Posted by: Robin | March 1, 2014

Begin Again

What does one say after more than three years away from writing one’s blog? After three years of literally not having the energy to do any more than read escapist novels, watch escapist TV and movies, eat and sleep, I am realizing that it is a triumph to simply want to engage with the world at all. So I begin to clear out the clutter that has built up in my life. I go back to work on my novels, I subscribe to news magazines for a peak at what’s been going on in the world while I’ve been checked out, and I try to reconnect with the people that matter, one day at a time. This blog is another step toward remembering what used to matter, and slowly, and hopefully surely, will matter again, because when I am fully awake in my own skin, the need to write is deep and abiding. I begin again.

Posted by: Robin | August 23, 2010

Cornwall, the Wild and Woolly

The first thing one notices (when one can look around amidst the terror of riding as a passenger with an American driving for the first time in the U.K.) about Cornwall is natural beauty of the rolling moor variety and lots of sheep. That was well and lovely, but I was impatient. I am not sure how young I was the first time I saw a picture of Land’s End and the Cornish coast, but it has haunted me ever since. Until we reached the sea I could not feel I’d reached Cornwall at all. For me the two were synonymous.

Ten years ago on my maiden visit to the U.K. I rented a car and dragged my daughters across the Midlands and into the West Country, them fearing for their lives every mile (because of my driving, can you imagine?), all with the intention of standing at Land’s End and reveling in the wild wonder of the land, sky and sea of its craggy coast. Early November darkness, torrential rain and tiny narrow roads defeated me by the time we’d made it to Dartmoor in Devon (not to mention my daughters’ white knuckles and screeching exclamations). I didn’t make it to Land’s End this time either but it was never the plan.  Tintagel was the goal, and it was enough.

Tintagel is famous for being the legendary place where King Arthur was conceived and born, and hence the little village that shares the name caters shamelessly to all us Arthur buffs, and why not? But the peninsula itself has been lived on since well before the 6th-century, with Iron Age, Dark Age and Medieval castle ruins piled in layers to the delight of the archeologically-inclined. That spoke to some bit of collective memory that in standing in that place I was part of a chain of life that had stubbornly persisted in this less-than-hospitable spot for over two millenia at least. It was humbling. I was also preoccupied by concerns of fictional events set on Tintagel I intended to write about. But after laboring up too many stairs to count to finally reach the tippy-tippy top, of this mound of rock and turf that so aggressively juts out into the sea, all other preoccupations melted away. I sank to the damp ground and fell out of time. Through wind, sun and drizzle I looked and breathed, never getting close to enough.

Two creatures shared my silent joy–my husband Don and a kestrel, a small falcon, which soared and swooped around the high crag where we sat, catching updrafts and then floating absolutely unmoving for thirty or more seconds at a time, and then doing it again . . . and again. Recently I read a novel in which a character quoted Seneca to the effect that small woes are loquacious, but the huge and terrible ones are mute. I think the same truth can be applied to beauty. There are no words for the greater glories, the deepest graces. This was a gift and all I could do was receive and be glad.

Posted by: Robin | August 21, 2010

London: Ten Years Later

Three days in a city like London, one of them jet-lagged, is not good planning, but since I’d spent a week there ten years ago, it seemed like enough. NOT! Every few blocks is something of literary, historical or cultural significance, not to mention the ultimate place for fun and people watching.  What took me by surprise (and shouldn’t have) is how much can change in ten years. I knew that the Millenium Bridge and the courtyard addition to the British Museum were new since my time there, but Trafalgar Square and all the building and facelifts for the old (such as the White Tower at the Tower of London) were a little disorienting. Summer Olympics 2012, duh!

One thing I recommend to the first-time visitor to London, having done it twice now (my husband Don had never been there), is one of the city bus tours. You can get on and off if you want, and it gives a good overview of the city and what there is to see. For the jetlagged longing to go to bed, but needing to stay awake, it is a perfect low impact way to spend your time. Your ticket is good for 24 hours, and now (at least on the Original Bus Tour) includes trips up the Thames to Westminster or down to Greenwich. The Thames is the life blood of London, and to really get a sense of what makes this city work, it is a must.

So what did we do with so little time? We went till we dropped for better or worse, and still didn’t get to everything on our list. The big three for us were the British Library, the British Museum (or as I fondly call it, “Let’s rape and pillage the cultures of the world” Museum, though it is lot’s cheaper to have just one place to visit), and St. Paul’s Cathedral at evensong (worshiping in a place where Christians have been worshiping for at least 15 centuries was a moving experience, even if the choir was from New Mexico. Even choirs go on holiday in August in the UK). For two English majors and Biblically-educated people, the British Library was Mecca. We saw the only surviving manuscript of Beowulf, an original Chaucer manuscript and Jane Austen’s desk and reading glasses. We listened to Yeats and Joyce read from their works, gazed at some of the oldest surviving Bible texts and an original Magna Carta with the wax royal seals still attached plus music written by Handel and McCartney/Lennon. I was twitterpated!

Everything had changed in the British Museum with a lot more on display. We could have gone every day for a week and not seen it all. The courtyard is gorgeous, filling the place with light and space, thoroughly modern and yet not clashing with the old. My favorite museum of all the National Portrait Gallery was in an entirely different building, while the National Gallery has taken up the former’s space and covers the whole northern block of Trafalgar Square. Nelson still presides from his lofty perch, but it is clean, almost pigeon-less and with a hedge maze to explore. The heart of London, it is now welcoming and alive in ways it hadn’t been. Even St. Martin’s of the Fields has gone from dingy gray to white, it’s beautifully proportioned soaring steeple sparkling on sunny days.

Tea at Fortnum and Mason’s, the food merchant to the rich, important and/or titled for the past 300 years or so, was like walking into one of dozens of historical novels I’ve read over the years the mention this London institution. For about an hour we were in a different world. Ye Olde Cheshire Cheese, a pub that was the favorite haunt of many literary lions, from Samuel Johnson and his cronies, to Dickens, to Chesterton, with the odd American President thrown in (Teddy Roosevelt), had great food and atmosphere. We spent a nice meal with two American women visiting from the Pacific Northwest. It was better than time travel. A play, “The Secret of Sherlock Holmes,” a two-man show with Peter Egan and Robert Daws at the Duchess Theatre near Covent Garden and a great burger sans mayo at Byron’s capped our three-day tour. London, as it had before, played the flirt and the tease (except in Westminster where she pretends to be a grande dame), giving just enough to keep us smitten and unsatisfied enough to keep us coming back for more.

Posted by: Robin | August 20, 2010

How far again?

How Far?One thing I learned on our UK trip is to never ask a Brit how far away a place is. This is a country of walkers and their idea of ‘far’ and mine lost something in the translation, from frenetic London to the mountains of Wales to the Highlands of Scotland I would be reassured that our destination was not far, just a short walk! HA! My poor feet screamed at me time and again to stop being so gullible. And then came the coup de tat on the Isle of Mull in Scotland. It was one of the few all-day drizzles, and after ten hours on trains and ferries we were damp and chilly (which involved the calamity of finding that Don’s flexi-train pass was nowhere to be found and new tickets had to be bought). Having returned our rental car, we were assured that the hotel would send someone to pick us up. We were just to call. So as the rain blew, we clomped our weary way off the Oban-Craignure ferry ready to be dry (and let’s be honest, guzzle a few).

I call. Phone not in service. I call the car service. No answer. Fortunately a tourist information center is right there, right? Right? So leaving Don with the luggage I go in and tell the woman that I must have the wrong number for the hotel. She says, “So you want me to call fer you?” (in her thick Scottish burr) Then she pins me with her steely gaze and uplifted eyebrows (and let me say there is no gaze steelier than a Scot’s) “It’s only a hundred yards down the road.”

“A hundred yards,” I said doubtfully.

“A hundred yards,” she said with enough condescension at my soft American constitution that she sent me scurrying out ready to manfully cover the distance. My inner voice berated me at being cowed so easily, but I assured myself and my feet that this time it was not a vague “not far,” but actual yardage! I’d been in the marching band. I knew exactly how long that was. My husband was not particularly pleased, but he patiently agreed, despite the rain picking up pace. I must add here to be fair that the woman had no idea how much luggage we were dealing with.

So we set out! A hundred yards. Very wet and no hotel. Another fifty or so and we see a sign with the hotel name pointing down a gravel path through the woods, a mere 3/4 kilometer away (#@&$!). We plunge forth, by now dripping. The stones get clogged in the luggage wheels, but we persevere, up and down and around at least another half kilometer. Blisters are forming on my hands. Finally, we catch sight of the hotel, but no way up to it. We are so soaked (despite rain gear), cold, tired, miserable and desperate that we decide to head into the tall grass and bramble bushes jagging through our clothes. Ten yards in we hit a boggy stream. We try another place. Same result. I am ready to sit down and cry, but there really was no point. We retrace our steps ‘over the river and through the woods’ to the road, and walk along it for that same 3/4 kilometer till we see a sign and driveway down to our hotel. We arrive shedding puddles with each step and receive an equally cold welcome from the receptionist. Having no elevator, poor Don has to carry both sopping big suitcases down to our room. By the time we got everything damp out of our suitcases and found something dry, our room looked like a rain forest of dripping clothes.

But what a good night’s sleep will do! By morning we were laughing. The waiter escorted us to the far corner table for breakfast. No sooner had we sat than Don nudged me and pointed out the window. Straight ahead was a narrow path that led from the path we’d traveled the evening before to the back veranda of the hotel. If we’d gone ten to fifteen more yards, we’d have found it. We looked at each other and burst out in helpless giggles. If he’d sat us anywhere else in the dining room we’d never have seen it.

So, not sure what the moral of this tale is, other than the originally stated lesson learned, but surely there were more: Don’t be cowed by hardy Scottish ladies, don’t be led astray by handmade signs that take you down the garden path, or do persevere, forward and onward until every option is explored. Or just acknowledge as our children are so fond of reminding us, we aren’t safe to be turned loose in the world by ourselves. (And yes, while going through the damp luggage contents we found the flexipass so from then on Don had two seats on every train we rode in).

Posted by: Robin | July 20, 2010

Travel Socks

Who knew such a thing existed? Ten years ago when I flew to London my feet swelled so badly they barely fit in my shoes, and walking hurt for three days. Determined to avoid this for our August dream trip I thought to be more careful in purchasing my footware. During a visit to our local L.L. Bean I mentioned my concern to the shoe salesman so he could better advise me. He told me about the wonder of travel socks that improve one’s circulation when one is going to be sitting for long periods in planes, trains and automobiles–all of which apply. L.L. Bean had none, but before I could Google, I received that day in the mail one of the more unique catalogs:  Hammacher-Schlemmer. As well as travel socks one can purchase the Ceramic Pet Fountain, the Spring Loaded Walking Shoes and the Always Cool Pillow to name a few. This is the place to shop for the person who has everything. So I am set to be well-circulated as well as well traveled. Oh and BTW, I have a dress pair and an everyday pair so if I need to get gussied up for a night my black argylls it is. So stay tuned. I expect to be a fountain of travel tips before July is out.

Posted by: Robin | July 1, 2010

Last Airbender

I went to see  “The Last Airbender” today. It was the first time I went to a movie by myself, and apart from being proud of this accomplishment after multiple decades of life (despite feeling like an illustration for a which-thing-doesn’t-belong question), I am grateful I was only spending money for one ticket. As a public service I tell you don’t go!

My adult daughter put me onto Nickelodeon’s series “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Not a big fan of cartoons in general and the Japanese anime style in particular, I was skeptical, but I trust her taste. In four days I watched all three seasons through my instant-view Netflix. It was delightful! By turns funny, serious, silly, heart-rending and suspenseful, it rarely hits a false note in it’s storytelling with well-articulated, if archtypal, characters. It also had one of the most satisfying and well crafted finales I’ve seen or read anywhere–everything tied together and addressed with nothing leftover or wasted (the supreme test for my former playwriting guru Jules Tasca).

I am hestitant to detail the elements that jar the viewer familiar with the original series because as my daughter and I compared notes the specific irritations were different and many. And if you insist on checking it out for yourself, I don’t want to put ideas in your head. But what made me saddest was M. Night Shayamalan’ complete failure. As both writer and director he has clearly lost his ability for tightly crafted, sustained storytelling. It looks increasingly certain that we will never see the like of “The Sixth Sense” again. Very little captured me emotionally or drew me into the story, but the handful of times it happened it lasted ten minutes at best. Then clumsy transition after clumsy transition ejected me out again.

While the excuse of time and medium must always be considered in any adaptation, the choice to not make Aang a happy-go-lucky kid’s kid may have been the worst choice in a sadly mismanaged venture. If drawn animation can convey by a sheepish grin, a mischievious giggle or a hung head a world of emotion that the viewer can enter and identify with, it is surely not too much to ask of an actor however young if cast and directed well to do the same. I don’t even want to imagine how different this film would have been in the hands of  Steven Spielberg, or a dozen others who have recently proved themselves adept at fantasy for child and adult alike. “The Last Airbender” evoked maybe five giggles from an entire theater audience during the length of the film after the first five minutes when a young audience wanting to be as enthralled by Aang, Katara and Sokka in the movie as they had been by the series, tried to get in the spirit of the thing with Sokka’s first comic relief moment. From there it went downhill fast.

The best that can be said is that there are a few arresting visual and special effects, and the costume design was gorgeous. So skip the movie and join Netflix. It will be a much better investment of time and money and a lot more thrills, tears and giggles.

Posted by: Robin | June 24, 2010

40 Days and Counting

My husband Don and I will soon be making my dream trip to the UK, visiting London, Cornwall, Cardiff, North Wales and the Isle of Mull and Iona in Scotland. I get more excited with each passing day, and with each additional bit of research I do so I can more fully appreciate the places I am going. It will be Don’s first time out of North America, and I can’t wait to share the experience with him.

The itinerary is shaped by places that appear in the five novel series I am writing, especially the second of the five, but they are also, except for London, the Celtic pockets of Britain that I have read and studied so much about. I am especially thrilled about our time in Wales. My attempts at learning Welsh have been less than a resounding success, so I doubt that I will try to engage anyone in conversation other than a ‘Sut mae?’ here or a ‘diolch yn fawr’ there. Still to explore the places I have read about and studied, to look out from Yr Wyddfa (Snowden) and walk at Garth Celyn (thanks, Ellie) where the last great native princes of Gwynedd walked makes me feel fizzy inside.

In Cornwall we will be exploring Bodmin Moor and Tintagel, both Arthurian sites, with Bodmin also rich in Cornish history and wildlife with standing stones and ruins galore. We’ll stop at that mecca of mystics Glastonbury Tor, another Arthurian site, which my duty as a novelist will require me to climb, and I better be in better shape than I am now if I don’t intend to incur heart failure.

The ruins at Caerleon in South Wales will be our major expedition while in Cardiff, but hopefully we’ll have time just to soak in the city that serves as the Welsh capital before heading north where our center of operations wil be Deganwy for daytrips into Eryri, Snowden National Park, the Isle of Mon/Anglesey, and the northern coast.

Finally, our stay in western Scotland, from which many of my ancestors emigrated to the U.S., will be too short, but to see the place where Colmcille/Columba built a religious foundation that brought Christ to the Scots and Picts will be a great way to end our travels and get a taste of Highland/Western Isles culture. So stay tuned for all the adventures!

Posted by: Robin | February 18, 2010

Addiction

I come from a family that produces offspring with a tendency toward addiction, particularly alcohol, but not exclusively. Up until now I could get obssessive for 2 or 3 days when I came across something that caught my interest. When I write I can be very tunnel-visioned for a few days, but until now I can honestly say I haven’t been bit by this family curse, and of all things it is an online game. For years I wanted to find a medieval-type game to play, but all the ones I knew about required hand-eye dexterity that I lack in profusion. Then just before Christmas I came across Evony. I thought it would only last about a week, but here I am still spending hours a day, and what is confusing is it hasn’t been fun for a while. It has had it’s positive points: it added structure to my unstructured day and in those first fun days pulled me out of a months’ long depression.

It is a game of alliances building cities, troops and fighting wars against each other. I really enjoyed the people in my alliance and enjoyed getting to know them. They taught me how to play, and I began to care about them as people. The problem is that this game is 24/7, demanding constant upkeep, and I got quite good and became a mid-level officer in the alliance. So now when everything is screaming this is no longer a good thing in my life, at least until I can do it sanely, I feel stuck, like these people are depending on me. It’s a game. It is ridiculous. Then why can’t I treat it that way? It has to be something other than the obvious. I may still not have exhaustive self-knowledge, but I think I can say this is unique in my experience. It is hitting some essential inner cord that points to a need that I’ve been ignoring and need to address.
My guess is it is the people, but are relationships real in an unreal environment? People tell me no. Then why do they feel real with the inherent obligations of friendship? I am very, very confused, and I really don’t like it.

People say, “Never say never.” Here is the latest humbling experience to show me the continuing truth of yet another adage of human collective wisdom. I have some major weaning to do.

Posted by: Robin | November 18, 2009

The Limits of Biography

As a writer I am motivated by my love of the story and the lives of the people they reveal. While I understand all too well that communicating through words has limitations, if I am honest, I feel quite the opposite. That is why Amos Bronson Alcott has thrown me for such a loop. Amos Bronson Alcott was the father of Louisa May Alcott, and one of the leading lights of America’s 19th-century Transcendental movement, despite a life of repeated haplessness and failure by any measurable standard. After reading the novel March by Geraldine Brooks I embarked on an Alcott biography binge, puzzled by how close and yet so far the main character was from his semi-biographical inspiration Bronson Alcott. After reading biographies and excerpts of his letters and journals I just don’t get it. How did he keep the loyalty and friendship of Emerson and Thoreau? Why did person after person bail him out financially when he repeatedly proved inept at being realistic in anything he tried? Why did he retain the loyalty and affection of his wife and daughters after a lifetime of criticism and extreme poverty because of his choices and inability to learn from his mistakes?

In his fifties, while his wife and daughters have to work to support the family he embarks on a career as a conversationalist, and travels the East and Midwest for years to gather interested parties to discuss various social justice and spiritual topics (though apparently it was not particularly interactive). Newspaper critics of these ‘perfprmances’ are quoted as saying one may not remember the content of what Alcott says, but one feels elevated. These trips made him money occasionally, but more often he broke even at best. He was in demand again.

Even those who loved and knew him best acknowledged the man was constitutionally incapable of any view but his own, and his own was divinely inspired in his view. He was an exalted ego, and at times those same loyalists admit, off his rocker, and at best, a man of embarrassing contradictions. He was an abolitionist of the first order. Alcott was willing to close his school rather than to close his doors to a free black girl, though that meant his family had no income. His home was a station on the Underground Railroad, and he deliberately tried to martyr himself in a Boston standoff over the trial of an escaped slave who was to be returned to his master. This same man believed that a person’s coloring was a metaphor for his/her capability of spiritual enlightenment (he was blond and blue-eyed). That being so, he proposed all black males be neutered. He thought of his olive-skinned dark-haired wife and second daughter Louisa as agents of darkness.

Words on a page can never explain the appeal of this man. He did some amazingly admirable things, but why he did them and the negligence of thought about anything or anyone but his principles makes these acts of courage and/or generosity questionable. So I am left like a detective with OCD and a puzzle that nothing but a time-machine and meeting the man in the flesh can solve. The even greater frustration is that it brings into question the research I have done on the life of other authors, possibly less inexplicable, but certainly not less complex. Is there something so intangible in a person’s presence and essence that ties all the facts and narrative of their lives together in a way that is always more than the sum of the parts? Can we only know the narrative but not the human being?

Posted by: Robin | November 2, 2009

Color . . . Or, Not

According  to my latest Astronomy of the Day photo, astronomers have calculated the color of the universe, if all the colors of the universe were averaged out (tell me they have more important things to do, please.) The color is a very pale beige ivory that they have playfully dubbed sky ivory, univeige and cosmic latte. For some reason this strikes me as absurdly appropriate because my life has felt univeige for several months now, but maybe I am not as out of step as I thought.

Recently I have been reading March by Geraldine Brooks, a book that parallels Louisa may Alcott’s Little Women, but is told from the father’s view point during his time away serving in the Union Army during the Civil War. I recommend the book, though I think she makes some artistic choices that are inconsistent with Alcott’s semi-autobiographcal characters, but for the purposes of this blog, reading the novel inspired me to dig up my grad school research on the Transcendentalists and Bronson (the father) and Louisa May Alcott. What is not as well known is that Alcott wrote several Gothic thriller novellas under pseudonyms because they paid well.  In the intro to some of these collected tales Madeleine Stern quotes a a comment of Miss Alcott’s to explain why she would not allow her real name to be used for these stories. It’s inclusion will be self-explanatory:

. . . I indulge in gorgeous fancies and wish that I dared inscribe them upon my pages and set them before the public  . . . How should I dare to interfere with the proper grayness of Old Concord? The dear old town has never known a startling hue since the redcoats were here. Far be it from me to inject an inharmonious color into the neutral tint. And my favorite characters! Suppose they went cavorting at their own sweet will, to the infinite horror of dear Mr. [Ralph Waldo] Emerson, who never imagined a Concord person as walking off a plumb line stretched between two pearly clouds in the empyrean. To have had Mr. Emerson for an intellectual god all one’s life is to be invested with a chain armor of propriety . . . .” (Stearn xxvi, Behind a Mask: The Unknown Thrillers of Louisa May Alcott. New York 1984)

As a former art major I know the paradox of white light being made up of all the colors of the spectrum and that to mix black, or as close as an artist can get if she doesn’t have black paint, is to mix all the colors of the spectrum together (it’s more a shade of dark brown, but you catch the gist.) I would have thought with all that dark empty space would have overwhelmed the other colors, but it is more light than dark. Bland as the color may be, and a bit of a letdown for one fascinated with the heavens as I am, maybe it is hopeful that the dark could not overwhelm the light, as chapter 1 of the Gospel of John tells us. And for all the gray constraints of Old Concord for the inner-Louisa who wanted to paint in lurid colors from time to time, Old Concord and Mr. Emerson are still deserving of affection and humor rather than resentment. Maybe after a handful of decades of life if all the bright colors have for a while blurred together into a univeige for a while, it is just in the nature of life and the universe, and there too is there something to learn.

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