Monday, July 31, 2006

After a week of sun and sand and surf and lots of family togetherness, I am feeling wonderfully limp. Tumbled goofy by the ocean. The water felt so good--silkier than I remember it, embracing (and, at times, a bit cheeky. The waves seemed determined to strip my bathing suit right off.)

On top of all the beachy goodness, I got some great news last week--I was awarded a residency in October at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. I am very excited; it should be a fruitful, inspiring time. Another fun thing--my advance copies of Self Storage arrived! They look gorgeous. It's so cool to see the story as a real book. And it's so cool that my sister was with me when the copies arrived, since she was also with me when I got the news about the book deal last summer. What a treat to share these pivotal moments with her.

Another fun thing to share--thanks to my mom, all the women/girls of the family went to see Wicked on Saturday; such a transporting, electric show. The lead was played by the understudy, Maria Eberline, and she was incredible. While we were waiting in line for the restroom during intermission, we happened to meet Maria Eberline's mother. She had just found out that morning that her daughter was going to be stepping into the role of Elpheba that day (Maria found out at 1:30am, herself.) Maria's mom was half an hour late to the play because she had to cut one more person's hair to pull together enough money for a ticket (fortunately, when she arrived, someone walking by handed her an extra). Her excitement and pride were so lovely to witness. The whole show brought back the thrill of my own (very small in comparison) stage experience. It made me hunger for more.

I hunger for more time with my sister, too. I don't want to have to drive her and her beautiful family to the airport in a few hours. I may need to create a diversion to keep them here. Maybe if I burst into song...

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Even though it's been years since I wrote The Book of Dead Birds, I find the characters and the story are still breathing inside me. I keep seeing articles that remind me of parts of the book, like this one about a woman facing charges after her bird died in her car (if poor Ava had been charged with her bird killings, she'd probably still be in the slammer), and this one about a rescued pelican (I have felt so maternal toward pelicans ever since writing the book.) When I saw this recent article about differences between the Korean and English languages, and learned that "in English, birds sing. In Korean, birds cry", I was beside myself. I wish I had come across that fact when I was researching the book--I could have done so much with it. Ah well.

I hope to see a lot of pelicans when I'm in Oceanside the rest of the week...

Sunday, July 23, 2006

Blogging will probably be light around here for the rest of the month--my sister and her family are in town (yay!) and we're going to be galivanting around Southern California, so I won't have a whole lot of computer time.

Before they arrived, Elizabeth and her family spent 10 days in San Francisco (the town where she and her husband met.) They showed up at our house with some treats from the Ferry Building, including a vegetable I had never even heard of before, but I can now count as one of the best things I have ever tasted. Sea beans (also known as pickleweed) are a sea vegetable harvested off the Oregon Coast; you can see a picture here if you scroll down to the second row. Sea beans look like little succulents, green and firm and slender. They have a satsifying crunch between the teeth, a nice pop. But the best part is--they're salty! I am in love with salt. I am for all practical purposes a saltoholic. So to find a yummy presalted green vegetable is like heaven for me. So is having my sister around.

See you later, alligators!

Friday, July 21, 2006

I received my contributor's copy of Get On the Bus: An Anthology of Short and True Tales of Bus Travel today. The anthology is part of a larger exhibition that included art, film, and panel discussions, sponsored by City/Space, which seems to be a very cool organization. They conceived the exhibition as
a reconsideration of the experience, culture, and meaning of our nation's least-loved transit mode. Stigmatized as the transit of last resort-the realm of the poor, elderly, and infirm-the bus nonetheless moves millions of people every day. On the cutting edge in some cities, marginalized in others, the bus evokes a surprising range of emotions for people, planners, cities and artists. Get on the Bus will begin to illuminate the world of the bus as a ubiquitous but neglected arena of city life.

I wrote the poem that appears in the anthology--"on buses, and off"--many years ago, when bus travel was more a part of my life. I wish we had better pubic transportation in Riverside; on the rare occasion when I do take the bus now, I always seem to end up with some sort of disturbing story to tell.

Thursday, July 20, 2006

I admit I can be a bit of a literary snob, but I would never claim to live the life of the mind at the expense of the life of the body (the life of the body is so rich and compelling!) So I really enjoyed seeing this post today from Miss Snark, the literary agent:

Some pretentious Proustian said "I live the life of the mind" the other day. It was all I could do not to bop him with my parasol and say "mind this, fuckwit".

I despise that kind of intellectual pretension. Ya sure I read Beowulf and take a stab at Joyce's Wake once a month, and I've been known to blather on about the importance of the canon but don't think for one minute I "live the life of the mind". Nosirreeebobbypins.

A happily significant part of my life is engaged in the quest for the perfect chocolate chip cookie, and the location of the best cupcake, not to mention the softest comfiest pillow and sandals that don't make me reach for the wheelchair.

There's not much intellectual rigor attached to those activities but it sure doesn't make them less interesting, important or fun than say..reading Proust.

People who get all holier than thou about what they read, and how above the fray they are are the worst sort of intellects. They're dishonest. The life of the mind is in no way disconnected from the corporeal world, and all you need to do to know this is stand in front of Jackson Pollock painting and feel the frisson of energy. You don't have to understand to feel it, but it's important to understand that not FEELING it means you don't understand it.

Life of the mind, my ass.
With all the divisiveness in the world right now, it is inspiring to see writers making bridges. Writers from North and South Korea are banding together to create a single Korean literary organization.. I love how art and writing can break down the artificial barriers people create to keep each other apart.

I am also grateful that art and writing can serve as acts of witness during such difficult times. Mazen Kerba, an artist and musician in Beirut, has been keeping a blog documenting his experience of the current conflict (incorporating his drawings and the music he has composed to go with the sound of bombs). While I and other readers appreciate having this window into Beirut life, Kerba is struggling with his own balance between witnessing and art...
anyways, music and drawing are the only things keeping me going these days. i recorded two hours of bombs + trumpet from my balcony yesterday night. some bombs were really close (what kind of mouthpiece do the israeli pilots use to have this sound?). the tension you get in your playing is incredible. also, i draw all time. i always said that i regret not being adult during the war to see if you can do something in these situations. now i feel bad to draw or play music while people are burning. i convince myself by saying it is my only way to resist. that i have to witness. that it is very important. but i am not really convinced. i try to be a fucking witness. to show a little bit what's happening here. in my own way. but having regards for what is a good drawing or a good music track drives me crazy. i cannot stop saying after a bomb: "yeah, this one was huge. i'll leave a long silence then make a small sound to balance the track." this is totally crazy!
It may be crazy, but it makes sense that an artist would not want to let go of his craft even in the midst of such chaos. I hope Kerba will continue to share his art so that we can share in the lived human experience of this horrible war.

Tuesday, July 18, 2006

I started reading The Girls by Lori Lansens tonight (my sister lent it to me and I want to read it before she comes into town on Friday). It promises to be amazing. The main characters, conjoined twins, work at a library, and I realized that the last three novels I've read all have librarians as their main characters. I'm not sure what this means, other than the fact that I am definitely due for a library visit...

Sunday, July 16, 2006

Lately, it's felt as if the whole world is ready to burst into flame. I look outside and see clouds bulging over the desert, the mountains, full of smoke. I think of all that's happening in Israel and Lebanon and India and North Korea and Iraq and Iran--so much potential combustion. So much potential flame and smoke and ash.

Closer to home, I am grateful that so far one of my favorite places in the desert has been spared. Last time we were in Pioneertown, I had recently been cast as Annie Oakley. We stayed in the room at the Pioneertown Motel where Barbara Stanwyck lived while she was filming her Annie Oakley movie, and walked down the street where Gail Davis played Annie Oakley in the eponymous tv series, and my daughter and I sang the songs that were still new to us then at the top of our lungs, trying to soak in all the residual Annie Oakley energy in the air. I think it helped. And now it makes me so sad to think of those historic streets in danger. It makes me sad to think of so much of our planet in danger. I feel so helpless in the face of all this fire.

The makers of a film centered around Arundhati Roy recently sent me one of her quotes, and that quote is giving me some sustenance now:

To love. To be loved. To never forget your own insignificance. To never get used to the unspeakable violence and the vulgar disparity of life around you. To seek joy in the saddest places. To pursue beauty to its lair. To never simplify what is complicated or complicate what is simple. To respect strength, never power. Above all, to watch. To try and understand. To never look away. And never, never, to forget.

Friday, July 14, 2006

I have often thought about putting together a scratch and sniff book for adults, along the lines of the ones I loved as a kid, but with all the senses, sort of like Pat the Bunny. It would be easy to make a dirty scratch and sniff book for adults (Pat the "other cute furry animal", maybe. And of course there's this) but that's not what I have in mind. I'm picturing something beautiful and literary--maybe a book of poetry--where the sensory things on the page really enhance the reading experience. On one page, maybe, you would eat a piece of candy as you read about sugar; on another, you would listen to a track of music that amplified the rhythm of the language (Laura Esquivel sort of did this with The Law of Love--the book comes with a cd, and you listen to particular tracks, mostly arias, on particular pages of the novel. She also brings vision into the mix with many pages of illustration.) Scents both swoony and rank could enhance the text, too, as could patches of velvet, sandpaper, big swaths of color. I don't know whether I will ever actually see this through, but it's fun to think about.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

I finished reading Alice Hoffman's novel The Ice Queen today. I started sobbing as soon as I read the last word--it was one of those books that hit deep; I wasn't ready to leave its spell. Hoffman's language is both simple (in the most elegant way) and lush--she mines basic archetypal metaphors (fire, ice, the color red) with such resonance throughout the novel. The story--boiled down to its most basic bones--follows a woman after her wish to get hit by lightning comes true; it is ultimately a story about passion and healing and redemption, and it crackles with life. You can read an excerpt from the beginning here.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

I'm so proud of my friend, Medea Benjamin, putting her body on the line for justice. That woman is fearless--she goes right into the Senate hearings, right into places where power gathers, and uses her own peaceful power to bring the truth to light.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

Tonight, I went to hear the Preservation Hall Jazz Band at the Redlands Bowl. It was a beautiful, balmy evening; the music was raunchy and clangy and joyful, but I found it very moving, too. As the trumpet player sang love songs to New Orleans with his raspy voice, I was so grateful that the music of the city has survived and flourished when so much else has been lost. I still hope to go to New Orleans some day, to help with the rebuilding effort either with my hands or my tourist dollars (or both). The Preservation Hall website has a link where you can donate to directly aid musicians who were affected by Katrina last year.

It's hard to believe it hasn't even been a year since the hurricane; it's already left so many people's thoughts, it seems. I have been following New Orleans' author Poppy Z Brite's blog as she continues to cope with the aftermath of all of it. It's a good window into that broken region. Voices of Witness is currently putting together an oral history of Katrina survivors; you can read a few excerpts from the interviews on their website. It's so important to keep these stories (and this music!) alive.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The lovely and brilliant Andi Buchanan is featuring my "Zen Mind, Daughter's Mind" essay from her It's a Girl anthology on her blog today. Thanks, Andi!
The novel I'm writing right now is set during the Chicago Freedom Movement of 1966. I just found out that there is going to be a conference exploring and celebrating the 40th anniversary of the movement later this month in Chicago. My sister and her family are going to be visiting us then, so it doesn't make any sense for me to go--I relish every precious minute I can spend with them--but I hope I'll be able to get some of the literature from the conference. Today is actually the 40th anniversary of the Freedom Rally led at Soldier Field by Martin Luther King, Jr. that really launched the whole movement. The rally led to a march down to City Hall, where Dr. King taped these demands to the door.

The main goal of the Chicago Freedom Movement was to end racial segregation and create fair, open housing in Chicago. While progress has certainly been made in the last 40 years, I look at the way Katrina exposed housing issues in the South, and remember that there is still so much change that needs to happen. Writing this novel, I hope, will be a way of keeping that awareness alive.
M.J. Rose is a visionary. Not only is she is the author of deeply charged erotic thrillers; she is also a passionate and committed advocate for writers and a more evolved publishing industry (check out her blog, Buzz, Balls & Hype). Now, with the release of her new novel, The Venus Fix, she has created a philanthropic challenge. For everyone who links to her website and the Vidlit trailer for the book, she will donate $5 to a charity to be determined via a poll at her Venus Fix MySpace page. She will also donate $1 for every new MySpace Friend request until August 15. I love how she is combining writing, promotion and social action--very inspiring!
I was so sad to hear about Cody's Bookstore closing in Berkeley. It was a true honor to read at the illustrious store when The Book of Dead Birds came out (and it was even more of an honor to be introduced by the amazing Maxine Hong Kingston, who also served as emcee for the recent farewell ceremony there.) It was such a beautiful evening--many friends showed up to the event, and I had a glorious dinner with my wonderful agent and her husband and my beloved Fruitflesh editor at Chez Panisse beforehand. The reading will always carry a tinge of sadness for me, though--it took place the same day that my mother-in-law's husband Jack was diagnosed with brain cancer. I dedicated the reading to him, and asked everyone present to send good thoughts to his brain. My publisher was able to get me an earlier flight home after the reading so I could be with Jack and the family at the hospital over the weekend before I left for my Denver leg of the tour. It was on that plane that I had the conversation which planted the seed for my writing Self Storage. I never would have written the novel if it hadn't been for Jack's illness, for that changed flight. Now, I wish Jack was still here and the book had never been written, but I'm glad I'm able to keep his memory alive through the novel. Of course I've dedicated it to him.

At the hospital, I was able to tell Jack about giving the reading in his honor at Cody's. It was the last lucid conversation we had--his brain was so taken over by the tumor that most of his speech came out in surreal, often mind-blowing nonsequiturs (and actually the conversation about Cody's ended up turning into a strangely beautiful soliloquy about "animal participants". But he remembered the store well, and seemed touched by the dedication.) I will always associate Cody's with Jack. And now that the store is closing, I feel his loss all over again.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Friday night, I took Hannah to an audition for Little Shop of Horrors. I fully intended to not audition. I fully intended to just sit back and enjoy watching the process. But somehow my friends at the studio convinced me to give it a go. You don't have to do the show, they reasoned. Just have fun with it tonight. And so, against my most rational judgement, I jumped in. The singing part felt a little scary--the singing style is very different from Annie Get Your Gun, and I am not a belter, as this show requires--but it was also exhilarating. And of course it felt good to dance.

Becky, my singing coach, came up to me afterwards and told me to let her know within the week if I am serious about not wanting a lead part (on the application, when it asked what part I was going for, I wrote "None"). I am going to have to call her and let her know I can't do the show at all, as tempting as it may be. I have a novel to write. I need to keep my focus strong. But, as she observed, I've caught the theater bug. She said that now that I've accessed that new wild part of myself, I won't be able to turn it off, and she's right. It will be interesting to see where it will take me next, once I'm done writing this current novel-in-progress (and once I'm done promoting Self Storage, which is also going to keep me busy for a while). Call backs for Little Shop are next Friday--I will take Hannah and watch her with pride, and will do my best to keep from jumping back into the fray myself...

Friday, July 07, 2006

AlterNet has a great new interview with Ani DiFranco. I found this section particularly inspiring:

DZ: A lot of people talk about the idea of "All good politics is local," and you seem to promote that with the work you've been doing in your hometown.

AD: I come from Buffalo, and it's a very abandoned post-industrial city. It's definitely a small city that's a victim of "white flight," and suburban sprawl, and meanwhile it has this beautiful architecture heritage that's being devastated. Decade after decade, they've been tearing down half the city. So, saving buildings in Buffalo has been part of what Righteous Babe's work has been in recent years.

We took on this old 1870s sandstone cathedral that was going to be torn down. My manager and label president and good buddy Scott Fisher said, "Is it OK if I take some Righteous Babe money and hire an appraiser, an assessor to say, 'You don't have to tear this cathedral down, goddammit'?" We've done that with a few buildings in Buffalo, just personally invested in fighting the city demolition apparatus.

We saved this cathedral from demolition, and over the years we kept having connections with it, and our karma just seemed to be wrapped up with it, so we decided maybe this should become our new offices, and so it is. It's also a performance venue and an art gallery. We hooked up with this preeminent not-for-profit arts organization, called Hallwalls, that does avant-garde cutting-edge kind of galleries, theater, and art spaces that have been around for a few decades now. They're in part of the building; it's a real artistic hub that's in downtown Buffalo.

DZ: There was a book, "The Rise of the Creative Class," about artists being necessary for the vitality of a city's economy.

AD: Buffalo, for generations, has been a place that the young and dynamic evacuate as soon as they can. They head to New York or to Chicago because Buffalo can't sustain them. But if you're dissatisfied with your city, rather than leave it, change it! Start somethin'!

Not only is acting locally or getting involved in something in your community where it's at politically in terms of "changing the world," though -- it's fun. It's invigorating. We forget that. Even the act of registering to vote -- it's very simple, very easy, and then just taking a half hour out on Election Day and standing in that booth, it makes you feel better. This has been my experience. We feel so helpless and disempowered, but no matter how much faith you have in your vote or whether it's even going to be tallied, just the act of doing it, to be active in that half hour is a good feeling.

In New Orleans, you can go down to Habitat for Humanity and just show up and volunteer for a day and someone will hand you a hammer or a saw, and you can work for a day. For me, it lifts my heart. I think if people understood how much better they would feel with these small acts locally … I think we get a little tied up sometimes thinking that we have to change the world, but it's amazing how much we can just change our hearts and lift our hopes if we just make these small acts.

DZ: Is that how you recharge your batteries?

AD: For me, it's every night on stage, that's how my batteries are recharged. It's inspiring people through music and getting together with my community every night and being inspired by them. I have my own little subset of activism that I've turned into a job, and it's absolutely what keeps me going and feeling active -- and empowered.
Yesterday, I had the pleasure of reading my friend Laraine Herring's forthcoming book, The Awakened Writer: Deep Writing Through the Union of Body, Mind and Spirit, which will be published by Shambhala next year. It is the most integrated, honest, wise, warm, helpful book about writing I have read. I know it will change many people's lives. It certainly reinvigorated my relationship with my writing! I will be sure to let you know when it is available--you won't want to miss it.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

I'm always amused by the search terms that bring people to this blog. In the last couple of days, people have ended up here during searches for

--Pennsylvania mushroom pick Amazon
--petticoat unhooking stories
--Becky's blog orgasm video
--penalty for faking one's death

I'm sure all of them were sadly disappointed!

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

Writers are notorious eavesdroppers--where do you think we get our dialogue?--so I was tickled to find the Overheard in New York blog. It's full of tantalizing, often hilarious, sometimes heartbreaking (and, I should warn you, regularly obscene) snippets of overheard conversation. The same people also host Overheard at the Beach and Overheard in the Office.

A few examples:

Crazy: So I had to get fillings in all of my teeth.
Passenger: Uh huh.
Crazy: But I figured, why let them do that to me after they drilled holes in my brain, ya know?
Passenger: Sure.
Crazy: But I figured, might as well! Although if they were going to fill my teeth, I'd want them to use jelly.
Passenger: Yep.
Crazy: But the guy at the counter said they were out of jelly. So I got a blueberry muffin.

--R train

Girl #1 As Shakespeare once said "Thou shall not kill."
Girl #2 No, that would be God.

--11th & University

Older woman: Excuse me, miss?
Younger woman: Yeah?
Older woman: Your veil, your burqa is very beautiful. I didn't know your people were allowed to wear it in bright colors.
Younger woman: It's not a burqa, it's a poncho. I'm Jewish. It's for the rain. I got it at TJ Maxx.

--53rd & 7th

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Even though I can't be part of the hunger strike today--go, fasters!--I wonder if my recent sleep deprivation could count as a fasting of sorts. It would be nice to think it was happening for some higher purpose! Actually, this morning, I had a very fruitful lack of sleep--I sprung out of bed at 5am, after just a couple of hours of rest, my mind crackling with my novel-in-progress. I felt compelled to print out every section I've written so far and then tried to put them in some sort of order. Up until now, I've been writing random scenes as they come to me, trusting they will come together eventually, but not having a clear sense of the big picture. Today, I discovered that I have written more of the story than I had realized, and thatit has begun to take on a somewhat comprehensible shape. There is still plenty of room for surprise--my favorite part of the process--and I still have a lot of work ahead of me, but I'm pretty sure I know where I'm going with it now. So I suppose lack of sleep can be beneficial at times (although I doubt it is the answer to our world's ills. In fact, in the long run it will probably cause more harm than good. I hope to break this sleep fast soon--there are much better ways to be in solidarity with the hunger strike...)

Happy Independence Day, everyone!

Monday, July 03, 2006

This fourth of July, CODEPINK has organized Troops Home Fast, a massive hunger strike to bring our troops home. I won't be able to join the fast for health reasons, but I helped craft the original alert that went out to CODEPINK members, and as of this morning, over 3,000 people have signed up to participate, including Cindy Sheehan, Alice Walker, Dolores Huerta, Eve Ensler and others I deeply admire. Historically, hunger strikes have brought about immense social change. May Troops Home Fast make its own historic mark.
As of Saturday, we have a 1971 31' Airstream Excella trailer in our backyard! It's huge and silver and amazing. I would post a photo, but Blogger still isn't letting me share pictures for some reason (you can look at a similar trailer here.) My mom got an excellent deal from a family who had lived in two Airstreams while their house was being built; the one my mom bought had been their teenage boy's pad. It's in great shape for its age--certainly much better shape than the mouse-poop-infested one we saw in Ramona had been (although this one does have a bit of an earwig infestation). The front end of it was transformed into a design studio complete with drafting table; we're going to rip that all out, create more seating/sleeping space, get everything all nice and shiny, etc., and then my mom will either sell it or rent it out. I hope it will be in liveable shape by the time my sister and her family get into town later this month--it will be great guest room space. For now, I'm just enjoying seeing it gleam through the window.
I hope the lovely and amazing Naomi Shihab Nye won't mind if I post one of her poems today. I have fig trees on the brain...

My Father and the Fig Tree
by Naomi Shihab Nye

For other fruits, my father was indifferent.
He'd point at the cherry trees and say,
"See those? I wish they were figs."
In the evening he sat by my bed
weaving folktales like vivid little scarves.
They always involved a figtree.
Even when it didn't fit, he'd stick it in.
Once Johal was walking down the road and he saw a fig tree.
Or, he tied his camel to a fig tree and went to sleep.
Or, later when they caught and arrested him, his pockets were full of figs.

At age six I ate a dried fig and shrugged.
"That's not what I'm talking about! he said,
"I'm talking about a fig straight from the earth — gift of Allah!
— on a branch so heavy it touches the ground.
I'm talking about picking the largest, fattest,
sweetest fig
in the world and putting it in my mouth."
(Here he'd stop and close his eyes.)

Years passed, we lived in many houses,
none had figtrees.
We had lima beans, zucchini, parsley, beets.
"Plant one!" my mother said.
but my father never did.
He tended garden half-heartedly, forgot to water,
let the okra get too big.
"What a dreamer he is. Look how many things he starts and doesn't finish."

The last time he moved, I got a phone call,
My father, in Arabic, chanting a song
I'd never heard. "What's that?"
He took me out back to the new yard.
There, in the middle of Dallas, Texas,
a tree with the largest, fattest,
sweetest fig in the world.
"It's a fig tree song!" he said,
plucking his fruits like ripe tokens,
emblems, assurance
of a world that was always his own.