Hi from California!

August 31, 2009 at 8:58 pm (Family)

Youngest and I are in San Diego visiting my beloved sister.

Photo 115

As you can see, we decided to take advantage of the plethora of plastic surgeons and hair salons to have some work done:

Photo 118

Photo 117

My sister looks great:

Photo 132

Youngest will surely look all So Cal after another week here:

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More when I get home …

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Writing in the desert, an adobe study

August 25, 2009 at 5:54 pm (Art, Book review, God, Gorgeous Writing, Literary spaces) (, )


I think that Death Comes for the Archbishop is my end-of-August read because the lovely painting on the cover of my copy is filled with blues and yellows and oranges, the colors of late summer/early autumn. Also, there is something about returning to teaching that calls up what little Bishop Latour I have in me. And of course, woodsmoke. If you have never read this book, don’t let the title dissuade you. Only the last, very-short chunk deals with his death. Most of the book is very lively and uplifting.

mission…the Bishop sat at his desk writing letters … Father Latour had chosen for his study a room at one end of the wing. It was a long room of agreeable shape. The thick clay walls had been finished on the inside by the deft palms of Indian women, and had the irregular and intimate quality of things made entirely by the human hand. There was a reassuring solidity and depth about those walls, rounded at door-sills and window-sills, rounded in wide wings about the corner fire-place. The interior had been newly whitewashed, and the flicker of the fire threw a rosy glow over the wavy surfaces, never quite flat, never a dead white, for the ruddy colour of the clay underneath gave a warm tone to the lime wash. The ceiling was made of heavy cedar beams, overlaid by aspen saplings, all of one size, lying close together like the ribs in corduroy an clad in their ruddy skins. The earth floor was covered with thick Indian blankets; two blankets, every old, and beautiful in design and colour, were hung on the walls like tapestries.

On either side of the fire-place, plastered recesses were let into the wall. In one, narrow and arched, stood the Bishop’s crucifix. The other was square, with a carved door, like a grill, and within it lay a few rare and beautiful books. The rest of the Bishop’s libray was on open shelves at one end of the room.

oldestchurchThe desk at which the Bishop sat writing was an importation, a walnut “secretary” of American make. The silver candlesticks he had brought from France long ago. They were given to him by a beloved aunt when he was ordained.

The young Bishop’s pen flew over the paper, leaving a trail of fine, finished French script behind in violet ink.

“My new study, dear brother, as I write, is full of the delicious fragrance of the pinon logs burning in my fireplace. (We use this kind of cedar-wood altogether for fuel, and it is highly aromatic, yet delicate. At our meanest tasks we have a perpetual odor of incense about us.)”

The Bishop laid down his pen and lit two candles with a splinter from the fire, then stood dusting his fingers by the deep-set window, looking out at the pale blue darkening sky. The evening-star hung above the amber afterglow, so soft, so brilliant that she seemed to bathe in her own silver light. Ave Maria Stella, the song which one of his friends at the Seminary used to intone so beautifully; humming it softly he returned to his desk and was just dipping his pen in the ink when the door opened…

santa fe

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Literary Shot in the Arm

August 19, 2009 at 6:03 am (Book review, Gorgeous Writing, Writing) (, , , , , , )

Hey, writers! (and readers!)

If you are needing a shot in the arm to get you writing again or writing more or writing better (or reading again or reading more or reading better), the videos from the 2009 Colgate Writer’s Conference are now available on the CWC website and on Youtube.

This is Jennifer Brice, whose latest memoir is Unlearning to Fly.

This is Brian Hall, extraordinarily nice person, gifted writer, and my workshop leader.

This is J. Robert Lennon. I about peed my pants laughing during this talk.

This is the poet Peter Balakian.

This is Easter Island author Jennifer Vanderbes, my instructor two years ago.

This is Patrick O’Keeffe, about whom I posted in July.

These writers all also did readings from their work, also available on the CWC website. Ah, happy memories!

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Trolling for Chinook on Lake Ontario

August 9, 2009 at 5:45 pm (Childhood, Films, Fishing, God, Ireland, Marriage, Music)

Here is a movie of the trip Andy, Elliot, and I took on Lake Ontario. This is Andy at his very happiest – fishing.

(Elliot gets the credit for the ending footage of waves.)

Great_Big_SeaThe song is “Wave Over Wave” by Great Big Sea, a band that I love from Newfoundland. All the guys in the band are Irish, Canadian, English majors, and play hockey. Could you ask for more? The guy on the left is Alan Doyle (sigh) who will be in the new Robin Hood movie to be released next year. He is at his most charming in this video of Great Big Sea and the Chieftains singing Lukey’s Boat. My second choice would be Sean McCann, playing bodhran: so stinkin’ cute.

But of course neither one is as charming as my hubbie!

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I’m Excited About This Movie

August 5, 2009 at 5:00 pm (Asperger's Syndrome, Films, Rant)


In the past two weeks the New York Times has featured at least two different articles about the just-released film “Adam” starring Hugh Dancy, billed as an Aspie-NT love story. I gave it the old “askance glance” at first, having been irritated by certain other media portrayals of Aspergians.

boston-legal96I got hooked on Boston Legal through Netflix because I knew that in later seasons they introduced an Aspergian lawyer. I was not impressed when Jerry Espenson finally appeared. Perhaps he also has Tourette’s, but any Aspergian who has become a lawyer would have learned over the years to control odd hand and voice behaviors.

mary-mcdonnell-on-grey-thumbSame with Dr. Virginia Dixon, the heart specialist on Grey’s Anatomy. Any Aspie who could get through med school and land that job would have figured out how to accept a hug and not completely freak out. Asperger’s is not Kanner’s (I hope I did not just completely display my ignorance about Kanner’s since I don’t live with it.)

I DO live with Asperger’s, though, and neither of these characters seems anything like the Aspies I know and love.

However, the trailer for Adam seems a little truer, and (blushing boastfully) I gotta say my own personal Aspergian husband does have all the charm and good looks of Hugh Dancy.

So I have high hopes for “Adam.” It was an independent film, bought by Fox Searchlight for distribution nationwide, so that speaks well of its intent: not mass market. It won the Alfred P. Sloan Award at Sundance for its portrayal of science and scientists. And I liked Hugh Dancy in “The Jane Austen Book Club” as well as what I heard about his research for developing this character.

“Adam” has already opened in New York City. I will luckily get to see it in San Diego later this month. And it will finally arrive here Under the Rock of the more rural areas of the country on August 28.

If you see it, please comment!

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Blogging: The Introvert’s Ultimate Yop!

July 26, 2009 at 6:19 pm (Art, Childhood, God, Writing)

hillroadstoryI recently finished reading Patrick O’Keeffe’s collection The Hill Road, named after the first of the four novellas it contains. I was entranced. O’Keeffe is a professor of Creative Writing at Colgate and was the instructor for the short fiction workshop at the Colgate Writers’ Conference I attended. I had the good fortune of hearing him read from a new work and then meeting him afterwards on the last full day of the conference.

I bought his book after the reading, partly because I loved the cover painting called Cottages of Connemara.Two years ago, when I workshopped my novel Wonderful Plans of Old, my group’s favorite chapter was one in which I had imagined an evening in the life of my Irish great-grandparents, and I had set it outside Connemara in Ireland. I have never been to Ireland, nor while I was growing up did I ever hear stories of life in Ireland before my ancestors emigrated. For that matter, I never heard stories of my father’s childhood here in New York. He NEVER spoke about it, leaving me to conjure what I could out of references, imagination, questions, pictures.

What struck me so about O’Keeffe’s collection was how each of the four novellas dealt with this very issue: the task of trying to piece together a story which had never been told, or was only told in snatches under influence of drink or grave illness, leaving me wondering if this trait of Not Talking is endemic in the Irish people. Think of Alice McDermott’s novel Charming Billy, the twisting, winding story of a lie and its truth which had been kept long secret.

Is this tendency Irish? Is it a defense mechanism for any group that has withstood great hardship and dire acts taken out of necessity or despair? Is the same true of Holocaust survivors? former soldiers? Are there certain experiences that are simply too painful for the psyche to bear telling?

Dad meditate

My dad after my wedding, Zeke in the background

Or perhaps the common link, one which ties me to my father, is the Irish tendency toward contemplation. My father’s most characteristic pose was standing with weight on one foot, the other resting in front at an angle or up on something, one hand in pocket, the other leaning on a counter or windowsill, gazing. He would spend long periods of time this way. He did not speak much, but I learned to listen very intently when he did speak, for what he had to say was well worth listening to, forged as it was out of these long periods of contemplation.

My dad was an introvert, which is probably why he wanted to become a writer. He had plenty to say, he just didn’t like to talk. I am the same way. In seventh grade, my Home Economics teacher was Mrs. Williams, a.k.a. “Wimp Williams” because she was so soft-spoken. The most upset she ever got was when we were sewing and students would slam down the presser foot on the sewing machines. She would close her eyes, hold out one raised hand in gentle protest, and say with valiantly restrained anger, “Don’t. Slam. the Presser Foot.” And then we would all keep doing it. (I am really sorry, Mrs. Williams).

She told my parents at a parent/teacher conference that she could see I was “keeping my light under a bushel.” When I heard this, I thought to myself, No, I am just not about to cast my pearls before swine. The problem was that if I actually verbalized what I was thinking, my classmates would have thought me even stranger than they already did. It’s not that the teenaged swine would snout my pearls around in the muck but that it would be ME – my deepest self – that they were knocking through the crap. More emotional pain? Nein, danke.

Also, I truly do not like to talk. The physical act of getting my thoughts to slow down enough to verbalize them, of pushing these ethereal things out through the thick clay of my tongue and lips, and not being able to edit words that have floated out into the air, makes talking one of the last things I like to do. I’d rather write.

Thus my gratitude for the tremendous gift of blogging, and I am guessing this is the case for many introverted bloggers. We’ve got things to say. We’ve got thoughts worth sharing. And we are not afraid to cast them out over the wide waters of the internet. But let it be just my WORDS, in print, no sign of me, my face, my squeaky weird voice.

And not only that, but blogging is also ART. You create a visual product with colors and pictures and even MOVIES. It is like my thoughts – both word and image – incarnated digitally.

Seuss_fLike the little Who whose “Yop!” finally stops those awful monkeys from boiling that dust speck, introverts need a lot of effort to make noise, but we will do it. And in our long periods of thoughtfulness, we sometimes come up with ideas from which other people can benefit. So, what do I write when I write? I tell my thoughts. I tell the secrets of my childhood. I tell the secrets of my marriage. This is beyond Yop! This is doing what I was raised not to do.

Any child of an alcoholic grows up with the unstated but implicit rule “Don’t tell.” Don’t tell what happens at home. Don’t say how you really feel because no one is really there to hear you. But I have learned, against my familial tendencies, to “tell tales.” Why? First, because I have experienced how silence harms: how not speaking, not communicating your shame or fear or anxiety can cause real damage.

Perhaps I read so much as a kid because in authors I found the words to describe what I was not allowed to say out loud, what I never heard anyone one else say out loud, what was difficult for me to say out loud. And hearing from someone else, in another place, thoughts that I had had, made me see I was not alone, I was not so strange, that there were others out there with similar thoughts and problems and ideas.

Last week I was thinking about this in church and we sang this song:

bread painting

A lovely painting by blogging artist Jennifer Katheiser

I myself am the bread of life.

You and I are the bread of life.

Taken and blessed,

broken and shared by Christ

that the world might live.

Lives broken open,

stories shared aloud,

becomes a banquet,

a shelter for the world:

a living sign of God in Christ.

This is the second reason I tell my tales. If this is what we are to be – broken and shared that others might live – then the introvert is obligated to share what she is and what she has: her thoughts, her life, her stories, not as recrimination but as a banquet, an offering of those thoughts and experiences in order to console others by letting them see in print their own deepest and perhaps un-worded thoughts. At least that is what I hope to do, give voice to all those weird and profound and silly thoughts that too many people keep under a bushel.

So thanks, all you blogging introverts out there who are letting your voices be heard, and thanks, WordPress, for letting me Yop! Reader, if you find any pearls here, please help yourself, and feel free to cast your own pearls as comments.

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Chicken, Kitten, Calf

July 11, 2009 at 12:51 pm (Farming, Writing)

I was out for a walk with my dog Riley the other day when he suddenly pounced into the brush, snagged a woodchuck, shook it until its neck broke, munched it a few times to make sure it was dead, and then laid it on the ground and smiled at me. He was so darn happy with himself.

It reminded me of a short-short story I wrote several years ago and submitted to a contest (250 words max). I did make the Long List, as judged by Dave Eggers, who apparently got what I was doing. I read this aloud at the Merrill House celebration on the last night of the Colgate Conference. I had had a bit to drink first.

This actually happened. (Not for the squeamish.)


The golden sunlight slanting in through the cracks in the barn cut across the flanks of a cow giving birth. With a last moan she pushed her calf out, and it landed in a slimy pile behind her. She immediately turned and began to lick it dry; before long the calf was attempting to lift its head.

A chicken, looking for stray grain, came strutting through, thrusting her head forward and back. Coming upon the newly born calf, the chicken smelled its still wet hooves, fleshy and calcium-rich. With a peck and a peck, the chicken began eating the cartilage on the calf’s hoof bottoms. The calf, barely aware of its own existence, ignored the chicken perforating its feet.

When the chicken had picked its fill, it zig-zagged toward an opening to the outside that was actually a wall fan that at that moment turned on, catching the chicken in its blades. It flew up and squawked temporarily, feathers flying and blood spattering the concrete. But soon it stilled and lay in the corner, where an orange kitten, scrappy and hungry, sniffed it and began to nibble the newly exposed and bloody flesh.

Later, done with its meal, the kitten found a place to curl up in the hay, close to where the new calf was nuzzling its mother for milk. The kitten closed its eyes, curled its tail over its nose, and didn’t even awake when the cow flopped down to rest, smothering the small ball of fur.

rock paper

As I told the crowd, there’s nothing like actually owning animals to disavow you of any romantic liberal notions you had about animals.

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Limiting Exercises

June 28, 2009 at 3:25 pm (Art, Asperger's Syndrome, Book review, Farming, God, Gorgeous Writing, Lectio, Writing)

I am still basking in the afterglow of the Colgate Writers’ Conference, which I attended this past week. I had the great privilege of being in a novel workshop led by Brian Hall, whose intelligence, generosity, humor, insight, and talent cannot be exaggerated. I read his novel The Saskiad last month, and his novels Fall of Frost and I Should Be Extremely Happy in Your Company are now on the top of my teetering pile of summer reading. I will also be adding his book Madeleine’s World: A Biography of a Three-Year-Old to my Education Professions curriculum next year.

saskiadfrost lewismadeleienIn addition to the intensive workshop, I also attended the Craft Talks by other incredibly talented and generous writers: Jennifer Brice, Jennifer Vanderbes (my workshop instructor two years ago – You must read her novel Easter Island), Peter Balakian, J. Robert Lennon, and Patrick O’Keeffe. Their craft talks will be available on the Colgate Writers’ Conference website this summer. Past years’ talks by many of these same writers are already there and are a rare and invigorating treat.

My fellow workshop attendees were also a treat and shared their incredible talents as we workshopped their novels- and memoirs-in-progress. Two of our original group of five were unable to attend, and so we had Thursday and Friday mornings to do with as we chose. On Thursday we did an exercise, which I will describe in a moment, and on Friday two of us workshopped other chunks of manuscripts-in-progress.

As always when talking or hearing about the writing process, I was struck several times by the idea of writing as metaphor for life. Perhaps everything is metaphor for life, or perhaps, as the Kabbalists believe, all physical phenomena are essentially divine energy diffused into an infinite myriad of manifestations. Or maybe, as I am starting to believe, everything is a fractal, everything, if looked at in closer and closer magnification, is seen to be made up of smaller and smaller versions of itself.

One writing technique that was discussed in particular gave me plenty to think about in terms of both writing and life as I know it. This was the idea of the Limiting Exercise.

I encountered this idea during college in another wonderful Nathan Margalit class called Methods and Materials. One assignment we were given was to take a famous painting and spend … a week? two weeks? (I don’t remember) doing nothing but art based on that work. I chose Vermeer’s Young Woman with a Water Pitcher and created 15 variations, each more surprising to me than the last.

Later, in my teaching life, I was attempting to have my tenth-graders write poetry, and realized that given no parameters, the choices were too endless and my non-poet students were, for the most part, writing schlock. Remembering my Art background, I pulled out my prints of Monet’s haystack series and explained to my students that I was going to give them a similar limitation to force their creativity.

hay1hay2 hay4 hay3 hay5hay6

I assigned a sestina, a very restrictive seven-stanza poetic form, invented in the 12th century and still used today by poets. I discovered this form in college when I read The Complete Poems of Elizabeth Bishop, whose Sestina is one of the most-often anthologized examples of the form. The summer after my friends and I finished college, we all spent the summer writing these while house-sitting in the Montague hills (ah, English majors).

This form restricts the poet to only six end words, rearranged over the course of seven stanzas in a very specific order. As soon as I restricted my students in this way, they began writing much more powerful and beautiful stuff. My sister ended up doing dissertation research for her PhD in Cognitive Psychology on using examples to teach writing by “teaching” the sestina in my tenth-grade classes.

As we discussed in our Colgate workshop, it is common practice for writers to set themselves certain restrictions any time they write: point of view, for example. Do I choose first person or third person? If third person, then omniscient or limited or polyvalent? (a new word to me this week) Once the choice is made, that to a large extent imposes restrictions on the text.

However, for the exercise we did, Brian imposed a VERY limiting rule, so limiting that all of us in the workshop were paralyzed for a few moments, and as we worked you could hear grunts and growls of exasperation as we found ourselves roadblocked every other word: we were to write about a funeral without using the letter “e.” Here is what I came up with – without the help of a thesaurus!

On my way down stairs grimy with dirt, I stop and try my ducts for salt, for liquid, for signs that what awaits within will call from my past’s dim rooms any salt or sting. Finding only “dry” and “blank” in locations from which any squall or storm might tug, I walk toward a door I would turn from if I could, but approach anyway, finding it pulls my body through.

Within, a hush of lights and aromas surround that I most avoid. Aunts and trailing husbands, boys and girls, dumb with discomfort, old grandma sitting on a dais at a lost captain’s prow, surround a box I avoid at all costs.

I hug my mom, my dad. I slowly wind a circuitous path through bumbling cousins who touch or murmur what might sound sad but actually roars, low and ominous.

Shalimar and Coty’s L’aimant swirl in battling soft clouds. Mascara, lipstick, suits long hung in musty bags, skirts and shirts in vibrant colors stab at trying on “valor” or “joy” or any mood that adds a coat of familial gloss to what lurks in sharp looks or harsh coughs or pointing hands that sign out a grim truth.

I finally draw up to that obligatory black coffin and scan that craggy chin and high brow, cold now to my touch as always it was in mood glaring my way.

When I read it back, I realized that most of what I wrote I would NEVER have normally written. My ideas had to come out through some others space, like Play-Doh coming out the sides when the sliding shape-maker of the Fun Factory is plugged up.


On Friday morning, J. Robert Lennon shared in his public Craft Talk a number of limiting exercises as well as examples of what he had written when he had given himself these exercises. Check these out on his website: The Cat Text had me crying with laughter as did his New Sentences for the Testing of Typewriters as did his disquisition on the website I Can Has Cheezburger? which is a big favorite in our household. The image to the left was my son’s desktop picture for months. The writing parallel comes from being forced to use kitten grammar, ala lolcats speech.

In our workshop right afterward, we workshopped my essay Ah-Ha! Moment: The “Diagnosis”. In addition to some very helpful writing feedback, I also got, as I often do in regard to living with Asperger’s, “How do you do it?” “How can you live with this?” and “Doesn’t this sometimes just drive you crazy?” On a bad day, my answers to these questions would be “Not with much grace” and “Some days it’s really hard” and “Yes.”

Later in the day these two things overlapped in my head and I thought to myself, Marriage to an Aspergian: The Ultimate Limiting Exercise, which of course could also be the subtitle for Life as a Dairy Farmer.

Sure, Asperger’s imposes certain limitations, but doesn’t every marriage? Marry a PhD in History and you are probably fated to moving from university to university waiting for tenure. Marry a lumberjack and you will be living near forests. Marry someone with diabetes and you will be monitoring blood sugar.

Look what often happens when people HAVE no limitations: celebrity athletes worth millions go broke or commit crimes, kids who inherit enormous trust funds become alcoholics or addicts, Brad runs off with Angelina when obviously Jennifer was his soul mate (please don’t think that last was anything but ironic). Limitless money, limitless fawning men or women: people usually do not handle that situation well.

Benedictines often talk about the value of their vow of stability. Thomas Merton flopped around like a crazed dilettante until he committed himself to the most restrictive monastic order there is: the Cistercians. They do not leave the monastery and they do not speak. But look at what came out of him then. Perhaps Flannery O’Connor’s lupus forced her creative hand. Dorothy Day chose poverty, and her very life became her creation.

The Taoists have a saying that I frequently fall back on: One disease, long life. No disease, short life.

Having some sort of restriction forces us to act wisely within that restriction’s confines and to care for ourselves or our marriage or our art in purposeful, thoughtful ways. No restrictions allows us to live in perhaps too daring a way, putting ourselves in dangerous situations. Think of children: in the absence of restrictions they will touch hot stoves, jump into deep water, wander into traffic. Our son, as he has gotten older and we have allowed him a longer leash, has often run gratefully back into the fold when we have snagged him from some dangerous social precipice, at least until he hankers for another foray toward adulthood.

Jane Jacobs

Jane Jacobs

My theory on this from a scientific standpoint is that our genetic code is hardwired for limitations because that is one of the natural laws: an ecosystem will expand and diversify until some limiting factor stops it at the system’s carrying capacity. There is only so much available to the system. As Jane Jacobs so brilliantly pointed out in her book The Nature of Economies, our human economies MUST function under the same laws because they ARE regulated by the same laws. Our economy is a fractal made up of the ecologies on which it is based.

All living beings are forced to survive in conditions of scarcity. Plants and animals do this by instinct or by trial-and-error or stimulus-response: Fly south — NOW. No food here → migrate. Not enough nitrogen → stop growing vegetatively.

We humans employ rational choice in a condition of scarcity. There is NOT an infinite amount of money or time or physical resources. You assess what you have, weigh the costs and benefits of each option, and choose accordingly. In the same way, we weigh potential spouses, look at the costs and benefits of each potential mate, and make our choice. (Can you tell the Asperger’s has rubbed off on me a bit? Read John Elder Robison’s memoir Look Me in the Eye for an Aspergian take on mate selection.)

Because we are rational, speaking beings, we have developed rituals that make public some of these rational choices. Marriage is one of the most significant limiting exercises we perform. That’s what the vows are all about: “forsaking all others, cleave thee only unto him as long as you both shall live.” That is a pretty serious limiting exercise right there, like writing using ONLY the vowel “e.”

gnwbSure, Asperger’s imposes more restrictions than the normal marriage, and so does dairy farming. Wendell Berry talks about this in his essay “A Few Words for Motherhood.” As he helps a cow give birth, he thinks of Thoreau’s farmer-bashing words from Walden (which raise my hackles, too) and says  that we all commit to something, even if it is to the idea of having NO commitments.  Wendell Berry chose farm animals.

I chose Andy, and Asperger’s came with the package. I could get all frustrated and kick and scream or leave, or I can accept the limitation and use it as an exercise in marital creativity.

If you are an artist or a writer, when you impose a restriction on yourself, the creativity gets squeezed out in other unexpected ways. Brian encouraged us to “look for unpredictable elegant opportunities” that happen in writing when we don’t dictatorially impose our own will on the text, that these often lead the text in a new direction that is BETTER than the original plan.

I choose to see my marriage that way. The Asperger’s has been a “restriction” that forced the writing of my own life into a very different direction. Perhaps the creativity this requires of me will make of my life something more creative, and maybe more beautiful, than what it might have been without that restriction.

This is what I love about reading good literary fiction: you can tell when the writers have allowed the texts to force their hand in a way, and have followed and shaped those sometimes unplanned restrictions into art. For my own tastes, I love when a writer or artist has made beauty out of real and sometimes difficult limitations. This is art that, because it is true, always rings true.

Please share your thoughts …..

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Nightmare, or Mo Goes Goth

June 25, 2009 at 8:45 pm (Art)


In college I took a class in Printmaking from the fabulous Nathan Margalit.

One exercise we did involved creating intaglio etchings by pressing a random assortment of cloths and other objects onto the waxy surface painted over the metal plate. Then we dipped the plates into acid, which burned into the lines where the cloth had removed the wax. We were then challenged to look for images in the random patterns and work with the intaglio process to create something from the shapes and forms left behind. I created several odd pieces of art using this process, one of which is above and the other below.


I realize just how much this process influenced my creative side – especially the act of starting from the random and seeing what the subconscious dredges up.

In my continuing series of short movies based on songs from Kate Bush’s The Ninth Wave, I offer the below film “Nightmare” which makes use of my intaglios of long ago.

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Swimming in Lake Poison

June 21, 2009 at 12:40 pm (Writing)

This week I am attending the Colgate Writers’ Conference in Hamilton, NY. I was accepted into the novel-writing workshop along with three other participants, and our workshop instructor will be Brian Hall, author of the novels The Saskiad, Fall of Frost, and I Should Be Extremely Happy In Your Company: A Novel of Lewis and Clark, as well as several works of non-fiction. I attended this same conference two years ago and worked with Jennifer Vanderbes, author of Ester Island.

I will be workshopping a novel I started about five years ago, tentatively titled Swimming in Lake Poison. I partly used the painting below by John August Swanson as inspiration. I have posted Chapter One below, and would be grateful for any feedback.

I will share pictures and more from the conference once it is over. If you would like to join me vicariously, the public lectures – including each morning’s Craft Talk and each evenings Readings – are available at http://groups.colgate.edu/cwc/archive.html. This year’s will not be available until much later, but the previous year’s are also great. Especially, you should become familiar with Frederick Busch’s work if you are not already. I have read his novel Harry and Catherine probably fifteen times.


Chapter One

One night, during the worst of it, the week we kept the shotgun next to bed, the week we had to send the kids away, the week we slept holding each other for safety, I had this dream:

We were on vacation at our family camp, high in the Berkshires of Connecticut. But in the dream it was a much exaggerated version of Mount Riga, wilder, steeper, more densely forested, and poorer. There was no wealthy and manicured New England town at its foot. It seemed instead to be placed in the rural poverty of the wilder regions of the Northern Adirondacks or northern Vermont, far from where anyone with wealth or sophisticated aesthetics would summer. To arrive at this surreal version of our refuge required skirting a lumber town, a rough and bedraggled collection of old warehouses and greasy auto shops, furred by spruces, with that sinister feel of forests in the primitive Northwest, where the trees are angry ancients leaning over and threatening to swallow you in their growth.

Upon our arrival, my husband Ty’s family had already assembled, and the lake and A-frame and cabins seemed almost true to their wonderful, normal selves. All of my mother-in-law’s Swedish relatives had gathered, from all corners of the country, and although it appeared that the lake was very cold – thin sheets of ice laced its edges – young cousins, previously unknown to me, were swimming along its uneven and rocky shoreline. In the dream, unlike in the real Lake Riga, high, columnar islands of rock topped with shaggy pines rose not far from shore, and pallid Swedish boys, all of them young cousins and second cousins, dove in masks around their murky bases in the narrow area between islands and land, seeking gold or what would pass for it with younger relatives.

Almost immediately upon arrival, after hugs and introductions, Ty and I were dispatched to run an errand: to fetch an air mattress left at the lake’s other end, needed by one of the guests for sleeping on that night. Though I was tired and longed to crawl into a soft nest in our camper, Ty and I prepared to set out in the late afternoon with a flashlight to fetch it.

As we approached our vehicle to go, an extraordinary procession of young, male, white-robed acolytes proceeded along the sandy road under the low-hanging pines, carrying large white candles and singing. They walked slowly, a hundred or so of them, the flames lighting up their joyous faces, and as they passed, they looked at us and smiled as they sang, a slow meditative song full of plain harmonies, like chant or incantation. Everyone at our camp stopped in slow silence and smiled in their glow. The young monks walked toward their rustic monastery farther around the lake. The harmonies of their song drifted through the trees and echoed across the water.

Still, Ty and I had to fetch the mattress, and instead of taking a canoe or the Jeep, we set out on foot, back down the rough road and through the lumber town and further down the mountain and back into the scrubland forest to the lake’s other end. Peering under dense bushes with our flashlight, we found the raft under some brush on the dirt road’s side. The road we were on stopped at the lake’s edge seemed to have no other destination than this distant spot, and we wondered who had been here earlier in the day and for what reason, far from the main enclave and in so isolated a place. With the half-deflated plastic raft under my arm, we set out for the long walk back.

As we returned, ever-darkening twilight turned back to bright day, and our narrow path down through the open land suddenly rose to a high and thin-aired height, while the region to our right dropped, such that the houses and churches below looked like toys. The trees disappeared and we walked along an Alpine path, and the ancient and softened Berkshires turned to snow-topped mountain peaks and the land to our side sank into green-lined river valleys. Now that we were above the tree line, the evergreens of Connecticut shrunk to the short brush of the high peaks, and we walked the narrow ridge of a high mountain trail toward a tiny town perched on one crag. We stumbled over rocks on the narrow path, and I struggled with the burden of the raft.

The tiny town seemed to be holding its market day, and each of the handful of tiny kiosks stood in relief high against the Andean air, a small wooden cart or booth with bright scarves or hanging peppers blowing in the wind from its racks. Ty and I stopped at one, where textiles hung in a fury of color against the white sky. In the bright and wind-whipped air, we struggled to choose one and pay its seller, a short, compact man with brown skin and smiling eyes, with a band of brightly-striped wool over one shoulder.

We passed beyond his stand at the peak of the village, toward a one-room Alpine tavern on a steep and narrow ridge, where mountain men of foreign skins and languages sang and clanked heavy wooden mugs of some native grog. Ty stopped in to join them for a drink and I continued toward the small mountain lake ahead, holding by the hand the frailest of the Swedish girl cousins who was suddenly and inexplicably in my charge. Two nuns, in soft yellow habits and comfortably middle-aged faces in high peaked wimples, approached and smiled and nodded as they passed us. We nodded in return and continued on our way. I glanced down, far down into the valley, and saw, like a jewel in the green valley below, a perfect Austrian abbey, soft yellow, like a pound of creamy butter on its green lawns, with tall Baroque windows and topped with dark onion-shaped domes, a shiny copper cross atop each. It was a long building, with the central section most likely the dormitory, clean and airy, and the taller end with the most steeples the sanctuary. From its windows soared the measured tones of Gregorian chant.

We realized that the two nuns we had passed were most likely from there, and sure enough, when we turned to look where the two had gone, we could see them descending a gentle path that led down, down, down toward the picturesque little haven below. I watched, wanted to follow, stopped, until my little cousin tugged my hand and I turned to her and smiled and walked on.

She and I continued toward the lake ahead, and as we neared, we could see it had a sandy beach and shallow water for wading. Knowing we would have to wait for Ty, we stripped down to our bathing suits, leaving our clothes and shoes on towels on the beach, and waded in. It was a small and open lake, no more than five acres, more of a pond, and we could easily see across it to the rocky shore on the other side. My little cousin stayed wading in the shallow waters with sand beneath her feet, but I, hot and a swimmer by nature, dove under and headed toward the deeper and cooler water in the middle.

When I surfaced there and shook the hair and water from my eyes, I saw to one side of the pond a tall earthen dam through which opened an enormous corrugated metal culvert. I looked higher up and noticed the factory from which it came. Only then did I look down, to the water I was treading in, and see the noxious green ooze. I followed its liquid path to the culvert and saw the mix of green and phosphorescent orange that flowed toward me, foaming and scum-topped. The watery trail was dotted with thin metal scraps and shredded labels, plastic bung-hole caps and globs of brownish sludge.

I scrambled to turn in the deep water and head back toward shore, but the mire became viscous and I flailed to direct my body shoreward. I was gasping in panic and exertion and I feared gulping a mouthful of the sickly and putrid slime that circled my face. My skin was starting to smart and sting, and I swam in desperation toward shore, shouting for my little cousin to Get out! Get out! Pushing against the resistance of the thick water, my feet finally hit ground, and I slugged heavily, weighted down, toward my charge who was splashing and falling toward the beach.

Finally close enough, I grabbed her, flung us both onto the land, and dragged her to a water spigot where I quickly and viciously hosed her down. Luckily, only her legs were affected, and the green poison washed off. I was saturated: my skin, my hair, my arms and legs, my swimsuit, and though I sprayed and sprayed and pressurized the water against myself, the toxins burned and stung, and my skin was stained a sickly greenish-orange, and though I washed and scrubbed and directed the water full-force, I could not remove the  poisons from my skin.


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