Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Man the defenses!

This return to cold dampness is making me feel like I'm getting sick. I do not need a second seasonal bout with a bad cold, especially at the end of the term. Hoping to head it off. The L.A. sunshine must have lulled my immune system to sleep.

Pat Summit

I've long been a fan of Tennessee's women's basketball coach Pat Summit, now the winningest bb coach (either gender) in history. I admire her work ethic, her intensity, her icy stare, her discipline, her no-nonsense attitude (she'll bench a show boat).

So it was astounding to find her in a cheerleading uniform, cheering on the men's team. She did it to return a favor owed the men's bb coach, who made a similar display of support at a recent women's game. Summit had good timing for her out-of-character gesture. The arena was filled with celebrities, including Peyton Manning, and Tennessee went on to upset #5 Florida.

Can March Madness be far behind?

This might prove interesting

Portland State just hired the colorful former NFL coach Jerry Glanville as its football coach. This guy's a nuts and bolts old school coach with a gift of gab. At the press conference announcing his hire he said something to the effect that, We may lose the game but we'll sure knock a lot of people down.

ESPN story.

Kidnapped by myself

Well, I opened up my "finalist" mystery, Dead Body In A Small Room, which I'd been away from for a while now -- and I discovered it's a real page turner. I had to force myself to put it down so I could do some school-related work. But I have to finish it, I seem to have forgotten things that happen in it. There are worse things in the literary universe than a page-turner.

A sale a year

I seem to sell about one copy of The Seagull Hyperdrama a year. The buyer is usually very enthusiastic about it, as was the college professor this afternoon who just ordered it and was having some download problems which I helped her with. She has an interesting motivation for buying it (I asked: when so few do, you get curious why): she's teaching the Chekhov play and thinks the hyperdrama will help her think through the subplots and characters. Of course, it's my interpretation of what happens off the Chekhovian stage. "It's incredible work," she wrote, and when you sell only a CD a year, those are sweet words ha ha. But I always thought it was incredible work, if for a worldwide audience of about 10.

My new agent

Just finished a long phone chat with my new agent about this and that, including marketing strategies. I'd never heard her voice before, communicating via email and phone talking with her assistant. I dig her! She's been around the block a few times and she is a realist, yet with great determination and energy. I feel like we come from some of the same cloth. She had a good idea for recasting the logline of THE BRAZEN WING, and I just sent it off. She also had other good marketing ideas. This was a good call. Nothing promised, no false hopes, etc. I like people who live in the real world. Onward.

A small first step

Music this morning:
  • Read the new libretto and send it to John.
  • Lay out my composition paper for a music drama, working title Exits, five voices.
  • Practice the piano.
Teaching chores in the afternoon.

It's snowing and supposed to snow some more. Reminds me of the end of a Bob Dylan talking blues many years ago: So long, Venice. Howdy, Portland.

Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon in 1957

On this day in 1973 Thomas Pynchon's third novel, Gravity's Rainbow, entered American bookstores and split the literary world. Pulitzer Prize jurors unanimously recommended it, but Pulitzer advisory board members called it "unreadable" and "obscene." The novel seduced many critics but found few readers who would finish its 760 pages on the first attempt. Meanwhile, the author stayed out of the public eye, just as he had at the publication of his first two books. His fan club continued to grow, intrigued by the most camera-shy writer since J. D. Salinger.

Read the story in Today In Literature.

The reclusive writer! What a concept! I miss those days big time -- when it was perfectly respectable not to desire to go out and hustle your book like a man in a medicine show. Those days are long gone in this age of Homo Consumerus, and writers are expected to hustle just like any other money-grubbing citizen. I'm glad I'm old enough to have experienced an alternative to this commercial nonsense. Invisibility never hurt the sales of Pynchon or Salinger.

Devil's Dictionary

PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

PRESCRIPTION, n. A physician's guess at what will best prolong the situation with least harm to the patient.

RESPECTABILITY, n. The offspring of a liaison between a bald head and a bank account.

RESPLENDENT, adj. Like a simple American citizen beduking himself in his lodge, or affirming his consequence in the Scheme of Things as an elemental unit of a parade.

RESPONSIBILITY, n. A detachable burden easily shifted to the shoulders of God, Fate, Fortune, Luck or one's neighbor.

RETALIATION, n. The natural rock upon which is reared the Temple of Law.

REVOLUTION, n. In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment. Specifically, in American history, the substitution of the rule of an Administration for that of a Ministry, whereby the welfare and happiness of the people were advanced a full half-inch.

Ambrose Bierce

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Office hours

Here I be, trying to get used to the wet coldness after a few days in mild sunshine. I try to perk myself up by reminding myself that the weather could be worse, I could be stuck in the snow furies of the east. Wet is better than snow, in my book. But ah, the sunshine was nice!

In no mood to work on anything, however.

L.A. Mahagonny: what will last

Listening to the classic Lotte Lenya Mahagonny, I still prefer this version musically but what I see now, listening, is the L.A. production. Here is what I expect to last from L.A.:
  • The Michael Feingold translation. I'm trying to see if I can get ahold of it.
  • The stage images. Some incredible ones.
  • The strong ensemble.

These are enough outstanding elements to make this an unforgettable experience.

Production photos.

Welcome home!

My three "Willies," an award for Best Original Play (Christmas at the Juniper Tavern, Waitresses, Chateau de Mort). They look over my shoulder as I work, perhaps not a good thing. That's a Cal Tech banner in the background: once a nerd, always a nerd. My dad's martini shaker (which, in truth, he didn't use very often, unlike his son) is back there, too.

Devil's Dictionary

PRAY, v. To ask that the laws of the universe be annulled in behalf of a single petitioner confessedly unworthy.

PRESCRIPTION, n. A physician's guess at what will best prolong the situation with least harm to the patient.

QUILL, n. An implement of torture yielded by a goose and commonly wielded by an ass.

QUOTATION, n. The act of repeating erroneously the words of another.

QUOTIENT, n. A number showing how many times a sum of money belonging to one person is contained in the pocket of another -- usually about as many times as it can be got there.

RELIGION, n. A daughter of Hope and Fear, explaining to Ignorance the nature of the Unknowable.

REPORTER, n. A writer who guesses his way to the truth and dispels it with a tempest of words.

RESIDENT, adj. Unable to leave.

Ambrose Bierce

What else is new?

From the local wire:

Portland State students are increasingly being forced out of affordable apartments near the university because of luxury condominium conversions and construction.

Photos from L.A.

That's Lynne Fuqua at the piano. Near her apartment is one of L.A.'s best breakfast spots, Nick's (Harriet in right foreground -- click to enlarge). I was astounded to see S.O.S on the menu ("shit on a shingle," a military staple -- creamed chipped beef on toast). I joked with the waiter that in the army I'd bitch, Not S.O.S. again -- and here I am ordering it in a restaurant! On our last day south, we enjoyed great weather while strolling the walk at Venice Beach.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Home sweet home

From 68 and sunny on Venice Beach to 38 and raining in Portland, all in only a few hours!

Taking off out of LAX, I found myself marveling at this wonder we call the human mind. That it built airplanes so we could fly! That it blows the body up in order to meet 43 virgins in heaven! That it even thinks being with 43 virgins is having a good time! (Young man, an experienced middle-aged woman would be better for you.)

Well, time to turn up the heat.


Here I am at the airport at a clunky station with sticky keys. Takes a bit of the fun out of it. I was going to talk about Venice beach--later, I think. Suffice it to say that it was wonderful and I could live there Oh so easily, especially in the winter. Until later then ...

The lowdown on Mahagonny

I came to the LA Opera's production of The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny with two concerns, which I embraced after researching the production. First, that it was sung in English. I didn't expect this to work for me. Second, in an interview with the director I learned that he saw the action moving from 1929 Germany to 1950s Las Vegas to contemporary Wall Street. I worried that his directing would not trust the material to establish its own relevance, that he'd be too heavy-handed. My fears were 90% unfounded.

Here are what I consider to be the highlights of this outstanding production:
  • The cast. Outstanding top to bottom. The best ensemble cast I've ever seen perform or sing. The principals were especially strong: Audra McDonald (Jenny), Patti LaPone (Begbick), Anthony Dean Griffey (Jimmy).
  • Michael Feingold's English translation. The surprise and joy of the production. Lyrical, natural, far less clunky than Auden's and other translations that probably are more literally connected to the German. This should become the standard English translation. Poetic, clear, lyrical. An outstanding job and the real surprise for me.
  • The stagecraft. Magical. Breath-taking. From the stark desert opening the story, on which an old truck is stalled, through the neon glitz of the eating-fucking-boxing-drinking section (50s Las Vegas), to the electronic CNN and tabloid reporting of Jimmy's trial, to the messages of protest flashed on an electronic ticker tape of the kind usually used for stock market results, everything was of a piece, organic, natural to the progression of the story. But here, too, was the single thing in the production that didn't work for me, that seemed forced and out of place: after Jimmy's death, a folded American flag is given to his friend Billy. This atttempt to connect to the war in Iraq did not come out of the material, but it was the only thing that didn't. This production was brilliantly conceived and, with the noted exception, directed and executed to perfection. There was moments of stagecraft that were original and magical: the boxing match was a choreographed dance, with the fighters standing about fifteen feet apart. When someone died in the story, they slowly marched toward a strong off-stage light. There were many moments like this, a certain prop, a stage image, that was both natural, perfect and brilliant. Thomas C. Hase, the lighting designer, was an especially effective magician. I don't believe I've ever seen a theatrical performance in which the lighting was so effective and contributed so much to the drama.

In other words, I came out delighted, overwhelmed. Unfortunately, or perhaps not, I may have been the only one to give this show a standing ovation. At any rate, in the areas of the auditorium visible from my seat, I was the only one standing, enthusiastically applauding through the entire curtain call. I suspect most would describe the opera as "interesting." Applause had that kind of feel to it, polite but not overwhelming -- except for me.

So now I've seen my favorite opera, my favorite work of narrative art, and I've seen it in a production almost as good as it can get. This show is far superior at every level to the Strasburg festival production I have on tape. I think I still prefer it in German. An ideal show might be in German with Feingold's lyrical translation flashed on the screen.

Afterwards, we visited good friends for dinner and, as we usually do, ended up singing some folk songs from the old days. But my heart was still with Mahagonny. I was still glowing in the wonder of this outstanding and moving production, this unique work of art.

Today, breakfast with a friend of Harriet's. Then we're going to hang out in Venice for a while. We have to return the car at 3 but our flight is a bit later, so we'll have time to read at the airport.

This has been a fantastic trip. What a fine production of Mahagonny. Bravo! BRAVO!

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Killing time

I'm a morning person. I'm up and at 'em while H is still asleep. She's awake now but not ready to face the day. Hence I have time on my hands. Hence here.

Funny thing about So Cal, it still feels like home. I think it's the landscape. I come down here seldom but when I do, I feel more like "coming home" than I feel when returning to Oregon. So many formative years in Pasadena maybe. Those wonderful brown San Gabriel mountains. I also thought my favorite color was blue. Maybe it's brown.

I have no bad memories of So Cal, the way I have ghosts in Oregon. Maybe that's part of it, too. I could live down here -- though it's become too expensive to be very practical. But I easily become a desert rat in my old age, living in some Calif desert town. Hell, then it wouldn't matter if my teeth fell out or not ha ha.

The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Still not in my seat yet, so I can't really believe it till I am. I never, never thought I'd have the opportunity to see this live in my lifetime.

Man, when I return, only a month of school left! This has been a term in a sprint, great for winter, which usually is the slow term. Then spring, then summer. Amazing.

In the summer, I want to finish the Cold War project. I don't know if I can but I'll give it my best. Then I can enter the fall and the new school year with Sally back on the front burner, finishing it before summer. My big plans. Along the way, fiddling with my music drama.

I also want to begin my huge reading project this summer: Chapman's translations of The Iliad and The Odyssey, followed by the Sequel written by Kazantzakis. A huge project! But it's like Mahagonny, something I've been wanting to do for a very long time. If I realistically expect to do this, and finish it, I have to begin sooner rather than later.

The big adaptation libretto project appears to be delayed again, as my own music drama now interests me more. Maybe I can dabble in both at once. I still have a lot of research to do for it, however.

My spring textbooks are the same as fall and winter. This is the first time I've used exactly the same books in successive terms -- twice, this year. However, in fall 2007 I am thinking of dropping one of them, Aristotle's Poetics for Screenwriting, and just lecturing on the essential points I use instead. Save the students a little cash. Also, I may be adding LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE, having seen the published script and accepting it as close enough to spec script style to use (most shooting scripts are not). At the same time, I love using CASABLANCA and SIDEWAYS together because they actually share so much in dramatic strategy. They are very different films, of course, and yet from the writer's point of view, do many things in very similar ways. Thus good to use in the classroom.

Two minutes left in the computer time I bought. I'll take OJ to the room and see if I can stir the wife into movement.

We have a very, very leisurely morning! We pick L up at 1030, don't have to be at the opera house for two hours. Find a leisurely brunch somewhere. I do want to wander around outside the opera house with my camera.

Despite teeth hassles and H's amazing accident, our trip is a good one so far. Glad to be down here. Glad to be WARM in L.A. Glad to be alive with most of my faculties intact. Over and out.

No accounting for taste

We're staying at the Day's Inn on Mariposa off Wilshire. We stayed here a few years back and liked it. However, before we left Portland, making reservations online, H read the most critical comments about this motel, which now was rated one star. Hmm, what had changed? Well, we found a few dissenting evaluations, so decided to chance it. It's fine! Clean, quiet, well located for our needs. Less expensive than most competitors. We have no idea why some of the commentors said this was located in a skid row area (it's a nice residential area), it was filthy and noisy (clean and quiet) and so on. H is going to make her own comments when we return to "set the record straight." I suppose if you are expecting a high grade place with room service and the rest, this definitely is not it. But it's a quiet, clean room, well located and inexpensive, and for us it is perfect. They even have a computer in the lobby, which I don't remember from last time. No complaints.

Music drama

I woke up this morning with what I think may be a music drama in my head. Music! Voices! I've been thinking about this scenario, for a while even thinking of coming out of retirement as a playwright to write it as a play. 5-characters, one setting. But this is a good opportunity to try my hand at my emerging notion of music drama. I don't have the skill, and never will, to do this entirely alone, so I will be sending what I put together to John with the tagline HELP! But what I have in mind is setting down the drama as sung, including the music lines, then letting John polish same and write an arragement. For example, my notion is that this story would be accompanied by a string quartet only. Future stories would be a dixieland band, a blues band. I want small ensemble accompaniments in a chamber opera setting. Since this story has been so much on my mind, I'm relieved that it has grown into musical expression, so I don't have to come out of retirement as a playwright, after all.

When I get home, I'm going to start on this piece, I hope. Something that is back burner, letting the material come slowly.

I also am eager to get back to my Cold War novel. And, of course, first things first, one last polish of the libretto before sending it to John. Onward.

Report from the trenches

The times we live in: it took two hours to fly from Portland to L.A. It took two hours to maneuver through the L.A. airport, rent a car, and drive to our motel. The space/time model of our age.

A delightful Saturday (almost -- see below) spending time with ourselves. Had an early dinner at Canter's, the marvellous Jewish deli on Fairfax, then went to see the surrealism exhibit at the nearby county museum. Interesting historically but neither of us were blown away by any art. I don't respond to art that tries too hard to be meaningful, clever, political, or whatever. I belong to the Cocteau school of art, which says the artist should disappear in his work, that form should not draw attention to itself. The artist as magician, not letting anyone see how the trick is done.

The evening ended with its own surrealistic adventure. I won't describe the details because my wife might divorce me if I did. I'll only say that she did something that later even she couldn't believe she had done, something stupid, unnecessary, and absolutely strange. Explained by old age more than anything else, I think, which is a good lesson, since H is one of those folks who likes to think she isn't getting older. Maybe she'll start listening better to her own biology.

Today, of course, is the big day! We pick up my friend Lynne early and the three of us will find a leisurely brunch somewhere. I want to get to the opera house early enough to snap some photos, then there's a pre-show lecture at 1 we all want to hear -- or maybe only I want to hear and the others are captive since I'm holding the tickets ha ha. Then the show. Then to good mutual friends, who also happen to be Lynne's aunt and uncle, for dinner (I met Lynne when she was about 8! -- hence the great scandal twenty-plus years ago when we became lovers. Very cool that we remained tight friends afterward.)

Monday we plan to have breakfast with a friend of H's, then hang out in Venice for the day before going to the airport late afternoon. Tuesday will be a rough day, school things to catch up on before class.

From what I've read about the opera production, I think I'll love the singing but not be too crazy for the directing. It sounds, from what I've read, like it's over-directed to my tastes, again the director trying too hard to make the material "contemporary." Any dodo can understand that greed is universal for all times. Or maybe not.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Honey bees disappearing

Report by Linda Moulton Howe.

The past year in America, at least 22 states have reported honey bee disappearances. Government and science authorities are calling it "Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD)." Beekeepers have reported losses ranging from 60% to 100% of their bee colonies. As winter changes to spring and beekeepers in the colder Northeast can open their hives again, it's expected there will be many more empty hives.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The humor of the gods

I've had a feeling in my gut that the Mahagonny trip was going to become more complicated than I expected. When you look forward to something so much, the gods have a way of reminding you who is boss. Well, tonight the complication appeared.

My front bridge fell out again. This happened a few months ago, and the emergency dentist gave me permanent options while replacing the bridge temporarily. When I quickly saw my regular dentist, the bridge appeared to be secure, so we agreed to leave it be and see what happens. Tonight it happened. It fell out again.

I have a 7 a.m. emergency appointment tomorrow to see if another temporary fix can be administered before I catch my plane. If not, it's toothless in L.A. You don't need teeth to watch an opera, and I've known my friends in L.A. so long that they've seen me in far worse condition than toothless. But upon return, it is time to choose a permanent option.

The good news is that I'm now using toothlessness as an excuse not to go to a social gathering tonight, sending my wife on her way alone. I'll watch a movie instead.

I hope the gods don't have anything else up their sleeve. You never can tell. They're a sneaky bunch.

48 hours

The gods willing, and with a tad of good fortune, in 48 hours I'll be on my feet yelling "Bravo! Bravo!" We'll see how it turns out.

W. H. Auden

Auden was born 100 years ago this week. A giant, one of my favorite poets for a long time.

September 1, 1939

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade:
Waves of anger and fear
Circulate over the bright
And darkened lands of the earth,
Obsessing our private lives;
The unmentionable odour of death
Offends the September night.

Read entire poem.

As I've written before, I met Auden and spent some time with him when I was president of the English Club at a community college after the army. Along with everyone else, I was astounded by the many martinis he drank before giving a flawless reading. He seemed to be a quiet, moody man, perhaps wondering what had brought him to such a small, trivial campus to read.

Auden wrote a good deal of comic verse that is too often ignored, often social or political satire.

The Unknown Citizen
by W. H. Auden

(To JS/07 M 378
This Marble Monument
Is Erected by the State)

He was found by the Bureau of Statistics to be
One against whom there was no official complaint,
And all the reports on his conduct agree
That, in the modern sense of an old-fashioned word, he was a
For in everything he did he served the Greater Community.
Except for the War till the day he retired
He worked in a factory and never got fired,
But satisfied his employers, Fudge Motors Inc.
Yet he wasn't a scab or odd in his views,
For his Union reports that he paid his dues,
(Our report on his Union shows it was sound)
And our Social Psychology workers found
That he was popular with his mates and liked a drink.
The Press are convinced that he bought a paper every day
And that his reactions to advertisements were normal in every way.
Policies taken out in his name prove that he was fully insured,
And his Health-card shows he was once in a hospital but left it cured.
Both Producers Research and High-Grade Living declare
He was fully sensible to the advantages of the Instalment Plan
And had everything necessary to the Modern Man,
A phonograph, a radio, a car and a frigidaire.
Our researchers into Public Opinion are content
That he held the proper opinions for the time of year;
When there was peace, he was for peace: when there was war, he went.
He was married and added five children to the population,
Which our Eugenist says was the right number for a parent of his
And our teachers report that he never interfered with their
Was he free? Was he happy? The question is absurd:
Had anything been wrong, we should certainly have heard.

NPR story on Auden, text and audio.

Recommended work:


I think I'm done with the new libretto, which completes the trilogy of Maupassant stories to make an evening of chamber opera: The Love of Long Ago, The Man Who Hatched Chickens, Farewell!

But I'm not sending it to John yet, as I'm tempted to do. I'm printing it and taking it with me to brood over. Coming into the library today is a book I've had on hold for some time, Robert Stone's memoir about "remembering the sixties," so I'll pick that up after my piano lesson and also travel with it.

From the libretto:

And later, at home
Looking in the mirror
I saw the terrible truth
My brown moustache was gray
My black hair, gray
My youthful face, old
I was no younger than she!
I was as ugly as she!
I had changed
As much as she!
My cheek as bloated
My neck as fat
I was as ugly as she!
This is the moment I learned
How old I really was
This is the moment I learned
The most terrible truth in life
Farewell, my youth!

The beauty of youth fast fades away
Life is too short, my friend, too short

Each in our time must realize this
The great revelation that comes as you age
Life is here and gone in a flash
Life is too short, my friend, too short

Seize the moment, seize the day
Life is too short, my friend, too short

Fiddling around but I really need to put in some time before class on the piano.

Hitting the ground running

This morning I awoke with my usual energy, no funk, eager to start the name -- yesterday puzzles me but at least it's over.

Going to look at the new libretto this morning. I also think I'll print out the novel pages and look at them over the weekend, evaluate where I am.

An unusually difficult homework assignment from piano class, still more work to do before my noon class.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Voices from Mahagonny

  • 2006 Tony Award-winning Director John Doyle describes the direction and concept of his production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. Mr. Doyle talks about the sex appeal and accessibility of the work and also explains what the experience has been like preparing for his LA Opera debut.

  • Four-time Tony Award-winner Audra McDonald stars in LA Opera’s risqué new production of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht’s Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny. From a rehearsal room at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Ms. McDonald talks about making her LA Opera debut and also discusses her approach to building the character of Jenny, a tart-with-a-heart in an “Old West".


Polishing the new libretto, looking good. I love working in this form knowing John can make magic of it.

Good deed

I did my good deed for the day. Nurse Fusion somehow had lost all her bookmarks. I suggested a Restore but this didn't work. Then I found instructions (for Firefox) online, sent them to her -- and they worked! She has her Bookmarks back. I hope she makes a backup immediately.

The mysterious Psyche

I woke up in a funk, been in a funk all day, and I have absolutely no reason to be in a funk with all the good things happening now, but there you have it. Probably biological.

Meanwhile, funk or not, I got work done today (writers don't let funks stop them!*) and finished a very rough draft of the new libretto, which I brought to my office hours (here early) -- maybe I can rewrite it while I'm here. I think it fits in nicely with the other two in terms of content, theme.

*More than one ex has told me how amazing they thought it was that I'd get up and write early in the morning, no matter what had transpired the night before. Well, my habit is nothing compared to James Baldwin's routine, leaving the bars at 3 a.m. and writing till the sun came up. I had to crash for a few hours before getting down to it.

Winter students

For some reason, winter term is usually my worst of the year, the quality of work less, which in turn affects my disposition. It's always better to read good work. Well, this winter term I have a number of first rate budding screenwriters, which makes the term quite exciting. Probably the best winter term I've ever had. One, a few years back, was so bad, I swore to quit teaching. Then I had a great spring term and continued on.

There's even a short this year that I hope to use in the review and another I know I'll use. And a feature by one of the better screenwriters I've ever had in class. Some good stuff going on.

Devil's Dictionary

PILGRIM, n. A traveler that is taken seriously.

PIRACY, n. Commerce without its folly-swaddles, just as God made it.

PLAGIARIZE, v. To take the thought or style of another writer whom one has never, never read.

PLAN, v.t. To bother about the best method of accomplishing an accidental result.

PLATITUDE, n. The fundamental element and special glory of popular literature. A thought that snores in words that smoke. The wisdom of a million fools in the diction of a dullard. A fossil sentiment in artificial rock. A moral without the fable. All that is mortal of a departed truth. A demi-tasse of milk-and-mortality. The Pope's-nose of a featherless peacock. A jelly-fish withering on the shore of the sea of thought. The cackle surviving the egg. A desiccated epigram.

PLEASE, v. To lay the foundation for a superstructure of imposition.

PLEASURE, n. The least hateful form of dejection.

PLUNDER, v. To take the property of another without observing the decent and customary reticences of theft.

POETRY, n. A form of expression peculiar to the Land beyond the Magazines.

POLICE, n. An armed force for protection and participation.

POLITENESS, n. The most acceptable hypocrisy.

POLITICS, n. A strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. The conduct of public affairs for private advantage.

Ambrose Bierce

Wednesday, February 21, 2007


Mentioned being a finalist to my new agent, who handles fiction as well as screenplays, and she wants to read it. Wonder if she'll want to hit the mainstream market with it. I really don't want to commit to a series. Not enough time and too many wonderful absolutely unmarketable fine projects I want to do in the moments left to me, especially the two personal novels, Cold War and Sally, the swan song, Nails In My Coffin, and a new form of music drama. I don't have time to write "entertainment." On the other hand, now and again it is fun to dash off an entertainment (to use Graham Greene's term and distinction). Yet I really do have more fun doing my little esoteric projects and throwing them into my archive at the University of Oregon. My dad had an incredible gift for making money. He passed on this skill to neither of his sons.


There are 17 finalists for ForeWord Magazine's "Book of the Year" award in the Mystery category ... and my book Dead Body In A Small Room is one of them. This is the first of a proposed series that was repped last year but the agent who loved it still couldn't sell it. So he then dropped the series like a hot potato, and I quit the 2nd book in progress near its end. Doubt if I'd ever have reason to go back to it. And actually, thinking about it later, I feel this probably is a blessing in disguise because even in book two I found myself getting bored with the concept, and the thought of writing one every year or two sounds like a job to me -- and I'm retired in the sense that I only do what I like doing. Period. The only reason I'm teaching is that I still like it.

List of finalists

About the book:
Free ebook (pdf).
Paperback available.

The back cover book blurb:

One dead prostitute.
One angry sheriff.
One curious screenwriter.

Screenwriter Dallas Norgood visits his sister in Sogobia, Nevada, after a close bout with cancer. The small desert town ain't Hollywood but it's different, with its legal prostitution and a janitor named Cheyenne who attracts his fancy.

Then a working girl ends up dead in her brothel room, and Dallas' writerly instincts kick into high gear. He wants to find out who did it, even though the sheriff wants to sweep away the crime as a suicide so as not to scare away the tourists before Basque Days.

Dallas persists -- and finds himself on a journey of twists and turns suitable for a Hollywood thriller.

Being a finalist is both neat and meaningless. This is a competition for independent presses (including small presses, university presses, POD presses, vanity presses, ebooks, etc.), so no mainstream books are considered. Winning something like this only has financial dividends beyond the award itself if you market the hell out of it, which takes time and energy I don't have. I'd rather write a libretto ha ha. Nor do I need any of the other frills associated with competitions, like validity, publicity, and the rest. Been there, done that. All the same, it's a very big competition with lots of entries, and some judge or other responded to the book, so that's what's nice about it. It is always nice to have evidence of a reader enjoying your work.

A favorite writer/person comes to town

Book info

A dear old friend from the 60s and one of my favorite writers, Marilyn Krysl, comes to Portland in April on personal business, so I'll get to see her after several decades. We were close when I was a graduate student, having met at a conference in Boulder and discovering we both lived in Eugene. She has made a reputation as poet and short story writer, headed the Univ of Colorado creative writing program, and recently retired. She's working on a memoir.

I think I saw her last in person in the 70s. We've exchanged occasional emails and recently reconnected when she saw an announcement for Oregon Literary Review. An earlier visit to Eugene to see her ill mother didn't work for a meeting. This time around she has more free time, so I think we'll be able to visit for a few hours anyway.

Marilyn's books

Beginning in the 80s, most of the new people I met were barflies, most of whom have died or remain in environments I no longer frequent. Consequently today I actually have more close friends in L.A. than in Portland! Remarkable or sad, or both, I'm not sure which.

Degree mills

Being in education, I abhor the scam emails I receive several times a month offering to sell me a Ph.D. or any degree I want. This is a net epidemic.

By Kendra Mayfield|
03:00 AM Mar, 23, 2000
Some college degrees aren't worth the parchment they're printed on.

For a small fee an official Harrington University diploma -- purportedly accepted anywhere in the world -- can be delivered within 10 business days.

No coursework, grades, or academic experience required.

But Harrington University doesn't have a website, a campus, or even accreditation.

"It's just between us how you got your diploma," said a representative from Harrington, a self-described diploma mill that -- like other unaccredited schools -- uses Internet and email marketing to lure prospective students.

Wired News contacted Harrington University through an anonymous email ad. A representative who returned the call said that for a "small fee" of $1,400 (and an additional $500 discount for signing up that day), applicants can obtain a Bachelor's, Master's, or PhDs based on "life experience."

"You never have to complete courses because we give credit for work and life experiences," the Harrington registrar said.

Read the story.

And folks buy these and get good jobs with them:

By David M. Bresnahan
? 1999

William Tiller was hired by the city of Encinitas, just north of San Diego, in 1996, fresh out of the Marine Corps, to coordinate preparations for Y2K at a salary of $97,000 a year.

Tiller certainly looked well qualified for the position; he boasted not only a bachelor's and master's degree, but also two doctorate degrees.

There was just one problem, city officials later learned. Tiller's resume turned out to be a complete fabrication.

Read the story.

Sometimes these assholes do get caught:

Teacher With Phony Doctorate Gets Charged
Chris Halsne
KIRO 7 Eyewitness News Investigative Reporter

POSTED: 3:40 pm PDT September 27, 2006
UPDATED: 6:05 pm PDT September 27, 2006

A Bremerton school counselor has been charged with stealing your tax money after KIRO Team 7 Investigators catch him profiting from a fake doctorate.

Teachers automatically get extra pay if they have an advanced college degree. Over the past two years, KIRO Team 7 Investigators have exposed more than a dozen educators who turned in either a masters or a doctorate of questionable character.

Now, the Kitsap County Prosecutor's Office wants to put one of our featured teachers in prison.

Read the story.

My students pay an outrageous amount of money for their education, far more (even given cost of living and salary changes) than I had to pay. They work hard to get their money's worth. Crooks and cheaters, the scum who sell and buy phony degrees, turn my stomach. I'd bring down the hammer hard on anyone caught doing this.

Mixed reviews

Mahagonny, my favorite opera, indeed my favorite work of narrative, is not for everyone. For this reason, it is unimaginable that reviews of any production would ever reach a consensus. So with the current L.A. production. The LA Times' opera critic, Mark Swed, didn't like it:

[Director John] Doyle and his crew do cringe. They don't penetrate so much as make a few pin pricks, a technique that turns out to work much better for Sondheim's wit than for Brecht and Weill's profundity.

Many readers who saw the opera agreed:

John Doyle did not do his homework properly or simply did not understand the rich and vibrant material he had to work with. This production of "City" was a bore and an insult to the Brecht/Weill collaboration. Why try to make Weill and Brecht into Sondheim? [Doyle is famous for his direction of Sondheim.]
I sat through endless heavy-handed exposition, its snore-inducing effects magnified by static stage direction. Particularly surprising is the unsatisfying music. There is no tension-release that one expects from music driving a story. Instead, the passages just end abruptly. One only realizes the scene is over because the house lights suddenly go out. I went with a friend of mine and we are both avid musical theater-goers. We both agree that this made for a thoroughly underwhelming night at the opera.

Yet a minority of readers/viewers loved this version of Mahagonny:

Wonderful take on MAHAGONNY. James Conlon's brisk and insightful reading of the score is a delight as is John Doyle's wonderful and biting production. Audra McDonald and Patti Lupone bring great vitality and vocal mastery to the stage and Anthony Griffey is terrific as Jimmy. Highly recommended and still remarkably relevent.

The LA Weekly also liked it:

The marvelous score, a striking blend of ragtime, jazz, music hall and opera best known for “Moon of Alabama,” is still a winner, and the story — an allegory about political and moral corruption — remains eternally relevant.

I'll be so thrilled just to see it live, I can't imagine not "liking it," though I may not prefer it to the remarkable Lotte Lenya recording.

Mahagonny could never satisfy everyone, it's not that kind of material. Those expecting "traditional" opera, like one reader above, are doomed to disappointment from the start. Those afficionados who have seen many productions (!) will get to argue about which they prefer. I just feel lucky to be able to see it in my lifetime.

Devil's Dictionary

PERFECTION, n. An imaginary state of quality distinguished from the actual by an element known as excellence; an attribute of the critic.

PERSEVERANCE, n. A lowly virtue whereby mediocrity achieves an inglorious success.

PESSIMISM, n. A philosophy forced upon the convictions of the observer by the disheartening prevalence of the optimist with his scarecrow hope and his unsightly smile.

PHILANTHROPIST, n. A rich (and usually bald) old gentleman who has trained himself to grin while his conscience is picking his pocket.

PHILOSOPHY, n. A route of many roads leading from nowhere to nothing.

PHONOGRAPH, n. An irritating toy that restores life to dead noises.

PHYSICIAN, n. One upon whom we set our hopes when ill and our dogs when well.

PIANO, n. A parlor utensil for subduing the impenitent visitor. It is operated by pressing the keys of the machine and the spirits of the audience.

PICTURE, n. A representation in two dimensions of something wearisome in three.

PIGMY, n. One of a tribe of very small men found by ancient travelers in many parts of the world, but by modern in Central Africa only. The Pigmies are so called to distinguish them from the bulkier Caucasians -- who are Hogmies.

Ambrose Bierce

Tuesday, February 20, 2007

Sunday gets closer

Here's the pitch of Mahagonny at the LA Opera website:

Welcome to Mahagonny, where sin is "in" and love is always on sale. This Old West boomtown rises from the desert to become a razzle-dazzle mecca for lust, liberty, and the pursuit of pleasure. Cash is king, poverty is punishable by death, and anything worth doing is worth overdoing.

Four-time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald stars as Jenny, a tart-with-a-heart, and Broadway legend Patti LuPone as the town's feisty madam. When Lumberjack Jim (tenor Anthony Dean Griffey) pays a bargain basement price for Jenny, he mistakenly falls in love with the floozy. His ruination and the downfall of Mahagonny promise a gripping evening of grand entertainment.

Kurt Weill (composer of "Mack the Knife" and The Threepenny Opera) penned a haunting score, which crosses over from opera to cabaret to Broadway. You'll hear ragtime, jazz, raucous music hall songs and the classic pop hit "Moon of Alabama" (famously covered by Jim Morrison and The Doors). Music Director James Conlon conducts. John Doyle, the director of Broadway's smash hit revival of Sweeney Todd, will deliver a risqué new production as controversial as the original one banned by the Nazis in the 1930s.

I like the promise of a controversial production. We'll see!

A synopsis:

Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny synopsis

Act One
Scene 1: In a desolate no-man’s land, a truck breaks down. Three fugitives from justice get out: Fatty the Bookkeeper, Trinity Moses, and Leocadia Begbick. Because the federal agents pursuing them will not search this far north, and they are in a good location to attract ships coming south from the Alaskan gold fields, Begbick decides that they can profit by staying where they are and founding a pleasure city, where men can have fun, because there is nothing else in the world to rely on.

Scene 2: The news of Mahagonny spreads quickly, and sharks from all over flock to the bait, including the whore Jenny Smith, who is seen, with six other girls, singing the “Alabama Song,” in which she ways goodbye to her home and sets out in pursuit of whiskey, dollars and pretty boys.

Scene 3: In the big cities, where men lead boring, purposeless lives, Fatty and Moses spread the gospel of Mahagonny, city of gold, among the disillusioned.

Scene 4: Four men who have shared hard times together in the Alaskan timberlands set off together for Mahagonny. Jimmy MacIntyre and his three friends—Jack O’Brien, Bank Account Bill, and Alaska Wolf Joe. In “Off to Mahagonny,” they look forward to the peace and pleasure they will find there.

Scene 5: The four friends arrive in Mahagonny, only to find other disappointed travelers already leaving. Begbick, well-informed about their personal tastes, marks down her prices, but for the penurious Bill they still seem too high. Jimmy impatiently calls for the girls of Mahagonny to show themselves, so he can make a choice. Begbick suggests Jenny as the right girl for Jack, who finds her rates too high. She pleads with Jack to reconsider (“Havana Song”), which arouses Jim’s interest, and he chooses her. Jenny and the girls sing a tribute to “the Jimmys from Alaska.”

Scene 6: Jimmy and Jenny get to know one another as she asks him to define the terms of their contact: Does he wish her to wear her hair up or down, to wear fancy undies or none at all? “What is your wish?” asks Jim, but Jenny evades answering.

Scene 7: Begbick, Fatty and Moses meet to discuss the pleasure city’s financial crisis: People are leaving in droves, and the price of whiskey is sinking rapidly. Begbick suggests going back to civilization, but Fatty reminds her that the federal agents have been inquiring for her in nearby Pensacola. Money would solve everything, declares Begbick, and she decides to soak the four new arrivals for all they’ve got.

Scene 8: Jimmy, restless, attempts to leave Mahagonny; it’s too peaceful for him. His three friends, in close harmony, try to persuade him to stay. Eventually their threats drive Jim, his anger vented, back to the city.

Scene 9:
In front of the Rich Man’s Hotel, Jimmy and the others sit lazily as a pianist plays “The Maiden’s Prayer.” With growing anger, Jimmy sings of how his hard work and suffering in Alaska have led only to this. Drawing a knife, he shouts for Begbick, while his friends try to disarm him and the other men call to have him thrown out. Calm again, he tells Begbick that Mahagonny can never make people happy: it has too much peace and quiet.

Scene 10: As if in answer to Jimmy’s complaint, the city is threatened by a typhoon. Everyone sings in horror of the destruction awaiting them.

Scene 11: Tensely, people watch for the hurricane’s arrival. The men sing a hymn-like admonition not to be afraid. Jim meditatively compares Nature’s savagery to the far greater destructiveness of Man. Why do we build, he asks, if not for the pleasure of destroying? Since Man can outdo any hurricane, fear makes no sense. For the sake of human satisfaction, nothing should be forbidden: If you want another man’s money, his house or his wife, knock him down and take it; do what you please. As Begbick and the men ponder Jimmy’s philosophy, Fatty and Moses rush in with news: The hurricane has unexpectedly struck Pensacola, destroying Begbick’s enemies, the federal agents. Begbick and her cohorts take it as a sing that Jimmy is right; they join him, Jenny, and his three friends in singing a new, defiant song: If someone walks on, then it’s me, and if someone gets walked on, then it’s you. In the background, the men continue to chant their hymn as the hurricane draws nearer.

Act Two
Scene 12: Magically, the hurricane bypasses Mahagonny, and the people sing in awe of their miraculous rescue. This confirms Begbick’s belief in the philosophy of “Do what you want,” and she proceeds to put it into effect.

Scene 13: At the renovated “Do It” tavern, the men sing of the four pleasures of life: Eating, Lovemaking, Fighting and Drinking. First comes eating: To kitschy cafe music, Jimmy’s friend Jack gorges until he keels over and dies. The men sing a chorale over his body, saluting “a man without fear.”

Scene 14: Loving. While Begbick collects money and issues tips on behavior, Moses placates the impatient men waiting in line to make love to Jenny and the other whores. The men sing the “Mandalay Song,” warning that love doesn’t last forever, and urging those ahead of them to make it snappy.

Scene 15: Fighting. The men flock to see a boxing match between Trinity Moses and Jim’s friend Alaska Wolf Joe. While most of the men, including the ever-cautious Bill, bet on the burly Moses, Jim, out of friendship, bets heavily on Joe. The match is manifestly unfair; Moses not only wins but kills Joe in knocking him out.

Scene 16: Drinking. In an effort to shake off the gloom of Joe’s death, Jimmy invites everyone to have a drink on him. The men sing “Life in Mahagonny,” describing how one could live in the city for only five dollars a day, but those who wanted to have fun always needed more. Jim, increasingly drunk, dreams of sailing back to Alaska. He takes down a curtain rod for a mast and climbs on the pool table, pretending it is a ship; Jenny and Bill play along. Jimmy is abruptly sobered up when Begbick demands payment for the whiskey as well as for the damage to her property. Totally broke, he turns in a panic to Jenny, who explains her refusal to help him out in the song “Make your own bed” – an adaptation of the ideas he proclaimed at the end of Act One. Jim is led off in chains as the chorus, singing another stanza of “Life in Mahagonny,” returns to its pastimes.

Act Three
Scene 17: At night, Jim alone and chained to a lamppost, sings a plea for the sun not to rise on the day of his impending trial.

Scene 18: In the courtroom, Moses, like a carnival barker, sells tickets to the trials. He serves as prosecutor, Fatty as defense attorney, Begbick as judge. First comes the case of Toby Higgins, accused of premeditated murder for the purpose of testing an old revolver. Fatty invites the injured party to rise, but no one does so, since the dead do not speak. As a result, Begbick dismisses the case. Next Jimmy’s case is called. Chained, he is led in by Bill, from whom he tries to borrow money; Bill of course refuses, despite Jim’s plea to remember their time together in Alaska. In virtually the same speech he used to attack Higgins, Moses excoriates him for not paying his bills, for seducing Jenny (who presents herself as a plaintiff) to commit a “carnal act” with him for money, and for inciting the crowd with “an illegal joyous song” on the night of the typhoon. Bill, with the chorus’s support, counters that, in committing the latter act, Jimmy discovered the laws by which Mahagonny lives. Moses argues that Jim hastened his friend Joe’s death in a prizefight by betting on him, and Bill counters by asking who actually killed Joe. Moses does not reply. But there is no answer for the main count against him. Jim gets short sentences for his lesser crimes, but for having no money, he is sentenced to death. Begbick, Fatty and Moses, rising to identify themselves as the injured parties, proclaim “in the whole human race / there is no greater criminal / than a man without money.” As Jim is led off to await execution, everyone sings the “Benares Song,” in which they long for that exotic city “where the sun is shining.” But Benares has been destroyed by an earthquake. “Where shall we go?” they ask.

Scene 19: At the gallows, Jim says a tender goodbye to Jenny, who, dressed in white, declares herself his widow. He surrenders her to Bill, his last remaining companion from Alaska. When he tries to delay the execution by reminding the people of Mahagonny that God exists, they play out for him, under Moses’s direction, the story of “God in Mahagonny,” in which the Almighty condemns the town and is overthrown by its citizens, who declare that they can’t be sent to Hell because they are already in Hell. Jim, chastened, asks only for a glass of water, but is refused even this as Moses gives the signal for the trap to be sprung.

Scene 20: A caption advises that, after Jim’s death, increasing hostility among the city’s various factions has caused the destruction of Mahagonny. To a potpourri of themes from earlier in the opera, groups of protesters are seen on the march, in conflict with one another, while the city burns in the background. Jenny and the whores carry Jim’s clothing and accessories like sacred relics; Bill and several men carry his coffin. In a new theme, they and the others declare, “Nothing you can do will help a dead man.” Begbick, Fatty and Moses appear with placards of their own, joining the entire company in its march and declaring “Nothing will help him or us or you now,” as the opera ends in chaos.

Synopsis by Michael Feingold

The Last of the Conquerors

William Gardner Smith's 1948 novel about the black military experience in Berlin and Germany after WWII is old-fashioned in every way but quite good within these parameters. Character-driven and leisurely in its narrative pace, the story has a realistic hard edge that I admire, especially in its ending, where no cheap shots are taken. This would make a fine movie, and Spike Lee or someone should discover this writer.

I did get impatient with the old-fashioned crawl of story development and skimmed through sections that were particularly slow. There's a strong and nicely ambiguous love story here between the narrator and a German woman -- will he come back to her or not after discharge?

The exchange of dialogue that ends the novel epitomizes the contradiction blacks felt in feeling more "free" in the land of the Nazis than at home in America: to paraphrase, "I hear you're shipping home." "Right." "Tough." Tough is the last word of the story. Quite perfect.

There's a book-length study of Smith's work: Portrait of an Expatriate.

Devil's Dictionary

OUTCOME, n. A particular type of disappointment.

OUTDO, v.t. To make an enemy.

OVEREAT, v. To dine.

PAIN, n. An uncomfortable frame of mind that may have a physical basis in something that is being done to the body, or may be purely mental, caused by the good fortune of another.

PAINTING, n. The art of protecting flat surfaces from the weather and exposing them to the critic.

PANTOMIME, n. A play in which the story is told without violence to the language. The least disagreeable form of dramatic action.

PARDON, v. To remit a penalty and restore to the life of crime.

PATIENCE, n. A minor form of despair, disguised as a virtue.

PATRIOTISM, n. Combustible rubbish read to the torch of any one ambitious to illuminate his name.

PEACE, n. In international affairs, a period of cheating between two periods of fighting.

Ambrose Bierce

Monday, February 19, 2007


A friend (whose name I won't mention so those who know him won't hound him) came up with the best idea for a hypertext narrative I've heard in a very long time. It's positively brilliant. Not easy to pull off, of course -- these projects never are -- but it's one of those ideas I kick myself for not thinking of years ago when I had the energy to write hypertext narrative. I don't any more. Frazzles the mind. But I really hope the friend follows through on this -- it's one of those highly creative edgy concepts on which reputations can be built. I applaud the idea without reservation. Just brilliant.

To date, the most edgy amazing produced hyperdrama is not, alas, my own Chateau de Mort in the Pittock Mansion but a German woman's "An Evening in Elsinore" in which Shakespeare's Hamlet, Stoppard's Rosencrantz... and her own original play about Orphelia all ran simultaneously, intersecting often, in a German castle! My own most ambitious hypertext is the The Seagull Hyperdrama.

My friend's project has the audacity of each of these. It takes balls to pull off a project like this -- but all great works of art require balls to pull off. Damn, I'm impressed with this concept! I may not still be around when the concept gets realized (these things take time -- my Chekhov hypertext took ten years) but by the gods I'll go to my grave thinking my friend can pull this off! He has just the right kind of brain to do it and is young enough to enjoy the possible rewards. I'm very excited about the possibility of this. I haven't been this excited about someone else's idea in ages.

My advice to my friend? Don't be overwhelmed by it: structure the modules and work on them one by one. And don't tell anyone what you're up to! An idea like this can only be done once. You have to be the first. You thought of it, do it as directly as you can without cheating the material or getting into a panic. Think of the modules. One by one. Onward.

For the uninitiated:

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Political doublespeak

Politicians are amazing. Saturday Iraqi officials applauded the new crackdown in Baghdad: "On Saturday, the Iraqi spokesman for the plan, Brig. Gen. Qassim Moussawi, said violence had plummeted by 80 percent in the capital" (Yahoo news). Then the next day new car bombings kill 63. What does this mean? According to the Prime Minister, "These crimes confirm the defeat of these perpetrators and their failure in confronting our armed forces, which are determined to cleanse the dens of terrorism," al-Maliki said in a statement. Alice's Wonderland with carnage.

The Doublespeak Website.

The Muslim Refusenik

Irshad Manji's Official Website.

The New York Times has dubbed Irshad Manji “Osama Bin Laden’s worst nightmare.” She takes that as a compliment.

Irshad is the best-selling author of The Trouble with Islam Today: A Muslim’s Call for Reform in Her Faith. It has been published internationally, including in Pakistan, Turkey, India and Lebanon. In those countries that have banned The Trouble with Islam Today, she is reaching readers by posting free translations in Arabic, Urdu, and Persian on this website.

Her documentary "Faith Without Fear" is scheduled to air on PBS on April 19, 2007.

“Believers, conduct yourselves with justice
and bear true witness before Allah,
even though it be against yourselves,
your parents, or your kinsfolk”
- Quran 4:135

With this Quran passage deeply rooted in her heart, Irshad Manji gets up every morning after having thanked Allah for allowing her to live in a part of the world where she has the opportunity to realize her potential. Then she switches on the computer to download the latest death threats.

Read the article.

She interviews Salman Rushdie.

Adventures in Hillsboro

Twenty years ago, a trip to Hillsboro was a short country drive. Today it's a drive past one mall and housing development after another. Such is the growth of the Portland area.

H's art is showing at the gallery at the UU church in Hillsboro, so we drove out for the opening so she could mix with the folks. The service, being a congregation only 10 or 20 percent the size of Portland's, was considerably different. The music, in fact, was by a rock band playing tunes from Three Dog Night, U2 and Alice Cooper, something absolutely unimaginable in the Portland church. They swing in Hillsboro. The service felt a tad like a Christian revival meeting, in fact.

Afterwards, having read in Friday's paper that the area's best Indian restaurant is in Hillsboro, we went to Chennai Masala for lunch -- and indeed, the place blew us away both for quality and the wide and unusual selection of dishes. Perhaps the best Indian restaurant we've ever been to, despite its low-key unpretentious "deli" feel in the seating arrangement. We will definitely be back.

Our plan had been to pick up tickets for a theater preview tonight but we decided, being old farts and all, we were too tuckered out, enough excitement for one day, and that we'd rather stay home and watch a movie or something. So we are home to stay.

The loneliness of the long-distance writer

Winter, 1959. I'm 19. I've just moved to Berkeley to continue college, transferring from Cal Tech. With me is another Techie, Q., also leaving in good standing, a B average, for much the same reasons I left: to get away from home, to get away from so many students who are brighter than we are. Q. will stay in the sciences. After a circuitous journey through the army, work, a return to college and the majors of Philosophy, History and English, I'll end up with an MFA in Playwriting and becoming a writer.

We're drinking beer and listening to a favorite Sinatra album, Only the Lonely. It's one of those nights. We're new in town, know almost no one -- a high school buddy of mine is here, and he will turn me on to the pre-Free Speech Movement folk scene and street life of Berkeley, which I'll end up joining, an experience culminated by living in a tree house in Strawberry Canyon shortly before joining the army, yet another escape.

Sinatra's Only the Lonely. One of those quiet serious nights full of youthful serious talk.

Q. says a remarkable thing. I remember it to this day, almost 50 years later: "All of my best friends are writers and are dead."

It's something I say to myself now that I've outlived all my closest male friends. Ain't nobody left. All my best friends are writers and, if not dead, are far from here.

It's the hanging out I miss most -- the history that lets you hang with someone and communicate without language. To an observer, Dick and I must have looked off our rockers because we laughed so much without having to say anything that was funny: we simply observed the same thing at the same time with the same reaction. "People are more interesting than anybody," as my dear mother liked to say. You can replace people to have coffee or dinner with but you can't replace history. You can't replace deep understanding that comes only with long familiarity.

I like working more than ever but I don't work all the time. Sometimes I seem to try to. But I don't. "All my best friends are writers and are dead." Here's looking at you, Q.

Sex Ed

From Nurse Fusion, a link to an article about "Love Land" in South Korea, a theme park about sex: "statues, photographs and sculptures that seem like something halfway between a post-modern version of those temple phalluses and a Jeff Koons installation -- just more trashy, if that's possible."

This brings to mind a Sex Ed moment from my teens. My dad informed me that I lived in a very backwards and puritanical country regarding such matters. He told me that when he had visited Rome as a young man in the Navy, he'd seen ruins of houses of prostitution which featured erotic sculptures illustrating the specialties of the various ladies.

Another Sex Ed moment from my youth is comic. In those days, American "girlie mags" did not show genitalia or even public hair. Everything was smudged out. It therefore became a very big deal to find photos of ladies with public hair, which usually came from out of the country and then quickly circulated. I once received one in the mail myself, having ordered a nudist magazine from Denmark. When it arrived in the mail, my mother picked it up. Seeing the Danish postmark, she assumed it was a Danish astronomy magazine since I was a very active amateur then. She tracked me down with it, saying, "Your Danish astronomy magazine arrived." So much time had passed I'd forgotten about the other -- and almost opened it in front of her. Then, seeing the corner of the mag, a young blonde hairdo, I remembered and hustled away to blush in privacy.

Even before this, in Jr High, what is now called Middle School, I ran a local soft porn show. My dad was stationed in Guam right after WWII. My mom worked as a hairdresser. So I got home from school first with a couple hours to kill before mom got home. When the mail came, it sometimes brought a roll or two of 8mm film from my dad in Guam. Most of these contained shots of women, young and old, pretty and not, skinny and fat, walking around topless in grass skirts. I'd take a peek and if the ladies were hot, would call up my buddies to come over so we could gawk before mom got home. Later I'd show her the films, of course, but she never had anything to say about all the half-naked women in them.

Devil's Dictionary

OCCIDENT, n. The part of the world lying west (or east) of the Orient. It is largely inhabited by Christians, a powerful subtribe of the Hypocrites, whose principal industries are murder and cheating, which they are pleased to call "war" and "commerce." These, also, are the principal industries of the Orient.

OCEAN, n. A body of water occupying about two-thirds of a world made for man -- who has no gills.

OMEN, n. A sign that something will happen if nothing happens.

ONCE, adv. Enough.

OPERA, n. A play representing life in another world, whose inhabitants have no speech but song, no motions but gestures and no postures but attitudes.

OPPORTUNITY, n. A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.

OPTIMISM, n. The doctrine, or belief, that everything is beautiful, including what is ugly, everything good, especially the bad, and everything right that is wrong.

OPTIMIST, n. A proponent of the doctrine that black is white.

Ambrose Bierce

Nikos Kazantzakis

I'm a huge fan of Kazantzakis, the subject of Today In Literature. His Sequel to the Odyssey heads the list of challenging reading I have yet to do -- indeed, I've long wanted to read this directly after Chapman's Homer, probably a full year project if not more. I'm not getting any younger if this is to become a reality. Not enough hours in the day! The older you get, the more you have to prioritize projects. I really should start Homer this summer.


Here I am, up at 3 a.m. printing out maps of the various locations in L.A. we'll be visiting next weekend. We get a late start Saturday, arriving in the afternoon. We decided to do our own thing on Saturday and probably will catch the surrealism exhibit at the art center. Dinner, maybe a little site seeing. I always like to drop by Pasadena and reminisce about my wonderful childhood there. Sunday is busy! We'll pick up L. in the morning, have a leisurely breakfast, get to the opera house around noon so I can wander and take photos, there's a pre-show lecture at 1, the opera at 2. When we get out, the Oscar red carpet thing will be starting but I don't know if that's close to the opera house or not. I wouldn't mind being in traffic with movie stars. At any rate, it's to friends for dinner and visiting Sunday night. Monday morning breakfast with another friend. We don't fly out till late afternoon. So it's a short but busy visit. We return in June for a wedding but, alas, this is in the middle of finals for me, so I'll bring along a stack of papers to grade. Just as well, I'm not big on weddings anyway, gives me an excuse to escape the hoopla.

Return from LA the first time ready for March Madness! Return from LA the second time ready for summer! Not bad.

Maybe, this afternoon, I can finish the chapter on the novel I'm working on. I think I need then to print out the 60-odd pages I have and get a feel for where I am again. I need to crank up the middle, I know that. Need more legs in this story. I'm sure it will work out, it always seems to, but it's frustrating when you think you have something figured out and it ends up you don't. I still need to work a lot on the tone of this thing but I'm not even worrying about that till I get the story actions in place. First the blocks, then the paint job.

I'm damn close now to "recording" the piano piece I've been working on. I've yet to do it without an error but I'm sometimes down to errors I only need one hand to count. Meanwhile, I think I'll start on the next piece. I read that the difference between a piano player and a pianist is that a pianist has at least 100 pieces put to memory. I doubt if I'll ever become a pianist, probably don't have enough years left.

I'm eager to give John's music a more careful listening. He's got new energy, wrote that he's already started on the second story, "The Man Who Hatched Chickens," my first comic libretto. I'll get the last one done soon, too. I think I have its structure figured out.

Been brooding lately about how much pain and suffering there is in the world. This has always been the case but the goddamn media today doesn't let up on the bad news. And the trivial news. I can't believe how much attention is given to a woman who apparently did no more with her life than take off her cloths and marry a rich old geezer. No wonder soap operas are so popular. I remember the moment in My Dinner With Andre in which Andre cautions that we have entered a new Dark Ages and an individual's only hope is to hide out, drop out, and try in a private small way to keep civilization alive. The world sure feels like that sometimes.

We can only save ourselves individually, and this can be a full time job.


This is a first rate spy thriller. Chris Cooper, an amazingly versatile actor, shines as the bad guy. I hope this film isn't forgotten at next year's Oscars; if released a few months earlier, I could see it getting nominated for actor, picture and screenplay.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

"The sun, the sun!"

Positively springlike weather this afternoon. I found myself staggering into the day like the character at the end of Ibsen's "Ghosts," dazzled by the light.

I took advantage of the day, especially with another cold spell on its way, to do some outdoor chores including pushing my wonderful Scotts reel mower around.

To a movie now, Breach, a Cold War spy story I'm looking forward to.

Earlier I listened to enough of the Lotte Lenya Mahagonny to be reminded of how superior it is to the 1998 version from Saltzburg that I have on videotape. I'll hear it all before I board the plane to L.A.

Tomorrow morning checking out H's art opening at a church in Hillsboro.

The fascinating history ...

... of "Waltzing Matilda".

Chamber opera

Today John sent me the 153-page score (in draft) for "The Love of Long Ago," the first of three short chamber opera works based on short stories by Maupassant. 3 voices, 2 violins, viola, cello -- more easily performed than the full-scale opera Dark Mission, our first operatic collaboration. John has the libretto for the 2nd story and I'm at work on the 3rd. When the full work is done, John will hope to get interest from the Center for Contemporary Opera.

A first listen has me pleased. Will listen more carefully and take notes that may be helpful to him. This also is incentive to finish the final libretto.

Picked up and am reading Existentialism: A Very Short Introduction, which looks quite excellent early on. I'm sure I'll have more to say about it later.

Something of a lazy day. Practiced piano in the morning a tad. Reading. Errands. No writing, but I'm brooding again over the direction of the novel. I stopped last session in the middle of action, which I can easily pick up. I'm brooding about various options for the middle section of the book, act two as it were. I think my story board needs more legs.

Friday, February 16, 2007

Another landmark bites the dust

There aren't many places left in Portland that remind me of "the golden age" of the 70s and 80s. The Virginia Cafe is one of them, a dark downtown bar famous for its happy hour and stiff drinks, an institution during all the time I've lived in Portland. Well, it's on a block being leveled for another high rise, so its days are numbered.

I didn't hang out at VC all that often, my stomping grounds at the time being NW rather than downtown, but I'd stop by a time or two a month, usually in late afternoon to take advantage of their generous happy hour. When I was downtown, I usually preferred the Vat & Tonsur, another landmark long gone for redevelopment (which recently relocated but I heard it's not the same).

Devil's Dictionary

MISFORTUNE, n. The kind of fortune that never misses.

MONDAY, n. In Christian countries, the day after the baseball game.

MONUMENT, n. A structure intended to commemorate something which either needs no commemoration or cannot be commemorated.

MORAL, adj. Conforming to a local and mutable standard of right. Having the quality of general expediency.

NEIGHBOR, n. One whom we are commanded to love as ourselves, and who does all he knows how to make us disobedient.

NIHILIST, n. A Russian who denies the existence of anything but Tolstoi. The leader of the school is Tolstoi.

NOISE, n. A stench in the ear.

NON-COMBATANT, n. A dead Quaker.

NONSENSE, n. The objections that are urged against this excellent dictionary.

NOVEL, n. A short story padded.

NOVEMBER, n. The eleventh twelfth of a weariness.

Ambrose Bierce

Bellini's Norma

I enjoyed the opera last night. It's not an opera I'd go out of my way to see again but much of the music is beautiful. I'd certainly listen to it again.

At root Norma is a love triangle story. A Druid priestess (Norma) has been having a long, secret love affair with a Roman soldier (the enemy), bearing him two kids. But he's switched his affections to a younger model, who confesses her own crisis of heart to Norma, who in turn releases her from her vows. Then Norma discovers it's her guy who's the love interest -- and, of course, all hell breaks loose.

There's a moment near the end of this story when the soldier, witnessing Norma's sacrifice, comes to his senses and realizes how much he has lost: and many in the audience laughed. This is not the intended response but does suggest how difficult it is to sell an extreme melodramatic story today -- though audiences lap up this sort of thing on TV "news" all the time (and especially recently).

The highlights of this production were the two women, and the several scenes in which they sing together stole the show. The one word I'd use to describe this opera is "pretty."

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Media gone mad

The frenzy over the various tidbits following the death of this Marilyn Monroe wannabe -- who gets the body? who gets the money? who fathered the kid? ad nauseam -- brings out the worst in American pop culture. I'm reminded of the Blake takeoff an Army buddy used to recite as often as circumstances warranted, which was damn often: what the hammer? what the anvil? WHAT THE FUCK?

My personal tastes are so far adrift from the mainstream that I didn't consider Marilyn Monroe "sexy," let alone an imitation. Give me Kate Winslet or Nicole Kidman any day.

However, I admit it is tempting to call a news conference and announce that, in fact, I am the father of the baby, conceived during a secret meeting we had in which I gave the dear lady writerly advice since her secret passion was not to be Marilyn Monroe but Virginia Woolf, the details of which will be revealed in my upcoming memoir. Secretly, at the time of her death, she was working on a novel in the tradition of To the Lighthouse, which had the working title of To the Bank.

Drafting and revising

As I move through the first draft of my Cold War novel, I find areas that need to be tweaked or changed, places the story board is not as strong as at first glance, revisions that need to be done -- but unless they are major, I make a note of them but keep moving forward. The key to a first draft, I think, is to finish it as quickly as possible. All the "real writing" happens later, after the draft, when one can stare at a paragraph for as long as it takes to get it right. You do that in the rush of a draft and you can lose your train of thought and stop moving forward. With the draft, the movement of the story is sketched. Indeed, a draft is like an artistic sketch before a painting. First the sketch, then the painting; first the draft, then the novel. First drafts are mostly a pain in the butt for me but this one is more fun than usual because it is so autobiographical about a pleasant, unusual time of my life, my experiences as a Russian linguist in the Army Security Agency. It's just fun to revisit this time of my life, three years, when I was 20, 21 and 22. At the same time, I can't wait to finish the damn draft -- hopefully before summer -- so I can slow down the frantic rush of writing (get it down before it leaves your head!) and stare at words for a while, thinking of better ones to replace them with. The slow meticulous process of rewriting, which is the real joy of being a writer as far as I'm concerned.

Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor

I love the work of the directing-writing team Payne & Taylor. I teach Sideways, and what I love about teaching it is that the screenplay is very different from the novel, all the changes improvements, and that there are many cuts from screenplay to film, all of them improvements -- so the film and script provide an excellent insight into the process of story revision and how, in film, "less is more" is a recurring and powerful theme. Especially looking at the scenes in the script that did not make it to screen, the student hopefully learns to appreciate the poetic efficiency of film storytelling, how there's never a wasted moment. (If it's wasted, it goes.) The script, of course, won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay. The novel, by the way, is terrible. It truly is. It's another lesson to read it and understand how a bad novel can become a very good film.

Payne-Taylor's other films include Citizen Ruth, Election and About Schmidt, all first rate.

At any rate, today is our dissection of Sideways day, which I always look forward to. Yesterday my reading load was less than it should have been because a significant number of students did not turn in their work on time. I suppose I'll get scripts today for more weekend reading than I prefer.

I go in early for an appointment, wearing my suit for the opera and all. One of those crazy hectic days, lots of places to be at certain times. I do look forward to the opera, though I've done no preparation for it this time. Focusing on Mahagonny, not Norma, but it will be instructive, perhaps, to see the Portland and L.A. opera companies so close together.

Maybe I can get some more work done on the novel during my office hours today.

Mailer on Miller

Check out Today In Literature, which focuses on Henry Miller today. Miller is a rare one in American letters, hugely influential, his book
Henry Miller on Writing
an inspirational credo for young writers, a book that favors an existential approach to literary arts, favoring private vision over public fame.

I believe the best introduction to Miller is the journey through his major works edited by Norman Mailer in the 1970s, Genius and Lust. Mailer is a champion and a fine guide.

Personally I find Miller overwhelming and repetitive, which means I appreciate him in excerpts more than in entire works. I should look at his work again and see if my response as a young man has changed. It's as if I've admired the man more than the writer, though of course he would insist they are the same.