Friday, March 27, 2009

I've spent the morning--I was going to say "being deliciously anal," but that seems a poor choice of words. Anyway, futzing over every poem, every word, every comma of See How We Almost Fly before emailing the complete manuscript to the publisher. I made big last-minute changes--pulled some poems out, restored others--and small ones, changing line breaks and trimming excess words. I love the version I have now, and doing this process has given me peace around my question, "Why did it have to take eight years?"

I've revisited the poems I wrote after visiting Alaska in 2002; I was so stimulated by what i saw and felt there that I came back and wrote a slew of poems. I wrestled with one, about pole-fishing for salmon on Kenai Peninsula at 10 p.m. near Summer Solstice--it was still quite light out, a kind of bright twilight--anyway I must have rewritten that poem 500 times. Today I finally got it right.

And others, the Moose poem...I regret that the Caribou one is lost to history, a casualty of my stolen laptop.

Anyway, it's all good, and it's DONE, and in the process of doing it I also made changes to Love Shack, so it's all in a days' I'm going to go outside into this glorious day and hike and swim and reathe.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

Carla and I went to the Vintage Expo to look for my wedding dress and we found it! A pink cocktail frock—when I say pink, I mean old rose/blush/coral color—fitted through the top and with a skirt that goes out. Beautiful old-fashioned detail, lace V-neck, revealing some cleavage but not too much, some heavy brocaded embroidery, an overlay of –I think it’s netting. I don’t know the words to describe all the details. It’s feminine and pretty and a little bit fancy, but not over-the-top. I hope my five-year-old nieces, both high femmes who adore a children’s heroine called Fancy Nancy, will like it. I won’t be swathed in yards of white satin or anything. And the dress is inexpensive enough so that if I change my mind, I haven’t broken the bank or anything. Now I just want to lose ten pounds—it fits as is, but it would be easier to squeeze into and out of if I were a little thinner.

The expo was fun—booths and booths of vintage clothes, some of them very beautiful, some dowdy. There were wool jackets with real fur collars, cowboy and cowgirl boots with stencils and engravings in different colors, and outrageous hats. I tried on one that was as big as a platter with peacock feathers, ribbons, and fabric flowers all over it.

“This looks like something Minnie Pearl would wear,” I said to Carla. She looked dubious.

“Minnie Pearl would take one look at that thing and say ‘No, it’s too much, even for me.’”

I really did love that hat. If it hadn’t cost $225.00 I would have been tempted to buy it.

There were some very interestingly and eccentrically dressed people at the expo. We got a sense of a sub-culture of people who live for the precious objects of the past.

Carla got a beautiful black crocheted sweater. Then she convinced me to by this Joan Crawford-esque ball gown that really is too tight—a long full French blue skirt with a black lace overlay, and a black velvet top. Stunning. If I move the button over on the chest to give the girls more breathing room, and if I buy a wide black velvet belt at Joanne’s to cover the gap between the skirt and my stomach, it might almost work.

It was fun to be on a normal date with Carla. I say “normal” but of course nothing is. She tires more easily these days; the three hour trip was a marathon expenditure of energy for her. I told her several times I would understand completely if she wanted to back out, but she didn’t, and I was glad for her company and her sharp eye and even sharper opinions, to wit: “Honey you’re too old to wear something dowdy.” Said with total love. The ALS is always there, the wheelchair and the handicapped accessible bathroom that isn’t really accessible because the stall is so small she had to do a 100-point turn just to get into and out of it. But we were focused on fashion and wedding stuff and girl talk. It was just an outing and it was also a small miracle.

The wedding is coming together without too much angst. I think it’s because both C and I are not agonizing about the decisions. Neither of us really care about all the stuff you’re supposed to have or do. We just want simplicity, quality, and intimacy. No need to interview every caterer in the Bay Area, or listen to every band, or try on every dress.

Meanwhile, I finished the second draft of the empathy essay and I’m now ready to do the third one. It’s an interesting journey this essay—it’s really challenging, it takes me so many places, including pockets of unhealed anger and resistance. I’d rather work those things out in draft form than publish them unedited.

C is finishing up work on the in-law even as I type this. He’s done a prodigious amount of work, and today we bought a shower curtain and some other last-minute odds and ends.

Yesterday, five cops were shot a few miles from where we live. Four of them died. It was the worst single day for police murders in California history. Today the city is still in shock. We see officers riding by in their patrol cars looking grim. I asked C if we could drive by the site after our hike. We did and saw a few cops putting flowers in plastic buckets at a makeshift shrine on the desolate block where the firefight happened. There were some American flags there, also in a plastic bucket, and a skeleton TV crew filming the whole sad little scene.

C asked if I wanted to visit the site “out of compassion” for the cops, and I said no, it wouldn’t do the policemen a damn bit of good whether we went there or not. I just wanted to bear witness.

I think our love affair with the HBO show “The Wire” influenced my response to the shootings. “The Wire” is such an intimate portrayal of the police subculture; the cops’ brotherhood with each other, their jokes and profanity, their drinking, their despair and loyalty and street-smarts and vulnerability. We are both caught up in the characters’ lives and loves and drinking problems.

Our street has a strong police presence; it’s not unusual to see cruisers with their lights flashing, making busts on street corners or pulling people over for passing the stop signs and also, I’m sure, checking for drugs. What happened thirty blocks away could just as easily have happened here. In all the talk that follows a drama like this, I hope gun control will become a focus. If that parolee had been armed only with a knife, he might have been able to do some damage, but he never would have been able to kill four people in just a few minutes.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Yesterday was my mother's yahrzeit. I said Kaddish with my sister Emily over the phone. Later, I lit the candle for her and two other candles I had bought for C's parents and we said Kaddish together for our ancestors. Then we watched the movie Evening in tribute to Natasha Richardson. What a lovely lady, in the old-fashioned sense of the word. Her smile communicated warmth and womanliness and deep contentment in love. What a loss.

(The movie itself was okay. I think I'm over Michael Cunningham. All these affairs in New England beachhouses, and quasi triangles involving two men and one woman and ambiguous homoerotic overtones. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with any of that. I'm just saying I saw it in A Home At The End of the World and also in The Hours. His thematic territory is well-worked.)

The fig tree is putting out its little green leaves, like baby hands. Later in the season they will metamorphose into big glossy dark-green clown gloves. There are those tart lemony yellow wildflowers everywhere--I was on a walk with Ruth yesterday and she ate one so I ate one--sour!

And the peach tree is in glorious pink blossom, and on our walk we also saw a blossoming apricot, and lots of California poppies--the bright orange ones, and some paler orange contrasting. Say what you will about God, S/He/It is amazing with color. With justice and mercy, not so much, or at least, not so comprehensible. But with interior or exterior design, unsurpassable.

C is nearing completion on the in-law--although whenever I tell that to anyone close to me they dissolve into laughter since I've been saying that for months now. But it gets truer and truer. I can feel the space opening up. I cleared about a third of the backyard from the mile high weeds that were growing back there--there's two thirds left to go. I finished a good draft of the empathy essay, but it still needs more work. "Go deeper," Ruth says. That's pretty much what she always says.

Today I walked around the lake with my friend Laurie and we talked about the Feminine. I seem to have this irrational need for the women in my life to always be perfectly rational. Or, more accurately, I get impatient with "mushiness," with lack of clarity or difficulty articulating (even though I myself am not always perfectly clear.)

As a writing teacher that translates into lecturing on the value of straightforward sentences: subject verb object. I want women to risk coming out and saying what they mean. No qualifiers. Laurie and I co-taught a writing weekend last summer. it went very well, but she told me a couple of women were intimidated by the expectations I was bringing to the table. They were used to a more free-form practice; Laurie teaches Wild Writing which emphasizes letting the unconscious infuse the work with its own energy.

I was surprised when we worked together how that triggered me. At the time i couldn't put a finger on it. Laurie and I both enjoy each other and respect each other's work. We shared the space and the power well, and the group of women which she had assembled were wonderful. Nevertheless I was a bit irritable, and though I tried to control my impatience, I am a lousy dissembler, and some of it leaked through. It took us nine months to find the time to take a walk and begin talking about it.

"I have to confess something awful," I told her. "I despise and desire the Feminine."

She laughed. "I feel the same way!"

"You do??" I thought I was the only one. Sometimes I feel like a brute. I blame it on my size and strength, but it's not about that at all. It's energetic. When I meet a woman who seems to live from her feminine energy, whose strength lies in nurturing or seducing, in the sensual and in feelings rather than in reason and in logic, I feel both attraction and envy and rage and contempt.

I don't know why I do this polarizing thing to myself and others--assume that if a woman is in her feminine goddess aspect then that means there isn't room for the two of us, and so I have tot ake on the masculine role. It fits in with another tendency I have, which is whenever anyone expresses a quality I take on its opposite. I don't know why I am so oppositional--a positive answer would be that it's a balancing tendency, to make sure all qualities are represented. A truer answer might be that it's a scarcity model--there's only so much beauty or womanliness or strength or whatever to go ahead, so if you're owning it, I'll have to own something else.

I'm not saying any of this is rational. I'm just saying it comes up. And working with another woman, it comes up more. Which is a great reason to work with other women. I get along well with men, for the most part, and/but I find our interactions don't challenge my deepest self-inquiries the way women do. Men are good friends and wonderful supporters. Women are mirrors, with all the honesty and ego that that implies.

Tomorrow I'm going with Carla to the Vintage Expo to look for a wedding dress--it doesn't have to be traditional wedding-y, just a nice dress. the clothes in Evening were from the fifties and I love those styles.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

I got with Paul McCartney last night. I don't know how this happened. I was always a John girl.

We respect each other's boundaries. That's the cool thing about our relationship. I always called him "Sir Paul." It's part of the thrill.

He had admired my prowess in self-defense and wanted a private training session. He needed help dealing with the papparazzi.

I showed up at his apartment lugging a big sack of equipment--padded bricks, punching mitt, padded helmet, knee pads. Oh, and one of the guys, one of the model muggers, to help me teach.

I must say I looked good. Trim and fit and collegiate. And I felt quite young and frisky. Sir Paul wants to get sweaty with me? Bring it on.

Then it began to grow light around the edges of the curtains. C got up and dressed for work. I turned over, and the cat was snoring.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

I've been under the weather since Death Flu three weeks ago--what a great phrase "under the weather is," it describes the feeling exactly. So there is not much scintillating to report. But we did get to see The Wrestler last Saturday night and I was so moved by Mickey Rourke's performance--the broken gentleness, the manliness, the ease with his body and those of the other wrestling guys, contrasted with the incredible discomfort and harshness of life outside the ring. I had never been interested in Wide World of Wrestling, had only glimpsed it when turning on the TV to pop in a video, but this movie is about a man's relationship with his own body, and what happens when that body betrays him. I've never seen such a physical performance before, or one in which the physical and the emotional are so married.

Again--the character is not someone you want for a boyfriend or father--even for a friend--but the empathy is complete. I am thinking right now about the difference in empathy between a writer and an actor. A writer just has to describe a character's feelings and thoughts, an actor has to embody them. I read an interview with Kate Winslet where she said she had resistance to entering her character in the Reader. She didn't like the woman. Fair enough. But she did it anyway, because it is her work. It is not the artist's work to judge, it is the artist's work to enter.

I think it may have been not just that she didn't like the woman, but that the pain she was in was unbearable. I think about the people I have been unable to empathize with and wonder if it is because their pain was just too painful for me. It might not have to do with quantity of pain (as if that could be measured,) but the particular type of pain I found unpalatable.

Monday, March 16, 2009

I keep working with this issue of empathy--artistic, personal, physical, emotional. I just finished reading The Reader by Bernhard Schlenk--wanted to read the book before I saw the movie. The book is fantastic and walks that slippery tightrope where we are not asked to condone the actions of a Nazi guard but to understand the human being who made them. I don't know exactly how the writer pulled off this feat, but he made me look deeply within my fairly self-righteous soul and find more compassion there than I had dreamed possible.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Ruth and I were talking about my experiences at the demonstration. I told her I could not abide the counter-demonstrators, and could not bring myself to "dialogue" with any of them. (One sweet young gay man, who was standing near me, talked about how his mother talks to her Bible Study group about him being gay, and how it's not a sin. I can't imagine having a mother who goes to that kind of Bible Study and being okay with it. This young man, raised Catholic, also has a brother who converted to Mormonism and regards him as a sinner, although he says he still loves him. I can't imagine still being in relationship with someone who felt that way about me. I admired him for his calm, loving, open-mindedness. This young man did, in fact, engage some of the Christian protesters in meaningful dialogue. Better him than me.

Ruth said that even though she is lesbian, she could easily put herself into the shoes of someone homophobic. She could imagine how the world would look through that person's eyes; someone who felt that the stability of their family and their world was threatened by gay sex and love. I said I couldn't imagine myself inside the skin of such a person.

We talked about the limits of empathy. Empathy is the artist's instrument. Especially writers and actors, I think. Singers too. Maybe musicians can get away without it, or painters, but a writer or an actor needs to be able to step inside the skin of another human being. (Then why are many writers and actors narcissistic personalities? I don't know.)

In addition to being a writer, Ruth is also a depth psychologist, and cousels people who come from different backgrounds than she does. So empathy is doubly important to her. She says she is empathic to a fault, but the one trait she finds it hard to relate to is the deliberate desire to hurt someone else: violence, or cruelty.

I immediately said I could relate to this trait all too well. I can understand the man who is so jealous of his wife or girlfriend that he beats her or kills her. I don't condone such behavior, but I recognize that I have the rage-beast within me also, and I can say "There but for the grace of God go I."

I have in fact written poems of empathy for Greg Withrow who was a member of the American Nazi Party (since reprogrammed and now an anti-racist,) and Saddam Hussein. After 9/11 when everyone was pumped up on hating the evil terrorists, I couldn't find it in my heart to hate them. I could see that under their system of thinking, raised in the circumstances they were raised in and brainwashed the way they were, that what they did was "right" in their own eyes, even brave and courageous. I could imagine myself raised in a refugee camp to hate, envy and fear the West, and being inculcated from a young age, that I might do the same.

The thing is, I told Ruth, I cannot empathize with these anti-gay Christians. If I were a better writer, a better person, I could imagine myself into the mind of a woman who gets on a bus or a plane in Salt Lake City to come down to San Francisco, den of iniquity, and try to stop the cancer of same-sex love and marriage from spreading.

I should be able to do that. I have corresponded with people on Death Row, I have written from the point of view of men, of people of different races and ages and circumstances than myself. Was it Gerturde Stein who said, "Nothing human is alien to me?" Someone said it, and I agree with that remark. I have counseled drug addicts who did terrible things while under the sway of their habit, I turn on The Sopranos and see myself reflected in Tony Soprano--but. I cannot imagine myself inside the mind of someone who thinks that two gay people marrying will somehow violate her own marriage.

"I should be able to write a short story from this person's point of view," I told Ruth. "But I'm sure that I can't do it without sounding as if I'm stereotyping--without, in fact, stereotyping that person. I can empathize with violent fuck-ups. I have fucked up plenty myself. But I can't under any circumstances imagine myself as so spiritually smug as Christians who are sure they are going to Heaven and others are going to Hell."

"Can't or won't?" asks Ruth. "I think you have some resistance there."

She's right, I do have resistance. So I set myself this goal. I need to write something convincing, empathic, and non-stereotyping, from the point of view of the Other I despise most--conservative Christians. I will do research if necessary. I will enlarge the place of my tent.

Friday, March 06, 2009

So, yesterday I went into the city with C. He had an appointment; I went to a rally in support of overturning Prop 8, the mean vicious anti-gay marriage proposition that was foisted on California's ballot by a well-organized crew of Mormons and other right-wing ultra-Christian nut jobs, many of whom were from out of state. (I heard that the Mormon church in Utah contributed 20 million to the campaign of disinformation that was mounted in California, targeting especially churches of color, but I can't substantiate that figure.)

Yesterday California's Supreme Court started hearings on a motion to overturn that proposition. The rally was outside the Supreme Court building at 350 McAllister. I have been to a lot of rallies and demonstations before, but never one where we were so intermingled and face-to-face with our opponents. Usually there is separate turfs; over here the demonstrators, over there the counter-demonstrators. But we were all jammed up together, the "No On 8" crowd, with our signs and banners, cheek by jowl with the homophobes with their signs, which read things like "Gays Are An Anti-Species," and "A Moral Wrong Cannot Be A Civil Right," and "Marriage = One man plus one Woman."

I was looking for my friend Jonathan, who said he's be there, but I couldn't find him. Perhaps he was across the street watching the proceedings in court on a giant Tele-tron. I was singing. Some young guys on our side had a guitar and we sang old spirituals and Beatles songs: I Wanna Hold Your Hand, Let Us Be (with apologies to george Harrison,) All Ya Need is Love, etc. I ended up holding up one side of a big banner. The other pole was held by a cute young gay chiropracter with a magnificent tenor voice. When he sang lead on Stand By Me, you could practically see the music pouring out of him. Beautiful.

I liked it a lot better when we were singing than when we =were shouting. When we were singing the other side fell silent and listened. We had some good voices in our group and some sweet harmonies. When we were shouting "No on 8!" they took up their shouting "Yes on 8!" and soon the two sounds belended together. They were composed of the same oppostional angry energy.

I got interviewed by a reporter from the NY Times. Here's the link. I'm one of the talking heads below the article. I was tired when we started and by the time we got back from the city I was exhausted. Three hours of standing on pavement in the middle of that energy plus walking around the city afterwards with C looking for a place to eat left me footsore and limp. But I was glad to have shown up. This issue may come down to numbers again, and every body counts.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Today it rains off and on, off and on. I can't believe that after all this good soaking we've gotten, we are still in a state of drought, but them's the rumors. Last week, I was driving my Little Sister home after a fun though messy bout of making chocolate chip cookies. She was a bit sleepy, lolling in the front seat of the car, then she asked, "Ali-Al, why do it stop and start like that?"

"What--the rain?"

"What makes it stop raining and then start again?"

Scientific knowledge is not my strong suit. If she had asked, "Where did Sylvia Plath do her undergraduate work?" or "Which painters influenced Frank O'Hara?" or "What is enjambement?" then we would have been cooking with gas. Instead I resorted to what someone had told me when I was seven:

"The clouds are like paper bags full of water and when they bump into each other, the soggy bags break and the water falls down on us and that is rain."

She was not impressed by this, and rightly so, since C later told me it was inaccurate. "Maybe I should handle the meteorological inquiries," he suggested.

"Why do it start and then stop again?" she repeated until I had to say, honestly, "I don't know."

And there you have it: I don't know. Gerry asked me what I thought of the stimulus package, whether it will work or not. I don't know. Where will the good jobs be and will I get one? I don't know. Will Love Shack get taken by a small press soon, or will I be sending it to contests for the next eight years as I did with See How We Almost Fly? I don't know. How much money am I making this year now that my poetry in the schools work has mostly dried up? I don't know. What will I do for work in the next part of my life? I don't know.

I keep repeating to myself what Carla says in circumstances that are harder and more out-of-control than the economy: My positive attitude is unconditional. It does not hinge on specific outcomes, desired or not. It is intrinsic; it comes from within. That's the only way to go. All the rest is weather. It rains, it stops raining. It starts raining again. C says this has something to do with the winds blowing the clouds around. I don't know why.

Monday, March 02, 2009

It's STILL raining...a good, deep, soaking rain. This has to make a difference in the drought. It rained all weekend and C worked on the in-law which is sparkling like a gem. New plumbing. he installed all the fixtures we bought last summer--the new, low-flush toilet (Okay, you know you are middle-aged when you get excited about a new toilet. It is one of the ten warning signs.) New brushed-chrome faucets, new lights. We still have to get curtain rods, and clean the place up and there are a few possibly-leaky spots, but otherwise...I'm afraid to even say it out loud...the project may be FINISHED!!

I sat on the couch and worked on Love Shack. I can't quite believe how quickly this book came together. Less than four months from conception to what feels (today) like finished.

Friday night I performed with Wing It! Phil asked me to improvise a poem and I did one about my mother. the theme of the show was To Tell The Truth. I don't talk about my mother in Wing It much. that is, I don't tell stories about her. I don't know how to convey her. A thousand specific details wouldn't do it.

She loved Latin and the etymology of words. She corrected people's grammar and their approximations of time constantly: it wouldn't do to say "It's a quarter to two," if it was really twenty till. You couldn't get away with saying you were fifty--you were fifty and a half. She ate her food by even numbers: four Oreo cookies, six almonds. She was scared that when she died she wouldn't really be dead and would be buried alive. She loved the theatre and took me to see plays. She loved storytelling and was fiercely anti-war yet she enraged me by remarking wistfully of Barbara Bush Sr: "At least all her children come home for the holidays."

She seemed to me always to be hiding something: her true self. Maybe she was, or maybe, as my father said, "This is her true self." I never believed his version. I thought it was a case of she had hidden it so well from others that when she needed it, she couldn't find it.

She worked hard. Baskets of laundry washed and folded, casseroles defrosted, children taught. In her heyday, she was thin, strong, efficient, beautiful without make-up or fashion, and a little forbidding. Her dark curly hair was cut short. She had large dark eyes, a luminous smile, and beautiful legs. She used to say "Energy begets energy."

She didn't get her driver's licence until she was forty, and she was never a good driver. I remember being in the car with her when she stepped on the gas instead of the brake and we plowed into the car ahead of us. It was at a stop light and no one was going very fast.

She got herself out of Brooklyn and into a house into the green suburbs where she was busy and lonely. When I was an adolescent I blamed her for her loneliness and isolation. I thought it was her fault for being untrusting and needing to be better than everyone. Now that I am middle-aged and lonely myself with some of the same tendencies, I understand better.

Her marriage to my father worked for a long time and then it didn't. they stayed together anyway. He was loyal when she got sick with M.S.--not a saint, but loyal and responsible. She was difficult. She had an inner flame, a radiance, that drew people to her, strangers. All the policemen in town knew her, all the waitors in Chinese restaurants, all the shop clerks. She was a bit of a minor celebrity in Lexington, and also a character. She'd go cruising down in her wheelchair wearing the floppy blue sun hat I gave her, to Walgreen's where she would torture the clerks with a fistfull of coupons.

She had a habit of buying things and then returning them. A good friend of hers said "She had a whim of iron." A great description of her.

Justice was important to her. She had a chldlike quality and always wanted things to be fair. She played no favorites among her four children, although some of us were easier for her to raise than others. After she had had us, after we had grown up and turned into the real people that we are, she could not quite believe we were hers. Maybe all parents feel this way, I don't know. It is a miracle. but in her there was also a radical detachment. This helped her in some ways; it also hurt her.

I never really felt like her daughter. the closest we ever came was one night when we were supposed to go to the movies together and ended up in the car, talking about hour relationship. She confessed that she had not felt like my mother either. It was as if both were playing a part. It was the closest I ever felt to her because it was honest. Later, she denied it.

So Friday night I told some little tiny piece of this in a poem. Theron played the flute and he anchored me with tender eye contact. And there were dancers. Afterwards, people sighed. I felt quite raw. I felt like it had been a terrible downer of a poem.

After the show, several people told me it was one of their favorite parts of the evening. Cynthia just wrote me to tell me she lloved that piece. It's one more lesson in the never-ending curriculum that what I think of my work--or my life, or myself--is not what other people see. I am always the harshest critic, especially when it comes to intimacy. I wish I could change that. I wish I could realize that it is okay to tell the truth. As it is I tell the truth and then suffer emeotional fall-out afterwards. Not so much from the outside world--although sometimes--but mostly from myself. Nevertheless, I keep telling it.