Tuesday, December 26, 2006

RIP James Brown

Woke up to the news on Christmas morning and couldn't stop crying for about an hour.
My first husband and I, still young and full of hope, used to rate our dinner parties by whether we ended up rolling up the living room carpet and dancing to the Godfather of Soul.
If I was still in Tonga I'd put on my biggest, messiest mourning mats and wear black for a month. I don't feel good. I'm woebegone. dejected, doleful. I'm down.
And it's sadly, irrevocably official now: my youth is over.

Sunday, December 24, 2006

Happy Holiday Doubt in the Pedro Sun

Christmas Eve in San Pedro -- the day awash with that energizing California sun streaming in through the bedroom drapes, getting in my husband's eyes as we roll over and click on the morning talk shows. Out here, Stephanopoulos and Russert start at 8 a.m. and I love lolling on the bed, what's left of the beleaguered LA Times splayed around me on the comforter. I can alternately watch Meet the Press, read the paper, stare out at the harbor and sip coffee reheated from last night's dinner party in big red Christmas mugs. What languid and lovely multitasking!

In the "Current" section, my husband finds something he wants to read out loud, an article about the myths of atheism, while that bountiful Christian communitarian, Rev. Rick Warren, robust and at ease in his tie-less pinstriped shirt allows as how he can be pro-life evangelical and an AIDs activist; "being sick is not a sin," an inserted box quoting his wife Kay reassuringly reminds us.

"I'm starting to like this guy," I say. He's easier to watch than Joel Osteen, that glazed-looking evangelical cyborg whose Christian smile looks botoxed and demented. We debate whether Rick Warren or Mitch Albom is richer, and I figure it'd be a close call, what with Albom's adorably heaven-heavy oeuvre. We reflect on Barbara Walters's special on heaven and how it seems to us people believe in heaven because they hope they'll get to see a lost loved one again. We both find that poignant, if delusional.

So my husband picks up the LA Times again and reads, "Given that we know that atheists are often among the most intelligent and scientifically literate people in any society, it seems important to deflate the myths that prevent them from playing a larger role in our national discourse," Sam Harris, author of The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason contends. Under Myth #2 -- "Atheism is responsible for the greatest crimes in human history" -- he argues, "There is no society in history that ever suffered because its people became too reasonable."

Oh, music to my Christmas Eve ears. I come from Quaker forebears, folks who got run out of England and then Nantucket and then South Carolina because of their religion, and I grew up in a passionately fervant Christian home, so appreciation of freedom of religion is deep in my bones. This history is also part of my own passionate suspicion of the mischief religion propagates on nonbelievers; I'm one of them. As an adult I am much more comfortable with reverent doubt and not-knowing. I agree with Harris's view, under "Atheists are arrogant," "When considering questions about the nature of the cosmos and our place within it, atheists tend to draw their opinions from science. This isn't arrogance, it is intellectual honesty."

Well, I'm happy in my nonbelief. This time of year I like to play one of my personal Christmas carols, Randy Newman's "God's Song." I can't resist quoting it here:

"Lord, if you won't take care of us
Won't you please please let us be?"

to which God replies:

"You must all be crazy to put your faith in me
That's why i love mankind
You really need me
That's why i love mankind."

Anyway, eventually my husband and I clambered out of bed and clicked off the tube and went out for a walk in Pt. Fermin Park and breakfast overlooking the marina at 22nd Street Landing, The sheer beauty of our surroundings seemed to still our impulse to cogitate. As Harris asserts, "from the atheist point of view, the world's religions utterly trivialize the real beauty and immensity of the universe. One doesn't have to accept anything on insufficient evidence to make such an observation." Indeed. Evidence of this still gorgeous, if troubled, earth is all around me this day before Christmas, and it is sufficient.

Monday, December 18, 2006

A Kamikaze at Tiny's

Jimmy is back from Texas: I ran into him today at that famous newstand at the corner of Las Palmas and Hollywood Boulevard.

I made him buy a copy of my novel from the trunk of my husband's car. It's $17.95 and I didn't have change for Jimmy's twenty, so I took it and told him I'd buy him a drink at Musso and Frank's. It was a perfect day in Hollywood -- low sixties, that bright California sun. It was only a block or two to Musso and Frank's and, freshly arrived from other places, we were both squinting in the sunlight. Then Jimmy decided he wanted to move his rental car so we climbed in and drove two blocks to some parking garage where he could leave the thing for two bucks. Jimmy knows the meter maids of Hollywood well and he knows when they want to be bitchy there's no compromise.

Jimmy used to run a barbershop on Las Palmas right next to my husband's awards and trophy store. I used to bring in a bottle of decent champagne every time I'd come into town and sit over in the barbershop because they had air conditioning and drink champagne with Jimmy until my husband got a break to take me to lunch. When Jimmy'd see me coming he'd holler out, "How's your pussy??" and I'd yell back "Satisfied." Mostly queens or lonely has beens came to get their hair done, including one guy who looked exactly like Humphrey Bogart and actually made his living doing standins. I always tried to get him to have some champagne but he would never take any. Once I brought in my CD of Elvis Costello and the Fairfield Four, a beautiful collection; Jimmy loves get down gospel sounds.

Jimmy's partner was Bobby, a tough little Latino who always wore black and had a black pompadour and lots of bling and who shot himself in the head out in his house in the Valley, hooked on too much Vicodin and despairing, we all thought, of his double life. Out there he had a wife and kids; in Hollywood it was a little different. After Bobby died Jimmy held on for about three years but finally decided to go to Texas to start a new life near his aged mother and her retired oil-business boyfriend. Jimmy thought the landscape, the fresh air of Texas might do him good. But after a year he was homesick and without work; he needed a license he didn't have and he didn't want to stick around and sit in class all day. His mom bought him a George Strait double album, thinking it might help, but while Jimmy says he liked a cut or two he really couldn't get into it. So he came back. He's always been a Hollywood queen, he'd tell you -- his father worked for Warner Brothers and he's got the place in his blood. And so here we were, coming at Musso and Frank's from the parking structure thirsty for something strong.

But we forgot Musso and Frank's is closed on Mondays: their ornate iron grate was solidly pulled closed and locked for the day. Jimmy thought he knew of another place, but when we got there, it wasn't open either; a black-clad waitress smoking on the sidewalk said we'd have to wait till 4, but we wanted our cocktails now. "Try Tiny's," she said, pointing back to the Boulevard. Motivated by thirst, we trekked past Cahuenga and found the little storefront with white marquis lights circling a square sign: Tiny's.

After our eyes adjusted to the dark interior, somebody yelled, "How can I help you" but there was nobody but us and a couple of deep red booths, an enormous wooden bar with a classic "bar nude" over the mirror; finally the bartender stood up from putting bottles in the frig so we could see where the voice was coming from.

We clambered onto the barstools and ordered: a double-olive martini for Jimmy and a kamikaze for me. Jimmy's favorite words are fucking and pussy and you know if you're sitting down for drinks with him you'll get an earful. He's about the happiest guy I know, though, especially his third day back in Hollywood, and when he slings the blue it's out of exuberance. The bartender was unfazed; eventually he told us every item in the place got bought off EBay, including the massive bar from some old drinkery in South Chicago. The drinks were excellent and we toasted to Jimmy's mother and Hollywood, and threw in another one for Bobby, may he rest in peace. Jimmy likes to talk about beauty -- and how it seems to be rapidly fleeing. I said Jimmy, what are you about 37? and he said, yeah, on one side! He said he used to spend hundreds on Lancome and the like, but they never worked. Now, he said, he uses Jergens, the one with the pink top, $3.99 from Walmart -- the same stuff his mother's been using for 50 years -- and he says it's just as good. I pledged to try it, but quoted WCWilliams, "Ach, we were all beautiful once" and told Jimmy in my view we'd just have to get used to getting old.

Anyway, I spent most of the money Jimmy gave me for the book on the drinks and left the rest for the bartender. It was bright outside, even brighter than when we went in, and even with those delicious drinks coursing through our bloodstream, nothing looked all that much better on the Boulevard. But it's fun to have Jimmy back, and fun to be back myself, finding a bar named "Tiny's" on a sunny December day just before the solstice.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Back to the Coast

I live a double life. In one life, I get up into a gray dawn in a gray post-industrial city and this time of year, facing east, stare out at bare branches and the slim chance of a streak of sun before lake effect overcast takes over. I plod in to teach at my university and hope there's still a cup of coffee left in the office carafe so I don't have to make it. I methodically turn on my computer in my windowless office, consult the syllabus I optimistically crafted in balmier times and get ready for class...I am structured and orchestrated and choreographed and responsible and, and, and...

In my other life, I wake up facing southeast over the LA Harbor and make green tea and get the LA Times off the street that slants sharply down toward Fort MacArthur with its big green commons and red roofs and beyond that, marinas full of little yachts and massive concrete slips for container ships from China and Japan. In this life, the colors are emerald and azure and white and red. From our bedroom, my husband and I see two graceful palms and sometimes parrots perch and squawk there. At night we sometimes hear seals bark down in the rocks. I dawdle and write and look out to sea and sometimes I do nothing.

So tomorrow I fly out of the gray and into the blue to sweet California, where my husband waits and my body stretches out in the tangy sea air. Even thinking about it now, my bag packed, the violets watered and the bills paid, I feel myself slow down. I'm grateful for the unbending, the opening up, the way I feel renewed in my coastal life. I'm grateful for the world that lets this be: the privilege of this fertility, this gentle turning, this balance.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Dagger of Plagiarism

It's an unglamorous, gray day in Flint, the atmosphere made all the more oppressive by mountains of grading. This is when being a writing teacher is hardest: I miss the daily sparkle of the students in person now that classes are over, and what I'm left with are their complicated, convoluted struggles to communicate with me on the page. I'm doing a lot of my grading online now: at least, I can settle down with a cup of green tea, in my sweats, and click and comment on my amiable MAC while looking out the window at the leafless black trees -- this time of year, they look arthritic and when a wind comes up from the west, you can almost hear them creak.

So, I swear, the FIRST paper I open doesn't feel right. Doesn't read right. A few clicks on Google later and I realize, yes, it's happened again: A student who would have gotten a B otherwise gave me a paper cut-and-pasted from sources easily accessible on Google. So he flunks the paper and flunks the class.

When I told my colleague about it later, at school, she says, "It feels like a dagger." We both use knife-wound images as we vent. Like my neighbors parking their white van in front of the house, this is an odd crime -- is anyone really hurt? In a world so full of actual bloodshed, how dare we two teachers, leaning against our doorposts on a gloomy Wednesday afternoon, claim injury from a student's awkwardly stolen words? Let's take a moment to breathe: let's acknowledge, with all due respect, a sense of proportion. If my life was at stake, or the student's, probably I wouldn't give a damn.

But why, when my colleague and I are talking about it, do we simultaneously, instinctively, bring our hands to our chests as if to protect our hearts?

It is because we love words and believe in their power beyond all reason. Words are my Word, my lifeblood and my pride.

My colleague tells me she is training herself not to take it personally. I've been teaching far longer than her but I still struggle every time. It feels like a dagger: a dagger of betrayal and disrespect. In my response to my student, after he'd at first denied it, then admitted it and asked for mercy, I wrote in a flood of emotion: " I feel personally offended. I do not see this as a negotiable item, and I am very angry about it at the moment. I'm not in a good place for any sort of compromise, and because this is something I take VERY seriously, I don't think you'll get anywhere with me." I was sorry afterwards that I'd let myself be so raw. The next, and final, message was crisp and cold and governed entirely by the language of rules.

My colleague says it's really NOT personal. I know that. The student's just trying to get by: plagiarism happens out of laziness and the press of deadlines, and, I suspect, our students' understanding that we really, truly love the shining paragraphs, not the bland and mediocre and confusing ones that are the students' messy results much of the time. I think our students want us to love them, and if we haven't taught them enough to pave the way for those golden sentences that will make us love them, maybe they just want to find the ones that will. Maybe I'm crazy because I just got home from the office Christmas party and had a little bit of the de rigueur holiday egg nog -- the heavily frothed brew redolent with secret dollops of whiskey that everyone denies are there. I must have had too much, yes, that's it. Because if there's any truth to my half-baked theory, then plagiarism is about the failure of love. And that's a damned depressing thought on this dark, unredeemable midweek night.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Out of the Cold

I'm attempting to rediscover this little blog. My new novel, not coincidentally, is called Night Blind. To find out more, go to my website, www.janworth.com. Yep, that's me.
I've been thinking I had a few things to say about publishing a novel. So I'll see if I can get this going again.
And it's not just that, but the opportunity to try to move beyond the book, to write something new.
So here goes nothing!