Saturday, November 29, 2008

Can I Write a Novel in a Month? NaNoWriMo

After writing professionally from the age of 21 to 60 I stopped. I was burned out. I decided to go back to my original love – painting --and started taking classes at the Worcester Art Museum. It’s worked out pretty well in the ensuing seven years. I sold some paintings and participated in several shows this year.

Recently I saw that there was a class at the Worcester Art Museum based on the now world-wide project called NaNoWriMo for “National Novel Writing Month,” started some ten years ago by Chris Baty. The point is to write 50,000 words in the month of November. That averages out to 1,667 words a day. It was being taught at WAM by Laurel King.

I signed up, thinking it might get me going on writing again. We (17 students in the night class) meet every Wednesday to compare notes. Laurel brings coffee and snacks and gives us writing exercises, which are a lot of fun. One of my favorites in the first class was to draw a picture of our “inner editor” and then fold it up and put it in a jar which she keeps until the end of the month. That means that we must not edit or read what we have written or try to fix the writing – just keep spewing out words

Naturally this is difficult, or maybe I should say impossible for someone who writes professionally. I drew my inner editor as an old lady with a big nose who says things like: “That’s not writing, that’s typing.” That’s what I’m doing today – typing desperately.

My idea was to write a novel that is sort of ”Chick Lit” for women over sixty. Should I call it "Crone Lit"? (By the way, the word “crone” in my blog title has raised so much controversy among friends and readers that I will have to devote at least one blog to “what is the meaning of ‘crone’?” But that will happen in a month when I’m not supposed to be writing 1,667 words a day on a novel.)

Naturally I fell behind on my word quota because November is a month of things like Thanksgiving. Yesterday I didn’t write a word on the computer but had great fun shopping with daughters Eleni and Marina on Black Friday and also trying to sell copies of my photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” at a local Borders.

I woke up this morning and realized that my word count so far (you post it every day on the site at is only 45,268 and that I have to write nearly 5,000 words by TOMORROW.

Our class will meet for the last time on Dec. 3 to celebrate the winners with food and revelry. Never mind what they wrote, if they wrote 50,000 words of anything they are WINNERS.

It’s not looking so good for me. And to make things worse, most of my classmates have already finished. Laurel said that of the international NaNoWriMo participants last year (there were more than 100,000 would-be novelists!) only 17 per cent finished but that 88 per cent of the students in her classes did finish.

To make matters worse, if you wait till the last day to try to submit your manuscript for counting and validating (a computer program does it) then you may find the site too choked up to count you. I just looked and it’s already barely working.

Will I be a winner or a loser by tomorrow (Sunday) midnight? Tune in tomorrow.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Why I Love Thanksgiving (and Shortcuts)

I love Thanksgiving because you don’t have to buy and wrap gifts and it’s non-denominational – any religion can play. Even vegetarians like our son can find plenty to eat at Thanksgiving.

I used to make vegetarian gravy to go with our traditional stuffing – just take Pepperidge Farms Cornbread stuffing , and prepare as directed with water and butter but first throw in sautéed mushrooms, a little sautéed celery – you get the idea. (Trader Joe’s even sells a Tofurky roast made from tofu with gravy , although we go the free-range fresh turkey route.) Put a cut-up orange and/or onion inside the turkey’s cavity. If you put the stuffing inside, the turkey takes forever to cook and the stuffing comes out soggy.

My doctored-up corn bread stuffing always wows the Greek relatives who have spent days making stuffing involving sausage, pine nuts, chestnuts, etc. My stuffing takes five minutes. Theirs takes three days and must have a thousand calories per spoonful. Don’t tell them that, and also don’t tell them that, after years of failing at gravy-making I just jazz up canned turkey gravy with some chopped cooked gizzards and a little of the maple/bourbon glaze that I brush on the turkey near the end of the cooking time to keep it moist and a nice color

When I was a newlywed in 1970 I made Duck a l’Orange for our first Thanksgiving. The next year there was a baby at the table – smaller than the turkey -- and then two and three, and for 38 years we’ve celebrated the full catastrophe, often inviting foreign college students who have no place to go.

We still do it the traditional way, from cranberry/orange relish and wild rice (which comes from my native state of Minnesota) to apple and pumpkin pie (which is wicked easy to make, but now I make a pumpkin roll — like a jelly roll with cream cheese in the middle. You can freeze it and serve it centuries later, just defrost and slice and sprinkle with powdered sugar.) Somehow Chocolate Kahlua Pie has also become a family “tradition.”

I used to keep the kids busy making place cards for the table… for instance turkeys out of popcorn balls wrapped in red cellophane with heads made of lady fingers or Greek kourlourakia. The turkeys stand on three toothpick legs stuck into some large flat cookie with a person’s name on it.

Over the years I developed more and more shortcuts because cooking is just not my thing. Decorating is. By now I’ve now got it so streamlined that I’m going to write a book next year about "Holiday Shortcuts". Trust me, you can do a Thanksgiving and Christmas worthy of Martha Stewart and be cheating every step of the way. That’s the thesis of my upcoming book, which has the working title "Acing the Holidays". Stay tuned.

This year I’m plugging my photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats”
which costs only $10 and is perfect for the cat people or going-to-Greece people on your list. I’ll sign it and wrap it in cat-themed paper for free if you order it off my web site: .

I’m also going to be selling it at Border’s, 476 Boston Turnpike, Shrewsbury on the day after Thanksgiving and on Sunday, December 7 at “Start at the Station” – Worcester’s Union Station — from noon to five p.m. along with 80 other artists and craftspeople

Last night, youngest child Marina came back home from LA. On Wednesday night Eleni’s coming home from New York. As soon as Marina got here, her cousin Efro came over and the two girls sat at the kitchen table looking at photos on Marina’s computer of her new life full of beaches and sunsets and new housemates. The girls were laughing so loud you could hardly hear the phone ringing. “You see,” said the Big Eleni, who is Efro’s mother, “The minute children come home, the house is filled with joy.”

That’s what I love about Thanksgiving. Hope you have a great Turkey Day! The photo above is last year’s feast with Nick about to carve the turkey.

Friday, November 21, 2008

Which Portrait Do You Like Best?

This semester I’ve been taking a class at the Worcester Art Museum called “Portrait I & II” which is taught by Ella Delyanis. (She does wonderful pastels – see her work at

She suggested that each student choose a piece to frame and submit to the Adult Student Exhibition which will hang in the Education Wing of the Museum from Dec. 9, 2008 to January 23, 2009..

I can’t decide between two portraits I’ve done in the class – one of a model named Brenda and one of a model named Paul. The one of Brenda was a longer pose – about an hour – and the one of Paul was much shorter, but I kind of like the fact that it’s looser and more unfinished.

I’d love your input on which of these two portraits to submit.

I’m also posting a photo of Brenda posing with an earlier portrait of her that I did in the class.. When the class was over she took out her own camera and snapped a photo of the drawing, which made me happy because it meant she liked the portrait. So I asked her to pose with the drawing for my camera.

It’s not easy posing – the models have to hold the pose and stay very still for so long and it takes good muscle control, especially in contorted poses for figure drawing. The Worcester Art Museum has some very professional models.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008


My friend, photographer and teacher Mari Seder, first introduced me to Mexico, its incredible colors and fascinating folk and religious art when I visited her in Oaxaca many years ago.

Several years ago I traveled with her to the isolated Church of the Virgin of Juquila on the mountainous road from Oaxaca to Puerto Escandido. Pilgrims come here by foot from all over Mexico to ask for a miracle from this tiny, dark-skinned figure of the Virgin who is housed in a massive church.

The pilgrims walk for days, sleeping in village squares, fed by pious Mexicans, until they reach Juquila. They often approach the saint on their knees. The tiny figure (who is considered Indian because of her dark skin) has a white train which stretches out of the church and far into the distance. Pilgrims leave on the train gifts and hand-made wooden crosses either specifying the favor they need or thanking her for favors received. My photo above shows two Indian women on their knees approaching the Virgin , one with a blond baby on her back.

Three years ago on March 21 my daughter and I were on a tour led by cooking guru Susanna Trilling ( We were at El Tajin – a pre-Columbian archeological site in Veracruz, composed of multiple pyramids. It was the Spring Equinox and hundreds of Mexicans, all dressed in white, came there to be cleansed by the Sun God with the aid of cueranderos (healers).

On the way into the pyramids, among the many objects on display on the road outside, I noticed the skeletal lady dressed as a Spanish Senorita. I had never seen anything like her … she was like the many Guadalupe virgins seen everywhere, but she was Death So I took her photo, but no one could tell me exactly what she was for. They told me she was Santa Meurte and I could see she was available for some kind of religious ceremony (for a price) but I couldn’t get any other kind of information. Everyone seemed reluctant to talk about her.

Last year in February in Oaxaca I attended a class sponsored by the Worcester Art Museum called “Expanding Your Vision -- Painting and Photography in the Magical World of Oaxaca, Mexico”. It was taught by my friend Mari Seder and Oaxacan artist Humberto Batista. (They’re doing it again in Feb. 2009 --- Humberto strongly encouraged the students to think outside the box and to paint something unlike their usual style.

At his urging (although I am VERY literal – usually painting just what I see) I incorporated the figure of Santa Meurte from El Tajin into my painting of the interior of the Church of Juquila. The result is the painting above which is now on display at the Worcester Art Museum in a show of art done by students during their off-site classes.

I was surprised and excited when I recently picked up the New Yorker dated Nov. 10 and found an article by Alma Guillermoprieto called “Days of the Dead, The new narcocultura.” She wrote about the narcotics trafficking that is causing such bloodshed in Mexico and she investigated the role of “The Holy Death” – especially as she is celebrated in a mass every day in a troubled neighborhood of Mexico City called Tepito where the drug dealers and addicts collect.

The author suggested that there are two thousand shrines in Mexico to Santa Meurte and that she is the saint of drug traffickers (although the woman who established the large shrine in Tepito denies that it is only for drug traffickers.)

When I painted the watercolor above, showing a woman crawling toward the Virgin of Juquila , I imagined that she was going to ask the Virgin to heal her baby and was encountering Santa Muerte blocking her way to salvation. If it’s true that Holy Death is the saint of narcotics dealers, that adds another dimension to the painting. Perhaps the baby’s health and safety are threatened by some version of the narcocultura (maybe not now but when he grows up.)

The thought gave me a shudder, appropriately enough at this season which celebrates the Days of the Dead. And it adds a layer of unexpected meaning to the painting

Tell me what you think.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Street Artist Banksy and his Peculiar Pet Shop

On the same weekend in October that I visited the CFA – IAMs Cat Championship in Madison Square Garden and the Van Gogh exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, I also went with two fellow crones down to Greenwich Village to view an exhibit by anonymous British street artist Banksy.

No one knows who Banksy really is, including the young men and women who were keeping watch over his Greenwich Village exhibit. (I asked them. They said they’ve never met him) According to Wikipedia Banksy is "a well-known pseudo-anonymous British artist believed to have been born in 1974."

His street art usually combines graffiti and a stenciling technique — leaving political statements on walls -- but in New York he opened a realistic-looking "Pet Store and Charcoal Grill" at 89 Seventh Avenue between West 4th and Bleeker Street. (Love the irony in that title…It was only there from October 9 to Halloween and we crones felt privileged to see this street art in action before Banksy folded it up and took it away. It was the first time Banksy has used animation to create exhibits that moved.)

From the outside, the Pet Store featured what appeared to be a large leopard sitting in the window with a twitching tail. (“Do not tap on the glass", said a sign.) But when you went inside, the "leopard" turned out to be a strategically folded leopard coat. With a moving tail.

In another window was a white rabbit applying lipstick while looking in a mirror. There was also a hen with several "chicks" --- really animated large chicken nuggets -- drinking out of a dish of barbecue sauce. Inside the store were fish sticks swimming in an aquarium, sliced sausages and hot dogs eating out of dishes and a chimpanzee watching a TV video of chimpanzees having sex.

As you've probably figured out by now, Banksy is making an ironic comment about how we turn animals into processed food and torture rabbits, for instance, to test cosmetics. What I liked about the exhibit (which some bewildered folk mistook for an actual pet store) is that it's good-natured and humorous piece of art that gets the artist's point across more effectively than a diatribe, or throwing flour at Lindsey Lohan or paint at Sarah Jessica Parker when they wear furs.

There was a book inside the “Pet Store” where people were encouraged to write their reactions to the art. Someone who was there before me had written: "Banksy totally gets it! This is why I don't eat meat." But the children passing by outside with their parents were delighted with the moving exhibits in the "Pet Store and Charcoal Grill." Perhaps it would start them thinking, the next time they saw a chicken nugget or a sausage, perhaps not, but it was more engaging that an exhibit of calves being tortured in cages, and so was probably more effective in making people think about where their food comes from.

Another artist who is referred to as a “guerrilla artist” or street artist (because he paints his political statements on walls and then runs away before he can be arrested) is Sheperd Fairey, who is the hot young artist of the day ever since he designed the terrific red, white and blue poster of Obama for his campaign. Sheperd Fairey, Banksy and their ilk have had a huge influence on young artists.

It was fun to watch passers-by the Pet Store do a double take and then come up and study the exhibits. This is the best kind of interactive art. It reminded me of walking through a snowy Central Park on the last day of Christo's "Gates” in February 2005 and watching hundreds, maybe thousands of people--some who had flown in from Europe --touching, discussing and interacting with the 7,500 saffron-colored fabric panels which transformed Central Park on a cold winter day into an open air museum where everyone had something to say about the art.

(If you want to see more photos and a discussion of Banksy’s pet store and grill, follow this link:)

And if you want a copy of The Secret life of Greek Cats” for an animal lover on your holiday list:

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Madison Square Garden Cat Show

“It was like herding cats” is an expression for something that’s extremely difficult (because, as everyone knows, cats don’t take kindly to being told what to do, especially in groups.)

Imagine 212 nervous cats representing 43 breeds and an equal number of nervous cat breeders herded into Madison Square Garden last Oct. 18 and 19 for the very elite CFA- IAMs Cat Championship, which included two days of judging cats in five different rings at the same time. It culminated in the choice of the best of the Best of the Best at 5:00 on Sunday.

I was there – partly to promote my photo book “The Secret Life of Greek Cats” (check it out at but mostly to see and photograph all those exotic breeds I’d read about but never seen in the flesh, er, fur, including the popular Sphynx Cat, hairless except for the fine down on its body.

Near the door where you come in there was even a Republi-cat and a Demo-cat named Barack Obama, in patriotically decorated cages.

Everyone was admiring the Ocicats—a breed which has markings like a leopard and would make a very chic (and expensive) accessory for ladies who like to wear animal prints (not me.) Cats and kittens were being bought and sold and $600 was the lowest price I heard mentioned.

I love the exotic long-hairs with their squashed-in grouchy faces although many people don’t. The Greek cats who tell their stories in my book are certainly not pure-breds. They’re, as the real Obama would put it, “Mutts like me”, but just as attractive as the cats who walked off with the ribbons at Madison Square Garden.

Everyone there was, of course, a cat lover, including the judges who held up each furry contestant and raved about the good points of the breed. The judges held wands with tassels on the end to get the cats interested and involved. Some, but not all, of the breeders looked like their cats. If you want to see photos of the judging, let me know.

The ultimate winner on Sunday was a Blue Russian, but I didn’t make it back in time to see it. I was down in Greenwich Village looking at a crazy art show created by the guerrilla artist Banksy which was a witty but effective statement about turning animals into food, but I’ll tell you about that tomorrow.

Thursday, November 13, 2008

A Rolling Crone Gets Rolling

Here is my very first post -- I've spent far too much time getting ready to do it or, as my mother Martha would put it, spitting on my hands.

It's time to put up or shut up and so I'm trying to launch this ship TODAY despite the fact that I foolishly signed up for National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo is their web site) -- for which more than 100,000 would-be novelists have promised to write 50,000 words of a novel in the month of November. (You will hear more from me about that as the pressure mounts.)

That's 1,667 words a day every day, and since I have a slight cushion, as I'm at 21,343 today, Nov.13th, I'm taking off time to start the blog A Rolling Crone. (The name was daughter Eleni Gage's inspiration.) You can get to it on Soon I’ll also have it linked to my website:

“Why a blog? you ask? “There are too many already! And let’s face it—you’re not a pundit, you’re just a crone.”

Well, a year or so ago I took a course at the Worcester Art Museum called “Marketing your art on the internet”, taught by a computer expert, artist and genius named Andy Fish. He told us we all must have a website and a blog which we update daily. So I’m finally doing it. I promise not to write anything about the following: Obama. McCain, Palin, the bailout and Joe the Plumber. (Unless it’s about hairless Aztec dogs suitable for Obama's allergic daughter, which I plan to write about soon.)

What I will write about, as the spirit moves me, is art (I just got back from Manhattan where I visited exhibits by Banksy and Van Gogh—a study in contrasts); cats (in NYC I visited to Madison Square Garden cat show—what a trip!); my travels (next up three weeks in India), along with photos illustrating same.

I will try to address issues and events that are of interest to crones over sixty, who are definitely under-served in the media. Yet we are, as a friend remarked, the pig in the python—the huge population of women who are still tuned in and creating despite (or because of) our age.

The blog is also meant to be (as explained by Andy) a sneaky way to call attention to my paintings and my newly published photo book “The Secret of Greek Cats, Feline Photos and Cats’ Tales of Greek Life and Lore” (now only $10 on my web site: or ).

About the photo: It's me and some of my watercolors at last June's Grecian Festival at Saint Spyridon Cathedral in Worcester, MA where I was privileged to show some of my paintings (and even sold some!) I also was lucky enough this year to have my first solo show of my watercolors at The First Show Gallery at C. C. Lowell in Worcester.

I hope you’ll tune in to this crone’s journey!

Joan Paulson Gage

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