Monthly Archives: December 2011

Dawns + Dusks – Louise Nevelson

It is worth going to some trouble to get your hands on a copy of Dawns + Dusks. Louise Nevelson was a great artist and she lived her life as art. Her reflections and aphorisms are sage, inspired and grounded in a visceral need to connect through self-expression. The book, an extended conversation transcribed from interview tapes, delivers a portrait of Nevelson that feels like the real thing. It is her voice, as much as her thinking, that resonates. I am tempted to take quotes from every page and paint them on the walls.

Louise Berliawsky was born in Russia at the turn of the twentieth century and her father soon emigrated to America and sent for his family. She grew up in Rockland, Maine where a Russian-Jewish immigrant family with four kids, a father who owned a lumberyard and an unhappy mother who carried herself like royalty was strictly outsider material. Louise wanted to be an artist from the beginning and her family supported that idea and saw that she received an education. She became Louise Nevelson when she married the son of a shipping magnate—a marriage that introduced her to society in Manhattan, bankrolled her early art, acting and music studies and produced her only child, Mike.

But Nevelson chafed at any sort of confinement. Eventually she left her marriage, studied art in Europe to learn the new style, cubism, and ended up back in New York, single mother, raging artist, still studying, determined to draw her life according to her own vision. She recounts friendships with Diego Rivera and Frieda Kahlo, studies with Krishnamurti and the artist Hans Hofmann, artistic epiphanies on the streets of the city and in museums at sudden glimpses of color and light that affected her deeply. All of life became art for her–she showed early sculpture in the first exhibit of the Museum of Modern Art, took up modern dance, scavenged wood from curbs and trash piles to use in sculptures when she couldn’t afford materials. She didn’t become truly famous until she was about to turn sixty—one art critic in the 1940s caught himself just in time to avoid praising her as a significant force in the art world when he observed that she was a woman, a category that, apparently, didn’t count.

She continued to court gallery owners and show her work—the reclaimed wood bits were nailed together into arrangements of totemic walls that she painted all white or black or gold. Entire rooms of museums were dedicated to shows of her work so that the patrons would have a complete experience of the environment the cubist-inspired sculpture created. I always found these exhibits mesmerizing and moving and spent as much time as I could lurking in them, entranced by the feeling of Nevelson’s work, alive to its energy. I consider her solidly in the handful of artists who are my absolute favorites, whose work I would own and treasure if fortune ever dictated I live in a private gallery.

“I always wanted to show the world that art is everywhere, except it has to pass through a creative mind,” she said. “When I am working, I know that I am working back into time, through all civilizations. Maybe my eye has a great memory of many centuries.”

She struggled for recognition but she never doubted her gift or her path. “I do like to claim that my being here has shaken the earth a bit,” she mused to MacKown. Once an interviewer asked her what she would like to come back as in her next incarnation. Nevelson didn’t believe in reincarnation but she had a ready answer for the question anyway.

“Louise Nevelson.”

Eavesdrop on this book if you can. It will spur you do something important, lasting and unafraid with your life.

Dawns and Dusks: Taped Conversations With Diana MacKown     Louise Nevelson | Scribners  1976

Started Early, Took My Dog – Kate Atkinson

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Kate Atkinson, acclaimed British novelist, shifted her sights to crime a few novels ago and garnered instant accolades for her work in that genre. When Will There Be Good News? was layered with motive, memory, mystery and well-developed characters in vivid  environments as lovingly crafted as the plot. In Started Early, Took My Dog, some of the characters are back and the meticulously drawn people, elements and events are as thick as the puzzle pieces in any literary novel.

This time ex-cop, semi-retired private detective Jackson Brodie is vagabonding around the countryside in a used Saab, having been grifted of the several million a former client inexplicably left to him in her will by a con who married him to get closer to the cash. He’s hunting for the identity of a New Zealand client who was adopted as a toddler and can’t find any evidence of having existed as an infant. And hoping to track the missing “wife” and his bankroll, although with little expectation of success. At the same time that Brodie rescues a small, abused dog from a violent thug, retired cop Tracy Waterhouse rescues an abused kid from a prostitute by paying a thousand pounds cash for her on impulse.

The kid is a 4-year-old girl who settles right into life on the lam as her new guardian tries to clean her up, take care of her and avoid discovery as an impulsive childnapper. The dog is smart, compliant and might be a thoroughbred—it comes with a collar that says its name is “The Ambassador.” The cast of characters rapidly expands forward and back through time as the pursued and the pursuers try to outrun and outfox each other, trailing their lost loves, tragic memories and scores-to-settle after themselves like streamers of semaphore flags.

There are crooked cops, bereaved cops, crimes of passion with revolting aftermaths, an aging actress with Alzheimer’s, a retired conman with answers, missing social workers, cheap hotels, pricey parties and personal ghosts interwoven in the chase. Started Early…is not a thin or minimalist murder mystery. It is rich in detail, complex enough to demand attention—no casual read with myriad interruptions will do it justice–and centered on human hopes and failings more than on the crimes themselves. There are a lot of crimes. The resolution is not predictable or at all neat.

One of the pleasures in this book for me was the version I read. More than a year ago I spied it on a table of new mysteries at an independent bookstore with tall stacks, library ladders and regular shipments of hardbacks from England. I bought it on a whim and tried to keep my face blank when I discovered that it cost more than $50.00. Support for indie bookstores and hesitation made the book improvidently mine. Then I had no time to open it in the scramble for enough freelance work to keep the rest of my books housed indoors along with the people in our family. But my imported copy has every Britishism intact. It was a lot of fun to read, untranslated into American English.

Started Early, Took My Dog is a good mystery but not a “wow” mystery. Reading it nearly straight through helped me to keep the various threads from tangling. I like Kate Atkinson and will read her books again. But, if you get the chance, grab the British version and enjoy the flavor of the language that adds to the strong sense of place Atkinson creates.

Started Early, Took My Dog: A Novel      Kate Atkinson | Doubleday  2010

Change Your Story, Change Your Life – Stephanie S. Tolan

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Stephanie Tolan wrote an essay about gifted childen called “Is It a Cheetah?” It’s fairly well-known in gifted homeschooling circles and it is a cogent argument for honoring the intelligence of children and providing the level of challenge and the variety of subjects they need. Her Newbery Honor novel, Surviving the Applewhites, about a very unconventional unschooling family and the delinquent who is placed in their care as a last resort, is a delight and mirrors many of the tenets of our own unschooling journey in a conventional, competitive, consumer-driven society. So I was predisposed to enjoy a book-length exploration of the power of story when I stumbled across it in pursuit of some other scrap of knowledge.

Change Your Story, Change Your Life is Tolan’s primer for using the power of mind/intention/imagination to write your own story. She espouses something she calls the Story Principle that holds we are each the Author of our own life and can write it how we choose. The idea is to script the ordinary and the profound events into a narrative that works for you. Too often, in fact most of the time, she writes, we blindly accept the conventional wisdom we are handed and the way things have always been since we were old enough to notice. But these stories may not serve us at all and typically lead to missed opportunities, failure, depression and fear. By consciously writing our own narrative, we tell the story that should happen and life aligns itself with our plot.

Tolan’s research is deep and wide. She has read Eastern mysticism, Western philosophy and psychology, spiritual classics from all cultures, and scientific journals on the workings of the mind and on quantum physics. She’s bright enough to pull it all into a coherent argument for listening to the small, still voice within and taking action in our own best interests, not out of habit. She writes explanatory chapters followed by exercises to give readers the visceral experience of trying the storytelling practice and having it work. You may recognize experiences of your own in the examples she provides.

“A butterfly is not a caterpillar with wings” is one fabulous remark in the section on ways to view death and what happens next. Tolan compares the process of letting go of physical life to the formation of a chrysalis from which an entirely new and transcendent creature emerges. It’s a sensible and beautiful way to confront the social stigma of death and move past the fears into curiosity and empowerment. She discusses the need for a suspension of disbelief—skepticism being the norm in our world when it comes to the numinous and miraculous. Her view is that miracles are just the triumph of belief and practice over negative thoughts and their consequences.

Change Your Story… is not a Pollyanna prescription for avoiding harsh reality. It’s a seminal shift in POV that can determine our mundane and magnificent moments. I think, if you believe in the essential power of story and you create your own, you narrate a world and a role in it that can mirror your deepest desires and allow you to live them. Several years ago, I printed out the phrase Stories are Healing, a perfectly balanced assertion (s t o r i e s | h e a l i n g– both seven letters, easy to set in type) and taped it to my computer to counter existential despair.  So I’m already on board with the basic premise. Really, how does it make sense to consign a conscious life to a hamster wheel, followed by oblivion? For those who don’t mind reading on .pdf, you can access the whole book for free at

Tolan’s Story Principle is logical and, in both small and substantial ways, it delivers. Try telling yourself you will find a parking space easily at a crowded mall, or that the train you need will arrive just as you reach the platform. Bingo. Life just got simpler. Try it with bigger and bigger things to prove to yourself that it works. Add some practices to still your monkey mind, like meditation or quiet walks in nature, tune into your own intuition, begin to study the volumes of science and spiritual wisdom she suggests and you can become a powerful bard with a life you choose—electrifying page-turner or peaceful journey.  Think about it. This could be the only New Year’s resolution you need–tell your own story, invent a beautiful life.     

Change Your Story, Change Your Life   | Stephanie S. Tolan  2009

Flu – Gina Kolata

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In the vague chronicles of family history acquired piecemeal in childhood there are always mysterious bits that get added in later or never quite seem to fit. My maternal grandmother told me once, when I was complaining about my little sisters no doubt, about her sister—a young woman named Josie whom she adored. Josie loved the theater, an ethnic, vaudevillian, song-and-dance entertainment that appealed to immigrants at the turn of the century in New York. And she had a talent for it and could sing, all aptitudes destined to go unremarked in the conservative Catholic world in which she came of age.

“What happened to her?” I asked, imagining a relative to claim who became famous on Broadway or in the Ziegfeld Follies. But there was no celebrity grand-aunt shining on my family tree. Josie died in 1918 in the great flu epidemic. Her young husband died, too. Years later I would find out from my mother that Josie’s two-year-old son was taken in by my newly married grandmother and raised as her own child. The 1918 flu claimed more than 19,000 young people in New York in the space of a few months, half-a-million in the U.S., more than 21 million worldwide. In that deadly year, the flu killed more people than World Wars I and II, the Korean War and the Vietnam War combined.   

Gina Kolata’s dramatic reconstruction of the lethal influenza pandemic and the late 20th-century scientific struggle to isolate its cause is a real page-turner. Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918 and the Search for the Virus That Caused It adds up the staggering human cost of a virulent killer that struck overnight and altered the course of history. The facts of the suffering and death, the instantaneous spread of the incurable, horrible plague and the futile efforts to contain and cure it are stunning. The contemporary race to find the DNA of the virus in decades-old tissue samples stored in warehouses, or harvested from exhumed bodies beneath the northern permafrost is as theatrical as science gets.

When Kolata researched and wrote her book, scientists were deeply immersed in isolating genetic information to identify the cause of the rapid deaths from the 1918 flu. People who complained of a fever and headaches sickened so rapidly that they were often dead within days—or hours. They died painfully as their lungs filled up with blood-tinged liquid and suffocated them. Their skin darkened and feet blackened and there was no relief for their agony. So many people died so quickly that there were no morgues, undertaker parlors, cemetery plots or caskets to handle the bodies. “Plague” victims were sometimes left on door steps for collection like garbage and disposition in mass graves. Survivors were terrified of becoming infected.

The flu took young adults in the healthy prime of life. It often spared babies, toddlers and the elderly, typically the first victims of flu outbreaks. No one understood the mysterious killer but the world reeled under the impact of rapid spread and massive death counts. In a sense, our panicked reaction to flu outbreaks like SARS and Swine Flu stems from the indelible terror impressed on every society by the 1918 flu. Kolata creates vivid images of expeditions to find tissue samples, meticulous and arduous laboratory procedures, years of disappointments and the rare breakthrough that advanced the quest for knowledge. The book is an amazing read.

Some of the scientists conducting experiments and research when Kolata wrote Flu have since concluded that the epidemic of 1918 was a cause-and-effect killer. In 2008, they announced that the strain of flu in 1918 stripped the nose and throat of its protective cells, allowing deadly strains of bacterial pneumonia to invade the body and destroy its host. Modern medicine had not advanced enough at the time to find and stop the virus or protect those who first sickened from deteriorating further. The researchers speculate that a large number of people would have been saved if there were antibiotics to counter the bacteria infections.

In 1918, as WW I raged and the disease decimated military bases, cities and industries, the blow dealt by the flu pandemic was not easily absorbed. It had far reaching economic and human consequences. Most families can trace losses to the devastating outbreak. I wonder what difference Josie would have made to our family had she lived well into her eighties, like my grandmother. Some of the questions raised by contemplation of a plague can never be answered in a lab, or a book.

Flu : The Story Of The Great Influenza Pandemic  Gina Kolata | Farrar, Straus and Giroux 2000

The Night Circus — Erin Morgenstern

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Erin Morgenstern’s The Night Circus is really weird. The book is a series of linked vignettes, strung like a one-of-a-kind necklace from odd beginning to jarring end. The real name of the circus, which opens at dusk and closes at dawn, appears unannounced in an empty field and is colored entirely black and white,  is Le Cirque de Rêves—the circus of dreams. The entire story might be a dream—it certainly makes the point that the reality we apprehend is a construct of mind and that we can alter the dream at will or be captive of the nightmare that plays across our closed eyes when we sleep.

Near the end of the story, Morgenstern quotes Shakespeare’s Prospero; the passage would have been too instructive to include earlier in the book:

Our revels are now ended. These our actors,

As I foretold you, were all spirits, and

Are melted into air, into thin air:

And, like the baseless fabric of this vision,

The cloud-capp’d towers, the gorgeous palaces,

The solemn temples, the great globe itself,

Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,

And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,

Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff

As dreams are made on; and our little life

Is rounded with a sleep.

How to re-cap this tale? Celia is the child of a magician who masquerades his skills as an illusionist. He trains her from age six to wage a challenge against the protégé of another magician, binding her to the wager with a silver ring that burns a permanent brand into her hand. The other magician plucks a boy, Marco, from an orphanage—apparently in late 19th-century England orphans can be selected like groceries—and trains him in the ancient ways of magic from books. Celia is an intuitive and can manipulate matter. Marco creates fabulous structures out of formulae and spells.

The circus is the brainchild of a wealthy entrepreneur who specializes in the highly iconoclastic and throws midnight dinner parties for a select group of collaborators. None of these characters is as straightforward as they might seem. The circus arrives without warning. It seduces, delights and subverts lives. It contains the most amazing and unimaginable acts. It is unlike anything anyone has ever seen—as improbable and fascinating as the richest of dreams. Within it, lives unfold, performances astonish, magical children are born, wonders never cease. Outside the black and white striped tents and the iron perimeter fence, lives unravel, people grow old, some die, fans exchange stories and travel the world to find the circus and bask in its glow for a few nights. Celia is the illusionist of the circus, performing nightly; Marco is the assistant of the circus owner, living in London. Both are essential to keep the fantasy of the tents and performers alive.

Meanwhile Celia and Marco discover that each is the other’s competitor. They also fall in love. This is a complication that was not in the script. It will wreak havoc with the careful plans of their puppet-masters. And the contortionist and the fortuneteller have their own agendas; magicians perform acts that go horribly wrong and leave them evanescent—not gone but not quite there; a boy who climbs apple trees takes a dare to break into the circus in the daylight and changes his life. No spoilers here—it is impossible to summarize this story without telling the whole thing.

The language is mesmerizing, the premise is hypnotic; the conceits are captivating. I liked the book but I did resist the forecast forced combat that promised to end badly and I am really unfamiliar with this brand of fantasy—it’s something like an extended drug-induced hallucination from the 60s.  I would read it again to puzzle it through more diligently. The Night Circus may be the most unusual book you read any time soon. Despite, or maybe because of, its episodic construction, it has the power to hold your attention.

The Night Circus   Erin Morgenstern | Doubleday  2011

Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui – Karen Kingston

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The nice thing about reading whatever I like every day is – reading whatever I like. The tough thing is finding time in a crazy-crowded schedule to read for hours and then blog about it. So, occasionally, I read what I am living and use the overlap to facilitate some pressing activity.

Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui by Karen Kingston is the perfect book to read when you are in the middle of a massive clear-out of an apartment you have lived in for more than 17 years. This space, with its seasonal mice, #$%^&* noisy neighbors, backyard barbecue smoke—eeuw, smells like we live over a cheap restaurant—has a fabulous Central Park West location, alas. Plus, it’s rent stabilized, a bonus that effectively traps you with the neighbors, the vermin, etc. etc. due to below-market rent. Salvation Army is getting a lot of pristine homeschooling materials and quality toddler toys as I dig into closets and empty boxes.

I am reading a John Pawson book (a cook book, actually) for inspiration in streamlining our culinary collection. Dumping a ton of old writing and marketing papers, music CDs, DVDs, various handmade souvenir baskets, pottery, folk paintings and furniture. It is a painful and horrible exercise but we are rediscovering square footage and closet space we had forgotten we had. Kingston’s prescriptions promise room for all kinds of good things to happen so I’m buying into it. Clear your clutter; change your life.

Clutter, or just seldom-used stuff, causes energy to stagnate, according to Kingston. This is a classic Feng Shui concept and the remedy is to make space to get the energy moving again. In the past, when I did a modest clear-out, I immediately got a lot of new business. So, a major release should effectively upend the economic mudslide that has buried our small enterprise and restore some fiscal sunshine. One hopes. In any case, the Karen Kingston advice is coupled with her original version of space clearing—a process and ritual that cleans the energy in a structure and banishes negative influences and the remnants of old events. Books get a special mention in Clearing Sacred Space—pretty helpful when you are staring in dismay at 14-foot-high walls of books that need dusting, sorting and selling to the used bookstore. We will always have books but we will also have eBooks and this place doesn’t need to be a set piece from Fahrenheit 451 to honor our love of the printed volume.

If you have a recurring problem in any area of your life, Kingston suggests you lay the Feng Shui bagua map over your space and find the area that relates to the problem: career, family, romance, health, wealth, etc. Check the area for clutter, items that are no longer used or were always unloved, furniture with sharp edges, even spider plants. Too many downward-hanging items encourage low energy and depression. Spiders droop attractively and produce lots of baby plants which increase the downward energy. So the recommendation is to use uplighting, ferns or other greenery that grows up, pots and cups on shelves rather than suspended from hooks. Peace lilies and dwarf bananas are good for cleaning the air and grow nicely upward.

Not every idea will work in a space-challenged apartment but the more you are aware of the message of your surroundings, the faster you can change the vibe. And, if you have a missing area, there are Feng Shui “cures” listed for tackling the imbalance. The wealth area is missing from our apartment—aaaargh. Remedies might be to hang a rainbow crystal in the window overlooking the missing area or position a mirror to reflect light there. I’ve already strung two rows of Tibetan prayer flags along the railing inscribing the phantom wealth area and we have a wind chime there but it clearly needs a bigger boost of positive. A severe paper edit—business and marketing papers, drafts of documents, bills and banking paperwork in a cabinet–and maybe a crystal might help. But the space clearing when this huge project is finished could be just the auspicious touch we need.

Space clearing is a ritual that unsticks the energy, releases old, negative vibrations and purifies the surroundings. Kingston pioneered the practice using her own talent for sensing energy and years of study with Feng Shui, meditation and indigenous shamanic practitioners. She recommends using a trained professional for the work but tells you how to do it yourself if there is no one else available. Whether you believe in the ability to affect energy fields or not, using fresh flowers, clapping, bell ringing, candles, smudging and intention to clear the space is a pleasant completion of the weeding out. There are many books about Feng Shui and a fair few about space clearing. But Creating Sacred Space with Feng Shui merges both methods in a simple set of directions and explanations that make sense and could motivate you to push through the messy clean-up part to the celebration of better energy flow when you are through.   

Creating Sacred Space With Feng Shui: Learn the Art of Space Clearing and Bring New Energy into Your Life    Karen Kingston | Broadway Books  1997

Childlike Wonder

Christmas at our house has always been an occasion for favorite stories that capture something magical about the season. There are a dozen marvelous reads to delight grown-ups and kids alike but here are three of the most wondrous—add them to your holiday reads to recall a time when you believed in everything and knew all the best stories were real.

A Pussycat’s Christmas is a gift from Margaret Wise Brown, the author of Goodnight Moon and an entrancing, hypnotic writer. Our treasured copy is a hardback published by HarperCollins with illustrations by Anne Mortimer. Pussycat is a creature of now. She experiences everything through her senses and so do we, following along with her as she frolics in the falling snow, hears the sounds of tinkling ice and distant sleigh bells, smells Christmas trees, apples and tangerines, sees shining ornaments and bows on packages and pounces in sheer joy—until she is put out in the hall. Undaunted, she listens for carolers and waits for the family to go to midnight services before she pushes open the living room door and plays with crackling paper, shining glass orbs and curling ribbons. It’s the perfect book to read a small, excited child to sleep on Christmas Eve—the cadence of the lines soothes and lulls and the details remind you of how tiny a thing happiness is, and how easy to obtain.

Auntie Claus by Elise Primavera, published by Harcourt Brace & Company, is a delightful romp through fantasy with an Auntie Mame character who keeps huge holiday secrets and a spoiled little girl named Sophie who visits her every afternoon for tea. Auntie Claus lives in the penthouse atop the Bing Cherry Hotel in New York City where Sophie’s family lives, too, on a lower floor. The red and green velvet, white ermine and gilt pad—undoubtedly on the Upper East Side—looks like an ornate Santa’s workshop and has a large oil painting of the man himself over the fireplace. Auntie Claus wears a mysterious diamond key around her neck and instructs Sophie in the finer points of etiquette, emphasizing always that it is better to give than to receive. And every year, just after Halloween, Auntie Claus goes on an unexplained trip and doesn’t return until Valentine’s Day. One year, Sophie decides to find her own answers and stows away in one of the many boxes packed for Auntie Claus’s trip. The diamond key unlocks an old elevator that shoots up into the sky with Sophie, boxed and wide-eyed, in the baggage. What happens after that explains a great deal to Sophie who returns to her bratty brother and ordinary life with an open heart and a legacy of giving. For Christmas that year, Sophie gets a tiny jewel box from Auntie Claus with a small diamond key of her own. Fantastical, whimsical retelling of the Santa Claus legend and a caution to greedy children everywhere.  

Frederick by Leo Lionni, published by Alfred A. Knopf, was a Caldecott Honor Book and is a truly beloved book in a house of readers and writers. Frederick and the other field mice live in an old stone wall on an abandoned farm and work all summer and into the autumn to gather nuts, wheat, straw and corn for the long cold winter. Frederick drives them crazy. He sits all day gathering the rays of the sun, staring at the colors of the meadow and collecting words. The rest of the family hauls ears of corn, fallen grain and nesting materials from the fields and badgers Frederick about his lack of industry. When the snow falls, they snuggle into their safe space in the wall and nibble supplies, huddling together for warmth. But, as the supplies dwindle and the bitter cold seeps into their bones, they turn to Frederick and ask him to share what he has gathered for winter. And Frederick gives them an imaginary sun to cheer them, the memory of the red, blue and green flowers and leaves and a lovely poem to celebrate four seasons and a small family of chilly mice who are warmed and heartened by his words.

Wendy and the Lost Boys — Julie Salamon

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I was surprised at my negative reaction to Wendy and the Lost Boys, Julie Salamon’s exhaustive biography of Wendy Wasserstein’s life, loves, laugh lines, web of lies and artful dodges. I read it nearly straight through, out of curiosity—a bit like a highbrow National Enquirer read. Wasserstein was a media darling in this town and, as is common in New York City, I know people who know people who were intimately related to her. But I never saw one of her plays so I read the biography to learn more about a celebrated playwright and the merits of what she wrote.

Oy. Almost too much information—and much of it colored by a rose gel that softened the searing heat of an unfiltered white stage light. Wasserstein came from that most usual of American origins, the dysfunctional family. Hers was adept at hiding important truths, fabricating settings and scenes and mixing nurture with emotional torture. The hidden-away mentally-impaired half-brother no one spoke of, the fact that her elder siblings were only half-siblings, again unspoken truths here, the relentless pressure to be perfect, super-hero progeny who achieved out of all proportion to the norm, married well and produced bragging rights offspring—all this informed the youngest Wasserstein’s emotional resilience and left her predictably damaged.

Wendy was a chubby child, adolescent and adult. Her skinny mother spent hours every day in a dance studio and never missed a chance to needle her daughter about her weight. Wendy never married. An entire not-very-funny-comedy could be written about mama’s barbs on that subject. In fact, Wasserstein did write about her mother, her own shortcomings and frustrations, her friends and their confidences–anything at all that crossed her path or tripped her up was fodder for the plays. She never bothered much with disguising the real models for her stage characters and she exposed the unpretty parts as often as the smart and humorous dialogs. Her total recall for a conversation and her trick of using it in a very public play had a dampening effect on some of her friendships. So did the reflections of the Wendy characters in her plays that were less than flattering about family and friends who were blindsided by the revelations on opening nights.

Wendy is painted as warm, empathetic, funny, engaging and magnetic company. But she seems to have spun faster and faster all her life to avoid facing uncomfortable realities like barely above-average or even average academic performance in a family of self-made geniuses, a lumpy body and a profound sense of being not-enough—not good enough, not smart enough, not rich enough, not celebrated enough, not accomplished enough, not loved enough. She apparently befriended half of New York City and kept all her relationships in separate orbits, confiding some things to one, other secrets to another, deliberate fictions to lovers and casual friends alike. She had an enormous need to be the sun in her solar system—not having known her at all, it was hard to reconcile the warm funny friend and the desperate, obfuscating writer into one person.

For sure, Wendy Wasserstein was blatantly dysfunctional herself. A person who doesn’t bathe, shows up at theaters for rehearsals in a nightgown, and is noticeable for an off-putting lack of personal hygiene is not an entirely well human being. So I read on, looking for the click that signaled how she managed to achieve such exalted reviews for some of her plays and such acclaim for her talent. Two things stood out and neither of them was a complete answer.

Wendy Wasserstein came from money, privilege and connections. Her second generation immigrant family rose rapidly in economic status and, after graduating from in an all-girl ivy league college, she didn’t have to scrape by in a cold water walk-up, waiting tables for rent money. In one job, she accepted subway fare for errands without a murmur and then went outside and hailed a cab. She may have wandered around unwashed but she shopped for designer labels and didn’t go hungry. Lot of pressure about the career-achievement-marriage thing but plenty of enabling for the long years it took her to find herself and turn out the work that made her famous.

One telling anecdote involves Wasserstein’s winning the Pulitzer Prize for The Heidi Chronicles. Her mother lost no time in telling everyone she knew that Wendy had won the Nobel Prize–only top, top prizes for Wassersteins. The talent was there and she worked it as diligently as her brother put in the hours to reach the pinnacles of the financial world. While her sister was shattering glass ceilings in corporations, Wendy was attending every rehearsal of her plays, taking copious notes and rewriting constantly to fine tune and improve the production. It was the family work ethic on display and, if she was all over the map in the rest of her life, she was extremely focused on winning rave reviews and selling out houses. She did it often enough to secure her place in American theater but never enough to banish her demons.

The end of this book is sad, sad, sad as her decade-long quest to have a child ended with the birth of a dangerously preemie daughter and Wasserstein’s own precipitous health decline. She hid both the baby’s parentage and her own illness from everyone, retreating into the family habit of denial and racing around the country and back and forth to Europe for rehearsals, openings, book signings, speeches and social events. She died in 2006 at age 55, leaving Lucy Jane, her six-year-old, in the care of her brother and his wife. The denouement of the biography traces the deaths of her mother and two brothers not long after.

I will have to read Wasserstein’s plays now to make sense of this life story. If they are remarkable and timeless, Wasserstein’s life may hold some clues to genius. If they are dated or merely good, she was a classic overachiever with a gift for collecting powerful people and a self-destructive streak a mile wide. In any case, I’m tempted to lay off the biographies for a while. It’s too easy to become jaded about all the insiders and their off-kilter psyches and the fortunes and advantages that allowed them to pursue their own dreams, or just stumble into them. It seems a bit rigged, like too much of life these days. I think I’ll revisit Stephen King’s book on writing for a reality check on how a complete outsider, with nothing but guts and an old typewriter, survived to tell his tales. That is a life as satisfying as fiction.

Wendy and the Lost Boys: The Uncommon Life of Wendy Wasserstein   Julie Salamon | The Penguin Press  2011

The Art of Possibility — Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander

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Ben Zander is an exuberant orchestra conductor and teacher whose infectious energy and positive approach inspire his young students and musicians and their audiences. A video of his youth orchestra’s tour of Latin America was a favorite in our house for years. Rosamund Stone Zander is an executive coach and family therapist. The two of them pooled resources to create a primer for living a positive life—a life that proceeds on an upward track, not a downward spiral.

The Art of Possibility is clear, pragmatic and optimistic. It is stuffed with examples of how a shift of mind, a slant view of events, can change the direction of a life and the experience of every incident. The examples illustrate ten practices for transforming any occurrence or pattern. It’s really good. This is no self-help-for-the-couch-potato tome. The Zanders begin with the assumption that the life we regard as inevitable and immovable is, in fact, entirely an invention. The way we see, the way we feel, the memories deeply buried that inform our vision—those are the parameters of the invention. When we wave them away like so much mist, we might glimpse a new possibility and a path to reach a completely different destination.

Music is the metaphor for many of the suggestions of how to see differently, act differently and welcome positive change. Ben Zander hopped on a plane on a morning when Mstislav Rostropovich had ten minutes for a telephone appeal to appear in an upcoming benefit concert. Zander knew that the chance for agreement was less than slim but the famous cellist’s appearance was important to him. He showed up in person for his appointed “phone call,” to the executive assistant’s dismay. The musicians greeted each other warmly and sat down to a discussion of the composer Zander wanted Slava to play. He left with an enthusiastic promise and wound up with a stellar concert with a surprise attendance by the composer and rave reviews. Win-win-win from an initial “no.”

This is the ninth practice, Lighting a Spark. The idea is not to strong-arm, seduce or guilt someone into agreeing with you. It is to search for the spark of passion about a subject and introduce with it the glimmer of possibility. Rostropovich was booked solid years into the future. He had only time for a brief rehearsal and a plane to catch immediately after the concert. The music was challenging and the orchestra was young. No matter. Passion won the day—Zander presented the possibility that it could work and mutual desire made it happen.

Giving an A is the third practice. Rather than setting up situations for people to prove themselves—a class with grades at the end, for instance—both Zanders counsel to give everyone an “A” at the outset. Then challenge them to write, as if the event or semester is over, how they earned that “A.” This frees each individual to examine their performance and goals in advance, set parameters for “A” behavior and outcomes, and meet the challenge from an internally imposed discipline. You are no longer being judged and found wanting at your job, or in competition with your peers for a place on the grading curve. You are engaged in succeeding at the work which is consuming your attention and time. And you can use your experience, intelligence and imagination to find unique ways to fulfill that challenge. You own the work and your success so it becomes a launching pad for future efforts and experiences.

The book is high-energy talk and inventive solutions. Most of it is an “aha” moment kind of a read—a why-didn’t-I-ever-think-of-that-but-I’m-glad-they-did experience that offers a wealth of ideas for creating positive transformation in your own life. The Zanders are literate, lively and unafraid to expose their own learning process. Very instructive are the initial failures that, after close examination and a shift in perspective, turn into triumphs. It’s a great collection of exercises for launching a new year with infinite possibilities for success. And Ben Zander loves Mahler—one of my favorite classical composers. So I was open from the beginning to accepting the brilliance of the theories in the book and I wasn’t disappointed.  

The Art of Possibility: Transforming Professional and Personal Life   Rosamund Stone Zander and Benjamin Zander | Penguin Books  2002

The Winter Solstice – John Matthews

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The Winter Solstice is a big book stuffed with glossy color plates and an encyclopedia’s worth of information about the origins of the solstice celebrations, Yule traditions and instructions for Yule logs, wishing trees and ceremonies, solstice animals and birds, and classic recipes for eggnog and wassail bowls.

John Matthews has written numerous books on Celtic subjects but this one is subtitled “The Sacred Traditions of Christmas” and there is a lot about the holiday we know and how influences from Druid mistletoe to Coca Cola have shaped it. Santa, with his red coat, big belly, rosy cheeks and white beard, is fairly modern image from an illustration publicized by the Coca Cola Company in its late nineteenth century advertising. The pagan Green Man is said to have challenged Gawain in Arthur’s court when Camelot traded its Druid spiritual customs for a Christian celebration. The first mention of Christmas trees comes from 1605 in Germany but the ancient Romans decorated their houses with evergreen boughs every year in early January.

You may infuse a solstice observance with symbolism from many cultures and Matthews tells you how. Mithras, a Persian deity with a life story remarkably like Christ’s, can be invoked with a golden circle or disc. Dionysus, god of wine and merriment, gets a pine cone. Holly branches and strands of ivy hark back to the folk tradition of a ritual battle between the Holly King and the Ivy Queen. The two plants, which remain green, produce bright red berries and are decorative in winter, were also part of Greek legend and represented for Christians the crown of thorns and the purity of Mary.

Matthews details the Twelve Days of Christmas with history for each day and suggested activities. But he lists as well the unique architecture of the pre-christian people who built New Grange and Stonehenge and other sacred sites aligned with the winter and summer solstice sun. An interesting tidbit is that Bronze Age and Neolithic shamans climbed down ladders into the fires and smoke of the underworld to retrieve soul bits or to discover wisdom. They were precursors of the reindeer-driven gift-giver who climbs down the chimney to reward good boys and girls with their heart’s desires.

The Winter Solstice is a better reference book than a straight-through read. I would add an index to make it easier to recover specific information without having to flip through pages. And I did find the content much more Christmas-centric than solstice-focused. But the book does link some of the older celebrations with the feast days and festivals that were layered over them. The Romans tried to remake a pagan world that revered the life-giving return of the light each year as the season turned. They may have co-opted solstice but evidence of it is still everywhere, if you know how to look.

The Winter Solstice: The Sacred Traditions of Christmas   John Matthews | Quest Books   2003