Behind the Curtain, a Window

Posted in On writing at 8:11 am by Marion

Yesterday, after a long time away from my own creative writing, I found I had caught up with pressing obligations and still possessed several daylight hours.


Suddenly free, I cleared my desk and started a project I was to have begun some time ago: Profiles of some of my novel characters.

I started with the narrator, Delia. The novel is in first person, but I wrote the study in third person. What a change. Immediately I knew things about this character I hadn’t before, such as how she appeared to other people, what they noticed about her. I discovered more about her sister, Antonia, and their relationship to each other.

Taking this character into a study allowed me to open a curtain on her, to describe her in a way I couldn’t within the context of the novel.

What also surprised me was the joy of writing again. Since high school, writing has been something of an obsession, though I never thought I was particularly “good” at it. In college, all of those papers drove me insane, especially the French ones which I had to write every week. I remember how I wouldn’t start on them until midnight or later, and each paper was a guaranteed all-nighter.

Strangely, at 21 years old, on an airplane coming home from a year’s study in France, a sense of identity crystallized within me. I looked over the New York skyline and knew I was a writer. I had no idea what that meant, of course, only that I was going to write about things. I imagined at the time I’d write poetry about them. (How romantic. You’re breaking my heart.)

Followed were several years of figuring out what being a writer actually meant: At times I confused writing with drinking, a not uncommon pitfall. By the time I figured it out, I also realized no one would ever really understand what I did, why, or all the outside elements of my life that would never make sense to the world. That’s still true to some extent.

I never imagined how much I’d have to give up to be a writer — so much of life I miss, hunched over this desk, the jobs I’d like to have had, such as to be a botanist, or a lawyer, or a veterinarian.

In the end, it’s like the proverbial moth to the flame, or the homing pigeon coming back to the rooftop. Writing is simply where I live, and when I’m away from it, I’m miserable.

Omar Khayyam courtesy of Okon Life


Hike to Medoc Mountain

Posted in Events, Life in general at 8:23 am by Marion

What a wonderful time of year. On Saturday, we hiked at Medoc Mountain State Park, one of my favorite places on Earth.

Sure, Paris is nice … Niagara Falls was lovely … but Medoc is a little jewel of a place … in some ways, literally. Rich deposits of pyrite shimmer on creek banks, and the “mountain” — actually a modest hill of 300 feet — contains deposits of molybdenum.

Medoc sits among the rolling hills of Halifax County, near Ringwood, N.C. and north of Gold Rock. It has creeks, wildflowers, friendly birds and even a historic fire tower, which reminds me of Jack Kerouac.

I began my trips to Medoc when I was only about 5 years old. That would be in the middle 1960s, when the area wasn’t yet dedicated as a state park. My grandparents had been hiking there since WWII, and my grandfather camped there with Boy Scouts in the ’40s and ’50s.

My grandmother would go there to catalogue wildflowers, and by the time I was born, it was a family tradition.

We’d pile into our old Dodge Dart, with the two bird dogs, Lady and Pepper, and head out. We bought cheap canned sodas at Big Star, and once there, we’d hike to our favorite place, down the mountain side to a hidden valley on a creek.

Sodas were placed into the creek to keep them cool; the dogs were let go to run; and Dad built a camp fire for cooking the hot dogs and hamburgers.

None of which you could do today, of course … but the park today has more trails, and has acquired more land for the future.

Last week, as I was overwhelmed with work and pressing problems, I promised myself a hike at Medoc. It was my visit to the “Promised Land,” and a perfect autumn day.


‘Empty Words’ Part 2

Posted in Buddhism, Figuratively Speaking, HH Dalai Lama at 11:19 am by Marion


Today, more words from the Buddhist tradition.

In his introduction to Buddhist thought appearing in The Essential Dalai Lama, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama describes two types of reality.

There is the immediate physical reality, which is apparent reality or relative truth, and absolute reality, or absolute truth.

One describes the world that’s seen, felt and tasted — apparent reality. One describes the unseen world, which as Christians we might call the spiritual world, or even the world where miracles occur. This is absolute reality, with absolute truth.

Components of apparent reality include what’s called the 18 constituents, the 12 sources, the five aggregates, and describe the qualities of what we see, feel, taste, hear — the sensuous world.

Absolute reality begins with the idea that everything changes — and consequently, it has no permanent, or real, nature. This is what the Buddhists call “emptiness.”

Some of us feel uncomfortable with this eastern insistence on emptiness, but really, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Emptiness in the Buddhist sense doesn’t mean nothing’s there: Instead, emptiness means there is nothing that doesn’t change. Therefore, there is nothing with one nature — and consequently, there is nothing, because it’s all changing, all the time.

As a simple example, consider an ordinary object, your desk or home phone. What could be more unchanging?

But look closely. My phone was bright white when I bought it; now it’s yellowed. It was once sterile and new; now it’s dusty. There is grime on the cord; the buttons don’t work.

What’s more, there’s static, the volume comes and goes and the wall cord is nearly shot.

So what is the true nature of that phone? In the sense of apparent reality, the nature of the phone is white plastic.

But as for absolute reality, well, it just goes “poof” when you try to pin it down. There is no absolute nature to the phone, and therefore it is empty.

So if you try to call me today, don’t be surprised if no one answers. It is Friday, you know.


‘Blue Screen of Death’

Posted in Computers & Technology at 8:18 am by Marion


Which horror movie am I writing about? The one where the vulnerable woman, probably wearing pajamas, is sitting at her desk, with her dogs slumbering in peace at her feet. You can see what’s getting ready to happen, and you just want to scream: No, don’t do that!! Can’t you see how dangerous it is?

Then you see it: The BLUE SCREEN OF DEATH.

This is a movie many of us have been seeing lately. The BSD as it’s known among its victims happens unexpectedly, and leaves behind no explanation.

Though I have sung the praises of Vista (crazy, I know), the BSD seems to descend on it more than on other operating systems. I have read a few forums about it but like other supernatural phenomena, no one really understands what’s happening.

Here’s what happens: You’re working at your computer, and you try to, say visit a Web page, save a document or open a program. Instead of doing what you’ve so politely requested, your computer refuses to act and then, when you’re not looking, your screen takes on a horrifying shade of html-blue and gives you a bunch of numbers, error codes and maybe even a message that says “These errors may be fatal.”

In my case, I had a “Failure to complete crash dump” message, too.

I was so spooked by the BSD that I cradled it like a sick child and took it the Emergency Room at Best Buy, avoiding restarting it or turning it off, just leaving it running there in the passenger seat. Once at the store, the Geek Squad tech took one look and said, No idea what’s going on, and restarted it.

He ran an error disk to read the “dump” files (I think that’s a file your computer creates when it crashes), but said he couldn’t find any reason for the BSD. He recommended reformatting … and reinstalling the operating system, software and everything.

I said, Thanks, but no thanks. The BSD — like the “pale green pants with nothing inside them” in the Dr. Seuss book — may not be so scary after all.


Historic Day

Posted in Events at 10:51 am by Marion

Like the rest of the country (except possibly the West Coast), I am a bit bleary-eyed today after staying awake until after midnight watching the jubilation at Grant Park early this morning as Sen. Barack Obama accepted his role as president-elect of the United States of America.

One of the most moving elements of the election coverage was to see U.S. Rep. John Lewis reflect on the election. Rep. Lewis was among those who stood with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle for Civil Rights, and was beaten for it, along with so many others.

He described the “literacy tests” blacks were often asked to pass, such as “How many bubbles in a bar of soap” and “How many jelly beans are in this jar.” These questions were humiliating. He also described the era of Sen. Obama’s birth in 1961, a time when his white mother and Kenyan father could not have shared a hotel room or sat side by side each other on a bus throughout much of the South — and beyond.

Rep. Lewis was among the people who welcomed His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Atlanta last year, and I remember feeling an instant kinship and respect for this humble giant.


Don’t ‘Suffrage’ in Silence!

Posted in Events, Figuratively Speaking at 8:05 am by Marion

In case you missed it … today’s a bit special … and so in honor of the day, let’s look at this strange word for the right to vote: SUFFRAGE.

Yes, it’s a special ELECTION DAY EDITION of Figuratively Speaking.

Suffrage, in addition to referring to the freedom to participate in political elections, also means a series of intercessory prayers or petitions. Intercession means to intervene on behalf of someone.

The origin of the word is found in this meaning. The late Middle English word also implies this intercession, or assistance, from the Latin word suffragium, reinforced by the french suffrage. the modern sense of right to vote was originally American, dating from the late 18th century. Which is, by the way, when the first woman in the United States voted: In 1756, Lydia Chapin Taft claimed the right to vote from the colony of Massachusettes. All women formally claimed this right in the 19th amendment to the United States Constitution in 1920.

The National Voting Rights Act of 1965 restored suffrage to African Americans, who had largely been forced out of elections by corrupt local elections actions, which forced them to pass tests, or clear other arbitrary barriers intended to keep them out. These are the same kind of favoritism-politics that even today keep people down, prevent right actions in city governments and result in illegal, corrupt behavior by government.

So if you haven’t already … I did it early … head to the polls and change the world.


Rave ‘Reviews’

Posted in Book reviews, On writing, Writers at 7:59 am by Marion

Book reviews are unlike other writing. They are both opinion and when done right, nonfiction.

Nothing beats sitting on the couch with the NY Times Books section or the NY Review of Books and savoring those dense pages. I’ve been known to keep those sections around for weeks, dipping into them one review at the time to enjoy each book and author.

Because the author’s voice is very important in a book review: It’s easy to understand why writers have gone after these reviewers with feuds that last decades. Some reviewers are just horrible … but when they are deliciously clever, it makes fine reading.

A well-done book review is a pleasure. So what makes an ordinary book review an elusive gem? Good book reviews should have ample information — about the period in question for a book, about the author, about his or her subject. A book reviewer should pack his or her review with good stuff — philosophy, religion, politics — and lots of it.

In other words, don’t just tell me about the book, or even worse, your opinion of it. (Everyone has an opinion.)

No, for your book review, give me the history of the Assyrian Empire, the philosophy of lost Atlantis, the hidden romance between a concubine and the queen. Then, in that rich bed of storytelling, you can tell me about the book.

In honor of the noble book review, I am adding links to my home page that will take you to some of the best in book reviews.

Each day I receive the “Review a Day” from Powell’s Books. No matter how busy I am I try to read it; many reviews I print and savor on a Saturday afternoon.

If you have suggestions for book review sites please add them as comments.

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