Showing posts with label Virginia Festival of the Book. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Virginia Festival of the Book. Show all posts

31 March 2017

A Pause

By Art Taylor

Last weekend's Virginia Festival of the Book in Charlottesville was lush with great authors, and I was grateful for the chance to spend time with various friends from the mystery community: seeing Steve Weddle first thing and at various points throughout the day; catching up at lunch with Michael Sims; moderating a panel with Megan Abbott, Bill Beverly, and John Hart, and then joining all of them along with Meredith Cole and Laura Lippman for drinks afterwards; enjoying Lippman's talk the next morning at the brunch, and then attending panels later with Leone Ciporin, Diane Fanning, Con Lehane, Steph Post, Bradley Spinelli, David Stewart, and David Swinson; and spending much of Saturday at the Sisters in Crime table at the Lit Fair, along with Val Patterson and Rosemary Shomaker. It was star-studded start to finish and great fun all around.

But it was a conversation with a woman named Sandy who stopped by the Sisters in Crime table that stands out as a highpoint.

Sandy is a friend of the former director of the VA Festival of the Book, and while she has a home in Charlottesville, she has lived most of her life in France, where she moved after graduation from college. I don't recall how we got on the topic about the busyness of schedules, the busyness of life, but I think it started with something about email and then some discussion about the recent French law giving many workers the "right to disconnect" from email, helping to build a separation between work life and private life. Sandy began chatting about the differences in the French schedule vs. the U.S. one, and about the built-in "pauses" in the day, whether time for coffee mid-morning or afternoon or for lunch—an actual lunch, with people and conversation—at mid-day. I nodded along in agreement, eagerly, even while I couldn't help but admit that most days (OK, every day) I eat lunch at my desk, working right through, hardly slowing down at all, and my own "pauses" usually never take me from the computer screen—simply a brief graze through Facebook before turning back to work at hand.

My wife and I—like so many people we know—often feel overwhelmed by all that we have to do, between our day jobs, our writing aspirations, our parenting, and then the never-ending list of chores and errands and.... The first thing we do each morning is to check our phones, a check-in of the calendar ahead, already trying to map out some strategies to navigate the to-do list, and a glimpse at the fresh onslaught of emails waiting to be answered (or the backlog of emails unanswered, as many of my own friends and colleagues know too well about me). And I hate to admit this, but our son Dash often get caught up in the busyness of those schedules too. I don't know how many times I tell him each morning something along the lines of "Ok, let's go" and "Time to get ready" and "Please eat the rest of that toast" and "Seriously, Daddy's got to get to work"—the clock ticking, frustrations building.

This isn't a woe-is-us post, I should stress—again, these are experiences I think most of us have had—but I just wanted to offer a bit of context for my appreciation of what Sandy was sharing with me. And I shared in turn with her a recent column that cookbook author Dorie Greenspan published in the Washington Post, echoing much of what Sandy and I were talking about. The column showcased a recipe for Cheesy Bacony Quick Bread, but it was Greenspan's commentary that had stuck with me as strongly—and I'll quote the opening of it here:

I’m in Paris a whole less than I’m in New York, yet I see my French friends a whole lot more. It’s not that I prefer the French set. It’s not even that I’m more gadabout here. Nope, I think it’s because there are so many more opportunities to see friends in Paris, and they’re all built into the rhythm of the day.
In addition to breakfast, lunch and dinner, there are three other let’s-get-together moments:
Pre-work. The cafés open before the crack of dawn, and sharing the first coffee of the day with a friend at your regular place is simple. (My husband and our friend, Bernard, meet five days a week at the Petit Suisse, where the waiters start making their espressos as they see them coming down the street.)
At about 4 p.m. for goûter. While the word “goûter” is pretty much reserved these days for kids’ afterschool snacks, the practice of stopping for something sweet continues among adults, giving all of us grown-ups a kind of bonus: the chance to see friends and to be indulgent.
“L’heure de l’apéro.” The cocktail hour.
This is, I should also stress, not a post about how the French do it better.

I mentioned in my St. Patrick's Day post at SleuthSayers that I'm no fan of over-inebriated crowds, but I do take an evening cocktail fairly seriously as part of a demarcation between the work day and more personal time, and a full year before that French law, I made a New Year's Resolution to put my phone away each night at 6 p.m.—I even have an alarm set to remind me—to try to avoid being pulled into email or news or whatever, another demarcation. After reading Greenspan's column, my wife Tara and I made a batch of that quick bread, and we now have slices of it in the freezer to take out from time to time as part of our own heure de l'apéro—and the emphasis on that word hour leads me to quote from another writer, Bernard DeVoto, whose ’40s-era classic The Hour: A Cocktail Manifesto originally cemented for me some of these ideas of marking the end of the workday, the beginning of time with family and friends or time for self. Here's a sample from DeVoto's book:

I will inquire into no man's reasons for taking a drink at any hour except 6:00 p.m. They are his affair and he has a rich variety of liquors to choose from according to his whim or need; may they reward him according to his deserts and well beyond. But when evening quickens in the street, comes a pause in the day's occupations that is known at the cocktail hour. It marks the lifeward turn. The heart wakens from coma and its dyspnea ends. Its strengthening pulse is to cross over into campground, to believe that the world has not been altogether lost or, if lost, then not altogether in vain. It needs a wife (or some other charming woman) of attuned impulse and equal impatience and maybe two or three friends, but no more than two or three. These gathered together in a softly lighted room and, with them what it needs most of all, the bounty of alcohol. Hence the cocktail.... When we summon life to reveal forgotten benisons and give us ourselves again, we do so peremptorily. Confirm that hope, set the beacon burning, and be quick about it.
The emphasis here has been on food and drink, I recognize—in my conversation with Sandy and in the passages I've quoted. But I should stress here too that this is not a post on cocktails or small bites. In fact, what prompted me to write this column has little to do with any of that and more about the pause itself—the moment of appreciation.

As another, not unrelated, New Year's Resolution this year, my wife Tara and I began to make notes at bedtime each night about the highpoints of our day—some good thing that had happened, some moment of joy perhaps—a resolution I know I've mentioned in this space already, but I don't think I've mentioned how difficult it's been some days for both of us to recall a highpoint amidst the busyness and duties and all. Wednesdays are my busiest days of the week this semester, teaching from morning until 10 p.m. at night and often pushing right up to class time to finish reading and prep and grading for each course. On these Wednesdays, Tara has been picking up our son Dash from school, and I've been working in my office not just through lunch but through dinner as well—long days, as I've said.

On Wednesday of this week, however, my wife was running late with work herself, and I walked to pick up Dash at his pre-school here on campus and let him visit my office until Tara could pick him up.

I still had dinner in my office before class, still had a long night ahead and didn't get home until past 10:30—but first Dash and I strolled across campus, and I let him lead the way, following both his path and his pace as we talked about his day and about what he wanted to see in my office and about his plans with Tara for the evening ahead. In my office he played with a toy I have here (a Lego he'd made and that he'd let me take to my office and that he took home again) and he met a couple of other professors. As we walked up and down the stairwell we played a game of hello and goodbye that he'd enjoyed in the past and remembered, a big grin spreading.

It was, at most, about half an hour together between pick-up and hand-off, but it offered the much-needed pause.

Later that night, after class, I wrote about our time together among those notes about small moments of joy.

And then the next morning, amidst the "Ok, let's go" and "Time to get ready" and "Seriously, Daddy's got to get to work," while I was getting that lunch packed and prepping Dash's snack and gearing up for everything, Dash stepped away from that toast he wasn't eating fast enough. Just as I was about to ask him to please go back and finish his breakfast, he handed me a picture he'd been drawing while he ate.

It was, of course, another pause worth savoring—and forget that toast, no food or drink required here either.

01 April 2016

Brick by Brick (Some Disassembly Required)

By Art Taylor

Over the last year, my four-year-old son Dashiell and I have been bonding over Lego sets: race cars and motorcycles, a fire station, a police station, a ferry boat, a camper—even the Mystery Machine, complete with Fred, Shaggy, and Scooby, which was a little snow day project that quickly became one of the prides of our growing collection.

While we build these together, my job is technically to supervise, since he's already become a pro at following the directions, finding the right pieces, clicking them together, checking his work, moving ahead. Some of the smaller pieces have indeed proven a challenge for him—a precision he's trying to master—but I'm there to step in as needed. And I'll admit I'm enjoying all of it myself, revisiting one of my own favorite childhood loves and savoring brief getaways from work on the computer, from reading and grading for classes, from the constant struggling against one deadline or another. My wife Tara and some other friends have really gotten into the adult coloring book trend—many benefits to that, I know—but this seems a better fit for me. For my birthday middle of March, Tara and Dash got me a set of my own: the Lego Detective Agency—more than 2200 pieces!—and all of us have slowly been constructing that one together. "Only one level left!" Dash told the teachers at his school, who've been eager to see the finished product, three stories in all, including a pool hall, barber shop, and the detective office itself. Here are a couple of glimpses at highlights so far:

The sets are terrific, not only because of the great attention to detail but also because of the learning opportunities for Dash: those directions I mentioned, but also reinforcement on counting and shapes and sizes and then the longer-term lessons on patience and investment and payoff. But it's also great to see Dash build something out of his own imagination—diving into one of my own old tubs of Lego pieces, stacking up towers or gathering rough walls for a house or just stringing together some bricks, adding a few mismatched sets of wheels, and calling it a racecar.

That car of his own construction may never have the precision of those professionally designed packages, but I think he's just as proud of it—and I know I'm even more proud in many ways of seeing him conjure up something on his own. I wish I had a picture of one of those creations to share here, but I don't. Once we've finished assembling one of the kits we've been collection, it's COMPLETE—not a new project but a new toy and not likely something that he'll ever disassemble. But those made-from-nothing projects are ephemeral, endlessly worked and reworked, taken apart, made new, destroyed, refigured, again and again.

Lego pieces could surely lend themselves to a quick metaphor for writing: "Brick by brick" in the same way many of us repeat Anne Lamott's now-ubiquitous mantra "bird by bird." But I found myself thinking of Lego sets and pieces and writing in a different way while on a panel with Donna Andrews, Jack Bunker, and Meredith Cole during the Virginia Festival of the Book a couple of weekends back. During the q&a section of the panel, another writer friend, Anne DeMarsay, asked a question about what to do when your writing group says that some part of your work-in-progress simply isn't working and, try as you might, you don't know how to fix it (I'm paraphrasing, but that was essentially the question as I took it). My own first response wasn't very helpful, I realize in retrospect—something about keeping at it, about bull-headed determination, about banging your head against the wall until some dent is made (in the wall part of that metaphor, not in the head, I clarified). Donna offered better advice—which was to step away, quite literally, from the troubles; even a short time away from the computer can help to open up the imagination (a walk, a drive, a shower) and longer stretches might offer greater perspectives: I myself have put aside half-finished stories for years before coming back to them with fresh clarity, fresh perspective, forward progress.

And then I thought about my son, building, tearing down, rebuilding—none of it in frustration, but simply letting his imagination play.

Lego, I've recently discovered, comes from the Danish phrase leg godt, which means "play well." And the sense of "play" is something that's easy to forget about writing, which too often feels more like "work" to me and clearly to others. It is work, of course; whether we're writing as our full-time profession or on the edges of day jobs and other responsibilities, most of us who'd call ourselves writers are thinking of it as a career, often one with deadlines real or self-imposed, sometimes one with pay (and never enough). Writing is a business. But from a craft standpoint, in terms of the imaginative work that goes into it, writing should be play—indulgent, liberating, fun....even in those moments when it's tearing things down instead of building things up.

I recognize—no doubt—that there's a difference between a toddler dismantling a Lego tower (timber!) and a writer short on time ripping apart a scene or a story or a chapter that he or she has been toiling on. But the more I think about this as a metaphor, the more I find myself liking it or at least the perspectives it encourages: tearing something down isn't an act of destruction or loss; it's merely the next step toward bringing your vision into reality—and maybe the best approach is just to remind yourself to have fun with it all.

To shift metaphors here at the end: Not only is there light at the end of that tunnel, but maybe even a lighthouse—and an ice cream shop too.