Sunday, October 31, 2010

I hope this link works! It's one of the Fetzer Institute pieces of video that they just published to their web site. If you go to the web site you can see and hear the other fabulous writers I was on retreat with last April: Jack Ridl, Naseem Rakha, Lauren Artress, Curtis Lumkin, Jennifer Louden, and others...big fun!

Fetzer Institute | Resources | Alison Luterman: Listening for Story | Alison Luterman: Listening for Story

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

I came away from the brilliant movie The Social Network thinking, "Empathy is more precious than gold or rubies, it is the pearl without price, it is the only thing worth praying for."

Let me back up. In the movie, Jesse Eisenberg gives an amazing Oscar-worthy performance as Mark Zuckerberg, the genius who founded Facebook.He doesn't hit one false note that I could detect. He is every nerdy, hyper-intelligent, socially awkward, arrogant, isolated, pained Jewish boy I've ever known, rolled into one and heightened to an excruciating degree. The script is pitch-perfect. I have no idea how all this relates to the real Zuckerberg, but it doesn't matter, because the film is not a biopic it's a work of art.

The ending is of course, Zuckerberg as the world's youngest self-made billionaire--terribly alone. For all his genius he lacks that essential human quality of empathy which makes a human being whole. He might have a mild form of Asperger's syndrome--I don't know. It's not important what his diagnosis is. In many ways it is the illness of our age, the disconnection and subsequent narcissism that we all suffer from in varying degrees. (And yes, I'm aware of the supreme irony of blogging about this...)

The movie was produced by Trigger Street, which is the company that actor Kevin Spacey founded to promote quirky independent scripts. I think it's still operative at

This has been a rich week for creative inspiration. Friday night we went to the Berkeley Rep and saw Compulsion, the story of Mayer Levin's doomed battle to stage his dramatic adaptation of Anne Franks' diary. Mandy Patenkin was beautiful in the lead role, and the play was structured in such an innovative way, with marionettes and double--and in one case quadruple casting.

Both Compulsion and The Social Network were in a sense morality tales about what happens when genius and ego get tangled up. The headiness of having a vision and then the cost of that to the people close to the visionary, the collateral damage to relationships and sometimes to the soul of the creator.

It's such a poignant conflict because the act of creation (whether one is a genius or not) is as compelling as giving birth--caught in its throes you feel like it's the most important thing on earth at that moment--you have to push, and everything else becomes secondary. But once you have pushed--and the baby is born alive and healthy, or damaged, or dead--then you look around and notice that bills haven't been paid, gardens have gone unweeded, relationships untended, phone calls unreturned.

The cost of even producing a minor thing can be high--depending on the degree of compulsion, or drive or whatever you want to call it--and I can't even imagine what it takes to be the creator of something truly great, to sense that you have the world by the tail in that way, at least for that hour. How could one resist the seduction of that impulse, and how to return to tending ordinary life after that?

Both these pieces speak to the murky underside of great success. When a work like Anne Frank's Diary hits the world, or, on a much less morally profound but equal in terms of impact--Facebook--a work that generates a tsunami of attention and fame and money and glory--then I think inevitably things backstage must get messy. Because getting something that big launched into the world can never be solely the work of one person, there must be collaboration, support, people who got on board with the project early, others who came in later--and how do you compensate them all? Who gets to ride on the back of the elephant as it parades triumphantly through main street?

And how can we, as individual creators, not have our egos tied up in what we create?

My friend who is taking some classes at Stanford says the younger generation is working more collaboratively and less egotistically than we ever did. She says they all pitch in and work on each other's projects and don't seem to care so much whose name is attached. But whenever you have something like Facebook, which generates so much money, I think those generational differences fall away and things are bound to get nasty.

I should also say that what both Compulsion and the Facebook saga have in common is that they both center on Jews and the very contradictory qualities of brilliance and prickliness and apartness and universality that shape our cultural personality. The huge drive to "break in" to a world that seems closed, the outsider status, which was originally imposed on us by society and which we continue to resist and sometimes reinforce by our own attitudes and behavior. This feeling of otherness which also somehow lies at the very heart of being truly human.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

I have been holding off on blogging for a bit because I wanted to brag on Christopher's Teacher of the Year awards night--and I have video to go along with the post, so it's not just idle chatter. But we have to figure out how to upload the cd to this blog, so I will save it for later. Suffice it to say that despite the fact that things are generally politically ecologically and economically going to hell in a handbasket, the younger generation is coming up, coming up, growing and learning and reaching and grasping, and there are wonderful teachers out there--not just Christopher, but of course, including him--who are meeting them with open arms.

By this I mean that all 18 of the teachers who were honored as Teachers of the Year from their respective schools were wonderful and inspiring. (And the special ed teachers seemed to love their work best of all.)

I had expected to be proud of Christopher; I had expected to eat high-fat hors d'oeuvres deep-fried and oozing with cream cheese; I had expected to put on some make-up and debate with myself about wearing heels (no, too uncomfortable.) I didn't expect to be so moved by everyone else's video presentation as well as my husband's. To see that even in this day and age when Obama's "Race to the Top" has replaced Bush's "No Child Left Behind" as a program that is supposed to look like educational reform but actually treats education more like a corporate business than a human endeavor, there are still men and women who wake up every day and spend their time listening, communicating, and inspiring young people.

And some of them have managed to hang onto their jobs even in this economy and are continuing to serve youth.

Some very good lives are being lived even in the midst of our current global mess; that is the good news. It's like the rescue of the Chilean miners, which was such an incredible high even to read about. See what we are capable of when we put our minds to it?

Now onto Franzen's Freedom. Spoiler alert: if you have not read the book and intend to, and/or if you are in the middle of the book and have not yet finished it, stop reading the blog now. Walk away from the blog. I don't want to wreck it for anyone. I like the book very much. It's not perfect but it's ambitious, big-hearted, sprawling, and in so many places heart-breakingly accurate about how we humans think, love, and act, that it definitely merits reading.

And for the record, I loved The Corrections. I mean, The Corrections was so good it was almost painful to read it. And I don't hold Franzen's arrogance against him. The man is brilliant, hard-working, and seems tortured. So he gets a little testy and is impolitic at times. There are worse sins.

But having said all that, I have to ask: why, when white writers write about characters of color are those characters more easily killed off than any of the white (central) characters? Why are the characters of color so... expendable?

In this book, more so than The Corrections, I felt like I could second-guess Franzen's personal prejudices. For one thing, the guy really believes in marriage. If two people get married, that's it. They may cheat on each other, but at the end of the day those are the bonds that will count. This has not been my experience in real life, so I accuse Franzen of being a old-fashioned and traditional and in that sense unrealistic. But whatever. My objection as a reader is that sensing this prejudice made the actions of the characters predictable in a way that I didn't want them to be.

But my main objection is with the character of Lalitha. I tried to imagine myself reading this if I were an South Asian Indian woman. We are expected to believe in Lalitha as a paragon of sexiness and drive (literally: she is always driving him everywhere), who is sexually and romantically besotted with her much-older boss, almost completely uncritical and patient and forebearing. Lalitha is a fountain of unconditional love and goodness until she is conveniently killed off (I'm sorry, I SAID spoiler alert) so that said boss can re-unite with his (very imperfect, fully-fomed character) (white) wife.

The white characters are allowed to be full human beings with flaws and warts. The Asian woman has to be perfect, and in the end she is sacrificed so that the dysfunctional white family can knit itself back together again in a more functional pattern.

Thanks Lalitha for all the great sex and all the good work; you can die now., putting myself in the shoes of the Indian woman, how do I feel about this?

Mad, I think. And tired. Hasn't this trope gotten a little old?

Please understand, I am not usually the kind of reader who goes out looking for politically incorrect things with which to crucify successful writers. I just couldn't help noticing, that's all. And unfortunately it's right in the center of this very ambitious, very successful, probably going to get nominated for the Pulitzer Prize winning book.

Just sayin'.

Monday, October 04, 2010

I can hear the birds chirping outside the window, and feel the sun coming through the curtains. I spent the weekend doing a Voice Medicine workshop with Trish Watts, a beautiful singer and Voice and Movement Therapist from Australia. It's hard to explain what Trish does exactly because she has such a vast array of tools to draw on in her work. Sometimes we were singing in harmony, sometimes we were chanting or toning, and sometimes we were working individually finding the animal and human voices within ourselves who wanted to speak, sing, growl, howl, whisper or scream.

I discovered within myself a great bird of prey. Melinda said it sounded like an eagle; the image I had was even bigger, like a velociraptor from the movie Jurassic Park. Huge. Fierce. Frightening. I had big heavy wings and emitted piercing bird squawks from my tail bone up through my shoulder blades/wings and out my nose. My beak.

It wasn't a pretty or a soft or even a noble image to me, but it felt true. I felt the impatience of the bird, the big, muscular impatience--so similar to my own. Impatience is my bugaboo. But can you blame the eagle--or whatever-it-was? It's hard to be confined to a small domestic life when you are made for soaring and planing and hunting and diving.

Trish worked with every single person in a completely unique way--and each person's session was radically different than the others'. She has a vast vocabulary of musical styles and voices in her own body to draw from and she did. I would have liked to work more on connecting the voices and images I found to my work, to writing, to art--that is the bridge that I need to make. To bring all that energy and ferocity into a form. But there were a lot of people, and not enough time.

The question I am left sitting with is where is the morality and compassion in the great bird? (Where is the morality and compassion in America, land of the eagle?)

I watched Trish work with other people, some of whom needed great doses of gentleness and tenderness which she supplied. Outwardly i was patient and still and attentive, but I was aware that my deepest impulses in those moments were to squawk and fly. I felt like the bird who kicks her babies out of the next. Blame it on menopause. It is not that I don't have a deep well of tears within myself, not that I don't like to nurture in a mammalian way. But there is this other, much more yang side which has a more ferocious agenda. I did not feel like a full-breasted mammal in those moments.

When I got home, Christopher was playing music with himself, thanks to the miracle of modern technology. He has filled our living room/dining room area with pianos, an organ, a drum-set, a full set of vibes, and he had some electric guitars plugged in as well. He also has a sound system/recording devices which allow him to lay down tracks, and then play harmonies with himself. He had laid down some basic tracks and was soloing on top of them; the space was filled with music. It sounded like a whole band was jamming together.

I crept past him into the kitchen, whispering, "Don't stop, don't stop." I didn't want to interrupt his creative process as he has so little precious time for himself. But a few minutes later he found me in the kitchen and invited me to join him. I had described for him how Trish had divided us into groups of three; one person held a drone, the other did a simple bass part (vocally) and the third did some solo scat singing on top of that.

"Would you like to improvise with me?" Christopher asked. I was scared. He is an accomplished musician and I have imperfect intonation and often wobble trying to find the right pitch. But I said yes, on the condition that I could be bad and make mistakes. He set up a mic stand for me, and sat at the piano. And I realized (thanks to the workshop) that I could do a simple bass part of a drone, or even a high harmony/bass (does that make sense? I mean, not a melody, not a complex scat, but what would be a bass part, only in a higher register) and let him do the fancy solo stuff on the piano.

And then words started coming through me, the beginnings of a song, and we really were improvising together!!