Wednesday, December 22, 2010

For the Soggy

It's been torrential around here lately; and when not torrential, drippy. Wet, constantly. The dog is looking at me with betrayed eyes, wondering why ball-playing cannot commence, why the outside has suddenly turned hostile.

Someone from my Sangha has sent this poem to put the rain in perspective. It's by Mary Oliver.

Lingering in Happiness

After rain after many days without rain,
it stays cool, private and cleansed, under the trees,
and the dampness there, married now to gravity,
falls branch to branch, leaf to leaf, down to the ground

where it will disappear--but not, of course, vanish
except to our eyes. The roots of the oaks will have their share,
and the white threads of the grasses, and the cushion of moss;
a few drops, round as pearls, will enter the mole's tunnel;

and soon so many small stones, buried for a thousand years,
will feel themselves being touched.

Nice, huh? Now, if only I could get my dog to understand it...

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Birthdays and Buddhists

Here I am, past midnight. No bells have tolled, no visitations from spirits; just Doug softly snoring in bed beside me. That's not entirely true (about the spirits, that is, the snoring part is absolutely accurate). I do feel ghosts of the past rising up around me, conjured up not only from the Facebook greetings sprouting up in my email box, but by the constant self-reflection that the occasion seems to inspire. Must birthdays always be a yearly reckoning of where one is, and where one has come from?

"Bore, bore bore," says my inner Katharine Hepburn.

Me at Benjamin's age.
In Buddhism, we're constantly reminded of how our days are quickly ticking off, one after another after another. We are not about to step off a cliff, we are already in the air, plummeting. We have been that way since the day we were born. This sentiment is not supposed to depress, but to inspire. What will we do with the time left on this earth? We are gently encouraged to not squander our actions, to "practice eagerly and diligently, as though extinguishing a fire upon our heads."

We Buddhists sure know how to have a good time.

I am looking forward to the coming year. Doing my animated work, getting my book out into the world, watching Benjamin discover his independence, but still being allowed to hold his hand while crossing the street. Finding the stillness within and the wonder of every day. And eating the Peking Duck that Doug has ordered from the restaurant we're going to tonight. Life is good.

Happy Birthday.

Some people have asked to see something of the book I'm writing. Here are the first pages—enjoy.

Emily. Wisconsin.
She drove the blue Volvo station wagon away from Vee’s house with a somber determination, like it was a lame horse she was leading out of the barn. She was going to drive both the car and herself over the nearest cliff, or, rather, it being Wisconsin, the nearest steep embankment. But sailing south along I-94, in the early morning before rush hour, she found she couldn’t let go of the Volvo and she couldn’t let go of the road, and the highway racing before her seemed to offer a faster route to oblivion than sailing off into some moderately inclined culvert. All might still be lost, in time. There were other opportunities up ahead to smash into and through some guardrail on her journey. Colorado, now there were some cliffs worth driving over.
But she needed speed, more speed, and the ballast in the car was too heavy to let her fly down the highway, no matter what the speedometer was registering. So she twisted her upper body like a contortionist and managed to snake her right arm around and under the baby car seat behind her in order to unshackle it from the upholstery, and with a desperate, sudden yank which would cause her a good deal of shoulder pain later that night, she managed to hoist the seat over the gear shift and partly into her lap. Moments later it was pushed clumsily (understandable at 95 miles an hour), out the passenger side window. It bounced twice along the highway like a skipping stone before skidding to rest on the side of the road. 
Three minutes later the second car seat, toddler-sized, followed. 
(The two abandoned car seats were accounted for later that day; the second one landed in the middle of a lane, causing the rush-hour traffic delay which Owen heard on the clock radio as he was trying to will himself awake; the other was discovered and identified by Vee in her car, just outside Racine. Neither was saved.)
And for a time after, Emily did feel lighter, her mind clear, even excited, and her breathing deepened for the first time in almost five weeks. This continued until just past Madison. Approaching the slowdown that was inbound Chicago traffic, she began noticing through her rear view mirror the imprints of the baby seats in the upholstery. Also, a small teething ring, a scattering of Cheerios, and a grimy diaper rag.
The back seat, the entire back seat, was gone by the time she hit Iowa.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Deep Fried Twinkies & Salted Caramel Gelato

And unlikely duo, those two desserts, but they sum up Las Vegas perfectly.

Sungyoon Choi & Me: who's the Gelato and who's the Twinkie?
On Monday, after a night in the sumptuous accommodations of the Venetian Hotel, Choi, her boyfriend Eric and I set off on the Grand Tour of Las Vegas. First stop: Old Las Vegas. The Fremont Street Experience, as the main drag is called, consists of four blocks where a few bandstands are set up at the crosswalks and a light show plays overhead on a giant ceiling suspended over the street. The ceiling captures even the iconic Vegas Vic and Vegas Vicky. I'm sorry to see them hemmed in, without the blue sky above them. 

Vegas Vic
Vegas Vicky
In my book I describe the Downtown Strip as "What the real Strip would look like after she’s gone home at the end of a long night, wiped off her makeup, thrown down her wig, and slipped out of support hose. And she’s sitting around in her underwear, scratching herself in front of the TV." In the Monday morning light, with all the neon dim, it's looking more run-down than ever. It's seedy and worn out and Choi is completely enchanted. Maybe her delight at Downtown Vegas is akin to my hankering for the old Times Square, with the crazies muttering on the corners and the porno shops and mounds of garbage and weird smells. It's more real, more authentic, though I'd have to say that a majority of tourists are not looking for authenticity when they arrive to either Sin City or the Big Apple. 

Choi does a happy dance when she gets to eat a deep-fried Twinkie at Mermaids Casino. Despite how revolting this might sound to some, and despite the fact that the deep-fry oil barely bubbles while the Twinkie is cooking, it's a big hit. Eric thinks it tastes like funnel cake wrapped around a Twinkie and then covered with chocolate sprinkles. I'm intrigued but can't quite bring myself to try it. My passion for deep fried foods has abated somewhat since my last cholesterol check. I do, however, play the quarter slots while waiting. I feed a dollar, and on the second spin three 7's line up. I make $10! Good omen? Let's hope so.

I drive them into the bleaker neighborhoods (we don't have to go far). It's funny, pointing out various landmarks from my book, as if the events really happened. "Here's where Walter meets Chrysto..." "I think Walter would live in that apartment building with Owen,  yes, exactly that one..." Choi won't be illustrating all these events, but you never know what will come into play, and since we're here I might as well give her the whole world.

Next stop is the now-defunct Liberace Museum. The parking lot is completely empty; there aren't many businesses left in the little abandoned strip mall. The museum itself is still there but not open to the public. We pay our respects. I should have brought flowers, or rhinestones.

We loop back to the Strip, stopping briefly at the Luxor before driving north back to the Venetian. It's not very crowded today—hard times, or a Monday? At the Venetian we hit the gondolas, taking a ride and imagining how the canals will look illustrated. We get lunch (Zine Noodles & Dim Sum—yum) and then it's back to the room to look at Choi's thumbnail sketches for the next graphic novel interlude. Even in sketchy form I can tell it's exactly right.

And then we're done. I work out at the hotel, do some writing, and treat myself to Mario Batali's restaurant in St. Mark's Square. End with some of his salted caramel gelato, which is now included in my deathbed meal, (right after that fried Greek cheese with the honey balsamic drizzle). It's a fittingly sweet and savory ending to a whirlwind trip.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Refuge of the Road

Sunday, 5 December: traveling to Sin City, not for two days of unbridled hedonism and debauchery, but to return to the Scene of the Crime. Las Vegas is the setting of most of my book, and the city's become, in the years I've been working on the manuscript, my inspiration and muse. Those who know me would find this city to be the least likely place I would want to visit, but despite the crowds, the smoke and the endless barrage of noise and lights, I've always found Las Vegas to be a fascinating blend of the magical and the profane. Almost every important cultural, geographic and spiritual icon is joyfully exploited. If Stephen Wynn could figure out how to turn the Prophet Mohammed into a twice-nightly stage show, complete with topless harem girls and Middle Eastern ululation set to a salsa beat, he'd do it.

I can last two days in Las Vegas; four, tops. I'm going there to meet Sungyoon Choi, the illustrator of the book, and give her a tour of the city. It'll be her first time there, and since so much of the graphic novel is set in Las Vegas, we agreed it would be helpful for her to take in the lay of the land. The gondolas of the Venetian; Old Vegas on Fremont Street; the now-defunct Liberace Museum (moment of silence, please): we're going to do it all.

I'm driving. It takes between five and six hours to get there, and I'm going to try and be gas-conscious and not speed too much. It takes me until I'm well out of Los Angeles County before the mantle of Responsible Dad falls away and I can assume the temporary title of Free Agent. I'm a pretty poor representative of such a moniker; so far my wild wild ways include being able to listen to an entire episode of "Car Talk" and most of "Wait Wait Don't Tell Me" on NPR without feeling guilty about staying in the car. The free part is mostly the liberation of that sizable part of my brain which is usually tethered to All Things Family— school, housework, appointments, what to cook for dinner, Doug, Benjamin Benjamin Benjamin (and, yes, though reluctantly, Rowdy). To be able to have that part of my brain back, to concentrate full-force on the manuscript, the collaboration with Choi, the lyrics to the entire Hejira album (I put it on once NPR got static-y; it's genius, believe me)— this is freedom at its finest.

There's also a bit of melancholy, and not just from Joni Mitchell wailing on the speakers. I'm on a barren stretch of highway amid tumbleweeds and rocks rashed with red scrub, that empty space between Leaving From and Going To. The space where creativity can flourish but also melancholy.  I'm feeling much like the main character in my book might feel, traveling back to where it began; returning again to the genesis of tragedy. And I realize that I've invested so much in these characters that their travails have become real to me, and I think of Las Vegas as their home, and I'm going there to pay my respects.

Things brighten up on the approach to Baker, CA. I get gas and contemplate my usual stop at Bun Boy for lunch (the Bun Boy is right next to the world's tallest thermometer, and, well, 'nuff said about the phallic implications of that). 

Instead, I head over to the Mad Greek Diner, because I've just been to Greece, and two of my characters are Greek, so I figure there might be some inspiration there. Not so much.
Beware Greeks bearing crappy roadside food.
I have known Greek salads, I've been to Greece,
Greek salads are my friends, and you, sir, are no
Greek salad.

Even eating vegetarian the lunch manages to make me queasy. It could have been the greasy fries or the rancid pita. I have known Greek salads in Greece, and you, sir, are no Greek On the way to Vegas? Avoid the Mad Greek. It can turn even a Greek Salad into a Greek tragedy! Give me a Bun Boy every time!

Hmm. I might want to rethink that last sentence.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

Still Browsing...

Things are proceeding on the book front, though it's still in the "getting the book publisher-ready" stage. Got the first graphic novel section completed and delivered from Sungyoon Choi, and I think it looks marvelous. Heart-breaking, but marvelous. While we're waiting for rest of the artwork to be completed, Agent J would like to see if the manuscript could be trimmed down a bit and tightened. Sounds reasonable. I hope I'll have better success at trimming pages off my novel than I've had at trimming pounds off my frame this year (damn you, apple-bacon-cornbread stuffing!) Agent J will be looking over the manuscript this week and offer edit suggestions. This isn't unfamiliar territory; years of whittling novels into plays for Lifeline Theatre in Chicago (with half the company members looking over your shoulder, benevolently) should stand me in good stead.

And then there's the title... The book, Liberace Under Venetian Skies Untitled, has thus far Teflon'd itself against any new name applied to it. We're getting closer, though. The following is a few titles I've been monkeying with these days. Feel free to weigh in. Remember, the graphic is only there to give the context of it being a book. It's a shot I took at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas. Much of the book is set there, and in the neighborhood behind the neon of the city.

Okay, go:
Lots of meanings for "departures," all of them apt.
This one is Doug's favorite. 
Coincidentally, it's one he came up with, too.

This phrase gets used a lot in the book.
The main character returns, over and over, to a pivotal moment in his life, trying to replay it in different ways but unable to arrive at the truth.

Kinda grand, ain't it? God figure prominently in the book. 
Suggested by Christina Calvit, playwright extraordinaire.

This one was suggested by my friend Amy Hill,
who discovered it in the Wordle art of my manuscript.
Works however you say it.

Kind of active but whimsical, don't you think?

I like this one because it uses screenplay syntax, 
and screenplays figure into the novel. 
It also encapsulates the illusion of Las Vegas. 
I noodled with this one a bit. 

What about:

Or this?
Damn it, I'll get Liberace in there somehow!