Madeleine Robins

March 19, 2016

Gallantry

Filed under: Being a Woman,Feminism,Life,Semiotics — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM

GallantrySo I got into one of those conversations with an old, slightly older than I am, friend last week. Who has a hard time with the idea that unsolicited compliments from strangers on the street is a bad thing. “It’s nice. It’s… ” he searched for the word. “It’s gallantry.”

I think that in his head this phrase called up visions of Camelot, and courtly love and deep bows over the hands of delicately scented ladies wearing satin and lace (I’m pretty certain those are the images… I’ve known him for a while). And those are all charming images. And about as far away from my experience of a guy following me down the street cooing “chickie-chickie-chickie,” escalating to “why aren’t you talking to me, you stuck-up bitch?” as I can imagine.

On my mother’s fortieth birthday several men at a construction site saw her passing and (according to her) burst into a chorus of “God Bless America.” It made her feel a lot better about moving in to the woman-of-a-certain-age demographic. And I’ve always felt kind of good about the sort of exchange where the underlying message is “you’re a human female and I’m a human male, and that’s kind of nifty, isn’t it?” which often shapes into nothing more complex than “Y’all have a nice day, now.” I suspect that’s what my friend is thinking of when he imagines the “gallantry” of addressing a woman unknown to you on the street. 

The reality, as most women know, is a little different. Gallantry should not make its object fearful. Gallantry should not make its object feel dirty. Or like a piece of appealing wallpaper. Gallantry should be aimed at a target that welcomes it. Most street calls (barring “God bless America,” of course) are not.

Where’s the line between a pleasant exchange and a threatening one? Well, maybe at that point where what Robert Heinlein used to call “the gallant response” comes into it.* If someone says to me, “that color looks great on you” that might be nice. If the underlying message is that I am somehow responsible for the speaker’s state of arousal, that is not.

Look, I am rapidly aging out of the cat-call demographic. But I have daughters, and they are beautiful. And thank God, when someone attempts a “gallantry” they don’t like, they don’t put up with it. But afterward they are still, often, left with that shaky feeling of violation.

And there’s nothing gallant about that.

*for those who’d never heard the term: an erection.

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February 17, 2016

That Which We Call a Rose

Filed under: Cooking — madeleinerobins @ 11:25 PM

I was paging through the Sunday Sweets on Cakewrecks, looking at many cakes which are technically gorgeous but rarely raise my creative pulse. I can’t draw, so hand painting a cake to look like a Wedgwood canister is right out. I get a little twee-d out at too much pink (especially at this time of year). There are creations so enormous and ambitious that I think the initial idea (cake!) has been forgotten. And so many of these cakes employ fondant, which usually tastes like sugary cardboard (home-made fondant is better… but making fondant is usually a step farther than I feel like going on a normal day).

And then I saw this:

rose

It’s a cake. And I immediately wanted to make it. 

I mean, look at this:

cut rose

And the miracle of it is… with sufficient practice, I think I could. Here’s the video tutorial, from Cake Style.

The beauty part? There’s no fondant, just buttercream frosting and colored molding chocolate. I’ve never tried making, let alone working with, molding chocolate. And I am suddenly overwhelmed with a desire (not yet a burning desire, but a fairly distracting one) to make molding chocolate, make this four-layered cake, frost it with buttercream (not pink), and make this rose happen.

It’s the process. I have said before that I get captivated by process; I don’t necessarily want to do something more than once, once I get it down. Of course I felt that way about sugar-molding too, when I saw some of that on display. Thank God I lacked a culinary blowtorch, or they’d likely be unsticking me from the kitchen ceiling even now.

If I succumb to the allure of this cake I will document it, and return with notes. I’m kind of hoping I don’t, because once a cake is made it must be eaten, and I’m trying to not eat cake for a little while. But if anyone out there needs a rose cake and is willing to take this one off my hands…

January 21, 2016

Change is the Only Constant

Filed under: Publishing — madeleinerobins @ 10:42 PM
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In times of change it’s always useful to remember that everything is a time oChristmasCandlef change. Since the advent of print-on-demand, and then of e-books, there have been approximately 47 trillion articles written on The End of the Book As We Know It, the End of Publishing As We Know It, and so on. It’s easy to believe that the old ways were handed down from Mt. Olympus: a trade book shall require 9 months from the moment it is handed to Production, neither 8 months nor 10, but 9, and 9 shall be the number, forever and ever, hallelujahYea, verily, there is but one way to distribute books. Etc. But that has never been so; it’s a rule of thumb, not an amendment to the Constitution.

We forget that, in Jane Austen’s time, the author shared the expenses of publication. We forget that in many cases books were purchased by subscription: when the new canto of Lord Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage was announced, you went to the bookseller and reserved your copy. The publisher didn’t create a big advance printing, he (it was pretty much always a he in those days) printed and bound enough for the subscribers, plus a small overage. Which meant that if something really caught on the publisher–and the printers and bookbinders who worked for him–were suddenly in overdrive. Even a hundred years later, when bookshops were more prevalent, this was the case.

I have been doing research on apprenticeships for a project I’m working on, which led me to a book from 1747,  The London Tradesman, a survey of many of the occupations available to the workingman. In the course of discussing bookbinding the book notes that journeymen bookbinders “seldom earn more than ten shillings a week when employed, and are out of business for half the year.”

Wait. Bookbinding is a seasonal trade? Or was? Are the poems not ripe until August? Is there a spawning season for travel journals? Say what? (more…)

January 6, 2016

The Long and Short of It

Filed under: Money,Movies,Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 7:53 AM

tradingplacesOh, forever ago when I was young and foolish and had just moved back to New York City from Boston, I took a job at an investment bank. I had lived in dorms, or with room-mates, since I left home for college, and I really wanted to have an apartment of my own. And I wanted it within spitting distance of my childhood home in Greenwich Village, which was, on the face of it, ambitious to the point of insanity. So I took a job that paid very well, on the theory that I would work 9-5 and go home and write, right? Except that it was a job that ate my brain on a regular basis: there were days when I came home with my teeth clenched so hard that it took me hours to unclench. And getting any writing done was hard when all I wanted to do was slap someone upside the head. My boss was a truly smart, lovely fellow, and didn’t take himself, or his industry, very seriously. But guys who reported to him were not so relaxed or so enlightened, and they treated the support staff really poorly (which made me the one who had to take them aside and administer lessons in manners and common sense).

But I learned a certain amount about the world of finance and investment banking while I was there. The photo above is from Trading Places, a 1980s comedy about commodities training. And by the time it came out, I knew just enough about that world to understand what they were talking about, in a general sort of way, enough so that I was the first person in the theatre who cracked up at the business jokes.

Last week (after we’d gotten our fill of The Force Awakens) we went to see The Big Short, which I recommend unreservedly. The Big Short is about the housing finance bubble and how it burst in 2008. It’s well written and splendidly acted (Christian Bale and Steve Carrell are particularly good). It finds all sorts of clever ways to explain the esoterica of mortgage finance and how it all went wrong. And bing-bing-bing-bing-bing, it brought it all back.

See, at the investment bank I worked for the head of the brand new mortgage finance department. The–at the time–new idea of putting together large groups of mortgages into a bond made sense because 1) the securities would be made up of excellent, low-risk mortgages, and 2) the traditional default rate on mortgages was historically low. So these were safe, low-risk bonds–and (as my boss gleefully said) “they do good! They make it possible for people to buy houses! Everyone wins.”

Fast forward. I quit the bank so I could get some writing done. I met a guy and got married. I wrote some more books. I had a couple of kids. We moved out to San Francisco and spent a year looking for a new home. Even five years before the housing bubble burst, when we were going from Open House to Open House, there was something disturbing to me about the frenzied tenor of the housing market. There were flyers displayed in the entryways of million-dollar homes that talked about Zero-down Adjustable Rate Mortgages, and I saw people walking out with stars in their eyes and paperwork in their fists. My husband and I, being financially cowardly, eventually made an offer on a house that was a little short of our dream house, but that we could afford (with a solid down-payment and a traditional 30 year mortgage) and here we are to this day.

The disquiet I felt when I saw my fellow citizens gravitating toward San Francisco manses with massive price tags was based, in part, in my experience working in mortgage finance all those years ago. As The Big Short explains, the bonds that resulted from those sales were very often like Sunday’s fish stew at a high-end restaurant: made from the leftovers of Friday’s fresh-caught fish, and probably safe to eat. Probably. And the cynic in me believes that any time something looks too good to be true (like those Zero-down ARMs) it probably is. In The Big Short, the various people who figure out what is going on wind up betting against the market, shorting mortgage finance bonds. They all, eventually, make a bundle.

But as one character points out when his chums are celebrating the fortune their smart move has guaranteed them, each one of the bonds that failed meant families tossed out of their homes, people unemployed, schools underfunded, cities rotting at their cores. Nothing to celebrate.

I watched The Big Short with a sense of inside baseball: I actually understood some of this stuff before they explained it. But they explain it brilliantly.

At the end of Trading Places, the bad commodities traders are foiled, the good guys get rich, and everyone laughs and is happy. At the end of The Big Short some people wind up wealthy, but no one wins because the system is broken.

December 10, 2015

A Rule of One

Filed under: Marketing,Writing — madeleinerobins @ 10:56 PM
The Nativity of the Virgin by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475)

The Nativity of the Virgin by Paolo Uccello (1397-1475) Italian, out of copyright

Hand washing. I’ll come back to it.

I have this theory. Or maybe it’s just an idea. It’s about the advantages you give your characters. And how many advantages you can give them without distracting from the story or making them unbearable.

Advantages? Beauty is one, and very common; but there’s also intelligence, skill, charm, grace, wit, fortune, discernment, athletic ability, good birth, kind parents, a person who encourages them to follow their dreams, etc. All of these things are wonderful. But most people don’t get to have them all. And if you write a character who does get them all, it’s sort of cheating.

This is particularly important in writing historical fiction, or fantasy set in an historically inspired context (it works for SF too, but to keep things simple I’m limiting my scope). It is easy, and tempting, to create a character who is ahead of her/his time: “You fools, feudalism is doomed! Let us storm the castle and demand the birth of democracy!” A reader may want to sympathize with a character who partakes of our sensibilities more than he does of those of his time, but some writers leave out any clue as to where that vision came from. Did the character emerge from the womb with her/his political aspirations fully formed? This stuff has to come from somewhere (Mary Todd Lincoln, who would probably have run for office if she hadn’t been a well-raised Southern belle in the 1850s, and stood behind her husband all the way to the White House and the Civil War, learned to value politics–and competition–by vying for her father’s attention with her 13 siblings).

Once you’ve opened the door to a character having a different attitude from the people around her/him the temptation is to give the character skills or gifts they couldn’t possibly have–or couldn’t have for the reasons we have them. Example: in Sold for Endless Rue I have two characters–an herbalist-healer and her apprentice–who are known for their skill, particularly in midwifery. And I wanted them to have a better than average track-record with live births and deliveries, so I had them wash their hands. Simple, right? Since Ignaz Semmelweis started talking up asepsis and hand-washing in the 1840s, incidence of maternal death from childbed fever has plummeted. Only my story takes place in 1205 or so, when germ theory was not dreamt of. So why would these women wash their hands each time they change tasks, before they touch a patient and after? The older woman, the teacher, was taught by her teacher that one should never bring the dust of one task to another lest they mingle. It’s a superstition that just happens to work out in the favor of their patients. And a modern reader can read that and think, aha! Asepsis! without Crescia and Laura having to have a conversation about washing away these tiny invisible carriers of disease…

So that’s my rule of one. You can give your character one advantage that no one else in the story has–if you can make a convincing case for it. But don’t try to give her/him two or three unless you want them climbing to the top of the barricades, waving a flag and singing the Marseilleise.

November 26, 2015

Thankful and Grateful and Mindful

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 9:36 AM

ar-lobster-02Tis the season of giving thanks. Or perhaps of giving gratitude. I’ve been thinking about this some–not least because Thursday is the American Thanksgiving, which really should not just be about food, but somehow always is (OK, maybe a smidge about the Macy’s parade, and in some households about football, or not killing Uncle Pete who always arrives drunk and has unfortunate opinions), but because I listened to a piece on NPR about a Japanese discipline of mindful thankfulness, which sounds like something I want more of in my life.

(more…)

October 28, 2015

We Must All Hang Together…

Filed under: Life — madeleinerobins @ 6:25 PM
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hands… or, assuredly, we will all hang separately.*

Being human is not for the faint of heart. Being a kid, being a teen, being an adult, a parent, the child of parents with health or memory issues. There is no age of being human that doesn’t come with challenges. Family helps. But family has changed over the centuries, and our idea of what family owes us (and what we owe our families) has changed too.

Time was, if you had children, they were raised to be part of a support system–doing increasingly complex chores, learning the family business or taking over tasks on the farm. My father and his siblings helped out with his father’s store in Brooklyn; 30 years later my grandmother was living with my aunt and uncle and their family; ten years later I (dimly) recall visiting her at a nursing home (she had Alzheimers). She was cared for within the family as long as possible.  In the same way, my mother’s mother wound up moving into an in-law apartment in my aunt’s home; eventually they knocked out the wall between her apartment and theirs, and she stayed at home through the rest of her life.  (more…)

October 17, 2015

Black Thumb

Filed under: Around the House — madeleinerobins @ 3:08 PM
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My mother used to have a little sign by her bed that said “A garden can be fun…if you don’t have one.” I’ve never been sure if this meant she was anti-gardening (she was a killer weeder) or just anti-my father’s whole-hearted dive into gardening.
I am feeling much in sympathy with Mom today.
After spending a couple of hours proof-reading new Book View Cafe releases (watch the skies… in about a month) I decided I would go out and gather up the rotting lemons in the backyard. See, we have a lemon tree that is, to say the absolute least, prolific. Lemons fall and, if not immediately picked up, rot under foot. And still more lemons come, until making it across the yard is a little like a trip through the Fire Swamps, if the Fire Swamps smelled like citrus and decay. So I rolled the compost bin into the back yard.
And then I got distracted by the pigweed by the back gate, so I thought I would start there. Pigweed is an invasive, sappy, altogether noxious weed that grows everywhere, and overgrows everything. And the back steps and the area near the back gate was inches deep in pigweed, so I started there. And then I realized that some of it wasn’t pigweed, but was invasive blackberry that had traveled all the way across the back yard to set up a new colony near the gate.
Long story, as they say, much compacted: I filled the 32-gallon composting bin, and then a 32-gallon composting bag, and there is still pigweed (pulled up but not disposed of) and clipped up blackberry to be bagged for collection, plus all the lemons, and really, I should trim the lemon tree, which is getting ideas about world domination. But I stopped, because I was so sweaty that my glasses were filming over, and despite a long-sleeved shirt and work gloves my arms are itchy with pigweed sap.
Another shower and then I shall return to my proper place in life: proof-reading some more. A garden can be fun…

October 13, 2015

Writing in (Yet Another) New Way

Filed under: Uncategorized — madeleinerobins @ 10:59 PM
Tags: , , ,

I got invited to do a cool thing!

(Okay, part of my delight is that I don’t think of myself as being part of the cool crowd, and therefore, being invited to do a cool thing plucks at my deeply-buried high school nerd self.)

A few months ago a writer of my acquaintance asked me if I’d like to be involved in a Serial Box project. “Serial what now?” I said, with my customary aplomb.

It was explained to me: Serial Box is a new venture that takes as its model the episodic novels of yore–or more contemporaneously, seasons of TV: a work of fiction with new content released every week, written by a team of writers, to create a satisfying episode and a satisfying “season” arc.  (more…)

September 16, 2015

Everything Changes

Filed under: Cities,Travel — madeleinerobins @ 7:12 PM
Tags: , ,

Food-CityLast weekend I was in New York City for a meeting about The Most Fabulous Project I’m working on for Serial Box: a thirteen episode serialized story set in the Restoration, and… okay, I’m getting off topic. I was in New York, city of my birth and of my heart, and even better, in the neighborhood where we lived when my daughters were born.

Lots of things have changed. You expect that in New York–particularly in a neighborhood that was going through growing and gentrification pains even before we moved away 13 years ago. The old-style restaurant down the block from P.S. 163 (my younger daughter’s kindergarten) has been replaced by a Whole Foods. Gabriela’s, our favorite Mexican restaurant on Amsterdam, has moved to Columbus Avenue and gone upscale. The McDonalds on Columbus and 90th is gone (I didn’t think McDonaldses ever went away). Some stores have had long-overdue facelifts. And Food City is closed.

I think–though I haven’t been able to confirm this–that Food City has a brief role in a wonderful movie called They Might Be Giants, in which the protagonists (George C. Scott, playing a judge who thinks he’s Sherlock Holmes, and Joanne Woodward, playing a psychiatrist named Watson) are cornered by the police in a large supermarket fronted by an empty plaza.* More importantly to this story, it’s also where I did my grocery shopping for the ten-or-so years that we lived near by. I fought skirmishes with my daughters over candy at the checkout counter. As a toddler my younger daughter had a pretend game she played where she would be an abandoned child who lived in Food City and hoped I would take her home and adopt her (the ladies at the checkout found it hard to keep a straight face when this was going on).

And on 9/11, I went over to the market to pick up a few things, because the world was looking a little chancy just then, and who knows if we’d need milk and apple juice? I’ve said elsewhere that what I saw at Food City moved me: people picking up a gallon of milk–but not two–a package of toilet paper, but not two, and so on. You could practically see the thought balloon over their heads: “someone else might need some too.” It made New York feel just a little safer, there in this little crowded down-market supermarket.

I have lived off and on in New York for a large chunk of my life. Things change. Tear down a building and you find the echoes of buildings that stood there before. Dig for a subway and find a cemetery or the bones of a ship beached centuries ago. But you get accustomed to thinking that some things are fixtures. Heaven knows enough “why is that place still there?” stores and buildings still exist. But I raise a metaphorical glass to Food City, where I knew where the flour, pork shoulder, and olive oil lived, and where I saw my city at its best.

 

* Really, find They Might Be Giants. It’s a perfectly lovely film that will repay the search.

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