Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Is it art or is it Prisma?

I took a lot of photos when I was in Italy recently. It's easy to take a good pic there because there is so much beauty. Even the handles on these garage doors in Lake Como looked like works of art:

When I got back, I wanted to linger over my photographs, perhaps to hang on to the experience a little longer. So I began to play around with Prisma.

Here's one of my original photos of a street in Lake Como:

And here it is after the Prisma treatment (the process only takes a minute or so, unless thousands of people are using it at once, and then it takes a few tries to get it to load):

I'm not sure what purpose Prisma actually serves, or if any of its results will be kept in the future. (Prisma bills itself as an art photo editor "for Instagram pics and selfies," which sounds pretty temporary.) Even if this is a short-lived fling, I've enjoyed seeing my photographs in new ways.

You can see all the Prisma-ized versions of my photos on my Google Photos page, Italian Buildings Given the Prisma Treatment (they also appear as a combined group in the top graphic on this page).

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Short story in a vending machine

I saw this vending machine in an Italian train station last week. It contains items useful to nearly every stage of life.

Surely there is a story or at least a short poem there?

Dental floss.
Razor blades.
Condoms. Lubricant.
Pregnancy test.
Baby butt paste.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Should I stay or should I go?

There comes a time in every blog's life where the blogger has to decide whether to keep it going or to abandon it.

Or, in my case, to not make any decision but to simply neglect it, thinking I'll get to it tomorrow.

I was surprised when I realized that my last post here was made in April. I had written a few posts in my head since then, but they somehow didn't get magically transferred to the screen.

The truth is, these days, I'd rather spend my free time taking photographs or working on stories for publication. Or, I have to admit, writing quippy posts on Facebook--a lot of the pull away from blogging, for me, has been the instant gratification offered there. I like being liked (and liked almost instantly), whereas, I rarely get feedback or reaction to a blog post--all I can see are the number of pageviews going up. (Facebook is its own kind of crack for people who, like most writers, crave attention. But that's another topic...)

So, should I stay or should I go?

My biggest worry in abandoning this blog is that Google will delete it, as they have with other artsy blogs (for an example, see Why Did Google Erase Dennis Cooper's Beloved.... ) Of course, I could revive anything worth saving into new essays, but I'd mourn the loss of the Interviews with Creative People feature, especially since some of the writers/artists have linked to those interviews.

It's so easy to write a few funny or even philosophical sentences on Facebook and not sweat over it. Or to share photographs there or on Google Photos.

Maybe that's the answer. To loosen this site up a little, making it not always a posit for "essays and meditations on writing, creativity, reading, books and art" (as originally stated) but also a place to share other modes of creativity, including visuals. Perhaps I also might actually talk about my personal life/experience without the sepia-toned filter of being a "writer/creative person."

I'll try this approach in the next few posts and see if this makes it more fun...

An example of one thing I like doing these days: using apps to transform photographs. Above is a screenshot of the official Clash video for "Should I Stay or Should I Go," transformed by the Prisma App. 

Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Farewell to being a public librarian

Years ago, after attempting other occupations I thought were compatible with a writing life, I decided to become a librarian. That way, I thought, I could be around books and help people find information. It would combine the best parts of my previous two jobs, of bookstore manager (being around books) and newspaper reporter (finding information), leaving out the parts I disliked, like near-poverty bookstore wages, and a reporter's irregular hours and intrusive sleuthing.

Two articles strewn across my dining room table this morning prompted me to write about this. The first, It's Still Cleary's World [paper edition title], a celebration of Beverly Cleary's 100th birthday, mentions that Cleary became a children's librarian at her mother's prompting because, even though she wanted to be a writer, her mother insisted, "You must have some other way of earning a living."

This is what I envisioned when I went to Chapel Hill to earn a library degree. The vision was grounded in the reality of having worked as a volunteer in the children's department at the Coeur d'Alene Public Library, when I lived next door to it in the early 1980s. After simply walking in and asking if there was anything I could do to help, I was soon reading to children at after-school story hour, and helping organize the Halloween Haunted House. This could be a fun way to earn a living, I supposed, as well as to serve a role in the community.

But working in a public library these days is much more like the second article on my table: Page Turner [print edition title], in which a D.C. Public Library children's librarian must try to use "verbal judo" de-escalation techniques to deal with the belligerent. The article reports that patrons threatening the librarians is not an abnormality, with some of those threats turning violent. Another, related article in that issue describes the main branch of the DCPL as a "de facto drop-in homeless shelter."

When I sought work as a public librarian, I thought I was signing up to read to children, help students with projects, dig up information for inquiring minds. But on my first day at my county's busiest branch, the one closest to a Metro station, I was yelled at by three homeless people in four hours (as a substitute, I hadn't been trained in any de-escalation techniques, so I just stood there while they berated me). In addition, there and at other branches, I endured the glares of impatient adults when I handled long lines at the reference desk by myself while also answering all incoming library calls.

Once upon a time, being a librarian was one of the lovely jobs. There were two or three people on a reference desk, so that if you didn't have the answer, you could confer with your co-workers and so that there would be someone on the desk, to greet people and to answer the phone, if you had to go back to the stacks to find a book or walk into the computer room to reboot someone's computer. There was time on the desk to browse Library Journal and other magazines that helped you recommend new books or find useful web sites. You grew to know the regulars and were greeted in kind. After a not-very stressful shift, you could go home with enough energy to write and do other creative tasks.

Maybe it's still like this somewhere, in other parts of the country. But, though I live in one of the wealthiest counties in the U.S., it only occasionally comes close to this, and then only in the smaller branches, during the less busy time slots. When budget cuts were imposed in the last decade, the public library was hit hard. Staff hours were slashed, new books remained unordered. In came additional, cheaper substitute librarians, who move from library to library without gaining much institutional knowledge.

Nevertheless, I probably would have continued working in the public library system, despite these misgivings, if the decision hadn't been made for me. My position was terminated recently due to my taking extended medical leave; thus, my ambition to apply for a part-time position, when I was strong and healthy, was dashed. Appropriately, the news was delivered in a form letter requesting I turn in my badge, no questions asked about my health or well-being.

So, what do I do now, and where do I seek work? I'm not eager to go back to editing, sitting at home by myself for hours in front of the computer, working on other people's words (to then at the computer to write my own stuff is physically stagnating). I need to be out, among people, to walk, talk, be recognized. Are there any lovely (not stressful, fulfilling, happy) jobs left?

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Celebrities? Who cares?

I really don't give a crap about celebrities.

This isn't a new thought, from me or anyone else. But I had this particular epiphany yesterday while sitting in a doctor's waiting room, desperate for reading material. I picked up People Magazine (the best choice among some really poor offerings) and scanned it, trying to find something of interest. Except for looking at the book and movie review section, I got to the back of the magazine without much interruption.

Because: I don't care who wears what, or what their kid looks like when they haul them out annually for a grocery store jaunt. I don't care if someone I don't know and will never meet has broken up with their boyfriend or if she (it's always she) has put on some pounds. Why should I or anyone else?

A friend once told me she read People Magazine because it had its finger on the pulse of what America was about. That was back in the days when PM carried stories of real-life heroes and deal-makers. But there was nothing like that in the issue I skimmed through yesterday--unless reality stars are our new everyday-type folks.

Having ignored celebrity culture for awhile, it all seemed, well, silly. I am never going to be able to afford a couture dress, so why should I care who wore Valentino or Dior to a gala? Am I supposed to feel envy, or that I'm in on something, sharing that particular, spectacular moment? Or, am I supposed to feel falsely superior when the scrutinized person fails to live up to a near-unreachable standard?

There is so much entertainment news--on TV, in print, and on the web. It's disheartening that this is what passes as knowledge for many people these days. They can't name the birds or flowers in their yard, yet they can name J Lo's latest love interest. It gets us all nowhere; perhaps it's to keep our minds off melting ice caps or the evolving oligarchy.

Thank goodness my other doctor's office carries The New Yorker...

Thursday, January 7, 2016

The omnivorous reader

In order to pursue my Goodreads challenge this year (a target of 20 books, with a self-imposed limit of books written by women), I neglected to read anything not within the confines of a book cover. Magazines piled up, one story issues remained unopened, newspapers were recycled before I unfolded them.

I love books but I am an omnivorous reader--I like to read anything, especially magazines. I wish there was something like Goodreads that would let me also note significant stories/articles*--not to get credit for it by way of a challenge, but to just remember what and who I have read.

I suppose that's what Facebook or Google+ are for--to link to articles you've read or proclaim the talents of writers you like, but I would prefer something more private and individual. There's the possibility of jotting down notes and names on index cards or even keeping a spreadsheet of everything significant I've read, but it seems like too much work--and I probably would lose track of them. There's also the Pocket app--but it lets you keep track of online articles only.

Perhaps this begs the question: must everything be noted? For me, it's not about tooting my own horn but my need for a vehicle that lets me to remember who I've read and liked so that I can find other works by them, given my poor memory for names.

By the way, I didn't reach my goal of 20 books, mostly because I chose really long books this year. I read more than 6,000 words in 16.5 books. Fortunately, Goodreads allowed me to edit my goal, even on the last day of the challenge, in nearly the last hour, so that 16 suddenly became my goal and my accomplishment.

[The illustration above shows what I read. I tried to choose a mix of popular and more literary books, in addition to one on technique. It was really about the enjoyment of reading versus reading things to boast about.]

* After I finished writing this, I looked around Goodreads and found that a few issues of one story have been listed there (including the Jim Shepard story I noted in a 2012 post). I'm not sure if the Goodreads staff has added them or if readers can add them. I'll look around and update this post accordingly...

Friday, December 11, 2015

Let's hear it for Hugh Grant movies

Hugh Grant movies are a visual Prozac for me. With the exception of Cloud Atlas (which I liked, but for other reasons), they offer a couple of hours of bumbling safety and warmth, and the surety of a happy ending. 

They are good movies to watch in the winter, when darkness comes on quickly and gray mornings offer little respite from the gloom.

In the past I wouldn't have publicly confessed this. I aimed to watch only the best movies--Citizen Kane, of course, and the most highly acclaimed foreign movies. But in the depths of December, I am not going to watch The Godfather trilogy, or Pulp Fiction, or any other film with graphic violence. I need escapism, something that doesn't require my hibernating brain to work too much.

The same applies to the books I have read--or admitted to have read. I once aimed to only read the best literary fiction. This pretense began in college, when I hung out with people who smoked Gauloises and drank too much espresso. No one I knew then would have admitted to reading popular fiction. (This pretense began to fall when I worked in a bookstore in Idaho and, on slow afternoons, binged on Judy Bloom books that I didn't get to read as a child.) Still, even then, with the excuse of being able to recommend popular books to customers, I worried that life was too short to waste on fluff. 

But isn't there room for both The Seven Samurai and Notting Hill? 

I say this also as someone who is finally admitting that nothing I write is ever going to be on a Great Books list. I'm increasingly comfortable with the idea of aiming, at best, for something easy to write and read. I am physically not able to sit down and write eight hours a day (45 minutes writing this post at the computer and now my neck is aching). A great novel takes a lot of BIC ("Butt in Chair, as Jane Yolen describes it in her book, Take Joy) commitment that I don't have the energy for right now, given that I'm still recovering from all the yucky cancer treatments from the last year and a half.

This past week, mostly while washing dishes*, I watched the surprisingly charming Music and Lyrics. It was like eating a well-crafted chocolate--not a heavy, nourishing meal. Maybe by the spring, I can watch Unforgiven or Le Grande Illusion--and be able to write more words every day.

*The only time I watch TV most of the time, on a small TV in my kitchen--another reason to watch easy films that can be watched in segments, without losing track of the plot.


PS: As I was looking for a pic of Hugh Grant, I discovered the not-so-charming fact that he recently fathered three children by two women at the same time, with another on the way. I'm not sure this will affect my enjoyment of his movies since they never seemed all that close to reality anyway...

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.