Saturday, October 29, 2016

Window Shopping

I took over 2,000 photos during my three-week vacation in Europe this summer--not so many that I hope I didn't miss the experience, and not so few that I hope I didn't miss recording at least one picture of each place we visited. It's easy to take a lot of pics when you're not paying for film and film development, and you have a phone in your pocket ready to do the job and quickly.

One thing I documented, occasionally, was interesting shop windows. I could have spent each day walking around the streets of Reykjavik, London, or Paris taking pics just of shop windows, but l didn't since I was usually walking on to something else. And I didn't want to see everything just through my phone screen.

When I got back to the U.S., it struck me how few storefronts have displays anymore--especially out in suburbia, where I live. The stores here are just brick and glass, with plastic signs to distinguish one from the next.

Even in D.C., there are few big store shop windows now that stores like Woodward and Lothrop are gone. The best places to spot creative shop windows are in the small and funky shops that have sprung up in the city.

Old W and L shop window from 1928
Probably the most creative shop window we saw was at Selfridge's in London. They had a whole series of windows dedicated to Shakespearean plays. Here is the window for Hamlet:

It's too bad I couldn't afford anything at Selfridge's--skirts were $800, etc.

Dressing shop windows used to be a potential job for creative (fictional) people, from Agnes, who worked her way up from shop girl to window dresser on Mr. Selfridge, to Rhoda Morgenstern on Mary Tyler Moore.

Probably I need to end this with some kind of statement/summary about the lack of beauty in our everyday lives in America, especially for those living away from the centers of culture. Or I just need to end this. Apparently, I could go on and on about shop windows, which is ironic since I don't like to shop (i.e., spending money on clothing) all that much.

Out here, instead of walking by artisan shops and beautifully decorated windows, I drive by stores that resemble rows of warehouses. Everything has been built the cheapest possible way, without any thought given to providing solace for the eyes and heart. This is America. The icky-sweet gelato in the freezer section of the supermarket tastes nothing like the gorgeous, creamy frozen ecstasy available on almost street corner in Italian towns.

And yet it's what we know, it's what we're used to, it's all we've come to expect. It's good to travel, to see such differences. The challenge becomes learning not to be bitter about the comparison and not to yearn for what we probably will never have.

The top photo is a compilation of some of my shop window pics from this summer. Click on it to see it larger.

Saturday, September 24, 2016

Street music in France

I walked by a lot of street music in London and France when I was there this summer, but only took the time to briefly film it three times. Here is the short (44-second) video I made of three very different performances.

The first band, Radio Kamerger, seems to have been on a Russian TV show equivalent of The X Factor. And there they were, playing on the street in the Latin Quarter of Paris.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Somewhat feminist musings at the Musee d'Orsay

The Musee d'Orsay has been one of my favorite museums since I first saw it in 1991, on my first trip to Paris.

What's not to like about a museum that has entire sections/rooms devoted to Van Gogh, Monet, Manet and Degas? Housed in the former Gare d'Orsay train station, a Beaux-Arts structure completed in 1900, the building, with its massive, gold-embellished clocks and elegant arched glass ceiling, calls to mind the setting for The Invention of Hugo Cabret.

Every trip I've taken to Paris since has included a delightful trip to the Musee. But visiting the Musee alongside a teenage girl this summer was a different experience. Sure, she liked its evocation of Hugo, the Impressionist rooms, the Degas sculptures. But after walking through multiple rooms, she asked, "Where are the women artists?"

Each room had been filled with paintings and sculptures of luscious women, prim women, naked women. But we had seen one lonely artwork by a woman--Mary Cassett, among the Impressionists.

After that, the rest of our afternoon tour became a bitter hunt for female artists. We rushed from artwork to artwork, examining the placards for any hint of a female name, but we never found another woman's art there.*

If you google "female artists at the Musee d'Orsay," the hits on the first page include the museum's own pages for The Modern Woman. Drawings by Degas, Renoir, Toulouse-Lautrec and Other Masterpieces from the Musée d'Orsay and Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910. In other words, women interpreted by men.

What were women doing while all these men had been sculpting, painting, creating? Tending to children? Devoting themselves to maintaining their own beauty? Posing for male artists? Or, perhaps, making art that would never be housed in the Musee d'Orsay.

* I discovered after I returned home that the museum does house a few other female artists, including Berthe Morisot and Cecilia Beaux--but the number of artworks by women is pretty paltry compared to the hundreds by men. (I am counting 12 total among these three women). And to find them, I had to use Wikipedia and go through a list of major artists at the Musee. Otherwise, the Musee's website led me to paintings and art about women rather than by women.

All photographs by Beth Blevins. Copyright 2016.

The Seine seen from one of the clocks at the Musee d'Orsay.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

While reading Cheryl Strayed's Wild...

I am listening to Wild on audiobook in my car. Like the people in those Audible ads, I am immersed in the book. I may appear to be driving, but I'm hiking hot stretches of the Pacific Coast Trail or rounding an icy bend balancing the weight of my pack. I push on to the next goal post by pushing my foot on the accelerator, driving further in an hour than what Cheryl Strayed walked in a day. I'm only running errands, yet I emerge from my car feeling I've accomplished something akin to a hero's journey.

As I drive and listen, I contemplate the question: why did Strayed keep hiking after her toenails fell off? After her pack bruised and skinned her? After she nearly died of heat exhaustion and thirst? Most people would have quit when the first toenail turned black or after the first encounter with a rattlesnake.

But the answer is in every line of the book. She didn't quit because she had nothing else. No home, no other destination, no one needing her to be somewhere particular. Just desperate determination, and the trail ahead.

Maybe it's desperate determination that separates good artists/singers/actors who acquiesce to careers that pay the bills and push their art to the side, and those who  continue to create because they must. Without desperation, a lot of art wouldn't be made or made visible.

Her hike isn't entirely a fantasy for me because I, too, have hiked in California mountain and desert. I, too, have stuck out my thumb and gotten rides along quiet roads and busy highways there. At one time in my life, almost all of my possessions could fit into an external-frame Kelty backpack. I had no ambition but to see new things and talk to people in different towns. I wanted the world to be my education.

It's funny typing this, on a Mac computer, in my house in Maryland. Now all my possessions would fill a large moving truck or two. The Kelty backpack is long gone, traded for money or gas to someone in a town left behind. Just as Cheryl Strayed eventually got off the trail, I, too, moved on to my life. After an off-and-on relationship with college, I finished my degree at about the time I quit hitchhiking and long-distance hiking. Now I rarely see the wilderness and hike only on well-worn trails.

It is without much nostalgia that I think back to being young and hiking in the heat of the Mojave Desert, or camping on high, snowy ridges in Southern California. I don't want to be that unrooted young woman again, yet I'm enjoying being reminded of her/me as I listen to Wild.

Perhaps every life is a hero's journey, getting from there to here, and we don't recognize it as such. Even ambling we can reach our destination or create it as we go along.

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). To see the original photos I took, pre-Prisma, see: Italian Buildings, pre-Prisma.

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 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...