I collect old guide books because, well, I don’t read fiction so that doesn’t leave a whole lot else to read. Ha ha ha!

I happened to pick up a 2005 Frommer’s guide to Paris. I thumbed through it and became deep in thought…

I found myself really thinking, debating, hard, about whether or not I should buy this book.  FOR A DIME.

Take a look: the frontispiece photo ALONE is worth every penny of that dime:

While THIS picture (below) cost me about $4,000:

This is the Brasserie du Champ du Mars, a cafe near my old stomping grounds in the 7th arrondisement near the American University in Paris, also called The American Quarter because it’s where Rick Steves sends all his readers.

There I was, taking the exact same photo as Frommer’s!

My photo is from the 28-day road trip that Top Cat and took through France in 2005, the one I’m busy writing about and illustrating EVEN AS WE SPEAK. And when you see my painting of this cafe here (where Top Cat and I would partake of our morning tea and croissants) in That Damn France Book, I just want you to know that I’d already done my illustration before I had any idea that Frommer’s was READING MY MIND.

Next time I go to France, I’m wearing my tin foil hat.

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Those were the words (above) of a New York Times book reviewer in 2008, describing a new novel by a Scottish author about modern day Scotland..  Call me melodramatic but when I’m an old, old bag yelling at all the neighborhood kids to Get The Hell Off My Lawn, I hope they go around telling each other that Old Lady Swift is foul-mouthed, pessimistic, alcoholic, and out of shape.  It would be my reward for a life lived to the hilt.

I dragged Top Cat into Manhattan on Saturday (April 10) for The Tartan Day parade on 6th Avenue, from 48th  to 59th Street. I wanted to share with him one of the quaint rituals of My People in a glorious gathering of the foul-mouthed, pessimistic, alcoholic, and out-of-shape of all ages.

Here come the Stewarts, a total booze hound gas bag glass-is-half-empty kind of clan.  In other words, the life of any Scots party!

Yo, kid! Don’t tread on that Saltire! It’s the oldest continuously flown flag in the world, in use since 832!

For some reason, I’m craving some Walker’s Shortbread right now.

What a Scottish soccer hooligan looks like before puberty.

Oh Jeeze. Here come those little bastards, the Scottish Terriers.

The history of the Scottish Terriergoes back many centuries and its ancestors include all other Highland Terriers (Dandie Dinmont, Skye, and Cairn). The Scottish terrier comes from the rocky area of Aberdeen and was bred to hunt foxes and weasels hiding in their burrows. The Scottie is proud and extremely stubborn and needs obedience training. It is an independent, one-person dog, devoted to its master alone, and is convinced that it has the  swagger of a much larger dog. Because of this, the Scottie can only live with someone who truly loves it and is tolerant of its faults.

(Le Scottie, c’est moi.)

And here come those Tinkerbelles of the Terrier Group, the West Highland White Terriers.

“The merriest, most optimistic, and most social of all the indigenous terriers of Scotland, the charming Westie is at ease in any environment and makes a wonderful family pet.” (Dog Encyclopedia)

Somebody better check that animal’s DNA. None of those words (merry, optimistic, socially at ease and charming) describe any Scot I’ve ever heard of.

Oh, wait: the Dog Encyclopedia also says that “This agile dog is full of fighting spirit and must be restrained when around other dogs. It does not get along well with other family pets and must be excercized in an area that is escape proof.

That’s more like it.

I know what you’re thinking: Is that the McLeod clan?

Yeah, that’s them all right. Another total booze hound gas bag glass-is-half-empty kind of clan. Except the McLeods are also terrible cooks. Who do you think invented haggis?

This is where they send you when you lose an election to the devolved national unicameral legislature in Edinburgh.

 

OK, nothing snide here. This is just cute.

‘That’s enough, now. Stop it.

I said STOP IT.

You know there’s going to be trouble when the Scottish High School girls from The Borders show up. Scottish lassies, they’re good with their fists.

See? I’ve been telling Top Cat for years that kilts are H-O-T.

And then came the Loch Ness Monster, bringing up the rear, and Top Cat and I went in search of some fine Scottish beverages in the convivial company of some of our favorite foul-mouthed, pessimistic, alcoholic, and out-of-shape kindred spirits.

And I leave you with a Scottish joke:

Q: What’s the difference between a Scotsman and a Rolling Stone?

A: A Rolling Stone says “hey you, get off of my cloud!”, while a Scotsman says “Hey McLeod, get off of my ewe!”

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Because a dear reader asked me, I am going to show you what a Work In Progress looks like:

This is my Damn France Book in progress: a file folder for each chapter plus a few more for misc. notes about France and travel and publisher business stuff that I need to keep track of.  My spiffy Reebok shoe box lets me keep all that flotsam in one, portable place.

This week I’ve been working on the Normandy chapter (green folder, because Normandy is a very lush, green province) and today the WIP (Work In Progress) is opened to the pages where Top Cat and I are taking leave of Omaha Beach and catching a train to a little town called Pontorson:

This is how I block out art work and text. I would like to break up the text into interesting bits, instead of simply left to right wrap around.

This is what I do for every page. Every single page.

I used to wonder why it takes me three years to write a book.  I think I just answered my question.

 

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Top Cat answered the phone this afternoon and came upstairs to hand it to me: “It’s Betsy,” he said. Betsy’s my agent. She only calls when she has really good or really bad news. And we’ve been waiting for three weeks to hear from Bloomsbury  about their final decision about my Damn France Book…

And the verdict is: a huge, happy, double-the-advance -on-my-first-book  YES.

I’m very giddy with excitement and as soon as I meet with my editor and hammer out things like deadlines and publishing dates I will let you all know.

But today I want to show you what I was working on when I got the fateful call: it was an illustration for The Damn France Book and I was having a hell of a time getting it to come out right.

This is the sketch I made of Top Cat and me strolling down a street in a town called St. Malo in Brittany.  As with all my sketches, I have three options when it comes to turning them into an illustration:

1. I can leave it as a black and white drawing.

2. I can do a quick color wash of it on bond paper (it’s crap paper for watercolor, but it gives a nice “impromptu” feeling to an illustration).

3. I can copy the sketch onto good watercolor paper and try to make a “real” painting of it (with shading and light effects and other painterly stuff that I am not in the least qualified to do).

Well, for this sketch I didn’t think I could leave it as a black and white line drawing because there are too many lines here — all those buildings and perspective and all make it look a bit too busy. So I tried it out as a quick color wash on crappy bond paper:

Yeesh. This SUCKS.

So, reluctantly, I copied it onto good watercolor paper and had a go at making a “real” painting of it. I did this reluctantly because I knew there were things in this painting that I had never tried before: light from the shop windows reflecting onto the stone pavements, for example.

I know my limits as an artist and if I stay within those limits I am one happy and self-satisfied egomaniac. But when I wander out into real painterly territory and realize again how much I suck at trying to do stuff that real painters can do, well, it ruins my day.

But I had no choice with this picture. It didn’t work as a black and white drawing and it looked horrible as a color wash.

So I began stabbing at it with my paint brush:

 

Whew. I made it past the buildings on the right hand side of the street without screwing it up.

But it’s the buildings on the left side of the street that are the heart and soul of this picture. OMG OMG OMG I hope I don’t gunk this up…

I look at the finished painting and I think to myself, “I should have left it half-done.”  (Is it too late to un-paint it?)

Now the only thing I have to decide is how to crop it.  Like this?

 

And even after all this, I might not use it at all.  Because  I really hate it.  Why, oh why did I ever quit my job as the Bioterrorism Administrator of the Tea Association of the USA in order to illustrate a Damn France Book??

So that’s what I did today: try, and try, and try again.

And that’s A Day In The Life of A Crappy Illustrator.

 

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I’m still a new-comer to Long Island, having lived here for only five and a half years now. And for three of those years, I was in my room writing a book about living some place else (the book was, of course, When Wanderers Cease to Roam). So really, I’ve only lived here for about three years.

So one day I was driving home from a thrift shop and I spied this shop (above).

It’s a bakery outlet.

Let me repeat that: it’s a Bakery Outlet.

Well, this I had to see.  So I veered off the road and pulled into this shabby parking  lot, and entered a linoleum-floored heaven.

Entenmann’s is a local commercial bakery that supplies boxed cakes and cookies to grocery stores and delis in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut. Maybe elsewhere for all I know: all I know is that they”ve been baking their stuff here on Long Island for about 100 years.

And this is their outlet, where you can get bakery seconds for less than half price. Now, you might be asking yourself, “Jeeze…What kind of skeeve would eat second-rate bakery goods?”

The answer is: Moi. Just so you know, this is what a bakery second looks like:

Maybe you can’t see why this box of delicious Super Cinnamons didn’t pass quality control, so here’s a second look:

See how the blobs of sickeningly sweet icing didn’t get plopped on exactly in the center of these buns? That’s what makes this box of $5.99 Super Cinnamons sell for $2.00 at the bakery outlet.

So forget all the stereotypes about Long Island. This place is awesome!

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These are Four Views of My Desk. It’s where I work and all. And I will be avoiding it for a while.Because I am waiting a Verdict.

I sent my Damn France Book proposal and sample chapters to my agent on Tuesday and heard from her that she got it the next day.

And until she calls and says she loooooves it, everybody in my house is under strict orders to not get on my nerves.

Until then, Top Cat is keeping me sedated with grilled cheese sandwiches and VH1’s I Love the 80s on endless loop.

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There was a MONSTER snow storm heading for Long Island on Tuesday night.  So I put a bottle of champagne out in the backyard. For the obvious reasons:

(Wednesday morning): …because there is nothing like Eastern Seaboard Blizzard-chilled champagne on a SNOW DAY.

It snowed all day Wednesday and, judging by my Champagne-O-Meter, we got about a foot of snow.

I made scones for my 4 o’clock tea. “Scones”, as you may know, is an old Scottish word for “Edible Brick of Flour and Butter”.  And yes, that’s quince jelly.  I take an hour every day to watch Judge Judy, and I like to get cozy when I watch Judge Judy let rip.   But all that comfort food went for naught: Channel 2, the Judge Judy channel, had a ONE HOUR Live coverage Special Program  about the blizzard.  Good thing I had that champagne as back-up.

 

Here’s my little Valentine to you all — I hope you all enjoy a packet of hearts and flowers, a nice cup of tea, and a romantic Winter sun set.

And I hope you all have a bottle of champagne hidden in the snow drifts for this weekend.

********

You might want to read my article about How I Got Published    here today (click on this link):

http://howpublishingreallyworks.blogspot.com/

And when I say “You might want to read…” what I mean is: “I FORBID you to read that article.”

It’s called reverse psychology.

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Is us, cats what live in yellow house.

Our  servant  enabler  nice lady dat we lives here wid is taking a day off. People-talk iz not our native langwhich.  Special when  servant  enabler  nice lady talk loud. What means:

AHHHHHHHHH!  I’VE HAD ENOUGH OF YOU GODDAM CATS!!!!

Iz not our fault dat lady leaf watercolor painting to dry on desk where we like to throw up on.

Iz not our fault dat lady haf dining room where we like to pee.

Iz not our fault dat leather couch feels so good to sharpen clause on.

Anyhoo. Lady takes day off of us.

If you no where we live, Pleeze come. Our food bowl is half empty. We will sit and stare at bowl till is full.

You do not deserve thanks for rescue us. We are catz.

P.S. Lady say reed here tomorrow for speshul Saturday post. Wait, must rake clause over cashmere sweater. Lady yelling again — what means GLUE FACTORY?

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…my life would be totally different.

That’s my  Deep Thought  for February.

Because if I drank beer ( a beverage I still can’t stand the taste of) when I went to Ireland, I would have spent more time in pubs getting drunk and flirting with black-haired blue-eyed Irishmen,  and less time doing this:

(Note: clever use of tea cup instead of Triscuit.)

For those of you reading along, we are in the Febraury chapter, page 31, of When Wanderers Cease to Roam. If you have my book, this is Back Story Stuff  but if you don’t have my book, well, then, this is Story Stuff.

I wasn’t always an immensely talented watercolor artist. Once upon a time I  was a dedicated embroiderer. So, when I was in a panic about turning 30 [in 1986] and I bought a one-way ticket to the most outlandish place I could think of — Ireland — (I was a big U2 fan) of course I packed about 100 skeins of beautiful French embroidery floss.

In Galway I bought some muslin, a light-weight muslin that gave me problems, but which I stubbornly refused to stop sewing on.

And that’s what I did on my down time  in Ireland: I sewed. I sewed on park benches, I sewed (one memorable rainy Bank Holiday in Roscommon) in the waiting room of a bus shelter for eight hours; I sewed in the evenings in the common rooms of youth hostels. The above Celtic sampler is what I sewed. It took me six weeks. I made it up as I went along — that’s why it’s such a jumble. Also, I did say that I was a mite depressed during this time; maybe that also shows in the wayward looks of it.

That bird (above) in the lower right corner is the bird that is was the Irish pence coin at the time; the harp of course is a national symbol; the creatures hovering above the letters “e ” and “f” are, I believe, from the Book of Kells, and the various knots are various knots.

That piece of embroidery shows up in my book on page 31:

You will never believe how I got that stitch work onto the page:

I took my embroidery to Staples and I laid it down on a color copier. Then I cut up the color copy and taped bits of it along the edge of my journal page. That ratty taped-up color copy is what I turned in to Bloomsbury when I gave them my manuscript; Bloomsbury is such a high-quality printer that what they give you in the book is their scan of my color copy of my embroidery and you can still see the stitches!  (It’s all chain stitch, by the way.)

Trade secrets, my dears, trade secrets.

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Don’t Cry For Me  Por Favor-hor: These are my working conditions. (Sob.) I have to paint around big fat furry kitty butts.

But I digress. The thing I wanted to discuss today was something that nobody ever told me about getting older. Which is, the older you get, the more things make you cry. What is up with that?

I think I went through the first 20 years of adulthood (age 19 to 39) without crying more than three times. TOTAL. (Because of cats: the older I get, the more it sucks that we have to outlive our pet kitties. If we are lucky.)

But then I turned 40, and little things started to make me cry. TV COMMERCIALS started to make me cry. And now, I’m lucky if I can make it through a week without puddling up.

I did a talk on Tuesday night (it went well — whew) and I had to drop part of it because I didn’t think I could do it without crying: I have a thing about hugging trees. I love to hug trees. And there’s a special tree here on Long Island that is extremely worthy of hugging, a hundred-year old American Elm tree (you know how 100 million elm trees died in the 1950s due to Dutch Elm disease? Well, there’s one elm tree here on Long Island that has so far escaped the disease and it’s the first elm tree that I  have ever hugged and lo, there is nothing like putting your arms around a lone elm tree…). Yes, I talked about the elm tree on Long Island, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk about THIS elm tree http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/2010/01/08/us/AP-US-The-Old-Man-and-the-Tree.html 

because it was only going to make me cry.

And then my friend Melinda sent me a YouTube video that made me cry and it ISN’T EVEN ABOUT CATS:   http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ds8ryWd5aFw

The other wierd thing about getting older is that I laugh more: I’ve been watching TV sitcoms for…what? 40 years? 50 years? (Ouch.) And I have NEVER laughed out loud while watching them, even when Barney Fife was being his most braggadocious, or when My Favorite Martian got himself in a right pickle, or when Davy Jones got the punch line to any one of the Monkees’ jokes.

Except now. Now I can’t get through an episode of Community (NBC, Thursday nights at 8) , or The Big Bang Theory (CBS, Monday nights at 9:30) , or Flight of the Conchords (HBO Whenever) without laughing. OUTLOUD.

Am I getting stupid?

Or am I just getting old? Old enough to realize, in a way that I never could when I was young, that happiness is so very accidental, so much a happenstance of chance and fleeting moments and hard work, that I can only cry (or laugh) at the bravery of those who  make joy out of this sad and angry and doomed old world? (Bad news this week from Haiti, from the Massachusettes special election, from the Supreme Court ruling about corporate funding for elections: I just want to cry.) Those people who dance in their winter coats, who love a tree for 50 years, who hit those high notes, who make us laugh — I think they are more death-defying than prayer or “art” or stone monuments. I think they are love, and kindness — and that gets me.

Oh jeeze. Am I getting nice in my old age?     That’s sooo not like me.

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