Before Starbucks: Remembering the Late-Nineties Independent Coffeeshop

Starbucks may have been founded in the 1970s, but it didn’t make its way around Michigan until the early 2000s. Before that, the quirky local independent coffeeshop was the only game in town.

Here’s a little taste of the long-gone coffeeshops that fueled my late teen years in the late Nineties.

Who’s Afraid of Imperfection?

Yesterday I took up my journal for the first time in six weeks. Before writing anything new, I read the last entry from March 14th, which began with the question What am I building? 

The majority of that entry asked such questions — Will I ever stop yearning? For what?…Is it resolution? That stories have them but life does not?…Am I too aware of my own insignificance?…Is it simply March, that horrifying month of zero beauty?…Am I always to be utterly mediocre?

At points, it felt psalmic — Where are my friends? Who can understand?

Finally, I managed to get to the crux of the matter — I so often feel bound, stifled, tied by good manners and good decisions and doing things the right way…Can such a life ever lead to great art?

I read that yesterday and thought, Wow…I don’t remember feeling like that. In fact, things have been going pretty well this year…well, other than the weather…and the writing.

The weather is out of my control, and Michiganders are allowed a certain measure of existential angst in March (and this year well into April). But the writing? That’s all me, right?

The truth is, I’ve been struggling to write since last summer. I’ve flitted from project to project, never landing solidly on one. I’ve been anxious about the “wasted” time for about six months. Six months! I should have a new book drafted by now! Instead, I have two chapters each of two novels, ten pages each of two screenplays, half of a TV pilot, and one and a half poems. Oh, and a half-finished painting.

I’m not blocked. I have plenty of new ideas. Too many. What I’ve lacked is time and discipline and follow-through.

I have to allow that October through February were crazy, hectic days in our home (see my last blog post for why). It was pretty exhausting. And when you’re doing that kind of work, you’re going to need time to just decompress with TV, movies, and books. Which I did.

But now all that’s over and, other than the spring garden clean-up, I don’t have so many demands on my time. So why am I still struggling with the art?

Perhaps it comes down to expectations. I expect a lot of myself. I always have. Now that a wider audience is going to experience my work, I expect even more. I’ve begun a new round of self-criticism, brought on by doing the edits on We Hope for Better Things. The edits themselves were not bad. But I’ve begun to second guess some of them. Should I have rearranged that chapter that way? Should I have dropped that line? 

As I ask established authors to endorse the book I wonder, Will they read it and be unimpressed but feel they have to say something nice anyway?

As we work through cover designs, trying to get it just right and trying to get everyone involved on board…So. Much. Angst.

And that uncertainty makes its way to the new projects I’m trying to focus on. Because I don’t want them to simply be good; I want them to be better than what I’ve done before. I know, intellectually, that they won’t be perfect. But that knowledge doesn’t stop me from wanting them to be perfect.

Yet, perfectionism is the enemy of art. Back to that journal entry. Can a life of good manners and good decisions and always striving to do things the “right way” lead to great art?

My husband is turning 40 next month. I just turned 38. We are prime targets for some mid-life-crisis-level self-examination. What have we done with our lives thus far? How much time is left? Where haven’t we been (most places) that we long to go? Are we letting time slip by, unnoticed, while we are busy with what must be done in the day-to-day? Is the time for this or that just…gone?

Neither of us had a wild, rebellious phase. Neither of us took a year to hike through Europe and “have experiences.” We have done the school, job, house, family thing, and neither of us would ever give that up. But, as I have since I was a happy child, I do find myself worrying every once in a while…does such a measured and comfortable life lead to great art?

This morning I read a post on The Art of Simple called When the Art You Create Disappoints You. In it, writer Shawn Smucker tells about how his daughter wanted to paint a very particular scene that she had in her head. She worked on the painting all day. And then, when it didn’t turn out how she’d wanted it to, she painted over it. I have done this. Probably we’ve all done something similar with something we were trying to create. We have a vision of what it can be. We haven’t the skill to pull it off perfectly. And so rather than let this imperfect creation live, we hide it or destroy it.

There is a book I have been planning and researching and imagining for years now that I haven’t had the courage to start because I fear I don’t know enough or will not have the skill needed to pull it off. It’s not one of the several projects I have started and then left hanging since last summer. It exists in no form at all, not even an embryonic outline. Because it doesn’t exist, it can be perfect. The moment I begin to put it to paper, it will fall short of my expectations.

Done right, it could be magnificent. Done wrong, it could be a source of deep embarrassment.

I recently watched an episode of Raiders of the Lost Art that told the story of the theft and recovery of the Mona Lisa in 1911 and 1913, respectively. During the episode I learned something about Leonardo DaVinci I might have intuited, knowing what I know about the breadth of his creativity and the very different and innovative things he designed, from flying machines to war machines. The documentary makers mentioned how experimental DaVinci was and how that makes it difficult to identify newly found works that are purported to be his. One such recent find was La Bella Principessa, which was painted on vellum, a medium he was not known to have painted on.

They also discussed a huge fresco, The Battle of Anghiari, which may be hiding behind a later painting in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence. It was a technical disaster. DaVinci had been trying out a new technique (on an enormous scale) that simply didn’t work. His paint was not adhering to the wet plaster beneath it. He set up large urns with fires burning in them in order to dry the paint, but instead of drying it the heat caused the paint and plaster to run down the wall. This was a master, commissioned to do a large and important work, and it failed.

One might argue that DaVinci should have stuck with the techniques he knew would work. He should have done it the “right way,” especially with the stakes so high. But was apparently more interested in experimentation, in keeping things fresh and trying out new ideas, than he was in succeeding by way of routine. And actually, by some standards he failed much more than he succeeded, as these two very short films show.

Imperfection takes far more courage than perfection. If perfectionism keeps us from creating anything at all because what if it doesn’t turn out perfect, that takes no courage at all. That’s just following fear where it naturally leads — to immobility, to stasis. But to create despite knowing full well your creation will be flawed? That takes courage.

My journal entry from March 14th may have been affected by the weather. Heck, it may have been hormonal. But at its core, I think it was voicing my frustration with myself for my own stasis when it comes to writing. Before there was the prospect of publication and reviews (and bad reviews) I could write anything without fear. Because if it didn’t work, who would know but me? But now I think I have subconsciously been letting concerns about audience and reception stifle my experimental streak.

Maybe I need a little less caution in my life. Maybe I need to reach back in time to an Erin that existed before responsibility, an Erin who never worried and never counted the cost when it came to creative expression. An Erin who dove in headfirst and figured things out as she went.

You may be wondering about the odd collection of pictures in this post. These are that Erin’s art, when she didn’t know what the hell she was doing. They’re technically immature, often derivative, and parts of them may even have been traced. But that Erin was happy with them in a way today’s Erin is never happy with her own work, whether it be drawings, paintings, poems, or stories. That Erin was fourteen, fifteen, sixteen, seventeen.

And somewhere inside Erin Version 38, that fearless Erin still lives.

 

Less, More, and the In-Between

We’re on the cusp of something. The March winds are stirring things up. Dry leaves rattle along the road and hold desperately to one another on my patio. The birds have tuned their voices. The sky is a pure, beautiful blue.

Spring makes us consider the possibilities of a well-edited wardrobe and surprises us with the fact that, even after last year’s big clothing purge, we can still find more than eight bags worth of clothes to donate.

It has us thinking about getting a standing desk and reorganizing the office (again). It calls little canaries to fly back and forth in their cages at great speed. It awakens the poet within.

Spring whispers in our ears that there is a difference between contentment and complacence. That safe is not better than soul-stirring. That horizons are meant to be chased.

Spring shows us that we need less than we think to be happy. That there is more to life than what we see in it at this moment.

It’s the restless, in-between time that makes dreamers of us all.

 

Home from Orlando, Dreaming of Albuquerque

Last week my husband and I took our eight-year-old son on our first big out-of-state family vacation. When the boy was five and just starting his martial arts training, we promised him that when he earned his black belt, we would take him to Disneyworld. Three years flew by and lo and behold, it was time to go.

Our little man took his first airplane ride.

We went to the Magic Kingdom, Animal Kingdom, and Disney Hollywood Studios…

Plus Legoland…

We swam in the outdoor pool, watched the palm trees sway in the breeze, enjoyed many interesting conversations with Uber drivers, and generally enjoyed watching our son have so much fun.

We came home to unseasonably warm weather in Michigan, though we know better than to hope it will last. And we’re getting back into the swing of things at work, church, and school.

But I find myself already looking ahead to the rest of the year’s travel. Zach to Israel, the boy and I to the Upper Peninsula, all of us to camp. And once more, in September, I get to head out to Albuquerque for the Women’s Fiction Writers Association annual retreat. The secret Facebook group for attendees has been opened and everyone is already abuzz with excitement! So I thought it would be a perfect time to work on the painting for the cover of this year’s retreat notebook.

Last year, I was flattered when our retreat coordinator and WFWA founding president, Orly Konig, asked to use the painting I did when I came home from the 2015 retreat as the image for the 2016 retreat notebook:

This year she asked me to do another. So this is what I painted today…

It’s the same lovely fountain, but much closer and from a different angle, and I composed the shot such that the background was easy to put text over and it is a portrait orientation. I’m very happy with how it turned out!

I believe I’ll get some good, professional scans done on both of these paintings so that I can make prints later, but I’m thinking about putting both of the originals in the retreat raffle. I’m also cooking up a new Etsy shop in which I can make my paintings available for purchase. They’re piling up in the house and I need to find them homes! Watch this space for more information about that in the coming months.

It’s My Birthday and I’ll Paint If I Want To

Today is my 37th birthday, and this is what I did.

First Oil Painting

For Christmas and my birthday I asked for oil painting supplies. I’ve never painted with oils before, but I’ve been immersing myself in Bob Ross on Netflix and I really wanted to try it out.

It’s completely backwards in some ways to watercolors, which is the medium I’m more familiar with. Highlights go on last in oils, whereas if you want something light in watercolors you have to do it first, then mask it or avoid painting over it, which is why a lot of people prefer oils to watercolors.

The only drawback to oils that I can see at the moment is the strong smell and the days-long drying time. I’m looking forward to developing my technique and rendering some favorite photographs in oils during the next year. If you’re a person I see regularly, you’ll probably end up with a painting of your own by the end of the year — I certainly won’t have a place for everything I intend to paint!

Rediscovering the Power of Idleness

In the second episode of Mad Men, Roger Sterling walks into Don Draper’s office and says, “I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing.”

As both a professional copywriter and a novelist, I knew exactly what that meant. Creative work, whether you’re coming up with sales angles and headlines or plot twists and character arcs, requires marination — periods of time in which the writer looks like they are doing nothing at all when in reality there is a whole hell of a lot going on behind the scenes, as it were.

Whether lying on the fabulous mid-century modern couch in your swank NYC office, taking long walks in the woods, or just staring into space at your desk, “doing nothing” is important. It looks to all the world like idleness — laziness, even — especially to those with more visibly active jobs. But it isn’t.

I was recently talking with a friend whose kids are intensely scheduled — school, music lessons, sports, and other extracurricular activities, one right after another, nearly every day of the week. I felt exhausted just listening to her list them all out. When I commented on how that seemed like a lot for a kid to do, she responded that otherwise her son got bored. I’m going to go out on a limb and predict that her son will do something amazing with his life (and knowing his parents, I’m sure of it) but that thing will not be becoming a writer.

From my earliest days, I was a “lazy” child. After having had an extremely active (maybe even hyperactive) first baby who climbed and ran and tumbled all over the place, my worried mother actually asked the pediatrician if there was something wrong with little Erin, who spent most of her time sitting and staring off into space.

“She’s just thinking,” was his wonderful reply. And I guess I was.

As a kid I spent a lot of time drawing and reading and sitting in trees, all activities that allowed me to do a lot of thinking. Sure, I played sports and acted in plays and played an instrument as I got older, but most of the time, I preferred to just observe and think. I was never bored. I was never looking for more to do. In fact, I was really good at doing nothing at all, which, as I grew up, I realized not everyone can do.

My childhood talent for idleness came from my father, who loved nothing more after a long day at work than to turn the stereo up loud, sit down, and listen with eyes closed, drink in hand. He wasn’t someone who always had a bunch of projects going. He wasn’t going off to parties or performances. He liked being home and relaxing by himself. I can’t imagine him ever feeling lonely or bored during these times.

I certainly didn’t get my talent for doing nothing from my mother, who couldn’t sit down to watch a movie without also ironing or folding towels or cleaning out her purse. She was the list-maker, the errand-runner, the shopper, the one making dinner and cleaning the house. She was always productive in a way my father and I were not. Nowadays she’s learning to enjoy relaxing with a book (though I suspect she still can’t watch a movie without a sewing project in hand).

As a teenager, my sister jumped at the chance to get a job and earn money that she could spend while out with her friends. I resisted getting a job for as long as I could. I didn’t care about earning money because I didn’t go out with friends. I didn’t care about having a car, going to movies at the theater, going to the mall. Everything I liked to do, I did by myself and none of it cost more than I could earn doing chores around the house (which I would always put off until the last possible moment).

I was lazy and content.

Then at some point, perhaps once I was done with college, I turned into my mother.

With just a job and no school, I suddenly had a bunch of empty time to fill and a bit more money to spend. I began making lists and thinking up little projects and shopping for stuff I didn’t need. I started hobbies — scores of them — and filled my time with stuff to do. I still didn’t care to do the stuff that actually needed doing — like cleaning and laundry and grocery shopping — but by golly I made a lot of cards and jewelry and quilts.

I kept busy and I somehow got the notion into my head that any recreational time I had should be productive. That there should be some visible result or product of anything I did. Something to show for my time. I have no earthly idea where this notion came from. It certainly wasn’t a concept I was raised with. My parents never told me that “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.”

Maybe it was just the natural result of reading DIY magazines. Maybe I spent too much time at Michael’s and Jo-Ann’s. Maybe it was just living long enough in a frenetic, get-ahead-or-get-left-behind culture. I have no clue. But somehow I had lost the white space in my life. And while my twenties may have been extremely productive years in terms of things created, they were barren years in terms of creative thinking. They were years I thought about how I’d like to write . . . and yet didn’t write a word worth reading.

Lately I’ve been reclaiming my down time, from both responsibilities to others by quitting a few activities and from the arbitrary busyness I have tended to create for myself. I’ve spent entire afternoons reading and not felt guilty about wasting time. I’ve spent entire days closing myself off in a room to write. I’ve spent entire weeks off work without checking my email. I decided that it’s okay for my garden to just be pretty and not productive. It’s okay to binge-watch The Joy of Painting with Bob Ross. It’s okay to amble through a park and watch ducks and collect pretty leaves.

Nothing has to come of it all. It’s just pleasant idleness. It’s just enjoying myself, my family, and my world.

And in rediscovering the idleness I was so good at as a child, I find that I am recovering the “empty” time I need in order to write.

“I can never get used to the fact that most of the time it looks like you’re doing nothing,” Roger Sterling said to Don Draper. But he wasn’t doing nothing. He was doing his job, and doing it in such a way that he made his company quite successful.

At the end of our super busy months of September and October, I told my husband that I was not going to say yes to any invitation to go somewhere and do something on any Saturday in November. And except for one Saturday in December, the same conviction holds true. I don’t need the time to do anything specific at home beyond rake the leaves and do the laundry. I need that time to just do nothing. 

I know that to a lot of people this seems kind of rude and selfish and antisocial and lazy. But it really isn’t. My 9-5 job is writing. My avocation is writing. And my writing well is not filled by engaging in activity for activity’s sake. It’s filled by reading, walking, observing, thinking. It’s filled by things that look like nothing.

Writers like Virginia Woolf, Ernest Hemingway, William Wordsworth, Henry Miller, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, C.S. Lewis, Madeline L’Engle, and many others understood the importance of giving the mind room to work by simply taking a walk, and this article has a lot to say about why that is. I heard a speaker at a recent conference relay some advice she had drawn from another writer (whose name escapes me) that “If you aren’t reading so much that you feel guilty about it, you aren’t reading enough.”

“It is in our idleness, in our dreams,” said Virginia Woolf, “that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.” And if I, as a writer, intend to be about the business of discerning and presenting truth, I need the time that I need in order to discern it and present it in such a way that the reader experiences it in the most fulsome and lasting way possible.

If you are a writer or a painter or a poet or some other kind of artist who has been feeling guilty about the time required to do your art well, I invite you to join me in recovering and relishing your “idle” times — which of course we know are anything but. Others may not understand, but what they don’t realize is that every time they read a book or watch a movie or listen to a song that speaks to them, they’re enjoying the result of someone else’s strategic idleness.

Why Write Fiction When the World Is Going to Hell?

In the past couple years, my son has been keenly interested in learning about natural phenomena, and particularly natural disasters. It’s a universal human impulse to want to know how things work, why things happen, what conditions must be present to form a cave or create a diamond or spawn a tornado. This desire to learn means we watch a lot of documentaries — old National Geographic VHS tapes from my own childhood, DVDs given as gifts or bought from the video rental place going out of business, online streaming programs found on Netflix and YouTube.

You won’t find me complaining about this. Documentaries are generally my genre of choice when scrolling through Netflix. Before streaming, I used to say to anyone who would listen that if they let me customize cable service so I got the History Channel, the Discovery Channel, and Animal Planet and nothing else, I’d be pleased as punch. But I have noticed that my experience watching disaster documentaries as an adult is far different from it was when I was a child.

As a child, I watched clip after clip of the aftermath of earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, and floods with a sense of detachment. I didn’t know any of these people. I’d never been to these places. I didn’t know anyone who had been to any of these places. The often grainy and sometimes black and white footage put distance between the disaster and me, in my real life, placidly going to school and eating dinner and squabbling with my sister. Nothing bad ever happened to me, and so I didn’t consider that it could.

But as an adult, with a husband and a child and a home with my name on the deed, I watch these documentaries with a lump firmly lodged in my throat, my hand hovering around my mouth. I say out loud, “Oh, my,” and “Oh, those poor people.” Because I imagine what it would be like if it happened to my family. I imagine the unfathomable grief at losing a loved one, the terror of an unstoppable force bearing down on us, the brokenhearted relief of surviving in body yet losing the entire contents of my home.

I feel much the same way when I read memoirs or diaries written by survivors of war, or when I see pictures of despondent refugees trying to get their children out of harm’s way, or when I read articles about the few doctors left in Syrian cities under siege, desperate for supplies and forced to prioritize patients who have the best chance of living while they must let others die.

I look at dates and try to recall what I might have been doing at that time when people were suffering. When this city was burning, was I up in my apple tree, wrapped in its pure white perfumed blossoms? When that city was underwater, was I filling the tub with more hot water because I didn’t want to get out yet? When this woman’s husband was executed, was mine bringing the steaks in off the grill? When that woman’s child died in an explosion, was I kissing mine goodnight?

We are not guaranteed happiness. We are not even guaranteed the time to pursue it. Sometimes my own blessings weigh on me because I know it is nothing I have done that makes me deserving of an easy life, just as there is nothing the victim of a natural disaster or a war has done to deserve a difficult one.

The world is broken and the consequences touch every corner of humanity. I wish this shared plight caused us to look to each other more often as brothers and sisters, fellow sufferers, fellow sinners in need of forgiveness and restoration. Instead it too often causes us to look upon each other as rivals in a zero sum game for power, prestige, and possessions, as though for some to win, others must lose.

Every good and perfect gift is from above. A blessing is a gift. It is not earned. It is not a gold medal awarded to you because of your years of dedicated practice. It’s not something you are competing with other people in order to obtain. It is a gift from a Giver with an infinite store. It is a manifestation of grace. And it’s something we can pass on to fellow bearers of the image of God (i.e., everyone on the planet).

What can I give the one who is suffering? My time, my listening ear, my prayers. A blanket, a stuffed animal, a note of encouragement. My love, my understanding, my care. A ride, a hug, a job. I can volunteer for the relief effort. I can help a newly settled refugee family understand their mail. I can teach English, invite the new neighbors to church, make a hot meal for the guy under the bridge.

I can raise a child who has great compassion, who thinks of others far more than I ever did at his age.

I often go through periods of wondering if writing fiction is a waste of time in a world that needs so many more practical things. Why contribute a novel when what is needed is potable water, enough healthy food, more medical supplies, and safer buildings? What is the point of fiction when reality is so pressing?

Invariably I am reminded that stories have power. Because it’s not just our physical needs that need to be met in this life. We need to know that we are not alone. We need to be reminded that restoration and redemption are possible. We need to remember what hope feels like. We need to believe that there is another future for us beyond our current situation. We need to dream. We need to encounter the divine.

Fiction can be an escape, but it’s more than that. It’s about processing reality. When we dream our mind is working to process bits and pieces of our waking life, to categorize and make sense of all that we experience. In the same way, fiction processes the experiences of all of humanity. It collects and observes, it arranges and interprets, it posits and enacts. Fiction is the REM sleep cycle of real life.

So, writer, whenever you or others are tempted to dismiss your creative work as a pointless extravagance, a waste of time in a world that needs concrete help and boots on the ground, remember that human beings are not flesh alone. We are flesh and spirit, living souls, created by God as part of his grand story and pre-wired for storytelling.

What can you do for the suffering person in addition to all the humanitarian efforts I listed above?

You can tell their story.

So, I’ve Been Watching a Lot of Bob Ross Lately…

Reader, if you were watching PBS in the 1980s and early 1990s, you no doubt know of the phenomenon that is Bob Ross‘s The Joy of Painting. What you may not know is that there are seasons now available on Netflix. And further, that they are most excellent viewing material when you’re doing laundry or lying in bed at night, drifting off to sleep.

You also may not realize that watching The Joy of Painting nearly every day will make you want to paint some big ol’ mountains, happy trees, and happy clouds that live up there in the sky. Now, I’ve never painted with oils before, but Bob Ross says I can do it, and I don’t think you’ll find a more sincere and encouraging teacher. So I’m pretty sure that my Christmas list this year will include a number of items that will get me painting in oils come 2017.

In the meantime, it’s summer, and I have places to go and photos to take, which I hope to share with you soon.

 

On the Death of Artists

The literary world was dealt a double blow this week as two very different writers passed away at ripe old ages — Harper Lee at 89 and Umberto Eco at 84. Harper Lee published one book during her lifetime (evidence suggests she had little to do with the publication of Go Set a Watchman); Umberto Eco published around fifty, a combination of bestselling novels, literary criticism, and books for children. Practically every American who reads has heard of Harper Lee, while I would wager that only a small percentage of the US population has ever taken note of Umberto Eco, despite his prolific output and international success. Upon hearing of Lee’s death, people took to Facebook and Twitter to mourn. Eco? Two people I know (only one American) mentioned it.

It brings to mind questions of output, influence, and reach. What makes everyone able to connect Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird while most of us scratch our heads when faced with a headline about Umberto Eco? Why does one morality tale from an unassuming Southern woman outshine decades of intellectual rigor and innovation from an Italian man who was, by all accounts, a literary giant?

I’ll be the first to admit when I heard Eco had died I was a bit embarrassed that I couldn’t call to mind even one of his books. I knew I’d read Eco’s literary criticism in college, could even remember the professor who had assigned him, but I couldn’t immediately call to mind any titles. Scanning his book titles online, nothing jumped out at me. I’d forgotten him.

Surely I’d find him in one of my anthologies, those bricks of onion skin pages English majors lugged around in college. I’d see what I’d underlined and it would all come rushing back. Only, he wasn’t there. Had I imagined it? Had I simply seen and heard his name so many times in literary circles that I assumed I had read him? Or, perhaps more likely, my professor had made copies for his students to read from some out of print book, copies I simply lost track of or threw out sometime in the last fifteen years.

Had I ever read a word of Umberto Eco?

Now, there are all sorts of explanations for this. Americans heavily favor American writers when teaching literature. (The prof who had assigned him in my World Lit was from Gibraltar.) Americans don’t read in translation. Americans don’t read foreign-sounding names. American institutes of higher education have lower standards and expectations than those of Europe. Americans are stupid and self-absorbed.

And sure, a lot of those criticisms are based on valid, quantifiable data. But there is also the plain fact that reading Umberto Eco can be hard work.

Let’s compare Eco’s bestselling historical mystery/philosophical treatise The Name of the Rose with Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Both seem to have sold about 50 million copies and both are sitting pretty in the top ten or fifteen Amazon ranking in their categories, depending on what edition you’re looking at. Both have about four and a third stars from their many Amazon reviews (though Lee’s 8,385 reviews as of the writing of this post far outstrip Eco’s 550). Both books have been made into movies with big stars, Gregory Peck in To Kill a Mockingbird and Sean Connery in The Name of the Rose.

All in all, they seem fairly similar. But check out these reviews of Eco’s work:

“The book became a hit despite some obscure passages and allusions. This deftly abridged version…retains the genius of the original but is far more accessible.” — Library Journal

“Although the work stands on its own as a murder mystery, it is more accurately seen as a questioning of “truth” from theological, philosophical, scholarly, and historical perspectives.” — The Merriam-Webster Encyclopedia of Literature

One Amazon reviewer called it “a rewarding but painstaking read.” Another said “As others have said, it’s wordy and at times difficult, but it’s very rewarding for those who persevere!” And these seemingly contradictory words from a review of his second novel, Foucault’s Pedulum, are revealing:

“If a copy (often unread) of The Name of the Rose on the coffee table was a badge of intellectual superiority in 1983, Eco’s second novel — also an intellectual blockbuster — should prove more accessible….Dense, packed with meaning, often startlingly provocative, the novel is a mixture of metaphysical meditation, detective story, computer handbook, introduction to physics and philosophy, historical survey, mathematical puzzle, compendium of religious and cultural mythology, guide to the Torah (Hebrew, rather than Latin contributes to the puzzle here, but is restricted mainly to chapter headings), reference manual to the occult, the hermetic mysteries, the Rosicrucians, the Jesuits, the Freemasons– ad infinitum . The narrative eventually becomes heavy with the accumulated weight of data and supposition, and overwrought with implication, and its climax may leave readers underwhelmed. Until that point, however, this is an intriguing cerebral exercise in which Eco slyly suggests that intellectual arrogance can come to no good end.” — Publishers Weekly

Now compare those to these words about To Kill a Mockingbird from Amazon reviewers:

“I was simply floored while reading this novel. I wasn’t expecting a ‘classic’ to be so readable.”

“It is so well-written and moving that it reads like poetry.”

“This novel is beautifully written, transporting the reader into the souls of all the characters…If ever a book was written that should be mandatory reading (not necessarily in schools but rather in life) this is that book.”

Did you notice what I noticed? Readable, readable, readable. Both authors explore interesting and important issues. Both have devotees (and Eco’s are generally more erudite than Lee’s when it comes to the reader reviews). But one is difficult and the other is not. Both are described as slow in other reviews I saw (Lee’s at the beginning and Eco’s at about the 2/3 or 3/4 mark), but one is compared to the slowness of a hot, sultry, summer day while the other is compared to slogging through mud.

Eco lovers might argue that he is dealing with far more complex philosophical and theological issues than Lee, and therefore he needs those 200 extra pages to get his point across. And that is likely true, and I don’t mean this post to be critical of such writing, because I certainly like reading (and especially rereading) difficult books when they deliver the kind of reward Eco’s are known to deliver. I recently had my first brush with Italo Calvino, another Italian writer, and found him both endlessly frustrating and completely riveting. As a reader, I don’t mind being frustrated. But I think I’m in the minority.

At any rate, Lee’s world of racial strife and systemic oppression and generational sins, and Eco’s world of 14th century religious schisms and hypocrisies, both seem, on the surface, to be just as important and applicable to life today. Our country is as racially broken as it ever was, and criticism of the church is always in vogue. Both narratives follow crimes and seek to divide the guilty from the innocent. And, quite honestly, I’m sure that just as many people have an unread copy of To Kill a Mockingbird at home as those who have an unread copy of The Name of the Rose, though likely most Americans have had at least a brush with Lee’s book in high school, whether or not they really did the required reading.

When it comes down to it, perhaps the difference is found in these terms: experimental versus experiential. Eco’s tome is very aware of its form and structure, and plays with those elements purposefully if the reviewers are to be believed (and why shouldn’t they be?) whereas Lee’s book is rooted in the world she lived in and the people she grew up with. Eco seems to have written what he thought about. Lee wrote what she saw and what she lived. And unfortunately, most of us today see it and many today live it too. She wrote what she knew, and what she knew is still in many ways our reality.

When David Bowie died last month I was amazed at how devastated people seemed on social media. With a few exceptions where it was obvious that the person had been deeply affected by his life as an artist, I had a knee jerk reaction to most of the postings, and it was the same as my reaction to people crying in the halls in high school when Kurt Cobain died: You didn’t care about him until he was dead and I can all but guarantee you don’t own even one of his albums.

In contrast, when Michael Jackson died I felt that most people who expressed sadness were likely actually sad about it because his music had been the soundtrack of their young lives. Worldwide internet searches for news on his death crashed Twitter and Wikipedia and forced Google to block searches because they thought is was an attack. People weren’t just searching and posting about him so they would seem like they were part of an elite group, like they wore a badge of artistic superiority. They were searching for something that exposed it as a hoax. They were searching for someone who would tell them it wasn’t true. Because to like Michael Jackson didn’t take a lot of effort. His music was experiential, melodic, catchy — readable. Bowie’s was experimental and odd. (Though, admittedly, they were both quite odd and provocative in appearance).

I imagine reviews for the music of Michael Jackson and that of David Bowie might mirror those of Lee and Eco. One accessible and singing a melody we are now more than familiar with, the other less accessible but worth the effort. And I wonder, when all is said and done, if fifty years from now Bowie’s influence on music might be far greater than Jackson’s, if Eco’s influence on literature will far outstrip Lee’s. And how much of it is the listener or the reader looking for someone to tell them how to feel about things rather than allowing the artist to leave it up to the audience to sort out on their own. When artists expect us to do our part, are we less likely to embrace them? If so, why?

One thing of which I am certain in all of this, is that whether you write one book or fifty, whether you’re the King of Pop or a wily rock subversive, to die as an artist who contributed something of yourself, who offered up your ideas and visions for others to make of them what they would, is a noble death, whether it comes in your sleep in your 80s, from cancer in your 60s, from an overdose at 50, or a gunshot wound at 27. It is in a small way to live on, in the hearts and minds of your audience and in the work of the artists who come after you who might point to you as someone who influenced them.

We may wish our favorite authors and musicians and actors wouldn’t die, especially when they die in tragic circumstances. But an artist is never really dead as long as their work continues to be experienced, in large numbers or small.

What can we glean then from the death of an artist? A call to press on, to create, to share, to contribute to the story of mankind. Make your mark. And make it a good one.

Painting the Self Portrait Step by Step

This morning seemed the perfect time to start my self portrait. Dawn was bright and the air outside a crisp 4 degrees Fahrenheit, so why not stay inside and fiddle with paints? Things turned out far better than I had anticipated. For those of you unfamiliar with watercolor painting, it’s done in stages, starting with the lightest and most translucent colors. Each wash gets gradually darker, and if you go too dark too fast, there’s only so much “erasing” you can do, because painting over something lighter doesn’t work — the darker color always shows through. So watercolors are fairly unforgiving. But I’ve found through the years of dabbling in it that I’m so drawn to watercolors done well, so I keep on trying to get better.

I thought it might interest you to see how one gets from a drawing through the various washes to the final product, so…

First there's a light line drawing (too much pencil shading can destroy a watercolor painting, so the key is to stop before you think you should).
First there’s a light line drawing (too much pencil shading can destroy a watercolor painting, so the key is to stop before you think you should). This photo distorts the drawing a bit on the squatty side. Better angles on the rest…
Next lay a light wash (you can always go darker). Mine is a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson.
Next lay a light wash (you can always go darker). Mine is a mixture of burnt sienna and alizarin crimson.
I added cobalt blue to the skin mixture to get the tone for the shadows and used a darker wash of the original, with a bit more of the red, for the lips.
I added cobalt blue to the skin mixture to get the tone for the shadows and used a darker wash of the original, with a bit more of the red, for the lips.
Cobalt blue for the eyes, starting light. I'll add some payne's gray to the blue in a later wash.
Cobalt blue for the eyes, starting light. I’ll add some payne’s gray to the blue in a later wash.
This is where I figured I'd really mess up. When you first start adding dark colors it's a little nerve wracking because they are so hard to fix if something goes wrong.
This is where I figured I’d really mess up. When you first start adding dark colors it’s a little nerve wracking because they are so hard to fix if something goes wrong.
Now for the hair. Lay in the lighter warm highlights first. I used raw umber for mine. I also darkened the lips a bit at this point.
Now for the hair. Lay in the lighter warm highlights first. I used raw umber for mine. I also darkened the lips a bit at this point.
Here's where I really started thinking this would not work. The hair just didn't feel as nicely rendered as the face, though I knew most of it would get swallowed up by the black background eventually. The reddish brown tones in my hair are done with burnt sienna. The darker the color the less water I mixed in.
Here’s where I really started thinking this would not work. The hair just didn’t feel as nicely rendered as the face, though I knew most of it would get swallowed up by the black background eventually. The reddish brown tones in my hair are done with burnt sienna. The darker the color the less water I mixed in.
Now we start to get the background color and the shirt color. With such a dark background, you can see the flesh tones started to look too light, so I had to go back in and darken them.
Now we start to get the background color (a mixture of payne’s gray and burnt sienna) and the shirt color. With such a dark background, the flesh tones started to look too light, so I had to go back in and darken them. I also added more of the crimson to my cheeks.
Here is the final product. I kept going back in and adding more shadow to counteract the dark background. Not sure I'm quite happy with the way the hair darkens and blends with the background, but overall it did turn out better than I thought it would. And with watercolor you have to be careful of not going too far. You have to quit while you're ahead sometimes.
Here is the final product. I kept going back in and adding more shadow to counteract the dark background. Not sure I’m quite happy with the way the hair darkens and blends with the background, but overall it did turn out better than I thought it would. And with watercolor you have to be careful of not going too far. You have to quit while you’re ahead sometimes.

And because it’s so fun to see a reference photo and a painting side by side…

Side by side, I can see where I went a little astray with the eyes. But, all in all, not too shabby, I think!
Side by side, I can see where I went a little astray with the eyes — one looks further back in my head than the other. But, all in all, not too shabby for the first try. I’m amazed I got the colors as close as I did.

You can definitely tell I am not a professional! But it’s a fun hobby to pull out now and then. Now the perennial problem…what do I do with it?