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Friday, March 31, 2006

Soft air that feels like hope

Crazy morning birdsong.
Dog lounges in the driveway again.
Skylight 5:45 a.m.

Daffs in small pots at the market. They are narcissus. They are also jonquils. Who knew?

Pregnant trees.
Open window sleep.
Spent hyacinth bulbs planning to squeeze out one more season. I will show them to Lylah Rose, who asked about favorite flowers.

Soft air that feels like hope.
Juncos, chickadees, a pair of cardinals and a gaggle of obese robins.
Menacing laughter from the bathing suit drawer.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Red-shoe courage

The first pair of red shoes I ever owned as an adult were bought for me fresh out of college, when I was shopping in Baltimore with my mother and her friend, Wiggie. No two more stylish women could be found than when Marge and Wig were in the room. Wig explained to me, as I was trying on these red shoes and wondering when I'd ever wear red shoes, that red could be worn as a neutral. (That was her way of saying it could be the new black, I think.) Wig was an artist, so I figured she knew what she was talking about. We bought the red shoes and I wore them till the leather faded to pink.

I used to think of Wig whenever I got into a red-shoe mood, and I still do, but now I think of my friend Andrea, too. Like Wig, Andrea is stylish. Like Wig, Andrea's influence gives me a kind of courage to be a little more bold than I'd be on my own.

A couple of weeks ago I bought sparkly red Wizard-of-Oz shoes. They're not cherry red, like Dorothy Gale's. They're coppery, and they have brown leather bows.

When Andrea sees them she points approvingly and says things like, "I am going to RIP those off your feet." (We wear the same size.)

Every woman should have at least one Wig, one Andrea and one pair of red shoes.

Monday, March 27, 2006

Hard angles

When I finally bothered to notice it this weekend, I saw something irresistible about the organic swoop of the big tree branch against the hard angles of the house. Inside, everyone slept, so I settled onto a patch of carpet by the window, grabbed a cup of coffee and found a nice view looking up. Or looking uppish, anyway. I set pen to notebook and began this drawing practice, which I sometimes think of as analogous to what my friend Becky describes with her meditation practice. There's certainly a meditative quality to noticing the world at the level of sketching it.

Difference is that in meditation, as I understand it, one is supposed to gently tug a wandering mind back to some center of concentration, whereas in drawing the whole point is to concentrate on what the eye actually sees, then send that info to the hand. Your mind can wander anywhere it wants when that's going on.

On this lovely Saturday morning, my mind wandered to a niggling problem. An annoyance. Something I've turned over in my head a million times, and need a new perspective on but seem never to achieve.

So there I am, noticing the tree, drawing the tree. Noticing the downspout, rendering the downspout. And brooding. Liking the shadows beneath the siding panels. And brooding. Thinking there might be a better way with everygreen needles. And picking at the scab. It was the opposite of what relaxation experts tell you to create for stressful times - the "happy place" that's supposed to help you through childbirth and high-tension business meetings.

You will hear people say that if they bring a sketchbook along on a journey, the sketches they bring home do a better job of evoking the experience of the trip than would photographs taken in a few second's time. This is because the mind does what the mind does as it captures that image, and if the mind is taking in a Bahama breeze and a rum and Coke, well ... .

The sketch here has a few nice qualities, a few things I'd do differently. I'm glad I bothered to notice the end of the bony tree-branch season and all. But when I look at it, it whisks me back not to my coffee and my patch of carpet, but to the unhappy head trip I took while drawing it.

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Spray fixative

I keep hearing what a drag it is to be the parent of a teenager. Friends with teenagers have been warning me about this, sometimes with an unhealthy glee, since my firstborn was dragging her stuffed dinosaur around the house. And I'm sure it can be bad. I know it can be challenging. The child is now a full 2 inches taller than me. She has moods. She has teenage friends. She'd like to drive. She's discovered irony.

And none of this is the bad part. Is the bad part on its way? Does it have to be? Because in addition to loving my kids, so far I really like them, too.

On Saturday I wandered into a little store that sells doll houses and related knicknacks. Mostly this is expensive gear for child-women with healthy checkbooks, but a little corner of the place is devoted to toys appropriate for actual children. I stood there for a moment, thinking how recently it seems I might have found something tempting among the vinyl dolls and the stuffed animals and the made-in-China tea sets. I tried to find a single item that would not be looked on with disdain by girls who have suddenly (yet of course gradually) taken shape as little women.

A few days ago, Katy noted that I had a few more sketches of her sister in my books than I have of her, so when I asked her to model for me, she was content to curl up with one of the many books she's accumulated lately. We both did our thing, peacefully. And as far as I could see, she did not grow or mature in the long moments it took me to make the sketch.

After it was done, I doused the page with spray fixative to keep everything from smearing. To keep everything exactly as I rendered it.

I wonder if it works on girls.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Lonesome for you

My mother had this phrase she used sometimes when she was separated from someone for whom she had affection.
"I'm lonesome for you," she'd say, with a little lilt in her voice, perhaps to keep from sounding maudlin. When I imagine it now, I hear her saying it to my older daughter when she was small. Maybe we had just arrived for a visit. "I've been so lonesome for you," she'd say. And I see her bending to take her in her arms.

She said it to me from time to time, and more than once I heard her say it on the phone to a dear friend many miles away.

But I haven't heard her voice for such a long time now. And no one says such things anymore.

"I miss you" is what people say. Maybe the spouse is on a business trip. Maybe the kid is off at college.
And you can imagine, perhaps, someone in your life being willing to admit, "I'm lonely."

But that is different.

Lonesome for you says something else. It's more vulnerable than I miss you. It declares that not all company is equal. It says, "Whoever else may be around, part of me is alone in your absence."

Lonesome for you would be too sad to bear if it weren't so thrilling to think we can mean that much to each other.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Picture = 1,000 wds.

A.S. Byatt did a reading tonight at John Carroll. We sat in the middle of the canted rows of the lecture hall - Diane and Ann and Madeleine and I - and I wondered what it must be like to have a brain like Dame Antonia.

Then I wondered what it would be like to pull out my notebook and draw her, right there as she read at the lectern. But I couldn't. It seemed too wrong, even though I remember seeing a woman sketching violinists on her concert program once in the third row at Severance Hall.
There was something that seemed potentially so obnoxious about it, and I had Ann - quick to point out obnoxiousness - sitting next to me. In the end, I decided that one can half-listen while one draws, but one can't pay complete attention. So I had a choice. I could listen to Byatt's stories or I could try to draw her, but I couldn't do both.

I listened. But all the while I pretended to be 100 percent listening, I was looking at her, trying to memorize the image of her at the podium so I could scrawl it down later. Knowing that I'd mis-remember. Knowing that I'd get it wrong, and that without her fleshy British face in front of me - even as far away as it was - I'd make a wreck of it. Knowing that if ever Byatt had the yen to take out her notebook and scribble a sketch of someone in a crowded lecture hall, she'd just do it. The question of obnoxiousness wouldn't cross this dame's mind.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Buzzard Sunday

The first question: Why do turkey vultures - aka "buzzards" - return to Hinckley Ohio every spring on March 15? Well, of course, they don't. Experts and common birders chuckle at this myth, because they see the great black wingspans against the sky before the mythical, magical date. But in fact, there is heightened turkey vulture activity in the ledges of Hinckley Reservation around this time of year, which is pretty cool.

The second question: Why do the humans return to Hinckley on the Sunday after the March 15 to celebrate the buzzards?

Like the birds, people visit Hinckley reservation before and after the noted date on the calendar. But I think it's at least as interesting that the human gathering takes place now every year, and that the story of the 1818 "big kill" is retold and that grills are set up and hot chocolate is sold and that (most important here) the raptor center brings birds of prey out to meet a curious, if sometimes wary, public. I think it says something good about us that in the so-called information age, we're still willing to look away from our glowing screens and into the sky for some of the best information.

Maybe the buzzards come back every year because they've heard the myth of the people who return to Hinckley without fail every March 15th, and again on the Sunday after, in some mythical spring rite that the buzzards cannot fully explain.

On this page, by the way are Mischief, a screech owl; Feathers, a kestrel; Sky, a red-tail hawk; and Mathilda, a turkey vulture. They came to Hinckley this year by car.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006


The finches were gone during the coldest, stillest part of winter. They never really left; occasionally I'd see them for a day if the weather warmed up. But the feeder stayed full for weeks at a time. Now they're back. Two pairs come regularly. They own the feeder like the mob. Wrens sometimes dare to stop, but I have a feeling they pay kickbacks for the privilege of a seed or two. When gold finches first came to our yard, I remember thinking how special it seemed. I hadn't seen many around. I notice now that when I look out at the feeder and see that it's "just" the finches, I feel a little disappointed. But I think I had it right in the beginning.

Our cats (Oscar is the one here) have appetites for everything but the finches. Apparently they, too, find them just a little too regular.

Sunday, March 19, 2006


The best thing to do with a beautiful bulb of fennel like this is to draw it. This is true even if you're not much of an artist. The shape of fennel, and the way it has onionlike layers of skin that form curving parallel lines around the bulb, make it a most satisfying subject.

But when I told Katy I was buying the fennel to draw it, she gave me a kind of teenage look and said, "To draw it. You're buying it to draw. I don't suppose you're going to eat it."

I should add that she didn't know fennel existed until she went to Heinen's with me yesterday and I picked up this beautiful thing.

So OK, the drawing is done.

The second best thing to do with fennel (after you've drawn it - really, you should try) is to slice up the bulb part in what turns out to be onionlike rings, saute those in the merest hint of butter till they soften up, add a can of stewed tomatoes and a couple nice hunks of cod, and cook the whole mess till the fish is done. Then serve it over rice for dinner.

Or for breakfast, if that's your way. How do I know what you want to do? You didn't even want to draw the fennel.

Friday, March 17, 2006

Green Day

It's a rush of Irish memory today, beginning with my great-aunt Helen's soda bread (her oatmeal bread was better), my grandmother's little collection of Belleek china, the slopey Irish nose on the face of every one of my mother's relatives. There was always a bottle of holy water on my grandmother's dresser, which she uncapped and sprinkled during thunderstorms.

One August morning last year, I woke up early at the Oceanview Bed & Breakfast in Cahirsiveen, a town at the westernmost point along the Ring of Kerry. Together with the kids, I went outside and crossed the little road running in front of the inn, and we gazed for the longest time at a field where sheep grazed. Little houses in the distance. The water beyond, where, the day before, we saw the innkeeper's daughter and her team in a crewing shell. My sketch does not begin to suggest, let alone capture, the scene, but it succeeds in triggering another green memory. One of the best.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006


The goal is to get the falcon to fly to your fist.

Over a series of cold, cold winter Sundays, you enter the falcon's cage with his food. You're dorky and bundled in two pairs of pants, a hooded sweatshirt under a jacket, a dumb baseball cap with "NYC" embroidered on the front, and gloves. When the falcon fails to fly to your fist, sometimes you wonder (because raptors are smart) if the bird has made you for a chump. Maybe he, in his spectacular plumage, has looked at the inelegant piling of clothes and decided you are unworthy.

Then, after a while, something seems to change. One day the falcon flies from his perch to your outstretched arm, takes the raw quail, flies away. Returns. When it is time to take the falcon for his daily fresh-air walk around the pond that day, you go into his cage, touch your wrist lightly against the top of his silken legs, say, "step up" and he does. "Victory," you think, as you clip his jesses to the bird-leash. Victory is the name of the bird, and victory is the feeling.

But the next week, even though it is warmer and spring is in the air and you're all optimistic and cheerful, the falcon suddenly wants nothing to do with you again. You try with food. He flies away from you and makes a fuss. Twice you try with the food, and nothing. And now it is time for his walk, and if you couldn't lure him with food, how will you ever --

And then it dawns. This bird is acting like you are a stranger. Like he has never seen you before.

You fetch the stupid NYC baseball cap that you didn't put on today because it was the first warm day and you didn't need a hat. Put the hat on your head. Return to the cage.

"Oh, it's YOU," the falcon seems to say, as he steps on your wrist and allows his jesses to be clipped to the leash. "Why weren't you wearing your beak?"

Monday, March 13, 2006


The rule was simple. Glenview Elementary School had a science fair each spring. After a certain grade, everyone had to participate. No particular projects were demanded, but prizes were awarded in each grade to the best exhibits. Sometime after each student had set his or her project out on the folding metal tables in the gymnasium, judges would survey the offerings and hang the ribbons. Projects were done at home, on the student's time, with or without the lava-spilling-volcano talents of the student's mother or father.

It wasn't that I hated science. No, it was simply another language I might have admired, in my way, but didn't speak. But we had to participate.

So each year, I'd talk over the science fair problem with my mother. And each year, my mother would go to the store and buy a white carnation for me to plunge in water tinted with food coloring. After a day or two, the carnation would, of course, take on the tint of the food coloring, and I would explain the process in a short report that accompanied my flower. It was the simplest possible science experiment. They literally did not come any simpler than this.

My tinted carnations were not the only ones at the science fair, though this tended to be a project practiced by the very young. I got older, and my classmates' experiments with volcanoes and potato batteries and such became more elaborate. And still, with my mother's blessing, or at least with her complicity - she wore her weariness with the annual science fair on her face -- I trotted out her least favorite flower, dunked it in dye and called it a day.

The other day I bought white carnations. I placed one in red water and the other in blue. Then I waited for them to turn, and I thought about how, on the day the first Harry Potter movie hit theaters, I sent my children to school with notes explaining that I would need to take them out early so they could make their dental appointments.

While the rest of their classmates sat dutifully in school, my kids sat with their wide eyes and their popcorn and a mother who, just for a day, willfully set the bar low.

EDM Challenge: Picture frame

The Everyday Matters online drawing group engages in weekly sketch challenges. Last week's was to draw a picture in a frame, and possible to include some surrounding setting. I created the setting out of a stack of books, placed a very old, strangely set-up portrait of my husband and his mother on top then proceeded to screw up everything that had straight lines. And yes: that's Wite-Out you see glaring back from the creamy yellow pages of my book. One problem was that I was in a strange position when I was drawing, and I think I shifted around a bit, so my perspective shifted (causing the horrible dimensional change toward the top of the drawing). I will say, however, that yes - Carlo and his mother really were posed cheek-to-cheek when he was perhaps nine years old, and they both had bangs cut straight across the forehead.
Give me points for trying, will you? I plan to practice another stack of books in the near future.

Saturday, March 11, 2006

Mark's dobro, Erin's tag

Erin O'Brien tagged me. New to this world as I am, I didn't know we played tag, though it seems a little like (forgive me, Erin) sending a chain letter without the threat of dire consequence and/or promise of reward. Thus I can't bring myself to tag others, though I did once, long ago, participate in this horrible chain-letter thing involving the sending of compact discs through the mail, I kid you not. That was my last chain letter. OK, but here's the rule of the tag, and if you see it and like it, tag yourself and whoever else you want:

"List seven songs you are into right now. No matter what the genre, whether they have words, or even if they are any good, but they must be songs youÂ’re really enjoying now. Post these instructions in your blog along with your seven songs. Then tag seven other people to see what theyÂ’re listening to."

OK, I can do that. Here are seven songs in my pod and/or downloaded onto the permanent soundtrack in my head, which means I'm digging them now, dug them last week, and will be digging them again in the future.

1. "It's Too Late (to Turn Back Now)" by the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose. If anyone can tell me which one was Sister Rose on that original album cover, I'll send you a dollar. In the mail. But I won't send you a CD.

2. "Melissa," by the Allman Brothers Band, though the cell phone commercial might ruin it for me soon.

3. "Oh, Darling" from Breakfast in America by Supertramp.

4. "Dr. Wu" from Katy Lied by Steely Dan.

5. "The Last Resort" from Hotel California by the Eagles.

6. "Head Like a Hole" from Pretty Hate Machine by Nine Inch Nails.

7. "My Man" by Barbra Streisand" from My Name is Barbra by Barbra Streisand.

Friday, March 10, 2006


I once went into an art supply store intending to buy a single bottle of India ink and walked out $122 later.
India ink does not cost $122.
I saw a lovely box of watercolor pencils, however, and the more pencils in the box the higher the price, and the more pencils in the box the wider the choice and so, well, I got the biggest box. Also there was a set of 5 Pigma Micron pens in my face at exacly the moment I was thinking that my best pens seemed to be walking away these days.
And on it went.
Guilt sometimes pays a visit when I buy clothes or jewelry, but I know no guilt in art supply stores and bookstores.
I once went into an art supply store intending to buy a single bottle of India ink and walked out $122 later. Today.
Today I did that.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


Every December I buy myself the Runner's World running log where, over the course of the next twelve months, I dutifully record every 20-minute jog or 45-minute treadmill workout. I like the format of this book, which has monthly essays about all kinds of fitness-related topics, some to do with the body, some to do with the head -- the place, as my friend Ann says, where 90 percent of running occurs. At the end of the year, the log reveals my love-hate, commitment-no-commitment relationship with the only sport I've done consistently unconsistently for more than twenty years. There are periods of clockwork dedication separated by great empty weeks and months of inactivity. Every year. Like most patterns, it has its own kind of beauty. But right now my thighs are jiggling when I'm sitting still. I've reached the point where stasis grows uncomfortable. It is getting time to tie on a shoe.
Getting, yes.
I'm not quite there.

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Sketching excursions

Some day my children will be grown and gathered around a holiday table with their husbands and maybe their own kids, and one of them will say to the other, Remember when Mom used to make us go on one of her 'sketching excursions'? And the other will roll her eyes knowingly, and they'll begin to tell the tale of the forced marches, art supplies in hand, onto a street corner on a hot August morning or into the woods before the snow has melted. Lylah will have had it worse, because I more readily see her as one of my art victims and because she sometimes, at least now, is willing to go just because. The question is whether, after they stop laughing over my eccentricities, either of them will have art supplies of their own tucked at the ready, or whether they will have developed an allergy to the 2B pencil. Could go either way, you know.

Sunday, March 05, 2006

A bushel and a peck

Lisa is a volunteer at the raptor center. She's small but she's fearless. This morning she ventured into the cage of one of two resident turkey vultures, Mathilda. I stood by the door to give Lisa the illusion of backup, but as I might have mentioned, she's fearless. Make no mistake, she would have gone in without me. She carried a cup of venison, which you might think would please Mattie, and I suppose it did, but it isn't every day the bird gets a playmate in her cage. Within a minute or two, she was weaving in between Lisa's feet, as if to trip her. Lisa hopped around a little, careful not to squash the turkey vulture at her ankles, and was rewarded with rapidfire beakety-beak-beak pecks in the shins. I'm sure Mattie meant this affectionately. Truly. After a while, Lisa (have I mentioned she's fearless?) lured the bird up to a perch for a bite to eat, got her onto her arm and practically danced her across the cage. The very thing that makes Mattie ugly also makes her beautiful. The thing that makes her scary also makes her endearing.

Saturday, March 04, 2006

Screech owls need a better name. It's true, I haven't heard their calls in my work at the raptor center, where, during the day, all the owls are prettty quiet. Anyway, I'm sure the screech owls screech at night, but as a moniker it's kind of a turnoff. And they're such cool little birds. This pair huddled in their box inside an aviary at the Bay Village nature center. A third was sleeping on top at the time I visited, but the day was cold and I was having trouble enough capturing the two. I'm sure they didn't like me studying them the way I did; birds don't love it when you stare at them for long minutes. I tried to send benevolence vibes, but the redder one kept puffing up her feathers. Unimpressed, I'd say. And they didn't even see the sketch.

Friday, March 03, 2006

This is an older sketch from North Chagrin Reservation, one of top three favorite outdoor places. Sunset Pond is full of frogs and lily pads and wood ducks in early summer. There's a lot to re-think about how I caught the image, but I like its looseness. That usually eludes me as soon as I get a paint brush in my hand.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Dog furniture

The nice thing about a sedentary breed like the Basset is that it's amenable to modeling for sketches. Our dog's favorite place is an overstuffed chair by what I'm sure she considers the "mailman window." Physicists are still studying now 9 cubic feet of dog fits in into 6 cubic feet of chair space.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lust in the kitchen

Certain objects have a fetishistic hold on us, don't they? Certain objects we would own (if we are materialistic, which We are) whether they had any function at all. My brother Mark is a guitar collector, for instance. I have seen his guitars. They're like this. I would own any one of his guitars just to have it and look at it and of course to draw it -- which is all I could ever do, since I was never able to get my hand around the neck, so to speak. And I would own this appliance whether I ever used it to mix the cement-like dough for Springerle cookies at Christmas, or to whip meringue for shells, or any number of other things that I do, in fact, use it for. I would own it for its shapeliness and heft. And, God help me, just to look at it once in a while.