Archives For DPchallenge

Silence of the Blog

February 17, 2014 — 14 Comments

This week’s DP Challenge/Writing Prompt at WordPress is to write about SILENCE. One thing they suggest is “breaking the silence,” which I would like to do right now. My blog has been silent since November. I haven’t even posted any author interviews in my How to Become a Writer Series. So, imma try to get back in the swing. Starting with a new super-awesome interview that will post tomorrow. And who knows what I’ll post after that? Maybe I’ll write about all the places I’ve been traveling to give readings for my book (Chicago! Iowa City! Pittsburgh! DC! Baltimore! Milwaukee! Lubbock! [that’s TX, y’all]). Maybe I’ll write about my New Year’s non-resolution-phrase-of-the-year, which I’ve been meaning to write about since, you know, Jan 1. Or about all the books I’ve almost read.

Until then, I leave you with a strangely silent sight. Fallingwater – the setting of my new book Liliane’s Balcony – frozen. So much of the experience of Fallingwater is the constant sound of the water. And this polar vortex – or whatever the hell it is that is happening this winter – has also managed to silence the waterfall of Fallingwater.


Thanks to my facebook friend Missy for the link, and to Fallingwater’s FB page for the image.

The WordPress weekly photo prompt is In the Background.

I happen to think a white peacock is pretty interesting, but in this case the background wins.


This photo, like pretty much all the photos I post, was taken in Prague last summer.

The Bohemian Bone Church

February 2, 2013 — 7 Comments

This week’s WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge is UNIQUE, and what is more unique than a church decorated with the bones of 40,000-70,000 people? (Actually, lots of other bloggers have some equally unique photos, so you should check them out.)

My version of unique is the Sedlec Ossuary, aka The Bone Church, which happens to have been my destination when I spotted the young Czech lovers from last week’s photo challenge (Love at 16:28).

The story goes that in the 13th century, the abbot of the church went to the Holy Land and brought back some Holy Soil that he sprinkled in the church cemetery. Suddenly, everyone was dying to be buried there! A century later, the Black Death was invented so that lots of people could die all at once. When people still continued to live, the Hussite Wars came along to try to finish the job. The little cemetery got too filled up, so a half-blind monk was assigned the task of unburying people. (Thanks, Wikipedia!)

But what to do with stacks of unburied people? Turn them into chandeliers and shields, of course!

Love at 16:28

January 26, 2013 — 13 Comments

I haven’t done a WordPress weekly photo challenge in a while, but how I can I resist this week’s topic: Love.

Last summer I went with classmates from my Czech language class on a day trip to Kutna Hora, an hour or two outside of Prague. To get to town from the train station, we had to take a bus through a run-down neighborhood of panelaks, those Soviet apartment structures that dominate the landscape of Eastern Europe.

A young Czech couple got on the bus, completely absorbed in one another, and I was so struck by these strangers that I secretly snapped a photo.


It’s hard to tell in the photo above, but the time was 16:28 (or 4:28 p.m. to us Americans), and that was my favorite accidental detail of the photo, that this moment of young love – fleeting as it may be – was marked in time. Later I made this small sketch with paint and pen.


Who knows if they are still in love? But they were in love at 16:28, and perhaps that is enough for a lifetime.

Once again it’s time for the Weekly Photo Challenge. This week’s theme: GREEN.  Since my photography is not really meant to speak for itself, here’s a Gallery of Green Art with a quiz. See if you can match the artist and/or relevant information to each of the images.

1. Van Gogh close-up at Chicago Art Institute
2. Some dude in flip-flops (at the John Lennon wall in Prague)
3. Monet close-up at Chicago Art Institute
4. NOT Monet (but could have inspired him). Taken in Czech Republic.
5. British people, who think anything can be made pretty and weird, even cannons!
6. Hans Christian Andersen (and me!). Technically he’s the subject, not the artist. Copenhagen
7. Me imitating Alfred Henry Maurer
8. Collaboration between Frank Stella and Santiago Calatrava hanging in building designed by Mies van der Rohe (yes!)
9. Unknown Art Nouveau artist, but maybe Alphonse Mucha, since it’s at an absinthe bar in Prague.
10. Frank Lloyd Wright
11. John Cage (okay, well, my winnings at a John Cage exhibit at DOX museum in Prague)

(If you REALLY need the answers, post a comment in which you beg for them. Be convincing.)

From the very beginning my T-square and triangle were an easy media of expression for my geometrical sense of things.

Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s time for the WordPress Weekly Photo Challenge! This week: GEOMETRY.

So of course I have to talk about Frank Lloyd Wright. (My Fallingwater novella LILIANE’S BALCONY comes out next fall!)

And of course I’m not going to talk about geometry or photography, I’m just going to tell a story.

A few weeks ago I drove into Chicago to visit the Robie House for the first time. My dad was in town from Colorado, and Chicago is way closer to Indiana than Colorado, so I took the opportunity to drive to the city and have dinner with him. (I was Richly Rewarded with six ounces of filet mignon at Gibson’s Steakhouse. Medium rare. Cooked in an 1800 degree oven. Perfection.)

Before Dinner with Dad, I took an afternoon tour of the Robie House, which is on the campus of the University of Chicago. I was guided perfectly by Siri, but already, even as I drove, I was making comparisons to Fallingwater.

To get to Fallingwater, you drive on the PA Turnpike and get off at an exit for a town you’ve never heard of (different exits depending on which way you’re coming), and then you drive rolling country miles:

through towns like Normalville:

Sometimes you stumble upon some geometry:

Other times you just see rainbows:

What can I say, it’s a very soothing experience just to DRIVE to Fallingwater. It’s much less soothing to drive to the Robie House:

And even when I arrived at the house, there was nowhere to park. It’s on the corner of a long narrow street of elegant old-Chicago homes, and for blocks and blocks the cars are parked bumper to bumper to bumper to bumper. As I passed the Robie House on my left, a guy was directing traffic through the intersection, and I said, “Where do I park for the Robie House?” And he didn’t even stop waving his hand or glance at me as he called back, “59th Street.” Which was like five long blocks back to the main road.

So I turn around and head back, driving slowly in hopes of spying an open parking spot, and the car behind me stays within an inch of my back hatch, and the driver is already gesticulating, and I’m thinking, Dude, Indiana license plate! Figure it out! And then I get behind a car that is waiting for another car to pull out so it can take the parking spot, and the street is too narrow for me to go around, so I wait patiently while Dude behind me starts honking and swerving like HE’s going to go around me, and then I finally make it around the other car and the Dude behind me yells out his window: Fucking bitch! At me! So of course I shove my arm out my window and give him the finger. And then I praaaay that he doesn’t pull out a gun and shoot me before I can get to the Robie House.

So already I’m wishing I were in rural Pennsylvania instead of downtown Chicago. But the walk to the Robie House is quite charming after all.

I arrived just in time for the 3:00 tour. My Robie House guide was super thorough and knowledgeable and did a great job of pointing out all the unique architectural (geometrical!) details of the house. First she took us across the street for an outside view of the house. Note the cars.

And already I’m realizing another difference between the Robie House and Fallingwater: there’s only one tour at a time through the Robie House. Maybe six tours per day, 12 visitors per tour. At Fallingwater, the tours start every 6 minutes, and when I was there the following weekend, they were sold out, with 1200 visitors each day of the weekend.

Back at the Robie House the guide had to battle with the sounds of jackhammers, sirens, and even a helicopter as she tried to talk. Then she walked us around the house and inside through the lower-level foyer.

Where I got a bit distracted by the geometry of a tree:

And the geometry of a window looking through the former children’s playroom:

That empty playroom signals what I would determine is the most significant difference between the Robie House and Fallingwater: the Robie House is empty.

Fallingwater is fully furnished with the original items owned by the Kaufmann family. The bookshelves are positively loaded with books from around the world and across the centuries. When I go through the house I look at book spines as much as at this or that cantilever.

The Robie House, I have to say it again, is empty. It turns out that the Robie Family that commissioned the house in 1908 only lived there for a little over a year before having to sell it to pay off inherited debts. Then two other families owned over the next 20 years. And then it was purchased, along with many other houses on the nearby blocks, by the University of Chicago, and it was used over the years for apartments and meeting places. For a while it was the office of the Alumni Association!

In 1957, there was serious talk of demolishing it (to make room for a student dormitory), and 90-year-old Wright showed up to plead its case. Within a decade it made it onto the appropriate protected historical landmarks list. And thank goodness it did:

The theme of this week’s Weekly Photo Challenge at Word Press is SILHOUETTE. So here goes. My silhouette photo has three stories, probably more.

The first is the historical story:

This is a statue in Prague of Jan Žižka — One-Eyed John — who, in 1420, led the Hussites (who preceded the Protestants of the Reformation) in a significant and successful battle against the Hungarian king who was supported by the Pope. (Blah, blah, blah, read more here.)

Five hundred years later, in the wake of WWI and the independence of Czechoslovakia in 1918, this statue was erected at the site of the battle, Vítkov Hill, as part of a larger monument to celebrate Czech nationalism. But before the monument was completed, Czechoslovakia began decades of occupation by the Germans and Russians, and their cute little national history was either ignored or altered.

For example, here are some additions made to the site by the Soviets who had their own story to tell:

The second story is literary:

In my (er, unpublished) novel set in Prague, my protagonist is taken to this site by her tour guide and romantic interest. He explains the significance of the various statues and signs, but he ultimately tells her more about the history of Prague than about himself. At this monument, she has an epiphany of sorts. But it’s relatively early in the plot, so of course she’s wrong.

The third story is personal (but it overlaps with the literary and the historical):

I first visited this site in 2005 as part of Western Michigan University’s Prague Summer Program. The professor of my Czech literature course took us there and that’s where I really fell in love with Prague and its sad statues and monuments that try to mean something but get changed, through history and its power struggles, into meaning something else – or nothing at all.

We walked around to the other side of the monument where there were two Socialist Realist statues, one of which was a model proletarian family: father, mother, baby; healthy and muscular; farmers prepared to reap the harvest. That statue, which was already outdated and a relic of a previous regime, became the foundation of my character’s epiphany mentioned above. And it repeats as a motif for the rest of the novel.

I was in Prague again this summer, and I finally made it back to this site, which factors so significantly in my novel and in my mind. It’s kind of out of the way and up a steep hill, and I got lost trying to get there, and I was thirsty and hungry and my feet hurt, but I made it! And at long last, the site has achieved its original intent: it is a National Monument, celebrating Czech history. I took the pictures of Žižka that I’ve posted here, and I wandered around to the other side to see the statue family that I’d written so much about.

But it was gone:

The missing statue.

It freaked me out. How could it be gone when it was so present in my mind and in my novel? Had it ever been there? Had I imagined the whole thing?

It also thrilled me. I was experiencing first-hand the problems of memory and monuments that are so important to any history. It’s just like Milan Kundera’s Milek says in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting:

The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.

Just before this quote, in the opening chapter, Kundera describes a 1948 photograph of communist leader Klement Gottwald in Prague’s Old Town Square. He was cold, so his comrade Clementis gave his fur cap to Gottwald to wear on his head. A photograph was taken of Gottwald in the hat, with Clementis in the background. But Clementis did not stay in the background. As Kundera says:

Every child knew that photograph, from seeing it on posters and in schoolbooks and museums. Four years later, Clementis was charged with treason and hanged. The propaganda section immediately made him vanish from history, and, of course, from all photographs.

Visual aid:

And history – or at least this blog post – comes full circle, for it is here at the Vitkov National Museum that Klement Gottwald’s dead body was kept on display for NINE YEARS, with multiple doctors working day and night to keep his body presentable to the public. Why? So people would not forget him. (Read the rest of that creepy-awesome story here.)

But a body is not a statue, and it cannot be kept forever. Just like a statue is not a body that lives and breathes. And a silhouette is not a statue or a body, just a shape, a suggestion of what is – or is not – there.

January 16, 1945
40th letter

Dearest Johnny,

Happy anniversary darling. No matter where you are at this time I want you to hear me saying I love you so. This day means so much to me. To think I married the most wonderful man in the world. You are wonderful you know.

This is how the letter begins. My grandmother wrote it to my grandfather on their second anniversary. She was somewhere in New Jersey; he was somewhere overseas, probably India (he returned from the war with pictures of the Taj Mahal). This letter is one of my favorite things.

For the many years I knew them, my grandparents bickered and yelled and waged war on the volumes of their respective televisions (his in the living room, hers in the kitchen). They engaged in bumper-car battles with their walkers as they fought for the right of way in the hallway. She repeated indignities from the ancient past: “I was never good enough for his parents because I was Irish. And what was so special about Slovaks? His father didn’t even know any English. His mother, I give her credit, taught herself to read the newspaper.”

Usually when my grandmother addressed my grandfather she said, “Oh for god’s sake, John!” And so there is something delightful about seeing it in her left-handed handwriting, as distinct as her voice: “Dearest Johnny.”

Which is why this letter is one of my favorite things.*

Almost three years ago when my grandparents finally had to leave their New Jersey home on the lagoon to be cared for at my uncle’s house in Pennsylvania, my grandfather – he’s appropriately called Grumpus – told me follow him to his room. Usually this meant he wanted us to go through his old boxes of things he couldn’t get himself to throw away and to take anything we might use. Boxes labeled “Calculaters” and filled with cheap and unusable calculators from 1970 to the present. Or “Wacthes” filled with watches from Bristol Myers or Time Life. He was not the greatest speller. This time, though, I followed him as he shuffled down the hall with his walker, and I sensed he something bigger on his mind.

In his room he removed a box from the shelf and said, “I don’t know what do to with this. It’s letters from Marge and me during the war. I should probably just throw them away or burn them.” He looked at me, his eyes full of tears. “But you’re a writer. Maybe you know what to do with them.”

He got lost in thought for a moment and added, “We were just kids. We didn’t know anything.”

Granny and Grumpus died this year, five months apart. I haven’t gone through all the letters yet, but they are part of me as a person and a writer. They and their letters will show up in my stories and novels and blog entries – and my dreams.

All day I went through memories from the day we got married until now. I can picture everything so well. That day we said I do & you squeezed my hand as you said it and how funny you were trying to put my ring on me.
That day was such a happy day…

*Thanks to WordPress for the Daily Post Challenge.