Tuesday, November 30, 2004

Yesterday, my novel came to life. Not on the page. In the world. In a small way. I recently finished a new revision of my novel, Self Storage. In part of it, a girl is taken to Riverside Community Hospital. Yesterday, we were at that same hospital for my husband's surgery. The girl in the novel's name is Nori; my husband's surgical nurse was named Nori. Also, the word YES, in capital letters, plays a large role in the novel. The nurse wrote YES in capital letters on his leg and on his foot so the surgeon would know which leg to operate on. Small coincidences, maybe, but they feel significant to me. Every time I look at my husband's leg now, the word YES stares back at me and makes me feel weird and happy, connected to him, connected to my story. It is always amazing for me to see my writing play itself out in the world.

A few years ago, I was writing a story that featured a green-haired character named Lime Boy. There was a knock on the door, and when I opened it, my character—a green-haired teenage guy I had never seen before in my life—was standing there, looking expectant. I was more than a little freaked out. Had I conjured this person into being? Were my other characters going to show up on my front porch unannounced? When Lime Boy's doppelganger told me he was there to pick up my son's friend, my heart finally started to calm down. I found I was slightly disappointed. It would have been amazing to meet my characters in person, to see them in all their three dimensional glory, to hear their voices outside my own head.

One of my favorite books when I was a little girl was a picture book called JUST ONLY JOHN, by Jack Kent. In the book, a four year old boy named John is tired of being himself. After pretending to be various animals, he decides he wants to change himself for real. He goes to Mrs. Walpurgis' shop (she does witchcraft and hemstitching,) and buys a peppermint flavored penny magic spell. She doesn't tell him what kind of magic spell it is, and for a while, John doesn't believe it works at all. Then his mother starts calling him pet names, "Bunny," "My little lamb," and when she does, he turns into whatever animal she has called him. Eventually, he tires of this constant transformation and repeats to himself over and over, "I'm just only John." He soon comes to appreciate just how much he enjoys being himself. I remember how much this book affected me when I was a kid--not only did it remind me to be myself; it also gave me a glimpse into how powerful words can be, how, even without the help of a peppermint flavored penny magic spell, a word has the potential to profoundly change a person, down to their very molecular structure.

I don't believe writers are godlike; I don't believe I have the power to conjure characters into flesh and blood being, to make my stories truly body their way forth in the world. But I know language has power, and I am continually humbled and awed by it. And I love those little moments of coincidence, of synchronicity, when the Word appears to have become flesh.

Monday, November 29, 2004

My husband broke his leg skateboarding last Wednesday. He had surgery today to repair his fibula (which, according to the orthopedic surgeon, was kind of like Humpty Dumpty. Fortunately, unlike all the kings' horses and all the kings' men, the surgeon was able, with the help of some metal plates and screws, to put it back together again.) Matt is dozing now, sleeping off the Demerol, and keeping his foot above heart level to reduce the swelling. His toes are still yellow from the Betadyne.

Demerol does interesting things to a person's head. Today, Matt hallucinated, among other things: unicycling clowns, hopping carnies, men with pompadours in the ceiling, and a Japanese woman leaving the imprint of her body on a red bean bag chair. I found myself sitting beside him in the recovery room holding his hand and waiting for more wild images to come out of his mouth. My sweet guy. Any thoughts for a speedy recovery would be well appreciated.

Our Thanksgiving was not what we had planned, but we have SO much to be thankful for.

Friday, November 19, 2004

Tremors, the story my friend Sefi Atta and I wrote together, is now online. Our bylines aren't listed on this page, for some reason, but we are credited in the print edition. It was so much fun to collaborate on this story--I wrote sections 1 and 3; she wrote sections 2 and 4. Sefi's new novel, Everything Good Will Come, is a must read, by the way. It's an amazing exploration of life in Nigeria (and is a beautiful example of the difference one voice can make in the world.)

I also have a poem, "Horseradish", in the fun new book, Mischief, Caprice and Other Poetic Strategies. Terry Wolverton, the editor, sent a "recipe"--"Twenty Little Poetry Projects" by Jim Simmerman--for contributors to follow. We were given instructions like "Say something specific but utterly preposterous" and "Contradict something you said earlier in the poem". It is so cool to see what other poets came up with, using the same template. Red Hen Press puts out such gorgeous books (including new ones by my friends Richard Beban and Sholeh Wolpe!)

Thursday, November 18, 2004

This Sunday, November 21st, I am going to host a Fruitflesh Feast at the Farm restaurant in Redlands. Chef Roberto Argentina will create a lavish five course meal--each course will focus on one of the senses (I am going to talk to him about the menu soon--I can't wait to find out more about it!) I will offer writing exercises and meditations with each course. Together we'll open our senses and our creative potential. The cost for the evening--which includes a copy of Fruitflesh--is $85. Proceeds go to the wonderful Shakespeare for Children program. Reservations are necessary--if you'd like to attend, please call the Frugal Frigate Bookstore soon at 909.793.0740.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

I love this quote that appeared at the bottom of A Word A Day a couple of days ago:

My aim is to agitate and disturb people. I'm not selling bread, I'm selling
yeast. -Miguel de Unamuno, writer and philosopher (1864-1936)

I also love this quote from an interview with Sarah Shun-Lien Bynum (author of Madeleine is Sleeping) over at the Galley Cat blog. It feeds my obsession with the connection between writing and the body:

SSB: For me, at least, [my tendency towards the "the grotesque"] sprang out of a fascination with the body. I think the body, when one dwells upon it long enough, leaves you sort of inevitably down that path. And, I guess, in some way I thought the corporeal and the bodily were necessary to temper attempts at lyricism. It wasn't calculated, but I wanted to play with language, and whatever subjects allowed me to -- Well, also, I'm the daughter of a gastroenterologist. Joseph Pujol [a historical character appearing in Madeleine, known for having turned his body into a "wind instrument"] was somebody I discovered through him ... So I guess that's another reason why bodily functions entered the work.

GC: There's been a good deal of scholarly work, too, on how the grotesque has been used to discuss, and interrogate, the idea of gender, especially female gender. Deformity can allow female bodies to transcend convention, or the grotesque can relay convention as a kind of violence to the body.

SSB: Just by intuition, I'd agree that it's a way to talk about gender. I took a great class with Nancy Armstrong at Brown on "the Gothic" and we talked about Carrie, discussing the idea of the body saying what's unspekable. What's been repressed always ends up being expressed, somehow, through the body. We looked at the scene in Carrie when she starts bleeding -- and there's that impulse in all the girls to say [laughing], "Plug it up, plug it up!" So, the idea of the unruly, speaking body always made a lot of sense to me. Also, using that allows you to say things about gender that, put more directly, might come across as didactic or simplified. ... And [the grotesque] allows you to use more luxerient language without it immediately becoming purple prose.

I have to read this book.
When I was in college, my Orthodox cousins offered to pay for me to go to Israel for my study abroad. I appreciated the offer but declined, announcing (very dramatically) "My heart is in India!" It was true, in a way. I've been fascinated by India for many years. In high school, my friend Laura and I went on a quest to eat at every Indian restaurant in the Chicago area. We didn't come close, but we had a lot of fun trying. I swathed my dorm room (and my closet) with Indian print fabrics. I still have a fondness for those paisley hippie clothes.

Given this India fetish, I guess it's not surprising that I had an amazing time as an extra in the Bollywood film over the weekend. Sunday night, I was invited to take part in a party scene at a mansion (my kids and three of our friends came, too.) We were on set from 5:30pm to 1am. Most of the women were dressed in exquisite saris--lime green saris, hot pink saris, dove gray saris, saris of all colors, dripping with beads and spangles. The party was supposed to be a traditional Dewali celebration. Dewali, we learned, is the festival of lights; the yard sparkled with Christmas lights and small oil lamps that kept blowing out in the wind (the poor production assistants had to keep relighting them, just to have them blow out a few seconds later.)

The best part of the evening--aside from the delicious catered Indian dinner (which the crew called "lunch", even though it was served around midnight)--was the dancing. The Punjabi dancers had amazing energy, and we were invited to dance in the background as we watched them bound around! It felt so good to dance; I wanted to jump into the choreography (I probably could have done it--we watched them dance so many times, I think I learned most of the steps.) I studied East Indian dance when I was in college--a woman taught it in her garage, which she had converted into a studio. All the other students were 10 year old Indian girls. The teacher told them I was 14, I guess so they would feel closer to me. They always looked confused when I got into my car and drove myself away after class!

Anyway, I'm so grateful I stumbled upon the filming. I never in a million years would have imagined that I would end up in a Bollywood musical, especially in Riverside. The cast and crew were all so sweet and accomodating. My daughter told me Sunday was the best day of her life!

I never did make it to India in college (although I did make it to Indonesia.) Maybe some day...

Friday, November 12, 2004

I've had a very filmy 24 hours!

Last night, I received an email inquiring about film rights to The Book of Dead Birds. Nothing may come of this, but I found myself bouncing around the house like a rubber person after I read the message. It would be so cool to see my story come to life on the screen.

This morning, when I drove the kids to school, I noticed that a bunch of film crew trucks were parked at Fairmount Park down the street from our house. I had film on the brain, so I wandered over to the park a couple of hours later to see what was going on. It turned out that a Bollywood movie was being filmed there! Bollywood in our own backyard! I love Bollywood musicals--the lavishness, the melodrama, the wonderful corny-ness, of them. Unfortunately the cast wasn't filming a musical number, but I had the chance to meet the star, Anupam Kher, who played the father in Bend it Like Beckham. He is very kind. I also talked to the producer at length. He gave me some great advice about film options, and even talked about the possibility of acquiring my book (I gave him a copy, of course. I gave one to Anupam, too.) It was great fun--all the crew members were so welcoming. Later, they invited me and my daughter to be on camera as extras; we sat under a tree, reading my book (product placement!) while the principal cast ate a picnic on camera and other extras chased a soccer ball around. The crew asked my daughter to come back to the set tomorrow--they have something specific in mind for her. I'm eager to see how it all unfolds...

Needless to say, I never expected to spend my day this way. I'm very glad I followed my impulse to check things out; I love these sorts of surprises.

Another delightful surprise today--I found out that one of my short stories has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize! The same story is going to be read on air next Monday at an NPR station in NY.

Who knows what other surprises are on the horizon...

Thursday, November 11, 2004

(In honor of Veteran's Day and my dad's retirement, here's the essay I just mentioned)

Forward, HARM!

When I was little, my dad used to ask me "How's your gafangen nummer doing?"

I would giggle and say "fine," sure he had made up another crazy word. I pictured the gafangen nummer as a vestigial organ, like the appendix, something small and green hidden in the body.

I found out years later that gafangen nummer means "prisoner number" in German. My dad liked the silly sound of it, but it had a serious connection to his life--he had guarded German prisoners during World War II. Per the Geneva Convention, he could only ask for their name (namen), rank (rank), and gafanger nummer, which I suppose was interchangeable with serial number. Now he witnesses the abuse suffered by Iraqi POWs, and shudders. "We treated those prisoners with dignity," he tells me. "This is deplorable."

By the time I was born, my dad was 48 years old, and his military career was well behind him. The only vestige that I saw as a girl was when he showed me his old rifle drills, using me as the rifle. He tossed me over his shoulder, spun me around like a baton, shouted out (as I heard it) "AttenTION! Forward, HARM!" I loved it. It didn't seem related to war (except for that last misheard word. He was really saying "ARMS".)

My dad, fortunately, didn't have to inflict harm on anyone during his tenure in the Army. His first assignment, after only six weeks of basic training, was to pick up German officers at the Port of Boston and accompany them on a train to Colorado. He watched their faces shift from anger to confusion to wonder as the train made its way across the country. These officers had been told that Germany had bombed the United States to smithereens. They were expecting to see a country in ruins. My father was proud to show them the beauty of the American landscape.

It wasn't long before he was sent to Texas to guard German prisoners.

"We were raw recruits," he says. "We thought of them as the enemy. But when you see them, you see they're just people, just like us."

The prisoners slept in the same types of barracks as the American soldiers. They received PX privileges; they had the same rations. "They had better cooks than we did, though," he laughs. "When they were on work detail and we broke for lunch, their picnics looked better than ours."

Local farmers took advantage of this work detail opportunity and hired prisoners for $1.50 a day--the prisoner received 80 cents of this in canteen coupons; the rest went toward paying for the POW program. My father spent his days in the fields, riding a horse between corn stalks, supervising the prisoners as they harvested one ear after another.

Many of the Germans chose to stay in Texas after the war was over. "There was no mistreatment," my dad says, "and they grew to appreciate what America had to offer."

The opposite, of course, has been happening in Iraq. When I ask my dad how he feels about the situation in Abu Ghraib, his mood turns dark. "The thing that gets to me," he says, "is that our President says that these soldiers don't represent America, but by allowing these brutish things to happen, they are redefining what America means."

I think about my dad swinging me around his shoulders, my body a rifle, his voice ringing (as I heard it) "Forward, HARM!" This seems to be the order our troops in the Abu Ghraib prison had been given. Harm upon harm upon harm.

"When we do this," my dad says, "we become terrorists ourselves. And then we're nothing. Then America is nothing."

My dad's time in Texas sounds almost idyllic as he speaks about it, almost like summer camp, but he is quick to point out that it was wartime, not something to be idealized. "I don't understand why veterans glorify their war experience," he says. "War is not glory. War is the most stupid thing humans have invented."

"Especially this war," I say.

"Especially this war, my honey," he agrees. When the light hits him just right, I can see a ring of blue around the brown iris of his left eye, a halo left by his glaucoma medicine. It makes his pupil look huge. It makes him look like a sage. "If anything should be idealized, it's the Geneva Convention, but that is clearly not being followed."

We look at each other for a while. Even hearing all of his stories, it's hard for me to believe my peaceful dad had really been in the military, hard to believe the rakish portrait of him in his uniform isn't a glossy from a black and white movie. The air between us is thick—thick with anger towards our administration, thick with love for each other. It's hard to know what to say. Then my dad leans toward me, his face intense.

"So," he says, eyebrows raised. "How's your gafangen nummer doing, anyway?"

My dad's retirement is big news! (Newsflash! He's even considered legendary! Scroll down toward the bottom of the page...)

Chicago's loss is California's gain! Hooray!

The article states that my dad had been a boxer. It doesn't mention that his brief shining moment as a boxer came when he was a kid. His boxing name was "Jaw Breaker Bransky" (this was before he changed his last name to Brandeis.) He was only involved in one backyard match, but it was legendary: he knocked out "Seven Round Lieber" in the eighth round.

The article also doesn't mention how my dad's experience in WWII affects his perspective on the current war in Iraq. I've written an essay about this. Maybe I'll post it here soon.

Monday, November 08, 2004

Maybe dragon fruit would taste better dipped in chocolate. Can you imagine happening upon a chocolate covered road like the one in this link? Would you put your tongue to the asphalt? Would you swipe a finger through the dark sweet goo and lick it off?

I am always delighted to see stories like this one about strange highway spills. Random artful chaos (as long as it doesn't hurt anyone) is one of my favorite things. I wrote a story, "Flotsam", that is coming out soon in Drunken Boat (I'll post the direct link when it's live). In the story, a woman drives around, looking for truck spills to photograph. Her path crosses with a man who maps out ocean flotsam, things that have spilled in the sea.

My mother-in-law works for the City of Chino. One day, a call came in about a truck spill. It turned out the truck had been full of sex toys. "The street was positively quivering with dildos!" Patricia told us. That sentence still cracks me up whenever I think about it.
If you've read my book Fruitflesh, you know I have had a habit of picking up "mystery fruits" at the grocery store. I thought I had exhausted all of the mysteriousness of the produce section, but today, at Trader Joe's, I found dried dragon fruit. Whole, the fruit looks like a pink-tinged artichoke, but dried slices of it look like pucks of congealed bird poop. Not the grayish-whitish kind; the purplish kind, dotted with seeds. This may not sound very appetizing, but the color is amazing--a deep rich magenta, like beets. The seeds are small and black, tear shaped, about the size of sesame seeds.

I wish I could say the fruit is transcendent, hauntingly sweet, but it is as chewy and gamy as shoe leather (not that I've eaten shoe leather. I've only seen Charlie Chaplin eat it. Then again, I heard those shoes were made of fruit leather, so maybe they did taste like dragon fruit.) It is probably the least tasty thing I have eaten in years.

I haven't given up on dragon fruit, though. I'm sure that when it's fresh, it's incredible. For now, it's still a mystery fruit to me.

Friday, November 05, 2004

I had a blogging dream last night. In my dream, I had found a way to activate the Comments feature of the blog (I still can't seem to make it work in real life), and I had a ton of comments, in large red font, from pro-Bush folks upset by my last message. In my dream, I almost considered shutting down the blog, but then I realized that would just give them more power. We need to find a way to create dialogue, to not just shout at each other, to not intimidate each other into silence. It seems like an almost impossible bridge to gap. But we're all human beings, and I hope we can find some common empathetic ground. Right now it all feels more pathetic than empathetic. Bush made lip service to reaching across the aisle, but I know he's just going to build bigger walls.

Rather than build my own walls, I want to be sure to shore up my roots, to know I'm grounded, connected to this planet we all share. This morning, I sent donations to the ACLU, NARAL, and the NRDC to help them continue to protect our most basic and precious rights and resources.

I've probably mentioned this before, but when I was 18, my essay on the liberty of the imagination was one of three "meaning of liberty" student essays included in the Centennial time capsule of the Statue of Liberty. During the celebration, I was named a "Steward of Liberty for the next 100 years" by the Secretary of the Interior. At the time, this seemed like just a token dubbing, but I have been taking the title more seriously since Bush has been in office. I want to do what I can to protect our freedom of expression, our freedom of imagination, our freedom, period. I will be ever vigilant to look for ways to make sure we as artists and as citizens can continue to express ourselves fully and freely. Liberally.

The word "liberal" means, among other things, "ample, full". It means "open-minded". It means "bountiful." (These are all taken from Webster's). How did this word become so dirty in the minds of so many? It is a beautiful word. A generous word. We need to reclaim it as a source of pride, a badge of our own ample hearts.

The word "conservative" feels so stingy, so small, to me, but I know that many people see beauty and take pride in those four syllables. It feels like a language I don't understand. But I hope language is where we can finally come together and learn to speak, openly and rationally and passionately, with one another.

Until I learn how to start the comments feature, please feel free to send me your thoughts--blue or red.

I also dreamed recently that I was commissioned to write a song about how a piece of toast is like a part of the body. I wrote about how toast is like a broad back. I think I'm going to have to write this as a poem in real life. Food is definitely one way for us to find common ground!

Wednesday, November 03, 2004

Well, I am just heart-sick over this election. I am also sinus-sick, and stomach-sick and pretty much all-around sick (I can thank free-floating viruses for that, but I'm sure all the free-floating anxiety over the election helped ease their way in.) I still can't believe it.

I've been meaning to post something about how I am quoted in the latest Poets & Writers Magazine (which, by the way, is one of the most important resources for writers. If you're a writer and you don't subscribe yet, I urge you to do so.) My quote appears in the article "How to Choose a Writing Program." I said "One of the most important things I learned at Antioch is that we should move toward what makes us uncomfortable. That's usually where the real juice is." I was speaking about writing subjects, but I realize this can apply to the election, as well.

This election is making me pretty damned uncomfortable. And I want to juice that for all it's worth. Rather than sink into depression and despair, I want to use these roiling feelings and do something positive with them. It is so important that we continue to make our voices heard. I've been so heartened by the ways in which the progressive movement has mobilized over the last few months. We have to continue; we have to keep moving, keep acting, keep making sure the voice of dissent is loud and clear across our beautiful nation. I have a feeling we'll have a lot to speak out against over these next four years. We have to keep speaking and singing and shouting and writing. Our words have power. Let's use them well.