Sunday’s Words

Sunday is a quiet day, a good day for thinking, just a little, about words. Today’s inaugural edition features silent letters.

Subtle: I’ve liked this word since I was a kid because it’s so…subtle, that little ‘b’ hardly there.

Indictment: I had a radio show in college, the After Z Radio show. I made the embarrassing slip up one night of pronouncing the ‘c’. Put me on trial. What a goof.

Psalm: Yes, it’s Sunday.

Kudos to Colbert

I attended a taping of The Colbert Report on Thursday, September 20. And while I cannot say much of anything good for the long wait in line nor the fascistic demands placed on the audience – reminiscent of Orwell’s Two Minutes Hate – I have nothing but praise for Mr. Colbert himself.

Stephen Colbert is a sharp fellow. Brimming with wit, confidence and talent – he sang three Sondheim extracts off the cuff –  he comes across as an old friend. He has clearly worked hard to construct his candy store and is relishing every minute. Everyone wants to know what’s next. And after that? What else have you got? Even when he screws up, it’s good. Let’s try that again! Forward and on! He’s like a perpetual motion machine. Does he ever turn off?

I was thinking that it would be great to write like that, jumping in and out of scenes, switching between characters, dabbing in details, punching up the ending, twisting the start, whipping in quotes, snapping out descriptions, commas and colons in a whirlwind of brilliance and light…yes, that would be nice. Back to it.

Music: in a trance

As Jerry Garcia sings in the Grateful Dead’s Terrapin Station: “Inspiration, move me brightly.”

I process many narrative difficulties through music: doing my workout on the elliptical, staring out the window from the couch or attending a live concert. Once I get through the problems of the day – Did I send that email? Did I buy that ointment? Is the lawsuit going well? –  I find a better path, a more open space, and start to think. Music is my primary place of thought.

My favorite works include Fripp and Eno’s No Pussyfooting, Low’s C’Mon, My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, Off the Sky’s Cold Distances and William Basinski’s Distintegeration Loop #5. Each of these works help me shed the harsh light of this ‘sterile promontory’ to bring out the ‘excellent canopy’ instead. (That’s my spin on Hamlet.) Characters grow; the plot thickens.

Another recent inspiration has been the work of Icelandic performance artist, Ragnar Kjartansson. I was fortunate enough to attend his work Bliss at Abrons Auditorium in New York. A troupe of Icelandic opera singers – with full orchestration – sang the final arias of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro, a two-and-a-half minute sequence repeated again and again over twelve straight hours. Please click on either the link or photograph below to see a six minute sequence from the production, featuring two renditions of the piece:

Ragnar Kjartansson, “Bliss”

The above photograph is from the final hour of production; note the woman climbing out of the orchestra pit to go to the bathroom; full meals were also served on stage throughout the day. Assuming the same pace was maintained, they performed this sequence of arias approximately 240 times. I was there for only four hours and wish I had experienced more. It really was something to live in that music.

Nostalgic Interference

Nostalgia can be a good source of inspiration. As you might have noticed from the past few blogs, I have indeed been waxing nostalgic these days. When I’m blocked (creatively that is), I find that I drift back to very specific moments and things from my childhood. I tell myself that ‘m searching for inspiration – and sometimes this is true as those feelings can be raw and whole – but too often it just a way to avoid the hard work and focus of writing.

My favorite ice cream was called Checkerboard, vanilla and chocolate in the shape of…? Guesses anyone? That’s right, a checkerboard! (It’s not pictured above sadly.) I have vivid memories of eating this remarkable stuff at the kitchen table, my fat little legs sticking to the vinyl cushions. I remember the heat. I remember the window just open onto the neighbor’s driveway, the sound of their car coming in. I carved the edges of each square carefully, first vanilla and then chocolate – I always saved the best for last – going sharply down the line with the edge of my spoon, eating tiny bits, and then boldly, rashly gouging out a scoop and then carving and cleaning slowly again. I couldn’t be too meticulous though because the ice cream would melt. I hated that.

I bought a Whacky Watermelon Pull Toy at a school flea market when I was ten. I thought it was an amazing thing. I mean, it was a watermelon on wheels that flapped out slices like wings. It also made a crazy clicketing racket as it rolled along. It was only 50 cents. I would have paid a dollar. But when I got it home, I didn’t know what to do with it. It was boring pulling it around my room and I wasn’t allowed to drag it around the house. It was too loud! And so I took it around the block, all the way around the entire block. I suddenly had no idea what I was doing with this Whacky Watermelon, making such a racket behind me. I felt like a goof doing it. It clicked and clacked crazily. I passed two teenagers and a woman with a kid. I couldn’t make eye contact with any of them. What was I doing? I almost picked it up and carried it home, but decided that I needed to finish my odyssey. I don’t know why. And I did. And then I put it away and never played with it again.

My drawer was full of crazy kid crap from souvenir shops. I bought it all: magnets, buttons, stickers, plastic animals, giant erasers, bendy figure pencils…but the best thing was a frog on his lily pad made out of shells. (The picture above is close but lacks the color, lily pad and pipe cleaner arms.) I named the frog George, and I talked to him. He was patient. He listened to everything I had to say. George was always there…until his lily pad cracked and he got dumped.

My favorite cookies were Pantry ginger snaps. (Neither is that me eating them, nor are those the cookies.) They were discontinued 25 years ago, and there hasn’t been a cookie as good since. Time to get back to work.

Making a ‘Bad Side’ Movie

It looks like we might make a short film out of the opening scene of My Bad Side. Yesterday, I met with Mike, a filmmaker, to discuss this possibility. The opening scene (written in Blog #1 “The Beginning”) runs like this: Dee comes home in a cab, talks with the doorman and then confronts Derek in her apartment, and when she realizes that Derek has shot her exotic cat Apollo, she wrestles the gun from him, shoots him, and flees the building (and city) with her wounded serval.

Serval in the wild

It was a dynamic discussion, focusing on how to shoot each scene: cab, outside building, elevator and inside apartment. Is it a yellow cab? How old is the doorman? Is the TV on in the apartment? Exactly how does she get the gun? We also discussed how to light, costume and cast. One thing we decided immediately is that we will not be using a serval for the shoot (as exotic pets are illegal in the New York) and are considering my dog Biba instead.

Biba cast as a serval

A Moral Center to the Universe

I had dinner last night with an old friend; she made a most spicy and delicious tilapia and recommended the mini-series Battlestar Galactica. She said that it was a thoughtfully constructed show and maintained a moral center to the universe. “I know you like that kind of thing.” I was not only intrigued by this idea but more so that it was apparently obvious that this is what I liked. I had never put it in terms like that to myself. I had never really thought about it so specifically. However I realized that she was right. I do like stories with this idea at its core, that develop a clear sense of right and wrong, not in the Walt Disney sense – although I must admit to doing my Undergraduate thesis on this institution – but in a manner that exposes injustices and even might help us work towards some version of harmony and understanding in our lives.

“Life isn’t fair.” My mother proclaimed this all the time – mostly when I was denied the TV or a trip to an exotic land. I knew she was right not just because she used it as her default motherly excuse but because that’s how everything seemed to work. Mean kids always got their way, and grownups didn’t seem to care. They said they did, but I knew there was more to it, that they always had good intentions and rarely if ever followed through. I read Orwell in Grade 10 and Kafka in college, and it all made too much sense. People cheated, lied and stole…and nothing happened to them. The rich got richer, the good died young, and the bureaucrats always remained atop looking down. Life wasn’t fair, nor was it just or moral.

Painting by Tetsuya Ishida

My favorite authors expose this world of injustice with precision and misery. J.M. Coetzee offers a stark view of humanity throughout his fiction. In Waiting for the Barbarians, he states “The crime that is latent in us we must inflict on ourselves…Not on others.’” Raymond Carver writes of our inherent flawed nature in his short story, So Much Water Close to Home:

They saw the girl before they set up camp. Mel Dorn found her. No clothes on her at all. She was wedged into some branches that stuck out over the water. He called the others and they came to look. They talked about what to do. One of the men – my Stuart didn’t say which – said they should start back at once. The others stirred the sand with their shoes, said they didn’t feel inclined that way. They pleaded fatigue, the late hour, the fact that the girl wasn’t going anywhere. In the end they went ahead and set up camp. They built a fire and drank their whiskey.

Cormac McCarthy is scathing in his thoughts of humanity, most notably The Road:

The world soon to be largely populated by men who would eat your children in front of your eyes and the cities themselves held by cores of blackened looters who tunneled among the ruins and crawled from the rubble white of tooth and eye carrying charred and anonymous tins of food in nylon nets like shoppers in the commissaries of hell,

And yet each author does offer some kind of hope, bleak as it might be. Even if the man dies, the boy lives; even is the husband is a drunk, the wife cares; even if the magistrate is a shell of himself, he survives. There is something to live for. As empty and awful as the world might appear, there is something to believe in.

In my own novel, My Bad Side, Dee with her older sister Crystal, have suffered the tragic loss of their mother. Their lives seem to be defined by it:

I remember the door closing, a gate snapping with a click. I was eleven months and Crystal was almost three. People stayed at the house, my mother’s sister Molly, and Nani, and they looked after us. They bought the groceries and helped change me; they told my mother about what to do. But they left – Nani said it had been four months – and called to check in. It wasn’t enough. My mother drank after our father was killed. It was how she slept. She was taking pills too. And so that night, the way everyone says it, she probably lost count of how many green ones she had had and she’d forgotten about having too much gin and how much she meant to us. Nani thought Aunt Molly was calling and Aunt Molly thought it was Nani, and by the time they realized that it was no one, we had been locked in the house with our mother’s body for four days. My sister tried to get out, but she couldn’t turn the lock and then took what she could off the counter and sat beside my mother, waiting for her to get up and gave me something too, bananas and cookies and flour, and finally opened the fridge and found the milk. She says I cried all the time. That’s because I wasn’t changed. But she saved my life. That’s how she always told it, and that’s how I think of it.

Dee and Crystal survive the tragedy at the beginning of their lives…and so the question becomes: ‘What are they are going to do now?’

I am going to watch Episode One of Battlestar Galactica tomorrow. Not only does the idea of a moral center to the universe intrigue me, but apparently there’s a lot of sexy robots too. I’ll get back to you on that.

Brigitte Bardot

Brigitte Bardot appeared in over 40 films in the 1950s and ’60s, most notably Godard’s Contempt as well as her breakout film, Roger Vadim’s And God Created Woman; however she was not known for her acting talents, her ability to create a character, as much as for her to-be-looked-at-ness, as the film theorists would frown and say.

She knew how to strike a pose, how to highlight her eyes, how to part her lips, and she certainly wasn’t shy about showing her body. Popularly referred to as a ‘sex kitten’ by the paparazzi, she did not hide the fact that she had many sexual relationships. “I leave before being left. I decide.” Also known for her singing duet with Serg Gainsbourg, Je T’aime, she accentuated the music with breathy moans and hence furthered the conception of her profound sexuality.

Bardot retired from the entertainment industry in the early ’70s and devoted herself to the cause of animal rights. “I gave my beauty and my youth to men. I am going to give my wisdom and experience to animals.” She created a foundation and has waged many battles since, including those against bull-fighting, seal-hunting and the slaughter of dolphins.

Dee, the protagonist in my novel The Bad Side, is inspired by Brigitte Bardot and her foundation. She wants to be an inspector for the foundation and writes to Ms. Bardot, receiving the following reply:

Thank you so much for your lovely letter. I am so sad to tell you that you must live in France to be an inspector for the Brigitte Bardot Foundation. I know you will always be a friend to me and the animals all over the world. I wish your life to be filled with love always.

While Dee is disappointed by this response, she is fascinated by Bardot’s lipstick signature.

There was a lipstick kiss at the bottom, the lips slightly apart. I touched it, my pinkie just against the red. It was real. The lips had made a mark on the back of the folded page. I read the letter again and folded it and slipped it neatly back into the envelope and then opened it again and peered at the lips. I wanted mine to be like hers. I stole a lipstick from Nani and kissed a blank piece of paper. It didn’t look like anything, just a messy smudge. I tried again, pressing less. They still weren’t much, just lines. I kissed my arm and then the mirror. I did it all along the edge of the glass and looked at myself through the marks. My face was surrounded by my kisses. I liked that. But then I couldn’t get the smudges off and got in trouble for that.

Researching Brigitte Bardot for the book was quite interesting. While a great many continue to be enamored by her image, she has remained distant. Is that what it is to be a sex goddess?