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Archive for August, 2011|Monthly archive page

Information Overload!

In behavior, blogging, books, business, domestic life, journalism, life, work on August 15, 2011 at 12:11 pm
17th January 2008 / Day 17 (382)

Help! What next? Image by Mrs Magic via Flickr

I admitted it aloud recently to a good friend. I’m reaching a point, which in some ways is exciting, of overload. I don’t even have kids or pets, but face so many choices and decisions it’s hard to know where to prioritize, focus and begin.

Right now, these include:

finishing and hopefully selling the proposal for my third book

opening and stocking my Etsy shop, AtlasoftheHeart

planning and marketing a writing workshop for next January in New Mexico

creating the photo book I began back in March at the Banff Springs Hotel

starting the proposal for my fourth book

getting “Malled” sold to some overseas markets

planning and executing a fund-raising campaign for a writers’ charity whose board I belong to

reaching out to new freelance clients to line up more work

following up with several amazing people I’ve recently met, with whom I hope to work

connecting on LinkedIn with all 65 people I just met at the retail conference I spoke at

following up in detail with three or four of them on a specific idea we discussed

finding more local speaking engagements for “Malled”

seeking and setting up readings and events for “Malled”

seeking and finding blogs on which to write guest posts to promote it

trying to repair — do I want to? — the non-speaking relationship with my mother

losing more weight so I can (shriek) schedule my hip replacement surgery

seeking and finding more paid venues at which to speak about “Malled”

staying in touch with friends worldwide

reading for pure pleasure

reading for book proposal research

long afternoons sitting with a good friend face to face

meeting new business contacts

mining my Facebook and LinkedIn connections

answering LinkedIn questions to stay visible within that community

choosing which cultural events like ballet, concerts, dance, theater to attend and getting tickets

staying in touch with several friends facing health issues, one whose Mom is quite ill

dealing more thoughtfully with my investments

Whew!

And that’s not even including writing this blog and responding to the many interesting people who comment.

The New York Times recently ran an interesting essay on the current paucity of “big ideas”, based on the current Niagara of data we have no time to thoughtfully absorb or process:

But if information was once grist for ideas, over the last decade it has become competition for them. We are like the farmer who has too much wheat to make flour. We are inundated with so much information that we wouldn’t have time to process it even if we wanted to, and most of us don’t want to.

The collection itself is exhausting: what each of our friends is doing at that particular moment and then the next moment and the next one; who Jennifer Aniston is dating right now; which video is going viral on YouTube this hour; what Princess Letizia or Kate Middleton is wearing that day. In effect, we are living within the nimbus of an informational Gresham’s law in which trivial information pushes out significant information, but it is also an ideational Gresham’s law in which information, trivial or not, pushes out ideas.

We prefer knowing to thinking because knowing has more immediate value. It keeps us in the loop, keeps us connected to our friends and our cohort. Ideas are too airy, too impractical, too much work for too little reward. Few talk ideas. Everyone talks information, usually personal information.

Here’s a thought-provoking list of possible things to reply to from Seth Godin’s blog.

How do you handle or manage all the data and demands coming at you, personally and professionally?

Meeting Your Readers Face to Face

In behavior, blogging, books, business, work on August 13, 2011 at 1:56 pm
Michael Shellenberger

Author Michael Shellenberger at a D.C. bookstore. Image via Wikipedia

When your books start heading out into the wider world — bought (paid for!) by libraries, schools and civilians — it’s hard not to be intensely curious about just who these people are.

Four months ago today, my memoir “Malled” My Unintentional Career in Retail” was published. To my relief, it is still selling very steadily nationwide.

It’s a thrill to know that some people are appreciating your skill and hard work and ideas — especially when you get “reviews” like the nastiest one (of many) so far at amazon.com that called me “bitter, pretentious and lazy, lazy, lazy.”

I recently read to/spoke with a small group — perhaps 15 or so — at Magers & Quinn in Minneapolis. Fun! A local blogger kind enough to feature me came out with his friends. They had lots of questions and comments, as several people had worked in retail themselves and had much to offer.

It was a lively conversation, and  so satisfying to have a chance to share with people who care as much about this stuff as I do.

When you’re writing, hunched alone in your sweats over your umpteenth revision, it’s these moments I especially look forward to as my reward. Writing books is such a crapshoot. You pray you’ll find readers, and when you find enthusiastic ones and can see their faces and hear their reactions, it closes the loop between your initial private ideas and the act of publication.

I was especially touched there by the woman whose response to “Malled” was “Yayyyyyyyyy!” and told us she keeps telling friends to read it.

For some people, authors are a mysterious breed. Unless you hang out in those circles, you might never meet one, while our products keep pouring out in a hopeless Niagara, each of us trying in every possible way to claim your attention. Booksellers see a ragged parade of us, persistently cheerful in the face of even the tiniest tiny turn-out — sometime one person, sometimes none.

The bookseller at M & Q was relieved to find me relaxed, schmoozing the audience before we began. “Some writers are really high-strung,” he told me.

Why, yes they are. I once interviewed a famous women humorist whose work I had revered for years. Disaster. She was rude, abrupt and distinctly not funny in person.

See: illusions, shattered.

It’s even a real challenge finding venues to read and meet your readers. I’m not sufficiently high profile to read at any of the Manhattan Barnes & Noble stores, and couldn’t find a single store in the city to set up an event for me. I did one event here in the New York suburbs where I live — and one person came, a fellow blogger I know.

“Book tours” paid for by a publisher willing to send you around the country are only for the uber-successful. The rest of us call a few stores in whatever towns we’re about to visit, and hope to piggyback on their local and loyal buyers to come out and meet us. Even if no buyers appear, we sign some books, shake some hands and hope we leave a good-enough impression that the bookstore staff will talk up our book — only word of mouth makes a book truly successful.

Not ads, not reviews.

And we really need enthusiastic and knowledgable retailers to hand-sell our work, recommending it with enthusiasm even while thousands of our competitors line their shelves.

Have you ever gone to a reading to meet an author?

Was s/he what you expected in person?

Avast, Me Hearties!

In antiques, culture, education, entertainment, History, travel on August 12, 2011 at 12:06 pm
Brazilian Tall Ship Cisne Branco photo taken b...

Brazilian Tall Ship Cisne Branco. Image via Wikipedia

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a gray mist on the sea’s face, and a gray dawn breaking.
I must down go to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.
I must go down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way, where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover,
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over.
 — John Masefield

Have you ever seen, or boarded, a Tall Ship?

Having just watched Moby Dick on the Encore channel last week, starring William Hurt and Ethan Hawke, I had a sudden wave of nostalgia for the times I’ve spent aboard them.

I discovered them in 1984 in Toronto, when they came from all over the world to visit. I fell hard for a young American, Kevin, and spent much of that summer meeting him, and his ship, at various ports around the Great Lakes. Ashtabula, Ohio, for example.

I love everything about these extraordinary vessels: the way they creak, their majestic posture, the physical labor of climbing the rigging, coiling huge and heavy lines as thick as my forearm, furling enormous square sails while standing 100 feet in the air on a footrope the width of….a rope.

It re-defines exhaustion working physically hour after hour after hour (even if it’s fun), burning off 7,000 calories a day and still losing weight. Every single action, climbing up and down below decks, cleaning the brass, turning the ship’s wheel, requires exertion.

Crazy!

I recently had lunch with a man I met on LinkedIn, visiting New York from Vancouver. I only knew he is an excellent speaker and hoped he might help me polish a speech. Over a long lunch we discovered that we had both crewed aboard a Tall Ship, he on the Europa and I on Australia’s Endeavour.

I was fortunate enough to be able to sail for free as a journalist, boarding in Norwalk, CT and sailing to Newport, RI for five days. I slept, as we all did, in a tiny narrow white vinyl hammock I had to string up each night….and one night my knots were weak and gave way and I plunged – ouch! — to the floor.

However cliche, you very quickly learn people’s real character when you live so closely and work in such tight teams in an environment of potential extreme danger. One stupid or inattentive move can maim or kill you, and you notice, fast, those who you best stay as far away from as possible.

It was so fun to meet someone who really knew, and equally loved, this odd world. He sailed aboard for three months, (paying about $50 a day for the privilege), even rounding Cape Horn in 40-foot seas.

My trip was much less exciting, although I loved standing the midnight to 4 a.m. watch and steering the ship beneath the stars.

Have you even been on one of these great ships?

Where and when?

I’m A…

In behavior, culture, domestic life, family, life, politics, religion, women on August 10, 2011 at 12:42 pm
Identity (film)

Image via Wikipedia

I’m not wild about labels. On cans, sure.

But people?

Here’s an interesting Slate essay about the difference between Latino/a and Hispanic.

I met a woman recently who said she was a “moderate Republican.” It’s fair to describe my sweetie as a “devout Buddhist.” I know a woman, an artist, who could fairly say she’s a “passionate flea marketer.”

In an era of identity politics, when identifying as member of one group can alienate members of another, how “loud and proud” are we?

My first book, “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” is about the intersection of women and firearms in the U.S. I was fascinated — and depressed — to find that most people assumed I must be a gun-owner, user or even fanatic.

Not!

I’ve never owned one, nor plan to. I did shoot a bunch of different handguns as research, but am quite able, as a career journalist, to write about all sorts of issues without attaching myself to them emotionally or investing in that identity or personal allegiance.

That’s what being a traditional news journalist means — finding and reporting stories, not signing up for every cause or group.

Other than our work titles or job descriptions, or our family relationships (Mom, husband, sister, nephew), how do we choose to define ourselves to the wider world?

Words can have such different meanings to many people; one person’s definition of “conservative” (fiscally but not socially) might signal the red flag of a very different belief system to someone else.

I’m liberal in some ways, politically and otherwise, but quite conservative in others, like finances and the way I often dress.

I’m comfortable saying publicly I’m a(n):

feminist

traveler

athlete

aesthete

foodie

volunteer

ex-patriate

creator

Francophile

artist

I recently took the vows of a bodhisattva. Gulp. Big job!

I doubt I’ll be using that one in social conversation any time soon, but it’s a role I’ve felt strongly about for a while.

How about you?

What are some of your identities?

Four Hours In Line? Worth It For McQueen Show

In art, beauty, culture, design, Fashion, work on August 8, 2011 at 11:12 am
Alexander McQueen Oyster Dress

Who waits four hours to see anything? (Except maybe Disneyworld.)

I did, last week in Manhattan, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, to see the show of Alexander McQueen, the late Scottish clothing designer who committed suicide in February 2010, leaving a bereft world of fashion editors, collectors and fans of his work.

I’d seen bits of it in fashion magazines. It was often shockingly weird, like shoe-boots so impossibly high that walking in them was dangerous. This was a level of brilliance un-knock-off-able, no watered-down mass-market versions likely to show up in next year’s competitors’ catalogues.

I knew it was beautiful and challenging. I had no idea how truly extraordinary his imagination until I spent 75 minutes with it. (The show has now closed, having become one of the most popular ever held at the Met; more than 600,000 people stood for many hours in line to see it.)

Where to begin?

Historic references. From chopines, the towering platform shoes worn by Venetian women from the 14th to 16th centuries, to allusions to Scottish history, in his collection, the widows of Culloden, which included a headpiece with a metal birds’ nest holding exquisitely jeweled eggs.

Materials. From burlap to paillettes to tulle to faille to chiffon to metal to feathers to silver to leather to….horsehair! One of my favorite dresses was made of burlap, over-embroidered with huge, almost childlike flowers in soft jewel tones, with an underskirt of tightly pleated gold. The contrast between humble and opulent, patrician and peasant, was much more powerful in opposition. Dresses made of clamshells and mussel shells? Yes, and gorgeous.

Borrowed ideas. A tailored women’s jacket…that wrapped like a straitjacket. He’s been described as misogynist for such designs, but I found it intriguing. So many demands of traditional women’s beauty force us into tortured postures as it is. Why not call it as you see it? A breathtakingly sinuous arm-cuff of sterling thorns recalled Christ’s crown. I loved the balsa-wood skirt (with leather tabs like a classic kilt) with cut-outs, that spread open like an 18th. century cut-ivory fan.

Daring. One of my favorite elements of the exhibit was the  chance to watch several videos of his shows. One had a model wearing a white dress, edged on two sides by white robotic spray-painters….whose streams of black and chartreuse spattered against the skirt (and the model) created the design in front of our eyes. A piece of body armor, ring upon ring of gleaming steel, that one might wear into battle, symbolic or otherwise. A jacket with mini crocodile heads on each shoulder. Women need protection. He got it.

Sorrow. One dress, for me, is unforgettable, a long pale column of white and gray, with a photo print of statues, two doves on each shoulder. How can a garment convey such melancholy? It did.

Nature, reconfigured. I adored a long, tight jacket of gold feathers, a burst of white, bead-embroidered tulle exploding at the hem. The last collection of snake and lizard and python-printed jersey, overlaid with bronze and turquoise and mustard paillettes.

I have to thank this blogger, a New York City costume designer, for finally getting me to go to this show. After he had seen it six times (!), I thought, right, worth it.

I will never forget some of these images and ideas.

Now I understand why his admirers feel bereft.

Have you ever seen a museum show that gobsmacked you this way?

Making A Beautiful Home

In antiques, art, beauty, books, design, domestic life, life, Style, urban life on August 6, 2011 at 11:20 am
The famous flea market at the Kitano-tenmangu

Treasures lie within every flea market -- for the digging! Image via Wikipedia

I admit it. It’s my obsession.

My home, a one-bedroom apartment in a nondescript 1960s red-brick building in a northern New York City suburb, is the beneficiary of most of my time, energy and creativity. It’s always been like that, wherever I live.

I love to putter, paint, make things, design and build bookshelves and windowboxes, find antique frames to hold my drawings and photos.

For me, home is truly where the heart is. When it’s calm, clean and pretty, my world is complete.

I planned to leave journalism in the mid-1990s and become an interior designer, and studied at The New York School of Interior Design. I loved it and did well. Then my marriage suddenly blew up, so starting a whole new career was no longer practical.

Here are some of my inspirations and ideas:

Always include a few lovely old things. Unless you’re dedicated Modernist, it’s soothing and grounding to include some older pieces in the mix, whether textiles, glass, china or furniture, whose weathered surfaces and patina, curves and inlay and engraving add lovely details and shapes. I bought four rush-seated painted ladder-back chairs, two black, two light green — now about 150 years old — at a country auction in Nova Scotia in 1985 and shipped them home to Toronto by train. I still love them. You can find many great things at thrift and consignment shops for pennies. Once you learn the difference between blown and molded glass, silver plate and sterling, reproduction and the real thing, you’ll score some seriously affordable loot.

Re-purpose! Antique textiles can be re-used as pillow covers, bed and table linens, a folding screen. I use battered old wooden tool-boxes to hold my bedside needs, the TV remote and use a square wooden seaman’s chest to hold all the ugly cables, plugs and extension cords that keep our house functioning. A lovely hand-blown or cut crystal decanter can hold dish soap, juice, vinaigrette.

Invest in polish, rags, tools, Goo-gone, steel wool, paint. Many of the nicest things in my home sure didn’t arrive pristine, but needed sanding, painting or cleaning. (Goo-gone, a liquid available at hardware stores, will get rid of the leftover adhesive from an old sale sticker, for example.) I recently spray-painted some basic red clay pots a gorgeous glossy navy blue to match my ceramic pots of the same color.

Develop some reliable, affordable sources. I have a fantastic fabric store that does all my pillows and curtains, in Rhode Island, for much less than I’d pay locally, and she does great work. (I discovered her on a vacation there.) Quinny, my auto-body guy, sand-blasts and cleans all my old metal (paint-encrusted radiator covers, a Moroccan lantern.)

Read books for inspiration. I have a terrific collection of auction catalogs, and hardcover books on design, antiques, art and decorative arts, from Asia, Mexico and Europe. I dip into them occasionally for sheer visual pleasure — and fresh ideas. I love The Well-Worn Interior, with some exquisite photos of homes in Ireland, France, England and even New York City.

Watch the pro’s and talented amateurs. One of my favorite websites is Apartment Therapy, which every day features the home of a real person with amazing style. Not rich people, just those with a great eye willing to share. Its founder and creator, Maxwell Gillingham-Ryan, also wrote this terrific and helpful book. Here are 10 fab tips for fixing up your kitchen from the recent AT contest.

Go abroad, even just visually. Even if your budget hasn’t room for a trip to Bangkok or Paris, there are so many great websites and books and magazines full of ideas. My favorite design magazine is The World of Interiors, a British publication, followed by the various editions of Cote Sud, which focus on on regions of France. The French and English are masters of elegant but laid-back beauty, full of ideas you won’t find in an American magazine. I also like Canadian House & Home. I love this British website for amazing textiles and wallpaper.

Small items can have a huge impact. A perfect, tiny frame; some fresh flowers in a vase; a fragment of lace on a pillow cover; a silver or glass or brass candlestick. Splurge on super chic or costly designer fabric for one or two small throw pillows. Give your eye somewhere lovely to land. Check out antiques fairs, art supply stores, flea markets, garden supply centers, Etsy. I recently scored a perfect, round, gold metal Victorian picture frame about 5 inches in diameter for $20 at an outdoor antiques show. A creamy white frame, on sale from Pottery Barn, now holds a sepia photo of my great grandfather, with sepia cursive writing wrapping paper as the mat on which it lies.

Perfection is boring! My hand-woven white summer rug, (found in a Quebec antique store), needs some repair. It’s old and that’s OK. While you want your home clean, sweet-smelling and tidy, matchy-matchy perfection is a surefire style killer. Think quirky, charming, curvy. If everything in your room is a pale neutral, add a pop of scarlet or yellow or black. Especially black. If every shape in a space is a square or rectangle, consciously add a few softening pieces — a mirror, a demilune table, a throw rug — that are circular, oval or curved.

Use your scissors, camera, printer. Photos can look strikingly different — better! — in black and white or sepia. Look for old magazines, ads, postcards, signage. Anything can work as art if you use it, frame it, and hang or display it well.

Color! A hit of terrific color (scarlet, lime green, turquoise, white, black) in a throw pillow or accessory can punch up a sofa, chair or bookshelf.

Flea markets and antique shows are your new best friend. Take cash in small denominations and a check book and an open mind. I need nothing, but am always up for adventure. My last flea market tour, (the Sunday market at Toronto’s St. Lawrence Hall), netted me a gorgeous pink glass compote I gave away ($10), a tiny silver-plate engraved cup ($10, now on my desk holding pencils and pens) and a huge swath of mustard-colored charmeuse silk ($10.) Score! The silk now perfectly covers my folding screen (the one I made).

Multiples and scale matter. Items in threes are more interesting than a pair. If you’re going to have one…of anything…make it huge or tiny. Put related items together. Mix it up while using similar color, tone, pattern. Our bedroom wall has two sepia-tone female nude photos, each framed in gold, hung together.

Here’s a link to {frolic}, one of my favorite lifestyle blogs, with five fab books on home decoration — two of which are on my bookshelf.

And here’s an apartment that embodies much of these ideas, from Apartment Therapy’s great website.

What have you done to make your home lovely?

Where do you get inspiration?

The Best Meals Of My Life

In family, food, travel on August 4, 2011 at 11:26 am
New Year's Eve fireworks in Paris

Oooh-la-la! This is how my tastebuds felt. Image via Wikipedia

Having just survived eight days of an all-vegetarian retreat — I may never eat field greens again! — it got me to thinking of the best meals (and, yes, drinks!) I’ve ever enjoyed.

The food we ate wasn’t bad at all, and in fact beautifully presented, healthy, full of vitamins. The cheese/fennel scones were perfect little pillows; the berry crumble lovely; the crispy green beans just the right color and texture…

But still.

Here are some of my favorite meals:

In a port-side cafe in Concarneau, Brittany, cold, fresh oysters, a baguette with sweet butter, tiny hot sausages and a crisp glass of Muscadet.

Street-vendor food in Bangkok.

My late granny’s Christmas goose.

My mom’s hamburger smash — ground meat, salt, pepper, carrots, potatoes — all mixed up in a frying pan.

The sweetie’s blueberry pancakes with, of course, real maple syrup.

A spectacular fish soup I ate on a frigidly cold winter’s day in Old Montreal — in 1987! It was that good.

The peach crumble with sour cream at Stash Cafe, also in Old Montreal.

On my first visit to England, when I was 12, eating clotted cream right from the bottle.

Some hellaciously good barbecue in Fort Worth.

At a rooftop party in Paris on New Year’s Eve, fistfuls of fresh oysters shucked right in front of us.

At Los Almendros, in Merida, a fish dish so good we went back the next night and ate it again.

The tiny perfect sweet mussels our friend Celia made for us for dinner when she lived in Paris, served on her rooftop.

The stew my Dad and I made in Ireland from mussels we picked ourselves from Galway Bay.

My friend Mary’s Brooklyn roof-top open-air feasts, with a bottomless tureen of lethal/delicious caipirinhas.

Hot, fresh churros with a melting chocolate center, bought from a Mexico City roadside stand our driver Gerardo took us to.

The spaghetti carbonara, eaten at the bar, at Morandi in New York City.

The tacos al pastor and homemade guacamole at Toloache, also in Manhattan.

My first pisco sour, at Carlin, in Lima.

At Casa de Piedra, a long-gone and lovely hotel in Cuernavaca, my first and unforgettable taste of sweet chestnut paste. Not to mention their enormous, salty home-made potato chips. (Here’s a link to a replacement every bit as lovely and charming, Casa Colonial.)

How about you?

Dish!

Make Me Laugh And I’m Yours, Baby!

In behavior, domestic life, education, life, religion on August 2, 2011 at 11:27 am
you laughed so hard you cried?

Image via Wikipedia

Is there anything less amusing than a day — a week — longer? without laughter?

Especially when times are terrifying and horrible and painful, you gotta laugh.

The men who have won my heart are the ones who made me laugh so hard I almost peed, like Bob, who took me to a Manhattan comedy club but made me laugh ten times harder on the drive home.

The sweetie and I met on-line, so our first few conversations were by phone, as we lived about 30 miles away from one another. I have no idea what he said, but something made me laugh so hard I snorted.

Sexy!

That’s the end of that, I figured. What man wants to date a chick who snorts?

But Jose, being Jose, thought this was — as Buddhists like to say — an auspicious sign. If he could make me laugh that hard, clearly I had some appreciation for: 1) the same things; 2) seen the same way; 3) him. All true, and here we are 11 years later.

The eight-day silent Buddhist retreat I recently attended certainly looked Very Serious Indeed. All the students had mala beads wrapped around their wrists, and prayer books wrapped in gorgeous Chinese silk bags and some of them fully prostrated before each teaching. Yikes!

I do take such matters seriously indeed, but a little lightness goes a long, long way with me.

Thank heaven for Lama Surya Das’ love of laughter. We were killing ourselves at his raucous, bawdy humor — which made a deeply thoughtful 90-minute teaching, with 20 points on one slide alone — fly by.

How often do you laugh?

Is it enough?

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