemoan the sorry state of publishing today — again — with proof this time. Like I didn’t have it before. In England there lives an unpublished novelist named David Lassman who has quite a collection of rejection letters. He was so disgusted with the lack of responsiveness from publishers and literary agents that he tried an experiment. Convinced that most alleged literary houses are so clueless that they wouldn’t recognize great writing when they saw it, he typed out the first chapter of three outstanding novels changing only the titles and the names of the characters. He mailed them out to 18 literary agents and publishers.

The novels he chose were Pride and Prejudice, Persuasion, and Northanger Abbey all by Jane Austin. Lassman is something of an Austin scholar. Of the 18 houses he sent the chapters to NONE of them expressed an interest in it and only one even recognized them. Christopher Little, J.K. Rowling’s agent, said they “weren’t confident of being able to place it with a publisher”. Penguin, which publishes Pride and Prejudice, didn’t recognize it. Harper Collins and Random House among others turned it down.

The only publisher that redeemed itself was Jonathan Cape whose editor Alex Bowler caught on and sent a droll letter back to Lassman exposing his trick. Good for him. At least that shows he read the book.

So what does this have to say about the regard of publishers for good writing. Not much. Regardless whether Jane Austen is to your taste or not, she can write and write beautifully with a dry sense of humor and original characters that are both unique and familiar. But by the critical standards of today’s publishers Austen isn’t interesting. Which begs the question, what is?

We all know that publishing houses make disastrous mistakes and come to regret them. All those publishers that turned down J.K. Rowling, for instance. A few years back I was in an online group for novelists in which Sara Gruen was an active member. She had just sold a lovely little book about a woman and a horse called Riding Lessons. The book did well so she wrote a second novel and submitted it. Her publisher turned her down and suggested she stick to writing about horses. Sara did write another horse book and her publisher bought it. But Sara also kept sending out the rejected novel which was titled Water for Elephants. I remember her posts during this period. She was hurt when her publisher turned down Water for Elephants and wasn’t sure what to do with it. Finally an editor at Algonquin read it, loved it and, well, the rest is history. It’s been on the best seller lists for a year now and I read in the New York Times recently that she has a hefty movie option on it. Bravo, Sara!

So what are we to think? Just that it isn’t quality writing that is the first priority for most publishers. They are thinking, how can I market this? Which is all well and good but it seems recognizing excellent writing might be a first step to making marketing easier. But what do I know. Harry will be here tomorrow. Don’t count on hearing from me for a few days after that!

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Conversation with My Aunt

My Aunt Rosie called me yesterday. When I was a little girl she and my Uncle Buddy, being my godparents, used to take me to Erie, Pa., where they lived, in the summer for vacations. It was out of those experiences that my first love of Lake Erie grew and, thus, The Old Mermaid’s Tale was born. I dedicated the book to my Uncle Buddy because it was he who would take me on rides down to the docks and tell me stories about the ships. When the book came out I mailed a copy of it to Aunt Rosie.

Uncle Buddy died some years ago and Aunt Rosie is since re-married to Jim, a guy every bit as nice as Uncle Buddy. How anyone could get two such sweet men in one lifetime is amazing to me. I know that, unlike my mother, Aunt Rosie’s older sister, my aunt is not a big reader. She’d rather re-paint the bathroom. So, when I mailed the book to her, I really had no expectations that she would read it but she did. She called to tell me about it.

She told me that she loved it and thought it was one of the most beautiful love stories she had ever read. I nearly cried I was so happy. In fact I did cry and am crying now as I type this. But then, after she said that she started talking about the maritime history of Lake Erie that was woven into the story and serves as its background. She thought it was fascinating and I was delighted at how much of it she had absorbed and remembered and wanted to talk about. It was so exciting to be able to share stuff with her from all the research I did and hear her reactions.

She also loved the secondary characters and talked a good bit about people that she knew in Erie that they reminded her of. Even their speech patterns were familiar to her. She especially loved the character of Tucker Wilson.

Later in the conversation Jim asked to speak to me and told me that he wanted to read it next but she had told him he wasn’t old enough to read it yet. I laughed and said “it IS racy in parts”. He said now he really wanted to read it! After I hung up I was floating for hours. Any writer will tell you that there is nothing as delicious as talking to a reader who really wants to discuss your story in detail. And when the reader is the person you most wanted to like the book it is an added bonus. I could not be happier.

I still have not worked very hard at promoting the book — something I need to do when I finally get The Past & The Present: Neither Time Nor Space Can Separate Them out into the world. But every time someone does want to talk about the book it makes me so happy. I feel like I have accomplished something by creating something that they care enough about to want to discuss it.

Last night I went out to dinner with my friend Clare. She is one of the most creative women I know. She is a writer and artist whose play Queer Bent for the Tudor Gent was recently produced at a short play festival in New York. She has also created a wonderful line of gifts for cat lovers based on works of modern art. Please visit Modern Art Cats. She had recently finished the book and wanted to talk about the part toward the end where Clair’s advisor, just returned from India, tells her about the apsaras and svarveshyas, the Hindu beauties who nurture men’s souls and heal them. She loved that part. So far she is the only person who has talked to me about that.

It’s a thrill, I’ll admit, to have people tell me these things. It makes me so happy to know they found my work interesting. I am grateful. And now I have to get to work and write more.

Thanks for reading

Monday, July 16, 2007

Always Something New To Learn

It is one of life’s humbling little lessons to learn that, try as you might, you can’t know everything — or really very much of anything. So when I come across a book or a documentary or whatever that opens up a whole new world to me it is both thrilling and kind of astonishing that I didn’t know about this before.

Case in point is the Chicago world’s Fair of 1893. Granted it was well before my time and, well, yes, I knew it happened. Mostly because during my bellydancing days we heard a lot about Little Egypt. But that’s about the extent of my knowledge. So when Jane started raving about Erik Larsen’s The Devil in the White City I decided I needed to read it. Especially because it was also about America’s first known mass murderer.

The book is brilliant and cleverly told. It has all the qualities of a terrific novel except it is all true and the cast of characters couldn’t be more exciting. The book is structured with chapters that alternate between Daniel Burnham’s heroic and sometimes frustrating attempts to create a world’s fair that will distinguish America. And chapters about the so-called “Doctor” H.H. Holmes, a charming, handsome, ambitious, seductive entrepreneur whose hobby was killing people — mostly young women but he didn’t mind offing a guy or a kid when the mood took him.

Burnham was a visionary genius at a time when America had been through a lot of difficulties. The Civil War was still much in the minds of many and this country was not the world power it is today. Burnham was young, ambitious and filled with passion. He is a character that any writer of fiction would be proud to create. And his supporting cast couldn’t be better.

I have a particular fondness for two of the supporting cast. Frederick Law Olmstead, the great landscape architect who designed the landscape of the fair, also designed the cemetery up the street from me that is a favorite place of mine. And August St. Gaudens, the artist and designer, lived in New Hampshire and I have visited his home which is now a museum.

Other wonderful stories revolve around Thomas Edison and his plans to illuminate the fair; a young steel engineer from Pittsburgh named Ferris who wanted to build a gigantic revolving wheel that would out Eiffel Eiffel’s famous tower; and Daniel Chester French who sculpted the statue that came to be known as “Big Mary” that was the centerpiece of the Fair.

Perhaps the most colorful and entertaining of the figures in the story is one William “Buffalo Bill” Cody who, when his exhibit was rejected by the fair committee, built his own fair just outside the gates to the World’s Fair, imported Indians, buffalos, horses, Russian soldiers, and a sassy sharpshooter named Ms. Annie Oakley. He frustrated the fair committee by outshining them in nearly every respect. He endeared himself to the people of Chicago by instituting Waif’s Day when poor children could come to his show for free and have all the candy and ice cream they wanted. He drove his wife Lulu nuts because every time she traveled to Chicago for a visit she discovered that “Mr. & Mrs. Cody” were already checked in. The “Mrs.” part of that changed regularly.

But, of course, the story of Holmes and his fascinating ability to manipulate, charm, and ultimately murder is a story that is all the more astonishing because it is entirely true. Amazing.

Larsen has done a heroic job with this book. It is beautifully written and researched. He has given readers a thrilling and brilliantly rendered slice of American history. I understand he has also written a book about the Galveston hurricane, Isaac's Storm. I ordered it. I can’t wait to go there next.

Thanks for reading.

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Readers' Observations on The Old Mermaid’s Tale

No matter how much an author thinks they know about a book and its characters, it isn’t until readers start giving feedback that you find out what it is really all about, or so it would seem. Now that The Old Mermaid’s Tale has been available through Amazon for a couple weeks I am kind of fascinated by the questions I’ve been asked and I’m going to attempt to give the answers. However, bear in mind that sometimes even the author of a book doesn’t really know what is going on between the characters. They tend to take on a life of their own.

First of all, everyone asks about the title, “The Old Mermaid’s Tale”. Where did it come from? That is easy. Clair, the heroine of the story, is fascinated by a tavern called The Old Mermaid Inn which has a painting of a giant mermaid across its facade. When she finally has the opportunity to visit it she meets Tessie, the outrageous, outspoken and flamboyant proprietress of the inn. The inn was named for Tessie when she was young and beautiful and it is later in the book that Tessie tells Clair her story — which helps Clair make a painful decision. Hence Tessie’s tale is a turning point in the story.

Also the mermaid theme surfaces in a few other places. Clair dreams of being a mermaid and Baptiste’s tales of mermaids fire her imagination. The entire concept of mermaids as mysterious creatures that rescue drowning men is pretty central to the story as well.

Another very interesting comment has been made from a couple of readers. The love story between Clair and Baptiste seems to have taken on a sort of Beauty-and-the-Beast quality in some reader’s minds. I think it is a good analogy. First of all, Baptiste is, like many heroes in romantic literature, something of a beast. He is a man who made some bad choices, who was wounded, and who now has come to a place in his life where he thinks he is beyond saving. Clair is young, romantic and idealistic. I don’t know if an older, more experienced woman would have been willing to love someone as flawed and defensive as Baptiste. But, despite his beast-like nature, he has some fascinating qualities. He is brilliant, he is a gifted musician, and he is very attractive despite the physical flaws that he believes have rendered him unlovable. Clair sees past all that and, it is her willingness to give herself whole-heartedly to him, that, ultimately, redeems him.

It is a story about salvation from beginning to end. And about the healing power of love. Clair loves him despite everything and, in the end, that love spirals out to affect the lives of others as well.

It’s hard for an author to justice to her characters. Characters are not just made up people on a page. Other characters in the book become deeply meaningful and you wish you could write all of their stories but, of course, you can’t. Pio is a wonderful, charming, enigmatic character who suffers a deep wound as part of the story. Sal, too, is someone I would love to write an entire book about.

And Clair, who is a paragon of love, despite being a feisty and sometimes insecure young woman, becomes so dear to me, and I hope to readers because of her ability to be so loving.

Well, I don’t know if this helps people understand these characters. I love hearing from people who help me to see them in a different light.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

Too Many Thoughts

I had a restless night last night. Too many thoughts in my head. Sometimes my brain gets so clogged with thoughts that I can’t really think. It annoys me.

Two things happened yesterday that were certainly not momentous to my daily life but which set my brain pounding. I read an article about the new proclamations from the Pope — that the Latin Mass can once again be celebrated, which I think is a good thing, and that the Roman Catholic religion is the one true religion, which I do not think is a good thing. And I watched a documentary about Richard Dawkins, the British scientist who believes religion is an evil and destructive force.

After watching the documentary I certainly get his point. Fundamentalism, rigid adherence to dogmatic principles of doubtful origin, is certainly a creepy concept and has spawned some of the world’s worst atrocities from the Inquisition to the horrors of September 11, 2001. I understand what he is saying. And, after listening to his interviews with the various “voices” — Islamic, Jewish,and Christian — in Jerusalem I’ll admit that all of those people scare me. And I’m not thrilled about Pope Benedict declaring that, like the Muslims, Catholics are the one, true believers.

I grew up in the Catholic Church and, like a lot of kids who did that, I went through the predictable rebellions. I tried all kinds of things — agnosticism, atheism, Buddhism, etc. etc. Some years back I realized two things: 1.) Despite all evidence to the contrary, I believe, and 2.) Even though the Church drives me nuts at times there is much about it that is integral to who I am.

For some years not I have been fascinated by mysticism and that state of unitive being that is at the core of mysticism. Eastern mysticism is a little too exotic for me and I know it is because, as a westerner, I lack the allegorical language that gives eastern mysticism its form. In the west it is the Roman Catholic Church that has, sometimes grudgingly, made a place for mysticism. Throughout our history we have venerated mystics even while thinking them a tad daffy. From Julian of Norwich to John of the Cross and Theresa of Avila, Catholics have respected those among us who can step outside the everyday and enter into that other place.

The truth is I think that mysticism is the closest thing to perfect religion as there is and I think the mystics, by trying to give language to the inexpressible, have done the best, weak though it is, job of guiding us. And I think the Catholic Church, with its reverence for the mysterious and the elevating power of the arts, has given us westerners the nearest thing to instruction for entering into the mystic as there is.

The language of Catholic mystics tends to be a little purple but, when you consider that most of it was written when saying the wrong thing could get you a one way ticket to a bonfire in which you were the star, it is understandable. Those ancient mystics had the language of the romantics, the era of chivalry, to work with and little more. But that inexpressible unitive experience, the oneness of joining into the infinite, is nowhere more fully expressed than in Catherine of Genoa’s lovely observation, "My me is God.”

So, our Pope says we are, once again, the one true religions (baloney) and that we can once again celebrate the Latin Mass (O exultation!) Maybe one will help counterbalance the other because, when you are able to separate yourself from the world and all its rules and foolishness, and enter into that state of unitive being, you come to know two things: We are all the same, despite our self-created differences, and all will be well once we get that.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Summer Life in a Beach Town

When I was a kid growing up in the highlands of Pennsylvania I thought there could be no greater joy than living in a beach town. Back then I got to spend a week or two every summer with my Aunt Rosie and Uncle Buddy who lived in Erie, PA, on the western side of town just a mile from Presque Isle with its miles of sandy beaches.

On summer mornings my uncle would get up and go to work and my aunt and I would tidy up the house, pack a picnic and head for the beach. I thought that was heaven. Well, when you’re nine it is heaven.

When I moved to Houston I used to spend every sunny weekend — which was most weekends — in Galveston. I loved Galveston. I dreamed of living in Galveston. I got to be friendly with someone who lived there and who liked me to spend Saturday nights in town so that gave me from early Saturday morning until late Sunday afternoon when I and a zillion other beach lovers went back to Houston. Galveston is just beautiful. We’d lay on the beach and float on rafts in the Gulf until mid afternoon and then head to the Hotel Galvez where they served sangria on the porch overlooking the water. That was heaven too.

I lived for awhile in Camden, Maine but the beaches there were small and rocky. I lived for awhile in Marblehead with Devereaux Beach and sometimes went down to Cape Cod — Barnstable, Wellfleet or Truro — for a beach weekend. I loved all of it.

Then in 1994 I moved to Gloucester with its seven beaches including Good Harbor, one of the loveliest beaches in the world. It has everything — dunes, waves, tide pools, a tidal marsh and river, For the first decade I lived here Good Harbor Beach was my home every weekend and when I took days off from work. It was heaven.

I’m thinking about this because I realize I don’t go to the beach much in the summer anymore. I spend a lot of time there off season when it is quiet and serene but something has happened to my joy in sunny days at the beach. Partly, I suppose, it is that I am older and it is harder for me to just spend time laying in the sun like I once did. I think about my skin. I think about books I wish I was working on. And I get restless.

But more than that it is the ever-increasing influx of tourists who are filling up my beloved beach town every sunny summer weekend. They come from all over. People arrive by train and take the bus to the beach. Cars are backed up for miles waiting to get over the bridge only to find the beach parking lots are full and they have nowhere to go. They get impatient and drive madly all over the place looking for a place to park. Mark sits on his porch in the summer and tells people they can’t park in his parking lot, it is reserved for guests. People swear at him.

It’s kind of crazy, really. Back when I was among the tourists I dreamed about living in a beach town. Now I live in a beach town and I dream about burning the bridges into town.

I know we need the tourists. Locals, including Mark and his mother, count on them to pay the bills every year. But I find myself venturing out of the house less and less on sunny days. I drive slowly and carefully when I do, constantly ready to slam on the brakes and get yelled at. It’s the price we pay for living here.

It’s okay though. Labor Day is only seven and a half weeks away. Soon things will quiet down and the beach will be heaven again.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Hoodoo Voodoo

Not long ago I was doing a little bit of research on voodoo because it is something I am thinking about weaving into a story I am working on. I came across a fascinating little book — Voodoo in New Orleans by Robert Tennant. It’s interesting because it was written in the 1940s when the author was living in New Orleans and had met quite a few older people who still had memories of some of the great voodoo practitioners of the past.

The author interviewed these people and then wove their recollections into his own research on the subject. It is not a “how-to” manual, those are everywhere in occult shops and on web sites. Rather this is a history of voodoo in that city that is deeply based in the stories told by people who were practitioners, believers and, in a few cases, victims.

The first thing you notice in the book, because of the time in which it was written, is the language particularly in reference to blacks. Tennant is always respectful given the era in which he is writing but the fact that he identifies individuals according to their race (i.e. “Joe Smith, white” and “Fred Jones, colored”) seems so archaic now. But, that aside, it is a well-crafted piece of history.

Voodoo, or at least the effect of voodoo, is something I know a little about. It was a couple decades ago and I was working in the psychiatric ward of a large hospital in a different town. I won’t be too specific for the sake of privacy. A young woman was admitted who was absolutely beautiful, sweet, gentle, lovely. She was very slender with caramel skin and huge eyes. She seemed to be the most docile and delicate of women. She had moved to this country a few years back with her family, from one of the Cape Verde Islands and spoke a little English but Cape Verde Creole, a Portuguese based language, was her native tongue.

For awhile we wondered why such a sweet girl, with such limited communication abilities, was in the hospital “for observation”. And then it happened. It started with wild-eyed, fearful reactions to everything — cowering in a corner, hiding under her bed — and it escalated and escalated and escalated until she was hysterical her eyes nearly popping out of her head, doing battle with unseen demons, screaming, until she had to be physically restrained and medicated. Even after the medication was administered the wild, fearful paranoia would continue, sometimes for hours. Eventually she fell asleep and, when she awoke, seemed fine but, within a few days, the demons would return.

It was a terrible thing to see. The psychiatrists and therapists tried all the medically accepted diagnoses of the time but nothing seemed to fit. And no medication seemed to be able to do anything. Finally, after a meeting with her family, one of the therapists said the word “voodoo” in a staff meeting. Everyone stared at her. There’s no such thing as voodoo. Except.... except to the people who think there is.

The truth is, I don’t know whatever became of that girl. She was transferred to another hospital and I moved on in my life but I have thought of her a lot over the years. I remember the horror, the raw, sheer terror, in those big, usually beautiful, eyes when they were nearly popping out of her head.

So reading this book was particularly fascinating for me. Reading descriptions of people who had been “hoodooed” made me realize that, even if voodoo doesn’t exist, it did to that girl and to others like her. I don’t know if this is going to factor into my story or not but I’m pretty sure that next time I roast a chicken, I’m going to save the bones and bury them under my doorstep.... just in case....

Thanks for reading.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Atavistic Revelry

No matter how sophisticated we think we are there is something primitive in many of us that longs, at times, for a little bit of wildness. And there is nothing quite like a bonfire in the night to help us connect to that ancient self. Every year on the Fourth of July the towns of Rockport and Lanesville here on Cape Ann have bonfires that are hard to beat.

The Rockport bonfire is always lit on the beach at Back Beach. It is usually about three stories high and traditionally topped with an outhouse. Artist Henry Kaplan who lived across the street from Back Beach until his death in 2003 painted the bonfire with it’s jaunty little outhouse every year. According to his widow, Phyllis, there are 37 outhouse paintings in her collection. I saw them one time all hung in an office that belonged to Henry (who was a dentist).

The Rockport bonfire is quite exciting. Hundreds of people come and you can feel the heat for a block away. The last time I went to it we were at the top of the street and the heat was powerful. I don’t know how the people nearest to it stood it. There were fireworks and kids on the beach with sparklers. It burned late into the night and the next morning the tide came in and washed it all away.

But for pure, atavistic pleasure there is nothing quite like the Lanesville bonfire. Lane’s Cove is a pretty place that time seems to have forgotten. My friends Stan and Sandy Stone live overlooking the Cove and have a wonderful web cam that you can access to enjoy the beauties of this picturesque place.

I have my own affection for Lane’s Cove having had more than a couple romantic picnics on the wall there. One night a lover and I had finished out lovely picnic and were watching the stars come out when somewhere up on the hill someone began to play the bagpipes. That was a night to remember, I can tell you. And I have painted there with Betty Lou on a couple of occasions. But the bonfire... the bonfire is magic.

They begin to build it days in advance, right out on the stone pier behind the wall. It is not quite as tall as the Rockport bonfire but is big and round and pretty well packed. Lanesville is sort of famous for its odd, quirky 4th of July Parade. It is very much a home-grown event with kids on bicycles and guys in trucks. The highlight a few years back was a synchronized lawn chair drill team. People take turns being in the parade and stepping to the curb to watch it — there are often more participants than watchers and one year they had such a good time that they did it again the next night.

So after the parade everyone barbecues and parties and enjoys the traditional libations and then, as
dusk begins to fall, they make their way down to the Cove. Last 4th of July I was sequestered in Walker Hancock’s beautiful studio in the woods of Lanesville working on my book. But when evening came I just had to go down there. Who could resist?

There is just such a thrill when the flame is lit and the fire leaps up into the darkness and everyone cheers and laughs. You can’t help but be excited by it. You move through the crowd talking to people and having a few beers but then.... you know... you just let time slip away and you are with the ancients. It’s magic.

Stan took the pictures here of the fire. Visit his blog for more photos. The fireworks were across the bay in Ipswich and the tall ship just outside the breakwater is the Pride of Baltimore. And the fire... the fire is magic.

Thanks for reading.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

Night Rain

After four days of nearly perfect weather yesterday grew progressively darker and drearier and by early evening the rain started. I love it when we get those long, sweet rains in the evening — when the wind chimes hanging in the different windows in the house sing gently and the curtains billow on sea-scented breezes. It reminds me of the Ray Bradbury story, “There Will Come Soft Rains”.

Between Fiesta and two clients having emergencies, I had been quite stressed out so it was nice to be quiet. I grilled salmon and spent the evening on the couch finishing Lovers and Tyrants. As much as I loved the first 7/8ths of the book, the last segment lost me. I understand what she was writing about but it is just so far outside of my experience. Du Plessix Gray was part of that generation women that grew up with the message that husband/house/children/family was the best life had to offer and then, somewhere along the way, she began to rebel and began to think “what about me? when do I get a turn?”

This is one of those things that I understand intellectually but have little experience with. I’ve always been on my own. I’ve always preferred making my own way. I’ve always worked and the couple of times I came close to marrying and doing the family thing my whole body rebelled. I got sick, I went crazy, I packed all my belongings in my car and drove a thousand miles. Not good for the relationship.

There is one very touching scene in the book when Stephanie, the good wife/daughter/mother, has come to the realization that, while she loves Paul, her perfect husband, the wife he wants is not the woman she is. She has tried. She has raised 2 children and been a good daughter to her flamboyant mother and tried to be a good wife in between her infidelities. In the scene she has been working in the garden and, when she comes in the house, her husband is sitting at the table reading the paper. She brushes her hand over his forehead affectionately and he tips his head back, closes his eyes and sighs at her touch. She looks down at him and realizes how very, very different they are. How very little he needs from her to be happy and how much she needs NOT from him. It is a sad and affecting moment.

Those women, that fifties generation of wives and mothers, are now in their late sixties and early seventies and I know a lot of them. They are wonderful women who either divorced some years back or lost their husbands to cancer or some death that took them “too soon”. Some are now nursing husbands who are dying slowly. They are women who ask me questions about my life “you never wanted to marry?” “are you sorry you didn’t have children?” How do I tell them that I’ve known all my life I was too odd for normal life? And that I am just fine with that?

So it was a beautifully dreamy and rainy night. I woke a couple times in the night to hear the wind chimes and the rain and think how fortunate I am to live in a place where I can wake up at night, take a deep breath and smell the sea.

Here’s the thing, nobody gets a perfect life. There is a lot of anger between the sexes right now. Maybe there always has been. Men are angry that women are not more submissive and accommodating. Women are angry that men are unreliable and a constant source of disappointment. Both of them are constantly measuring their reality against their expectations. It’s the expectations, not the reality that is the problem.

Today is dark and dreary. I have a lot of work to do. The windows are open and the air smells like the sea. I’ll do what I need to do today and then I’ll do what I want to do. May it be the same for you.

Thanks for reading.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Seduction on Paper

A little while ago I happened upon an essay by Francine du Plessix Gray titled The Seduction of the Text. It was such a beautifully written little essay that I wanted to read more of her and managed to find a copy of her 1965 novel Lovers and Tyrants. So, last night while the rest of Gloucester went to the 4th of July Horribles Parade and watched the fireworks, I stayed nestled in the couch with that book. It was worth every second of it. Besides I can see the fireworks out of my front window. I even looked up from the book a few times to admire them.

I know a little something about du Plessix Gray because she was part of Charles Olson’s Black Mountain crowd in North Carolina. My friends Ingeborg Lauterstein and Peter Anastas were among Olson’s group back then and they talk about him and that time with awe and wonder. I don’t think I ever read anything of du Plessix Gray’s before — maybe articles in magazines. I remember when her slightly shocking biography of the Marquis de Sade was published about ten years ago. It was shocking because it was so unshocking, because it depicted him as a person that any of us might know.

In her essay she writes about the eroticism of words and I loved that. Now, reading Lovers and Tyrants I am very aware of that eroticism on every page and it made me realize that I think we have lost something in contemporary writing. We’ve replaced eroticism with sex and it isn’t working. Heaven knows I’m not opposed to some lovely, seductive sex in a novel — without it I’d be in trouble as a writer — but it is the erotic, seductiveness of the words themselves being luscious that I am talking about.

Not long ago I read Erich Maria Remarque’s Heaven Has No Favorites. It is a lush book filled with imagery that stays in the mind — a bouquet of roses flung in anger out of a window on a bitter winter night lying in the moonlit snow — and, as with Lovers and Tyrants, the words themselves are so extravagantly sensuous (sensual?) They become a dimension of their own. Perhaps the master of this style of writing is Lawrence Durell. As I spend more and more time writing I find myself returning to the slender volumes of his Alexandria Quartet to remember how a writer should use words.

One of the things we are in danger of losing, I fear, is our connection to the inherent eroticism of life itself. Somehow we have become deeply enmeshed in ugliness and abuse and all that “recover” language which is so sloppily narcissistic and so lacking in awareness of the pulsing, throbbing undercurrent of being alive. At the end of some of the current crop of dry, self-pitying tripe you can’t help but think death would be a more appealing option. Which is nonsense.

Sometimes I wonder if those of us who live in this era of words, words, words are beginning to suffer for that. We live in a maelstrom of words, information, propaganda, advertising, news, opinions, advice, chat, chat, chat and I don’t think we are any better for it. Words have, in many respects, become the bane of our existence. The internet has provided us with the opportunity to be in contact with others all the time. Chatrooms and discussion groups and emails proved contact via words all night long. Back in the days when a sleepless night could send one in search of a good book words were delicious. Now so many seek refuge in typing to an unknown other “r u awake 2?” How lacking in juice.

So, I am spending a quiet 4th of July independently indulging in the deliciously erotic world of a brilliant writer. All the other words can wait.

Thanks for reading.

Monday, July 02, 2007

It’s Getting Nuttier Every Year

Tonight the statue of St. Peter will be returned to its rightful place at the St. Peter Club and Fiesta will officially be over. Thank heavens. It was nuts and I didn’t even go to most of it! From Friday night through last night I mostly stayed home and listened to the carrying on. I would not have wanted to be a policeman or fireman this past weekend. The sirens hardly ever stopped. I am looking forward to reading the police notes in the paper today. I think there may be a case to be made that when the police notes for Fiesta get longer than the schedule of events for Fiesta it is time to rethink this whole thing.

The problem lies in the fact that, while the core of Fiesta is beautiful, devotion to St. Peter in gratitude for his protection at sea, most of the revelers have no clue who St. Peter even is. That’s sad. To them it is just an opportunity to party your brains out which — given what I suspect they have for gray matter — doesn’t take long. From there it is all downhill.

Friday night started out good. There had been a lot of contestants in the greasy pole competition (photo at right by Dun Fudgin)
and the seine boat races were fun. If only it had ended there. But, of course, the party moved to St. Peter’s Square and then, inevitably, across the street to the taverns along Rogers Street. There are three notorious drinking establishments within stumbling distance of the altar on which St. Peter is traditionally honored. The St. Peter’s Club is pretty well managed but it is next to The Old-Timers Tavern and The House of Mitch — not great places to frequent in the middle of a winter snowstorm and proportionally worse on a lovely summer night. I have no idea why people were wandering my street, which is three streets up from those places, at 2 a.m. I lay in bed counting the number of times someone was told to $#@! Off! No sheep were available for counting — they stayed home.

Saturday night I ventured out to a neighbor’s party which was quite pleasant. We could hear the music from St. Peter’s Square and, when the drunk parade began as the taverns began to close at midnight, we sat on the porch and watched for awhile. It was the usual assortment of screaming, swearing, laughing, girlfriends smacking boyfriends, boyfriends smacking them back, and, of course, the background accompaniment of sirens. Three times blue lights flashed as a cruiser sped down our street. I went home.

I had just crawled in bed, a little after one, when my doorbell rang — and rang — and rang. I could see the guy out of the window. He was young and could barely stand up. I think he got his houses mixed up. Eventually he went away.

Sunday was the Blessing of the Fleet (photo at left by Dun Fudgin) and the parade which travels up Washington Street, three houses down from my house, circles around somewhere in back of the house and comes back down within hearing distance. I walked down the street to watch part of it. Homemade floats and kids on bicycles, all kinds of bands, St. Peter in a huge bower of flowers with dollar bills taped all over him being borne along on the big shoulders of half a dozen fishermen. Then came the ritual that I particularly like. A group of fishermen, singing and crying “Viva San Pietro!” go from house to house among the fishing families and visit the homemade altars to have a drink and praise St. Peter. Of course you know how that turns out. But I love it anyway. At ten there were fireworks. Then a lot of singing. And then the third night of the drunk parade — more sirens, more “Viva San Pietros”, more $#@! YOU!s.

Now it is Monday and today they will begin disassembling the altar. The Carnival is already packed up and gone. Tonight St. Peter will be returned to his home. The fishermen will go back to their boats, the drunks — well, who knows. Mark, who hates the whole thing and stays home for the duration, can come back out of hiding. Thank God that’s over for another year.

Thanks for reading and VIVA SAN PIETRO!