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Paranoid schizophrenics I’ve known

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Esteban Santiago in custody

Esteban Santiago, the lone gunman who killed five innocent strangers and wounded six more at the Fort Lauderdale airport on January 6th, had sought help from the government in November. He walked into an FBI office in Anchorage, Alaska, claiming that the U.S. government was controlling his mind and forcing him to watch Islamic State videos. Agents called police and he was taken for a mental health evaluation, but he didn’t appear intent on harming anyone, so he slipped through the cracks in the system. Two months later, he officially became a murderer.

His delusional claims brought back memories of my years working on locked wards with seriously ill patients at Hudson River Psychiatric Center in Poughkeepsie. With my hard-earned master’s degree in art therapy from New York University, I was embarking on my first full-time job in mental health, and I was especially fascinated by the elaborate delusions of those diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic. The men on Ward 604 ranged in age from their late teens to early middle age and they were on the maximum-security ward because they were considered a danger to themselves or others. Some were assaultive, others had prison records, and there were a couple of murderers.

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Abandoned Rehab Center at HRPC. I led an evening Creative Arts Club here for those allowed to leave the wards.

This was the 1980’s, and like many state mental hospitals across the country, Hudson River was rapidly being downsized as patients were discharged into the community, presumably to be managed through outpatient services and medication. But some were deemed too dangerous for discharge, and others cycled in and out through the system’s revolving doors.

Some of the paranoid schizophrenics believed they took their orders from God or the government, while a few believed they actually were God or at least Jesus. One young man believed he had turned into a woman and had sex with John Lennon. (This was in early 1980, before John was brutally murdered.) I couldn’t resist replying, in my best nonjudgmental therapeutic manner, “Oh, do you want to tell me about that? What was it like?” Unfortunately I can’t recall his reply.

I encouraged the patients to get their visions down on paper, with pencils or paint, and to talk or write about what the images meant to them. As an art therapist, I’d been trained not to impose my own interpretations aloud, but I’d learned to analyze the pathologies revealed by their artwork, to record them in progress notes and to report disturbing content to their shrinks and treatment teams. Often the imagery was violent, replete with swords, guns, blood and dismemberment. Yet not once did a patient assault me or even verbally threaten me. I was their ally, there to foster their creativity and self-expression, not to impose controls on them.

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Abandoned day room, Cheney Building, HRPC–much like the one where I held art therapy sessions

Hudson River closed years ago, and I’ve often wondered what became of those patients who were incapable of adjusting to life in the community. Like thousands of others, many probably ended up in prison, homeless or dead. Deinstitutionalization hasn’t been the panacea it was touted as being, and there aren’t enough affordable community mental health services to go around.

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Esteban Santiago in Iraq

Esteban Santiago was receiving psychological treatment in Alaska, but his family wasn’t privy to the details. Clearly it wasn’t enough, but maybe nothing could have stopped his deadly rampage. Since he surrendered and survived, maybe he’ll be able to shed some light on his actions.

Two days after the shooting, I began this blog post as a potential op ed piece for the Albany Times Union, but then I realized that my viewpoint wasn’t sufficiently clear, so I put it aside. A day after that, the TU introduced a new, reduced format, with certain features shortened or omitted. The two Perspective pages, with their generous space for columns, both national and local, went on the chopping block. Now they might not have space for my essay in any event, so I decided to post it here. Since I’m no longer limited to 600 words, I can be a bit more freewheeling—if I were aiming for publication in the TU, I wouldn’t have mentioned the patient who believed he’d fucked John Lennon.

I have mixed emotions about hospitalization for the mentally ill, especially those who are truly a danger to themselves or others. Deinstitutionalization was supposed to be a good thing, and those enormous old hospitals were portrayed in the public eye as hideous snake pits. But Hudson River Psychiatric Center was a fairly benign and yes, therapeutic environment. If it weren’t, I could never have worked there for 13 years, enough to get me vested in the New York State retirement system that helps sustain me now.

The patients at Hudson River inspired me to embark on my first novel, then titled The Flip Side. It was good enough to win me some personalized and encouraging rejection letters, and eventually a good agent in Manhattan, but alas, she never sold it. It remains unpublished, but who knows, I may resurrect it one of these days.

Meanwhile, I sometimes wonder what became of those fascinating guys on Ward 604. Did they eventually get discharged and adjust to life in the community? More likely they died young or landed in prison.

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Main building at HRPC burning in May, 2007

David Bowie memories a year after his death

Bowie Ziggy tights

Bowie as Ziggy Stardust

I published this tribute to David Bowie on January 19, 2016. Now, on the first anniversary of his death on January 10, I feel it’s appropriate to print it again. Now more than ever, we need his otherworldly vision for our planet and for America in particular.

David Bowie was the star at the center of my musical universe in the early ‘70’s, in his Ziggy Stardust heyday. Alas, I never met him, but we were within one degree of separation when Cherry Vanilla and others in his inner circle came to see my Bowie painting inside my geodesic dome in the Erotic Garden show at the Women’s Interart Center in Manhattan. But more on that later.

The morning after he died, when I cranked up my car after leaving my Nia class at the YMCA, the radio was tuned to WEXT, the alternative rock station. They were playing “Rebel Rebel,” and I happily sang along. When the announcer KTG came on, she talked about how she’d loved Bowie’s music as a young child, and how her mother played it to help her learn to dance.  “I wish I could play his music all day,” she said in her typically pert, cheery voice. Then she said “We’ve lost a brilliant, innovative artist.”

Bowie Aladdin Sane cover

Lost? The word sounded ominous. I drove straight home, booted up my computer and brought up the Drudge Report. A photo of David in his Aladdin Sane makeup topped the page, with the stark black headline BOWIE DEAD. He had died Sunday, January 10th, after an 18-month struggle with cancer, which he’d concealed from all but his closest family and friends. He’d turned 69 only two days before, and had released his new album Black Star the same day. In December, his new musical Lazarus opened off-Broadway. Both the album and the musical garnered rave reviews.

I was eerily reminded of the morning I learned of John Lennon’s death in 1980. I pulled out of my driveway in New Paltz, headed to work at Hudson River Psychiatric Center, and heard John’s music on Woodstock’s alternative rock station, WDST. They played one cut, then another, and I sang along, but then the announcer came on to announce John had been murdered the night before. I’ll always remember exactly where I was when I heard the news, just as I’ll remember where I was when I learned of the assassinations of JFK and RFK, and I’m sure the news of Bowie’s death will imbed itself in my brain along with the memories of those other fallen heroes.

But Bowie’s death was different. Tragic, yes, but he’d given us nearly five decades of brilliantly innovative music. His 25th studio album, Blackstar, was released on his birthday, just two days before he died, along with two videos. The jazz musicians he recorded with had no idea he was terminally ill, according to his long-time producer Tony Visconti, who was one of the few he confided in. Last night I watched the videos for “Black Star” and “Lazarus.” They were both fantastically imaginative but deeply disquieting. “Lazarus” is a brilliant piece of performance art, where he repeatedly rises from his hospital bed and moves his body spasmodically, like an avant garde dancer.

After that I segued into videos from his Ziggy Stardust period, and the memories came flooding back. I was at Radio City Music Hall on Valentine’s Day, 1973, when he performed as Ziggy, and I made it down the aisle and snapped photos with my Pentax. Available light, no flash, black and white, and when I developed them in the photography studio down the street from my Prince Street loft, they were fuzzy but good enough to use as source material for the paintings inside the geodesic dome I showed that spring in the Erotic Garden exhibit that featured a dozen feminist artists.

Lomoe-WombDome

I phoned Mainman, Bowie’s management company, to invite them—and hopefully David himself—to the show, and a couple of them actually came, including Cherry Vanilla, who casually bragged “I’ve had him.” They loved my Womb Dome and said they’d encourage him to come see it. Maybe he actually did—I never knew.

When the Erotic Garden show was over, I reassembled the dome in my Prince Street loft for a guest room, complete with a double-size mattress. That same fall, when I met my husband-to-be at Max’s Kansas City, I was wearing the same pink and pastel outfit I’d worn for the Erotic Garden opening six months before, with the same Pentax camera slung around my neck. “I see you’ve got a Pentax,” he said. “I’m writing a book about Pentax.”

Bowie Iggy & Lou Reed 1972 London

David Bowie, Iggy Pop and Lou Reed in London, 1972

A month later, we were living together, both ready to leave the wild lifestyle of the early 70’s behind. But it’s highly likely our daughter was conceived in that dome, under my paintings of David Bowie as Ziggy Stardust and Iggy Pop crouching in broken glass, singing “I want to be your dog.” Perhaps that’s one reason she and my granddaughters are such avid fans of the Starman. Another is the final time I heard David Bowie live, in 1997, when I brought Stacey, then 21, to the GQ awards, where he did an entire set following the presentations. The venue once again was Radio City Music Hall.

Stacey said it best in a recent Facebook exchange: David Bowie has had a transformational impact on three generations of Lomoe women. Long may his legacy live.

David Bowie performs as Ziggy Stardust

A new year, a new book project

At yesterday’s New Year’s service at church, we sat in a circle, passed around a talking stick, and shared our goals and resolutions for the year ahead. I announced two:

  • Work on creating a serene, organized home environment
  • Complete the presentation for my new book project on creativity, then find an agent and publisher
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Emerson Hall at FUUSA

The church in question is the First Unitarian Universalist Society of Albany, and our minister, Sam Trumbore, had chosen the topic “Begin again in love.” Usually we sit with the chairs arranged in conventional rows, and there’s less opportunity for individual participation, but this being New Year’s morning, Sam expected a smaller turnout. But there were several dozen of us, and we formed three concentric circles. As we passed the South American rain stick, many people chose not to speak, and others spoke of modest, everyday goals—spending more time with family or in nature, being more mindful of health concerns, learning more about social media or, conversely giving it up entirely.

Having come late to the service, as is unfortunately all too typical, I was the last in the row of the outermost circle, and impatiently awaited my turn to speak. When I did, I failed to mention the state of disarray my house is actually in, but I was more specific about my book project, announcing my working title and the fact that I’ve already registered it as a domain name. (I’ve blogged about the project before, but I’m still not ready to go officially public with the title, because I don’t want anyone stealing it. I figure the FUUSAns won’t remember.)

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John William Waterhouse

At 75, I sometimes wonder whether it’s overly ambitious to take on a major project like the book I have in mind. Granted, the goal I set is daunting, and realistically, I don’t know if I’ll manage to land a good agent and publisher within the next twelve months. But completing a nonfiction book proposal is well within my capabilities—I’ve done it three times before, although I abandoned all three projects before seriously seeking publication.

The first was a book based on my daughter’s first year of life. I’d done a project illustrating the minutiae of my daily life with her, I showed it in a SoHo gallery, and it was featured in New York magazine. An editor at a major publishing house saw the show, called me up, and I paid her a visit in her spectacular office high in a skyscraper with panoramic views of Manhattan. I’d brought my daughter along, and she peed on the editor’s couch. That wasn’t the reason I gave up on the project, but I’ll leave that story for another time, along with the reasons I abandoned my books on art therapy and gardening.

For now, let’s just say I’m confident in my ability to put together a book proposal. It draws right-brain-left-brainon the logical, left-brain side of my intellect, the side that won me my Phi Beta Kappa key at Barnard.* And as for being too old to take on a new project, I’m convinced I’m as sharp as I ever was. I could drop dead any day—far too many of my contemporaries are taking that trip—but in general, my health is disgustingly good. The only activity I’ve given up because of age is downhill skiing, and that’s primarily because I haven’t been working out regularly enough to maintain the strength in my legs, not to mention that snow conditions in the Northeast have been abominable for the past couple of years.**

But my major reason for embarking on an all-consuming project is that for my sanity’s sake, I know I have to. From past experience, I know that abandoning my dreams of creative achievement is likely to plunge me into a major depression, and that’s worth avoiding at all costs. When I hear my contemporaries rhapsodizing about their travels, their grandkids and their cats, I know those everyday pleasures and satisfactions, wonderful as they may be, will never be enough for me.

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What about you? Do you have any major new goals or resolutions for the New Year? I’d love to hear from you.

*My classmates at Barnard included Martha Stewart, Erika Jong and Twyla Tharp, but that’s another story too.

**In the back of my mind, there lurks the possibility that I may yet ski again. Many people ski into their 80’s and 90’s. Unfortunately, my old ski pants are a size or two too small, but when I told my husband I might buy a new pair, since they’re handy for snow shoveling, dog walking, and maybe a little cross-country skiing, he tried to dissuade me. Maybe I should try flannel-lined jeans, he said, or rain or wind pants. When I asked why not ski pants, he confessed that he was worried I might take to the slopes again. Hey, never say never.

Fear and habit: my biggest writing bugaboos

Monday, March 21

Block Busting: Blasting through the Barriers to Creativity.

That’s the catchy title I came up with for a workshop I’ll be delivering at least twice in the coming months: once for the Hudson Valley Writers Guild in June, and once for the Capital Region chapter of the Romance Writers of America in November. By the time the June workshop rolls around, I hope to have figured out a bunch of ways to walk the talk, because I’ve got plenty of blocks of my own to overcome.

Crocuses Ruby Giant purple

Today feels like an auspicious day to begin: it’s the first full day of spring, and at long last Michael Easton is back on General Hospital. My crocuses are in full bloom, and bit by bit, the minutes of daylight are triumphing over those of darkness. From this day forward, I plan to track the patterns of my creativity—the actions that work and the road blocks that hold me back—and to share them with my readers. I hope you’ll share yours with me as well.

What is it that keeps me from writing? In two words, fear and habit. Fear that I’m not good enough, that I’ll run out of ideas, that people won’t read my work. Once I begin writing, those fears almost always dissipate, and I actually start enjoying myself, but it’s that nasty devil of procrastination that too often derails me before I begin. I’ve got lots of avoidance mechanisms, and here’s where habit comes in. Once I sit down at the computer, my first impulse is to play a game of FreeCell, and I too often succumb to temptation. Next I check my email, then go to Facebook. I catch up on my online friends and colleagues, then check a couple of news sites to see what new disasters have befallen the planet. Before I know it, I’ve frittered away a couple of hours, and lo and behold, it’s time for lunch.

Lunesta computer April 2014

That’s assuming I even get to my computer before lunch—and that’s a big if. I often watch TV and read until one or two in the morning, then sleep till nine or ten. I walk my dog Sirius; then it’s back to bed for breakfast and the morning newspaper. Then my Nia class at the Y three mornings a week, a philosophy group at church on another morning, my daily dose of General Hospital from two to three. Then it’s upstairs to my office and the computer, whereupon I engage in those dilly dallying habits I detailed above.

With luck, I may start writing at four, and all too soon it’s time for dinner, complete with a glass or two of wine. Evenings bring a variety of diversions—choir practice at FUUSA, assorted meetings and open mics, ushering at The Egg or the Troy Savings Bank Music Hall. When I stay in, television usually proves my undoing. I’m partial to The Voice, among other shows, and if all else fails, there’s always Netflix.

The-Voice-Season-8 promo

If you’ve waded through the above paragraphs, I congratulate you. They’re so pedestrian, so humdrum, that I’m almost too embarrassed to post them, but if I plan to help other writers overcome their blocks, the first step is being honest about my own. In the weeks and months ahead, I’ll see if going public helps me overcome them. I’ll post a weekly progress report incorporating some of the helpful hints I come up with.

And now it’s 6:00pm, time to pour myself a glass of Pinot Grigio and slap together a speedy dinner of smoked salmon and cream cheese on gluten free bread, then catch the evening news with David Muir, who’s quite the hottie. Tonight I believe he’s hanging out with President Obama in Cuba. Then my husband and I are off to a lecture about overcoming bad habits. Catch you later . . .

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David Muir interviews Barack Obama in Cuba, March 21, 2016

March 22, 1:00pm.

Last’s night’s lecture was fascinating. Charles Duhigg, author of the best-selling The Power of Habit,has lots of thought-provoking ideas I’ll blog about soon. Back home, true to form, I indulged in most of the habits I described above, with minor variations. After staying up till almost 2:00am reading Duhigg’s book, I was too sleepy to get up in time to make it with my husband to the philosophy group. But on my walk with Sirius, I saw the swan that’s been hanging out on Snyder’s Lake, and we spied a couple of loons in the distance. Since my long-distance vision isn’t so great, that necessitated hanging out for a few minutes to watch them dive, then resurface many yards away, to make sure they really were loons and not our resident ducks.

Then it was back to bed with breakfast and the Times Union. I logged onto my computer at noon. I managed to resist FreeCell and Facebook, but I checked the news and came upon the horrific news of today’s terrorist bombings in Brussels.  I then happened upon a link to an article about David Bowie’s former mansion on Mustique, which you can now rent for a paltry $40,000 a week. At 1:00, I got back to this blog post, which I may be able to publish before General Hospital comes on at two. Word has it that Michael Easton will have more screen time today.

David Bowie Mustique retreat

David Bowie’s mansion on Mustique Island

And so it goes. I may be frittering away my life, but sitting here with the sun streaming through my office window, with my dog and cat nearby soaking up the rays, I feel inordinately happy. And is that such a bad thing? Should I be wallowing in guilt? That’s a topic for another time, but in the meantime, I’d love to hear your comments. Is sloth truly a sin?

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Lunesta and Sirius in late March a year ago, when there was snow on the ground!

Walmart’s Big Bottle Blowup

Walmart Tom Smith rally 11-27-15Bright and early on Black Friday, I was outside the Walmart in East Greenbush soaking up sunshine, but I wasn’t there to shop. No, I was at a rally in support of Thomas Smith, who lost his job for turning in empty soda bottles for refunds. The Times Union’s Paul Grondahl broke the story on November 19th, and the Washington Post ran a follow-up article two days later. Now it’s gone viral—I’ve even found articles in the British and German press.

Walmart Tom Smith rally Alice green & Walmart execs 11-28-15Smith’s take for the empty bottles? A grand total of $2.10, according to the store’s managers, but they later upped the total to—horror of horrors—over $5.00. He had served over 13 years in prison for an attempted bank robbery in 2002 and was on parole when he was hired by Walmart at the end of August. He made $9.00 per hour rounding up shopping carts and picking up trash in the parking lot. On the Sunday of the great bottle heist, he walked two hours from the halfway house in Albany where he lived to get to the store for a shift starting at 8:00am. (The managers had refused to change the start time although he told him no buses were available that time on Sundays.)

Walmart later claimed they could not reinstate Smith because he had failed to disclose his prior felony conviction during the job application process, a fact he denies. “We believe he has told the truth from the beginning,” activist Alice Green was quoted as saying in Saturday’s Times Union. “His story has never changed. Only Walmart’s story keeps changing. In all our discussions with Walmart, they never raised the issue of not disclosing his conviction before. We will continue to support and fight for him.”

About 50 demonstrators showed up on Friday morning, including people from labor and religious groups and the NAACP. I learned of the rally through an e-mail from Emily McNeill, a staff member of the Labor-Religion Coalition, who said the protest was not only about Thomas Smith but about Walmart’s mistreatment of low-wage workers in general. I’ve participated in many demonstrations over the years, but this one struck a particular chord because of Thomas Smith’s personal story.

Although I hung in as a creative arts therapist at a psychiatric center long enough to earn a New York State pension and ran a licensed home care agency for nearly a decade, I’ve been fired from a few jobs, generally because of behavior related to bipolar disorder, both before and after I was diagnosed. (As a clerical temp at Regeneron, the pharmaceutical company in East Greenbush, I went from designing Power Point presentations to deciding I should run the company, which didn’t go over too well.)

So I know how much being fired hurts. Whether there’s justification or not, it wreaks havoc with your self-esteem. Deep down, I always knew I could land another job, and now that I’m on Social Security and Medicare, I’ll never have to again, so I can be as flaky as I please. In cases like Thomas Smith’s, it may not be so easy. Because of all the publicity and the people standing up for him, as well as the personable, articulate personality he displayed on Black Friday morning, he’ll probably find work—I’m sure Target would love to have him. But there are millions of others who won’t be so lucky.

I was one of the more than 2,000 people who signed a petition demanding that Walmart pay Smith’s back wages, rehire him and apologize by Monday, November 30th. Otherwise, local groups are calling for a national boycott of Walmart stores.

I can’t promise to swear off Walmart forever, but at least for this holiday season, I can take my business to Target and other stores that treat their employees with respect and dignity—if I can find out which ones they are.

Where do you stand on this issue? I’d love to hear from you.

Christmas shopping-frenzy checkout

 

 

Great new blurbs and a poetic rant

My new author photo by Shannon DeCelle

My new author photo by Shannon DeCelle

Here’s the new back cover copy for Hope Dawns Eternal. I’m reformatting the interior to increase the size of the font and width of the margins. That results in more pages, which requires adjusting the cover as well. While it’s being tweaked, I decided to add an author photograph and some review quotes as well. Since some of my blog readers may not know what the book’s about, this will give you a good idea. I hope you’ll order it on Amazon, either in print or on Kindle.

It’s hard blowing my own horn, and I hate it when people come up with excuses for not buying my book. I wrote a poem about it which I read at “Poets Speak Loud,” the monthly open mic at McGeary’s in Albany hosted by Mary Panza. I thought of posting it on my blog but decided it was too vitriolic to float around the Internet in its entirety. But if you’re curious, below the book description, I’m including a censored version.

CAN SOAP STARS LIVE FOREVER? IF THEY’RE VAMPIRES, ANYTHING’S POSSIBLE.

“A fascinating twist on the vampire romance theme takes you on the set and behind the scenes in the world of soap operas. This well-crafted page turner was hard to put down.”

—Robb Smith, author of Granny Porn 

“Lomoe’s witty, playful and thrilling novel, like the daytime dramas it depicts, entangles its characters in a mysterious web of murder and passion. Fans of soaps and the supernatural should be captivated by this fast-paced read.”

—Alison Armstrong, author of Revenance

Jonah McQuarry is the new cop in town on the soap opera Sunlight and Shadow. Tall and slender, with dark good looks and Pageflex Persona [document: PRS0000038_00069]blazing blue eyes, he has millions of fans thanks to his years on Hope Dawns Eternal, so the showrunners bring him along when the QMA network cancels Hope and replaces it with Brand New You, a self-help reality show. When he meets the raven-haired beauty Abby Hastings, he suspects he knew her when the actor who plays him was a vampire on a long-defunct soap and she was his leading lady.

When the host of Brand New You turns up dead and drained of blood, Jonah becomes a prime suspect. Even worse, he begins to suspect himself. Could Mark Westgate, the actor who plays him, be suffering from dissociative identity disorder, and could Jonah truly be a vampire?

Watch for the sequel, Sunlight and Shadow, coming in 2016.

Reading at Poets Speak Loud at McGeary's

Reading at Poets Speak Loud at McGeary’s

Okay, now here’s my shadow side, coming out in an expurgated version of the poem I read at Poets Speak Loud. No words have been altered but some content has been deleted because I don’t want to identify or diss the people involved.

THE ANGRY AUTHOR

“Julie, if you mention your new book one more time,

I’m going to walk away whenever I see you coming.”

Thus spake a respected elder of our church,

In front of a dozen others. Raised an obedient girl,

I followed orders and stayed mum thereafter

^&*($* Bragging’s bad, and so is pushiness.

Just ask poor Hillary, being pilloried for strengths more seemly in a man.

My &*()%$ group’s no better. &*(#& they meet

To coffee klatch and tell each other how great their writing is,

&*()#% You think they’ll buy my book?

Maybe a couple will, if I beg and wheedle, swallow my pride

And gulp down bile and anger, all for a measly ten bucks, plus

Palpitations and dangerously spiking blood pressure.

Hand selling, they call it—I call it shit. I’d rather dirty my hands

My dog Sirius, who stars in Hope Dawns Eternal

My dog Sirius, who stars in Hope Dawns Eternal

With poop when I scoop my dog’s turds on our morning walks.

Compared to the stench of personal rejection, his shit smells sweet.

Besides, he gives me unconditional love.

Then there’s the Internet, Facebook and the fan groups

That count me as a member, showing just how low they’ll go

But bristling if I try to guide them to my blog. I know they’d love my book,

But blatant self-promotion’s frowned upon, could even get me banned.

The moderators issue dicty warnings—one more transgression,

One more step over the invisible line in the cloud,

And I’ll be forever blackballed.

And what about the friend I asked for a review, at least a measly quote.

“I’ll blurb your book,” I said, “if you blurb mine. A win-win for us both.”

She’d read it but turned me down, claimed she had nothing to say.

^&*(%#@*%^&*

And all the friends and relatives, with all their lame excuses:

“I just don’t have time to read anymore.”

“I’ve got too many books already.”

“I still haven’t read your last one.”

“I don’t like vampires.”

HOPE DAWNS ETERNAL: it’s yours for a measly ten or eleven dollars,

The same as a half-way decent glass of wine, and I could really use the money,

Though it’s beneath my dignity to admit it.

F*(% you, I want to scream. You crappy tightwad! You lousy piece of shit!

Instead I smile politely, paw through my purse for another Tum

And turn away before I trash what used to seem like friendship.

What happens to all this anger? Strangely enough, I find it energizing,

higher up the tone scale than depression,

the deadly black hole that could really do me in.

I’ll channel it into SUNLIGHT AND SHADOW,

the next in my vampire soap opera series.

Hmm, whose blood should I drain first?

Writers, can you identify with this rant? Readers, have I totally turned you off? I’d love to read your comments.

A lonely birthday marred by murder of my favorite soap opera character

The bar at Ashfield Lakehouse (winter snowmobilers, but a similar crowd)

The bar at Ashfield Lakehouse (winter snowmobilers, but a similar crowd)

It’s not often a man strikes up a conversation with me in a bar, but then it’s not often that I find myself alone at a bar in a strange town where I know no one.* New York City doesn’t count—I met my husband at a bar there over 40 years ago, Max’s Kansas City, to be specific. And when I’m in Manhattan for the day, I sometimes treat myself to a libation in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel or the Marriott Marquis before heading back to Penn Station. But those are elegant upscale establishments with overpriced cocktails and comfy upholstered chairs that invite lounging, so they don’t count.

The Ashfield Lakehouse, on the other hand, is the quintessential blue-collar pub, and the man who asked me about the book I was reading at the bar when I took refuge from the storm was a perfect match for the place—middle-aged and moderately paunchy, with curly brown hair and a ruddy complexion suggestive of Irish origin. I’m not sure he was actually hitting on me. Perhaps he was just being friendly. But when he told me that like Abraham Lincoln, he had kind of an evil side, I decided it was time to settle my tab and make tracks back to Wellspring House, where I’d gone for a writer’s retreat week.

Whatever his intentions, I’ll admit I was flattered, especially since my seventy-fourth birthday was just hours away.

Robb and his motorcycle

Robb and his motorcycle

Back in my room, when I logged back online, I found a Facebook message from my husband wishing me an early Happy Birthday. I poured myself a nightcap, settled into bed with Abe the vampire hunter, and read myself to sleep.

Friday was the first birthday I can recall spending alone in over forty years, and the first day my voluntary solitude weighed heavily on my mood. The dozens of birthday greetings from friends on Facebook brightened the day enormously, but I missed Robb, and I longed to hang out in my garden with my dog Sirius and my cat Lunesta.

Although I had no access to television, I knew Friday’s General Hospital would end in a cliffhanger, and it was hard to focus on my writing. Would they really kill Silas Clay? I thought it more likely that they’d string out the suspense until the next week, maybe close with a pointed gun or an off-screen scream. But no, by 3:00pm the reports started flooding Facebook—he was dead, lying face-down on the floor, stabbed in the back. The only cliffhanger was the mystery of who had murdered him.

Silas Clay, stabbed in the back on my birthday!

Silas Clay, stabbed in the back on my birthday!

At first I felt surprisingly calm. After all, the rumors of the murder had been flying all week. But as I surfed through the messages pouring in, the sorrow was contagious. Women were crying nonstop, some for hours. One had vomited, another fainted. Many swore they would never again watch General Hospital. Like me, many had watched Michael Easton since he played the vampire Caleb Morley on Port Charles, then Lieutenant John McBain on One Life to Live and GH, then Dr. Silas Clay on GH. Fourteen years in all—it was like losing a member of the family, a close friend, a fantasy lover.

Elmer's (photo by Peacebear222)

Elmer’s (photo by Peacebear222)

I drank some wine, went for a swim, then headed to Elmer’s for a solitary birthday dinner. The place was crowded, though with a clientele very different from the Lakehouse. More upscale, dressed in country chic, speaking quietly with their partners—and virtually everyone seemed paired off with a partner. I was glad I’d be checking out the next morning.

I began this post as an exploration of my writing experience at a retreat house, and how it compares to the experience of writing at home in my own office. But I veered off on a tangent—much the way my writing got derailed by a drama being played out across the country in a Hollywood studio.

So in conclusion, I’d say I didn’t give the retreat experiment a fair trial; thus the results can’t be considered valid. If I ever decide to repeat the experiment, first I’ll treat myself to a computer or tablet equipped solely with a word processing program—one that doesn’t connect to the Internet.

*This is a continuation of the saga I began last time, in the post dated August 10th. If you missed it, I recommend you read that one first so you’ll know what I’m talking about.

Real-life soap drama shatters idyllic writing retreat

Wellspring House. Photo by Julie Lomoe

Wellspring House. Photo by Julie Lomoe

“Wherever you go, there you are.” That’s the most significant lesson I brought home from my week at a writing retreat in the Berkshires the last week in July. You can change your surroundings, plop yourself down in an idyllic setting with maximal solitude and minimal distractions, but it’s fiendishly difficult to jettison your habitual ways of frittering away the hours you ought to be writing.

My husband had spent a couple of highly productive weeks at Wellspring House in Ashfield, Massachusetts, so I decided to give it a try. My goal: to get a good running start on Sunlight and Shadow, the second in my vampire soap opera series. In particular, I wanted to get inside the head of my heroine, Abigail Hastings. Hope Dawns Eternal, the first in the series, is told entirely from the point of view of the hero, Jonah McQuarry, who fears he’s being possessed by a vampire played by the actor Mark Westgate on a long-cancelled soap. This time, I plan to alternate between Abby’s and Jonah’s viewpoints, especially since that will give me more freedom to describe Jonah in more explicitly loving detail.

Michael Easton as John McBain

Michael Easton as John McBain

Wellspring is a beautifully restored, rambling old two-story house run by Preston Browning, a retired English professor. There are bedrooms for from eight to ten writers, each nostalgically furnished in New England bed-and-breakfast style, each with its own writing desk and chair. There’s no television, and the spotty cell phone service works only if you have Verizon, which I don’t, but they do have WiFi. A shared kitchen, but no set mealtimes, and you’re responsible for your own food.

The atmosphere is quasi-monastic. Talking isn’t forbidden, but people tend to speak in hushed voices, and if you encounter someone in the common areas, it’s perfectly okay not to speak. Since people spend most of the time in their rooms, presumably writing or confronting the reasons they can’t write, it’s possible to spend an entire day in silence.

Preston Browning, proprietor of Wellspring House

Preston Browning, proprietor of Wellspring House

I booked a five-night stay and arrived Monday evening, vowing to write at least 2,000 words per day. Only after a full day of successful writing would I allow myself to tap into the box of Almaden Pinot Grigio I’d brought along. But Monday was practically over and I was tired after my drive, so I decided to take the night off and get an early start on Tuesday.

I settled in with wine, cheese and crackers. I’d brought a few library books, so I cracked open Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter by Seth Grahame-Smith. Next thing I knew, it was two in the morning—an all too common bedtime, I admit—so I slept till ten, then went out for a leisurely breakfast at Elmer’s, the restaurant down the street. Back in my room, I whiled away a couple more hours with Abe, rationalizing that the book counted as research into vampire lore. When I finally buckled down to work Tuesday afternoon, I was delighted to find myself back in the flow. Jonah and Abby were trading lustful glances and barbed witticisms in their favorite bar, and I was happily channeling their words as fast as I could type. I felt good about meeting my word count for the day.

Wednesday morning, I was still in the flow. Around noon, I decided to take a break and check my email. As usual, my inbox was dominated by Facebook notifications from the General Hospital fan groups I belong to. I clicked on one of the links and brought up my Facebook page. Within moments, I was clobbered by devastating news: Michael Easton, my favorite actor on General Hospital, was leaving the show, and Friday would probably be his last day. Although he’d signed a three-year contract renewal in March, the news didn’t come as a total shock. His character, Dr. Silas Clay, had been given increasingly crappy story lines, and recently, he’d barely been seen at all. But had he quit? Been fired? I surfed from one site to another, checked out all the soap gossip columns I could find, but nowhere could I find an explanation.

Michael as Dr. Silas Clay with Ava's baby, January 2015

Michael as Dr. Silas Clay with Ava’s baby, January 2015

This called for more than a cursory lunch break, so I headed to Elmer’s again. I ordered a  Chardonnay and silently toasted Michael, whereupon Wednesday morphed into an official day of mourning and goofing off. I hung out at the beach, did some leisurely swimming, showered and changed, then decided to dine at the Ashfield Lakehouse, a boisterous blue-collar pub. What the hell, this was hardly the time to count calories, let alone words. Their sandwich of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes and basil pesto went fabulously with the house red wine. After dinner, I retreated to my room and lost myself in the memoir of a classical pianist who had been molested by her father until I drifted off to sleep.

Thursday I tried my best to write, but I never got back in the zone, never reentered that state of creative flow where the words spill onto the screen of their own accord. I kept clicking back to the web, searching for the rest of the story of Michael’s departure, trading conspiracy theories and wallowing in collective grief on the fan sites. Rumors were flying that Silas Clay would be murdered on Friday’s show. What choice did I have? I headed back to the Lakehouse for a repeat of that yummy mozzarella sandwich.

Ashfield Lakehouse. This is exactly where I was sitting when the rain started pouring down.

Ashfield Lakehouse. This is exactly where I was sitting when the rain started pouring down.

Although storm clouds were threatening, I chose a seat out on the deck overhanging the lake. I was midway through my mozzarella sandwich when a drenching downpour let loose. The waitress helped carry my stuff inside, where I found a seat at the bar. I was back to Abe the vampire hunter once more, trying not to drip cheesy grease onto the pages, when a man asked what I was reading. When I told him, he grinned and said, “I think Abraham Lincoln had an evil side. I have kind of an evil side myself.”

(to be continued)

Ashfield Lakehouse, where I took shelter from the storm at the bar.

Ashfield Lakehouse, where I took shelter from the storm at the bar.

Etan Patz trial begins 35 years after he disappeared in SoHo

Paul BrowneYesterday in New York City, the trial began for Pedro Hernandez, the man arrested for murdering Etan Patz. I wrote the following post in June, 2012, when he was first arrested. Etan’s disappearance had a major impact on my husband and me, influencing us to move upstate, away from the city we loved. It’s painful to revisit this tragedy, and I can’t begin to imagine how his parents, Stan and Julie Patz, have lived with it these past 35 years.

According to the Washington Post, “Despite its grim denouement, experts say that the Patz case helped revolutionize the way law enforcement responds to potential child abductions. “Of course, technology has changed so dramatically and that’s had a major impact, but we have so many more resources as a result of the Patz case,” said Robert Lowery Jr. of the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children.

Here’s what I wrote in 2012:

At long last, after 33 years, they’ve arrested the alleged murderer of Etan Patz, the six-year-old boy who went missing on his first walk to the bus stop near his home. I knew Etan and his family, and to this day, I have a vivid memory of the moment I learned he had disappeared. Like the Kennedy assassinations, the murder of John Lennon, the Challenger shuttle disaster and the fall of the towers on September 11th, the event burned permanently into my brain, and I can conjure up exactly where I was and what I was doing when I heard the news.

Etan’s family and mine lived in the same coop loft building on Prince Street in SoHo. Our daughter Stacey played with

Stan and Julie Patz, 1980

Stan and Julie Patz, 1980

Etan, and she spent many days in the preschool his mother Julie ran in their third-floor loft. But by May 25, 1979, the day Etan went missing, we were living in a raised ranch 90 miles upstate in Poughkeepsie. We’d rented the house four months before, after I landed a job as an art therapist at Hudson River Psychiatric Center.

We were ambivalent about leaving Manhattan, but we were becoming disenchanted with SoHo. I’d lived there for 12 years, long enough to see the grungy artists’ lofts being swallowed up by gentrification. Real estate prices were rising, and glitzy boutiques were beginning to drive out galleries. Upscale ladies from the Upper East Side and the suburbs were prowling the streets to check out the newly trendy scene, and teens camped out on the steps of the cast iron manufacturing buildings that were home to hundreds of artists.

We were no longer sure we wanted to raise our daughter in the city. In any case, I’d already confronted a harsh reality: I was a good artist, but I’d never be great, and I’d never scale the heady heights of the art world. After my daughter’s birth, I began researching professional careers that offered the promise of a steady paycheck. Art therapy won out over journalism, and by late 1978 I’d acquired an M.A. in Art Therapy from New York University.

We didn’t want to cut our ties to the city, so we unfolded a New York State map on my drafting table. Then, with a compass, we inscribed a circle centered on Times Square, with a ninety-mile radius delineating the outer boundaries of my job search. So it came to pass that in the wintry depths of February, 1979, I immersed myself forty hours a week in the alien wards of a psychiatric hospital for severely and persistently mentally ill adults.

Oh, the stories I could tell. In fact I did: working at Hudson River Psychiatric Center proved so overwhelming that later that year I began writing fiction as a way of processing my feelings. But first came disco – and specifically the double albums of Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” and the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album featuring the BeeGees.

Before Poughkeepsie, absorbed in my art therapy studies, I hadn’t had the time or inclination to immerse myself in music, much less disco, but commuting to and from my work on the wards, the joyfully insistent beat blaring from the radio made me a convert. Stacey was three and a half, and we cavorted endlessly around the living room to the strains of “Bad Girls,” “Hot Stuff,” “How Deep Is Your Love,” and “Night Fever.” Those songs might have remained my most indelible memory of the raised ranch on Robert Road – until we heard about Etan Patz on May 25th.

It was early evening, and I was sipping a screwdriver at the end of a long day’s work on the wards, watching the local news from New York City, when all at once Etan’s face filled the screen. He was missing, the newscasters said – walking along Prince Street to catch the bus for first grade, he’d never made it to school. The police had mounted an intensive search, but as the world came to know, they turned up nothing.

Tri-Prince Coop facade

Tri-Prince Coop facade

My husband and I followed the news for weeks, and as hope for Etan faded, we gradually reached a decision: we would make a decisive break with the city, sell our coop loft on Prince Street, and use the proceeds to buy a house with a few acres of land in upstate New York. And so we did – by October we were settled in a new home surrounded by 16 acres of woods and wetlands a couple of miles from the Shawangunk ridge west of New Paltz.

I can’t claim we’ve never looked back. We still visit New York City a few times a year, but we no longer feel we belong there – these days we could never afford it. We’re just tourists, like those ladies I once looked down on. Occasionally I’ve walked along Prince Street past Tri-Prince, Inc., our old cast iron coop of three connecting buildings. The Patz family name is still on the buzzer outside, but I’ve never had the courage to ring the bell, nor to phone or write. We were neighbors, not close friends, and what could I possibly say to them?

Lately the press has been full of stories about the crime. Pedro Hernandez, then a stock boy at the corner store where we bought our milk and orange juice, has confessed to killing Etan, but the physical evidence has long since disappeared. How will they ever know for sure? Stan and Julie Patz refuse to talk to reporters, and who can blame them? After long, illustrious lives, Robin Gibb and Donna Summer leave musical legacies we can enjoy forever. We can say they’ve found closure, but for Etan Patz and his family, there will never be peace.

 

 

Is Sloth Still a Deadly Sin?

 

Sloth three-toedThis New Year’s morning, I awoke full of good intentions. Rather than committing to the usual litany of resolutions I’ll never keep, I decided to focus on just one goal: I vow to write at least 500 words per day, which comes out to 3,500 words per week. If I don’t reach 500 words one day, I’ll make it up the next day, or the one after that. I’ll cut myself some slack and make the weekly total 3,333. That’s the same goal I set for my GoFundMe* campaign, where I’m hoping to raise $3,333.

At that rate, I’ll reach 173,316 words by next New Year’s Day. That’s the equivalent of two good-sized novels, maybe the next two books in my vampire soap opera series. But I won’t limit myself to fiction. This blog post will count toward today’s total. So will journaling or writing poetry – anything that keeps my butt in the chair and my fingers on the keyboard. Using the mouse won’t count. No more frittering away the hours with Facebook or FreeCell. (That’s worth a resolution in its own right, but it’s one I know I won’t be able to keep, so I’m not making it.)

Can I actually do this? Sounds reasonable, right? I can easily turn out 500 words in an hour or two, so what’s stopping

Sloth (detail) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

Sloth (detail) by Pieter Bruegel the Elder

me? In a word, SLOTH. Not the cute three-toed kind shown above, but the Deadly Sin variety. Of all the Seven Deadly Sins, sloth is by far my biggest challenge. Here’s what Wikipedia has to say about it:

Sloth is one of the seven deadly sins in Christian moral tradition, particularly within Catholicism, referring to laziness. Sloth is defined as spiritual or emotional apathy, neglecting what God has spoken, and being physically and emotionally inactive. It can also be either an outright refusal or merely a carelessness in the performance of one’s obligations, especially spiritual, moral or legal obligations. Sloth can also indicate a wasting due to lack of use, concerning a person, place, thing, skill, or intangible ideal that would require maintenance, refinement, or support to continue to exist.

Back in the day, those guilty of sloth were sentenced to Hell, and in particular to a pit full of snakes. But these days, those of us who don’t fear hellfire and damnation have a hard time taking sloth all that seriously. Googling the subject, I found a brilliant essay Thomas Pynchon wrote for the New York Times in 1993. Here’s a sample:

Writers of course are considered the mavens of Sloth. . . . there is all the glamorous folklore surrounding writer’s block, an affliction known sometimes to resolve itself dramatically and without warning, much like constipation, and (hence?) finding wide sympathy among readers.

Sloth by Hieronymous Bosch

Sloth by Hieronymous Bosch

Reading Pynchon’s essay, I find I’m guilty of another of the Deadly Sins: Envy. He’s so creative, so hilarious, that I could never come remotely close to his level. This in turn engenders pessimism and an almost irresistible urge to play FreeCell or check my email. Or it could give rise to Gluttony, another of the Deadlies, but I’m still feeling bloated from overeating at Dan Wilcox’s  New Year’s Day open house, so the thought of more food is distasteful.

In case your memory needs jogging, the other four Deadly Sins are Wrath, Greed, Pride and Lust. It’s curious that drunkenness doesn’t make the cut – probably Thomas Aquinas and the other theologians were too fond of their alcoholic libations. But the fear of spending an eternity in hell for committing one of the shameful seven no doubt helped keep good Christians in line so that the social order didn’t descend into total mayhem and anarchy. Later, as Pynchon points out, the fear was harnessed in the interests of motivating the labor force that drove industrial productivity.

Today, thanks to our vastly extended life spans, most people in our country have the luxury of enjoying at least a decade or two of retirement, with the leisure time to pursue our own interests  – or to kick back and do absolutely nothing. In these bonus decades, can sloth still be considered a sin? Haven’t we earned the right to be lazy? Maybe, but if so, why do I suffer such pangs of guilt and self-loathing when I spend an afternoon immersed in reading a novel or an evening lounging in bed watching multiple episodes of the latest series on Netflix?

I could ramble on in this vein, but it’s almost midnight and I’ve exceeded my 500 words, so I’ll cease and desist. How about you? Is sloth a problem in your life? I’d love to hear from you.

*My GoFundMe campaign was on hold during the holidays, but I’m relaunching it as of today, hoping to raise money to pay for help with cover design and illustration for Hope Dawns Eternal and my other novels. To learn more, visit www.hopedawnseternal.net.

Boschsevendeadlysins