Small-time patronage

Another manifesto I cut from my novel What’s Left, is a vision of a wide community of artists who have employable day-jobs:

One night, as Nita will exclaim, Hey! We’re the biggest patrons of the arts around here! She’ll be right. We’ll have poets as bakers. Painters as mechanics. Sculptors as gardeners. On weekend evenings, there will be folk music and jazz in the restaurant, as well as Sunday afternoon chamber music recitals. Baba will change the art exhibits monthly. In time, we’ll even have to create mail-order catalogs for some of these expanding industries. And that’s the conservative forecast.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.


Well, we can dream, can’t we? Somewhere in Nita’s discourse I hear a plea for a less ugly, less brutal society – one overflowing with harmony and compassion instead. Rather than the mass-media push for blockbusters – movies, hit songs, or bestseller books – she emphasizes face-to-face, small-scale exchanges.

Do you resonate with anything in Nita’s vision? How do we support each other? How do you support your friends? And how do they support you?

Looking for ways to include everyone

Sometimes, when you look into the eyes of desperation, you wonder what the downtrodden might be able to do to help themselves – and others.

In my novel What’s Left, her family has the resources to make some things happen, but they’re small fry in the face of the bigger issues. Here’s a passage I trimmed from the final version of the story:

Baba, of course, retreats earlier by heading to the monastery, just as all the big moves start unfolding. He returns to a different world, apart from the family core – and its true love.

Not that everybody’s talented. Barney and even Dimitri come up with odd jobs for the vagabonds who materialize around the loading docks of restaurants … the aimless hippie, too … and rather than a handout, Can you lend a hand? You know, scrubbing or raking or sweeping or helping move supplies from a delivery van – anything that then might lead to a free meal or spending the night in Barney’s old car. If we don’t have something at the restaurant, maybe there’s something else to do around Mount Olympus.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy.

I really do wish I had answers. Maybe we need to start small. Any suggestions for Barney and Dimitri in the novel, like helping unpack a truck or sweeping the walk?

What do you do to help others? Not family, but the wider community? 

Cassia as small-town royalty

From one perspective in my novel What’s Left, Cassia’s family begins to resemble royalty in a small-town setting. It’s not that they’re living a life of ease – far from it, everyone works hard, including long hours at the family restaurant. But they do inhabit an old Victorian house that resembles a small castle, and they are known throughout the community and are financially secure. For the record, even pampered royalty must perform daily duty and live up to standards.

I’ve sometimes joked that if were emperor, I’d eliminate some pet peeve of the moment, like maybe banning onions or requiring everyone to do something like go to the opera rather than another soccer match. Luckily, you’re spared the consequences.

What would it be like to be born a princess? Or even a prince? (Well, while we’re at it, is there even a country – real or imaginary – you’d prefer to rule over?)

Making a home for alternative arts

Passages in early drafts of my novel What’s Left ran the risk of becoming manifestos for certain strands of the fine arts. Here’s one Cassia ponders as she considers her father’s work:

In the period he spent between college and moving here, he falls into a rhythm of settling down into his own humble life and looking sharply at what’s right in front of him, no matter how chaotic and confusing his quest for amorous companionship is going. He’s still ambitious, mind you, with lofty goals. But he’s also deeply wounded and trying to recover, however furtive the pathway appears, but I’d say that he’s been opened and becoming more sensitive to discovery. In that way, everything is new, seen for the first time. High on his priorities is a knowledge that a true artist has to discover a voice – and that means focusing on some smaller scale, no matter how bad that pun is for a photographer. Well, Manoula would share that need to focus – as a violinist, she stays classical rather than veering off into jazz or folk, and even there she has the pieces she works on repeatedly. As for a signature, some say it’s a Gypsy fire.

So just what is his signature?

In that period right after college, he’s baffled. Everything’s changing. He just has to keep doing whatever he’s doing and hope a message comes clear.

In fairness, few newspaper photographers push that hard. They just want to get good shots in crisp focus and deposit their skimpy paychecks. For Baba, though, something else is percolating. It’s not just another baseball game he’s shooting – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime contest.

Look close and you can see a signature touch in his work all along – something crystalline, abetted by impeccable work in the darkroom, as he investigates whatever’s in front of him. Maybe it’s basic chemistry taken in a fresh direction.

Every true artist – and I have no doubt Baba is one – is drawn to individuals to admire and perhaps emulate. For American photographers, Ansel Adams would be a given. Edward Steichen, well, you can fill in the rest. Looking through his papers, though, I’m surprised to find Francesca Woodman and Sarah Moon among those who capture his imagination. If anything, I’d say their work is the antithesis of his. Theirs are filled with fantasy, even ghosts, decay – so much appears out of focus or fragmentary, even merely suggestive. They evoke history, while he celebrates a present moment.


Cassia’s a smart kid, but you can bet she never would have spoken like that. Strike one! Even in her 20s, she wouldn’t have. Strike two! It really is too much of a curveball for the story. Strike three, and it’s out!

The tone, especially, is way off.

Elsewhere, though, she does observe that her father had his own signature style.

Tell me of a visual artist you greatly enjoy. What do you find most inspiring? If you’re a visual artist yourself, what are your own goals? What do you want to stand out in your work? What are your favorite subjects?

Jumpin’ Jehosaphat, the place starts rocking

The old church is rechristened, as it were, when their live rock nights take over. In What’s Left, my novel many of the musicians are already connected to the family restaurant, one way or another.

As I explain in a passage that was more than anyone needed in the final version:

Much to their credit, Dimitri and Graham and Barney and Pia have a knack for attracting talent – and for listening to all their ideas. It isn’t all just food-oriented, either.

Oh, I’m so glad Cassia’s stopped talking like this. In the final version, she’s refreshingly snippy.


Thanks to her aunt Yin, a teenaged Cassia winds up booking up-and-coming acts – ones that can play well in their old church. It’s a matter of people skills and organizational skills, especially, along with taking good advice from her musically alert cousins.

Imagine stepping in for her. What kind of music or other entertainment would you most like on the schedule? Is there a local band or singer or comedian (nobody widely known yet) you’d like to pitch to Cassia if you could? (Feel free to add a link to their website or YouTube action, if you wish.) Go ahead, shamelessly plug them, be the loyal fan club – let the world know! Go wild, oh yay! Me? How about a weekly contradance?

Right next door, hallelujah

Let me confess, as an author, this was an impulse purchase for me. Have you ever driven through an old residential neighborhood and noticed an old church just plunked down in the middle of the block?

The one in my novel What’s Left sits next to the family manse. Here’s an early description of the site, one I decided not to include in the final version:

One thing that hadn’t been discussed when he left was the use of the old white church. We bought it just because we could. Thea Nita has joked it was the missing lot on our Monopoly board, and you could agree that she’s right. Yes, it was a great indoor playground for us kids but, as I’ve learned, that hardly justified the expense. Early uses included folk dancing, especially square dances and New England contras – events that included live music and callers, along with instruction. And there were a few weddings. It wasn’t a particularly big church, though – the pews held maybe a hundred people? Well, we promptly put those into storage.

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy. You get the idea.


I’m ready to up that capacity number somewhat, anyway. Wouldn’t 200 be more fitting?

If you’re like me, music’s an essential part of life. I’m in a community choir that rehearses in the social hall of a church that rents out space for our offices, too – we do a big Christmas production at Harvard every year. I could imagine something similar working out of this space.

Where do you go for live music or dancing? Do you prefer a small club setting? An auditorium? A big arena? Or just somebody’s garage or basement? What kind of neighborhood is it in?

When home is almost a castle

In my novel What’s Left, the home life of Cassia’s extended close-knit family revolves around a large Victorian house they call Big Pink. It’s just a block away from their restaurant, and sometimes it’s hard to count just how many generations and their guests are living within it.


This passage, though, didn’t quite fit on their plates:

Baba tells us of a dorm buddy who once bandied about the idea of taking an old house and serving intimate dinners in the various rooms. Be like eating in somebody’s private home, he’d said.

Well, Dimitri says, we have this imposing but monstrous citadel in our project. (Meaning Big Pink.) We could move the restaurant right here, but I rather like it as the center of something better. He reaches for a piece of paper and hands it to Baba.

See, if we enclose the porch, like this, and put a grill in here … uh-huh, they grin as Baba pencils in this creation. An entryway here. Steps leading up to an enlarged dining room, which goes here. The kitchen, you see, builds into this area, and …

Oh, I’m so glad she stopped talking like this! In the final version, she’s pretty snippy and Big Pink remains filled with children.


As I’ve learned the hard way, old houses demand a lot of repair and maintenance. One like Big Pink could be a full-time job. Fortunately, Cassia’s great-grandfather Ilias left his imprint, and some of her cousins follow suit.

Traveling about, it’s always fun to look at different kinds of dwellings, especially where people have made their signature marks.

Tell me what you’d most want as your dream house.