Thursday, December 10, 2009

Those fabulous book parties

Speaking of which, except for my wardrobe, I have been part of some terrifically sophisticated Manhattanish book and arts celebrations. Consider me your book party avatar and be sure to imagine me in something quite stylish, and while you are at it, make me 3 shoe sizes smaller.

At the legendary midtown club:
First was the launch of Gardner McFall's poetry book Russian Tortoise (disclaimer, I designed the cover) as well as an opera she wrote (I remember the theme of flying) at the Century Association. Into this legendary club I showed up hauling a 2 by 3 foot mounted poster in a huge, now wet, black plastic bag. Gardner's husband had me create, on the sly, the poster with her cover altered to read "The Tortoise Has Landed" and I added the parachute from a Russian soyuz to show the tortoise is not crash landing. This party was upstairs in a well proportioned dove gray room room lined with interesting artworks owned by the club. An open bar and frequent tidbits made me happy. Opera singers with classy voices sang a short selection from Gardner's opera as the composer played the piano. I quickly discovered half the room was lawyers and the other half poets. This led to me writing a poem about the singular way we are alike, as both poets and lawyers know the crucial importance of a single word. I enjoyed talking to poets I know as well as some lawyers that were, no surprise, well read and lovely to chat with. Melinda Thomsen and Martin Mitchell sat at a table with me and my husband and the caterers soon realized we were voracious and always swooped by.

At the NOHO Bowery Poetry Club:
My next party was the annual Brevitas reading at the Bowery Poetry Club. As the title suggests, the Brevitas poets, all two dozen or so of them, only write short poems. However with a music interlude of half an hour, the guest poet Harvey Shapiro!, two open readings (disclaimer, I was in the first open reading) and some Brevitas readers that felt the need for explanations that sometimes took longer than the poems, the event that started with me fresh at 1:30 ended with me rather droopy by 5:30. The Bowery Poetry Club is so unlike the Century Association that I feel Dante would have to feature them in two different books. Here the colors were black and the textures scuffed. I was especially there for my friend, the talented Flash Rosenberg, who not only read her poems but drew the bright and witty cartoon cover for the anthology of Brevitas poems that the $7.00 cover charge entitled one to. (Disclaimer, I helped her place and trim the artwork for the cover.) Because I read in the open mic, and am a pal of Flash, I got invited to an after party in Bob Holman's art and book inspired penthouse. The floor was painted with poetry, even the hallways. What a brilliant thing to do. Poetry books filled the walls of this airy lovely space. Did I mention Bob runs The Bowery Poetry Club? Well then, he does. Since I was utterly charmed by most of the work I had heard that night I was hopeful the group would consider me when they need to reinfuse their membership. There were tidbits to eat, including chocolates, and wine and lovely conversations. I even bonded a bit with a large plump gingery cat that lived there.

At a fabulous artsy residence in the Village:
Our friend, and my collaborator, the talented Carly Sachs, had one of her delectable food poems included in The Poet's Cookbook: Recipes from Tuscany, an anthology of food poems in both English and Italian edited by Grace Cavalieri and translated by Sabine Pascarelli. To celebrate the publication of the book, both poets and recipes from the book were enjoyed in a brownstone that is inhabited by a painter with helpful children (selling books) and walls replete with tongue-in-cheek collections of art. A wall of dog hunting paintings, a wall of delightful whimsical drawings! But honestly, I was far too distracted by the FOOD! Oh my god, Tuscan cooking, prepared by Alison of Alison's Restaurants, via the Village, a marvel. Olive dips, mozzarella so fresh it practically moooed, and pignoli cookies. The reading was sponsored by The Bordighera Press and the Vermont Studio Center Writing Program so there was a mix of poets, patrons, painters, and program directors.

Again in the Village, another lovely home:
And finally, a party in celebration of the publication of Patricia Carlin's new book of poetry, Quantum Jitters from Marsh Hawk Press. This home spoke of taste, spaciousness, and comfort. In fact, it was the home of the former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, now the President of The New School, and his wife Sarah Paley who hosted this lovely event. As I was looking for the address, I noticed a man outside busily listening to a cell phone and asked him if I'd found the place with the book event. He kindly nodded me in and later I realized this was Mr. Kerrey. Inside I found many of my fellow members of Marsh Hawk Press, all looking spiffy, and soon other dear friends arrived. Jeanne Marie Beaumont (poet) and Bob Mendelsohn (video), Lynne Saville (photography), Philip Fried (poet/publisher) and more. I met a fascinating woman who studies game theory. I was suddenly struck by the thought that once, back the the 1970s, my mother taught at the New School. Had she too been to any events at the president's house? And here I was eating bitty bits and sipping excellent wine and also celebrating the life of poetry. Raise a glass again!

While the lawyers dressed impeccably at the club reading, the poets just as expected in the Bowery, the most interesting outfits winked in and out of view around the trays and platters in the Village affairs.

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Remembering and Designing Madeleine L'Engle

I just created my first design published on Lulu, A Circle of Friends: Remembering Madeleine L'Engle. There is an expensive all color interior first edition and the far more affordable grayscale, (black and white) interior.

The remembering part I did as well, I have an essay in the book. I took a writing class from Madeleine in the early 90s at the Episcopalian convent on 113th Street. Despite the palpable hero worship surrounding her, she had a very directed, concise, encouraging, and witty/tart presence. The book is full of wonderful examples of her advice on writing and warm personal memories from close friends. I wasn't part of the inner circle, not being nearly as interested in the Christian aspects of her writing as in the narratives and characters she sent through familiar and imagined worlds.

Designing the book happened sort of by accident, the editor Katherine Kirkpatrick needed help with some things and before you know it, I'd sunk into the project and did it all. Lulu was rather difficult to navigate. You simply cannot speak to a human. I discovered a cover could not be one point too narrow! Not one point or the whole thing was off. Argh! But once I got that it was an utter perfectionist and could not comprehend human imperfection (which may in its own way be an explanation of why the infinite and finite seem to have so much trouble communicating) the job uploaded and declared itself published. In the old days, when I worked inhouse at publishing companies, after a book was published we generally met and hoisted a paper cup with an undistinguished vintage and made noises about effort and talent and thanked everyone. So let me raise a cup to all the people who wrote, edited, designed, and coaxed this book into existence. Especially Katherine Kirkpatrick who always believed it was a book that needed to happen.

Illustration: Say Ahhhhhhhhh for Alimentum

The Winter/Holiday Issue of Alimentum: The Literature of Food is in my hands and looks grand. All my spot art printed just dandy! The ink line (scanned) and pencil smudge (via photoshop) turned into a real live journal and I am walking around the apartment with that aren't I something glow. My spouse reminds me I need to vet a job proposal and think about what I want for dinner. As if such things could interrupt my cloud, my cloudia of euphoria. It is also fine to discover this issue is sold out wherever I go. The cover, which I didn't draw but did design--picking very cherry pie colors for the issue--looks yummy.

Also I did the small deconstruction of the slice of pie on the back, turning the cover's whole pie slice into a single cherry in 4 steps that hopefully won't annoy the artist Marilyn Murphy. When the next delivery of the magazines arrives at my local independent bookseller (Book Culture) I will buy them as holiday gifts. Because as nice as some of my small illustrations are, the real charm is the content, Alimentum is simply a good read. See, the dancing fruitcakes are happy!

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Laying out the House

Despite having a professional service come in and haul away absolutely everything that didn't sell at the tag sale or get shipped by the movers, my stepmother feels the need to go in and do a final sweeping and mopping of the large, now empty house on Long Island that was their home for so many decades.

I was going to tell her this isn't necessary. The man buying the house isn't going to need it cleaned to perfection. And then I realized this is what we do to the shell of things that were important to us. Bodies are bathed and cleaned for burial, as if earth or flame needs them clean. Even the tiny deaths of change bring out the need to honor a place by leaving it well tended.

She needs to mop. I need to mope.


And I am happy to report that I'm up to 5,211 words in my novel. Right on target. This time the writing is more directed by plot. As I walk to the places I go to do my writing, I talk to Jim about the mechanics of getting my character from one situation to another, racheting up the stakes, what to do with some of the peripheral characters, and above all, ask important questions such as what sorts of martial arts would a werewolf girl take?

During the day I find myself thinking of my book as if it were something I'd taken out of the library and wanted find it so I know what happens next. I can almost see the cover under the glossy library jacket. Then I ask myself what a cheesy writer would do and beg myself to do better than that, throw in a wild card. And dialogue, and tell them what it looks like, and make it feel real.

Last year I based my novel on a fairy tale, setting it in 1911. The historical demands combined with my inability to trust hasty research really inhibited me. This time, no such problem. I know all the settings, the time is now.  As I navigate the skills needed to construct a novel, I am thankful I eliminated some of the clutter. Maybe after I finish this book, I'll feel confidant enough to go and finish the other one. But for now, I hear the dogs howling. Time to write.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Illustrating Alimentum

I finished. At the 11th and 3/4 hour.
I have now drawn dancing fruitcakes, well rolled burritos, pots of coffee, a hamburger, some saucy tomatoes, and plenty of pie. In other words, I got to do the spot illustrations for the Winter 2010 issue of Alimentum: the Literature of Food. Thank you Paulette and Peter, the editors/publisher, thank you.

I am particularly pleased with a pastry box (wrapped with striped string) on which I half hid the name of Ebingers, which is a now defunct yet legendary bakery I remember from the corner shop on Newkirk Plaza near my Grandmother's apartment. Think Brooklyn, mid 60s. Oh those ladies fingers, oh those breads. The scent of the place was enough to make my belly fuse with my heart.

Today was also an education in internet terminology. As in "trolling." I had my first anonymous negative attacker. In a series of increasingly hostile comments, the person forensically revealed their hurts and ills. I have deleted them and now have discovered there is a way to review comments before they are posted.

I am in the midst of illustrating a book of food-frenzy poems and am finding fruits and veggies have a lot of personality if you just ask them nicely to anthropomorphize.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Welcome to Louisville

After a 15 hour car trek we are here and wondering what besides the actors theatre and sluggers museum one would wish to see?

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Reading with live jazz, pure fun

It was a thrill to have my poems responded to with live jazz improvisation. Brian Groder on trumpet, Lisle Ellis on acoustic bass, I was backed up by some of the best in the business. (In fact Ellis is on his way to play with Tony Davis, from me to Davis, too cool). They really listen, respond, in smart creative sound. I loved what they did to my raunchy poem about making love to a balloon. Ellis made these great squeaky ballonish sounds on the bass, it was all I could do to keep reading and not burst out laughing. That was fun, will have to do it again.
Thanks also to my fellow readers, Chris Cunningham and Sue Melot.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Old poses in new light

Statue by Claudia Carlson, 1971
My influences...

My parents are undertaking the selling of their house and to do this properly they are clearing out the attic, garage, and other corners of clutter. Family has descended to help them sort and haul and shred... I'm photographing and scanning old photos and the now musty drawings and paintings of the ancestors. My family was full of artists, both Sunday painters and professionals. The uncles, grandparents and my father's efforts are an astounding assortment of doodles, sketches, studies, draftsmanship and total whimsy. It is no wonder us kids were so encouraged to create.

My sister Christina spent a week pulling things from the attic and arranging them in the garage. She wore a face mask to protect her lungs from the attic dust and mildew from the now demolished shed. And out of the dust, she unearthed a statue I had made when I was 15.

"Look," she said, "here is the original and the knock-off." And yes, my statue that I haven't seen in 35 years, was sitting on a board just outside the garage. It was a jolt, a double-take. I'd forgotten so much about it. The dress had been black, she'd worn a crown, I'd left her flesh dead white...

A long time ago I fell in love with clay and my art teachers indulged me by letting me work during free periods or after school. I'd rolled and squooshed and carved this wonderfully malleable stuff and I was possessed by the need to turn it into a snarky yet elegant expression of my pissed-off attitude. I was a shy sarcastic skinny kid who looked 12 at 15. The next year I made a big fat American nuclear family--I wanted to savage the suburban life. I made cartoons in three dimensions. And if I hadn't been so stubborn and insecure, the sculpting would have netted me a scholarship into art school...I was offered one...but maybe in my heart I knew I was going to be an English/art history major and a conservatory wasn't what I needed.

But back to the evil queen. I remember her being much bigger. This was only 10 inches tall. And at 15 I considered it far better in quality than I can see now... But also, I'd forgotten how much attitude I'd put into it. I'd created a mix of Jadis (winter witch queen from Narnia), Coco Channel, and Sargent's Madame X. Her head was abstracted, snake-like, and the hands were my own, big with long fingers.
And next to it, stood a smaller blond version my other sister had made, setting off a huge intellectual property screaming match. Just one of many.

"You know, it's pretty good," I said, turning it in my hands.
"Yes, really, it is," replied Christina, putting my old work in a box for me to take away with some other, less successful efforts (including an odd pink elephant that looks like it has constipation).

All these years later, the terrible rage I'd felt at someone copying my idea, poof, gone... why couldn't I just have been flattered at 15? Ah sisters, it takes us so long to grow up.

Saturday, August 29, 2009

What went wrong with The Bacchae

Don't get me wrong, there is much to enjoy in the free performance of THE BACCHAE in the Central Park amphitheatre. You can sit out the 90 minutes admiring the skills and talents of cast and crew, the grave music of modern master Philip Glass, and an amazing set by John Conklin featuring a moat, steaming volcanic fissure and a tier of stadium seats that veers down into a point of rubble (a visual representation of Gibbons?).

But I guess I have to blame the direction on the mish-mosh effect of this production. The visuals span the eons. The vengeful god Dionysus is shown as a rock-star, complete with American Idol microphone waltz moments, the doomed wrong-headed king Pentheus wears a 90s Wall Street suit, the chorus of women dazzle in Balinese/harem flame-orange with extra cloth padding their hips (by Kaye Voyce), the set is mid-century modern, the music is 70s redux, and the body of Pentheus--including his head--is full Fangoria explicit.

Euripides' troubling play, in which a god's infinite need for revenge makes dangerous beasts of the human victims, was strangely cerebral under JoAnne Akalaitis's direction. There is no homage to the fun moments of being enthralled to the god of wine and orgies. And as this tips into deadly excess, we have women driven mad with lust rampaging in the hills as they tear apart bodies of animals with their bare hands and teeth. Hot stuff. Not in this production. When Agave realizes she has slaughtered her own son, a moment that should be Greek tragedy Richter scale 10, it is strangely flat, as if she were saying, damn I broke my nails on this skull.

Most of all, what was lacking was a clear response on the director's part to this odd and difficult clash of gods and mortals. Were we to enjoy the burlesque homoerotic moments when the king falls prey to Dionysus suggestion he dress as a woman and spy on the women's sacred rites? Were we to enjoy the austere set and music against which the acting should resound? I didn't know which Bacchae I was most inclined to follow. And the chorus, lovely as they were to watch, were stuck in synchronized swim. I wanted them to use their numbers to express more conflict. After all, where was the danced representation of wildness and civilization, faith and heresy, infinite and finite, self-determination and fate?

Several times, alone and in groups, raccoons scuttled over the fallen "stones" at the corner of the stage. Once could easily imagine them tearing small victims apart. They got the strongest response of any actors on that stage. Or offstage, I heard them busy themselves in the trash cans near the stage entrance... it was a long 90 minutes.

I sat with a group of 18- and 19-year-olds. Perhaps it is a fault of their generation, even as the last bow was taken they were loudly criticising the show from their seats. This isn't TV, you aren't separated by a screen and on your living room couch... so many skilled and talented people worked hard on this show and were in earshot. I honor them for that. I was a little ashamed to be with my noisy detractors. But they had a point. When I saw the terrific production of Twelfth Night, at the Delacorte earlier this Summer, the applause filled the air.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Billy, Billy, Billy

I just borrowed Billy Collins latest poetry book, Ballistics, from the library. Over half the cover is devoted to a photo of a bullet slicing through a queen of hearts. Blam, you might think, this is poetry that cuts to the heart, poems that fire you up and punch holes in your assumptions.

Having read half the book, I have yet to find poetry that startles, pierces, or tears me. I have always enjoyed the way Mr. Collins writes: his essay-like turns in argument, whimsy, humor, and his graceful observations. He can be funny in a toast-master fashion or find the small profundities in the zen moments of everyday activities. And some of that delight is here. But there is a triviality to the handling of subject matter that makes these feel like the exercises of a skilled yet unengaged master. Death in his hands is a dentists appointment that has been scheduled for you, old age a daily round of boredoms, and lust is a thin target of verse.

Yes, there are a few winners in this deck. And I will find a few more if I keep reading... But I have to ask why the poet hasn't challenged himself to do more with his skills. This is the least engaging collection of his work I have read. When I think of poets like Robert Frost, Elizabeth Bishop, or Donald Justice who could take a stroll and look at things, and write both the surfaces and the depths, I want to direct Mr. Collins to go deeper and stop stalling with card tricks.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Produce and Production or two brains at play

Back to illustrating...

Funny how I need to come at a project. Call it a weak ego, but I needed to start with my best skill and then work my way down to my weakest. So faced with Carly's wonderful pro-lust-pro-vegitarian poems, what did I do first?

1. Research! Tons of web images as well as a trip to the local produce aisles with my camera.
2. I designed the book, set the type, picked a trim size, and contemplated 60s diner-style retro fonts and finally chose a fun display face for the cover and poem titles.
3. Did rough pencil thumbnail drawings for 2 poems. Got better ideas, did roughs for the deeper, wilder, unexpected concepts.
4. Redrew the roughs to size in my typical "art students league life drawing sketch" style.
5. Redo the drawings in a breezy seemingly effortless mod pen and ink style.

I am now stuck between items 4 and 5. It is clear to me that it takes many attempts and failures and much practice to appear loose and spontaneous. Just kill me now.

So I turned to my Madeleine L'Engle project and wrote a 1,500 word essay. Take that pesky illustrations. I can essay my way out of a paper bag.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

How do I illustrate a batch of poems?

I'm working with the talented and above all fun poet Carly Sachs. She has created a persona that mouths off in verse. "Ramona" is a militant vegetarian city-based earth goddess.

My mission, if I can possibly imagine it, is to give both the produce aisles and Ramona life as pen and ink illustrations that expand and compliment the poems. Hmmm.

Carly suggested I look at 50s and 60s style food advertising art. What a great resource! The exaggerated zippy lines, jazzy patterns, and over the top aprons, hairdos, and poses, perfect!... except that the faces on these drawings are interchangeable housewife dolls. Not so the character of Ramona. She is a 2009 woman and exudes character.

So here is to Ramona (sound of iced tea sloshing in ice cubes) and my crazy desire to learn to illustrate...

Monday, July 20, 2009

The houses were smaller

Well, I have just returned from my Grandma Hal's funeral in Indiana. I met cousins and friends I hadn't seen in at least 30 years. With that Rip Van Winkle effect, people instantly look like their parents and their children are what you thought they'd look like. My god the generations roll along faster there, women my age were grandmothers and great-grandmothers.

People were so kind, we were put up in cousin's homes, we heard stories, were treated to meals, including memorable sweet corn, the first of the season, and felt just how much Grandma's life had been tucked into theirs.

After the burial we drove on to Rochester, the town where we spent summers living in Grandma's two houses. The whole way there, Nedra (my stepmother) and her sister Sonya kept saying the houses didn't look good, one of them apparently had been a meth lab, that we should just look at old photos, spare ourselves, etc. But all us "kids" were adamant, we needed to see the streets, yards, gardens, alleys, and houses--no matter how they looked now.

And then we drove down the shady street and there it was. Not the hideous wrecks we expected, vinyl siding had gone up on both places. New management? They looked fine. Motorcycles parked out back, neatly mown, and tidy. Everything was smaller. So much smaller. But there was the gravel driveway where I accidentally dropped my end of carrying my sister Christina and a piece of the gravel had nailed her scalp. There was the L shaped porch we had lined up on to take turns cranking the home-made ice cream, ice and salt spilling into the lawn. The alley where cousin Robby, with all his ADHD energy, had peddled maniacally on his tricycle. And then I realized what was missing. The gardens behind both houses were ordinary and lacked transformative magic. My grandmother had grown a parking-lot-hiding jungle along a fence, had a grape arbor over the path to the back door, and her clusters of lilies and blooms had made the eye travel the yard the way a great painter arranges the composition of a group portrait. Even the bushes of honeysuckle, where I'd extract a drop of sweetness before the hummingbirds beat me to it, was gone.

A woman drove by, saw all us folks with rented cars just standing there, and gave us the finger. I wonder what ticked her off more, us standing in the street or staring into houses we had no business looking into?

So much change over the decades, houses knocked down to make way for the expanded church, stores with changed purpose, and being a recession, quite a few shops were empty, but the old stone courthouse with its blurry faced stone lions was just as I'd remembered it.

And then it was time to go, as we drove past the cemetery Nedra waved and said, "good bye Mom" just as she had every night on the phone.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Health of Our Soldiers

The government recently proposed improving the health of members of the military by banning tobacco, citing the predictable rise in cancers and cardiovascular diseases after years of use. But I posit, if the government really wants to improve the health of soldiers, they should stop having wars. Why worry about long-term smoking risks when smoking guns give instant health effects?

The Luxury of Grandmothers

At my age it is a very fine thing to have a grandmother. Plenty of my friends no longer have parents. And most of my generation lost their grandparents decades ago, or worse, never got to meet them at all.

My Grandma Hal (Florence Dawald Miller) was acquired by the sound decision my father made to marry my stepmother when I was a baby. But, today, at the age of 95, my last grandmother has become past tense.

We spent many summers in Grandma's homes in the small utterly flat town of Rochester, Indiana. She had one rather large house with a wrap around porch and backyard filled with bright flowers and sting happy bees. Across the street she rented out several apartments and we stayed in one of these on our visits. Here too were planted swaths of flowers, their colors duplicated in the patterns she painted on her saucers and vases at her ceramics store, a few blocks away downtown.

She made us all replicas of Victorian porcelain dolls, sewing their kid leather arms and legs, painting in their features and making outfits of such small precision you could understand why she was once an exacting instructor at the Singer Sewing Machine store. I treasured my doll and named her "Indiana" in honor of her state of manufacture, as I too had been born a Hoosier, a distinction none of my half-brothers and -sisters can share. She taught me to crotchet. I also got to make piggy banks and daschund ring holders in her ceramics store. And she made all of us gifts that came from her hands, blankets, our names in lace, crotchet Xmas tree ornaments of starched white cotton snowflakes, and more.

But just in case you are thinking Florence was the epitome of grandmotherly cotton candy, let me say she was a woman with sharp comments, hasty judgements, smug gossip, quick wit, and the ability to stretch a short tale into a mini-series of needless detail. Saturday Night Live could have done a skit on her recounting a typical road trip with her friend June. You heard what diners they ate at. What pie they chose, that the waitress had folk from Michigantown who were now living in Peru. Which reminded her of a trip to Indianapolis and the time she and June rode their mopeds around town... And this would only be the first pit stop. The point of interest was dutifully recorded in her odd photojournalism, for some reason she never could frame a shot and more often than not it was crooked and the heads of her fellow travellers cut off.

And unlike storybook grandmas, Florence was a bad cook. She favored the boil into goo school. She once got us to eat boiled potatoes only by claiming she was serving whale blubber. And when she was dieting, which was often, she made nasty concoctions using ersatz ingredients. Non-sugar sugar, non-mayo mayo, and so on.

She loved local history. When my father interviewed her for his family history she was in her element. She had so much to recount and what she didn't remember her research (years in the local historical society and DAR) supplied back to the first family members who settled the flats of the Midwest.

When I was about thirteen and she suddenly widowed, we spent a rough summer together in San Diego. She yelled at me for not making my bed, for using too much toilet tissue, for giving lip, for making faces, for reading too much, for not being nice enough to my little sisters, for not being like my little sisters. She made me put soap in my mouth once and I stopped swearing in earshot after that... And being Grandma, she got relief from my sullenness by gossiping about me. And being 13, I wasn't able to see she was grieving. Grandpa Hal had been the love of her life.

And as much as we fought, we didn't disown each other. I defended my right to claim her as a grandmother to my mother's side of the family, where great aunts would tell me "stop calling her your grandma, she isn't BLOOD you know dear, your real grandmother is your ONLY grandmother and you are hurting her by claiming this woman is." And I fiercely disagreed. It isn't about blood.

Luckily, we got older. I came to appreciate her artistry and skill in making quilts, crotchet, knitting, and anything else she crafted. She wanted to be useful, and she was. She had the courage to take on old age and call the terms. Even in her wheelchair she was leaf blowing the driveway. Her delight in my daughters was wonderful. I know they enjoyed doing puzzles with her. When my mother-in-law came for a visit carrying her own extensively researched oral histories and genealogies, Florence read the entire thing, through a magnifying glass, and enjoyed discussing the work of recording history with Jeanne.

When she moved into an old age home I made sure to send her occasional boxes of diabetic chocolate truffles from Mondel's Chocolates. If those treats were good enough for Katherine Hepburn, they were surely good enough for my Grandma Hal, who shared my sweet tooth.

Thank you Florence Dawald Miller for being my grandmother these many years.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Family Reunion Special Guests edition

My family and close friends of my parents (father & step mum) are gathering weekend after next in a 50th wedding anniversary/family reunion event in Ocean Grove that is sure to bring my parents joy, their grandchildren delight, and for those of us in the middle, a memorable mix of roles and reactions.

What I expect: some tension, mosquitoes, and an unexpected heat wave competing with my own daily hot flashes. Pack two swimsuits and plenty of tee shirts. What I also expect are moments where I think how lucky I am to be part of this crazy creative smart snappy snappish warm and unpredictable clan.

What I didn't expect, the dreams I am having for those who would like to attend but are otherwise unable to appear.

Last night I was talking to my daughter Natalie. Which isn't odd since she was here for a visit. This talk however was happening while I was sleeping. As we talked about her upcoming acting apprentice year in Louisville, I noticed someone appear behind her right shoulder, at first in silhouette and then, yes, oh my god, it was my mother! My mother looking good, before the cancer whittled her, a glowing 35, and she had her delighted proud grin. Natalie noticed I was no longer making eye contact.

"What are you looking at Ma?"
"Can't you see her? It's my mother, your grandmother, she's right behind you." And my mother could see us both, had been enjoying our conversation.
Natalie couldn't see her. But I stepped over and gave mom a huge hug. And even in my dream state I could smell the familiar mix of gardening mulch, lightly sweaty skin, and marlboro smoke in the weave of her cambric shirt. I could feel her warm solid body.
I had so much I wanted to say, to ask, but as soon as I started to be aware this was Only a Dream it faded away.

When we all woke up I told Natalie the dream. She said, "I have a dream to tell you, I've had it several times. Just as I doze off I can sometimes enter a meditative state. I come to a place that is a huge grassy plain. There is cloudy light everywhere, it is a feeling of whiteness. I arrive alone. Then off in the distance I see two small figures. I am not afraid. They come closer and closer and then I see they are Grandma Helen and her mother Great Grandma Rose. They smile and tell me how happy they are to see me. I am happy too but also weirded out and want to go and I tell them this. They say it is OK. They are glad to see me, anyway. We hug. Then I leave. I've had this dream during tough times. Once I had it after our building burned down, another time after our babysitter Pat died and she came with the grandmothers and I felt less odd with her because I had really known her in life. I think they are protective spirits."

"Well next time you see them, don't be afraid, give them my love, talk awhile if you can. They both would have been delighted by you, they each did community theater and wrote plays... and at least Grandma Rose got to hold you when you were a newborn..."

At this point Natalie and I are both crying.

I wonder who else didn't get an invitation? No doubt they will let me know.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Great lunch with my friend Jeff

I had lunch today with my former colleague and now friend Jeff Krum. Jeff is one of those guys who is always excited about some aspect of creativity and teaching. He regularly checks out Life hacker and other good places to get ideas on the Internet. If Santa Claus were Jeff, he'd be considerably thinner, but his bag of gifting ideas would be even bigger.

We went to a Mexican place. After I tucked into my delicious almond/mole glazed chicken tortilla, which strangely looked like a sweet French pastry but was utterly subtle and not sweet (and I must bring my brother Anders there when he next comes East, we are both people who are delighted by almost anything almond and chocolate) and I ate enough to return to the world of talking...

Jeff asked me how freelancing was going. I told him I was still in the say yes to everything phase and it was seeming like I should turn down a job or two when they bore signs of inducing strife or insanity, or worse, weeks of utter dullness.

Jeff then asked if I had a sheet of paper. I did. He took my pencil and quickly sketched a nifty diagram that he'd seen by Bud Caddell "how to be happy in business--venn diagram." Here it is:
To take it further, if I get paid only for what I do well, I risk getting bored unless I keep learning what I want to do (passions). This diagram is so useful. I understand it has gone viral across cyberspace. So yes, I will continue in my quest to draw better, design better, write better and make all the things I do play nice with each other...and earn me a living.

Jeff was a teacher before he became an ESL editor and publishing manager. He once told me one of his favorite aspects of working with authors was the phase before the book was even written, when they could take a walk and talk about the concepts, how the ideas could be used, could be expressed... He is clearly an idea junkie.

I think generating ideas and synthesizing concepts must also be one of the intelligences that come in a bell curve. Jeff would be at the far end, where ideas are as plentiful as several bags of jelly beans filling a big bowl. And then there are the people who can entertain only one concept at a time. You know, the ones that tell you the only way to get to heaven and avoid freelancing in hell is through playing simon says with their prophet. These are people whose jelly bean bowl has only one stale bean.

Thank goodness for friends with lively minds!

Thursday, June 11, 2009

Teaching what you have known so long you can't teach it.

I come from a proud line of teachers.
And I'm proud of them too.

My father Elof Carlson with his 50,000 former Bio 101 students, 99.2% of them grateful. And I run into them. And they tell me his was one of their very favorite classes at Stony Brook or he inspired them to teach with his dramatic, at times funny, and warm style or his class led to a change of major and the career they now embrace. Certainly he won awards for his teaching. My mother Helen Carlson taught, with wit and ripostes, more in the The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie style, but her favorites were inspired and the students she publicly whipped with sarcasm (for not doing the work or paying attention), I am sure they didn't forget her or the poems she was explicating.

My step-mother Nedra has a masters in teaching. My sister Christina has a teaching masters and taught for many years. My brother John was a teacher. My brother Anders is about to turn to teaching full time. With this background, it is easy to see why I thought I was qualified to teach without any training or experience whatsoever.


I have now discovered a corollary, the more years you have been immersed in a profession and it's tools and jargon, the less able you are to remember what it was like to know nothing and explain it in plain English. I have been trying to describe what I do to Jim. I have been trying to tell clients why things are Done A Certain Way.


Teachers of the world, I salute you.

Last night I attended a terrific well attended free seminar at Noble Desktop. For two hours Daniel Rodney explained how websites can be built more efficiently, using Dreamweaver software and cascading style sheets. But it was way more than a pitch for taking classes in software. He managed to give an overview of how all projects can be better managed when they are better planned. That this method of building sites allows for the minimum fuss and time in making changes. That his approach frees him to try things, allows him to be more creative as well as efficient.

As we talked about it over a Wendy's dinner with our friend Michael, the three of us were inspired. Enjoyed the concepts. Felt excited about the possibility of working in the way Dan showed us. Now that is teaching.

Wish I could send all my clients to Dan's seminars for an overview. Then they'd stop saying, could you just change this or that, I'm sure it won't take long. They'd know which was a lot and which was a little work. But no, I can't send them all to Dan the Man. I have to be the Dan. I am going to remember how he explained things. Clients, I will do my best to use regular words, not webspeak, so we can talk about the jobs I'm doing for you. I will channel my inner Dan.

Monday, June 8, 2009

My four Fridays

Friday 1.
I had a huge freelance project to finish. Illustrating a picture book for a sweet guy who wants to give wife a surprise gift, her story turned into a book. So when the first hour of Friday shows up I'm still printing it out onto special Kolo pages (with borderless printing turned on, edge to edge color thank you very much and thanks to Flash Rosenberg for showing me how to do this Kolo thang) and assembling it all into a presentation binder. 32 pages of last minute hysteria to finish. Hands hurting from so much digital painting. Jim cheering me on in an increasingly fainter voice. I finally wrapped the book at 3 am and fell asleep on Friday morning.

Friday 2.
Woke at 6:30, not refreshed. Waited for employee of the man who wanted me to illustrate the book to drive by and pick it up. SUV pulls up to my building. I walk out with package. Guy in vehicle takes package and hands me an envelope containing my check. Very spy feeling. But he is nice, says the whole office has been enjoying my progress reports (I sent PDFs of work to date), and great that I made the characters look like real people, namely the boss and his family. Not feeling sleepy, yet, I clean up huge cyclone both on dining room table and in my mac. Stagger to bed at some point.

Friday 3.
Woke at some hour in early afternoon. Am feeling it must be Sunday by now. But no, it is actually and really Friday. How can it still be f*gging Friday? I ask my dog. Silly question, for dogs, it is always Saturday. Check email. Client lets me know he is very happy with the book. Now hoping wife will like it. We both hope she will. Just before dinner I lay down for a nap...

Friday 4.
And it is still Friday when I wake up. I stagger with arms out and gaze at hands that are not drawing.

And then, unbelievably, finally, I had only one Saturday and a singular Sunday.
On Saturday I went to the New York Public Library and heard a slide show and talk by William Low about becoming a digital illustrator after starting in oils and other traditional media. One of the many events that the lively, smart, and well-connected children's librarian Elizabeth Bird organizes for people who love children's books. I was familiar with Low's lovely, painterly, approach to illustration. It was great to see how he uses a Wacom digitizing tablet, photo reference, and his many years of training to create original art digitally. He told us that some of his students at FIT fail to transform the source material, they just apply an effect in photoshop and he can still see the copyright watermark on their bits and pieces. A real artist takes sources and reimagines them with the lighting, perspective, gesture, and mood that the illustration demands. Low has a Bronx accent mixed with Chinese. His parents ran a laundry. The drawings he did as a boy are astounding. Meticulously correct super heroes and space ships. At the same age I was still doing blob heads with stick arms and legs.

On Sunday I went to Books of Wonder, one of my favorite bookstores in the world, for a reading from the new fairy tale anthology for kids 8-12, Troll's Eye View: A Book of Villainous Tales. Edited, natch, by Datlow and Windling. Delia Sherman, Ellen Kushner, and Holly Black read teasers from their stories. I bought a copy for my niece and two nephews. Planning, of course, to read it myself before sending it on. I am now more convinced than ever that I want to resume my efforts to write short fiction. There is something just so delightfully unfussy about a good short story. Concision. Brevitas. As Delia said, a 3,500 word story is a lot like writing a poem, every word has to count. They all read well, I just love that, authors reading to me, their own expressions given their signature phrasing. Then it was time to buy the book and get it signed. As I waited, lucky #13, as the line wound past the shelves of expensive "older" editions. It sort of horrified me how many of them I have read (almost all) and actually own (more than half). The man behind me on line, about my age, had the same thought at the same moment. He murmured that he'd recently realized you can't take the books with you. Yes, I replied, my father recently donated his collection of genetics books to the Cold Spring Harbor laboratory library. But who will want my collection of YA, picture books, poetry, and fairy tales? Hmmm.


I finally catch up on email and gossip. As I suspected, Neil Gaiman is dating Amanda Palmer. Despite the fact I've never met him socially and am older and, OK, I'm married, I just sort of had a baseless crush on him...and the horror is that at his book readings or signings I see all these other middle aged women who doubtless have that same wee crush. There must be millions of us. And now we can all take that big sigh. Ooooh ungh. He's with a sexy 33 year old punk rock experimental artist who used to be a living statue and likes to pull her clothing off as often as possible for Arts sake. I went to a Ramones concert in the 80s, I wore fish net stockings in the late 60s, I went skinny dipping--in darkest night--during college in the 70s...but no, not even close. Lets face it, I'm practically the face of October in the Upper Westside Mom calendar. Except I have cool glasses. Take that Amanda Palmer, I have very cool glasses.

Saturday, May 30, 2009

The questions of illustration

As I madly draw and color the art for a picture book I'm illustrating, I watch my fingers move a real pencil and then an electronic brush, hear my mind make conscious decisions about composition, content, and color and after awhile float into the meta questions. I went to college for 5 years to dally in meta-think.

For instance, I draw the baby in a high chair. I suggest a bit of the room. I look online for high chairs that aren't circa 1980s. (My brain is curiously stuck on images of things in the 80s.) But judging from my own feet, sneaker design sure changed since then so too most likely high chairs. And indeed, newer high chairs look different. Here is where the drifting begins. I ask myself what is the most high chair aspect of high chairs. A tray, a tiny seat raised to adult level, a way to strap in squirming food throwing chaos. Wouldn't it be more fun to make the high chair kind of kooky? Three legs like those jogging strollers. Lockable wheels. A force field that collects flying cheerios and funnels it to the dog dish. I push back further, am I creating a world where such fine high chairs can sit? What world would I like my characters to live in? Indeed, what is the best of all possible worlds to illustrate today?

And my characters? Take a baby's hand. What is the most meta aspect of this pudgy item? Dimples on the knuckles, creases around the wrists, a way to suggest the strong but unrefined motor skills? This leads to a consideration of the Fibinocci sequence (1; 1; 2; 3; 5; 8;... ) of finger length. Starting from the tip of a finger, if the bone length to the first joint is 1, the second bone is 1+1=2 or twice as long, the third is the sum of the previous two 1+2=3, the bones in the back of the hand are also the sum of the previous two 2+3=5... and this numeric sequence is what enables a hand to curl up like a snail shell. But baby hands are so tiny, so round, do they move in the same ways? Are the hand proportions basically the same as the ones busy drawing at the ends of my arms? Babies sure have disproportionally big heads. More research proves their hands are in fibinocci order, just can't reach an octave on the piano and are permanently sticky. But I am illustrating a particular baby, not the sum of all babies. Does this particular child use her hands in a telling character driven way? And what are the meta considerations of character gesture anyway?

I'm running out of time. I draw and draw and tell myself that the worlds I make in poems or art are worth exploring and defining. That the best picture books make arbitrary but delicious rules for themselves, such as no perspective or no light source, or only mid range value hues, or all people and animals will have very big but flat heads... it comes down to deciding what to leave in and how you want to twist it for art's sake.

Thursday, May 7, 2009

Why do otherwise lively writers use tired descriptions?

Dear Blog,

You should know I am the person who takes 10 books out of the library and can only finish one of them. Is it because I am lazy? Hardly. I read fast and frequently. Is it because I get distracted? Nope. My imagination gets hunger pangs for novels. But I carry those mostly unread books back to the library because the writing is too annoying to shovel into my brain.

Every cliche, overused description, and lost opportunity to use language well distracts me. I'm reading along and think, good set-up or interesting characters, and then--yuck--the dreadful clunkers interrupt my ability to enter this crafted world. I start reading as an editor, fixing each one as I go along, and after a couple of chapters, I'm cringing or arguing with the author.

"Why didn't you THINK I'd notice you were using flabby phrases?"

If a character is speaking in cliches, and that's who they are, fine. But the author had better prove to me that they can write the rest with fresh observation.

Some writers have told me that I'm too picky. That these are teeny tweaks that nobody really cares about. I think not. It is the difference between a pretty good book and a really good one. In a great book, I'm engaged by plot, character, philosophy, conflict, and the surprising magic of good language. Take away the delights of good sentences and the story deflates.

It's like the authors forgot to do the final rewrite. Shame on them. Read some poetry if you want to see what it looks like when every word is well chosen.

Best Wishes,
Cranky Reader.

Monday, May 4, 2009

A New York Love Song of an Evening

At 4 pm I get an email from Flash Rosenberg. She says, "Wanna go? My treat. 6 pm Cornelia Street. I'm one of the performers tonight." Tonight being the monthly MONOLOGUES & MADNESS (organized and hosted by the talented Tulis McCall) where 17 people each gets 4 minutes before the incredibly friendly audience of fellow readers in the cozy black and red performance space underneath the Cornelia Street Cafe.

I showered in about 4 minutes threw on the safe West Village camouflage of black sneakers, black socks, black tee shirt, and black vest. Did I mention I wore black? We hopped on a downtown 1 train and arrived on time. And there was Flash with two seats saved for us, we refused to let her treat us and paid our 7 dollars admission and got our glasses of wine. What ensued was in turns funny, sad, hilarious, moving, and totally unpredictable stories and storytelling. One piece required audience participation with Kazoos. Perfect.

We met her dear friend and dramaturg Maxine Kern. Maxine was great to talk to between sets. She and Jim between them know a lot of theatre folks. And on top of that, fun coincidence that Maxine teaches dramaturgy in the theatre masters program at Stony Brook. So of course I had to tell her that Deb and Val (who teach in the undergraduate theatre program at SB) had been huge helps to my daughter Natalie and clearly taught her the skills to get into the Actors' Theatre of Louisville intern acting program.

Flash was great. She wrote her piece earlier today! How can she possibly do that? She delivered humor, wisdom, a touch of Chaplin's sadness, Coco Channel's wardrobe on crack, and Dorothy Parker's wit spun into the electronic age. She has that great ability to turn the world upside down and get everyone to look at it that way with her, while laughing.

Flash challenged me, Jim, and Maxine to write monologues and get into the event. So we are on!

And if that wasn't fun enough we ended up sitting into the next set, thanks really to Robin Hirsch (owner of Cornelia) for letting us, with some of his delicious wheat bourbon, and this set was unbelievably terrific. We got to hear the legendary David Amram, with piano, french horn, flutes (two at a time even), play composition & surprises--beat poetry, scat and all that; Kevin Twigg, drums, glockenspiel; John de Witt, bass; Adam Amram, percussion; and John Ventimiglia, an actor reading from Jack Kerouac's Visions of Cody.

A day ago Amram was playing the huge Madison Square Garden. He told us he really loves playing small places. He wore a necklace festooned with metal stars, 5 and 6 pointed, and metal bits that could have come from brass instruments.

I now feel that my poetry readings would only be enhanced by having this top notch jazz group back me up. Our table also had the very funny and talented Carl Kissin, who had read the piece with kazoo.

I did my best to sketch the players by candle-light. Got an autograph from John Ventimiglia. Fun. Wine and spirits on a dinner of humor, heart, jazz and beat, but scant on food, left us tippy and delighted. We took a cab home. Are eating pizza. Am thinking this is why we live here. You know, this crazy city life, when it isn't maddening it is a delight.

When Flash calls, we go.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Photo, Art, Klezmer, Word

Yesterday was amazing.

First I went to Brooklyn and met Phillip Lopate. I am designing a poetry book for him and he wanted to show me the photographs and designs he loves. He has a voice rather like my fathers, who also grew-up working class in Brooklyn, and became a writer and professor... Lopate's home is full, naturally, of books, art, photos, and comfortable places to sit. He was gracious and well informed about design. This is no surprise given his passion and expertise in the arts but he is also married to a great book designer, Cheryl Cipriani. He spread out books of photographs (including ones he wrote introductions for) on his coffee table, we talked about why certain shots went better with what he was writing or didn't seem right even if they were great photos. He told me how much he loves a Bau Haus feel in design. We looked at some of his published books, ones where he loves the designs. I took snapshots of covers, photos, interior pages to help me see what compositions and typefaces he loves. I understand why he gravitates to photography on the covers of his books. For this project, he is drawn to the immediacy of people, images of people on the streets, going about their lives, urban scenes. Upstairs I was delighted to enter the room where he writes. It was an aerie with windows opening onto his quiet Brooklyn street and had a large desk properly facing some wall. It had the expected shelves of books, piles of papers, eye-catching posters, photos, and a row of tin soldiers marching across a mantelpiece. I borrowed a gigantic Jan Tschichold retrospective book that hefted like a plate of armor.

I brought samples of books I've designed, he told me how much he likes generous white space and I heartily agreed. I gave him a copy of my book of poems, The Elephant House. Since I designed my own book, it was a little less shameless than it sounds. He liked the design of it. I hope he finds a poem or two he enjoys, but I don't worry so much about that anymore. A book of poems is rather like a box of chocolates, people find the ones they like (or tell you they never eat any chocolate, give it to someone else). I didn't sign the book so he can donate it with no hesitation.

I left his place and just had time to look at beautiful Lafont frames on sale in a eyeglasses shop and then eat a croissant with an egg at a small cafe near the subway station. The coffee was good, the croissant heaven. I rarely eat bread or any gluten products anymore. Oh god it was good. I could ode to its flaky buttery heaven...

Then I took the train to the Village and met Deborah Atherton at the Manhattan Theatre Source near NYU. We had been invited to attend a reading and discussion of The Witches of Lublin a radio play by Ellen Kushner, Elizabeth Schwartz & Yale Strom with music composed or arranged by Yale Strom. This is a radio play with klezmer! It was wonderful to be transported to 1797 Poland with three Jewish women musicians! The play feels like a fairy tale or legend (a delightful invention) and yet it is also true to history. The actors gave a moving performance. We didn't have a full musical component, Yale played only one instrument with abbreviated songs. But I got the feel of it. I really look forward to hearing it once it is done. The discussion afterwards delivered many suggestions, some brilliant and excellent, it will be interesting to hear which ones the creative team decides to use. Ellen was her usual buoyant self, she has such energy, wit, and passion for theatre. For anything she does. I love her novels, I am now a fan of all things theatrical that she brings her talents to. I was able to introduce the story teller and author Diane Wolkstein, whom I took a class from many years ago, to Deborah. Deborah, in addition to being a novelist and short story writer, has written book and lyrics for opera and musical theatre.

After the discussion, Deborah was ready to head home and I took the opportunity to go to a free PEN panel, Leaps and Bounds, Fits and Starts: The Evolution of a Children’s Book Writer, with Neil Gaiman, Mariken Jongman, and Shaun Tan; moderated by Andrea Davis Pinkney. I am a fan of Gaiman and Tan's work, I buy their books and enjoy their thinking about the creative process. I don't know Mariken Jongman's books. But I knew of Andrea from years ago when I did paste-up for Dial Books. She and her husband, the illustrator Brian Pinkney, would stop by the office. She was a very young lovely woman then and everyone knew she was going places. She is a self-assured publishing executive now. I also recognized Arthur Levine, from my Dial days, when he sat in front of me, he is the publisher of Shaun's American editions.

The discussion was just what I love. Davis Pinkney did a good job moderating. Tan was asked what books he read as a child and said his mother, who wasn't literary but wanted her sons to be literate, had taken Animal Farm out of the library, thinking it was for kids, and the boys had loved the weirdness of the story, the inconclusive ending, the dark fates of some characters, and not until college had he recognized it was political satire. He went on to say that the boring sameness of the suburbs he grew up in became a character to be explored as an adult. That he came to celebrate the weirdness under the surface.

Gaiman talked about mining nightmares for material in his Sandman decade of writing. And once his semi-conscious writers mind started saying mid-nighmare "cool, I can USE that bit about the dead killer baby!" the beings that supply nightmares gave up! Also said that as an adult, when someone loves a book they may read it every few years but when a child loves a book the parent is reading it to them 3 or 4 times a day! And I can relate to that. He memorized some bad stories his kids adored and was determined to write books for children which adults could enjoy too.

The third panelist, Jongman, did her best despite not being fluent in English and I think I must read some of her work, in translation. She seems smart and fun.

I sketched Neil and Tan. Sat next to an 8th grade English teacher named Lisa. She bought the graphic novel version of Coraline, thought it would interest her class, they don't read much...Will add the sketches to this post once I hook-up scanner. Old scanner won't work on new laptop... Neil had to leave a bit early to catch a plane. I was able to go up right after and give Tan a copy of the poetry book I designed with his student art on the cover. Levine was there and looked and said it was cool. I (re)introduced myself to him. Had a brief chance to say hi to Shaun and fill him in on my illustrating gigs. He commented I was just like him, get the go ahead to do an ambitious project and THEN figure out how to do it! I waited on line and had him sign my copy of his latest book Tales of Outer Suburbia. He also added his autograph and a pencil sketch to my sketch of him that I did while he talked on the panel. Hopefully I'll get to see him at another convention at some point.

It was a fine day.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Doodling with new wacom tablet

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

When the words see and the pictures say

I am finding in writing and drawing there is a furious give and take between the two. As if they were two powerful nations declaring ownership over uncharted land between them. The country of Writing gives names, histories, and descriptions to every feature and plaques of local interest sprout from every hill, house, and pond. Then the country of Drawing comes along, caring nothing for all the site markers, brings plows, landscapers, and architects and reshapes the scene for dramatic vistas, urban oomph, and pleasing gardens.

"I don't need you to shift everything around, I already noted in plenty of prose what everything is, its history and meaning!" shouts the Writing explorers.
"Feh, words," sneer the Picture morphers, "Show, don't say."
Then the plot rises and illuminates likely paths and casts shadows on everything.

What can't be shown in words? What can't be said in pictures?

I know picture books and movies have to figure this out. In a more subtle way, poems do too. How much do you tell? Where can an image suggest all you need to say?

It's a land grab. I'll let you know which flags get planted.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

The new way to draw on my computer

My new Wacom Intuos4 tablet arrived last night. [drum roll...]

It came in a huge box the size of a mini-fridge. After assaulting the cardboard and filler...
Inside was a smaller well designed black box holding the new toy, er, professional device. It was pretty much plug and play, er work. I made this doodle with it.

Here is the good news, it is much much more like actually drawing. When I start to make a mark it shows up pretty much right away. That means the first strokes aren't lost. Which is ever so nice. The tablet is much more responsive to my hand. It feels more like paper and less like tupperware. It is black too which might show fingerprints but since I was working at night, no problem. On top of that, there is much smarter use of buttons and a round wheel, think Apple iPod. And even better, once I select what I want each of the buttons to do (shift key or zoom or help, etc.) there are little LED lights that spell out the functions of each key, right next to it. And depending on what program I'm using, the keys do different things and announce it. How cool is that?

Now all I have to do is use it well. Why isn't there a way to program ME to draw at hyperspeed with utter skill?

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The new cool

My first laptop cooler was a nifty plastic device we got at Target. It was the size of magazine and about 1 inch thick. I put it between the laptop and me. Then I plugged it into one of the computer's USB ports and two tiny flattened fans whirred the heat down and out the back. This stopped me from getting 3rd degree burns on my thighs from the toasty bottom of my macbook pro--a fine machine, a lovely program wrangler, but indisputably hot. My dog made sure to cuddle up to the vent side to catch the summer breeze. Daschunds are cold all winter.

A year later the cooler has cracks in the outer case and bits have come off the fans. Even worse I am starting to suffer from scrunched thigh syndrome due to having the laptop flatten my leg tops for too many hours.

So I bought a new cooler cooler, it has a mini-fan, yes, and holds my laptop, yes, but get this, it also has legs. Adjustable legs. I can make it work on the couch or flatten it to sit on a desk. It can swivel and hold the laptop over me in bed. It is essentially a transformer device. I am wondering if it can scan and do surround sound too. Nope. Just legs and cool.

There is still the problem that I wrenched my shoulder from carrying too much gear to my caffeine-rich office away from the home office. Poor me, I can't carry anything at all. My shoulder twinges when I breathe and yells when I hoist my computer bag. I had to bring just a pad of paper and a pencil to work today. And an eraser, small scissors, and scotch tape. It was just like the old days. The era before Adobe Creative Suite...

I am hoping Apple will please make a new macbook pro that weighs 3 lbs max, uses a chip that runs far cooler, has a big finger pad that can also function as a wacom tablet, and can somehow telescope from netbook to laptop screen size. Oh, and while you are at it, could it please make me a rice milk latte?

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

Am I the picture book dummy?

No, I don't mean I'm stoooopid. The dummy is the first stage, rough stick figure drawings and placing blocks of text. Pencil and paper. I got through that today. I am deeply happy I stuck with it and finished. I kept wanting to quit and walk away from the Starbucks and double latte I was sipping. But no, I made myself do spread after spread until it was done. All 32 pages.

I'd hit another page and think, "how can I make this one exciting, different, when it is the same characters and a similar set up?" Some of the time an idea would c0me, change perspective or point-of-view, do it as a map, focus just on the objects...etc. The rest of the time I shrugged, drew the most boring obvious solution and promised the page that I'd dream up something better. Invite the muse to do an overhaul.

I did all this despite wearing the brand new glasses (weird brain adjustment to new prescription) and having an old man sit next to me and cover his face with a napkin for an entire hour, he wasn't sleeping or crying. Just covering his face. Holding the napkin in place. It was very very odd. But I wouldn't let myself start spinning the possible speculative fiction narratives, no, I had stick figures rotating in two dimensions to hold my eye and story-making-mind.

My new glasses are tres cool. They remind me of the Paris Metro station ironwork. But in a more face dainty way. When I walked in the door my husband said, "do I know you?" I asserted that he did. "Are you sure you have the right apartment?" he asked again. "I am sure I do, I am your wife." ""Ooooh," he said with a small crease of thought between his eyes, "are you that funny fella who doesn't shave?"

Leave it to Jim to compliment me via George of the Jungle. Later he said the frames were just the thing, artsy designy, now when am I going to get a haircut to go with them? Tomorrow actually. Spring and I'm making a new woman of me.

Monday, April 6, 2009

Daily Poetry Prompts

Well I've been doing the P&W daily exercises. And I want to thank the online editors at Poets & Writers for posting them. I've riffed on traffic signs, art, snippets of other poems, and Prufrock. I can't say that the results are any more than exercises but it is good to flex the muscles--daily. In fact, it being 1:08 of a Sunday night I went to the site to see if the Monday one was up yet and it wasn't. I felt, well, a bit let down. How dare they wait until dawn's rosy alarm clocks herald their duties? Are they getting lazy? Out at literary soirees drinking martinis while devising devious ways to get us to write more? Or just doing nothing at all? Images of the editors snoozing and drooling on their pillows isn't fair, no, is the weekend...I guess they have a right to take their time. I may have to write a poem on my own, willy-nilly. After all I'm in training now, the muscles want to be used. Pass me the weights, the laurels, the puns, the sweat band, the thesaurus. Cue up the music. I'm off...

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Poetry challenge exercise

This is national poetry month. The folks at Poet&Writers magazine have offered a daily poetry exercise writing challenge. The first one was to read a T. S. Elliot poem, such as "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," and then "Internalize the music and rhythm of the poem, and freewrite for a page, interpreting those elements in your own language. Read what you’ve written, circle three to five phrases that you like, and use them to start a poem."

I just couldn't resist a parody. Later I'll have to extract bits to write my own poem. Here it is:

The Prufrock Dog Walk

We shall take a walk with the dog
In the park where fisted green fogs
The sharpened twigs and life pokes
Through dirt and shit
To say this is spring, I exist
And the dog follows the path
Like a commuter,
This is our break from the computer
And the clenched air and rattle of our feet
Leads us to the usual relations,
You speak of theories and equations
And I ask for demonstrations
Of a different intent.

In the facebook the lists come and go
Talking of bulllshit I already know.

The roots of my hair are brown and gray
More gray than brown and I can’t stay
This leach of time. Shall I wear a hat?
That sits upon the dome of thought, a hat
which shall declare what I forgot to mention
I suffer from wandering attention
Will you serve me chai or coffee
Offer me a kiss or worthy advise?
I will not know, should I bite?
Which choice is right?

In the twitter the tweets come and go
Talking of mish mosh I don’t know.

The bare winter city is invaded by spring
A green mold furs over flooded things
The view I had from the street fades into green time
Interstices of sky growing into occluded mullion panes
Until there is only a thin line of sun panning
These multi-storied ovens of brick
I had better be quick
To decide what comes next—
Will someone notice I need to dye
My hair, or fix my teeth? What shall I text?

In the linkedin recommendations come and go
Talking of people they barely know.

My children are grown, I wear a hat,
Now it the time to be bold
Here in April’s damp cold.
But is the hat a habit worn like the path is worn by the dog?
Should I dye it red, do I risk it?
The fisted buds are known to the tree
But what about you and me?
My sneakers are blue, my jeans stone washed—
[They will say: “She looks so Midwestern.”]
How did I get here, how do I turn
To the time for you and me?
Maybe we should stop for another coffee.

I should have been a slink of padded claws
Pacing across the veldt of sibilant grass.

I grow old…I grow old…
I shall write graphic novels and get extolled.

No, I am not going to be a prodigy
It’s clear at best I’m just an oddity
I do so many things rather well
But what exactly do I want to sell?

In the blog the blather comes and goes
Talking of myself to nobody knows.

Will I follow the same path out and back
As the wind blows off my hat
Blows back my hair to its furious white roots
I run to catch the brim and fist the air
And the hat fumbles from here to there.
And you and I speak in metaphor
Until we open the usual door.

New eyeglasses frames tres French, fast forward illustration

I went with bold. But I am slightly worried the shaggy unintentionally 70s mass of my hair may need a fashionable coif when I get these on my face. Time for the summer haircut, short short.

I'm off to help Flash Rosenberg today, she had a client who wanted her to create an 18 page heavily illustrated book, based on the client's poem, in just a day. I was helping her last night, scanning the drawings, adding type set stanzas, and making PDFs to send the client. Most of all, watching Flash in a frenzy of creativity, with no time at all to let her internal editor slow her down, she created simply brilliant drawings, full of her verve and fun and sensitivity. This woman simply must write and paint her own picture books, they'd be a huge hit. She also kept me laughing as she talked to her hand (understandably aching) and foot (in a cast). She will have stayed up all night painting and drawing color on scans of the black and white art. Painting on high quality watercolor paper for scanners. Then I will scan those for the final book files.

And Script Frenzy started today. Are you writing?

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

A week of change and joy

I know it is only Tuesday but it has felt like several weeks have gone by. Since Friday, two friends have had surgery, one of them for her heart and the other for her foot...worry, worry. They are both recovering. I found out my eyes (along with all the rest of me) are getting older but I let that lead me to a new prescription and some amazing bold French frames selected with the help of my friend Delia.

Yesterday I got an email from a man who had seen my drawing online at the CBIG site and he wanted to hire me to do some drawings. Wow. I've spent years wanting to do this and now, one week after posting my art, I have a client. Wow.

And my daughter Natalie will not be moving home after graduation, because...
Natalie Allen got into the Actors Theatre of Louisville!!!!!!!!!
I was sitting in a Starbucks when she IM'd me in Gmail. I shrieked with joy and the entire table was happy for her too. She's in this program. It begins August 9th for 9 months. She is one of 22 acting students to get in out of 2,000 applicants and it is really prestigious. And intensive. She will come out having a much better idea of what aspect of drama--acting, directing or writing--she wants to pursue. And will have plenty of new contacts. It is all good. Natalie will waitress all summer to save up the money she'll need to cover her costs in Louisville.

Caitlin is hoping to get an internship at the Center for Book Arts here in NYC over the summer. I hope she gets it, she loves making artists' books and one that she did last semester got selected to be in a show in some state far far away, Nebraska?

My daughters are starting to lead their own interesting lives. How amazing it all is. I may need "progressives" to see now (as if middle-aged eyes were a political party) but it isn't hard to keep my eyes on them, they are becoming the adults I shall soon know. People I'd want to know even if they weren't my girls.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Why point-'n-shoot is your friend when eyes dilated

On Monday I had an eye check-up and this meant the dreaded pupil expanding drops.
"Look at your feet as you walk," said my eye doc as I was leaving, "be careful, maybe take a cab, you won't see well for about an hour."

I clipped my shades to my busted eyeglass frames, pulled my coat hood over my eyes and headed West. The world was, indeed, blurry and light expanded and made everything look overexposed. I passed the Metropolitan Museum and thought, oh, sad, I can't see the art. And then I realized I really couldn't see any of it as the museum is closed Mondays. I carefully crossed the street and headed into Central Park.

I just love that moment when it still looks like winter until you look closer at the buds and crocuses beginning to dot the twigs and earth. The sky was a deep pure hue, no grays. It was cold, but not cold enough to kill the first sprigs.

But I couldn't see worth a damn. Blurry and overexposed eyes. Then I realized I had a point and shoot camera, as long as I could frame it, decide if all or only part of it should be in focus, then I could take shots and reasonably expect them to come out OK. And I did.

I recognized Pale Male, or was it his mate, regarding the baseball fields for scampering or flitting lunch morsels, I found a tree with red buds, a bush with yellow ones, and somehow, it was fine. Except that I couldn't tell when the hawk's face was in profile (yes, looks like a hawk) or not (could be a very large pigeon).

So, now I know I don't need to be able to see all that well to snap decent pix. As I get older, this may be good to know. Especially if I keep doing maps which are elected most likely to make me go blind from squinting and squiggling.

Alimentum at the 2009 New York Book Show

Yes, I am very proud. Alimentum came in 1st place in the quality paperback series category at the 23rd annual Bookbinders' Guild New York Book Show. Kudos to my co-designer Peter Selgin and visionary publisher Paulette Licitra as well.

I ate strawberries and chocolates and sipped wine as I looked at all the books on display. Was happy that the talented Jason Fortuna (Adventure House) won an award for his design of the ESL catalog for Cambridge U. Press. Happy that my pals at Oxford U. Press won for the Oxford Picture Dictionary series.

This year's crop of books was terrific. My favorite kid's book was Mark Rogalski's Dream Machines, it is printed amazingly well--perhaps with 6 colors? Despite being digital, which can sometimes feel a bit cold, the images exude pure playful fun and the accompanying text panels have an old-fashioned charm, almost 1920s design, that plays well against the art. And the jacket on the cover unfolds into a board game on the reverse. How cool is that?

The simple charm of Patrick McDonnell's illustrations, for his picture book South, are also something I just had to touch and read. Was white a 5th color for this book? I didn't have enough light to tell if the color of the paper it is printed on is tan and white a spot color or the tan was printed...

Then there was this amazing die cut slipcase/cover for a trade book about design, Things I Have Learned in My Life So Far, by Stefan Sagmeister, lots of little holes in a photo of a face, with nose, eyes, mouth, hair not cut away...and inside a series of unbound signatures, a collection of 15 mini-book essays. Once can play endlessly shifting the insides around to change the feeling of the face on the case. Loved it. Here is a video of it. Go Abrams.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Good weekend in the Brook

My daughter Natalie did a great job directing her first full length play, Sailor Song by John Patrick Shanley. With her grandparents, we saw the matinee in a small theater in the arts building at Stony Brook University. She met us as we were going in. For a moment I didn't recognize her. Tall, thin, and dressed in a black skirt, heels, and nice gray top, she was, well, elegant.

"Where should we sit?" I asked her. Peering gracefully around the entrance door she whispered, "If you don't mind, front row center please." And we did. And were pleased.

"You were a great, intelligent, responsive audience," she told us later. She'd watched us from a hidden location. We let her know that her intelligent and engaging treatment of the play made it easy to enjoy ourselves.

I am amazed that she was able to take freshmen and sophomores, some of whom had never been in a play, and showed them how to turn themselves into believable characters. And, she told us, they taught her as much as she taught them. Now she understands the work it takes to be so very much in charge of the entire show.

I got to meet teachers she'd told me about for years. Kathleen who heads up the Swallow This troupe and Val the acting guru. We agreed how far she has come in the last few years. How nice a way to mark her last semester.

Back at my parents house, Natalie arrived between shows with a load of laundry and cards to write to all the members of cast and crew. Last performance tonight.

This weekend was also a Model A Ford convention, on a street near my parent's was a long line of parked, shiny, antique cars...

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

How is this for computer drawn art?

I drew this in photoshop (cs4), used some copyright free old newspapers and a snap of an old floor, and there it is, an illustration.

Feeling it isn't loose enough, cute enough.

I need to develop digital brushes that feel good to use and are responsive to my hand using the wacom tablet. It still feels like I'm drawing on tupperware with a barbie doll leg.

Comments? Advise?

Getting back to poetry

I had first-book-itus. The condition whereby one realizes the heroic fanfare of writing and getting a book published is closely followed by the equally deflating sound of it falling noiselessly into the forest of almost no reviews and as yet no second print run. This led to a writing slump.

But at some point I just had to say, yeah, I'm no Billy Collins, or would that be Billie-Jean Collins? His name is a household name, my name is known in my household. My book is not likely to spark the poetry dialogue in this country, impress any Russian poetry masters, or even make it to more than one or two college classrooms... but what matters most is still there, I have the beginnings of poems bubbling up inside of me. I write them down. I'm rereading Shakespeare's sonnets and Kay Ryan and Barbara Hamby and enjoying the incredibly different ways they say "I am paying attention." With wit, lust, precision, patter, and ears attuned to the smallest and largest things. Shakespeare gazes into his lover's eye and riffs on his own reflection. Ryan imagines life is like having your living room be on a raft slowly heading down river enjoying the view on the way to the Niagara Falls, Hamby manages to address "you" in every poem and still makes it immediate and full of the rich tumble of her revved up inner chatter.

I had a rock tumbler as a kid, I put in craggy stones, it churned away in the basement for weeks, I'd change the grit that went in to ever finer sand, and then a rich glitter of polished sediments was revealed. Right now I'm still finding the fistful of stones.

There is a (writing) life after the first book. And someone just asked to "friend" me on facebook by asking if I was The Claudia Carlson that wrote that Elephant House book. Yes, yes I am.