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Monday, June 30, 2008

What's Happening? It's All Happening, Baby!

Lucky for me, my sister knows how to coax me out the house, otherwise I would have turned down her invitation to accompany her to the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) this weekend, and would have missed a very interesting exhibition. At the Geffen Contemporary at MOCA, my sister and I caught Allan Kaprow - Art is Life, a fascinating retrospective of Kaprow's career.

Unfortunately for you, the exhibition closed today (I'm anticipating my link to the exhibit will disappear any second), however if you'll indulge me, I'd love to share some of the broad strokes with you.

Allan Kaprow was an artist who in the late 50s and 60s became a leader of the performance art movement commonly referred to as Happenings. He found art in every day actions, and sought to score, or conduct events into art pieces. The pamphlet that accompanied the exhibit explains that a Happening is "a staged event or situation meant to be considered as art." Some of his Happenings were very closely scored, with specific actions planned and directed by him well in advance. Others were more improvisational. Kaprow said, "What is a Happening? A game, an adventure, a number of activities engaged in by participants for the sake of playing."

That sense of play is exactly what I enjoyed most about the exhibit, and Kaprow's art. There is something exciting about being let loose in one of Kaprow's Environments designed to encourage freedom of movement and expression.

Many of these Happenings were recreated by MOCA staff in honor of Kaprow, and some of the "scores" for the events were available to pick up on the way out of the exhibit. One of my favorites is a Happening called Fine!:
Parking cars in restricted zones.

Waiting nearby for cop.

Snapshot of getting ticket.

Detailed report.

Send pix, reports, fines to cops.
Or there's also Transplant, (1969):
Choose a stone in the desert
Mark the spot with a large white arrow
Carry the stone miles away

Find the matching stone
Put it next to it
Mark the spot with a large white arrow

Carry the matching stone to the first stone's spot
Mark the spot with a second large white arrow
Imagine the possibilities in each of those Happenings! What would it look like to watch? What would it feel like to participate? What kinds of spontaneous actions could occur?

In many ways writing can be created with the same sense of improvisation and fun as a Happening. My outline is Kaprow's score, but the writing is the actual Happening. When I sit down in front of the blank page with only the skeleton of the outline to guide me, anything can happen!

This is just another example of how going out in the arts community can inspire and assist in your craft. There are plenty of museums and fascinating exhibits in your own cities and towns, just waiting to inspire you! Have at it!

Friday, June 27, 2008

Words of Comfort, Words of Grief

This morning I attended the unveiling of my aunt's headstone. It has been almost a year since my aunt passed away, and yet at her graveside today, I felt the pain of her loss as if it were brand new. Her conspicuous absence has changed the shape of my family, and though we have pulled tighter together in many ways, in others we have come apart.

However, the unveiling ceremony, a traditional Jewish ceremony, is sometimes considered a marker for the end of the mourning period. So this morning we honored her memory once more with a small service, and for me, the only respite from the sadness was to lose myself in admiration of beautiful language:
Our days are as grass;
We flourish as a flower in the field.
The wind passes over it and it is gone.
And where it grew is no longer known.
- Psalm 103, Verses 15-17
Ultimately, what I remember when I think of her funeral is not the words that were spoken, either in religious prayer or in honor of her memory, but of the friends who stood by me and stood by my family.

But language and traditions are a funny thing. Maybe we say I'm so sorry for your loss because we don't know what else to say, but we also say it because we are sorry. I often find myself at a loss for words at funerals. Because sometimes words just aren't enough or they just aren't right.

In my last writing class, one of the stories presented was about one sibling informing another that their mother was ill with terminal cancer. A few times within the story, the sister would repeat to the brother, "Mom's dying!" That dialogue, in its many repeated forms, spawned an interesting discussion in the workshop about whether or not people ever use the words "die" or "death" when discussing a loved one. These words seem to hold a certain terrifying power in the context of those we care about. We lower our voices to whisper them over phone lines, and rarely meet someone's eye when we're mumbling them out.

George Carlin, who died last Sunday, said "I’m getting old. And it’s OK. Because thanks to our fear of death in this country I won’t have to die — I’ll ‘pass away.’ Or I’ll ‘expire,’ like a magazine subscription."

Here's hoping we're all signed up for one of those magazine subscriptions that keeps showing up on our doorsteps long after we've stopped paying.

Thursday, June 26, 2008

What's New in Blogs

In recent blogging news, a writer friend has recently launched a new blog called Things I Heard. Described as "Things Overheard as I Travel through my Life and the City", the blog features short stories, flash nonfiction if you will, recounting the author's interesting and funny life experiences.

Another great addition to the blogging community!

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Give it Up, Blank Page! You're Surrounded! Surrender is Your Only Option!

I have finally written a viable first sentence to a novel.

Look out for flying pigs, four horseman, and other signs of the apocalypse while on your daily commutes today.*

*Please note - the above sentence is not the aforementioned "first sentence." It's simply a joke that is, perhaps, not quite working.

Monday, June 23, 2008

Planning in Advance? What's That?

As it happens, Vroman's Bookstore had already given away all of their Lewis Black tickets by the time I was leaving work, so I wasn't able to attend the reading. Just another reminder to PLAN IN ADVANCE. I'm going to have to work on that.

However, I did spend the remainder of the weekend blissfully ensconced in central air conditioning with three generations of my family, all trying to stay cool. It was that happy grouping that resulted in a family viewing of Singin' in the Rain, the Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds and Donald O'Connor classic.

If you've never seen this movie, you should. I assure you, it will make you laugh. So for your viewing pleasure, I give you, the never to be duplicated, Gene Kelly.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Good Thing Books Don't Melt

Baby, it's HOT in L.A.

On most summer evenings I can wrangle a cool breeze in through the window, but some nights are oppressively hot, the air so still it's as if the entire city is holding its breath. With temperatures expected to reach into the triple digits today, my guess is that tonight will be such a night.

In order to escape the heat, I've been looking for activities to do that would get me out of the apartment and into someplace air-conditioned, other than the movies. In the LA Times Calendar section, I came across an event scheduled for tonight in Pasadena.

Lewis Black, ranter/comic, is scheduled to read a portion of his book, Me of Little Faith, and do a book signing at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena tonight at 7:30. What a great evening that could be! Go early to the bookstore to pick up a live event ticket for later, then head to one of the many delicious eateries in Old Town Pasadena for a glass of cool iced tea and a relaxing meal, and then return to the bookstore in time for the reading.

Major drawback: the website says the event is outside. It's possible that it will already be pretty cool by 7:30, so it may certainly be worth the trip, but that's not exactly the air-conditioned respite I was hoping for.

Either way, libraries and book stores (and their events) are the perfect escape from the hot summer heat. So grab your book or your laptop and go support an independent bookseller through the hot summer months, while saving money and energy of your own.

Stay cool out there kids!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Where's the New Writing At, Yo?

In the past few weeks, three writer/reader friends have complained that I haven't sent them any new material in a long time. Their complaints aren't unfounded - I haven't had anything new to share in months - but how to respond?

Is this writer's block? It doesn't feel like writer's block. It's simply that I'm not writing. I have bits of ideas floating about... a blind dog... stolen photos... invented families... the primordial goo from which I generally craft my stories. But none of it is properly coagulating.

It's as if I've got all the ingredients for cooking a three course meal, but I'd rather just call for delivery.

Last night, my friend suggested that I stop trying to cook the three course meal, and instead, I focus simply on appetizers. In writing terms, what I mean is that he suggested that I write something short and light.

The suggestion made sense to me... but... I still feel some resistance. I think somewhere along the way writing stopped being fun. It started to feel like a very painful job that I just don't want to go to. That's not writer's block.

No matter what it is, I need to carve out some time this weekend - some special time, in a special place - to do some writing. I need to find a way to make writing fun again.

Monday, June 16, 2008

Textual Inspiration #6

I think this description very early in the book is just brilliant. There have been a lot of special moments in this one thus far, but as we're learning our craft this is practically a tutorial on character description.

Houdini was a hero to little men, city boys, and Jews; Samuel Louis Klayman was all three. He was seventeen when the adventures began: bigmouthed, perhaps not quite as quick on his feet as he liked to imagine, and tending to be, like many optimists, a little excitable. He was not, in any conventional way, handsome. His face was an inverted triangle, brow large, chin pointed, with pouting lips and a blunt, quarrelsome nose. He slouched, and wore clothes badly: he always looked as though he had just been jumped for his lunch money. He went forward each morning with the hairless cheek of innocence itself, but by noon a clean shave was no more than a memory, a hoboish penumbra on the jaw not quite sufficient to make him look tough. He thought of himself as ugly, but this was because he had never seen his face in repose. He had delivered the
Eagle for most of 1931 in order to afford a set of dumbbells, which he had hefted every morning for the next eight years until his arms, chest, and shoulders were ropy and strong; polio had left him with the legs of a delicate boy . He stood, in his socks, five feet five inches tall. Like all of his friends, he considered it a compliment when somebody called him a wiseass.

- From The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Even the Good Lord Can't Get You Out of Jury Duty

For the past couple days, I've been trying to figure out how to relate my recent jury service to writing - other than the obvious real life drama as a source of inspiration blah blah - but then I realized that I was only doing it so that I could blog about it. Well, what the hell. Here I go blogging about jury service:

I've served on a jury before. In fact, I was jury foreperson, which means that I read the verdict (guilty) to the court and, more importantly, to the defendant. At that time, I really enjoyed jury service. The trial was only five days, the crime not particularly serious, deliberations took only one additional day, and I was unemployed at the time so being paid $15 a day to fulfill my civic duty by participating in the justice system was a pretty good deal.

Now... not so much. I've got a full time job that does not pay me for days spent during jury service, and a desk with work piling up in my absence. So, frankly, I'd rather not serve.

In fact, no one in my pool wanted to be on this jury. It was a murder case, expected to take at least two full weeks of trial before deliberations, and the witness list included the medical examiner. I don't care how much Law & Order people watch, it's quite different knowing that the death being described was an actual person and not just some made up TV scenario. Who wants to hear that testimony?

So, each time the court clerk began calling juror badge numbers, it was as if the entire room were holding its breath. There was a nun in my pool, and as numbers were being called she was fondling her rosary and praying. A bus driver who sat next to me was taking notes about what each potential juror was saying in response to the judge's questions so that he could figure out what was the right thing to say to be dismissed. A stock broker kept shaking his head and repeating over and over that this would be his third case in eight years. Third case in eight years! What's your excuse? he'd challenge.

After three days of hearing every excuse imaginable, the judge and attorneys had found their jury plus four alternates, and I was released. I've never been so happy to be back at work. Now I can return to my Law & Order watching with the blissful innocence of a TV viewer.

As for the nun... she's juror number twelve.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

On a Roll!

Friend and writer colleague Erika Swyler is picking up some steam! Her short story, The Light Touch, has been published in the most recent addition of Semaphore magazine. The current issue is available for viewing online here. I hope you'll take the time to read her excellent writing - and if you do, please also take one more moment to survey the issue, and in particular Erika's work, here. Giving the editors feedback is a great way for them to know what writing is speaking to you and sparking your interest, and helps support writers and colleagues like Erika.

Congratulations, Erika!

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Banned Book List - A Meme Thingy

Two of my favorite reading/writing blogs, Stusplace and Tripping Toward Lucidity, recently posted this list of books that have been banned in one time or place. I found the list very intriguing, as it is simply a list and provides no information about where or when each book was once banned. In searching for the information to match the list (which I did not find easily enough) I was yet again reminded that book banning is not a thing of the past, but is ongoing.

If you're interested in current book banning a good place to follow issues of ongoing censorship is with the National Coalition Against Censorship.

That said, while I don't support censorship of books, I think we need to do more than read banned books. I think we need to recognize the power of language in shaping and defining our world, and we need to engage in ongoing dialogue about how difficult ideas and powerful language is taught in our schools and how it affects our communities.

It's one thing to make a sweeping statement that a book should never be banned from schools, and it's another thing to actually engage the mother who's concerned about how reading the word "nigger" in Huckleberry Finn will affect her child, or to discuss with a holocaust survivor the banning of a holocaust denial book. I think the discussions that these books can promote are just as important as the reading of the books themselves.

Here is the list with the books that I have read listed in bold:

#1 The Bible
#2 Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain
#3 Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes
#4 The Koran
#5 Arabian Nights
#6 Tom Sawyer by Mark Twain
#7 Gulliver’s Travels by Jonathan Swift
#8 Canterbury Tales by Geoffrey Chaucer
#9 Scarlet Letter by Nathaniel Hawthorne
#10 Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
#11 Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli
#12 Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe
#13 Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank
#14 Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
#15 Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
#16 Les Misérables by Victor Hugo
#17 Dracula by Bram Stoker
#18 Autobiography by Benjamin Franklin
#19 Tom Jones by Henry Fielding
#20 Essays by Michel de Montaigne
#21 Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck
#22 History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire by Edward Gibbon
#23 Tess of the D’Urbervilles by Thomas Hardy
#24 Origin of Species by Charles Darwin
#25 Ulysses by James Joyce
#26 Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio
#27 Animal Farm by George Orwell
#28 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell
#29 Candide by Voltaire
#30 To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee
#31 Analects by Confucius
#32 Dubliners by James Joyce
#33 Of Mice and Men by John Steinbeck
#34 Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
#35 Red and the Black by Stendhal
#36 Capital by Karl Marx
#37 Flowers of Evil by Charles Baudelaire
#38 Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
#39 Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D. H. Lawrence
#40 Brave New World by Aldous Huxley
#41 Sister Carrie by Theodore Dreiser
#42 Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell
#43 Jungle by Upton Sinclair
#44 All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque
#45 Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx
#46 Lord of the Flies by William Golding
#47 Diary by Samuel Pepys
#48 Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
#49 Jude the Obscure by Thomas Hardy
#50 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury
#51 Doctor Zhivago by Boris Pasternak
#52 Critique of Pure Reason by Immanuel Kant
#53 One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey
#54 Praise of Folly by Desiderius Erasmus
#55 Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
#56 Autobiography of Malcolm X by Malcolm X
#57 Color Purple by Alice Walker
#58 Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger
#59 Essay Concerning Human Understanding by John Locke
#60 The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison
#61 Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe
#62 One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
#63 East of Eden by John Steinbeck
#64 Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
#65 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou
#66 Confessions by Jean Jacques Rousseau
#67 Gargantua and Pantagruel by François Rabelais
#68 Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes
#69 The Talmud
#70 Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau
#71 Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson
#72 Women in Love by D. H. Lawrence
#73 American Tragedy by Theodore Dreiser
#74 Mein Kampf by Adolf Hitler
#75 A Separate Peace by John Knowles
#76 Bell Jar by Sylvia Plath
#77 Red Pony by John Steinbeck
#78 Popol Vuh
#79 Affluent Society by John Kenneth Galbraith
#80 Satyricon by Petronius
#81 James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
#82 Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
#83 Black Boy by Richard Wright
#84 Spirit of the Laws by Charles de Secondat Baron de Montesquieu
#85 Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut
#86 Julie of the Wolves by Jean Craighead George
#87 Metaphysics by Aristotle
#88 Little House on the Prairie by Laura Ingalls Wilder
#89 Institutes of the Christian Religion by Jean Calvin
#90 Steppenwolf by Hermann Hesse
#91 Power and the Glory by Graham Greene
#92 Sanctuary by William Faulkner
#93 As I Lay Dying by William Faulkner
#94 Black Like Me by John Howard Griffin
#95 Sylvester and the Magic Pebble by William Steig
#96 Sorrows of Young Werther by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
#97 General Introduction to Psychoanalysis by Sigmund Freud
#98 Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
#99 Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee by Dee Alexander Brown
#100 Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess
#101 Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman by Ernest J. Gaines
#102 Émile by Jean Jacques Rousseau
#103 Nana by Émile Zola
#104 Chocolate War by Robert Cormier
#105 Go Tell It on the Mountain by James Baldwin
#106 Gulag Archipelago by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
#107 Stranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
#108 Day No Pigs Would Die by Robert Peck
#109 Ox-Bow Incident by Walter Van Tilburg Clark
#110 Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

It's also possible I've read portions of some of the philosophers included here, Kant, Locke, Rousseau, Hobbes, but since I can't remember specifically, I'll consider them unread. Perhaps they're worthy of a revisit.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Do You Want to Read My Blog Post?

I am starting an organization that I think you might be interested in joining: People Against Passive Aggressive Language (PAPAL.)

My office - in particular my co-workers - have caught the passive aggressive bug. Evidence of said bug can best be demonstrated by sharing the following sentences recently heard in my office:

Do you think we should call the copy guy?

No, we shouldn't call the copy guy, because we can't do anything together. I will call the copy guy.

Is the copy guy coming?

I don't know if the copy guy is coming, however, if you're curious you might ask me if I have called the copy guy to come.

Do you want to call the copy guy?

If I want to call the copy guy, I will. You might simply ask me to call him, instead of asking me if I want to call him.

It's as if we all learned at some point that being passive aggressive was the same thing as being polite. It's not. It's just vague and ambiguous. Being polite is saying "please" and "thank you."

I humbly suggest the following as a simple and direct replacement for the above passive aggressive sentences:

Stephanie, will you please call the copy guy about the bad copies?

Yes, I would be delighted to.

Now accepting membership applications for PAPAL.