Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Rainy Day

Images from my last afternoon walk, in lovely mist and rain, the day before going back to Flint.

Monday, December 28, 2009

Flint is NOT an Iron Lung

Fifties Iron Lung Ward, from Google

I was lying in bed one night in mid-December before the solstice, when the day’s supply of light was still miserably shrinking. It was cold. I’d turned the furnace down to 62, resolved to be an ecological grownup, and the heap of comforters on top of me was so heavy that I got an isometric workout every time I tried to turn over.

This was before the snow, the world outside the clamped-down window dark, impenetrable and forbidding. Those kinds of nights, silence and dark are the enemy: one’s thoughts turn dangerously to end games and angst.

I found myself mumbling, it’s like an iron lung in here. I’m trapped in an iron lung. Until when -- April?
Claustrophobia and dread puffed up like giant anxiety airbags, avoiding the crash but threatening their own sweaty suffocation.

This is the start of my next column for East Village Magazine. It'll be out Jan. 8. Oh what the hell, here's the rest of it.

I slid one hand out and reached for the radio. It’s designed with a little bump on the “sleep” button so you can find it in the dark. Hmm, 1:17 a.m. BBC as usual, all night every night. I wanted hypnotizing cricket scores, but this night it was all foreboding and fearful – a litany of bee disease, dying coral reefs, starvation, terrorism in the usual failing states.

Damn, I muttered, don’t they know we’re trying to fall asleep out here? Cussing, I rolled the old-fashioned dial to the MSU classical station. I landed just in time for a lullaby – an actual lullaby – by George Gershwin, who I’m sure had a few sleepless nights of his own. (I’m listening to it now – a nine-minute version by pianist Alicia Zizzo -- it’s lovely and I’m thankful.)

Then there was a nice long piece by Georg Telemann, who, the mellow-voiced announcer murmured, was more popular than his contemporary Mozart in their time. Hm, how about that, I thought. I relaxed, and before the 60 minutes of “sleep” radio ran out, my fretful brain surrendered to the music, and I slept.

The next day, I Googled “iron lung.”

With a tendency toward claustrophobia, I’ve always been horrified and fascinated by the iron lung. People my age well remember the tubular, wheezing contraption from the Fifties when polio paralyzed the bodies, including, cruelly, the breathing muscles, of thousands of kids.

Some of them were saved by the iron lung. According to Wikipedia, at the height of the polio outbreaks, “entire hospital wards were filled with rows of iron lungs,” the polio victims’ poor heads protruding from one end, sad little pillows under their necks, their hair splayed out and a system of disconsolate mirrors overhead. When you went to the movies, they’d show films of those awful wards, and then they’d pass around a can for donations to the March of Dimes.

Things you might not know: the machine was invented by Phillip Drinker and Louis Shaw (thus its earlier name, the Drinker Respirator) originally for treatment of coal gas poisoning. The first one was used in 1928 on a child in Boston.

Most of those polio victims died, but some lived a long, long time. The family of Barton Hebert of Covington, Louisiana donated his iron lung to the Centers for Disease Control museum after he died in 2003 after almost 50 years in it.

Martha Mason of Lattimore, North Carolina, died at 71 just last May after more than 60 years in her iron lung. She wrote a best-selling memoir about her life called Breath. After she contracted polio three days after her brother died from the disease, she says in a 2005 YouTube video, doctors put her in an iron lung and decreed she’d be dead in a year.

She asserted her curiosity saved her. From that breath-sustaining prison, she managed to get a degree in English from Wake Forest University (number one in her class). She went back to Lattimore where she read and wrote voraciously, welcomed many visitors and hosted dinner parties.

In fact, about 30 people in the U.S. still are encased in iron lungs, even though lighter, less restricting ventilators are available. A New York Times obituary(Mason Obituary) said Mason could have opted for a different kind of intubation in recent decades, but she chose her familiar iron house because of the freedom it gave her – “it let her breathe without tubes in her throat, incisions or hospital stays…it took no professional training to operate, letting her remain mistress of her own house, with just two aides assisting her.”

Mason’s story knocks me out. It chastens me: January in Flint isn’t really like an iron lung, and it’s an insult to those polio survivors to suggest so.

Their amazing resilience, in fact, inspires me. (Ahh, inspires -- from the Greek “to breathe.”) I can learn from them how to make each day, even the frozen-up January ones, fly by. I have choices.

I turned to Facebook once again to ask Flint friends for January strategies. The always-endearing Michael Absher said, “I swear a lot and kiss as many pretty girls as possible.” Gary Weisserman advised, “Burger@ the Torch.” Renee West smiley-faced, “anti-depressants.” Dennis Brownfield reported he walks his Jack Russell terrier in his winter coat down Woodlawn Park Drive after dark and enjoys the beautifully lit houses.

My friend Teddy says her alleviating secret is “happiness lights.” She keeps corners of the house brightly illuminated, trying to stay ahead of Dennis, her frugal man who keeps turning them off. I rely on color – my rainbow “postage-stamp” quilt cheers me up, and I’ve got a big poster of wildflowers framed above the bed. In January you’ll find me decked out in red, yellow, lavender and green – often all at the same time. Don’t mock me – it’s what keeps me from kicking the cats.

Whatever we do to get through January, it’s a compromise between sustaining cheer and respecting the Earth that tilts us toward dark to begin with. And that same earth will tilt us right out of the dark again, come spring.

In the meantime, I’m keeping my radio dial away from the BBC. And I’m very glad that I can breathe, on my own, even in the darkest winter days.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

The Hardest Part

...of being a teacher is grading, and I've just finished off the end-of-semester marathon: 14 fiction projects, 14 final personal essays, and 45 freshmen papers. The last round of the semester is especially difficult: one evaluates not just the last piece of writing, but the student's whole semester, aiming to come up with a final number for class participation as well as for the class. And of course, one evaluates onesself.

So many decisions. I feel my forehead furrow even as I write this in a moment of breathing and debriefing.

Yes, I'm aware I have to really work on my breathing while grading -- I tend to tighten up, tense up, hunch old, unhealthy habit I fell into long ago when working hard. Now I'm picturing my yoga teacher admonishing me to throw back my shoulders -- sit up tall!, she says. Or as my beloved therapist said gently all last spring, "it's okay to breathe..." This matters, I've gradually come to understand. Grading is a process of hard truths: grading is the field and the farmer both -- the humus scrutinized for depth and health, the farmer taking a taste of the soil, like my dad used to do, and taking a measure of what's there. Did we seed with enough rye grass? Is it getting enough oxygen and drainage? Is it too alkali?

Funny to be thinking about my dad standing in his much-fussed over little plot down in Ohio decades ago. But I see the instinctive rightness of this analogy for me. There's a cycle to it -- a cycle of planning, high hopes, constant tending, the frenzy of planting and harvest, then the hard realities: the strawberries just didn't make it. The rabbits got into the lettuce. The beans are diseased. The tomatoes never ripened up right. But those potatoes -- what a crop! And how will we deal with all those glossy green zucchini? Did you ever taste such sweet cantaloupe? Welp, I can hear him saying, there are a few things I'll have to do differently next year.

Over the past couple of years, I've become a tougher grader. I'm on the alert about this: part of me wary of advancing codgerly despair at the lunkishness of the young. But another part of me argues it is right to demand something of the younger generation. I want to say to them (and do -- probably more often than I should) , "Pay attention, dammit. Some of this stuff matters. Wake up!"

So I anguish over individual situations that I know affect my students' performance. Was I too hard on the one who's pregnant? Was I too hard on the one I got into a kerfuffle with midway through the semester because he loudly complained about the book I'd chosen -- and then proceeded to give me some of the worst writing I've ever received in a fiction class? Was I too rough on the kid whose thinking sparkles but whose proofreading is horrible -- knowing that she grew up in foster homes? Was I too easy on the eager kid who did okay, not great, because I know his mother was in jail? Was I too easy on the one who praised me and shared my political beliefs? Did I bend over backwards for the one who quoted Glenn Beck and was watching for any sign of liberal bias? How to keep the head clear and focused on the text: the paragraph after stumbling paragraph rolling out on that screen.

We only had 14 weeks together -- not nearly enough to really learn to write. Or for me to concentrate on these individuals before me, focusing on their complications, their needs, their resistance to learning.

It is not a question of whether I am objective or subjective, but rather a question of how subjective I am and in what direction. Even within the system of criteria, rubrics and points I have devised with few illusions, the matter of how many points I dole out has at least a partly visceral dimension. With writing there is hardly a cut-and-dried system, at least not that I am ready to embrace. Some of it is intuition -- and thus the perils of teacherly misuse of power.

But then again, my job is to try to help my students be better writers, not to solve all their late-adolescent life crises. So it probably doesn't help much to give them a break if they don't deliver what I think they need to know. It doesn't help them, I say primly, and it doesn't stand as good teaching. That's what I say to myself when I make the hard calls: give 'em consequences -- build the connection between what they do and what happens to them as a result. Good old Skinnerian behaviorism. But then, but then, writing IS life. All those complications, all those complexities -- they're what feed and challenge the writer. Tra la, tra la.

So, my body achy and craving relief, I fill the bathtub with the hottest water I can stand and invite my husband in for a long chat. "The point of life is learning how to adapt so you can survive," my husband reflects, the steam puffing at our faces. Our tub is big enough for us to sink in up to our armpits with heaps of bubble bath on top of that, our knees white Pyrenees. Used this way, the two of us sharing it, facing each other, our legs intertwined, the hot water lasts far longer than a quick and thoughtless shower, and it does us both good to take our time. It's something we've learned.

Sunday, December 20, 2009

Shh -- don't tell anybody, but the windows are open

Up at 6:30 a.m. in San Pedro, still on Michigan time, I'm sitting on the couch, laptop warm where it belongs -- on my lap -- reading about all the snow back east. A photo comes up of somebody cross-country skiing on the National Mall in D.C. Mother Nature taking charge: airports closed, holiday shopping and highways all tangled up.

And here I sit in my pink bathrobe on the couch, watching a red sunrise bloom up over the harbor (yes, we face east on this hillside) and yes, it's so mild that we've left the windows open. I just heard the L.A. Times plop onto the porch -- a reassuring sound -- I wonder how much longer we'll have this part of morning. I'm not complaining, not disposed to let myself sink into melancholy nostalgia before its time.

No, I'm not complaining at all. I know enough to be grateful. Because it's a quiet, serene Sunday morning and I'm reading poems in the new Driftwood Review, and the whole day is ahead of me, and my husband is still snoozing peacefully in the next room, and I'm facing the sparkling ocean and...the windows are open.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Friday Morning in San Pedro

View from the front deck Dec. 18

Awash in sunlight on this first day back to the coast. I am grateful as always for this bright hillside. And noting, as always, the miracle of waking up in the cold and dark of Flint early yesterday morning and walking along the ocean bluffs of San Pedro by mid-afternoon. I often think of those people who practically starved in their covered wagons struggling across mountain and desert. And here I am, having had nine-grain cereal with soy milk and a sweet cappucino at Rex's, having kissed my husband and held his hand over the breakfast table, reading him his Virgo horoscope (he will be "childlike" in the best ways, his sense of wonder blooming), having done my ritual head stand and meditation, and now moving back and forth between our front porch and our back deck, taking the sun, as they say, with the relief of a parolee.

And noting, too, how much better I feel than last winter, when I arrived in Pedro before Christmas full of angst and physical commotion. It is a great thing to be healthy. I ran up to the corner first thing this morning to greet my beloved hilly Peck Avenue, the route of my cherished long walks to the Korean Bell of last February and daily all through the summer -- a crucial element in my healing. The whole place seems full of love today.

Here's a poem I wrote last summer, in appreciation:

Walking on Peck

When I first came back to the coast
after the hard Michigan winter
I couldn’t take much.
I felt lost,
strange to myself,
and easily frightened
as if somebody new was living
alongside me in my body.
I wasn’t sure who that was
or what to make of it.
All I wanted to do
was walk, the blues and golds
shining off saltwater a relief
to me, the wide open harbor
like getting out of jail,
and especially the air – elixir of air –
every breath – I wanted one after
another – a sign I was still alive.
I walked up and down Peck Avenue
a hundred times, its steep dips requiring
lungs and legs to work together. I felt
my body doing its job and I could lose
my fractured self in thought
or not think at all,
getting to know myself,
old scabs shed, me the tender
pink miraculous skin
healed or healing, rosy.
Life wanted me. And so I
walked, and looked, and breathed.

Tuesday, December 08, 2009

The Bread Gun, or "You can raise a Pacifist."

I was at the optometrist's office on an ordinary Tuesday morning waiting to get an errant lens put back in my glasses, and I ran into a man I know from work who was talking about his kids and something about how they want toy guns for Christmas, but he and his wife don't like the idea. I pulled out one of my favorite old stories, going way back to my Laguna Beach years about a friend of mine and her then about two-year-old son. She and her husband decided there would be no toy guns in the house, and they would raise their kid right, to not be violent, to be loving and cooperative. Then one day Teresa walked into the kitchen and there was her kid pointing something at her. It was a gun. He'd made it out of bread. Bang, bang, mommy.

So then the doc came out and called my work friend in -- he's the doctor responsible for the eyes of about 2/3 of UM - Flint -- and I settled in to wait for my glasses. A middle-aged woman sitting at my side had heard the whole thing. She leaned over toward me and said calmly, "It's possible to raise kids to be pacifists, you know." Hmm...she certainly didn't look like a radical. Certainly didn't look like a hippie. Just a middle-aged, slightly thick, gray-haired woman who eventually said she was from Lennon. She had two sons and she thought they were growing up to be pacifists. "It's not easy, you know, but you can do it." Then she said one of the males in her family -- a nephew, I think -- was going to Afghanistan and everybody was worried about him. I said something about hoping Obama knew what he was doing. She said, "We can't just think about this as one man, one guy. It's about all of us."

I never raised any kids of my own but I've always been awed by how hard it must be. About the time the first Gulf War started, my stepson Eliot abruptly joined the Army. He'd signed up secretly at an extremely difficult time in his life, and his father and I didn't approve, thinking of ourselves as pacifists and horrified at his timing just as Bush One started the thing. But Eliot was of age and there was nothing we could do to stop him. Basic training at Ft. Sill OK, however, shocked him. One day we got a letter: he informed us he was going AWOL. The letter started out, "by the time you read this, I'll probably be gone..." Well, an amazing transformation occurred in our pacifist household: my husband and I called Ft. Sill immediately and told on him. Gratefully, he hadn't followed through, and his commanding officer called him in and made him call his father from there. To my astonishment, I heard my husband say, "Son, I didn't agree with you for signing up, but now that you're there, be a man. You made this choice, now stick to it." We were both shocked by the ferocity of our expectations. So was Eliot. I think he'd already calmed down and decided not to run, but our indignant reaction was eye-opening to us all.

Fortunately for us that first Gulf War was over before Eliot finished basic training. We flew down to Ft. Sill for his graduation and beamed with a weird sort of pride -- neither of us had ever been on a base before and the Big Guns of Ft. Sill, everywhere we turned, and Eliot's appearance, shaved and trussed and sober, startled and worried us. But he followed through on his commitment, and that mattered to us. He lucked out. He went off to Germany where he had an office job for two years. He came home safely and eventually went to graduate school and turned into an avid Marxist for awhile and got a lot of tattoos and then met a great woman, got married, finished his PhD, got a great job, and now has an adorable son of his own. Who's only one year old. And I hope never has to go to war. Raising children to be pacifists, and then making sure we don't send them off to be killed -- it's about all of us.

Anyway, I thought about Eliot's near-AWOL when I found myself sitting at the eye doctor talking to that kind woman from Lennon. I'm not used to having chats like that in Flint. There always seems to be somebody spouting reflex patriotism around here, and it never seems to be paired with pacifism -- something I can never understand. We have to cheer for military action if we love our country? Even if it means sending off thousands of our children into terror, brain damage and death?

Pretty soon my glasses were done. I thanked the woman from Lennon for the conversation and walked out of there blinking into the sun, happy to see everything clearly again.

Saturday, December 05, 2009

Back to Basics?

With the massive Macy's Parade toward Facebook, and with email the REALLY old school alley, and with blogging now seemingly past its prime, creaky with the anachronism of people actually having to FIND a blog, the freedom might be back. When I first started the blog, nobody knew who I was, and nobody read what I wrote. It felt good, kind of daring -- kind of pure even if under it all, of course, pulsed the omnipresent undeniable always ambivalent hope for readers. Both shy and assertive. I've never had a lot of readers here, but lately the thing seems even more unread than ever. Sitting alone in the house on a Saturday night, I savor the dual silence of anonymity and solitude. The acreage has been cleared of its dry old corn stalks for the winter. Good time to come back to the field.


...For about three weeks now. Apparently there's nothing to be afraid of. Today, back from breakfast at the usual joint with 3/4 of the commune (the majority caucus, as "Teddy West" calls it) I meditated. On the coldest day of the winter so far, the sun through the southern exposure upstairs window warmed my forehead, that Third Eye chakra, and then I wandered downstairs and did a headstand on my new yoga mat, getting up to the wall on only the second try. Counted deliberately to 120, breathing from the diaphragm. Tried to hear my yoga teacher's voice urging the shoulders to take more of the responsibility. Couldn't remember which way is "up" for the shoulders in this pose.

Stretching, breathing, extending, body and I communing. It has been a long time coming, far from the stiff Ohio of my youth.

Later, a long Saturday walk, the sun of the morning's meditation long obscured behind thick clouds. What IS this universe, anyway? What IS it, going on and on out there forever? Sometimes I think it's the body of God, and we are tiny mitochondria in miniscule capillaries.

The photo above, ice on Cadet, on the curve to Pierce Park that feels like a little woods, a little country road in the middle of town. The essence of this time of year in the Midwest, brown, stripped down, tight, chilly. Poetry weather.

Friday, November 13, 2009

The Clock is Ticking

I'm taking a deep breath as the last hours, last minutes of my fifties slip away. For some reason, it feels both melancholy and surprisingly hopeful -- an occasion worth observing.

Our lovemaking last night was something special -- the connection between two old dogs -- I'd like to say, two sweet old dogs, who know each other very well and have been through some rough times and come through a little bit scarred, but with our gratitude and humor sharp in equal measures. We took a shower together, gently soaping each other up, well aware of our flaws and the niches, aches, wrinkles, bumps and lumps of the bodies we still manage to love. Because these are the bodies we have. And they still ache with surprising desire -- earthy and persistent -- more than you'd think, really, for a couple of old dogs.

I'm now the oldest woman my husband has ever made love to -- by many years, actually -- and he claims that he's looking forward to a continued erotic life with a woman in her sixties. With THIS woman in her sixties. This is, to be sure, uncharted territory for us both.

And today, a long walk through the neighborhood, and I found myself saying, "this is the last walk I'll take in my fifties" and now it's getting ridiculous -- this is the last blog I'll write in my fifties, this is the last cup of herb tea I'll drink in my fifties, this is the last time I'll pee in my fifties, this is the last time....okay, I'll stop now.

Curled in spoons after lovemaking last night, we talked into the almost dark, golden light of two vanilla candles, about how getting old requires finesse. The fear always lurks, a sharp-horned little gremlin -- the inevitable end ahead and god knows what will come between now and then. So we pledged to be happy, to choose to be happy. To not die until we die.

So, here in the last 170 minutes of my fifties, I say, "I'm happy." I am happier tonight by far than when I turned 30, and 40, and 50. I'm proud of that. And relieved -- that my life has taken me to this happier place. Tomorrow, when I'm 60, I'll get up with my husband and pet my cats and go to breakfast at my favorite spot and wander around at the Farmers Market and get together with our friend Teddy and hang out and gossip and dish about UM politics and the sorry state of the world, and tomorrow night Ted and I will go out to dinner together and then to "Hair," a frivolous little trip into nostalgia and we'll come home and find our way back into our happy bed and life will go on, as joyfully and for as long as Fate permits. And so tonight I breathe deeply, from the diaphragm, composing myself, and tuck away, at least for now,l the fear.

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Sunday sunset in Flint

What is it that makes autumn leaves smell so tangy? Somebody knows the answer, but I'd never asked myself that before. Tonight, walking back from EVM's offices in the light of a beautiful sunset, I took advantage of my recent breathing improvements -- yes, I really DO have a diaphragm and have been relearning how to use it -- to savor the season's spicy fragrance. Ahhh...this has been a lovely weekend.

Walking into the Fire

Gary tells me I need to get back to blogging more. I always do what Gary says. So here's the start of my new East Village Magazine column. To see the rest, pick up hard copies around Flint starting Friday.

This month I’m starting my seventh decade. If the Biblically-allotted three-score and ten bears out, I’m down to the ten. It’s a bit shocking.
I’ve been experimenting with calling myself “60” for several months, but it still feels as if that ancient person with my name is somebody else.
Nonetheless, my left brain and the calendar tell the truth: I really was born in 1949.
According to family tradition (most of the principals are dead now, freeing me to embellish as needed), my mother went into labor after hitting a high note at choir practice at a little church in Ohio where my father was pastor.
Her labor, her third, was quick and easy and I was lifted out into the world by Dr. Homer Keck, a beloved neighbor and friend, before midnight. I’d like to think the rest of the choir – not exactly a band of angels, but a motley well-meaning bunch, were still singing. They were supposedly delighted by the fact of the preacher’s new baby, and I was born into an atmosphere of hope and joy.
There’s no way to know if any of this is true, but I’m grateful music – enthusiastic and a little off-key – was part of the hours just before my birth. I was born into music and art – albeit their religious branch -- and I have needed them later, when hope and joy, inevitably complicated by other realities, faltered and got harder to claim.
It’s art and music to which I increasingly find myself returning as I get old. I’ve recently rediscovered Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos, for example, and I’ve been avidly absorbed by the spiraling, gorgeously complex movements loaded on my iPod as I walk the neighborhood. It reassures me: humans are capable of creating order and transcending evil.
And on a recent Friday afternoon, I had a chance to meander once again through the galleries of the Flint Institute of Arts. I cherished the pleasure of doing so with Kathryn Sharbaugh, the FIA’s assistant director of development and a fine teacher and ceramicist. As she told stories about the collection, I was touched anew by the power of two particular pieces.
First is a mask in the African art gallery. It’s from the Guro tribe of the Ivory Coast, and was a gift to the FIA from Justice G. Mennen (“Soapy”) Williams. It’s roughly a water buffalo, a feral, dog-like head with horns, jagged teeth and protruding, primal eyes. Sharbaugh said it was worn for ceremonial occasions – often to dance for rain.
What captivates me is the creature’s snout. Three or four inches up, it’s roughly coated with black ash. Here’s why: Sharbaugh said to get the gods’ attention, the dancer would sometimes walk right into the fire, dipping the mask into the flames.
That smoky snout stuck with me. At first the gesture of dancing into the fire seems reckless, even ignorant.
But who among us hasn’t had our trial by fire? And who among us, for that matter, hasn’t sometimes chosen to walk right into the heat of desperate action because there is no other way?

Friday, November 06, 2009

Harmony with the Body at Last

What I like about Tai Chi and yoga are that they're so not-Protestant. When I grew up there was talk of the body, but it was all suspicious and guarded -- the body was a foe, a problem. Rhetoric repeated endlessly that our bodies were the Temple of God but I always felt as if that meant I had to watch myself...the body certainly wasn't mine.

It has taken me my whole life to begin to experience some harmony with my body. I'm very grateful for the lessons of this last year -- for the wonderful tai chi classes this summer under the giant fig tree in LA, and now the Monday and Wednesday night yoga classes at UM - Flint with Rachelle.

Sunday, October 18, 2009

Three hundred on Sunday: Bees to Bathrobes

This is my 300th blog entry on Night Blind: Rough Drafts from a Writer's Life.

Since I started the blog in 2005, my most garrulous year was last year, when I posted here 134 times, or every 2.7 days. My second most chatty year was 2007, when I posted 105 times. This year I've been a veritable blogging hermit, posting only 53 times so far -- last winter, as most of you know, included a few months of hell in my life from which I have gratefully scrambled back.

I often forgot to attach labels to the posts, but from the ones I did,the thing I wrote about most, at 72 posts, was Flint, my home for the past 28 years -- this notorious, often infuriating place that prompts so much obsessive reflection and fulminating in my mind and heart. This is where most of my major dramas as a grownup have occurred, so it figures. It is my home; I'm interested in it and always thinking about my life here. The rest of the top ten topics, in addition to Flint, have been writing, memoir, poetry, nature, politics, LA, San Pedro, the body, and tied for 10th place, music and walking. Along the way I've also written about marriage, aging, death, food, insomnia, gratitude, health and hope. Also teaching, of course, and Tonga, the country of some of my early young adventures. And also misanthropy and what I tabbed "cranky standards." I've written about bees and bathrobes and the beer summit, and mentioned numerous people from novelist Charles Baxter to Hizzoner Dayne Walling to my friend and artist Patsy Warner. My former husband Danny has appeared on these screens, along with Jack Driscoll, Barry Lopez, Linda Gregerson, Greg Rappleye and many others. All this is a pretty accurate reflection of the things in my life that matter, that interest me, that worry me, that I love.

The post that seems to have gotten read most often, probably because of Google and which shows up under Google searches, was a piece I wrote last January about artist Jim Dine and his bathrobes. Another one that emerges often on Google is an account I offered about the appearance of Linda Gregerson at UM - Flint -- also one of my own favorites.

Obviously I haven't been as interested in this blog since I got on Facebook, where posting is easy and quick and, I'm ashamed to admit, I like that I get immediate readers, many of whom regularly say something back. As a social networking site, it feels, well, sociable. It usually cheers me up. It hasn't been unusual there for me to get four or five comments on a morning post, but here it's been rare to get even one. So, is it all about readers? When I first started this blog I did it under a pseudonym because I just wanted to write, ship it out to the blogosphere and see what happened. I was feeling reclusive and somewhat darker in my internal life than I am now; my blog entries -- or at least the way I felt when I wrote them -- tended toward the depressive, wrestling with my sadness and regrets. At least that's how I remember it. Things have changed somewhat. I'm less interested in writing about the things that make me sad or unhappy with myself. I'm attempting to savor the present, appreciate the good things in my life, and look forward.

If you've happened into this blog over the past five years, thank you for peeking in. It's been an enjoyable spot for playing out the concerns and curiosities of my life. I hope to return to it, in an attitude of leisurely rumination, a place to keep my writing chops in line when I want to develop my thoughts beyond Facebook's little popcorns.

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Boston Herald: Bodacious Breakfast Bites

The only paper at the breakfast table in our hotel this morning was a stack of the tabloid Boston Herald. Its raucous alliteration soon got us guffawing over our scrambled eggs:

Headline: " Banned Nantucket dog's bite worse than its bark."
"Toney Nantucket has long frowned on rowdy rabblerousers running amok on their privileged sanctuary -- but now one four-legged party animal has found himself banned from the swanky isle...Lester, an 8-year-old Bluetick Coonhound who had summered on Nantucket for six years, was unanimously voted off the island at a Board of selectman hearing Wednesday after several neighbors complained the pooch had bitten four people."

Here's one about a 19-pound baby born to a diabetic mom:
Headline: Great Big Baby's Living Large"
"Kisaran, Indonesia-- He's a great big baby, and he just won't stop eating! ...Everyone wants a look at Akbar -- "great" in
Arabic -- who weighed in at a whopping 19.2 pounds Monday and is now drawing crowds. 'I'm very happy that my baby and his mother are in good health,' proud papa Muhammad Hasanudin said. 'I hope I can afford to feed the baby enough, because he needs more milk than other babies.' Crowds pushed to get a peek at the bouncy butterball at the hospital in Kisaran, Sumatra."

Ahh...THIS is journalism.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Rotten Apples

I'm in Boston at the moment, but in my mind I'm thinking about the rotten apples on the steps going down into Burroughs Park in Flint. I've been walking up and down those steps for more than 20 years, and this time of year, an apple tree on the north side of the steps drops its apples and nobody ever does anything about it. So they drop and get in your way when they're still hard, and then they soften and turn brown and send up the most remarkable, tangy scent.

At first it's spicy and the nose dilates like my cat's noses in the morning when they first come up from the basement and sit in the kitchen window sniffing out little birds and squirrel pheromones. Our noses are designed to dredge in information -- is this good to eat? What does this signify? I like how my nose reacts to rotten apples. I don't want to eat them, but it seems to signify rich dynamic nature and the turning of the season.

And my father. I remember my father when I smell rotten apples. In our one acre in McDonaldsville in Jackson Township in Ohio in the early 50s, he planted a miniature orchard of pear trees and a variety of apples -- I noted some of the varieties he loved in my oldy poem "World Travelers." He loved those apple trees. He thought one should not interfere with the apple drops -- he thought that was part of the plan for the other critters -- rabbits and birds, I guess. And he thought rotten apples did as they were meant to, sinking fragrantly back into the soil (humus, he proudly called it, a product of human planning he always believed in and cultivated -- he thought it was his responsibility to add to the humus layer). So those brown rotting apples were part of my father's world view, and also of my childhood, when I'd walk back there and be a little intimidated by their flagrant and fragrant journey back into the earth.

Monday, August 31, 2009

It's So Quiet

After the hustle bustle of LA/San Pedro, the peacefulness of our Flint street is almost distracting. It's lovely. Already feels like autumn -- the angle of the sun changing, the trees thinking about molting, I can tell -- there's that satiation in the air, a little weariness with all the rampant green growth. At night, cicadas thinning out; a train in the distance. After a few bumpy days of getting re-oriented, I'm reconciled and back to savoring the pleasures. A few more cherished days before the Great Again.

Saturday, August 29, 2009


...I miss the light. That tangy California sun. It was so gloomy yesterday I took a giant Vit. D capsule last night, and today isn't much better. How will I do without that light? Ted says it's just jet lag, and points out it got up into the 90s in Pedro today. So we're lucky to be here, under the morose parachute of gray. But how will I manage without that light?

Friday, August 28, 2009

The Pattern, Not the Face

I'd rather look at the patterns made by human life and its complications than the faces of humans themselves. That strikes me as strange, but I just realized that when I take photos, as I did with great enjoyment this summer in Pedro, I almost never took photos of people -- unless they were visiting relatives or my husband, and we wanted to document our time together. Otherwise, it's the patterns I love. Looking too closely at faces makes me anxious. But the patterns...oh, there I'm right at home, drinking it in. Above are several of my favorites from the Korean Bell, which is a sumptuously satisfying example of pattern -- curve, color, bird, sky, sea.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"Writing a Novel is Pathetic" and Essays from 6,000 B.C.

Packing up to return to Flint tomorrow, I'm reflecting on some of the pleasant reading my summer afforded me. There were afternoons when I got to read for three hours straight before heading out for my 4:30 walk to the Korean Bell -- it was a luxurious and restful daily ritual.

Above are two I particularly enjoyed: How I Became a Famous Novelist by Steve Hely, and the massive The Lost Origins of The Essay edited lovingly by John D'Agata.

Hely's rollicking account of a kid who sets out to trick the system by writing a best-selling novel (how hard could it be?), thereby getting even with his ex-girlfriend and humiliating her at her wedding, to which she has smarmily invited him, starts out farcical but despite itself, begins to move into what I'm going to say is actually a sneakily serious consideration of the state of literature, publishing and even the creative writing world of academia (his excruciating description of a "workshop" at a made-up college in Billings, Montana is so close to the mark I had to turn away in shame until I could wrestle myself back into denial and go back to laughing). There are many hilarious quotes. Here's one:

Sadly a memoir wasn't an option for me, because my youth had been tragically happy. Mom never had the foresight to hit me or set me to petty thieving or to enlist us in a survivalist cult. I wasn't even from the South, which wouldn've bought a few dozen pages. Lying wouldn't work; these days memoir police seem to emerge and make sure you truly had it bad. And the bar for bad is high -- reviewers have no patience for standrad-issue alcoholics and battered wives anymore.

And this, about a certain myth to which many of us succumb:
When you think of the great writers, penning a novel seems terribly romantic. You think of F. Scott Fitzgerald, a Riviera breeze billowing his curtains and the sounds of the Cap d'Antibes street cut by the tapping of his typewriter, as he lacerates the rich and dreams of the past. Or Hemingway, in a hotel in Palmplona in the heat of the afternoon, as bullfighters take their siesta and drops of water bead on a bottle of kirsch. Or Joyce, squinting his Irish bead-eyes as he lends his classical training and his Gaelic imagination to summon up allusie rhythms and language dense and unfolding.
Even lesser novelists seem glamorous. Some scribbler burning twigs in a boardinghouse in the second arrondissemet as he dips his quill pen into the ink. Or a slim and shoeless thirty-something, taking a year off from his job as an alternatie marketing onsultant to sit in a park in Vancouver to Park Slope and type into his PowerBook a wry yet soulful take on the paradozes of hypermoderity.
That is all delusion. Writing a novel is pathetic and boring. Anyone sensible hates it. it's all you can do to not play Snood all afternoon.

Despite his revulsion, the character's novel ends up on the best seller's list -- and then all the trouble begins. Interestingly, Hely's skewering satire has not made it to the best-seller's list -- at this writing he's at 5,191. Not bad really, for a novel about a novel whose smartassed author we like through it all.

Then, the huge essay collection -- which despite its avoirdupois seems quite approachable and readable. D'Agata, a creative writing teacher from the University of Iowa, has assembled with gusto and affection a collection of "creative non-fiction" going all the way back to fragments of prose uncovered from 6,000 years ago. After noting in his introduction that even the earliest pieces of prose were rooted in commerce, he queries, "Do we read nonfiction in order to receive information, or do we read it to experience art?" And his collections answers, "I am here in search of art. I am here to track the origins of an alternative to commerce....compelled by individual expression--by inquiry, by opinion, by wonder, by doubt."

In a season when all we read and hear about is failing banks, daunting and horrifying deficits, and rancorous arguments about how to pay for health care, this collection comes as a relief -- and reminder that there's another, more graceful side to human prose expression. Maybe, as in the last entry, a brilliantly concise piece by John Berger titled "What Reconciles Me," there is within us redemption.

Elvis in a Fine Fedora with the Angels

My ticket

Yes, I was there. Summer Tuesday night after a picnic of Kobe Grill crunchy rolls and a flagon of red wine, settled down in the "A" section. Didn't even need the big screens to see Lucinda Williams in her jacket (on the back, a skull with a rose in its teeth -- what's the allusion?) amble out with her three-man band to sing a nine-song warm-up set including "Well Well Well," the "Happy Woman Blues" (I suppose she is happy but it isn't her stock in trade...she's lushly lugubrious, really) and the wonderful ballad "Jackson," on which Jim Lauderdale of the Sugar Cubes came out and beautifully harmonized. She ended with the pounding and angry "Joy," when lead guitar Chet Lyster finally seemed to find his groove.

Then The Man, welcomed giddily by this exuberant L.A. crowd. He's thickened and put on weight since his spiky, pigeon-toed punkster days, and in his fine fedora he looked like an old rabbi, or later, we thought, when the fedora came off, an sturdy Italian fishmonger. He's neither, of course, born Declan McManus, and now in his 50s, enjoying many a comeback, Elvis Costello seemed especially happy to be among the Angelenos. (Getting ahead of my account, when he came out for an encore he ended up staying for six songs -- as the LA Times reviewer put it, he "seemed outright reluctant to put a halt to the fun."

Despite our excellent seats, we had a different feeling about this evening in the Greek than our earlier rousing and folksy night with Lyle Lovett -- when we were in the middle-B section. We thought the mix on many of the songs wasn't right, making it infuriatingly difficult to savor both Williams' and Costello's lyrics, and on one song half the Sugar Cubes started in one key and half another -- it took about two minutes to coordinate this embarrassment -- a weirdness the rapturous LA Times reviewer failed to mention. Also, we sensed that the "A Section" patrons were trying harder to be cool than the middle-class proles in B who had just a bit too much to drink, maybe, and noisily loved their Lyle. The Elvis folks were tres urbane and seemed hellbent on hanging out with their peeps. Lots of sidling eyes, it seemed to us, checking out who else was there. It's hard to resist: I'm a nobody Flintoid but I did wonder if that guy three rows up could really have been Scorsese (Hey, you never know) and if that other guy just behind us is a character actor on Law and Order.

Nonetheless, we enjoyed ourselves, and when Elvis Costello launched into "Red Shoes" it felt like the stars and moon and planets were all aligned, happy and vibrating with the spirit of long-enduring soulfulness.

P.S. I forgot to mention that Costello's band included NO DRUMS, but did include a dobro and an accordion. That was one rockin' accordion player.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Michael's Cat Snowflake

This is what counts as Big News in World 'O Me as my long lovely summer in San Pedro winds to an end. Thursday I was walking down Peck Ave. for about the hundredth time, this hilly street I've grown to adore, and I came upon two men putting in landscaping at the brown house where the white cat lives. This little kitty with the yellow eyes has been one of the delights of my walks -- along with the Grizzled Man, whom I'll write about later, if I see her it's an anecdote, something to tell Ted. She never lets me touch her and I'd sort of named her Pearlie.

So she wasn't there when I got to the house, which is tucked snugly into the hillside facing the harbor and always looks beautiful to me -- California arts and crafts style, with an attractive wood and cast iron fence allowing just a few peeks into the terraced yard extending down from Peck. I always wonder who lives there and if they ever see me flirt with Pearlie.

Two men, robust senior citizens, were putting in big clumps of wheaty-looking grasses, and I stopped to say how good it looked. "Native grasses?" I asked -- something one always hopes for around here, where a deep drought makes fussy annuals like pansies seem silly and ill-advised. They said they didn't really know if they were native but they liked them.

Is the little white cat too scared to come out while you're working?
Oh, you mean Michael's cat?
Ah. Michael.
Yeah, I don't know him -- I just walk by all the time.
That'd be Michael's cat Snowball.
Not Snowball, the other one said, Snowflake.
Oh yeah, Snowflake. That's it. Michael's cat Snowflake.

Sigh. I love knowing she's a Snowflake, here where it never, ever snows.

The next day, Friday, she was out, stretched out elegantly on the sidewalk in the late afternoon sun when I walked by.

Snowflake, I whispered, respectfully. She got up and daintily circled me, sniffing. She still wouldn't let me touch her, but this time she didn't run away.

Saturday, August 08, 2009

Why I think I'm getting an ulcer

1. Bees -- Ira Flatow on Science Friday This is so scary.
How Could We Live Without Them?
2. Glaciers -- US glaciers melting Could all that newly liberated moisture what's been flooding the midwest and East with rain all summer?
Disappearing Beauty

3. Sarah Palin. Obama plan is "evil" What will it take to get this astoundingly ignorant attack dog to sink mercifully into discredited obscurity?
I'm Scared of Clowns

Tuesday, August 04, 2009

A Night to be Proud of Flint

For once, Flint made a choice that doesn't make it look like everybody got too much lead in the water. Congratulations to Dayne Walling -- a Rhodes Scholar! I'm so proud. Also congrats to Dale Weighill, who won the primary for city council person from my neighborhood. I'm hopeful he'll take the spot in the November final. It's interesting and energizing to imagine what these smart young men might be able to do for our city. While I've often cheered on Michael Moore's snide commentaries about the city, I think there's also room for serious problem-solvers who will not see everything as grist for parody, especially delivered from out-of-town aeries. We've been way too prolific in the parody department -- obviously so much to work with, God knows. Now could we have just a little interval of dignity?

Unfortunately, the Hurley Hospital millage went down by about 700 votes. People aren't feeling very compassionate these days -- and it's really hard on folks to accept any more taxes. I'm impressed, actually, that the vote was this close.

It's really sweet that Dayne finally pulled it out.

My Vote is Really Absentee: "Hot Case" Cold

Boo Hoo. No Vote

Ted and I just saw the rather mediocre movie "Swing Vote" in which a good-hearted but dopey drunk (Kevin Costner) ends up casting the deciding vote in a presidential race. Who did he pick? Kelsey Grammer or Dennis Hopper (Dennis Hopper??? Man, he's the one for me...delicious to imagine). Anyway, we were supposed to get the message that every vote counts. Okay, I get it.

Mine didn't. I really wanted to vote for Dayne Walling, the kid Rhodes Scholar whose mother I've known for about 25 years, for Mayor of Flint today. I really wanted to vote in favor of a millage for a hospital that serves the poorest people of Flint. i really wanted to vote for a gay friend who used to be my neighbor at Sylvester Manor for City Council.

But I'm in LA, where at the moment, for example, some guy is going up and down 26th Street with a cart, yelling "tamale tamale tamale" and the guy downstairs has his woodfire grill going in the driveway for an al fresco dinner facing the harbor. It's a long way from what we used to call Buick City. I love both of my locales, but it's Flint that rouses my political passions most -- it's been a long hard trudge, still very much in progress, for the city to pull itself up out of misery. Increasingly, I care about that. I want vindication for GM's abandonment. I want the people who are left, hanging on to whatever they can of grace and hope, to get some reliable goodness.

So anyway, before I left Flint I sent in my request for an absentee ballot -- it was received June 26. Never got the ballot. Until today. Election Day. In my mailbox in San Pedro. It arrived at 11 a.m. PST, 2 p.m. Eastern, giving me six hours to file my vote.

Though I'd essentially given up hope before today, I placed a call to Gloria Boone in the Flint City Clerk's office. Of course she told me I was out of luck with no options. But I continued the conversation. Let's see, it was my fault that I submitted from an online form -- that is "not normal," Ms. Boone told me. I mistakenly sent it to the County Clerk's office. They sent it to the Flint City Clerk's Office (receipt stamp July 7) but apparently it was mixed up in a pile of voter registration documents. I should have checked -- didn't I wonder what had happened? So basically it was my fault. However. my envelope was postmarked July could anybody have turned this around that fast? Before I got Ms. Boone, another worker told me they hadn't received the ballots until last week. So I'm wondering if my complaints and the series of gaffes were immaterial. Anyway, Ms. Boone said she resented that I was criticizing the City Clerk's office when "we are only human." Indeed. Very human.

I want new city government. I want something to work right. I want government officials to be nice to me and to do their jobs professionally. But at least this time around, I didn't get to say that with my vote.

I see the envelope had written on it "Hot Case." You can see that above. Huh. Right. By now it's stone cold.

P.S. Fortunately, early returns suggest Dayne Walling has a healthy lead, without my vote.

Monday, August 03, 2009

Flint Drinkin' the KoolAid Tomorrow

Check out Flint Expatriates' guy Gordie Young's article in today's Slate: Can Anybody Run This Town?

Here's one of my favorite parts, which I gather is also one of Gordie's favorite parts too since he posted it on his own blog (

But for me, the highlight—if that's the word—of covering this campaign came when Clack and Walling momentarily joined forces at the Landmark Food Center, the kind of grocery store where a security guard roams the fluorescently lit aisles and customers are required to check their bags at the counter. Flanked by displays of breakfast cereal, the two candidates judged a Kool-Aid-making contest sponsored by three local churches.

Go Dayne -- let's hope the Rhodes Scholar pulls it out tomorrow.

The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot and other pleasures

Since I somewhat dissed Charlie Baxter's novel Soul Thief recently, I want to post this ameliorating set of responses as well. I just finished another of Baxter's works -- the charming and stimulating The Art of Subtext: Beyond Plot. Part of a series (they're up to nine so far I think) on writing from the always wonderful Graywolf Press, Baxter's little six-chapter exploration examines issues of staging, the "subterranean," the unsaid, inflection and "face" in fiction. It's a bracing, refreshing discussion and I enjoyed it so thoroughly I decided to require my fiction students to buy it and read it in my upcoming fiction-writing class.

Charlie's the editor of the series, which also includes The Art of Attention: The Poet's Eye by Donald Revell, The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again by Sven Birkerts, and the newest, The Art of Syntax: Rhythm of Thought, Rhythm of Song by Warren Wilson College MFA Program matriarch Ellen Bryant Voigt.

Graywolf describes the series as a new line of books "reinvigorating the practice of craft and criticism..." each book "a brief, witty and useful exploration of fiction, nonfiction, or poetry by a writer impassioned by a singular craft issue." Baxter, always self-deprecating while being quite brilliant, says in his intro, "my critical approach has a certain retro quality here and there. In my earlier book of critical essays, Burning Down the House [a book I happen to love --ms] I was eager to reintroduce an element of performative drama into criticism -- criticism, the dreariest of the arts -- by means of unsubstantiated generalizations and half-legitimated claims asserted a high volume. Here it seemed best to perform a few close readings, acting out the role of the critic-as-sleuth." His effort is entertainingly successful.

I've bought five of these compact volumes so far and after finishing Subtext I've enthusiastically plunged into Voigt's volume, which begins by amusingly describing her immersion in ear training and pitch in a summer job as a restaurant piano player at the age of 19.

These brisk, passionate treatises bring new life to the discussion of writerly issues. I'm grateful and energized by these offerings.

Catching Up with the "Brew-haha"

photo from the New York Times
Did anybody else, I wonder, find themselves squirming at the sight of President Obama and Vice-President Biden in their shirtsleeves at the "beer summit" Thursday? (I really liked Dan Schorr calling it a "brew-haha" on NPR Saturday)

I know it's old news now but I'm still thinking about it. The dimensions of power were blatant and awkward. Obama and Biden obviously could afford to almost loll in their rolled-up shirtsleeves, leaning back in their chairs. Meanwhile, Gates and Crowley showed (who wouldn't, when meeting the president of the United States?) in suits and ties, and sat up straight-backed in their chairs, knowing that half the world was watching. It looked like Biden and Obama were the only ones to reach for the peanuts, Obama even doing a little thing with his hands that almost looked as if he was tossing the peanuts into his mouth. How could anybody swallow anything in that atmosphere?

The self-assuredly casual, incongruous rolled-up shirtsleeves, a privilege of the Alpha Dogs, along with the beer, the peanuts -- none of that could really soften the significance -- the painful unresolved tensions, the media circus -- of this bizarre event. I couldn't believe CNN did a "countdown" to the "beer summit," yet I was right there waiting and ultimately embarrassingly transfixed.

Friday, July 24, 2009

It's Almost Like the Greeks


Pulling a Rappleye here, not that anybody's noticed:


The reason, in my case: There's some suggestion that posting a poem (even in draft form) here counts as "publication" and in some quarters thus precludes official submission.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Lassitude as Literature: Wearisome "Soul Thief"

I just finished reading Charles Baxter's latest novel,The Soul Thief, and I'm unhappy with it. It seemed so phlegmatic and depressive, and as several reviewers have noted, the plot device that concludes it is cynical, unimaginative and disappointing. The plot, in which a character named Nathaniel Mason is creepily shadowed by another man, creepily named Jerome Coolberg, has two parts: one situated in Buffalo, New York, in the Seventies, when the "identity thefts" occur, and another in the Nineties, when Mason and Coolberg meet up in LA.

It's not as if the book is devoid of pleasures -- it is, after all, Charles Baxter at the loom, and as a much-revered writer's writer, he indisputably knows how to weave John Gardner's "vivid and continuous dream."

As a part-time Angeleno, I was quite fascinated and amused, for example, by how Baxter's disheartened protagonist describes LA. Here is how he sees LA's airport, appropriately some might say abbreviated LAX, through which I've traveled about 40 times over the past eight years:
Although most airports seem to have been designed by committees made up of subcommittees, and are inevitably unattractive and unsightly, Los Angeles International has an exuberant ugliness all its own. The atmosphere of non-invitation is quite distinctive, as if the city's first representative, its airport, is already disgusted, perhaps even repelled, by the traveler. The recent arrival might well imagine that he has landed on the set of a low-budget futuristic film, most of whose main characters will die horribly within the first forty minutes. The pods, as they are called, are careless maintained, and an odor of perfumed urine wafts here and there through the bleary air.

The enervating experience of LA continues in the protagonist's (to me) hilarious take on the thinly disguised (I think) Chateau Marmont (or maybe the Beverly Hills Hotel), which Baxter calls "The Fatal Hotel" ("Celebrities have died there," his host tells him as if assuming the torpid Nathanial has a taste for morbid fun):
...For such a famous place, known for its hospitality to louche celebrities of every stripe, the Fatal seemed rather drab, even seedy. It advertised its own cool indifference to everything by means of dim Art Deco lamps and shabby antique rugs. Indifference constituted its most prized form of discretion. To the left of the entryway sat an ice plant. A dusty standing pot with a sunlit cactus in it, close to the elevators, matched the ice plant for pur floral forlornness. They were emblems of four-star neglect. In front of me, and to the right of the front desk, was a brown Art Deco sofa that looked as if it could have used a thorough cleaning. Scandalized, I saw stains.

Oh, snap! as Jon Stewart would say. Those stains! That's Baxter at his sharply observant best -- but unhappily, Mason's adrenaline in response is among the most energetic moments of the book.

Here's my fantasy, wholly based on conjecture, of what was happening to Baxter -- an old friend from the Eighties in Michigan and a much-cherished teacher in the Warren Wilson program when I went through -- when he wroteThe Soul Thief. I imagine that the experience of seeing his wonderful novel Feast of Love translated into the relatively pallid movie version made him feel violated. I imagine that it felt as if the hard labor of creation was twisted and and its loveliness ripped off. I imagine if he ever went to LA to consult on the making of the movie that it would have struck him, Charlie Baxter, very much as it did the dyspeptic Nathaniel. And I imagine that's why this novel, which never sees enough light, or like an iPhone that's not fully charged and can't quite pull in the call, is the dim and depressive reverse image of The Feast of Love.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

How to Serve Tea and Plaudits for Rex's

So, while the airwaves are full of matters of import, drawling Jeff Sessions boringly and predictably interrogating Sonya Sotomayor, I've decided to broach my own issue of consequence: How To Serve Tea.

When I got sick last winter, among other changes I made, sadly abandoning my beloved double espressos at Steady Eddy's for instance, was to cut out almost all caffeine, and my morning beverage of choice became herb tea. Since I felt like I was sacrificing, I became quite attuned to making sure the new way was as pleasant as possible, and thus I've turned into something of a tea crank at restaurants.

First, there always should be non-caffeine options -- and not just some boring decaffeinated green teabags, but at least a handful of lively caffeine-free choices -- Steady Eddy's at the Flint Farmer's Market has one of my favorites, a pomegranate blend, and they also have peach and several citrus varieties.

Second, and to the point of this post, is how the hot water is served. Some places bring the cup filled with hot water and the little pitcher also filled with hot water. This makes no sense, unless you're also offered two teabags, one for each container. If it's served this way, you have to decide where to put your teabag. Obviously you'd begin with the cup, but then that means by the time your cup of tea is properly steeped, the bag is half-used up and your pitcher of tea would then be weaker than your first cup. Instead, the pitcher only should be filled with water; you put your teabag in there and fill the cup from the pitcher, so that all the tea is of the same strength. Then if you want more tea, you ask the server to bring you another teabag and fill the pitcher, not the cup, with fresh hot water.

Water in the teapot only -- hooray

Finally, the cafe should serve all kinds of sweeteners -- not just the excreble refined white sugar and Sweet 'n low. There should be raw (probably turbinado) sugar, Equal and Splenda. I'm a Splenda fan myself and my husband prefers Equal, and we find it irritating when neither are available.
Four kinds of sweetener -- hooray

The restaurant which consistently meets my tea-serving standards is Rex's Cafe at the corner of 22nd Street and Pacific in San Pedro, where I took the photos included here.

And I added a photo of my breakfast this morning, to note that they serve the best fruit bowl in town -- ordered with my disturbingly mammary but delicious "Green Eggs Cabrillo" (there's spinach under that cheese sauce).
Man, this breakfast needs a bra

Rex's is one of my favorite breakfast spots in Pedro -- a cheery yellow interior, friendly bi-lingual service, consistently fresh and delicious food, including excellent steel-cut oatmeal, and an interestingly varied and mellow clientele.

There, now I feel better. Bring it on, Sessions.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

We're Laughing on the Outside for Spamalot

Here's what you do on a globally-warmed singeing hot Sunday in the midst of a deep recession in LA: get in your American car, crank up the AC, and drive downtown to the Ahmanson Center as fast as you can and get the best seat you can afford to "Spamalot." Then laugh your ass off at the old Monty Python favorites like "I Am Not Dead Yet" and "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life."

John O'Hurley is King Arthur and his madcap crew includes the amazing Merle Dandridge as the Lady of the Lake, Christopher Sutton as both the hilarious "Not Dead Fred" and "Prince Herbert," Rick Holmes as Lancelot (yes, he "comes out" in the second act) and Ben Davis as the musical theater maven Sir Galahad.

I have to admit that "Bright Side" missed some of its deliciously dark incongruity for me by not being warbled by Jesus (oops, I mean Brian) from the cross, with harmony from the thieves, but that lacuna was almost completely redeemed by Prince Herbert's over-the-top renditions of "Where are You?" and Galahad's jazzy "You Won't Succeed on Broadway" ("unless you've got a Jew").

It's impossible not to feel joyously philosophical about life at the endearing, precocious finale, when the crew released clouds of giant confetti on the audience. Most of us joined in on the last refrains of "Bright Side," whistling from center front orchestra and mezzanine alike. Don't know if there were any Bernie Madoff victims or foreclosed inhabitants in the crowd, but for a minute we were all thumbing our noses at bad news and dreadful possibilities.

Clearly, we're not dead yet.

Alva's Does It Again with "One Wing"

All I have to say about last night's sterling performance at Alva's is "Wow." Laurence Juber, former lead guitarist with "Wings," played two generous sets, just one guy sitting alone on the stage with his beautiful maple Martin guitar, and blew the rest of us away.

People rushed to the counter in the Alva's lobby at the intermission and bought his CDs like crazy -- I was among them. I want this beautiful music in my life every day.

Saturday, July 11, 2009

If it's yellow...

Mark Rothko
The City of LA is under a severe drought watch, and a number of strategies are being suggested to help save water. The most common goes way back for Ted and me: "If it's yellow, let it mellow...if it's brown, flush it down." We figure this has saved us at least five flushes a day. And, well, we keep the lid down in between. Aren't we the thoughtful pair?

Elephant parade in LA

Photo from the LA Times
One thing I really wish I'd seen: the annual walk of the elephants through downtown LA at 4 a.m. Tuesday morning. (We didn't arrive in LA until 5:30 p.m. that day, safely far away at LAX) It's a tradition going back to 1922, according to the LA Times -- walking 11 Asian elephants three miles to the Staples Center for the Ringling Bros. circus. LA Times elephant story Here's the really eerie part: that was also the day of Michael Jackson's funeral in the Staples Center. A lot of the hundreds of people in the streets waiting to get in thought the pachyderm parade was part of the MJ rites. Could things get any weirder? Do you think the elephants remember that walk, year after year? Has it become part of their literature, a story communicated to the young calves?
P.S. I feel sorry for the elephants. They shouldn't be walking through any damn city. They should be enjoying tall grass and fresh air. But still: to have seen that...

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Reprise of the Lilies

While Mark Sanford, clearly in a state of wrinkled-forehead manly disarray, is blathering on about how he "developed a relationship" with a "dear, dear friend" and spent five days crying in Argentina, I repaired to the back yard to document this year's crop of lilies. They are right on time compared to last year, when they showed up here on June 21 -- and they've been blooming brilliantly for a few days. Thirty-five of them today. A finer entertainment than prurience and politicos in "serious overdrive." Lordy, lordy.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Moving Water

The muddy, gushing water of Gilkey Creek after today's heavy rain was marvelous. Mother Nature's energy: the earthy smell of the water, the sloshing noise of it, the green branches bending over the rushing water -- all refreshingly vital and cleansing.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Saturday night at Alva's

My last weekend in Pedro for awhile, we had a date almost as good as the Obamas', and not at taxpayer expense, not that I begrudge them! Our date was dinner with Teddy and Dennis at ShinShin (hot&sour soup, crabs rangoon, lemon chicken, spicy beef, good Mexican beer) followed by a fine jazz set at Alva's -- both in that charming little off-the-beaten- path block of Eighth Street.

The trio tonight was called CPT Kirk (yeah, Captain Kirk), a snappy combo of keyboard, drums and bass guitar -- all original work, all intricate, tight and immensely energizing. The band is made up of Kirk Covington on raucous drums, Scott Tibbs on passionate keyboard, and wiry, Rufus Philpot on dazzling bass guitar. Covington, a husky middle-aged dude with a scuplted white mohawk culminating in a tiny pony tail, let loose with gutty, exuberant vocals I found cathartic, and the interplay between the three was easygoing. The music, as usual at Alva's, is what really matters. As Covington noted at one point -- "it's so quiet...and no cigarette smoke." That's the pleasure Matt Lincir, Rosalie and Alva's son and the major domo of the Alva's series, so lovingly engineers. His audience -- of about 30 or so tonight -- clearly are devoted to the music, and are attentive, even rapturous, listeners. I thought Covington, Tibbs and Philpot (OH! CPT -- now I get it even further) were superb and perfect for Matt's audience -- they seemed totally, lustily engaged. Their fusion of funk to tribal rhythms to hints of boogie woogie to twining, interlocking jazz patterns was electrifying. They played just one hour-long set, enough -- the sound is loud and hits the brain like deep-tissue massage. My brain, always looking for a break from verbal demands, loved it. I wish they had a CD out -- I'd love to try writing to it, especially poems.

The full moon added benediction to the scene, gleaming over Eighth Street and then still dangling over the ocean from our back deck when we got home. Turning the other way on the deck, we could drink in the sparkling lights of the harbor, especially the blue scoops of the Vincent Thomas bridge.

I've really loved this place this time around. I admit it: this time I hate to go back.

Friday, May 29, 2009

Wolfie Is Still Perdido

Poor Wolfie and Poor Raven

Telephone poles on Peck and Gaffey around Angel's Gate Park and the Korean Bell are still plastered, poignantly, with flyers seeking the missing Wolfie. I have been quite captivated by the Wolfie narrative -- offered in both English and Espanol. Sadly, somebody went around a week ago or so and scrawled "Still Missing" on the flyers. In the meantime, the pleading in two languages has produced no results.

"Mi perra se ha perdido. Lo estrano mucho." There's something about the word "perdido" that sounds more operatic than "lost" -- more extravagant and sad.

And in the meantime, Wolfie's distraught owner "Raven" says she just wants him back -- NO QUESTIONS ASKED. Sin hacer preguntas.

So sad - reminders of desperate loneliness on every corner. Too bad. Where is Wolfie?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Busted My Idol Cherry

...and voted for Adam Lambert. Yeah, that boy rocked all season, and sizzled right off the stage with one of my all-time favorite songs, "Change Is Gonna Come." Sam Cooke would have LOVED it. I got goose bumps on my goosebumps.

I like that I got to vote right here on our hillside in LA, after the quake this afternoon. It all seems so right. It only took five tries.

And by the way, go Lakers. In the other room, on the other TV, Ted survived a near-death experience as the Lakers took it to the last second 105-103. Phew...

Just another Tuesday in La-La Land.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Shakin' and Quakin'

Just had the second earthquake in three days in old LA...this one a 4.1 which lasted just a couple of seconds, but it's unnerving after Sunday night's 4.7 -- this new one, already being labeled an aftershock by the USGS, had its epicenter just 3600 feet from the last one.

Our apartment is between the little southeastern "bump" of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, west of Long Beach on the USGS map above.

I had just gotten home from a nice long walk along the hills of Peck Street and up to the Korean Bell. I wonder what it would have felt like up there, where the wind today was so stiff the gulls were flying backwards!

For some reason, I feel happy. Little quakes keep you in the present moment, that's for sure.

So, hey, I'm staying loose and keeping close to the doorframes. Stay tuned!

Monday, May 11, 2009

A Morning with Gilkey Creek

There's something I've been wanting to write about, something that's nudging at me, a bone in my throat, an agitation in my craw. (What is a craw, anyway? Note to self: Google "craw.")*

I begin with little winding Gilkey Creek, a feeder into the Flint River. It has been part of my life for about 25 years -- since my first husband, Danny, and I moved into our house on Seventh Street. Back then I started walking and jogging along the creek and over its three little foot bridges as part of a route through the neighborhood that has continued to this day.

Here's the thing: sometimes I am in denial about the huge chunk of my life that I've spent in Flint -- I don't know why, exactly, except that as I've said before in many other contexts, I never thought I'd stay this long, and sometimes it simply doesn't feel like "my kind of place" -- or the kind of place I thought I'd end up. Going there in my thinking dangerously leads to "it wasn't supposed to be like this," or, "I could have done better..." And thus to a tunnel of self-doubt if not outright self-recrimination, and nothing good comes of that.

But then, there's this little creek that I've been pausing to look at on its many curves and byways when it's crusted with ice in February and gushing with green life in early May; there are sometimes ducks noodling around under the bridge on Brookside. I've noted the way October leaves dapple the water in red and gold; I've delighted in the little rippling rapids at the footbridge by Kensington. This little creek has meandered its way into my daily life, and I've come to count on it. Maybe it's like an arranged marriage, where after years of just living one day after the other, you suddenly realize you've grown fond of the mate conjoined to you by fate.

There's passive aggression in keeping my feelings at bay about a place I've lived in much longer than the whole of my childhood, much longer than anyplace else I've ever lived, for that matter. It strikes me suddenly that one can take out one's individual resentment and disappointment on the land -- by withholding commitment, by ignoring its needs and travails. By simply refusing or failing to notice.

This dolorous line of reflection from individual circumstance leads me deeper: sometimes individual difficulties, unresolved baggage about ourselves, can become something bigger, taking a toll on Mother Earth. If we're not taking proper care of ourselves and unearthing (ohh...untentional but lucky "unearth" like digging potatoes out of the dirt, a gift, a consequence of our husbandry) thus, unearthing the meaning of our lives, perhaps we also stop paying attention to the natural world that sustains us.

So this is partly an argument for taking care of ourselves -- not just at the superficial "yes, I exercised today," but at the spiritual level -- "yes, I am finding a path to forgiveness, moving on from the griefs and disappointments of the past."

I woke up Saturday, in short, and decided to get up and go to Gilkey Creek, where good-hearted folks not as ambivalent or reclusive as me had organized a Flint River cleanup, including my little tributary. This new, uncharacteristic decisiveness, not without resistance or misanthropy, overall felt refreshing. I thoroughly enjoyed the morning, getting muddy on the banks while tugging out drenched plastic bags ("Toys 'r Us" being the predominant logo in my assigned stretch of creek), shards of styrofoam, candy wrappers -- the usual detritus of thoughtless humanity.

Hmm...that casual little reference just jarred me into insight -- "my little tributary" -- it IS my little creek, as it is all of ours. As I was arguing myself out of bed, dreading having to interact with "people" in my current not-quite-completed rehabilitative state, I thought "you don't have to make nice with the people. But you could care about the creek." That little creek in all its imperfections has given me many moments of pleasure. It's part of the land that was here before us and now, as always, is deserving of our love.

*Craw: a pouch in many birds and some lower animals that resembles a stomach for storage and preliminary maceration of food (

Friday, May 08, 2009

Art Walking Flint

Walking into St. Paul's Episcopal Church tonight, I felt like Flint was a real town for once. It was the monthly art walk, and like last night, this was a blessed, lovely May evening. At the church's big door, a friendly guy hailed people in, eager to show off the church's Tiffany stained glass window, which is indeed breathtaking. The gentleman gave everybody a little handout, delightful reading, with words that vibrate my childhood memories: narthex, transept, reredos, font...I love that sanctuary sensually without regard to dogma because of its colors and shape and art, including floor tiles in the chancel made by Albert Champion at Flint Faience Tiles in the 1880s -- the same company, artistically spun off using the same materials as spark plugs, that made the tiles in my own bathrooms.

It was my friend, the multi-talented Grayce, who got me to step away from lingering reclusiveness again tonight (two nights in a row...this is big), and I wanted to go because she was showing her porcelain fish in St. Paul's parlor. ( I like the idea of art in church parlors, too -- better than in my day, when the evangelicals of my childhood objected to decoration in a sanctuary as if the spectrum itself was somehow ungodly. Who were these people, so frightened of pleasure?? ) Grayce in her red sweater greeted visitors with the verve of a woman 30 years younger -- maybe it's art and poetry that keep her vibrant -- that and her Ohio pedigree.

Out on Saginaw Street there actually were people: a blend of young and old, many children, even music in front of Flint City T-Shirts, where I bought two shirts, one a muscle shirt that amusingly claims "Flint: The toughest town around since 1855" and another one, old postcard style, that says "Greetings from Flint Michigan!" Art students from Davison High School were showing their work at the T-Shirt shop, and a couple of kids sang and plunked on a keyboard and electric, um, ukelele, I think? It was sweet to see all the kids, hanging out in their bohemian garb, lounging on benches, having a little downtown adventure. Down the block, a couple kissed and nuzzled between venues: he in a beret, she in black hair with bangs. Is this Paris, for gawd's sake? Before I knew it I caught myself stopping to stare and smile, wanting to congratulate them, and then I realized I knew them. So glad to know the cosmo couple kissing on the street.

As I say, just like a real town. It felt good.