Monday, September 27, 2010

Back from an amazing weekend with No Nude Men Theatre..what is it? it's not exactly a company. It's more like a kind of federation. A loose conglomerate. A modular amoeba. Really wonderful thoughtful theatre people, so talented and versatile. Folks who can do stage combat, build a set, promote a show, light a set, figure out sound cues, write a play, direct--everything.

I realized that theatre is in its way a kind of religion for those who take it seriously. Not a religion in the God-sense--who would be the God or Goddess of Theatre? Shakespeare? Or some Greek or Roman deity?

But I don't mean religion in the sense of deity but of sacrifice and ritual. People come together to perform the ritual, night after night, of telling a story. If the story is great enough, if the intentions of all concerned are purified enough of ego and its attendant ills, then magic may ensue. The dead speak through us, the world changes a little; at least we who are doing it change, and hopefully the audience as well.

In that sense theatre is not so much about worshipping a God but of becoming a co-creator of a moment in time that stands apart. Whatever you want to call that.

And it does involve sacrifice, otherwise known as tech rehearsals, day jobs, not enough sleep, and junk food.

We were at a hostel in the beautiful Marin Headlands where it's uncharacteristically hot and bright. And on Saturday afternoon a bunch of us gathered in a big circle under an oak tree and read The Recruiter out loud.

Real actors. It was a trip. Of course as the playwright I was fixated on the lines and bits that didn't work. When one of the actors said to me afterwards that it was a great script I looked at her incredulously. But upon reflection...I think from seventy-five to eighty percent of what I had written worked. The other twenty, twenty-five percent I am revising. I got some wonderful, useful feedback.

Good actors never cease to amaze me. I think sometimes actors get a bad rap, and god knows the profession lends itself to some funny excesses. Actors have to be super-sensitive emotionally and at the same time have thick enough skins--or just plain stubbornness-- to endure public failure, rejection, and exposure. An odd combination of vulnerability and toughness. But what doesn't get talked about often enough is the emotional intelligence that borders on genius which good actors have. The ability to empathize immediately, deeply and physically with people they have never met--people who are not even real. They can believe in them so intensely they make them real.

Anyway, I got invaluable, honest, insightful feedback from at least half a dozen of them; not mere pats on the back, but ways to make the play better, mingled with appreciation for what's already there. And I can see the shape and the structure of it now, clear as day, emerging from the shed skins of all the innumerable drafts. This time I really think I've got it.

Friday, September 24, 2010

That feeling of badness. That I am in some way, a "bad person." I know it's ridiculous but I can never quite shake it. A constant kind of guilt and shame for the crime of--what? Just being. Guilt and shame are the hardest monsters i have to slay and I am not sure if they are slayable. It may be that the best i can do is try to turn them into house-pets.

All this is probably why I find it such a relief to create fictional male characters who have actually done terrible things, like kill other people. It's probably what drives me to write so much about war, which brings out the terrible (and occasionally the noble) in people. I don't identify as a helpless victim. i identify with the perpetrators, with the villains. I know that if I had been born male I would have been tempted to abuse the power given to me; I know that I have abused what powers I have at times.

Years ago I was a featured poet at the Logan poetry festival, along with Jimmy Santiago Baca. Jimmy had done hard time himself, and the organizer of this festival, Alan Cohen, had us visit a men's group at the local prison.

First we gave a reading in the main auditorium. The place was jammed--talk about a captive audience--men were practically hanging from the rafters. And they were rapt, attentive. I felt them drinking in every word we spoke.

Afterward, at the group where we shared our work more intimately, and talked to the men, and listened, an inmate said to me that what touched him about my poetry was that I seemed to believe that people were fundamentally innocent. That everyone deserved a second chance, that everyone could be forgiven.

I was so moved to hear him say that. I didn't respond with what the other half of that coin is: except for me. I believe everyone is fundamentally innocent--except I have a hard time seeing it in myself. Maybe because I can't feel every throb of other people's hearts where all the mixed motives and unpretty emotions are lurking the way I can feel my own; maybe because of the intensity with which my mother struggled with her own feelings of guilt and shame and the way she passed that unresolved battle down to me. Maybe because of internalized sexism or internalized anti-Semitism, or the right and true knowledge that as a middle-class American i consume an unethical share of the world's resources and contribute an unspeakable amount of waste and pollution to satisfy my wants and desires. Maybe all of the above, in varying degrees.

I don't know. What I do know is that this feeling of badness persists. Prozac quells it, hard exercise mitigates it, love soothes it, community assuages it, but it never quite goes away. When I interrogate it back to its source I often find relatively small things, petty social blunders, an unkind word here, an unwritten thank you note there, patterns of laziness and selfishness and wastefulness which are offset by bursts of energy in the opposite directions; attempts to clean up my act, which are heartfelt but unsustainable.

I think of this in an unconscious way all of the time, but when I read Jonathan Franzen I become conscious of it. The main character of his new book Freedom is a woman named Patty, unlike me in most ways--she's a jock turned stay-at-home mom, determinedly apolitical, fixated on her kids, doesn't care for the arts. But what's at her core is the same thing as what's at mine--this conviction of her own badness.

Franzen makes me see another aspect of the issue; that this feeling of badness may be part and parcel of self-awareness, self-consciousness. And also that part of what women label as "bad" and feel guilty about--in Patty's case, her competitiveness on and off the playing field for example--is merely a human quality that has been declared off-limits to women.

Patty is married to a very "good" man, as I am (although thankfully, Christopher is a lot more well-rounded and human than Walter Berglund, and I was physically smitten with him from the start), and her "good" husband keeps telling her that she too is "good" although Patty never completely believes him. She knows better. She knows the darkness in her own heart, the cracked places which can be papered over when you're in your twenties, but which emerge and split the house down to the foundations when you are in mid-life.

This is why I read Franzen, although I find him almost unbearably sad. His work hurts me so good. He's singing my song. Even though his song is of middle America, the big flat Midwest, of which I know little to nothing, even though his characters have followed different paths than my own weird trajectory, he gets something about the human heart that is painfully accurate.

I don't get the sense that he has transcended these questions himself. I think he's writing from the same tangled knot of confusion and failure and pain that informs most of his characters' lives. He's no Rumi in other words, and reading him does not alleviate my angst, it increases it. His books leave me simultaneously elated and depressed. I'm elated because he's put a finger on some of my murkier emotions, he's named a portion of the unnameable. I'm depressed because it's all too true and where do we go from here and God help us.

But I'll take him over any of the novelists who bring their characters around to fake resolutions and pat cheery endings. Not because I'm a masochist, (well, maybe I am, a little), but more because fake, forced "enlightenment" makes me even sadder.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Recruiter is finished!!! At least--this latest draft is. I finished it three days earlier than the deadline, which surprised me. And then this thing opened up--time. I have time. I'm not on deadline anymore. I can talk on the phone. I can saunter and amble and loaf. I can think about getting a job--a real job.

I went and got it copied, ten copies, for this weekend. Bought a birthday present for a friend. Made lasagna for C--from a recipe even! Accompanied him when he took Trixie to the vet for her follow-up shots. (Poor thing, she hated every single minute she spent in the car and let us know with piteous wails. You never heard anything so pathetic.)

I hope all this work was not for naught. Rebecca asked me the other week if I could take satisfaction just in having done it, to the best of my abilities. You know, intrinsic value rather than extrinsic reward and all that. I knew what she was aiming at, I saw her point and it was a good one.

But I had to answer her honestly: I want this thing to be produced. If it doesn't get produced somewhere somehow I will feel disappointed. I won't stop writing. I won't jump off a bridge. But you know--I put in the time and the work--and I would like to see it go all the way.

OI've written other things that never saw the light of day, of course. A novel that is, even as we speak, collecting dust in the basement. And a good thing, too. It simply wasn't good enough. I'm glad it's not out in the world with my name on it, even though there were pages and whole chapters that I thought were pretty good.

Many writers have unpublished novels, screenplays, playscripts sitting in drawers somewhere. And poems. god, only a fraction of the poems I write ever go anywhere. Lots and lots of them are composted. I've learned to live with it. nature is wasteful. Think of the figs smashed on the sidewalk in front of our house, leaving dark stains. Think of the trees that fall in the forest and no one ever hears them. it's all right you know. It's all right for life just to happen without a big parade and brass band announcing it.

Still, I would like this play to have a production. A good one. And more than one. If I'm honest I have to say that I'd like this thing to fly, all over the place. I'd like it to take on a life of its own.

Two kids just came to the door selling newspaper subscriptions to get into college. Mexican-Americans. The older one did all the talking. His parents were deported so he lives with his two younger brothers in an orphanage in Tracy. The little ones are five and six. The parents had come to this country as babies, but were picked up by INS and sent back, six months ago. This kid talked a mile a minute, very intelligent, very well-spoken. determined. He wants to get his own apartment when he's eighteen and raise his younger brothers by himself. He wants to get them out of the orphanage.

His friend was younger and more shy.

Christopher chatted with both of them, offering encouragement and listening. He bought a newspaper subscription.

After we closed the door behind them we just looked at each other. What must it have been like for those parents to have to leave three young children behind when they went back to Mexico? Why couldn't they take them with him? Is there more to the story than what he told us? I didn't even know about orphanages inside this country. Could we...?

We have the phone number of the orphanage.

Monday, September 20, 2010

We're in the process of adopting and taming another one of the outdoor feral kitties. I say "we"--it's 95% Christopher. He has sat patiently reading a book for hours in the musty garage, waiting for this new little one, (Wheat Thin) to trust him enough to come over and get petted. He's spent untold time rattling bags of kitty treats, tossing "crunchies" to the new baby, and gently scratching behind his ears. I went down there myself a few times. Once I saw him hiding in a cupboard atop stacks of old New Yorkers. Another time he was crouched behind the bicycles. Then again, he hides under the toolbench or in the laundry basket. The garage is full o' junk and he has a million hiding places.

Our thought is that this little boy will be a good playmate for Trixie who is currently Queen Bee of the household. The heartbreak is that the taming process involves separating him from his pal and twin shadow Dorian Gray. Dorian Gray is always going to be feral. She doesn't/won't allow herself to be touched; she's skittish and aggressive, while Wheat Thin is pliable and friendly.

Of course we think and talk about the kids Christopher encounters in his work. Those who want to learn and seem to have hope of turning their lives around; those who so far refuse contact.

People are more complex than cats (at least to me they seem to be; a cat person would disagree.) You can't predict what's going to happen with a young person based on how they appear at sixteen or eighteen; plenty of folks get their lives together after that. But you can say that there are consequences, and that these very early choices and decisions matter. (If they are indeed always choices, which I'm not sure they are. Sometimes it seems people are compelled to act out certain dramas before they have the freedom to choose another way. This is why a longer life can indeed be a blessing--sometimes you have to live out a certain amount of karma first.)

These early early choices can matter a lot. Especially if you're poor, if you don't have the luxury of infinite second and third and fourth chances. There are kids sitting in prison for crimes they committed at age fourteen or fifteen or sixteen. There are trajectories that are already set. There are young people enlisting in the military whose lives are hanging in the balance because of a piece of paper they signed.

The other night we were at a friend's house for break-fast after Yom Kippor (okay I wasn't fasting, but it's still fun to break it.) It was an intimate gathering of friends and family, including two teenage nephews. One of the boys was on the debate team and the conversation jumped from joy to grief to the nature of reality. Derrida was mentioned. True confessions: I only have a very vague sense of who Derrida actually is (one of those French philosopher guys, right?) But these kids knew. What's more, they knew the main thrust of Derrida's theories and could employ them, logically, in an argument. They could and did hold their own in a room full of opinionated adults. They could thoughtfully defend a point of view while at the same time acknowledging where other people were coming from; they could do this in the abstract.

In the midst of this lively intellectual melee, I looked over at Christopher. I knew what he was thinking. The kids he teaches have such small worlds, bounded by invisible ghetto walls and by the rules of the gang. It's uncool for them to show any interest in school, in ideas, in learning. It's uncool to read. He scours bookstores and sometimes toy stores for games and materials that will pique their interest. Sometimes he gets through.

But the kids whose company we were enjoying the other night are headed for Harvard or some other great college. They have a father who sings a blessing to them every night. They have had parental involvement and books and stability, good food, medical care and emotional support since they were born. They have never seen their father hit their mother, no member of their family has been arrested or murdered, they were not exposed to drugs in utero.

They were ahead before they even got started.

All kids should be able to have such a beginning. All kids don't need to go to Harvard. But the basics; food, medical care, freedom from fear--all kids should have those things before they're asked to learn. As a prerequisite for education. Do you hear me, Obama? Stop punishing the schools and the teachers and start looking at societal inequities.

Okay, it's much easier to ruminate on all this than it is to do my actual work. I have just fifteen or twenty more pages left of The Recruiter. You can do it, Alison, come on, you can do it...

Friday, September 17, 2010

So I'm at my doctor's, and she's feeling my boobs, and nagging me to get a mammogram. I'm not begrudging her the nag, it's her job--but by way of a cautionary tale she's telling me about one of her patient's mothers who was perfectly healthy until she showed up with breast cancer at the age of ninety.

Wait a minute. Ninety?

Well, everyone's got to die of something, I say. And then a minute later: I'm not even sure I want to live to be ninety.

Oh me neither, she says, palpating my mammaries. I definitely don't want to live to be ninety. That's why I smoke one cigarette a day and have heavy whipping cream in my tea.

I nearly fall off the table laughing.

Are you sure that's enough? I mean, maybe you should drive without wearing your seat belt or drink brandy for breakfast or something just to guarantee that you won't outlive your retirement income.

I know it's ridiculous, she says. Now raise your arms above your head for me, and press the palms together.

Friday, September 10, 2010

I wish all the people who are against gay marriage could have seen the wedding we attended last weekend, between two good friends of mine. S and E have lived together nine years. They've seen each other through medical crises (brain surgery, anyone?), the serious illness of family members, world travel, and job changes. Two very different people--one impulsive and mystical, the other methodical and careful--they've been a model for me as they demonstrate how to negotiate a loving relationship.

As I struggle with the $64,000 question, "How can I be myself and be married to someone who seems at times so different, so other," they have been my inspiration. I have seen them patiently, honestly, lovingly work through conflicts that at times seemed unworkable, negotiate, and come up with elegant solutions. I have seen them both grow as individuals and evolve as a couple for nine years before this ceremony. I have witnessed their fierce commitment to keep evolving.

As E's mother remarked afterward, "I don't think there was a dry eye in the house," when they said their vows. The love was palpable. Each celebrated the kindness, compassion, strength, and playfulness the other brought to their union. I have been to many great weddings, and none better than this. Their families were also so present and accounted for; E's young nephew brought down the house when he sang a song, "which some of you may know 'cause it's from the '80s," he explained, in deference to the ancientness of many in the audience. Both sets of parents toasted and officially welcomed their new "daughter" into the family. Families like these show what kind of world could be possible, for all of us.

Also, and not incidentally--everyone was having a hell of a good time. Dancing, singing, mingling. C took about a million photos and they also had an official photographer there, so it was a well-documented fest.

If anyone wants to put this marriage up against Pam Anderson marrying the latest guy to pay her gambling debts in Las Vegas, feel free. As for me, I'm going to continue to seek wisdom and inspiration from people who have done the hard good work of learning how to communicate, how to be independent and yet intimate, honest and kind, fully themselves and also fully engaged with each other.

Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Lively discussion last night in my writing class about how "writing is hard!" I consider that when someone says that it means that they are doing it right. (Yes, I am a New England Puritan, why do you ask?)

I think writing is hard, the way marriage is hard., the way parenthood is hard, the way anything worthwhile is hard. Hard in that it throws curve balls at you and asks things of you and pulls things out of you above and beyond what you'd "rationally" give if you were not a thousand percent committed.

It's not rational to rewrite the same ten pages a hundred times, but sometimes you do it. It's not rational to keep sending out a poetry manuscript to dozens of contests a year at twenty-five dollars a pop for entry fees, knowing that your chances are less than one in a hundred, and it may take years to get accepted, and yet you do it. It's not rational to sit on your butt, inside, on a bright sunny day, with the wide bright world whirling around without you, and try to wrestle the lines of a poem into some kind of pleasing order.

And yes, all that is hard, but for whatever strange mix of reasons, some of them lofty, most of them not--you feel compelled to do it. Hard, but not doing it would be harder.

And of course writing is not hard compared to sifting through a garbage dump in Sao Paulo, looking for food or bits of scrap metal, as thousands of people have to do. It's not hard compared to wearing an 80-pound pack and sweating up a hill in Afghanistan, knowing that you could be shot at or blown up at any moment. Not hard compared to...well, you get the idea. It's a privileged complaint, and we all admit it.

The pleasures of reading and writing--when the writing is going well--are incomparable. I spent all day yesterday on the couch with a good book. Skipped my workout, didn't go to the post office to mail my manuscripts, just read and read and read deeply into another person's life. It can be like that. Addictive. then there are the days when it is like trying to shovel through an iceberg using only your mind as a pick-axe. At best you make only a few slushy dents, your mind gets awfully tired and sore, and at the end of the day the glacier is still there, as God intended.