Wednesday, July 30, 2008

a vast and sickening place

Nothing screams economic downturn like terminal deferred maintenance. The Seaport Marina Hotel in Long Beach has seen better days. I wonder how the decrepit place fared during today's 5.4 rumbler…? What is so apparent in Long Beach, and still mostly hidden in Portland, is the stark residue of hard times. Anxiety and rage and despond and, at times, resignation. All very obvious in this part of SoCal.

You could see it in the signage. When all else fails, imperatives linger on. The no this, and no that, and the we reserve the right to refuse.

Years ago I wrote and rewrote a story, a long story, called Capturing Pedersen. It was, by and large, an unsuccessful story, but there was one clause in it that continues to bubble to the surface when I'm confronted with large, empty tracts of abandon: The supermarket was a vast and sickening place… a string of words that continues to issue disappointment in its resonance.

In light of the Long Beach scene— the weeds growing up in the cracks in the parking lot behind abandoned cars, the "spa" with no water, the broken ice machines, the sad little hooks in the popcorn ceiling that once held the cord of a swag light but now hold nothing, the three dollar clock radio bolted to the pressboard nightstand, all these sadnesses—I am reminded of the fragility of humanity, and that maybe one really big earthquake could reverse the misfortunes of that falling-down hotel, and from the ashes might come grace.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

beach reading

We interrupt this Dragon Boat Festival to offer a glimpse at the diversity of reading materials amongst our traveling crew.

Kirk is reading the Ron Carlson. This is such a lovely grouping of stories, written by one of the nicest writers I've ever met (he was a guest speaker at Antioch when I went there). Full of humanity, warmth, surprises and long sentences (Kirk counted nearly 100 words in one, then springboarded into an excellent story about his favorite high school English teacher, a notorious one-name legend who once declared that the average American sentence was 25 words in length).

Kirk's son Brendan is responsible for Ellis's Psycho, and seems to be poring through it (can one pore through, or is "over" the only preposition paired with that verb?) at breakneck pace. I ripped it open and glanced at a random sentence, noting the qualifier "lasciviously" and dismissed the entire book because I'm an elitist when it comes to adverbial cop-outs. But, in Ellis's (and Brendan's) defense, it's no small feat to write a compelling first person, present tense romp and have it still hold up twenty years hence.

I, the writer of fiction, am reading the Pollan book. It's fascinating and smart and full of humor and subversive tidbits. I have another reason to be digesting this book. I'm working with some folks (in my hired pen day job) who are on a mission to change the entire California food system. Sustainability within one generation. It's a very cool, ambitious ideal, and I'm honored to be wordsmithing for the cause. More about that latah.

So… from the wobbly table of the crappy SeaPort Marina Hotel (this carpet in this room is covered in a patina of grime so gross my feet turned black from the bed to the tiny bathroom where the door clips the toilet upon closing), I am signing off before heading down the water to cheer on the boyz.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

dragon boats and other fun stuff

Okay, sooooooooooooo. Monday I moved out of my office. Tuesday, I set up my new, temporary office in my house, Wednesday I caught up on work that got bottom-piled due to Monday and Tuesday. Thursday I worked, sorted, had meetings, worked, and got ready for tomorrow when I dash off to watch those fellows in the picture to the left paddle their hearts out at the Long Beach Dragonboat Festival, before they both board a plane bound for Malaysia for the World Championship Dragon Boat races. Wow, eh?

Next week--I'm gonna write 100 pages of my novel. Yes, yes I am. Hey, stop laughing. I so totally mean it!

Thursday, July 17, 2008

heart of darkness

I first laid eyes on Portland 19 years ago and immediately knew I wanted to move here, but didn't exactly know why. Other than it was summer, Mount Hood was breathtaking, and I had a little pile of cash that wouldn't stretch too far in Southern California, where I was living with my two babies.

Over the years, though, I've formed more of a manifesto about why Portland is such a satisfying place to live, and many of the reasons are contradictory. For instance, Portland is a great size, but is constructed in a labyrinth puzzle throughout much of it. It took me five years to fully negotiate all the "can't get there from here," cul de sacs. Portland is an exquisite oxymoron, in so many ways. On the surface the city and its surrounding landscape looks and feels pastoral, easy-going and bucolic. Portland's brand is leftie, alternative, friendly. Polite. Residents are often perceived as flannel-shirted, Birkenstocked, weed-smoking and ungroomed. Life here is just a bowl of herbs and berries. We tend to sit atop high places and gaze out over the horizon. We like the rain. We like home brew. We don't pump our own gas and we ride our bikes everywhere.

But that is not the whole story.

There's a force here, a certain tension. We're younger than our countrymen out here. We churn, create, examine and experiment. And lots of it goes undetected. There are layers, so many layers. Living in Portland is a constant seduction. As earthy and wholesome and outdoorsy as it is, there is an underbelly as well as a desire to reach something higher. This place is so undeniably vertical, but in a smaller, less obvious way than, say, San Francisco or Seattle.

The other day I took a walk in Forest Park with Chelsea Cain and Ketzel Levine, for the purpose of chatting up Chelsea's thriller series, the second book of which, Sweetheart, is due out in a couple of months. Coincidentally, the first house I bought in Portland sits at the edge of the park, and as we walked up the ivy and fir-lined trail, walking past the house and all its familiarity, I tried to conjure the spirit of dark. Of murder and fear and mystery.

The NPR story came out today on Morning Edition, Searching For Bodies In Chelsea Cain's Portland : NPR, and I'm really pleased with the picture that got painted, albeit tongue-and-cheek, of my beloved adopted city. There's a city of disparate writers here. Smart, visceral, playful. Sometimes dark, sometimes lyrical.

I can't see living anywhere else.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

eavesdrop of the day

On an elevator downtown, a mature woman of about 60, wearing silver glittered flip-flops, and her male companion.

Woman: (looking out the elevator window) You'd think she'd take better care of her dog. It's so hot and the dog needs water.

Man: she'll give him water, don't worry.

Woman: George, I'm sorry, but she won't. She's homeless, and homeless people don't care about animals. (looking out the window again) George, don't be sad when I die. I'll be happy because I won't have to witness the stupidity and filth of mankind anymore.

Man: Now, dear.

Woman: I'll be in heaven. And once I'm there, I'll be with God and animals that are well taken care of.

Monday, July 14, 2008

writing about fucking without it sucking

Last night I attended a reading called Return of the Booty Call emceed by Kevin Sampsell. It was Portland at its weirdest in a hipster joint where rap music thumped and blared out speakers the size of washing machines. When it was time for the actual reading, Kevin, standing before the crowd sporting unzipped jeans, welcomed all present with the query: Are you ready for some sucking and fucking?

There were lots of stories about sucking and fucking. And fucking and sucking. Sometimes just fucking or sucking. The readers performed and/or read scenes with a variety of sex acts, encounters, anecdotes. In between the readers there were giveaways and booty grind contests and groins rubbing up against the mic.

I guess you had to be there.

Fucking and sucking aside, writing sex is hard (no pun intended). What's most hard about it is delineated aptly by Elizabeth Benedict in her book, The Joy of Writing Sex, where she posits, "When we sit down to write a sex scene, our circuits can jam, our self-consciousness surge, and we might as well be beginning students of English as a second language."

For me, though, it's less about the self-consciousness of untoward content, and more the fear that I'll write something boring or cliché. I mean, in a culture packed with sex, literally with sex dripping off billboards, magazines, television and packaging, is there any new territory here? In workshop, we call the output of well-worn language recycling received text. Received text requires no penetration (no pun intended). This sort of language just slides into a groove, a zeitgeist, a trope with easy familiarity, and satisfies the audience without spectacle. It's like eating a Whopper. You think: Whopper, and your taste buds have already filled in the flame broiled flavoring, the texture of soft bun, wet lettuce and cooked beef patty. No surprise, no disappointment.

I don't want my novel to serve up Whoppers. Especially not in the bedroom. Take Frances and Arthur, my quirky characters, for example. I've been wrestling them into bed for nearly a month. The problem is that it still reads flat. Hold the pickles, hold the lettuce flat. I'm trying to particularize drawing from a limited imagination. And why is this? Simply, because I haven't been sure enough on how Frances feels about her erstwhile husband to make this sex scene lift off the bun (bad pun intended). If, as Benedict would have me do, Frances must enter this scene from an emotionally dangerous place, I have to go back and establish why, exactly, going to bed with Arthur puts her in peril. I've wanted to make this case within this particular chapter (125 pages into the book), and I keep coming up short. When I workshopped this chapter last week, the feedback was all about that—show more ambivalence, more reluctance, more difficulty in the surrender. Bump up the emotion by lingering on a couple of observations I'd blown through quickly while the act was taking place. And by act I mean fucking.

This morning though, something clicked. I realized that the scene was set up to take advantage of something I'd glossed over in the first part of the book, which had to do with a parallel relationship between Ursula and Brandt, two other characters. I went back to the earlier chapter and made that scene more of a reveal to my main character, Frances. By revisiting that earlier scene within the Frances-and-Arthur-having-sex scene I got closer to nailing the heartbreak.

As far as the Return of the Booty Call, I liked it well enough. What's not to like about a hot summer night of scintillating prose? Especially when there's whiskey involved. At the end of the day though, I have a confession to make. I think it's sort of like the act itself. I like writing sex myself more than hearing sex read aloud.


Tuesday, July 08, 2008

tomorrowland is so yesterday

The post-Disneyland votes are in. After FastPasses aplenty, the thrills, chills, spills and breakdowns that are the Disney experience, my nine-year-old's favorite ride was Autopia. You know the one, right? The diesel-stench track at the edge of Tomorrowland where you can pretend to drive an actual car?

How it works is this. Stand in the queue 45 minutes. Receive a card that invites you to drive one of several named cars. "Drive" the car.

My card entitled me to drive Suzy. No shit. A car with my very own name. My sister, nephew, son and I took our places on deck as the attendant ordered the drivers who had just returned to surrender their vehicles to us. I was at the rear, and with an admonishment to "not bump the car ahead of me," I stepped on the gas pedal. With both feet. Seems the Autopia of the future is geared for drivers with quads of steel. I thought my Suzy was broken. Especially when I had trouble catching up to my nine-year-old.

As I pressed my way around the track in a car that more closely resembled a golf cart of old rather than the futuristic, solar-powered vehicle it should have been, I began a litany of critique. It helped my bitch session that it was nearly 9:00 pm, and after a dozen hours in the park, I'd had about four forkfuls of crappy pasta, a hard boiled egg and a dried out baby-sized turkey sandwich, and I was cold because I'd under-dressed, and now a wind had cropped up (disappointing all who had camped out in Main Street for the "Believe" fireworks that were about to be cancelled). The Autopia experience itself was quite similar to the recent rush hour squeeze on the LA freeway we fell into on the way down here. Without the road rage I guess, because, as we'd been reminded by signage, Disneyland is the happiest place on earth.

The Disneyland employees, however, didn't get that memo. From the parking garage attendant who scolded me for not reading his mind to the talkative docent on the Nemo Submarine who felt compelled to reveal the tmi details of his work schedule as we descended the spiral staircase, I found a dearth of happiness. Except, of course, on my little boy's face. Truly, I think he had the absolute best day of his life—and that, my friends, was totally worth our $120 admission.

Oh, and btw, I finally finished that sex scene.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

notes from vacation

Day two of our trip to SoCal.

I'm in the passenger seat of my Element and my sister is driving us over the Grapevine. Pretty soon we'll be dropped, as if by miracle, into Los Angeles and its sprawling burbs. Santa Clarita. Glendale. The dreaded City of Angels and its snarl of cars.

I've spent the past hour writing the very first graphic sex scene in my novel whilst passing trucks and the vast expanse of the Diablo Range. Frances and Arthur, doing it, after a prolonged hiatus. It's one of those types of sex scenes that's supposed to evoke the emotional complexity of their relationship, establish empathy for the somewhat unlikeable Arthur, and mitigate my narrator's usual cynical amor.

At the last rest stop a flock of flies entered the car, and between the annoying tickle of these insects and thwack sound of Carson trying to hit them with a ruler, it's been a little hard to, um, concentrate.

Anyway, I've had a few sessions with "The Secret to Love" when my sister takes the wheel, and it's really interesting writing a family narrative while being in a family narrative. My sister and I haven't spent much time together as adults, and certainly not since we've had kids. This long road trip we're on—to visit our mother in San Diego—is unprecedented. Our two little boys are in the backseat, chewing Skittles and reading Bone Books and C.S. Lewis and inquiring, every few miles, about the next stop for provisions.

Patti and I keep each other entertained with random memories of our childhood games which typically involved pretending we were grown ups with little kids.

Last night we stopped in Stockton, ate at a sub-mediocre chain restaurant and then settled at a La Quinta, where our room was a few steps from the pool. At the pool we happened upon a teenage girl with some sort of social disorder. She was robust in her over-sharing and presumptuous in her assumptions that our boys would like her to give them swimming lessons. When she began tickling Carson, and pulling Matthew around the pool with her t-shirt, they sensed the social contract had been violated and managed quite successfully to keep their distance. Patti found the girl to be extremely troubling, and marveled at her parents lack of supervisory presence. She invented end-result scenarios where the girl would stalk us all the way to San Diego to prey on our offspring. Since I'm a writer, of course I was just looking for the takeaway. Which I got. In her quest to offer information on every topic that would set her up as an expert in all things, she informed us that when we get to Disneyland, we shouldn't get our hearts set on It's a Small World. "They're remodeling it," she said. "They have to rebuild the boats because people have gotten too fat to fit in them."

So, we're about to leave the hills of the Grapevine and enter the land of many chains. Maybe we'll eat in one of those beef places where you can get onions deep fried in batter and dip them in sauce. We'll take two. And bring on the beef platters of angus. Don't forget the side of pork. It's a Fat World After All!