Madeleine Robins

April 16, 2018

Notice, Class, How Angela Circles…

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Memory — madeleinerobins @ 10:21 AM

MrTrenchI was once chased around my parents’ kitchen by a friend of my father’s. But I’ll come back to that.

One of my favorite things to do when I was a kid was to leaf through a 25-year collection of New Yorker cartoons. Even at the time (the mid 1960s) many of them referred to a world that was vanishing or had vanished: references that must have been side-splitting at the time they were published, but were totally opaque to ten-year-old me. I still remember some of the cartoonists fondly–Chas. Addams, of course, but also James Thurber, Helen Hokinson of the deep-bosomed, slightly clueless club women, and Syd Hoff. But there was a class of cartoons–by guys like Peter Arno and Whitney Darrow, Jr.– that might loosely be termed a critique of modern relations between the sexes. And while they weren’t opaque, even to me as a kid they were troubling.

A staple of these cartoons was the young, buxom woman being variously leered at, groped at, chased, etc., by an older, usually wealthier man. In some of these the woman is clearly playing along in hopes of–what, a diamond bracelet? A fur coat? As Cole Porter had it in Kiss Me Kate, “Mr. Harris, plutocrat, wants to give my cheek a pat: if a Harris pat means a Paris hat, Okay!” But in others, the woman looks uncomfortable and apprehensive. In the cartoon to the right, the head of a monorail company has a one track mind, all tracking on cleavage. His secretary does not look amused.

As for the men in these cartoons, a few of them look hapless, as if they’ve stumbled into a situation where a woman is forcing them to ogle etc. “Honest, officer, I was just sitting here at my desk in my loud checked suit when my secretary perched on my desk to take dictation. What could I possibly do?” Others appeared to at least pretend to be looking at something other than the cleavage–pearls, in the image below–but that was the joke, right? Because everyone, even a ten-year-old girl, knew that he was really ogling the woman’s breasts. But mostly these men look like they’re predators.

As a eight-, nine-, or ten-year old, what was I to make of all this? The takeaway appeared to be that all (powerful, elderly, white) men were letches. That working for such men inevitably meant some sort of harassment. That the wives of these men (who were all portly and dripping in the signifiers of their husbands’ success–furs and diamonds etc.) could do nothing but occasionally fume and nag. That the women being ogled etc. deserved it because they had breasts, because they wore provocative outfits and should have known what would happen, because they had jobs that took them out of their homes and into contact with the aforementioned predators. Some of the cartoons also suggested that there were young women who made the attraction of older, wealthier men into their jobs. All those portly, powerful, older white men were their marks (in which case it must be reasonable that the men would treat the women as prey, because the women were treating them as prey and…).

So there I am in my parents’ kitchen. I was 16 and home from school with a really horrendous cold of the streaming variety–my recollection is that I was a walking river of snot in a plush bathrobe. As I’ve said before, I grew up in a barn, and the living room windows overlooked a valley and a river and fields… very picturesque. One of my dad’s friends was painting a landscape of that view. I heard the downstairs door open, went out to the landing, saw it was–let’s call him Fritz–said hi, excused myself on accounta sick, and went back to bed. An hour or so later I went downstairs to the kitchen to make myself some tea and, being a well-raised child, I asked Fritz if he wanted a cup. He said sure, and I put the kettle on.

I’m not clear exactly how the subject of wouldn’t I like to have an affair came up–I was standing there in my blue plush bathrobe with a handful of tissues, blotting my nose and waiting for the kettle to boil.  I answered in the negative (this was all rendered more surreal by the fact that I had a crush on Fritz’s son) and may have made some comment about Fritz being my parents’ friend, and it would be weird, shading toward wrong. I was still trying to be polite, and perhaps he took that as an invitation to explain why it would be fine, don’t worry about it. Note: our stove was on an island in the middle of the kitchen floor. Gradually, Fritz moved around the island toward me, and I moved around and away. I felt rotten, and this was the last straw, but I did not want to be rude to my father’s friend. And all the time the image in my head was the one to the left: “Notice, class…”

The kettle boiled. I poured the water, told him where to find milk and sugar, should he want them, and decamped to my room. I think I may have locked the door, but in the event, Fritz didn’t push the issue, and while I saw him a number of times after that, his invitation was never mentioned between the two of us.

When older people excuse men for predatory workplace behavior (or predatory behavior generally) by saying “they came up in a different time,” well, yes, they may have done. But even in that “different time,” the cartoonists who were depicting these “funny” chases got the look of dismay on the faces of the women, the look of “I need this job but…” The look of being trapped. Even when I was eight- or nine- or ten-years-old I couldn’t see how that was funny.

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April 2, 2018

I Want(ed) to Believe

Filed under: Movies,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:49 PM

It was perhaps a mistake to re-read A Wrinkle in Timebefore I saw the movie, but I hadn’t read the book in a few decades. I enjoyed it, picked up things I hadn’t remembered, and went on to read (for the first time) three more books in the quintet (A Wind in the Door, A Swiftly Tilting Planet, and Many Waters) before I ran out of interest.  The overt Christian themes (which scudded right over my head when I was a kid reading Wrinkle in Time) didn’t particularly bother me–perhaps because I knew they were there before I started reading this time.

Anyway: I went to see the film, which I enjoyed at the time, but find that I enjoyed less with each moment away from the film (it’s that “objects in the mirror are less impressive than you thought” thing that sometimes happens with films). It is true enough to the books [SPOILERS AHEAD]: (more…)

March 26, 2018

Mind the Gap

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 4:16 PM
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gapWhen I consider it, and I have been considering it lately, all the books I’ve written that I thought worked had a gap in the writing process, somewhere a little more than half-way through. I am a “night driver” (Kit Kerr used this phrase recently, and my brain went **ping!** with recognition). I write what I can see ahead of me, and I generally know where I”m going, but the terrain between where I am and where I will be in another ten pages is often unseeable (in the same way that driving in the dark you can see what your headlights reveal and no more).

On this basis, I wonder if maybe I’m going to love the book I’m currently s/t/r/u/g/g/l/i/n/g/w/i/t/h writing. I have 13 solidly decent chapters. And I not only know where the book is going, I’ve written parts of the last two chapters. So I figure I’ve got five chapters in the middle that stubbornly are not revealing themselves to me. Disobliging to say the least.

As I said above, this is not a new experience. I went through it with The Stone War and Point of Honour and Petty Treason and The Sleeping Partner. That I don’t remember whether I went through it with Sold for Endless Rue doesn’t mean that I didn’t, but the structure on Rue was different and not so conducive to stopping cold midway through and saying “huh?” My brain has interesting ways of diverting me from applying analysis to my plot problems (the other night it went so far as to wake me up in the middle of the night, give me a title for the next book, and tell me how I could make use in it of some characters from the current book).

Obviously at some point I’m able to snap out of it and get through the book. I may even write a better book because of this irritating gap. But there has been, as far as I can discern, no specific thing that helps. I know this because I’ve tried all the techniques that worked before: retyping, mapping, making notes, free-association… if taking photographs with circles and arrows and a paragraph on the back of each one would help, I’d get out my camera.

Right now I’m re-reading, looking for the breadcrumbs that writers leave for themselves all unaware. Nothing makes you feel smarter than realizing that That Thing You Tossed Off 38 pages ago is a linchpin for the plot. I’ve found a couple of small ones, and that’s encouraging. But on the basis of prior experience, I gotta say that when I finish this book I’m sure gonna love it.

Edited to Add: I was working today, chewing at what had to happen during that gap–which sent me back to Chapter 10, where I realized I’d gone chasing rabbits down the wrong valley. So I spent several hours making my way back to where I’d left the road, and wrote a new scene. I think it works better. I think it’s going to lead me farther into that unknown territory. It’s really exciting.

February 19, 2018

Did You See What I Did There?

Filed under: Reading,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:53 AM

Olympic figure skating is one of those things. I never mean to watch, and then, somehow, there I am and five hours have passed and it’s late and my head is full of salchows and axels and spangles.  There are a lot of brilliant technicians out there on the ice, and they’re riveting to watch, but the ones I love are the performers. Anent this, I was directed to Jason Brown’s 2014 performance at the US National Championships. He’s not just good–he is a brilliant performer, and more than that, his joy in the doing is both infectious and endearing. The audience is on its feet at the end of the routine, and well they should be. And his face just shines, because he had fun and made something beautiful; in the compact between audience and performer, it’s a perfect transaction.

This doesn’t work as well for writing, I think. Does this mean, I want the author to disappear? Maybe. Perhaps. Sort of.  At least while I’m engaged with their words. I don’t mean this punitively: I want the author to be engaged in her own work. And as a writer I am not immune to the satisfaction of pulling off a phrase, or a scene, or a whole book, where you feel like you’ve done your best and better, maybe. But the writing/reading compact is a little different from the performing/watching compact, and when I’m reading one of the things I don’t want is to have someone (particularly the author) standing between me and the text.

I was reading something the other day–an op-ed piece, I think–when I came across a phrase that was so clearly beloved of its author that I immediately heard, clear as a bell, a voice in my head saying “Did you see what I did there?” It’s a boy’s voice, maybe the voice of a nine- or ten year-old, excited, desirous of praise, a little tentative about asking for that praise because the owner of that voice knows damned well that you’re not supposed to do that. But also nakedly proud and pleased and SOMEBODY ACKNOWLEDGE THIS NIFTY TRICK I JUST PULLED OFF. And while the trick wasnifty, the insistence that I stop engaging with the text and engage the author for a minute is irritating.

Maybe this is the basis for the “kill your darlings” dictum.  Mind you, in the case of this op-ed piece it was true: the phrase was a clever one. If I’d been let alone to admire it, I might well have applauded. But the author, having delivered his knock-out phrase, got a little sloppy and soggy thereafter, like a skater who pulls off a quad salchow in the first minute of her routine, after which everything it a little lackluster.

Sadly, Jason Brown isn’t competing at the Olympics this year (injuries hurt his chance to give the kind of performances he gave in 2014). But I watch figure skating anyway, when I stumble upon it

December 31, 2017

Choosing to be Merry, _ammit

Filed under: Family,Life — madeleinerobins @ 12:46 PM
Tags: ,

brokentreeThe _ key on my laptop is not working.

This has been a trying year. A year ago in November there was the election, about which, perhaps, the less spoken, the better.  48 hours after the election my lovely Uncle Carmine passed away; about a week later, my Father-in-law followe_. Also, my older girl’s appendix helpfully rupture_, with all the merriment that create_. She’s fine. Now.

There’s been all the interesting public trauma of life in the new regime. Then, two weeks ago, my Mother-in-Law passed away (I should a__ that I _islike “passed away” an_ would prefer to use _ie_, but my _ key, as I note above, is not working.

So it’s been a year full of occurrence, an_ anxiety, an_ loss, an_ … well, it’s just been busy. In the mi_st of all this I have been keeping the _oors open at the museum, trying to get some work _one on the book, an_ being as supportive as possible to those closest to all these losses (which would be my husband_ an his family, an_ my aunt). For this reason the holiday season feels like it’s more than usually scattered this year: presents, foo_ (oy, foo_: between us we have one vegan, two who are gluten-sensitive, three who are allergic to nuts–which are a staple of vegan cookery–an one who loathes chocolate. The whole thing makes me want to lie _own… or make chocolate croissants as a reaction formation). I should be _ecorating the Christmas tree. I should be making holi_ay cookies. I should be watching Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol.

I have come to the conclusion that this year is simply going to have to be an outlier as far as the tra_itional observances are concerne_. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be a time of goo_ cheer. I spent this weekend with my aunt in LA. She is closing in on 92, an_ in the wake of her husban_’s _eath all the physical ailments an_ problems she _in’t have time to _eal with before have come rattling _own upon her. An_ yet, most of what we _o when I’m _own here is laugh. Tell stories. After years I think I finally have straight which set of silver originally belonged to whom (an_ why my gran_mother only owne_ a gran_ total of one piece of her china pattern). I tease her. She teases me. She is annoyed but funny about the in_ignities of aging. She’s sharp (an_ snarky) about the current political situation. She loves chocolate. It is a treat to be with her.

Tomorrow I go back to San Francisco, where the _og an the family await. The Christmas tree will be _ecorate_. I may even make cookies (vegan, gluten-free, chocolate an_ nut free). There will be sa_ patches, an_ squabbles. But one thing I am pretty certain about: there will be laughter, an_ a goo_ _eal of it.

An_ then I’ll get my _ key fixe_. Happy holidays, an_ joyous feast of the sun’s return. _on’t forget to laugh.

December 13, 2017

Reading (In)Discriminately

Filed under: Memory,Reading — madeleinerobins @ 8:21 AM
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Nine CoachesOkay: raise your hands. When you were younger (say, teen- to young-adulthood) how many of you read pretty much everything? Finished even the rotten books because they were… well, they were books, and they were there?

Okay, so I wasn’t the only one. For me it was SF and fantasy, and historical, and historical romance, and gothics (aka “romantic suspense”–the books with young women in diaphanous gowns framed against brooding manses), and all the Great Books I could get, regardless of whether I fully understood them. Occasionally a best seller, because it was there, and I got twitchy when there was no printed matter to hand. What were your poisons?

Of that cohort, how many of you read that way now? I sure can’t. I might be working on a couple of different books at a time (right now its Seanan Maguire’s Every Heart a Doorway and a book on women’s history called Who Cooked the Last Supper) but I don’t read as fast, or with the kind of intensity, that I did when I was a kid. And my reading seems to fall into three categories: new fiction (SF, mystery, occasional mainstream); research non-fiction (mostly history but sometimes medical history or single-topic writing–on the human heart, or sewage management through the ages), and re-reading. There are some things I re-read annually, for comfort and amusement: Jane Eyre, most of Jane Austen, the Peter Wimsey books; there are other books I re-read regularly: I cycle through Charlotte and Anne Brontë, and through the works of Dick Francis, and through some of the SF and fantasy I keep around. I’m not sure what touches off a sudden need to re-read The Tenant of Wildfell Hall or Proof, but I suspect it may be that they do something in the writing or structure that I unconsciously feel I need to look at. Or maybe they’re just what comes to hand. I’ve taken to replacing old, tattered copies of the frequently re-read with e-books, just so I don’t keep buying the same book over and over.

But what of the books I tore through–and frequently re-read–when I was a teen? I recently learned that Mary Stewart’s romantic suspense novels, which I read to tatters when I was in high school, were available and on sale as e-books. And in about a two week period I re-read eight of them, and I am here to tell you: Stewart was a fine writer. A little more given to botanical and landscape details than I remember, but really good. What took me aback is that there are phrases, whole scenes, that I remember with absolute clarity. But also: there are no dumb shoehorning of characters into doing things that make no sense. Also, the characters (like Dorothy Sayers’s) are well read and know things–I have always wanted to be well-read and to know things, so its nice to hang out with fictional characters who are and do. So I went looking for another writer I tore through at that time; like Stewart, Jane Aiken Hodge holds up remarkably well. Her voice has certain tics, but overall she writes well-researched, sensible, effective historical romance. This somehow makes me feel better about my scorched earth reading habits.

Encouraged to find that some of my teen pleasures held up, I found another ebook I sort of remembered, The Trembling Hills, by Phyllis A. Whitney. It’s set in San Francisco leading up to and after the 1906 earthquake, which is pretty much all I could recall of the book. Since I now live in San Francisco I thought, well, why not. Okay, it’s not a terrible book (Whitney, in her day, was very successful, often on the NY Times bestseller list, published multiple-tens of books, none of this being a guarantor of quality). The setting is well done and well researched, which is nice now that I actually know what she’s describing. The characters are not as paper-thin as they originally seem to be: I spent the first third off the book wanting to smack the protagonist… and then she started to grow up a little, and gain a little complexity. When I finished the book I was not unsatisfied, but I doubt I’d ever want to re-read it.

There is a whole bookshelf of dusty, crumbling paperbacks in my basement that I should probably reevaluate based on this new information. Even at 15 I knew I never wanted to re-read Barbara Cartland, but there’s a vast territory between Cartland and Georgette Heyer; perhaps it’s time I did a little discriminate pruning.

November 1, 2017

Like Penelope

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:14 AM

Family 1,2,3,4_0006When my peers were taking piano lessons, I was taking weaving lessons. My family placed a premium on the arts and the more esoteric crafts, and when my parents realized that we had a professional weaver living down the road from our weekend house in the country, my fate was sealed. Not that I protested: even as a kid I loved knowing how things got made.

My teacher was a stately octogenarian named Hazel Warren, whom my father had the temerity to call “Hazel-baby.” I called her Mrs. Warren, because, well, I was ten. Hazel Warren was a craftswoman of extraordinary skill–and a fondness for Eisenhower-era colors (mustard yellow, lima bean green, Wedgewood blue). Every Saturday morning for three years I spent two hours with her, learning to weave on a four-frame floor loom.

Mrs. Warren’s weaving studio–a small barn attached to the farmhouse where she and her dapper husband Harry lived–held perhaps half a dozen floor looms, lengths of woven fabric, skeins of cotton and wool. There was a sign over the door with a winged shuttle (in that way that you don’t register the what of something for years, I was well past my weaving-lesson years when I realized what that image was). I don’t remember much about the actual tuition; what I recall is the quality of sunlight on those Saturday mornings, and reaching my toes down to work the treadles that moved the different frames up and down, and (when I got the pattern wrong) having to figure out where I’d gone wrong and undo the weaving. Mrs. Warren was soft spoken and patient, but inexorable. If you messed up, you fixed it. No kissing-it-up-to-God and forging onward.

On one memorable occasion she taught me how to string the loom (up to that point I had been all weaving and no set up). It involved an unbelievable amount of arithmetic, and confused me. In the end it got done: the actual work was long and painstaking–thousands of feet of cotton thread, all threaded through the tiny eyes of the frames–but not technically difficult. Except for the arithmetic. Fifty years later, if forced at gunpoint to set up a loom, I could probably figure it out (except for the math).

Among my peers, if the subject ever came up, I suspect this was just another reason I was weird. But I made placemats (everyone makes placemats), and a set of five ties (I gave one to my eighth grade teacher, on whom I had a bit of a crush), and I don’t know what all else.  Curiously, when we moved up to Massachusetts from New York full time, I had stopped weaving–perhaps we couldn’t afford the lessons, or maybe Mrs. Warren had got out of the business.

But weaving wasn’t done with us. When I was in high school my mother bought a four-frame loom and had it strung with a spring-green wool, with the intention to weave curtains for the living room.  Bear in mind that the entire west face of the Barn was windows, each about seven feet high and five feet across. Weaving fabric for curtains for all of them would have been a breathtaking amount of work, even for someone who had been weaving for years. And it was my mother’s first project. I think, over the next five or six years, Mom managed to weave about two yards of 48″ wide fabric. Ultimately the wool began to crack and break (wool left wound on a loom for long enough is subject to the slings and arrows of climate and light, with predictable results). I cut the two yards of fabric off the loom and it became a shawl of sorts, and a dress-up item when my daughters were of dress-up age.

And the loom? It stood, unthreaded, in the front hall of the Barn, for another twenty years, until I sold the place. At which point I disassembled the loom, packed it carefully, and had it shipped out west to California. It is still upstairs–I checked the other day. Perhaps, when I am no longer working a day job, I will bring it down and reassemble it–that in itself may be an interesting task) and find someone to help me string it, and I’ll try weaving again. I remember it, as an activity, with great fondness.

October 16, 2017

Autre Temps

Filed under: Being a Woman,Family — madeleinerobins @ 11:11 AM
Tags: ,

The photo below is from the Spring, 1957 issue of Bride and Home. The three players are me (in the vermillion romper), my mother (in the jumpsuit, in the middle, and my brother Clem (in the white footie pajamas). I would be, by the date, about three and a half.

Bride and home

“Handcrafts add a new dimension to the family life of Mrs. Seymour Robbins of New York City. The bead screen was her first project. Here she is working on a hooked rug. Even the children share the atmosphere of quiet relaxation this kind of activity generates.”

A few immediate thoughts: you’ll note that (aside from mis-spelling our last name) my mother has no actual name of her own. According to the mode of the time, she is Mrs. Seymour Robins, an appendage of Mr. Seymour Robins who, as it happened was her husband and my father. So there’s that. I don’t miss that.

And that atmosphere of quiet relaxation? I recall it more as an atmosphere of benign neglect: if grownups were doing some other thing, you amused yourself. I suspect we would have been a little startled by being included in the shoot. My brother and I, even at this age, were used to being photographed. My father actually used us at least twice, if I recall correctly, for packages he was designing: for Colorforms and for a pasta company (I was on the box for cavatelli). I wish we had out takes for this shoot, but it wouldn’t have been in my father’s control.

My mother disliked things like sewing and knitting–too ordinary–but more esoteric crafts she enjoyed. She made the beaded curtain in the background (my father’s design) out of approximately two billion 1/4″ colored wooded beads. The curtain made a lovely clacking sound when you went through it–and let me tell you, as the threads got older and frailer and a kid going the curtain at speed could easily break them, the sound of a couple of hundred wooden beads spraying the floor is memorable.

My father also designed the two rugs mom hooked–although I have no memory of them being so brightly colored. One was mine, one was my brother’s, each with our stylized initials. Eventually they both faded into soft gray obscurity. Mom’s last collaborative craft effort was the needlepointed covers for the seat, seat back, and reverse of the seat back of an old wooden rocking chair that was an heirloom in the family. As craft projects will, this took over a part of the real estate of our household, and I remember skeins of brightly colored yarn everywhere. The chair (which is highly uncomfortable to sit on, and in any case is of the vintage where if you attempt to sit on it people around you scream “DON’T SIT THERE!”) now resides at my aunt’s house. I have no idea where the rugs went. As for the lobster curtain? Too many threads snapped. When I was emptying my father’s house I came upon a cache of the beads folded up in newsprint paper, waiting for some crafter to generate an atmosphere of quiet relaxation.

September 25, 2017

Preorder Welcome to Dystopia

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 2:57 PM

 

“The Road South,’ written by me with Becca Caccavo (aka younger daughter), will be appearing in Welcome to Dystopia in early 2018. It’s Bec’s first fiction sale, my first collaboration, edited by the estimable Gordon Van Gelder, and including many names far more illustrious than mine (like Ron Goulart, Eileen Gunn, Janis Ian, Yoon Ha Lee, Lisa Mason, Barry N. Malzberg, David Marusek, Mary Anne Mohanraj, James Morrow, Robert Reed, Geoff Ryman, Harry Turtledove, Ray Vukcevich, Ted White, Paul Witcover, and Jane Yolen).

And it’s available for preorder.

I’ve been looking at the galleys: it’s full of good stuff!

 

September 22, 2017

No, I Won’t Put You In My Book

Filed under: Writing — madeleinerobins @ 8:05 PM

CarefulMy daughters gave me this t-shirt a few years ago. I don’t wear a lot of t-shirts–particularly t-shirts with slogans on them–but I keep it for exercising and for those times when a t-shirt is required. However, as regards my own work I fundamentally disagree with its message.

I have a lot of friends who tuckerize, or even kill off people who have hurt them in their fiction. Sometimes they auction off  naming for a character for charity. Sometimes a friend just works his/her way into a story. I found myself a member of the NYPD a few years ago, which was kind of interesting. (more…)

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