Creating Your Own Future

There are only a few more days until the elections, but some of us are wondering whether we will make it through the 2018 Midterms. And for those of us who have faithfully filled out our ballots and voted early, there is nothing to do now but chew our fingernails until the elections are over and the results are in.

How about taking a complete break? While the news media thunder their stories at us, election mailers clog our mailboxes, and our phones keep ringing with robocalls from woman writingcampaigns, now is the time to declare our independence and find a different path. And because this is the beginning of November, thousands of people across the country and around the world have decided to spend a month on creating something they have always dreamed about. NaNoWriMo is the name of a group dedicated to helping to encourage creativity through writing. The odd name stands for National Novel Writing Month.

NaNoWriMo, which will turn twenty years old next year, is a program to help writers and would-be writers sit down and produce a 50,000 word novel (or part of a novel) during the month of November. More than 400,000 people have tried the program either as adults or through the young writers program for students. Writing coaches help by posting pep talks and helpful suggestions for making the best use of writing time. And participants can join a group of other writers in a specific genre whether it is science fantasy, mystery, romance, or children’s books.

Setting goals to complete a specific project during a defined period of time is a wonderful way to make a start on some of your dreams. After trying NaNoWriMo for three years, I know how encouraging it is to feel the support of a group of people with goals similar to my own. You won’t finish a completed, ready-for-publication novel in a month, but lots of us have credible first drafts that we can build on over the year or more that writing a novel takes.

Perhaps other people who have creative dreams in different fields should come together to form similar groups. There are plenty of months that haven’t been taken yet. May might be a good month for making a movie, or September for writing a sonata. Too many people hope to start a great artistic project someday, but don’t actually do it. The first step is to start! And if the first time doesn’t work and your novel or movie or sonata dies away before completion, there is no need to despair. Failure once doesn’t mean failure always.

Millions of people over the years have been cheered by listening to the popular song written during the 1930s by Jerome Kern with lyrics by Dorothy Fields:

Nothing’s impossible, I have found
For when my chin is on the ground
I pick myself up, dust myself off
Start all over again

Come to think of it, that’s not a bad motto for an election either. Whatever happens next week, there will be another chance. Meanwhile



America’s Asian Legacy–the good and the bad

May is Asian Pacific Legacy month, so it was an especially good time to visit the Asian Art

Jade tomb–Asian Art Museum

Museum in San Francisco. I saw their Tomb Treasures exhibit and was stunned by the remarkable beauty of objects created two thousand years ago. The graceful lines of a

dancer’s movements are immortalized in stone for us to marvel at. The beauty of a solid jade tomb and a set of jade armor is a legacy for all of us. Centuries come and go, but there is something heartening in knowing that across the centuries humans have created art that will enrich their descendants.

San Franciscans are lucky to have the magnificent Asian Art Museum in our city as well as so many other reminders of the Asian legacy like the famous Japanese Tea Garden in Golden Gate Park. All of these are an integral part of this country’s treasures that have been brought from so many parts of the world.

Americans haven’t always appreciated the value that Asians have brought us. One of the tragic heritages that lingers on in the memory of many people still alive is the

Asian dancer_IMG_0491

internment of people of Japanese descent during World War II.

Julie Otsuka’s book When the Emperor Was Divine gives an unforgettable picture of what happened during the early 1940s. Otsuka tells a touching story about a Japanese-American family living in Berkeley, California, in 1942 who are sent to an internment camp in Utah. Although the family had been living  peacefully in their community for years, the father was suddenly arrested in the middle of the night and taken away. Then the mother and her two children are ordered, along with other Japanese-Americans on the West Coast, to leave their home for a detention camp.

The book is beautifully written and painfully sad to read. When the family is allowed to return home, they find their lives drastically changed. The reader is left wondering how or whether they will ever be able to return to normality.

Otsuka’s book is a reminder of how many mistakes Americans have made in treating people as part of a group rather than as the individuals they are. Our Asian legacy is filled with light and darkness. We must not let the dark parts of its history be repeated.

Japanese Tea Garden–Golden Gate Park, San Francisco

To add or subtract? The decluttering dilemma

Perhaps it is the tax season that started a rush among my friends to get rid of clutter, especially old tax forms. But getting rid of paper forms and receipts is only the start of a decluttering ritual that has been sweeping through the country. Marie Kondo’s 2014 book on decluttering started a trend.

declutter cottage
Thoreau’s cabin at Walden Pond



Perhaps it is the echo of spring cleaning from long-forgotten great-grandmothers that makes simplifying seem attractive. Or maybe it is memories of a high school reading of Thoreau, who urged us to “Simplify; simplify” our lives. He told us to have one meal a day instead of three; to have one suit of clothes instead of many. Few of us have gone so far. Even Thoreau didn’t go that far. While he was living in his small bare cabin in the woods, he walked home from Walden Pond many evenings to have a meal in his family home. A meal probably cooked in his mother’s cluttered kitchen.

Throughout history most people have spent their time elaborating rather than simplifying. The simple objects that we need to make life livable have become canvases for art. Just take a look at a patchwork quilt made about the time that Thoreau was preaching quilt 19 centurysimplicity. Instead of a bare necessity to keep a sleeper warm, some woman made this quilt into a feast for the eyes as well as a comfort for the body. That’s quite an achievement.

Recently I have been reading a lot about Florence, Italy, the setting for my next book in the Charlotte Edgerton mystery series. The Renaissance furniture of Italy with its unnecessarily elaborate decorations might have disappointed Thoreau, but I am glad that so many people from quilters to furniture makers over the centuries have chosen to embellish rather than strip down the household items they have made. And I certainly intend to enjoy the lovely objects that have grown out of people’s desire to make even humble objects beautiful.


Who owns art?

Who Owns Art? Blog

One piece of good news in San Francisco this week was the announcement of the reopening of the San Francisco Museum

Atrium of S.F. Museum of Modern Art
Atrium of S.F. Museum of Modern Art

of Modern Art scheduled for May 14, 2016. According to an article in the San Francisco Chronicle, the new museum, which has been under renovation for three years, will be the country’s largest museum of modern art.

While art lovers are waiting expectantly to see the new building and new collections, they may ponder whether any of the art displayed will cause a controversy like those that have caused problems for so many museum. For the most part, modern art pieces have not been around long enough to inspire questions about who made them. And in future there may be even fewer fears about forgeries and mis-attributions if a new scientific technique for giving art pieces permanent DNA markers comes into common use. Martin Tenniswood, a lead scientist on the project, spoke on NPR (National Public Radio) about the technique which will be able to put a tag on individual art works that clearly identify it. Just as the DNA of a person cannot be faked, so too this marker should end the fears of collectors and museums that they might purchase a forgery.

Historically, of  course, it is not only forgeries that have caused trouble. There is also the ongoing arguments about whether Western museums have the right to collect and display the art of indigenous people, and whether the urge to protect art in

Elgin Marbles in the British Museum
Elgin Marbles in the British Museum

war-torn countries is justified. One of the first acts that started these arguments was the removal of the Elgin marbles from Greece to England. Next year will mark the 200th anniversary of the sale of the Elgin marbles to the British government. They are one of the major attractions of the British Museum and are seen every year by more than five million people.

If you want to read a fascinating account of the background of how the Elgin marbles were purchased by Lord Elgin, using the money of his extremely wealthy Scottish wife, and shipped to England at least in part because Lady Elgin was able to use her charms to persuade the Sultan of Turkey as well as the British Navy to help her, I strongly recommend the book Mistress of the Elgin Marbles by Susan Nagel. A series of events, helped along by a clash of personalities, led Lord Elgin to appreciate the value of the marbles, but eventually also to the breakup of his marriage. Would Britain ever have owned the marbles if Lady Elgin hadn’t rebelled after bearing five children and declaring that she refused to suffer through another childbirth? Would Lord Elgin have agreed with his wife’s wishes if he hadn’t been driven by the desire to have enough sons to ensure his name was carried on? Today as we look at the marbles, unchanging and austere in their dedicated gallery, we can think about the human passions that led to their being available for our viewing. But the arguments about whether or not they should be returned to Greece continue to rumble on.

Perhaps we will never settle the question of who has the right to own and display art. Is it better to have art preserved, even

Destruction of ancient Art
Destruction of ancient Art

far from the place of its origin, or to let it remain unmoved no matter how challenging the circumstances of its homeland? Does art belong to all people in the world who take care to preserve and maintain it, or should it remain with the group who created it no matter whether it is destroyed or not? That is a very difficult question to answer. Who has the right to judge?

Fashion that lives through the years

Necklace by Elsa Schiaparelli
Necklace by Elsa Schiaparelli

Many years ago I heard Nigel Nicolson , the well-known publisher, writer, and friend of many members of the Bloomsbury group, give a talk about his books and some of the famous people he had known. When it came to Virginia Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell, Nicolson said, (this is not an exact quote) “They always dressed the same way, in long graceful dresses, and every twenty years or so fashion came around to put them in style”. I was struck by how much confidence they must have had to ignore the whims of fashion and dress to suit themselves. This summer, however, I’ve seen two art exhibits that have convinced me their feat would be quite possible.

When I was in London at the beginning of July, I went to the Tate Modern to see and exhibit of the art of Sonia Delaunay.

Dress by Sonia Delaunay
Dress by Sonia Delaunay

Although I had admired many of her paintings, I had never seen a large exhibition of her work and had no idea that she designed fabrics, dresses, and even magazine covers as well as being a painter. As I looked at some of the clothes she designed, I thought how attractive they would look at a party or public event these days—even perhaps on the red carpet at the Oscars. A woman wearing a dress like the one at the right, would stand out, but would look very fashionable.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I went to an exhibit of “High Fashion” at the Palace of the Legion of Honor to see the work of some twentieth century designers from the collection at the Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit was crowded when I was there, and it is easy to see why. The dresses on display—most of them designed for lavish parties and social events—are amazing. We saw dresses by Christian Dior, Jeanne Lanvin, Elsa Schiaparelli, Mainbocher and many others. It was striking how many of the fashions are almost timeless. They still look as beautiful and wearable today as they did during the last century. (The shoes worn by the mannequins, however, do not look wearable at all.)

Dresses by Mainbocher
Dresses by Mainbocher

I’ve never been particularly interested in fashion and have spent most of my life wearing the informal clothes that are the usual choice of academics and librarians, but after seeing these two exhibits, I can understand better why there are so many fashionistas in the world. High fashion offers some delightful examples of how clothing can also be high art and add pleasure to the world. I still have some reservations about the excesses, however. Elsa Schiaparelli’s insect necklace (above) probably goes a step too far for most of us to accept as wearable.