Friday, September 30, 2005

I'm headed out to Joshua Tree later today to check out Gram Fest. My husband's band Bucksworth is playing tonight at 9; his other band, Old Brown Shoe, plays tomorrow (we're not sure what time yet).

Joshua Tree is such a surreal place--very lunar, very otherworldly. It will be nice to breathe in that sage-y desert air (unless the smoke from all the wildfires has drifted that way), and soak in some great music.

Thursday, September 29, 2005

The fabulous Jodie Evans just sent me this picture (I'm the one on the left, with my jacket falling off)--another great reminder of my time in DC. I don't think my feet have fully reached the ground yet.

I've been thinking today about my last time in DC. I was 18 years old, and had won an essay contest sponsored by the United States Information Agency (there were three American winners and three French winners; the subject of the contest was "The Meaning of Liberty", to celebrate the Statue of Liberty's Centennial. At the celebration, our essays were placed in the time capsule of the statue and we were all named "Stewards of Liberty for the next 100 years." My essay had been about the liberty of the human spirit and imagination; that is the liberty I hope to still steward for the next 81 years!) The winners of the trip were flown to Washington, DC before we headed to NY for the Liberty festivities (with a side trip to Connecticut, where we were the guests of honor at a UN-sponsored Apple Festival.) We were feted all over DC. I have a picture of William Bennet tshaking my hand and handing me some sort of certificate in the Department of Education building. I remember he named me the "Minister of Smiles". If I had known at the time what a conservative hypocrite he was, I wouldn't have been smiling so broadly. Did you hear his comments yesterday about how the crime rate would go down if we aborted all black babies?!!?!! I see the picture of my hand against his and I cringe.

I was so shy as an 18 year old. It was hard for me to ask questions of people, to speak to people at all. We were given an audience with Supreme Court Justice Warren Berger; I remember he smiled at me and said I must have a question for him. I shook my head and stammered no, even though I knew it was an opportunity I was silly to pass up. I found myself staring at the bags under his eyes and wondering what would ooze out if they were sliced open--marshmallow creme, I imagined--instead of allowing my my critical brain to zoom into focus. Later, we had the chance to talk with the Press Secretary under Reagan (I forget his name). I forced myself to ask a question--I said something to the effect of "Do you ever withhold information from the American public?" I was a bit taken aback when he laughed and said "Of course." There was no attempt on his part to sweeten the situation, and this came as a shock to me; I already considered myself a peace activist at that age, but I was still fairly naive, still fairly trusting of those in power. That moment opened my eyes big time.

How cool to return to DC with more awareness, more knowledge, more desire to ask questions, to speak to power. I still struggle with some of that innate shyness, but being surrounded by others asking the same hard questions helps pull me out of my shell, helps make my own voice stronger.
When The Book of Dead Birds came out, I expected a huge debate about my decision to write from the perspective of a different ethnicity from my own. I suppose that was a bit presumptuous of me--the book didn't end up evoking any sort of huge response; it was just a blip on the radar, although it did receive a very warm reception from those who did read it. So, I was both surprised and not when Google Alert brought this to my inbox: my book is going to be discussed at the 2006 Conference of the Society for Muti-Ethnic Studies: Europe and the Americas in Pamplona. Here is the call for panelists:

Panel title: “Assuming Ethnic Identity in Autobiographical Novels”

Convener: Cathy Waegner (University of Siegen)

The young, white, upper middle-class author Gayle Brandeis has written a powerful first novel called The Book of Dead Birds (2003): She describes the painful path of the daughter of a Korean prostitute and an African American soldier, growing up in a racialized district in San Diego. The author has conducted intensive research in order to authenticate the settings, events, and references to Korean culture in her bildungsroman. In numerous interviews, however, Brandeis insists on the autographical, deeply personal impulses of her book with its first-person narrator.

What are the problems involved when an author assumes an ethnic mask, in this case a composite yellow/black one? Mere “literary minstrelsy”? Arrogant presumption on the part of the mainstream author? Perhaps even unethical?? Does the charisma of the first-person narrator fade when the ethnicity of the author is known? Or is the author's imaginative feat intensified for the reader? Which narrative strategies enhance the interface between autobiography and fiction? Do we in fact have to re-think notions of “the autobiographical”? How do texts like this affect general perceptions of racialization and the history of ethnic persons?
Ideally, contributions to this panel would, taken as a whole, present a range of ethnicities of both authors and masks.

Send abstracts by October 15, 2005 to Cathy Waegner (

I was expecting questions like this to rise up--I asked them of myself constantly as I wrote the novel--so I can't be too shocked or hurt by them. Still, I have to admit that it does sting a bit to think of someone calling my work "literary minstrelsy", calling my creative choices an "arrogant presumption." It was so hard for me to come to terms with writing this novel. Those who have read about the evolution of the book know how much I resisted writing about Ava and Helen; when they first came to me, I tried to encourage them to leave. I didn't think I had the right to write their story. I didn't want to be a cultural imperialist, didn't want to claim a story that was not my own. They were so persistent, though, and I finally had to honor them and the story they carried to me. The impulse to write their story was not autobiographical--the impulse to write the poem that ultimately led to the novel was autobiographical, but once I found Ava and Helen, the story no longer had anything to do with me, with my life (or so I thought. Once I finished writing the novel, I realized how much I had in common with Ava, how close she and I were in spirit. But as I wrote, I didn't feel that way at all, wasn't writing from an autobiographical urge; in fact, at first I tried to consciously distance myself by writing Ava in the third person. It was only when I had a high fever and had the experience of slipping under her skin that I realized I needed to write her in the first person. And that was very scary for me, very humbling. I resisted that at first, too, but the story seemed to call for it. And the story did come to life when I began to write in the first person--even though at the time I still didn't see much of myself in Ava.)

I am curious to know how Cathy Waegner came to define me as upper-middle-class. I suppose that label might fit my life now, but at the time I started to write the novel, Matt and I would be lucky to be considered lower-middle-class. And the few years right before writing the novel, we were well below the poverty line. I do admit that I grew up with a priveleged background (I remember in fifth grade or so, my friend Emily asked what class my family was. She said of her own family, proudly, "We're upper middle class." I had never even heard of class before, other than within a school building. When pressed, my parents told me we could probably be considered in the same category as Emily's family, but they seemed uncomfortable talking about it. I remember being relieved that Emily wasn't "higher" than me, but then I thought about all the people who are below "upper", and what their lives must be like, and I felt very guilty. My first twinge of class consciousness.) I've never seen my class labeled in public before, and it feels strange. But I do need to own up to my priveleged status, and how it might affect people's response to my work. And I need to not be defensive about this panel; I need to let people interpret my book, my motives, however they wish to. It is out of my hands at this point.

I doubt I'll have a chance to attend the conference in Pamplona, but it would be very interesting to hear the discussion that ensues...

It's Banned Books Week! Be sure to read a banned book (or write something outrageous) this week. And check out this great resource: Radical Reference, where you can get information from radical librarians. Here is their mission statement:

“…librarians are more freedom fighters than shushers.”

--Carla Hayden, Ms. Magazine online

Mission Statement: Radical Reference is a collective of volunteer library workers who believe in social justice and equality. We support activist communities, progressive organizations, and independent journalists by providing professional research support, education and access to information. We work in a collaborative virtual setting and are dedicated to information activism to foster a more egalitarian society.

That's the official line. Here's "the rest of the story." Radical reference originated as a service provided by volunteer library workers from all over the United States to assist demonstrators and activists at the convergence surrounding the Republican National Convention in New York City August 29-September 2, 2004. We are evolving, expanding our services, and continuing to utilize our professional skills and tools to answer information needs from the general public, independent journalists, and activists. Service will be provided via this web site, blog, e-mail, chat, phone, in the street and Ouija board.

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

I have blogged before about how it is so hard to have true dialogue between the left and the right. There are so many misconceptions on both ends. I saw this dramatically in DC; last Friday night, we stood in vigil in front of Walter Reed Memorial, where thousands of wounded soldiers have been admitted in the dead of night (so we, the public, can also be kept in the dark, unaware of the true cost of war.) CODEPINK holds a weekly vigil there to try to raise awareness, holding signs that say things like "Love the troops, hate the war", as well as "Real Support=Better Benefits" and "Support them when they're home" (referencing the fact that our administration wants to cut VA benefits, and many soldiers with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder remain undiagnosed because the system wants to cycle them out.) The weekly vigil is a somber one, silent and respectful and candlelit. In recent months, a counter protest has sprung up across the street, with people holding signs that say things like "CODEPINK IS PURE EVIL" and "CODEPINK doesn't care" and nonsensical things like "CODEPINK's fake vigil funds terrorist organizations" and "CODEPINK feeds the alligator so it won't eat them first." They chant "Shame on CODEPINK! Leave the wounded alone!", which is kind of ironic, since we are at Walter Reed specifically because our government is leaving the wounded alone once they are discharged from the hospital. If we were to have a true dialogue across the street, I wonder if the counter-protestors would be able to understand how deeply we care about our troops, how deeply we care about our world. And maybe we'd be able to understand how deeply the other side cares, as well. We wouldn't be out on the street, either side of it, if we didn't care.

Yesterday, in an article about Cindy Sheehan's arrest, I read a quote from someone who called the anti-war protestors lemmings. Of course, from our point of view, those who are blindly faithful to Bush often look like lemmings who can't think for themselves. It is so hard to know how to find human connections between the two sides, how to have true communication that doesn't devolve into a shouting match.

After the march on Saturday, I walked to the Lincoln Memorial—so inspiring--and then to the Vietnam Memorial, which is heartbreaking in its simplicity, its scope. So many names on those smooth black walls. I found myself wanting to really feel those names, to feel the pain, the loss, of their families, so I walked for a while with my fingertips brushing against the names, trying to take them under my skin, trying to feel the dignity of every life that was lost. A woman saw me walking in my CODEPINK regalia, running my hand slowly along the wall; she gasped and said to her husband, "Oh, my good Lord Jesus. These young people have no respect for the sacrifice of our troops." I wanted to tell her how I was trying to honor that sacrifice with my fingers, with my presence in the march, but I didn't. I kept walking. I didn't feel like getting into it with her. Now I regret not saying anything; I missed out on a chance for the very sort of dialogue that has been so lacking.

As much as I long to find some common ground, though, I have to say it was so inspiring, so energizing, to be among so many like minded people—in the CODEPINK House, at the march, at the Green Festival. To be surrounded by so many people committed to peace was overwhelming. The march took over 5 hours because there were so many people on the streets; it was exhausting—my body was sore from so much standing, from so much banner-holding and back-pack lugging, my throat was raw from so much chanting and yelling and singing, but I couldn't wipe the smile off my face. I wrote a couple of little chants the night before the march, including this one:
Rita! Katrina!
We need another leada!
War in Iraq!
We want our country back!
It was so amazing to hear a whole crowd of women voicing my words. I imagine that must be what it's like for songwriters when the audience sings along during a concert—those words are no longer your own; they're part of something bigger. That's not something I often get to experience very often as a novelist—writing a novel, reading a novel, are such solitary endeavors; it was great to have a more communal experience with language. That night, Medea Benjamin invited some CODPINK women to join her on stage at the Operation Ceasefire concert, where she had been invited to speak. We carried the "PEACE ON EARTH" banner I had held all day, and did one of our CODEPINK cheers in front of a crowd of at least 25,000 cheering people, the Washington Monument illuminated behind them. It was great fun. CODEPINK proves that protest can be fun, that peacework can be fun. I love that. I love that I'm able to be part of that.

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Here is a very simple action Californians can take to try to convince our Governator to pass the gender neutral marriage bill (Thanks to Dewi for passing along the info):

Call his office at (916) 445-2841 and follow these simple steps.

1. Press "2" to comment on legislation

2. Press "1" to comment on AB 849 (AB 849 is the gender neutral bill that will allow same-sex couples to marry)

3. Press "1" to support it

That's it! Arnold has threatened to veto the bill, but maybe if enough of us call to support it, we can change his mind.
A few pictures from the CODEPINK site...

You can check out a few more of my thoughts at the CODEPINK blog (look under September 26.)
I am too tired to put coherent words together, but here is the one picture my camera took at the peace march before my batteries died...It was actually before the march, right next to the stage at the women's convergence, where Cindy Sheehan and other amazing women spoke and Joan Baez sang. After Medea Benjamin spoke, it was time to head over to the staging area for the march; Medea asked everyone to follow the banner I was holding. I had no idea where to go--luckily, she helped lead the way. It was amazing to be right at the front of a formidable group of women.

I found these two pictures online. I'm hoping I can wrangle some more from my friends. Here, you can see a sliver of my body on the left side of the frame as we walk to the staging area.

In this one, we're in front of the White House; you can see the side of my face at the bottom of the frame.

More stories soon, after I've had a chance to breathe a little and process everything. I have a feeling I'll be dreaming in pink tonight....

Monday, September 26, 2005

I'm home from DC, inspired and exhausted, and so grateful I was able to be part of such an amazing mobilization. I don't have time to write a thorough blog entry right now--I have to get ready to teach my class--but you can take a look at some of my impressions about the march over at the CODEPINK blog (scroll down to 9/24).

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Yesterday, my daughter asked if I knew someone was building a statue of Ghandi downtown. She said that she and Matt had been driving down Mission Inn Ave. and had noticed a sign announcing it. I was shocked--a statue of Gandhi in Riverside? In our sleepy, conservative, notoriously-meth-lab-ridden town? It didn't seem possible (although we do happily have a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr. on the Main St. mall.) I drove down Mission Inn Ave myself today, and saw the construction zone with a "Site of Mahatma Gandhi Memorial" placard prominently displayed on the fence. How very, very cool! Gandhi in Riverside!

I did some searching online and discovered that the statue has been in the works for a long while; Lalit Acharya, who founded the Riverside Mahatma Gandhi Peace Foundation (another thing I didn't know existed in our town!), first proposed the memorial after Riverside cops shot a young black woman sleeping in her car, with a gun on her lap, in 1998. He thought the statue would bring a symbol of peace into a community that desperately needed one. Our mayor--who, I must say, is pretty great; he is accessible, and intelligent, and even drives a Prius--agreed to move forward with it. The statue was sculpted in India and is due to be unveiled next month. I am delighted to know that our downtown will soon honor two great heroes of the peace movement. It will make our community peace work all the more resonant.

Speaking of community peace work, I just learned that my hometown, Chicago, recently became the largest American city to officially oppose the war. Yay Chicago! My kind of town.

This weekend, we're going to turn DC into an anti-war zone. I head out early tomorrow morning, and probably won't have a chance to blog again before then; I'm sure I'll have many stories to tell when I return. Have a safe and happy weekend, everyone...

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Today, the Girlfriends Cyber Circuit brings Melanie Lynne Hauser, author of CONFESSIONS OF SUPER MOM, to our doorstep.

The story sounds like great fun:

Birdie Lee is an average hard-working single mother of two teenagers, PTA lackey, and mild-mannered grocery clerk at the local Marvel Fine Foods and Beverages. One morning, while getting ready for work, Birdie is sidetracked by a stubborn Stain of Unusual Origin on her bathroom floor. Unable to let the stain get the best of her, she tries to annihilate it with every household product she can find –to no avail. Angry, hot, light-headed (and forgetting to turn on the exhaust fan), she makes one final desperate attempt to eradicate this vile, dastardly stain: she loads her Swiffer Wet Jet with every household cleanser she owns, aims, and fires….

And passes out, overcome by the fumes. After regaining consciousness (and reminding herself to scrub the bottom of the toilet since from her perspective — flat on her back — it was looking a little dingy), Birdie realizes something’s amiss. Her ears begin to buzz and her senses are aquiver. Eventually, aided by Martin, her geeky thirteen-year-old son and trusty sidekick, Birdie understands that she now possesses extraordinary powers— superpowers, to be exact. Birdie soon learns, however, that, to quote Spiderman, with great power comes great responsibility and she finds herself
struggling to balance a new onslaught of challenges, both at home and in her community. While trying to keep her distant 15-year-old daughter’s heart from being broken (something not even a superhero can do), and dealing with her smug ex-husband and his over-achieving new wife, she must manage her job, PTA responsibilities and a budding romance– all the while trying to rescue her beloved town of Astro Park from an evil force that threatens its children.

The book is receiving all sorts of raves, including this one from Publishers Weekly: "Like its title character, this debut novel has a secret's unexpectedly poignant and packs an emotional punch despite the cheery veneer... at the heart of this story is a narrative about a lonely, wronged woman who just wants to do right by her children and stand up to an uncontrollable world. Hauser slips in soliloquies on motherhood and womanhood that, though brief, are moving, showing us Birdie Lee's heart and in that, the wishes and dreams of super moms everywhere. "

I had the pleasure of a virtual sit down with Melanie; here's our conversation:

--What inspired you to write Confessions of Super Mom?

I had written two previously-represented novels that made it to the marketing committee level at major publishers, but never sold. These were "quieter" novels, or so said some of the rejection letters! And so one day my agent and I were talking it over and she said something that struck me. We were talking about what it takes to break into publishing today, discussing the concept of "the hook," and she said that maybe people today want their characters in fiction to be larger than life. So later that day I had a eureka moment - I said to myself (and to whoever else happened to be around), "You want larger than life? Then I'm gonna write about a superhero! How much larger than life can you get than that?" And really, it all fell into place; I'd still write about the issues that were important to me as a woman, a mother; the only difference was, I'd write about them from a superhero's perspective.

--Booklist writes: "This silly but fun twist on the superhero tale comes packaged with a socially responsible message about consumerism, but it doesn't get in the way of the high jinks." Did you set out to include a "socially responsible message about consumerism" in your novel, or did this arise as you were writing? Could you share any thoughts about writing and social responsibility?

This arose while I was writing. I had all the elements down - the parts that were pure "women's fiction," the superhero origin - but I didn't have the requisite archnemesis nailed. So when thinking about that subplot, knowing that it would have to somehow endanger children, I eventually hit on a plot to brainwash children, via videogames, into buying patriotic junkfood. Initially I was satirizing a lot of the post 9/11 jingoism. The videogame is about a heavily-armed Abe Lincoln taking out terrorists on top of Mt. Rushmore. But the consumerism angle was a natural extension of this - and I was thinking about how so many things have been wrapped up in the flag, post 9/11, and people don't even stop to think about them. All those magnetic ribbons and flags, for instance, that we see on cars these days. Does anyone think about the people profiting from them? Do they even question their intent? I'd have to say the answer is "no" on both of those counts, and I did want to write about that, just a little. But - and this is a big but - I was determined to wrap up my message not in a flag, but in a joke, a sly wink. I don't think that it's my job to be preachy. It's my job to tell a good story, to entertain, and if there is something under the surface that makes you think, just a bit, that's great. But I wouldn't let that something get in the way of a good story.

--If you could choose a super power, what would it be?

The ability to eat what I want and never, ever, get fat, while at the same time, supermodels would suddenly develop a tendency to pack on pounds just by breathing.

--Any advice for aspiring writers?

Don't get too attached to your work. It drives me nuts to hear authors refer to their manuscripts as their "babies." They're not. They're words. And there's a good chance you'll be able to come up with more of them. Learn to move on to the next project, and the next, and the next after that.

--What's next for Super Mom? And what's next for you?

I'm working on the sequel, which is due in to my editor very soon, and which will be published in 2006. Beyond that, I don't really know - and I haven't had time to really think about it. I'd love to keep writing about Birdie and her family, and the parade of evil villains I have in mind for her, as well as other novels, too.

--I always ask a question about fruit--In your opinion, what fruit has the most super powers, and why?

Blueberries. I don't know why, exactly, other than the fact that I crave them all the time, lately, mixed up with yogurt and granola, and I feel extremely, powerfully, healthy after I eat them.

--Thanks so much, Melanie! May Super Mom's powers (and your own!) continue to flourish...

Tuesday, September 20, 2005

Ever since I wrote the last line of the last post, I've been wondering whether I should delete it, change it, tone it down. I guess that proves the power that certain words can have! And it lays my own tricky relationship with swearing very bare. I see those words, and they don't feel like my own. When I was younger, I used to think I was not cool enough to swear. I was in awe of kids who were able to do so in a nonchalant way; my parents tell me that when I came home from my first day of kindergarten, I said, very excitedly, "I met a boy who can swear with his fingers!" I was so impressed; even at 5, though, I knew it was something that I would never feel comfortable doing. Just like I never feel comfortable saying the catch phrases of the day; they always feel wrong on my tongue, awkward. I'm strangely impressed by people who can easily incorporate new phrases (like the current use of "rocking" as a verb--"she was rocking the blue hair") into their vocabulary and sound like they've been saying them all their lives. It's funny--I try to be expansive and free in my use of language, but I guess I do set certain boundaries up for myself. Maybe they'll come tumbling down and I'll end up cursing like a sailor some day. We'll see. I used to cry whenever I talked about body issues, and now I can talk happily about body stuff to large rooms of people (that, too, is a surprise; when I was a rarely-raise-her-hand-in-class-because-I-was-too-shy girl, I never would have imagined that I'd feel comfortable talking to large rooms). I suppose anything can happen; life is always full of surprises...
The physiology of language has been a long obsession of mine, so it was fun to come across this article about how swear words affect our minds and bodies and culture.
Because cursing calls on the thinking and feeling pathways of the brain in roughly equal measure and with handily assessable fervor, scientists say that by studying the neural circuitry behind it they are gaining new insights into how the different domains of the brain communicate - and all for the sake of a well-venomed retort.

Other investigators have examined the physiology of cursing, how our senses and reflexes react to the sound or sight of an obscene word. They have determined that hearing a curse elicits a literal rise out of people. When electrodermal wires are placed on people's arms and fingertips to study their skin conductance patterns and the subjects then hear a few obscenities spoken clearly and firmly, participants show signs of instant arousal.

Their skin conductance patterns spike, the hairs on their arms rise, their pulse quickens, and their breathing becomes shallow.

Yesterday, my daughter asked me why I've been swearing so much lately. I didn't realize I had been swearing more--I usually don't swear much at all (it does have a real physical effect on me; my mouth usually feels a resistance to those words)--but I think my emotions have been more raw in the last few weeks, in the aftermath of Katrina, and maybe my guard is down. Hannah could only bring up two examples of times I swore in the last week--once, when someone cut me off on the freeway, and once when Microsoft Word crashed and I lost a bunch of work (nothing too important, thankfully)--but I guess two times is a lot more than zero. Sometimes it feels so good to swear, very cathartic. Maybe if I used curse words more often, they wouldn't have the same impact, the same hair-raising power. Now when I use them, it's like a fucking atomic bomb.

Monday, September 19, 2005

I have always been a huge Sharon Olds fan--her poetry is so gorgeous, so raw; her work gave me permission, as a young poet, to write honestly about living in the body. After reading her letter declining Laura Bush's invitation to speak at the National Book Festival in DC, I love her all the more.

Sunday, September 18, 2005

This Friday, I will head to DC for the big peace march and rally. I am so excited. I bought a bunch of pink clothes (including a fun ballerina-style satin and tulle dress) at Goodwill a few days ago so I can be fully CODEPINK-ed out. It should be an amazing few days. Our country is so ready for change. We will show our numbers, share our voices, make sure Washington feels our presence. The peace movement is not a focus group, as Bush called us after the huge worldwide rallies before the war began--we are a focused group, and we will make a difference.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

If you happen to be in LA today, swing on by the LA Farmer's Market. There will be great roots music all day; my husband's band Bucksworth is playing at 4. I don't think of them as a country band, but they're going to be filmed by CMTV for a pilot about alternative country music. Matt and Mark (the amazingly talented lead singer/songwriter) went into LA yesterday to be interviewed for the show; they came home with a bit of camera makeup still on their faces. The concert is free, but donations are welcome, and will go towards hurricane relief. A portion of all CD and merchandise sales will, as well.

Friday, September 16, 2005

I just discovered the Dutch cover for The Book of Dead Birds! According to Babelfish, the title translates into "My Mother's Wings"--how cool is that?! I haven't seen the Dutch hardcover, which was published under the original title: Het boek van de dode vogels. I wonder if the title proved problematic in the Netherlands--I know people either love it or hate the title here, and a lot of people have been scared off by it. My Mother's Wings is more accessible, for sure. And I love the cover--hooray for pelicans!

Thursday, September 15, 2005

Attention all 6-9 year olds! (Actually, attention to all parents of 6-9 year olds, since I doubt many 6-9 year olds are reading this blog...)

I will be teaching a free children's writing workshop, Coming To Your Senses, at 826LA in Venice this Saturday afternoon, from 12-2. 826LA is a wonderful community writing center, sister to 826 Valencia in San Francisco, and other 826s rising up around the country.

Several 826 volunteers have traveled to Houston to provide Katrina evacuees with paper, pencils, art supplies, and other outlets for creative expression. You can read their dispatches here.

Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Novelist Stacey D'Erasmo's recent piece, Flicked Aside by the Universe, is one of the most thoughtful and beautifully written meditations on life after September 11th (and the tsunami and Katrina) that I've come across. Here's a taste:

Two weeks after the disastrous 2004 election, a friend and I were talking about the creeping sense that something else, something we couldn't quite articulate, was larger and even more wrong than the immediate political situation. "I just keep worrying," she said, "about the aquifer."

By which I think she meant not only the literal aquifer, but some force or element that subtends the very ground we walk on. I don't mean God, or even gods. I'm not sure what I mean yet, honestly, as a writer or just as a person, that the customary frame of reality has broken, broken open, over the past four years, that it continues to break. I don't know yet how it will change my work or what other people write or draw or make, this shift in our consciousness of scale. I just know that suddenly, or what seems like suddenly -- now, anyway, since 2001, since water swallowed a good part of the Pacific Rim, since the lights went out all the way to Canada, since New Orleans has become a toxic ghost town, one is more likely to imagine that: the aquifer. Oneself, so much smaller, standing above it, washing dishes, reading, walking. That the aquifer has a life that may or may not include you.

Tuesday, September 13, 2005

Please consider adding your voice to these two actions:

One Million Reasons to Stop the War in Iraq (the reasons will be delivered to the White House on September 26th.)

Protest the upcoming trial of Turkish author Orhan Pamuk.

Here is the email I just sent, using talking points from International PEN. Feel free to use the email as a template for your own letter:


Subject: Orhan Pamuk

Dear Ambassadors:

I am dismayed by the fact that Turkish author Orhan Pamuk is going to be tried for a statement made in an interview for an overseas publication. This is in direct contravention of the United Nations Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the European Convention on Human Rights, to which the Turkish government is a signatory. The decision to bring Orhan Pamuk to trial is a travesty. Pamuk is a brilliant writer and a gift to the world, and should not be forced to stand trial for his words. Please reconsider the actions of the Turkish government.

Thank you.

Gayle Brandeis
You can also contact

Prime Minister Racep Tayyip Erdogan
TC Easbaskanlik
Fax: +90 312 417 0476

Cemil Cicek
Minister of Justice
TC Adalet Bakanligi
Fax: + 90 312 417 3954

Monday, September 12, 2005

I had the pleasure today of hearing Medea Benjamin speak. Even though she and I have written together, we had never met each other in person. It was so inspiring to be in her presence. Not only did she give an amazing talk about how to build the peace movement, she also walked her talk. A man in the audience was being disruptive and belligerent (even though he professed to agree with everything she said); when he asked her what specific steps she would take to enact change, and then asked her to hurry with her answer because he needed to go to lunch, she said, very pointedly, something to the effect of "The first thing we need to do is be kind to one another and respect one another's voices." He had berated an earlier attendee for taking too long to ask a question, so this was a direct hit, kind but firm. The room broke into applause and the man stormed away using his walker (the talk was held at a religious, social-justice-focused retirement community in Claremont.) She handled it--just as she handled being dragged out of both the Republican and Democratic National Conventions--with great grace.

Several people from Riverside were there, which was wonderful; it's been great to see the peace movement grow within our conservative town. If any of you are in the area, please keep October 15th open. It is the night my friend Nancy and I are hosting Inspire Hope 2: Riverside Responds to Hurricane Katrina. The fundraiser will feature live music, belly dancing, poetry, and more, and will take place at Back to the Grind, 3575 University Ave., at 6:30pm. If you are interested in performing, please let me know.

Sunday, September 11, 2005

Debra Hamel invited me to recommend three books for the October edition of Buy a Friend a Book Week (her wonderful book-karma brainchild). You can read my choices here. What book will you buy for a friend next month?
Today is the 18th anniversary of the day my husband and I met one another. Until 2001, September 11th was always a glowing day on the calendar. That date, spoken out loud, has such a different feel to it now. I wrote an essay about this shortly after the attacks of 9/11. You can read it here.
My commentary, Burning, Flooding, on what our administration can learn from the Burning Man festival, is up on Common Dreams.

Saturday, September 10, 2005

For those of you in So California, both of my husband's bands are playing at the Coffee Depot in Riverside tonight at 8pm. I remember when we saw Bucksworth perform there a few years ago, a Clint Eastwood movie playing silently on a large screen behind them. We were so blown away by their performance, and wondered why they weren't famous yet. I don't think Matt ever could have imagined he'd be part of the band--not to mention playing pedal steel guitar--in the not-too-distant future! It's been so wonderful to watch him grow into himself as a musician and singer in the last couple of years; I know how much joy it brings him (plus it brings so much great music into our house! I never get tired of hearing either band play.)

Friday, September 09, 2005

You did a heck of a pathetic job, Brownie.

What a relief that he's out of there. Now we have to convince Bush to bow out, too. Bill Maher had a great editorial about this in the LA Times today (I can't find a link, sadly.) He writes to Bush:

Your job has turned into the Bush family nightmare: helping poor black people.

The cupboard's bare, the credit card's maxed out and no one's speaking to you--mission accomplished!

Now it's time to do what you do best: lose interest and walk away, like you did with your military service and the oil company and the baseball team.

Time to move on and try the next fantasy job. How about cowboy or spaceman?

Later, he writes:

You've performed so poorly you should give yourself a medal. You're a catastrophe that walks like a man. On your watch we've lost almost all of our allies, the budget surplus, four airliners, two trade centers, a piece of the Pentagon and the city of New Orleans. Maybe you're just not lucky.

We're the unlucky ones, with Bush as our president. And now our administration is trying to erode our freedom of expression, freedom of information, yet again. But I think the wool has been lifted from the collective eyes of the media; I don't think they'll allow themselves to be silent and complacent again. At least let's hope not. Let's hope we can all continue to keep our eyes, our voice boxes, wide open.
The poem on my poem-a-day calendar has an eerie hurricane resonance today:


Whirl up, sea--
whirl your pointed pines,
splash your great pines
on our rocks,
hurl your green over us,
cover us with your pools of fir.

--H.D. (1886-1961)
I keep forgetting to mention that CODEPINK has set up a Camp Casey III relief station in Covington, Louisiana, using leftover supplies from Camp Casey in Crawford, as well as new donations (which continue to be desperately needed). Cindy Sheehan and other CODEPINK comadres (I just realized how close to "comrades" the word "comadres" is--cool!) will be speaking in LA tonight. I wish I could be in two places at once (I'm going to be at the benefit concert at the Fender Museum.) Viva la Pink!

I also found a link (via Global Exchange) to Grassroots/Low Income/People of Color-led Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts.

Thursday, September 08, 2005

The language of this hurricane has proven to be very charged. I have been following the debate over the word "refugee" and appreciate the fact that people are desiring to use language that is respectful and appropriate and inclusive. The language coming from Washington, on the other hand, is anything but. Our administration gloms onto certain phrases--"we're making progress", "it's hard work", etc.--and repeats them ad infinitum to drill them into our brains, to appease us, block us out, shut us down. You hear the anointed phrases coming out of every mouth--Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, McClellan--as if they are shared mantras, incantations. The current phrase of the day is "blame game." "We don't want to play the blame game," they say, knowing full well that they are the ones to blame. Look at this exchange at a White House press conference (which I first found on Salon):

Reporter: Scott, does the president retain confidence in his FEMA director and secretary of Homeland Security?

McClellan: And again, David, see, this is where some people want to look at the blame game issue, and finger-point. We're focused on solving problems, and we're doing everything we can --

Reporter: What about the question?

McClellan: We're doing everything we can in support --

Reporter: We know all that.

McClellan: -- of the Department of Homeland Security and FEMA.

Reporter: Does he retain complete confidence --

McClellan: We're going to continue. We appreciate the great effort that all of those at FEMA, including the head of FEMA, are doing to help the people in the region. And I'm just not going to engage in the blame game or finger-pointing that you're trying to get me to engage.

Reporter: OK, but that's not at all what I was asking.

McClellan: Sure it is. It's exactly what you're trying to play.

Reporter: You have your same point you want to make about the blame game, which you've said enough now. I'm asking you a direct question, which you're dodging.

McClellan: No --

Reporter: Does the president retain complete confidence in his director of FEMA and secretary of Homeland Security, yes or no?

McClellan: I just answered the question.

Reporter: Is the answer "yes" on both?

McClellan: And what you're doing is trying to engage in a game of finger-pointing --

Reporter: There's a lot of criticism. I'm just wondering if he still has confidence.

McClellan: -- and blame-gaming. What we're trying to do is solve problems, David. And that's where we're going to keep our focus.

Reporter: So you're not -- you won't answer that question directly?

McClellan: I did. I just did.

Reporter: No, you didn't. Yes or no? Does he have complete confidence or doesn't he?

McClellan: No, if you want to continue to engage in finger-pointing and blame-gaming, that's fine --

Reporter: Scott, that's ridiculous. I'm not engaging in any of that.

McClellan: It's not ridiculous.

Reporter: Don't try to accuse me of that. I'm asking you a direct question and you should answer it. Does he retain complete confidence in his FEMA director and secretary of Homeland Security, yes or no?

McClellan: Like I said, that's exactly what you're engaging in.

Reporter: I'm not engaging in anything. I'm asking you a question about what the president's views are --

McClellan: Absolutely -- absolutely --

Reporter: -- under pretty substantial criticism of members of his administration. OK? And you know that, and everybody watching knows that as well.

McClellan: No, everybody watching this knows, David, that you're trying to engage in a blame game.

Reporter: I'm trying to engage?

McClellan: Yes.

Reporter: I am trying to engage?

McClellan: That's correct.

I am so heartened to see how many people are working to raise funds for Katrina victims.

My sister's friend Adam is hosting a fundraiser at his wine bar in New York tonight.

My husband's band, Bucksworth, is going to be playing at a benefit concert at the Fender Museum tomorrow night.

I'm hoping to put together some sort of benefit reading/concert, myself.

There are things you can do from home, as well. This information comes via my friend Susan Ito's blog:

An amazing woman named Susan White has spent the
weekend on the phone and has identified 4 places, all
of which have:

-taken in evacuees
-have NOT been contacted by major organizations yet
-are desperate for supplies
-and been spoken to directly by Susan, checking
exactly what they need as of *today*

They are:

The Baton Rouge River Center
275 South River Road
Baton Rouge, LA 70802
tel: 225-389-3030

The Women's Center
222 Veteran's Blvd.
Suite C
Denham Springs, LA 70726
tel: 225. 665-0214

Marksville City Hall
Attn: Hurricane Relief Coordinator
Myron Gagnard
427 North Washington St.
Marksville, LA 71351
tel: 318. 253. 9500
(this place is distributing to other places, too)

The St. Vincent de Paul Society for Katrina Evacuees
Ozanam Outlet
610 Memory Lane
Houston, TX 77037

If you would like to send donations (see below, for
what to send where) directly, yourself, please do.
I'd encourage you to check with the store daily,
though, to make sure you're sending what they need
most. I've put their phone numbers, so you *could*
call, but if 900 of us start calling daily, we'll
probably drive them nuts.

3. DONATIONS (What They Need):

If you want to bring donations to the store, we're
happy to sort, package, and send them out.

Here's what each place needs:

Baton Rouge River Center
-currently has over 6500 evacuees living there so we
might want to focus on them first.--

They need:

Baby Bottles
Non-perishable food
Sleeping Bags

The Women's Center needs:

Baby Food
Toddler Food
Maternity Clothes
Small boxes of Goldfish crackers
New Underwear
New Socks
New Pillows
Paper Towels
Toilet Paper
Hygiene Products
!No Grown up clothes!
!No Toys!

Marksville needs:

Baby Items of all Kinds
Hand Sensitizer
Pillows and Blankets
Baby and Children's Tee-shirts
Over the counter pain relievers
Coloring books/crayons/board games/children's books

(from Catherine, and the Community Bookstore in Park Slope, Brooklyn)

Alternet also offers 10 Great Ways You Can Help.
Good news! I just received an email from the woman who responded to my Craigslist posting. She finally heard from the family she had asked me to help her find--they are okay; they had been in the Superdome, and were evacuated by bus to Texas. She said they'll be there for a couple of months. I am so relieved. I had been combing the online data bases for their names daily, and felt such a rush of despair when nothing turned up. Here's to more successful searches, more happy endings in the midst of so much tragedy.

Wednesday, September 07, 2005

My friend Dominique has posted interviews with, and suggested reading lists from, local authors (including me!) and other members of the community on the Riverside Public Library site. My reading list features books that are crafted around forms found in nature and/or culture (such as The Periodic Table, by Primo Levi.) I felt myself cringe a little when I read the reference to the short story I structured around a list of hurricanes. I had so much fun writing that story, but now it feels like such a thoughtless thing to have done...
You can donate books and games to children displaced by the hurricane through the Amazon wish lists linked above.

First Book is accepting donations towards books for displaced children, as well.
Check out this amazing Katrina timeline. It makes our administration's inaction and incompetence all the more glaringly, infuriatingly, clear.

I have been so preoccupied with the aftermath of Katrina that it's been hard to remember that normal life keeps rolling along. But roll along it does, and today, we have a wonderful guest rolling through these parts with it--Natalie R. Collins, currently promoting her novel WIVES AND SISTERS on her Girlfriends Cyber Circuit Tour.

The novel sounds so compelling:

Set in the closed world of the Mormon Church, a world scrutinized because of the Elizabeth Smart case and covered in nonfiction bestsellers like Secret Ceremonies and Under the Banner of Heaven, WIVES AND SISTERS is the gripping story of a young woman on the run from evil, powerful men.

As a former member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and lifelong resident of Utah, Natalie R. Collins brings authentic color and voice to (her main character) Allison. In her extensive research of the history and teachings of Mormonism, she had discovered that it is a very large organization with a violent and colorful past. WIVES AND SISTERS is a story familiar to many young men and women raised inside the strictures of fundamental religions. Many times there is a “protect the Church at all costs” mentality among Church leaders, which leads to a sheltering system that enables offenders to abuse their victims over and over again without consequence. Heartbreaking and thrilling, WIVES AND SISTERS will keep readers firmly on the edge of their seat.
It has received tons of glowing reviews, including these:

"A white-knuckles ride all the way. Expert depiction of a young woman's struggle with the oppressive 'family values' of one kind of fundamentalism. Newcomer Collins is a talent to watch"—Kirkus Reviews

“Startling and compelling--I could not stop turning the pages. Natalie Collins weaves an absolutely riveting tale."-- Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author of The Sinner

I had the chance to ask Natalie a few questions…

<<-- What inspired you to write Wives and Sisters?>>

I was toying with writing my memoirs, but my parents were absolutely distraught that I would write about my family and my life. I left the Mormon Church when I was 18 (or at least I tried to leave, but they seem to want to keep me a member), and my parents have remained devout members, so it's been hard for them to understand or deal with me. I decided that I would respect their wishes, and stick with fiction. Of course, parts of my life are represented in Wives and Sisters, but it is also the story of many, many other people. The main goal I had in writing the book was to spotlight the problem of abuse in the patriarchal Mormon society. It's a dirty little secret no one talks about, and although the LDS hierarchy have made some changes, it is not enough. Bishops that counsel members need to be trained and need to be given a system of referral for problems they cannot handle.

<<--How has the Mormon community reacted to your novel?>>

Typically. They have condemned, dismissed, ignored, and reviled it. Most of that is from people who have not actually READ the novel. I have gotten some hate mail from Mormons who have read it. The Church hierarchy dismissed it as a book by an "unknown author." They asked for advance copies from my publisher long before they even should have known it existed. But I've also gotten some good response from Mormons. Some people understand that it is addressing people who go too far with fundamental religion, and a system that allows it to happen.

<<--Your book is so much about the perils of blind faith and fundamentalism. I'd love to hear your thoughts about blind faith and fundamentalism in our world today.->>

In my opinion, it is one of the biggest ills facing our world. Think airplanes flying into buildings, people drinking cyanide Kool-aid and young girls being given as gifts to old men.

You don't have to look too far in Utah to find examples of religious tyranny and fundamentalism. One of the worst abusers, Warren Jeffs, has even disappeared and is apparently in the Evil-Prophet-Relocation-Program because no one can find him, and yet his group has built a huge temple in Texas, on a compound. Just the word "compound" send shivers up my spine. The FBI doesn't much like the word, either.

<<--What are you working on now?>>

I am working on Behind Closed Doors, another suspense novel set in Utah, about, as the title might give away, how little we know about people's lives, even those we are close to. The main character, Jannie, has always been a little jealous of friend Melissa, but when Melissa disappears, she is forced to go back and realize that Melissa's life wasn't even close to being as perfect as she imagined.

<<--Because I always have to ask a question about fruit...Are there any Mormon rules regarding fruit? If so, I'd love to hear about them. If not, what do you consider the most suspenseful fruit, and why?>>

Fruit is best served in Jello. Mormons put EVERY fruit in Jello. They even put PASTA in jello, and call it frogeye salad. Yuck. But the oddest one, in my opinion, is the jello salad with CARROTS in it. But fruit and jello seem to go together. As for suspenseful fruit, it HAS to be the kiwi. Who would guess how wonderful the insides taste based on the hairy, ugly, outside?

<<--Pasta in Jello?! (Shudder.) And I'm in full kiwi agreement (the kiwi meditation in my book Fruitflesh is one I keep returning to.) Thanks so much for stopping by, Natalie--I look forward to reading your book! Best of luck on the rest of your cyber tour!>>

Tuesday, September 06, 2005

Novelists from the Gulf Coast--
Frederick Barthelme
Richard Ford
Anne Rice--
are starting to share their thoughts about Katrina.

Poppy Z Brite, who almost chose not to leave her home in New Orleans, has been sporadically blogging about her experience. And Stephen Elliott has been chronicling the aftermath of Katrina for Salon.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Katrina left behind so many stories, in addition to so much destruction. I find myself wanting to bear witness to as many stories as I can, to honor the lives that have been affected by this catastophe. I have been searching online, almost obsessively, for personal accounts of the hurricane and its aftermath (This story, about the vastly different experiences between two families--a poor family and a family with means--is illuminating. I found it ironic, though, that when I first clicked on the link at the front page of the NY Times, a ritzy ad for Ralph Lauren popped up before I could read the story. Obviously, this story is geared toward the "haves" even as it shows, and bemoans, the great divide between the "haves" and "have-nots".)

I have been wishing there was something I could do beyond sending a donation. I decided to post a listing at the New Orleans Craigslist, saying I would make phone calls or send emails for anyone who had trouble reaching their families or friends. With families getting separated, and power being either down or sporadic throughout the Gulf Coast region, it seemed like something tangible I could do to help. I only have received one reply to my posting so far, from a woman searching for someone in New Orleans. She hadn't heard from him or his sister since 8/29. I've tried calling his cell phone number, but the voice mail box is full. I've been searching for his name at all the online data bases of missing and found persons, but so far, no luck. Being connected to a single name makes the aftermath of the hurricane hit home in an even more personal way.

A couple of nights ago, my son was at a friend's 17th birthday party. 1:30am rolled around and he wasn't home yet; I started to get worried, especially after no one answered the phone there. He was only a couple of blocks away, and it was easy enough to drive over and pick him up, but I still felt that gut-clutching dread of "What if something happened to him?" He was fine--he and his friends had just lost track of time. I can't imagine what parents are going through who were separated from their children during the evacuations, who have no way to reach them at the various shelters now. All I can do is keep absorbing their stories, and keep listening for ways in which I might step up to help.

Friday, September 02, 2005

In January of 1997, I traveled to Ashland, Oregon for my Aunt Mimi and Uncle Bob's 50th wedding anniversary celebration. Mimi and Bob (and their son and his family) lived in Olympia, Washington, while other family members lived in California; they decided to hold the party near the half way point. I was excited about going to Ashland--I knew it was home to Shakespeare festivals and gorgeous hiking trails, plus I was looking forward to some good intense family togetherness. The trip was off to a great start--I was paged as Gil Banderas at the airport, which still cracks me up--but as soon as we landed, we found out Ashland was flooded.

Water cascaded along the freeways as the taxi drove me and my dad and my aunt Sylvia to our hotel. We could see a deer pick its way through chest deep water in a wooded area near the road. When we reached downtown, raging white water rapids coursed down the main street. Our hotel area was only a little bit flooded, but the water supply had been contaminated, so the water had been turned off. Power was out, too, although the hotel was using an emergency generator, so the hallways were dimly lit. My dad and aunt and I were able to buy water and sandwiches at the convenience store across the parking lot from our hotel. By the time we walked back to our rooms with our little dinner, the National Guard had arrived. They set up a truck with a small water tank in the parking lot; residents stood in line with buckets and bottles and tubs, and waited patiently for them to be filled.

The weekend was an adventure--the plans for the party had to be scrapped, because the venue had been severely flooded, but my cousin was able to reserve the party room in a local Chinese restaurant. The power went on and off during our dinner, but that only added to the festive, fun feeling of the evening. My aunts and uncle--all of whom have since passed away--shared memories of their youth in Chicago in the early 20th century, and I soaked it all up with grateful ears. I hadn't seen Mimi and Clarice in the same place together in ages, and was so taken by their sharp minds, their wicked senses of humor. The flood was an inconvenience to be sure (of course, for Ashland, it was more than that; it devastated many people's lives)--I was worried about being able to fly back home to my husband and two little kids, but I never felt as if my life was in danger. People felt as if the situation was under control, as if we were in good hands. My main memories of the weekend involve sitting on a hotel bed with my dad and my 89 year old aunt, eating our sandwiches and laughing in the darkening room.

The situation is so utterly, bleakly, different in New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast. Where was the National Guard from the very start? (Of course I can answer that--they were in Iraq, where they're dying at a rate of more than 35% more than the average military troops. We need to bring them home. Now.)

How could we forsake our own people, who are waiting and begging and praying for help as their conditions get more and more unbearable? How could we allow the situation to degenerate like this? I imagine that if things had gotten worse in mostly-white Ashland, air lift evacuations and aid would have been virtually immediate. People wouldn't be waiting in a filthy, dangerous stadium for days. I watch the news, and read the tragic stories coming from the area, and it feels like such a deep wound, a wound that seems impossible to heal. I can only hope that the compassion and generosity of the American people can override the callousness and ineptitude of our current government (and the firmly entrenched social/racial/financial injustice our government perpetuates). It's the stories of people opening their wallets, opening their homes, that give me hope for recovery, hope for the future of our country. But it's going to be a long, long haul.

Thursday, September 01, 2005

"Mother's Day in Crawford", the op-ed Medea Benjamin and I wrote together, is up at Alternet now, and is generating some interesting discussion (scroll down to read the comments.)
Both Salon and the LA Times have published great pieces about how Bush's initial response to Hurricane Katrina underscores his inherent heartlessness. (By the way, EL Doctorow wrote a powerful essay on the subject of Bush's lack of caring last year. It's very much worth reading--thanks to my mom for sharing the piece with me!)

Over at Common Dreams, CODEPINK-er Linda Milazzo explores how this hurricane has brought us together as Americans. The Red State/Blue State distinctions no longer matter. We are all Americans. More importantly, we are all human beings, and we need to do what we can to support one another during catastrophic times.

As I mentioned in a Comment below, I have decided to send my financial support to Mercy Corps. The Red Cross is such an important organization, and they are doing such vital work now during the aftermath of Katrina, but after they bungled the 9/11 funds so badly, I have trouble trusting that my dollars are going to be used properly. At Mercy Corps, 92% of donations go directly to aid. There are a lot of other wonderful organizations out there, too; you can find a list here.