Driving home from work through the drizzling dusk, I'm following a bicycle. He's riding on the right side of the road, where a bicycle lane would be if a bicycle lane were there, and I could go around him if there weren't a steady stream of oncoming traffic, but there is. So, I creep along behind the bicycle, maybe fifteen miles per hour. I don't mind. I'll get where I'm going when where I'm going is where I've got. We pull up to a red light and wait while the traffic crosses, bicyclist in front, me behind. When the light changes, the bicyclist doesn't move. A second goes by, another. The green car facing us on the other side of the street starts into the intersection but the bicyclist waits.
Now, fast, from the right, a car plows through the red light and just about into the green car. Both cars slam to a stop. The car that ran the red light was going fast enough that when it stops, it's with a great jolt that rocks it back on its tires. For a second no one moves. The car that ran the red light, sitting stopped in the middle of the intersection right in front of me, its nose practically up against the other car's driver's side door, is a white Scion, the mirror image of my car.
Had that bicycle not hesitated, it would have been very bad.
Green car drives through, white Scion drives through, bicyclist and me, we ride through. The street is shiny with rain. Bicycle, how did you know? I didn't see you even turn your head. How did you know?
We creep up to a four-way stop. The bicyclist stops, then starts ahead, then does a little bobble-swerve to a halt as another car, a yellow old-fashioned station wagon, pulling to a stop where the cross street comes in from the right, rolls a tad too far into the intersection.
I felt it too, that jolt when the station wagon rolled forward. Coming from exactly the same direction as the white Scion that ran the light. A zing down to my fingertips on the wheel.
For just a moment, the bicyclist's foot is on the ground, and then he's getting back on the bike to continue on. As he rides through, the guy in the yellow station wagon, scraggly beard and puff of light brown hair, throws his hands up in the air at the bicyclist like, what are you freaking out for, you little twerp.
People and their need to judge.
Yellow station wagon, get your hands down. You don't know everything. You don't know anything at all.
On my way home from the car shop, then the pet store, then the grocery store, I pull out of the parking lot and onto the street, ease into a mid-range speed. From the right, the kind of quick you call a flash, not because it's a cliché but because that's the way you see it, a big, fluffy, white dog runs happy right in front of my car.
I slam the breaks and the instant breaks into tiny pieces of thought: it's OK, I won't hit him, it's OK, I'll stop, he has a very fluffy tail, does he belong to those people on the other side of the street with the black dog, no he wants to visit the black dog, his leash is trailing, it's OK, I'm stopping - and then for just one of those fractions of the moment, that automatic optimism my brain goes into whenever I panic is gone and the dog is right in front of my left front wheel, I'm sure of it, and then I know I'm completely stopped. And the dog is still running, to the far side of the street to say hi to the black dog.
Hot adrenaline out to the palms of my hands on the wheel. The white dog circles close to the black dog, then back across the street in front of me toward his owner, a small woman with white hair, her arms out, hands open, fingers splayed.
At her angle and from the terror on her face and her arms outstretched, I can tell she doesn't know if the dog if OK. I want to tell her he's fine and heading back to her. For one more of those fractions of a moment, her eyes connect with mine through the passenger window. And I don't know why I do it, but I do it. I blow her a kiss.
My good friend Steve is in the hospital again. As if the removal of that pesky kidney wasn't enough, he's been having issues breathing and, today, has been lying around another hospital bed awaiting results from testing for a possible pulmonary embolism. Those are two very scary words, words that have been following me around through my workday, following me through the early evening rain, here to the hospital, where his girlfriend, his daughter, and I sit around the bed as Steve, ever the storyteller, has been describing his earlier roommate, a young guy learning for the first time that he had diabetes.
"And so he had visitors in and out the whole time," Steve says, "nutritionists explaining the ways his life is going to have to change, teaching him how to do the shots. He was a military kid, and since it's Veteran's Day, I gave him a solute and thanked him for his service." He mimes a little solute, then runs his fingers across his close-cropped white hair. "I look kind of like a veteran, I've got this General MacArthur hair, so maybe that was OK."
Now here comes the doctor, a tall guy with dark hair, looking even taller since we're all sitting down and since we're all worried about what he's come to say. He goes directly to the end of Steve's bed, no expression at all on his face, at least nothing I can read. My heart does what hearts do when you're afraid you'll hear something bad about someone you love, it rises up on tiptoe inside my chest.
"Well, your results show no sign of a pulmonary embolism," he says. "We think what you've got here is a little pneumonia. We're going to put you on a good antibiotic."
I've never been so glad to hear the word pneumonia in my life.
A moment in the day becomes two, becomes more as the doctor talks about antibiotics and rest and the other things doctors talk about, and then Steve is introducing him to us around the room.
"When I first met this doctor, I told him I was a surfer," Steve says, "and I was kind of afraid he'd say I'd better not do that for a while, but he just starts talking about sharks."
"Oh, yeah," the doctor says, now, "I love sharks. I've always figured I'd die by shark. If the plane goes down, it's going down in the ocean, because I'm going to die by shark."
I can't believe we got that hulking thing through the narrow door and into the garage. I can't believe we were able to haul it all the way from the living room, through the front door, down the porch steps, past the car and along the side of the house, back to here. I can't believe my hands haven't fallen off. I'll tell you one thing: getting an old couch into a garage would be a lot easier if you had a garage door that wasn't broken in the down position.
For a moment, Stephen and I just stand here and look at it sitting there, without its cushions, in the clutter of the unpacked and unorganized art-studio-to-be.
Our success was not without its casualties. The upholstery along the back of the couch is frayed from rubbing against the door frame. And rubbing against the frame of the back door to the house when we first tried to take the thing down the stairs and around the corner into the basement. And from getting wedged in that corner during that one harrowing moment when I wasn't sure how we'd get it back out and Stephen would have to live in the basement forever and I'd have to throw food and art supplies down to him over the couch for the rest of his life. I've got an ice pack on my finger from when it got pinched between the bottom of the couch and the concrete step, Stephen's got a rip in his favorite jeans.
Still, we did it. It's done.
"If we ever have to get this thing out of here," I say, "let's get two strapping young men to help us."
"Yeah," Stephen says, and then, in all seriousness, "Or my mom."
I love book cover projects where I get to geek out. With Jamie Duclos-Yourdon's Froelich's Ladder, which takes place in the late eighteen hundreds, I got to geek out nineteenth century style.
Here's the book description from Forest Avenue Press, to give you a sense of the magic and whimsy of the story:
Uncle Froelich nurses a decades-old family grudge from his perch atop a giant ladder. When he’s discovered missing, his nephew embarks on a rain-soaked trek across a nineteenth century Pacific Northwest landscape to find him, accompanied by an ornery girl with a most unfortunate name. In their encounters with Confederate assassins, European expatriates, and a general store magnate, this fairytale twist on the American dream explores the conflicts between loyalty and ambition and our need for human connection, even at the highest rungs.
I brainstormed lots of ideas and tones for this cover, from photographic and realistic to goofy and cartoony, but I kept coming back to these lovely old book covers from the time period:
I just love the ornate lettering and the fancy borders and, well, everything about these old book covers. What works of art. I loved the idea of doing a modern spin on them, something that retained the lavishness but also added a hint of the whimsy that is a part of the book.
The two books I drew the most inspiration from were both published in 1871, the year when most of Froelich's Ladder takes place. This first is an edition of The Count of Monte Cristo, published by George Rutledge and Sons, Limited. I wish there were an easy way to find out who created these covers. The listing where I found this book said that the book is illustrated with 20 etchings by M. Valentin, but the cover artist was probably someone completely different.
Wish the image were bigger - but you'll see I used some of the border as influence in my piece.
The second is a book called Burns Illustrated. I know nothing about this book except that it was published in 1871 by Belford, Clarke and Company. I loved the typography and the title banner in this one. And the nearly non-stop ornamentation.
I let myself soak in these fabulous book covers like some fancy, gilded bath, and I picked and chose what to glean from them, musing on how best to incorporate all the elements we needed, including a kick-ass blurb by Brian Doyle. Then I used a color scheme that was reminiscent of the classic red and gold but updated into something modern. Funny to be tootling around on Adobe Illustrator, making minute movements with a mouse, creating something electronically that nonetheless hearkens back to book covers that fabulous artisans created, more than a century ago, using such a very different process.
You'll find out what the foot is all about when you read the story.
Here's a quick sneak peek at Jamie Duclos-Yourdon's voice. One thing you need to know is that the characters in Froelich's Ladder have a special method of communication that borrows from Morse code, using thumps and vibrations to create combinations of words. That method is called TAP.
In all of recorded history, Froelich’s ladder was the fourth tallest that had ever been erected. The tallest, of course, had been Jacob’s ladder—which, even if it were fictional, had still been conceived of by man, and therefore had to be counted among his many accomplishments. In truth, neither Gordy nor Binx had any idea how tall the ladder was—not precisely, anyway. Froelich claimed The Very Big Tree had never ceased to grow. He claimed never to have seen the top of the ladder, suggesting it might be infinite. When Binx reminded him that Harald had carved the other end, and therefore the ladder couldn’t be infinite, Froelich had given the TAP equivalent of a shrug.
More info on Froelich's Ladder and Forest Avenue Press is here.
It's a rainy Saturday morning and laundry day in the new house. I step into the bathroom that looks so unlike the bathroom we bought a month and a half ago. New blue paint where it once was mauve, new vanity, toilet, cabinet, rugs and towels, shower curtain. Even the grate in the floor, new. We've spent a painful amount of money but as I look around, there's something so surprisingly satisfying in knowing we've bought so much. How much we've made this place new and our own.
I stop at the laundry hamper, one old thing in this very new room. The basket is halfway across the house full of curtain supplies, so I figure I might as well just grab the hamper itself and take it downstairs. I heft the thing - it's tall and thin, probably a lot easier to take around the corners down the stairs, actually. Nice not to have to transfer the clothes from one container to another just to take it downstairs. Jeez! Why didn't I ever think of this before!
There's a sound that starts out crackle, quickly moves to crunch and ends a second later in a satisfying crack. And, you guessed it, the bottom of the hamper falls out, spilling my dreams of laundering efficiency all over the floor.
Ah. Well, I guess it's never too late to buy one more thing.
Mid-day, catching a quick bit of lunch in the midst of all my move-in chores, I sit down at my desk upstairs and flip over to facebook, and one of the posts I see is this picture.
-along with the caption, "To hold a book with your name in it..."
What a lovely thing. The picture is of a page of the early galley for City of Weird, the anthology I'm editing for Forest Avenue Press. Sadly, we weren't able to give galleys out to all the contributors - they're for booksellers and blurbers and the media - but along with being a writer, Leigh Anne Kranz is a radio personality (sssso not the reason I chose this gorgeous story, which, like all of the stories, I chose blind), so she got a sneak preview. How wonderful to witness, even in cyber form, a writer's pleasure at holding a publication for the first time.
I stare at the picture for a moment: the story title, Leigh Anne's name, the tiny bits of phrase. Empty of the pink-fleshed fish. The sonar of hunger.
I remember when I held my own first contribution to an anthology for the first time. 2009, Portland Noir. I was at Powell's, mid-day on a Friday, running up to the fourth floor to grab re-sorts to take down to my displays, and out of the blue, sitting stacked in three face-outs on a cart in the Publicity book corral, was a whole mess of Portland Noir. I just stood there looking at it. It took me a long time to pick it up. I don't know why.
From my journal:
It was a full cart and I stood there sort of moving the other books around, putting Orange Room books with Orange Room books and Green Room books with Green and… well, hovering around. The appearance of Portland Noir in the store changed everything. I had slipped from the anticipation Portland-Noir-Is-Being-Published phase, the I’m-going-to-be-published phase, to the Portland-Noir-Is-Out. The I’m-published. The thing against whose absence I’ve judged my existence ever since… I don’t know when. As early as Sophomore year in high school?
I’m distracted by the fact that I’m not sure if that sentence I just wrote about measuring something against an absence of something is correct. Oh well, what the hell. What do I care? I’m published now. They can’t take that away from me.
Ha, my silly words. But a moment like that is worth some silly words.
I click like on Leigh Anne's post and scroll down, reading people's comments of congratulations. Somewhere along the thread of comments, Leigh Anne says that it made her cry, which makes me cry, and I think, my goodness. Holding my first publication for the first time was a wonderful feeling, the best, but sitting here, looking at Leigh Anne's picture of hers, which I had a hand in, feels even better.
City of Weird doesn't come out until October next year, but here's a little sneak peek at Leigh Anne's story:
The Seattle pod moved south. The sonar of hunger echoed between them. The homewaters were empty of the pink-fleshed fish they loved. They swam fast and close to the shoreline. They followed a troller in the fog, moved in with stealth to pull the fish from the hooks. The grandmother killed a great white shark easily, turned it belly-up and held until it drowned. She learned the technique on her first long migration, from a pod in the Farallons, the triangular islands where sea lions lounged golden on the rocks and bled scarlet in the choppy water.
I get, wet, out of the shower in our new bathroom with the new blue paint and the new vanity and the new toilet and the new cabinet and the new floor. I throw on my old robe. Taking a nice, hot shower in the new house is wondering how much bigger that spot in the basement is now, that wide, dark spot where the water spreads out from the leak we discovered yesterday. It's two o'clock in the afternoon and I'm cleaning up after a morning of unpacking, organizing and cleaning in the kitchen, not to mention cooking up all the fresh greens in the refrigerator so we can freeze them since, yes, on this second official day in our new house, the fridge decided to die like the last of my dreams of financial security.
Through the window, two crows, one after the other, fly straight at me so that for a moment, here without my glasses on, I think at least one is going to land on my head. Then one, then two, they swoop up and land on the edge of the roof. My roof; what a strange thing. I put my glasses on in time to see one dip down from the house and land in the center of the backyard. Crows are odd creatures - so sleek, yet they walk like toddlers. She toddles through the sparse grass and willy nilly dandelions that will someday be a garden when we can afford it. Her head jerks and twitches as she looks for things to eat. Finding something I can't see, grabbing it in her beak, she flies up and lands on the fence that separates my yard from the neighbor's. Sits there for a minute. Surveying. A fence is such a different thing to a bird. A perch, a place to rest, as she looks around for where she wants to fly next.
Goodbye lovely, little dinky kitchen with black and white tiles and beautiful, old wooden cabinets painted white.
Goodbye mysterious periodical pee smell coming from the back closet, which we could never find a source for.
Goodbye streetcar rattling by below our third-story windows on a street with the fabulously redundant name of Lovejoy.
Goodbye four trash bags of old video tapes we never played because they were old video tapes.
Goodbye too many coffee cups.
Goodbye pocket doors that turned one main apartment room into two, the art studio and the bedroom, and that Stephen ritualistically closed every night when we got into bed and opened again with a creek and a crash every new day.
Goodbye too many vases.
Goodbye layer of kitchen grime built up on the too many vases that we decided to keep.
Goodbye ten minute commute to work.
Goodbye bottle of coconut syrup in the back of the cabinet that I don't remember when we bought and I don't remember when / how we used half of.
Goodbye stacks of chipped plates given to me by Mom, given to her by Noni, which I couldn't bear get rid of even though I have so many unchipped Noni plates left.
Goodbye view, far off against the horizon, of the off-ramp to the Freemont Bridge, suggesting the river.
Goodbye black and white checked hat, which was Stephen's grandmother's and which I wanted to wear in the winters but which was too big for my head.
Goodbye Stephen's old records, which someone in this building will have to have really eclectic taste to want to procure for their own.
Thank you mysterious neighbor woman who came into the laundry room and took the Prince, the Duran Duran and the grandmother hat.
Goodbye big grass lot down the block where Nicholas liked to walk, which I used to like to call The Old Pooping Grounds. [We cleaned up after him, of course.]
Goodbye periodic bear walking down the street that I would than realize was a squirrel crawling by on the wire just outside my window.
Goodbye two-minute walk to Kathy's house.
Goodbye horse rings all along the curbs.
Goodbye used twisty-ties and expired batteries and takeout Chinese soy sauce packets.
Goodbye carpet under the bed that Kitty threw up on and that José peed on, the day Stephen and I got engaged.
Goodbye big tree across the street that filled the bay window in our bedroom so that when we lay in bed, it felt as though we were lying in a tree house.
Goodbye nights sitting in bed watching movies and periodically looking out the window, past the tree, to where the rain poured off the streetlamp and made a spray of gold.
Things that make you cry as you're packing up your life and fixing up a new house and moving out of the apartment where you've lived for ten years:
The suggestion that you weed out your grandmother's dishes and only take the ones that aren't chipped.
Listening to old Rufus Wainwright CDs as you paint the bedroom and thinking about how much living you've done with this man you met because your aunt once sent you a copy of Poses, and thinking about that poor woman in that song who never fell in love with anyone except for "The Art Teacher."
David Sedaris Live at Carnegie Hall - the story about the parrot, the one you used to get tired of hearing because you had it on two different books-on-tape that you used to listen to when you walked around the Pearl District looking for help wanted signs when you first moved in.
It's ten o'clock at night, but we're in bed eating pizza and watching Strangers with Candy. Last pizza night in the apartment. We've been painting all day and Stephen's coming down with a cold and we have to be completely moved by the end of the day Tuesday, but you see, we don't have a working oven at the new house, so this will be our last pizza night for a while, and we had frozen pizza burning a hole in our freezer.
All the lasts. Last load of laundry in the apartment basement, last time driving home from work to the apartment, last night eating pizza in bed in the apartment. Red Christmas lights framing the bay window.
Something funny happens on the TV and I laugh out loud and my heart is full of grief and the pizza tastes good.
Yesterday we were working on the woodwork and I heard a sound, a soft, mournful discordant chord. Stephen started saying something, and I did something I never do, I said, "Shhhh!" And we listened. Faint, but a train whistle heard in the house. A first.
It's just the Baseboard Guy and me at the house. I'm on the top of a ladder in the second bedroom, painting the edges of the ceiling with a brush to prep for when Stephen takes over later with the roller. The Baseboard Guy is just through the open doorway in the dining room, hard at work fashioning a new length of baseboard for that empty spot in the first bedroom, which is why I'm calling him the Baseboard Guy. Later, he'll be installing some new windows, and I suppose then he'll be the Window Guy.
The Baseboard Guy makes a lot of noise. He pounds on stuff and he scrapes at stuff and he uses some sort of nuclear robot machine to pound nails into stuff - but underneath it all is a murmur. I keep thinking he's talking to me. But he's not. I realized it the first time I thought he was talking to me and he wasn't: he's talking to himself.
"Mmmm, OK, OK," he says. And he pounds on something.
Pretty much every time he's about to pound on something, he says to himself, "OK."
Then the murmur is numbers. "Five, five and twenty-five." He's calculating something or measuring something. "Two-forty," he says, low under his breath, "Five, no, six. Six. OK."
All afternoon, he talks to himself, a kind of nice, comforting drone under the staccato of the scraping and pounding and drilling, the sounds of destruction that really mean whatever is the opposite of destruction, oh yes, construction.
"Alright, alright, OK," he says.
I like that each person who has a hand in making this house different - the Baseboard Guy, the plumber, the roofer, the cleaner - is such a particular person. Each one has some quirk. This Baseboard Guy, I like that he talks to himself.
"I like that he talks to himself," I say.
Oh yeah. I guess I do that too.
"OK," the Baseboard Guy says, "Two-oh-five, yeah. OK."
It's six o'clock on Friday evening, and I'm off to dump the last of my green tea in the break room sink and put the tea bag in the compost bin so my Powell's coffee cup doesn’t collect a mold forest during the two weeks I’ll be off work. Two weeks for finishing the fix-up on the house, packing up, moving in. Saying goodbye to the apartment where we've lived for ten years.
I've been working late to tie up any loose ends I can think of, and most of the Powell's Industrial Warehouse has gone home for the weekend. As I leave the bright light of the Marketing work space, cup in hand, I find the warehouse dark. There's some light along the rows and rows of bookshelves far off across the huge space, but where I walk, past the lockers and the shipping line, it's dark and quiet and almost eerie. A very different thing from the bustle of the day. Almost lonely.
For a second, I feel like I'm moving out of Powell's. When I'm here next, I think, I'll be coming from... and I almost think home, but then I think, the house.
In the quiet, empty break room, I tilt my cup over the sink, and the dregs of my tea run down the drain.
When I'm here next, I think, and the thought is so strange, I'll finally be calling it home.
Years ago, I lived with a man who was only interested in one subject. That's not a huge thing as far as tragic marriages go, but because all of our time was devoted to this one thing, I spent years feeling culturally and intellectually starved as well as lonely. One time, my mother-in-law gave us a bunch of old movies on video cassette, and one of those was Our Town (1940). That night, I took the tape of the film version of the Thornton Wilder play about the preciousness of everyday life into the bedroom alone and bawled my eyes out.
I've been in love with the play ever since but had never seen it on stage until last Saturday night when I had the good luck to get amazing third-row-center seats for the production at Portland Center Stage. It was performed as it's meant to be performed:
Well, OK, they do have a curtain, but the rest is the same. No scenery. Just chairs and, for the scenes that take place from second-story windows, two ladders.
Theaters always have a big choice to make as far as whether to produce a classic exactly as written or to give it some twist to make it their own. The twist Portland Center Stage employs is equal parts subtle and bold and is very effective. For this story about turn-of-the-last-century small-town life in Grover's Corners, New Hampshire, there is quite a diverse cast. The lack of a period set helps put this over so that it's surprisingly easy to swallow a family in which George Gibbs (Sathya Sridharan) is Indian American and his sister Rebecca (Hailey Kilgore) is African American. One plus to welcoming such diversity into Grover's Corners is that you end up with a cast of very strong actors, but it also plays beautifully into the sense of universality that lies at the heart of Our Town, the idea that this small town is the whole big world.
And, such a strong cast. I thought everyone did great honor to Wilder's characters, but if I had to choose stand-outs, I'd say I thought both the mother characters, Mrs. Gibbs (Gina Daniels) and Mrs. Webb (Tina Chillip), were wonderful, and Sathya Sridharan's gangly, exuberant George was delightful. Sharonlee McLean and Leif Norby added some great supporting cast comedy. And when John D. Haggerdy's Mr. Webb walked Emily (lovely Nikki Massoud) down the aisle on her wedding day, when he turned to look at her in the second before he released her, the love on his face felt utterly real.
While the actors give us subtlety and realness, Rose Riordan's staging gives us beautiful theatricality. One favorite moment is when George and Emily realize they're in love for the first time. Riordan has them walk together, across the back of the stage, then right down the middle, heading right at us in the audience, before breaking away, giddy (the way giddy combines both joy and fear) and running off in opposite directions - a long, silent moment that gives us time to reflect on just how enormous this regular old love thing is.
And then there's the moment when the curtain goes up on act three. I'm not going to give it away, but what I saw was stunning. The staging in this final leg of the show is beautifully haunting and worth the price of admission.
The philosophical climax of Our Town has been described by some modern, jaded crab apples not unlike myself as a tad simplistic and preachy:
Oh, earth, you're too wonderful for anybody to realize you. Do any human beings realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?
But I have to say. Since seeing the play, I find myself stopping here and there in my day, trying to thornton-wilder my way into holding a little harder onto each moment and reminding myself, "every, every minute."
Our Town runs through October 11 on the Gerding Theater's main stage. More information is here.
Photos of the production courtesy of Patrick Weishampel/blankeye.tv
You never know what smells are going to find you as you walk through this apartment building. Someone's pizza delivery. Someone's didn't-quite-all-make-it-down-to-the-basement garbage. Often: wet dog. Which I don't mind. Tonight as I walk Nicholas down the three flights of stairs and out into the lovely grand entryway of the apartment, it's a distinct smoke smell. Something thick and oddly sweet, and my brain instantly says, Papoo. My great grandfather on my mother's side. But is that right? What I'm smelling reminds me of pipe tobacco. Did Papoo ever smoke a pipe? Why did this scent make me think of him?
When I really think of Papoo, I remember mints. Or maybe... butterscotch candies. Some sort of candies he loved to eat and always for sure smelled like when I leaned in to hug him when I visited him when I was very young and he was very old. Sad that I don't even remember which candies anymore. Because I so remember remembering what he smelled like - that lovely visceral memory of him - for so long.
Maybe this pipe smell in the entryway is another of my grandfathers. But I think of Coco, and what I remember is the sharp scent of boat gasoline. Or the sweet of blackberry pies baking in their house. And when I think of Pappaw, what I remember is moth balls.
It suddenly makes me terribly sad to be this far along in my life, to be so far away from the scents of grandfathers.
We're at the house every moment that we're not... somewhere else. Today I worked nine to five and then we attended a literary event but now, nine o'clock at night, we're at the house again.
The smell of sawdust has replaced the stale cigarette smell, at least in the four rooms where the floor guys have been sanding things down. Working like mad to remove the paint that was splattered and slopped across the lovely, old fir floors when the people who lived here before didn't bother to cover anything while painting the rooms. Working like mad to reduce the outrageous amounts of staining that resulted from those people letting their cats and dogs pee all over the carpet and never bothering to clean it up. Untended animal urine that the floor guys and the carpet-removal guy before them have declared to be the worst case they've ever seen.
I'm mad at those people. For hurting this house. The paint splatters all over the lovely wood molding, the spray of old soy or teriyaki sauce (that's what the cleaning woman said it was) up one living room wall and across the ceiling. The garbage we found half buried in the dirt behind the garage. I know I don't have any right to be mad at them; it was their house and they could do whatever they wanted in it. But now this house is mine, and I feel like you do when you find out someone kicked your little sister.
All the half-assed do-it-yourself repair jobs they did on the plumbing. Paint smeared across window glass. The door they took out and walled up but never bothered to refinish. All the filth they were living in. All the neglect. How neglect can feel like disrespect.
Stephen crouches with a spray bottle of hydrogen peroxide, squirting the spots along the floor where the long-ignored animal urine stained the wood the worst. There's only one spray bottle and it's not my turn, so I'm walking around, taking some pictures and looking at the difference this treatment has made already.
I stoop and touch the floor. Touching is something I've been avoiding in this house, at least when I'm not working to scrape paint spatters off the wood columns or help unscrew ugly bathroom fixtures from the walls. It's like there's a layer of those people lingering like old smoke residue all along every surface. But now, we've yanked out the old green carpet and the floor guys have sanded the top layer off the wood underneath, exposing a surface those people never touched. I run my hand along the soft, powdery surface. Something new. Something clean.
Stephen and I stand in the room that will someday be our bedroom: paint-splattered wood floor, army helicopter stickers on the wall, the exposed drywall where the ugly prefab fireplace was demolitioned over the weekend. We have a little stack of paint chips and Stephen's holding one to the wall, up against the wood molding around the door, and we're talking about color.
I've felt so emotional throughout this house process, grumpy and sleep deprived and periodically wanting to burst into tears because, say, Stephen announces that we'll have to keep our section of the sidewalk clear and then nudges a weed to its death with his shoe to demonstrate. I just know the house is going to smell like old cigarettes forever, and the thought that I'll never hear the streetcar go by the house and I'll never hear the Amtrak train whistles at night fills me with grief.
The color on the paint chip is green, a late-summer green, like hot sun through waning leaves. I picked the paint chips out, and Stephen likes my choices, and that makes me incredibly proud. The choices weren't arbitrary. We've been talking color for a long time. But just the fact that my opinionated artist husband asked me to pick out the paint chips with my own eyes and is standing here, now, nodding and smiling and saying, "Yes, I think that's going to look really nice," fills me with whatever is the opposite of that grief thing I was just talking about.
He uses his hand to cover the green squares above and below the shade we're considering, and I stand back like it's a portrait in an art gallery. I say I think it's great and he says he thinks this might be it. We turn the card over to see what the name of the color is so we can make a note of it. It says, Footy Pajamas.
Stephen and I sit side by side on the porch steps. Early-dusk blue sky, a cartwheel of crows overhead. We closed on our house today, this house behind us, and it feels real like only something this big feels real, which is to say not real. Whose house is this, it's not our house, it's not a house at all, it's the facade of a house sitting on the old MGM motion picture back lot, it's a painted stage flat on the opera stage at the Keller auditorium. We each have a class of Veuve Clicquot.
We’ve been wandering around the empty rooms that are full of the stale smell of the fifteen thousand cigarettes smoked by the people who lived here before, pulling up old carpet to see the paint-splattered wood floors underneath. Taking “before” pictures of the cracked kitchen counters, the lovely but scarred and paint-splattered wood moldings and columns in the dining room, taking stock of the work before us.
Cats make lazy lopes through the street. A perturbed squirrel squawks at us from the walnut tree. We clink glasses.
Stephen says, "This is ours."
I take that in for a moment.
He sips his champagne and turns to gaze at our new house. “I don’t usually own things this junky.”
Home appraisal day. Yet another day along the process in which our hopes and expectations surrounding buying the house could crumble. But how amazing and impossible to have gotten this far. At the same time, I've been building a book. Which has meant reading submissions, choosing stories, rejecting stories, editing stories, ordering stories, all of which felt impossible this time last year and here I am on the other side, in final discussions about titles and subtitles with the publisher as the galleys are being prepared.
I walk Nicholas in the morning. Down the marble stairs, through the grand entryway of the apartment where Stephen and I have lived for ten impossible years. Can it really be ten years? Out though the front door, and we turn to the right, stepping under trees. There's a curious sizzling sound, like rain in the tree leaves, but that can't be. I stop and try to figure out where it's coming from. I finally bother to look down. Tiny spots all along the pavement. Step out from under the tree and put my hand out, and there it is, no question: impossible rain coming down from this sky.
OK, now listen to me. If you get a chance to see an Anonymous Theater production, GO. I wish I could tell you all about it and at the end post a link to information about other performances, but this was a one-night-only affair. All I'm going to say is, be on the lookout for the next. I have just had the most fun I've had in a long time.
Tom Stoppard's The Real Inspector Hound is such good material, you kind of can't go wrong, but couple it with Anonymous Theater, and you add an extra layer of serious fun. If you don't already know what it is, an Anonymous Theater production is staged entirely with the actors (as you can probably figure out from the name) anonymous. This means not only does the audience not know who the actors are as they sit right there in the seats until their cues, but the actors themselves don't know who they're playing against. All the rehearsals are performed one-on-one with the director. So by the time the cast comes together for the one-night-only performance, it's just as fresh and new to them as it is to you.
Director Darius Pierce (who's also a fantastic and well-known Portland comedic actor) started things off with some remarks and some thank yous, an explanation of Anonymous Theater for any uninitiated, and when he was done speaking I leaned over to my friend and date for the evening and said, "His talk alone is worth the price of admission." Already we were laughing more than you do watching some comedies.
Then the show started. A darkened theater, the sound of birds, and suddenly out of the audience, up pops our first actor. The applause turns to laughter as she goes running down the side of the theater to take her place on stage.
Along with The Real Inspector Hound, we were treated to the ten-minute play On the Porch One Crisp Spring Morning, by Alex Dremann. You think maybe the extra ten-minute play is going to be a throwaway. Oh, but contraire.* It was a hilarious mini-drama between a mother and daughter who happen to be... spoiler alert... spoiler alert... double agents. Or triple agents. Maybe. Or maybe not. It's one perfectly convoluted thing after another, and the two women in the piece (sadly, I can't remember their names, and of course the names are not on the program!) played it with a lovely mix of energetic rage and subtlety. My date for the evening is a writer who has just finished a gorgeous memoir that deals a lot with her own very odd mother, and it was such fun to hear her laughing with relish through the whole piece.
Seriously, when The Real Inspector Hound began, I was worried that it wouldn't be as funny as On the Porch. But the whole evening was smart, clever writing and laughs all the way through. And as I said before, the Anonymous part of it adds a lovely extra layer of energy. I was actually nervous as the lights dimmed and we waited for the first actor to pop up, as if it might turn out to be me. Then, with every actor who jumped up in his or her seat and started running to the stage, I just felt more and more energized.
The way the actors all ran down the aisles, grabbing their props from tables at the base of the stage as they went, added to the liveliness of an already fast-paced, lively play. At times the actors had some fun with the Anonymous-Theater-ness of it all (for instance the housekeeper finding that the apron she'd just picked up from the prop table didn't fit, and finally chucking the thing), and you were never sure if these moments were improvisations or moves planned out between actor and director. Here and there, the actors, witnessing the show fresh, couldn't keep from smiling, themselves.
Stand-outs among the actors. For me, they were... well, unfortunately, again, I can't remember any of the names that were announced at the end of the show (partly because the audience was applauding so vigorously I couldn't always hear). The woman who played Mrs. Drudge. Beautiful timing, sharp-as-a-tack delivery. And the guy who played Simon Gascoyne. Fabulous, particular physical comedian. I so enjoyed watching him that I was very disappointed when he... um, spoiler alert... died.
Or... spoiler alert... the first of him died.
You see, halfway through the show... OK, wait. I suppose I should explain some things first. The Real Inspector Hound is a play-within-a-play kind of play. At the beginning, you're introduced to two theater critics sitting in an audience. You get a bit of their story as they wait for their show to start and then the play, a murder mystery, starts to unfold in front of... both you and the critics watching from their seats at the side of the stage. Hilarity ensues - or continues to ensue... it never stops ensuing - and in a crazy, but beautifully orchestrated twist that would take entirely too long to explain, halfway through the show, the play-within-a-play starts over from the beginning as one of the critics gets pulled into the production. He is now Simon Gascoyne. The murder mystery goes forward a second time with this new Simon.
What audacity, to stage most of an entire play twice in one show. And how fascinating. The Real Inspector Hound is a player's play. An actor's delight, especially when the actors are witnessing the thing fresh, themselves. How interesting to watch two completely talented, completely different actors play the same part.
Actors playing actors, actors playing theater critics playing actors, critics discussing tropes and tropes discussing the world, love, mystery and murder. Layer upon layer. And as I said: especially when produced by Anonymous Theater. Not only is it a play within a play, but it's like an Anonymous Theater within an Anonymous Theater. I started to fall down a laughing vortex, a rip in the space-theater continuum. Here I was, a blogger playing a theater critic, Watching and laughing and trying to find meaning while the audience (and I) laughed at the theater critics trying to find meaning. And the meaning was nothing more than (and most importantly nothing less than) an evening of uproarious laughter, shared with a theater full of people and a good friend. The music of her laughing all tangled up with mine all tangled up with everyone else. There's nothing better.
For more information on Anonymous Theater, check out their website here.
*Yes, I know the phrase isn't actually, "oh, but contraire." It's a family thing.
On Monday, Stephen and I will be seeing The Real Inspector
Hound at the Gerding Theater. I'm so excited. With my editing the next short story anthology for Forest
Avenue Press and our working to buy a house (!), this will be the first play
I'll have the privilege of writing about in a long time. Now, we were lucky enough to
have a chance to get out last Saturday and see a bit of Shakespeare in the Park—A
Midsummer Night's Dream with the multitalented Kallan Dana as Hermia—but unfortunately, I just didn't have time to sit down and write a thorough post
about it. But I will say it was a total delight, with a bit of modern spice
thrown in, and lots of zaniness.
Interestingly, there was a tiny bit of parallel between A
Midsummer Night's Dream and Monday night's The Real Inspector Hound. That is,
of course, that both plays were written by Tom Stoppard. No. But from where we
sat on lawn chairs in the park last Saturday, we had a good view of the back of a big guy
in the audience sitting in his own lawn chair, laughing delightedly and
periodically shouting something funny at the players on stage. Then in the
middle of the proceedings, up he pops—and here was Puck, tricking us already
by pretending to be an audience member.
The Real Inspector Hound is being put on by Anonymous Theater. I saw one of their productions once before and LOVED it. In an Anonymous Theater production, all the actors
are sitting anonymously in the audience and you have no idea if you're sitting
right next to one of the players until he or she suddenly pops up and delivers
the first line from right there in the seats. No matter what play you're
seeing, there's this added excitement that comes from the not-knowing—and also
this lovely sense of inclusiveness, like the entire theater is part of the
The Anonymous Theater production I saw before was Macbeth
and I was pretty sure the friend who invited us, the immensely talented
Christine Calfas, was going to be in the show. Little did I know she was
playing Lady Macbeth herself. It was a total thrill when she popped up and called
out her first line, but the most interesting moment of the evening, beyond the
beautifully presented play itself, was when the actor playing Macbeth jumped up from his seat in the house and Christine, still sitting next
to me, let out a gasp and involuntarily pounded her chest with her fist because she was so
excited to find out, right then and there, that the man she was playing
opposite was an actor she knew and loved.
Yes, even the actors don't know who they're playing against.
Which means they have NEVER rehearsed together. This is so fascinating to me. Rehearsals for The Real Inspector Hound have been going on two-by-two. Just one actor and director
Darius Pierce, going through lines and blocking and only anticipating the rest of the cast. It's quite a feat to mount a production like this, and Anonymous Theater does it masterfully—giving you, in the end, a show that is amazingly tight but full of a freshness that comes from top-notch actors pushing their limits right in the moment.
If you're intrigued, check it out. Monday night at the Gerding Theater, 7:00. Along with The Real Inspector Hound, you get the ten-minute play On the Porch One Crisp Spring Morning by Alex Dremann. More information on Anonymous Theater is here.
I had more than the usual excitement and anxiety starting work on the book cover design for the upcoming Forest Avenue Press title The Remnants by Robert Hill. A first for me: it's a book I've known for quite some time, since before FAP signed it to be published. Robert's first novel, When All Is Said and Done (Graywolf Press), was shortlisted for the Oregon Book Award and is a knockout. And The Remnants is one of the most unique and beautiful books I've ever read.
So you get a better idea of the themes I was mulling, here's the description of the book:
The town of New Eden, peopled with hereditary oddities, has arrived at its last days. As two near-centenarian citizens prepare for their annual birthday tea, a third vows to interrupt the proceedings with a bold declaration. The Remnants cartwheels rambunctiously through the lives of wood-splitters, garment-menders, and chervil farmers, while exposing an electrical undercurrent of secrets, taboos, and unfulfilled longings. With his signature wit and wordplay, Robert Hill delivers a bittersweet gut-buster of an elegy to the collective memory of a community.
Finally, I started thinking about what the title really means. The Remnants. It's such a perfect title because it means one thing and it means one thing more and it means one thing more. The people in New Eden are definitely remnants, the last vestiges of a larger community. Broken-off pieces of a larger world. But in the lives of these people, too, memories are half-forgotten remnants. Old wishes and longings are half-buried remnants. Here at the end of things, there's not much left that isn't fractured and mostly lost. But even so, you can see the persistent power of life reaching up even as the last of New Eden is crumbling away.
As the wind picks up and the sky grays over, Kennesaw trudges the remaining miles into town, catching his breath by the hole in the stone wall at Nedewen Field where dust returns to dust. He passes the broken stone markers that show their old age like chipped teeth in a mouth full of mourning, and lays to rest the memories of those who have gone before him. He continues on down the gravel road and crosses the tangled patch that had once been the village green, and past the strip of acre beside the barn behind True’s house where the prized row of Granny-Macs once stood. It’s taken him all of the morning and most of the afternoon and much of the last ninety-nine years to reach here. The weather is due to turn calamitous. Kennesaw runs a moist hand across his moist scalp as he continues on his way to True’s. He approaches her plain front gate where he rests a moment before starting up again and making his way up her walkway and onto her front stone slab, which is only a pebble less settled than his.
One arm pumping and then the other. One leg shuffling and then the other. One ache and then another and then another and then another. And this is how the aged walk into heaven.
He’s ninety-nine. It’s been a long journey. Tea sounds good to him.
The Remnants will be out March 2016. For more info on this and Forest Avenue Press' other titles, check out their website here.
Recently, I had the privilege of designing the front cover for Liz Prato's upcoming collection of short stories, Baby's on Fire, due out in May from Press 53.
What a great title. I knew they didn't want actual fire in the design, and I agreed that fire would be too on the nose, but I had an instant thought about what I'd do as soon as I started mulling things over.
Here's the original photo I used for the design, which I found at the very wonderful Morguefile. You'll see I rotated it and added some more to the background and then altered the wisp of smoke at the top. Oh, and got rid of the candle or stick of incense or whatever that is, along with its shadow.
Really, it was three things that gave me the inspiration for the cover design. One was the quality of Liz' writing, and I think you'll get what I'm saying when you see the design. The second was the fire in the title, for sure. Third had to do with one of the elements you find on the covers of most books of fiction out there. I don't know if there's a term for this thing. The tiny text placed somewhere on the design, which says, "a novel" or "stories."
Not long ago, I had some back and forth with publisher Laura Stanfill (for whom I design book covers for her press Forest Avenue Press) about this element in book covers and whether it's necessary, helpful, a waste of space, a distraction from the design or what. Personally, I like it. It's cute and does help a reader know the kind of book they're buying - but mostly I like it because often book designers use it in fun, clever ways.
With Baby's on Fire, I used the tiny word "stories" as, not an incidental, tertiary part of the design, but one of the most important elements of the cover, which I hope conveys the power of these stories. Because it's not just Baby who's on fire; it's these stories.
Here's a sample from the book, to show you what I mean. Spoiler alert: f-bomb coming:
...and while he fucks Shelby she looks up at the sky and notices it for the first time: you can see stars here. All of them. Every star that was ever made, whether it still exists or not, looks down at Shelby in the back of the brown pick-up truck, and they don’t twinkle or glow or any of those other things you expect stars to do. They just burn. Baby's on Fire will be out in May from Press 53.
The lovely Valentine's Day breakfast Stephen made us is all eaten and both bowls licked by a happy dog, and we sit up in bed, glasses of mango juice and cava. He hands me the card he made me. I hand him the card I made him. We open them simultaneously, laugh and start making comments just about simultaneously. Read the sweet notes inside. Nicholas curled up in the hole made my Stephen's half-crossed legs. We talk about the cards. Share a quick clink of glasses.
"So," I say. "Is it time to go show off?"
As Stephen said when he posted my card image on facebook: "Oh, yes, it's that time again, because our love ain't real if it ain't shared on FB!"
And my blog, apparently. Here's a little more detailed post to show off even a little more.
Stephen's card to me started with this glamorous and iconic picture of Marlene Dietrich.
In a way, our cards to each other are like his paintings and my writing - a way to be what we wish we could be, and a lot of the time, it's all about glamour.
Speaking of glamour, below is the original image he used for his second element in the card. La Crawford.
[as a side-note, often when i type the name joan crawford, it comes out crawrod. i don't know why.]
He eliminated Crawford this time around and just nabbed that lovely, very old-Hollywood plaster column shaped like feathers. The finished product:
Of course, he's lying when he says I never neglect my glamour. It's lovely to have a husband with such skillz, to Photoshop me some glamour now and then.
The detail (Can you tell where I end and Dietrich begins? Nope.):
For my card this year, it was easy to be timely. Stephen's been spending the last couple weeks on stage at the Keller Auditorium supering for the opera Carmen. Tonight is closing night, in fact. I found this lovely old theatrical poster from 1896.
Had to do some work on her very interesting hairline and remake some of the letters to get his name in there. What was the most fun about doing this was that the original picture of Stephen was in black and white and I had to work to colorize it the way I wanted so that it would blend in with the poster. Then I remembered we originally took the picture in color. Oops.
We had fantastic seats for The Portland Opera's dress rehearsal for Carmen at the Keller Auditorium. Front row, pretty much center in the first balcony. Perfect to get a wide view of the action and great for my date for the evening, a friend who's a musician, because we also had a great view into the orchestra pit. Waiting for the performance to start, we were talking his expertise: percussion, tympani, the exactness of rhythm. He told me of the importance of the tambourine. He gave me beautiful insights into, and way heightened my appreciation of the triangle. Seriously. When the show started my body plugged into the current of that rousing first overture and ran circuits directly to the gorgeous little ping of the triangle and the smash of the cymbals.
I'd never seen Carmen all the way through but after having supered in The Portland Opera's last production of Carmen, this show felt equal parts completely new to me and like an old friend. I knew the story inside and out and not at all. Not, at least, as a viewed-in-chronological-order thing. Seeing it this way, from the outside, all the way through, with those gorgeous sets and costumes and lighting, wow what a show.
Even though it was dress rehearsal, the singers were for the most part singing full out, and beautifully. I thought Sandra Piques Eddy's rich, hefty mezzo fit Carmen's role really well. All the singing was beautiful, particularly Chad Shelton's Don José - and the fabulous chorus whose voices filled the Keller up. It's a production all about bigness - all those voices, the lovely sets, the added touches like the flamenco dancers (who did a fabulous percussive turn during the changeover from act three to act four). There's also a whole lot of sexy in this production. Sandra Piques Eddy is very sexy as she taunts Don José, particularly in a moment when she's sprawled out on the steps of the factory, tied at the wrists, a prisoner who's nevertheless turning that rope into something extremely seductive.
Of course, my star of the show, or at least the performer I'd really come to see, was Stephen, who got to super in this production (his second Carmen) (jealous). When the solders came marching down the ramp from the top of the stage in their big hats and orange plumes, both my friend and I leaned forward in our seats, trying to spot which one was Stephen. He'd told me his was the only hat with a brass button on it, and yep, there he was: I could see that button flashing into the balcony.
But I would have had an absolute blast at Carmen had I not had a husband in the show. It's a huge, gorgeous, beautifully sung, beautifully played, beautifully staged production and of course one of the most accessible operas in the world to boot.
[Look! There's Stephen dead center in back, tallest of the picadors.]
There are two performances left: Thursday and Saturday. More info is here. If you go, look for a brass button and listen for the triangle.
Submissions just opened for a short story collection I'll be editing for Forest Avenue Press. I'm so excited to dip in and see what stories come to us. Here's the description of the project from FAP's website:
Forest Avenue Press is open for its next short story project from February 1 to April 15, 2015. The collection, edited by Gigi Little and slated for a 2016 release, will celebrate Portland’s weird and wonderful spirit with tales of the fantastical.
The many-tentacled beast that lives under Burnside Bridge. The break in the space-time continuum hidden in the back corner of the Vacuum Cleaner Museum. Spacemen and sasquatches, mad scientists and devils. We’re looking for short stories that take the tropes and turn them on their ear. Smart stories that honor the fiendish whimsy of old pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories—but also surprise with their depth and complexity. All pieces must take place in Portland, Oregon, or be connected to the city in a meaningful way.
I grew up loving The Twilight Zone and lovely, campy old movies like The Village of the Damned. I loved the kooky melodrama of pulp magazines like Weird Tales and Amazing Stories. Not to mention the covers. Just look at these!
Clutching hands of death!
As I'm reading submissions I'll be looking for a grand mix - stories can be campy, serious, funny, dark. They can surprise me and break my heart. But I want all the stories to be weird and to be Portland and to hearken back to these wonderful pulp tales of the fantastical.
You don't have to be from Portland or live in Portland to submit. But you'll want to be able to really evoke the city I love in your story, and that means more than just mentioning the White Stag sign or Powell's City of Books. And don't be afraid to pick one specific locale. I'll be hoping to represent lots of different parts of the city in this collection.
I love good storytelling, but I also love language. I am not of the school of thought that the writing should hide in the background and let the storytelling do all the work. I love to be dazzled by a wonderful and particular voice. I love a voice that doesn't sound too written. I love burnt language. Also, don't think that because the collection will be paying homage to magazines like Weird Tales, you have to emulate the language and times of those stories.
And, of course, every editor has pet peeves. I thought it would be helpful if I listed a few of mine.
I don't like writing that's full of adverbs.
I don't like it when every attribution comes with a different synonym for said. I particularly don't like retorted, exclaimed, proclaimed, asserted, declared. What I do like? Said.
I don't like this sentence structure: she said, getting up from the chair. He yelled, shaking his fist. It's an example of the type of style that feels too written to me, sounds cliche to my ear. I know this type of sentence structure is in most of the writing out there, but it's one of the things that bugs me.
I don't like the vulgar names for body parts.
What else bugs me? If I think of more, I'll add them here.
I'll be reading blind, so I can't chat or email with anyone about their piece, but if you are interested in submitting and have questions, feel free to check in with publisher Laura Stanfill at:
Near the ceiling of the radio room, a string of multicolored twinkle lights runs the perimeter, up and over the edges of baffles tacked to the walls. We're all sitting around the table with big, foamy microphones in front of our faces, and I've got headphones on because I'm reading first. To my right at the head of the table, the host, Leigh Anne Kranz, also headphoned, talks into her mic, her voice sweet and measured and soothing.
Between her thumb and finger, she holds and just so slightly rolls a small object. I'm trying to figure out what it is. It's oval-shaped and a light amber color, and as she gestures it through the air while speaking, its polished surface catches the light.
It's a crystal, I realize. Some sort of radio talisman, maybe, a special touchstone she holds as she performs on the air, and I love knowing this about her. I figure this talisman centers Leigh Anne in her work - and it centers me, too, makes me feel a little less nervous about reading this essay out over the airwaves.
She rolls the talisman between her thumb and finger and signals Domi, across the table, who reads my intro, and then I'm reading.
Now it's after the break in the radio show, and I'm listening to the other readers, full of glee because my reading is over and I did OK.
I notice Leigh Anne doesn't have the crystal anymore. I glance at her other hand. No crystal. Maybe she only uses it when she starts the show, like a little boost of luck for the program. I love thinking about people's rituals, the way they make magic out of ordinary objects, words, actions. We know no real magic lives inside our talismans, but we hold onto them anyway, and they comfort us anyway. There's something kind of beautiful about that.
Look down on the table below her microphone, and there are two tiny objects covered in paper that twists at the ends.
Alone in the car, Mozart playing on the classical station but low, I recite from the piece I'll be reading on the radio tomorrow night. Recite until the fog bank of my memory runs into another blank patch and I have to wait until the next red light to look at the crumpled cheat sheet of my essay to see what comes next.
The program is "Bread and Roses," on Portland's KBOO, and I'll be reading work along with four writer friends, celebrating the Burnt Tongue reading series we've all been a part of here in town. I'm assuming none of them are in their cars practicing lines. They all, I'm sure, have perfectly fog-free memories. In the Mozart quiet, waiting for that next red light, I try to think how long it's been since I was on the radio. Used to do a lot of it when I was in the circus, feeling stupid sitting there with the head phones on, not only because why would I need to be in clown makeup to talk on the radio, but also because who would think I should be on the radio at all? I never knew what to say. Always sat quiet, letting my ex-husband do all the talking, until the radio guy asked me a question and I tripped all over my tongue and fog-bank brain trying to come up with something to say.
But the last time I was on the radio it was for the local station in my then town of Baraboo, Wisconsin, promoting a children's picture book I'd had published through a small press. Which would make it 2001. And, wow, think of it - Baraboo. That time, too, the station was called KBOO. Difference then was that I didn't feel like a writer. Somehow because it was a small press, a tiny press, I didn't really feel published. I was too young and naive to know the wonderful worth of small presses all across the country. Too much the me I was then to know it was OK to feel self worth, to feel like a writer. But here I am now, in the Mozart quiet, driving with my crumpled essay on the passenger seat, on top of stacks of pages from my novel in progress, which I'm taking to my writer's group where [I don't know it now, but] I will read to the group and they will laugh and they will applaud at the end and they will talk about how the piece was funny and also emotional and also a little scary and then they'll applaud again, for god's sake, and I'll feel so much like a writer I won't even notice that I feel like a writer because I've felt like a writer, been one so long I can't even remember not feeling like one.
Or at least the fog bank of my memory has pushed those feelings so far away they sit in the blank patches like the next line in my radio piece. Leave them there. Let the fog swallow them up. Red light ahead. I slow to a stop. Quick glance at my pages and I start reciting again.
When I design a book cover, the biggest question in my mind is, how can I honor that book, but in tinkering around with ideas for Ellen Urbani's upcoming novel Landfall, which takes place in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, I thought also, how can I honor that storm?
It's a strange thing to say, honoring something that was nothing but destruction and horror. Of course, things aren't just the things they are; they're also what comes out of the things they are, and a lot of rebirth came out of Katrina - but still, I suppose what I was trying to do was more like bearing witness - or, because I was not anywhere near the South when Katrina hit and the most visceral experience I've had with the horrendous hurricane has been through this book, maybe something like bearing witness once removed.
I looked at a lot of pictures of the damage as I was thinking on design possibilities. Remarkable, awful pictures. Only one made it into the final design, although I used a lot of actual Katrina imagery in lots of ways in the different cover layouts I tinkered with. In a picture showing a jeep making its way through the flooded out city, I was intrigued with some telephone poles that were leaning at odd angles, and it inspired me to add a a similar element in my design, wanting to bring in a sense of urban destruction (the telephone poles) along with destruction of nature (stripped branches which I placed opposite).
Here's a taste from the book: They beat the floodwaters to Maya’s house, but only because she lived directly across the street. The levee water barreling toward the women paused for a moment a block away, when a roof swirling on its crest wedged itself between two cars. The wave quickly flung the obstacles aside, but the delay bought them enough time to smash through Maya’s door, sprint up the stairs, and hoist each other high enough to grab the rope and pull down the attic ladder. They pushed the old woman ahead of them as the water swallowed up the stairwell. In concert, Cilla shut the trapdoor, Rosy pulled a trunk over it, and the three women threw their bodies atop it as if the flood were a giant they could barricade into another room. They sat wordlessly, stunned. From a long way away, someone screamed, a scream that wouldn’t end, a child-ripped-from-the-arms kind of wail. Below them, something metallic bent with a groan. Thunder clapped around them, again and again, but on the third or fourth stroke they realized it wasn’t thunder. It was houses. Every wooden house caught in the upsurge plowed into Maya’s brick façade and dissolved around them. Her mortared walls shook, but held.
When I put together the design, I was thinking of that one leaf that remains on the branch as a symbol of rebirth. Of the fact that even in the wake of all the destruction, something survives and something grows. I think that's a central theme in the book and I wanted to pay a little homage to that. The dragonfly does that work as well, and that's good, because author Ellen Urbani saw the leaf differently:
"It is so lonely." she said. "It speaks to the sentiment both these girls embody in the book — 'I have been lost to a storm, I am the only survivor, I am clinging desperately to my home and my roots and trying not to get lost to this tempest that has become my new reality.'"
I love that.
Landfall will be published by Forest Avenue Press on August 29th, the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall. You can get more information about it here.
There was a moment Friday night in the middle of Portland Center Stage's performance of Vanya,
Sonia, Masha and Spike in which the woman in back of me screamed with laughter just behind my right ear. People say "screamed with laughter" like it's just a way of laughing, but this woman screamed-screamed. It almost scared me. I won't tell you what prompted that scream, but it was worth it.
As far as comedies go, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has it all. Well, maybe not a car chase, but it would be pretty hard to do a car chase on stage. But Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike has disillusionment, loss, regret... OK, that doesn't seem funny, now that I think of it. But, no really. Trust me. When Christopher Durang writes a play about disillusionment, loss and regret, and Portland Center Stage produces it, it's funny enough that you might have the woman behind you scream-laugh into your right ear. And anyway, Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike also has family dysfunction, existential angst, a grown man in a Seven Dwarves costume, a disconsolate talking molecule, a psychic housekeeper with a voo-doo doll, and a guy who takes his clothes off all the time.
If you're wondering about the crazy names, they're all from Chekhov. Well, except for Spike. Vanya, Sonia and Masha are siblings (all named after Chekhov characters by their theatrical parents) who share a Pennsylvania country house. Well, mostly Vanya and Sonia share it while Masha, the one who owns it, the movie star (every good family should have a movie star) only comes back here and there from Hollywood to throw their lives (comfortably seeped in ennui and self-pity) into chaos.
From left to right: Vanya (Andrew Sellon), Sonia (Sharonlee McLean), Masha (Carol Halstead).
There's also Spike (Nick Ballard), the attention-starved boy toy (who gave me what was my biggest laugh of the night), Nina (Eden Malyn), the bubbly, chipmunk-voiced young admirer of the movie star, and Cassandra (Olivia Negron), the telepathic housekeeper who speaks in a combination of poetic warnings, gibberish and malapropisms.
Durang's characters started out feeling very broad but seemed to gain dimension throughout the play, particularly Sonia who really kind of surprised me somewhere near the end when I stopped and realized she was so different from the woman I'd expected her to be at the start.
What didn't surprise me was how much I loved Sharonlee McLean's performance in Sonia's role. Do I talk about Sharonlee McLean all the time? I see her popping up all over the Portland theater scene, and whenever I see her name in a cast list, I know I'm going to be taken care of. I'm going to get an immensely satisfying performance whether it's comedy or drama or both. As Sonia, Sharonlee is hilariously deadpan, beautifully self-pitying, and as always, just the right amount of particular. She was wonderful imitating Maggie Smith in an oh la la red-sequined gown. And a beautifully subtle phone conversation she had during a quiet break in the action was probably my favorite part of the play.
The references to Chekhov were a lot of fun. Even if you don't know beans about Chekhov, and I don't know very many beans about Chekhov, you can catch his gist pretty quick after spending the evening with Vanya, Sonia and Masha. A favorite line: "If everyone took anti-depressants, Chekhov would have nothing to write about."
For me, a climactic sequence including a play-within-a-play and then a rant by one of the characters went on a little too long, but it was also a huge moment theatrically and an interesting turn for more than one of the folks on stage. Durang's farcical situations are designed to keep you laughing all night but he also uses them to plumb complex issues like people's responsibility to each other and the danger of wallowing in our own comfy personal hell.
Vanya, Sonia, Masha and Spike is playing through February 8th on the main stage at the Gerding Theater. If you go see it, tell me what you think! More info is here.
Photos are courtesy of Patrick Weishampel. The poster was designed by Julia McNamara and it has underwear on it.