Friday, February 24, 2012

Tipping Toward Genius



I had finished writing a middle-grade novel and was wondering what the next book would be, for there’s always the “next” for this writer. I was in that mode where I was sure the creative juices were gone and I’d never get a new idea ever again. (My family and friends tell me I always do this, but each time it feels like the first time and I panic.)
Malcolm Gladwell claims in his book The Tipping Point, that there is a point where social epidemics, be they fashion trends, diseases, or behavior patterns, will tip into a new mode, a new paradigm. And it’s often the little things that make the difference.
I definitely have my tipping points like when Quicken acts up, the computer is slow, and I discover I’ve made an error in the lunch date time. I tip. But I wanted something to tip me into a creative frame of mind.
And it happened, just as Gladwell predicted it would. It might not make logical sense, but it worked. Here’s how it happened. (I love these serendipity events and mine seem to come in 3s.)
First. I read the book Room by Emma Donoghue. I loved it. Had to read it two more times right away.  It’s written from the point of view of a five-year old boy. I am always amazed at how much I take for granted, how much is just background material. Here’s a child, literally new to the world (can’t tell you why as it will spoil it for you when you read the book), and he notices everything. Most of my language is in clich├ęs, hackneyed phrases that have lost their cleverness—their patina. That little boy woke me up to find new ways to see common things, to be willing to get out of my ordinary ruts.
Second. I watched a TED Talk by Linda Grey, author of Eat, Pray, Love.  She said the early Greeks talked about a genius from which ideas came to people. It did not reside within people. You couldn’t say, “She’s a genius.” For the idea or talent came to the person from outside—from the genius. The Romans did a similar thing only they called it a daemon. It too was outside of the person. And then at some point in history someone said, “He’s a genius,” and we were all doomed. That phrase put that inventor of ideas right into the ego domain and we’ve been stuck there ever since. I had certainly been stuck, for when I was twelve and had finished reading Tale of Two Cities I longed with all my being to be a writer, but I knew I couldn't be for I didn't have the talent, the genius. It took many years before I even attempted to write anything.
Third. I had a conversation with my friends Peggy & Tom. They’re taking a course at the University of Washington about the aesthetics and religion of Native Americans. They tell me that the Native Americans compared that “flow” of ideas and talents to a river or stream that came from a source and flowed through each individual. I would say it’s the Muse or the Holy Spirit coming from the Universe/God and it’s available 24/7 to everyone.
I tipped!
Just the other day, I got an email from my cousin asking what I’d done to prepare myself for writing my blog. Had I read a lot? Taken courses and seminars in writing? Studied? Could he learn how? I answered “Yes” to all the questions. You see, I also had read Gladwell’s book The Outliers and know that it takes about 10,000 hours to get good at anything. So I walk a delicate line between working at the craft and listening to the muse. Gotta have both. So now I’ve got an idea for the next book; I’m making notes, doing research, calling on the genius/muse, and listening hard. Have you tipped lately?

Friday, February 17, 2012

A Cup of Love


When I was in high school, my parents gave me Sonnets from the Portuguese by Elizabeth Barrett Browning. That book of poetry kept this skinny sixteen-year old up nights. “How do I love thee?” Elizabeth wrote, “ Let me count the ways….”  And then, in forty-four sonnets, she lists the ways expressively and romantically. About the same time, a boy gave me The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam. More poetry than one teenager could handle. And then there was The White Cliffs by Alice Duer Miller. I cried buckets each time I read it. “So I put my gloved hand into his glove and we danced together and fell in love…Young and in love, how magical the phrase.” I was sure I knew all about it. And then I met a tall dark young man and he swept me off my feet.
I soon learned there were many ways to express those feelings, not as poetic perhaps, but where the “I love you” rings loud and clear. My husband was gifted in that department. And my children and grandchildren are constantly surprising me.
My parents never told me they loved me. I was very clear they did—adored both my sister and me. My father saved those three special words for our mother. He would raise his glass of wine, wink, and say, “I’ve known many women, kissed a few, loved but one, here’s to you.”
            My friend Vito told me this story of his Italian immigrant parents.  Every evening, after dinner, his mother made a tiny cup of espresso for his father.  Carefully, she placed it before him and then sat beside him.  He always added half a teaspoon of sugar and slowly stirred it in.  As he sipped, they gossiped about the day.  He always drank only half a cup.  Then he slid it over to her, and she drank the rest.
            Vito said that after his father died, his mother never made or drank espresso again.


Friday, February 10, 2012

Giving Tea A Chance



          I’ve decided to give tea a chance. When I was young, my father said I drank “flea pee,” and he had a point. My method was to quickly pass a tea bag through hot water and call it a day. With a couple of cubes of sugar it wasn’t too bad. My grandmother served what she called Cambric tea. It was merely hot water with milk and sugar, but we drank it from lovely fragile cups with decorated saucers. She served bittersweet Mary Janes stacked on tiny china plate. These were lumpy squares of a molasses cookie frosted with watered powdered sugar. I loved them.

But I digress…
            Tea was a big deal back in the Colonial days. Those few individuals hugging the eastern coast bought about a million pounds of tea a year. And we’ve grown up thinking they revolted because it was taxed. Not exactly. The tea tax just broke the camel’s back. It was all the items the King had earmarked on that bill that did it. (Do we ever learn our lessons?) Those Colonists had a long list of grievances. The early settlers braved the weather with mugs of dark tea clutched in their cold hands. And they drank it with no sugar or milk. Once in a while they found ways to spice up the brew, but mostly they drank it straight.
            My parents were both coffee drinkers. I remember when Daddy finally talked mother into giving up doctoring hers with cream and sugar. He suggested she stop cold turkey, but she graciously declined and every day cut back a miniscule amount. Took a long time. Neither my sister nor I drank coffee. Not that it was forbidden. We just weren’t interested.
            Daddy was fussy about his brew.  In restaurants, he had the waiter first fill his cup with hot water. Only when the cup was properly heated, would he allow the waiter to empty the water and fill the cup with hot coffee. Shortly after my marriage, my father dropped by one morning to visit. I offered to make him a cup of coffee. I had the fixings as my husband was a coffee drinker. I made the coffee and served it to my father. He sipped then thought a moment. “Is this what you serve Dick?” he asked.
            I nodded
            “Has he ever said anything about it?”
            I shook my head. “No.”
            My father smiled. “He really loves you.” Then he proceeded to teach me how to made a decent cup of coffee.
            It wasn’t until I moved to Seattle that I began to drink coffee. My Seattle friends take this business seriously. In 1971, three young men opened a coffee bar they called Starbucks. Then in 1982, Howard Schultz came along and the next year took a trip to Italy. Voila!  The designer $5 latte was born. As I sit with friends, sipping our fancy concoctions, the talk centers on dark roasted or blended, Columbian or Ethiopian. I decided I’d better get with it. I don’t tell them, but I’m not a connoisseur—not even close. I don’t really care and doctor my coffee with all manner of things. But I love the friendship and conversations as we savor our lattes.
            But I started out writing about tea. I have discovered this subject is just as solemn as the coffee one. There’s Jasmine, Darjeeling, Lapsang, Souchong, Earl Grey, herbal, loose, bagged, medicinal. I even have tea that has been blessed in a Shinto Shrine and some from Nepal. My friend Patrick took a class in Japanese Tea Ceremony (called Chanoya). There were ten sessions. Everything was ritualized, with everyone fully participating. It was seriously serious, a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea (called matcha). It’s not really about drinking tea, more about the aesthetics, preparing tea from one’s heart. Patrick said that what arose was a calm sense of aliveness, known as the spirit of the tea. A lovely thought. Patrick still drinks tea, usually out of a mug, but he’s never forgotten the experience of making and drinking tea as a ceremony.
I visited the Turkish Tea Institute, outside of Rive near the Black Sea where the steep hills are covered with tea plantations. The director took my friends and me around, giving us esoteric information about soil, weather, growing, and processing tea. Apparently Lipton was making severe inroads on the Turkish tea trade with their bags. The director spit out the word “bags” explaining they were filled with the sweepings from the floors of warehouses. Turkish people are dedicated tea (chai) drinkers. Most families have samovars, beautiful vessels made from everything from enamel and silver to battered tin. Samovar means self-boiler and is a way of having hot water to make tea and keep it hot. It’s also useful when you have a guest like me who’s used to drinking “flea pee.” You can always dilute the strong cup.
In England and Ireland I couldn’t tolerate the black brew they called tea. I drank shandys and was called a sissy by my friends.
            If you opened one of my kitchen cabinets, you’d swear I was a tea drinker. I’ve got at least twelve different kinds of tea. It’s what I serve when my Writer’s Salon group comes once a month. I’m getting to be a better tea drinker. I’ve got a lovely tea cozy Cynthia sent me from Scotland. I’ve learned about steeping and have cut down to one sugar cube. And I’m experimenting. Just made a cup of mint tea. Hm-m-m. Maybe this will be the one. 

Saturday, February 4, 2012

A History Lesson


In 1973, I was given a desk in the Rare Books Room in the Huntington Memorial Library in San Marino, California.  I hadn’t realized that the Huntington Library has one of the finest collections of early Americana of any library in the country.  Had I known, I probably would have lost my nerve.  But I didn’t, and so I asked if I could do some research there.
            When I explained that I was working on a project to present history in a you-are-there-now mode to children, the curator became enthusiastic.  He took me into the Rare Books Reading Room and pointed to one of the small tables and chair in the middle of the room. One needed serious credentials and projects to be allowed to work here.
            “No electric typewriters, but you can use a small manual,” the curator whispered and waited for a response from me.
            “Um…ah,” I managed.
            “Would you prefer another location?” he asked politely and pointed to a table in the corner.
            “Oh, no.  It’s lovely.”
            “Good.  Now come with me and we’ll fill out the necessary forms and you can begin whenever you’d like.”
            I followed him meekly and signed all the necessary papers.  Then I returned to the Rare Books Room and sat at the small table that now was mine.  There was an old green blotter on top, marked with ink stains, a pair of metal bookends, and a narrow drawer where I could keep pencils and cards.  The table had been well used, had scratches and a small notch in the top edge of the drawer.  Another table was beside mine, empty now.  I wondered who would be the lucky person to sit there.
            The Huntington draws scholars from all over the world, and so, in June, a gentleman from England took over the table beside mine.  He was a headmaster at a school and had taken a Sabbatical to read about his wife’s ancestors, the Grenville family.    George Grenville was Prime Minister in England before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War.
            The Librarian introduced us and we said our polite hellos.  Every day, we nodded at one another, but never spoke.
            One morning, while we were both engaged in our reading and note taking, I heard him sigh.  “Oh no,” he said. “Poor thing.”
            I looked up.  It was obvious something had happened.  “Are you all right?” I asked.
            He nodded.  “She died.”
            “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I gasped, thinking he’d heard of some family tragedy.
            He took off his glasses and shook his head.  “Oh, it’s not anyone I know.  You see…” and then he explained.  He was reading the account book (daybook) of an English family from the early 1600s. These daybooks were kept by a wife or, in a large household, a housekeeper or butler. On the page were the yellowing figures, revealing a history all their own.  He showed me a date with an entry “midwife.” A child had been born, and it was a girl, purchases proved it so.  He flipped the pages.  She’d grown to be five years old, for the purchase of yardage for gowns proved that also.  And then she became ill—small pox.
            “How can you tell?” I asked as we pored over the pages.
            “The medications prescribed, and the dosage.  She’s their only child.  But she lived.”
            I was relieved.
            “See, they had a party for her sixth birthday with minstrels and puppets and presents.”
            “I’m so glad.  But you said she…”
            “Yes,” he said solemnly.  “She never made it through the winter.”  He pointed to an entry.  “Grave digger. The amount paid is for a child’s grave.”
            We sat in silence, both grieving the loss of a child we’d never known.  “Would you care to go to lunch?” he asked.
            I agreed.  We went to the cafeteria, friends, bound together as human beings who are a part of the drama of life.