The Side Effects of Travel

Why can’t every day be a sunny and unseasonably warm Monday afternoon in Seattle? I’ve been asking myself this question a lot lately.


I began this line of inquiry about three weeks ago, when I went to Seattle for a book event at America’s oldest travel book store, Wide World Books and Maps :


I can assure you, Dear Readers of this blog, that our own Commentor Linda June brought her special sparkle of energy to the gathering and helped turn the event into a salon of witty and fun give-and-take (I love Seattle readers!) and as if that weren’t eventful enough, everyone there was treated to the premiere of my one and only Gardens of Awe and Folly Book Event dress:


See? It’s got flowers, the way gardens have flowers. Get it? I looked high and low for a dress that made me look like someone who knew her way around a garden (or a dress shop) and this number thrills me because it’s “flowery” but not “FLOWERY”, if you know what I mean.

So that was Tuesday, but I’m talking about Monday when it was sunny and unseasonably warm and should-be travel memoirist and fellow Capricorn  Beth from Seattle and I were having tea in the wood-paneled Fireside Room. . .


. . . at the famous haunted Sorrento Hotel, which quickly became a few rounds of cocktails outside in “The Garden” . . .


. . . and just as the gin/chardonnay combo of the second Fred Astaire kicked in and the Seattle sun was glinting all golden and honey the way the Seattle sun rarely glints all golden and honey, and all worries and cares had floated off to the place where worries and cares are told to calm the fuck down, and Beth was telling me about the Scottish Terrier she knew who could count to six, I began a serious investigation, deep in my brain, on Why can’t every day be a sunny and unseasonably warm Monday afternoon in Seattle?

Or, to put it another way, How hard would it be to create these peak moments in life more often?

I don’t have the answer, I just have the question. I also don’t have many photos from my fabulous visit to Seattle to show you because one of the side effects of this Seattle-induced rumination on the meaning of life was that I didn’t take may snapshots of Seattle this time around, although I did spend some time trying to figure out how to draw Scotties while I was in The City on Puget Sound That Has No Nickname:


Which I will now leverage into a blog post about how I figured out how to draw cats while I tell you about the other side effects of travel to Seattle, which included dire physical consequences, but let me begin with my first attempt at painting my sweet Candy Kitty in 2006:


This is me in one of my first attempts at watercolor, in which you can see I am very wary of the watery personality of the medium so I’m using the paint in a very dry application, almost as if it were colored pencil. After a bit more practice I got used to the slippery nature of the H2O, so I made another attempt at the same sweet  kitty about six weeks later and I painted Candy Kitty #2:


I think you can see in Candy Kitty #2 that I’ve relaxed a bit, and that I’m getting comfortable with letting the paint do what it wants to do when it’s doing its thing with water — which is the same thing I try to do with every picture I paint. I liked this little pic so much that I put it on page 178 of my first book, When Wanderers Cease to Roam. Here’s a side-by-side comparison:


P.S. I also switched paper after I painted the Candy Kitty #1, from a very heavy watercolor stock to the 90lb. Canson stuff I use exclusively these days.

I’ve been very busy since I returned to the Isle of Long from my travels to the Great Pacific Northwest, schlepping to the optometrist for a new pair of reading specs to replace the ones I left on the plane and then carting myself off to urgent care for a chest x-ray (bronchitis tends to make you wonder if your lungs are putting in an honest day’s work) and generally spending my waking moments feeling pretty miserable and eye-sore.

Between those hours on end that I spent feeling very sorry for myself I also searched high and low for the psychic reason for these physical calamities, because it seemed obvious to me that there was some element of metaphor in all this squinting and wheezing, which has nothing to do with the picture I am showing you below, which I painted around the same time as I painted Candy Kitty #2, c. 2006, which we’ll call Nino’s Winter Mind #1:


In reviewing my recent travels, as a returned traveller tends to do, and other deep thinking, I came to an understanding of what I was trying to tell myself with this bout of ill health. It’s about being a writer who might not want to write any more.

You see, I’ve spent the past dozen years sitting in a small room with my own self, writing three books. I’ve also spent a lot of time watching Bravo TV.

Then, as a side effect of writing one of those books, I went to Seattle and experienced what it’s like to get out of the house, and it was a lot better — a whole megaton better — than sitting in a room by myself, and it’s even better than watching a Real Housewife get the comeuppance she deserves (oh hell, they all deserve to have their uppances cometh).

I got a taste of what it might be like to have a Real Life and it is as bright as a gin/chardonnay combo on ice and as sharp as a meeting of the minds with a Capricorn from Seattle.

Now, if you remember the little pic from above — Nino’s Winter Mind #1 — I want to show you how I re-worked that same idea a few years later, when I tried to paint like Maira Kalman:


My first book came out in 2008 and I thought I had invented an whole new kind of reading experience and had the entire field of illustrated memoir all to myself, but in 2009 Maira Kalman came out with her illustrated memoir The Principles of Uncertainty and blew me and my quirky little travelog/chapbook off the literary radar into the deep space of the mid-list (where no one can hear you scream). I looked at her book and tried to figure out what made it so appealing to The New York Times in ways that mine had failed and I thought it might be the illustrations. She doesn’t do outlines. So I tried to make my pictures bigger (than a tea bag) and less structurally persnickety, and Nino Winter Mind #2 (above) was what I came up with.

This is Maira Kalman’s illustration of a scene in a foreign city (Cairo?) sidewalk from The Principles of Uncertainty (pages 32 and 33):

So I went to Ikea in Hicksville, Long Island and came up with this:


I think you can see why I came to the conclusion that I was a terrible fake Maira Kalman and I went back to doing the kind of illustrations that I can only do:


left to right: Pinky, Winston, Vivian, Belle, and Nino, the gray and white kitty with the Winter Mind.

I know that, with this digression about me being a terrible fake Maira Kalman, I’m circling some great idea about authenticity and the side effects of travel, but I can’t quite put it together within the time limits of this blog post. All I really know for sure is that for the time being, I seem to be allergic to the idea of sitting in a small room for another three years, writing another book, even though the only thing that I can do half-right is sitting in small rooms for years on end, writing books.

Oh! I forgot! I can also paint cats! (It only took five years of practice.)


For new Dear Readers, you can catch my tutorial How To Paint a Cat by clicking onto the link back there, seven words ago. (Smooches to our Dear Kitty here, Lizzie Cosette from The Marmalade Gypsy blog.)

As Dear Commentors Deborah and Monique and Kirra observed last week, getting out of the house often leads one to doing something stupid, saying something stupid, or driving 40 miles the wrong way. But ever since I let the thought of being a Three-And-Done author take up a rather comfy space in my brain I have felt as if there’s a Seattle sun beam glowing in my heart.

This Summer I think I’m going to be spending a lot of time out of the small room I’ve been cooped up in lo these past dozen years. Now, I know that real life is not like travel, where you have to make up every day from scratch and you never know if it’s going to end with epiphanies over vintage cocktails in a haunted hotel or other kinds of epiphanies over a take-away dinner of Pop Tarts and wine. Every day can’t have a peak moment as sunny and unseasonably warm as a Monday afternoon in Seattle.

Or can it?

It’s Memorial Day weekend here in America and I hope you’ll all join me in paying respects to James Alexander Malloy, 175th Inf., 29th Div., KIA June 16, 1644, the only Scotsman buried in the American Cemetery on Omaha Beach. We Will Never Forget.


15 Comments, RSS

  1. Kirra May 27, 2016 @ 3:41 am

    Your post has perfect timing, it’s pouring with rain and cold today here in Adelaide, South Australia and reading about tea, cocktails and warm Monday afternoons in Seattle is rather nice. Good on you getting out and finding something nicer than staying in a small room!

    As long as you keep writing blog posts I’m okay with the three books and done (though any Vivian book would be a treat). I love your IKEA painting, the price tags are recognisable IKEA and it’s just a great ‘mash up’ of painting and advertising.

    I’ve been thinking about your painting now as it’s Autumn (Fall) and trees leaves are turning yellow/orange/red and I think about your quest of finding the perfect leaf. I haven’t found it yet but am on the lookout!

    I hope you get better soon and get back into the sunny, warm Seattle vibe!

  2. Leslie May 27, 2016 @ 6:24 am

    Dear Vivian, I echo Kirra on the books/blogs. Three beautiful books is a worthy achievement. I think I speak for all your dear readers when I say a.that we wish you joy and happiness in life and b.if your experience of joy and happiness means out of that little work room and out into the world, follow your heart. I hope that being a Friday blog friend still suits you. I do enjoy your company and look forward to reading your Friday post. In this brave new world of authorship, maybe your some of your posts will evolve into a book…I said maybe. In any case, who could blame you for choosing delightful experiences over nose-to-the-grindstone? That’s what we expect from you, in the very best way.
    I hope you feel better soon.

  3. Monique May 27, 2016 @ 8:58 am

    I worked for almost 30 a job mind you that often gave me time to help raise daughters keep and cook..give 2 wedding showers 4 baby showers..etc.. because my work was when people were off work ..but even that has changed..I remember going to an the day and no one being there are people all day long..because jobs are different..from home..on the road..etc..anyway…what want to say is all those years I would drive by the “social clubs” like tennis and exercise etc..and I would wonder what life like that was like..

    I thought I would be ..well at a loss w/ no job..I had to retire 6 yeras ago..and like that old cliché..I wonder why I worked so long.
    Not working is fantastic.
    I would have preferred to have retired under different circumstances..and would have prefeerred retirement to be a bit different in one’s wonderful..I love getting up knowing I don’t have to show 10 houses..I love Sundays w/ no open house..not being stressed about an offer that wasn’t being countered on time..and I loved my job for the most part.
    I love having my tea or coffee in my pjs..walking my gardens every hour)
    Trying to copy some art from your books..seeing my Littles whenever!
    Buying my flats of leisure..
    Reading when I want..ALL OF IT.I am never ever ever bored.Not one second.Every season.
    I cannot even begin to imagine writing 3 books..and the book tours..ugh…
    You do it so well though..and the Ikea artwork? It’s perfect.
    Just grateful I found you through Carol..and your books..and your blog..
    And do what makes you happy.
    You should be so proud of all your accomplishments.

  4. Monique May 27, 2016 @ 8:58 am

    OMG I can’t believe I wrote all that….

  5. jeanie May 27, 2016 @ 9:38 am

    YES IT CAN! Real life CAN be like travel — except you do your own laundry and most of the time cook your own food and make the bed. But the fun part — that can happen! It happens to me every day now because I got out of the dark little office and retired from work but started really working on the joy of life! And I can’t wait to see what you do with it because I have a feeling it is going to be spectacular!

    It’s everything Monique said times ten! I had the same IKEA experience she did — it was my first real venture out of town on a work day when I wasn’t working and I kept feeling guilty that people would see me! Now, movies in the daytime, road trips whenever the urge strikes, sleeping in if I had a bad night (I retired due largely to illness and partly to due to being surrounded by crazy people — and not in a good way!). Things aren’t rushed unless I overschedule my fun — which I’m willing to accept!

    You’ve worked long and hard and you deserve a rest. It might be a month or two or ten or more but I guarantee that you will find what moves your heart and be able to enjoy it all the more! Trust us!

    Oh, one other thing really resonated with me in this post. Your trying to paint like Maria! I struggle with style and finding my own — trying to pick up all my Vivian lessons and others I learn from but still keep it Jeanie. It’s not easy. I’m glad you are YOU and ONLY YOU!

    And seeing sweet Lizzie made me smile! She sends her happy purr to you!

  6. Judy Roberts Jennings May 27, 2016 @ 11:55 am

    Don’t EVEN compare your art to that of Maira Kalman. Yours is so perfect and comforting, and makes me feel good inside. Hers is more of a “suggestion.” Why the NY Times would push hers over yours is a huge mystery to me. I think the book world is highly flawed in that I frequently read something wonderful that “they” never noticed, while their best sellers leave me cold. I always picture “wet-behind-the-ears” young editors who know nothing yet, making these big decisions and trying to do something “new” to get attention. Your art, your THREE books, your great funny writing are all the BEST. Don’t change! (How about a book of Seattle’s parks, old hotels, and houseboats?) I guess I’m selfish and don’t want you to retire. And please don’t stop your blog again. It’s the highlight of my week. Seriously.

  7. Snap May 27, 2016 @ 12:48 pm

    I have all of your books and have none of Maira Kalman (although I admit to looking at her books). So, There!
    I have learned that it is important to listen to your heart and your kitties……………

  8. LINDA JUNE May 27, 2016 @ 2:31 pm

    Why THANK YOU for thinking I brought some sparkle of energy to your Seattle book event! Always good to have you here in Seattle–you need to do it more often “just for a lark” and those special drinks at the Sorrento. Yesterday, a friend and I went to the Bloedel Reserve on Bainbridge Island (a ferry ride away from Seattle), and I just know that you would love this 150-acre garden. It could have been in your Garden Book if you had known about it. Next time….. Anyway, thanks for all the years you have sat in your small room writing your books. Oh, and I love the painting you did of the Ikea furniture. Until next time……

  9. deb Mattin May 27, 2016 @ 3:51 pm

    I’m enjoying the best part of Friday – a cup of coffee, a small treat, and reading your post. I nearly snorted the java out of my nose when I saw the Ikea scene – those red tags are too much!

    Three books and done is three more than nearly everyone else on the planet has done, so don’t sell yourself short. That said, I can appreciate the pull of doing something else, or nothing, or a combo of the two. If it ain’t fun anymore, time to take at least a breather. But selfishly, would of course love more books and posts – please don’t stop writing your hysterically funny posts, complete with tips about painting, drawing, travel, cats and life in general.

    Feel better – the weather is finally beginning to be hopeful here in the Northeast.

  10. Megan May 27, 2016 @ 6:50 pm

    Hope you start to feel better soon. Pat a cat! Lovely to see so many of them in your post. Take care.

  11. Leslie May 28, 2016 @ 12:22 am

    …and go forth in awe and folly…

  12. Mary May 28, 2016 @ 5:09 pm

    What What ? Thinking of depriving those of us who watch/read every Friday to see what a Long Island transplant from Pennsylvania does in her happy/ secure/ unique environment does????
    Your life is confined to a small space, but that’s the life of a writer and artist, Vivian.
    You’ve given back to the world ( I was going to say America) so much of the observations you have made over the years of wherever you’ve been, seen, enjoyed, remembered, and made friends all over the world,
    Judging by the extent of the comments from France, Australia, Canada, we all enjoy your work.
    How many people ever knew about the color BLUE found only in Mozambique or some exotic place where we’ve never been?
    And the kitties you love and care for . Candy, Penelope, Coco, Licorice, Taffy,Cindy Lu ,Bibs, The memorable Oscar….
    AND TOP CAT. He’s the best.

    If your heart tells you to move on; we all do that. Maybe you will, BUT consider what you do for people every day from your room and comfy house on Long Island; near the Center of the Universe: New York. We don’t know about that unless you tell us about it.
    And your tutorials about how to paint; well, I could go on and on. “nuff said.
    Follow your heart. Maybe you’re just tired from showing us the West Coast and New Orleans, and all.
    Time will tell.
    See you next Friday?

  13. Laura May 29, 2016 @ 7:26 am

    Writing three entire books and weekly content for blogs is an enormous amount of work. I would not dare guilt you in to continue generously giving your time away from yourself and Top Cat. I teach my art students that it is important to create from their unique perspectives and experiences – which translates to “don’t observe life through a smartphone screen”. This could be where you’re at now. You are hungry for “life” experiences that aren’t writing about writing a book. You hunger for that next adventure, the freedom free of obligation to a next blog post or book project. Yes, absolutely “go forth in awe and folly”. I’ll be here, reading the books you have given us and re-reading the blog from the beginning.
    Art is long, life is not.

  14. Carol S May 31, 2016 @ 6:23 pm

    I, too, have a row of Vivien Swift books and none of Maira’s. Your tray of teapot and cups is a little gem, in my opinion.

  15. Beth May 31, 2016 @ 10:44 pm

    I never would have agreed to that third cocktail at the Sorrento if I’d known the end result might mean my life with fewer of your words and illustrations in it! Still, that was one magical day with a few rain drops from a cloudless sky, those delicious drinks, and the excellent company. I felt renewed myself. Crazy Seattle alchemy. Forgive me if I cross my fingers that you return, both to Seattle and to my bookshelf at some point!

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