Thursday, July 26, 2007

Goodbye #1: Farewell Albert Ellis

Albert Ellis: 1913-2007

Some memorable quotes from one of psychology's most brilliant curmudgeons and one of my idols:

"I would have liked having children to some degree, but frankly I haven't got the time to take the kids to the goddamn ballgame."

"Self-esteem is the greatest sickness known to man or woman because it's conditional."

"The art of love is largely the art of persistence."

"The best years of your life are the ones in which you decide your problems are your own. You do not blame them on your mother, the ecology, or the president. You realize that you control your own destiny."

"There are three musts that hold us back: I must do well. You must treat me well. And the world must be easy."

"There's no evidence whatsoever that men are more rational than women. Both sexes seem to be equally irrational."

"We teach people to be flexible, scientific and logical in their thinking and therefore to be less prone to brainwashing by the therapist."

When I discovered Albert Ellis while getting my M.S.W. at Michigan in 1980, it suddenly seemed possible to make sense of human travails -- my own and those of my clients. And he delivered his pungent advice with a puncturing and cleansing humor that was a great relief to me when surrounded by people at Michigan who seemed humorless, elitist and arrogant. A rascal and big-mouth, Ellis founded the school of cognitive behavioral therapy (actually, he called his branch of it "rational emotive behavior therapy") and wrote 78 books. I read the one above from cover to cover and used it daily with clients in my brief three years as a counselor. I applied it to my own tempestuous life as well, and I think it helped. And I daresay I use it today in my teaching.

He is one of my intellectual grandpas, and I'm very grateful for his breathtakingly sensible work.

Below is a photo of Ellis, right, with one of my other heroes, Aaron Beck.

Goodbye #2: The Best Tabloid Ever

Can it be? I'm in shock and mourning -- the world's greatest tabloid ever, the Weekly World News, is shutting down Aug. 3. Life in the checkout line is gonna be so damn boring from now on.

According to Frank Mastropolo, apparently from Weekly World News, here's the official announcement. "Magnificently Trashy" indeed!

Excess Hollywood: WEEKLY WORLD NEWS DEAD AT 28!
Freaks, Geeks, Weirdos!

Weekly World News, the newspaper of record for the deranged, announced this week that it was folding on Aug. 3, leaving Bat Boy, Zombie Elvis and P'lod, the extraterrestrial who had an affair with Hillary Clinton, homeless. No reason was given by American Media for shutting down the almost-entirely fictional, magnificently trashy supermarket tabloid, though declining circulation was suspected. Launched in 1979, the rag somehow managed to beat the rest of the news media to scoops like "Oprah to Replace Lincoln on $5 Bill," "12 Senators Are From Outer Space" and "Pope Wants Mel Gibson as Successor."

Monday, July 23, 2007

Jefferson and Dionysius in the Back Yard

I’ve been thinking about back yards. As I write this I’m sitting in a place with no backyard – with no yard at all. It’s an apartment on a steep hillside overlooking the L.A. harbor, and all the other little bungalows and apartment buildings, terraced by law so as not to cut off the view of the row above, are so close together I can hear my neighbor on one side snore and on the other side, sneeze. Sometimes we yell “Gesundheit!”

People cultivate cacti, aloe, portulaca, pansies and hibiscus in pots on their tiny porches and decks. Here and there is a nook just big enough for a thick-necked palm or a medusa’s head of bougainvillea. But no back yards.

One can develop a taste for it: if you can at least see and hear the clanking, ever varied harbor, with its container ships, liners, tugboats, yachts, flags, cranes, bridges, foghorns and of course, the sparkling sea stretching out beyond the breakwater – all that business you don’t have to tend to but which goes on with or without you -- you can actually relax and forget about your claustrophobia in your microscopic high-density bit of real estate. The harbor’s a big complicated front yard, hard-won and shared by everybody on the hill.

For back yards, you have to go to the Midwest.

At home in Flint, I have a fine back yard. Midwesterners generally do: small or large, usually with a swathe of grass that we mow – one week diagonal, another straight across, another up and down. The night after you mow it, it smells fabulous and for most of the summer, there are fireflies courting in the fresh-cut blades. I’m thinking about how sweet that is.

Back yards offer solace and – old-fashioned word – surcease.

One of my first memories is sitting in a galvanized iron tub in a back yard in Ohio, cooling off on a hot August day. Another is shelling peas with my mother -- on our laps, bowls of fat pods, fresh picked and still sun-hot from the garden. I remember how happy she was -- peas right out of her own garden! We ate them that night.

I got married once in my back yard –the leafy triangle behind the 70-year-old house of my first domestic era. We piled up a feast on a long table, and we sat out there drinking champagne until 3 a.m. The next day two dozen plastic corks poked up from the grass like shuttlecocks.

I celebrated my second marriage in a back yard, too – new husband, new house, new back yard to seed with memories. After dinner al fresco, we put up a big screen and showed an outdoor movie of our California rites. We served drinks out of the garage and lit sparklers after dark.

Back yards can be theaters for revenge. A buddy of mine said when he got divorced the only thing he took was his Weber grill – totem of the back yard life. I like to imagine him using it still, vindicated with every juicy bratwurst in his new, happier life.

Back yards are our own little nature preserves, where we exclaim over cardinals, yell at squirrels, equivocate over bunnies and try to get tomatoes to grow. Sometimes, they’re graveyards. Our late cat Joey, a transplant from California who zestfully claimed our Flint back yard, is buried under the bird feeder where he loved to lurk. We had a funeral for him one summer evening after a game of croquet (another backyard must) and after a few toasts, we took turns spooning him into the cone of good Flint dirt we’d hollowed out for his feline eternity.

We like to own our back yards, and in the city, of course, we put up fences – not out of hostility or fear, like at the Mexican border or around the Green Zone, but, I contend, out of respect for our neighbors and a deep-seated taste for privacy. I think we bound our back yards too because we revel in idiosyncrasy and we want that undisputed spot where we can be ourselves.

Not to get too high-falutin’, but it just occurred to me that Midwestern yards reflect an itchy tension in the U.S. of A.: the front yard is sort of Hamiltonian, where we defer to the majority and keep up a respectable, potted-geranium face; the back yard is Jeffersonian, where we assert our personal liberty and, say, flaunt our taste in hostas or let the crabgrass go wild or put a terra cotta Buddha under the mulberry or even, say, hopefully throw out the occasional cannabis seed if we damn well please. Front yard, Apollo; back yard, Dionysius.

So, my fellow Americans, there’s something worth fighting for, if you ask me: the right to back yards. The right to those earthy squares of liberty, where, on certain summer nights, you can lie down on a quilt and listen to the cicadas until, as James Agee once remembered, the night is “one blue dew,” the stars “wide and alive…each like a smile of great sweetness.”

This essay is also available in under "Village Life: A Smile of Great Sweetness." Photos by Ted.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

Bittersweet Stax Archeology at the Hollywood Bowl

It was a great L.A. night -- clear skies, that breeze with a faint hint of sea water, the "X" of the searchlights overhead, many bottles of wine uncorked -- undoubtedly pricey meritages and spritely chardonnays -- in the box seats. On our bench six rows behind the ritzy section and crammed together with a bunch of other oldies, we were happy, too, with our very drinkable pinot noir in plastic cups, as Eddie Floyd in his classic tuxedo kicked things off with "Knock on Wood." Then followed Lalah Hathaway (Donny's daughter), William Bell ("I forgot to be your lover"), the remarkable Mable John belting"Your Good Thing (is About to End)" Angie Stone, and the guy Ted and I most wanted to see and hear, Booker T. Jones ("Green Onions," of course).

Booker T and the MG's Then

The second half was devoted to Isaac Hayes, whose slow, unsteady gait during the long walk to his keyboard prompted shocked gasps from the crowd. On the big screens, it was painfully apparent that even sitting down, settling down at that keyboard was difficult for the colorfully-robed legend. That entrance built drama -- the blast of his lush, urbane hits with a terrific back-up band was immensely reassuring and a relief. In one pause he sighed, "I'm glad to be here." He announced he's coming out with a new album. From the back, someone shouted, "We'll buy it, Isaac!"

This was part of the Stax Records 50th anniversary tour -- a celebration of the Soul/R&B label hatched by Jim Stewart and his older sister,, Estelle Axton in Memphis in 1957, originally as Satellite Records, probably because Sputnik had just been launched. Estelle, married and with a couple of kids, took out a second mortgage on her house to do it. Eventually, Stewart and Axton combined letters from their last names and made it Stax. Estelle kept her job at a bank until 1961.

And of course, from that old theater in Memphis, they eventually recorded songs and artists that my generation avidly danced to at all our high school proms and made out to in our fathers' cars on summer nights a lot like last night. It's impossible to hear these songs without feeling a bit melancholy. Our youth is gone.

And, well, the artists themselves are so...old. Well, it has been 50 years. But... I found myself worrying that somebody would fall or lose the beat or miss the note. I turned to my friend Dr.Teddy about halfway through and said, "It's like they dug these people out of a museum." The oldest of the lot is Mable John, who's 77. She clearly wobbled in her R&B shoes but momma, she managed to deliver the message. Eddie Floyd, formerly of the Falcons which included Wilson Pickett for a time, moved carefully but stylishly. William Bell is 68 and Booker T, who we thought looked best but didn't have to sing or move around onstage, is 62.

Booker T Today

Even the youngsters brought on board for variety, new Stax acquisition Stone and Hathaway, are 46 and 39 respectively.

Isaac Hayes, who's hardly the oldest among them at 64, was hardest to watch. I mean, this guy was the rumble-voiced sex god of my twenties: how can he be walking like an old man? A 2006 stroke may be the reason for his halting movement, though I note on Wikipedia he and his fourth wife just had a baby last year, his 12th child. Okay, something still works. Not that any of us should be making 12 replacements of ourselves, but...forgive me, one craves signs of vigor.

Everybody came back onstage for the final performance, a somewhat pensive rendition of "Dock of the Bay." It was a nostalgic tribute to the era, to Stax Records, and to Otis Redding, who died in a plane crash in 1967. I think I'm relieved, though, that he died young. At least we didn't have to see him stagger across the stage. Maybe it's better to listen to the music at home, with all the trappings of denial in place and, especially, no dancing in front of mirrors.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Phil Weiss His Own Man, As Always

Molting is a great thing -- I've done it once or twice myself. And now the intrepid Phil Weiss, to whom I'm indebted for many kindnesses, including reconnecting me with the man who's now my husband, has just accomplished a molting of his own. He's left the New York Observer, where he was a columnist for years and a recently converted blogger, and has taken his blog, MondoWeiss, with him. I've changed the link to MondoWeiss at the right so that you can see what he's up to.

The change, it seems, like many moltings, was accompanied by some personal pain and intellectual wrestling: in short, Weiss, who's nothing if not a dogged questioner, has been re-exploring what it means to be Jewish. After an apparently intense season of reflection on his own roots, omnivorous reading, conversations with scholars and other experts, and trips to Israel and Syria, he found his views about Israel changing. This was what he wanted to write about, and his blog on the Observer sometimes drew 100 comments a day. But the financially beleaguered Observer's new owner, an observant Orthodox Jew named Jared Kushner, didn't like where Weiss's intellectual journey was taking him.

Weiss and I got to know each other through our Tonga books -- here is the cover of his chilling 2004 account of the Deborah Gardner murder, the same tragedy, though fictionalized, which begins my novel Night Blind. Weiss has moved on from Tonga and his long obsession with the 1976 murder -- I congratulate him for that, though I know that at the heart of his obsession was his passion for justice, fairness and reason. Perhaps those same qualities are at play in his current transition.

You can read the whole interesting story, from Weiss's perspective, in the June 4, 2007 issue of American Conservative magazine --

Monday, July 16, 2007

What To Do With the Castor Bean

So, it's a castor bean. I finally found out that's the volunteer plant in our porch pot -- one missed by the renegade flying car.

It's a fascinating plant. Related to the Mexican jumping bean and, like coffee, not technically a bean, it is one of Southern California's native species. And its Latin name suggests its danger: ricinus communis -- it's got ricin in it, the deadly poison. Its name suggests that its beans, described by some as "beautiful," look like engorged ticks.

The seed pods on my plant haven't popped yet. So what should I do?

According to W.P. Armstrong in his wonderful Bio 101 web page "Wayne's Word" from Palomar College, "The spiny seed pod or capsule is composed of three sections or carpels which split apart at maturity. Each section (carpel) contains a single seed, and as the carpel dries and splits open, the seed is often ejected with considerable force. Walking among large castor shrubs on a hot summer day can be quite an experience, with the sound of exploding carpels and seeds flying through the air and bouncing off road signs, sidewalks, and your head.

"Although castor oil is rather malodorous and distasteful," Armstrong continues, "it is the source of several synthetic flower scents and fruit flavors (esters), such as jasmine, apricot, peach, plum, rose, banana, and lemon. The chemicals (esters) responsible for these flavors and aromas are obtained from ricinoleic acid, one of the important ingredients of natural castor oil. In fact, ricinoleic acid comprises about 90% of the total triglyceride fatty acids of castor oil. Castor oil is also used in making soap, inks, and plastics; for preserving leather; as an illuminant; in Turkey red oil for dyeing and finishing textiles; and in brake fluids and certain insecticidal oils. Even after the oil has been removed, the poisonous crushed seeds or oil cake (pomace) makes an excellent fertilizer.

"Brazil and India are two of the major world producers of castor oil," Armstrong writes, "although the plants are grown commercially in many other countries, including the United States (New Mexico, Texas, and the midwestern United States). It has been estimated that the world production of castor seeds was nearly one million tons in 1970. In terms of total production, castor oil is one of the world's most important industrial vegetable oils."

So should I murder this complicated plant?

A Non-earthquake and the TransPac

TransPac yachts waiting for the start at Pt. Fermin, with the fireboat spouting
Photo by Ted

...I'm glad for the marine layer this Monday morning, cool and calming. The marine layer is a blessing of coastal mornings, gentle overcast, yielding serenity like a fresh snowfall in Michigan. Out here they call it May Gray and June Gloom and complain about it. I prefer it, though, to the white sun and early heat some mornings. I don't know if they have a name for it in July -- I'll call it the July's soothing. As a Midwesterner from "lake effect" country, I'm used to thick overhead clouds. I feel at home on the edge of gloom.

Big event this weekend: at about 1:30 a.m. Friday night, a huge crash, breaking glass, heavy cracking sounds. What the hell was that? We leaped out of bed forgetting we were naked. First thought an earthquake, never far from our minds here, that little subliminal itch of dread. But nothing shook. Next thought the harbor -- also never far from our thoughts these scary days. No flame amid the sparkling lights, no smoke cloud on the Vincent Thomas Bridge.

Turned out there was an old red car nose up in our front yard -- lost its emergency brake on the steep hill above us, slid down, driverless, and rammed into our brick and clapboard walls. In minutes paramedics briefly checked in and then departed, seeing only four of five of us in hastily donned bathrobes and sweats, sleepily gaping at the pile of masonry and muttering holy shit. Then the landlady, looking remarkably stylish, and the flash of many photos for insurance. The inevitable cops, then the car's chagrined owner herself, anxiously sweeping up debris. We slipped back into bed and by morning, the car'd been towed off to auto rehab, where it would undoubtedly say it never meant to hurt anybody.

Meanwhile, yachtsmen and women were preparing for the race from Pt. Fermin to Hawaii -- they gathered at the point yesterday and finally took off for the 2,200-mile run at about 1 p.m. I loved watching them congregate and circle, waiting for send-off. I hope they have OnStar, a lot of spam, and some good blues for the journey.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Keokuk in the Summer of 1970

I love Iowa. I know nothing whatsoever about today's Iowa: my infatuation is wholly based on one long summer, the summer of 1970, when I rode the bus for 24 hours from Ohio to Keokuk, Iowa, to be a student intern at the town's little daily newspaper, the Daily Gate City.

When you're a geezette like me you get to the point where you remember more about the past than about what you did last week. My mind is full of memories about Keokuk. I lived in a hot, dark walkup apartment with the Daily Gate City's city editor, Eleanor Waterhouse. She was from Hawaii and had graduated from Punahoe, but there she was in Keokuk, having the time of her life cranking out dead-on, devoted community journalism.

As long as I adhered to her exacting journalistic standards, she let me do anything I wanted, even teaching me how to develop black and white film in the high-ceilinged darkroom. She was about five years older than me and kindly cleared out a corner of her living room, where I slept all summer on a rollout single bed. We cooked on a little gas stove and parceled out yogurt by combining it with jello to make it go farther. You could smell the graineries around town -- a burned, nutty smell. There was a factory that made rings for pig's noses. I interviewed a rock band and for about a week was one of their groupies: Ellie ran the story.

Almost every day after work we'd go to the city pool and swim. The Chamber of Commerce motto that year was "Life is Good in Keokuk" and people all over town drove around with that declaration plastered to their bumpers. We mocked that motto, but we too were having an excellent life.

And of course, there was the river. Keokuk is in the so-called "tit" of Southern Iowa that dips into Missouri, right on the Mississippi. Yes, emayessessayessessaypeepeeaye. There are locks in Keokuk and on steamy moonlit nights we'd go down to the river, sit on a bluff, and watch barges go through. I loved that river, and even now, whenever I fly over its massive brown curves on my way from Michigan to California, I gaze down in reverence and awe. In the summer of 1970, I knew I was having an American Experience.

Context: this was the summer after the Kent State shootings, when four died and nine more were wounded by National Guard gunfire in front of Taylor Hall, then the home of the journalism program. My program. I was in another campus building when the shootings happened, but I got there shortly afterwards and saw the blood. A guy I was dating then was the R.A. in a nearby dorm. He saw Sandy Scheuer, a speech therapy student caught in the crossfire, dying as he watched, helpless and shocked.

I wasn't political -- I didn't know anything about politics, or particularly care back then -- and I wanted to get away, not knowing till much later that there is no way to fully escape the effects of tragedy -- the effects of seeing blood everywhere, the young Guardsmen firing on people their same age -- all of us naive American Baby Boomers. Something had gone terribly wrong. And I thought Keokuk would be a fine place to avoid it all.

In some ways it was. Ironically, I met and eventually dated the son of a local brahmin. He'd graduated from Princeton and came into town for -- yes, I'm not kidding -- National Guard duty. I smoked pot for the first time in his little Porsche parked in an overgrown hideaway on the river, lush water collecting in verdant shallow pools about a foot from the headlights. It was if nothing else mattered -- no Vietnam, no Kent State -- only the river and this good-looking boy and kissing in the cattails.

And I covered a visit to town by Sargent Shriver, at a Democratic fundraiser that was so much fun I believe it was the first time I considered joining the Peace Corps. I remember only that he was handsome and charming and willing to talk to a kid reporter and that the Democrats under those hot Midwestern tents were a lot more fun than their GOP counterparts, whom Ellie and I also covered.

I'm remembering all this today because of a Slate piece on Christopher Dodd, an RPCV who, of course, is running for president. Incredibly, though his poll numbers put him near the bottom and he's WAAAAYYY behind "Obamilary," it sounded as if he was having fun there -- appearing with Paul Simon and introducing himself as Art Garfunkel. Then the two of them warbled a series of Simon and Garfunkel hits. That's what Iowa does for you -- makes you happy and maybe a little crazy after all these years. I love Iowa.

Monday, July 09, 2007

Re-enactors on the Hill Top

Last weekend was a big event on the hilltop above the Korean Bell: Old Fort MacArthur Days, when historical enactors assemble in various tents, teepees and, let's say, yurts to pretend to be old timey Red Coats, Yankee rebels, pirates, rummies, clansmen, crusaders, Hussars, ladies in pushed up lacy bodices and fancy hats, mercenaries, generals, old west women of ill repute. Abraham Lincoln was walking around in his stovepipe hat. Somebody appearing to be Kit Carson sweated up and down the walkways in a long fur coat and handlebar mustache. There was a half rotted corpse on a stake and rows of artillery shells for sale. Also, though I'm not sure what it had to do with Old Fort MacArthur, there were gladiators. Ted says he swears some were Carthaginians, and he says he knows his Carthaginians.

Here's my favorite photo of the afternoon:

A few roustabouts slurped from tankards, and one festooned cad yelled, "Rum! It's not just for breakfast anymore."

While we watched, a guy with a bullhorn announced that World War II was about to begin. Five minutes later, after some convincing booms, bangs and puffs of smoke, it seemed to be over.

I've always ridiculed the idea of re-enactors, for some reason -- perhaps some vestigial puritanical distrust of theater and people running around saying "forsooth" is in my bones. But everybody on the hilltop appeared to be having a great time, and I found myself enjoying the crazy playfulness. And it was especially great they got the war over with so fast. Could we copy and paste that efficient tableau, please, the war where everybody simply kicks up a lot of dust and nobody really dies?

Friday, July 06, 2007

Bees in the Lavender at the Getty Villa

Yesterday, a visit to the Getty Villa in Malibu. One of my favorite moments, walking through the lush herb garden and coming across hundreds of honey bees in the lavender. So that's one place, at least, where the bees are thriving. What a feast for the senses. What reassurance in worrisome times.

Remarkable Birth Stories

Rachel Kellum gave birth outdoors. And she has documented this amazing self-chosen rite, an event during which she was surrounded by strong, beautiful and skillful women, on a website that I've added to my links list at right. This is by way of introducing her and her brave and moving devotion to natural childbirth.

I met Rachel at the Readers and Writers in the Rockies conference last month and was struck by her earthy and loving demeanor. As I've explored her website and browsed her master's thesis providing context for her conscious decisions about how to deliver her two sons, I've been further engaged and absorbed.

Childbirth is one of life's central events that eluded me, and though I've made my peace with it, the fact that I never had a child is one of my life regrets. However, one of the most significant gifts of my life was when my beloved friend Ellen invited me to be her birth coach; I was there that first week in October many years ago when her child, Claire, was born, and I deeply mourned when Ellen died cruelly just two years later from pancreatic cancer. But I am so grateful to have been at the side of at least one other woman during her labor. And if she ever needs to be reassured, I can tell Claire heartily about how much love was in the room the day she was born.

It is thus quite moving to know that women still are encircling each other at the moment of birth and bringing children into the world in an embrace of welcome and love. The images are graphic, but Rachel has set up the site so that if you prefer to read her stories without the photos, you can do so. Personally I find the ritual they document incredibly powerful and significant.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Leggy Palm Trees, Startling Underarms and a Podcast

Yes, it's been awhile. But now I've polished off the spring semester, gone to Crested Butte, Colorado for a writing gig -- sponsored by the meritorious Crested Butte Friends of the Library and the powerhouses of the Readers and Writers in the Rockies -- closed up the house in Flint for awhile, and made it back to our sweet apartment overlooking the L.A. harbor. Many thanks to these generous, literate and energetic folks in the high Rockies, a spectacularly beautiful spot.

As you can see, things grow big and fast in the sea air. Above is my favorite succulent, which almost doubled in size since I was last here. And what is that "volunteer" with the thistly pods in the corner pot? Ted's son says it's poisonous. Any help out there?

In San Pedro today, it's hot -- the big American flag at Ft. MacArthur blowing the wrong way, out to sea, meaning the Santa Ana winds might have kicked up, sending LA smog our direction. We're spoiled out here -- usually it's the other way around, the sea breezes blowing inland, keeping us smugly cool and enjoying reasonably clean air.

This is the first break I've had in months, and I'm glad to be here on this hillside perch, with the opportunity to ruminate, cogitate and contemplate. If I listen to my marketing mentors, it's time to aggressively "brand" myself, but as I wrote to my brother this morning, that seems just too sadomasochistic. Besides, what would the brand be? And where would I put it? I've never gotten a tattoo; I'm way too old for further scarring. Mother Nature already seems far too busy obliterating the flawless skin of my youth. Where did THAT age spot come from? Is that new? Why do my feet look like an old lady's, bony and white, suddenly, with those, oh god, bunions? Whose underarms are those, rudely doing this startling hula thing when I'm just pointing out something to the world, trying to be cool and cosmopolitan? Whose hands are those -- not mine, damn it, those are my mom's. See, I don't need no stinking brand: I get a new one just about every day. Thank god my man loves me anyway. I'm gonna treat this guy good every night, doncha know. Put on the blues, daddy, it's time to dirty dance!

Okay, well then...A lot to process about Crested Butte, the status of my novel these days, and the state of the world in general. But for now, here's simply a small greeting and update from the land of the leggy palms and blue horizon.

In the meantime, if you'd like to listen to my podcast, recorded a couple of weeks ago at BookExpo, here's the link. It will show up soon on as well.

Here's what I see from our porch today -- including this intrepid little cactus that seems to live through everything: