Archive for February, 2013|Monthly archive page

In short

In notes on February 28, 2013 at 9:55 am

Useful, for sure. Repeat after me: useful, all of it. If only to remind you how quickly other people’s tales of woes turn cloying, annoying and repetitious; and how quickly they can set up the urge to gloat over the person’s misery, if for no other reason than comic relief.

I’m hoping to get to Lisbon today. Also hoping for a computer on which I can work on the draft without having to bow out for the sake of a cartoon of the Simpsons.

Writers don’t make the best houseguests.


In Animals, Collage, Contes d'Exil, notes on February 27, 2013 at 10:02 am

The camera, yes. For specific details or overall impressions; or the better to capture the specific moment when a thought popped up, or someone said something that made my brain perk up – with annoyance or delight, doesn’t matter.

The companion of choice, though: a Canson sketch book bought in Gaillac for the trip. Fourteen and a half cm wide by twenty cm high, stitched; a copy of the one I’m using in Graulhet for the pottery project.

I managed to open my draft on a decent computer screen yestersday. Set it aside in less than ten minutes. Didn’t come all this way to pick up where I left off, for one. For another, I’m too busy filling the sketch book with whatever shows up – anecdotes, words, expressions, stubs from a museum visit, wrapping from a local pastry – these, queijadas finas produced by the venerable house of Constancia Gomes Piriquita who won the “Diploma d’Honra” at Sintra’s Exposiçao Regional in 1926. Says so right on the elegant wrapping – black Art Nouveau type lettering on white paper.

Last night, the house piriquito took a liking to me and to the contents of my plate. The piriquito  ( a budgie bird, under different climes) goes by the name of PomPom – which is neither here nor there as far as his language skills go. Nonetheless.

The daughter of the house came back from an exploratory visit to Lisboa and brought back tin toys for everyone. A happy coincidence: I spent the afternoon at the Museo do Brinquedo (Toy Museum). Where  I registered the stereophonic effect of the grandson and the grandmother, both expounding on (and demonstrating) their opposing world views.  Did photographic back-ups on some of the local artefacts. The dining room table, for instance. Hand-made by a local cabinet maker. Not used for much else than show due to an unfortunate miscalculation on the part of the craftsman. He used his own body measurements to check knee clearance under the table. The man’s body has short legs – from the thighs to the knees. (Reminded me of the scene in Contes d’Exil where the son of the house insists on building a dining hall cum ballroom; refuses to listen to any expert advice. Once finished, the room is splendid, save for an annoying detail: the chairs. In order to accommodate bodies, they must be pulled away from the table, yes? Yes. How do the foot servants  perform their duties, stuck against the walls, and passing the dishes above the heads of the guests?

With utmost care and deliberation, that’s how.

My working knowledge of Portuguese now consists of obrigado/obrigada (thank you – closer to “much obliged”), ay que jiro/jira (how funny), queijadas (cinnamon flavored cheese tarts), piriquito/piriquita (budgie)*, and brinquedo (toy).

* The house budgie expounds in French.

Estrangement (Finding Humour in)

In Drafts, Story material on February 26, 2013 at 9:30 am

Frustration. Internet connections that conk out. Computers that offer apologies instead of performances; or other people with priority claims on the equipment, the better to play their online sessions of sudoku. Photos I can’t load.  The draft like an itch I can’t quite reach.

Giveaways. Voices, eyes. Forty. Fifty years of living together, sharing the same bed, the same apartment; nursing specific hurts – the time I said such and you answered… Strangers as foils, or excuses, or alibis. Strangers as discomfort; they see through different eyes, respond in unscripted ways.

Strangers, forcing me to deal with behaviors I dislike and opinions I consider offensive. How to respond when you’re the guest? Keep your own counsel. Behave according to the dictates of polite conversation. Watch the inner pressure build up, and the temptations to fall into familiar response patterns.  Treasure troves of self-pity, waiting for a chance to parade in some nicer-sounding disguise.

Parts of this are funny – or would be, if the woman’s voice didn’t grate on a specific frequency inside my head. So I explore the frequency, mining it for its more humourous potential. Glimmers of amusement surface, then go back into hiding. In mid-conversation, I turn my head and give a wall the full benefit of my wide-eyed amazement. He/she just said what?

Finding humour. A tough assignment, sometimes, way beyond post-doctoral requirements. Weather’s great, though. So are some of the pics, if ever I get to share them. And some of the scribbled notes, ditto. Who knows, I may be on the verge of a fabulous breakthrough in the story, I may  jump up and down with delight when I get back to it, I may…

And so, and so, and so it goes.

Sintra Day Two

In Drafts, notes, Revision, Story material on February 25, 2013 at 9:25 am

The simplest explanation : I notice because it fits into parts of the story written before I knew these people. Still. The first thing that comes to view in the room assigned to me : a montage of the man’s military exploits in Mozambique and Angola. Then, the main topic of discussion between a daughter and her mother: gold coins promised to her years earlier – which she receives, short of three that were stolen by a cleaning lady.

At market, old Gypsy women dressed in black, from head to foot; once widowed, they cannot wear colorful clothes ever again. Better than jumping onto the funeral pyre, I suppose. Still.

In the afternoon, a drive down to the sea, and a long, blessed time walking the beach. The Atlantic, in such a rush to hit the shore. No record-breaking, thirty-meter high waves to tempt the surfers yesterday. Sea flotsam – frayed rope, fishing buoys, plastic, of course. Bits of wood, bits of stone.

The town, all steepness and riches to show off to visitors. Some of the tiled buildings: stupendous. Even so, I prefer the countryside; small blue and white fountains in the villages; townspeople with open trunks on their car, filling water bottles from their favored water source. “I hear they built a new fountain in San Joao?  – You don’t want to go there, the water’s polluted, it’s a sham put up for tourists.”

And so on. Now, if the characters will accept to talk to me and to show up on a foreign screen in a different typeface, I should be getting back to story soon. “Writing is a struggle against silence,” Carlos Fuentes reminds me in the sidebar to this post.  Some times, even more so than others. Almost twenty-four hours later, I’m still struggling in my own mind with the public injunction to shut up, delivered by a Portuguese husband to his French-born wife. Everyone else fell silent too.

Sintra – Day One

In Uncategorized on February 24, 2013 at 9:25 am

Cold and lack of sleep. A budgie bird holding everybody’s attention at 2 am local time (3 am by the watch set in France.)

Alone now. Not in the sense of lack of people around me – quite the contrary. Alone with what I set out to do.


A post, once everything’s packed

In Drafts, Revision on February 23, 2013 at 6:27 am

How will the draft read away from this place? In another country, in different circumstances; sharing a living space with two other people or more.

A brief attack of separation anxiety. Will I have an internet connection; will I discover my draft is dreadful; will my dog suffer from loneliness; have I thought of every last, final detail as far as personal obligations go; will I, should I et


Travelling companions: two women sculptor-welders; a twelve-year-old boy. Dimensions of living space in Lisbon: unknown.


Story-wise, I hope to discover more about the characters i.e. I hope to see them as even more separate and different from the person doing the writing.

Yes, this feels like the desultory stuff people yammer while waiting for the train after all the goodbyes. Allez hop.

“Over here, I’ll have the library”

In Circus, Collage, Drafts, Revision, Story material on February 22, 2013 at 7:49 am

What a town. Where to start. With the town crier? With the ditzy-sweet woman who sells leather goods? Those two are book-ends to yesterday.

Her husband is one of the few remaining tannery owners in a town that once counted hundreds. She sells brand name products but also, work done by local artisans. She’s so earnest and loves her products so much, I can imagine her tripping over her own feet and not missing a beat in her description as she picks herself up off the floor. I bought a small red and black coin purse from my friend Anna; showed the woman her work on the computer.  Anna will get a small coin purse in gift wrapping, with a huge fan letter from the ditzy one.

While I was there, a woman came in to show off the bag she picked up at the local thrift shop. Top grade leather, impeccable; retails for about five hundred euro in better shops. Cost to her: one euro. Why? Because, as my neighbor the town crier says: there’s lots of money in this town. I told him the joke a character makes in another piece of fiction I wrote. About the money not rolling all the way down the hill. We talked about the kids I coach, and his former job as a teacher in one of the toughest suburbs outside Paris. The Swat Team Revisited. As in: swatting the two girls  hard with a notebook. What else can you do when both are blue in the face, yet still strangling one another in the school hallway? (He also gave me some interesting tips on how to avoid seeing your printed lessons thrown in the garbage, but I’ll save them for another day.)

The town crier lives a few houses away, in an old warehouse he’s renovating with no money at all. Because of his town crying (he calls it his publicly subsidized psychoanalysis), he knows the merchants quite well. “Wouldn’t your business do better in a fancier town than this one,” he asked the upholsterer near the market place. You must be kidding, the man said. This is the richest town in the area.

Well, we laughed. Raised our glass of wine to the riches of the land. You had to be there to appreciate the scene.  The bathroom’s almost done. The sleeping platforms in the corner of the kitchen look like a Dagwood sandwich, minus the sardine. Most of the space consists of a great rehearsal hall with trapeze. The crier intends to turn it into a small theater – the kind with off-the-wall cabaret-style offerings. Suitable for collective psychoanalysis.

This is a weird, weird town.

Life stories

In Drafts, Revision, Story material on February 21, 2013 at 7:37 am

When I get back, I’ll want a copy of a photo done of a woman who took French lessons with me last year. She’s looking straight at the camera and smiling in her inimitable way. How life evolved the way it did for her? An arranged marriage is part of the equation; to a man with serious issues and no understanding of much of anything. She was his prisoner for over twenty years. After she bore the children, her prison got smaller. She lived in the kitchen with access to the bathroom. When the meals were ready, she’d climb on a chair and pass the dishes  through the opening at the top of the door. Her lucky break happened because he decided he wanted another wife in another town, and set the old one free before leaving. Now, she has a key to her own small appartment. She walks in and out when she wants. She never did learn to write in my class; whatever I said to her? She’d beam that smile of hers at me.

Finding the updrafts; in life; in fiction. Real updrafts. Different from strapping paper wings to your back and repeating “I’m flying! I’m flying!” The yearning that overcomes you when you realize how the need to get away deserves your full attention.

My personal history doesn’t compare in any way to that of the woman in the first paragraph. I need a break, that’s all. A fresh eye, a change in attitude; a different slant from which to read the draft as it now stands. When even writing becomes a slog; when I can’t hear the quieter parts anymore; when everything sounds like scolding.

Two twelve-year old boys filling a whiteboard with greetings, thanks and good wishes. Lisbon, sixteen years later and in a different context. I left stories on park benches there; as was my custom at one time in my life. Maybe one or other of those stories grew into something else?


In Uncategorized on February 20, 2013 at 7:17 am

Ready? To have your work savaged, ridiculed, turned into a bad example? Dismissed, ignored, thrown to the garbage heap without so much as an acknowledgement? Ready to wake up to a swat or a dump? A snarky comment, maybe? Or yet another experience of the back-handed approach to raising the child good.

Personally, I’m ready to leave town. Three more days to a break in the routine. Away from this town, away from this computer; away from all the usual responses to unending annoyances relating to my internet connection. Machine speak mimicking humans; humans mimicking machine speak. Hallo, hark who goes there and so on, ad nauseam.

Away. “You shouldn’t even look at your story while you’re gone,” a friend said to me yesterday. “Go. See other things. Meet other people. Forget all about it.”

Maybe. All I know for now: I’m going away, and that’s the best thing to happen in way, way too long.

Me and my story

In Animals, Circus, Drafts, Music, Revision, Visual artists on February 19, 2013 at 8:26 am

A lecture, a movie, a play – whatever it had been, was over. People stood on the steps of the auditorium or moved toward the exit. While we talked, stagehands carted off the props. All of a sudden, music blared out of the walls. Everybody stood at attention because the sounds had a National Anthem flavor to them – the kind of sound and fury attempting to mean something. After too many cymbal crashes, people realized the sound technician must have pressed on the wrong key, and everyone proceeded to the exit. End of dream.

In fact, the dream summarizes the tail end of my draft at the moment. I removed some Berlioz-like effects yesterday. Many more to carve out before I get a sense  of what this story can achieve, if  I keep it from crashing through every available surface, and help it find  its way to viable exits instead.

Learning new techniques. Yesterday, the other person working with clay seemed to have finished his piece when the teacher showed up with a piece of wire attached to two wooden dowels. Sliced through the clay as you would through butter. Handed the man a curved scraper and told him to carve out the center, the way you would a pumpkin. That done, the man re-assembled his sculpture, now ready for glazing and baking.

The owners of the pottery shop are active practicioners of Tibetan Buddhism. No Berlioz-like sound effects during the three-hour session. Training tapes on the Teachings instead. A woman with a no-nonsense voice and a thick Australian accent, trailed by a French translator scurrying for… for… oops, we’re on to the next fundamental teaching of the Buddha. With all due respect to the Rimpoche, I found the performance amusing. Even started imagining the scene; the teacher took on the appearance of Alexandra David-Néel in a forward-march stance. The translator stumbled behind her, trying to secure her backpack, wipe the sweat from her brow, chase the flies from her eyes. Wait up! Wait up! Stumble, ouch… “Western scientists claim the brain cannot sustain concentration for longer than six seconds at a time; but with proper training, the mind can maintain equanimity for weeks, months, years…” Wait up! Wait up!

Nu, so where was I? Ah yes.  The point of the pottery exercise: turning a flat sketch into a three-dimensional object. Not to worry. The finished sculpture may turn into the kind of disaster you find at flea markets;   but the  learning to do is fun, plus the title of the piece has a nice ring to it.