Saturday, December 25, 2010

Hope and Joy

We question ourselves.  What have we done to
so affront nature?
We interrogate and worry God.
Are you there?  Are you there, really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?

Into this climate of fear and apprehension,
Christmas enters.
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor
Come the way of friendship.

---from Amazing Peace:  A Christmas Poem by Maya Angelou

To friends old and new:  Merry Christmas and best wishes for a remarkable new year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

Human Stories

Willa Cather once said "There are only two or three human stories, and they go on repeating themselves as fiercely as if they had never happened before."

I've started a series of short fiction based on this concept.  Are there really only a few stories, repeated endlessly in various manifestations?  Here's my first exploration, which I've entitled Human Stories, Number One.  Consider it my holiday gift to you (you're welcome)!  And please send me your ideas for other "human stories!"

Boy Meets Girl
          The theme for the evening was the Roaring Twenties, although none of them were born then.  The women rented flapper attire—glittering headbands, shiny, bobbed wigs and fringed skirts—from the costume supplier they had emailed and texted each other about in the preceding weeks.  It seemed strange, really, to celebrate someone’s fiftieth birthday, a milestone certainly, by embracing a decade and its imperfect impressions and subjective symbolism, by adopting this era that had nothing to do with any of them, to mark a person’s birth this way, and to do it by having a party in someone’s garage, no matter how expertly finished it was.
          In one corner, by the newly installed wet bar complete with leather barstools, Glen Hanley ordered a scotch and soda from his wife’s PTA friend, Susan Gleeson.  He had met Susan before, had come home from work once to find four women huddled over a mound of papers at the kitchen table, had listened politely through the introductions and explanations while wondering what was to be done about his dinner.  Now that both girls were in college, his wife Janet had given up the custom of regular dinners.  But he still worked at the bank and still played in his tennis group on Tuesdays and Thursdays, weather permitting.  He, Glen Hanley, still wanted dinner. 
          Susan slid the sweating glass across the bar.  It was July and hot despite the central air conditioning vented in from the house.
          In the center of the ceiling, where a garage door opener should be, the Gleesons had strung up a disco ball.  It wasn’t until later, much later, when the recycling bin was full of bottles and the brie started to harden and ooze, that the disco ball would be in its full glory, when the overhead lights were dimmed and the dance floor got crowded.
          At that point, Glen Hanley was sitting once again on a leather stool, having been mildly humiliated by his wife and her wisecrack about the banality of mortgage lending, having been numbed and incited by his fifth scotch and soda to walk off and leave her dancing to Night Moves, which had nothing to do with the Twenties either.  And once again, there was Susan Gleeson and her red satin cleavage.  Susan Gleeson with her refreshing beverages.  He felt that Doug Gleeson was probably quite lucky, having been allowed to finish his garage for a terrific fiftieth birthday party when he himself, Glen Hanley, couldn’t even get a hot dinner most nights.
          So when the next song on the Gleeson’s playlist was Blinded By the Light, a song that Glen Hanley used to blare in his bedroom on Santa Marina Street, with his ailing mother under an afghan on the living room couch and his twin sisters laughing or fighting in the next room (because Glen Hanley had been surrounded by women his entire life), when this song that made him feel nineteen and not fifty in seven months himself, when this music started, Glen grabbed Susan Gleeson’s hand, his wife be damned, and brought her to the newly laid dance floor.
Death Comes for Boy (or sometimes, for Girl)
          Kizzy Hanley parked her car near the fire hydrant where her sister Lurie slipped in a puddle one summer and got a concussion.  Their mother blamed Kizzy of course, who was older and therefore in charge.  The hydrant had been dripping a slow drip for several days, but the neighborhood kids swore a pact of silence, preferring instead to fill cups and bowls for their own purposes, to occasionally submerge a sweaty head under the faint stream.  Lurie, excitable and absentminded, was destined for accidents.  Even now, Kizzy had a text that Lurie’s plane out of Denver was snow delayed.  Kizzy and her mother would spend the evening worrying and checking the airline’s website.
          Kizzy slowly got her purse and the take-out bag.  She’d been camping at her parents’ house (her mother’s house she’d have to get used to saying) for three nights.  Ever since her father collapsed at his Thursday tennis game.  There was no reason for it, no sense to be made.  He was only fifty-four years old.  Kizzy bit her lip, shook the wave off.
          Her mother was where she’d left her, cleaning the refrigerator.  Her backside in its bluish polyester pants protruded from the opened freezer door, jiggling as she scrubbed.  Boxes of vegetables, cellophane wrapped meat, a ice-covered Ben and Jerry’s, all of it on the marble counter, all of it in individualized tiny puddles.
          “Almost finished then, Mom?” Kizzy asked.  “The food is melting.”
          Her head came out, face shiny from the cold, eyes red-rimmed.  “Okay.”
          Kizzy helped her load the things back in.  Then she gathered plates, forks, napkins, took it all to the kitchen barstools.  They hadn’t eaten in the dining room since she arrived.  Already they were starting new ways of being.
          “You don’t have to stay,” her mother said for the tenth time.  “I know you’ve got your job, your apartment.”
          “Mom, it’s ten minutes away.  Everything will stay the same there.”  She dished Kung Pao chicken for her mother.  “I want to stay through the service.  I want to see Lurie.”  Lurie’s expanding figure, Lurie with her happy marriage and baby on the way. 
          Her mother, resigned but glad:  “Alright then, Kizzy.”
          The clock in the hallway chimed six o’clock.  An heirloom of sorts, Kizzy’s grandmother purchased it when her daughter married Glen Hanley.  It rang every half hour.  Can’t you change the settings, her father would ask.  But Janet Hanley insisted that she didn’t notice it at all, having lived with it for so long.
          Kizzy and her mother looked at each other during the chiming.  A brief moment, nothing to say.  Marvelous and terrifying, Kizzy thought, how quickly we go, how quickly we stay.
Girl (or alternately, Boy) Grows Up
            Living in Barstow didn’t afford Janet Lemon many opportunities for excitement.  The sleepy town, a crossroads really, soldiered on in the shadow of its mining days. 
          The three-bedroom ranch house was home to eleven:  Janet, her parents and six siblings, and her aunt and a cousin.  They shared one bathroom and the square of grass in the back.  Her father worked as a welder and her mother took occasional work, babysitting or cleaning houses. 
          So when Janet had a chance to go with friends to Los Angeles, she packed a bag and left with no regrets.  Many things happened to Janet in the next several years, among the most memorable:  a job at a dingy coffee shop, night classes in history and art, a bitter fight with a roommate, three days of debauchery in Tijuana, a protracted relationship with an aspiring singer, more night classes, a visit home when her aunt died, a Bob Seger concert, a broken wrist while rollerblading, a brief, emotionless liaison, a sailboat ride, a job at a grocery store, and a trip to San Francisco where she fell in love and subsequently, settled down.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A crack in everything

I didn’t know much about Elizabeth Edwards, probably what most of us knew, the main events of her life since her husband came to national attention in 2003.  But I can’t think of a person in my lifetime who handled adversity and injustice with equal grace.  The excerpt that she had printed at her desk is worth repeating, over and over:

"Ring the bells that still can ring.

Forget your perfect offering.

There is a crack in everything.

That’s how the light gets in."

And if you’ve never seen or heard Leonard Cohen sing his song, Anthem, from which this quote is taken, you’re in for a life-changing experience.  I can’t stop watching this today.

Friday, December 10, 2010

I'm a versatile blogger!

A fellow writer and blogger, Suzy Turner, sent me a lovely note the other day, bestowing on me the honor of The Versatile Blogger award!  Suzy's blog can be found at  It features a link to her website, where you can sample her fabulous novel, Raven.

Per the requirements of this esteemed award, I must now list seven facts about myself.  So, here goes:

1.  I have a hard time thinking of facts to list about myself.
2.  I had a typical 70s and 80s childhood--lots of TV!-- and I've been thinking about television, and its probable early effects on my creativity.
3.  My favorite Charlie's Angel was Jaclyn Smith.  Off topic:  have you seen her lately?  She's 63, repeat...63.  Amazing.
4.  I preferred Hutch to Starsky, although in most cases, I usually preferred brunettes (refer to Jaclyn Smith comment).  There was, however, the episode where Hutch became addicted to heroin and I couldn't foresee a future with him and also was impressed with Starsky's heroism in rescuing his partner, but really, I mostly stuck with Hutch adoration.

Where was I?  Oh yes...
5.  My brother and I used to tape episodes of Mork and Mindy WITH A CASSETTE PLAYER, and listen to them later.  That show was hilarious.
6.  On The Facts of Life, I related most to Jo, although I wished she didn't have to be so boyish ALL the time.
7.  I watched soap operas as a child and young adult.  Many hours of soap operas.  (Refer to post below on "Old Friends.")

And now...I will pass this award on to seven more blogs.  If you have time, visit their sites, which I find extremely worthwhile.


Friday, December 3, 2010

The eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg

Is anyone as excited as I am about the upcoming movie version of The Great Gatsby?  Recently, it was announced that Carey Mulligan was cast as Daisy Buchanan, alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as Jay Gatsby and Tobey Maguire as Nick Carraway.  Here's Carey Mulligan in rehearsal:

The Great Gatsby is one of my favorite novels and along with Lolita, one of the quintessential 20th century American works, in my opinion.  What I think will make it a great movie in the hands of director Baz Luhrmann (Moulin Rouge, Australia, Romeo + Juliet) is its highly visual and symbolic nature.  White curtains fluttering, the green light on Daisy's dock, Gatsby's flashy car, all of it great imagery.

I thought I was happy with the casting choices, although I mostly picture Tobey Maguire as the bewildered Spiderman:

and am not sure he can summon the seriousness and eventual wisdom of Nick.  Still, I was willing to give him a chance.  DiCaprio is the perfect choice for Gatsby, and I loved Mulligan in An EducationBut then I stumbled upon this site, where you can vote for your dream cast.  Some of those choices are very compelling.  Check it out.

Also, I'm wondering how Luhrmann will represent one of the most important symbols of the book, the eyes of Dr. T.J. Eckleberg, watching over the proceedings in their God-like manner.  I say a large billboard of Kanye West, with diamond-encrusted sunglasses and his perpetual pout.  I think he'd accept the part.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Imagined Reality, Part 1 of 3

Most writers were influenced by certain books, books that either changed the way they looked at writing or the world in general or if you were lucky enough, books that changed everything.  For me, one book stands above others when I think about my writing and the themes that continue to occupy me, and it wasn’t a work of fiction.  Imagined Communities by Benedict Anderson was required reading for a history course I took when I returned to college, a little late but much more focused.  With apologies to Mr. Anderson, a highly esteemed historian, I, a lapsed history minor, will attempt to summarize its premise.  The book is about nationalism--how it came to be, and how it spread across the world.  Anderson argues that at one time, people couldn’t conceive of themselves as members of a nation and that because of certain phenomena, at some point they could.  These “imagined communities” bound people previously unlinked by certain considerations.  Some of the processes that contributed to this were “the decline of antique kingship,” “the territorialization of religious faiths,” and “changing conceptions of time.”  There are many others (actually, it’s a very complicated and painstakingly-argued thesis, an entire book!), but one that jarred me most:  “the creation of the novel and newspaper.”  According to Anderson, “these forms provided the technical means for ‘re-presenting’ the kind of imagined community that is the nation.”  Because of the novel, which included episodes that took place simultaneously while other episodes took place, people were able to think of people in different locations existing at the same time that they existed elsewhere.  By imagining the world contained in a newspaper and by seeing replicas carried around of the same newspaper, the imagined outside world became visibly pertinent to everyday life, the “real” world. 
It was (and still is) a shocking revelation to me that we have the ability to perceive ourselves a nation, and thereby create the nation, not through territory lines or military bases, but by the intent of the people.  It’s unbelievably empowering to me to think that the world as we know it is the product of singular and collective imagination.  And it gives me a small sense of importance to think that the written word could have the power to unlock this imagination.
How do Anderson’s theories about the beginning and rise of nationalism help me write novels?  Did all of those history courses go to waste?  What does any of this have to do with modern psychology or the Dalai Lama?  More to come in Part Two.
Further information on Anderson and his widely read book on nationalism here and here.
"As soon as we express something, we devalue it strangely. We believe ourselves to have dived down into the depths of the abyss, and when we once again reach the surface, the drops of water on our pale fingertips no longer resemble the ocean from which they came...Nevertheless, the treasure shimmers in the darkness unchanged." ---Franz Kafka