Archive for the The Blog Category

Tea and Revision

Posted in The Blog with tags on October 23, 2019 by chateaucone

Monday, October 21, Noon
Rhetorical Question: why does sabbatical time go so much faster than semester time?

I might have temporarily forgotten that I have a blog. I am going to blame this on my utter absorption with the work I have been doing on my sabbatical project. Out of eleven essays I promised (a combination of revisions, complete rewrites and brand new stuff), five are completely done. One is very close to done—definitely almost there. Two are awaiting my revisions. I have a brand new first draft of two more that need a round of workshopping/editing. And I’m considering on bailing on #11 because one of my other new pieces is VERY LONG (Owen Meany—all caps—long) and should count as two. (You know who you are, Louise!)

Right now I am in Saint-Roch (a neighborhood in QC), sitting a tea house that is apparently a pretty serious about its tea. There’s no milk, and everything I have seen ordered is in fancy pots (not British stiff-upper-lip-take-your-tea-seriously fancy pots, but the kind I associate with matcha and green tea and Japanese and  Chinese and Indonesian and African teas for which “first flush” and “ second flush” along with “bloom,” are noted on the menu—basically tea that one does not drink out of a big mug with plenty of milk and sugar and a scone) and it comes with little bowls and tiny cups and frankly, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do with all the equipment. And I don’t like the tea I ordered. But I’m going to sit here and drink it anyway (rather slowly) because I really like the atmosphere.

This is not the Balmoral Hotel in Edinburgh tea experience I was hoping for.

I have a Starbuck’s English Breakfast tea bag in my bag. I wonder what would happen if I just asked for some hot water and plunked my tea bag in it. I think tea bags are frowned upon here.

Maybe I’m not a real tea lover. Hmmm. I am certainly less cosmopolitan than I like to believe. Something to think about.

I am also being lured out of this tea house by the John Fluevog shoe store down the street. I love his shoes. They’re crazy expensive and I don’t have any, and if I did I probably wouldn’t wear them because I’m just not that cool, and they are that cool, but I love to dream.


Fluevogs in a season color

2:54 pm
I have now moved to Starbucks. And gotten myself a nice English Breakfast tea. I walked past another coffee/tea place on my way here, called “Pekoe” that looks good, but I am out of trying-new-things energy, so here I am.

And now I’m procrastinating because the piece that I have that needs revision is stumping me. It’s been making me crabby for two days now. I am gaining a new understanding of why students don’t revise. Revision sucks. And it’s a little scary. What if you fail to make the piece better? What if you’re just not capable?

Hence, procrastination. One wall of this Starbucks is all glass and it looks into an art gallery in which a show is being installed. And it is far more interesting than anything I am writing, although one of the pieces being installed does feel just like the essay I’m trying to work on feels in my head. Here it is:IMG_4874

And this one (ignore the reflection of the Starbucks guy) looks like Spirograph. With yarn. How cool would that be? Like string theory. Or at the very least like something I’d rather do than physics.


As much fun as I am having mis-interpreting this artist’s work, incompletely installed and through glass with a lot of coffee-drinking people reflected in it, I hope there is eventually an artist’s statement. Watching that poor woman deal with hanging all those wires is making me anxious.

Today is one of those days where I have to remind myself that staring off into space for long periods of time is part of the writing process. At some point, probably when I don’t have a pen, my essay will tell me what it wants to be.

Right now I have to get away from all those hanging wires. And clumps of wires on the floor. Too much a picture of my writing process.





How I Came to Quebec to Write in Starbucks

Posted in Quebec!, The Blog with tags on September 28, 2019 by chateaucone

This is kind of a nice Starbucks. And there’s something to be said for the comforts of the familiar. I’m eating the same breakfast I get from the Starbucks drive-thru in Selden, NY, right here in Quebec City, on the Rue Grande Allee E, which I think I can pronounce, but probably can’t. The GPS lady pronounces the French word for south as “sud” like “thud”, and it makes me laugh every time. I think it’s more “sood.” She does some brutal things to the French language. *


(In a sideways tangent, (Do I need parentheses if I actually state in the text that I’m going off on a tangent? Probably not. But I love a good parenthetical remark. I guess I could delete “In a sideways tangent” which is repetitive anyway, but I don’t want to.) I’ve been practicing French. I’m kind of stuck on remembering how to conjugate the verb être. To be. I chant as I’m walking the dogs, and for some reason, Dill gets as excited as when I open the Milk Bone box when I say, “je suis.” I don’t know why. But now I say it all the time just to make her wag her tail. Also, Babbel won’t accept my pronunciation of “C’est Jérémie,” no matter how many times I listen to it and try to say it correctly. Enough times that I am eventually yelling at Babbel much like I yell at Siri. Enough times that when I chat with the owner of my Airbnb, I have stopped trying to say his name, which just happens to be Jérémie.) (And in another tangent, I was wondering how one might type all the accent marks in French but I discovered, right after copying and pasting être from Google, that the keyboard on my Mac automatically changed to French, and then it started doing weird things that I assume are useful to people writing in French. Like replacing “ with « no matter how many times I corrected it. (I swear just typing these blog posts generates the actual topics of the posts. Kind of meta.))

What the hell was I writing about? Nothing. I was procrastinating from writing my sort-of grandmother essay.

I will soon be an expert on girlhood and orphanages in the 1920s. Turns out, Louise (my sort-of grandmother) and her brothers and sisters were in and out of orphanages when they were kids, as were many children from working class families who needed emergency child care. (Their mom, Ada, was in and out of state hospitals; thus the emergency need.) The adoption agency optimistically called them “child caring institutions,” but they always choose the euphemism when the truth might be distasteful.


The Louise essay is one of those essays where you spend a week researching something that will end up as one small paragraph in your essay. I have purchased, and sort of read, no fewer than three books on life for girls during the 1920s, from their education to their family life to what movies they watched and who they idolized. And in Louise’s case, what the orphanages she stayed in sometimes might have been like. And then there are the articles—peer reviewed articles like, “A History of American Beds and Bedrooms,” from Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture.  I’m trying to write this imaginative section–one small segment of an essay that’s already too long–where we see Louise as a young girl and a teenager and even though, clearly, I’m making most of it up, I want it to be at least true to the time period–at least possible. And since Louise grew up in an apartment with three sisters and two brothers and two nieces, the sleeping situation has to have been creative, at least.  So far I’m pretty much channeling my Aunt Tootsie’s house in Brooklyn. She had 11 or 12 children, and my Auntie Ann told me that her house was always spotless but that at night, they opened up sofas and trundle beds and got out mattresses stored during the day so that everyone had a place to sleep. There’s sleeping at home, and then there’s sleeping in an institution.

I’m also reading an article that “draws on the thinking of Michel Foucault (he’s French so it’s like totally relevant), to explain the physical representation of authority within [a California orphanage], and of Henri Lefebvre, to show that, even in an institution, children create social spaces and invest them with meaning through everyday uses and interactions” (Gutman 586).  Because every blog post—and every piece of creative nonfiction—should mention Foucault. And have parenthetical citations.

But this is a really interesting article, and it might just tell me what everyday life was like in the orphanage for children from working class families, which is the population it actually focuses on. Even though it is based on a completely different orphanage. In a completely different state. But whatever. And while I’m reading I can feel like I’m working, even if I’m not actually writing.

And now I have to take the girls to the dog park because I accidently left them shut in the laundry room for about an hour today when I thought that the exterminator was here. We’re having a little yellow jacket problem. They seem to have built a nest right outside my bedroom window, sort of in a space in the outside wall. And they like to come in the house. No matter how many of their little friends I kill, they keep coming. The exterminator actually never made it, but then the girls were so quiet I forgot they were in there. I owe them.

Back to Louise for a sec. So, hive mind, if anyone out there wants to share stories about their grandmothers growing up in the 1920s and 30s, I will be happy to appropriate them. Also, if anyone had a grandparent or aunt or uncle, or even great grandparent who spent some time in an orphanage before and during the Depression and who told stories, I’ll happily appropriate those too.

Wow. This blog post really is about nothing. And not in a cool Seinfeld kind of way.

*I just Googled the pronunciation of “sud” and the GPS lady is in fact correct. Maybe I can learn French from her after all.


Scout and Dill’s Excellent Canadian Adventure

Posted in Quebec!, The Blog with tags , on September 10, 2019 by chateaucone

Volume 1: The Port Jeff-Bridgeport Ferry
Friday morning, September 6, getting ready to leave

Here is what I’m anxious about:

The ferry people jam as many cars as they can on to the ferry, so close that you have to get out of your car before the next row of cars comes in, which often results, at the end of the trip, in passengers not being able to walk through the rows to get back to their cars until they start unloading. One time, I was slow getting out of my car (kind of on purpose) and the car next to me pulled up so close that I couldn’t open my door at all. So I stayed in the car. Which you’re generally not allowed to do. I’m not above scrunching down and hiding again, but I can’t trust the girls to keep quiet, unless they are frightened into silence (and I’m pretty sure that’s not a thing).

Which is the next thing I’m anxious about. What if Scout:

A: shakes violently like she does when there is a thunderstorm, and I have to freak out and stare at her nonstop and take her pulse and make soothing noises to make sure she doesn’t have a stroke from all the shaking and the fear, for the full 90 minutes on the ferry?
B. gets scared of something on deck, squeezes under the railing, throws herself into the sound and sinks like a rock?
C. bites the ankles of anyone who has their back to her? (It’s happened. It’s a good thing the landscapers wear those heavy work boots. The vet says it’s a herding dog thing but I don’t think the landscapers care what kind of dog she is.)
D. won’t jump out of the car because I can’t open the door all the way (see paragraph #1) and she refuses to jump if she doesn’t have a lot of room?
E. won’t jump back into the car (see D above)?
F. stays perfectly calm but snags someone’s hotdog right out of their hand as they walk by? (She perfected that move when my dad was still alive and he’d get distracted while he was eating.)

And, what if we cause so much trouble that they make us get off the ferry? And what if we’re in the middle of the ferry, and like, 30 people have to move their cars to let us off?

What if Scout is fine and DILL does any or all of the above?

I think I’m spiraling.


Tuesday, September 10, on the other side of the Sound, and the border

So none of the things I was panicking about with the ferry happened. Instead, fate being what it is, completely unexpected, different things happened. These include:

  1. Swells so big that when we stood up to move inside, we bounced like ping pong balls between the railing on the deck and the door to the stairs.
  2. Swells so big that when we got back to the door to the stairs, and I got it open and us inside, the door shut on Scout’s tail. Not all the way, and I opened it quickly, but still. Now she’s afraid of doors. She’s a sensitive little soul.
  3. The rest of the crossing spent in the bar, sitting under a sign that said, “No pets inside the cabin,” and when one of the crew glanced over at us, I said, “Dude there is no way I’m using those stairs again,” and he left us alone.
  4. Dill totally distracted by crumbs on the floor that were just out of her reach the entire trip. And making puppy-crying noises in frustration.

Scout enjoying the ferry ride

And now we’re in Quebec. Viola!

Not so fast.

First we stopped for the night in New Hampshire, where I woke up every hour to look out the window and make sure the stuff on the roof of the car was still on the roof of the car, having decided this was a better option than taking the stuff from the roof of the car inside.

Then, on Saturday, we crossed the border.


And immediately stopped in the Eastern Townships of Quebec for some Louise Penny sightseeing, which I have documented on FB, Insta and Twitter, so I’ll spare you, except: Read the books!

Speaking of which: one of the Louise Penny books (Bury Your Dead*) takes place in Quebec City, and in it, Armand Gamache, the character who is in charge of Homicide for the Surete de Quebec (can’t wait to find out how to pronounce that–it has accent marks that MS Word does not care to include), often goes for walks on the Plains of Abraham. Sounds like a cool place, right? Kind of biblical. I knew from looking at maps that it’s right above us, as in, if you climbed a few thousand feet up the sheer rock face visible through my shower at the back of our house, you’d be there. So I drove. (I’ll explain about the shower later.)

And it was a big grassy field with a few cannons. I don’t mean to diss the Canadians, or the Quebecois, but I was not impressed. Yes, Ugly American. The Plains of Abraham is a sight of considerable historical significance. And yeah, I guess historic battles generally take place on big grassy fields. But I expected something more. I mean, call it a battlefield if that’s what it is. Don’t give it some imagination-provoking-Bible-alluding name and expect me not to be disappointed when I get there.

Although now that I think about it, it was probably named the Plains of Abraham before the battle. Maybe I need to Wikipedia that.

Anyway, we’ve been here for three days now, and I love it. The city is gawgeous (she said, with no trace of a Lawn-guy-land accent) and I’ve walked the dogs through a big chunk of it. Everyone wants to pet them (except that guy on the skateboard, whose ankles Scout tried to nip), and talks to them in French, while I smile and nod. You know at least one person said, “Are these vicious, child-mauling dogs?” in French, and I smiled and nodded.

Tip: do not wear a t-shirt and shorts with no pockets and attempt to manage a phone, a water bottle, cash and some change, along with two leashes, at the end of which are two dogs going in opposing directions, with just your two hands. Especially watch the dog on the extendable leash, who might squeeze through the crowd and cut to the front of the line when you’re not looking, and board the funicular without you.

And I’ve done some writing. You know, sabbatical and all. Mostly I spend the mornings writing, the afternoons out doing something, and then the evenings reading, researching, etc. All of this book-ended by walks with dogs along the St. Lawrence River. (Privilege in action.) Tomorrow I’m going to check out the Québec Literary and Historical Society, where Gamache (remember Gamache?) investigates when a body is found in the cellar. The building it’s in, with its collection of 20,000 rare books in English, was a jail—horrible conditions, closed in 1867—and then a college (that admitted women when that wasn’t cool) and is now a library. I really like that trajectory.

Which brings me back to Letchworth, which I am presently writing about, and not letting a lack of information stop me: wouldn’t it be nice if Letchworth and its horrible history someday became a library housing rare books, and there was a murder in the basement? I think that’s kind of how the world is supposed to progress, yes? Instead I live in fear of coming home to Gilead in December. Someone will tell me, right? I mean, so I can just stay here and be a refugee.

*Of course I’m rereading Bury Your Dead. Did you even have to ask?








Hippocamp 2019! (Rather Suddenly!)

Posted in The Blog with tags , , on August 23, 2019 by chateaucone

Yesterday at noon, on my way to the orthopedist for the third and final gel shot in my knee, so I can like, walk, I was listening to Brendan O’Meara’s podcast, Creative Nonfiction, and he was interviewing Donna Talarico, the founder of Hippocampus Magazine and the creator of Hippocamp, and they were talking all about this year’s conference.

(I’m name-dropping, because I’m such a nerd that people who do cool things in the creative nonfiction universe are like the Kardashians to me, except smart, and not like in a cash-in-on-my-fake-celebrity smart.)

I had actually thought about attending, but I’ve already been away so much this summer that I didn’t want to deal with all the arrangements for another trip, so I kind of reluctantly decided to skip it.

The podcast reminded me . . . and I took a quick look at the schedule online, while I was safely stopped at a light, of course, and it looked good. And because hell, I’ve been home exactly one month. Time to get off the island. Then I realized that it starts tomorrow. (Or today, by the time you read this). And I thought, “Yeah, that would be crazy.” Nonetheless, I called my friend and colleague and enabler Carol (I called from 25A in Huntington, NY, where the orthopedist is, and where it is still 1950 in terms of cell phone reception. This will become semi-important, or at least slightly less irrelevant, in a sentence or two). Carol just got home from about seven days of driving around the northeast, and hadn’t even unpacked. Jokingly I said, “So I guess you don’t want to go to Hippocamp with me this weekend,” and then. . .I’m not sure what happened. Next thing I know, we’re on our way to Lancaster. (Even though that phone call was dropped (courtesy of the people on the North Shore of Long Island (read: Gold Coast) who don’t like to look at cell phone towers), and I couldn’t get Carol back for a few miles and while I was trying drove right past the entrance to the parkway and had to take the long way home.) #digressionismyspecialty

(Check out Carol’s work here.)

(Scout and Dill have spent so much time with their dog sitter this summer that I’m pretty sure they like her better than me. Or they think they think she is their mama and I’m actually the dog sitter.)

Despite a slight tear in the space/time continuum on the Cross Bronx (or maybe just on Google Maps) where the longer we sat in traffic, the earlier our arrival time became, here I am in the Marriott Lancaster, not even 8 hours after jokingly suggesting we go.

(Did everyone besides me know that Lancaster is a city? Like, it’s not all Amish Country? I had no idea. #payattentioninhistorynexttime #appallingignorance)

Stay tuned on Twitter/Insta/FB for what will no doubt be my extremely witty commentary on the conference. And I will definitely post, because the first session I’m going to is called, “Self Promotion for Wall Flowers,” and when it comes to self-promotion (all evidence on this blog to the contrary), I am a wall flower. And thus would like to skip the session but I am making myself go.

P.S. Not a white glove in sight at the Columbia Rare Manuscript Library. Major disappointment. Like, don’t they think their rare manuscripts are worthy of white gloves? Also, Letchworth propaganda and lots of it.






White Archival Gloves (Maybe), and My Dead Sort-of Grandmother

Posted in The Blog with tags , , , , , , , , , , on August 6, 2019 by chateaucone

That’s “sort-of” modifying “grandmother,” not modifying “dead.”

I finally finished my Scotland essay, which I’m sure we are all sick of talking about, and now I have this idea for an essay that would somehow combine the story of my adoptive mother’s biological mother (AMBM), and my biological, paternal grandfather (BPGF). They’re not exactly going to be about transgenerational trauma, but that’s the idea that got me started. AMBM spent most of her life in Letchworth Village, upstate NY, and I want to know more, and write more, about her. Anyone interested in visiting an abandoned mental hospital with me? BPGF spent at least a few months (still not clear on how long) in a Nazi POW camp, and I want to know more about him, too. I’m pretty sure a trip to Germany will be Absolutely. Necessary.

My abbreviations above are not going to work. I see that now. Too confusing, not to mention inconsistent.

But my family tree looks something like Sheldon’s 3D chess game. I’m going to need some kind of keyboard short cut for identifying my family members. I have a lot of grandparents and identifying each of them requires at least two qualifiers. There are the adoptive ones, maternal and paternal, and the biological ones, maternal and paternal, and the adoptive-biological-maternal, maternal and paternal. That last bit is a little confusing, but how do I identify my adoptive mother’s biological mother and father? I don’t think that’s it.

Here are my ten grandparents:

Julia and Angelo (adoptive maternal)
Henrietta and Frank (adoptive paternal)
Adalgisa and Pascal (biological maternal)
Elizabeth and Charles (biological paternal)
Louise and ? (adoptive-maternal biological)

I feel like that hyphen is in the wrong place. Or the words are in the wrong order.

(Last names removed so I’m not virtually handing over my social security number to some identity thief.)

(How do I have ten grandparents and I only managed to have two of them in my life, and neither long enough to really remember them? I think I am due some serious spoiling.)

But really, do I get to count them all? I mean, between me and Louise, we have two adoptions, no blood whatsoever, and tons of sealed records—a big blank lifetime.


Here is a rather glarey photo of Louise, before her life went off the rails.

And I’ll never get those records. I spent a good part of today trying. Apparently, unless I can convince my doctor that the mental health records of my adoptive mother’s biological mother, who my adoptive mother never knew, are somehow related to my mental health. I could maybe make some long and convoluted argument about transgenerational trauma, but no judge is going to buy it. I don’t even buy it. I could write on behalf of my mother, and that might be acceptable, but we don’t have any legal proof that Louise was her mother, because those adoption records are sealed. The other option is to wait 27 years, at which point Louise’s records will become available. And to bitch about HIPAA in the meantime. I mean, Yay HIPAA! for protecting my privacy, but BOO HIPAA! for protecting my dead sort-of grandmother’s.

Nonetheless, I want to know more about her. Give her a voice. She was put away and kept secret (I do know that much) and I want to let her out.

I’ve been deep in research about Letchworth Village for a few days. This is what we’re dealing with: Letchworth’s Annual Report to the NYS Legislature in 1915, just a decade or so before my grandmother was there, is asking for additional funds for the “segregation of all defective and delinquent dependents.” It says:

Few persons except those who are forced to come in contact with the defective realize the extent of the great burden imposed by the rapid increases of the subnormal part of the population both through immigration, and because the feeble-minded are more prolific than the normal part of the community. That it is cheaper to provide permanent custodial care for a feeble-minded girl than to be forced to care not only for her but also for her defective children admits of no argument.

There’s my grandmother, as defined by her caretakers: a feeble-minded girl with defective children.

In lighter news, I have a list of libraries to visit.

I need a book from St. Joe’s library, fortunately just up the street.

There’s also a book I need at Stony Brook. Whatevs. Just kidding. I do like going back there now and then to see what’s up. But the library is neither beautiful nor inspiring of great work. It looks like a very big bomb shelter, or at least it did. It inspires you to run away screaming “Save yourselves!”

But best of all, I found two boxes of archival material from Letchworth from 1906-1970 at Columbia’s Library–so exciting!—because I get to the Rare Book and Manuscript Library, which I’ve been to, but not for actual research I was doing. More as a tourist. So yay! Doing real research in the Rare Book room. Cool, no? I really, really, really hope there are white cotton gloves.

Don’t call me a nerd.

And, I’m making a plan to go to Letchworth. Other things keep coming up, but I’ll get there.

Somewhere in all of this, I will, I hope, come across at least a blurry and faded photo of Louise. And maybe, if I’m really lucky, someone will take pity on me and let me see her records, violating every HIPAA statute in the world. I’m kind of concerned that this person, trying to help me see the records, will be using subtle signals—like on tv when a nurse pulls a patient’s record up on the computer and then announces loudly, in earshot of the person who wants the record but should not have it, that she’s going to grab a snack—and I will totally miss them.

I’m also practicing crying on demand—the kind of crying that makes people want to give you whatever you’re asking for just to shut you up. Square mouth. Runny nose. “Please, please save my life by sharing my grandmother’s records! Sob! Sob!” I could really milk it with, “My own mother never knew her mother! More sobbing!” Okay, so my mother was three when her mother was institutionalized, and besides that, she’d already been adopted, so it’s not like she really missed her, except in that adopted-abandonment-primal-wound sort of way.

What’s research without a little law-breaking?

Back to Alice

Posted in Scotland, The Blog with tags on July 21, 2019 by chateaucone

I don’t know if I’ve ever written about this before, but I have a little problem with left and right. I think it’s some kind of learning disability, because if I’m being truthful (which would be nice, yes?) I’ve always had trouble learning things that come in pairs. By which I mean, I never learn things that come in pairs. For example:

  1. Left and right (see above)
  2. Those greater than/less than symbols
  3. Its/it’s

That’s all I can think of right now but there are more.

There/they’re/their. No problem. To/two/too. All good. Things that come in threes work.

I remember the left/right lesson very clearly in kindergarten. There was a ditto (remember that smell? If not, you are too young to be reading this. ;-)) with an outline of a human body (kind of like a chalk outline at a crime scene) and we had to mark the left hand, right hand, left foot, right foot. No gold star for me that day. But then, we had to go home and look in a mirror and see how our left hand was our right hand in the mirror, and the right one, the left one.

The mirror thing was beyond me. I can remember staring into the mirror for a long time and just not getting it. My left hand stayed my left hand, and my right hand stayed my right hand. Or vice versa, because I wasn’t quite sure which was which. Truthfully, again . . . I really only understood one day recently that when I raised my right hand, the PERSON IN THE MIRROR was raising her left hand. It was like Helen Keller and Annie Sullivan at the well.

(I feel like I should attach my transcript here to prove that I’m not an idiot. Not my undergrad transcript, though, which would prove that I am, in fact, an idiot.)

Since then, I’ve learned that if I hold my hands up, index finger pointing up, thumbs perpendicular, my left hand will make an L shape, for left.  This works, when I remember to do it. But in a pinch, I am nearly always wrong.

Over the past few years though . . . decades, I guess . . . I’ve come to associate the direction left as being the way you turn when you are crossing over a lane of traffic. Right is when you don’t have to cross over a lane. So when I’m driving, I’m actually pretty spot on when someone tells me to make a left or a right.

Except in England. And Scotland. And Ireland. Where I am a menace.

I’ll spare you the multiple stories about almost getting run over here in the land of driving on the left. Even the words painted on the edge of the sidewalk saying, “Look right” or “Look left” don’t help. Because unless I think very hard, I don’t know which is which. Add to that the cars that are making turns off one street and on to the street I’m crossing—they are always a surprise. I only look for them where I think they might be coming from, and that is never where they’re coming from.

Yesterday, though. Yesterday I drove up from Anam Cara to Cork. By which I mean my new friend Maeve drove, and I sat in the passenger seat, on the left side of the car, giving her bad directions. Because my whole system for knowing right and left went to hell. Even after six weeks of flinching and gasping whenever I see a car making what looks like a really wide right turn into the left lane of the road, I am still waiting for the head-on collision. Because here, in Ireland (and of course England and Scotland and Wales), you have to cross over that lane of traffic when you make a RIGHT turn. Not a left turn. Unless you’re in my head, where right magically becomes left because you are crossing over that damn lane of traffic. We were actually at an intersection and I changed my mind four times about which way we were supposed to go. I was sure the GPS lady voice, and the map on the phone, were saying two different things.

They were not.

But Maeve and I are still friends, which is nice, because we are twins separated at birth. The only thing we don’t have in common is that Maeve knows her right from her left.

Today is my last full day in Europe. I fly to London tonight and to JFK tomorrow morning. You can tell I’m tired, I imagine, because I just wrote an entire post about left and right.

And now I have to get back to my anxiety attack that my luggage will be too heavy for British Airways and I’ll have to leave something vital behind.  Or piss off everyone on line behind me as I move things from a too-heavy suitcase to a slightly less heavy one, until the luggage-taking person gets sick of me and just checks them. I know, privilege problems again.



“Portrait of Alice Liddell, after Lewis Carroll” by Vic Muniz, in the “Seen, Not Heard” exhibit at the Crawford Gallery in Cork. Although Alice was certainly heard. Nice to begin and end this trip with Alice.




Revision, and how it sucks. And dogs. Always dogs.

Posted in Scotland, The Blog with tags , , on July 16, 2019 by chateaucone

The view from Anam Cara

So, here I am at Anam Cara, on the Beara Peninsula, in southwest Ireland. Anam Cara is a writers and artists retreat. You can see it here. This is my last stop before coming home, which is good, because I am tired. Not so much physically as that museum-tired you get after you’ve looked at too much art in one day. Over-stimulated. You hit the wall. (Privileged much?)

The country around here is beautiful, with green, rocky hills, and around every turn of the very windy, very narrow roads there’s another beautiful view. (And I’ve photographed every. single. one. Seriously. Come over sometime.)

I am once again struggling with an essay, which I guess in writer-language is called, “revising.” This is the piece about Scotland I’ve written about here before. I got some feedback on it from an editor I’m working with . . . and now I’m doing all this freewriting trying to get at the answers to the couple of questions she asked. It’s like when your therapist asks you the hard questions, and then doesn’t let you get away with the easy answers.

But, as luck would have it (luck, and having a very talented friend who blogs about her own writing process (That’s you, SKG.), I read these paragraphs just today—an hour ago—in her blog and had a little epiphany:

So my idea was that my play . . . is actually, essentially, about the seductive nature of narrative: how we are pulled in by other people’s stories, aroused by them, changed by them. How we try to adopt narratives, live inside them; how narrative sometimes saves us, but often fails us.

Having this little idea helped with my characters’ dialogue today. What stories did they want, or need, to tell? And what would be the consequences of those stories — as lived, and having been told?

Especially the part in red. That’s what my Scotland essay is about. (And, incidentally, SKG’s paragraph above pretty much wraps up my dissertation in a more concise, articulate way than I have thus far been able to do.)

You can (and should) read SKG’s blog here. Seriously. Especially if you create in any way. She is my idol, my role model for how to be a teacher AND a writer, and a thoughtful human being. And I’m going to steal her Artist in Residency idea.

But back to Anam Cara. Or Ireland in general. Last night I went to hear Anne Carson read her work at the West Cork Literary Festival. One of my new friends here at Anam Cara very kindly drove us to Bantry, which is about an hour away, where the reading was. (In another post, I will write about my apparent inability to stop flinching and/or outright gasping while in the car with someone who is driving on the left side of the road.) I would publicly thank her, but she’s kind of here incognito. She’s an Irish poet, and often writes in haiku. Anyway, in one of those “small world” moments, Carson talked about the writer John Cage, and so did SKG today in her blog. So of course I’m ordering his books so they’ll be on my doorstep when I get home next week. Sometimes the universe speaks. Or the sky. Whatevs.

Carson was extraordinary. She read this piece that was written as an autobiography of the sky, using the structure of the book of Genesis. And it was filled (filled!) with literary and scientific and political references that make me think Carson is the kind of person who reads AND absorbs. And who has read EVERYTHING in the world. And it made me wonder where the hell my brain was while I was in high school (and part of college, if we’re being honest—Okay, all of college). But Carson’s references all worked and made sense and added layers, and the sky, as the narrator, had a rather dry sense of humor. Carson’s delivery was perfect. (There is something about her that reminds me of Young Sheldon.) There was even an interview with Godot, about, as you can imagine, the non-arriving. You can actually hear a version of Carson’s reading here.

What else? It is July 16 and how the fuck did that happen? My brain stalled somewhere in June.

And I miss my girlies. A lot. And you, dear readers, if you follow me on Insta or FB, probably miss them too. You know you miss the photos. Be honest. Scout and Dill enhance your life. Way more than this blog post does.








Bad Poem/Good Poem

Posted in Scotland, The Blog with tags , , , on July 7, 2019 by chateaucone

I wrote a blog post last night—almost 1000 words—and then I figured out that most of it was the missing piece of an essay I’ve been working on—that I put aside because I couldn’t figure out what was missing—and now I have no blog post. But I do perhaps have a better essay. And you, dear reader, are going to have to wait to read it until some lit mag takes pity on me and publishes it.

(The original blog post had a lot of misery about leaving Scotland. Seriously. Like a teenage breakup. If I’d kept going I’d have burst into bad poetry. Consider yourselves spared.)


The Forth Bridges, flying away from Edinburgh

I’m in Belfast now.

I have this thing where I hate any city I visit the first day I’m there. This is perhaps worse if I’ve just left a place I especially love, and didn’t want to leave.

My journal from my first day in Rome—July 2005—is full of, “OMG. This was a huge mistake. I hate Rome. It’s hot and crowded and confusing. Why did I think this trip was a good idea? Blah, blah, blah, self-pity, self-pity, self-pity, homesick, homesick, homesick.”

By the second day in Rome, I’d found the Porta San Pancrazio, looked out over Rome from the Janiculum Hill, and read one of my favorite poems about that very spot, on that very spot.  This was pre-iPhone-that-works-in-Europe, but I had the poem in my journal and my journal in my pocket.  “The sun high above a winter Rome is jostling the purple smoke with bare rays.” Joseph Brodsky, “Porta San Pancrazio.” Of course I went back in December, on my way home—my last stop before leaving Europe that trip—and tried, unsuccessfully, to photograph the purple smoke above a winter Rome. But it didn’t matter. I’d fallen in love with Brodsky’s Rome.

And tomorrow, at the Giant’s Causeway, I will fall in love with Northern Ireland.

Here is the whole poem. I read it in The New Yorkerin college, back when I only sort of got most of the writing in The New Yorker, but thought I was really cool to have a subscription.

Porta San Pancrazio

The bees haven’t buzzed away, nor has a horseman galloped
off. In the bar Gianicolo, old-timers enjoy their salad
days, and the ice cube melts, cooling the ailing motor
grateful for sipping twice the proverbial water.

Eight years have scurried by. Wars have flared up and smoldered
families crumbled, scum bared its teeth grown older;
airplanes fell from the sky and radio mumbled “Jesus.”
the linen can still be washed, but the dermal creases

won’t yield to the gentlest palm. The sun high above a winter
Rome is jostling the purple smoke with bare rays. The cinder
reeks of burnt leaves, and the fountain is glittering like a wobbly
medal pinned to a cannon at noon for its aimless volley.

Stone is employed worldwide to keep memory captive.
Yet cropping up is much harder than vanishing in a perspective
running out of the city straight through the years and further
in its pursuit of pure time, devoid of love and future.

Life without us is, darling, thinkable. It exists as
honeybees, horsemen, bars, habitués, columns, vistas,
and clouds over this battlefield whose every standing statue
triumphs, with its physique, over a chance to touch you.

–Joseph Brodsky, 1989



Posted in Scotland, The Blog with tags on June 30, 2019 by chateaucone

I am so deeply in the muck right now with this essay I’m writing about Scotland that I may never get out.

I’ve somehow managed to cram all of these pieces into it so far:

Edmund Husserl
Joseph Beuys
John Locke
Ley lines
Ian Rankin and the John Rebus series (which, at least are set in Edinburgh)
The Phenomenology course I took in undergrad
Assorted Scottish legends and myths, probably slightly mis-told
Clava Cairns
Energy dowsing
Meikle Seggie (I’m still trying to figure out exactly what this is)
Richard DeMarco and the The Road to Meikle Seggie(which may be both physical and spiritual?)
Madeleine L’Engle (natch)
Poststructural thinking on the self/subjectivity (Let the dissertation go already, Elizabeth!)
The construction of caskets
Narnia, specifically The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
Roland Barthes
A timeline of the kilt
King George IV
Beuys’ first sculpture teacher in Dusseldorf
Oedipus (briefly)
American churches vs Scottish churches

(Aren’t you dying to read it now?)

I have fallen down the rabbit hole. (And yet not mentioned Alice anywhere in this piece. Which is weird. Alice is one of my go-to references.)

I no longer know what the piece is about. And I’m not sure I can identify the latest draft among the dozens I have saved.

There is just too much. And as if all of this is not enough, I am compelled—compelled!—to go the Scottish Storytelling Center today to see what they have (and not just because there’s a really cute teashop across the street). AND  I’ve requested four more books from the National Library. (Which is, incidentally, across the street from the Elephant House, where JK Rawling allegedly wrote some of Harry Potter—and while this has not been confirmed, it has certainly been capitalized upon. Ian McEwan is rumored to do some writing there as well, but he doesn’t have the same sort of fan base Rawling does.)

(The National Library of Scotland General Reading Room is cool because it’s full of very serious people reading very serious, very old books. You’re not allowed to bring anything in that’s larger than a laptop, you can only use pencil, no pens, and . . .a whole bunch of other rules I’m forgetting. (Sadly there are no sparkling clean white cotton gloves.) You learn all of this from the lecture you get from the guy who takes your picture and then makes your library card, while he keeps gesturing as though he’s about to hand you the card and you keep reaching for it, and then he keeps talking, and it’s all rather awkward. But hell, I’m practically in the Bodleian reading Ashmole 782! Which I’ve also mentioned in this essay.

I didn’t get to do this kind of research for my dissertation, because it was all about relatively new narrative research methods and theories. I did talk about the occasional really old text, like Augustine’s Confessions,but there was really no need for me to hunt down an original manuscript with, like, Augustine’s personal notes in it. (This is rather a long parenthetical thought.))

And then there’s Rosslyn Chapel, which I’ve been to three or four times, but I feel like I need to revisit. (See “ley lines” above. And “energy dowsing.” Oh, and cool legends about the Knights Templar being buried there. I wonder if I can work them in too.)

I heard Nan Talese, Pat Conroy’s editor at Knopf/Doubleday, speak years ago and she told a story about editing Conroy’s books. She said he wrote his novels in bits and pieces and essentially sent her a box of scraps which she then shaped into a novel. I wonder if she is available. (Incidentally, she edits Ian McEwan too. I wonder if she hangs out at the Elephant House.)

As fun and cool and even logical as it sounds to write an essay about Scotland in Scotland, it is way overwhelming.

And I have maybe fallen out the composing process and into the procrastination process. Such a thin line.


Cutest street in North Berwick



Embarrassing Bodies, Monsters, Time Travel and Other Adventures in Scotland

Posted in Scotland, The Blog with tags , on June 23, 2019 by chateaucone

So, Embarrassing Bodies. From which I assume that the British version of the FCC does not frown upon nudity, no matter the gender, or the close-up.

I’m flipping through the channels the other night, here in Scotland, because I have no idea what is on where, or even what channels this tv has. Or even what time shows start, because in UK, one cannot assume that a show starts on the hour, or the half hour. Some shows start at, say, 6:55, or 8:20. Anyway. As I’m flipping, “Antiques Road Trip,” not to be confused with “Antiques Roadshow,” is ending and something called “Embarrassing Bodies” is beginning. Could you resist? No. You could not. Even if you’re being all high-minded right now and pretending you could.

“Embarrassing Bodies” has a great concept. These two doctors roam around Britian, and set up clinics where people can come if they have anything weird going on. And then most of them are assured whatever is going on is perfectly normal and not life-threatening, or, at the very least, treatable. The message is, “All of our bodies are pretty weird. It’s normal.” I get it, and I probably would have appreciated it when I was doing the whole puberty thing and everything about my body felt weird. Hell, I appreciate it now. (Weird things continue to happen in your 50s. But that’s another post.)

And it’s all filmed. Which really calls the whole “embarrassing” thing into question. I mean, if you’ve got something seriously peculiar going on, that embarrasses you, would you agree to have your whole appointment, and your embarrassing body part examined, on film? But whatever. When I say “it’s all filmed,” I mean, it’s all filmed. Not only all kinds of private parts, penises and va-jay-jays, and other…orifices…but privates that are experiencing something odd, like extra parts, or extra holes, or cysts or tumors, or stuff that is supposed to remain inside coming out. All right there on the giant television in my Airbnb. Close up. Zoomed in. We are not a pretty species close up.

Anyway, still in Scotland, but we braved the Highlands this weekend. And two things did not happen while we were there:

  1. We did not see Nessie.
  2. When I flung myself at the standing stone at Clava Cairns, I did not go back in time 200 years. (Obs. I mean, here I am writing a blog post. Which I could not do in, say, 1819. I mean, I could write it, but what would I do with it?)

So, Outlanderand the Loch Ness Monster be damned.

But! But but but. We took a tour with the most awesome guides, Dave and Susie from Inverness Tours. They took us all over the Highlands, to Loch Ness and Urquhart Castle and a cool pub for lunch, and Dave told us all the good stories—history, myth and legend—about the Picts, the Druids, the Celts, the Scots and the Clans. There were MacDonalds and Frasers and Grants and cattle stealing and dirks and mysterious markings on stones and  St. Columba and those damn Redcoats and horrible slaughters in battle and pagans. Pagans are my favorite.


Urquhart Castle and Loch Ness

Of course the stories were the best part. But the second best part was Clava Cairns.


Dave with my cousin Rob

At Clava Cairns, we saw burial cairns and stone circles that are 1500 years older than Stonehenge, and that were created by the Druids. Dave and Susie taught us how to use dowsing rods to locate energy and ley lines in the stones and in the ground. It was magical—literally and figuratively, and when those dowsing rods moved in my hands, I totally got the shivers. Dave told us how one cairn was lined up precisely with the sun on the Winter Solstice, so that the sun created a path of light directly to the center of it. As the sun set, the path would be crossed over slowly by the shadow of the largest standing stone, opening and closing the connection between the physical and the spiritual worlds. (I’m sure I’ve got some details wrong here but you get the idea.)

Who wants to come back with me on December 21?

And now we return to the terrible and the mundane. Here’s Mitch McConnell at the Royal Highland Show. I know the traditional representation of McConnell is a turtle, but look at this sheep. McConnell as a sheep. So many layers.




P.S. Lichens and moss. You can’t see enough lichens and moss.