Saturday, October 20, 2012

a moment in the day: nicholas' maxx voice

Walking Nicholas in the spitting rain. He does a little prancing pony walk, lifting paws over the wet, fast along the edge of the apartment building. He prances from the front door to the side door - hasn't peed yet - and wants to go in, but I pull him along toward the closest available bushes. As we go, I do what people do when they love someone enough to be annoying. I give Nicholas a voice.

"I just don't like it!" I say for him. And I realize, as I often do when giving Nicholas a voice, which I basically only do when I want him to declare that "I just don't like it" about the rain - which means I do it a lot because I live in Portland - the voice I'm giving him belongs to Maxx. My nephew. Not his voice but his inflections, and not his current voice but the very particular one he had when he was a little boy. He had this beautiful way of rolling his sounds up in his mouth and then clipping them off at the end of each word.

years ago: me and maxx and josé

I stole Maxx' I just don't like it from a particular day when I was visiting them in California. I don't remember the crisis of the moment, but Maxx was not happy. It was some sort of kid stand-off between Maxx and my Mom and in the heat of the moment, he shouted, "I just don't like dis!"

[I've come over the years to substitute an it for the this/dis, for no real reason - just happened - but when I remember I'm doing Maxx when I do Nicholas, sometimes I try to retrain myself to get the dis in there to make it more authentic...]

I like to remember that day because it seemed to say so much about Maxx. Where lots of kids, in the heat of a moment like that, would have yelled, "I hate you!" Maxx had gone for "this." I remember I felt right then and there that this kid was going to grow up to be a good guy.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

laying out brave on the page

One of the things I'd love to do full time is design book covers. Beyond the fact that I love books and love working visually, designing a book cover is the best kind of problem-solving. You brainstorm until you figure out the perfect way to pull together title, author name, subtitle, graphic elements, color, font - so that the end product not only looks great but hooks up thematically with the book itself. You find the perfect image and do a bunch of nifty photoshopping to make it an even more-perfect perfect. You start laying it all out - and then you realize if you make the title as big as you want it, the end of that g hangs too far over into the graphic and ruins the sight line here, and the author's name is far too short for the space over here and you have to scrap the whole damn thing and start over.

I love that.

This summer I had the chance to do this with the book Brave on the Page, for the new indie small press Forest Avenue Press. Along with the title, subtitle, and all that, they wanted to include certain elements in the design: Mount Hood, typewriter or letterpress typography, maybe a typewriter itself, blues or greens. I talked to Laura Stanfill, who heads up Forest Avenue Press, and found out the kinds of artistic styles she leans toward. Part of all of this is that I want to make the product as much what the producer wants it to be as possible - and part of it is to set even more boundaries for problem-solving (playing) inside.

My original thought was this. -->
Not the colors but the shapes. It's a quick doodle I tossed out in Adobe Illustrator when I first had my inspiration for Brave on the Page. The black rectangle would be an old typewriter, and the big shape funneling out of it would be an Oregon image, complete with Mount Hood, like the land was a story being written. The title and subtitle would be laid out above and over that shape, and the edited by would go down in that orange rectangle, lower left.

My silly little doodle looked vaguely constructivist to me so I got excited and went to work. I found my Mount Hood and did a bunch of photoshopping to add more sky to the picture and get the color and quality I wanted. Started laying it out and found out just why it wouldn't work. For me, something about a mountain [which expands downward] coming up out of a shape that expands upward was visually illogical and didn't look right.

So I took out the dog.

Following Nicholas down the sidewalk, I rolled the idea over and over in my head - and I realized something. Even though they say a picture is worth a bunch of words, sometimes a bunch of words makes a better picture.

So I kept the typewriter along with the something-funneling-out-of-it, but that something-funneling-out-of-it became words, not imagery. Mount Hood got moved to the background,but I found a newer, perfecter Mount Hood [thanks to photographer sarah mcdevitt], and when I laid it all out [after much experimenting and finessing and cussing] it was perfect. Or, anyway, what I wanted it to be.

One of the fun tasks was constructing the column of words: choosing which words fit thematically with the whole, arranging them to work best aesthetically. It was back to problem-solving. The tails on Ps and Gs, the [...noses?] on Bs and Hs. Those proved a pain in the butt when trying to construct a smooth curve. Part of my idea was to smatter the words brave and page throughout the column of words, and damned if I didn't have to deal with more Ps and Bs. Oh, and Gs.

Try as I may, I couldn't find a combination that got rid of the jagged edges at the bottom of the curve. To smooth things out, I stuck in a tiny word: try. Even now, that's my favorite part of the cover.


You can check out more lovely photos by Sarah McDevitt here.

Brave on the Page is available through any Espresso Book Machine, including the one at Powell's City of Books, and online at You can check out Brave on the Page and Forest Avenue Books here.

I'll be reading at the Brave on the Page reading and release party at 2pm on Saturday, November 3, at Fulton Park Community Center [68 SW Miles Street in Portland], along with Liz Prato, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin, Duncan Ellis, Joanna Rose, Stevan Allred, and editor Laura Stanfill. Facebook event page is here.

Sunday, October 14, 2012


Back to back theater nights, back to back body. Friday night it was The Body of an American at Portland Center Stage, and last night it was Body Beautiful at the Keller Auditorium for the opening night of Oregon Ballet Theatre's 2012/2013 season. I have to say, the ballet was the perfect complement to the play. Complement's not the right word - I first thought antidote, but that would make it sound like I didn't enjoy The Body of an American, which I did. But after you fill your mind with human suffering and complex characters and conflicts and the whole art/death/respect conundrum [which I wrote about here], it's lovely to go to the ballet and let go, be transported.

Body Beautiful is being produced in conjunction with the Portland Art Museum's Body Beautiful exhibit, which takes a look at the influences of classical Greece. [The paintings I include below aren't in that exhibit - not that I know of - but I thought in keeping with the theme, I'd put a few in.] The ballet Body Beautiful consists of four different pieces, most of which also take their influences from classical Greece...

Apollo and Two Muses -
Batoni Pompeo - 1741

Composer: Stravinsky
Choreographer: Balanchine

The story.

Apollo, son of Zeus and Leto, god of music, poetry, oracles, plague, etcetera, dances with three of the muses - Calliope [epic poetry], Polyhymnia [sacred poetry - although Stravinsky identified her as mime] and Terpsichore [dance]. The muses each try to garner Apollo's attentions, and he chooses the one you'd expect him to choose in a ballet.

The execution.

Balanchine, man. He's like the Busby Berkeley of ballet. At least that's the feel I got from his Apollo. Stephen says it's kind of heretical to compare Balanchine to Berkeley, but I mean it with full respect, knowing that in Balanchine's case, we're talking about real dancing. His Apollo was full of tableaux created of the human body, geometric and flowing. I enjoyed the story aspect when the muses were vying for Apollo's eye, but my favorite parts were when all four bodies were working at once, creating lovely patterns of body.


Le Nouvel Orphée -
Stephen O'Donnell - 2009
"Orpheus Portrait"
Composer: Liszt
Kent Stowell

The Story.

Eurydice dies and her love Orpheus descends into Hades to try to bring her back. The only way he can do this is by never looking her in the face. Eurydice, not understanding, is distraught and tries with everything she has to get him to look at her. When she succeeds, she dies, and he loses her forever.

The Execution.

Lovely presentation of two dancers alone on stage, particularly poignant when the two danced without looking at each other. I actually wished that portion of the ballet were longer - there were so many opportunities for interesting moments between the two as one moved toward and one moved away from the other. Nice stage effect at the end when Eurydice died and Orpheus laid her body in the rippling fabric waves of the River Styx and let her go.


Narcissus - Caravaggio - 1599
Bach and Gluck
Christopher Stowell

The Story.

The nymph Echo falls in love with the beautiful hunter Narcissus. When he rejects her, she wastes away until all that's left of her is her voice. Then Narcissus, resting by a spring, falls in love with his own reflection in the water, and, unable to pull himself away from the image of his own beauty, wastes away, himself, until all that's left is a flower.

The Execution.

For this ballet, they changed the story up, folding the two parts in together so that as Narcissus dances with his own reflection, Echo fights to get between them, to break his obsession, and fails. As a fruit fly from way back, I couldn't help but love this sensual dance between two men. And the three dancing together, with the beauty of the two men mirroring each other offset by the woman's very different moves, made for lovely geometry. The dancing was very fluid, and the towering, at times hanging, at times moving, jellyfish-like shapes made of tyvek all around the stage made it feel like the story was taking place underwater or maybe trapped in the reflection across the water's surface.


"The Second Detail"
Composer: Thom Willems
Choreographer: William Forsythe

The Story.

There's no story for this one. It's the one piece of the evening not locked into a classical myth, a modern piece that had its world premier in Toronto in 1991 - but OBT concluding Body Beautiful with this ballet reminds us that even far flung dances have their roots ultimately in classical times.

The Execution.

Fascinating. When the music started - modern, synthesized, highly rhythmic and yet disrhythmic at the same time [I guess that's not a word, but I like it, so I'm keeping it] - I worried the piece would be too jarring. Sometimes I feel put off by modern dance, but I found myself grinning throughout this one. It was a large group, alternately dancing and sitting on chairs lined up at the back of the stage. The ballet was like fourteen different ballets shuffled together into one. [I could have the number of players wrong. I believe they said fourteen in the preview, but it looked like more.] The dancers executed different moves at the same time, all rhythmically lined up, often similar moves so that somehow instead of coming off as random, it all felt completely connected, completely dynamic.

One of the things Stephen noticed about this piece was the way the dancers, when not in motion, relaxed. They walked off stage, they sat in the chairs, they stood with a hand on a hip, waiting. Then in an instant, when it was time for each to dance, that relaxation sprang into lovely motion again. He found this really intriguing, although to be honest, I didn't even notice it. I was so riveted on the dancers in motion, trying to figure out just how the seeming randomness came together into something so cohesive. Like leaves in a wind - that's the image that kept coming to me. This flashing, trembling, beautiful thing.

Body Beautiful is playing at the Keller Auditorium until October 20th. Check out all sorts of other interesting stuff about the ballet on the OBT blog here.

Saturday, October 13, 2012


At intermission last night at The Body of an American, I asked Stephen, "So, are you offended by this?

We've had many discussions about whether people's tragedies should be allowed to be fodder for other people's art. Stephen's instinct is to defend the subject - the individual whose death is being dramatized in the movie, sensationalized on the news, photographed and distributed.

"I've never really been afraid of death," Stephen said in a blog post not long ago. "So it's really peculiar that I feel so strongly about how the dead are treated... We drag celebrities out of their graves - Whitney Houston, Michael Jackson, Amy Winehouse - pouring over the details of their sad lives.... I feel that people like Ann Rule and her ilk make their living off of the horrendous misfortunes of other people... Why can't we leave them some dignity?"

Even when the art in question is utilizing that tragedy to make a statement, to protest, to teach, Stephen has a hard time being OK with it. I tend to take a more open view, that the end sometimes justifies the means, but I get his point:  is it just cause or exploitation if the dead have no chance to decide for themselves whether their stories or their images are used?

Witness photojournalist Paul Watson - the subject of the play The Body of an American - photographing soldier Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland's body being dragged by Somalis through the streets of Mogadishu - and winning fame and a Pulitzer for it.

Remembering the day he took that famous shot, Watson wrote, in his memoir Where War Lives, "In less time than it took to breathe, I had to decide whether to steal a dead man's last shred of dignity. The moment of choice, in the swirl of dust and sweat, hatred and fear, is still trapped in my mind, denying me peace: just as I was about to press the shutter on my camera, the world went quiet, everything around me melted into a slow-motion blur and I heard the voice: 'If you do this, I will own you forever.'"

In the play last night, as actor William Salyers as Paul Watson crouched and aimed his camera, actor Danny Wolohan stood over him like a ghost and delivered that line chillingly. I will own you.

My experience of the first half of The Body of an American came in waves. The first wave, I have to say, was confusion. I got a little lost in the construction - two men alone on stage playing different parts, often playing the same part. For the first fifteen minutes or so the ricochet of characters and voices left me wondering whether I'd be able to sort it all out. Once I got into the swing of it, though, I was able to enjoy that ricochet - and enjoy how deftly the two actors were presenting that ricochet. Each man played each character in the production and amazingly made each live with crisp individuality.

The second wave was unease. That whole art/death/respect conundrum. Briefly, The Body of an American is a play by Dan O'Brien about Dan O'Brien writing a play about photojournalist Paul Watson. It's a record of their relationship, first by e-mail and then in person, exploring PTSD and ambition and regret. The first half of the play is a back-and-forth of e-mails, and in his side of the conversation, Paul Watson talks at length about the death and degradation he's seen and photographed. I started to get overwhelmed by it all. By the endless listing and description of the awfulness in the world. I needed to look away and couldn't. As Paul Watson delivered his monologues, two big screens moved in the background, showing what I assume are the real photographs of the real people.

I felt inundated and implicated.

Implicated as a witness to these real people's horrors and as an American with a cushy life contemplating these horrors while safe in a cushy theater.

This was what I was supposed to feel, of course, and that's the brilliance of The Body of an American [what I realized in the third wave, somewhere about halfway into the first half]. The play uses art and reality to ask hard questions about art and reality. It asks, was it right to photograph the death and degradation of Staff Sgt. William David Cleveland, is it right to photograph and print and distribute - and view - the tragedies of others. It asks, what is the cost of this and how can one divest oneself of the ghosts that come from this and - the most interesting question, which didn't come until later [spoiler alert] - after all the time searching for a way to divest oneself of this, is one really willing?

When I asked Stephen at intermission whether he was offended, he surprised me. "I think it's pretty brilliant," he said. We talked all intermission on these very weighty subjects - and also about the two actors, who did a magnificent job of portraying character and not letting the dramatic themes of the play wilt over into melodrama. The second half for me was surprisingly funny - surprising all around, actually, since the Paul Watson I expected to meet in person after I thought I knew him through the e-mail back-and-forth of the first half, was not who I met. Again, this was the point - although I won't elaborate on it this time. The play does it best.  All I'll say is that it wound up to a surprising and thought-provoking finish.

The Body of an American is playing at Portland Center Stage through November 11th.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

danny comes out

This new novel I'm working on. Creating characters and trying to do more - like make those characters live. That ridiculous god thing writers do. It's only serendipity that, tonight in Dangerous Writing workshop, I presented the piece about Danny coming out to his friends, and it so happened to be National Coming Out Day.

Last week, I had these seven pages printed up and ready to present in workshop, but I never got the chance to read. So I took my printed-up copies home to wait another week - and I never connected National Coming Out Day to my seven pages until this morning.

Of course I got all excited. Danny was going to get to come out on a very auspicious day.

And then, of course, I felt stupid. Danny was just made up in my head. And yet.

Monday, October 8, 2012

brave on the page launch day

It's launch day for the book Brave on the Page: Oregon Writers on Craft and the Creative Life. This summer, I was really involved in this project and it was incredibly fun. A lot of that fun was working with the smart and vivacious Laura Stanfill who headed up the project.

The book grew out of the Seven Questions Interview Series over on Laura's popular writing blog and contains Seven Questions interviews along with flash essays about the why, the what, the who, the when, the where and the how of being a writer.

One of the interviews Laura did in her Seven Questions series was with the smart and vivacious Mr. Stephen O'Donnell. He's, of course, known for being an artist, not a writer, but his paintings definitely tell stories. You can check that interview out in the book - or on the blog  here.

For my part, I have a flash essay in the book, and I also was lucky and got to design the cover, along with the logo for Laura's new small press, Forest Avenue Press. I look forward to talking a little more about the fun process of putting that cover together, but for now, here's a rundown of the writers [and artists] featured in the book. In alphabetical order...

Interviews with: Kristy Athens, Jon Bell, Kim Cooper Findling, Sarah Cypher, Duncan Ellis, Michael Gettel-Gilmartin, Shasta Kearns Moore, Lauren Kessler, Matt Love, Stephen O'Donnell, Liz Prato, Scott Sparling, Julia Stoops, Crystal Wood and Yuvi Zalkow.

Flash essays by: Stevan Allred, Brian M. Biggs, Emma Burcart, Steve Denniston, S. B. Elliott, Kristen Forbes, Kate Gray, Dian Greenwood, Robert Hill, Sherri H. Hoffman, Harold L. Johnson, Bart King, Amber Krieger, Christi Krug, me, Mary Milstead, Gina Ochsner, Martha Ragland, Joanna Rose, Nicole Marie Schreiber, Liz Scott, Jackie Shannon Hollis, Laura Stanfill, Tammy Lynne Stoner, Nancy Townsley, Gregg Townsley, and Kristi Wallace Knight.


Brave on the Page is available through any Espresso Book Machine, including the one at Powell's City of Books, and online at You can check out Brave on the Page and Forest Avenue Books here and Laura's fabulous writing blog here.

Sunday, October 7, 2012

the old maid and the thief

Friday night we went to the Mission Theater to see Opera Theater Oregon's production of Gian Carlo Minotti's The Old Maid and the Thief. I hadn't known this opera before. It was one of the first operas created for radio, and OTO performed it on stage as a radio show, complete with a short film about the radio actors involved in the production.

The show was kooky and delightful and good opera besides. There are some lovely duets in the score along with all the great comedy. OTO artistic director Erica Melton deftly conducted the orchestra consisting of, as stated in the program, "snazzy fiddle," "lefty cello," "licorice stick" [clarinet], "ma and pa gobble-pipe" [saxophone] and piano for, of course, "tickling the ivories."

I thought all the performers were really great - beautiful singing and very funny characterization from Audrey Sackett, Erik Hundtoft, Ian Timmons, Christine Meadows and Lisa Mooyman.

Lisa Mooyman is a fabulous coloratura soprano who we last saw deliver the funniest opera moment I have ever seen, singing Queen of the Night while pulling another singer's hair during a soprano cat fight in OTO's Sordid  Lives. She was both beautiful and hysterical Friday night as The Old Maid and the Thief's nosy neighbor Miss Pinkerton, singing a whirling swarm of notes and hitting the mark every time. That part had to be really hard to sing - not to mention being funny in the process.

Mezzo-soprano Christine Meadows was spot on as Miss Todd, the opera's "old maid." Her singing was beautiful and substantial and exact, and her acting, in the role that carried the production, had the same authority her voice did. As kooky as her role was, Meadows played it naturally, giving Miss Todd both humor and poignancy.

Adapting the script for this production was writer Robert Hill, best known for his novel When All is Said and Done. Robert's droll wit and his mastery of making music with words lent itself sweetly to the old time radio show style. He was not planning on also performing in the show but was talked into it by artistic director Erica Melton. He was excellent as the narrator of the radio production, reading with musical cadence and whimsy.

The Old Maid and the Thief plays today (Sunday) at 2 o'clock and then again this coming week, with 7:30 performances on October 11th (Thursday) and 12th (Friday). You can check out the info on OTO's website here. Facebook event page is here.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

first interview

I can do this.

This is what I tell myself as I sit in front of the computer with the interview questions up on the screen and the microphone plugged in and the phone [dreaded phone] in my hand. I can call up some man I've never spoken to and ask him all sorts of questions about his life and not trip all over my tongue because of my heart which is not pounding in my chest as hard as it did that time I sat with the phone in my hand for forty minutes [I timed it] trying to call up Dan Hayman and ask him to winter formal.

I'm over forty now and I should be able to get on the phone without going into a panic. The clock says 6:59. I can do this.

The I-can-do-this I tell myself sitting with the phone in my hand this time around is different from the I-can-do-this I told myself when I was offered the chance to write two eBooks in two months. That was more like I-assume-I-can-do-this, which I tend to do all the time, before I stop and think about what the this will entail:

Researching all the statistics anyone ever wanted to gather on becoming an accountant or a glazier [someone who installs and repairs windows]. Compiling the entire [interesting part of the] history of the accountant and the glazier. Creating four to five profiles each of accountants and glaziers from different parts of the country and in different segments of their careers, meaning hunting down and contacting these people and interviewing, interviewing, interviewing.

The clock says 6:59. I'm about to make my first call to conduct my first interview. If I haven't come up with the perfect set of questions to produce the perfect set of answers, it's not the end of the world.

Stephen showed me how to hook the microphone up to the computer and I experimented with the laptop's sound recorder to make sure it will actually record, and I practiced with the phone to make sure I know how to put it on speaker.

The clock says 6:59. If I say stupid things and come across as a complete ass, it's not the end of the world.

When the clock says 7:00, I tell myself it's better to wait one more minute because it would look weird if I called exactly on the dot.

When he answers the phone, he says, "Hello?" and I'm an Amazon warrior, a prom queen, a presidential candidate. I'm pretty sure my smile gives off a gleam.

"Hi! This is Gigi! Is this Bob?!"

"Nope," he says, "it's Bill."

Oh no, it's a wrong number, yay, it's a wrong number. "Oh, I thought I was looking for a Bob. Uh..." looking at my notes on the computer screen, "Dole?"

"Yeah, Bill," he says. "Doyle."

I just called my first interviewee Bob Dole.

He pretends not to notice. I put him on speaker phone and we start recording. I manage to ask him how he first became a glazier, and he starts to talk and he keeps talking. His voice is friendly and laid back, and he's saying all sorts of interesting things and I love him and I'm so happy and I can actually do this.

I look over at the sound recorder open on the computer screen. It's recorded exactly one minute of audio and stopped.

Oh holy flying hell, what the hell use is a sound recorder if if only records in one minute increments?

Bob, I mean Bill is still talking. I'm going to have to interrupt him so I can start a new file. Then I'm going to have to interrupt him at one-minute intervals throughout the entire probably half hour phone call.

During minute number three, as Bill's talking, the recording of minute number two starts playing, so I - and Bill - can hear Bill's voice and - even better - my  braying ass voice loud over everything.

"Oh, wait, oh, wait, I'm sorry!" and I'm fumbling for the mouse to try to find the button to shut the damn thing off. I can't make it stop. My hands are sweating. It's not the end of the world.