Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The visit with the parentals was very sweet, although the toilet issue was not satisfactorily resolved and we ended up with the old toilet back in place until a better fit could be found. But we had a great time--saw the movie, The Kids Are All Right, ate at Millenium, and hosted a musical gathering for them, so they could enjoy all our talented friends. We had piano, organ, guitar, bass, drums, viola, vocals, and when Bobby showed up, some dreamy sax. And barbecue, chili, and beer. Dad and my stepmother had a beautiful time, and were serenaded and honored.

And now it's back to work mode. I've been stressing about these workshops at the Mendocino Coast Writer's Conference--I taught there five years ago or so--maybe it was more like seven years ago--and it went fine, but sometimes I forget that I know what I know and I freak out and feel the need to re-invent the wheel. hence a 14-page lesson plan for one of the workshops, and a six-pager for the other. Hence some sleepless moments in the middle of the night.

I actually know that it will be fine, it always is, my workshops at Rowe were great this spring, but the people-pleasing co-dependent in me who thinks nothing is ever good enough is activated and on the alert. And all this over-preparing is taking me away from The Recruiter which is shaping up in really interesting, disturbing, and I think (I hope!) authentic ways.

We have also been watching the wonderful HBO series John Adams starring Paul Giamatti and Laura Linney--we finished it the other night after I insisted we watch all the special features which ended up taking us up to 1 in the morning. It's such phenomenal storytelling, and gives such a brutal, unsparing look at the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries--mastectomy without anesthesia anyone? What do teeth look like in a sixty-year-old who has had no real dental care?

The show raised more questions in me than it answered: I wondered especially about Thomas Jefferson who seemed a man of such great contradictions. Elegant, refined, brilliant--and a slave-owner. How could he hold the radical ideas about human rights and freedom which he wrote about and have the life he had? I went on-line and read a bit about him--six children born to his beloved wife, who died after the sixth birth--most of the children did not survive either. Death upon death upon death. The losses and trauma these people endured are incalculable. And this is our heritage. this is the basis on which our country was formed.

The Adams' also, were brilliant people but terrible parents. John's four children didn't fare well--two died alcoholic, his daughter died of breast cancer in her 40s after suffering the tortures of the damned. the son who became President, john Quincy Adams, described himself as a "cold rigid martinet." Two of his sons committed suicide in their twenties. Family patterns of depression and alcoholism, and cold, distant parenting ran through their descendants like blight.

It raises the age-old question, whether greatness is worth the sacrifices it entails? Would it be possible for a person to be happy and great, to attend to his or her intimate relationships, family, and some other worthy project without cheating anything of time or attention? They Adams', both husband and wife, put "duty to country" before their own children, with terrible results. But one could put "art" or "spiritual practice" or any other thing in there as well.

Meanwhile, we've been following with interest the Wikileaks revelations about Pakistan and Afghanistan. Does this mean we will pull out of Afghanistan sooner rather than later, and spare some service-people's lives? I hope so. I love Obama, (yes, I still do, I don't care if he's not perfect, and has been extremely disappointing in some ways, I still love him). But I have been concerned about his stance on Afghanistan ever since the campaign in '08. This is the wrong place to try to look tough or get tough. No one has ever beat the Afghans in their own country. It's a losing proposition. We should cut our losses and get out now before we sacrifice any more soldiers' lives to this futile war.

Also, Mr. Obama, while I have your ear, you need to soften up on the rhetoric around schools and "performance." A school is not a stock portfolio, or a professional corps de ballet. it doesn't "perform." It educates, nurtures, inspires, and provides a sustaining community for young people as they grow. At least that's what it's supposed to do. Again, this is the wrong place to try to sound tough. Save your toughness for those crazy Tea Partyers or something. Remember yourself as a teacher, and the societal problems they must address daily. Get back on their--on our--side, where you belong.


Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Preparing for my father and stepmother's visit by getting and installing a new toilet...hmmm...perhaps this wasn't the best idea. Oddly-shaped guest bathroom, meaning most conventional toilets won't fit. Sweat and cursing. Christopher made a trip back and forth to the toilet store. I sit glued to the screen on a beautiful summer day, working on the revision of The Recruiter. Page by page, creeps on this petty pace. We have been watching a lot of historical dramas: the Lion in Winter, Becket, Man for All seasons, and John and Abigail Adams. I love history! But it's so hard to walk through it a page at a time, giving voice to every side. I'd say this writing business was like walking through a blizzard except murkier. Tomorrow night I'm going to see Restrepo with a new friend.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Sadly, Blake/Belle (turned out he was Blake, being male) had feline AIDS and did not survive his trip to the vet. That leaves three of his immediate siblings, plus half a dozen adult feral felines in the back yard to deal with.

Roofers start tomorrow, tearing off our old leaky roof and putting on a new one with solar panels so we are bracing ourselves for a noisy few days.

Meanwhile, I finally managed to write the new opening scene for The Recruiter, and everything started flowing from that. It only took me four or five months to absorb and accept the advice I had paid Corey Fischer to give me. I was so attached to the opening as I had originally written it, and to my original structure.

But Corey was right; it's better to start the play in the middle of the lead character's conflict. I now have a revised first act that is halfway decent, but I'm still struggling with the problem of making the characters do things on stage, rather than just stand there and talk (although Tony Kushner certainly gets a lot of mileage from characters standing and talking--one of the main characters in Homebody/Kabul sits in an armchair and discourses for a full hour for the whole first act, for God's sake. On the other hand, that play wasn't considered his most successful, although I liked it.)

Today i got to go to a workshop conducted by Marie Howe, who wrote The Good Thief, The Kingdom of Ordinary Time and What the Living Do. It was extraordinary. What a great teacher she is, relaxed, unhurried, but precise and on-the-pulse accurate.

I am a pretty tough sell as a student; I want a teacher to take me somewhere I can't get to on my own, and I already know how to set deadlines for myself, stay motivated, and kick my own ass. It's got to be more than that. She exceeded my expectations. The exercises were rigorous enough to be challenging, yet she held us to being dumb beginners, which is the only way you get anything fresh. She was not just trying to give us "poem-products"--which is a great temptation for me when I am teaching, just to give students something satisfying they can take home and say, "here's what I made today"--instead she aimed deeper, she was trying to teach us a new way of approaching seeing the material we include in our poems.

Her focus was on direct observation, suspending judgment, interpretation and metaphor for as much and as long as we could. Some of what she talked about was stuff I also teach--the value of repetition in the making of a poem, for instance--but she had a powerful integrated philosophy behind her choices, and a great selection of sample poems, several of which were new to me. In all a great day and a tiring one. I feel like I ran a six-hour marathon when all I did was sit in a low folding chair in Laurie's living room and drink inky strong coffee and listen intently and scribble.

Friday, July 02, 2010

I am reading Brian Turner's great book of poetry Here, Bullet, about war and soldiering, Iraq and Afghanistan, life and death and suffering, and it is instructing me and humbling me as I work on the umpteenth revision of The Recruiter. It makes me think of what W.C. Williams said: "You cannot get the news of the day from poems, although men die miserably for lack of what is found there." In this case, I do feel like I get important news from his poems, in a way that brings it home much more urgently and viscerally than the news accounts and even the very good, first-person journalism I've also been reading.

I'm also Novella Carpenter's funny, inspiring, well-written Farm City, adventures of an urban farmer, which is what I someday aspire to become even though I have a black thumb and have killed all but the most hardy of the house-plants (and porch plants) acquired over the years. My Dad has patiently taken me to a nice nursery, and also to Home Depot; he bought me some big planters, and some herbal starts and, well--let's just say that everything can be recycled. Right?

But we were given some beautiful pink heather as a gift, and after neglecting it for a few weeks I finally took it out of its pot and put it into the ground under the fig tree--it likes shade, the little pointy sign said--and watered it, and lo and behold, it has put forth some new bright pink spears! The sight of them makes me so happy that I here and now resolve to turn over a new leaf and start watering things, because what do you know? It really works!!

We are also probably getting a new addition to our household: Christopher is at the vet right now with another of the feral kittens--one of the more sociable ones, who let itself be caught. (Haven't been able to sex it yet, hence: it.)

After getting spayed or fixed, if it's possible, we'll take it in as a brother or sister playmate for Trixie. I got the honor of giving it a name: Blake if it's a boy, Belle if it's a girl. (Trixie-Belle--get it?) Inspiration for the name Blake came from a new novel that's just been published, Her Fearful Symmetry.

The title, of course, is taken from the poem by William Blake: "Tyger, tyger burning bright/In the forests of the night/What immortal hand or eye/Could frame thy fearful symmetry?" Since this kitty and Trixie are both dark-gray tiger-striped, (and both uncommonly handsome), it seems to fit.

It seems strange to be so excited about tiny things like a flower coming back from the almost-dead or a new kitty, when all around us there are the so-much-bigger things that like the Gulf oil spill, or the verdict on the killing of Oscar Grant (which all of Oakland is nervously awaiting), or the war(s) going on around the globe, or the recession (depression? when are they going to use the d-word?) going on. But these little bits of life which we can nurture and enjoy are made even more important in the face of so much we cannot control. And they teach us something important too--how resilient and fierce life itself is, how there is a whole reality going on behind and beyond the headlines which is bigger and stranger, and better than anything we read in the papers.