Writers and visual artists are often asked this question; Where do you get your ideas?
I’m one of those people who is never short of ideas. It’s bringing them to fruition that challenges me most. But, if you’re a writer or visual artist, engaging in new experiences can spark an idea for your next project. It’s these little artist dates, a concept I first read about in Julia Cameron’s excellent book, The Artist’s Way, that infuse my creativity. Even if you are not an artist, stepping outside of your routine can help you get creative in your personal life, maybe even helping to solve a problem that has you stuck.
When Dave was building our kitchen cabinets, I went along with him to the hardwood outlet in Enfield, Connecticut. It was an afternoon well spent. The Hardwood Outlet is nothing like your local lumber yard or a chain home improvement store. From the moment I stepped through the doors, the scent of freshly milled wood filled my nose. I walked along the rows and rows of woods and read their names.
The names, so beautiful, were like words in a poem:
Spanish Cedar, White Oak, Lacewood, Eucalyptus, Cypress, Q-sawn Sycamore, Poplar, Walnut, Red Maple Curly, Sassafras, Maple Birdseye, Hickory, Basswood, Cherry, and Flame Birch. I thought of the forests these woods lived in and I loved that the Hardwood Outlet was committed to buying only sustainable wood, grown and harvested in eco-friendly forests.
All the wood was sold by the board foot. The old man running the place leaned in to me,
“You’re very smart to come with your husband. No man should be allowed to come in here without his wife, too tempting!” He seemed surprised to have a woman wandering the wood.
Sadly, this hardwood outlet has closed up shop, but since then, I’ve treated myself to an assortment of artist’s dates. An heirloom garden seed festival, a talk on Samuel Clemens, a dog groomer’s, a Jewish deli (even though I am not Jewish), and a state fish hatchery. Artist Dates don’t have to cost you anything, but they should help you step out of your everyday humdrum.
I’d love to hear your ideas for artist’s dates in the comments.
This morning, the girl at the McDonalds drive-thru handed me coffee without making eye contact. She wasn’t being rude. I don’t think she could see me. At some point between yesterday and today, she’d caved to the latest beauty fad, blinking from under an absurdly thick fringe of false eyelashes. She had to grope around for my hand as she passed me my change.
There’s a hard truth around every beauty fad; if you want the real thing, in this case, authentic Kardashian lashes, you have to spend a boatload of money. If you don’t have a lot of money, you have to try to make it happen on a thin paycheck.
I used to be that girl. My reach wasn’t for eyelashes, but blonde highlights. At sixteen years old, I noticed the Marcia Brady types in my school seemed happier. My part time job as a nurse’s aide was barely enough to pay for my car, let alone salon highlights. I bought a box of hair dye at the drugstore for three dollars. The girl on the box looked like Farah Fawcett. This was going to change my life.
But, like the girl at McDonald’s, I had mixed results. First of all, I made a mess of my mother’s new bath rug. That didn’t go over well. Two weeks later, my friend noticed a swatch of hair at the back of my head that had turned an alarming shade of granny apple green. Chlorinated pool water and blonde hair dye led to a chemical reaction on the back of my head. It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t pretty at all.
So, yes. I feel an alliance with my friend at McDonald’s. If I was young enough for false eyelashes, I’d be just like her, making do with a cheap set bought at the five and dime. Then I’d go home and have to glue them on as best I could.
Being a girl doesn’t come cheap.
A full set of extension eyelashes applied by a certified eyelash technician (yes, there is such a thing) costs anywhere from 175 dollars to 400 dollars plus a tip. Monthly maintenance will run you 55-75 dollars a pop.
Eyelash extensions come in a variety of thicknesses, from lashes as thin as a pencil tip to something that looks like my 1970’s fringed jean shorts. They’re either applied in a strip or single tufts. Some false eyelashes are made of mink (yes, mink!) while others are made of human or synthetic hair.
The eyelash technician glues the extensions to the natural lash line, which takes 12-24 hours to fully cure. During that time you can’t get your eyes wet. No face washing. No swimming. And no watching that last scene in Pretty Woman when Richard Gere sweeps Julia Roberts off the balcony. If your boyfriend breaks up with you on the day you get your lashes done, let’s hope he wasn’t worth crying over.
Once your lashes are ‘cured’, you’ll be instructed to avoid rubbing your eyes. Super long lashes require a daily brushing with something called a ‘spoolie brush.’ At night, you’ll have to lie flat on your back like Sleeping Beauty. No side sleeping and no mashing your face into your pillow.
There are health risks, including the risk of losing your own eyelashes or the very real risk of eye infections like pink eye. Some adhesive products contain formaldehyde which, quite honestly, I didn’t research the effects, but can we agree it can’t be good to put formaldehyde near your eyes?
Every new beauty fad comes with an unspoken promise; do this, buy this, wear this, and you will be desirable. If only you do this, you’ll be pretty. If only you do this, your life will improve. If you do this: you’ll fit in.
It’s easy to blame this over-reaching on men and the culture of beauty around women. But, I don’t think men are to blame for this. I believe it’s all on us. Most men I know wouldn’t turn down a date with a woman because her lash length wasn’t up to his usual standards.
My oldest daughter was home for a visit from Montana. “You know,” she said, as she laced up her hiking boots, “I feel if women just stopped buying into it, we’d all be so much happier.”
So true. I don’t feel pressure from men to get a perfect pedicure. I feel pressure from women. If I want to be accepted into the Girls Club, I have to wear the right clothes, have the right hair, or turn my eyes into a Venus fly trap, never mind that I’m blinded in the process.
I know that even feminist types want to be accepted into the Girl’s Club. Don’t tell me they don’t. Successful executive women wear pencil skirts and high heels for a reason. They want others to notice their narrow waists and slender calves while they make important decisions on company policy. Even Gloria Steinem wore a fetching pair of strappy sandals while carrying a sign on a stick that said, “We Shall Overcome.” Puleeeeze.
A couple of weeks ago, I did the most informal survey of all time. I asked the men in my life to weigh in on the Kardashian eyelash craze.
This comment from my husband who just celebrated his sixtieth birthday. “They’re kind of distracting. Unnatural. I’m afraid they’ll poke their eyes out.”
And this from a 30-something year old guy. ” On some girls they look okay. I don’t really think about them.”
My litmus test for beauty these days is simple. Feeling good about myself shouldn’t hurt or come with risk of injury. Feeling good about myself should…well…feel good.
But this requires an awareness of why we buy in. As I get older, some of the women I know are getting work done; bottoms lifted, tummies tucked, lips plumped. That’s not a beauty fad; it’s an expectation in some circles.
But, that path is not for me. I don’t have enough self-restraint to start down that slippery slope. I won’t know when to stop. My eyes would search my body’s landscape for every little thing that needed improvement. Pretty soon, I’d have to re-mortgage the farm to pay for the upgrades.
Here’s my litmus test for beauty trends: I ask myself why I do it. Is it for me? Or is it for them? Who are they, anyway? Am I enjoying whatever it is I’m doing?
If we’re doing it for men, we should know that most men don’t judge women as harshly as we judge ourselves and each other. What a man appreciates, is a woman who likes herself, who takes care of herself, who laughs at his jokes, essentially, a woman who is confident in her own skin. Men can’t always put their finger on what it is that makes this one or that one stand out, but I bet you they never say…it was the eyelashes.
I recently attended the Writer’s Digest Conference in New York City. The three keynote speakers perfectly complimented each other, although they write in very different genres. Here is a book sample of each writer. Check them out!
The Fifth Season is the first book in The Broken Earth trilogy. It won the Hugo Award for 2016 and the sequel, The Obelisk Gate, just took the 2017 Hugo Award.
“The Last Widow. New York Times bestselling author Karin Slaughter brings back Will Trent and Sara Linton in this superb and timely thriller full of devious twists, disturbing secrets, and shocking surprises you won’t see coming.”
National Book Award Finalist. A New York Times Book Review Top Ten of the Year. New York Times Notable Book of 2017. A USA Today Top Ten of 2017. July Pick for the PBS NEWSHOUR. Finalist for the 2018 Dayton Literary Peace Prize. Min Jin Lee is also an inspiring speaker. I loved her closing keynote speech.
We’re lying in bed looking at the stars out the window. Dave shares a scene from an old movie he remembers;
“There’s this blind woman, played by Bette Davis,” he says. “A doctor performs an experimental surgery in hopes that it will restore her sight. Weeks later, alone in her high-rise apartment, she slowly unravels the bandages that have protected her eyes.”
“Wait,” I ask, “Where was the doctor?”
Dave sighs. “How do I know? Anyway, she’s peeling the bandages off layer by layer, painstakingly slow for dramatic effect.”
“When the last of the bandages falls away, she’s overcome with emotion. Outside her window, she sees all the lights of the city for the first time. There are people having dinner in apartment windows across the way, cars on the street below, it’s crazy. She’s seeing these things for the first time. And then-ka-boom! A huge power surge that knocks out electricity to the entire city. A total blackout.”
“Yeah. But, the thing is–she mistakes the blackout for the loss of her sight all over again. She thinks the surgery failed. She’s so devastated that she throws herself out the window.”
“Yeah. Terrible, right?”
“Wait a minute.” My brain goes into overdrive. “That doesn’t add up.”
“A total blackout.”
“It was a total blackout. What’s not to understand about that?”
“Even if the power went out, there would be some light. I mean no-one on the street had a cigarette lighter? No cars with headlamps? No stars in the sky?”
“Well…I…don’t know! Maybe it wasn’t quite like that. I can’t remember.”
“Bette Davis took the lead? I’ll google it.” I type ‘Bette Davis plays a blind woman‘ into my I-phone.
“You know,” Dave says, staring at the ceiling, “now that I think about it, was it Bette Davis?”
“In fact, maybe it wasn’t a movie after all. Could have been one of those Twilight Zone episodes or was it… Night Crawler. You know, I can’t seem to remember.”
Okay, so he’s an unreliable story-teller, but there are other things he’s good at; astronomy for instance. Artificial light, like the kind missing in that movie, is something he notices. And because I’m married to someone who loves the night sky, I notice it, too.
On a clear night, Dave spends most of his night outdoors, gazing through the lens of his telescope at distant planets and stars. When Dave was a kid, his father built a UFO detector, a black box that would sound an alarm if something suspicious zoomed across the night sky. Russel was a huge sci-fi fan and he was convinced, in a Ray Bradbury kind of way, that there was ‘something’ out there. Dave remembers lying on his back in a web lounge chair, waiting for the UFO detector to go off.
I’m not an astronomer, but I love to gaze at a clear night sky. I remember my dad pointing out the Milky Way when I was a kid, but today, 80 percent of the world’s kids can no longer see the Milky Way. Due to an invasion of artificial light, our night skies are thousands of times brighter than they were just 200 years ago.
With so many other things to worry about, light pollution might not seem all that important to you, but all those porch lights, stadium lights, electronic lights, and industry lights might be making you sick. Light pollution has been linked to diabetes, depression, obesity, infertility, and even breast cancer.
There’s a good reason for that; artificial light interferes with the human circadian rhythm, a natural 24- hour cycle of sleep and wakefulness that depends on natural light and near-total darkness. Artificial light interferes with the production of melatonin, a natural sleep inducer that boosts our immune system and plays an important role in the function of the thyroid, pancreas, ovaries, and testes.
Perhaps at no other time in human history have we had so much trouble falling and staying asleep. And that impacts human health.
Artificial light hurts animals and plants as well.
A 2017 study by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology showed that bright skies interfere with bird migration. Artificial light confuses birds like warblers and passerines, that traditionally use celestial light to navigate their way south.
On one night a year, New York City pays tribute to those lost in the September 11th terrorist attacks with two bright beacons of light. The Cornell scientists used the tribute to study the effects of bright artificial light on migrating birds. Researchers found that once the migrating birds were trapped in the beams of light, they circled in confusion until exhausted. Based on their data, the researchers persuaded memorial organizers to turn off the lights for 20 minutes or so whenever 1000 or more birds were observed in the beams. Once the lights were turned off, the birds returned to their migratory path.
Artificial light interferes with other eco-systems as well. Amphibians like frogs and toads sing after dark. These songs are an important part of a nightly breeding ritual. So, your garage or porch light actually lowers amphibian populations. Frogs and toads are an important food source for birds, snakes, and other animals, but perhaps even more important, they’re a natural form of insect control. Toads eat beetles of all kinds, including caterpillars, fly larvae, moths, and grubs. They’ll even eat slugs and snails that plague your garden.
On an emotional level, does the night sky still matter? I believe it does and so do astronomers. Looking at all those bright stars makes me feel humble. Small. My problems seem as tiny as a pencil dot. Sometimes that’s a relief.
Like so many of us today, I think of myself a lot. Why is my car making that rattling noise? Will my editor say yes to my new idea? Should I make tuna salad for lunch or egg salad? What is that lump behind my knee? My thoughts are a never ending river of Me-ness I careen around in.
Me, me, me, me, me.
But, when I look into a clear night sky full of winking stars and faraway planets, I feel humble, small, blissfully insignificant. I catch a break from…well…me.
The best thing about light pollution…drum roll please… is that it’s completely and utterly reversible. Baffling and shielding lights minimizes light pollution that contributes to urban skyglow. Switching to warmer-toned LED lights and compact warm fluorescent lighting can go a long way to improving your own sleep pattern. Blue light (that cold, white light none of us really like anyway) is the most impactful on human health and bird migration.
The following chart is courtesy of the Flagstaff Dark Skies Coalition. Consider using it the next time you purchase light bulbs; shoot for the lowest impact. Color temperatures are listed on lightbulb packages.
What else can you do? Simply turn your lights off at night.
I read somewhere that if you think you have a good story, put a dog in it. The dog will make it even better. I tend to agree. Here are three great books that aren’t necessarily about a dog, but have a dog (or two) in them.
Edgar Sawtelle is one of those books that takes you into another world, that of a mute boy and a fascinating, over-sized dog. At 608 pages long, it’s a bit of a commitment, but I absolutely loved this book.
I originally purchased this book because my daughter, Lisa Baril, is a wildlife biologist and science writer. She lives and works in Yellowstone National Park and worked for Doug Smith. The researchers gave the wolves numbers instead of names in the hopes they would not get too attached. Of course, that didn’t pan out. In Decade of the Wolf, you’ll read about a famous female wolf, Number 9. And yes, you’ll fall in love with her even if she doesn’t have a proper name.
Definitely not a tear-jerker, of course, but very spooky and well worth the read. Read the book first and then pop a big bowl of popcorn and watch the 1939 Hollywood version, featuring Basil Rathbone as Sherlock Holmes.
We all have heroes. If you don’t have one, find someone. Today.
I keep more than my fair share, so that on any given day, in any situation, I can look to my heroes for encouragement. For example, when I feel like giving up, I turn to Winston Churchill, who inspires me to “never, never, never give in” even when faced with really bad odds.
When I need writing encouragement, I turn to Grace Paley. She’s my literary hero. She shows me that even an ordinary life is worth writing about. Her work brims with characters who are so expertly crafted you’ll see them hanging laundry from a third-floor window in the Bronx. When I read her stories, I understand that even though I haven’t fought wars in the Crimea or been kidnapped by a band of renegades in Australia, my life is worth writing about, providing I have the guts to shine a light on it.
Many years ago now, I signed up for a writing workshop taught by Grace Paley at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts. I saved for months for this workshop, which was well out of my working-writer’s budget. I remember walking down Commercial Street to get to the Fine Arts Center; a grey dawn breaking, early morning fog weaving in and out of the shops. The merchants swept sand into the street and set chairs at sidewalk tables for the early breakfast crowd. I hugged my new journal to my chest.
At the Fine Arts Work Center, I signed in at an outdoor table and the girl pointed to a steep exterior staircase that led to a second floor conference room with windows that overlooked the sea. This is where we gathered, a handful of writers, waiting for Grace Paley to arrive, with the sea lapping like a dog outside the window. We smiled, coughed a little, introduced ourselves. You could see we all felt a bit shy, even the long, cool writers with their legs stretched out, some of whom had published work in literary presses.
Every once in awhile one of us looked towards the stairs. Voices down below. Was it Grace Paley? yes, it must be. We could hear her chatting with the girl at the table.
Then a slow, steady tread on the stairs. It seemed to go on forever until we caught a glimpse of grey hair, round shoulders, a baggy sweater. Her face was broad and round and friendly, her eyes deeply set in shadow. Her hair was kind of flowzy, caught in the sea breeze and it blew every which way, except across her face. She smiled at us and said, “Well! If that isn’t a flight of stairs all right! Give me a minute to catch my breath.”
She’s considered one of the best short story writers of her time. Among many other accolades, she won the 1961 Guggenheim Fellowship for Fiction, the PEN/Malamud Award for Excellence in Short Fiction, and the American Award for Achievement in American Literature. Her 1994 Collected Stories was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award.
I don’t remember knowing all that then. I just loved her stories. If you are not familiar with her work, here is an excerpt from one of her stories. It’s about a husband leaving his wife.
An Interest in Life
By Grace Paley
My husband gave me a broom one Christmas. This wasn’t right. No-one can tell me it was meant kindly.
“I don’t want you not to have anything for Christmas while I’m away in the army,” he said. “Virginia, please look at it. It comes with this fancy dustpan. It hangs off a stick. Look at it, will you? Are you blind or cross-eyed?”
“Thanks, chum,” I said. I had always wanted a dustpan hooked up that way. It was a good one. My husband doesn’t shop in bargain basements or January sales.
Still and all, in spite of the quality, it was a mean present to give a woman you planned on never seeing again, a person you had children with and got onto all the time, drunk or sober, even when everybody had to get up early in the morning.
I asked him if he could wait and join the army in a half hour, as I had to get the groceries. I don’t like to leave kids alone in a three-room apartment full of gas and electricity. Fire may break out from a nasty remark. Or the oldest tries to get even with the youngest.
“Just this once,” he said. “But you better try to figure out how to get along without me.”
Grace taught so well, which is rare for a great writer. Very good writers often make terrible teachers. I confess I don’t remember what she said or worse yet, what I said. I tried hard to listen, but I was star struck. I wanted Grace Paley to think I was the best emerging writer she’d ever met. As if Grace Paley was a talent scout.
She gave us a writing prompt and we bent our heads over our papers, but my hand froze. I couldn’t write a single intelligible sentence. I felt like a cardboard cutout of a person. They could tack me to the wall and it would make no difference to me or the other writers. Here was Grace Paley trying her best to teach me something and I was too breathless to take it all in. What would she think?
When it came my time to read, I was so disappointed in what I wrote, the writer’s version of tongue-tied, but I read it anyway. Blah. Blah. Blah. Grade-school composition stuff.
Oh! how I’d love to say that she was blown away by my prose. If only she had said, where have you been?! You don’t even know how good you are! But, that wasn’t the way. She made a few very, very kind comments and then it was time to break for lunch. We talked about where to eat. Grace raved about a codfish sandwich she’d had the day before at one of the outdoor cafes. Delicious! We all filed out.
That afternoon, as I listened to the other writers read their work I felt warmed, sustained in the white hot light of the summer sun over Provincetown. If you haven’t been to P-town you should go. Colors are brighter there; reds more red, blues more blue, the yellowest yellow you’ve ever seen. We sat in a room overlooking the sea with Grace Paley, surrounded by dunes and an incoming tide, and it was all so good. Even if I was suffering from a severe case of writer’s block, it was a fine thing to have met her.
It was the most extraordinary kind of ordinary day.
Find yourself a hero that leaves you breathless. It will do you the world of good.
(Please feel free to share your heroes in the comments section. I’d love to hear about them.)