Monday, February 16, 2009

My Kind Of Town

There is a popular formula in journalism these days, called "list articles", that grades a topic to catch a reader's attention. Examples include "Ten Best Places To Vacation" or "Three Ways To Improve Your Credit Score". A recent one caught my eye because it had a negative connotation and highlighted my favorite city. It was called "The Ten Most Unhappy Cities To Live In" (or some such title).

I don't know who came up with the criteria for this list but I am skeptical that the writer ever polled a significant number of Chicagoans before adding the Windy City to that group. Never in my life have I lived in a friendlier place or one in which the residents have such an upbeat outlook about anything that comes our way. We deal with extremes in weather, our comment to visitors being, "If you don't like the weather, wait fifteen minutes." Our city taxes are inordinantly high but we accept them because they fund one of the best mass transit systems in the country, provide immeasurable pleasure in our parks, museums, theatres, and a plethora of cityscape necessities. We are told that our air is not the cleanest but we reply that we have the breeze from Lake Michigan to enjoy. Other pessimistic examples were cited in this recent media article which I won't bother to detail. The bottom line is: the writer had it all wrong.

On Valentines Day, my husband and I spent the day in the City. It was quite cold, we encountered some light snow on and off - which we revelled in - and we walked over six miles from Union Station to the Art Institute to Michigan Avenue to State Street with lots of stops along the way. We lunched at a popular cafe while we watched traffic and pedestrians along the Chicago River, paused to rest and people watch in the lobby of the Drake Hotel, peered up at skyscrapers, window shopped in upscale and not so upscale stores, explored the wonders of the art world in the halls of the Art Institute, and immersed ourselves in the smells, sounds and atmosphere of the city in general. It was a perfect day for us and not once did we feel unhappy. Nor did we see unhappy faces, encounter unhappy tradespeople or hear grumblings from residents.

Chicago people are proud of their City, and, like many residents of other large cities, they happily endure the negative aspects of big city life in order to partake of all that they can experience by choosing to live there. That's why I'm certain that the writer who published that article was definitely not someone who lives here. And I defy him or her to do a proper investigation of a cross-section of true Chicagoans and still be able to include our City in that list. Just citing reasons that would make ordinary people unhappy doesn't translate into what happens here. Never has and never will. This is my kind of town, and I can find millions here who would agree.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Framed Memories

The walls and shelves of my study abound with framed pictures, paintings, collages, prints and family photographs. Oh, there is open space; I don't mean to imply that I have covered every inch of pastel plaster and dark wood surface with a visual image. (For that experience, one would have to visit my husband's art studio upstairs - a great room to lose yourself in).

The organizational side of me has grouped the hangings into themed arrangements. There are the photos of me during my Disney entertainment days beside a photo my husband did of me during that period, and a trio of Snow White illustrations. Another section of wall holds a collage of my theatre performances with certificates of my acting nomination honors. A third grouping includes pictures of my parents from their wedding through their 50th anniversary alongside needlework poems I did for them that used to hang in their home.

Desktop photos feature my grandsons, my husband, the annual family posing, and other favorite images of my nearest and dearest, some unfortunately gone from my life now, including several canines that have enriched my surroundings over the years. Among the many family photos, I have two special favorites; one shows a generational impression of my grandmother, mother, daughter and me. The other is a double frame of our daughter asleep beside her new first-born son, and our daugter-in-law in the same pose with her son. Both were happy accidents and evoke strong maternal feelings every time I look at them.

I'm not going to describe every image I gaze upon daily. (Besides, there are a couple of standouts that deserve a blog post all their own.) My purpose in detailing the ones I've noted is to help you understand how these framed memories influence my writing. I am a sentimentalist and don't apologize for it. The times when I create essays about my past or my family are my favorite moments at the keyboard. There is all too much cynicism and harshness in most of what we read; everyone wants to rale and rant and predict gloom. I think my purpose as a writer is to escape that whenever possible, resulting in how I've chosen to decorate my work space. Each of these recollections is a happy moment that can spur my brain into positive action. A memory, said one of my favorite authors, James Barrie, is "what God gave us so that we might have roses in December" and that certainly says it better than I ever could.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Friend Connections

The hands of the clock whirl around ever faster for me these days. This is a puzzlement because, with all the attendant gadgets we have in our world today - called timesavers - we're supposed to have more time for for what we want to do rather than what we have to do. Yet I constantly find myself wishing for more leisure time to connect with my friends.

I do make use of technical, time-saving tools to achieve this. I have a Facebook account which I find a joy because it allows me to peer into the lives of some of my nearest and dearest - even my own children - and keep abreast of what is important in their lives. I can comment on their activities, their recent photos, and their comments about other's comments. It also allows me a quick way to write a blurb about something I'm doing. I look forward to it at the end of my day.

E-mails allow me another convenient way to touch base with friends. I will use it when I have a question I'd like an immediate answer to, or to schedule a visit or pass on a bit of news that I can't wait to hear a reply about. I have to admit that it is also a convenient crutch; it's quick and doesn't require me leaving my desk to go to the post office.

When I can squeeze out an hour or so from all the regular duties of my day, I like nothing better than phoning someone to catch up on all our news together. It is a practice that I have revived with much enthusiasm recently, and have been rewarded in full measure. It isn't always easy to accomplish, however. I have to catch them in or I get an answering machine or no answer at all - everyone's life is complicated. And, living in the Midwest, I'm also a slave to time zones, so I have to plan carefully so I don't disturb at odd hours.

Of late, I have also renewed the practice of letter writing. Necessity dictates it in some cases as not all my friends have computers. Sitting at my secretary desk, with a blank page of beautiful stationery in front of me is a challenge I welcome. I don't worry about the proper phrase, or editing my thoughts (as I do when the work of writing is my concentration); I just write what I feel and pen the details about my life that I want to share. I simply picture the recipient of my words and talk to them as if we were face to face.

It is sad to me that today's communication with friends appears to be in cryptic text symbols only. Missing in this mechanical and nonpersonal exercise is not only the beauty of language but the giving of one's precious time to let another know how much you care. Yes, it takes minutes that could be spent in other ways. But opening a mailbox and finding a letter or card from a friend brings welcome light into a day. Answering a phone and hearing a familiar voice on the other end changes the atmosphere in a positive way.

I feel it's important to continue the conventional lines of communications with those we hold dear - in spite of the complicated and stressful lives we all lead. In fact, it's more important than ever because of the complicated and stressful lives we lead. Try it; you'll see what I mean. I promise this; the rewards are unending.

Thursday, February 5, 2009

Artistic People In The Real World

Titles stump me sometimes. I know what I want to convey, but I also know that if I don't grab people with a title, they may not read the copy. Today's title gives me that kind of dilemma. I hope I've gotten it right because this is a subject that is relevant to our times, I think.

The entire nation is focused on money issues right now. I don't need to detail the myriad of reasons; everyone has their own stressful tale. But, with all the bantering in Washington about who needs money for what reason and how it will all impact the economy, a segment of our society is forgotten: self-employed types like me and my husband.

In times of recession, we are guaranteed to suffer tough times. I have to reinvent myself as a writer as publications fold and editors turn to staff writers more often than freelancers. My husband is forced to look for some other way to pay our necessary bills because people forego buying art, having murals or paintings done, or scheduling private art lessons for their kids. Our entire lifestyle, envied by some, comes to a screeching halt. I know we're not alone in this situation, but we are alone when it comes to help from those in charge.

In the real world, when tax cuts are mentioned, we know it will not include our self-employment taxes, which we always have to pay. Talk about interest rates on investments doesn't impact us: we have none. We aren't considered when talk turns to unemployment compensation because we don't qualify. Even credit card companies will not grant us a stay, because our out of work status is considered non-voluntary.

My rant today isn't even about all those areas, though. It concerns a tiny portion of the stimulus package that the Senate in Washington is now seriously considering eliminating: funds for the National Endowment For The Arts. It's unnecessary, they argue. Why do we need to be worried about the arts at a critical time like this?, they ask. Hello, up there in your ivory dome! That organization funds grants for poor people like us that can mean the difference to eating - or not - for awhile. But then, I'm sure pointing this out to them would mean nothing. As I said, we are the forgotten. Grant money from any source is drying up because it's considered unnecessary spending.

My husband and I chose our lives; we live with the consequences. But it is upsetting never to be included when the government or the media discusses ways to survive during our crisis, and none of their help is directed toward our particular existence. These times are scary for everyone, that is true. But think for a minute how much scarier they are for us. We have talents to share, we work hard at our crafts, and now we are faced with fending for ourselves and hoping we last through the worst of it.

I just thought of a better title for this piece: Artistic People vs. The Real World. Why is it better? Because this is a fight we're determined to weather. We have no other choice - and we're on our own.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Rewriting - Again!

When I naively began writing a novel, I had a strong plot in mind and zipped through the first draft thinking that a project of this magnitude wasn't as hard as everyone said. What an innocent I was!

After having several people read it, several agents reject it, and finally making an honest assessment of the work myself, I realized that I needed to do a complete rewrite of the book. It needed character development and a broader story. That strong plot I mentioned was there, but that was all - I had a plot but not an enjoyable read.

With the first rewrite complete, I was aware that it still didn't seem good enough. This is a trap that writers can fall into which results in nothing ever being "finished", but I didn't think that was the case here. My next step was to introduce the work to my writing group.

Their help has been invaluable. In an earlier blog, I described my group as an eclectic one, but we are all of one mind when it comes to aiding each other with our particular work. I have received some excellent suggestions that have improved the current draft. Of course, I don't use all their advice; I think I have enough artistic integrity to sort through the recommendations and decide what will advance the task.

The best part about working on it now is that I am beginning to see a finished product that I will be proud to introduce to agents. Throughout this long process - and it has taken years of work because I've never had the time to devote to it exclusively - I have grown as a writer. I have read instructional books, pored over successful novels, listened to qualified critics and laboured silently on my own to create a work with what I feel are three-dimensional characters and a story that will keep pages turning. It hasn't always been a comfortable road to travel; I'm not sure writers are good at admitting that what they write isn't good enough. But, in coming to terms with the minuses in my book, I have discovered pluses that I wasn't even aware were lurking in my creative brain.

I am eager now to finish it and present it for publication but I am being careful not to be too eager at the expense of good words. I'll let you know how it comes out.

Monday, February 2, 2009

A Good Read

A mug of tea, still expelling steam, and a new book to explore, and I'm ready to begin a solitary adventure. A day for me is incomplete if I am denied this experience. I am never without a pile of books awaiting me. Bookshelves are evident in nearly every room of the house, and bookstore owners and local librarians know me well. Where I choose to partake of these pleasures can vary, however.

My favorite spot is a velvet covered chaise I inherited from my mother. It is tucked into a corner of my study and also serves me well for naps. Lounging on it and exploring the latest novel or biography or history or how-to book is a perfect respite as well as a remembrance of her.

Reading in bed is the most comfortable but usually results in only a few pages experienced before sleep overtakes my resolve. For that reason, I keep volumes on my bedside table that can be enjoyed in small doses.

When I was a child, the limb of a tree was a favorite. A bottle of soda was my drink of choice then. A breeze rustling the leaves and an occasional ant sauntering across the page were my only interruptions. When the weather didn't cooperate, I fancied my dad's wing-back chair in the living room. I would sit in it sideways, my legs hanging over one arm and my back resting against the other. I cannot imagine such a position being comfortable these days, but I do have a wingback chair that I snuggle into occasionally to explore my latest library find.

A deck chair during the warm days of summer, a bench in the park, an easy chair in the library or even a seat on the commuter train; all can be havens of exploration. The beverage can change too - iced tea or wine refresh at different seasons and times.

My artist husband created a canvas some years back that captures my feelings perfectly. It details a small stacks of books, a bud vase with a yellow rose, an open book with a ribbon marker in it and a glass of wine. He titled it "A Good Read".

A good read, for me, really only requires a time when I'm cozy, warm and able to pursue new worlds or relive familiar ones undisturbed. There is nothing better to complete my day.