09 December 2012

The Music of Community

I attended the holiday concert of Lagunatunes tonight. A friend of mine is a member of the choir and invited me. It was a magical experience, harkening back to Xmas throughout the centuries and throughout the world.

The Episcopal church where the concert was held was standing room only. Mostly friends and family of the singers, but also community members who cherish holiday music. Some of the tunes were familiar, some with updated arrangements, and still others unknown to me, but all sung with the enthusiasm and delight one might expect from a community chorale.

The music of Christmas warms your heart, no matter your religion or disposition. But a holiday choir is more than music, it's community. In that hour, in the midst of song, all politics and heartache are banished, all differences dismissed. We are one. We celebrate the season, we celebrate the music. Few moments bring people together as much as this. And it is in this moment we remember what the year-end season means - neither commerce or even Christ, but that time of year we accept the past and look forward to the future.


14 November 2012

Short Story as Modern Art

            I love a good short story. I have piles of collections by my bedside, collecting dust but always at hand for late night reading. And, like all book lovers, I just love the piles. When a great new collection comes from a writer I admire, I read start to finish, relishing the buffet of characters and story lines that occasionally blend into each other, but make for a great feast.
            I rarely write short stories. Much as I love them, I’m no good at writing them. I get lost in descriptive prose or want to introduce another character in the mix, or I end up with an essay. Perhaps I read them with extra pleasure because I know how hard they are to write.
Some people wonder what has happened to traditional stories. You know the format: a clearly defined opening, a middle, an end, and in between, a crescendo, the denouement, in which the character(s) faces the conflict, learns what is meant to be learned, or is forever altered. Fables and children’s stories are the best examples. However few short stories are written this way anymore. In the post-modernist world of literature, stories meander. Lessons are learned subtly, if at all. The structure, like modern art, begs for interpretation. We read in thrall of language or characters or a question posed, even if never answered.
The dilemmas of modern story telling do not usually have one solution. In fact, there are no absolute truths in modern short stories. At best, a collection of tales weave a mosaic. Junot Diaz’s This is How you Lose Her is a mélange of sex and love and gender battles related by and about one core character who drifts from lover to lover, escapade to escapade. It is the gestalt that offers significance. Joan Wickersham’s lovely first story collection, The News from Spain: 7 Variations on a Love Story, connected only in essence, as her characters gallop from 18th century Vienna to modern day in a kaleidoscope of love and loss, all beautifully told, without merely a tiny ribbon on the package.
Alice Munro, queen of the short story in the last century, has a new collection, waiting to be read, and based on previews in The New Yorker, she might be likened to a conceptual artist, inviting the reader to consider the nature of the situation rather than form.
Perhaps the modern short story can be bundled like art movements. Modernism to post-modernism, abstract expressionism to minimalism, surrealism to illusionism. Recent stories might be consider late modernism, where light and space take precedence over imagery? Or is language moving the story towards graphic design – creating a visual image that otherwise has no context? A form of hyper-realism? Post-minimalism?
No matter. Every short story stands on its own and every one has merit. I recently pulled out my well-worn copy of the collected stories of Grace Paley and re-read Mother, among the shortest of short stories, and one that floats, without tether to time or place, rather staccato brush strokes that invoke an abstract image of one life, as well as those left behind. Perhaps a neo-expressionist?
Whatever the form, stories are our verbal canvases and we need them to remind us that in this visual age, while a picture may paint a thousand words, we still need the words.

28 October 2012

Two Days in Vancouver, BC

October 2012. Early morning in Vancouver, British Columbia, viewed from my guest bedroom on an upper story of one of the city's many soaring towers. A painting: watercolor, but all shades of silver. Tall metallic and glass skyscrapers whose roofs nearly touch low low-lying clouds, and the clouds layers of silvery gray that mimic the buildings below. Light filters slowly through the density to still waters below. Seagulls call, also shades of silver. Street lamp lights on the bridges, still illuminated, seem nearly gold in contrast.

The only spots of color are the autumn leaves of trees scattered on the landscape like thicker brush strokes. Parks abound, punctuated by the amazing Stanley Park, gigantic and serence [reminds me so much of Central Park.] A siren suddenly pierces the silence and dissipates just as quickly. I watch and listen from above the fray in one of the thousands of apartments that rise form earth to sky in this city of silver. As if dropped into the painting as minor characters.

Down on the ground, in older neighborhoods and near the commercial core, facades are shades of brown and taupe, a neutral palette with a hint of pink, as if reflected in sunset, and pedestrians provide further color, although both seem accent colors, like the trees and the stunning glimpses of mountains to the east, snow-capped just last night. These spots of color seem to have been tossed into the mix as an afterthought, a scene that interior designers or set decorators might want to revise to protect the purity of the scene.

Beyond the three bridges that cross the bay, more affluent suburban neighborhoods abound, so strikingly low in height they seem to belong to another place, surrounded like the city by walking and biking paths, parks and beaches. The lush grounds of the University at the end of a promontory provides a perfect place for intellectual contemplation and discourse [made me want to go back to school, yet again.]

The city built some of its expanding skyline for the 1986 world’s fair, a giant silver globe an iconic image of that turning point, and added to the infrastructure for the 2010 Olympics, whose global village is now a residential community on the waterfront, smaller buildings with a hint of color that reflect its youthful heritage.

Whatever the accent colors and alternating geometric facades, Vancouver is a silver city of the future – tall slender buildings interspersed with low connecting structures to protect the view corridor, a place where each resident adds their own colors. Amazing library, lovely museum, great restaurants, wonderful public transport, and a lovely walking city. An impressive quality of life, and one pays for the privilege. These Western Canadians know how to do it right. 

Thanks to my friend Brian Jackson, the city’s head of planning, for being the world’s best and most gracious tour guide.

Flight Behavior by Barbara Kingsolver

The arrival of a new novel by Barbara Kingsolver is a happy event. Over the years, she has delighted readers and helped shape modern narrative fiction. “Animal Dreams” is still one of my very favorites and an early version of the multiple narrative technique. “Poisonwood Bible” told by five sisters was a particular accomplishment. For a number of years she focused on non-fiction in a desire to voice her environmental passions concerns and early in her career she wrote wonderful poetry and short stories, in both English and Spanish, as she is bi-cultural and bi-lingual. When “The Lacuna” published a couple of years ago, she returned to her Mexican roots to give us a quiet but powerful story of Frida, Diego and communism. A more sophisticated and subtle piece of writing that I loved.  

Now Kingsolver has written a novel that speaks to ecology and life in Appalachia, where she lives with her family. In some way, this novel is an homage to the people of this rural landscape, warts and all, as well as a profound message about messing with the natural order of things.

The set-up is grand. Kingsolver takes a reality and extends it into parable. In the state of Michoacán, Mexico, destruction of a forest ecosystem left no home for the annual migration of Monarch butterflies. That’s truth. What she imagines is that a gigantic flock of these orange butterflies is thrown out of their flight behavior to a forest far from home, in Appalachia. And that forest has been designated for logging by a family facing harsh economic circumstances.

The heroine, Dellarobia Turnbow, has herself been thrown off course by an adolescent pregnancy and ill-fated marriage. She discovers the flaming orange trees, which at first she perceives to be a forest fire, and sets about to discover the meaning and perhaps alter the outcome. “Unearthly beauty had appeared to her, a vision of glory to stop her in the road… It looked like the inside of joy, if a person could see that. A valley of lights, an ethereal wind. It had to mean something. She could save herself.”

The church believes the phenomenon is a heavenly vision. Scientists descend to study the butterflies. Friends and neighbors are pitted on opposite sides of the logging debate. Winter will come soon and possibly destroy the butterflies at first frost. In the midst of these opposing forces, Dellarobia seeks her true north, and the fate of her children in the human ecosystem. “Her every possession was either unbreakable or broken.”

In a simple narrative with memorable characters, Kingsolver invites us to consider all the choices we make, for ourselves and for the globe. It's a grand read. 

14 October 2012

3.5 Books on the New York Times Besteller List

Sunday morning, as I read the New York Times Book Review with my tea, still the most favorite moment of my week, I was thrilled to discover three and a half literary novels on the print best seller list. That’s barely one-fifth of the titles, but as it is usually filled with all escapist fiction, this was a treat.
Just launched, J.K. Rowling’s first adult novel, “The Casual Vacancy” landed at number one. There was an awful lot of hype and expectation on this one, and a lot of pre-orders, so no surprise, and while the critics have been harsh, I’m told she weaves another good albeit dour yarn. 
Michael Chabon’s “Telegraph Avenue” is bursting with his signature descriptive prose and earthy dialogue and is a riff on race in America through the daily lives of a handful of residents of Oakland, CA. Chabon in my mind is pure genius and although the prose if often a bit too dense and makes you mind wander, I just love him. I want him at the head of my fantasy literary dinner party table.
The greatest surprise on the list was Junot Diaz’ “This is How You Lose Her” as stories, even woven together into a metaphor, don’t usually make for best sellers. However Pulitzer Prize winner Diaz is that rare literary creature who captures the Hispanic-American culture with characters that we root for and long for or sometimes want to banish from the earth, and his language is so hip that you don’t even notice how brilliantly crafted it is. The half on the list: “Gone Girl.” Yes, it has been on the list for 17 weeks and other than the “Shades of Grey” trilogy was the most talked about book of the summer, and an interesting contemplation of relationships and sanity, but, in the end, more page-turner than literary, which may be why so many enjoy reading it, of course, and that's the nature of the book business.
And now a heads up: Barbara Kingsolver's novel "Flight Behavior" lands early November and I've had the great pleasure of reading it. What's it about? The monarch butterfly image is a hint. The new novel is another gorgeous, languorous, brilliant evocation of the crossroads of human longing and the natural world. In the simplicity of Kingsolver's prose lies terribly important truths and while critics take her to task for her so-called "ecological agenda" she writes beautiful novels that make us think - is there any better definition of literary fiction? I want her on the other end of my fantasy dinner party table! Happy reading.

06 October 2012

The Daughter Blogs

She writes a book ["The Mindfulness Workbook for Addiction" with Rebecca Williams] and she blogs on her website and now, blogs for the fantastic Huffington Post! WOW!!!
Read it here.

06 September 2012


I took a playwriting class in San Miguel - one of the highlights of the trip and of my life - and the instructor [Mark Saunders, lovely man, terrific teacher, successful playwright] advised us, in short plays especially, to keep parentheticals to a minimum. Parentheticals are those short stage directions provided to guide the actor: pause,  sigh, clearly upset, etc. A long list of options. And the thought occurred to me that this might be very good advice for life.

In our world of incessant self-examination and self-discovery and self-direction, there are a multitude of parentheticals in our heads and in our paths which could easily be obstacles as well. Some of these might be considered demons: the inner scolds, regret, the should-have or could-haves. Some might be the simple neurotic nature of the modern world: OMG what were you thinking? Or the way we tip toe on the egg shells of intimacy [pause: watch your words] often at the expense of simply relating to each other honestly.

Think about it. Other than those private moments while walking or meditating, driving,  slipping into sleep, at Yoga or Pilates class, where the instructor provides the parenthetical narrative, or immersed in a good book where other lives take direction, we are constantly hearing parentheticals in our heads. If we allow them to be heard. If we allow them to define us.

Parentheticals can be positive [she smiles with satisfaction] or negative [she groans with disappointment.] Either way, they disrupt, albeit momentarily, natural impulses, and they disrupt the genuine ebb and flow of our journeys.

The well-written play, I learned, permits the dialogue to define the characters and the action to define the conflict. The well-written play provides actors an opportunity to interpret and breathe life to the story. To take words on a page to new meaning on the stage. The fewer the parentheticals, the better chance for the play to come to life on its own. To flow freely. Permit spontaneity. To allow us to lead with our hearts, not those stage directions in our minds. Yes, best to keep the parentheticals to a minimum.

27 August 2012

San Miguel de Allende 2012 - Part II

Late summer in SMA. Quieter than winter, although week-ends rock with the music of Mexicans from big cities and countryside who come to wander El Centro. They wander, they walk, they pray, they party. A lively scene. 

So what do I do? I go to a late afternoon movie with friends. 

There are two small theaters here, each with two screens, although more like private screening rooms. I go to the “Pocket Theater” which must have been a hacienda at one time. An elegant entry, flanked by two lovely parlor-like rooms, leads into a courtyard, typical of homes here, off of which are the two “theaters” each with roughly 20 seats, real movie theater seats mind you, and a large old-fashioned pull down screen. There is surprisingly good surround-sound, which further enhances the sense of intimacy with the film. Best part? The price of 80 pesos [$6] includes a drink from the bar, which is the room on the left and open whether you go to the theater or not, and when you are seated for the film, you are handed a bag of warm popcorn. Lights go down, no previews, no ads, just a good film. Only thing missing is the whir of the projector as these are DVD’s. Nearly first-run movies, documentaries, foreign films, old favorites, all day long, in both theaters. And also in the other theater of this type only a few blocks away. So on a rainy or cold day [although I’m told the space heaters don’t exactly warm the space] or a very hot day, as it’s naturally cool inside, one can take in the cinema. They know how to do things here in San Miguel de Allende.