Friday, April 25, 2008

The last seat

After work yesterday I decided to walk to the Marsh Hawk Press spring book launch. Not looking at a map, I though, how long could it take me to walk from Spring Street to W. 27th? Or another way to put it, the Holland Tunnel to the Lincoln Tunnel. It turns out there is a weirdo exponential math to the street grid on Manhattan's most Western edge. I finally hit my first street number at 10th. And it had all been uphill. Ah, only another 17 blocks! I'll be there early. I turned up the Brazilian techno pop playing in my ears, and walked another 5 blocks before I hit 11th street. It must have been another quarter mile to 12th. And so on. Finally at 14th street, a decimal math order was imposed on the grid and it was only one block number between streets.

The sun was golden and turning the cobblestones and brick into gold and copper, women wore light cotton dresses, everyone seemed to be laughing in the warm air, and I walked through neighborhoods I haven't seen for years or decades and it was all utterly changed. Prosperous. Grills and bars and cafes and art galleries. Also chain stores and air-space condos with a symbiotic infiltration of old buildings. My legs were starting to turn into rubbery pasta when I finally found the Ceres gallery hosting the reading. And I was only 7 minutes late and well before the reading started.

There was a lovely remembrance and moment of silence for Rochelle Ratner (from Sandy McIntosh) and the three poets read. I sketched and photographed Jane Augustine, Tom Fink and Karin Randolph. The gallery was featuring the sculptural work of an artist who uses driftwood and branches. Rather like the fence my husband's cousin built around her deck in Montana from ancient weathered limbs. Except these were wall hangings not meant to keep skunks out.

After some chatting and nibbling of pineapple chunks, I headed home. But once again, even though it was now dark out, I didn't need my jacket, the air still held that mix of cool and warm intoxication. I accidentally walked west at first and discovered I was at 11th avenue. Vans, lights, actors cooling their heels in cop uniforms, and a food table announced a movie or TV show was being filmed. A nice looking silver haired man was leaning against a brick wall.

"Whatcha shooting?"
"Law and Order?"
"Which one?"
"Uh, Special Victims?"
"Buzzer noise nope, that's filmed in New Jersey. Criminal Intent."
Law and Order was once filming in my neighborhood, I ran up to Jerry Orbach and told him how much I loved his role. He was lovely about it. Seemed like a great guy in person."
"Yeah, I've been told he was."

I look down the street and people seem to be fussing around an old car.

"We're gonna blow up the car, you can stay to watch if you want."

Another younger guy turns to me and says, "I was just in that car getting it ready. When you think in maybe the last 20 years of all the people that got in and out and sat on that same seat, and I'm the last person to do so..."

We all nod.

It turns out the silver haired guy and I have jobs, as designers, more similar than one would think. I pointed out that in print design nothing actually explodes.

I head back to my subway entrance, 4 avenues away, and as I pass a playground lit by flood lights and casting a multitude of shadows, I whip out my camera and shoot and shoot and shoot. A little boy in a yellow cap and an eyepatch stops to watch me. I tell him I like his hat. His mother catches up to him and he repeats what I said in another language to his mom, tugging it proudly. She smiles. And it was the kind of night where everyone felt kind and wonder scented the air.

Monday, April 21, 2008

6 degrees of 30 years of separation

I get a call from my dad the other night.

"Hello Claudia, I just got invited to a formal dinner with the acting surgeon general."
Well, I'm not surprised, my dad is a science writer, covers medical ethics, history of science, and genetics, and he is just finishing up a book on agent orange with a Harvard prof.
"That's nice Dad," I say while cleaning my nails.
"He is giving a lecture and being honored at Stony Brook, and I wondered if maybe you knew him, he graduated about the same time you did."
Since Stony Brook University is at all times the size of a small city it is like someone saying hey you visited Walla Walla, Washington did you meet Joe? Sure, out of 30,000 students and employees, I ran into this one person.
"I was told that he specifically asked for me," says Dad, with a bit of awe.
Again, no shock. He was one of the most popular teachers of all time on campus and famous for lecturing to 700 students without a mike and keeping them all amused and awake even in early bird classes. He could also draw an epidemiology map of malaria in the world in 30 seconds on the blackboard. Quite a showman, very entertaining. I made sure I got an A in his bio 101 class for non-majors.
"And then I went though the stack of campus magazines you worked on and saw an article he wrote. He must have worked on the magazine with you."
"Uh, what's his name?" I ask.
"Steven G. A. L. (Dad takes a breath and keeps spelling out the name) S. O. N, with a "v", you know him?"
There is this silence on my end. The silence that asks, how did I not pay any attention whatsoever to the news and the importance of the role of the acting surgeon general?
"We both knew him Dad, I'm pretty sure you had him in one of your classes."
I pop open my laptop and do a quick google.
First of all, 30 years later is a long time. I squint and then over the distance of time, recognition snaps into place. Wow!
"He was incredibly bright, ethical, energetic, artistic and focused, even in college," I tell dad, "it was clear he'd have a great career, and clearly, he has. I'm sure you'll enjoy talking to him, say hi for me."

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Fantastic dreams of slosh and strife

My friend Doug had an unexpected extra theater ticket Friday night. I got the call at 10 pm. I was draped across the couch, rather brain dead from the work week. Very noisy around him. "Hey Claudia, this is Doug, Binnie's daughter is sick, we have an extra ticket to this percussion show, it's down at Union Square, show at 10:30." Doug lives on Long Island and probably doesn't know it is a temporal space-time rule that any location in Manhattan cannot be reached in less than 30 minutes by any means. Then Binnie (who is a poet) took the cell phone, told me to hurry, and said the ticket would be waiting for me at the box office and to wear comfortable shoes, it is a standing audience.

What was I going to experience? Big drums and a mosh pit?

I took a cab to Union Square where a big old neoclassical bank has been turned into a theater since I last worked, ages ago, in the down at heels offices of literary publisher Farrar Strauss & Giroux. The only thing the same about Union Square seems to be the drab building I once worked in, everything else has transmogrified through money and use. I just didn't realize how much until I entered the former bank.

Loud booming noises and a series of arrows lead me to the box office of the Roth Theater and up some stairs past the gents room into...

Fuerzabruta. Or "Brute Force" in English. Here is the trailer on youTube. It involves not one but two suspended pools--including one that descends to inches above the audience's heads and I placed my hands on the clear mylar and felt the bodies slide by above me. There are spinning walls with horizontal running acrobats, sets that are destroyed by the athletic actors wearing casual work clothing, walls that runners smash through, flashing lights, thumping music that felt like it was taking over my breathing, hour of this kinetic dream like chase scene done by the same Argentinian group that created De La Guarda. The audience was herded about, encouraged to interact, and spritzed with confetti and water. The show is stunning, one gapes, the themes easy to read into, rather cirque de soleil except the audience is in the center ring with the performers, rather like a mob of timid mice experiencing Queen Mab's dream madness...

So yes, a bit like a mosh pit. We sipped and recovered in a Starbucks and Doug and Binnie had wet hair, they had enthusiastically joined in while I hovered on the edges with Doug's daughter Hilly. On the way back to the upper west side with Hilly, who goes to Barnard, we enthusiastically talked about our love of speculative fiction and the dream state--the meditative out of body experience--of reading a good book. Plus you don't get wet that way.

Friday, April 11, 2008

Friday and too tired to say "meme" and mean it

At work today my visionary boss was searching for a word to describe the center, the eye, the idea, the core, the communicable itness of a project. I said "meme" and the group around the table looked at me like I was speaking in tongues. Well I guess I was.

Wikipedia says a meme is "any unit of cultural information, such as a practice or idea, that gets transmitted...from one mind to another. Memes propagate themselves and can move through a 'culture' in a manner similar to the behavior of a virus." Thank Richard Dawkins for coming up with the term in his book The Selfish Gene. And like genes, he suggests memes face natural selection and either die or survive and mutate. In ESL publishing I would say the hot or recycled approaches to selling a series are memes. The meme for a book can be that it complies to some standardized testing or that it offers teachers of multi-level students a single book that can work for all or some other new hot approach. The newest of the new trends in teaching seem to shift meaning as they are developed for a book series. Like a slogan, an ad campaign, the hook for a song, the sound bite, the credo, it mutates until it is expressed in the fixed medium of print.

I just finished reading China Mieville's Un Lun Don. Enjoyed it. He has clearly been infected with the wild alternate city meme, the earliest instance I remember is The Gormenghast Novels by Mervyn Peake. But Mieville's humor, cleverness, plot, details, language, and sheer audacity of invention is what keeps me turning the pages. The only lack is characters, they're thin on development and side-kicks come and literally go (dead or worse) with the speed of invention rather than the pulse of affection.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Rochelle Ratner

Rochelle died this week. She was my editor at Marsh Hawk Press. She was also a poet, novelist, photographer, friend of writers, and a great supporter of poetry. She was generous and fierce.

Less than a week ago she was blogging and I was starting to design her latest book. It is hard to imagine Marsh Hawk Press without her...

When my book was published, Rochelle had me come over to her apartment to celebrate. She and Ken were the nicest hosts imaginable. I looked around their ingeniously designed home and thought how lovely it was that they had found each other. Ken is blind, he is a programmer, and has a special computer adapted to his needs. Rochelle was tiny, quirky, she had a special work area built upstairs, exactly suited to her needs. The apartment was filled with books and art... She talked about her compulsion to write as a young girl in a family that didn't really know what to make of her, how long she did it in isolation, then she moved to New York, found other writers, and was much happier. They passed me a drink and we were soon laughing and she said lovely things about my book and I felt so happy that it had all worked out this way.

Far more people will miss her than I, but it really saddens me that she won't be around. She was part of the heartbeat of this city.

Wednesday, April 2, 2008

I'm the April fools Mum

My daughter Caitlin played a great trick on me.

Background to joke: all through high school she had an imaginary friend. Not a 6 foot rabbit or munchkin... She created the boyfriend/boyfiend that would scare any parent silly. "Paco" is serving time at Sing-sing, pushing 40, and interested in marrying my teenage daughter as soon as he gets out. Over the years Paco's story has grown. Trumped up drug charges--just a misunderstanding, his illegitimate children, the almost finalized divorces, the list goes on.

I get a call yesterday, a guy with a thick Mexican accent asks to speak to Caitlin.
"Who is this?" I ask, thinking it must be one of her classmates working on one of their numerous projects.
"Theese is Paco," he says.
There was that awful moment where I am thinking she got the name Paco for the fake Paco from a real but innocent Paco and the fake Paco can't possibly exist, right?
"Call for you Caitie," I say passing her the phone.
"What? You get out tomorrow! Wow! I am so excited, I can't wait to see you and be with you," she gushes.
At this point I know... but I don't let on.
"You'll take the bus from Ossining? Oh my love I can hardly believe it! My mother is watching us... She's staring. What? You want to talk to her? Sure, she's here. Mommy, Paco wants to talk to you."
"Hello, this is Caitlin's mother," I say in a stern voice.
"Yes theese is Paco, I love your daughter very much. I make marry her."
"Well how do you plan to support her, and yourself?"
"Weeth my savings."
"You saved money in jail?"
"I start saving tomorrow."
"But what will you support yourselves with?"
"With my heart and my lawnmower."
"Where will you live?"
"I have 15 cousins in a house, they give us corner of room."
"Didn't you go to jail on drug charges?"
"No, just misunderstanding at border, with Caitlin's love I am new man."
"But she is going to college, how can that fit in with your plans?"
"I give her choice, me or silly school."

Then I tell him he can't see her anymore and allow Caitlin to say goodbye. She sobs into the phone convincingly, stomps out of the room, slams her door and the sobs turn to laughter. I open the door, she sobs. I shut the door, she laughs.

Then all is revealed. Her sister's friend Nelson, also a drama major, was the culprit. All I can say is go see Nelson in any show he is in, you won't be sorry.

The new old invisibility

Last night, after a poetry reading, some old and new friends gathered around a bistro table and talked about trends in poetry. We were 5 women, mostly older, baby boomers and up in age.

We felt some of the poems we had heard recently were the works of overly young voices. As in, interesting concepts that grew tiresome because they lacked the depth or reach we associate with either older or more perceptive poets of any age. I knew what they meant, certainly the poems I wrote in college lacked perspective.

But, said one woman, we must help the younger emerging poets. "We do!" chorused the table. We are happy to give them advice, attend their readings, and buy their better books. We certainly give them more attention than they do us. "When I was younger, I really listened and got to know older people and older poets," said K., "seems like fewer of their generation are getting to know us." "Well there are so very many baby boomers, I think they are entirely sick of our generation," I said.

It's upsetting, said one of my friends, that teaching jobs keep going, again and again, to 35ish poets while a better older poet, who is also a great teacher, can't get hired.

So it comes down to sex appeal? The American obsession with youth? I posited that the new invisibility I am experiencing as a woman over 50 also affects the awarding of teaching jobs, plum reading series, and the other meager benefits of being a poet in America. "Not just women," said J., "some of my male friends complain of the same thing."

Yes, said the eldest woman, between 50 and 75 most poets are forgotten--invisible--until they are rediscovered and lionized in old age. We stared glumly at our gelattos.

America loves the new. Emerging poets, young poets, that is where the attention is. Do you want the photo of a wrinkled man or woman on your writing program brochure or the young hot new? I can take a guess as to which one sells more. Or is assumed to sell more. Are you more likely to enjoy the poetry reading if the poet is juicy looking? I think of the many plain older poets whose poems fill me with wonder.

I no longer turn any heads when I walk down the street or walk in a room, but I don't feel different or less appealing or less sexy or even less new as I experience the sights, smells, sounds and associations that can turn into the beginning of a poem in time to the beat of my feet.

Ah well, maybe with that old new invisibility comes some new poems.