Saturday, March 17, 2018

Book cover: The Alehouse at the End of the World

I got a little selfish with the cover design for Stevan Allred's The Alehouse at the End of the World, which is due to come out this coming November. This book is a hugely imaginative novel that takes place on the Isle of the Dead, deep in the belly of a mythic monster, somewhere in the fifteenth century. When publisher Laura Stanfill started telling me about the book, my mind instantly went to illuminated manuscripts.

I LOVE illuminated manuscripts. You might notice there's one in the painting that serves as a header for this blog. It's an imaginary bestiary of evil beasts that I included in a painting I once did called Still Life with the Devil. Ever since I researched bestiaries for that painting, I've been obsessed with illuminated manuscripts—their elaborate, ornate borders, their extravagant lettering, their particularly unnatural animals. The way they can be both crude and gorgeous.

Look at this!

And this!

And this detail! What is going on here? I love how they often mix the beautiful with the fiendish.


I knew that using this artform as a jumping off point in my design would not only give a sense of antiquity but also highlight the otherworldliness, the quirkiness, the sense of history and philosophy, the limitless imagination of Stevan's book.

...OK, actually I just really wanted to have fun making a pretty, pretty illuminated manuscript.

OK, it was both.

I wasn't sure at first whether I envisioned it as a modern take on the illuminated manuscript, with clean lines and solid colors, or as a remake of the real article. I began to sketch out various different sample designs, and as much as I love trying to create images that look like real things and would have loved playing with the challenge of making it look like washes of ochre and vermilion on ancient paper (or vellum, but I'm a vegetarian), the modern approach started feeling right. Time is a slippery thing on the Isle of the Dead. For instance, in the magic of Stevan's world, he sneaks modern references into his late Middle Ages story so that time becomes something beautifully arbitrary. Staying modern in my design seemed to speak to that.

There are so many arresting images from the book to draw from. There's the aforementioned Isle of the Dead. There are the talking birds and the souls of the dead that are housed in clam shells. There's the Kiamah beast that has swallowed the island whole.

One early sample played on the Kiamah beast. I really liked that one. But in my zeal (not even as much my love for illuminated manuscripts as my absolute love for the hugely imaginative writing in this book), I got started early on my design work and ended up with a Kiamah beast who looked different from the Kiamah beast created by our artist for an inside graphic (more on him down the line).

Also, in beta testing, I learned that some viewers might find the image of the tongue kind of gross. (By beta testing, I mean when I showed it to my dad.)

But I really liked the scrollwork and the lettering approach so I kept those for the design that we eventually chose.

Another really evocative image from The Alehouse at the End of the World is the pyre of bones. To set it up, the Isle of the Dead, having been swallowed by Kiamah, lives in the beast's belly. When the dead arrive at the Isle, their bodies are thrown on a pyre and burned.

This also did the Kiamah decree, that the bodies of the newly dead should be burnt upon the sacred fire, so that the heat of that fire might sustain him, and the smoke of that fire might cleanse him.

I worked on my design for Alehouse last fall, so as it happens, come Halloween night, I was sitting at the dining room table at my computer, alternately answering the door for trick-or-treaters and working on building a human skeleton.

In the end, I think staying modern with the design was the right choice, because it allowed me to work outside the bounds of the illuminated manuscript, as I did with the slant at one side of the border, and the overall dimensionality of the piece, particularly with the frigate bird who flies out of the frame. I think it reflects the fact that The Alehouse at the End of the World is anything but conventional.

Here it is.

Stevan's novel will be published by Forest Avenue Press this November. Here's another taste:

Already the beast was stirring, and there was little time to lose. If the monster awoke before the fire was lit, his wrath would know no bounds. The crow plunged into the collapsed pyre, tossing bones this way and that, clearing a bare spot in the center of the fire pit. There the crow made a loose mound of knuckles and toes, and he encircled it with a cone of ribs and thigh bones, laid loosely together. While he worked, the crow sang an ancient song, a song the Old Gods once used to call forth all the creatures and all the plants from the time before time, only now the crow sang the song with the Kiamah beast’s name, forsaking the Old Gods, who were dead gods devoured by the beast, for the crow served the living evil that was the Kiamah. He circled the pyre of bones four times, and each time he stopped to offer the glow of the embers in his basket to each of the four directions. Then he emptied the basket into the center of the fire pit, and he drew a breath of air as big as a whale’s lungs, and he blew on the embers. They glowed hotly in the dark night of the Kiamah’s belly, and flames grew tall out of that hot glow, and now the cone of ribs and thighs was fully ablaze. Clouds of smoke belched upward, and the crow threw on more bones from the jumble around him, building the pyre taller and wider, and as the fire grew larger the crow passed a wing in front of his face, and grew himself a cubit taller, and now every bone was in the flames. “Kiamah, Kiamah, kiaw aw aw,” sang the crow, his power strong and growing stronger, “I give you thanks.” And the Kiamah answered with a great smoky belch that shook the whole cavernous belly. The sacred fire was once again lit.

Saturday, February 24, 2018

On his one-hundredth birthday: early diary entries about my grandfather Coco with spelling errors intact and modern explanations in blue


August 13—Tomorrow we're going to Virginia. I'm bringing my ET book & story book, diary, Yes & Know book, Garfield book, solitare, paper & pen, Geraldene & Josephene, & bath room things. When I come back I'll write out my movie. I'll work on it at noni & coco's house. I can't wait to get there. I can't wait to see the new rooms! The movie was the script for the sequel to E.T., which I planned to write and then send to Steven Spielberg - and also eventually star in.

August 14—We are at Noni & Coco's house. Edina skis better than any one exept Freddy. Aunt Sally, Uncle Alex & Nana was here. We sang and played piano before going to bed. It was so much fun!

August 16—I got up on the slalom for the 1st time this year.  I did it on my 4th try, Coco honked the horn.  Mom skied 1st time this year they honked the horn for her too.  I didn't stay up.

August 17—I slalomed again but I fell again.  Mom is learning to slalom.  We sank the rowboat.  Frankie had a life jacket on & he got caught under the tipped over rowboat.  Coco saved him.  We went over to Jeff White's house we had a bad time.  They turned off the lights then threw pillows.

August 25—We took a moon light cruse. I learned that the big dipper's last 2 stars point to Polaris, a star. It points to the north Pole. Coco played "the sting" tape in the car to the market my favorite song is Solice & Easy Winners. The moonlight cruise was us going out on Coco's float boat in the evening. Coco was the one who gave me the little astronomy lesson.

August 28—We slept on the boat. I saw a beaver. I saw a shooting star. On it I wished for Stephen Spiellberg to use my movie.

August 31—We went to Baltimore. I went to a giant aquarium & saw a big ship & went to Fort McHenry. I bought 2 pins. 1 was I [heart] Baltimore & 1 was I [heart] E.T. I got E.T. shoelaces & an E.T. keychain. Speaking of E.T. Henry Thomas' middle name is John.

September 2—I slalomed 2wice. I didn't fall! There was a full-full moon. The big Cok took us out to walk around the circle in the midnight. I thought of a new scene for my movie, a dinner table scene. Coco called himself The Big Coke. Sometimes he called himself The Old Coke.

September 3—Tonight was another full moon. We took a long moon light cruse. We saw the Harvest moon. It was yellow. Afterwards we ate Ice Cream & Noni's homemade chocolate syrup & watched "Dallas" The Harvest moon inspired me a song so I'm writing a harvest moon song. The main tune was already made up by me but the rest of the tune & the words (lyrics in professional talk) are for the harvest moon. It's named "Stay, Harvest Moon."


January 25—Noni & Coco came. Noni came to meet us at school. Coco gave me a book on Jacques Philippe Villeré. We did alot of geneology talk. He has a tree (geneology) that goes back to the 1300's!!! I'd sure like a copy of that for my collection of information.

January 26—Coco said he and I can make me a copy of the big geneology tree!

August 5-12—Heather, Edina & I went to Noni's & Coco's. I can slolam on 1 foot. We met 2 German girls (Heikka & Iris) & saw them again when we went to Washington D.C. I saw the Star Spangled Banner.


It's been some time & now it's March 20th. Well, it's finaly come, the day to change PE games. Of course, 'they' said they were going to retake raquetball. We got in line. They switched & I am stuck in raquetball. I knew the time would come and it finally did. I have no partner & will not have one. I hate loneliness and I hate being a teenager. I hate having no friends and I hate this whole bloody mess. Oh well, does it really matter? I knew it would happen sometime. Noni and CoCo and Sassy & Elsa had one last dinner with us (at Shiki) & left for Virginia. Sassy and Elsa were Noni and Coco's dachshunds.

November 18, 1984. I guess this is my last entry in this journal. Noni and Coco, Sassy and Elsa arived yesterday. We took Coco out on a boat ride, rain spitting softly around us. It was a cold, grey day. We came back from the boat and built a warm, crackling fire. It was a good day. I'm to a great part in my book The Talisman. Jack and Wolf were caught by the police and brought to a home. Wolf has turned into a warewolf and is eating everyone.

12/25/84 7:11 P.M. Christmas this year, we had the presents on Christmas eve because Lanaux and Carter had to leave this morning. In here is a way-too-long segment in which I detail all the presents I got. We went out and played fort in the hills. Shena and Mara came by and we took a boat ride with Coco in which we sang songs and saved someone's volleyball. 

2/24/85 9:55. Saturday night, we had a birthday party for Coco. We kids had a chance to go to the Prince concert, but, we couldn’t, because of Coco’s birthday. Oh well, maybe some other time.
       Noni made some great orange cake. I was wearing my new Mickey Mouse shirt, my new grey socks, and fingerless gloves. I talk about my clothes for a while.
       Later on, we got together with Coco and picked oranges in the 'McFerrin orange groves.'

July 16. night. Virginia.
       We awoke very early (4:30 for me) and showered and dressed and prepared to leave for the airport. We drove out in the van to the Disneyland hotel, whereupon ariving, we kissed Dad goodbye and borded a bus which took us to the airport. I had with me a suit case (which I have just discovered has no sweat-shirt in it—necessary for a sleap on the boat), a purse (virtually empty), and a carry-on bag filled with cassettes, my walkman, Salem’s Lot, my diary, my little poetry book, a pad of paper, any- and everything to keep me occupied during the flight. We ate a quick breakfast & borded.
       I sat down by a large black woman who was busy crocheting a small pink square (for a scarf, I found out later), and I immediately (I was so proud of myself) said ‘Hi’—the first step in meeting people—the acknowledgment. And, as the plane ride commenced and drew out 5 hours, I learned alot more about this woman. (2nd step—Conversation)
       Well, Virginia, Cross Junction, the Summit is just as green, and old fashioned & beautiful! It’s great to see Noni, Coco, & Nana, again. Along w/Sassy, Elsa, and Didgeridoo.
       We had a swim in the lake & played a small game of Troll. Had freshly baked (& I mean freshly—the berries were picked by Coco, the day before) blackberry pie—baked of course, by Noni. Troll was when we swam in the lake and Coco hid under the pontoons of the float boat and pretended to be a troll.
       Then, we went on a moonlight cruise (there was no moon, but that’s O.K.). There were so many stars it was spectacular. God, how I love the stars! I picked one out and, as usual, wished on it. Then, Noni & I saw a shooting star. I wished on that one, too, for the same thing as before.
       “I want to be a writer.” my mind screamed, “God Dammit, I want to be a writer!”

Friday July 19th. day.
       We’re all on the boat, heading for a place to fish. It’s been a couple of days. We’ve skied a lot—atleast twice a day. We’ve begun to teach Chandler to ski, and he’s gotten up many times; Hasn’t yet mastered the staying-up part, but he’s getting better. Chandler is my brother Frank.
       We’ve stopped, now, in a “finger” that Coco & Noni call THE LITTLE BEAVER FINGER. I’m not sure if Coco coined the name, or not, but the origin is that a small beaver house was built (by beavers, of course. Just incase you didn’t figure it out.) somewhere in this finger.
       It’s beautiful; so unlike Canyon Lake. There are foresty trees bordering it, and not a house, at all. They are mirrored in the glossy surface of the water, etched with sparks of sunlight which is reflected from the sky.
       We’re moving again, past the little beaver house, and up to the opening of the finger. Fish-lines are dropped, and voices, too, and Frankie has already caught the 1st fish.
       So, today, Coco, Edina, Frankie,, and I went out to pick blackberries. These berries will be used to make a blackberry pie for Dad for when he arrives. Aunt Sally & Uncle Alex will arrive on Monday; Lanaux and Carter will be comming up, too, during our stay.
       Every morning, after breakfast, Noni, Coco, Mom, Frankie & I (& Didge) take a walk to work off breakfast. Between that and the skiing, we all should get more in shape than get fat (I.E. Noni’s pies), and that’s good.
       We’re slowly drifting out into the middle of the opening of the Little Beaver Finger, and Edina has caught a fish. Elsa is sleaping under the table and Sassy is dozing on the seat behind me where Mom is fishing also.
       We’ve migrated (myself at the wheel) across the lake to what Coco coined (yes, he did the naming) THE BABY BEAVER COVE, and lines have once again been dropped.
       The next door neighbor to Noni and Coco is a nice German woman called Dam Klinger, who also speaks not a word of English. Well, she sent over a nice apricot cake which I think she baked herself, and today, Edina and I went next door to thank her, knowing only the German word for thankyou.
       So, there was alot of German speech and laughing from her, and some utterances of “Dankershan” (which I am sure I am misspelling) from us. She gave us some 7-up and strange apple danishes to eat, and took us around her house, showing us each item in it and babbling a-mile-a-minute in German, to which we just smiled and said, “uh-huh.” We were back up in the kitchen when we heard Coco’s whistle out in the front—he had come to rescue us. She was a sweet woman, but there was no way to communicate.
       Now, we’re back in our finger, drifting and fishing some more. I have done no fishing, because I have been writing so much.
       After dinner, Mom read to Noni, Nana, and Coco some of my journal-writes, and they laughed. Journal writes were creative writing assignments from school. Oh how happy it made me! She read the one about the Garden of Eden, and when she read the part about “Eve’s mother-in-law, whom they called Serpent”, both Coco and Noni burst out laughing. I mean, it just made me scarlet! I got a good pounding on the floor by Coco’s feet for that one.

July 20. day.
       Dinner, last night, was crabs and corn, which was great. Nummers, nummers, & after dinner, we dressed in warm clothes—I in jeans, a shirt, a sweat shirt, a small jacket, my red knit fingerless gloves, & shoes—and went down with our mattresses and blankets, to sleep on the boat.
       It was great. I was snuggled between Mom & Noni, all warm and cozy, looking up at the stars. The stars, the stars, the wonderful stars! Oh, how I love the stars!
       It was probably the last time we will be able to do that, because it’s not allowed back home. Boohoo! Noni and Coco were going to move from Virginia to California where we lived, so this was our last summer at Cross Junction.
       I love it here. So beautiful.
       I was watching the sun come up, this morning, a bright, yellow-orange, its color spraying down upon the water. And it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen. The big orange sun was just peaking through the clouds, shying away from the world, and then peaking out again, casting its glistening (ooh, what a nice word!) tail upon the green mirror lake. Beautiful.

Doing these little posts where I pull pieces from old diaries, I go through computer files where I've transcribed the diaries from books and notebooks. There's a large chunk of time where those books and notebooks haven't been transcribed. After 1995 nothing is transcribed until the year 2000 when I started doing all my journaling by computer. This last segment below is from the next computerized journal after the break  that mentions Coco...

Monday, January 15, 2001, 10:15 am—Oh God, I slept in. Stayed up until after 3 last night. So, Day three: 7:00-9:00, 10:30-2:00, finished up with the flesh tones on figure and mirror reflection figure for white page. 3:00-4:30, background including bear in mirror, little details. ...I write about painting for a while. I was working on my Magical Trunk children's book. A small press publisher was going to be publishing it and I was rushing to finish illustrations before we went on the road for the next circus season, I think. So, yesterday I painted for a total of 12 ½ hours. Now all I have to do on white page is the hair details and the white makeup on face. And snow to do later, I think. Sometime yesterday I was painting and happened to turn and look over my shoulder to the picture of Noni and Coco on the end table. I glance at it a lot, but yesterday I looked at him and my mind said, I'll never see him again, and without warning I was crying. Seemed like my eyes teared up even before I felt the emotion of it. Strange not to be able to see someone ever again.

Sunday, January 28, 2018

Astoria: Part Two at Portland Center Stage

I had a chance to see Astoria: Part Two at the Gerding Theater at the Armory. I debated because I hadn't had a chance to see Part One, and I worried that it'd be difficult to follow, coming in at the middle and with such a large cast to track, and I'm not exactly the sharpest tack in the deck.

Alright, my husband's going to give me a hard time for saying that, so I'll clarify. I tend to get a little lost when a lot of details are coming at me fast, and the biggest thing: I have a really hard time recognizing faces. Often when we're watching movies at home, Stephen will lean in and quietly murmur during a pause in the action, "Remember that guy's the ex-husband of the older sister."

He wasn't with me Friday night when I saw the play, and of course I wasn't going to lean in to my date and periodically whisper in that packed theater (incidentally full of people who probably knew every character from last time): "Wait, who's that guy?"

So when the lights went down and the large cast of mostly men started to range across the stage, I thought, oh no.

And it was true—there were times when I thought, wait, who's that guy, but in the end, it didn't matter.

I'm here to tell you that even if you haven't seen Part One, even if you're as faceblind as I am, you can thoroughly enjoy PCS' beautifully produced, thought-provoking, action-packed, fully-contained epic Astoria: Part Two.

My early panic over face recognition quickly gave way to the realization that I didn't need to track every character because this was a much bigger story. There are individual plotlines that are fascinating to follow, of course, but for me, this is a story about big picture. About groups of people and the things that drive them apart and the things that bring them together. The instinct for survival being one of them.

The Astoria story follows the adventures of the Astor Expedition of men—and one woman—to establish trade routes to the Pacific Northwest, ultimately leading to the founding of Astoria, the first permanent United States settlement on the West Coast. The plays are adapted by Chris Coleman, based on Peter Stark's very popular book Astoria: John Jacob Astor and Thomas Jefferson's Lost Pacific Empire, A Story of Wealth, Ambition, and Survival. Portland Center Stage's productions are their world premier.

It's a harrowing tale. Driving home afterward I was mesmerized by the streaks of streetlight red and green and the streetlamp yellow along the rain-wet asphalt streets. Me in my car with the classical station on and the heater going. My god, the lives these people lived, trekking across the wilderness of early-1800s Oregon, fighting to survive, unwittingly helping to lay the groundwork for the easy life I live today.

Like many old Hollywood epics, this play included a cast of thousands. OK, I guess that's not true, but I didn't look at a program before or during the production and was surprised to find out, when I got home and started looking at PCS's website, just how many different characters had been portrayed by their robust 17 person cast. It really did feel as though there were something like 75 different cast members filling out the show.

Standouts for me included the fabulous Leif Norby and the very versatile DeLanna Studi who play not only various characters along the arduous trail—including Marie Dorion, the one woman on the 1811-12 overland expedition— but also John Jacob Aster and his wife Sarah Aster in their much more comfortable New York City home setting, creating a fantastic contrast to the brutal wilds of the American Pacific Northwest.

But it really was the ensemble that was the true standout for me. The way the cast told the story, breaking sentences up, back and forth, between them like some leapfrogging Greek Chorus underlined the fact that this was a tale of people, not persons. And my favorite thing? The music. I hadn't expected to find that Astoria is a musical of sorts, with that large cast breaking out in beautiful harmonies, in songs that felt completely authentic to the time. The music again reminded me that this story was a far larger tale than just the individual threads of the particular characters, but it also seemed to make the statement that no matter how difficult and, at times, cruel the world—and the world of men—can be, there is beauty in that world and in what man can make of it.

Astoria: Part Two is playing now through February 18th on the Main Stage at the Armory. More information—including a video you can watch to refresh your memory of Part One (which I did not watch, actually, before I saw Part Two [for more information on why I failed to do this, see the last line of paragraph one of this post])—is here.

Thank you to Patrick Weishampel/ for the photos.

Monday, December 25, 2017

How to Make Holiday Fudge


1 1/2 packages (12 oz. of each) semisweet chocolate chips (3 cups)
2 cups miniature marshmallows, or 16 large marshmallows, cut in half
1 can (14 oz.) sweetened condensed milk
1 teaspoon vanilla
1 cup chopped nuts
1/2 cup dried cherries or chopped dried apricots

Step 1: At the store, find out marshmallow fluff is actually gelatin-free and there's a recipe right on the jar, so decide in the moment to forget about the recipe you originally had in mind and go with this instead. This recipe calls for different things, like butter and chopped baker's chocolate and an insane amount of sugar (6 cups, it says).

Step 2: Fail to notice that it says chopped baker's chocolate instead of chocolate chips and buy chocolate chips. Fail to notice that it says evaporated milk instead of sweetened condensed milk. Fail to read the warning at the bottom that reminds people that evaporated milk and sweetened condensed milk are not the same thing.

Step 3: Forget the butter.

Step 4: Have your husband go out and buy butter.

Step 5: Day two. Cut the dried cherries in half with scissors. So, so sticky. Find a pit in one and tell yourself you are a genius for cutting the cherries.

Step 6: Combine butter, sugar (use much less because ick), and erroneous sweetened condensed milk in a large pot. Bring to a rolling boil under medium heat, stirring continuously. Boil for 4 minutes or until your candy thermometer registers 238 degrees.

Step 7: Fail to have a candy thermometer. Instead, try a meat thermometer you found in the kitchen basket after repeatedly stabbing yourself in the fingers with various poky things in the kitchen basket. The meat thermometer only goes up to 180 degrees.

Step 8: Remove from heat. Add chocolate and marshmallow fluff and mix until smooth. Add vanilla, walnuts and cherries.

Step 9: Pour into dish lined with parchment paper. Use paper towel to sop up the oil that pools on top. The fudge tastes nice and smooth and you're giving it to people who love you and they won't mind if it looks a little wonky, right? Find some purple sugar in the cabinet. Purple is a holiday color, right? Sprinkle purple sugar on top to make fudge look better. It melts instantly and disappears.

Step 10: Repeat steps 6 through 9 but with pecans this time. Maybe it'll look better in the second batch. Hold off on the purple sugar until you can give it time to cool and set. Purple sugar is festive. Purple sugar will save Christmas.

Step 11: Your husband comes home from work. He sees the fudge pre-purple-sugar and says it doesn't look good and you need to start over.

Step 12: Hate him.

Step 13: Your husband says use the recipe he finds on the package of chocolate chips, which doesn't need a candy thermometer.

Step 14: Go to the store at five o'clock on the day before Christmas Eve. Park way far away on the side. Slowly work your way through the soul-crushing pileup of shoppers and shopping carts churning through the aisles. Read the cans of evaporated milk three times to make sure.

Step 15: Where the hell is the parchment paper? You need more parchment paper. There are too many people moving around you. Decide to be agoraphobic and try not to scream as loud as that little kid who's wailing bloody murder in the next aisle over.

Step 16: Decide you're going to have to ask someone where to find the parchment paper. There's a guy crouched on the floor shelving something at the end of the aisle, but he's singing a very intricate rendition of Silent Night and you don't want to disturb him.

Step 17: Under the hanging sign that says Butter, you find cream cheese. There's another sign that says Butter down at the far side of the same aisle. Under it, you find hot dogs.

Step 18: Where the fuck is the fucking butter?!

Step 19: Buy a pizza.

Step 20: Stand in line for 45 goddamn fucking minutes.

Step 21: When you get home, your husband has taken the fudge out of the pans and it's piled up on two plates in the kitchen. He says, you know what, it does taste smooth, why don't we roll it into balls and cover them with crushed nuts and make them into truffles!

Step 22: Hate him.

Step 23: Let him crush the nuts in the food processor. Roll the truffles together. He makes a small chuckle in the back of his throat and says, "This is like that I Love Lucy episode." Put your hand up beside your mouth and call out, "Let 'er roll!"

Monday, November 13, 2017

Mojada at Portland Center Stage

Friday night, driving home from the theater, I asked Stephen, "What was your favorite part?"

"The very end," he said.

"Great. I can't talk about that on my blog."

Actually, if I knew everyone was familiar with the source material for Mojada, I probably could, but I just can't be sure of that. I'm a stickler for spoilers and generally don't want to read the back of the book or see the trailer of the film. Had I not already known the story of Medea, I probably would have avoided checking it out before seeing this play. In a way, though, I'm glad I knew Medea, because without that in mind, I may have been confused by Mojada's climax. For me, there are a couple elements in the play that make the story wonderfully compelling but that also make it difficult to fully believe what happens in the end. Part of it, too, is simply that I'm viewing this play through the eyes of the modern audience, which tends to be skeptical about classical high tragedy. However, that last moment is pulled off so skillfully, so chillingly, and themes are pulled together so deftly, that you're still left awestruck.

With Mojada, Portland Center Stage continues its tradition of exploring culture through and promoting diversity in theater. Luis Alfaro's play is a modern take on Medea, centered in Los Angeles and following the plight of a family of illegal immigrants from Mexico whose crossing was harrowing and whose past was even more so. For seamstress Medea, her husband Jason, son Acan, and their nurse Tita, one would think finally settling in America would put tragedy and hardship behind them, but one year into their new life, they find that ambition, assimilation, and the elusiveness of the American Dream can hold their own dangers.

I loved the set, with its chain-link-fenced yard and looming, crooked shack of a home. The house seemed some strange, magical combination of structure and painting, both three-dimensional and flat, both real and unreal. It seemed to underscore the fact that for so many, that American Dream is an illusion.

VIVIS (I believe she spells it with all caps) is great as Tita, the nurse who is also a one-woman Greek Chorus, telling the family's story, with plenty of her own commentary, often seeming to voice what the rest of the cast are afraid to say out loud.

My favorite performance was Nancy Rodriguez' Josefina, a quirky food cart merchant desperate to make good, to have a baby, to be American, even though she acknowledges that it's a country full of pain (she insists on being called by her Anglicized name, Josie). Quirky side characters in theater, film, and TV are often overdone to the point of annoyance, but Rodriguez plays her part with a lovely oddness that never goes too far and never becomes old hat. She's delightful. Rodriguez' performance, together with the writing of her character, also allow you to overlook a truth about Josefina so that you are (at least I was) utterly surprised by where her story arc lands.

I couldn't help but view Mojada through the lens of today's politics and today's troubled times. For me, America felt as much a character as all the people in the play - and that character was the bad guy. A bait and switch artist, a fickle lover who only wants you if you're willing to give up who you are. The depiction of the family's trek to America was disturbing and heartbreaking, but the continuation of their story in this country, though more comfortable, seemed to contain an underlying menace that was just as disturbing.

That's not to say that Mojada is nothing but tragedy-tragedy-tragedy. Though that's what the source material warrants, much of Mojada is funny and full of moments of joy. There's something about the backdrop of all that hardship that makes those moments of joy particularly sparkle. I can only hope it's that way in the real world.

Photos are courtesy of Jenny Graham of the Oregon Shakespeare Festival.

More info on the show is here. It runs through November 26th.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Book Cover: Burnside Field Lizard

Recently, I was hired by local author Theresa Griffin Kennedy to design the cover for her short story collection Burnside Field Lizard. (How's that for a title!) Theresa has her fingers in lots of different areas of the arts community - as a writer, a journalist, an activist and more. I first became aware of her when she interviewed Margaret Malone on Oregon Voter's Digest (Margaret has the clip on her website here).

When I'm working directly with authors, they often come with ideas or expectations or images they'd like to see incorporated. Theresa had a picture she wanted to use because of its randomness and its dynamic look.

It was taken by her daughter Amelia Kennedy. It's a very interesting picture with great lines, but unfortunately it's very small, and I'd need something quite a bit larger for print quality. Also, there isn't much space in the picture to add the elements you need for a book cover without blocking too much of the imagery. I needed more space around the central figures.

Now, coincidentally, I just so happen to have two plastic dinosaurs, a blue one and a yellow one, that sit by my computer monitor at work. Actually I have a third dinosaur, and a little toy dog, and a little toy race car, but that doesn't matter. (I got the dinosaurs in a goodie bag along with some other fun stuff at a wonderful and weird Portland art shop called Boys' Fort - thanks, Boys' Fort!) I also happen to have orange counters in my kitchen. (Not our optimal color scheme and it will change some day, but, yay, who knew that orange would come in handy!)

So, I offered to recreate the picture.

That was fun. Water and ice in the glass gave me cloudy white rather than orange, so I poured some margarita mix in the water. Then I added some red wine. Then I drank it. Just kidding. In the original photograph, I like the straw a lot for composition, but for my purposes it would have gotten in the way, so I left that element off. I took a bunch of shots, moving the ice around to get different playing fields for my title and blurb. I played with photoshop to get the shade and vibrancy I wanted, and actually, I did a little cut and paste photoshopping on the blue dinosaur because its head was turned too much to one side.

It was fun, too, to figure out where the text would look good within the space of the picture, following the angles of the glass and the tip of the dinosaur tail. Here's the finished product.

With thanks to Amelia Kennedy for snapping the picture in the first place. I'm not sure how I'll word
it yet, but I'll give her a photo credit alongside my design credit on the back of the book. In the meantime, Theresa gave me a picture of Amelia to share with you.

And an excerpt from one of her stories. This is from "The Convalescent Home in the Doug Fir Wood."

We sat in the living room in the evenings, blankets and quilts covering our legs. The room stone cold, the fireplace empty, with long shadows meandering on the fine Morris wallpaper, but surrounded by all our ancient furniture and other fine objects Mother dusted religiously. The candles that had recently replaced the electric lamps gave faint light and added to the haunted atmosphere of two women alone.

Despite our seeming wealth, there was not enough food in the icebox to feed us. We lived on boiled eggs, fried potatoes and English tea cooked upon the wood stove that had sat unused for decades in a corner of the large kitchen but was now our only means of survival. Mother used it to cook our food, heat the kitchen, and boil our bath water.

As fuel Mother used some rotten pine and apple wood that had been placed in a woodshed behind the abandoned rose garden years before by the gardener. Mother's entire history was dissolving and she was unable to find a solution that could reserve our living room view of the city of Portland and the NW flats so far below our gaze.

On the day I met the lawyer, he was walking by the school dressed in a full suit and overcoat and heading south, to where the Gypsies used to live...

Burnside Field Lizard will be published by Oregon Greystone Press in May of 2018.

More info about Theresa Griffin Kennedy is here.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

From my kid diaries: a recording of the first short story I ever submitted - with the spelling errors intact and my commentary in blue

The one change I made to the entry is to put the story itself in italics rather than all the quotation marks I have in my diary, because it gets a little confusing.


We got 2 Hitchcock magazines in the mail and I turned imediately to the “Mysterious Photograph.” It is a sort-of contest they have every month. They put a picture in the magazine. You take that picture and write a story (250 wds or less) about the picture. The winner gets $25 and the story apears in the next Hitchcock magazine.

Well, it was a picture of 4 people on a rocky island. One is fishing.

I took the magazine to the computer room, wrote up a story, and set it with the magazine in Mom’s room, where she was napping.

I wrote:

“Cast it over there, Starkey." I instructed, pointing to the left of the tip of a rock that jutted out of the water, "It’s in a little box."

I sat upon the rocks. The island was in the middle of a large bay, and it consisted soley of rocks and boulders. Starkey stood above me with a fishing poll, carefully casting and recasting the hook into the water; I sat below him, shouting directions; Manfred and Buffalo paced behind us.

Starkey lowered the hook, and it sank into the water, once again, with a quiet "ker-plop."

He dragged it around for a minute and then brought it out again, bare.

“I can’t Whitey." Starkey groaned. (He always told me that he called me Whitey because of my perfectly straight, white set of choppers.)

Sure, stealing all those jewels was simple, but when Manfred rowed us to the little island in his little rowboat, we lost the box over the side as we docked. Now, I could not leave until we found that box. Our Pal, Nicky, would be here to pick us up and take us down to Mexico tonight; I had to find that box before then.

“You have to." I retorted, "We’re not leaving until you do."

God knows, I couldn’t leave without my toothbrush.

Mom loved it. I was so glad. As soon as I revise it as much as I can, and give it a title, I’m going to send it to the magazine.


I like how I was so proud and sure of this story that I printed it out and took it into my mom's room while she was sleeping. I'm sure she proofread it and made me change all the spelling errors before I sent it out. I honestly don't remember what kind of a response, if any, I got from Hitchcock Magazine