Thursday, August 27, 2009

"You owe me ten chick flicks for this one," I hissed at Christopher during the climactic and bloody final scene of "Inglorious Basterds." "No, you owe me a hundred films featuring women sitting cross-legged on the floor talking about their feelings, or getting makeovers and finding themselves."

Call me a humorless prude, a self-conscious politically correct bluestocking, but exploitative violence-porn just doesn't do it for me. I read an article by some rabbi in the Huffington Post which said that all Jews can now get their long-denied vicarious thrills from watching a Jewish commando pump Hitler full of lead (with a huge conflagration in the background and lots of panicked Nazis milling around, getting murdered in interesting ways.)

Not this Jew. I didn't find it a satisfying revenge fantasy; its only redeeming feature was that the orgy of violence was so sickeningly over-the-top that it made me recoil from the very idea of revenge altogether. (And if you want a good Jewish revenge movie, what about "Munich," written by my idol Tony Kushner, which tells the story of an elite group of Jewish commandos who carry out assassinations of anti-Semites all over Europe. It's not a perfect movie, but at least the characters have three dimensions, and they wrestle with moral complexity.)

Understand, I knew that Tarantino would be violent--he always is. I loved Pulp Fiction for its wit and the great performances by everyone, and for the way Tarantino played with the chronology. I loved The Sopranos--great writing, great acting, and I saw my own shadow in the character of Tony Soprano. The Wire was even better. I've eaten up all the Bourne movies with Matt Damon, who is the Hollywood star I would most like to have dinner with. I love films like "A History of Violence," with Viggo Mortensen (who gives Damon a run for his money in the most-want-to-have-dinner-with category.) I would recommend "The Hurt Locker" as the best movie I've seen yet about Iraq (second best would be "Stop-Loss.")

If violence is integral to the plot and the characters, if the story warrants it, okay, show blood. But using the Holocaust in order to have your own private sadism-fest is just a cheap trick.

(To be fair, I can't stand most movies about the Holocaust, including Schindler's List, which felt manipulative, and Life is Beautiful, which everyone else loved and I hated. I've seen two good movies about that time: both written by Germans. One was "Aimee and Jaguar," about a lesbian love affair between an undercover Jewish journalist and the wife of a Nazi officer. Fantastic. Everyone should rent it, but be prepared to have your heart shattered. The other was "The Reader," which, instead of just showing Nazis as cardboard monsters, wrestled with the much more difficult and complex question of Nazis and ex-Nazis as flawed, traumatized human beings.

I didn't like these movies better because they were "politically correct," I liked them better because they told stories with depth and heart and real stakes instead of gallons of fake red blood and gross special effects.

I do agree with Tarantino on one point though; movies are important. (And yes, I got the metaphor; by using film to burn down the movie theatre where the top brass of the Third Reich were all conveniently clustered, he was saying movies have the power to change the world and as artists we even have the license to rewrite history. Nice metaphor, but it takes more than a metaphor to make a story work.) Movies are our collective dream; they get under our skin and stay there; they show us to each other, they matter. So for God's sake, Quentin, make them with heart.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The "lion of the Senate" is gone; a great spirit has passed. Shakespeare said that some are born great, and some have greatness thrust upon them. I would add that some are born into really great really fucked-up families and have to thrash around and make terrible mistakes and endure a lot of scorn and judgment and pain before they crawl out of the mud and step by painful step achieve their own kind of greatness.

Ted Kennedy was the widow of his brothers. To think of the torch that he had to carry is enough to make anyone misty-eyed.

I'm moved by his story--as the NY Times put it candidly, "his personal life was a mess." Until he was about sixty. That's a pretty good long run of messiness. And he didn't achieve greatness by force of charisma; he did it be going to work every day and pushing legislation through the Senate. Bo-ring. He never became President. He was constantly being compared to his brothers and the comparisons were mostly unfavorable (until now, when he's dead, and the accolades come out of the woodwork.) He made his own life. And that's the hardest and the best thing any of us can do.

I think about time a lot. The great cathedrals took three generations of workmen to build; the grandfather would humbly toil on the foundations, his son would spend his entire life building the walls and the grandsons, or the great-grandsons would finally finish the roof. A hundred years and more. I always think about the architects who made the plans to begin with, and had to content themselves with visions and faith. What selflessness to lay foundations for God-inspired buildings you know you will never see! What colossal patience.

In my own life, I am so impatient for results. I want things now--want my ideas to transform from thought to word to printed book or produced play fast, faster, NOW Godammit--and they don't. The more impatient I become, the longer the whole thing takes in the end because I send stuff off before it's ready, and it comes right back like a boomerang. Right now, I am putting Love Shack through yet another draft, and all the while I am conscious of the next book which is whispering at the edge of my consciousness...

Thursday, August 20, 2009

I sit with the half-finished, half-revised plays. I read something Annie Dillard wrote, about working on her book; that she'd sit with it, as you would a very sick person whom you could not cure. Every once in a while you might adjust a pillow, or get a glass of water, but basically it was a lot of just being there.

That's what it feels like, especially the opening pages. I just sit and adjust little things, tweak and change lines. There are obvious edits to make, things to cut out, and then a lot of stuff that I just don't know yet. More layers to the characters.

Poor Christopher: I've been frustrated as hell with my progress, or lack thereof. Yesterday he suggested helpfully that I scale down a little. He's got a point. I seem to be concept-driven: I had the idea, years ago, that it would be cool to do a whole play in and around a hot tub, and despite the obvious difficulties in staging that that would present, I just went ahead with it, because the idea excited me so much.

With Glitter and Spew the form is so weird--three linked one-acts, the way some post-modern novels are told in linked short stories--that some theatre companies are rejecting it out-of-hand: "We don't do one-acts." But it's basically a full-length play! Just a strangely-shaped one, I'll admit.

This morning I was moping and kvetching again--always very attractive and a real day-brightener for my partner--and he suggested I go back to writing poetry, since it's so hard to get a play produced. Also a good idea, but no poems want to come out right this minute. I don't know how much choice I have in this whole thing.

I always want my process to be as quick as thought, which is very fast and effortless. It's so easy to imagine a project to do. I can sit here and dream up a dozen ideas without half-trying. but to execute them, to go from conception through labor to birth, is much slower and messier.

We did get out of town, very briefly, because we got a nice gift certificate to Sam's Chowder House in Half-Moon Bay. It was good to leave the house, which is such a creative bee-hive for both of us, and get onto the toad. Gray skies, wild jagged cliffs and green-gray-indigo water. Farmstands selling fresh strawberries and peas and artichokes and honey.

We stayed at a sweet lodge very close to the water, and went out to a great dinner and walked along the pier afterwards. I'd been feeling nostalgic for my youth, for the days and weeks spent on the road, for spontaneity and freedom and simplicity. And of course, just for being younger, for having a thinner body whose heels and insteps did not hurt, a body that could sleep on the front seat of a Ford and waken refreshed, a face without wrinkles.

Christopher has a new camera with a great sharp lens and he took some photos of me. They are sweet, and/but I was shocked at the gray hair and the...well, you know. I'm not a girl on the open road anymore. I had a very very long run of being a girl, about as long as anyone could possibly stretch it out, and it's over. So.

Now I'm a very lucky woman, with a house and a life and a life-work that's constantly in transition, constantly being revised, edited, worked-on...and that's okay. That's what is. And I have a cup of strong black tea and milk and some dark-chocolate-covered Trader Joe's pretzels at hand and slowly, slowly I begin to know the characters in this play, one of whom may be the Devil himself.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

I spent Saturday in the woods with my Little Sister and her church family. It was my Little's birthday and so I went to the annual church picnic at her request. I was the only white person there, and I would bet cash money that I was also the only Jew. I felt warmly and respectfully embraced.

Last year, when they had a church fair and I was invited and showed up, my Little Sister pretended she didn't know me. I kept following her around the sno-cone seller, the pony rides and popcorn, the stands of handbags and Obama T-shirts for sale in the parking lot and she kept dodging me like an urchin. My feelings were hurt but a social worker has since told me that was age-appropriate. Whatever. This year, thankfully, she's aged out of it. She ran up and threw her arms around me, grabbed my hand and introduced me to people. I stood on line for barbecue with her granny, got a plate of chicken and ribs and corn and green bean salad and sat in the shade fanning away wasps and chatting with some of the church ladies. Who would have thunk it?

I'm proud of myself for a) sticking it out with my Little, who is moody (she has a lot to be moody about,) and not always the easiest child to hang with. And b) getting over my fears about Christianity enough to just lay down my sword and hang out with people. No one tried to convert me or gave me any talk about Jesus. In fact, his name only came up once, in blessing the food, and that was quick and relatively painless.

Meanwhile, I've been reading Ruth Reichl's book Comfort Me With Apples. I think dad sent it to me months ago and I just now picked it up. This woman has eaten the world. Seriously, she's been all over, tasting and recording her sensations. She has, in her word, "paid serious attention to her hungers." I think that's what engrossed me so about the book. She's a competent writer, not a poet, but the force of her will to have a great life is so powerful it knocked me over. Food has been her vehicle, and a potent metaphor for really slowing down and experiencing one's life, tasting it, instead of gulping and swallowing and on to the next.

I'm trying to pay more attention to flavors and textures as I eat. My sense of eating got so fucked up by worrying about my weight since my teenage years that I've kind of suppressed my nautral inner greedy gourmand. There's so much anxiety about eating too--am I eating the right thing, too much, too little, organic, politically-correct, all that.

This morning I had delicious cold watermelon and hot coffee with soymilk, and hard-boiled eggs and a piece of toast slathered with butter and the tart homemade apricot jam that my step-sister gave us for a wedding present. It was delicious.

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

So it's Wednesday morning, the garbage trucks are rattling outside, sun is pouring through the windows. I've made onion-garlic-potato-mushroom omelettes for breakfast and later I'll take my Little Sister to the Wildlife Museum so we can look at raptors. Or swimming if it's too hot. For now I'm drinking coffee and revising the hot tub play. Happy to be re-united with these characters. After a long-enough absence I can finally hear them clearly. Oh. This is what you were saying. Sorry I didn't catch it the first time.

I'm cutting fat, cutting and cutting. There's a lot of banter that can just go by the wayside, it doesn't "progress" anything, as Sarah Palin would say. Where's the plot? If this play were a steak, it would be well-marbled; a heart attack waiting to happen. I'm killing my darlings, all those clever lines I was so in love with, all that snap, crackle and fizz. I'm trying to get closer to the bone: what does this play want to be about?

Is it about the contradictions in people who do great work in the world, fight for justice, stand up for the underdog, work for the greater social good--yet are clueless failures in their personal lives?

Is it about marriage and commitment, and the way we carry each other or let each other fall?

Is it just a story about two people who love each other and can't live together who get drunk in a hot tub on the longest night of the year?

I wrote it the year before I met Christopher. Pushed the first draft out in about a week, really fast. I was delighted with the raw energy that was coming through; all this frustration over the years of dating men who were too recently out of failed marriages, all my drama and disappointment at the time were finally finding a voice.

Now the bones are rearranging themselves. The characters are making moves they never made in any previous drafts. Oh shit, it's not revising, it's rewriting. The thing is still alive, but it's like working on Frankenstein and Rip van Winkle all at once. Something that was asleep, dreaming its own separate life, and then wakes up, changed. Can I trust myself more in 2009 then I did in 2006 to do right by it?

Maybe I needed to be in a different space altogether, to have some real distance from that drama before I could see it more dispassionately, before I could revise the play. I still think--hope-- there's something worth saying there. But I'm not in it the way I was.

One of my students at the Writing Salon asked me the other night if you have to be "on the other side" of something difficult in order to write about it. I said that the writing itself was part of what moved you to the other side. Also, that what you write on "the other side," (if indeed there really is one,) is different, but not necessarily better than what you write from the thick of things.

I told her about writing the poem "Smashing the Plates" when I was still very much a mess over an infected break-up. I had asked my friend Phil if I could help him break plates for a mosaic project he was working on, and I went over to his place (Interplayce, but the floor wasn't put in yet, it was still rough concrete,) and I helped him smash plates with a hammer and then I wrote a poem about it. It was raw. I couldn't write that piece now--I'm not there now. The energy came through me in the way it did then and I caught it in the container I had at the time.

I love the montage in the movie "Something's Gotta Give" where the Diane Keaton character is grieving a broken relationship with the Jack Nicholson character. There's a series of scenes that show her sobbing--and typing. Different outfits, different weather outside, different spots in the house--she's having her feelings, week after week, and doing her work also.

I don't know why some of the things I write in the moment come out well, and some other things, like this hot tub play, seem to take years to come together. Some poems I've written have taken years before I found their endings. I do know that my ego got excited--maybe too excited-- by how good I thought the play was on the first draft and maybe that slowed the process down. Or maybe this is just how it is.

In a moment of nostalgia, I google-stalked the web site of a guy I had dated ten years ago, one of several men who make up the composite character of Jack. Actually I googled a couple of those guys. I was reminded that they do do great things in the world. There were good reasons I was so attracted to them, wanted to be with them. And good reasons why it never would have worked. It took a very long time for me to be ready for someone like Christopher.

I feel more objective about it all now, as if I were a scientist saying, "If you take this element and combine it with that element, you will get an explosion, or a sticky goo, or a healing medicine." Whatever.

Yesterday I went food shopping for Carla--a bunch of gluten-free, dairy-free organic healthy stuff from Whole Foods, and then some deliciously evil stuff from the liquor store, good balance--and then went to the post Office with twenty copies of "Glitter and Spew" (another item on the to-do list.) I mean I staggered in there with the L.L. Bean canvas tote that my sister-in-law gave me stuffed with manuscripts. I watched the clerk stamp each envelope and toss them in a pile--my seeds scattering out into the wind. Good luck little play. Then I turned around to go home and work some more.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Someone wrote in a comment that they wanted to see the groom. Here he is, a few days before the wedding, looking very happy to receive a big hug. (This photo was taken by my stepmother, Samayadevi.)

Yesterday was our first Sunday without Dede. Sunday mornings are usually some of our sweetest times; Christopher with the front page spread out in front of him and a plate of breakfast nearby, me on the couch, Dede walking all over the paper, plopping herself down on the most interesting article, or sniffing at the eggs, finally finding a sunny place on the couch to nap while we read and ate.

I had signed up months ago to assist at an Impact self-defense class for young women this weekend. When Friday came I didn't want to go. I didn't want to leave Christopher, my foot hurt, my mind kept spinning back to Dede. But I had committed so I went.

It was hard to be there and good to be there. Three days of intensity. My foot hurt and I tried to avoid fighting the first two days. (Also, in all honesty, I felt like my form sucked and I didn't want to model imperfect form for them.) The young women rocked. The were so present with their emotions and with each other, so strong and fierce in their fighting once invited to get to it. Their stories inevitably reminded me of my own.

When the time came to do the "custom" fights, the fights where each student can choose a scenario she wants to revisit, I am always moved most by the women fighting their "inner mugger." The messages girls get about their own worthlessness are so pervasive, and they haven't changed or lessened in the decades since I was young. I feel most for the ones who believe they can't do it, can't fight, are too weak or uncoordinated or whatever, and then discover that they can.

This particular group was unusually open. They just went for it. Intimate stories came out quickly, tears flowed, the Kleenex box got passed around and they fought through it all. Girls are always getting told they are too tall, too short, too skinny, too fat, the wrong racial mix, too loud, too quiet, too sexy, not sexy enough, and on and on. Forty years of the second wave of feminism have not changed any of that, even though there's a new woman on the Supreme Court and Hillary made a serious run at the presidency. Our fiercest battles remain the ones within, our own personal spiritual struggles against the voices that tell us we're not good enough.

My own yoga was just a struggle to be present with my divided mind and hurting feet, to stay present in the class, to keep bringing myself back from other thoughts to the present. I held back from my own fighting the first two days because of my feet, and by the third day I was quite miserable. The instructor invited me to do an "extended"--a super-long fight--and despite my fears I just went for it. We all dedicated our "extended" fights to someone--these are the fights that push you and test you, because they teach that you can fight when you're exhausted, when you don't think you have anything left. I dedicated mine to Carla, whom I was thinking about all weekend. I was touched by how many of the girls dedicated their fights to their mothers. After I fought it was much easier to be present. Fuck my aching feet.

I had invited Gerry to the public celebration, and he came with his camera, and took a few photos (just of me and one other woman who had requested it.) By the end I was very glad to have been there, to have watched these young women come a little more fully into their power.