Sunday, July 29, 2012

dead people's houses

A dozen white cotton gloves in a cardboard box. CDs imploring SPEAK GERMAN! and SPEAK ITALIAN! nestled next to Christmas globes. Cleansing creams and how-to manuals, salmon-silver Jell-O molds and hankies embroidered with Ethiopian mothers bent over under the weight of babies and gourds.

A Thigh-Master, still in its box and advertised by Suzanne Somers's pile of hair and smiling face, leered at the shlumpy masses as they traipsed up steep stairs embellished with blue painting tape to prevent mishap. Self-help paperbacks bleached by the years were spread out in a disheveled pile in an upstairs sleeping porch. All these items, and more. The legacy of some dead lady.

Today was a field trip illustration of folk singer Cheryl Wheeler's terrific song "Estate Sale," and it touched the same nerve that Cheryl's song does, the way we would-be gold-diggers were poking around in all of her stuff. For $1.75 I got a set of six vintage cocktail glasses, the Ethiopian mother hankie, and a bestseller by Diane Mott Davidson called "The Grilling Season" with a tagline that read: Revenge against your ex-husband can be a tasty dish--it can also be murder.

Which gave me pause. I wondered about this dead woman and what wrongs she may have suffered. Who, I wondered, had fucked her over? What was her story? Was her husband a philandering bastard who flirted with and fucked the barmaids down the street? Or was she widowed early on, and left alone, slowly rotting into an Alzheimer's decay until one of her kids tossed her into a home? At one point, she'd wanted to learn yoga, bridge, this woman. She was willing to try new things. To be better at stuff. She longed to keep her hands soft, her heart ready, her thighs firm. She had an electric wok. Imagine that? I almost bought it (everything was 75% off).

As I hauled my paper sack of loot down the crumbling steps, my joy at the deals in my bundle was mitigated by a sorrow. The sort of sorrow that usually sends me into the deep end of project. What sort of fabrication might I conjure? How might exploit the clues here, churn them up in the mixer, and spit out, say, 80K words?

Whose stories have you stolen lately?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


After a month traipsing Europe, here's the big takeaway for me. I'm a fan of competence. I prefer order with my exquisite beauty and can only tolerate the occasional surprise. Sobering, that. I mean, all this time I thought I was more whimsical. More, la-di-da. But, sadly, nope. Turns out, I find whimsy and mash-up and spontaneous plan B's disturbing. I have a stick up my ass, in other words.

I far preferred the regimented German-speaking territories to the devil-may-care Italian ones. I didn't like that the Internet was spotty, that the road rules weren't clear, and that it took so fucking long to get your check in Italian restaurants. Oh yeah, and, by the way, the bread sucks in Italy. And mostly the pizza is crappy, burnt flatbread with flavorless sauce.

That said.

All my kinks got unkinked in Italy. My gray hairs turned ungray. My body and brain and spine were overcooked macaroni as I zoned out to the white noise of the ever-present cicadas. It was a dream, my time in Italy. A sensory dep chamber. The womb, maybe? Less come to Jesus than here's your mommy's boob. If Germany, Austria and Slovenia are the fatherland, Italy is the mother ship.

Consider: My grandmother (who just turned 100) left WWII Austria with my one-year-old father in tow. They got on the last ship out, fleeing the Nazis on a boat full of Jews out of Genoa--Italy coming to the rescue again.

Like my father and grandparents, I was born in Vienna. My formative years were an immersion in the structure and cadence of assertion and order. For holidays, we went to Italy and swam in the sea. My godfather, who still lives in Vienna, does the same. The flat in Vienna, the villa in Trieste.

Is it any wonder I'm forever Daddy's little girl?

We have a little of that going on here in the States. I mean, there's blue states and red states. Yankee pot roast and gumbo. Fir trees and birds of paradise. But the divisions are not archetypal the way they are in Europe. Here in Oregon, there's a mixture of mother/father energy. We have mountains and sea. Desert and valley. It's a bit of a mess, frankly. A beautiful mess, but a mess.

So, dear bloggers, where do you live? Mom's house or Dad's? Do you keep your room tidy, or are you a fan of the beautiful mess?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

vacation coma

Haven't been writing much. Or thinking much. Mostly, just gazing out at the view beyond my knees. Tough life, right? Decisions are all made in accordance with the heat, wind and direction of the sun. How divinely retro, to depend on nothing but nature, yes?

This week, Kirk and I have been holed up in the piney woods-framed Mediterranean sea town of Castiglione della Pescaia, in the mostly Swedish-run resort Riva del Sole. Like much of our trip, Riva is fairly free of the American tourist scene, and because my iPhone's "translator" isn't all that quick in the spotty wi-fi zone here, I mostly communicate by pointing and gesturing when I need, say, a glass of wine or a scoop of gelati.

Holidays in Europe emphasize downtime, I've noticed. People here are very good at relaxing whilst looking beautiful. Me, I have to say, it's all a little strange, this beach vacation thing. First of all, there's my fair skin and dry, curly hair. Like bratty toddlers, they're constantly whining at me: Do you even know the damage seawater does to me? What do you mean we're going to the pool again? I miss the slimy wetness of Portland! 

So there's that.

But also, even more akin to my feeling of disconnection, the beach, as our pal Anne Morrow Lindbergh pointed out so many moons ago, "is not the place to work; to read, write, or think."

At least at first, she admits before launching into her oft-quoted book. Lindbergh continues, "And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense – no—but beach-wise."

Unfortunately, I'll never know if that's true for me, as we're packing tonight and bee-lining to Salzburg (where I hear it's 60 degrees and raining). We're leaving the Italian vacation pace behind and plunging back into the land where Internet is never spotty, and clocks are obeyed.

Thinking more about Lindbergh's assessment of the first week on the beach, and my own sense of flaccidity these six days, I suppose I could liken it to a form of detox from the workaholic agenda-driven life I lead at home (and even the aspects of vacation which are destination-driven). The compulsion is still there, just under the surface--the first two days I had to slap my hand away from the potted geraniums on the resort patio, so badly did I want to deadhead them! Allowing a rhythm other than the one churning with intent is really, really hard. The day the server went down here at the resort, I about lost it. So dependent am I on modern lines of communication. (But I have to post on Facebook for the crouton company! Yikes!)

Oddly, too, my usual ingestion of intoxicants is all out of whack. Instead of a pot of coffee interspersed throughout the day, I have one or two shots of espresso. Wine every night, of course, but a couple of glasses spread out over hours. It's pretty much been the Mediterranean diet by default here. No butter, no heavy meats. Lots of fresh veggies and fruit and olive oil and fish. A little chocolate. Those Italian cookies, of course. And cheese. Which seems to like my better here than it does in the U.S. Go figure.

As far as the beach-reads go, Kirk and I just dovetail read GONE GIRL, which was great fun. Though he seems to be looking at me askance lately. (He thought the initial "cool girl" self-description of the Amy character was totally me, then freaked out with the * SPOILER ALERT* way she emerges as a psychopath.)

I've caught up on some YA reading, and when the Internet works, I check in with the "world" via Facebook and so forth--managed to "WhatsApp" my kids, and that's always reassuring. Back home our chickens are fine, I'm told, and our kitchen remodel seems to be on track.

So why am I waiting for the shoe to drop? Some disaster to tumble out of the sky? Is it part of the workaholic detox thing? Or the getting ready for reentry thing?

Let me ask you this: in the midst of a fabulous time, a relaxing vacation where all is well, do you obsess?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

under the tuscan sunset

So Kirk, Wanda and I are driving the back roads of Tuscany, zipping along the one-lane zero visibility bridges from Etruscan village to Medieval mine town, and we're thinking up best-seller ideas (we've reached that point in the vacation where Visa bills are factoring in), and we thought up a pretty good conceit. Sort of "Under the Tuscan Sun" meets "Golden Girls."

Here's the pitch:

Four middle-aged women (friends of long-standing), swear off men, sell all their worldly goods, and buy a villa in Tuscany. One by one they fall off the man-swearing-off wagon (insert beefcake cougar-hunting, Vespa-zooming hunk, or some recently widowed secret millionaire), but they can't let the others know they're indulging in boy. Madcap adventures ensue as they try to hide their trysts from one another.

What do you think? Got any other trope-meets-trope ideas? Let 'em fly!

Monday, July 09, 2012

In yet another cable car-type vehicle  
Hi kids. I'm in Tuscany. Fucking Tuscany!! Where all the schmaltzy feel good movies with happy endings that star Diane Lane are filmed. I know... this reportage from the earth's sexiest locales is starting to piss you off. And yet, you want the details. Right?

Spent the last two nights in the spa town of Montecatini Terme, where they name the water as well as diagram a sort of mix-and-match with the ailments the various springs are supposed to cure. Needless to say, my constipation is over. (But I think it was the gelati rather than the mineral water that did the trick.)

So, I'm writing off this trip, and one of the reasons I can do that (besides researching the novel I've already written and can't seem to sell), is that I work for a food company that just developed a line of croutons branded with a nod to "Old World Italy." All this week I'll be posting my culinary adventures on this particular Facebook Page, starting with yesterday's recon in the kitchens of the hotel/restaurant.

Gelati. That is all.
The write-off part of being a writer is pretty cool, but now with jobs in social media, you can pretty much write off your entire life. A tweet here, a blog post there, some Facebooking, and, et voila! work is life and life is work.

So Montecatini was fantastic. The Italian cultural norm of taking big-ass naps in the afternoon and staying out until 2:00 a.m. seemed to work well for me. As did the people-watching: old ladies strolling arm-in-arm, groups of boys playing street soccer, Tony Soprano types and their booming voices and ginormous stomachs holding court in the metal chairs of street-side cafes. The crazy drivers. The zippy motorbikes. Arias belted out in public spaces. And the shopping! Okay, I hate shopping, but I couldn't resist browsing through the street vendor wares, where tatted means lace, not body ink. Dresses come in three sizes: zero, two and matron--and the styles pretty much follow. Oh, and the aforementioned gelati--on every corner.

You dress to go out at night, and sashay down the cobblestones in your heels, then land at a cafe where you're expected to order a bottle (not a glass!) of wine, and linger until the wee hours. Was this country made for moi, or what?

There was some sort of beauty contest in the square the first night we were there. A throwback to overt sexism, where they skipped over the "talent" part, and the girls simply paraded around in bikinis -- and in the plot of street right beside it, you guessed it! A car show! Extra special sight-seeing for Kirk in this hopping town.

The right-leaning Tower in all its glory
So we motored away from the spa town this morning (Wanda, Kirk and I are now total BFFs, you'll be happy to hear. She seems to know a lot of shortcuts in Italy), and stopped in Pisa on the way to our current destination, the beach-in-the-piney-woods, otherwise known as Riva del Sole.

But first, Pisa. Let's take one of the world's biggest architectural fuck-ups and build a crappy little city around it and watch the Americans flock to it. Throngs of tourists all striking poses for posterity where they simulate propping the tower back to straight. Seriously, imagine 400 people all doing this, as if it's the most original idea ever. I envisioned all these people with copies of 50 Shades of Grey stuffed into their Leaning Tower tote bags. Ugh.

Anyway, kudos to Team Wanda:Kirk for negotiating various UTurns where seven streets came together and not getting us all killed on our way out of Pisa.

As of three hours ago, we're here in our piney woods bungalow, the cicadas are yammering away, and the beach beckons. See you soon, but before I go, let me ask you, what's the most outrageous thing you've ever written off on your taxes?

Friday, July 06, 2012

pilgrimage to bled

lots of cowbell up here in the Slovenian alpine  
No doubt about it, the Lake Bled region of Slovenia rivals any contender for "most beautiful place in the world." If you've ever had a cinematic dream with surreal colors and exaggerated wildflower meadows, they were based on this place, which is all very Hansel and Gretel-meets-Disney, even in the crazy downpour we're experiencing currently. 

This little 30 Euro-a-night cottage we're renting, all geraniums and dish tv, sits in the middle of a valley surrounded by the Julian Alps, and villages we can't figure out how to pronounce (the language lacks vowels and includes those interesting Eastern European letters with all the hieroglyphics above them). Accommodations abound here in Bohinjska Bistrica, and they're all neat as a pin and loaded with charm.

Sort of Wizard-of-Oz, yes?
When we arrived yesterday (after a somewhat harrowing hail storm on the mountain pass that flooded out the road and had us stopped on the Autobahn in pile-up fashion), we pulled up to one of the dozens of adorable houses that seemed to correspond to the info we had on our print out. On the porch was a legless lady in a wheelchair that looked to be about 105 years old. She smiled and nodded as I waved my paperwork in front of her face like a lunatic. "Ne Ne" she kept saying, and Kirk pulled out one of the volume of Rick Steve's books for the translation.

misty watercolor memories
Soon enough the son came over and somehow, with hand gestures and smiles, we made our way over to the modest unit where we were instructed to bunk. It's a lovely little place, with the usual feather bedroll and miniature refrigerator, bidet, and 1,000 channel flat screen dish television. No coffee maker, however, which, for a complete addict, was a bit troublesome (Kirk actually managed to make me coffee this morning though, using a dishtowel and a plastic funnel. The man is a genius!)

We popped into town for groceries and dinner last night, ordering "the special" -- which, near as I can tell, were scoops of paste, cat food and pickled organ meat. Now, I'm pretty experimental with my culinary adventures, but last night's dinner just lipped over the edge for me. I hit that wall of gross-out and there was no going back. You know what I'm talking about, right? Like you somehow imagine that you've just eaten shit and your brain goes into this fight or flight thing?

We climbed here in order to ring the bell. For luck.
I got over it, though. Had a little chocolate, some brandy. The usual cure-all.

So this morning we scurried off to the Vogel cable car, taking that up and up and up to an alpine vista where we climbed an additional mile or so to get the money view of the alps. We were on our way back to the lift when the thunder began, and thus began the downpour. Very dramatic, I must say.

I made us an arugula and some sort of cured meat salad. More brandy. More chocolate. The rain continues. We're watching some horse jumping competitions on the 1,000-channel television. I'm thinking of getting the dishtowel out again, and making another batch of coffee.

This is the life, I tell you.

What's the last thing you've had to improvise or jerry-rig on vacation?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

like a fruit the stone

Death & Man, Egon style
Yesterday I took a break from my Habsburg-Wittelsbach obsession to check in some other Viennese icons. Turns out we inadvertently planned our trip during Klimt summer. It's Klimt, Klimt, Klmt, everywhere you look--him in his mental patient-looking smock holding a cat, him on a Saltzkammergut lake with his intrepid lover, Emilie. The Kiss, the pointillist landscapes, the bling-gold Bloch Bauer.

At the Leopold, the exhibit is based on postcards found in the closets and drawers of Emilie Floge, his long-term companion. I have to say, Klimt's people were a lot better at hiding scandal than were Egon Schiele's. Klimt basically had affairs and/or impregnated all of his models (several of his bastard kids ended up being named Gustav, after their randy daddy), but if there were any epistolary references to these torrid affairs, they were well hidden (burned).

Instead of declarations of love (or lust) the postcards are full of banal musings, such as: After breakfast, which I ate at 9, I painted a beech tree. Yawn.

Now, Klimt was one hell of an artist, but he just wasn't as interesting a person as that other dude--the young, crazed poster child for suffering, Egon Schiele. Egon, who admittedly died too young (28) to carry on decades of scandal, was sort of the inverse of his rival. Whereas Klimt was a generalist-and popular with collectors who liked a little Austrian sentimentality with their nudes, Schiele's work was deeply, profoundly personal. Take the brilliant Cardinal and Nun, for instance (Caress). Shame and sacred side-by-side. It's been called a paraphrase of The Kiss, Schiele's version of ecstasy. Now that's the real Austrian theme!

My favorite take-away from my non-Sisi day was the commentary on Self Seer, Schiele's Death and Man piece. It's an illustration of Rilke's notion that: "one carries one's death around like a fruit the stone." Love that!

So, what kind of fruit are you?