Tuesday, September 22, 2015

A life in patterns

Cleaning out my mom's house this past summer, it surprised me how unsentimental I felt, even though it was the last time I was going to be there. Instead, it was a hurried effort in efficiency--quilts and coverlets in one pile, pillows in another, kitchenware stacked into boxes.

In the closets and cabinets in all her rooms, I found nothing that bore witness to her life beyond what she had purchased and placed there. Yet I wanted to find something that was uniquely hers, and/or that reminded me of my childhood with her.

And then I came across the patterns for dresses she had sewn for me when I was a little girl.  I imagined the hours she had spent at her Singer sewing machine, adding bric-a-brac to the edges of sleeves, embellishing fresh-pressed collars with machine-stitched embroidery. It was an act of love, unseen by me as I played in the woods near our home, unrecognized as I wore out the products of her labor.

I realized this had been how she had expressed herself and began to sob. Nothing else in that house affected me this way--not being back in the bedroom where she had died in February, not the photo albums showing our family as it once was, not my grandmother's frayed tablecloths my mom had saved because, according to a note in the box, she "couldn't bear to throw them away."

Among the patterns, I found the first outfit she had sewn for me. Sadly, it is the only one she saved.

Often I go with my daughter to the store or spend hours on the Internet trying to find a dress or outfit that I am too impatient to make myself. I don't want to stay at a sewing machine, yet I spend hours trying to find something that fits her and doesn't look awful, made by a worker in China or India who has cranked them out, piece by piece. I tell myself that American women have the freedom to be more creative now than they did in the 1950s, when they were mere housewives, without recognizing that I am often a mere consumer, wearing or buying outfits worn by hundreds of others.

Sewing was my mother's craft. The stitches were her story.

The note reads: "First dress I made for Beth after Bret bought my sewing machine."

Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Women Only

At first it was accidental. I began the year finishing Lila by Marilynne Robinson, then moved on to Mansfield Park (which, I a devoted Austen fan, had somehow never gotten around to), then to Poisonwood Bible.

Then I realized: "I've only been reading women writers this year!" After proclaiming this to my friends, I made an effort to keep it that way. Books by men on my "To-Read" list on Goodreads were pushed aside. No C.S. Lewis, no Colm Tóibín, no Khaled Hosseini.

This was less a feminist statement than an exercise to find and read female authors, particularly those I might not have otherwise looked for. I liked both the limits and the challenge of this task. But I have begun to feel a little confined by it.

Is it really more women-empowering or woman-centric to (currently) be listening to The Dispossessed by Ursula K. LeGuin, which centers on a male physicist and is read by the voice actor Don Leslie than it would be to listen to Madame Bovary, which centers on poor Emma Bovary, and is read by the voice actress Juliet Stevenson?

I've always meant to re-read Madame Bovary (and read it someday in French), so I grabbed it when it was on sale on Audible.com the other day for $4.95.  Now I'm starting to feel bummed that I will have to wait until 2016 to listen to it if I keep this (informally made) woman-only vow.

It's been an interesting eight months of hearing women's voices. I'm not experiencing an absence of men. But I really would like to listen to Madame Bovary...

Friday, July 3, 2015

The unexpected flower

For the last couple of years, I've pulled a weed that kept creeping up in my front yard bed. Why was it a weed? Because (ask any gardener) I hadn't remembered planting it.

It was an unremarkable dark green plant that didn't seem to have any purpose. I ripped it from the soil and into the compost bin it went.

But this spring I wasn't so fanatical about weeding. Rainy weather and some out-of-town trips kept me from my yard. It gave the weed sufficient time away from my prying hands, so that it came to bloom.

I think it is a tiger lily I planted in another part of the yard years ago, which never came back. How it came to be in this particular planting bed is a question best taken up with the squirrels or the birds.

Is it not a particularly spectacular plant--it is low to the ground, as if trying to hide from my annual culling. Yet I applaud its determination to survive and put out its small show of pink blossoms.

Now I wonder if there are weeds in my notebooks and writing scraps that might also bloom if I would allow it. Given safe haven from my rigorous inner critic/weeder, a poem might emerge, or even an essay.

It's hard sometimes to know when to be vicious and when to nurture, whether it is plants or words.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

The empty streets of Blogville

When iGoogle went away, I lost track of the personal blogs I used to read on a regular basis. (It  was easy to see which blogs had been updated with iGoogle because snippets of their recent posts appeared on my front/search page in Chrome). I didn't easily find another way to keep up with them. But the other day, through with my medical treatments and with more time on my hands, I decided to look up the blogs I once followed. I was disappointed to realize that, without fail, nearly all had made their last posts two years ago.

"Where have all the bloggers gone?" several articles have already asked (just type that phrase or "the demise of blogs" into Google and you'll see what I'm talking about). Writer Mel Campbell, in her article, Should we mourn the end of blogs?, aptly said, "The blogroll in my sidebar reads like an honour roll of war dead."

It's assumed that many bloggers have migrated to Instagram and Twitter. In my case, it's Facebook, where I have a ready and responsive audience. The truth is that it's more affirming (and easier) to write a quip on Facebook and get 50 likes than it is to write a blog post that no one comments on.

And yet I'm still blogging. Sometimes it's the only time I write down what I am thinking at the moment. The posts are Instagram for my brain.

To randomly delve into the blogger universe, I've been hitting hit the "Next Blog" tab (at the top left of this page) and have discovered that, while many once-hopeful storefronts on Blogville have been abandoned, the craft stores, decorating shops and seamier establishments still persist. A typical tour goes something like this: Quilting blog, Quilting blog, dead blog (i.e., no post since 2013), Bad Poetry, dead blog, Erotica, Cheap Chic blog, dead blog, etc.

[Blogger help says that "Next Blog" is supposed to take you "to a recently-updated Blogger blog similar to the one you're currently viewing." But each time I've tried it in the last week, I've gotten much different results. One day it was entirely erotica sites; the next day, mostly quilting. A day later, blogs written only in Afrikaans.]

I've also found several "books I am reading"-type blogs, but I imagine that many of the people who had sites like this are moving or have already moved to Goodreads where their reviews are searchable and probably seen by a wider audience.

The blogs I once followed that have disappeared were written mostly by busy adults. Short of an unseen catastrophe in 2013, I imagine what happened is that they kept at blogging for a while and then got busy with work or with family events. Or perhaps they had said all they wanted to say--especially in a venue that offered no financial or other reward.

I, too, may close this Blogville venue in the future. It's not that I've said all that I want to say, but that, perhaps, I'm trying to say too many things. The blogs that have succeeded or, at least, have persisted are those with a specific kind of focus. Someone asked me to describe my blog the other day and I realized I didn't have an elevator pitch to describe it. "It's about creativity," I vaguely said. And then I tried to explain how I have written about art and books and have also interviewed creative people.

It would be so much easier to say, "It's about shoes" or "It's about vegetarian cooking." (There are lots of these blogs around) "Writing Home" might be a better name for a blog that shares letters people have written home over the centuries. Or in which I write about home and what home means. As a "home for my writing," it looks like I am trying to fill every room and bookshelf. Walking in, one might not know where to go or how to get there. Or one might just walk on by, on to a blog that offers updates on Bruce Jenner or a good dinner recipe.

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Too much TV

If only there was a Goodreads for watching TV. If so, I would be a top viewer.

I watched a lot of television in the 11 months I went through cancer treatments. Not just a wimpy sitcom here and there, but dramas that required a certain type of allegiance to plow through them. Every episode of every season, sometimes one, two, even three a day.

Go ahead and call it "binge watching." But I crave a more refined phrase that would signify something important, at least given how much of my day was devoted to it.

In those months, I was catching up on shows I somehow missed or never took the time to get into—"Mad Men," "The Good Wife," "Foyles War." There wasn't much else I could do. The steroids and chemo gave me fuzzy eyesight and ocular migraines, making it nearly impossible to read. I also found that if I didn't sit down and get engaged with a TV show I would be up, trying to get things done, quickly reaching exhaustion. Doing one load of laundry downstairs or cooking dinner was sometimes all I could manage for the day.

So 45 minutes with Don Draper was restive. Wondering how Alicia Florrick was going to fare sans hubby helped me forget about my troubles for an hour or two.

Absent of Goodreads (and because a few friends have asked what I watched), here's a list of the TV series I watched in their entirety: [O] = ongoing series

- Wives and Daughters
- Forsyth Saga
- Call the Midwife [0]
- The Bletchley Circle
- Mad Men [0]
- Cranford
- The Duchess of Duke Street
- Enlightened
- Foyles War
- Freaks and Geeks
- The Good Wife [0] *

* Fun fact: the first 5 seasons of The Good Wife = 112 episodes @ 44 min. ea = 82 hours (gulp!)

I became a little obsessed with WWII and post-WWII Britain during this time. Hence, Foyles War, Bletchley Circle and Call the Midwife (in addition to The Imitation Game in the theatre). I found it particularly charming that no matter how dire things were, or how poor they were, the characters always made time for tea.

I also watched a lot of movies (how did I ever find the time?). Maybe I'll list those maybe another day.

I made the collage above using Union, a smartphone photography app--my first, clumsy attempt, but I wanted something at the top of the page that wouldn't be copyright restricted...

Friday, April 3, 2015

Using the watermark feature in MS Word to distinguish your drafts

Maybe most writers already know this, but I stumbled upon something accidentally tonight that is going to help me more easily distinguish which draft of a manuscript I am looking at.

While trying to insert page numbers in a document, I saw that one of the options under the "Insert" pull-down menu is "Watermark..." I realized I might be able to use a watermark to show which draft I am printing or looking at.

Watermark gives you a "Text" option, which is where you can put the date of the draft. It shows up underneath each page and looks like this (I am printing this without the text underneath so you can better see the watermark/date):

The date of the draft shows up as a faint gray color under the text--or if you want to spring for color printing, you could, I suppose, make it a different color.

One of my problems in going back and editing my stuff is that I will find four different versions of something and can't always tell which is the latest, especially after it has been printed. The filename can include the date of the last update of the draft, but that gets lost in the print-out. Another option, of course, is to add the draft date to the header or footer where the page number is.

The key thing is to use the date of the draft vs. calling something "Version 3" or "Draft 4"--especially if you are working on a longer work in pieces (i.e., and some of those things are actually version 3 and some are version 4), or if you are switching between computers.

For advice on how to find where the latest edits go to, and how to name your drafts, revisit Mary Amato's advice in a 2010 Writing Home post: 56 drafts and three little kisses.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Is college necessary? (Part One of 1,000--an ongoing discussion)

In my last post (In the absence of leisure, where is art?), I reinforced the conceit that people who are "cultured" (i.e., read books) go to college. But is college really necessary?

It's an argument--and an essay--that I've tried to work up but haven't completed for a couple of years now, since my son was facing student loan debt for his last year of college (all parental college funds being depleted). Did he really need to finish a history degree that was going to cost him nearly $20K if he was going into the performing arts and didn't have a good (not just minimum wage) job at the ready?

My argument was weakened by the fact that I graduated with a degree in Western Civilization--perhaps one of the more frivolous majors, in terms of making money afterwards and/or in having something to talk about with regular people on the bus. (In my experience, few people outside the university environment have heard of Catullus or want to talk about the Aeneid.) I was so intent on learning that I didn't understand, once it was all over, that the world hadn't changed while I was changing--it was indifferent to my acquisition of knowledge. It merely asked, as it had before: Could I type? Serve food? Clean houses?

One difference is that I didn't have to go into debt to get a degree. Debt seems unavoidable now. Yet colleges continue to churn out the same kind of skills for their humanities majors--reading books and writing papers--that few businesses need and that, unless the graduate wants to be go to graduate school or become a professor, have few real-world applications. And few real-world continuations: how many times have I read Catullus in the original Latin over the years since college? Once? Twice?

Yet how could I deny him the experience that I still maintain (marketability be damned!) changed my life?

So I dropped my not very firm argument and let him take on his own debt. And I think now it was the best decision he could make, despite the fact that he is living at home working part-time as a barista (the best job he could find after searching for several months) and facing a 10-year loan pay-off. He grew intellectually. He made connections. He tried new things. All the things one hopes will happen at college.

Is college necessary for other people? Can you educate yourself and find a way to be intellectually engaged outside a campus? I think so, but that's the subject for a future post. It's a challenge for college graduates as well--how to maintain a level of intellectual curiosity away from a university environment and not get sated with empty cultural calories.

Thursday, March 19, 2015

In the absence of leisure, where is art?

In the second installment of its series on the shrinking middle class (The Devalued American Worker, December 15, 2014), the Washington Post tells the story of Ed Green of Winston-Salem, NC, who works more than 12 hours a day, 60 hours a week, to make ends meet and so that his kids might go to college.

I have met many people like Green in recent months, particularly young people who are working multiple jobs to pay off student loan debt or to eventually, or slowly, go to college. For example, a cashier at a big box hardware store last summer apologized for her slowness, telling me that me that she had been on her feet for eight hours already and she still had another job to go to. She looked to be 18 or 19, and said that she was working three jobs in order to afford college. Even then, she said she only had time and money to take one class at a time and didn't know when she was going to finish her degree.

What does this have to do with "writing and creativity"—the stated intent of this blog?

Without at least some leisure, people are less likely to engage in creative activities or to enjoy the arts. That should concern any writer at this point—the potential audience is shrinking.

Perhaps working class folks have never really been big subscribers of The New Yorker or the symphony, but the chance of that becomes less likely if their free time is only used for sleep. And why would they spend their money on magazines or concerts if any remaining salary can be targeted for their children's tuition?

Why do I care? I was one of the poorest students at the California colleges I went to, there with the help of VA and SS benefits, in addition to summer jobs and a small amount of financial aid. I didn't go skiing or to arena rock concerts or on European adventures, as other students did. Yet I still had time (and money) to go to poetry readings, art museums, and concerts in small venues and to take long bike rides and walks along the beach. I would never have thought that I was privileged by doing any of these things, nor did I feel any guilt at having free time while carrying a full load of classes.

A student rushing to class from work and back to work again is less likely to enjoy the cultural activities offered by her university, or even to go to the library. I am sad if such moments are going to be a luxury except for the rich.

I once went to hear Robert Duncan read his poetry at UC-Santa Cruz. It was a warm enough night, so afterwards my companion and I walked the long path down to the bottom of campus, through the redwoods and the bay laurel trees, past the organic farm. We weren't rushing home to get on to the next thing, but just enjoyed the moment, walking to the rhythm of the poetry we had just heard and savored.

Without those moments of savoring, what chance is there for art?

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The sameness of contemporary country music

Forget what I said several years ago about liking country music. I finally persuaded E-girl to listen to it on the radio yesterday during a long car ride. We both agreed:


All male singers. Nearly the same melody.  And the same topics:

• trucks and/or Chevys
• pretty girls with jean shorts (sun tans/smiles, etc.)
• drinking cold beer/partying
• a disdain for cell phones (3 out of 5 songs) and foreign cars (2 out of 5 songs)
Everything was cheerful. No angst allowed.

"Make it stop!" E-girl said after the fifth song, putting her hands over her ears. "I can't tell them apart."

Their voices sounded like they like to pop a cold beer now and then--not like they sit at a bar all night downing whiskey and smoking endless cigarettes. They were more akin to pop singers than to Johnny Cash.

Tom Petty has criticized contemporary country music as sounding like "bad rock with fiddle." I actually didn't hear any fiddles or banjos yesterday. It really could have just been generic rock music, the only difference being, instead of complaining about a breakup or sexual frustration (or the usual narcissistic urges of rock music), these songs celebrated the simple pleasures of a rural life and the possibility of seeing/being with a beautiful "girl."

What I liked earlier about country music is that it celebrated monogamy--something rock music isn't too strong on. But now it seems heavily imbued with an almost anxious nostalgia for a rural/idyllic life that hardly exists. A lot of under-65 year-old rural people aren't working on the farm--they are more likely to be sitting in front of a computer all day than behind a forklift. They drive their trucks (or, more likely, SUVs) to a metro area to earn their pay.

The best critique of the sameness of contemporary country music comes in this mashup published by "Cowboy Dave" earlier this year. (I think I heard at least two of these songs yesterday--but maybe not.) Enjoy?

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Tap shoe optimism

A row of tap shoes has made me hopeful about public education--specifically, a row of tap shoes outside a hallway, waiting for young dancers to put on just before their performances. The shoes are used multiple times per show, and many times a day per class, at the (free) public school arts magnet that my daughter attends.

They are there for the students who cannot don't buy their own tap shoes (tap is only taught for part of the year, so it can be a big investment for strapped families, especially when feet unexpectedly grow mid-quarter), and yet there is no stigma attached to using them. The kids slip them on and go. There is even a kind of cred in getting them on and off as fast as possible for the next kid to use in a show.

The recital costumes are given to the children for free as well, reused with each show, assigned by costume size. (Those that are still too big are pinned in the back with safety pins). They slip them on over their black leggings and black tank tops in front of one another since there are no dressing rooms.

This is in comparison to for-profit dance schools where dance classes can run hundreds of dollars a month and annual dance recitals require buying one-time-use costumes for $50 to $100.

Most of these children will not grow up to be professional dancers. And these three years may be their only experience with dance. So, what good does it do to learn these movements that they may never practice again? I think it's the pride they take in performing and seeing their peers perform. As they wait "backstage" during the winter and spring performances, watching the performances going on above them on-stage via closed-circuit TVs, even the toughest and loudest kids will sit down and watch. The subdued conversations are only about who is on stage, how good he or she is doing, and what they think of the choreography and costumes.

I wish there was something equivalent to this for math and science classes, classes where many of these children, especially those from non-English speaking homes, often struggle to do well. A place where they could cheer one another on, and show off what they know. I don't know how to make that happen. I just hope that some of the pride that they experience from these performances permeates other parts of their school day lives.