Archive | March 2010

Design my own website? In my dreams, maybe

Giorgio De Chirico

What is it about trying to design my own website that invariably triggers acute anxiety attacks? My site’s in need of a radical update, so for the past several days, I’ve been playing around with a program from Go Daddy called “WebSite Tonight.” The implication, clearly, is that one should be able to build it in a single night. So why is it taking me days?

I printed out the 17-page “Getting Started Guide,” and there was a disclaimer of sorts: “Like any new application, there is a learning curve when using WebSite Tonight.” Learning curve, hah – that’s an understatement.

Part of the problem is that my tolerance is limited to two hours max. After that, I can feel my blood pressure climb, and my thoughts drift to the liter of wine chilling in the fridge. That’s a sure sign it’s time to get away from the computer, if not to pour some wine, then to confront some housekeeping or overdue bills, or even watch American Idol – I’ll resort to anything to set my mind on a different trajectory.

Is there an insurmountable generation gap at work here? I wasn’t brought up to think along the lines these programs demand. Supposedly the more user-friendly ones operate along the lines of WYSIWYG – for those not in the know, that stands for “what you see is what you get.” But it ain’t necessarily so – after you follow a slew of inscrutable commands and consult the online help manuals, what you get rarely turns out to be what you wanted to see in the first place. Or sometimes you get lucky and see what you want, only to have it disappear again like the Cheshire cat when you try to save it.

Paul Klee

So why on earth am I doing this anyway? It comes down to pride and economics – I want to sell my books, I’m too cheap to spring for a professional website designer, and WordPress won’t let me run PayPal on my present site. Besides, I’m planning to launch my new blog, Authors Avant Garde, and the least I can do is become more savvy about the technical aspects of my ever-expanding web presence.

As a writer, I taught myself touch typing in high school – I simply learned the correct finger positioning, then typed stream-of-consciousness meanderings with the lights out until I got it right. In later years, I typed my way through endless term papers and menial jobs. I wrote in several genres, completed two novels that may never see the light of day before completing one worthy of publication.

As a visual artist, I spent countless hours in life drawing classes and workshops, countless more learning color and composition through years of trial and error. I’ve probably thrown out as many canvases as I’ve sold or saved. But there’s an immediacy to painting or pastels, the medium I used for my book cover illustrations – in the visual arts, what you see is truly what you get. (There are exceptions, like print-making, but that’s another subject.)

So I paid my dues for decades to develop my skills as an author and artist. I rarely  questioned the endless hours, the expense and aggravation. It occurs to me that web design may not be any different. Who am I to expect instant gratification and overnight success? As the I Ching so frequently says, perseverance furthers. I just need to cultivate an attitude of relaxed mindfulness and patience – and know when it’s time to get up and walk away.

What about you? Do you love computer programming challenges? Have you always loved them, or do you think it’s possible to learn to enjoy this brave new world? Are the challenges age-related? I look forward to reading your thoughts.

And by the way, there’s a Yiddish word that describes the way these computer programs make me feel – something like agina or adjena – but I haven’t been able to find it in a dictionary or glossary of common Yiddish terms. If anyone can come up with the correct word, I’d be most appreciative.

In memory of my artist friend Dan Sekellick

Dan Sekellick - Oceanic at Sunset (Star Island)

Today I’m mourning the death of my friend and fellow artist Dan Sekellick. In recent months, our Unitarian Universalist congregation has lost seven older long-term members in close succession, but Dan’s death hits closest to home.

A retired architect, Dan was dodgy about his age, but he was on the far side of seventy – I know because several years ago he told me he was eligible to ski free at Gore Mountain. Skiing was one of his many passions. He loved gardening, and normally during this dreary run of rainy March days his studio would already have been full of seed flats for his summer vegetable garden. In recent years he began writing poetry to accompany his paintings. He was a volunteer extraordinaire, helping to stock streams with fish each spring and to renovate and launch the Sand Lake Arts Center. 

Even as his health was failing in recent years, Dan had an extraordinary joie de vivre. I’ll always remember the enthusiasm with which he described the latest developments in his garden in spring, the skiing pointers he gave me at Jiminy Peak, and especially the ride he gave me back from Jiminy one early spring day in his vintage Chrysler convertible – with the top down, despite my initial protests. He was right – the windshield gave plenty of protection, and the ride through the Berkshire foothills was beautiful though breezy.

Dan Sekellick - Jazz Band

Most of all, Dan loved painting. On the website Art-N-Soul, Inc., where a few of his many paintings are displayed, he had this to say about his art:

My working method is an extension of my architectural design training. It often begins with some vague ideas of what I want to happen and it’s mixed with the influences of the works of other artists that I admire, along with my own personality and life experiences. I believe that artists are essentially self-replicating creatures, whatever their art form, and I don’t believe that I’m any exception. I refine my ideas, sometimes making fresh starts in new directions or just plugging along until I get it “right”, even if it takes years, as it sometimes does . . .

Thank you for viewing my work. I think that it helps to bring closure to a process that begins as vague idea or an inspiration or some other mysterious genesis, moves along with a lot of hard work and sometimes disappointment and then, hopefully makes a meaningful connection with another person. Now that’s the real reward in all of this.

What a wonderful description of the creative process, as true for writing as it is for painting. Dan, you’ll be missed by many, but your memory and your paintings live on. Yesterday, leaving the Sunday service at which our minister announced your death, I noticed how beautiful your abstract seascape looked hanging on the wall of our sanctuary, complete with the little seagull sculpture you’d perched whimsically on top.

ANNOUNCING AUTHORS AVANT GARDE!

I’ve just registered two new domain names for my latest blogging brainchild, Authors Avant Garde. One is a dot-com and one is a dot-org. I’m not posting the links, because there’s nothing there yet, but Go Daddy assures me that courtesy of my Visa Gold card, I now own the domains for two years. I’m amazed the name hasn’t been taken already. So what am I going to do with it? You’ll just have to wait and see.

For over three months now, I’ve been planning to start a new blog titled Authors Avant Garde. I even registered the name with WordPress back in December, but till now, that’s all I’ve done. The idea came to me after an ill-fated trip to New York City wherein I missed the Mystery Writers of America’s holiday party due to acute intestinal distress, followed by a memo from MWA banishing Harlequin from their list of approved publishers because they’ve started a POD and self-publishing division, and that’s strictly verboten.

This confluence of MWA events ratcheted up my rage over the many snippy comments I’d been reading online about self-publishing and quality concerns. I was growing increasingly angry about industry snobbism and old-fashioned gate-keepers. Rather than conjure up the winter’s foul mood by writing more on this issue, I invite you to read my post from December 4th, titled “Was Jane Austen a professional writer? Not according to the Mystery Writers of America.”

I’m hoping the new blog will be a communal effort. Back in December, I even toyed with the notion of forming a not-for-profit corporation, an association of nontraditionally published writers, but I quickly realized that was a terrible idea, at least for me – I don’t always play well with others, and at this stage of my life, I have no need to subject myself to daunting bureaucratic games. So I’ll keep the ultimate control, thank you very much.

So what will I (or we) blog about? I envision Authors Avant Garde (AAG for short) as addressing aspects of writing, publishing and marketing especially from the perspective of self-published writers. I may sell memberships or (gasp!) paid ads, and I’ll offer others the chance to sell their books as well. Traditionally published writers will be welcome too, but they’ll be considered affiliate members.

AAG is very much a work in progress. Till now, it’s existed primarily in my head, but now my brainchild has survived the first trimester of the long dark winter, and I’m going public with the announcement of its impending birth. I don’t have a launch date yet, but if I commit to periodic progress reports on this blog, perhaps that will kick my motivation up a few notches. Never fear, though – it won’t take a full nine months.

I’d love your reactions and ideas. And no matter how this new venture evolves, those of you who’ve helped inspire me with your ongoing comments and support, especially the folks from Blog Book Tours, will always have pride of place.

Narrow Escape from an Art Attack

Sidewalk art show (anonymous)

Wandering the streets of Schenectady during the “Art Attack” on Saturday, evading the pleading eyes of the artists hawking their works throughout the city’s downtown, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief that I wasn’t one of the hundreds who’d signed up for what may become an annual event. I was reminded, too, how writers have it easy compared to visual artists when it comes to displaying our work.

It’s not that I wasn’t tempted. When I read the e-mail invitation to display my work at Art Attack, I gave it some serious thought. A chance to display several of my paintings and collages for free in a city-wide festival on the first day of spring, perhaps even to sell them – what’s not to like? Then I reminded myself of the logistics involved – loading my paintings into my trusty Focus hatchback, schlepping them to Schenectady, hanging them and arranging a display area, maybe babysitting them throughout the weekend, then putting the entire process into rewind on Sunday evening. Not worth the hassle, I decided.

Daumier "This Year Venuses Again"

Five-star Frame and Art, the first venue I visited, was a lovely gallery, with quality work displayed in mini-one-person shows. Damn, I thought – I shouldn’t have blown this off. Maybe next year. Unfortunately, it was all downhill from there. Schenectady’s striking city hall, designed and built during the Depression by McKim, Mead, and White, was temporary home to hundreds of art works in many media – some truly excellent, but the majority mediocre or worse.

Artists sat or stood by their works with their game faces on, doing their best to make eye contact and smile. There were plenty of visitors, but there and at the other venues it was obvious that they were out for a leisurely stroll on a gorgeous spring day, and that the art was strictly secondary. I didn’t see any serious discussions of art happening, let alone any sales. I chatted with some of the artists, and learned they’d been advised to stay with their work if possible, since the event offered no insurance coverage.

Comparatively speaking, we writers have it easy. All our merchandise and display paraphernalia fit easily into a couple of cartons and a wheeled cart, so the logistics are simple, and we usually don’t have to put in the long hours that visual artists do. Our works come in multiples, so they’re priced low enough to tempt the occasional impulse buyer. Original works of art, in contrast, are luxury items and beyond the reach of most of us in today’s economy. Nonetheless, regardless of medium, we artists have similar motives. “I put my heart and soul into this work,” we think. “Pay attention. Please care enough to take my creations home with you, or failing that, at least to truly see them for what they are – portraits of the artist.”

But hope springs eternal, even for this jaded painter. A beautiful new coop art gallery will open soon in downtown Troy, and I’ll probably display some of my work there on consignment. As the New York Lottery hucksters say, “Hey – you never know.”

How about you? Do you enjoy hanging out at public venues showing and hoping to sell your work? Is it a necessary evil you endure? Or do you bypass it entirely?

Dogs I’ve loved in life and fiction

Congratulations to Karen Walker, winner of my 50,000 hits contest. Though Karen lives across the country, we’ve shared a lot over the past year through the Blog Book Tours group. I invite you to visit her wonderful blog, Following the Whispers. Here’s the post I contributed to her blog for my Blog Book Tour last November.

Truth can be stranger than fiction:

the tragic saga of Lucky, my golden retriever

Lucky and Me (Author photo for Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders) Courtesy Hot Shot Photos

Dogs have long played a central role in my life and my fiction but Lucky, the beautiful golden retriever in my author photo for Mood Swing: The Bipolar Murders, may have been the last dog I’ll ever own. Six months after the photo was taken, he died of lymphoma, and in the years since then, I’ve switched to cats. Setting up this Blog Book Tour, reading my hosts’ reactions to the photo, I realized I’d never written about Lucky. Since Karen’s blog focuses on memoir and nonfiction, this seems like the perfect time.

But Rishi, the dog before Lucky, deserves pride of place. He’s a major character in Mood Swing. In fact, his image is in my cover illustration, and his name is the first word in the first chapter:

            Rishi was halfway out the window and onto the fire escape when I tackled him. Arms around my dog’s massive shoulders, I groped for his choke chain and yanked hard. Half a dozen pigeons flapped skyward, squawking.

            I described him on Page 2:

            He’s leaner and rangier than a German shepherd, stockier than a Doberman, bigger than a Rottweiler. Despite his forbidding looks, he’s a basically friendly beast, but sometimes it’s in my best interests not to let people know that.

That last sentence was literary license. Rishi was wonderfully affectionate and loving, but only to our immediate family, and he was never adequately trained. Despite a near-death experience with a neighbor’s hammer that left a permanent dent in his skull, Rishi lived nearly ten years, a good long life for a big dog. But his death threw me into a deep depression.

Enter Lucky, a year or so later. He came into our lives with what seemed at first to be joyous synchronicity. At a Woodstock party given by friends of my daughter Stacey, someone mentioned having a golden retriever who needed a new home. I was instantly intrigued – we’d owned a beautiful golden named Shawna when Stacey was a child, and except for her propensity to chew up the woodwork during thunderstorms, she’d been a wonderful member of the family.

Right after the party, I paid a home visit to meet Lucky, fell instantly in love, called my husband on my cell, and within a week we had a beautiful four-year-old male golden. He came with a tragic back story: he’d been the beloved companion of an 84-year-old man who lived alone in the Catskills, and when the man was hospitalized, one of the nurses befriended both him and Lucky. Shortly after the man’s discharge, he was brutally murdered by a neighbor he’d known and trusted for years, a handyman in search of money for drugs.

The nurse took Lucky in, and in turn passed him on to the folks who gave him to us for adoption. The poor dog was threatening the family’s togetherness. They already had a couple of young kids, a poodle and a cat, and a rambunctious young retriever sent them over the top. The husband’s job took him on the road a lot, but when he was home, he told us, he and Lucky slept together downstairs while the wife, kids, poodle and cat slept upstairs. Not exactly a prescription for marital bliss, so Lucky had to go.

Soon after the photo session with Lucky, his health began spiraling downward. He couldn’t seem to keep food down, and he was weakening and losing weight. After extensive testing, the vet diagnosed lymphoma. In a futile attempt to buy more time, we opted for extensive – and expensive – surgery. In retrospect, that was a mistake, but he’d been so young, so lovable, that we thought it was worth the gamble.

He died in early fall. We buried him in the garden out back, marked the spot with a marble plaque bearing an iris design my husband had carved years before. I planted dozens of bulbs – crocus, daffodil, and hyacinth – and they’ve bloomed luxuriously in the three years since.

Dogs play a major role in both my novels, but they never, ever come to a bad end. In fact the villain in my suspense novel Eldercide nearly refuses an assignment when he thinks it might mean harming the victim’s Jack Russell terrier. And I could probably never write that scene where the neighbor tries to murder Rishi with a ball peen hammer, with me coming between them, shrieking that he’ll have to kill me first, screaming bloody murder until the neighbors call 911 and the police arrive. On the other hand, maybe enough time has passed – and after all, the dog survived in the end.

 As I write, my cat Lunesta is writhing around on the desk next to my computer, tempting me to rub her tummy and doing her best to bat the mouse out of my hand and onto the floor. Does she sense I’m writing about dogs? Is she demanding equal time? For now, she’ll have to wait.

Post script five months later: it’s a beautiful spring day, and the green shoots of the crocuses, daffodils and hyacinths are pushing out of the ground atop Lucky’s grave. Lunesta is sleeping in a basket by my side, soaking up the sunshine.

I did the cover illustrations for both my books, by the way. The medium is pastel.

How about you? Any pet stories you’d like to share? Have your pets played a role in your fiction?

 

Math anxiety – one of those pesky women’s problems?

Charles Demuth, "I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold"

My face is red – well, at least pink – because of a glaring error in the math for my contest. I wrote, “I’m about to reach a milestone on this blog  – 50,000 hits! My stat meter when I logged on this morning at 8:58 a.m. stood at 48,888, so based on my current number of visits, over 300 per day, I expect to hit 50,000 sometime today!”

At that point I had 1,112 hits left to go, and there’s no way I could have racked up that many visits in one day. Three or four days, yes; one day – no way! Perhaps it’s a tribute to my readers’ trust that nobody questioned my math skills. Maybe they should have. The contest is still on, though, and I’ll probably have a winner by midweek, so keep leaving those comments. I’ve added one additional rule: no one who already owns my books is eligible. I treasure those readers I have, but my goal here is to acquire some new ones.

Actually, I’ve always been quite good at math, but like many women, I suffer from acute math anxiety, and my attitude is avoidant in the extreme. This became glaringly obvious in my high school years in Milwaukee, where I was one of a dozen or so winners in a city-wide math contest sponsored by an insurance company. It was my first awards banquet, and they gave me a check – not huge, maybe $100 or so – which I misplaced and never cashed. Perhaps it was because I didn’t want to become an actuary – as it turned out, that was the ulterior motive of the contest sponsors.

The pattern continued in college. I won early admission to Radcliffe, and managed to avoid mathematics during my two years there. My major was Social Relations, Soc Rel for short, a cutting-edge combination of anthropology, psychology and sociology. But when I transferred to Barnard, there was no such major. I considered psychology, but that would have meant taking basic statistics. The very notion terrified me, so I ended up in art history, one of the most useless majors imaginable. (I wanted studio art, but the “heavenly seven” Ivy League women’s colleges had no such major.)

Years later, deciding to go for a PhD in psychology, I finally had to confront that dreaded statistics course as a prerequisite. I enrolled at a community college and studied like mad, but before the midterm, instead of turning up for class, I panicked, wandered over to the registrar’s office and withdrew from the course – the only time in my life I dropped a course, except for a web design course a couple of years ago, but that’s another story. (I finally tried statistics again and got an A, but I abandoned my doctoral ambitions. That’s another story, too.)

My daughter has inherited both my mathematical ability and my mathematical phobia – why, I don’t know. Did I pass it along in my genes, or was it something about my attitude? Like me, she’s learned to transcend the anxiety and confront math when necessary. But what is it about mathematics that inspires such dread among women? Danged if I know. I’m sure feminist scholars have lots of theories, and maybe even some hard evidence. But perhaps I’m overgeneralizing, and there are lots of women out there who confront mathematical challenges with gusto. Perhaps math anxiety is fading into the past, and younger generations of women have no such fears.

What about you? Do you suffer from math anxiety, or do you love math? I welcome your comments. Meanwhile, remember my contest is still on, and you still have a chance to win one of my books. I hope I’ve learned from my previous error, and I can do the basic arithmetic to figure how many visits I need to hit that monumental 50,000 mark.

WIN A BOOK BY COMMENTING WHEN I REACH 50,000 HITS!

I’m about to reach a milestone on this blog  – 50,000 hits! My stat meter when I logged on this morning at 8:58 a.m. stood at 48,888, so based on my current number of visits, over 300 per day, I expect to hit 50,000 sometime today! I love all those eights – that’s the number of great riches, according to the extensive numerological knowledge I picked up in a Cosmo article years ago.

To celebrate, I decided to give away a copy of MOOD SWING: THE BIPOLAR MURDERS or ELDERCIDE – your choice – to the person who leaves a comment closest to the time my blog meter hits 50,000. A few guidelines:

  • This will be the comment I find on my dashboard most closely following the time I reach the 50,000 figure.
  • Your comment can be on any blog post – scroll down or check the categories for subjects that interest you. On my dashboard, the comments come up in order received, most recent first, rather than by subject, so it won’t matter whicih post you choose.
  • Comments must be at least a couple of sentences long and relevant to my blog – not just “Hi, I’m here! Did I win?” or the equivalent.
  • If I can’t figure out which comment comes closest to the 50,000th hit, I’ll choose the winner by quality, content, and/or personal whim.

I’ll post the results as soon as I have a winner. Thanks, and best of luck!