Sunday, April 30, 2006

Start Spreading the News

There's a personal essay in the current New Yorker (May 1) that I predict will be in next year's edition of The Best American Essays and will win a National Magazine Award. It's "Vessels," by Daniel Raeburn, about his daughter's death while in his wife's womb, and the grief that followed; his wife had to go through labor and delivery knowing the baby would be stillborn. It's a wrenching story, both simple and unsparing, and extraordinarily well written.

The New Yorker has been on a roll lately. Another first-person piece I expect to win awards is Calvin Trillin's portrait of his late wife, "Alice, Off the Page," which appeared in the March 27 issue. Unfortunately, neither Trillin's
piece nor Raeburn's is on the magazine's Web site -- at least not yet.

The New Yorker was, of course, once the premier American magazine for fiction. I started reading it regularly in college while taking long study b
reaks in the library periodicals room. (I'd started reading the cartoons in high school.) After I graduated, I subscribed. In the early and mid-'80s there would be two good short stories in every issue -- usually one short and one longer, one of them often by a lesser-known writer. (Today almost all of the magazine's fiction seems to be by "names.") I was introduced to so many great contemporary fiction writers during that time: Ann Beattie, Lorrie Moore, Michael Cunningham, Peter Cameron.

I stopped subscribing for a while in the '90s, then started again after David Remnick came on as editor. The magazine is now the premier American magazine for nonfiction, in my opinion. I don't even read the fiction anymore. Remnick is probably the best -- and luckiest -- magazine editor working today. At least judging by the product that comes through my mail slot every week. I can only imagine he's as good an editor to work for.

Lucky bastards who work at the New Yorker.

Thursday, April 27, 2006

That Special Glow

Technical difficulties at home have driven me to live out a cliche for the first time (well, this particular cliche anyway): I am blogging in a coffeehouse with a decaf soy latte at my side.

I was a little nervous at first. Is everyone else doing it right except me? Is no one doing it in coffeehouses anymore? Am I a joke?

Now that I'm all "set up" (as the kids today say), it's fun -- except for the noisy, space-invading, talking-to-self, somewhat disturbing suitcase person who just sat down next to me (of course next to me).

I should add that I used wi-fi for the first time ever during my writing retreat. It's magic! (Am I sure
I'm not in my eighties?)

I got through my return to work today, with as many tasks on my desk as I feared would be awaiting me. But on the bright side, I received some genuine-seeming compliments on my new beard from two female Gen Y-ers. One went a step too far, though, and tried to convince me that the beard, which contains a startling amount of gray, makes me look younger.

Later in the day, another female Gen Y-er said, "Welcome back! You look . . ."

I said, "Hairier? Furrier?"

". . . glowing!"

I think she was grasping at straws in that caught-in-the-hallway-with-coworker, must-make-witty-remark-in-breezy-way-that-I-want-to-seem-natural-but-is-actually-desperate way.

I know because I was doing it too: "Hairier"? "Furrier"?
Where did I think I was?

Should I mention that this was the boss's daughter I was speaking to?

My friend Diablo, who knows a thing or two about beards and is, um, not a member of Generation Y, also complimented me on the beard as we enjoyed a spur-of-the-moment dinner at one of our favorite spots last night, so I feel comfortable that it has sufficiently wide appeal that I will keep it for a while.

Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Goodbye to All That

This is my last night at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. (Surprise! I blew my secret!) I head back to DC tomorrow afternoon. It's been a much more mixed experience for me than it was five years ago. I've been through just about every emotion possible in relation to my writing -- and sometimes in relation to one or two fellow artists, though for the most part they've been kind, interesting, and generous.

You'd think I'd be happy to have completed one essay I'm happy with, seeing as that's one more than I've completed in the last three and a half years. That alone should have made this residency worthwhile, right? Yeah, it should have.

But yesterday I had such a bad day with my work -- or lack of it -- that I was starting to think about returning a day early. If I hadn't come to my senses on my own, the words of a Baltimore poet I've become friendly with would have been enough: "It's all part of it," she said in response to my discouragement. "But the one thing you cannot do is leave early." She meant it too.

It's a good thing I listened because today, after days of nothing, I started a new essay -- about my dogs and my relationship with their other dad, with whom I share custody. I'm happy to be writing something that seems to be going somewhere. (My entire life, every time I hit a block, sometimes years in length, I think I'll never write again.) I have a sense that this particular piece may turn out to be as personally healing -- vis a vis my relationship to the "other dad" -- as it is, at times, painful to write. Meaning: It's not a bitter essay but a loving one (so far anyway). Surprise again!

Now I'm hearing the rain outside my little studio -- the "corn crib," they call it -- along with the cicadas and crickets, and pretty soon there might be a cow's moo in the mix. I'm feeling mighty bittersweet about leaving. My poet friend is right -- it is all part of it.

The space I was afforded over the last two weeks to experience all of my internal responses to my work (from deep despair to general anxiety to pleasant discovery), to get to know a constantly rotating group of congenial artists from all over the country (and Germany), to go to my writing studio day after day, even when doing so was torturous and unproductive -- that's unavailable to me, in that way, at home.

But I do feel inspired to get some particular things at home done now, and not just the infamous Book Project. (By the way, that e-mail I sent out to a potential source hasn't gotten a response yet. Time to send out another e-mail, to him or someone else, I guess.)

Finally, before it's too late, someone restrain my hands and keep me from typing the words I dread going back to work on Thursday.

Too late.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

"You Know, You Ought to Get Yourself a Girl"

The Italian actress Alida Valli died yesterday. Up till now I knew her only as "Valli," her screen name in my all-time favorite movie, The Third Man, in which she costarred with Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. If I'd gone to the trouble to research her life before now, I would have discovered that she had a long and extremely busy film career in Italy after The Third Man and a few other English-language films, including The Paradine Case with Gregory Peck, a Hitchcock film I haven't seen.

I saw The Third Man for the first time when I was a college freshman. The great 1949 film noir, with a screenplay by Graham Greene based on his novel, opened my eyes to the ways in which black and white, light and shadow, could comprise a full palette of their own in a movie. At 18, I had never been fully aware of that -- because I had never seen that palette used so beautifully before then. It was an exciting experience that changed the way I watched movies.

And that unforgettable closing shot in which Valli walks down that long, long tree-lined Viennese promenade, and then (ouch!) just keeps on walking past Joseph Cotten -- one of the great movie moments.

Saturday, April 22, 2006

Old at Heart

I spent a good part of the day trying to adapt another blog post. (What would I do without this blog, the rough draft of my brain?) But I don't have a very good track record with essays that are at all in an op-ed vein, and that's how this one kept coming out, no matter how personal I tried to make it.

I've published a couple of opinion pieces over the years, but I've written more that either were rejected or never even got that far. It's something about the voice. I start to sound whiny and crotchety, with a dash of forced humor (think eightysomething Andy Rooney of 60 Minutes), or stuffy and crotchety, with no humor at all (for the Washingtonians in the audience, think eightysomething Fred Fiske's commentaries on WAMU's Metro Connection).

Or else I sound as though I'm writing a college-application essay. Okay, it's a little better than my actual college-application essays, in which I wrote about wallpapering the family bathroom. (It's a wonder I got in anywhere.)

So my efforts today will probably not go anywhere. But I actually had a small breakthrough about my writing process, which was a positive thing. It's too complicated to explain at this late hour. Maybe some other time.

By the way, I don't mean to sound ageist with my references to eightysomethings above. Just think of them as forced, Andy Rooney-ish attempts at humor. And Fred Fiske has always been stodgy; my brother and I used to make fun of him thirty-odd years ago when he hosted The Fred Fiske Show on WWDC.

Anyway, my larger point: I'm not in my eighties.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

I Live Lucy*

Another day in this literary-artistic environment, and here's what my reading material looks like:

Lucy was querulous and demanding on the set, hardest of all on her fellow performers. The star's makeup man, Hal King, was appalled when Lucy "went over to Vivian Vance and pulled off Vivian's false eyelashes. Lucy said, 'Nobody wears false eyelashes on this show but me.' " In the beginning, before they got to know each other, recalled script clerk Maury Thompson, "Lucille gave Vivian a hard time. I mean a really hard time. One day I pulled Viv aside and I said, 'What are you going to do about her?' Vivian was very smart. She said, 'Maury, if by any chance this thing actually becomes a hit and goes anywhere, I'm gonna learn to love that bitch.' "


Lucille and Viv did get to know each other -- obviously -- and did become friends, just in case your fantasy, like mine, was starting to shatter. But Viv and William "Fred Mertz" Frawley? Hated each other. Though that's a pretty well-known fact. Yawn -- helloooo.

So sue me -- I'm trying to see how different biographies are done. This one is Ball of Fire: The Tumultuous Life and Comic Art of Lucille Ball by Stefan Kanfer. The writing is serviceable, thorough, and easy to speed through; the story, not surprisingly to anyone who has known me for more than a few years, fascinating. There's not much reflection and almost no flair, but hey, sometimes you need a break from breakfast-table conversations about
the Nazis' Lebensborn program (the subject of a novel in progress by a children's author who left today; it's her first adult book -- sounds really interesting, actually, and she was great).

My reading tonight went very, very well. Lots of fawning fans and so forth. ;) I've finally satisfied everyone's curiosity about what the heck that quiet, skinny writer guy who's growing a beard (yes, again
) is up to.


*A typo on my part when I went looking for the Wikipedia page on I Love Lucy. Thought it was just the right Freudian slip for my title.

Wednesday, April 19, 2006

Demand Performance

On many evenings here, residents "voluntarily" present their work. Writers read, visual artists open their studios or show slides, catalogs, or examples of their work on their Web sites (tonight Uwe Jonas, a German sculptor who works with a kind of Austrian marble that looks like granite, talked; he doesn't have his own Web site yet, but here are a couple of examples, which don't really do his work justice), and composers perform (I haven’t witnessed that yet, though one of the composers is performing at a nearby college this weekend, and I might attend).

I put "voluntarily" in quotes up above because presenting isn't required, but there is quite a bit of peer pressure: "Are you reading?" "When are you reading?" "Are you going to let us hear some of your work???"

Leave me alone and let me unpack my suitcase, for God’s sake!

It is nice to get a sense of what the other artists are working on, but I don’t recall this badgering from the last time I was here. In fact, I felt no pressure at all -- which is exactly why I was happy to read then. That and the fact that I pretty much started writing the first day I got here during that residency, which wasn’t the case this time around.

I didn’t know if I would do a reading at all this time. That’s not the main reason I came here, and besides, I wasn’t even sure if I would have any new, readable work to share by the end of my two weeks. But yesterday, since I had no fresh ideas, I started to expand one of my blog posts into a full-fledged essay. I’d had a false start trying to adapt the same post a few days before, so I wasn’t encouraged, but 2,400 words later it seems to have turned into something I actually don’t despise. So I volunteered to read tomorrow night.

Monday, April 17, 2006

I Am a Child of the Universe, No Less Than the Trees and the Stars. I Have a Right to Be Here.*

I had intended to post every day I was here, but yesterday was so uneventful and full of frustration that I couldn’t think of anything to say. The only event of note was that one of my sisters –- the oldest of my siblings –- turned 50. For four and a half years, all four of us have been in our forties. Now a new door has been opened. Lucky for me, I’m at the end of the line.

Tonight, after continuing frustrations with the work I ostensibly came here to do -- at least at the time I applied to come here -- I took a huge step on my so-called book project. (Hear that, Beth? Though feel free to keep nagging me.)

First, a little background on the last four days:

In between attempts to get some personal writing done, I’ve been taking breaks (sometimes long breaks) to do online research related to the heretofore theoretical book, a biography (yes, a biography, you heard it here first). But even though at some point after I was accepted to come here I decided I would use the time to work on the book project, once I got here I kept trying to concentrate on my other writing.

Meanwhile, I was constantly pulled away by research into the book. (It’s amazing the tidbits you can find by doggedly digging deeper and deeper in Google.) Meanwhile, I was thinking this research wasn’t really a legitimate use of my time here! All the writers here, like me, are a "creative writers"; I harbor fears that I've chosen a lowbrow subject for the book, which on top of that isn't in a genre commonly thought of as creative writing.

You can imagine how much fun it’s been to be inside my head for the last four days.

But the more I’ve told select people here about what I have in mind (I've been coyly dropping hints, they've been begging for details), the more I’ve been emboldened by their positive response (possibly more a response to my evident passion that to the subject itself).

So here’s my huge step: For the first time –- and much sooner than I ever expected to be doing this –- I e-mailed a potential source to see if he had anything to say about my (deceased, female) subject. I had come across a photo on his Web site showing him with my subject on a significant night in her life. Perhaps it was just a fleeting photo op; perhaps they were actually friends. I’ll find out if he writes back.

The reason this step is huge isn’t so much that I did it as it is what I said in the e-mail: I claimed the project as something legitimate. I identified myself as a real writer with a serious purpose. I named it and, in a big sense, committed to it.



* The title of this post is, of course, a reference (only slightly tongue-in-cheek) to the well-known poem "Desiderata," which has achieved full-on cheesiness status in some quarters but which I also happen to have a lifelong affection for -- echoes of Stuart Smalley notwithstanding.

Saturday, April 15, 2006

I Am Woman?

At the end of day three (full day two), I'm feeling a lot more at home here and comfortable around the other writers. (Apropos of nothing, a cow is mooing as I type.) For some reason I've been having a harder time "entering the space" than I did five years ago. Part of it is that this visit is turning out to be at least as much about my relationship to my writing as it is about the writing itself. Sort of a complicated dynamic there.

One fellow resident is the author of
an essay I've taught. I was a bit paralyzed with intimidation the other day when he introduced himself, and I said nothing about my connection. But I mentioned it tonight, and we had a nice chat.

Today I didn't just finish a book -- I read an entire book. It happens to be a short one: Nora Ephron's forthcoming essay collection, I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman, which is out in August. I guess she's taking a little break from the screenwriting. Or is it taking a break from her?

There are some very funny moments as well as some pretty weak ones, particularly some of the endings. But she's nothing if not a deft writer. Just know going in that she skates on the surface most of the way.

There's a great short piece called "Me and Bill: The End of Love," about Bill Clinton. I remember reading it last year on the op-ed page of the Times, where it was published as "After the Love Is Gone." Now, that ending really works.

What does it mean that I brought with me not only a book "on being a woman" but also a half-dozen Luna energy bars, "the whole nutrition bar for women"? I didn't notice the gender-specific slogan until I was tearing the first one open yesterday. I gotta say, it tasted good.

Friday, April 14, 2006

Amusement Park Ride

I just finished a book I'd been reading in inches, but I had the time to plow through the last half of it today. It's new, out this month: Sweet and Low: A Family Story, about the inventor of Sweet’N Low sugar substitute, Ben Eisenstadt. The author, Rich Cohen, is Eisenstadt’s grandson, so the book is not simply a biography but also a memoir –- and highly entertaining in both regards.

It’s about immigration and about Jews in Brooklyn in the first half of the 20th century, and about achievement, eccentricity, parceling out love, the mob, corruption, sugar, saccharine, science, commerce, and family -- and feuds: Rich Cohen’s branch of the family was disinherited by his grandmother, Ben Eisenstadt’s widow.

“To be disinherited is to be set free,” Cohen writes, but this isn’t a vindictive book. Besides being very funny and fabulously written, it does what the best biographies and memoirs do: It tries to figure things out. And it does so by being irreverent and respectful, reflective and investigative all at once.

Cohen is only 37, and this is his fifth book. (He wouldn’t have any trouble answering either of the questions posed to me yesterday!) He’s been on the staff of the New Yorker, the New York Observer, and Rolling Stone, where he’s now a contributing editor.

Cohen’s grandfather (an orphan) used to tell a story of how, in his last year of high school, he walked from Brooklyn to Albany on foot to contest the state’s denial of a diploma to him because he was a credit short. I liked this passage by Cohen:

“I’ve always found this story (Ben walks to Albany, pleads his case, gets his credits and the notion to become a lawyer) unbelievable. It’s the five-mile-walk-to-school-uphill-both-ways story that your grandfather tells to make you feel weak and lazy. In the Eisenstadt family, it’s the cornerstone of a religion. It was even told by the rabbi at Ben’s funeral. . . . I sometimes think a family is no more than a collection of such stories, a chronicle that locks you down like the safety bar that crosses your lap before the roller-coaster leaves the platform, without which you would fly away in the turns.”

Thursday, April 13, 2006


After a three-hour drive through the pink and green on-the-vergeness of a Virginia April, here I am on the first night of my two-week writing retreat.

I was here exactly five years ago. A year before that, I rented a house for a week in Berkeley Springs, West Virginia. Except for a weekend visit by my then-partner and one of our two dogs at the time, Jake, the bulk of that week in Berkeley Springs was spent alone -- just me with my writing and the other of our two dogs at the time, Fred.

Fred passed away two months later. Because he was and will forever remain the first dog I ever loved, I'll remember that week in West Virginia most of all for the sweet days he and I spent together. He was in poor health, and we knew he didn’t have much time left. I have a self-timed picture on my bookshelf at home of Fred and me in that house in Berkeley Springs, on the couch together, my laptop computer on the coffee table in front of us.

Our other dog, Jake, was put down two months later after biting two people. Very sad story -- and not only for the two people with bite marks in them. But a story for another time.

A month after Jake died, we got Patsy and Charlie, who live with us still –- one week with me, one week with my ex. Or two weeks with my ex this month, as I sit in my little studio typing away in the quiet of a more-or-less-rural Virginia night.


I’ll go back to the residence in a little while. That building is like a Swiss youth hostel: clean, with small, functional bedrooms and a '70s Euro-modern aesthetic, but also a little threadbare in spots, as if it can't quite keep ahead of all the people coming through.

I share a bathroom (toilet and shower; there's a sink in my room) with a woman I met at dinner tonight. She warned me, "I tend to use the bathroom in the middle of the night." I said not to worry, I do too. I hope our bladders are on different schedules, though.

The first day –- when you’re the new kid and trying to remember twenty names –- is the hardest. I know this feeling will pass, but I find myself missing the people I met here five years ago. There's actually one of them here, but she so did not remember me, which wasn't a big deal since I don't remember much about her other than her face and name.

Later in the evening, as a number of us gathered around several laptop computers to look at the Web site of a German photographer here, another writer said to me, "What have you written?"

I said, "You mean, like, that you would have heard of?"

She said yes.

I said, "Nothing?"

More commonly, you hear "What are you writing?" Almost everyone puts it that way, in that particular tense. It's just assumed you have something in progress, which I guess is a fair enough assumption.

But I don’t, really. I'm just flying, looking out for a branch to grab onto. So far I'm just enjoying the trees going by.

Sunday, April 09, 2006

Big Pictures

On Thursday of this week, I head out to central Virginia for two weeks of writing, reading, and thinking -- not necessarily in that order. I have a lot to get done in the next three days, and -- though I know I shouldn't be worrying about this now -- I will be coming back to a lot of the same when the two weeks are done.

The last time I was there, five years ago, among the people I met were two fantastic Brooklyn artists, Rene Lynch (pronounced "Reenie") and her husband, Julian Jackson -- both of them warm, funny, unpretentious people. One of Rene's works (but not this one) now hangs in my bedroom.

Some of Julian's paintings (but not this one) were featured in
a charming gay romantic comedy from six years ago, Big Eden. That movie -- which starred Arye Gross as a New York painter who goes home to Montana to care for his grandfather (and whose work looks remarkably like Julian Jackson's) -- was written and directed by Thomas Bezucha, whose second movie turned out to be last year's far less charming The Family Stone, about which I weighed in here.

Check out the recently revamped Web site of another fabulous painter, who lives here in Washington. Two of her paintings (but not this one) also hang in my apartment.

Friday, April 07, 2006

John Paul and Willie

I just got a big fat review copy of The Oxford Book of American Poetry, an impressive new anthology edited by David Lehman. Because April is National Poetry Month, I offer you this from the book. It's by Sharon Olds, originally published in The Gold Cell (1987).

The Pope's Penis

It hangs deep in his robes, a delicate
clapper at the center of a bell.
It moves when he moves, a ghostly fish in a
halo of silver seaweed, the hair
swaying in the dark and the heat -- and at night

while his eyes sleep, it stands up
in praise of God.

Olds talks about that poem, among other things, in a interview from 1999.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Listening to the Radio

I took a break from the depressing task of doing my taxes tonight by dancing around the apartment a bit to Nanci Griffith's "Listen to the Radio," from her live album Winter Marquee. Always good for a little cheer.

Earlier, walking home listening to the news of
Gene Pitney's death on NPR, I wondered why no one mentioned "I Fought the Law" -- another great song it's impossible not to dance around the apartment to (whether the original or the much-later version by the Clash). The reason? Gene Pitney didn't do it, I just discovered; the Bobby Fuller Four did.

Huh. Oh, well, Gene did some pretty good songs too -- "It Hurts to Be in Love," "Twenty-Four Hours From Tulsa." He also, it turns out, wrote "He's a Rebel" for the Crystals. Did not know that before tonight.

The only reason I know "Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa" -- one of his more obscure songs -- is that when I was on my junior year abroad and feeling homesick, my brother thoughtfully taped a favorite radio show of mine: "The Sunday Night Thing of the Past" on WASH-FM, back when that station had a weekly oldies show. Part of the program that night (January 10, 1982) was devoted to songs with numbers in the titles. They played a snippet of "Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa" on Neda Ulaby's obituary of Pitney on NPR tonight.

With the demise of Washington's only oldies station just this week, you're not likely to hear anything as obvious as "Eight Days a Week" or "In the Year 2525" on the radio anymore, let alone "Twenty-Four Hours from Tulsa" or "98.6" (that's on the tape my brother sent me too, sung by someone named "Keith"). Commercial radio in Washington so sucks. It may be time for satellite.

When I was a preteen and teen in the 1970s, I got into oldies from the '50s and '60s. This was around the time American Graffiti came out and revived all that. In fact, the first concert I ever went to was Sha Na Na at Carter Barron Amphitheatre. The second was the Beach Boys at the Capital Centre.

What saved me from complete anachronistic nerddom (I like to think, anyway) is the fact that I listened just as much to Top 40 and, later in the '70s, the stations that played what was known as "album rock" (e.g., an entire side of Electric Light Orchestra).

Okaaay . . . that part of my blog audience that I didn't lose with the Gene Pitney reference I'm sure I just lost with ELO. Can I please go back to Nanci Griffith and start over?

Oh, right. I was dancing around the apartment back there.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

"You Shouldn't Have . . . No, Seriously, You Really Shouldn't Have"

Thanks -- if that's the word -- to Beth, the American abroad, for a package that arrived in the mail on Out-Like-a-Lamb Day, March 31: a Turkish Delight bar.

She said she'd been meaning to send it to me ever since reading
my December post about that confection's appearance in The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe and a hilarious Slate article by Liesl Schillinger called "The Lion, the Witch, and the Really Foul Candy."

Beth's gift is not authentic Turkish Delight but rather a candy bar made by Cadbury (love its kid-magnet slogan: "Full of Eastern Promise"), which I assume Beth bought in London, not on one of her many world travels. This version is referenced in the Slate article, and as unappetizing as it is -- gum-tinglingly sweet red jelly-like filling covered by flavorless (but sweet!) chocolate -- it sounds like the real thing is far worse (and completely different): as Schillinger puts it, "like soap rolled in plaster dust, or like a lump of Renuzit air freshener."

Since writing that post, I actually saw the Lion, Witch, Wardrobe movie, which I found lushly tedious. (To give you an idea of where I'm coming from, I also found the one Lord of the Rings movie I saw to be beautiful but boring; I told you I don' t like kids' movies.) My main thought about the Narnia movie: I don't remember all these battle scenes in the book. A friend who read LWW more recently than I confirmed that they weren't as prevalent in the original but were pumped up for modern movie audiences. (Come to think of it, I have no recollection of Turkish Delight anywhere in the movie, though the Slate article mentions its role there. I may have nodded off by then.) I can guarantee you that a book filled with battle scenes would not have appealed to the ten-year-old me. And I do have fond memories of the book.

Now if I could just get this vile aftertaste out of my mouth.