Sunday, November 29, 2009

To Ponder

Isn't life boring when you know what is going to happen?

Good to think when uncertainty is making you panic.

Being in Phoenix reminded me of this, because everything there seems so studiously, religiously, relentlessly predictable.

It would kill me.


I finished. I rewrote my novel. Start to finish. I lifted a few thousand words, but that's it. Otherwise a total rewrite. Almost a new story.

It was harder this time. I had so many other things to do this year, and I was sick and I was taking care of sick little people, and we traveled and I was trying to finish other things I would actually get paid for.

BUT, this I will say. I am getting better. I mean it is still a piece of shit I do not think I dare show anyone, not even my beloved husband who is begging. But it is a reminder that some things you can only learn by doing. I could read a thousand novels and take a million writing classes, but it is the act of actually writing that changes you, and that makes you learn.

The thing about novels is, that process alone could take decades. Which is why I needed(need) NANOWRIMO. This year I had the events unfold in real time and added more action. It made a difference.

I still need more action, more drama, unfolding in the present tense, but it is getting there. And, yes, there are passages buried in the garbage that I actually like. I read them and I think: This is actually good. Not many. But they are there.

And through the month I tried to read really good novels. I read TC Boyle's The Women (not his best, but I liked it, and went to see Taliesin in Scottsdale again) and Barbara Kingsolver's Lacuna (in the final third, not her best, but love Frida, Diego, Trotsky, Mexico City and the Aztecs and yes, always, her writing bewitches me and I want to write down passages to savor). As I read I watched how they dealt with the problems I was facing.

Exposition woven into brief dialogue. Backstory woven into present. You don't even notice when it is done well.

Very enlightening!

To all my writing buddies who finished, and those who tried but didn't, you ALL rock for taking the challenge.

Wasn't it cool?

Writing. Briefly.

While I was in Phoenix, I stumbled upon a book in my mother-in-law's house. It was called Not Quite What I Was Planning, and it collected 800 six-word memoirs into a book. Apparently this contest was created in 2006 by SMITH magazine (where was I?) as an antidote to the wordy novel churner-outers over at NANOWRIMO.

Be brief, they challenged. Say less.

I am more wordy than brief, but driving across the desert the words whirled in sixes.

Here are my top three (about me):

Virginia. Connecticut. Napoli. Tokyo. L.A.. Home?

Lost mermaid finds California waves. Happy.

Dreamer seeks beauty. Writes. Swims. Loves.

Which do you like? Cast your vote.

Then send one back to me! It's fun!

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Road Trip!

I am waiting by the door, bags packed, CDs ready (we are going into non-streaming territory)

We are setting out across the desert for Phoenix, to have Thanksgiving with Jonathan's mother.

It will be wonderful, and perhaps bittersweet. She is sick. So I think she will make it, she is so strong, but the fear she will not lingers in your mind--or at least mine. I have been through this. I know, just savor what you have. Everything.

We will drive out by the windmills of Palm Springs, we will stop at Hadley's for date shakes (yum!) and drive across the moonscape of desert that will be most of our drive. We will listen to Harry Potter, Dan Zanes, and a little music for me and Jonathan. We will talk about our lives and look at this amazing country that is the U.S. of A.

I love driving on big American highways. It still represents freedom. To drive out of town for an adventure, with the stereo blasting, music packed at your feet, and who knows what ahead of you.

At the other end, who knows? Taliesin, hot tubs, bargain shopping, margaritas, camelback, superstitino mountain? quiet? family drama?

But today will be wonderful.

To all those I love, and those I do not know who stop by for a minute: Happy Thanksgiving!!!!!!

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Paying for School

Blogs are a place to rant, and so, today, I will.

Public schools in L.A. are fucked up. It is tragic, frustrating and infuriating. Real public figures have suggested in public places that LAUSD is like the Kremlin--that it is so rotten, bureaucratic and labyrinthine--that the only way to fix it is to blow it up. (Yes, I really heard someone say this, and it was not an underground rally but a well-attended session at the LA book fair).

Budget cuts have made everything worse.

Our kids now receive so little money from the state that if I am not mistaken (part of ranting and blogging is NOT fact-checking) California schoolchildren rank in the bottom 10 states in per pupil spending in the country. Westchester County public school students get something like $24,000 per student annually. California kids get something like $7,500. It is an embarassment. It has reached the point where some top public schools now have 25 kids in a kindergarten class.

Have the people making these cuts ever been in a class with 25 kindergarteners?

This means, that if you are a parent, and you want your kid to learn ANYTHING, you are going to have to step up, volunteer, and, yes, probably give a lot of money to your school. Some schools ask for a number. Wonderland asks for $750 a kid. Ivanhoe has had pledge drives to save teachers where they accept checks from parents at drop off. The list goes on. And that does not even include the endless fundraisers--bakesales, silent auctions, yard sales, photo weekends, festivals...

Well, my son is at a charter school, which makes everything worse. Because we are getting 30% less money than a regular public school, and have to find a site, and, there is a built in animosity from the public schools who, rightfully or wrongfully, regard us as the competition. So the pledge drive and fundraising take on heightened significance. Our school must raise $1,800 a kid, somehow, to keep doing what it is doing, which is pretty stellar. We have a commitment to socioeconomic diversity, of having at least 30-40% Title I kids in our school, so that means we have to be creative. We can't just ask everyone to write a check.

In exchange we get to pick our own prinicipal, who in turn picks her own teachers. She can hire her own art teacher, music teacher, p.e. teacher and gardening teacher, and the amazing teachers who do everything else. She can do the Edible Schoolyard program and she can act immediately when she sees something going wrong. This is huge.

Well, it is the fundraising season. And how crazy it is.

I do not do fundraising. I am uncomfortable asking for money. I give in other ways. But my husband is leading the charge.

But here is what is blowing my mind: educating your kid takes money. It just does. It should not be that way. It is not fair. The way we treat a kids shows what we really think about society, which is, if you are rich, pay a lot and send your kids to a top private school and don't worry about what happens to the rest of society, if you don't ship em off to the school down the block, which. to their credit, is going to do their very very best with the pathetic amount of money they have. Somewhere, in big offices downtown, a lot of administrators are being paid fat salaries while teachers lose job security, get pink slips, or, for the older ones in the union, coast along without doing much, secure until they retire.

Well, our school is just finishing its fundraising effort. We are aiming for 100% participation, and we will get it. Even teachers give. But here is what blows my mind on this Tuesday morning. Some families I know live in tiny apartments, drive beaters, and both parents have just lost their jobs. They are sacrificing and making HUGE payments. It actually hurts me--in a good way--to hear what they are giving. Others drive big cars and live what from the outside looks like a lavish lifestyle (you never really know in L.A.). They give $50.

And I don't understand.

I know I do not know all the details. You never do.

And yet, it is hard to watch. People say they care about education, but I look at our little community and I think we, too, are just a microcosm of society itself. We want everything for nothing. We want top teachers, music, creative education, personal attention, small class size, an aesthetically pleasing campus, love, attention for ourselves and our children. We want the education to be as good as the Center for Early Education, that looms like a castle across the blacktop. But those same people are not willing to shell out the money to get us where we need to be to provide the basics.

Some do.

Some go so far beyond the call of duty you want to tell them, "that is enough. take care of yourself." You want to publicly recognize them and sing their praises and drag them by the sleeve to stand in front of others who have so much to say,"See this person? Do you see what they have done???"

But it is private. Probably to keep more people from feeling like me. I wish I didn't know.

And I guess it is like all of life. Some people just care more.

I have no answer.

Perhaps, for today, all I have is judgement. But I am also genuinely puzzled. How do you expect your school to do great things for your child if you know the numbers, you know what it takes, you know what it costs, and still you do not give. That is the part I do not understand.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 15, 2009

Today I am 43

It's true. Today is my birthday. Me and Georgia O'Keefe.

I would like to say I had a huge party with a million friends who all love me. But that would be a lie.

I was going to invite 12 of my coolest women friends over for dinner. I was going to have my wondeful hubbie cook dinner for us all--his legendary paella of love--which no one can eat and be unaffected by. It is pure happy food. Or, as the Japanese say, it is umami. Deeply comforting on some primal level. I imagined Jonathan coming in with his toke and his apron, charming, witty and wonderful, as he is, and all of us drinking Sofia champagne and laughing and telling wonderful stories. All my truly awesome fabulous friends getting to know each other. I would have had my oldest, dearest friends, and new friends who excite me, who have more recently come into my life, who just delight me. Each would have brought a poem, or some words or a quote of inspiration. That would have been their gift to me.

But as the day drew nearer, and I thought about what I really really wanted, I changed. If I shut out what I am supposed to want, how you are supposed to celebrate, I realized that more than anything I really wanted to be alone. I wanted one glorious day where I did not take care of anyone else. Where I truly got to be queen for a day. And did I mention, I wanted to be alone.

It was a strange realization about myself.

But I listened. And as soon as I decided I knew it was right. And so, today I got to sleep late. Glorious. I got to have all those vivid, hyper-real technicolor dreams you can only have when you sleep too late and get to just keep dozing off over and over again. The fun ones you remember and can talk about over breakfast, if anyone wants to listen.

I came down and my sons came running with beautiful cards they had made me. Jonathan had cooked me up a perfect Hilary breakfast: panettone baked warm in the oven, bacon (protein, yum) a mocha of espresso and the finest Tcho hot chocolate. I sat in my silk bathrobe and cuddled with Jonathan and my boys. Theo fitted me for a crown, and made it while I was out.

Then I got sad and took it out on Jonathan (I won't publicize that here...but doesn't everyone get some version of the birthday blues? Tell me you do! Tell me I am not alone!).

Then I went to Koreatown and soaked in the Beverly Hills hot springs. I let the alkaline water make me smooth and slippery, and imagined, again, the deadness I do not need from the last year wash away. A Korean granny in black underwear scrubbed me clean and I floated there for hours underground near a stone Buddha. It reminded me of Japan, of the neighborhood o-furos, of scrubbing your friends backs and having them scrub yours. I steamed and dunked myself in cold water til my heart felt like it would jump out of my chest. I lay there and cleared my mind.

Then I went and worked on my novel in a cafe with a big, foamy cappucino, and came home for a perfect dinner: the paella of love, made my Jonathan, and a cake made (and tasted) by my boys. It was perfect.

The weekend was perfect. I saw a friend, got better, read my new Barbara Kingsolver novel, and skimmed my new Alice Waters cookbook, which i love love LOVE.

And here is what I realized: It has taken me until I am 43 to quiet the voices of society, the world, my programming--that tell me what I should do on a certain occasion, and to listen to what I really and truly wanted to do on my birthday. What made me happy, even if most people would find it dull. And so, as I get ready to go upstairs, I celebrate that in myself. That after four decades and a little on this earth, I can finally listen a little bit better to my own heart, and let it have its way.

Good night, friends.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Still Sick..

And housebound. I am munching on dry toast and home alone, at last.

With all the illness I have fallen behind on my word count for NANOWRIMO. But I wanted to share--for any fellow NANOWRIMO writers who may stop by, the strange and cool thing that has happened to me this time around.

Depite all the time you put in, the whole process is nothing but a huge, month-long experiment. Once you accept that your standards can drop appropriately, and you can plow forwards.

One of the biggest lessons I got from my writing group this past year was that I needed to let the events unfold for the reader. They had to feel--as they read--that they were in the middle of it. That everything was not already resolved.

Part of that, as I wrote in some earlier blog, is my newspaper training. Each day, as you write your story--even if the event is still unfolding--you write as if YOU are the definitive account. You take what you have. You start with the most important thing and grab the reader's attention, and tell them the punch line just in case they do not have the time or inclination to carry on to the end.

But as I read over what I read last year, I realize something else. There is something about my writing that is indeed backwards looking. I have been told through my life by various people that I am "a disillusioned Romantic" (John Rechy), that I am "wistful" ( an L.A. Times colleague) or that there is something sad about me when my face is in repose (true!).

My writing is like that. Even my non journalistic writing has a nostalgic, wistful, poetic quality to it. That is also in the music I like, the poetry I read, the books I devour, and part of how I see myself. It is the wabi-sabi of existence--I try to capture those exquisite moments of beauty or pain. Underlying those descriptions, I suppose, is the notion that most of life is pain.

So now I am writing my novel as the events unfold. It is hard for me to click into this mode. And yet how fun! How liberating! My characters are walking off and doing things I never expected! The story is much more powerful, even if the writing is much worse. I thought I knew what was going to happen--and I must get back to a particular point--but now everything is a possibility.

It is as if, in the process of writing this novel, I am retraining my brain to think forward, instead of backwards. I am looking at the possibilities of the future, rather than reviewing and reliving (however poetically in my own melodramatic mind) the past.

I am about to turn 43, and perhaps for the first time my brain is truly shifting, down to the molecular level, as a result of rewriting this novel. And, like a daily exercise regimen, I will have to keep thinking this way, for at least an hour a day, for the next 23 days.

How astonishing!

How does your mind work? Has writing ever changed how you think?

Thursday, November 5, 2009


This is the topic I am to speak on next week at a school tour for LCW (Larchmont Charter West Hollywood). There are few restrictions, no guidelines, and I am, to be clear, not the main attraction. That would be our outstanding and inspiring principal Kristin Droege, who is truly one of a kind--Phd in education from LAUSD, hands-on teaching experience in both public and private schools, and entrepreneurial--she has already started a Charter School herself in Victorville that runs on Montessori principles. Now she is running ours. If we could clone her she could save LAUSD.

Anyway, at the end of the tour, her presentation, and a few words from a teacher, I will speak. About community.

What will I say?

When I heard my assignment I wanted to back out. It is not that I do not believe in community (I do!). It is just that I am still more comfortable being the observer than the motivator. I like facts and tangible things more than squishy intangibles. And now I will be standing in front of people I don't know talking about the absolutely squishiest of intangibles, trying to inspire them. The thought makes my stomach curdle.

So for the past week this word has been rattling around in my mind.

And I think of what this school has taught me. In many ways it has changed my life--or at least my outlook on life. And I know that when I die being part of this grand and inspiring experiment--whatever happens in the end--will be one of the things I am most proud of in my life.

When Marya and Jay (THE two founding parents) came to us (referred to us by a friend who helped start the original Larchmont Charter) to ask if we would help start a school we went and met them on a playground in February. It was the four of us and some kids. They wanted to get the school up and running by the following September. Jonathan said yes. I nodded politely, but thought, there is no way in HELL this is going to happen. Believe me, we had a backup plan for our son.

Before we even got the charter approved Marya gathered a group of founding parents and told us we needed to raise $200,000 by September. We didn't have a charter yet, which meant we didn't have anyone to call except ourselves to raise money. Inwardly I scoffed. And the next day I made sure my paperwork was in order for Melrose Elementary (another great neighborhood school, now a magnet).

The charter was approved. A principal was hired. A lottery was held. Teachers were hired. We had two classrooms in half of an old Catholic school that we would share with the original Larchmont to help them pay the rent. Two kindergarten classes were squeezed into one large old classroom with a moveable wall in the middle that did little to stop the noise between two boisterous classes. The teachers endured and did a fantastic job with our kids. My son dreamed of being in first grade so he could have a full classroom just for his class.

By March we had held a drawing for the following year, but still had found no spot for our school. It was a crisis. Would the experiment end so soon? We scrambled. And so did a lot of other people. Again, by the skin of our teeth, Prop 39 came through about four months late and we got four classrooms at Rosewood Elementary School. The new principal graciously agreed to share the space and even gave us an extra room.

Over the summer parent volunteers came, painted, planted trees, put our insignia on the doors. When school started in September the school looked spectacular. I almost wept, the transformation was so complete.

All through this process I was the skeptic. I did not believe we could open the school by September. (we did) I did not believe we could raise $200,000 by September (we did). I grew anxious in the spring that we would not have a site for the following year. (in the end, after sleepless nights and much anxiety, we got one!)

I wasn't a downer or a negatroid. Throughout the process I kept my thoughts (mostly) to myself, and I always pitched in and tried to help out--as did ALL the other parents.

And this is what I learned: with a community, you can achieve incredible things. You really can change the world. What I personally did was not spectacular or amazing. There are some amazing people on board to make this school work. But even they could not have done it alone. The miracle is, that if everyone really pitches in, really volunteers, really does their best to make something work, it really can happen. If you add the labor of 80 dedicated parents, or 120, or 160, then throw in fantastic teachers and staff, you can accomplish a lot. In a society where we cannot typically reach those in power to even say what we think, and reform can take years, if not decades, this experience was so empowering.

I care about making the world better. I wrote for a newspaper so I could try to do that. But to join forces with others, to stand side by side with people and build something out of nothing--it is an amazing feeling. The lessons extend so far beyond the school and your own children.

And our children are all watching. They know their parents built this school. We don't run it. We leave it to the professionals. But we are essential to making it function. And that passes that feeling on to them: that with work, they can engage, they can work with their friends who share their vision, to make the world a better place.

As our Executive Director Brian Johnson said last week: "Part of what we are teaching at the Larchmont Schools is how to build a community from the ground up. And that is something people do not know how to do in Los Angeles."

Those lessons on how to build community are woven throughout the curriculum for our children. They learn it when they sit down to eat lunch family style in our Edible Schoolyard program. They learn it when they build the garden. They learn it in projects they do at school that teach them about the world, and their responsibility in it. And they learn it watching all of us pitching in--not being critics or consumers--but community members.

This isn't a church. But it is a cause. It is a vibrant community that is building a school committed to community, diversity, eco-literacy--that is determined to provide an extraordinary education to children of every social, racial and economic group.

To be part of something like this is a privilege. And it makes you feel good besides.

Have you ever been part of a community that changed how you looked at the world?

Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Their 15 Minutes of Fame...

Check this out, to see my boys. Scroll down to Halloween Weekend to see my boys on the blog of our most favorite babysitter.

A Rumination for Writers

I read recently, and I think this is true, that the job of writers is to take the reader somewhere they either do not access, or cannot access. In journalism this was absolutely true. Our job, in the best cases, was to break into some world, some subculture, some political group, some organization, and tell the reader how it really worked from the inside.

In the past, writers traveled to distant lands and wrote great tales of what they saw there. I think this kind of British writing influenced me greatly.

But now, when people can travel wherever they want to go, where do readers want to be taken? Do they want to travel into someone else's life (the memoir)? Do they want to travel inside an institution that is basically blocked to everyone, including the media, to get the real, inside scoop (hence the rise in tell-all books from people once they leave an organization. The "This is what it was really like" genre of memoir).

Do they want to go inside a religious cult? Inside Hollywood? Inside a school? Inside a mind? Inside a dysfunctional family?

In this age where a staggering amount (too much?) incredibly personal information is available with a dance on the keyboard that takes you to a blog (like this one!) facebook, or youtube, tell me, dear readers and fellow writers, where is it that you want your storytellers to take you?

Or, is that, since we can now find a way to go anywhere, that we are looking more for a specific kind of a guide to take us there. Are we looking for a certain perspective? A certain voice? Is that the change?

Please drop me a line with your thoughts. I am so curious.

...and MORE

Forgive me! But they are so cute, so irresistable. So I indulge myself, and here are two more.

So tell me, what were YOU?

Halloween Pix

Belated pix from Halloween

Above: Theo and Benji.

Below: Theo the wizard (angry because he forgot his giant trick or treat bag) Benji the knight, Elsa, as Glinda the Good (her fantastic costume made by her mama, Gina) and Sloane, as Dumbo (another amazing costume made by the magical Gina)

Down With the Flu

This is day 3 of being trapped in the house with sick boys, watching too much television and eating nothing but chicken soup, apple sauce and Ritz crackers.

Is it swine flu? We don't know. It is fever and headaches and achiness and malaise. Pray you don't get it.

By today the boys still have a low fever but Theo is jumping off the sofa inspired by Peter Pan and Benji is spending a lot of time feeling himself. I hope to God I do not throttle them today. There is nothing worse than keeping almost-but-not-quite-well children stuck in the house.

As for me, I feel like a caged animal, but this has all been very very good for my writing.

Stay healthy, dear readers, wherever you are.

Direct Dial to the Goddess of Fiction

I am blessed to count among my friends some truly amazing people. Among them is the fabulous, wonderful, exquisite writer Sarah Shun Lien Bynum, National Book Award finalist and author of two hauntingly beautiful books.

As I woke up this morning I found myself still trying to figure out which voice I wanted to tell my novel in for NANOWRIMO. This is not just a masturbatory procrastination technique. I am really struggling.

Last year I tried telling every chapter in the voice of a particular character (you know the literary device, it is practially de rigueur for fiction now) , but I stumbled. I realized that really, my book was about the struggle between two of the characters. The story was what was going on in both of their heads, even if there are other characters who are essential the story. So this year, as I wade back in, reworking, fictionalizing, and adding plot to the mix, I found myself using the classic omniscient narrator. But going into night three I realized that wasn't working either. I could not get the voice, the perspective, the DEEP motivations of these two main characters into this mode. And yet, I did not want to be redundant, telling the same important incident twice from different perspectives in a Rashomon type account. Nor did I want to write in first person.

I talked to Jonathan, who listened carefully and said he would have to read it to comment. I am not ready for that.

So I headed to my computer and typed a "HELP ME" email to Sarah. Minutes later, she called from her little green Mini, on her long trek down to San Diego to teach at UCSD.

"Yes," she said.

I laid out my problem and she considered carefully. She knew the basics of my story from last year, and had followed my dilemmas and, remarkably, retained every detail. She asked me a few probing questions. Well, she said, omniscient narrator is usually for a grand cast of characters you can barely keep track of all laid out on a huge canvas (nope, not me). First person can work, do you want to do that? (no) I find limited third person can be even more revealing than first person, if you are trying to get to deep-seated emotional truths (interesting, and upon consideration, true!) And I wouldn't worry about repeating some sections with the point of view of different characters. That is fine (really?) And, from me, one more question. Should I add in the other characters and their perspectives. Oh no, said Sarah. Your lesson from last year was that two characters emerged as the main ones. Do not push it. Go with that.

And with that brilliant advice, dispensed from a speeding car racing through San Clemente, I am on my way, ready to go, and dive into DAY FOUR,

All you secret NANOWRIMO writers, where are you now? I would out you all, but I know you chose secret names and Everytown USA addresses for a reason.

I am at 5981.

Onward and upwards!