Saturday, September 29, 2007

"Feast of Love" -- Not So Bad After All

To be honorable, Ted and I went to see the movie this afternoon, and in our view it wasn't nearly as bad as one would think from the L.A. Times review yesterday. (Or that website that said it sounded like a Thanksgiving porno movie. Horn aplenty? -- well there's lots of sex in this movie, but that's not its main attraction.) In short, we quite enjoyed it.

It wasn't all the way we would have liked -- Chloe didn't work for me (didn't say "Fuck and be damned" a single time!) and was prettier and more dewy than I imagined her, and I REALLY wished they'd have kept it in Ann Arbor. Nonetheless, we were both quite touched by it. We saw "3:10 to Yuma" yesterday and while we enjoyed the reminder of the great old Western's durability (and it was fun to know that it was drawn from an old Elmore Leonard yarn), the narrative was murky, violent and its ultimate "message" if there was one, was cynical or indeterminate, depending how you looked at it. This might be an impossible comparison, but we found ourselves talking about how we "felt" on leaving each movie. "Yuma" left us feeling ill at ease and mildly despairing -- also a bit exhausted by the de rigueur, noisy shooting of almost every main character, not to mention almost all the minor characters and the horses they rode in on. Feast of Love was quiet, wise and sweet, and we left feeling warmly thoughtful and loving.

We also compared "Feast's" character development to the "relationship" aspects of, say, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, Big Love and the new Tell Me You Love Me, where people's dysfunctions are laid out week after week and nobody seems able to talk to each other or actually, dare I say it...grow. In this movie, people talked to each other, sometimes a bit too earnestly, but sometimes quite endearingly, and we both found that a great relief. My god, were these characters perhaps changing and being changed by love? Yes, and narrowly escaped the saccharine with doses of gentle humor.

So, now I say, fuck and be damned, it's worth checking out.

Friday, September 28, 2007

"Glimmerless" Feast of Love? Skip the Movie, Read the Book

You've already seen the previews, and today, in the Calendar section of the LA Times, is a full-page ad for the movie "Feast of Love." It looks and sounds so promising -- featuring Morgan Freeman, Jane Alexander, Greg Kinnear, Fred Ward -- and directed by Robert Benton, who also did "Kramer v. Kramer."

Most exciting of all, though, in my world, is that the movie is based on a 2000 novel by Charlie Baxter, long a Michigan resident and writing teacher at U of M, fairly recently departed to Minnesota. He was an old friend in my early days as a poet, and has had a long and much-beloved tenure on the faculty of Warren Wilson College, where I got my M.F.A. Baxter has written many novels and one of my favorite collections of essays about writing, Burning Down the House.

My husband and I loved The Feast of Love (Hollywood removed that pesky article) -- it was one of the first books we shared after reconnecting in 2001. I remember huddling happily in my little high-ceilinged kitchen at Divorcee Manor during one of Ted's earliest visits to Flint, listening to an interview with Charlie on NPR. Ted and I both loved his characters, including one named Charlie Baxter who begins the novel by suffering an "identity lapse"; the laconic Bradley, with a dog named Bradley; the inimitable Chloe, whose favorite interjection was "Fuck and be damned," and her ex-stoner boyfriend Oscar who, Chloe says, is "real good looking once you get his clothes off and into his characteristic behavior."

We also loved that the story was so rooted in the Midwest -- actually set in Ann Arbor; Chloe and Oscar make love once on the 50-yard-line of The Big House. First bad sign: in the Hollywood version, the story's in Seattle. Not the same, not the same. Not to us beleaguered and sensitive Michiganders.

As Ted and I feared, the movie apparently hasn't made the translation well in other ways from Baxter's rich and humanely developed characters. I'd heard rumors Baxter wasn't happy with the screenplay. Today's LA Times also ran a review, and a fairly damning one at that. (No chance of the Flint Journal doing the same, even with local connections, since they fired most of their local reviewers). Under the headline, " 'Feast' doesn't bring enough to the table," reviewer Carina Chocano says "Robert Benton's film about love and loss is free of catharsis and is neither funny nor sad." She adds, "Underneath the characters' surface diversity, they are flat and one-note..."

In the opening of the novel, Charlie's protagonist Charlie, trying to orient himself back to himself, poignantly states, "I am glimmerless. I write down the word next to my name."

"Glimmerless," as it happens, seems unfortunately to describe the movie. But it in no way describes the novel, which is abundantly three-dimensional, thoughtful, funny and sad. Sounds like this is one time to skip the movie, and read the book.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

It's Happened At Last

Boo hoo... sounds of wailing and gnashing of teeth...

Today Night Blind finally slipped into the dreaded seven digits on the Amazon rankings. I knew the day would come. I'd been saved by those blessed single sales time after time, just when I got to 800,000 or even 900,000, somebody somewhere in the world would buy the book and swing me back into the Elysian Fields of five digits for a few exhilarating days, and then I'd watch, philosophically expecting the scoops and scallops of the long climb back up, up, up. But today there was no last minute reprieve.

Like a colonoscopy, the dread is worse than the event. To my surprise, I'm not in a funk. What do the Amazon numbers mean anyway?

Instead, I feel an invigorating and cleansing sense that something's over and done with. Almost exactly a year after its publication date, the book has made its venture into the market. And, thanks to the Internet and POD publishing, it is still in the world, its fruit available to be plucked. I suspect from time to time somebody will find the book and pick one up, and that will be fun to see. But perhaps I'm letting go of the obsession.

So (taps playing on a cheap boombox) one last dirge: here's goodbye to that dream that the book would magically climb into the world's embrace.

Now it's time to move along.

Thanks to everybody (there are more than 500 of you) who bought it so far; thanks to all who've written to say you stopped everything to finish reading it; thanks to all who've told me Gabriel Bonner was an irresistible cad; thanks to all who've said, "I felt like I was right there." Thanks to Theodore, gift of God, who made me do it. Here's to the dancing nuns of Brunswick, Maine. Here's to pelicans, a clear view of Catalina, seals barking at midnight, Fred, Ethyl, Einstein, Pink, silver moons, the early bird special at Chicago, a pox on Blackthistle, and thanks oh thank you goddess for the SST.

And thanks to the immensely supportive and not at all comatose Gary at East Village Magazine for harassing and needling me into writing, writing, writing again -- and for giving my new writing a beautiful home and lots of readers.

Thank you all very much. And now to whatever comes next.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Saturday Night with Robert Hass

This day started glumly with the specter of 40 freshmen papers to grade on a shimmering autumn day. I wanted to be elsewhere. Doing something, anything, else. All those oppressive theres for theirs and vice versa, mixing up the place with people. There were no theirs there, as Gertrude Stein would not have said. All those defiantlies for definitelies, adverbs all earnestly confused by silly spell-check. Their grip on rules is slippery at best, these children of the American high school.

But they were writing about the Farmers' Market, and as I read them I began to hope: they sampled cheese and apples and stared at red speckled beans and noticed the man with a funny hat and let the chocolate from a fresh croissant squish out onto their chins and looked into barrels of fish and made the vendors name them: whitefish, wide-mouthed bass, catfish. They made fun of the overweight rock band but sat in the sun to listen. They chose honey wheat bread and noticed a woman slowly going down the aisle (they spelled it isle, but still) in a walker. They bought cheap lockets and they held hands with their boyfriends and bought pints of raspberries and baskets of plums.

So I gradually perked up. At the end of the day, I went for a walk, wanting to go as fast as possible, wanting to breathe in the almost-autumn evening. Without my now-familiar backpack, I felt light and lithe. Back home, I poured myself two fingers of single malt and sank into a deep bath as, on the TV in the background, Tom Friedman repeated his mantra to Tim Russert: compete, connect, collaborate? Is that the third C? I'm always missing something.

Fresh from all this generally joyful sensory mishmash, it felt right to settle down with Liesl Olson's piece in the latest American Poetry Review, "Robert Hass's Guilt or The Weight of Wallace Stevens." I'm especially interested in Hass because he made a memorable visit here to UM - Flint in the fall of '06, coming to support and celebrate our "Green Arts" program designed around the Flint River Watershed. After reading from some of his new poems at a big community event, he genially lingered at the de rigueur party in my own living room. He seemed to love the Flint River in the same way he has loved many rivers, and just before his reading that night, he went off by himself to walk along the river, a beleaguered waterway that people are only beginning to see -- again -- as life and art. He said it looked as beautiful as a French painting. My students and I have never forgotten that.

Anyway, I didn't think Olson's treatment was much about guilt -- though certainly that is present in his work and that point would have been clearer had she noted his alcoholic mother; can any child of a drunk mom not feel guilty? It's best conveyed in "Our Lady of the Snows," I think, from his 1997 collection Sun Under Wood.

But the piece did help me understand the swing in his work between abstraction and an immersion in sense detail -- in a way, that is the manifestation of a kind of guilt, the pulling back from delight: he has been accused of "evasion," as she points out, by some critics, and in a taking the risk of "delimiting terror, in sizing it down." She asserts that Hass's poems often "begin with and return to the safety and pleasure of small things: a bath, a dragonfly, a late dinner, 'the little flare of dwan rose in the kernel/of the almond.'" That's part of what I love about his work, though -- the assiduous naming and sensory vividness played against and offered in answer to the Big Ideas, whatever those are. I've read his poems to my students to point out that explicit, sumptuous love of naming, and then have to sit back while they notice all the abstractions, too. Why did he do that? they ask. And I say, I don't know...think about it more. Now I could quote Olson in answering, "Pinning down the precise words of things is not always enough to satisfy what Hass is after, but it becomes the source of exploring language's power and its limitations, or what a word can do."

Olson's piece is accompanied by an absorbing set of 14 poems from Hass's new collection, Time and Materials. I remember when he told us the proposed title for this new book, his first in eight years, we tactfully turned away and groaned. It seemed so...plodding. But Olson says it "emerges with tremendous, expansive grace," and especially praises its confrontation with war. I can't wait to see the whole thing. Here are two tiny appetizers:

Iowa, January

In the long winter nights, a farmer's dreams are narrow.
Over and over, he enters the furrow.

After Trakl

October night, the sun going down,
Evening with its brown and blue
(Music from another room)
Evening with its blue and brown,
October night, the sun going down.

Thirty Years Ago...

...this was me, standing outside my second house in Tonga.

Finding an old photo can be a bit jarring. But I like the looks of this young woman. She was having high quality fun. Note the bare feet...ah, that was reckless, with so much sharp coral around. That black British one-speed was my constant companion and friend -- imagine the pleasure of piloting a bike all over a remote, impossbly green Polynesian island, 9.000 miles away from home. There were moments in those two years, I must say, when just being there was enough -- an unalloyed satisfaction.

Life doesn't often offer such pure pleasure. Here's to Peace Corps.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Letting the Honda Gather Dust

Carbon Footprint report: I haven't moved the car out of the garage for five days, and it feels good. I walked to work every day this week -- always going in on the same exact route through Mott Community College, and altering my return route every time. It seems at the end of the day I'm more in a mood to wander. There are many cute little corners to explore, like the one block of Eddy Street between Avon and Crapo, where several of the houses are exquisitely restored and maintained, with fences and flowers. On Avon between Second and Young street is a Greek revival house that's gorgeous; mounds of brilliant impatiens are in full bloom. If I go straight from Kearsley on Avon across Court, past Seventh Street where I lived for 15 years, I can turn down Wellington and go through Woodlawn Park where the tops the the trees are already turning red and gold, and come up out of the park into my own quiet and lovely neighborhood -- from there I'm only a couple of blocks from home.

I'm still getting used to it, though. The other day from work I happily picked up the new UMF campus bus which circles around to the Flint Farmer's Market. I loaded up on peppers, green beans, potatoes, yams, a hunk of stilton cheese, some fresh turkey tenders, a half dozen Honey Crisp apples, and happily picked up the bus back to campus, only to realize that my haul weighed about 20 pound and wouldn't fit into my beloved black backpack. Thankfully my amused colleague Stephanie agreed to take my bags of stuff and drop them off on my back porch. I'm glad it worked out so well. That night I had a fabulous supper of fresh Michigan food -- baked turkey, a sweet potato, green beans, and for dessert, half an apple with the mango stilton. I've never eaten better.

And the Honda stayed in dry dock for another day.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

"Henderson the Rain King" Considers His Shiftless Son in Malibu

I'm starting a longer piece on Henderson the Rain King, Saul Bellows' rambunctious 1958 novel, but wanted to throw out an appetizer here while I'm working out what I want to say about the rest of it. As Bellow's antihero tries to size up his life, he also describes and bemoans the lot of his seemingly clueless children. Here, waiting in the dentist's office to get a bridge repaired (dental work figures amusingly -- and cringingly -- in the overall story) is how Henderson thinks about his eldest son Edward, a roustabout who has a red MG (bought by Dad) and "thinks himself better than me."
The most independent thing this kid had ever done,' according to EH, was "dress up a chimpanzee in a cowboy suit and drive it around New York in his open car. After the animal caught cold and died, he (Edward) played the clarinet in a jazz band and lived on Bleecker Street. His income was $20,000 at least, and he was living next door to the Mills Hotel flophouse where the drunks are piled in tiers."

Anyway, my favorite part of this section is where he remembers later visiting the shiftless Edward in California:

"I found him living in a bathing cabin beside the Pacific in Malibu, so there we were on the sand trying to have a conversation.
The water was ghostly, lazy, slow, stupefying, with a dull shine. Coppery. A womb of white. Pallor; smoke; vacancy; dull gold; vastness; dimness; fulgor; ghostly flashing. 'Edward, where are we,' I said. 'We are at the edge of the earth. Why here?' Then I told him 'This looks like a hell of a place to meet. It's got no foundation except smoke. Boy, I must talk to you about things.'"

Ah, the Midwesterner's aversion to the coast, to all things Californian. Has there ever been a more damning description? I can't help but smile. Yes, the dangerous, slothful beaches. The decadence. The insidious opposite of Henderson's raw vigor.

And what about those semi-colons? Why did he use commas in the first series, but dragged us through those heavy semi-colons in the second? I think, as Philip Roth wrote in a 2005 memorium analysis, that Bellows "breaks loose from all sots of self-imposed strictures, the beginner's principles of composition are subverted, and...the writer is himself 'hipped on subperabundance.'"

But my sister and brother Midwesterners, what of California?

Electronic Immortality for a Granny

My maternal grandparents near the end of their lives: Amy Youtz Vandersall and Rev. William Austin ("Aust") Vandersall -- in Findlay, Ohio

By coincidence (or mystical correlation) in the last week, I've been given two fascinating gifts. First, aimlessly Googling the other night, I came across a handwritten letter from my own long-dead grandmother, Amy Youtz Vandersall, in an online genealogy site. She'd written it to somebody offering information about tombstones of obscure ancestors, in 1931. Though I'm not particularly interested in the content of her letter, the shock of seeing my grandmother's handwriting, delivered through Google, was considerable. How amazing that this note of hers, on letterhead from the family homestead at 1208 N. Cory St. in Findley, Ohio, an address that carries considerable emotional impact on me because it is where my mother grew up, and where many of her hopes and heartaches originated, should appear on the Internet. If my grandma only knew!

And the very next day, I received an even more astonishing gift from my beloved cousin, Dr. Amy Vandersall (named for that same granny), a retired art history professor who now divides her time between Boulder CO and New Haven CT. What she sent me was our granny's Bible. My cousin Amy and I are both avid word people and, even in our relative apostasy (yes, that IS a pun), we're deeply interested in family history -- not just the lines on genealogical charts, but the stories, the heartaches, the sorrows, and the joys. We think our grandmother was smart in a way that society didn't welcome. Her brain probably tormented her -- there were not enough outlets, though she bore her husband (the traveling evangelist William Austin Vandersall) five smart kids and ran a scrappy little mission of her own. We think she was manic depressive, inheriting it from her father (who committed suicide) and passing it on to at least one of her children, who passed it on to at least one of his.

Anyway, I'm intrigued by the notations on some of the pages -- the margins of Bibles were spaces for not just spiritual, but intellectual engagement back then. For example, on the page shown, John 19, she writes ""It is finished" is one single word in the Greek perfect tense, "It has been completed." This fascinates me -- her curiosity a grammatical, linguistic one, not a comment about dogma. And in Matthew 16 she notes: "Thou art Peter = petros = a piece of rock - "upon this rock = petra = a mass of rock."

There are, of course, comments which do seem to be explicitly spiritual in nature. In the poignant and perplexing story of Jesus's encounter with the "woman of Canaan" in Matthew 15, where he says, "I am not sent but unto the lost sheep," the woman says "Lord help me." She says her daughter is "grievously vexed with a devil." He replies, seemingly cruelly, "It is not meet to take the children's bread and to cast it to dogs." Undeterred, she persists, ""Truth, Lord, yet the dogs eat of the crumbs which fall from their masters' table." My grandmother wrote (was she noting an actual moment of bitterness?) "few crumbs of thy mercy." But she added in the margin, ""So we must give God right in all he says vs. us and say, "Truth told" praying till we overcome." And of course, in the scripture Jesus answered "O woman, great is thy faith," and healed the child.

My grandmother had a difficult and, I suspect, tormented life, and she ended it in dementia, shuttled from one child's home to the next until she died in the Fifties. She was often cruel. Everybody did the best they could, I suppose. We never understood her because we never knew her before all her life's difficulties took their toll. In the photo below, sent to me by one of my distant cousins, Frederick A.Thornton, my grandmother looks so lovely (she's the one on the left in the back row -- she was about 24 when this was taken) And now, with this gift of her much-thumbed Bible, I can imagine and try to honor that woman, her fertile mind pulsing with energy and possibility. And I can offer sorrow for her sorrows, and acknowledge that there was also goodness in her DNA. Some of it has survived in me and all the rest of her descendants, and now we can offer her a bit of immortality in this amazing electronic world.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Walking Off the Carbon Footprint Blues

One of the sweetest Flint facts recently is that our PR-challenged old burg got named the 2007 Best City for Walkers by WALK Magazine. People laugh when they hear this.

But I know a lot of devoted walkers. I watch them fondly from the window of my second-story writing room: the judge in his mid-calf socks and white teeshirt, the woman in red with the black Scotty, the doctor cooling off after a run, the mother of twins striding along with her double stroller, the couple across the street who always hold hands. I like being in a neighborhood of walkers, and while I’m not the type to run out and say hello, seeing people stroll by is a quotidian joy.

I walk the ‘hood myself, but I’ve been craving a different kind of walking. I’ve been craving the kind of walking that replaces the car. With the price of oil over eighty bucks a barrel, the earth heating up and my cholesterol too high, why the hell am I driving two miles to work? Call me a Calvinist, but I like walking with a destination. So off I go, until the winter dark and ice settle in, on a daily round trip on foot.

To set the stage, here is what usually happens when I drive: back car out of garage, trying not to hit the chimney (again) or Mary Helen’s flower bed (again). Watch for walkers on sidewalk. Try to hit the green light at Court. Try to hit the green light at Mott. Cuss out other drivers who won’t go fast enough (45, way over the speed limit, but still) to hit all the lights green on Court. Turn on Harrison and curse the jerk who designed that narrow spot. Rush by new MTA Center, trying to ignore the seizure-inducing new digital readout. Turn into UMF faculty lot. Circle to top level, brakes squealing. Pull into same spot I’ve been pulling into for the last 20 years. Lock car, go down stairs, enter French Hall.

Elapsed time: seven minutes. Mood on arrival: cranky and aggressive.

It’s not that I’m all serene about walking. Getting ready requires work, and I’m a fussbudget. I run around muttering where’s my cell phone? Where’s that black umbrella? Driver’s license, Health insurance card? (I’m morbid by nature and afraid of dying anonymously) Where are my keys? Where’s my favorite cap from the Duesy Museum? I check the Weather Channel and hit the john one last time.

Finally, though, I tug on my leather backpack and amble down Maxine. Say hi to neighbor working on front yard. Count Walling signs: five so far. Williamson: none. Count For Sale signs: good, only two. Wait at light on Court and stroll across. Bid hello to Woodside Church, thinking how cool that it was designed by Saarinen. Savor moment of happy vindication for my gender at the pastor’s name on the signboard: Deborah Kohler! Walk through Mott, noting the Gorman Science Center with its lovely sycamores.

Proceed by Parking Lot 6 and Continuing Ed: note purple flowers with dark green leaves. What are those? Will Google later.

Warily approach pedestrian bridge into the MCC north parking lot. Hope it doesn’t have any Minneapolis-type cracks. (I’m a little gephyrophobic – word nerd alert – afraid of bridges, always grabbing my husband’s hand and holding my breath, especially at Zilwaukee) Check out the Gilkey Creek restoration below – a nice distraction -- the water’s sparkling. Make it across okay: Say thank you to the sensor at the automatic doors. Bid courteous good morning to Safety Guy. Walk through lot and exit through entrance ramp to assert my libertarian rights. Take a gander at the perfect mammary dome of the Longway Planetarium. What IS that color, anyway? Fuschia? Periwinkle? No, just turquoise, like an Albuquerque sky.

Walk by FIA, admiring the oxidized sculpture of kids dancing around the maypole. Note to self: join FIA on Internet quickly, before tonight’s opening. Scare squirrel on Kearsley. Cross Crapo on green, to assert my libertarian rights. Note beautiful stone house on corner of Kearsley and Thomson, watch out for oldsters at Kearsley Manor. Pass the stately Whaley House. Note to self: go tour it some Sunday afternoon. Cross Chavez and note with pleasure the new castiron railings on the bridge (take a breath, Jan) over 475, bedecked with daffodil bouquets and musical notes. Stride past the UMF dorm construction, ogling the giant dirt pile and noisy bustling trucks. Note hardhat construction guy walking around with -- my god, is that an actual blueprint? How attractive!-- rolled up under his arm. Note construction guys taking a break at the smokers’ picnic table. Go in the back door and up the stairs past the blocked off second floor of French Hall, hoping to see more construction guys. Have to settle for pounding and drilling.

Elapsed time: 39 minutes. Mood on arrival: mellow, full of sense delight and ever so slightly…saintly.

It’s a win-win thing, this walking to work. How nice to replace a carbon footprint with – novel idea! – my actual footprint, falling gratefully and gently on the earth.

(This is my new "Village Life" column for East Village Magazine. You get a sneak peek here. For more good stuff, check out They're undergoing some site repairs so it may call for patience.)

Friday, September 14, 2007

"Glamping:" New Definition of Wussitude

Vacation season is over, but OK, I have to do a separate entry on this one, which I've been chewing on ever since I saw an article on it in the LA Times August 19. There's this thing now called "glamping," (glamour camping) in which people with way too much money go "camping" without really having to rough it. Here's a quote from the article about one of the featured families, the Bondicks:

"After typing "luxury" into a Google search along with "camping" and "Montana," the couple settled on The Resort at Paws Up, a 37,000-acre getaway in the heart of Big Sky country. It's a place for affluent travelers who want to enjoy the outdoors but can't fathom using a smelly outhouse, a place where paying someone to light the campfire is a badge of honor, not the mark of a Boy Scout flunky.

The Bondicks, who live in a sprawling home on the edge of a state park outside Boston and hire a personal chef at home, shelled out $595 a night -- plus an additional $110 per person per day for food.

It's a hefty price to sleep in a tent, but the perks include a camp butler to build their fire, a maid to crank up the heated down comforter at nightfall and a cook to whip up bison rib-eye for dinner and French toast topped with huckleberries for breakfast."

A camp fire butler???

Friends, I'm over here sputtering for breath. I don't even know where to start. Why don't they just get him to put on a little suit and hold up a lantern in their front yard? Oh, man...

For one thing, I'm a known pyromaniac. Boy Scout flunky??? I think not, mes amis. Back in my camping days, I cultivated a fondness for fire-making rituals: preparing the ground, piling up a stone circle, gathering, sorting and sizing sticks of graduated thickness. I had to decide whether to build a cone-shaped or pyramid-style pile, and when and how to light it. I've been known to reward myself with a snort of camp Bushmill's for a one-match fire. (Lesson #1: don't put the bottle too close to the fire). Some of my campfires were works of art -- one thing I could do -- sort of proudly, oh, Wiccan or something. It was a matter of honor.

So, a camp fire butler??? If you were here, you'd hear my loud and lusty snort of disdain.

Friday Mix: Tony Snow's "Poverty," Pavarotti's "She," and Sad Goodbyes

On my mind, catching up:

-- Can you believe Tony Snow said (OK, this is old news, but, I still fume every time I think of it) he was leaving the White House because he couldn't make it on his $168,000 salary? So like the Bushies: doesn't he know how ludicrous that sounds, how actually wounding it might be to regular Joes and Janes out in America living on a quarter of that or less? Clueless, clueless.

-- How fabulous to hear that the late great Luciano Pavarotti referred to his voice as a "she." I have to talk to my creative writing students about this! I've always contended cultivating the reader is about perhaps we could say that's true of the voice as well. I'm besotted by the notion of the voice as a woman within, making beautiful sounds out of the breath of our bodies.

-- Sign of impending autumn: last night I heard only two cicadas. A different kind of music: as my friend Sherry predicted, they sounded a little creaky and despairing, poor things.

-- Here's a tribute to two beloved pets: Jake and Helen's lovely old dog Kisha, who was gently put to sleep last weekend, and Teddy's Snoopy, whose fluffy coat we've all stroked happily as he padded around nuzzling us and saying hello at her many parties and dinners. She found him dead -- apparently peacefully -- on returning from DJ's party last weekend. It's hard to say goodbye to these animals who have graced our lives and been in our families for years. Who said you could judge a society by how it treated its animals? In these two homes, now missing and mourning their canine companions, love abounds.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

A Dark Day of Remembrance

I heard the news on I-69 coming back from seeing my therapist in Okemos. Back then, a tumultuous time for me even without world events, I didn't like listening to the news, so I was playing Mozart variations on the CD player, in particular the one from which we got "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." I tired of the bubbly melody and on impulse switched over to NPR. The first thing I heard was a man's voice say, "And where the World Trade Centers used to be..." and the world, as they say, changed forever.

Everybody's got their story, of course. I remember rushing in to UM-Flint and hugging my not-yet-ex-husband, though we had staked out individual outposts by then; I had installed myself in a small high-ceilinged refuge in an old downtown apartment building. (From my art deco windows I stared out at a huge ceramic elephant at the Happy Elephant Day Care Center across the street. The elephant never looked happy, but more often morose and stranded on his pedestal. The day care center, and the giant sculpture, are now both gone.)

I went to VG's and bought a carton of cigarettes, a bottle of whiskey, and canned peaches. The parking lots were almost empty, as was the sky. We'll all always remember that, I bet, that silent sky.

My husband invited people over that night for the comfort of marinara, one of his trademark dishes. It was a strange night, sitting in a house I'd abandoned after 15 years, with six or seven other dear friends. We drank a lot and watched CNN obsessively -- I'd been living without TV at my apartment and I was grateful to be where I could keep track, even with my ambivalence. I think I took a puff on somebody's pipe and the high was dispirited and made me clammy. When I left, my husband and I, still in deep confusion and mourning about our estrangement, tried to hug each other, but the intensity of the situation was simply too grave and too complicated. I wrenched myself away and fled back to my apartment to no TV, and no man in my bed. It was my great-grandmother's bed. Long before,I'd written a poem about my husband and me together in it; that night the bed connected me with both ancestral history and my immediate emptiness. It was a peculiar, sleepless night. I've often thought that was the one night I could have slept with my husband again, but it wouldn't have been fair -- the two immense sadnesses, the enormous and frightening losses, were too confusing, too inflammatory, like sleeping with nitroglyerin under the bed.

And I was in love with another man, and he was 2500 miles away. I wondered when and how I'd see him again. Every moment seemed suspended, every certainty undone.

The next day there was a spider in my shower. I couldn't bring myself to kill it. I gently scooped it up with a kleenex and carted it outdoors.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

High Heel Hangover

That was all well and good, but my calves ache today and my right kneecap in particular is complaining. I am not a young woman.

But what the hell. Here's to parties! When I left, Dennis was impressively swing dancing with Phyllis in DJ's dining room (DJ'd taken out the table) while other people watched, all smiley and cheering. That mini-tableau alone was worth it all.

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Carolyn Heilbrun and A Pair of Party Shoes

This is going to sound really incongruous, but I wore high heels for the first time in years tonight, and it felt great and it was fun, and when I got home, thinking about it, my party in high heels led me back to the feminist scholar, mystery writer and author of the wonderful book "Writing a Woman's Life," Carolyn Heilbrun, who killed herself at age 77.

This is how it went: I was in the mood to get dolled up for DJ's annual cocktail party -- an affair that cross pollinates Flint's wealthy set with a band of artsy academics every September. The magic we secretly hope will happen is that the people with money will fall in love with the rest of us and give us some of it for our programs -- but it's not a heavy agenda and most of us on both sides tolerate it, especially after the booze and great food kick in. DJ and his partner Dave have a big house in the fanciest part of town and they cater the whole thing and we stand out on the terrace sipping martinis, gossiping and making bon mots while the moon rises. Some years I don't want to go. Some years for some reason, this bash makes me think about what I haven't done with my life and I feel old and I resent the part of the invite that says "formal" and I think morosely about the past and dreams that didn't come true, and I can't find the right clothes to wear and I fight whatever role I think I'm supposed to play.

But this year I'm in a happy, untroubled state of mind. So today I carted myself off to Merle Norman and got a pedicure and manicure (deep red polish) and then -- in a rare impulsive decision, tried on a pair of totally impractical open-toe black party shoes with three-inch heels.
And bought them. And wore them, clicking along, a sound I haven't heard my own body make in this millenium, adjusting my gait to the architecture of being three inches taller. I felt like a walking suspension bridge. I felt my calves tighten, working to balance my stride -- skills I proudly learned at 16 and abandoned decades later when the whole idea of getting uncomfortable for style -- something about sexuality tied into it, lengthening the leg for a man's gaze -- seemed silly.

I remember the moment I gave myself permission to give up high heels. It was in the 90s and I went to Ann Arbor to hear Carolyn Heilbrun speak. I'd avidly read "Writing a Woman's Life" and from my lucky front row seat, I noticed she was wearing exceptionally sensible black shoes -- thick soled and flat. And then she said something about it -- that she'd decided life was too short for sore feet. I felt liberated and relieved.

Most of us who admired her from afar were shocked when she committed suicide. Those who knew her, though, reported that she had talked about it openly over the years. As one Google site puts it, "Heilbrun had written about planning for years to kill herself by her 70th birthday. 'Quit while you're ahead, was, and is, my motto,'she stated in "The Last Gift of Time" (1997). 'Having supposed the sixties would be downhill all the way, I had long held a determination to commit suicide at seventy.' "

But then, according to the obits, she found life so rich and enjoyable in her sixties, and even at 70, that she decided against it. She was quoted as saying, "I entered upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth...I entered into a period of freedom, and only past 60 learned in what freedom consists: to live without a constant, unnoticed stream of anger and resentment, without the daily contemplation of power always in the hands of the least worthy, the least imaginative, the least generous."

What's weird about this is that when I donned heels tonight in a spirit of fun, I felt that my playful gesture was part of my own "entering upon a life unimagined previously, of happiness impossible to youth." It's easier now, in this time of my life, to claim my right to enjoy myself. I wasn't on the hunt, I didn't care if I was the belle of the ball. I was just dolled up on Saturday night, perched on my new black shoes, balancing my mature woman's curves and teetering playfully along, like walking on stilts, under an amiable September moon. I like to think Heilbrun would regard my fancy shoes, a whimsical extrapolation of her views, with amusement. I wish she hadn't stopped finding life amusing -- the world is diminished without her.

Anyway, walking out of the party alone, adjusting my eyes to the dark driveway, I almost bumped into a stylish old gentleman in a tuxedo enjoying a solitary cocktail. "It's a beautiful night," he said, and I said "Yes, it is," and as I clacked away he said, "Have a safe drive home" and I warmly said, "You, too." And then I liked how I thought I might have looked walking away from him, all woman, poised and purposeful, clicking down the street on my own terms under an orange cone of street light.

Monday, September 03, 2007

Labor Day Weekend at Pt. Fermin Park

I'm in Flint and Ted is in San Pedro these days, and the only thing that makes it bearable is that Ted sends me fabulous emails. Here's a sunset shot from Pt. Fermin Park and Ted's description, copied with his permission, of his walk there last night:

"My Pt. Fermin walk was a sensual delight. Even at 6:45 the park was still jammed with people. It was a veritable gathering of the tribes as I recognized family gatherings of Mexicans, Croatians, Italians, Blacks, Persians, Islanders, Koreans, Thai, a few groups I couldn't pin down, and a sprinkling of mutts like me. BBQs flourished and the intermingling of their scents was one of the most powerful sensual delights of my walk. It was a cornucopia of odd and familiar smells, each one suggestive and appetite arousing. By the end of the walk I was famished. Visual and sound cues were equally as delightful, from the cheery babel of happy families appreciating the cool breezes to the colorful clusters of party balloons, kites, and gliders. Almost all who were left in the park moved to the west wall to witness the sunset. When the bottom edge of the sun hit the ocean, I was further delighted by catching sight of a hawk gliding about 30 yards over my head. In a rather stiff breeze, it held a stationary position perfectly. It was really quite incredible. The entire crowd was drawn back and forth between observations of the hawk and the rapidly setting sun. When the last edge of sunlight sank into the Pacific, people lingered, savoring these simple pleasures as long as possible. I was one of them. What felt particularly good about the experience was sharing it with such a diverse clutch of people--in harmony and peace."

Thank you, Ted. Here's to harmony and peace on this quiet day.