Monday, March 29, 2010

Okay, forgive me, but I've been obsessing over names. What's in a name? Everything and nothing. Especially for a writer, whose job it is to give new names to things, or to arrange the names of what is already there so as to peek behind the labels.

When I was a child, my parents had one of those What To Name Your Baby books. I pored over it until it was dog-eared. I named and renamed each of my twelve imaginary children, six boys and six girls. Sometimes, I regret to report, I gave them all names that started with "J" a la that reality show TV family who have 300 children and are still hoping for more pregnancies. In my own defense I will just say that i was ten years old at the time and not even menstruating yet, so I wasn't much of a threat to the planet's overpopulation problem. As soon as I hit Junior High I wised up.

Anyway, I have been thinking about The Blind Side and how sadly appropriate that name was. And how the Sandra Bullock thing is sobering not just because of the men-can-be-such-faithless-dogs-sometimes-and-why-do-smart-women-fall-for-them, but also, just along the lines of anything can and does happen. You think your life is going in one direction, but you were wrong--in an instant it all comes undone. A car accident, a bad diagnosis, a marriage, a divorce. Shit happens.

I have spent a lot of time thinking about the title to Love Shack, which was conceived early and stuck, but has never seemed quite right. For one thing as everyone and their brother have pointed out to me, it's the title of a B-52s song. I am so out of it I didn't know that song. Everyone else does though, and from what I understand, that's not necessarily a good thing.

So I've been thinking of what to call the book, and thinking about renaming this blog, because face it, I've been blogging under this name for four and a half years and four hundred and one entries. That's a lot. That's enough.

I thought about Judith-Kate Friedman, a singer-songwriter-activist I know, who calls her production company Patience & Adventure. That's a great name. I wish I had thought of that. I meditated this morning and the names that came floating to me were Clarity & Mischief. I was a little uncertain about the mischief thing, because that can get you into trouble. Mischief can sometimes be malicious, but I do have more than a little Coyote in my nature. And "mischief" makes me think of my ten-year-old nephew with the perpetually dancing brown eyes. Eli is a little entrepreneur and my sister reports that he has set up his first lemonade stand of the season. For fifty cents, you can buy a cup of his elixir, and for an additional quarter you get the "secret recipe." But, Emily reports, he makes it from a mix!! She doesn't know what, if any, the secret ingredient is.

I thought that was hilarious, but when I proposed Clarity & Mischief to Christopher he didn't like it that much. What about "Heroically Annoying"? he asked. Now this is a shameless bid for recognition of his own wit as last night we listened to KPFA while we were doing the dishes. (This was Christopher's idea because he loves Music from the Hearts of Space and Joe Frank--I personally boycott KPFA until they get rid of that whiny creep Dennis Bernstein.)

Anyway, we were waiting for Joe Frank, and there was an earnest young polyamorous woman on explaining how she was a "love warrior," how she loved everyone and everything, how she was going to bring peace on earth by making love with everyone and so on, blah blah blah. I know this is what saints do and where we all aspire in the end, but this lady had such a tone of self-righteousness in her voice that I was torn between laughter and smashing the radio. I said to C, "She's just so full of her own self-importance, she's so self-righteous, she's so KPFA, she's so so so..."

"Heroically annoying," he supplied. Exactly. But not for my blog title.

So then I thought of some overblown titles myself: Divine Fool, which was the name of the very short-lived press Alan and I started a century ago, and which I love because how can you not love the divine fool? And then God help me I thought of the Divine Feminine, which is what I actually worship, but you can't say that, it sounds way too pretentious. In fact, scratch anything with Divine in the title, that is heroically annoying right there.

Then one thing led to another, and I started fooling around with my poem Manifesto, and added the line, "Luck at the eleventh hour." And that seemed right. It reminds me of a book title by Grace Paley, Enormous Changes at the Last Minute which leaped off a bargain table in Harvard Square into my hand thirty-five years ago. I bought that book just because of its title, and met one of my all-time favorite writers.

So I like "Luck at the eleventh hour," both as a title for the new book and as the new blog. I'll start it up within a day or two. It's the full moon, it's Passover, it seems auspicious.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Carla was wonderful, composed, engaged, and fully present, speaking with the help of a microphone as her voice is weaker now, but still clear. In the midst of her presentation she paused and said, "I can hear the sound of the babies"--there were a lot of young babies present that night--"and their parents soothing them, and the sound of Megan's respirator." Megan is another young woman who is dying of ALS. "And all of those things are life. It's like a symphony," Carla said. And she herself has gone from being a lover of poems to being the poem itself.

Later she went on to quote Rumi, "In the slaughterhouse of love/They kill only the best." She recited the whole poem from memory--it is in what Kim Rosen would call the fourth chamber of her heart. Maclen was there and he acted seamlessly as her voice, taking questions and being charming, informative and thoughtful. It's as if she has transferred all her considerable powers of articulateness and wit and grace over to him, and young as he is, he has picked up the mantle.

Meanwhile, the tiny little flame-tips of green on the tips of the fig tree branches have opened into delectable fans, the color of the inside leaves of Romaine lettuce, a tender light green. And little tiny hard green fig fruits have also appeared--when did that happen?

And we finally finally have a health care bill, not a perfect one, but a huge step nonetheless. Why did it take so long and so much fighting? Was it because it galls the Republican "base" so much that Obama is a competent president? A black man, in strong alliance with some powerful women (Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi) and a gay man (Barney Frank)? Is that what has made these senseless attacks so vituperative?

That's one hypothesis put forward by Frank Rich of the New York Times today at any rate. I can't think of any other reason to be so vociferously hateful about a President trying to take care of uninsured vulnerable people who live in one of the wealthiest countries in the world and can't see a doctor when they need one. I just don't get it.

Meanwhile, I confess, I've been following the story about Sandra Bullock's marriage imploding. Okay, I know this is not about serious literature, but maybe it is--bear with me. I know other beautiful strong generous talented admirable women whose faithless partners betrayed them. I have also been betrayed. It is one of the most insidious forms of pain; you grieve as if for a death, but you are also wracked with self-doubt--why didn't I see this coming? What's wrong with me that this happened? How will I be able to recognize it in the future? How can I protect myself?

(And of course the answer is you can't. You can't protect yourself and still stay open to love. You have to open to the possibility of getting hurt, even that badly, all over again. The only thing you can do is build up your arsenal of self-love, and love your friends and family and animals and the world as hard as you can in the meantime.)

I can't help thinking of the title of her movie The Blind Side. How she herself was blindsided while making it--the metaphorical resonance of that is just too much. You couldn't make this shit up. (We saw The Blind Side the other night. Bullock was very good--I wouldn't have given her the Oscar for it, but she is immensely appealing. The movie was disturbing, though. The young black man was like a formless piece of dough who could be molded to the desires and needs of the white family. There was something more than a little quease-inducing about the way he was valued for his football talent and not really given the chance to be a whole person. And there were virtually no functional black adults in the film--they were all drug addicts and poor and hopeless. The only people with any wholeness and power and strength were white. Yuck!)

I don't know what this latest infidelity scandal has to do with anything, really, except that the cruelty of the way people can and do hurt their intimate partners is breathtaking. I have cried a river and carried on about men who wandered off to sleep with other women after a few months of dating, men who technically owed me nothing. Now I realize they did me a huge favor by showing their true colors early and allowing me to cut my losses and move on. And my losses were nothing compared to what they cost the women who married these grown-up babies and took care of them for years.

In its own way, I think this story has the proportions of a kind of female Shakespearian tragedy: the need for self-protection vs. the need for love. The need to be able to trust vs. the very real disincentives for doing so. This is the story of so many brilliant women. It has been telling itself for centuries. Maybe the problem is not only with men and women, but with marriage and monogamy. Maybe the majority of people--the majority of men anyway--aren't cut out for it, and shouldn't do it. Because you've got to wonder, looking at James, at Tiger Woods, at Bill Clinton, at John Edwards--why did these guys even get married in the first place? Was it for image? For fantasy? What did they imagine they were agreeing to when they took their vows? Were they thinking anything at all?

I'm immersing myself in Sappho these days--rereading her through the eyes of Willis Barnstone's translations. I love her opening prayer to Aphrodite. I want to memorize it. I'm borrowing words and phrases from her and using her as a 2700-years dead collaborator. It's wonderful and a little scary. She has so much power, her words just burn on the page.

And I'm continuing to slowly add layers to the essay on war and violence. Once I'm done with it I'll send it out and turn again to the play.

More cultural things: We saw Humpday, which is a hilarious, sweet, brilliant little film. Rent it! The actors improvised the wonderful dialogue themselves. I'd be interested in following anything director Lynn Sheldrake does. Her approach is fresh, innovative, relaxed, intuitive. And the results are so dead-center honest.

I went yesterday and saw my friend Colleen Tane Nakamoto's show "Soft Tissue" (along with four other solo women performance artists of color.) I've been following her one-woman show for four years watching it get better, deeper, richer, more powerful as she grows along with the material. I've been privileged to have a front-row seat to observe the blossoming of art and artist. Yesterday's version was the most realized yet. And the process continues.

I also just finished reading Nina Wise's book A Big Happy Free Unusual Life or whatever it's called--wonderful book. Just confirms stuff I already know, but I got a couple of good ideas for teaching writing from it.

I also read a memoir Falling by John Taylor who is married to Jeannette Walls who wrote the bestselling book The Glass Castle. Taylor's book is about the demise of his first marriage. He's a good writer as far as description goes--I copied out the opening paragraphs to several of his chapters in order to use them when teaching essay writing--but as a narrator, he comes across as selfish, bigoted, arrogant and unlikeable. I think that's interesting--flies in the face of what we're taught in creating memoir, that we should always make ourselves out to be an appealing narrator. And of course most writers, like most people, want folks to like us. But you know, when you tell the truth, you run the risk of people not liking you. And from the way Taylor presented his side of the story of his marriage in his book, I conclude that I don't like him. But he can really describe a New York neighborhood.

I did feel like I liked Jeannette Walls, very much, after I read her book and google-stalked her, so what does that say? Another brilliant woman with another less-perspicacious man? Or maybe he is better than his book would suggest.

It is the calm before the storm right now--a lazy Sunday morning with Christopher, the cat and The Times. Trixie always tries to steal food off his plate, and sometimes has to be locked away in the kitchen so that he can finish his toast. I am enjoying this peaceful weekend because it will be disrupted soon enough: I'll teach a weekend workshop in Pleasanton, and then go to the conference in Colorado, and then come home and then go to the writer's retreat in Michigan, and then come home and go to another conference in Massachusetts.

And all the while, a trip to Haiti--a long trip, three weeks at the very least, and more I hope-- is simmering on the stove of the possible. I have feelers out to two non-profits, both of which are possibilities. I'm much more excited about the idea of being in Haiti again and doing something, however small, that could be helpful, than in going to all these writing conferences.

And a propos of The Blind Side again, I'm thinking of changing the name of this blog. I named it after my book which just came out this past September. It took years of sending it out before it finally became reality. Now I'm feeling superstitious about the power of a name. At its best See How We Almost Fly suggests not getting off the ground, not soaring. At its worst, maybe crashing, which, since I'm about to fly around the country in the next few months, is a little scary. The poetry manuscript I'm sending out now is called Love Shack. Maybe I should change my blog name to that...

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

My friend the incomparable Carla Zilbersmith will be giving a talk about living in gratitude even under totally crap circumstances on Tuesday night the 23rd from 6:30pm - 8:30pm at the Novato Seventh-day Adventist Church, 495 San Marin Drive, Novato, CA. You can email to reserve tickets. If you live in the Bay Area and can go, you should; Carla is not to be missed!

Last night Christopher and I talked about Beethoven while we ate dinner and listened to a CD of his Pathetique and some other works. When Christopher was sixteen he taught himself the Pathetique using sheet music and a recording, practicing over and over. It's a fiendishly difficult piece. There are portions where the pianist's fingers go by in a hummingbird blur. Where did Beethoven get the courage to strike out in such a moody, personal, naked, wild direction that was so different from what had come before? And where did Christopher get the chutzpah to think he could teach it to himself?

"It's the kind of thing only a sixteen-year-old would be insane enough to attempt!" he laughed. "Not at fifty. At fifty you think, 'I'll just do something a bit easier. This thing is going to make my head explode.'"

I am so madly in love with that sixteen-year-old who would go out on a limb for Beethoven. Who had so much passion inside him that no lesser piece of music would do. It reminds me of what I have been re-living as I edit the transcription of the Kim Rosen interview: how, memorizing the work of a genius, learning it by heart, unites your mind with that genius mind. Kim does it by learning great poems by heart. Christopher did it by learning Beethoven.

When I was in my early twenties I lived for six months with dozens of Shakespeare sonnets inside of me because I was in a production called Crooked Eclipses, a theatrical meditation of Shakespeare sonnets. Walking two miles to work over the freezing Mass Ave. bridge in the dead of winter, or shopping at the grocery store, or hauling my wash to the laundromat, lines from the sonnets would arise spontaneously into my consciousness. I miss those days. Most of the sonnets I knew then have frayed away in the past three (!) decades, but the one that is in the fourth chamber of my heart, as Kim puts it, is "Let us not to the marriage of true minds/Admit impediment." I have that one till death do us part. The others I greet as old friends when I encounter them here and there.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

I have jokingly said to my students that you need to have a bit of OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) in order to be a writer. I actually think this is true of the artist temperament in general. The same glitch in my brain that had me addicted to Web Sudoku, is the same quirk that keeps me knitting like a madwoman for hours on end, is the same mechanism that allows me to obsessively move words around for days on a poem is the same thing that now gets me to the piano to practice.

It took a while to kick in with the piano, mostly because I didn't have enough of a vocabulary to make it worthwhile. And even now all I can do is Louie Louie and a piece of Randy Newman. But it's enough--I begin to sense how music is a huge puzzle and even if I just have a few pieces in my hand, I can turn them over and play with them and I'm itching to possess the next one. Christopher has regaled me with music theory, most of which goes in one ear and out the other, but some of it is sticking. What I love most is using this other part of my brain, the non-verbal part, muscle memory and instinct rather than the sentence-making vocabulary-chewing part I generally dwell in.

I have printed out the lyrics to "Hallelujah"--Gerry asked me what I thought the words meant and I said "No idea," some combination of Leonard Cohen's erotic-Biblical-spiritual shtick--but they are beautiful.

The other night we had some excitement in the neighborhood--seven, count them, seven cop cars on the street outside our house, and a helicopter with searchlight beams circling overhead while a voice on a loudspeaker ordered someone inside the house across the street to "Come out with your hands up." We had been watching The Fog of War--sue me, I felt bad for Robert McNamara. I know that had I been old enough to understand what was going on during the Vietnam Era I would have hated him. I remember the anguish and horror of that war, the daily casualty count in the newspapers, the scenes of napalmed children howling in pain on the evening news.

What I saw in the film though was a man in anguish about the possibility of nuclear war, haunted by how close we came on more than one occasion. One could argue that knowing what he knew he could have and should have done more to stop Johnson from escalating the war in Vietnam--but Johnson was a stubborn man and hindsight is always 20/20. Maybe it's because I'm older, maybe because I still love Obama despite the fact that he seems bent on escalating our military involvement in Afghanistan which I think is a terrible mistake--but I can now hold the concept of fundamentally decent people making bad decisions which result in horrible things happening.

So anyway, there we were pondering the paradox of McNamara's character; meanwhile on the street, a posse of cops were focused on our neighbors. We stepped out on our porch to see what was happening. The mother came out eventually. It was a cold night--I had my down coat on--and she was dressed in a tank top and shorts.

They told her to walk backwards with her hands up, towards the cop car. Talking and arguing. She seemed to be saying, "My son is in the house!" I wondered which son it was. I remember her older son from when he was a teen age boy who would offer to cut our lawn. Her younger son has sickle cell anemia, is small for his age and developmentally delayed.

Another neighbor across the way came out and stood on their fire escape, wrapped up against the cold, silently bearing witness. I knew this family. There was an uncle who had done time in San Quentin who threatened to burn down my house because I wouldn't give him ten dollars once when he rang my bell in the middle of the night. That was one of the reasons why I stopped hanging around with the children, who are all grown up now anyway, with children of their own.

The mother waved at us and called "Hi neighbor!" I think she was glad to have witnesses, in case a Rodney King incident of police brutality developed--which it didn't. At least not that we saw, not that night. After about twenty minutes of standing around, a little blustering on the bullhorns, some cars tried to make their way up the street and were blocked by the phalanx of police. Then, slowly, the mother was let go back into her house (at first they were going to take her away in the cop car and I wondered for what? Child abuse? Or was it a drug bust? There are a lot of drug busts in our neighborhood.)

Then the cop cars left finally, and we turned back to McNamara and the sixties and the seventies and the Vietnam War.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Trixie has recovered remarkably quickly from her feminine operation. When you compare the time it takes for a woman to heal from a hysterectomy...she's already leaping up after her toy and scrambling over the couches and hiding in the cupboard, less than 48 hours post-surgery. Of course it helps that she's not even one year old yet.

The day is bright and clear and beautiful, the buds on the fig tree are just beginning, like green flames, the peach tree is beginning to flower. Pink blossoms everywhere. Scotch broom not out in full yet in the hills, but it will be soon. Weeds are waist high in the back yard, and no matter how many I pull, ten thousand more grow.

My ideas are like the weeds. I want to teach Shakespeare sonnets in prison, I want to go to Haiti, I'm trying to coordinate poetry at this middle school although my contact is not calling me back, I'm writing new poems for another book and there's another draft yet of the play to do. And upcoming trips: the AWP conference in Denver (a little scary), the Fetzer Institute thing in Michigan (I have no idea what it will be like, but I'm intrigued), the SUN conference in Massachusetts in May. (fun!)

Christopher is patiently teaching me piano, and now that I have mastered Louie Louie, we have moved on to Randy Newman. I'm learning one of my favorite songs, You Can Leave Your Hat On. It has a very repetitive right hand, and a left hand that consists of two or three phrases. I've learned one phrase on the left hand so far which I can play while Christopher does the right hand. I'll progress to the full left hand and then learn the other hand and put them both together.

Something wonderful happens when I am concentrating hard on the music; my brain shuts off. You can't exactly "think" the melody and the rhythm at the same time, everything's happening so fast. You just get it into your muscle memory and trust that and feel it. After a long day focusing on the keyboard it's the best medicine in the world. Gerry is burning a CD for me with k.d. lang's version of Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah on it so I can learn that too. The lyrics to that song kill me.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Okay, not that it matters, but I am psyched that The Hurt Locker won best picture and that Kathryn Bigelow won best director, a breakthrough for women in one of the more male-dominated industries. I'm psyched because of all the movies I saw (and I didn't see every picture that was nominated) The Hurt Locker was by far the best. It had real content, it made me feel a range of emotions, some of which surprised me, it put me in the shoes and hearts and bodies of characters whose circumstances are very different from my own. It felt true on an emotional, spiritual and physical level. It brought the war home.

And of course it was technically challenging--without calling attention to itself. I didn't think, "Wow, how did she get all those explosives to go off in that way?" I was so deep inside the reality of the film I wanted to dive under the seat in front of me to avoid flying shrapnel.

And I am proud as hell that a woman pulled this off.

Of the nominated films I saw "Avatar" (beautiful visual effects but the story was...problematic,) Up in the Air, (some very nice moments, and I liked the idea of the story--I liked the structure but the plot had some holes in it that bothered me, and I didn't think it was Oscar-worthy), District 9, (this one was good, they should have a separate award for cheekiest upstart made on a shoestring, plus it was probably the most creative, well-thought-out idea with great metaphorical and political resonance.) Last and least was Inglorious Basterds, (hated it hated it hated it and Quentin Tarantino you do not have permission to use the Holocaust as a prop to jack off to your own disturbed fantasies.)

I plan to see Precious and Up! and Crazy Heart, and maybe The Blind Side as well, if not in theatres then on Netflix.

Meanwhile I got to interview a veteran, an acquaintance of Christopher's, for my play The Recruiter, and I'm up to my eyeballs in a new essay. I dreamed the other night that the third book of poems, Love Shack, got accepted for publication. Wouldn't that be great, if it only took a year or two to get it published instead of eight?

Saturday, March 06, 2010

Last night I dreamed I had a sexual affair with another woman, and rode a motorcycle out to a meeting in order to tryst with her. When I woke up and told Christopher about it, he had three questions: Were you wearing a helmet? (No.) What kind of sex did you have? (Subtext: can I watch? No.) And: what kind of motorcycle was it? (How should I know?)

Such is life at the old homestead.

We figured out that Trixie's peeing the bed might have something to do with the fact that she is furiously and seriously in heat. She humps the floor, Christopher's leg when he stands there mixing cat food, his shoes, anything she can get her little furry body around. She hunches up her back and assumes the position at random moments throughout the day. We can hear Whiny, the big gray tomcat, prowling and yowling out in the yard. I swear they can smell each other through the walls.

So yesterday Christopher brought her in to have her lady parts fixed and right now he's picking her up, poor thing. I still have mixed feelings about what we've done, making her tame and domesticated and dependent on us--and now neutered. On the one hand, being a feral cat in an urban neighborhood is no picnic. I've seen many dead cats on our street over the years, hit by passing cars. It's cold and wet out this winter, and there are a lot of pit bulls, crazy drivers, kids on skateboards, and other scary things. Plus I have no idea how they eat if not for people like Christopher who feed them.

On the other hand she often perches on the back of the sofa looking out the front picture window at the street, as cats do, and I wonder if she is missing her lost freedom. And while there is no percentage in letting her answer nature's call and produce a new litter of feral babies, it also seems cruel to cut off such an essential part of her being. But maybe I am just projecting here. Maybe I am grieving my own fertility and my own lost wildness.

For the last two days we've been hosting one of my oldest friends and her almost-eleven-year-old son. She remembers dinners with my family when we all lived at home, she remembers my mother when my mother could walk, when my mother was a force to be reckoned with, and she remembers me when I was a thirteen-year-old bundle of insecurity and originality, my head a frizzy dandelion full of dreams.

Tuesday, March 02, 2010

I hate it that they are referring to the Chilean people who are so desperate for food and water that they are breaking into stores as "looters." A looter in my mind is someone who takes advantage of a catastrophe to steal video games, or fancy electronic gizmos or high-end luxury clothing or something else non-essential. If people are hungry and thirsty and supplies are not being distributed to them, then that's not looting, that's survival. What if some of those people have young children or elderly or sick relatives and they are trying to get food and water for them?

Christopher has been sick for the past two or three days. I made him a big pot of chicken soup with elephant garlic, fresh dill, fresh ginger, carrots, onions, sea salt and the juice of a few limes. I am sure that this will cure the dead. He's been drinking it, as well as reading a memoir by a physicist who became obsessed with the idea of time traveling.

I just finished reading a witty play by my friend Stuart, a drama about the goddess hera set as an English drawing room comedy. I'm beginning to reread Aline Kaminsky-Crumb's autobiography Need More Love. She's the wife of cartoonist R. Crumb, and a brilliant cartoonist in her own right. Her book is plainly-written, funny, poignant and ultimately inspiring because she's a little bull terrier (is that even a real breed?) By that I mean, she's not afraid to be mouthy, gauche, ambitious, lazy, horny, sensual, greedy, determined, and everything else. She completely owns her shadow--maybe even over-owns it. And she is persistent. I find her brave and inspiring.

In other news, our recently-adopted formerly feral kitten Trixie peed the bed the other night. Yes, that would be our bed, the king-size human one. She jumped onto the end of it in the wee (pun intended) hours of the morning, did her thing and jumped off so softly I never heard or felt a thing. In the morning there was this suspiciously-shaped stain down at the bottom of the comforter that smelled muskily of kitty-pee. I rubbed baking soda into it, we soaked it in the sink and I think we got it all out.

Now, the question: why did she do it? As far as I know, cats are fastidious. They only do this kind of thing when they are, you should excuse the expression, pissed. But she's got the life of Riley here. Four square meals a day, kitty toys to play with and tons of stroking and attention. What is going on? Does she miss the great outdoors, the backyard with its rain and snails and tall weeds and her family to play with and fight with? Is her situation as an indoor cat privileged or tragic or both? And how much do cat psychiatrist cost? Oy.

Right now I am taking a tiny break from writing up a "Letter of Interest" about the Haiti idea for my friend Enver who works for an international refugee organization. I've never written a Letter of Interest before and don't know what one is exactly, so I'm just stumbling along, doing my best.