Category Archives: Jean Zimmerman

How to write

When I was around eight years old I knew I was going to be a writer. I knew it because I filled composition notebooks with my signature, over and over. My author’s autograph. I seem to remember my parents being unhappy with the wasted paper. But the whole thing is probably a fantasy, a writerly-coming of age fable.

Four thousand years ago, students in Middle Kingdom Egypt had their own composition notebooks made of papyrus.

It would be whitewashed with gesso and reused over and over again. Found in the Metropolitan Museum, this practice hieroglyph shows birds, eyes, feathers, goblets – or is that my imagination? What do you read in this writing? What story does this schoolchild tell?

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Burrata or blossoms

Usually you could have both, because the mozzarella store, Joe’s, in Arthur Avenue, is in so close proximity to the New York Botanical Garden, where the cherry trees are currently in bloom. The Sakura festival is upon us.

However, it’s 2:00, and “we sell out of the burrata early” says the counter man, not surprising when you consider how creamy, gooey, mild  and scrumptious is burrata. Joe’s has a wall of imported tomatoes.

Hoary cheeses hang above.

A picnic sandwich will have to suffice, al fresco.

It’s a good place to take pictures of people taking pictures. Everyone is doing it.

To hide behind the mysterious Prunus pendula.

We see a man juggling oranges as he walks along. And a mother with feet all dressed up for spring.

An artist named Yayoi Kusama had polka dotted the grounds. “Forget yourself and become one with nature!” says this mad person. “Obliterate yourself with polka dots!” Fabric stretches around the soaring red oaks. Patrons buy polka dot ponchos in the gift shop.

A funny combination. Blossoms.

And dots.

“Do these polka dots make my trunk look fat?” said the tree, smirking.

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Take one step

in the desert and you see something astounding. I am parched. I crave liquid, anything, water, iced coffee, beer. Desert plants thrive in the heat of the sun. Without water, they ooze color. Yellow desert marigold, a member of the aster family.

The flame of indian paintbrush.

Or these more delicate desert mallow.

Textures seem improbable, like the flirty catkins of the mesquite.

Or the haunted-house barbs of the fishhook cactus.

The prickly pear, just on the verge of busting out.

Back home on the east coast, so far away, the pretty cherries are in bloom. Daffodils mildly wave their snouts. Forsythia, rich but somehow insipid, you can find it at the edge of all the roads.

Here there is drama.

The blue bell jar of sky covers everything. Magnifies it all. Holds you as if you are pinned, gape-mouthed, in thirst and in awe.


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Wood makes the sound go ’round

If you travel to Phoenix, go to the Musical Instrument Museum. You can drink an iced coffee before you go, you’ll need the energy. But then go right away. 

Among the thousands of objects on display, one special exhibit currently devotes itself to Congolese masks and music and I promise it will blow your mind even if you’ve never had an interest in African rhythms or dance. It turns out these are less often face masks than they are full bodysuits and the person who wears one summons magic, especially for initiations of boys into adulthood.

Wherever I go, I like to see women represented; in movies, in music, and dance. That doesn’t always happen. So while I was disappointed that only men take part in the ritual dances of this part of the world, I noted that they sort of make up for it with their cross dressing costumes to represent the strength of the female gender.

Note the breasts. And I could not help but think that the Congolese women probably play a rather large role in crafting these costumes. The sleeves and torso are woven somehow with a jute-like material; sometimes dyed and fastened with cowrie shells. How did these women make these garments? I wondered. I wanted to see the patterns, the looms. Or was the fiber somehow knitted?  The otherwise elaborate placards did not say. I am always interested in how something is made as much as the finished product. 

Which is why when I went back in the museum to the American instruments  I was fascinated by the wood instruments, all of them made by hand. There are thousands of string and wood designs throughout MIM. Some are put together with animal skins, like this harp-lute from Guinea.

Some are large, like this guitarrom from Southern Honduras.

Or this gigantic Mando-bass made in Chicago in 1913, with an interior label that boasts it has “the greatest power of tone the world has ever heard.”

But I digress.

The exhibit I thought really excelled showed a Martin workshop complete with all the tools of the trade. The museum info talked about the development of the Dreadnought guitar, its larger body, wider waist and tapered shoulders, the difference of its frets, how it became the premier guitar in America (Martin helped fund the exhibit.)

But what did I like the most? The fact that clothespins are used in the modeling of the musical form.

Wood shaping wood, wood making music.

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Scottsdale is not what it was

I’ve been visiting since my parents retired here when I was in my 20s. The scent of the air, its dryness, the heat, all were so different than cold grey New York. In Manhattan, we took cabs. In Arizona, we took hot air balloons. The flora asserted their exotica. Right down the street from my parents, at McCormick Ranch, was a real ranch with horses friendly enough to come over to the fence and be fed carrots.

When Gil and I got married, our best man, a photographer, brought  us out into the desert for official posed pictures. We went to an empty lot downtown.

There was nothing but sand and tumbleweed for miles, and saguaros that towered over our heads. Carnegiea gigantea. Easterners, we learned that the single columns were the babies among them, and the more arms that poked out of that central stem, the more ancient they were. There were a lot of vintage saguaros out there.

Years went by. We spent our Arizona time with my parents in Sedona, not Scottsdale. When they returned, we returned, to find that you can in fact pave paradise – though a cliché, it’s no exaggeration. Almost all the desert had been developed. Towering corporate buildings, shopping mall after shopping mall. No horses munching behind a fence, they were long gone, whether to pasture or the glue factory, nobody knew. Development had disappeared them.

But still. The air and the heat feel the same. There are fuschia flowers.

Odd saguaro shapes, as high as ever above your head.

Twisted palo verde specimens. Parkinsonia aculeata.

Rosemary hedges.

All of these plants are squeezed along the turf alleys amid winding sidewalks, not “out in the desert” but the embodiment of desert nonetheless. The hot rodders own the 101, transplanted Californians have taken over the parking lots at Whole Foods, gated complexes proliferate.

There is no empty lot where we took our wedding shots. But you can’t kill the desert. It blooms again every spring.


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Do not write a travel diary

…or if you do, make sure you don’t write it in pencil. A small chunk of diaries my grandmother penned arrived for my perusal when I had some time on my hands to page through them. The script in pencil has faded, often illegibly, though the spirit of the writer comes through.

My grandmother was a remarkable person, strong and opinionated, not one to suffer fools gladly. She traveled the world round with my grandfather taking a gleeful interest in all they experienced. In Russia in 1953 they visited Tolstoy’s house, and she noted the minutiae of everything preserved there. In Tokyo, where they visited my parents, it was the faces of the little girls. In Paris, the pace at which the Frenchwomen walked.

So much of what she saw is lost to us now because it was private, in those little cursive-filled volumes, in a box, on a shelf, obscure even to me, a writer, who loved the writer of them.

Minna was born in the United States in 1898 but her family had emigrated from Lodz, in Poland, 60 miles southwest of Warsaw – where my grandfather Jack’s family also came from. A self-described flapper, she would have naturally gravitated to the luxurious furs my grandfather’s company manufactured. They moved to Long Island, to a gracious home, then back to Manhattan, on Central Park West, with a window overlooking the mammoth grey rocks I liked to climb as a child. It was in this period, when I was small and she was mature, that she and Jack took the world by storm, going to France, Japan, India, Russia, Cuba and many more.

The last I remember of her traveling was something that did not have to do with her actual travels, something imaginary. When she was in her eighties, ailing with a heart condition, she told me nonsensically that she went out flying during the night. The wanderings of a person at the end of her life. Soon after her death, her notebooks were put away, for future generations more accustomed to keeping a blog than keeping a diary. Is posting on line any more profound than taking a pen – or even a pencil – to paper? I think not. It’s just something that we do, Minna and I, honing our personal observations for no reason other than because we can.

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The burden of Sisyphus

Sitting out on the balcony on a cool (80 degree) day in late March, my mother showed me a tree she called “the Sysyphus tree.” Rough bark, winding branches, small leaves aflutter. It has to be pruned twice a year so the sunlight will be allowed to poke through.

Rabbits run around the lawn below, which is a good thing for the owls that roost in the tree. My mother calls to them, and they call back, when they are not being sullen.
My mother (her pic) has gotten to know the owls quite well. They disappeared when my father went into the hospital four weeks ago, and didn’t return until today, when I arrived. Sysyphus was condemned to rolling a boulder up a mountain. Late life illness is a burden everyone should be spared.

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Spring bears

One of my favorite images of spring is this target-practice bear we rescued from the dump, standing shyly behind just-bloomed daffs.

Of course bears are not known for being shy. A family of six, including the mother (called a “sow”) and her yearlings, recently made a play for a bird feeder in the Town of Goshen. It was the middle of the night.
They made a racket and then lolled around for a while, presumably digesting.

Black bears are on the rise in our area, and the New York Department of Environmental Conservation warns that you should keep birdseed, pet food and garbage put away. The saying goes, “A fed bear is a dead bear,” because once a bear gets the taste of human food it will keep on returning and will eventually have to be put down. Tranquilizing and relocating them doesn’t work, as they have been known to go 300 miles to return to their familiar habitat — your bird feeder. And campers beware — keep all your food and cooking items in your car. If you camp without a car, I guess you don’t eat! These are beautiful animals and deserve the best we can give them. Which is not giving them anything. Bears can make it on their own, without humans.

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Wood and water

Look at the header of this blog and you’ll see a familiar shape, familiar in the way things of some vintage seem to be, something that you have inherited a knowledge of but can’t quite put your finger on. Still retaining its glossy red paint after what must be many decades – or even a century or two – it was given us by by my brother and sister-in-law and adorned the cabin porch in the time we lived there. It seemed to fit in an abode that dated back to the 1790s.

A yoke, together with an oxbow, comprised critical farming equipment until the beginning of the twentieth century, when machinery took over. (Some “rusticators” still keep a team.) The ox is apparently a creature that despite its tremendous strength and iffy moods can be tamed with a wooden apparatus fitted around its neck. The word yoke dates back to the twelfth century.

Yoke beams were traditionally fashioned of the wood of the hornbeam, Carpinus carolinia, a hardwood tree in the birch family, because of its strength and durability. It’s also sometimes known as blue-beech, ironwood or musclewood. An old English name, the word’s two syllables denote, first, hardness and horn, and second, the old English word for tree, beam. It doesn’t get any more basic than that. I find that what I like beyond trees themselves is the culture of trees, what they’ve been used for, how they’ve been used and consumed over time. The relationship between people and trees. Coach wheels, piano actions and the pegs of windmills have seen the benefit of the hornbeam’s durability, but the wood is nearly impossible to carve.

Another kind of oxbow has nothing to do with farming – or pianos or windmills, for that matter. An oxbow is the meander of a river, stream or creek that has come separated from the main artery. 

Oxbows store excess water that might otherwise flood an area, filter water and provide a habitat for wildlife. In Iowa, the Nature Conservancy is working with partners to restore three different watersheds. They identify places where oxbows once existed, then work with the locals to excavate the original U-shape, making it possible for small fish to move in and get protection from larger predatory fish. Dozens of kinds of fish have spawned in oxbows, including the fathead minnow, the green sunfish and the Federally endangered Topeka shiner. Waterfowl also find it to be a felicitous nesting site.

Of wood or water, an oxbow just makes sense.

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Ruff around the edges

The Frick is getting renovated, so it poured its collection of great works into the museum on Madison Avenue that was originally the Whitney and then the Met Breuer. I’d like to see the machinations that went into bringing the precious art objects across town and then down a few blocks. Must have been a lot of Brinks guards.

I’ve heard it said that New Yorkers love the Frick more than any other museum in town. The mansion that hosts the collection, built for industrialist Henry Clay Frick at the beginning of the 20th century, is the last remaining of the grand houses that populated Fifth Avenue and Madison in the Gilded Age, and it is truly scrumptious in its details. I don’t know if the magnolia trees were there when the house was built, but they are truly magnificent. It even has a bowling alley in the basement, where ordinary visitors never set foot.

It’s weird to see paintings you have known in another setting, especially an intimate century-old one, hung on modern white walls.

I’ve always loved this portrait by Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres of an inscrutable young woman posed against a mirror. (Yes, the name is a mouthful. But it doesn’t compare with the given name of another artist, whom we know as Pablo Picasso. He was christened Pablo Diego José Francisco de Paula Juan Nepomuceno María de los Remedios Cipriano de la Santisima Trinidad Martyr Patricio Clito Ruíz. Fed his ego a little?).

The friend who accompanied me to the Frick exhibit said what she really liked about these classic canvases is how the painters treated fabric. In this Ingres you can see why, with its gleaming grayish purple satin folds and a suggestion of a ruffle at the bottom of the gown. It’s almost hard to think of the clothing as paint.

The Frick collection contains many old Dutch masters, quite a few wearing the garment that was au courant in the 17th century: the ruff.

Why? we say now. Why would someone, male or female, want to go out with a circle of immaculately white linen around their neck?  A large one, sometimes called a millstone ruff, could take 18 or 19 yards of fine cambric to make. But you can see that these elites made it an integral part of their wardrobes along with all the satin and velvet. Luckily there were servants to keep the ruff stiff, using an implement called a goffering iron to set the pleats. Starch was key.

These paintings endure, but fabric deteriorates, and amazingly, there is all only a single ruff surviving from that time, carefully preserved in a vitrine in a Dutch museum. Looks like the starch has fallen out a little. But it never fails to excite, seeing a vestige of women’s work, the painstaking labor of sewing, so important to our lives throughout history and yet taken for granted.

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It’s kind of murky on this St. Patrick’s Day in the Hudson Valley of New York. Let’s get a little color with a bougainvillea gone haywire:

And a little inspiration from Seneca:

The whole future lies in uncertainty: live immediately.

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Foolish snowdrops

We walked along the Aqueduct, where the snow and ice were still sloppy and slippery, and saw the first snowdrops by the side of the trail. Snowdrops (Galanthus) come up so valiantly through the duff on their slender stems and you feel if they can do that, anyone can do anything. If they pulled through the winter, anyone can pull through their own winter.

But listen to Basho’s haiku:

All this foolishness

About moons and blossoms

Pricked by the cold’s needle.

It takes a lot of stamina to lift up your head, especially with a crumb of crumpled leaf like a hat upon it. It’s almost spring. Will we forget all about the life we’ve been living and go back to the way we were? Snowdrops come up through a storm. Can we?


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An Ichthyologist’s delight

The Hudson River Almanac, compiled by a sage named Tom Lake, covers the Hudson River and everything that flies above it, swims in it or roams its banks, from the High Peaks of the Adirondacks to New York Harbor. “It seeks to capture the river’s spirit, magic and science by presenting observations from many individuals who delight in the diversity of nature in the Hudson Valley.” It’s crowd-sourced by a bunch a nature nuts. Dip in and have a happy day.

To illustrate, recently the “Fish of the Week” was the northern stargazer. I had never heard of it but once introduced couldn’t get it out of my mind.

Ichthyologist C. Lavett Smith, I learned, calls the northern stargazer “a bizarre fish.” They are somewhat like the oyster toadfish and somewhat like the goosefish. “They have a nearly vertical mouth surrounded by fringed lips,” The Hudson River Almanac tells me. “Much of their body mass is in their head and they will eat pretty much whatever they can fit in their huge mouth. They bury themselves in the sand with their eyes and mouth sticking out just enough, aimed skyward (star-ward) and wait for prey. When something appealing swims by, the stargazer uses its large mouth to create a vacuum to suck it in.”

Also, these appealing creatures have an organ in their head that can deliver an electric charge that can stun prey and perhaps ward off predators. Their genus, Astroscopus, comes from Latin as one that “aims at the stars.” Their trivial name, guttatus, comes from Latin as “speckled,” like raindrops.

To subscribe to this always surprising publication, go here: Hudson River Almanac . In the meantime, keep your fingers and toes in the boat.


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Gil’s book is out today

And I have an inside track with one of the authors. He answered a few questions.

What made you want to write a Nordic noir – about a place so far from home?

I’d always wanted to write about an American detective in a Scandinavian context. I had a lot of different plot lines. I thought it would be great to have a stranger in a strange land. I pitched the idea to my friend Sarah Hollister and we developed it together.

What can you say about the book’s approach?

There are supposed to be two kinds of plots – either a stranger comes into town or  somebody leaves town. This Land Is No Stranger turned out to be a combination of the two.

You‘ve written novels with a female detective at the forefront before. How is Veronika Brand different than Layla Remington?

She’s much more of a mess. Remington is even-tempered, level headed. Brand is half off her rocker.

Is she likable? Can we relate to her?

It depends how much you like going-on-40 speed freak suspended NYC detectives.

 What was it like collaborating with someone halfway around the world?

Sarah is great. In a story about a NYC detective in Sweden, she supplied the Sweden while I was more about the NYC detective.

Did you always agree?

I used to tell her that if I agreed with her then we’d both be wrong. I’m not a real day-at-the-beach as a cowriter.

What do you think is the most interesting part of the book?

That’s like asking who is your favorite child.

Do you plan to go on writing in this vein?

Yes, there are two more books planned with Veronica Brand and Krister Hammar as heros.

Is the book coming out in Sweden at the same time?

Yes, in English, and later on in the fall there will be a Swedish edition.

Note: You can order the book from Amazon today!

Use the link pasted below to scroll through the beginning of the book. 


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A hoo-hoo in the darkness

As if she wasn’t cool enough already, Harriet Tubman, christened Moses by abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, used owl calls to alert freedom seekers about whether they could run or stay put. (I think there is some question about whether her acolytes actually used that moniker, as they do in the movie version of Tubman’s life. But like so many history-bytes, it’s too good to deny. Let’s believe everyone did call her that.)

At the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, one historian says that an owl call would “blend in with the normal sounds you would hear at night. It wouldn’t create any suspicion.”

Scout, spy, guerilla soldier and nurse for the Union Army, Tubman was also a naturalist. She grew up in an area of wetlands, swamps and upland forest. As an enslaved domestic servant at the age of seven her jobs included wading into the swamps to check on the muskrat traps. She worked the timber fields with her brothers and father.

She famously made 13 trips from the north to Maryland between 1850 and 1860 to lead people to freedom. And her earlier experiences in those forests and timber fields helped her read the map of the outdoors and employ the sounds she knew by heart.

The North Star and the Big Dipper were also crucial when it came to traveling under cover of night. And she knew the rivers she and her followers would have had to travel in order to throw off their scent when the tracking dogs came.

We don’t know for sure what kind of owls she emulated — a barred owl or “hoot owl”, probably, though a great horned owl is a possibility. Certainly not these babies, that only peep. Harriet’s “hoo-hoo” was a sound that a fortunate few got to hear and respond to.


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