Friday, March 30, 2012

In My Defense

A little sketch by Rembrandt--showing the master and his students observing a model, who is posing for them onstage--inspired me to create a variation on the theme. I used the same grouping of figures. But here, in my watercolor, the studio turned into a cave, and the art students--to a primitive mob. Which brings out a primal urge in them. 

In this painting the woman turns her head away: she has no voice. But in my novel, Apart From Love, Anita talks loud and clear. Here is what she says:

In my defense I have this to say: When men notice me, when the lusty glint appears in their eyes, which betrays how, in their heads, they’re stripping me naked—it’s me they accuse of being indecent. 
Problem is, men notice me all the time.

★ Love reading? Treat yourself to a family saga ★

Thursday, March 29, 2012

The Entertainer

When I was six years old, I would sometimes sit, utterly silent, behind my best friend Lilit as she played her piano. The sound of her music fascinated me to such a degree that I begged my parents to enroll me in piano lessons, too. Being sensible, they decided to take my aspirations one step at a time. So instead of a grand piano, they bought me a piccolo, and started me off in a class where thirty kids puffed, wheezed and blastedmore or less at oncethrough their wind instruments with various degrees of success, producing a hilarious cacophony that had little to do with music. This ended my artistic ambitions right there and then, validating my parents’ decision to exercise caution with what I had said I wanted.
Then a year ago, I introduced a white piano into my story Apart From Love. The mere presence of this instrument in Ben’s apartment suggested a variety of scenes, such as the musical duet in chapter 18. Now, how would you go about writing a duet, when your knowledge about playing the piano is nothing but a faint memory from the age of six? I found several ways of learning the intricate details. First, I watched numerous videos, the most entertaining of which is this one, showing Fran & Marlo Cowan (married 62 years) playing impromptu recital together in the atrium of the Mayo Clinic. Then I read numerous articles, like this three-step instruction about singing duets, which taught me that eye contact and exchanging nods between the two players is at least as important as striking the right notes. Next, I selected a piece of music, The Entertainer, and learned more than you ever wanted to know about every note of it, and how it should be played. I did it, among many other ways, by watching instructional videos like this one. Finally I had to fold in the difference in both musical education and temperament between Ben and Anita. 

So here is an excerpt from the way it plays out in the end:
And before this phrase fades out Anita straightens her back, and places her hand on the keys. Then, to my astonishment, she plays the next phrase of music, this time with raw, intense force, which I never knew existed in her, bringing it to the verge of destruction, making it explode all around me. And I, in turn, explode with the following one, because how can I let her outdo me? I am, after all, The Entertainer... 
Here I come! Here I drum! No more woes. Let me close! Let me in, hold me tight! Don’t resist me, do not fight—
At this point Anita kicks the bench back, and I tip it over behind us. She sways her hips to the beat, and I tap the floor. And we find ourselves bouncing there, almost dancing in place, playing the piano side by side: she on the high notes, I—on the low. 
From one musical sequence to another, the music sparkles in spiteand maybe becauseof the fiery contrast between the two. Which brings me to believe that my musical aspirations at the age of six may not have been a total waste, after all.
Sometimes I find myself having to take my hand away, so she can play the same key immediately after me. On some notes, my right hand crosses her left hand, in an exchange that is wild and fiery—like no duet I have ever seen, or listened to! One way or another it blends, it mixes into a sound, which you might call a crude, unruly, unrestrained racket. But to the ears of a madman, it can be called music.

★ Love reading? Treat yourself to a family saga ★ 

"I was drawn into a masterfully created piece of artwork. This is no ordinary novel..."

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Notes From Rio de Janeiro: What's Around Your Feet

With the stunning views of Rio de Janeiro, the last thing you want to do is hang your head down and look at the ground. And yet, this is precisely what I did, because the entire city is carpeted with black and white mosaic designs.
I imagine the designer, or team of designers, floating in Rio de Janeiro sky looking down at the city, viewing it as a huge, intricate carpet. They give a lot of thought to setting apart the bases of particular objects, such as lamp posts (see the top image). They aim to take care of you, laying a carpet at your feet, guiding you to the entrances of buildings by marking paths through the pavement. They lead you to the street crossing. They set off islands of black and white designs for street benches, and decorate with borders the edge of the pavement. They give identity to each street by giving it its own signature design, the most notable example being the beautiful wave design of the pavement at Copacabana beach.

Here are a few examples:

And here is another site that shows many more designs. Enjoy.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Flash Fiction: The Hollow

She closed the book, placed it on the table, and finally decided to walk through the door. By now her eyes could barely stay open, and yet she knew, without having to look closely, that it wasn’t a door reallyonly the opening for one. And over that threshold down there, she could somehow read the shape of the shadow. How it appeared suddenly, spilling out of nowhere, was quite beyond her, but she could tell, couldn’t she, that there was no floor. 
This time, perhaps because of starting to fall asleep, her diary seemed heavier than usual. Getting up, she brushed her fingers over it and could feel the raised spine, and rough spots where the gold lettering spelling ‘Love’ had peeled off. If she were to take it with her, the book might drop from her hands. It might then continue dropping, farther and farther away from view through the empty elevator shaft, releasing letter after letter into the air, filling its darkness with white feathery pages, rustling, whispering what she had written such a long time ago, what had been clampeduntil nowbetween the front and back covers, as if it were a flower meant for drying.
Her longing for him.
She wiped her face, and now her sight cleared. With every step toward that door, she could see his eyes shining brighter and brighter across from her, as if Davidyes, as if he were right there, framed by the hollow. In a moment, she thought, he would reach for her hand, smiling as if nothing bad could happen. And just like that last time, he would try to lead her over the scaffolding at the tenth floor of his newly erected skyscraper, with the blueprint rolled tightly under his arm. 
They had been married for ten years at the time of the accident. Since then, never once did she open her diary. Reluctant to decipher her own handwriting, which had looked different back then, more childish, she kept the book closed. Let it all be forgotten: their first date, their wedding, honeymoon, because these memories would be followedhow could they not?by that which had to be blocked: the image of him holding out his hand to guide her over, and the sound of his foot, stumbling. 
But this morning, for some reason, she found the book open. How could that have happened? With a sudden shiver, she turned a page. To her surprise, that didn’t bring back the sight of the void. This time the slanted sky, and the twisted earth below her, framed by metal poles and wooden planks didn’t rise up in a flash. So she closed her eyes, and brought back the last touch of his hand. It was as firm as ever. His fingersshe could almost feel them around her, all the way to the small of her backhis fingers gave her a sweet, strange feeling, which she had been missing for so long: the feeling of being home. 
That was when, with a clap, she closed the book, then went through the missing door. With one easy step, which helped her ignore how final it was, she was flying, her hair pointing up, blowing wildly in the vertical wind. At first she avoided spreading open her arms, for fear of scraping them against the walls. Then, she heard her laughter, swirling loud and free, because there were no walls, only papery architectural designs around her. Sliding dreamily down, she was closer and closer to where she was headed all these years. 
His kiss.

★ Love Horror? Treat yourself to a thrill 

Sunday, March 25, 2012


When do you choose to describe a subject in writing, and when do you choose to paint it? For me, the answer lies in the fact that the brain allows you to absorb a picture all at once, but a story--word by word. So when the subject at hand is too overwhelming, when words fail me, this is when I pick up my paintbrush.

Then, when I finish a painting, sometimes even before the last brushstroke, I am much too eager to take a picture of it and share it with you, which results in a compromised image: the oil paint is still wet and reflects light to the camera in unintended ways. So this morning I went back to my Earthquake painting, which I finished last summer, to see if I can take a better picture than the one posted on my website.

This painting was inspired by watching the earthquake in Haiti. 
And now, with permission of the poet, here is a poem by my friend Michele Harvey, inspired by the experience of an earthquake in Chile.

After The Earthquake in Chile

by Michele Harvey
First published in Wazee Journal, June 30, 2010
Copyright © 2012 by Michele Harvey - All rights reserved

This necessary fading; shattered husk of chrysalis,
fiery evening patches of melon sun
I pass along cracked alleyways, hollowed by rubble,
torn from my homeless city
Where wind wears the glowing scent of burning decay,
an empty pot boils over a flame that grows from the ground
Earth jerked apart, I free-fell from an elevator
5 stories down, enter bargaining sessions with a furious God
On the broken earth of doubt, in a cloud of Spanish
I am just beginning to understand
We huddled till dawn showed treasure to all who remained;
in the end we have only ourselves, only each other

Friday, March 23, 2012

Notes from Rio de Janeiro

Looking for bus 14 in Centro, to take us up the hill to a recommended art gallery with great views of the city, we were lucky, so lucky not to understand a word of Portuguese, and not to be able to say anything beyond Obrigado, which means Thank you, to the patient locals who gestured with their hands and showered us with explanations, trying so hard to guide us out of our confusion. We were lucky because we stumbled on this gem, which the guidebook mentions only in passing, and without marking it as a start attraction (big mistake.)

It is a long staircase, (not shown here) leading uphill that is being decorated with tile by a local artist. It is still considered a 'work-in-progress'. People bring him tile from around the world to incorporate into his design. The highlights of the design are beautifully drafted local scenes, as well as a self-portrait of the artist himself, the way he chooses to see himself: with big mustaches, big belly and big breasts.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

In Praise of Simple Objects: The Coffee Percolator, the Telephone and the Clock

In my book Apart From Love, Ben senses from the start that Anita, his father’s new wife, may be lonely in the old apartment where he grew up. She is surrounded by yellowing pictures, besieged by forgotten history, which must seem distant to her, because it belongs to others. 
If you had to design a movie set to bring this situation to life, what furniture would you use? What objects would you place on the furniture? How old would these objects be? Whose style do they reflect? How would these objects appear in daylight? In the dark? In what ways would the sight and sound of them create a mood for the characters?
I chose all the objects in the story to reflect a dated taste--that of the previous wife, Natasha--so as to force Anita into surviving in a world that she had no hand in creating. Here is one of the earlier descriptions of her use of the coffee percolator:
Now there she stands, by the counter, measuring the coarsely ground coffee, one tablespoon then another, right into the basket of our coffee percolator. He groans, which sounds like a bubble over a flame.
The telephone cord is described in another chapter as a snake: 
The cord is stretching tensely in midair, or slithering behind his back as he goes back to hobbling to and fro across the floor. 
The Clock appears numerous times, at daylight and at all hours of the night, to punctuate a mood of anticipation. So you know that when it would finally ring its alarm, it would bring the characters to an abrupt halt. Of course, it is not a digital clock--much too sleek and simple!--but an old alarm clock with the little hammer on top:
Under the glass crystal, the black hand moves around the dial, from one minute mark to the next. It advances with a measured beat, the beat of loss, life, fear...
At first, all’s black around me—except for the two luminous tips, which mark the hands of the alarm clock down there, in the hall...
For him, all them sounds are being drowned out by the tick, the incessant tick, tick, tick of the old alarm clock. The little hammer on top of it is idle, and so is the twin bells. They’re just hanging there, left and right of the hammer, reflecting this whole room, and the piano, and us, too. We seem so unlike ourselves, bent out of shape in their brass finish. 
So tense, so distorted, so small. 

 "A feast for the armchair psychologist. 
Reveals insights that can touch and frighten each of us"

Monday, March 19, 2012

Notes from Rio de Janeiro: Sugar Loaf

For a few days now I had no time to write, because being in this beautiful city, blessed with some of the most dramatic views in the world, makes you take your job as a tourist seriously. Here are just a few images, taken at Sugar Loaf:

Friday, March 16, 2012

In Praise of Simple Objects

Here is in praise of simple objects. At times they mirror back to me a mood I had, even before my eye fell on them. Here is a charcoal painting I made some time ago of an old sawing machine.

It is the shroud, loosely wrapped over the thing, that made the sight of this object so captivating for me, because you have to guess the truth behind it, as if it were sacred, or else--dead. And also the direction of the light, casting diagonal shadows in opposition to the diagonal of the bottom of the shroud.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Making of a Character

You may note that Natasha, Ben's mother in my novel  Apart from Love, has few lines of dialogue--and yet she leaves a profound, sometimes troubling affect on the other characters. 
Every time Natasha appears in the story, it is to mark the distance between what she is and what she used to be, a distance that is expanding in time. Her first line of dialogue occurs in the first chapter, The White Piano. She asks her husband, "Are you having a thing again." You might not notice this at the first read of the story, but the use of the word thing is the first inkling you get that unfortunately, words started to escape her as early as 17 years ago. 
In a later chapter, She Is Looking Out the Window, we take another glimpse at her forgetfulness. In Ben's words:

I had just finished reading my Haftora. And the pearls, they scattered to the floor, and were dinging all over the place, because the clip had snapped. Or maybe because you had forgotten to fasten it properly, again.

The crucial word here is again. Without even realizing that she has been touched by a terrible disease, Ben is describing a pattern of memory problems, a pattern that has become visible as far back as 14 years ago, if not even earlier. In another chapter, Where Was There, Ben gives us a flashback to a time 11 years ago, when his mother asks him to "get that thing from there." Thus from one flashback to another he describes her diminished capability. Here he describes her last letter to him, 2 years ago:

But then, this note—the last note she sent me—which I can see before my eyes as if it were right here, rustling in my hands, this one, I must admit, was different. It had none of these delicate pen strokes. On the contrary, here was an ugly mess. The words were scattered. Some of them were scratched over, as if some frenzied chickens got loose on the page.

Ironically, Natasha used to be a renowned pianist, one trained from childhood in memorization techniques. To block his pain, Ben clings to a state of denial by idolizing his mother, remembering her virtuosity, her brilliance at the height of her career. 

The walls vanished and so did the clutter, because it was so riveting to watch her. You could see her long, delicate fingers as they went flying over the keys, to the point of turning, magically, into a blur. Her hands became transparent, and her ring, I remember, turned into a glow. She was air, she was music! Even when she stopped playing, those strings inside were still reverberating.

I have read many chapters of this story in front of small audiences, and so I know that some listeners bond closely with Ben, some with Anita (his father's new wife.) I have heard lively discussions between listeners from the two opposite camps.
But somehow, few bond with Natasha. If you are one of them, beware, because you are bonding not with her, but her image in the memory of others. As you follow her journey by examining the traces left behind, ask yourself if Natasha is a character, or the void of one. 
 "A feast for the armchair psychologist. 
Reveals insights that can touch and frighten each of us"

Notes from Buenos Aires: In the Ice Cream Shop

Among my many vices is yielding to temptation, which is why I found myself this morning in an ice cream shoppe, licking around the edges of a large waffle cone. A strange creature, all plumed up with feathers not of his own, entered the place.

Holding dozens of ostrich feather dusters, he pushed through the crowd, and a host of images immediately arose before my eyes: I could see the poor ostriches squealing in pain as their tail feathers were being plucked. I could see the house wife brushing her newly-purchased duster along her furniture, her shelves, her prize possessions, hoping her family would appreciate the renewed shine of things, which of course they never do. I could see this man, counting his coins at the end of the day, so he can bring a nice sum to his pregnant girlfriend, who is going to give birth to the cutest little baby, who is going to grow up to become an Argentinian animal rights activist, and despise her father for dealing with ostrich feather dusters. Most of all, I could see my ice cream, melting.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Notes from Buenos Aires: The Woman Who Died Twice

Where else would you celebrate your wedding anniversary with your loved one--but a cemetery? Fools that we are, this is exactly what we did yesterday--only to be rewarded by morbidly sad stories of the departed. 
Cementerio de la Recoleta in Buenos Aires is known for being the Eva Peron's resting place. To our surprise, nothing more that a small plaque outside the family's mausoleum marks her place. Except the flowers. They are left here daily, by the people who adore her and lament her brief life even to this day. 

Walking among the wrought iron gates, which allow you can take a peek at the ornamented metal coffins, we came across this marble figure of a young woman, fixing a look of farewell upon us. Her untimely death is one that equals the Shakespearean Tragedy of Juliet, one that brings back muffled echoes of Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Premature Burial'
Acording to legend, Rufina Cambaceres collapsed one evening, and pronounced dead as a result of a heart attack. She was interred in the family mausoleum; but the next morning, the family was alerted by the keeper of the cemetery that strange noises had ensued throughout the night from somewhere inside. When the coffin was finally opened, the inner layer of the lid could be seen: it had been violently sctratched. Rufina is the woman who died twice.
By contrast to her desperate struggle, the sculpture erected by her family tries to tell a different story. A story of a gentle departure. Casting a glance of sorrow, her lips seems to whisper, 'Farewell' even as her fingers touch the handle of the black door behind her. In a minute it will open, and with a single footfall she will disappear into a blacker black, taking a step from here to the mysterious--yet gentle--thereafter.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

The Traveller in the Dark

My recent novel, Apart from Love, is imbued with emotions aroused by listening to music. Some of the characters are associated with particular musical motifs: Natasha is associated with Beethoven’s Fifth, which she has preformed onstage, and which punctuates her decline. Ben is associated with The Entertainer. 

Here I would like to talk about a simple lullaby. It plays in the background at several crucial moments in the story. The poignant words of this lullaby tug at the heartstrings, because they bring to mind a baby falling asleepand at the same time, an adult stumbling across on the path to destruction.    
Ben notices the sound of the lullaby during his first visit to Sunrise Home, where his mother now lives. One of the old women living there, hunching her shoulders over her empty hands, which are nestled in her lap, lifts her head for a moment to gape at him, and her mouth is black and utterly toothless. It is then that he hears the trembling of her thin, strained voice
It takes me a bit to take in the speech sounds, which are changed, because of the lack of teeth, and disjointed, because of an occasional catch, deep down in her throat. I am listening carefully—until at last I figure out that this, incredibly, is an old lullaby. 
Twinkle... Twinkle... Little star... Her black mouth breathes slowly into the air, into the gathering of these bent, misshapen shadows, in whom life seems to be no more than a dim residue. How... I wonder... What you are...
Later in the story, the lullaby resurfaces in Anita’s voice:  
Then we went into the store, aunt Hadassa and me, and I think she could tell—in spite of me trying to smile—how tense I was. So she bought a little something for me—well, for the baby, really: a mobile, with plush toy animals dancing around it. For now, I mean, until I get a cradle for my baby, it’s hung up in the bedroom window, right in the center, where the blinds meet. 
So at night, when I feel sad, or tired, or just sleepy, I pull out the little string to wind the thing up, which makes the animals go fly—fly like a dream—so slowly around your head. 
And at the same time, it brings out a sweet lullaby, chiming, Twinkle, twinkle, little star... How I wonder what you are...
I stand here, by the window under the mobile. I touch the glass between one blind and another, and watch them animals, mirrored. They come in like ghosts, one after another, right up to the surface, swing around, and fly back out, into the dark. Then I gaze at them stars up there, so far beyond, and ask myself if they’re real—or am I, again, misreading some reflection. 
Anita uses this lullaby to suggest a gentle note on which Lenny might use to end the book he is struggling to write:
Then, I pull the little string, so the thing starts turning around, and playing its tender notes. “There... Hear this? Now here’s a sound I do like.”
He closes his eyes to listen, so I ain’t exactly sure what he sees in his head. After a while Lenny says, “You know, I like it too. Just a delicate little whisper of a lullaby. Maybe you are right, Anita. Maybe that is what I need. Maybe that is what is called for, I mean, not just to heal both of us—but also, to complete the story. Listen! Here is a note—I could just detect it, just now—a note that could mark the end.”
“But then,” I say, “it could mark a beginning, just as well.”
Towards the end, Ben sings this lullaby to help his father fall asleep:
Then the traveller in the dark... Thanks you for your tiny spark... He could not see... Which way to go... If you did not twinkle so...
I sing these words for him, with a voice that is thin and barely audible, just like hers used to be. And I hope that it brings to his mind the musical mobile I have seen, in the window back home, hung between one blind and another. I hope he can fall asleep now, dreaming of reaching up, of pulling that string, to make the plush animals turn around, and go flying overhead faster and faster till all is a blur, to the sound of that silvery note, which is chiming, chiming, chiming, as if to announce a moment of birth.
This is a cinematic story, one that could easily turn into a movie. The characters are sensual, and highly attentive to music; and so, the sound of it is trembles in the background as the plot unfolds.

★ Love reading? Treat yourself to a family saga ★

 "A feast for the armchair psychologist. 
Reveals insights that can touch and frighten each of us"