Wednesday, December 29, 2010

I was hoping this exercise would be a yawn

That may sound funny. Why would I want the response to my Blog Your Way Around the World essay to be a yawn? Doesn’t that mean people find it boring?

No. (Yawn.)

As Malcolm Gladwell explains in his book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference, yawning is a highly contagious activity. Just the suggestion of yawning—reading the word, seeing someone yawn or even hearing the sound of a yawn—is enough to cause many people to yawn. (If you yawned while reading this, you’ve got your proof.)

That’s what I was hoping for in this experiment. My essay spreading like a yawn; voters like yawners catching the “infection” and passing it along until it reached that magic tipping point that turned it into a virtual epidemic.

But Gladwell’s book illustrates that the magic tipping point is an elusive thing. It’s dependent on the combination of a variety of factors—the people involved, the appeal of the thing itself and the context of the potential epidemic. The book is fascinating, and I highly recommend it.

You can read about successful social epidemics that reached that wonderful tipping point, examples from Paul Revere to urban crime to Sesame Street.

Can you tell me how to get to Sesame Street?

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

In brief: symbolism of the solstice

A short post on the shortest day of the year here in the northern hemisphere.

This has been a significant day for much of human history. A symbol of endings and beginnings. A time for celebration in the face of a challenging season, looking forward through the winter and the darkness. Marking the beginning of a new cycle of the seasons.

Since the winter solstice is the shortest day of the year, it’s also (obviously) the longest night. The longest night is the best opportunity for dreaming.

So on this solstice I am still hoping to achieve this adventure dream: Blog Your Way Around the World.

I hope you’ll share in my dream.

If you are a dreamer, you understand.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Mixing numbers games and word people

Numbers often seem like a foreign language to word people. I’ve been trying to get my head around lots of them in recent weeks. Click-through numbers. Bounce rates. The only one that really resonates with me is the time that people spend visiting this blog—that’s the time they’re looking at the words.

And yet the goal of this crazy Blog Your Way Around the World endeavor is sheer numbers. I need more votes than any other entrant in order to get the chance to take those eight (there’s a number I understand) adventure trips and to write about them.

That’s where the word person–numbers compatibility challenge comes in. Word people, specifically writers, tend to be introverts. The number one makes the most sense to us. Crowd in a bunch of other numbers and we can get confused, claustrophobic, even uncomfortable.

It reminds me of the year my nephew was in the seventh grade—and having to deal with algebra. The mix of numbers and letters just seemed unnatural to him. Numbers were supposed to hang out with numbers and an assortment of symbols to build equations. Letters were supposed to hang out separately and build words. Tossing them together in an algebraic salad was just wrong.

My mind is currently unsettled in much the same way.

I am faced with composing a social networking version of “The Twelve Days of Christmas,” coming up with the right combination of numbers, activities, and supportive participants. “Eight great adventures … five fabulous continents … two thousand voters … and one winning essay entry.”

That vote number, though, that’s the unknown. Which brings us back to that whole algebra thing. Solve for X. And there’s no knowing the value needed for X, because there are a fair number of other writers doing just what I’m doing and trying to get that magic amount to win the contest themselves.

Solving for X and building up those votes is harder than it looks, especially because it involves working and acting like an Xtrovert.

Let’s just take it one letter—uh, number—at a time.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Juggling metaphors and other quixotic things

My Blog Your Way Around the World effort has had to simmer on the back burner for a few days. There is more to life than social network campaigning, after all.

Went to Maine over the weekend to celebrate my mom’s birthday and to celebrate the season at a friend’s holiday open house. Most of the folks at the party were friends from Ferry Beach, one of my favorite places on earth. (That’s not to say I won’t jump at the chance to explore new places on the eight adventure trips that are the prize for BYWAtW.)

During the course of the evening, I agreed to helm a writing conference for women next August at Ferry Beach. It will be a fun challenge, I’m sure. And the first chapter of it was to do a little research and planning in order to write a description of the workshop for the conference booklet that’s going off to the printer soon.

Taking on this gig means that I’ll be heading up two writing conferences in the summer—the first is the Clockhouse Writers Conference for alums of the MFA writing program at Goddard College. I’m sure by the time summer rolls around I’ll be blogging about both conferences.

I’ve also been making arrangements for my monthly field trips for Trazzler, so the next few days I’ll be focusing on my travel writing.

It’s all about juggling.

Speaking of which, I learned to juggle back in the ‘70s after watching an episode of M*A*S*H. In the show Hawkeye has sustained a concussion in a Jeep accident and is trying to stay conscious until help arrives. Juggling is one of the things he does. So I watched and learned and tried it for myself.

Metaphorical juggling is more challenging than the physical kind—I mean, unless you’re talking about chainsaws. 

The tasks at hand don’t all travel their neat arcs at predictable speeds, so it’s not always simple to keep all the balls in the air. I’m feeling a little like I dropped the ball on this social networking campaign. But I’ve picked it up and added it back to the mix, and if I drop it again, I’ll grab it up again.

There are other metaphors that feel fitting to what I’m trying to do. Like “tilting at windmills” and dreaming “the impossible dream.” Perhaps I should be riding across the Spanish countryside on a skinny horse.

Perhaps I am.

That dust in the distance—maybe it is I.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Keep on keeping on

This is not a baked-potato-in-the-microwave effort. There’s no instant gratification. But I’m still moving forward one step at a time.

Got a mention in the local paper this week. I hope the Ipswich Chronicle has some trans-media-oriented readers who will take the paper to their computers and copy in the web address.

Got a callout in friend/comedian Dave Rattigan’s e-newsletter. With this I hope we’ll see a logical chain. Here’s my hopeful theory: People who like comedy shows are happy, and people who are happy will be willing to vote for my trip. Therefore people who like comedy shows will be willing to vote for my trip.

Or maybe I’m just crazy.

I’m starting to get the hang of tweeting. Maybe I am crazy.

I did another coffee-shop campout here in town at  Zumi’s, the local favorite. One woman asked about the “Help a Writer Run Away from Home” sign on my laptop and she thought the trips sounded exciting. I gave her the info and am keeping my fingers crossed.

Most people who came and went were moving with a purpose. They were zipping in to get their caffeine to go and rushed out. They were meeting others and settled quickly into their scheduled conversations. We are so purposeful here in New England; it makes me wonder if this technique would be more successful if I lived somewhere else.

But I can’t help it. I enjoy the people-watching and how the smell of coffee lingers on my jacket even after I leave the cafés. 

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Interest to action

Political campaigns, sales campaigns, publicity campaigns all wrestle with the same conundrum: how to convert interest into action.

My campaign to win the opportunity to blog my way around the world is a simple one. No complicated issue to explain, no negative effects for anyone who gets involved. A few clicks on a keyboard to cast a vote. But even so it’s a huge challenge.

Yes, my friends and family are interested in my wanting to travel the world and write about it. (Some of them will even be traveling with me should I win.) But even the people who know and like me have plenty of other things in their lives competing for their time and attention. Even with the people who know and like me best I have to do the dance, give them the pitch multiple times—and risk annoying them.

(I realize I am often inadvertently annoying, but I don’t like the idea of being annoying on purpose.)

The reality is that so far only a fraction of my friends on Facebook have voted. So perhaps I haven’t sparked their interest yet or even gotten their attention—it is a busy time of year. Which means I have work to do there. And not until I do that can I hope to turn that interest into action on their part.

The second level of challenge for me is to fire up my friends to help stir up interest among the people they know. That means converting interest to action on the part of people who don’t know me.

This is where I start to wonder about the whole social networking thing. It can work if (and this is a BIG if) there is a lot of good will on the part of my friends and their contacts. Because, let’s face it, at this point my friends take on the task of getting the word out there, and there isn’t even anything in it for most of them.

Their efforts are based solely on their interest. But for some that’s enough of an incentive. As one travel-phobic friend said when I told her about the adventure trips, “I don’t want to take the trips, but I want to know the person who does.”

When it gets beyond that, the campaign turns into a version of the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game. It may fall apart, I don’t’ know yet. Will people who don’t know me actually be willing to take the action to vote for me?

My first opportunity to test that came yesterday when River’s Edge Card & Gift Store sent out their e-newsletter. River’s Edge sells my book, Ipswich: Stories from the River’s Mouth, and has always been supportive of my work. We’ll see if patrons, who may be familiar with my book but who certainly have a connection to the store, will translate that familiarity into action.

Once the appeal for votes goes beyond friends of friends, I guess I’m going to have to channel Blanche DuBois:

“Whoever you are—I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.”

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Decaf and potential

Another afternoon with the sign on my laptop, this time at the Atomic Café in Beverly. I was here just a couple of weeks ago to write a Trazzler trip, and the place has a good vibe. I was hopeful that some of the friendliness would result in contacts—and votes.

Most of the tables were occupied when I got my coffee, but there was one open for me. A couple of moms with kids, a young guy with a laptop, a woman with a newspaper, and another young woman with a book sat around me. A pair of men possibly talking work stuff and a woman sat at a couple of the booths. A few people came in for to-go orders and then tables changed over. Several furtive glances at the sign. Nothing more.

Trying to develop the Twitter habit, so I tweeted about being at the café. @sams_stuff

Like the day before I worked on the revision of a short story I hope to send out to a literary journal this month. Making optimal use of the time camping out. The background bustle reminds of working in a newsroom, but writing in cafés is new to me. 

I got a lesson in the etiquette of laptop users in public places: If you need to get up to fetch a coffee refill or use the restroom, go ahead and ask someone nearby (preferably another computer user) to keep an eye on your equipment.

A man sitting by the door leaned over and asked if I’d watch his laptop for a minute. I agreed, and he got up. Finally, an opportunity—when he returned, I’d ask for a favor in return and tell him about the contest.

Just then, the door opened and a woman stepped into the café. I knew her—a former coworker from years ago when I worked at a local independent school. We struck up a conversation, and she sat down at my table while she waited for her sandwich order. While we were chatting, the man returned to his laptop, and I missed the chance to reach out to him (he left a short time later). But, I told Carolyn about the contest, gave her the info, and she said she’d pass it along to other folks at the school.

That’s a batch of potential votes—can’t count them yet, of course.

Just as Carolyn was leaving another friend walked in. Dawn is also a writer, so we talked shop. She teaches writing at Montserrat College of Art, whose galleries I also recently wrote about for Trazzler. Her students are another batch of potential votes—with any luck they’ll empathize with another writer’s aims.

While it wasn’t a successful day as far as reaching out to strangers went, it was a great one for catching up with friends I hadn’t seen for a while. This exercise is full of surprises.

Monday, December 6, 2010

A guerilla sipping hot chocolate

This drumming up votes for my Blog Your Way Around the World essay got me thinking about the whole social networking phenomenon. And I decided to try as many different things that I could think of to see how they worked.

Facebook. I’m rolling it out to my friends in waves and some of them are sharing the link on their walls. Not many reports back about friends of friends voting, so I can’t say how successful that’s been yet. Finding an organized way of gathering data is one of the aspects I’m still working out.

Email. As with Facebook I’m contacting people in waves. Or whenever I mention it to someone who offers to pass the word. I’ve also added the plea as the signature on my outgoing emails.

Twitter. Yup, I've started using really short sentences. @sams_stuff

Other online efforts. I’m looking for friends and other contacts who send out email newsletters or other bulk emails to get mentioned in their communications. So far I have enlisted one friend, a comedian, to add me to his next missive. I’m hoping that the people who are likely to be on a comedian’s email list are of the happy sort, and that happy people will be willing to vote for my essay.

Flyers and other paper. My books on sale around Ipswich now have slips of paper inserted into each one describing the contest and asking for support. I’ve also started hanging flyers around town with the info and the request that people “Help a Writer Run Away from Home.”

Face-to-face. Just shy of a hand-squeezing, baby-kissing sort of campaigning that started today. I am typing this in the Starbucks in Newburyport as I sip a hot chocolate and listen to the Salvation Army bell ringer’s jingling from outside. My laptop bears the sign “Help a Writer Run Away from Home—go ahead, ask me.”

Results of the onsite effort were mixed. It will be interesting to see if the atmosphere and inhabitants differ from place to place. When I settled in, three other people were typing away on their laptops and seemed intent on their work. I noticed several other people reading the sign as they past, but they didn’t say anything, and I couldn’t manage to make eye contact with any of them to encourage an encounter.

By the end of my time there (about two hours) I had made three contacts, which may result in two votes. (If I were ridiculously optimistic, I might imagine those two passing the link along to other willing voters, but let’s not get carried away here.)

The first contact was completely unexpected. A man came in, looked at the sign on his way by, and then went on to get his coffee. A few minutes later he reappeared with his coffee and stopped by my table. “Where are you hoping to go?” he asked. “All sorts of places,” I answered and started to swing my screen around to show him the contest page. He dropped a five-dollar bill on the table. “Good luck.” And he started away. “I’m not after money,” I started to explain, but he interrupted. “Then buy yourself a cup of coffee.” He smiled and was gone.

I sat for a few minutes and wondered if I should change the wording on my “Help a Writer Run Away from Home” sign. Did it sound like panhandling?

A little while later a man wearing earbuds who had been sitting in a corner armchair got up to leave and stopped near me. “Are you writing?”

He meant right at that moment in a place that he considered too noisy and busy for concentration. I told him I was editing a short story. Then I explained the sign and mentioned a few of the trips—Africa, Galapagos Islands, Borneo.

“There are cannibals in Borneo,” he said.

“Then I guess I’ll have something exciting to write about.”

He didn’t make any move toward my computer when I indicated he use it, so I took out one of my informational slips and handed it to him.

“I’m going to vote for you,” he assured me. Then he wished me luck and nodded good-bye.

A short time later a woman sat down at the table next to me and fired up her laptop. After a few minutes she turned and asked if I knew enough about computers to help her troubleshoot a problem. We figured it out, she thanked me, and then I asked if she’d be willing to do me a favor, then told her about the contest and gave her the info. She went to the website and cast her vote. Then we chatted about our work—she explained relationship marketing to me—and exchanged cards. I also told her about the guy who had given me the five dollars, and she said when something like that happens one should just say “thank you” and show that you’re open to accepting abundance.

Thank you to everyone who has voted so far and everyone who will between now and December 31.

I also believe in passing on abundance. The Salvation Army bell ringer was gone when I left the Starbucks, but I stopped at the supermarket on my way home and saw two teenaged girls with another Salvation Army kettle. They were singing Christmas carols. I gave them the five dollars.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

The kindness—and clickthrough—of strangers

Help a writer run away from home.

Yes, I have undertaken another adventure. This one’s a heavyweight exercise in social media that, with luck and lots of help, will lead the way to more adventures.

I, along with many other hopeful writers/travelers, have written an essay and thrown it hat-like into the ring. Now I must campaign among friends—and strangers—to try to get votes for my entry. The goal I have in my head is 2500. (I have no real idea of how many votes it will take to win. It depends, of course, on how many votes the other entrants manage to rack up.) The deadline is December 31.

Of course, I’m asking all my friends to vote. And asking them to ask their friends. The next step is to come up with creative ways to ask strangers (without being too annoying and, I hope, with some success).

You can help with all steps. First, please vote.

Go to Blog Your Way Around the World and register to vote (supply name and email address, make up a password).

If the registration process doesn’t take you back to my essay page, just type “Sam Sherman” into the Search for Bloggers box. Back at my essay page, click the Vote for Me button. That’s it.

Second, if you would, share my plea with your friends. Give them the link to my essay page and ask them to vote too. To paraphrase an old shampoo commercial: you’ll tell two friends, and they’ll tell two friends, and so on, and so on …

Third, if you have any great ideas for me to get out the word to more folks and get more votes, let me know. I’m thinking of camping out at several local coffee shops with a “Help a Writer Run Away from Home” sign. Any other bright ideas?

With lots of help I’ll be dusting off my passport in 2011 (and celebrating my fiftieth birthday in eight exotic locales).

Thanks for your help!

Monday, November 1, 2010

New adventures on and off the page

And so begins National Novel Writing Month 2010. It’s Day One and I’m already behind, because I was up early this morning not writing but moving furniture. Avoiding the blank page? No. Getting ready for a visit from window installers, so no peaceful haven for me on this day. I’ll do the writing in public thing (shudder) and spend the day 1) at the local coffee hangout 2) at the library 3) at the downtown deli when growling stomach forces me out of the library.

Yes, today will be an adventure, but tomorrow my early morning writing will be brightened by the rising sun through new windows.

The fall has also brought the arrival of my reprinted book, Ipswich: Stories from the River’s Mouth. This project has been a different kind of adventure as I learned about the world of self-publishing. After bad match last year (I’m sorry, but I can’t work with a company staffed by people who aren’t able to answer basic questions) I went back to the drawing board—okay Internetand did a bunch of research until I found a wonderful printing company. They answered all my questions and turned my files into a beautiful paperback edition of the book.

The best thing about the project for me is the cover art, a watercolor of the Ipswich River by my dear friend Robin Silverman, who passed away a year ago. When I first started the project of republishing, I asked her if I could use one of her paintings, and she graciously said yes. But then I ran into the bad match with the printer, and the project stalled. When I got back on track with it this summer, Robin was gone and I didn’t know where to find the painting I had chosen. Friends to the rescue: hers, mine and ours. A page from a calendar Robin had printed some years back became the cover image (hanging in one friend’s store, remembered by other friends). I borrowed the sheet and had another friend make a digital image of it, and yet another friend designed the cover. I smile every time I look at it, knowing how much friendship went into it.

So I set my feet on the path of another adventure: publisher, marketer, hawker of my book. "Getcha Ipswich hist-ry heah!"

November’s going to be a busy month.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

A long overdue journey into Eugene O’Neill’s world

Monte Cristo Cottage in New London, Connecticut, piqued my interest last year when I started looking for places to visit with this blog, so my visit (late August) was long overdue. And posting about it even longer obviously. I post it today—October 16—in recognition of Eugene O’Neill’s birthday.

O’Neill was born in 1888 into a dramatic family in every sense of the word. He was the third son of James, a popular actor, and Mary O’Neill. Their first child, Jamie, was born ten years earlier, and a second, Edmund, died at the age of two from measles contracted from his brother. Mary experienced a painful pregnancy with Eugene and developed an addiction to the morphine that she was prescribed.

Monte Cristo, though just a summer cottage, was probably the family’s true home, since James toured with his theatrical company the rest of the year. His family went with him until the boys were old enough for boarding school, so the months in New London were the times the family was together. (The cottage is open to the public through the summer months, the same time the O’Neill family would have occupied it each year.)

Every room, not just the closets, is filled with skeletons. The house itself reflects James: its name celebrates his most famous role, and its elements reveal his personality. The haphazard construction of the second floor addition shows off his penny-pinching ways from the stairway installed in the most economical way that blocks a downstairs window to the cheap wallpaper that adorns the hallway.

One room on the main floor has been furnished according to the set directions in A Long Day’s Journey into Night, O’Neill’s autobiographical drama, which he described as one “of old sorrow, written in tears and blood.” It’s clear reading the scene description that the Tyrone family’s summer home is a re-creation of Monte Cristo:

“At rear are two double doorways with portieres. The one at right leads into a front parlor with the formally arranged, set appearance of a room rarely occupied. The other opens on a dark, windowless back parlor, never used except as a passage from living room to dining room.”

Stepping through the front door to tour the house feels like stepping into the play; the layout is just as O’Neill describes. Wandering back through the living room to the porch (the Long Day’s Journey into Night room) heightens the sensation. It’s just as he describes:

“The hardwood floor is nearly covered by a rug, inoffensive in design and color. At center is a round table with a green shaded reading lamp, the cord plugged into on of the four sockets in the chandelier above. Around the table within reading-light range are four chairs, three of them wicker armchairs, the fourth (at right front of table) a varnished oak rocker with leather bottom.”

There’s the picture of Shakespeare above a bookcase filled with “novels by Balzac, Zola, Stendhal, philosophical and sociological works by Schopenhauer, Nietzsche, Marx, Engels, Kropotkin, Max Stirner, plays by ibsen, Shaw, Strindberg, poetry by Swinburne, Rossetti, Wilde, Ernest Dowson, Kipling, etc.” I can imagine O’Neill eying his own collection as he filled his stage bookshelves with his own books just as he populated the play with his own family.

The room—and even the bookcase—makes an appearance in an earlier play, Ah, Wilderness (1932). This work, which he described in his diary as a “Nostalgic Comedy” is perhaps his imagining a family life in that summer cottage as he wished it could have been. The layout noted in the set directions is slightly different, capturing a lighter mood:

“At center is a big, round table with a green-shaded reading lamp, the cord of the lamp running up to one of five sockets in the chandelier above. Five chairs are grouped about the table—three rockers at left, right, and right rear of it, two armchairs at rear and left rear. A medium-priced inoffensive rug covers most of the floor. The walls are papered with a cheerful, ugly blue design.”

The small bookcase in this house is “crammed with boys’ and girls’ books and the best-selling novels of many past years—books the family really have read.” The current readings of teenaged Richard, “love poetry—and socialism,” haven’t made it onto the shelves; they are the same assortment that O’Neill arranged in the bookcase of Long Day’s Journey, but Richard keeps them hidden from his mother.

Fortunately, nothing is hidden in the cottage nowadays. It is filled with O’Neill memorabilia. Upstairs you can see re-creations of his parents’ bedroom at the back of the house and Eugene’s at the front. Another room (which used to be Jamie’s bedroom) displays costume sketches and set designs from various overseas productions of Anna Christie. Yet another includes examples of O’Neill’s plays translated into a broad variety of languages as well as his Nobel Prize, all testament to the playwright’s international and enduring appeal. Despite all the acclaim, the Nobel Prizewinning, four-time Pulitzer Prize recipient declared that he was most proud of his able seaman’s certification.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Communing with nature—along with everybody else

Summer is galloping by like a sun-dappled horse cavorting in a morning meadow. Look! How exhilarating! It’s gone. Well, not quite yet, but with a last flick of a shiny tail it all too soon will be.

Visits to writers’ homes haven’t worked out as I had planned, though I have encountered other environs that served as inspiration. And so, a “post card” of a writers’ landscape instead of a house tour.

“What is it but a faint blue cloud, a mist that may vanish? But what is it, on the other hand, to one who has traveled to it day after day, has threaded the forest and climbed the hills that are between this and that, has tasted the raspberries or the blueberries that grow on it, and the springs that gush from it, has been wearied with climbing its rocky sides, felt the coolness of its summit, and been lost in the clouds there?”

The answer to Henry David Thoreau’s inquiries (from his journal) was my destination on an August Saturday when three friends—Kelly, Erika and Jen—and I headed to New Hampshire’s Grand Monadnock. Now Monadnock has the distinction of being the most climbed mountain in the US (and second on the planet: Mount Fuji is number one). And sure, we pick a weekend day in high summer to go. So we had to expect to be stumbling over other contributors to the nature-loving throng.

It wasn’t as bad as all that, at least as we started up the trail. Perhaps because we hadn’t gone in the main entrance of the state park. We chose the approach toward the old Halfway House and from there up the White Arrow trail, one of the oldest trails on the mountain and the most direct route to the summit. The first section, the Halfway House trail started off nearly parallel to the old toll road that is closed to general car traffic but open to hikers. We had our trail pretty much to ourselves, but we were close enough to the road to hear the occasional voices of other hikers.

Not that we were doing any sort of silent walking meditation. Far from it. Our outbursts of laughter bounced off rocks and trees and probably startled birds and small animals.

The day was a perfect one for hiking, not too hot or humid, which meant it was an unusual day for this summer. The New England landscape was lifelong familiar to me, but I was seeing it with new eyes after having hiked in the red sandstone canyons of Utah a few weeks earlier. The earth’s contours under my feet this day were shaped by glaciers, and glacial erratics (boulders left behind as glacier trash) hulked among the trees. Chipmunks and garter snakes, each striped like racecars, appeared and disappeared among the leafy undergrowth.

I had wanted to come up these trails because I liked the romantic notion that we would be walking in the footsteps of the Transcendentalist Hiking Club. All right, there was no such organization, but those nature-loving folk from Concord visited Monadnock on some of their outings.

As we traipsed along in our shorts and t-shirts with hiking boots or sneakers, I pictured Louisa May Alcott and her sisters making their way up the mountain in long skirts. I hoped they could at least hike them up, so they weren’t tripping on the hems. And I hoped their mother managed to beg off the outing and stay home with her feet up. Poor woman spent so much time doing the heavy lifting so her husband The Philosopher could think his big thoughts, but she probably had to come along and lug the picnic basket and water jugs.

Emerging from the tree cover into the meadow where the Halfway House used to stand, we got our first view of the surrounding country. It’s the first of uncountable times that Kelly enthused, “That’s fricking beautiful!” (If Louisa May Alcott had included a trip to Mount Monadnock in Little Women, Jo would have exclaimed, “Christopher Columbus! That’s beautiful!”) Generations of visitors have exclaimed in the vernacular of their day over this same view. The Halfway House was a hotel that ran from 1860 until it burned in 1954.

If “halfway” is accurate, it’s a measure of distance rather than time. It was just after noon when we took a break here, and we decided to press on and have lunch at the summit. This portion of the hike, the White Arrow trail unfolded along a rocky trail below the tree line, then climbed above the trees across the granite shoulders of the mountain. On one of the granite outcrops we finally saw the summit.

We could see the outlines of people up there seemingly lined up like birds perched on a rooftop. We decided to have our picnic where were are and brave the crowds after lunch.

I discovered in excerpts from Thoreau’s journals that he avoided the trails in order to avoid the crowds, which apparently were present on Monadnock even then. He couldn’t avoid all signs of them; he mentions “the newspaper and egg-shell left by visitors.” We stumbled across a similar trail of pistachio shells, but for the most part people are good about not leaving signs of their passing.

Lunch with a “fricking beautiful view” consisted of provisions we purchased at a wonderful market in Peterborough—I happily devoured a sandwich of ham, Brie and pear followed by some (very) dark chocolate. And we capped off lunch with a toast to our outing, wondering if Ralph Waldo Emerson et al had anything as good as Bailey’s on their jaunts. (Thoreau only mentions tea.) I read bits and pieces of Emerson’s poem, “Monadnoc”  as we ate. Speaking as the mountain, Emerson wrote:

            “On the summit as I stood,
            O’er the wide floor of plain and flood,
            Seemed to me the towering hill
            Was not altogether still,
            But a quiet sense conveyed;
            If I err not, thus it said:

            “Many feet in summer seek
            Betimes my far-appearing peak…”

Summiting was satisfying in the way that getting to the top or end or furthermost point of anything generally is, but it was strange too. There were dozens of people there. Some were enjoying the view and picking out landmarks, some took pictures, some chatted about other hikes on other days or in other places. Others sat and ate or napped or chatted (or sent texts) on their cell phones. The atmosphere was like that of many other gathering places—the waiting area by an airport gate, for instance—and felt odd at the top of a mountain.

Again, from "Monadnoc":

            “Through all time
            I hear the approaching feet
            Along the flinty pathway beat
            Of him that cometh and shall come—”

And so many came and still come, but Emerson’s mountain doesn’t mention anything about cell phones.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Juxtaposing just for fun

Memorial Day weekend is the unofficial start of summer, and so it became the semi-official restart of my quest for writers’ homes. Most of my activities these days seem to be tied to multi-tasking (a current term that inspires an attitude of “I’m busy”); I don’t care for the feeling, though the activities are still fun. So I’m going to have to work on the attitude adjustment.

The reasons for a trip to Cape Cod were threefold, or four if you count the fun factor: hang out with friends, undertake a “field trip” for this blog, and experience a handful of places/activities to write as trips for Trazzler. After getting runner-up recognition in the contest I entered, the editors asked me to become a regular contributor as their New England regional writer, so I am now getting used to eyeing my surroundings as a travel writer. It’s fun. (Here, however, I’ll just be writing about the blog-related part of the weekend. You’ll have to check out Trazzler for the rest of the Cape stops.)

After getting out ahead of most of the traffic I crossed the Sagamore Bridge shortly before noon. My plan had been to visit two writers’ homes that day, but I didn’t want to cheat myself of the experiences by rushing through, so I decided to pare down the itinerary. After one Trazzler stop I headed to Yarmouth Port, former home of Edward Gorey, artist and funny-bone tickler extraordinaire.

It was time for a late lunch, but I opted for afternoon tea instead at an exceeding cheery spot called the Optimist Café. The name alone is enough to bring about a smile. I chose the place for my own amusement: I liked the juxtaposition of a place called the Optimist Café with the humorously macabre work of Mr. Gorey. The multicolored cottage is covered with fanciful gingerbread. Near the front door stands a sculpture of what looks like a maitre d’ fish—this strange specimen might get along with some of Gorey’s creations.

 Inside is just as fun and quirky. The room where I sat had sunny yellow walls decorated with paintings by local artists. Each handcrafted table featured an inspirational motto written around the edges. And the lights hanging from curving tracks overhead were shaped like suns and biplanes and hot-air balloons. Once I was seated I was sorry I had forgotten to bring my Gorey collection to read with my tea. But the repast was lovely anyway: a pot of Bombay chai and a pair of warm scones served with clotted cream and strawberry jam.

 I got chatting with the waitress and mentioned that I was just about to visit Edward Gorey’s house. She had never been there and wasn’t familiar with his work. Two women sitting at a nearby table were curious about him too, so I mentioned several of his works and again regretted forgetting my book; Gorey work really must be seen to be appreciated. By the time I finished my tea and drove the short distance to Strawberry Lane (a modest cottage with a huge magnolia tree out back), the two women from the café were already at the house. They greeted me and thanked me for the recommendation.

 Most of the docents of the house, I learned, were friends and acquaintances of Mr. Gorey, so their comments about items, the house, and his time in it are enhanced with familiarity. The front rooms are filled with samples of his work, from childhood drawings to a weathervane he designed. Bookshelves are filled with editions for which he created cover art and illustrations, and the walls are covered with posters and photographs. Many of the window sills and sashes are decorated with colored bottles and other glass items through which the sun shines; Gorey collected these from yard sales. He also liked to gather rocks from the local beaches (and always searched for ones shaped like frogs). Many of these are stacked in small cairns in the kitchen. Nearly every flat surface is covered with them (or with more colored bottles and a small fountain), leaving only a small square of counter space for kitchen prep. Obviously, the man liked creative clutter.

 He also had a healthy collection of cats, and one photo shows him sprawled with his furry friends in what was probably a common pose during his years in the cottage. A sofa in the back room makes an unusual museum piece: its notable characteristic is the frayed places where the cats used it as a scratching post.

I felt like I was in a fantastic attic, poking through the wonderful and odd leftovers of Gorey’s life. The tour guide had fun anecdotes about almost everything, and she had barely started when my friend Susanna and her daughter HaiDi arrived. Once the tour was over we chatted and continued to poke around, marveling at the breadth of Gorey’s work and paging through some of his sketchbooks.

We even enjoyed a scavenger hunt of sorts. Among all this wonderful clutter are depictions or references to the unfortunate children of The Gashlycrumb Tinies. (“A is for Amy who fell down the stairs …”) Yes, there’s Amy face down on the stairs, and there under a display case a rug with a pair of small feet sticking out from under it (poor George). Look on the mantel for a box of tacks (like the ones Leo swallowed). When she heard us discussing them, the guide informed us that there are tiny gravestones in the back yard for each of the Tinies, except Maud, who was “swept out to sea.”

 We didn’t go looking for the markers, but we did take a look at the huge magnolia tree in the yard. It’s taller than the house and blocks the window of the room Gorey chose to use as his studio—precisely so he wouldn’t be distracted by the view. There’s also a topiary frame (partly filled with greenery at this time of year) of the Doubtful Guest standing on the back lawn. “It came seventeen years ago—and to this day/It has shown no intention of going away.”

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Random acts of culture

April managed to get away from me without a blog post. It’s not that I wasn’t doing anything; in fact, I was doing any number of cool things. I think part of it is that I’ve been looking forward to doing another round of writers’ home visits, and those places have yet to open, so I was thinking about future blogging.

But I was doing fun and interesting stuff …

Art is an amazing thing. The arts, I mean. The act of creating, expressing and sharing, no matter what the medium. The wonder doesn’t just happen for the artist; it’s wonder shared, because the viewer (audience, reader) experiences the wonder and the joy too. It’s a fascinating communication.

Through no purposeful planning April turned out to be a month of cultural events where I was the recipient of the pleasures of art.

The annual IMADA art show and auction to raise money for arts in the local schools was an evening spent with friends and a room filled with art made by talented, generous community members. It was an all-you-can-eat buffet for the eyes, and mine were stuffed by the time I was through. The icing on the cake was an exhibit of paintings by my friend Robin Silverman, who died last fall. It was lovely to see a collection of her work—and still to be able to feel the wonder and joy she put into it.

The following week I saw a production of Man of La Mancha by the Pentucket Players. The purpose of the outing was to get together with friends, so the vibe of the day was already a fun one—the show only upped the fun factor. The best thing about community theater is that all the participants are doing it for love. Their joyful enthusiasm filled the auditorium like an added dimension of the music.

I had a double-header of cultural events the following week. I signed up as a volunteer for the Newburyport Literary Festival, a smorgasbord of free readings and panel discussions by writers of all genres that overruns downtown Newburyport for one glorious day. (My job, fetching coffee for a gathering of poets, was an easy one.) The sun was shining, the gathering folk were smiling; it was a good day to be a writer (or reader).

The first presentation of the day I attended was a discussion of the works of John P. Marquand, a Newburyport treasure, by book critic Jonathan Yardley. Yardley is a long-time fan of Marquand’s writing, and he discussed it with the enthusiasm that comes from deep familiarity. That’s what a long-term relationship with art gives us. That joy that becomes personal.

A couple of nights before the festival I was at The Music Hall in Portsmouth for a night of theatre in London. What? The National Theatre of London has enabled a worldwide audience to enjoy its production through high-definition broadcasts of live performances. The Music Hall is one of the New England venues where these performances can be seen. On this night it was a performance of Alan Bennett’s new play, The Habit of Art

The story of the drama celebrates art with the rehearsal of a play within the play. The characters of the inside story are W.H. Auden and Benjamin Britten, and all the characters display the sometimes uneasy relationship that artists have with their art—and the challenges of making a life (and a living) with art.

It was a wonder and joy occasion. I marvel at Bennett’s writing—his ability to put so much into a play and weave it all together. The material begs actors to grab it and do marvelous things with it.  It’s funny and smart and sad and discomfiting, often all at the same time. Actors Richard Griffiths and Frances De La Tour as well as director Nicholas Hytner collaborated on Bennett’s The History Boys (loved this too) several years ago. So it was not just a matter of delighting in the work of people who are really good at what they do—it was witnessing what comes out of the comfortable collaboration of long-time colleagues.

It just plain makes me happy seeing people do what they love.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

The writing life and Whac-A-Mole

I have thought up and discarded several ideas for blog posts this month, because each time I start one a different writing task pops up. It’s a lot like playing Whac-A-Mole (without the smell of fried dough). So rather than take on any of those topics that came to mind and took me to the library to research, I’ll just jot down a brief account of the writing I have done this month.

There are grants for writers, which not surprisingly require the writer to do a lot of writing to apply. There are jobs for writers, ditto. There are more jobs for the teaching of writing, ditto ditto.

And there’s a writing contest. This was the most fun of all the projects initially. I did the “research” on a beautiful day in Boston and Cambridge with a fun friend by my side. And the writing was concise—a requirement of the contest. So I entered the contest. The month of March is the voting phase of said contest, an exercise in social networking. I don’t think I’ve ever exercised so much in my life. Fortunately, the voting ends next week.

The object: to get the most votes for my entries by March 31. I’ve asked virtually everyone I know. And I’ve them to ask people they know. Ideally, there should be some sort of exponential growth. But I’m a writer not a mathematician, and it doesn’t seem to be working that way.

So, if you’re interested in traveling and quirky things to do, you might be interested in the website It’s a fun site.

And if you’re interested in helping one writer not feel like one of the Moles, you might want to vote for my trips. (They’re in two different categories, so you can vote for both of them.) Here they are.

Skating into Winter Romance on the Frog Pond in Boston, MA

Swooning over Incredible Edibles in Cambridge, MA

Thanks. My head is feeling better already.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Books and movies

I love books. And I love movies. Give me a book about movies or a movie about books, and you can imagine how thrilled I am. Well, I have enjoyed one of each this week, so I am one happy camper.

Let me tell you about them.

The first is Leonard Maltin’s 151 Best Movies You’ve Never Seen. It’s a list, but not like all the annual best lists or the AFI top one hundred that hold very few surprises. The whole point of Maltin’s book is to bring attention to low-profile films, not the widely seen ones that usually make those other lists (where the only discovery is the exact order they’ll appear).

I’m a film lover, movie nut, cinephile—whichever way you want to put it—so imagine my delight on scanning the table of contents and finding that I had seen less than a third of the 151 recommendations. Which means I have over a hundred to add to my list of films to see. Coincidentally, some of them were already in my Netflix queue, which tells me that Mr. Maltin and I have similar tastes in movies—a good sign. And of the films from his list that I have seen, there’s only one I didn’t enjoy. (I won’t bias any opinions by mentioning the name; that way you can discover them all for yourself.)

By the way, did you know that five hundred is the maximum number of entries you can have in your Netflix queue?

Among Maltin’s recommendations is a documentary called Stone Reader (2002), a film about books and the love of them. Just as 151 Best Movies makes me want to sit down and talk with Leonard Maltin about movies, Stone Reader makes me want to sit down and talk with Mark Moskowitz about books. He was fascinated by a novel to such an extent that he made a full-length documentary about the book and his fascination. That’s my kind of guy.

The book is called The Stones of Summer, and it was the first novel by a writer named Dow Mossman. Moskowitz got the book as a teenager in the early Seventies, but he didn’t read it until years later. He loved it (literally to pieces) and wanted to read more by Mossman, but the author seemed to have disappeared after the one book.

Enter Moskowitz’s curiosity and passion.

He’s part sleuth and part stalker (but not in a creepy way), and the film plays a bit like Field of Dreams without the corn—or the baseball. Usually documentary filmmakers tell other people’s stories, but Moskowitz tells his own—his love of the book (and reading in general), his curiosity about what became of Mossman, his search for people who might know something about the author as well as people who might understand the filmmaker’s passion for books.

I won’t tell you what he uncovers on his search—I hope you’ll watch and find out for yourself. But I will tell you that I watched the film with pencil in hand. As Moskowitz and his interview subjects talked about their favorite novels I made myself a reading list. And that list of books can include The Stones of Summer, because Moskowitz spearheaded the effort to get it back into print, an effort he is expanding into The Lost Books Club. (Like I said, my kind of guy.)

A list of movies, a list of books. I’ve got my work cut out me. (I love my work.)

*  *  *

Speaking of my work, I recently entered a contest on, a contest that includes a voting component, so I’m on a search for friendly folk who want to participate in the democratic process. Sign up on Trazzler, and then search for “Sam Sherman.” Two trips—the skating on the Frog Pond and a foodie heaven in Cambridge—are part of the contest. Visit each page and click “Save” (that puts them on your Wish List and counts as the vote).

In the immortal words of Bartles and Jaymes, “Thank you for your support.”