Archive | June 2010

Slump-A-Dump: Rapping my way through a creative block

Writing as everyday spiritual practice was the topic of one of my recent blog posts, but writing mindfully and staying in the present moment is a lot more difficult than it might seem. Since I’ve been feeling creatively blocked lately, I decided to follow my own advice, switch genres and write a poem about my current state of mind.

Simple enough, right? Hardly. My inner critic kicked in big-time. I found myself playing with rhyme and rhythm as a rapper might, but my “umpire” kept telling me I was making a mess of things. No sooner had I come up with the first few lines than I began wondering if the poem would be appropriate for posting on my blog. I could envision myself reading it at the next open mic at the Social Justice Center in Albany, but how would it come across online? Would the constipation imagery turn people off?

Is the word “turd” too vulgar for my readers?

I decided I could care less. I’ll let you be the judge, and I’ll try not to worry what you think (although as always, I welcome your comments). I recommend the following exercise: write a poem, and make it as crass, corny and vulgar as you can. Have fun, and don’t worry about quality. Who knows what makes for good poetry anyway? 

So is this poem an example of everyday spiritual practice? Writing it, I found myself immersed in the moment, and I feel more centered and energized now than before I began, so I believe it qualifies.

Slump-A-Dump Poem

Humpty-dump-dump, I’m sure in a slump.

Got that internal ump telling me I’m no damn good,

saying to give writing up – hell, well, maybe I should,

but that leaves a huge hole where there used to be soul.

***

Hey, I sound like a rapper, with my heart in the crapper,

chasing rhythms and rhymes, trying to get through this time

of gloom and despair – came on me from nowhere,

snaking up through thin air, twining me in its grasp,

this rhetorical asp has its coils round my throat.

Now my umpire gloats as I strangle on words

hard and dry as old turds that refuse to come out.

The frustration’s so painful, I choke back a shout.

***

I blogged about writing as spiritual practice –

sure, that’s what my act is, but the matter of fact is

I feel like a fake, and that critic keeps raking me

over the coals, telling me I’m too old

to go on any longer. Sure, if I were lots younger,

I might join the dance, have a chance to advance

in this crazy charade of a writing career,

refuse to accept that the end’s far too near –

no, that just isn’t so – I’ve got decades to go.

(Yeah, right, if I’m lucky, and relentlessly plucky.)

***

So I sit on my rump in this bitch of a slump,

fingers clawed over keys, hoping for a fresh breeze

blown my way by some muse who might choose

to fill up my sails, lift me out of these doldrums,

stop me going insane from this sludge in my brain.

***

Maybe writing this doggerel will lift all the fog, or I’ll

stay in this slough of despond – but no, I don’t want

to give in to being mopey and dopey. Nope,

I must persevere. Tell that muse, “Hey, I’m here!”

Tell the ump she’s a chump, and soar out of this slump.

Jean Henry Mead’s blog becomes book

Jean Henry Mead

Today I’m delighted to welcome Jean Henry Mead, whose Mysterious People blog has given birth to a brand-new book with Poisoned Pen Press.

 *The Blog That Became a Book*

*By Jean Henry Mead*
 
           When I first began interviewing mystery novelists for my blog site, Mysterious People, I had no idea they would wind up in a book, although I had published three other books of interviews with Western and Hollywood screen writers, politicians, artists and ordinary people who had accomplished extraordinary things.

           So it made sense that a book about mystery writers was in order, but who would publish interviews that had already appeared online? Bestselling novelists such as Carolyn Hart, Jeffrey Deaver, Louise Penny and John Gilstrap undoubtedly sold the book. Three publishers were interested and I decided to go with Poisoned Pen Press, the number two mystery publisher in the U.S.  Coincidentally, quite a few of PPP’s authors had already been interviewed.

           Because mysteries appear in a variety of subgenres, I divided the writers according to their specialties: the traditional mystery or cozy, historicals, suspense and thriller novels, crime, police procedurals, private eyes and senior sleuths (sometimes called “geezer lit”). There are also medical thrillers, romantic suspense as well as science fiction mysteries and the niche novels which cover endless subjects. I had no idea there was such diversity until I started categorizing them.

           Those I’d interviewed had fortunately written articles about various aspects of publishing, including writing tips, marketing and promotional advice, and their opinions on the current state of the publishing industry, among other topics. So the book is a good read for aspiring mystery writers as well as readers. I can say that objectively because I didn’t write the book, I just asked the questions.

           Carolyn Hart, bestselling author of the /Henrie O and Death on Demand /series, talks about her new protagonist, Bailey Ruth Raeburn, who returns to earth as a ghost to anonymously unravel complicated mysteries. John Gilstrap explains why a bestselling novelist still holds down a fulltime job and international bestseller Rick Mofina provides sixteen great tips for writing thriller novels as well as discussing his struggle to the top of the charts.

           A number of Canadian and UK authors share their publishing views as well as comparing books from their countries with those of the US. Suspense novelist Paul Johnston writes from his native Scotland as well as his home in Greece while Tim Hallinan divides his time between Thailand and southern California, writing much of his work in Bangkok cafes. Gillian Phillip writes YA mystery novels from Barbados and her native Scottish highlands, and international airline pilot Mark W. Danielson composes his suspense novels during layovers in various parts of the world.  One of my favorite interviews was with Bill Kirton, whose humor and compassion led to an Internet friendship. I also enjoy his writing.

           Another English native, Carola Dunn, writes historical mysteries about her countrymen as does Rhys Bowen, who lives and writes in California about historical English royals. Other historical novelists include Larry Karp, who writes about Ragtime music and the people who made the genre popular during its heyday.  And Beverle Graves Myers, who brings operatic mysteries to life from eighteen century Venice.

           Jeff Cohen, Tim Maleeny, Morgan St. James, Phillice Bradner and Carl Brookins add humor to their mysterious plots, so prepare to laugh when you pick up their books. There are police procedurals, medical thrillers and romantic suspense novelists represented here as well as niche mysteries designed for readers who love dogs, scrapbooking, zoos, the Arizona desert, space shuttles, weight loss clinics, actors, designer gift baskets and other specialty subjects.

           Nonfiction books about the mystery genre round out this eclectic collection with Edgar winner E.J. Warner, Agatha winner Chris Roerden, Lee Lofland, Jeffrey Marks, and small press publishers Vivian Zabel and Tony Burton. So there’s something for everyone who enjoys some or all the mysterious subgenres.

           The book is currently only available on Kindle at: http://tiny.cc/zsgsl as well as Barnes & Noble and Sony readers.

Jean Henry Mead began her career as a news reporter, later serving as a news, magazine and small press editor. The author of four novels, she has also published nine nonfiction books. Her magazine articles have won state, regional and national awards and have appeared domestically as well as abroad.
 
 

 

Nursing home placement – another form of elder abuse?

Edward Munch Self Portrait

Elder abuse takes many forms. Nursing home placement may be a humane solution, but to many elders it feels like involuntary confinement. I was moved by Jean Henry Mead’s comment on my last post, about the 98-year-old woman who jumped to her death from a nursing home window. My own father experienced a similar sense of abandonment when my stepmother abruptly placed him in a nursing home without consulting the rest of the family.

I was in New York City in my ninth month of pregnancy when I got his furious call from Michigan. She’d betrayed him, he said, and he wanted a divorce. Although he’d suffered from mild dementia, the outrage triggered total lucidity. I’m also convinced it killed him, because a cardiac event – what doctors sometimes call a sympathetic storm – caused his death early the next morning, before my husband and I could help make alternate arrangements.

That wrongful death preyed on my mind for years, and ultimately swayed my decision to choose eldercare as a profession. The same is true of Claire Lindstrom, the protagonist of Eldercide, my novel of medical suspense, as you’ll see if you read to the end:

              The trilling of the cell phone was so subtle that the sound carried barely twenty feet from shore, harmonizing with the chirping of the sparrows and the soft cooing of the mourning doves. If not for her dog Freia, Claire Lindstrom would have missed it entirely, but the big blond Labradoodle was dancing on the dock, wagging happily as she bounced around the little black instrument of torture.

            “Good girl!” Claire murmured as she steered the kayak in for a landing. She’d taught the dog this silent pantomime in deference to the neighbors, most of whom didn’t appreciate being stirred from sleep by a salvo of barks, no matter how magnificent the sunrise.

            Setting down the paddle, Claire grabbed the cell phone and peered at the caller ID. The number was Harriet Gardener’s. 

            A shiver swept over her, despite the rising heat of the early September day. As nursing supervisor for a couple of dozen home care clients, Claire was accustomed to getting calls at all hours of the day and night. Call her compulsive, call her a workaholic, but she’d made it clear to everyone on staff that she wanted to be brought up to speed on anything out of the ordinary, no matter what the hour. Most of the clients at Compassionate Care were elderly, and many were gravely ill. The aides knew better than to leave Claire out of the loop when it came to making judgment calls about the people in their charge.

            But Harriet Gardener was in excellent health, physically at least. She suffered from mid-stage Alzheimer’s and needed supervision to prevent her wandering away or burning down the house with her absent-minded attempts at cooking. But she was strong, and she rarely came down with so much as a sniffle. For the time being, thanks in large part to her live-in aide Dahlia Douglas, her quality of life was excellent. But inevitably that would change. Although they tried not to show it, the fact that she was fated to endure many years of painfully slow decline, culminating in the eventual loss of all her mental and physical functions, distressed her overwrought family no end. . . .

 Halfway across the lawn, she had the cell phone out of the bag, her finger poised over the callback button. She jabbed the button as she set foot on the first step, and the phone was ringing by the time she reached the deck.

Dahlia answered on the third ring, her voice weak and shaky. “Harriet’s gone,” she stammered. “It must have happened sometime in the night.”

Claire’s heart sank. “But Dahlia, how could she get out without your knowing? Everything’s locked up tight. You sleep right across the hall from her, and I know you’re a light sleeper.”

“Not that kind of gone.” Dahlia’s careful diction had yielded to the earthy dialect she usually reserved for the other Jamaican aides, and the melodic lilt of her voice was incongruously at odds with her message. “She’s gone. I mean she passed. I don’t understand. She was fine when I tucked her in bed last night. She had such a strong heart, and you know how the family used to kid around with me. We thought Harriet would outlive us all.”

Just like my father. Claire shivered. She took Dahlia’s report, somehow got through the formalities, hung up. Then, suddenly wobbly, she sank onto a chaise. Nine years ago, on a flawless September morning much like this one, she’d gotten a call from the nursing home where he’d been admitted the day before, suffering from mild dementia. He had gone to bed ostensibly healthy, died sometime in the night. A previously undiagnosed cardiac problem, they said. Or, as Claire always thought of it, a broken heart. He’d been furious when her mother shunted him off to a nursing home against his wishes, vowed to get out if it was the last thing he did. He had fulfilled his vow, although not the way he planned.

He shouldn’t have died that way, abandoned and alone in an institutional bed. His death shocked Claire into abandoning graduate school and entering nursing. She found her way into home care, where she could help keep people away from those warehouses for the dying. All these years spent making amends, and now it had happened again.

 Read the entire first chapter of Eldercide here on my blog. You can order the novel from Amazon or directly from me – see the page on how to order my books for contact information. I did the cover illustration for Eldercide – perhaps you can see that Munch is one of my inspirations.

World Elder Abuse Day – a cause near to my heart

Reading Dear Abby this morning, I learned that today, June 15, is World Elder Abuse Day. It’s a subject close to my heart. As President of my own licensed home care services agency, ElderSource, Inc., I witnessed the extreme pressures that can lead to potentially abusive situations, even among loving families who are doing their best to provide quality care for their elders.* Unfortunately, most seniors are not nearly as well off as our clients were.

The National Center on Elder Abuse estimates that as many as one in ten elders experience some form of abuse, but only one in five cases gets reported. They define elder abuse as “neglect, exploitation or ‘painful or harmful’ mistreatment of anyone 65 or older,” and the abuse can be financial, physical or psychological.

We’ve all heard the horror stories that surface regularly in the news – the abusive caregivers, the financial scams that can cost gullible elders their homes. Perhaps less obvious is the neglect that can stem from isolation, especially when dementia, mental illness or substance abuse are involved. Elders living alone, far from involved family, can suffer from self-neglect when they’re unable or unwilling to care for their own needs.

My 81-year-old brother in the Bronx has a wonderful support network of neighbors he’s come to know over 30 years in the same apartment building, but suburban neighborhoods of single-family dwellings don’t offer the same comfortable familiarity. Personally, I plan to age in place – our home is already too small for all our stuff, and I can’t picture downsizing any further. But it’s not a prospect I look forward to with great enthusiasm, and it’s all too easy to envision myself as a neglected recluse in some not so distant future.

What can you do to help prevent elder abuse, including self-neglect? First, learn more about how to recognize the signs and symptoms by visiting informative websites like the following:

Center of Excellence on Elder Abuse and Neglect, University of California at Irvine (www.centeronelderabuse.org)

National Center on Elder Abuse (http://www.ncea.aoa.gov/)

Keep in contact with your older friends, neighbors and relatives so as to help decrease isolation, a risk factor for mistreatment. Be observant for signs of abuse or neglect.

Report possible mistreatment or neglect to your local adult protective services agency or to 911.

Contact your local Area Agency on Aging office to help identify possible sources of support like Meals on Wheels.

Volunteer, either formally or informally. With elderly neighbors living on either side of us, my husband and I drove them to doctors’ appointments and ran errands. I’m grateful for the stories they told me and the closeness we developed near the ends of their life spans, and I hope my own younger neighbors may reciprocate someday. More formally, as administrator for the Memorial Society of the Hudson-Mohawk Region, I help educate people about affordable funerals and how to avoid one of the most common financial rip-offs that plague our seniors.

But why get involved in yet another cause, when there are so many clamoring for our attention? Because we’re all part of a beloved community, both globally and locally, and the person who needs your help may be as close as your next-door neighbor.

 *My experience as President and CEO of ElderSource inspired my novel Eldercide, which addresses the question, “When quality of life declines with age and illness, who decides if you’re better off dead?” The book explores elder abuse taken to the extreme, but fortunately it’s pure fiction – at least from my perspective. Unfortunately, the plot is all too plausible. You can read more about Eldercide on this site.

Writing as Everyday Spiritual Practice

Can writing be an everyday spiritual practice? It all depends on how you approach it. Scott W. Alexander defines everyday spiritual practice as “any activity or attitude in which you can regularly and intentionally engage, and which significantly deepens the quality of your relationship with the miracle of life both within and beyond you.”

Scott’s collection of essays by Unitarian Universalist ministers and lay leaders describes a wide range of practices that qualify, from meditation through charitable giving, working with a spiritual director, even recycling, to art. What makes an everyday spiritual practice is “intentionality, regularity and depth . . . your commitment to making the activity a regular and significant part of your life.”

So writing certainly qualifies, doesn’t it? For me, it meets the above criteria, but something’s often missing. On a good day, when I’m in the zone and the words are flowing, I might tap into that sense of the “miracle of life,” but the feeling is fleeting. A common thread in the practices these authors describe is their potential to bring us into present time, to function fully in the now. Past and future fall away, and the present moment is everything. But is this even possible with writing? It’s an inherently linear, temporal medium, and every word is inextricably linked to before and after.

Part of the problem is that pesky inner critic, the one who keeps saying “Forget about it – you’ve got nothing to say, and no one will want to read it anyway.”  She tells me I’m fresh out of ideas and that my best writing days are behind me, and of course that blanket condemnation carries the strong stench of self-fulfilling prophecy. Then there’s the problem of writing with an audience in mind, which is antithetical to the idea of spiritual practice.

Sometimes switching genres helps. For me, poetry sometimes works – if I don’t get too hung up on the notion of reading my latest creation at an open mike. Haiku’s a good discipline, with its five-seven-five constraints:

            Lush green maple leaves

            Summer’s come far too early

            Lone mourning dove calls

Not great maybe (there’s that nasty critic again) but I had an Aha! moment when I got the syllables to come out right. There were images and themes I’d have liked to include – the dead tree among the maples, the disastrous oil spill in the Gulf – but those can keep for another poem.

My major everyday spiritual practice is my Nia exercise class at the Y, which I attend with near-religious regularity at least twice a week. Lost in the rhythm of the music, the jazz dance and martial arts moves, I tap into a mind-body-spirit connection that grounds me deeply in the here and now for all of a minute or two. Then I glance at myself in the mirror and the spell is broken – I start comparing my weight to my fellow dancers, critiquing my range of motion. But I take a deep breath, blow off my inner critic and return to the dance.

 Come to think of it, blogging’s a lot like Nia, and perhaps it qualifies as a genuine spiritual practice too.  I blog semi-religiously, two or three times a week. Does it deepen my relationship to the miracle of life beyond me? Certainly the notion that my words are flowing out to the universe via the World Wide Web inspires awe and wonder, as does the fact that I’m getting over 400 visits a day, though whether I’m actually connecting with that many real people remains a mystery. 

Intention to practice regularly is all-important. I recently took a week off from blogging for the first time in over a year, and the decline in my sense of wellbeing was all too apparent. So I hereby recommit to this everyday spiritual practice of sending my message out into the ether in hopes someone’s there to receive it. And even if they don’t, I’ll try to avoid getting hung up on looking into the mirror.

Do you view writing as an everyday spiritual practice? I’d love to read your comments.

Dave Matthews concert – a senior imposter at a summer ritual

Dave Matthews

“I hope I’m as cool as you when I get to be your age.”

 Thus spoke the lithe and shirtless underage guy at the Dave Matthews concert on Friday night. Then there was the one who high-fived me and said, “I hope I’m just like you when I’m 80.”

 He  was off by too many years to count. “I don’t look 80, do I?” I riposted.

 “Oh no, not at all – I was just saying . . . ”

Yeah, right. Clearly I was over the hill for this crowd, as I tried to relive my youth at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center for the second time in the same week. (Country Throwdown was the first – see my May 31st post.) Will the Dave Matthews concert be the last time? Maybe, though I’ll never say never.

I bought both tickets a couple of months ago, when I was feeling perhaps a trifle manicky, and I came close to copping out on this one, especially since I had lawn seating rather than a reserved seat. The prospect of a wild crowd didn’t scare me so much as the thought of the bottleneck traffic before and after. If it gets too bad, I can always turn around and head home, I kept telling myself as the traffic backed up on the Northway. But lo and behold, I hung in there, made it into a $10 parking lot a reasonable walk from the venue, and arrived with an hour to spare.

I found a pleasant perch with a decent view fairly close to the amphitheatre and unfolded my canvas chair in close proximity to a middle-aged couple, seeking safety in similarity since most of the crowd were in their early twenties at most. I was flattered when the aocohol security mavens insisted on checking my ID before fitting me with a chartreuse wrist band which qualified me to buy overpriced Coors Light.

Shades of Woodstock 1969 – my comfortably roomy spot was soon overrun by an  enthusiastic mob eager to get as close to the band as lawn seating allowed, and by the time Dave Matthews took the stage, it was standing room only. Kids jostled me, but invariably did a double take and apologized when they got a good look at my face. Then came the incredulous comments:

“Are you having a good time?”

“How great you’re here.”

“You’ll love Dave, just wait and see.”

The well-intended gallantry gave me a glimpse of what it must feel like to be conspicuously disabled.

So why did I subject myself to this mob experience? I’d been intrigued by the music on FM, and I knew the DMB summer concerts at SPAC were a symbolic summer rite, maybe the closest I was likely to get to a mass religious ritual, so my curiosity got the better of me. And the music didn’t disappoint – Matthews’ compositions are intriguingly quirky, with unexpected chord changes and complex polyrhythms, and his band has strong jazz overtones reminiscent of idols of mine like Coltrane and Mingus.

The crowd sang along with every number, and their ability to do so spoke volumes for their musical sophistication. And they were amazingly well behaved, in part because of SPAC’s strict alcohol controls, and despite – or maybe because of – the overwhelmingly fragrant presence of pot. A young couple passing a ceramic pipe in front of me asked, “You don’t mind, do you?” and though I gave them a thumbs up, they didn’t offer me a toke.

For much of the night, I was on my feet with the rest of the crowd – essential if I wanted to see the band on the huge video screens, let alone the tiny figures on the distant stage. But increasingly I took refuge in my canvas chair with its spidery metal legs. The crowd broke around me, and I had surprisingly ample room, but I felt more and more alone. Early on, a young woman gave me a dayglo chartreuse bracelet to match my alcohol ID band, but as night fell, alas, my bracelet proved defective. Unlike the brilliant orange, green and yellow circlets of the neighbors waving their arms in rapture, mine gave off only a minimal, defective glow, like that of a dying firefly.

After a couple of hours, as the music segued into lengthy, repetitive jams, I realized I’d probably experienced the best of what the night had to offer and decided to beat the traffic out of the  park. Slowly and carefully I picked my halting way uphill through the crowd, doing my best to avoid the prone and supine bodies of wasted fans who littered the lawn in the darkness, feeling smug that despite my several decades of seniority, I’d survived in better shape than they.

In memory of feminist sculptor Louise Bourgeois

 

Louise Bourgeois

Sculptor Louise Bourgeois died on Memorial Day at age 98. Her death brings back memories of the feminist artists’ consciousness-raising group I joined in SoHo in the early 1970’s. Bourgeois was ever present, an eminence we younger artists all admired. She hadn’t yet come into the full flower of her later fame, but she showed us what was possible.

Those were heady times in the New York art world, especially for women, who were organizing and demanding exhibition opportunities on a par with men. Discrimination was still rampant when I came of age as an artist in the 1960’s; more than one of my male cronies advised me to give up art and concentrate on baby-making. In the 1970’s, with the darkening of flower power and the birth of feminist groups like Red Stockings, we women began fighting back.

Louise Bourgeois, Blind Man's Bluff

That consciousness-raising group with Bourgeois gave birth to some tangible offspring in the form of inspired new artwork. For the “Erotic Garden” group show at the Women’s Interart Center on Manhattan’s West Side, I created a geodesic dome ten feet in diameter, lined with reflective mylar and shaped canvases depicting couples engaged in explicitly erotic activities, along with images of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and Iggy Pop shirtless on hands and knees howling “I want to be your dog.” The floor was pink polyester plush, and several people could convene inside at one time to enjoy the view.

After the Erotic Garden bloomed its last, I reassembled the geodesic dome inside my loft as an alternative bedroom complete with mattress. There I entertained my husband-to-be. Within two years, I was a wife and mother. Another two years and I became an art therapist. My life took different turns.

Meanwhile, Louise Bourgeois continued to create. Although she’d been a serious artist since her twenties, her work remained relatively unknown until she was 70 years old, when the Museum of Modern Art gave her a solo retrospective. The year was 1982. In the 30 years following her debut as a sculptor in 1949, she’d had only four one-person shows, but her international reputation grew exponentially throughout her senior years.

Bourgeois used a wide variety of materials to address themes of the human body and a full gamut of emotions including anger, betrayal and fear. In the New York Times obituary (June 1, 2010), Holland Cotter describes one major work:

Her nightmarish tableau of 1974, “The Destruction of the Father,” for example, is a table in a stagily lighted recess, which holds an arrangement of breast-like bumps, phallic protruberances and other biomorphic shapes in soft-looking latex that suggest the sacrificial evisceration of a body, the whole surrounded by big, crude mammillary forms. Ms. Bourgeois has suggested as the tableau’s inspiration a fantasy in which a pompous father . . . is pulled onto the table by other family members, dismembered and gobbled up.

To think the petite, self-effacing woman from my consciousness-raising group was creating this work at the very time I knew her – and to think she continued inventing such impassioned projects into advanced old age. Bourgeois was still creating art up till the time of her death. According to the Associated Press, she had just finished some new pieces when she suffered a heart attack on May 29th.

On the far side of 60, I often fear I’ve passed my prime, but the life and career of Louise Bourgeois are a moving testament to the fact that the best years in a creative life may be those of advanced age.

Louise Bourgeois, Maman