Sunday, December 29, 2013

When January comes, will I be painting snow?

I don't know yet, but in the meantime I'm looking at anything green, like the orchids my friends Elina and Jeff gave me.

Later, I'm hoping to go all Pieter Brueghel the Elder. Lots of snow and black trees.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Emile's coming home!

Yes, not until next Tuesday, but I'm getting excited in preparation.

Saturday, November 30, 2013

NaNoWriMo and Escapist Literature

My name is Julia, and I am addicted to escapist literature. I'll read far into the night, even through the night, to get to the end of a story.

Even a cluster of not exceptional YA fantasy stories, like the ones I've recently brought home from the library.

(Librarian: "You know those are from the young adult section?" Me: Blank look.)

Or maybe the stories are good, and I've just had a temporary raising of the bar for books in general, from having finished Abigail Thomas' memoir, Three Dog Life. Which is one of those books full of truth written beautifully, that often made me laugh, about loss of what we know, and loving what takes its place.

Profound, in other words.

Most of what I read isn't profound.

My mother, who worked in a bookstore for part of my childhood, brought home great boxes of books without their covers.

Some of my all time favorite books, of which I know every illustration, I wouldn't recognize on your coffee table at a distance, from never having seen the cover art.

The Changeling, by Zylpha Keatley Snyder, was one of those. I remember that this book meant something. It, too, was about loss, and... um... It's been a long time since I've read it, but I just ordered it through the library so I can share it with my daughter. I really hope it holds up.

Then there were the entire boxes of coverless Harlequin romances from that same bookstore. I read every one. I was fourteen or so. Some of them were weird (bad guy wearing a green monster costume and trying to hunt down the MC and romantic lead, MC emptying her bladder while hiding/hanging under a balcony, having conveniently forgotten to wear underwear?), and most of them were racy, what my aunts called "thigh sweaters".

I wonder if the covers would have put me off?

In Normandy, where for one summer and fall I lived on a farm, I found the WWII era stash of pulp mysteries and westerns in English. I am proud of this: I have read much the oeuvre of Zane Grey, the pulp writer mocked in The Third Man.

I'm not saying the pulp was good, but it went well with the Nutella and tea in my lonely little hut.

Books steal the night, and then there is the next day. Tired often leads to sad and crabby, which is no fun for anyone.

So why do I write escapist literature? It seems like a heck of a lot of real life work put into escaping. Maybe, if I'm around for the next few years, I might try to write something true and beautiful that makes people laugh.

But for this year, I will keep at my unambitious little fantasy novel set, coincidently, near where I read all those Zane Grey novels in France.

Do you, too, write books that might feed escapism? Do you read late into the night? How do you feel about it?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What comes next?

Surgery was a month ago. Since then I have been sleeping, writing, painting (a little) and playing with my children.

Each child alone is a pleasure, although the two together are baking soda and vinegar.

I'm not saying which is which.

Finally, Laurent took smallest monkey to France, where smallest monkey will spend a whole month alone with his grandparents, because we all needed a break, including Emile.

He might even start maternelle, preschool, there, for a short while.

Everyone gets a break, but I miss him like crazy.

Starting tomorrow, I will be going to Boston every day for radiation - that's three hours round trip for 15 minutes of being turned into the Hulk. I'm doing it because they will also be giving me more chemo, and I apparently love chemo that much...

Every day is hard. It's a mixture of crabby because I might die within the next five years, and blissed out because life is so beautiful, and crying when I hug my family. It's extremely emotional.

On the lighter side, I've written 27,000 words for NaNoWriMo. Yes, that leaves me a bit behind for 50,000 words by November 30th, but I'm still pretty pleased with myself. I didn't stop at 12,000 words, for example.

Also, I'm writing a guest blog post for Katie Dunn, "The 8 Point Dystopian YA Formula." I'll let you know when it's live.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

My heroes get younger as I get older. Wait...

I was first introduced to Lorde by Maggie Stiefvater, who had made a writer's playlist that included Lorde's stellar song "Tennis Court". I listened for words, and for music. It was addictive.

Then I heard "Royals", and was swept away. Using beautifully constructed pop music to talk about pop music...

I assume I am not the only ancient trying to sing the lyrics.

And I found out she'd received flack for saying that one of Selena Gomez's songs conveyed a portrait of women that Lorde, as a feminist, was a bit tired of. I'm so happy that she said this.

She's only sixteen. I hope her career continues to be beautiful.


The Day of the Dead is Laurent's and my anniversary. We haven't yet celebrated it this year. Maybe it's feeling a little too morbid.


Words are finally beginning to struggle for freedom as NaNoWriMo progresses. Alas, they are not the words in this year's novel. A happy, dull, complacent little story, I'm afraid.

Nope, what I really want to write is a long stream of nonsense that curdles sentences, and makes letters fall apart. Side effect of chemo?

Monday, October 28, 2013

This is not a lottery - trying to live with fear of recurrence

I imagine surgery, especially the anesthesia part, is really still at play in my psychological system. It has been less than two weeks, after all, since saying goodbye to any opportunity for more children (Yay! ahem) and goodbye to my shape.

Thank goodness I was never very curvaceous, as it makes for less of a transition.

I am already at the point where I can look in the mirror without cringing, though, when I come out of the shower. In fact, I'm feeling love for what I see.

Thank you Dr. Susan Troyan, at Dana Farber. She did a wonderful job with an infrequently demanded result: nipple sparing mastectomies with no reconstruction.

My logic for no reconstruction is that I loved my breasts, and did not love replacement ones. They would never have been the same, not even close, and would have led to more major surgery.

No, I'll pass. And I am happy with my decision.

But, as I said in my last blog post, the surgery is done, and now... I am scared, I have to confess.

Part of me wants to think that having had the surgery takes me out of running for death bingo. Yes, there is a part of my brain that believes that, if I avoid death today, I am golden for eternity. If it doesn't come today, it won't come tomorrow, and it won't come in some vague future that my optimistic human brain does not really grasp.

Those who die chose the wrong lottery number, says this brain, and that's too bad for them. It won't happen to the rest of us.

I saw Lou Reed play when he opened for the 17th Karmapa, maybe five years ago. I am shocked, emotionally, that such a figure has died. He has written so much of the soundtrack to my life, and has transformed in such interesting ways, that it's hard to imagine him not there. He chose the wrong lottery number. What a loser.

Goodbye, Lou Reed. Thank you for everything.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Surgery over, tubes out, no longer a cyborg

Wow. What a journey. This stop: Just Be With It.

I have had many steps and stages and levels and measurements along the way, and that made it easier to deal with this whole cancer thing. But those are done, and now I have to .... do nothing.

Except.... what?

Exercise. They're all pretty clear on that. 40 minutes of getting my heart rate up, three or four times a week.

Don't drink more than a glass of wine a day. (Uh, no problem.)

The triple negative bogey man is scaring me, though. Hmm. Maybe I should be this for Halloween. Maybe I should own Halloween this year.

Maybe I'll just be ye old skeleton.

"If it comes back, not in the same spot, it is incurable," is what I heard, more or less, from the oncologist. "But we are hopeful for you." Ach.

Breathe. One nanosecond at a time.

Monday, October 14, 2013

Pre-surgery painting

Surgery is in two days. 


I am under an emotional waterfall, for now, so I took time out to paint, while Emile was napping, and Lucy was playing with a friend.

Wish me luck!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Limp, hobble, paint - finishing a painting

Painting is work. It is truly enjoyable work, but that doesn't remove the work part. And I don't always feel like doing it, especially when every part of me is grumbling with pain. But this appeals to me - no choice, just do it.

Wake up, eat, prepare a surface, get absorbed (hear that sucking sound?) by the world wide web, then get myself out the door, hopefully carrying all the requisite brushes and paint, along with a large enough supply of water.

Then the park for three hours. It always surprises me how much those three hours take out of me, because I don't notice the time passing while I'm there. Afterwards, however, I'm wiped.

You are reading the words of one of the newly minted park regulars. I have been frequenting one particular spot, where the landscape is pleasing and the shade is good (sun radically alters paint colors, and can't be trusted).

Two guys come every day to a spot a few yards from my favorite perch, one on his bike, one in his car. They meet on a park bench. They talk, and laugh, for hours, these middle aged men, unkempt, one sounding a bit boozy, the other just slightly off his rocker.

Today there was a strong aroma of pot. Fun times. Reminds me of Berkeley, a not unpleasant thing.

I've been experimenting with using the existing background in my paintings, treading on and stumbling over the line between undercooked and overdone. I'm waiting for the day when I come home and Laurent says, "Oh, you didn't finish today."

Saturday, September 28, 2013

Painter crushes, and last chemo!

I was just talking to another artist, Sokuzan Bob Brown, about our favorite painters. I had forgotten the name of one of my favorites, Paula Modersohn-Becker, known for her portraits. She's one of the most important of the German expressionists, but she is often ignored in the U.S. Is it because other people, like me, just forget her name, harder to remember than, say, Max Beckman?

Anyway, I was looking at her work online, after I found a postcard of one of her paintings in my underwear drawer (yes, that's how much of a crush I have; no risk, though, 'cause that grave is long cold) and saw some beautiful landscapes.

Happy day, I had my last chemo (hopefully forever) yesterday! Now to sit out the side effects, which threaten to last longer than last time.

I was talking to my sister about how my painting has become more looking than doing, and that it has turned into three hour decision-making sessions, which is exhausting. She said that when she starts having to make decisions she knows she lost the thread somewhere, and has to go under the decision to get back to the senses.

I remember feeling a sort of bodily dance in landscape painting outdoors. I think part of the issue may be that I am using acrylics. They dry so quickly that I have to make many conscious decisions before even mixing them.

Goals, then: get my easel back out of uhaul, since we aren't moving yet-- ditto winter boots; buy prepared canvas, for ease; break out the oils.

 (September 25)

Monday, September 23, 2013

Hot landscape flashes

I'm having chemically induced hot flashes every time I have a hint of an emotion. Really, I am so glad this won't be going on for ten whole years, as it so often does... On the other hand, as the weather gets colder, it's kind of nice to feel the heat. Especially while painting outdoors.
 (September 21)

Laurent surprised me with a trip to Block Island for my birthday. It was too windy for lighthouse painting, but I did squat among some trees for the above sketch. Pretty sure I didn't get any ticks.

Below are some paintings from before and after the trip. I'm working on how I want to "talk" about the landscape, as maybe you can see.

 (September 19)

 (September 20)  (September 23)

Update: More playing with contours, today.

  (September 24)

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Villain motivations, query letters, and the end of testosterone

Illegally driving to Roger Williams Park again to paint. It's the perfect weather for it.

Now back to writing.

If you know the enneagram, then you'll know something about nines. This personality type, I've been told, wants everyone to get along, la la la, and will ignore evidence to the contrary.

Okay, I am oversimplifying. But supposedly that is my prerogative, as a nine. Or maybe a five. Or maybe an eight. Whatever.

At any rate, it is true that I just want all my characters to get along and be happy, which is an unfortunate starting place for a fiction writer.

So I did this internet search, no joke, to find out "why people do bad things". It sent me to this website, with a rundown of 27 reasons people do dumb a** **it. For in internet list, it was actually informative. If you spend most of your life sticking your head in the sand. Which, as a nine, I do. Allegedly.

The list also seems like a good source for plot lines. I have been going through the roll call to add to my 100 plot lines exercise. I am now on #43. This exercise is harder than I thought it would be.

Bon bon bon, alors, now, in another novel related vein, I am writing an agent query for the novel I wrote in 2011, looking over the first five pages again.

I am beginning to understand my friend Sarah's tactful question about intended audience, because the beginning wasn't "obvious." Or some other gentle way of saying that the first pages didn't grab you and tell you what the story was about, or why one might be interested in reading it.

Uh oh. I like the first five pages, but they take the reader back about fifty years before the main action... Mistake?

Twiddling my thumbs, thinking. Okay, now I've rewritten (again) the first few pages. I think it is more accessible. But it still starts in the same time period as it did before.

I decided to rewrite the query, so that the mini-synopsis is cast off from the same point as the book. I just won't go into as much detail about the characters who come later on down the pipeline, even though they are more pivotal to the book. Again, mistake? I don't know.


I took off my hat while collecting Lucy and Emile from their play time with the little boy across the way, and his eyes got big. 

“What?!” he said, surprised. “You mean you still have cancer?!”

Yep. I still have cancer. The cancer diaries continue.

I met with the gynecological surgeon today. I had assumed that the surgeon I already have would be removing my ovaries, too, but I assumed wrong. So, two surgeons, one morning. At the end, no breasts, no ovaries, no hair (still). 

A bald eunuch.

This surgeon reminded me that all hormones would stop, too, meaning no testosterone, so no sex drive.

This sounds alarming. Does that also mean no orgasms?? Is all pleasure from testosterone?

Can't be, right? What about the pleasure of touch? We'll see, I guess.

The pain of taxol is better when I get enough sleep, and it's easier to sleep when the pain isn't as bad, so I have been trying not to get sucked into a downward spiral this time. Last time I overindulged in late night movies, and was the worse for it. Although I enjoyed the movies... So instead I am writing and reading, and trying to be in bed at a reasonable hour. 

Yesterday I saw a young child, maybe four years old, being wheeled around in a plastic car by his papa, along with the child's chemo bag. Man, if we could keep this from happening to little folks, that would be a marvelous thing.

Other posts about writing, and NaNoWriMo:  Novel Inspiration, and How to Get Some,  The End of NaNoWriMo,  Southerners must be laughing...,  NoMo what?,  Preparing for National Novel Writing Month,  Fiddle Advice, Noveling Novelties, and Wildness,  and  Writing "The End".

Monday, September 16, 2013

Islands make good book fodder

I just finished an advanced reader's copy of The Waves, An Island Novella, by Jane Minkman.

No relation to Virginia Woolf's work. In spite of the title and the lighthouse on the cover. Definitely not as much of a downer, bless Woolf's soul.

Book theme: Losing your childhood beliefs does not mean you lose all faith in the world. Walt is inspired by an older cousin who questions the status quo without being cynical, but it takes going to a land where no one shares his beliefs for him to find his own peace with what he had always been taught.

The novella was peopled with good, sympathetic characters. It had a bit of the feel of Ursula K. Le Guin, in the world building around arbitrary systems of beliefs. And a bit tame Lord of the Flies. The obvious sources of their ways of seeing the world was not treated as a joke, even though it could have been, instead just imbuing the story with a sweet tolerance. 

I would recommend this to a teen reader, and look forward to more from this author. Too bad about the cigarette smoking scenes, though.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Reviewing children's books: Sasquatch in the Paint, or From Nerd to Jock

I just finished reading the upcoming children's book, Sasquatch in the Paint, by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Raymond Obstfeld. I was given an advanced e-reader's copy, and I can never resist a children's story.

I was looking forward to reading about a boy's life in a book written by two men, hoping for some insights into the male child's psyche. I read the book quickly, even though it was full of b-ball jargon; it is a tale of a nerd gone jock. In fact, I think it was a little heavy on the sports talk, but I am not a twelve year old boy, so who knows. Here is my take on the story.

Pros: It was very easy to imagine the three main boys' feelings, to get inside their skin, so to speak. And  some of those feelings arose from the absence of mothers. A passage that revolved around egg whites was especially touching, with one parent learning to fill the hole left by the other, and the feelings of retrospective gratitude.

The pretty convincing theme of the book seemed to be the change in three boys that led them from their past selves to selves who were more responsible and hopeful. This was pulled off well.

Cons: The main issue with the book, probably not surprisingly, is that the female characters lack depth or credibility. The main female character is too much of a mystery, a perfect cool girl, who knows basketball, knows huge amounts of trivia valued by the boys around her, and expresses overly mature motivations.

The main villain in the book is also fairly inexplicable. No one understands her, least of all the reader.

Final criticism of the book is of the excessively, pointlessly, scooby-doo resolution of the mystery portion of the novel. It really didn't need to be there for the story to work.

Overall, I would say this novel might be a good read for a twelve or thirteen year old kid, especially a boy, who might be wondering what adulthood will look like, and how their internal landscape will change to fit what the world wants of them. It could help them get a better grip on positive ways to take charge of their own development.  

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Learning Vibrato as an adult

Although no one had attempted to teach me vibrato until this year, I've been playing the violin slash fiddle for a long time now.

Oh, holy relics. I just realized how long ago I started. @^! I mean 26 years. That's... calculating hours... assuming I played 4 hours per week (never was strong at practicing) times 50ish weeks a year - years without touching it (let's say maybe 5, scattered here and there)...

That's about 4,200 hours. I still have, according to the idea popularized by Malcom Gladwell, 5,800 hours before I am good at it.

Because I don't hope to be excellent at it. As Temple Grandin so rightly pointed out here, some talent is also required. And though I have enjoyment and enthusiasm, talent is left out of the equation.

No matter. Let's saw away, happily. And maybe get a touch better at it.

So, to that end, what about this idea of vibrato? If you didn't start when you were a kid, and you have no innate talent, can you still do it? My teacher, John Sumerlin of the Proteus Quartet, thought so, and he gave me a lesson on it. Here's what he said I should do. (Special thanks to John Sumerlin for reviewing the steps to learning a good vibrato.)

1. Put the bow down. You won't be needing it for a while, and you might even want your right hand to help hold the fiddle up, to relieve your jaw a bit.

2. Move the left hand up against the fiddle, to prevent the arm from wobbling in the air, and to keep the wrist steady. Have the violin contact your arm just BELOW the hand, immobilizing the arm but allowing the wrist to move freely. It's only the hand and the fingers that are supposed to do the moving.

3. Choose the most adept finger, and get the motion down with that one, first. I used the second finger, the middle finger. Now, the motion:

4. Place the finger on the fingerboard, preferably on an actual note, on whichever string is easiest for you. Choose an F natural on the A string for the note, and include the release as you flatten the finger, causing a harmonic to be produced. That is the crucial element, because without the release the vibrato will be too tight and therefore too narrow.

5. Make the finger bridged up, bent at all the joints, and then, second motion, roll back until the finger is lying down with all the joints flat and the finger merely touching the string, not pushing it down at all.

6. Repeat this action as if the point was to create a kind of bunny running action, a quick contact with the ground,accompanied by a more leisurely rolling back away.

7. Do this once, then twice, then in quadruplets, until you have built up an ability to be regular and rhythmic. Work on speed in the next step.

8. Now work on speed.

The idea is that if you work on this for five minutes a day, said my teacher, then you should get it in a few weeks. Then you move on to other fingers, and other positions. As the below video demonstrates, it is even possible to do it with your third finger. Even your fourth.

I have to confess, though, my husband still walks into the room looking for the fly he needs to kill when I bow this vibrato.

Oh well. Only 9,998 hours to go.

It seems like everyone teaches vibrato differently. What advice have you been given? Do you feel it's important to learn it?

For more of my posts on fiddle tunes: Improving on the Fiddle,  Giraffes and, well, fiddle songs about drugs, House Sings Saint James Infirmary, Ashokan Fall, Setauket, a Mystery So Far, Fiddle Advice, Noveling Novelties, and Wildness, and Improving on the Fiddle

Sunday, September 8, 2013

Novel Inspiration, and how to get some

NaNoWriMo season is coming up. National Novel Writing Month, for anyone who might find that first word meaningless. The NaNoWriMo kickoff day, the Day of the Dead (which is also our wedding anniversary) is soon after my major skeletonizing surgery, which will be in the latter half of October.

I have participated in the Nano circus for the last two years, and I think I remember winning last year. My novels tend to grow post November, so I'm not totally certain about this...

I think I will try to do it again this year. An acquaintance of mine, Usha Bilotta, mentioned that having all the lymph nodes out meant not being able to raise that arm for weeks. As the surgery is in my right arm, that means no bowing arm for the fiddle (although they would've had to be awfully simple songs if my left hand couldn't do the fingering) and no drawing or painting. Probably.

But I could still type with my left hand.

This means that, for me, it's story brainstorming season. Which means that I am spending a lot of time on other people's blogs, trying to glean their ideas from them.

Maggie Stiefvater (my hero) wrote a blog post on starting novels, not exactly telling me where inspiration comes from, but what to do when it has arrived. It's kind of anti-NaNo, in that she advocates quality over quantity, and starting only once you know how a scene will end, and stopping at the end of that scene. In fact, she even recommends knowing the entire book's ending before starting to write.

I am never very motivated by other people's finish lines, but more my own interior goals, so Stiefvater's advice makes sense to me.

But back to that inspiration thing. I really love writing novels and inventing characters, but coming up with the original storyline is like pulling teeth. Why? I never have any problems coming up with painting ideas, or drawings, or even poems (very bad poems, though, I have to admit), but I can't seem to think a single plot line without rolling my eyes, dismissing it as trite, or prurient, or depressing, or just super lame.

I think my writing brain is not on very good terms with my dream brain. Or id. Or subconscious. Or whatever. Maybe it's because I started writing books as an adult, whereas my visual art had no choice but to suffer the idiocy of adolescence.

So I am trying out a different approach. I began a document called "100 Story Ideas" a few days ago, and am now on number 19. At first, each entry was only a line, and you don't need to see the eyes rolling to know they were there. Number 18 was nearly a page long.

I'll let you know what happens when I get to 100.

If you write, let me know in the comments how and where you get your inspiration!

Other posts about NaNoWriMo, and writing: The End of NaNoWriMo,  Southerners must be laughing...,  NoMo what?,  Preparing for National Novel Writing Month,  Fiddle Advice, Noveling Novelties, and Wildness,  and  Writing "The End".

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Landscape painting, comparing myself to others

I have had a good life, so far. I have traveled a fair bit, eaten some good food, loved some wonderful people and animals.

That doesn't stop me from comparing myself to others. Notably one other, a woman ten years my junior. The woman had a successful (in that she could support at least one person on her income) career as an artist, and then she became a best selling author. She plays celtic music. She rides horses. Unbelievably, two kids. Even a shared affinity for cookie dough. I'm talking about Maggie Stiefvater. Here is one of her acrylic paintings. Sketches here. Great interview, one hour long, here.

Fountain Bookstore, by Maggie Stiefvater

And here is her blog on how she accomplishes it all.

What have I been doing with my time? Yes, I'm dealing with cancer, chemo, mortality, yada yada. But before that?

So, this is where being kind to myself comes in -- a radical concept -- and I think the following things:

1. I struggle with depression and anxiety, which tend not to be helpful when inviting rejection from galleries and agents.
2. My childhood and young adulthood were fairly messy. Maybe good for creating subject matter, but bad for creating early success.
3. I'm scatterbrained.
4. I lack discipline, and the corollary,
5. I dislike routine.
6. Most importantly: Who cares about the past? There is only ever now.

Back to Ms. Maggie Stiefvater. I will permit myself a little hero worship, but I'll try not to beat myself up about being other than where I am.

I managed another little sketch from Roger Williams Park today. Here it is.

Oh, and I forgot: A beautiful painted animation by Maggie Stiefvater that is really inspiring me to create another paint animation this autumn.

Tuesday, September 3, 2013

All in all, still thinking pain is better than seasickness

I spent a lovely weekend talking with friends I hadn't seen in a while, and playing a touch of music, too.

My friend Camille (last year I made an animation for her music video) brought her fiddle, and introduced me to a few fiddle ornamentations, for both Mairi's Wedding and The Butterfly -- grace notes and double stops!

But her main advice was that learning to play with other musicians, in a session or just informally, is like learning a new language. You have to get over the wanting it to be right and perfect, and just mess up like a little kid. I'll have to look for some sessions to test out that approach.

Today, now that the monkeys are back in school after the long weekend, I painted a foal for Lucy. She approves. She's been asking me for a horse painting for a little while. (Thanks to MorgueFile, and kelpie.)

I'm assuming now that Emile will want the same.


This bit of the cancer treatment, chemo number two, is a chemical called Taxol. According to my friend Camille, it originally comes from the bark of the Pacific yew tree, and is also found in some type of fungi. She cited it as a classic argument for looking into herbal medicine.

All I know is that I'm relieved it isn't the AC (cyclophosphamide, doxorubicin), which "helped" me lose fifteen pounds. Insert unhappy face here.

Taxol makes me hurt, but doesn't keep me from eating, drinking, hugging my children. Hard, but such a relief! And it only hurts for a few days.

These achy joints might be a preview of old age, and, if I don't make it out of the five year mark (the standard "cured" date for triple negative cancer, I have been told) then maybe I should be grateful for this glimpse now.

Update: Yes, I broke the law. I took the car, sans driver's license, to Roger Williams Park to do a little landscape painting. I was too achy to be actually plein air, but I at least got to sit in the car and do this little painting.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

A different way of painting landscapes

Plein air painting has many qualities to recommend it -- an appreciation of the imposing beauty of the natural world, a meditative experience, a simple excuse to pass hours of the day outdoors in fine weather, etc -- but I still wanted to see what it would be like to approach it as I do my animal paintings, and my portraits.

And winter, sigh, isn't far behind this gorgeous end of summer.

So I took photos from which to paint, prepared a canvas with a solid color I felt like resonating off of, did a preliminary drawing in one color of chalk (pink, this time), then grounded them to the canvas with acrylic paint of the same color. 

Next I started creating the color scheme with more acrylic paint. And then this time, unlike in other paintings, instead of refining in acrylic, I moved on to oils. 

Some of the oils are water soluble, but most aren't so I just treated them all like regular linseed based oil painting. I don't use solvents or a medium, and then I clean up with vegetable oil, followed by regular dish soap. It works really well, and isn't dangerous in a child and cat-filled house.

The result has a less raw quality, more finished and even a little refined. Worth playing with, don't you think?

Monday, August 26, 2013

New exercise regime?

I have been watching April Verch videos, supposedly while painting (ahem), and have decided that she is modeling my new plan for good health: she fiddles like a brilliant madwoman, and tap dances out complimentary triplets, often while fiddling at the same time.

It's stunning.

And I think doing even a tiny fraction of what she does would make me more fit than I was when I played rugby in college.

Here are a few examples:

And if all of that made you tired, and you need to sit down and read a book, I have a couple of recommendations.

If you haven't read Wolf Hall, by Hilary Mantel, already, you're in for a treat. I've never read such a sensitive, but not precious, novel, with so much bloodiness. It can make Game of Thrones look like dull, heavy-handed documentary.

Oh, fine, maybe I go too far there.

But it is oh so good...

And then, in literary fantasy young adult fiction (yes, all of that), is Maggie Stiefvater's Scorpio Races. It's unusual in the current young adult world, in that a sequel would be a let down. It's such a tidy and wild story that there is no room for more. Man eating horses, an Inis Mor style island... Need I say more?

It's nice to read what I know I could never write, and these two women, in completely different genres, are clearly out of my league. Not even in the same ocean.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Gloop, gloop...

You might have noticed the increase in jellyfish population. It is generally agreed that this is related in one way or another to oceanic imbalances...

But individually, they are beautiful. And fun to draw and paint.

This one is from a morguefile photo, of what Wikipedia identifies as a sea nettle, or a Chrysaora jellyfish.

Pretty name. I also like real nettles, prettiness-wise. And eating-wise.

Have you eaten a jellyfish? I haven't yet, but I fancy we all might in the next decade or two, maybe in a nice seaweed salad. Yum.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A very hard week is finally over

A friend commissioned a portrait from me, and so today, for the first time, I was able to work on a quick sketch for the work. I'm noticing that working on it absorbs me completely, which is kind of a wonderful feeling these days.

Plus she wants jellyfish in the painting. I think I would like to spend a while painting jellyfish. M├ęduse, in French, which I love. It is a more mysterious name than jellyfish, right?

*  *  *

Some brave souls intimated that chemo would get harder toward the end. I hope they were just talking about the AC bit of the menu, because I am not entirely convinced I could get through worse than this last week.


Sort of.

And I'm having dreams of fighting and catching villains who are wearing full plastic factory aprons, covered in wet grey paint... Metaphor for my very sweet chemo nurse?

Update: While Laurent went to get Lucy at camp I had a chance to paint -- not for long, but enough for another sketch:

Monday, August 5, 2013

Home with the crickets

One child at camp, and one at school. It was a surprising morning, in that the house was quiet. I painted, in spite of the chemo and anti-nausea drug haze.

I have to admit that I was not feeling much fire in my belly as I painted today, but it was calming.

Emile, apparently, speaks way more English than we knew he did. He needed none of the translations from the cheat sheet his papa had made for the teacher. Hunh. Wonder what else we don't know...

Update: After noodling around all day, trying to decide whether it was better to sit, lie, or stand, I managed another painting. These quick paintings are very good at keeping my mind off things.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Last of the toughest of the good poison

Causes for celebration, from minor to major:

The VFW Parkway is a very beautiful way to get to Dana Farber.

I have no hair, so showers are quick, and I am rarely overheated.

I am done with the AC chemo part of the treatment, so I have only a couple more rough chemical outfall weeks to wade through, before I start the Taxol.

Emile got into the preschool we chose for him, and

Lucy got into the elementary school she chose for herself. She melted the teacher's heart.

I can still play the fiddle.

I have wonderful family and friends. And cat, who is currently compressing my feet under her considerable weight on the bed.

The tumors have disappeared! Even the oncologist couldn't feel them. This is fantastic.

Now for the less comfortable news:

Double mastectomy.

Ovary removal and early menopause.

At least that is a shorter list, right?

Friday, July 26, 2013

Invasive Spam

Just when my body fell to pot after chemo -- it was a particularly grueling week, witnessed by my sister and brother-in-law, my cat, and then my wee family -- my email got a bug. It got possessed. I was inundated with mailer demons just as the grey chemical pastiness was finally wearing off. Ah, the biodiversity of the digital self...

So, all apologies to anyone who received "my" missives. It's funny how embarrassing it is. I definitely feel responsible, even though I had a maximum security password that I had just changed three months ago. Sigh.

Big news: I kept down three eggs today! Maybe I'll even be up for playing a little fiddle.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Good exercise

Jaune and I are tired today, both of us because we spent the day outside yesterday. She was out doing whatever it is a black cat does in 95 degree weather, and me sitting out in the shade of a tree, painting, stopping for lunch and a swim with a good friend, then stopping again for dinner with another good friend. Then finishing a book.

This vacation Laurent and Lucy and Emile are on in France is turning out to be not so bad for me.

I was trying to describe a feeling I had before the 2nd chemo session, as the fourth of July fireworks exploded and I walked to my friends' house to spend the night, friends who are also my sister's in-laws. The best I could do is this poem:

Now space calling wisps
Cardinal points expanding and evaporating
This surprise
My hair short shaved
On my fingers
Mine I see and dream
What delight
Cry with a heavy heart expanding and dissolving
Holding and loving what is only a dream

Update: Painting outside, day two.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

The bald painter

A favorite painting of mine (it's of my cat, therefore a favorite) just sold, so I had to make a replacement:

I'm feeling surprised that I got through the several steps required to do this... Well, okay, it did take me a few weeks. But still.

Lucy is suffering happiness in France, and Emile is showing off his climbing skills. Me, I'm bald. And enjoying the cicadas. Mmm. One of my favorite sounds. And now the chemo is starting to calm it's tide, so I can enjoy them...

Monday, July 1, 2013


In all of this sudden natural disaster of my health, I have many small glimpses of wonderfulness.

From time to time I look at Emile, or Lucy (photos, she's still living in the paradise of her cousins' attention) I see such beauty that it's as if the sky has split apart.

And I see just how deeply I love my husband, and my sister, and all of the many other people who are sharing their love and caring with me right now, reaching out and wielding human kindness in a way that I didn't know was possible.

And I have a new bike helmet. Which means that I am biking.

I biked five miles from therapy today, along the cesspool that is Allen's Avenue, and I was nevertheless pleased.

Hot, but pleased.

Some of my life's finest memories involve my bicycle. Biking to the library as a kid, by myself, to escape the insanity of home, along beautiful streets and through beautiful parks. Biking along the Charles River, one hour each way, to get to work, and biking along the French coastline to get to a a farm in Normandy where I would spend the next six months ostensibly cleaning out blackberry brambles, Sleeping Beauty style, but really just reading 40s crime pulp fiction, eating Nutella, and painting landscapes.

Bicycles are freedom, for me.

Of course, I suppose this is the good thing about having let my driver's license expire by TWO AND A HALF YEARS.


Driver's test August 8th. Must remember not to bump bumpers while parallel parking.

Wish me luck.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Breast cancer chic... mostly just woozy

Laurent and I decided that it might be best if I just cut my hair off, to avoid trauma for all. For 48 hours Lucy was insisting that I should glue it back on. But then, it had been the ostensible reason for her tears when we told her about the cancer. Poor muffin.

It is very hot these days, 90 degrees plus, so we have taken to running Emile after the sun starts giving in to gravity. Always hard to keep up with a toddler, but especially in heat with chemo queasiness.

We bundled little Lucy off to France yesterday, and skyped long enough today to hear all about the pain au chocolat and her bike ride with her cousins. Kisses, Lucy!

Friday, June 21, 2013

Now I am sitting in the chemo chair, which has a warmer and a back massager. I love Dana Farber.

Well, this is not exactly comfortable, typing with a big plastic jigger sticking out of my arm. I am over the moment of queasiness, which was remarkably short. 

My sister just went out to buy espresso pods on Newbury Street for her fancy espresso machine. I am glad she went out for a bit, so she isn't stuck in the hospital, and I don't feel guilty that she is trapped among wires and sealed windows, and I have a moment to write. 

But I am grateful to tears that she came with me, and stayed with me, and came back from France. I am very lucky to have a wonderful sister. Not everyone has such a good hand dealt to them. She was there during the birth of each of my children, she was there for each of my graduations. 

Oh, except the one from art school, where I cried even though I had been miserable while I was there. Perhaps I cried from relief. Nevertheless, it was embarrassing, up there on the stage, grabbing the diploma while grimacing with tears.

My body is full of toxins now. I've been hooked up to an I.V. for two hours. 

The Haitian nurse, Andrea, is discomfitting the young man who is with his mother next door, by telling the woman what a handsome young man she has... Aside from making young men blush, Andrea is lovely and warm, with a beautiful talent for making people feel cared for. 

I have promised to bring to her next week the name of the Haitian linguist who spoke at UMass last fall about education in Haiti.I must remember.

The queasiness is back, escorted by dimwittedness. Thank goodness my sister is driving us home.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

A haircut

It is very hard not to look on the internet. Generally I shouldn't, because of the scary pictures of swollen limbs, urgent recommendations for cold hats, and strident imprecations against Locks of Love. But it's also hard to do anything else, except maybe sweep the floor. 

Before I had children I had an infinite ability to lose myself in projects and work. My husband, then my boyfriend, had to wait months before I was ready to take time out even to watch a movie together with him. Now I hesitate, endlessly prevaricate, thinking I don't have time... 

Something is out of balance when I feel selfish for writing or drawing or painting instead of watching a TV show. It isn't just the selfishness that holds me back, though. It's also the work. I have become not exactly lazy, but without hope. It does not matter if I make this painting or that, because I will not do anything with it. The time and materials will only add up to one object that must be well treated, but never sees light or love.

Must go. Children crying downstairs, Laurent overwhelmed.

Now it is night, and I am the one putting Emile to sleep, which consists of trying not to engage in his conversation until he eventually drops off, usually with his book open and gently glued to his face. He isn't reading, because he is only not quite three, but he loves to look at the pictures. Even this little act makes me proud of him, makes me feel that he is somehow of a literary mind.

Emile does not stop talking, unless it is to make some sound effect. He has questions about everything he sees. 

I am not ready for tomorrow. I don't think I could be ready for tomorrow anyway. If I could, it would only make me anxious. 

Chemo. It can't be real. I don't have breast cancer. You must be talking to someone else.

This weekend I will go to a hair salon with Lucy, to get a really short haircut. 

This will, I hope, soften the shock of losing it all in the shower, bald as a cue.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Sharron Loree

There are so many comings and goings these days that I can't keep anything straight. I will just share one end point of an internet thread I pulled ("surfing" sounds too pointless, less tangible).

Emile has loved something I picked up for a dollar outside the bookstore, a hardcover called The Sunshine Family and the Pony, written and illustrated by Sharron Loree, published in 1972 by the Seabury Press, New York. The images are a simple black and white style, accompanied by minimal written storytelling, recounting the experience of moving into a commune and acquiring a pony for the children.
On a whim, I started to poke around to find out how the hippie story really went.

Sharron Loree, born in 1938, was on the vanguard of the 60s revolutionary guard for women. Many of her paintings reflect her complex understanding of the differing family roles, particularly when both the woman and the man are painters.

Loree is mentioned as the person who helped writer Valerie Paradiz diagnose her son's autism in a book about the subject. Loree herself had been diagnosed with Asperger's Syndrome.

She still seems to be making 60's style work: here is one of her books at

So why am I so interested? Aside from a sweet and peculiar overlap that this woman has with painter Joan Mitchell, I am generally fascinated by the why's of the hippie era, particularly surrounding children. I am, in many ways, a hippie parent myself, and yet I abhor the selfishness that I perceived in my parents' generation. A child born in the 70s to free thinking young parents, I could not help but be swept into their emotional whirlwinds. They never grew up. Some of Loree's photos from the era capture, to me, the downside for the children, a kind of lonely, the-wolves-may-take-me feeling.

But it wasn't all bad. I see why they wanted community, especially after the soul crushing 50s, particularly for their mothers. I see why they wanted love and freedom, and why they hungered for a more natural world. We ourselves have all but given up that fight, ironically enough because of many of the technological and industrial decisions of our parents.

It was sweet, but it hurt. Maybe it was growth, but it wasn't always healthy. Nor was it always unhealthy. And so I like to eavesdrop and peep back down the tunnel of time, to understand a bit more what they were thinking, and what exactly happened.