Saturday, June 29, 2013

My Personal Movie Posse

People get titchy when they talk about movies.  To some, movies are like a religion with icons and saints and popes.  Not so much for me. I’m not so fancy.  I like what I like and I don’t want to hear it.

But in case you want to hear it, here are the movies that were there for me when I needed them:

1.  Baz Luhrmann's Romeo + Juliet.  Visually juicy and the soundtrack is so good it makes me want to bite someone. Also, John Leguzamo’s Tybalt makes me want to bite someone.  I love that saucy Tybalt.  He is a true believer.

 2.  Almost Famous. "It's all happening." Also, the deleted scenes are awesome.

 3. Brother From Another Planet.  Early John Sayles, with lovely Joe Morgan.  "Welcome to Babylon, Brother. . ." Hypnotic, low budget, full of truth.   For example, a white guy tries to show that he’s a nice, non-racist white person by talking about how much he loved Ernie Banks as a kid.  I like it when moviemakers sneak little bits in that you know they saw somebody do once and were so horrified and delighted that they had to put it in a movie. Getting to do that must be a very fine thing about being a moviemaker.

4.  Smooth Talk.  I liked John Hughes just as much as the next white girl in the eighties, but Sixteen Candles and The Breakfast Club left me with a feeling of having been at a party for two hours where I was only pretending to think the punch had vitamins. Then there was Smooth Talk with Mary Kay Place, Treat Williams and Laura Dern. Laura Dern is a brave actress, even at this young age.  She is so gorgeous and riveting and her mother just hates her.  I saw this film rendition of “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been” when I was seventeen and it made me know like no warning from any adult could that my friends and I were most vulnerable at the times when we thought we were invincible.

 5.   Carmen. The Carlos Saura flamenco version.  I like it when the men dance fight over the girl. You know you are doing something right when two guys are dance fighting over you.

 6.  G.I. Jane.  If I'm ever going through a really bad patch, I watch this movie and say to myself "The more people fuck with me the more I want to gut it out."  This movie has been my go-to for bad days since 1998.

 7.  High Plains Drifter.  Because, hello.  He turns an entire town into a red hell.  And I like those hip huggers so sue me.

 8.  Desperately Seeking Susan.  My best friend Diane and I went into downtown Berkeley on the BART train to see it there.  Probably the most transformative time I have ever had at the movies. That ding dongy soundtrack that plays when Madonna walks around lifts my heart and makes me know that my life is mine and that wonderful things are about to happen.

 9.  Into the Wild.  I make excuses to show this to my students when I can. The soundtrack is soul-wrenching. Chris McCandless’ journey to find meaning in his place and time and circumstances will always be relevant. This movie is beautiful and unrelenting. 

10.  Godfather II.  My favorite is when Don Corleone brings his wife a nice pear the day he gets fired.  Next thing you know he's offing The Black Hand.  I like a fellow who takes care of business and still thinks of bringing his wife a piece of fruit. Now that I think of it, my husband did that very thing today.  He didn’t kill anybody, but he took a moment from a very hard work day to go into the hundred degree sun and bring me a fig from the tree in the backyard.  For no reason. So, I like that.

11.  After the Wedding.  I like looking at Mads Mikkelsen.  Those wide Scandinavian face planes kill me.  He’s a good actor too, but really I could watch him make a sandwich and feel entertained.

Which movies make your list?

The sandwich wouldn't even be necessary.
Photo: Stephane Reix/EPA

Friday, June 28, 2013

My Personal Book Posse

There have been lots of recommended reading lists going around lately. It's summer and people like to read or at least talk about reading. Experience in books is highly personal. Whenever anyone asks for a book recommendation, I always give the titles my friends or teachers wrote. It's too hard to say to someone looking for something to read on the beach or on the plane: Go grab One Hundred Years of Solitude.  It will rock you under the redwoods and the entire world will never be the same again.

Doesn't everyone have a personal book posse? A set of titles that rocked them under the redwoods at exactly the moments in time when they became who they were? These books are your foundation of personhood.  They have your back.  They get you.  Well, here is my personal book posse, in case you were wondering:

One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  All of us freshmen at Porter College in UC Santa Cruz in the late eighties read this for our core course.  It peeled off the surface of the world for me.  Then it peeled off my skin and left me to walk around in my bones.  It was painful and glorious and too much.  Just too much.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy.  I read this when I was seventeen and it was exactly everything I was feeling at seventeen. I moped around for weeks after reading that novel, because poor Tess.  That Angel Clare was so cold.

Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. Holden Caulfield shouldn't have been such a revelation to a teenager in the eighties.  But he was.  Sometimes he was the only one who understood.

The Shipping News by Annie Proulx.  This gets a reread at least once a year.  I carry it around with me in my purse half the time.  Quoyle with his chin, Aunt with her strong fingers.  These are good, ferocious people.

Sula by Toni Morrison.  For that scene when Sula cuts off the tip of her own finger to keep that group of boys away. The mushroom cap, the cherry blood. I guess Ms. Morrison and I both speak and write in the English language, but sometimes I doubt it. She's a most powerful magician. The most powerful I've ever read.

The Weetzie Bat Books by Francesca Lia Block. These were published in 1989, but I didn't come across them until I was in my thirties when they promptly made everything possible. I knew all along there were fairies.

White Oleander by Janet Fitch. If you read this, it will be difficult to believe that the characters aren't people you've actually known.  Evocative and alive in some of the same ways Block's writing is.  Those Los Angeles girls are a sensual lot.

Speed of Light by Elizabeth Rosner. I've never looked at a Gingko tree the same way since. It's about some of the ways genocide and torture haunt the human heart, and how love rules anyway. One of the best endings of a book ever.

Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh. Victoria will open your eyes to a whole population of young people dumped onto the streets once they age out of the foster system. Beautiful writing.

The Forest of Hands and Teeth by Carrie Ryan. My introduction into zombie literature, and I didn't even know it was about zombies at first.  Apocalyptic horror fiction for young adults. I loved it so much I order 75 copies for the school where I worked at the time. 

Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? a short story by Joyce Carol Oates.  Killed me when I was sixteen and made me write my first short story that wasn't about drunk drivers and vampires.

Where I'm Calling From: Selected Stories by Raymond Carver. I read this on the dirty carpet on the floor of the studio I lived in with my husband. I was 23 and I had a marriage, a full time career, and a feeling of possibility.  I read these stories and rolled around on the carpet in amazement and then I stopped rolling and looked at the ceiling and thought, I'm going to be a writer.

The Gold Cell by Sharon Olds.  These poems are impossible to take in all at once.  Each one is a devastating, impossibly rich chocolate in a golden box of pain.

What is in your book posse?

Monday, June 24, 2013

The Butterfly Garden

In her excellent writer’s memoir The Getaway Car, Ann Patchett likens a new novel idea to a beautiful butterfly flying overhead.  It is such a perfect thing before a writer grabs it and ruins it by turning it into words and scenes and chapters.  A writer’s idea is at its most divine before she writes a single word. 

For the past two weeks I have resided in a butterfly garden of ideas for my own next novel.  I write down the plot outlines, characterizations and titles in a special notebook I keep just for the purpose.  Every one of these ideas is perfect, sublime. They are not yet squashed within the pages of a draft but rather gently kept between the covers of my idea notebook. They land on my nose and flit their wings. Their wind on my eyelids feels like hope, meaning, truth and possibility.

Last night, I chose one.  I’ve bent its wings already, forcing it into a plot outline of 22 chapters.  Now that I begin to write, the characters won’t flesh out exactly as I’ve imagined them.  They will grow their own vocal chords and saying what they want to say.  They’ll head this way on the highway instead of that.  The meaning that I’ve imagined for their lives will shift and mean something slightly or wholly different.

We are on our adventure together now, this idea and me. We exit the garden and enter into real life which requires cause and effect, show not tell and a narrative arc.  I’ve chosen this particular idea for its relevance and strength.  I’ve chosen this idea because it matters to me the most, because I looked into my teenaged daughter’s face over dinner two nights ago and it came to me like that.

And so we begin. 

Writer and artist friends, what is your process?  How do you decide which idea to turn into form? 

Blue Morpho. Photo by unknown photographer, posted on

Friday, June 21, 2013

The Boys From Rugby

Ten minutes ago I returned home from this year's Squaw Valley Community of Writers poetry reading benefit featuring Bob Hass, Evie Shockley, Brenda Hillman, Forest Gander and Sharon Olds.  So poetry tonight, and that's how it is.

The Boys From Rugby

The boys from rugby pass
cleats clacking on the wet concrete
and in the puddles their otherworld brothers march under identical leaden skies

These subalterns with mud on their shins
These wild and tired boys
These other mothers’ sons
Who will be home in time for dinner
Smile on each other then
These northern lads from northern lands
The west has already been won.
So I stand by
And I stand by.

Other sons pass through unwon lands on the other side of the gate
Once I stood
For those boys wild and broken
Those otherworld brothers
My morning boys with their endless needing
On the run from R.I.P.s sneaky as rogue waves
Forgotten sons of loveless mothers with hearts like graves.

I do not stand by them now.
My arms are empty and hang by my sides.

The boys from rugby pass and smile
In friendly greetings, too fleet for Death
Too loved for need yet
Needlessly I stand. And I stand.


The focal point of the day is swimming. We live within walking distance of a community pool.  This walk is just a little bit too far for comfort on a hot day but we take it anyway knowing the water will feel all the better for it. It always does.

Hardly anybody uses community pools in our community anymore so we have the whole thing nearly to ourselves. We play mermaids.

The we is my nine-year-old daughter and me.  I call her Witch Baby but her real name is Margaret. She reminds me of Hester's Pearl, hence the name.  Plus she has powers. I'm only bothering to tell you this because I have the time. I'm not in a hurry right now.

We have been using the hour before pool time for household tasks that never get done during the school year.  Yesterday we reorganized a giant closet of chaos and turned it into a usable space. Today we touched up the ceiling where I smudged it with the wall paint two years ago.  These were impossible, insurmountable tasks. Together did them in less than 45 minutes. 

This morning she drew pictures in the garden while I wrote out a new book idea longhand. Tomorrow is for scrubbing the windowsills and then movies. Sunday we're thinking church. Then maybe baking something. Monday the pool. Maybe a roller blade trip. Library. Reading time. We're on chapter two of The Hobbit, shared reading at bedtime. Which is whenever we're tired.

Tonight I'm going to hear Sharon Olds and Robert Hass read their poetry at a benefit for Squaw Valley Community of Writers. My older daughter is coming with me. She is tired from working but has kindly agreed to be my date for the evening. 

This is the first summer in a long time that I haven't worked.  I'm off school, in between novels. I feel untethered to the earth without work. I cling to the household tasks, the pool, the poetry like an astronaut to a lifeline, bouncing from satellite to satellite searching for gravity. I protect my children's downtime so that they never turn to a job or employer for evidence of their personhood. They make their own gravity.

Tomorrow morning I'll go for a long walk and think of things. I won't look at the time. I'll think of what to write next, of the kind of woman I want to be, of what sorts of hummingbirds are knocking around my backyard, of nothing. Maybe I'll float away for a while. Maybe I will come back to earth.

Weekday mornings are so unbelievably hectic.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Writing Addict

I get up in the morning and my first thought is “thank You” because my life is great. My second thought is, how, where, when, what will I write today?

The rewards that I give myself for finishing a writing project are writing in my journal, writing letters, new notebooks, new pens, new pencils, and writing a new project.

Before I had literacy I drew squiggly lines on paper, pretending to write.

As soon as I had literacy I pointed to a book of nursery rhymes and said to my father, “I want to do that.” He immediately (and I mean right at that moment) left the house to purchase me a folder, a notebook with an African elephant on the cover, paper and pencils.  I still have the folder and the notebook.  My first poem was about my dad. (Entitled, “My Dad.”)

In high school classes I wrote in my notebooks and filled them with journals and short stories and novel starts. My teachers were flattered by my attention and praised my copious note-taking. The only teacher who knew differently was my mother but she let me keep writing anyway.

One boy I passed notes with in school only liked me in letters. For weeks he wrote me long handwritten notes and eagerly awaited my replies. In writing he was a passionate admirer. In person, not so much. I remember him fondly as my first reader.

I have had whole friendships conducted almost entirely through notes and letters. Real letters on pieces of paper, written in pen and pencil. 

I have written a novel every year for the past ten years.  As soon as I finish one, I begin another.

If I am not writing, I’m thinking about writing. If I am not writing, I'm thinking that I should be writing instead.

I’ve canceled social engagements because I was in the middle of writing something and I didn’t want to stop. My friendship circle has been reduced to people for whom this is okay.

I’ve written ten thousand words in a day before.

I’ve done things with my writing that I’m not proud of.  For cash.

When the editor of Esopus, an extraordinary magazine that I respect and love, regretted the small stipend that he could pay me for my story, I told him that I had written the story anyway for free. I told him that the weeks of working with his precise attention to my words were the best in my entire writing life.  I wrote him a handwritten thank-you note with drawings. (But I kept the cash.)

Whenever I pass a lonely house in the middle of a field I think, I wonder if that house has electricity so I could plug in my laptop. I wonder if it has a fireplace and a cozy chair.  I picture myself getting up early for a long hike and then settling in and writing all day long and that being my life now. 

I think, whoever lives there is lucky. Whoever lives there has a great life.

My writing supplies for Summer 2013.  Palomino Blackwings, baby.  Oh yeah.

Monday, June 17, 2013

No Such Thing As Lazy

I taught a young man who devotes hours of after school time to filmmaking. He has already won several media awards and he is only seventeen years old. At a recent convention in Los Angeles, he won first place in a competition that required participants to execute a music video from first idea to finished product in six hours. As a student, his journal is filled with pages and pages of extra writing, lengthy extemporaneous thoughts on everything. On top of that, he literally ran into my class every day in a scrambling, madcap wrestle with his classmate for their mutually favorite desk.

“I’m lazy,” he said to me one day. “That’s why my grades are bad.”

A couple weeks ago I went to the movies with a friend I greatly admire. We teach next door to each other and sometimes during my prep periods I have to stop what I’m doing to listen to her lecture. She’s incredibly knowledgeable, since she has a Master’s in Shakespearean Literature that she went all the way to a university in England to earn. Over post-movie yogurt she told me about her summer plans that include working several days a week, traveling, treasure-hunting, and lots of socializing. She has a writing project (twice the word count of mine) that she is revising, and more ideas to come.

“But I’m just so lazy,” she said. “That’s the problem.”

Yeah. No. These are not lazy people.

Lazy is an overused word if there ever was one. My student has tons of energy for becoming an excellent filmmaker.  He has energy for writing and for creativity and for knocking over anyone in his path on his way to his favorite desk.  My friend has energy for so many things I can’t even count them. These are not lazy people.

Traditional school systems value uniform academic success across the curriculum and athletic competition. These are wonderful pursuits if the people engaged in them have the energy for them.  But what about the students who have the energy for art, film, leadership, relationship? What about people who love math but aren’t excited about literary analysis, or who love to read and solve geometry proofs, but honestly don't care if their team wins in P.E.?

When we label people lazy we discount their true passions and gifts. We also give them a hidden excuse for not doing the required work in areas where they struggle. If I understand that I am a lazy person then I have an embedded reason not to work out when I don’t feel like it, or clean the house I live in with my family when I would rather do something else.  If my student has a self-image that he is a lazy person, then from what reserves does he draw the energy to do the tasks necessary to at least pass all of his high school classes? The truth is that he is not lazy. He has a surplus of energy and when it comes to film making and writing, a tremendous work ethic.

As a teacher, I work to help my students discover where their energies lie.  Their passions are clues as to where they can find the most success and happiness, as well as incentive to complete the tasks that do not interest them.  When we value the things we do have energy for, then all of the work we do becomes more purposeful. The things that we are lazy about can still get done, but maybe we stop beating ourselves and others up for not excelling at everything.

I have tons of energy for writing, reading, teaching, yoga, walks, and cleaning. I am lazy about shopping, dressing myself, interior decorating and making things with beads.

What about you? What do you have energy for? What are you "lazy" about?

I have lots of energy for dancing (thank you Angela James for the photo), not so much for tanning.

Friday, June 14, 2013

Behavior Is Information

We teachers engage in bravado around our abilities to control the behavior of our students. Teachers in conversation with other teachers will brag about how well they control their classes. They have rules such as "show respect".  I have that rule. I also have been a teacher long enough to know that things sometimes break down in ways that puzzle and trouble us and make us feel disrespected.

Most teachers, whatever the outcome of their lessons, are doing the best they can in any moment. The alternative is akin to turning your back on the ocean. Criticism on the art of surfing the big waves is rarely useful unless it comes from veterans who have been rolled once or twice.

From one who has banged her head on the reef too many times: The behavior of your students is not a matter of your pride or even that overused word “respect”. The behavior of your students is information. What a teacher does with that information is what is important.

Over a year ago, I ruled over a group of eleventh graders taking a California Standards Test. The school was a charter with an emphasis on academics. The students were “chronically under-served” in the education lexicon. This means poor and hailing from backgrounds that make Charles Dickens look like a guy who might write for Chicken Soup for the Soul.

In the middle of the test, Gabe started fidgeting and making noise. Mary yelled at him to knock it off, and she and Gabe engaged in a brief but highly escalated and profanity-strewn argument that Gabe cut off by storming out of the classroom. “You better control your class,” Mary said to me.

My immediate reaction was to feel slighted by Mary and ashamed in front of the other kids. I  wanted to go outside and shout at Gabe to go to the Deans for a punishment that would involve suspension. I would not stand for this kind of disrespect in my classroom. I was a professional, after all. I had better control my class.

But instead, I took a breath. Then another. On the second exhale, I looked at the information. Gabe couldn’t be still. Mary was tense and unhappy.

The kids were two hours into a test that made some of their teachers nervous enough to lie to them that the score would have bearing on their college transcripts (it would not). Their daily schedules were disrupted, including school meal times that for some of the students were their only meal times.

The surface information was helpful but I knew even more. Mary’s family put enormous stress on her for high achievement. She was anxious and angry most of the time.

Gabe had divots in his head from gunshot wounds incurred during his past life as a criminal.  He was a successful, high achieving drug dealer back in the day, but for the past eight months since his release from incarceration he was trying to be a student. This with gaps in his math education, post traumatic stress, an ADHD problem (a true one) the likes of which I have rarely seen in twenty years, and his belly filled most of the time only with what he could get at school.

In other words, none of it had to do with me.

For the next two days of testing I arranged for Gabe to take his test in the library with the special ed teacher.  In a private conversation I told Mary that her comment was unhelpful given the circumstances and hurt my feelings. (No swelling violins in the background, she really didn’t care but at least she was “respectful” about it.) After two days I took Gabe aside for a long talk where he did all the talking about the solutions he had been thinking about for his anger and his old ways of behaving. We agreed that in the future when that happened, he had my permission to go outside and remove himself from the situation. I complimented him for doing this in the first place, but maybe next time he could do it before all of the naughty words and yelling. We finished the final days of testing together as a group without incident. We ended the year without incident.

Most students will be their best selves in your presence if you get to know them as much as you can. I use journals as a built-in cheat to their inner lives, but I also engage in conversations and ask them questions and pay attention to what goes on in the hallways and in the rows.  I ask questions and listen more than I talk in conversations with students. I don’t know everything, but I know enough to understand some of the bigger picture when something goes wrong. 

In a best-case scenario, I use the information pro-actively. When I think back on the Gabe and Mary fight, I realize that the time I was weak was not afterwards, but long before. Gabe and I should have had a trouble shooting chat beforehand. I should have passed Mary the secret that nobody in college admissions gives a fig about the CST, and she with her proficient and advanced scores on everything, her high GPA and her decent ACT numbers had little to fear from Gabe being a fussbudget.

Student behavior is information. No more and no less. Use the information to make decisions that solve or prevent problems.  Turn off the criticizing voices in your head, because those voices aren’t the ones facing the big waves, you are.

Hang ten.

The waters are sometimes not this calm and peaceful.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Summer Me

I have two women living inside of me and they are Summer Me and Schooldays Me. When I have long days without a structured job to attend, I turn into a person I would not be able to stand under normal schoolday circumstances. Schoolday Me would scoff at Summer Me and privately feel not only superior in character, but mildly offended at the other's self-indulgent aimlessness. Summer Me admires Schoolday Me in every way but also knows that she could never ever be that busy.

For example,

Schooldays Me: I better get up at 5 in order to exercise so I can get in my strength training as well as my aerobics and still have time to meditate.

Summer Me: I better get up at 7 or else I'll be too tired to get around to exercising at some point before noon and maybe I'll just take a meandering walk instead of going to the gym anyway.

Schooldays Me: I wear a pedometer to track all of the steps I take during the day in the course of work.

Summer Me: Maybe I'll go this way. I don't know. Whatever.

Schooldays Me: Now that I'm done with my eight-hour workday, I think I'll clean the house, do the grocery shopping and cook a meal. Then I will make sure my daughter is bathed  and ready for school tomorrow and that everyone has the laundry they need done for the next day. Before bed, I will make my lunch and my daughter's lunch. I will also prepare my breakfast and grind my coffee beans to be ready for tomorrow morning.

Summer Me: I can't believe I went to the gym AND the drugstore this morning. I better take a nap.

Schooldays Me: Did I get my 1,000 words written today?

Summer Me: Have I done anything besides write today?

Schooldays Me: I am wearing Spanx and control top pantyhose under my pants and blazer and high heel shoes. Always important to look professional.

Summer Me: I am wearing my husband's old pajama pants. Always important to at least wear pants.

My Summer Me looks up to my Schooldays Me as if from the bottom of a pool. There Schooldays stands, waving her arms around and looking too hot in her long pants and high heels. She should stop working so hard, maybe. She should maybe jump in the pool.

My daughter, who much more resembles Summer Me than Schooldays Me in every particular.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Ghost Daughter (What I Was Thinking About)

Two years ago I stood in the check out line at the grocery story, Casey Anthony staring at me from the cover of the People magazine. I don’t follow crime stories usually, but this one followed me. I couldn’t help it. I was fascinated. Do you remember this thing? A young woman claims her little kid went missing a full month after anyone has seen her. The authorities find the thoroughly decomposed body of the child months later in a pile of duct tape.

But the prosecution is inadequate to the task of conviction and the judge lets her go. Everyone thinks she did it. But free she goes.

I looked at that magazine cover and I thought, huh. Well, what if the little girl was never found? What if she disappears and then pops up eighteen years later as a grown woman looking for that terrible mother?

The archetype of the terrible mother is fascinating. There’s nothing scarier than your own mother having it in for you. At first I wrote the mother character as a sociopath. I did tons of research on sociopathy in preparation but then I found out in the writing that sociopaths are boring.  They’re narcissistic one-hit wonders. Writing pages and pages from the point of view of a sociopath was like eating a gourmet meal with a stuffy nose.  Nothing tasted like anything without empathy, desire, concern, and love.

So I scrapped the 25k words I started with and rewrote the whole thing from scratch. I don’t know Casey Anthony and the story wasn’t about her anyway.  The story is about the terrible mother inside all of us, and about the life-giving earth mother beside her. It is about sociopaths, but about how people cope and survive in the wake of true evil, and about how survival is the ultimate revenge.

The Ghost Daughter is about the staying power of true love, even when it comes at too young of an age to bear it with justice and respect. It’s about trying to have power over others as a way of forgetting when you were powerless. It’s about being homeless in one way or another your whole entire life and then finally arriving at a doorstep that you can call your own.

It’s about religion and loneliness and music and the desert. It’s about mothers and daughters and babies that are lost but still haunt you forever and forgive you for being terrible before you knew how to be good.

So I sent out queries and partials and one whole and I hope for the best for this baby that is The Ghost Daughter. Once more into the breach, my friends. Wish me luck.

Kali, goddess of time, change and death.  Pretty much the most unmotherly person ever.