But is it art???

For decades now, my identity has been deeply wound up in being a writer, which leads me to dismiss other talents and interests that might crop up in the course of living my life. But I’m starting to think that being married to an artist for thirty-odd years (and yes, they have been odd sometimes) is finally rubbing off on me. I feel like I’m much more graphically inclined than I was when I was younger, and find myself looking at actual, concrete things in different ways (ironically, as my eyesight worsens with age).

This past summer, it seems two stray interests of mine caught up with me and converged in what I think is a meaningful way. I’ve always been interested in glass—glass blowing, stained glass, shaped glass. I’m intrigued by the interplay of light with color, and also by the paradox of working with glass, a brittle, even dangerous material, which—like a cat—never really does what you want it to, but somehow can be managed into breathtaking pieces of art. This past summer, when driving home from the Thomas Merton conference in New York State, I stopped in Corning, NY, to see the Tiffany Studios mosaics exhibit at the Corning Glass Museum. And I was simply blown away, at how so many tiny bits of glass could be brought together into  magnificent artwork that literally just glows—it seemed almost alive to me. Not only that, but it all played into my other interests, history and religion, as well. I came home itching to try it myself.

As I type this, my fingers are still sticky with gummy all-purpose glue, after working all morning on a wooden pencil box I covered in a modern, geometric design with scraps of glass. I even pulled out my old glass-cutter and cut a few pieces to size. Yesterday, at a local town-wide yard sale, I picked up a huge box of stained glass (so huge, I couldn’t actually pick it up; my husband muscled it to the car for me), perhaps a hundred dollars’ worth of glass for only $10. Husband seemed faintly baffled by this purchase, and I think he worries this new passion of mine will replace my desire to keep writing. Not to worry. I will always write, and at this moment I’m knee deep into a new novel. But as I was working on my little box this morning, and finding the work so satisfying—if messy—I wondered if I was onto something, possibly a new career to supplement the teaching and the dribbly monthly royalties from Amazon.  We’ll see. I’m pretty fickle when it comes to these kinds of whims—never with men, though, or my writing—and don’t want to assign any status or importance to it just yet. So for now, let’s not call it “art.”  Still  just my “hobby” at this point.

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Keeping calm, carrying on

I admit that I gulped a bit when, last week, right after I purchased a set of Oyster Cards to use on the London transit system, a terrorist-inspired bomb went off in one of the city’s train stations. And recent reports of a sharp rise in acid-splashing attacks in the city, sometimes aimed at tourists, gave me pause as well. But only for a few minutes, because, dammit, I’m not cancelling our long-awaited trip to London just because there’s the possibility of being caught up in some sort of mayhem. Chances are, I have a greater chance of  injury or death travelling into nearby New York City, which I do often enough; and I managed to live there, and work there for years without being killed or maimed. I even worked and commuted through the old World Trade Center, but well before 9/11, which must be a case of being in the wrong place at the right time. As the expression goes, we can’t live in fear. Or as good old FDR said, the only thing we need to fear is fear itself.  True enough; pure fear is a pretty awful thing to deal with.

During most of my first year as a New Yorker—first as a Brooklynite and then later an upper-Manhattanite—I was absolutely petrified. I was twenty-two, single, just out of a cozy upstate college, and living alone, working as a low-tier editorial drone at a famous magazine, and just so terrified of everyone and everything I would simply work, go home (white-knuckling it on the subway) to my tiny 4th-floor walkup in Greenpoint, lock the door, drag some furniture in front of it, and go to bed. It was a  miserable existence and I knew it. But that was the apartment that had the fabulous glittery-night view of Manhattan from the back window, and it was that view that eventually roused me, shamed me into overcoming my fear of the city, and finally exploring some of it, gradually making friends and eventually, meeting the man I would marry (who was living on the Upper East Side).  I never completely, absolutely vanquished that fear because just when you did, something bad would happen—your purse would get snatched or your apartment building set on fire—but I did manage to shrink it down to manageable proportions. I learned to be prudent, and not take unnecessary risks and chances–or at least be prepared to accept the consequences if I did.  And most importantly, you eventually learn how to deal with the bad stuff when it does happen: Not to freak out and retract back into one’s shell like a frightened periwinkle,  but to stay calm…and carry on.   It’s become a dopey cliché, printed on any number of T-shirts and coffee mugs against the Union Jack, but it really is good advice for any locality, because anything can happen anywhere.  Keep on keeping on.

And my dear Father Irenaeus, he would say, “Just do your best…let God do the rest.”

It’s what helps me deal with having my (seemingly fearless) only child living twelve hours away in Nashville, and my elderly parents  who seem perpetually in some hurricane’s path these days down on the Florida Gulf coast. And it will help me when I do travel to London next month, with the fellow I met in scary Manhattan so long ago. If nothing else, I’ll be in the company of a people long accustomed to keeping calm and carrying on as usual.

Big Daddy

If you’ve been following this blog for a while, you know all about my dysfunctional, love-hate relationship with Amazon.  And what follows is not a rant: My bond with, or bondage to, the big A is too complicated for that. But paradoxically, if you choose to be an “independent” writer—i.e., publish your own work—then you must become a serf on Amazon’s vast retail fiefdom. You must obey them to the letter or risk being kicked off into the oblivion; and if you follow their rules faithfully, you might be rewarded with a moment or two of decent sales. The real problem is all those other damned serfs.

But I’ m not complaining, because as the increasingly hackneyed cliché goes, it is what it is. And I get so used to the reality of things not changing, that when they do, it’s a bit of a shock.

It seems that Amazon is, slowly, glacially, beginning to change, and perhaps for the better. Just yesterday I received an unsolicited  email from them, which almost never happens, apologizing for an error I wasn’t even aware of in my book-promotion account. As compensation, I was given a $25 “click-credit” to use for additional advertising. Great, except that the credit had to be used by Sept. 12, and the email arrived Sept. 13th. Thanks anyway, Amazon.

Just a week or so ago, Amazon announced it was going to build a second sort of headquarters somewhere in the US, an adjunct to its offices in Seattle, I imagine. Of course, this announcement was cannily aimed at starting regional tax-break bidding wars across the country. Everyone wants the giant Amazon metropolis (and with over 10,000 employees, it will be an actual city) and my home state of New Jersey is no exception. Minor politicians here are falling all over themselves trying to entice the big A into the heart of Jersey, and seem to think we have an edge. They cite Amazon’s apparent desire for an “educated” workforce.

Now think about that, self-pubbers. You don’t need a special degree to carry boxes of books around a warehouse. So this suggests to me that Amazon is going to boost its editorial staff. Right now anyone can publish just about anything for free on Amazon, and sadly, just about everyone is. But could it be that the ’Zon is about to make that process more…stringent?  Could it be they’ve realized this whole thing has gotten out of hand, and instead reaping big profits, they’re simply stuck with a huge amount of unreadable books?

I’m going to go out on a limb and predict what might just possibly happen. I don’t think they will dispense with the slush-pile form of publishing entirely. I’m thinking, though, they’re going, like the TV-cable companies, to a tiered system of service. (Just a guess—I don’t have any inside information whatsoever) At the top will be their own Amazon and Kindle Publishing houses, of course, which will continue to handpick their authors; in the middle will be those of us deemed worthy enough to publish according to some sort of pre-set standards, perhaps for a modest fee; and the bottom will be a kind of vanity press for everyone else, with a fairly hefty fee attached. And these tiers would be marketed accordingly, the last probably not at all.

In other words, Amazon becomes the Ultimate Gatekeeper. Don’t you think it’s been heading in that direction all along?

Well, that’s what I would do, if I ran Amazon. But I don’t, so I’ll just keep working in the back quarter for a while, and see what happens up front.

Crossing the pond

Both my husband and I celebrate our birthdays this month, and  as a rule, at our age, birthdays are not really something to celebrate, only a grim reminder of the swift passing of time. So time being this season’s theme for us, we decided to give ourselves an outlandish present. Next month, we are going to cross the Pond. The big one, the Atlantic. We are going to live for a whole week and a day in the heart of London, and perhaps watch a little bit of time pass on the face of Big Ben.

I have been wanting to travel to England most of my life, or ever since I learned my grandmother was born there and not in Ireland. But Yorkshire will have to wait for another trip; we’ve decided to simply stay in London, no side trips, because there is far too much there we want to do and see. We’ve never subscribed to the city-a-day-tour thing, because we always want to get to know a place fully before moving on. Frank will be doing some research for his historical project, and I’m not researching anything in particular, I just want to drink it all in. I will probably just move right  into the Victorian & Albert Museum for a while, since many of the things I love and am interested in are there. But I’ll also go to the British Museum and all the others. I want to go to Greenwich and see where time starts. I want to attend Evensong in one of the big, big cathedrals, and just walk alongside the Thames. Since we’re going the end of October, I’m preparing for wet days and fog and early nights. But fortunately, London will be mostly an ‘indoor’ kind of place for us, a treasure box full of lots of little drawers and nooks and crannies to explore.

We are staying in a very tony neighborhood, Earls Court/South Kensington, where I was lucky enough to snag a little studio apartment with a kitchen, so we can make some concession to budget by way of food. It’s just down the road from Princess Di’s digs at Kensington Palace, and also, Hyde Park. So many  people have told me that I “must” go to Harrods, that I feel like being contrary and not going; but we do intend to hit Portobello Road on Saturday morning.

So even though most of our eight days are already spoken for, (Frank jokes that he’s already planning for the return trip); I invite my readers to share their experiences with me, and maybe suggest some ‘must-do’ experiences. What would you do if you had a week in London? Leave a comment and let me know!

The storms of August

April isn’t the cruelest month, not by a long shot: It’s not even January or February, but in my mind, August, which has no redeeming holidays to celebrate, is impossibly humid (though not this year, I’ll admit) and it’s when the garden goes completely to hell after the mid-summer orgy of blooming.  The work and publishing world grinds to a halt (except for those of us who did not take summer vacations), and it’s also the month, along with September, that poses the greatest risk for truly catastrophic weather: In this part of the country, anyway. My heart goes out to Houston and Galveston today,  fine parts of Texas that do not deserve the pummeling and soaking they’re getting this week.

I am no stranger to major hurricane-induced flooding; I’ve been through two—Floyd and Irene—and I hope never to go through that again, even though if we stay in this town, it’s inevitable. Heck, it may even happen this week—seems there’s some kind of evil system making its way north from the Caribbean, according to the weather outlets. There are few things worse than waking up in the morning to find your house completely surrounded and knee-deep in water, Niagara-like sounds emanating from the basement—and the skies above still a threatening shade of gray.

There are  five stages of Flood: the first is terrified anticipation, as you constantly check the TV  radar maps and see that spiraling green-red blob moving up the coastline. There’s bargaining with God: Make it blow out to sea, please, I’ll be good, I promise. Then there’s the shock of impact, where you sit numbly in the police boat, as it floats back up what used to be your street, and you’re trying to figure out where to go next. Then comes anger, when you see the receding waters have taken out your favorite rose bush, as well as your washer and dryer, leaving behind several inches of oily mud in the cellar and grayish coating on everything else. And if that’s all that happens to you, you’re quite lucky. There’s usually no power, either, so you’re stuck washing down everything in bleach and Lysol in the sweltering heat. There’s also the gawkers, people from the higher parts of town or even out-of-town, who feel compelled to drive through to gaze upon your misery. A curse on those idiots. But it does get better eventually. For me there’s no resignation stage, just the forgetting. Like childbirth, once the flood is over, you seem to forget all about the pain and move on. You think: Okay, we were struck by lightning, it can’t happen again, can it? Well, of course it can, and will.

But if you end up staying in the flood zone, it’s usually because the neighborhood’s advantages far outweigh those few days of misery every decade or so. I think we’re ready to move on, and will do so soon. But for many of us in the East and Southern US, it looks like these August storms and floods are going to be a regular occurrence, as a result of increased weather instability and what we’ve done to the environment over the past century. People who’ve never experience a bad flood will get to see what it’s like–hopefully, some of those stupid gawkers.  All I can say is make sure your flood insurance is paid up, and stock up on the batteries, bleach and Lysol…and a really good pair of wading boots.

Storytelling genetics

When I was home a few weeks ago, in my native Connecticut, I got chance to visit with my father’s sister, my Aunt Margaret, and she told some great stories. Like the time she ventured into a burnt-down house, after squeezing through a thicket of greenery, found some wonderful antique bottles but later came down with a case of poison ivy so severe, she ended up in the hospital. The way she told it, so colorfully, full of detail and facial expressions, laughing at her own folly, made me laugh, even though I had heard it before. She is a great raconteur, as is my dad, and many other people in our family, which made me wonder if being able to tell a great story is a genetic trait, something passed down from generation to generation, like blue eyes or an autoimmune disease.

It takes not only intelligence, or good memory, but that eye for detail, an ability to resurrect a moment in time in such a believable way (even if it involves a little embroidery), that your audience is riveted. And if humor is involved, so much the better.  I’m lucky in that I seem to have gotten it from both sides of my family, though I see now, my own style is a definite mixture of both—and two very different ways of telling a story.

You might think my predilection for telling elaborate fibs comes from my Irish blood, but this is not necessarily so. For one thing, as  genetic tests reveal, we seem to be more English than Irish, more Anglo-Saxon than Celtic. Which could have been troublesome if we lived in 1916 Dublin, but otherwise, it’s a good mixture: Their stories are mordant, a bit cynical, but quick-witted, self-deprecating, and even employ some simple literary techniques, like wordplay or framing devices, sometimes with an unintended moral at the end.  It blends well with my Danish grandfather’s storytelling, which is a bit terser, but involves a fondness for dropping startling detail (“…and it was so cold up there, my father said your spit would freeze before it hit the ground.”) His family came from the bogs of Southern Jutland, where ancient corpses are still unearthed, bearing signs of human sacrifice; and the author of the great saga Beowulf may well have been a direct ancestor of ours. But thankfully, we don’t have too many bloodthirsty or gory tales to tell these days.

But this is not to discount my mother’s side of the family. They were storytellers, too, but in a more rambling,  incoherent way. Both her parents called themselves, simply, Polish; but my genetic test reads like a history of Eastern Europe, with some Polish, but also Lithuanian, Belorussian, Russian and Ukrainian, a smidgeon of  Balkan, Tatar and Ashkenazi. For years, I have suffered from a mild anxiety disorder, and can’t help but wonder if it was bred into my genes, prompted by all those years of invasion, war, rape, pillage and starvation. So the stories my mother’s mother and my great-aunts told were cruder in a literary sense, usually missing some crucial detail, with little wit and some punishing moral (how many times did Aunt Ruth tell us the story of the bad little girl whose head got chopped off by the elevator doors? Every time we went shopping with her in the Hartford department stores and ventured too close to those evil doors (And in case you were wondering what happened to said head, an old lady picked it up and put it in her shopping cart.) My Polish family’s stories usually involved some kind of religious or mystical phenomenon, like the dove that flew into my great-grandfather’s room when he died, and took his soul up to Heaven—or so we believe. My Aunt Ruth, who was the concocter of the more bizarre stories—and lived two doors down from us so we got them full-force– often said that the way a person died was a reflection of how they lived their lives, and what God thought of them: “You always get the death you deserve,” she said; and since she was killed at the age of 88 by a florist’s van running a red light as she walked home from the grocery store (with $2,000 cash in her purse), we don’t really know what to make of that.

I like to think my style reflects both my English-Irish family’s snarky, sparkly wit and my mother’s family’s preoccupation with the mystical, though looking back at my various novels, it seems often that one side predominates over the other. I’ll let my readers guess which ones. And it seems a good time to confess that I am indeed working on a new novel, even as I complete my biographical project. This one definitely bears the influence of my father’s side of the family…which means, it should make you laugh.

the meaning of home

I’ve been thinking a lot about the meaning of “home” lately, particularly since we don’t yet know what our future home will be or where. Part of this was prompted by a recent trip to my birth-state of Connecticut, which I always thought would be home—till I got married to a New Jerseyan. And then, I had the chance to discuss it with one of my students from Japan—who is himself far, far from home and struggling to make a temporary one here—when one of our textbooks had a short passage on “the meaning of home.” It, however, gave us only three options: Home can be a sanctuary or haven; a gathering place for friends and family;  or a ‘pit stop’—a place to eat and sleep only. We both agreed that the ideal home was probably a combination of the first two, and most definitely should not simply be the last. I would add a fourth function: Home can be a creative, a creating space, where you can let your imagination take hold and just make (or write) things.

When you go to sell your house, the realtor often tells you to “stage” it, remove family photographs, collections, clutter, slap neutral paint over those colors you love, and get rid of any weird, idiosyncratic stuff you have lying around that would say something—either good or bad—about your personalities. This is allegedly to help the future buyer imagine themselves in your space; but when I look at these spaces online, they seem sterile and bland, and I cannot imagine myself in any of them. So unhappily, as sellers, we will probably give in and do the staging bit; but as a buyer, I’m not falling for it. Perhaps it’s better to not to focus on specific details of a house, but on what you might actually do there, and if the house can accommodate that. In other words, don’t make yourself fit into the house, make the house fit you. Then it’s really a home.

However…there is something to be said for the “pit stop.” An option we are considering is taking a ‘gap year’ off from being homeowners—like the way some high school seniors take a year off before starting college. The idea is to rent a small, inexpensive apartment somewhere we’re thinking of moving to but want to explore more; maybe get in some serious travel before we have another house to worry about, perhaps even some volunteering gig somewhere. It’s probably the most impractical option out there, and yet—from a spiritual and emotional view, maybe the best. We’re at that age where unhappy surprises—mostly health-related—are just lurking around the corner.  Why wait to travel if our joints are still relatively loose and pain-free now? Tomorrow could be a whole different story. Carpe diem, as we used to say in Latin class. But it’s a whole year without a real home—can we handle that? Maybe not. Then again, it gives us a full year to really look for that special place. We’ll keep you posted…