Absinthe Makes The Heart Grow Fonder

I’m not sure how many people are familiar with absinthe. It’s not a very popular or common drink these days, especially since it was illegal to produce for most of the 20th century (the ban was lifted in recent years). For those of you who have never heard of it, I will explain.

Absinthe is a spirit made from the herbs anise, fennel and wormwood. It is usually green in color, altho there are clear versions. It has a bitter, black liquorice flavor due to the anise and fennel. It has a very high alcohol content, usually between 60% and 80%, and is diluted with water before drinking. The water is poured over a sugar cube to help combat the bitterness. It was originally created as a health elixir in Switzerland, but became very popular with the art and literary crowd in the 19th and early 20th centuries. It was nicknamed “The Green Fairy” and was considered an inspirational muse of sorts. Absinthe was thought to cause hallucinations and was blamed for many cases of insanity, death and violence.

Being the big fan that I am of 19th and early 20th century literature, I was fairly familiar with it. I’ve read about it in books, seen it in period films, found information about it on the internet. A few years ago we were on vacation in Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, and I saw it for sale in a liquor store. I very much wanted to try it, but it was expensive and not knowing if I would even like it, I didn’t want to risk spending the money. But, last weekend, we were out there for a weekend getaway, and at one of the restaurants we went to they had absinthe listed on their drink menu. As you can imagine I was thrilled. Not only as a fan of the time period, but as a writer, this is something I’ve waited years, decades even, to get a chance to try.

So the owner of the restaurant, who is an absinthe connoisseur, came over to our table with the glass, the sugar cube, the absinthe spoon (a slotted spoon designed to sit on the rim of the glass) and a small pitcher of ice water. She puts the spoon on the glass and the sugar cube on the spoon and shows me how to dribble the water very slowly over the sugar to dissolve it without using too much water and diluting the absinthe too much. She warned me never to use regular sugar cubes from the grocery store. They’re too hard and take too much water to dissolve. She advised going to a gourmet food store and getting softer sugar cubes imported from Africa. You can also find special “absinthe” sugar cubes at a specialty bar supply or liquor store.

It’s a very aromatic drink. As the water is mixing with it, the scent of the herbs are released and are very pleasant. The flavor is quite unique in comparison to other forms of alcohol. It still does retain some of its bitterness even with the sugar, it’s not sweet at all, but you can definitely taste that black liquorice flavor. Like most spirits with a high alcohol content, you feel the burn as it goes down.

Needless to say, I went to the liquor store and bought the bottle before we went home.

Insane In The Membrane

Do you have to be crazy to be a great writer? I don’t mean a successful writer. I mean a great writer. There are many successful writers who are certainly not great writers *coughtwilightcough*.

It just seems to me that alot of our most brilliant writers have had mental issues to battle. I was thinking about this the other day, after watching The Hours, a movie based on a book of the same name by Michael Cunningham, in which Nicole Kidman portrays Virginia Woolf.

We all know that Virginia Woolf suffered from mental illness. She had severe headaches, depression and eventually took her own life. Another brilliant writer, Ernest Hemingway, suffered from alcoholism and depression and he took his own life as well. Sylvia Plath was also plagued by mental illness and ultimately died by her own hand. And lets not forget those who were overcome by drug and alcohol addiction, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jack London and so many more.

The connection between writers, depression and suicide is so prevalent that the American Suicide Foundation organized a conference called “Wanting to Die: Suicide and American Literature.” And Kay Jamison, professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins University, says writers are 10 to 20 times as likely as other people to suffer manic depression or depression, which leads to suicide more often than any other mental disorders.

There’s the old saying, that there’s a fine line between genius and insanity. But maybe they are one in the same. Maybe you need to have at least a little bit of insanity to remove that mental filter that often dams the creative flow. A writer can have no fear. No fear of offending people, of being censored, of going too far. Writers have been persecuted, exiled, committed, imprisoned, tortured and even executed for the words they have written. But the drive to put pen to paper overcomes even the threat of punishment and death. That seems almost a mental illness in itself.

I don’t consider myself a great writer (at least not yet hahaha), but I have dealt with mental health issues most of my life. Depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, low self-esteem, cutting, suicide attempts, substance abuse. I have also found that the harder I struggled with these issues, the more creative I became. The deeper I sank into depression and despair and the more I obsessed over my own death, the easier the words flowed from my pen. Back in the mid 90’s, during that period of time when I could write for days, hardly pausing to eat or sleep, I was in an almost manic suicidal state all the time. If it wasnt for writing I don’t think I would have survived it.

Is it possible to be creative and well-adjusted?

Midnight In Paris

Was there a golden age for artists and writers? Much like Owen Wilson’s character in Midnight in Paris, I have a highly romanticized idea of 1920’s Paris as a glamorous paradise full of writers and painters and musicians and dancers, gathering in cafes and parlors and clubs, drinking and dancing  and creating from dusk til dawn. I feel like if I could somehow slip back in time and space to that era, I could tap into that same bottomless creative well they all seemed to have access to, and create literary masterpieces.

But I know that in reality it was a time of poor hygiene, little indoor plumbing and electricity, writing by hand with messy ink bottles, where diseases like tuberculosis and syphilis ran rampant thru a population that was promiscuous, addicted to opium and morphine, drank too much, smoked too much, ate poorly, slept little and lived in damp, drafty rooms with little or no heat. Many of them died from illness, substance abuse or suicide far too young.

There was no magic font of creativity that bestowed creative super powers on the people who lived there. There were just alot of already talented people who happened to congregate in a place where they could escape prohibition and censorship.

Even with that logical knowledge, I cant help but sigh nostalgically.

But I would definitely recommend Midnight in Paris if you like Woody Allen movies, or Owen Wilson, or the 1920’s Paris art scene. We watched it last night and it was great. Corey Stoll as Ernest Hemingway really stole the show. He was like an Old Spice commercial. And Adrien Brody as Salvador Dali was hilarious.

Another movie I like, set in that era in Paris, is Henry and June, about writers Anais Nin and Henry Miller and Henry’s wife June. Taking place during the time that Miller was writing Tropic of Cancer, it centers around his affair with Nin and how it effected their writing, their lives and their marriages. It is rated NC-17 due to its sexuality so be warned if your sensitive to that sort of thing.

And Hemingway’s book, A Moveable Feast! I thought it was endlessly fascinating to read about the way he and his fellow writers and artists lived during that time. I couldn’t turn the pages fast enough!

So was it a golden age? To us, looking back from our own time, it may seem so. But an age never seems golden when its the present, only when it becomes the past.

Cabin Fever

I dunno about anybody else, but I’m done with winter. Not that its been a particularly cold or snowy winter here in Massachusetts, but it’s still been too cold to enjoy being outside. I can’t tolerate cold due to some chronic health issues, so I’m not a big fan of winter. And I’m tired of being cooped up in this house. Tired of the stagnant air that’s been re-circulating thru my ventilation system all winter. Tired of breathing animal hair and dry dust. I want to open all the widows and doors and let a spring breeze sweep thru the house and blow all the stale air out. I went out and bought some new house plants this weekend. Just to have something fresh and green around me. I used to have some really nice house plants a couple of years ago, but when I went to Texas to visit my grandchildren, a certain person who shall remain nameless *cough*myboyfriend*cough* forgot to water them and they were all dead when I came back.

I love being outside, especially when it comes to reading. I have two places outside my house where I like to sit and read. My boyfriend and his friend built a big deck on the back of our house a couple of years ago and we have a patio table and chairs where I can sit when its nice out. If its raining out I have my front porch with a couple rocking chairs and a coffee table. I cant wait to grab a book and go outside and read with the warmth of the sun on my back to get rid of the chill in my bones that never seems to leave me these days. Unfortunately I can’t tolerate extreme heat any better than the cold so once we get into July and August I’ll be just as miserable as I am now. I get overheated or chilled very easily. My boyfriend says I’m like a lizard. The only way I can warm up or cool down is by going to a warmer or cooler area. I think I may be the world’s only living cold-blooded mammal.

My favorite outdoor place to read, when I can get there, is on the beach. I love to lay on the warm sand with the seagulls crying overhead, and the sound and scent of the sea all around me (score extra points if a fruity rum drink is involved). The ocean is the one place where I feel truly at peace and spiritually recharged. I love books about the sea or that take place on or near the ocean. My two most recent book purchases relating to the sea are Cape Cod by Henry David Thoreau and The Outermost House by Henry Beston, both about Cape Cod, which is my favorite place on earth.

Of course now I have Sailing by Christopher Cross stuck in my head.

Another beautiful place to read outdoors is at the top of Mount Greylock. It is located in the north-western corner of Massachusetts and is the highest point in the state. You can see for hundreds of miles, all the way into upstate New York. The air up there is the freshest air I’ve ever breathed. It’s really a spectacular place. I would love to pack a lunch and go up there and spread a blanket out on the mountain top and read all day. Herman Melville had a home near the base of Mount Greylock where he wrote Moby Dick. Nathaniel Hawthorne also lived in the area for a short time and it was there that he wrote The House of Seven Gables.

Unfortunately the coast and the mountains are both several hours drive from my house and not someplace I can go on a regular basis. Closer to home there are a few places I like to go to read outdoors. The closest is in downtown Springfield, in the courtyard of the Quadrangle, where the museums and library are. There is a grassy lawn and benches and in the middle is the Dr. Seuss memorial (for those of you who don’t know, Dr. Seuss was born here in Springfield). Stanley Park in Westfield is also a nice place to go. There are fields and a large garden and a duck pond and woods that offer a variety of settings to settle down for a day of outdoor reading. And there is the Village Commons in South Hadley. A collection of shops and restaurants with brick paved walkways and steps and terraces and fountains and plenty of benches and outdoor cafe tables with umbrellas to sit at and enjoy a book and a drink or a meal. There are also some grassy areas perfect for spreading a blanket. And there’s a nice book store and a used book store/coffee and wine bar there as well.

And I think it goes without saying that all the places I’ve talked about are perfect places to write as well. Unless your me. My writer’s block isn’t picky about location. It tags along and prevents me from writing no matter where I go.

Cuckoo For Classics

Is it that unusual to see somebody reading classic literature these days? I mean without having it forced on them by a teacher or professor? The classics are classics for a reason. Because they have been enjoyed by so many people across decades or centuries or even millennia.

I was at a physical therapy session one afternoon about a year ago, and I brought a book with me to read while I was having the heat and electroshock treatment on my back. So I’m laying there reading (the book was A Moveable Feast by Ernest Hemingway), and the therapist comes in and says, “Oh you must be in college.” I say, “No why?” And she gestures at my book and says, “I figured it must be a school assignment. His writing is so boring.”

Ok, so, ignoring the fact that my taste in books was just insulted, lets look at the fact that a person would think its odd that I would choose to read this book. A classic work is valuable, not only as a work of literature, but as a snapshot of the time in which it was written. You can learn a lot about an era by its books and its authors. A Moveable Feast is interesting as a book, but it also gives you an intimate look into the art and literary community in 1920’s Paris, and the expatriate writers who lived there. A time and place which, by the way, I would love to get ahold of a time machine and move to. As long as I can live in a house with electricity. And a toilet. And a bathtub. With hot water. Would wi-fi be asking too much?

But I do love my classics. I have a fairly good-sized collection of classics with authors ranging from Louisa May Alcott to Edgar Allan Poe to the Marquis de Sade. On my shelves you will find Peter Pan and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, Dracula and Frankenstein, Delta of Venus and The Story of O.

I’m also constantly floored by the number of people I run into that haven’t even heard of many of the classic authors. There are actually people who exist in the world who are unfamiliar with the names Melville, Brönte, Milton, Woolf, Dumas, Hawthorne. People who see me reading The Fountainhead while I’m waiting for my shift to start and tell me they’ve never heard of it. People who think Pride & Prejudice & Zombies is a completely original work. People who think Dante’s Inferno is just a video game (that I totally want to play). And I’m not talking about immigrants from third world countries, I’m talking about Americans. Grown-up ones.

Interesting fact: If you type Dante’s Inferno into a search engine you will get more websites about the game then about the book. The games sites will even be listed ahead of the book sites. What does that tell you? (Other then that the game is probly really cool.)

Cool Things That Aren’t In Western Massachusetts

You would be surprised to know that Massachusetts was quite the literary hot spot in the nineteenth century. Well the eastern half of the state anyways. Where all the cool stuff is.

Concord, MA in particular was like the Las Vegas of the nineteenth century writing world. (What happened in Concord stayed in Concord)

Some of the biggest names in literature lived and wrote in Concord. Louisa May Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau and Nathaniel Hawthorne to name the most well-known.

(Yes, yes I know everybody associates Hawthorne with Salem and the House of Seven Gables, and indeed Hawthorne was born in Salem, but he did not live there his whole life and NO he did NOT live in the House of Seven Gables.)

I had the pleasure of visiting Concord on two occasions last year. Once in July because my youngest son wanted to spend his birthday at Minutemen National Park and once in October when I brought my kids there for a night-time reading of old New England ghost stories at the park.

Minuteman National Park is a pretty cool place. For those of you who know your American history, you will know that the Battle of Lexington and Concord was the first battle of the Revolutionary War and you can walk the path that was the main road at the time, that Paul Revere used for his famous midnight ride and that the British troops marched along, and where some of the houses and taverns still stand that the Minuteman army gathered in as they prepared to go to war. If you’re an American history buff, this place is a place you don’t want to miss.

So anyways, back to writers in Concord.

In between exploring the park I was able to visit some very cool places of interest for someone who is a big fan of nineteenth century classic literature, which I happen to be. I did take some pictures of the houses altho unfortunately they don’t allow you to photograph when you’re inside. I did manage to get one photo from inside tho. Our tour guide was very cool about conveniently looking away while we were in that one room. Haha.

I plan to take more trips back to Concord. There are still some more literary landmarks Id like to explore. But for now these are some of the places I’ve visited so far.

Orchard House

Orchard House. The real Orchard House. Not the one from the Little Women movie. This is the house Louisa May Alcott lived in. In her bedroom is the desk where she wrote Little Women. There is a trunk of costumes that the Alcott girls used to dress up in when putting on plays that Louisa wrote. In the trunk are the treasured pair of tall boots that were Louisa’s favorite costume accessory. On the walls and woodwork all over the house are the pencil sketches done by her sister May, who inspired the character of Amy March. One thing about these “little women” is that there was nothing little about them. They Alcott sisters were TALL. Like circus freak tall for women of their time.

The Old Manse

The Old Manse, build by Ralph Waldo Emerson’ grandfather in 1770 and used by subsequent generations of the Emerson family until the early 20th century. Emerson himself lived in it, of course, and Nathaniel Hawthorne and his new wife rented the property and lived there for several years. Henry David Thoreau planted a large heirloom vegetable garden there as a wedding gift for the Hawthornes.

Wayside House

Wayside House. A house where Louisa May Alcott lived as a girl and where Nathaniel Hawthorne and his family lived in later years. The house was known as Hillside when the Alcotts owned it. As you may know, Little Women was highly autobiographical, and many of the adventures that the March girls experience in Little Women happened in reality to the Alcott sisters while they lived here.  Nathaniel Hawthorne purchased it from the Alcott family and it is the only house he ever owned and where he wrote his last works. He renamed it Wayside and owned the house until he died. Author Margaret Sidney also lived at here and she and her husband and daughter are responsible for much of the restoration and preservation of Wayside House as well as Orchard House (which is right next door).

Nathaniel Hawthorne's Desk

Nathaniel Hawthorne’s writing desk, inside his study at the top of the three-story turret of Wayside House. Where he wrote. The desk where Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote. The desk that I was able to touch that Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote at. Sorry I still feel a bit faint when I think about it. So, anyways, as you can see, it is a podium style desk, because Hawthorne wrote while standing. He wrote masterpieces while standing. In an attic. With no lights. Or heat. Or air conditioning. With a a quill pen.

Which makes me an even bigger loser cuz I can barely concentrate on writing while laying nestled comfortably in bed on a tempur-pedic mattress propped up on a pile of pillows using a lap-top in a well-lit, perfectly temperature controlled room. Yeah. That’s why he’s Nathaniel Hawthorne. And I’m me.