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.