Monday, July 30, 2007

FRiGG #17--Stoked To Be In This Company

Friends, I found a home for my short story "War" in the fabulous online litmag, FRiGG, and I couldn't be more delighted.

The black and white artwork is rich and interesting. And a couple of the people I met at Tin House have stories there too!

You won't look at I Love Lucy the same after reading Alicia Gifford's "Desilu, Three Cameras." Adultery, impotence, venereal disease, death, and overeating! Interesting three camera technique on the story, too.

And Stefani Nellen gives us a triplet of short shorts, each told in brief scenes. My favorite of the three is "Metaphors; or: A Headless Rat," in which a couple finds meaning for their pairing through imagery, crafting their own story with a fatal selfconsciousness.

I'm pleased to have met these women, and to be part of this issue with them. And the rest of the issue rocks as well. Kudos to editor Ellen Parker.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Crazy, Jr.

I haven't been a big reader of realist YA fiction since my Judy Blume days, but Ned Vizzini's IT'S KIND OF A FUNNY STORY landed in my path and I decided to give it a test. Not surprisingly, it relies on the usual coming-of-age narrative conventions--character learns lessons, individuates from his family, resists dangerous friends, has a crush on someone worthy and musters the courage get the jist--but this reader loves those narrative conventions, so I happily went along for the ride.

Did I mention it takes place in a mental ward? Oh yeah, that. The fifteen-year-old hero, Craig, suffers from depression and anxiety, triggered by his hard-won admittance to NYC's famous "Executive Pre-Professional High School." (Could this be the same as "Competitive High" in the kickass memoir, GIRLBOMB?) Craig is unprepared for the new pool of students, most of whom seem to ace their classes without trying. He struggles with the workload and feelings of inferiority. Zoloft helps, but then Craig stops taking it, loses his ability to eat and sleep, has a bad night of suicidal ideation, and checks himself into the psychiatric unit of the hospital down the block.

Here is where the story starts to enter fresh territory, for this reader. Far from the torture chamber psych wards we so often see in film and fiction, Vizzini's hospital is a place of compassionate routine. He captures well the patients' simultaneous need to stay and urge to leave--the locked doors cage them in, but also provide comfort, keeping the sources of anxiety outside. Craig compares the ambiance to preschool, a quality he both needs and resents. And after a week (Craig's is a mild case, compared to the other patients), he has found a few coping tools he can take home with him.

As a cultural document, Vizzini's novel functions on two major levels. On one, it demystifies the interior of a psych facility, with authentic detail and gentle humor, which makes it a not-scary place for kids to seek needed help. But the other, bigger undercurrent is an indictment of the pressure put on kids to be "gifted," to succeed early, even in families where the parents exert no pressure at all. The pressure comes from somewhere, but where? Can we shelter our children from it? Should we? How do we teach kids to be gentle with themselves but also survive, in a world that demands perfection?

The story is told in a first-person teenaged vernacular that might initially be off-putting to some adult readers ("'Don't bug Craig,' Ronny is like."), but I found it akin to reading anything in dialect (Mark Twain, Irvine Welsh)--once I started to hear it, it grew on me and enhanced the story, making moments like this sing with a kind of disarming wisdom:

...Even at my most functional, I wasn't someone you'd pay a lot of attention to; you wouldn't see me in the halls and go "There he goes, Craig Gilner--I wonder what he's up to." You'd see me and go, "What does that poster say behind that guy--is the anime club meeting today?"

And too, there are moments of sophisticated lyricism, like this first meal in the ward, which made me really start rooting for Craig:

...I eat because that's what people do. And somehow when the food is put in front of you by an institution, when there's a large gray force behind it and you don't have to thank anyone for it, you have the animal instinct to make it disappear, before a rival...comes along and snatches it away. I think, I think as I chew, my problem might be too much thinking.

I'm so jealous of that "thinking" sentence I can't stand it. I'll stop here. I won't talk about the author's age (you can Google this youngster yourself), or how much I envy his diligence and focus. I won't bitch about his early success being an ironic, implicit endorsement of the pressure-cooker in which his narrator suffers. Forget the story-behind-the-story. It's a worthy read, regardless of its author's age, not because of it. And, despite references to pot smoking and teen sex, it's safe to give to your kids.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Fifty Views of the Pacific Northwest, Tin House Workshops, Family, Gardens, Walks, and Critters

I found my missing moleskine, deep in my suitcase with dirty clothes. Yay! and Whew!

I've been keeping a daily journal for a year, using a method I learned in Lynda Barry's Writing the Unthinkable class: every morning, I list ten images from the day before. The theory is that writing about my state of mind is unnecessary--the images will evoke the state of mind. So instead of giving you photographic images of my trip to the Pacific Northwest, I'm gonna do an experiment and share the way I really remember stuff. (And I promise my Sasquatch pics in a later post.)

So here are some highlights from July 4-15, not necessarily verbatim from the journal...I'll omit some names for privacy's sake.

1. Cul de sac with Mount Si looming in the background. Neighbors set off fireworks. Many of them wear matching red white and blue tie dies. Loud rocket shoots up, then bursts into falling parachutes. Kids scramble below to catch the parachutes. Most land on the roof of the family who is out of town. Toddlers cover their ears.

2. Dad shares some of the jokes he uses to warm up the singalong before the Sunday church service. "Why didn't Noah go fishing from the ark? He only had two worms." Bible Study, Dad calls it.

3. My stepmom's gorgeous raspberries. I help her pick them, trying for the higher branches. She makes a salad with raspberries, mango, homegrown spinach, and chicken, arranged in a thoughtful composition on the plate.

4. Walk with Dad to a sphagnum bog. I hear a birdsong I remember from childhood. (Wood Thrush, I later learn. Listen!) A picture is posted to teach visitors about mummies in bogs. Dad talks about sitting in cafes, researching and writing a sermon. I think we are alike in this habit, needing the pen, and books, and solitude.

5. Chipping away at Francine Prose's Reading Like a Writer. I find it hard to change gears and go from one example to the next. Her insights are worth the effort. Makes me want to reread Carver, and find the essays of Woolf.

6. A morning hill walk. Two young does watch me from a nearby berm. I get close enough to see how skinny and hungry they are. Worms venture across the sidewalk under my feet; some don't make it, dehydrate under the July sun.

7. Over dinner, my stepmom tells me about relatives who did subsistence farming during the depression. A kitchen garden, and enough livestock to keep them in eggs and milk. The next day, I watch her water her healthy garden. Weeding is not a big chore for her. She does it automatically, as she passes by, almost a way of greeting her vegetables and flowers. They seem to love her back.

8. Road trip from Snoqualmie to Oregon, just me and Dad. We stop in a country cafe in Centralia for lunch. So many obese people around us, I'm a little afraid to eat the food. I buy a rubber chicken to bring home to the dog.

9. Visit to my mother's sister. She tells us that for good luck, on the first of the month, her first words on waking are "Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit," before she gets out of bed over the footboard. I resolve to do this from now on.

10. My aunt takes us to walk a labyrinth of a friend of hers. It's a Chartres design, paved in rough stones, and she and I walk it barefoot. The surprise of turns, it always surprises me, the trip to the center and back is not what it looks like. Soft, Corsican mint in the center, a pillow under our feet. We talk about my mom, how she would have loved this.

11. A Welsh Corgi plays the piano for cookies.

12. I attend my first Unitarian Universalist service. After the sermon, there is a period for commentary and/or rebuttal from the room. One man quotes a philosopher: "I have not told the truth until I have contradicted myself."

13. Dad drops me off at Reed College for the Tin House conference. We bring my bags up to my dorm room, and laugh about how it's like dropping me off for college. We never did this then, so it's a 20-years-delayed experience. My room is a third floor garret with three beds to choose from. He prepares his opera scores to study on his drive home. I wave as he drives away, I feel a pang of goodbye.

14. First class session with Steve Almond. He tries to guess who wrote which story. He nails the first four or so, freaking us out a little.

15. Reading by TC Boyle, with the on-campus lake as a backdrop. Several people have dogs in the amphitheater. One, a Willie lookalike, rests his chin on the seat in front of him to listen. Another, a border collie, barks during the applause. Boyle dons a beret and reads a story about a Beats groupie.

16. Breakfast discussion of the stone critters on top of our dorm. Are they owls? Beavers? That night, a mammal glide-swims in the lake behind Karen Shepard as she reads from her new novel. Afterward, I ask the sound guys if it's a beaver. No, they say, it's a nutria. It must be a nutria on top of the dorm! I can't wait to tell hubby. Nutria! I manage to catch a live one up close, he's swimming in the twilight.

17. People are blushing, disagreeing in workshop. Emotions are high but it feels productive. Almond pushes to the emotional core of the story. People seem to be trying to help without babying the writer. "It's so vivid!" Almond says, but asserts that vivid is not enough. He wants the characters to enter an emotional danger zone. My ears are wide open.

18. Several other conferences are concurrent at Reed. I eat lunch with a skinny young man from another group who has loaded his tray with sandwich, salad, soup, dessert. He gets ranch dressing all over his mouth. I'm fascinated with how he eats, can't concentrate on the homework I am trying to read.

19. I take early morning walks to a cafe in Woodstock, where they have easy chairs. I drink my latte and write in my journal. Nearby, two hipsters collaborate on a crossword. "What kind of cheese is in lasagna?" "Woody or Arlo?" I resist the urge to call out suggestions.

20. I sit in lecture next to a very talented 21-year old. She is holding her own, with people twice her age. We talk about how she researched the setting for her story. I am amazed she did it through books and movies. "I'm so shy," she worries, but I'm not worried for her. "I think we all are," I say, feeling the need for Paxil myself. A room full of writers? It will take a few days to get comfortable.

21. I flirt with some sassy crows on my morning walk. Toss them pieces of apricot. They yell at me as they fly out of my way.

22. Salad bar is exactly the same every day. Carrot and celery sticks, iceberg and spinach, cauliflower, cuke, cherry tomato, cottage cheese, hard boiled egg. Sticking to the diet, but it's monotonous.

23. Steve Almond gives us chocolate in morning workshop. I partake. I have to. He's an expert.

24. I sit in the balcony of the air-conditioned lecture hall for Aimee Bender's talk on show and tell. She leads off with a Lynda Barry cartoon. I feel high, up here, like one of my new crow friends.

25. A classmate is lost in thought at breakfast, spoon resting on her mouth, the morning before she is "up" in workshop. Later, before class, I take a walk with her around the lake and we talk about how she turned her own experiences into her short story.

26. Random guy from another class joins our lunch group and tells us about his sex life. I learn the definition of the Pittsburgh Platter. I feel a little sorry for Pittsburgh.

27. More hard boiled eggs. I'm living on them, now, dipped in Dijon mustard.

28. Lecture. Jim Shepard picks through Raymond Carver's short, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love," line by line, looking for subtext. It's a precise, planned vivisection. He paces at the front of the hall, doesn't need the mic at all. He wears a blue bowling shirt. I annotate madly.

29. Steve Almond's tee shirt collection impresses us. "Chocolate Boy." "Fictional Character." A picture of the pope smoking pot. He reads, in the amphitheater, a collection of responses to right-wing hate mail. He's at home on the mic. "Condoleeka!"

30. At the participant readings, classmate shares a piece about a gay man having sex with a woman as an experiment, and the surprise of the woman's fragility, the "vestibules" of her body. I can't stop quoting it.

31. I dream a woman is pulling off the roof of our house, without our permission. We are roofless. We put up a blue tarp, like folks in New Orleans, hope it will be sufficient.

32. In the lecture hall, the border collie falls asleep on my feet. She's a service dog, and she enjoys some popularity at the conference. When she "applauds" with us, I realize she has been jolted awake by the clapping, is barking in confusion.

33. Stephen Elliott lectures on using your life as subject matter. He points out that once Jonathan Lethem allowed himself to "cheat" by using concrete memories from his own life, he was able to produce what many view as his masterpiece. Giving oneself permission is the hardest part. Elliott recommends if you write about people in your life, you should make them beautiful. Then you can say anything about them and they will not object.

34. I go into a clog store on Milwaukee and try on $135 mary janes. I love them but not $135 worth. The salesgirl has a shaved head and snake earrings. "You have beautiful stuff," I say as I leave. Then I realize she must have thought I was flirting.

35. Antique store. Bought old Childcraft encylopedias, a blast from my past, for research. Worried about the book-heavy suitcase. Bought some stranger-family photos too. One pic, a rough bunch on a camping trip, dated 1916, with axes, rifles, huckleberry buckets, and a dog. They could be my ancestors. (I will scan and post. This one's a keeper.)

36. Annie Proulx reads a story about the Devil. Later, the sky turns red, and there is lightning. I find shelter with three women and we watch the storm, talk about our writing practice and how we find feedback, systems for making writing groups work, book clubs for writers. I don't crave Paxil any more.

37. Take Friday lunch off campus, at an organic place up the hill. They have dinosaurs on the tables. A baby with a fauxhawk. Then I poke around an Episcopal Thrift Store, my touchstone. Retired ladies, tea sets, tee shirts.

38. I keep walking by an apparent anarchist house in Portland. Dandelions and spent fireworks in the front yard. Tall frankensteined bikes in the back. Very Burning Mannish.

39. Push tables together to eat dinner with my online friends from the Zoe community. We give gifts to one of us who has just gotten married. We pass around coveted advance copies of Charles Baxter's new essay book, The Art of Subtext.

40. Colson Whitehead reads from his new novel, set in 1985, kids in a beach community left to themselves for the summer. He dissects their insults, using a visual aid, building phrases like "fake-Adidas-wearin' motherfucker." He does a full rundown of frozen convenience foods of the era, including Weight Watchers and Stouffers french bread pizza.

41. I'm not "up" in my workshop until the last day, Saturday. I've fainted at these things before so I work on prevention. Some of Steve's chocolate, some water, some quick aerobic exercise in the hall. The discussion is helpful. Almond suggests I take away the "scaffolding" on the story. It hits a nerve, in a good way. I don't faint. I'm grateful.

42. Long talk with a classmate about her novel, about a woman who can communicate with animals. I want to read it.

43. Charles D'Ambrosio's lecture on conflict. He lists signs of conflict-avoidance to look for, like the character who "watches" or "wishes" he/she said something. Suggests when you're painting in a limited palette, sometimes it's good to take a wide, bold brush. It's what I need to hear and I nearly cry as I scramble to write it all down. Later, people talk about the talk's nonlinear chaos, but it felt very linear to me. Maybe this is how I think.

44. The last reading: Abigail Thomas (who I can't wait to read), DA Powell, Charles Baxter. Baxter says "Don't you love the dog?" and competes very well with many distractions--the nutria moving a log behind him in the lake, the pink sunset. He reads from a new novel, in which the protag's young child calls himself "queer."

45. The last night's dance. I take a leap and put on makeup for the first time all week. Hard to do, since we don't have mirrors in the room. I boogie with a new female friend and we admire the dance stylings of Stephen Elliott in his bright orange sleeveless shirt and heart tattoo. He knows how to work it. Several classmates have just been introduced to his work, and are staying up nights reading his new book.

46. Last breakfast, and I get a chance to tickle Josie Almond's fat toes. "Am I invading your personal space?" I ask. "She has no boundaries," her dad says. He plops her on his shoulders and she grabs hold of his hair, then pushes his head aside so she can grin at all the adults at the table.

47. My cousin picks me up, and takes me for a hike, a lake east of Vancouver. Red poison oak in sunny patches. We hear that birdsong again, and she does a good imitation of it. I haven't seen her in years, and she looks just the same. She takes me to her house, and plays piano for me. I swoon over a Mendelssohn piece. She plays with a gentle touch, and lots of feeling for the melody.

48. My cousin gives me a tour of her garden. Perennial flowers, mostly--lilies, monarda, echinacea--and lots of bees. I take pictures. Her cat follows us, but "it has to be the cat's idea." We share notes on cats. A rabbit visits and snacks on the flowers. I tell her about our aunt's "Rabbit, rabbit, rabbit" ritual. "We do that too!" she says. Later, her son calls, and she and her husband both run to the phone, eager to hear about his experiences at ski camp.

49. Benadryl. I'm falling asleep before I even get on the redeye flight at PDX. Snooze the whole way to JFK, am surprised at how early the sunlight hits my face.

50. Big barks from Willie, hugs from the guy I've been missing, a shower, and back to the office. Feels weird to be wearing a suit again. 400 emails. I dig in.

Thursday, July 19, 2007

I Been Tagged

Well, folks, I got back from Bigfoot country in one piece. I'll post my impressions soon, when and if I find my little diary. (Wah! Is it lost in Portland? Months of daily journaling, left in some seat cushions?)

Meanwhile, I met Linera Lucas at the Tin House Workshops, and she just tagged me! Okay, why not, I'll play.

1. We have to post these rules before we give you the facts.
2. Players start with eight random facts/habits about themselves.
3. People who are tagged need to write their own blog about their eight things and post these rules.
4. At the end of your blog, you need to choose eight people to get tagged and list their names.
5. Don’t forget to leave them a comment telling them they’re tagged, and to read your blog.

8 Random Facts About Me:
1. I share a birthday with the adorable and talented Thom Yorke. I wish that meant more than it does.
2. I have been known to fall asleep in my dinner. My loved ones know to pull the plate away.
3. I once had a phobia of shrunken balloons. Now I can look at them but not touch them.
4. I fell for my husband the first time I ever saw him. He had dimples. He was wearing a red union suit under his blue jeans, and he used a red handkerchief.
5. I don't mind flying but getting TO the airport on time really freaks me out.
6. I don't suck at miniature golf. I suck at all other sports.
7. I am totally faking it at my job. I have a feeling I am not alone.
8. I collect Hello Kitty paraphernalia.

And I'll tag the following not-eight bloggers, but TOTALLY WON'T BE OFFENDED if they don't participate, because I'm here to have fun, not to harrass:
Rob Lenihan (The Luna Park Gazette)
Christopher Lee (Dada to Prada)
Cheryl Burke (The B List)
Virginia Vitzthum (I Love You, Let's Meet)
Carol Novack (I am not who I think I am or is it whom?)
Todd Colby (Glee Farm)
Chartreuse Velour (Lengths of Comfy Verdure)

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

One More Thing: Go Reverend Billy!

One more thing before I go away. I am moved to tears when I hear the first amendment aloud, as preached by Reverend Billy. It is poetry.

So some cops don't like hearing it in Union Square. So Scooter doesn't go to jail, and Billy is kept overnight. It's clear to me where the people stand. Behind Billy.

My favorite part of this clip: the recitation of the amendment doesn't end when Billy goes into the NYPD van.

The night in jail may have been hell, but I was glad to see him on the front page of my Metro paper on the subway this morning, putting the odd back in God.

Off to Look for Bigfoot

This blog will probably go dormant over the next couple of weeks while I'm away. I'll be visiting my Washington and Oregon family, attending Tin House Workshops, keeping an eye out for the Sasquatch, and missing my Brooklyn family, pet hair and all. The separation anxiety is already kicking in.

The good news is I'll bring a camera, so if I happen to see Bigfoot or any other wildlife, I'll do my best. I'll take good notes at Tin House and report back if anything is reportable, but probably upon my return.