Thursday, July 31, 2008

The Way of the Citizen

As the author of this blog, I value friendly debate among readers, with one another and with me, not out of a desire to 'win an argument' but to understand one another better and clarify - together - our concerns and our ideas for moving forward.

This is the role of "talk, talk, talk" (Pam's impatient phrase) in a community and even if our electoral choice is limited to two venal parties, we can be more expansive in our conversation.

Zen teaching warns us about attaching to this or that opinion, clinging to a cherished opinion and defending it. We lose our way here and fall into a sewer of poison. Viewing dialogue, rather, from the perspective of a parent trying to figure out why the baby is crying, and discussing together why the baby might be crying, is a good analogy for debate on this blog.

As a Zen student in somewhat of a democratic republic, correct citizenship brings us back to the realm of opinion but, we hope, with the right priorities in place and a clear direction behind the speech. Serving our families AND our community with meaningful work and upright words is the way of the citizen.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

The Hemlock 500 (Whatever Works)

Glenn's Republic and the Stupidopoly

Salon's Glenn Greenwald - a columnist I highly recommend - explains the illness of the Democratic Party in a piece called, "Things I Learned Today About Democracy." His summation parallels my own feelings about that party.

Having just moved to New Mexico, I went looking for voter registration forms. The county clerk's office is in the courthouse, right across from the nice man who wants you to leave your weapons with him. The county clerk and her employees were all very encouraging and yet there is this empty feeling, like complying with some pointless obligation at the office.

It isn't quite pointless, but may I ask this question: If we must limit access to power to two political parties only (a necessity that has never been explained to me), why these two?

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Less Than Five Stars

Less Than Zero


You can't see the book cover too well - the title is lost in the smog hovering over Los Angeles in the photograph. This is Less Than Zero, being the first novel by Bret Easton Ellis.

Let me state this flatly: I think this novel's literary reputation is overblown. It is not "Catcher In The Rye for the MTV generation" (USA Today). It is a young writer's passionate hate letter to Los Angeles (Ellis was 19, an undergraduate at Bennington, when he wrote this), a meandering fantasy that repeats a single point for 200 pages with some intentionally annoying prose. It reads almost like a marathon run-on sentence, an aqueduct of statements connected by an infinite series of 'ands.'

Moreover, the events in the novel become overwrought and preposterous without developing his theme any further. Clay, the first-person narrator, is home from college for the summer. "Home" is the Los Angeles of the wealthy, privileged, and deeply bored youth of the 1980's, awash in sex without intimacy, heaps of cocaine, families lacking affection, and words that don't communicate.

Ellis makes some skillful use of advertising slogans and wildlife in the canyons around Mulholland to create a darkening sense of foreboding. Clay sticks around even after he's given up trying to connect with his old friends, out of a compulsion to see "the worst of the worst." A similar, more bemused compulsion kept me reading to the end. How dark and preposterous would the scenes become, simply to reiterate the point that the generation of whom he is writing lacks a moral compass or empathy? Raped children and dead bodies are piled at the reader's feet, and conversations that scream self-parody buzz in the ears, even as we recall that Michiko Kakutani praised this novel's "documentary reality." Ha.

At the end, Clay is asked by a woman who wants to love him what he cares about and he can't name a thing. By this time, it isn't news, and there's not much for us to care about, either

Monday, July 28, 2008

What Kind of Idiot Plans His Move Across The Desert in July??



Family Portrait on Moving Day
at The Coffee Table in Los Angeles
(Note the Angeleno in the background working on his screenplay)




The truck, packed to the last inch by Andrew and Chris.
The cab was also packed tightly, and every time I hit a bump things would fall on me.
My car, packed to the last inch as well.
It was all so heavy I would press the gas and wait a few seconds for the truck to move.
Stopping was fun, too.
Especially driving through the severe thunderstorms in Arizona.
Like an idiot.



Vehicle #2, containing:

(1) Sarah
(1) sister of Sarah, saintly helper
(1) crying infant with loaded diaper
(1) housecat, hissing at anybody who approaches the vehicle


I-Hop, You Hop: Breakfast Stop, Day #2 of the drive--




Idiot

Panther



Child resting his voice




Our Home in New Mexico, a work in progress...






Piano expertly damaged by Ben Hur Moving Company.

The Ben Hur Follies


Dear Eva,

We talked about writing a musical together a few years ago. I've started outlining a new one. What do you think? Here's a sketch of the first act.


The Ben Hur Follies

Act I


Curtain opens on a living room with a pristine black piano. It is an "apartment-grand" size piano, something between a baby grand and a regular grand. Sarah sits at the piano and sings "Deming Lullaby," a bright song about being a new mother and moving back to her hometown and making beautiful music with her family amid the hills where she grew up.

There is a knock at the door and a well-toned, uniformed man enters. His tan uniform bears the comforting green logo of Budget Van Lines, the green stripes worn on his shoulders like sergeant stripes. He introduces himself as Chad Messala. He sings a brassy number called "Cheap and Confident," in which a chorus of uniformed Budgeteers accompany him in a Chippendales-type of dance while Chad sings of the virtues of Budget: brand recognition, national reputation, getting the best deal for the money, etc. Two of the men end up dancing on top of the piano.

In recitativo, Sarah begins to look over the contract but is distracted by her crying baby and hurriedly signs the paperwork and exits. Chad snaps his fingers and a chorus of disreputable looking men in togas enter the scene as the ominous "Ben Hur Moving Company march" plays for the first time. The leader of this band is Ben Hur, a ne'er do well descendent of the fabled aristocrat who encountered Jesus before the Sermon on the Mount.

Chad looks around furtively and sings, "Don't Screw Up This Time." In this intriguing duet, we learn that Chad and Ben have some history together. Ben is dismissive and says, "Don't worry. Jesus is an old friend of my family, for God's sake. Everything will be fine. Keep your fingers crossed if you're worried." The song gives way to a dance number in which a band of Budgeteers assist the clumsy and pugilistic Ben Hur men, who keep tripping over their togas and getting into fights with one another. The piano is loaded onto Ben's chariot and is rolled off while they sing a rousing, guaranteed-for-an-encore song, "Keep Your Fingers Crossed."

Sarah and Algernon enter and do the acrobatic "Schlep and Shuffle," a Cirque-inspired act in which they juggle household items and their baby in a dazzling dance involving juggling, highwire, and balancing on one other. After the applause, they sing a beautiful duet, "We're Here."

Enter Ilderim, a middle-eastern prince descended from the arab merchant Ilderim, who was a friend of the ancestor Ben Hur. Ilderim and Ben discuss a gambling debt Ben owes to Ilderim, and Ilderim proposes settling the matter by setting up a chariot race in which Ben would race Chad Messala, in a contest between his chariot and a Budget rental van. Ilderim would bet heavily on Chad, and Ben would throw the contest so Ilderim would benefit.

Ben reveals that his chariot has been badly wrecked by his own men. "They broke the axle by loading that piano on it!" he complains, pointing to the piano on stage. Ilderim regards the piano with interest and points out that if one simply took the chariot wheels and installed them on the piano, the piano itself would make a fine, shiny chariot. They shake hands, the Ben Hurlots enter with power tools, and they go to work in a flurry of eastern-style dance moves and juggling of saws, screw guns, and hammers. Blackout.

Lights up on Sarah, pacing. She sings "Where Is My Piano?" as she dials a telephone and awaits an answer. Chad is rolled onstage seated in front of a different piano, and he raises his hands and plays John Cage's infamous silent piece, 4'33''. Sarah throws the phone offstage in disgust, and Chad disappears.

Sarah's piano, now with wheels bolted to it and a flag impaled through the middle, rolls on as a chariot, with Ben and three of his henchmen on board. They sing "Chad's A Pansy," challenging the Budget Van Lines manager to a race, chariot versus rental truck.

....

And that's the first act. Act Two will include the race, in which the piano-chariot is completely wrecked, and Algernon doing a conceptual dance piece about being on hold, being picked up and thrown around the space by acrobats in black body suits representing silent, empty space.

Not sure how it will turn out in the end but I think we've got something fresh and new here. Let's just say I'm inspired.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Your Messages To Adam

Dear readers,

We are so grateful for your responses to our previous post, and your friendly e-mails to our contact at Budget. Yes, I did botch the link to his email box and for that I apologize. Your efforts were not in vain, however. I created a central email address and forwarded your messages.

DeeAnne's appeared as a comment in the previous post. Here are two more responses we enjoyed enormously...

Hi Adam. It's Adam.(Yes, one of Algernon and Sarah's many friends-- I'm also friends with their son Gabriel, although truth be told I haven't actually met him yet. One of these days, I'm sure.)Anyway. I understand they entrusted a piano to you and your company to move from Los Angeles to Deming NM. And that your company promised to have your subcontractor deliver it within 7 business days.Now, I realize that Deming isn't the vast metropolis that is Des Moines, but still, a promise is a promise, after all. And 7 business days is a long time in this Just-In-Time day and age. I am hoping that in the name of Adam's everywhere you won't let Algernon down. (and by this I mean you will go the extra mile for him-- or in this case the extra 705 miles) Well, it's hard to say that the 705 miles are extra, as they paid you guys for them. Hmmm... speaking of which, they should probably get a discount for your company's failure to live up to their promises. I'm just saying-- that's the right way to handle it.I trust that you will (as the saying goes) Do The Right Thing here.Anyway, it was great to make your acquaintance, Adam, and here's hoping that this is a story with a happy ending.

* * *

Dear Adam,
I am one of Algernon's former supervisors. He worked for me when I was the Director of Interreligious Affairs at the American Jewish Committee's Los Angeles office. It might seem odd to you that the Abbot of a Zen Buddhist Monastery would be the Executive Assistant for a Rabbi, but I can tell you from experience it was a very good and productive pairing. What made Algernon so good at his job -- and so helpful in making me good at mine -- were his gentle professionalism and serene spirit. He simply wanted the world to be a better place and invested himself diligently in working to make it so.

His most recent project, as I am sure you are by now aware, has been to improve the world of an infant child by providing the child's mother with her piano, an instrument of goodwill and joy within their small family so recently uprooted from a comfortable existence among cherished friends here in Los Angeles. Can you not spare a bit of your time and attention to assist him in that cause? If you cannot do it because it is part of your job -- or so one assumes -- do it because in a gesture of almost unprecedented altruism Algernon gave up the City of Angels for the God-forsaken dust-blown Hell-hole called Demming, New Mexico. (Personally, if I owned Hell and Demming, I'd live in Hell and rent Demming out, if you fathom my drift.)

So, Adam, let's just assume you hate your employers at Budget and want to make them look terrible. No one would disagree that you're doing a pretty good job at it, but do you really want to create this kind of bad karma when dealing with a Buddhist priest? The only other guy I knew who took Algernon for granted ended up working for a group of Azerbaijanis and spent way too much time shuttling between Encino and the garden city of Baku. Believe me, it's not pretty.

* * *

Unfortunately, this saga has a whole new chapter, as the piano arrived today with massive damage. Cutesy messages to Adam played no part in this - in fact, Budget Van Lines played no part in it whatsoever. We now turn our attention to a very bad moving company named after Ben Hur , an insurance adjuster, and - who knows - perhaps litigation.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reader Participation: Come, Merry Pranksters!

This could be fun. Here is the background story.

An empty corner stands here at our burning house, a space for Sarah's piano that should have been filled several days ago. Where on earth is Sarah's piano? I will tell you. Sarah's piano is sitting in a warehouse somewhere in the Los Angeles area. It has been there since July 9, when the movers picked it up. According to our contract, it was to have been delivered in no later than 7 business days. That would have been Monday, the 21st.

Let's back up a little bit. Sarah got some quotes for moving her piano from Los Angeles to our new home in New Mexico, and she went with Budget Van Lines. Only later did we look more closely at what kind of enterprise this is.

Budget is not the company that moves your stuff. Budget is just a broker: they subcontract, and what they do to make money is negotiate cheap rates by finding space on trucks with other cargo. It's like a ride-sharing service, except for your belongings. The subcontractor may or may not be any good. Consumer websites like this one relate some horror stories about Budget and their subcontractors which you would hope are the exceptions rather than the rule. There are more tales of woe here and here.

Budget subcontracted Sarah's piano job to a company called Ben Hur. They picked up the piano on July 9. The contract with Budget specifies delivery from 1-7 business days and once that time had elapsed with no word about Sarah's piano, I started calling.

Would you be surprised if I told you that Budget's customer service is a bit lax? Multiple voice mails and emails unanswered until I had to leave messages in my Angry Voice. Someone from sales finally gave me the number of the subcontractor. You realize what that means? That's right. Budget essentially abdicated its role as broker and made ME follow up with the carrier.

"Why am I doing your job?" I asked into somebody's voice mail. "I should invoice you."

Following many phone calls to Budget AND Ben Hur over the last week, here's our situation:

After eleven business days, Sarah's piano is still sitting in Los Angeles, and the carrier cannot tell us exactly when it will leave the warehouse. Today, the carrier said they are "trying to get a truck together" to bring the piano to New Mexico. Trying to get a truck together? Did it fall apart? What's going on over there?

Several employees from Budget have gotten an earful from me (I started calling back random extensions until I reached people) about the fact that Budget failed to follow up with its own subcontractor or communicate with us, and giving them a hard time about making me follow up with them myself. I've been demanding a rebate based on how late the delivery will be.

Our contact at Budget promised he would negotiate this with the carrier, and have the carrier contact me with the amount that would be rebated per day the piano is late. Surprise, the carrier didn't call, and seemed surprised when I called them asking about it.

Ready for the reader participation? Come, merry pranksters, let's have some harmless fun and make the world a lighter place. And be a part of reuniting Sarah with her beloved piano at last.

What we are asking for from our cherished friends reading this blog is a happy cavalry - a polite, upbeat, friendly cavalry. We're not asking you to make trouble (that's why Sarah keeps me around), we just want you to be your wonderful, friendly, optimistic and intelligent selves and send Budget Van Lines your encouragement and support. A love note, if you will.

To wit: we'd like you to send a short and friendly email to our contact at Budget. His name is Adam. Sounds like a young guy, must be very busy because he never answers his phone. When I get through to him he's nice and sounds like he wants to help. I'm sure the fact that his promises don't come through has to do with other nefarious forces at work, and the guilt must keep him up at night. Poor guy. Please be nice to him.

The email should be in your own words, but something like the following. The friendlier it is, the funnier this will be.

"Hello Adam! I'm a friend of Sarah and Algernon. It really is a shame that Ben Hur is so late with their piano. Did you know it hasn't even left Los Angeles yet? I'm sure you're working hard to get that piano delivered and to get these kids a rebate for their trouble and their lost income. Just wanted you to know I'm rooting for ya!"

That's plenty. Click here to email him directly.

And if we are still dealing with this a week from now, I have the carrier's toll-free number. *Wink.*

Monday, July 21, 2008

To Heck And Back

“It’s a serious situation, but there’s a lot of things we need to do. We have a lot of work to do and I’m afraid that it’s a very hard struggle, particularly given the situation on the Iraq-Pakistan border.”

-Presidential candidate Senator John McCain, on an interview this morning on the ABC program Good Morning America.

* * *

Oops. This was one of those signs that the candidates are human and get tired. Diane Sawyer asked him a question about Afghanistan and he was probably referring to the turbulence on THEIR border with Pakistan. Of course, I hope we all understand that Iraq and Pakistan do not actually border one another. One is the region we call the "middle east" and the other is in South Asia.

Yet in a weird way, they DO border each other now, in the sense that political rhetoric has conflated the military mission in Afghanistan with the occupation of Iraq and a generalized confrontation with the middle-east itself. We aren't known for our meticulous understanding of world geography anyway, us Americans, so the slip-up is is a bit sad even if it is understandable. Especially coming from the candidate whose signature brag is his unassailable understanding of foreign and military affairs.

So, to the maps!



Iraq is that BLUE THING right in the middle. It is surrounded by Jordan and Syria to the west, Turkey on the northern end, Iran all the way along its eastern border, and Kuwait and Saudi Arabia on the south.

So where in the heck IS Pakistan? It is sandwiched between Afghanistan and India, underneath China:



Nowhere on the map do I find a region called "Terrorism," and yet Senator Obama (the other overtired nitwit running for President) has been running around Afghanistan proclaiming it a central front in 'the war on terrorism.'

Groan. The war in Afghanistan is a war against the Taliban, the brutal regime that harbored an international terrorist who had organized large and deadly attacks, and would presumably do so again if they resumed power. Okay, let's grant the argument that the military mission in Afghanistan is important - it still is a war against a material enemy, not a tactic. World War I was not "The War Against Trench Warfare."

Declaring war on non-material enemies is the kind of open-ended military commitment with no boundaries that will be the legacy of the Current Occupant and Richard Cheney (the man who has effectively become his own branch of government).

So the candidate of experience is getting his maps mixed up, and the candidate of change is gamely adopting the concepts and rhetoric of the Bush administration.

Here is a map of where this might be leading:


Awww. Okay, that's one way to look at it.

Another way to look at it is to consult local geography - and to get very, very local, starting with one's own inner cartographer. A tired mind can draw a map where Pakistan borders Iraq. A lazy mind can conflate all the nations and cultures of Central America into one vague Spanish-speaking region. A hurting mind can look at historical maps, point to regions around oneself, and say, "That's mine." Every map contains the perspective of the mapmaker.

I'm not sure there's much we can do about these Presidents-in-waiting at the moment. I assume they'll get tired when they actually have the job - what kind of weird errors and language can we expect while they are in power? This, like 2-party rule itself and the lack of diverse, high-quality choices of candidates, is not something I can control.

Great changes have always tended to start from the local and the grass roots, and moved up. Instead of looking up to the politicians at the top, we had better look around - at ourselves and one another. We can make an effort to know where we come from and take an interest in seeing that our local affairs are run decently and that our inner cartographer is rested and clear. That's a place to begin the long march back from Heck.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

This Is An EX Pelican....!

The Book of Dead Birds: A Novel

The Book of Dead Birds by Gayle Brandeis (2003).

What is good about this novel is very good indeed. Mostly good prose (I'm not going to join the chorus that called it 'lyrical'), delivering a story that moves across a generation (panning from a daughter's story to her mother's) with a notably brisk pace. Scenes from Korean islands, G.I. brothels, and contemporary southern California are rendered vividly.

Ava Sing Lo is the black-skinned daughter of a Korean woman who is fascinated by birds; the daughter has an uncanny knack for bringing about the death of these birds. The daughter finds herself seeking out a devastated coastal area where a botulism outbreak is causing a massive "die-off" in the local bird population, helping volunteer efforts to rescue and rehabilitate as many as birds as possible. This becomes a tale of healing for herself and for her mother, whose story unfolds during the course of the novel (in a different typeface, for some reason).

The principal characters are for the most part multi-dimensional and interesting. The occasional visits by the police are a bit tin-pan alley and cartoonish, and the white G.I. who loved Ava's mother supposedly lost his heart while watching her vomit on the street. "The white puke of an angel," he calls it. Silly silly silly (and really gross).

Still, it is worth spending a little time with Miss Ava Sing Lo and her remarkable mother.

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Get To Work!

When I held the door for him he refused, gesturing me to enter before him.

He had long hair tied tightly into a tail behind his head, extending from under a greasy baseball cap. His clothes looked like he did some kind of labor involving engines - auto mechanic? or a farmer with a tractor that needed a lot of care? His beard was bushy and his eyes hidden behind dark glasses.


I heard his voice before I saw him. We approached the Deming post office at the same time, and he called out to the Mexican man selling the local newspaper by the front steps: "Hey!! Get to work!" He said this with a flashing smile and a loud chuckle as he bounded up the steps. I met him at the door and he bade me go ahead of him. "I'm in no hurry!" he said.


I looked around for voter registration forms. Didn't find any. So I got into line right behind him. His turn came and the clerk at the window looked directly at him. There was a hesitation and my fellow customer broke the silence by saying, "Hey! Get to work! You're supposed to say 'Next!', arntcha?"


"You're standing right in front of me," answered the clerk, and the customer gave that same chuckle, something between amusement and spitting.


His "get to work!" seemed to be his greeting to anyone, even strangers, yet I was the only one around him who was between jobs. On August 4, I get oriented as a brand new faculty member at a charter elementary school here in town. We moved here less than a week ago, and are still unpacking boxes and getting used to the little house we are renting. I take walks to learn my way around. There is plenty to do and yet as far as the job goes I have been feeling antsy. "Get to work!" indeed. A strange way to greet somebody and yet I smiled.


Outside, I stopped to buy the local paper seconds after my compatriot had left and, in parting, waved to the newspaper man. "Get to work!" he said and marched down Spruce Street.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

So Long, Traction Avenue, and Thanks For the Good Coffee

On Traction Avenue, east of Little Tokyo and downtown, sits Groundwork, an independent cafe catering to an artish crowd. The young folks working the counter are tattooed and multiply pierced and oddly attractive, every one of them. It has been such a nice place to hide from work for a while, nurse a cup of strong coffee (my favorite was "Bitches' Brew") with the Weekly or whatever book I've been reading. Up in the loft they have for seating, there are usually laptops open. The brick walls exhibit paintings by local artists and the art changes monthly or so.

This place is one of the comforts of living in L.A. Looking around this week, I wondered how the neighborhood will change. It is an industrial area in metamorphosis, with more retail and housing occupying the lofts and garages. ArtShare, a performance and living space similar to Providence's AS220 (where I lived myself, 1994-6), is nearby. There is a general store and a cheap Mexican restaurant. Now there is a wine bar and a more upscale restaurant. The offices and rehearsal space of Cornerstone Theatre are here as well.

So what will become of this street as it changes and gets ever more popular? Will these kids and this cafe get priced out of the neighborhood they found and made so interesting - they, who made it a neighborhood? It has happened elsewhere, time after time.

Hands together: Traction Avenue, thank you for all the good coffee and good times.

Friday, July 11, 2008

Another Blow To Our Legitimacy

The damned thing is now law.

And Barack "Change We Can Believe In" Obama supported it, although he opposed it before he supported it - as did McCain.

I feel such sadness about what has happened to my country - and such disappointment. The things to which I feel the most loyalty about my country have been utterly sold out, and this new law is another strong blow to its very legitimacy. To my mind it is that serious. Either I'm wrong, or things are too far gone for it to matter anymore.

Either way, I am losing interest in following the campaign. Under 2-party rule, with these two frauds at the head of their bumbling organizations, I don't foresee a meaningful result anyway. Okay, someone will remind me about Supreme Court appointments.

Somehow the Roberts Court doesn't appear to be doing nearly as much damage as the executive and legislative branches are doing. But that's just a heartbroken citizen talking.

Anyway, I'm busy packing.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Moving

The accumulation of things, the items that are needed, the items that have been put aside somewhere and forgotten about, the papers I never get around to sorting, all come into focus as we prepare to move 800 miles east and south.

Last month, a sliding door opened: an elementary school in Deming, New Mexico offered me a brand-new position as a performing arts teacher. Working full-time in my field for the first time in seven years was just gravy: we saw a job that would give me plenty of time to spend with Gabriel and attend yong maeng jong jin, and puts Gabriel near grandparents, mountains, and streams.

This was a clear "just do it" decision. Today the piano movers come for Sarah's piano (actually, I think of it as a very large ukulele tuner). On Saturday, the main caravan heads out and on Sunday we will arrive at a house we rented "sight unseen."

The cat could not be happier with all the boxes that are stacked up around our place. The baby is on a certain schedule and I have had to switch to late-night zazen for the time being. My sleep schedule is a little strange - and brief.

There are 39 steps leading up to the apartment. (I happen to know.) To ease recruitment of friends to help load the truck, I have been loading our kickshaws and fetters into the garage. Somehow people become more available when I tell them they will not have to climb up and down those stairs 100 times.

Said my goodbyes to the youth center yesterday and received a very nice donation to Gabriel's education fund from my boss. Goodbye, South Central. Goodbye, skid row. Goodbye, downtown and Little Tokyo, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal, Kwan Seum Bosal.


Monday, July 07, 2008

Remembrances of Bookstores Past

I remember great bookstores like lost relatives. A recent entry on this blog reminded me of the lamentably-gone College Hill Bookstore in Providence, Rhode Island and that has led me to consider the loss of some other wonderful book stores.

Only this spring, Los Angeles saw the closing of Dutton's in Brentwood. Appalling. This was a lovely store with a courtyard and a coffee shop, thoroughly independent with a loyal following. Authors read from all sorts of works there. It was a place of literature, fantasy, argument, and strong coffee. A place where an eighteen-year old selling cappucino exhorted the virtues of a novel she was reading, and one saw other young people flipping through the latest Brick or scribbling furiously in journals. More than once, I encountered Dustin Hoffman roaming through the aisles. The first time I spotted him, he actually announced himself by carrying on a rather loud cell phone conversation as he moved through the store and out onto San Vicente Boulevard.
The store closed heavily in debt as rents have gone up all over Los Angeles and developers have eyed the property on which the store sat. Even so, the concensus is that this is a big loss to the neighborhood and the city.

I leave Los Angeles praying for the continued existence of Skylight Books in Los Feliz. I will miss few things about Los Angeles but browsing at Skylight is one of them. The book store was actually owned and operated by a cat who lived at the store and often curled up with people who sat down and read books there. (The cat passed away last year. It made the local news.) Skylight Books is also where I got to meet Jonathan Winters, a day I will not forget even if it was brief and even if Winters was a bit tired and cranky. (I have spoken with celebrities and political leaders, I have met cardinals and princes; with Jonathan Winters, I turned into a shy eight-year old.)

My original days as a book crawler were in Providence, which has been home to many fine book stores past and present. The College Hill Book Store was a wonderful independent shop sitting on Thayer Street, an east-side thoroughfare that used to be a bit funky. There were bars and independent businesses there. Two music stores, Tom's Tracks and In Your Ear, were iconic places in the 1980's. Sometimes there were fights on the street. If you were prowling late at night, you could get something to eat at the IHOP. There was also an art cinema, the Avon, and a few good places to eat. Much of these independent businesses held on for a long time but have succumbed to high rents, and Thayer Street is now a place of chain stores. Starbucks, the Gap, Johnny Rockets.

College Hill is a place where I browsed and ordered books. It is a place where, at sixteen or seventeen, I flirted hopelessly with a girl who worked the counter part-time. I watched for her and when she commented that she liked my beret (I wore a black beret in those days - oh dear, it is the truth) I bought her one of her own and left it for her as a present.

In the Fox Point neighborhood, I used to visit Seward's Folly, a lovely catastrophe of a book store on Meeting Street. The owner was an elderly bearded man who told me he briefly worked as a speechwriter for the Truman administration. He was erudite on any number of topics and was often engaged in political debate with someone when I visited. (I have a distinct memory of a local politician wrestling with him and being outgunned.) The books were not exactly in meticulous order, so it was a place for determined browsers. The place was packed in and positively reeked of booksmell - yellowing paper and bindings, literature going out of print and fading out of memory, gems waiting to appear in the middle of a stack.

Seward's Folly had to struggle for its existence a while with a nearby video store, which wanted to expand and was bidding hard for the Seward's shop. The video store, a local favorite, finally won and Seward's Folly was out.

Merlin's Closet was another Providence book store that is close to my heart. It changed neighborhoods a few times, but the location I remember best was on South Water Street, near the Rhode Island School of Design and the Providence River. The proprietor, Elliot Shorter, was best known as a folk singer who busked around Providence and often played a set at the Cable Car Cinema before the movie got started. (Imagine - live entertainment before your movie. ) Elliot is a large black man, a veteran, and a staunch Republican interested in the occult. He is still around but in failing health, an old friend of our family and a vivid part of my childhood (he sat in our home and sang songs to make me laugh - he showed me my first chords on a guitar.) He loved his books so much, he tended to overprice them so as not to part with them too quickly. This was terrible for business, but books were his family. I understand. Merlin's Closet was not a place I bought many books, but I could get lost there for hours admiring the strange collection he had assembled.

Thank goodness, some of Providence's great book shops remain. Cellar Stories is still on Mathewson Street (and online). Mike, the owner, opened the first bookstore cafe in Providence, near Wayland Square. Some time after Mike left that place behind, it became Myopic Books and Myopic still serves that neighborhood. Brown University still runs a decent book store on Thayer Street, and I was rather pleased with a recent arrival, Symposium Books on downtown's Westminster Street. Small, this one, not a place to sit down and read for a while, but it has an interesting selection, and a coffee shop conveniently opened on the corner.


Bookstores are up against enormous challenges - internet sales, climbing rents, rumors of declining readership (or even declining literacy) - yet people like them. Again, I remember lost book stores like members of family who have gone, and for comfort I look to the ones who remain, welcoming me and showing me new things.

Saturday, July 05, 2008

Love or Bowel?

Sarah Is A Voracious Reader

I've heard of devouring a good book, but THIS is ridiculous....




My First Radio Play Airs on September 26

For some time, I have been eagerly (somewhat nerdishly, I suppose) haunting the website of the Shoestring Radio Theatre waiting for them to post their summer schedule so I can see the listing for my first radio play.

Brief recap: on a dare from an old Conservatory friend, Mr. Lance Roger Axt, I wrote a radio script and had myself a ball, reading the pages out loud and laughing at all hours of the night. It was submitted first to a national audio theatre festival, and then to Shoestring up in San Francisco. Shoestring recorded the play this spring, and are now set to air it on San Francisco public radio September 26. (You can also listen to it online at their website.)

Here's the page with the listing. Is it not rather marvelous that people are still doing radio theatre? God, they've got a new play up every week...

Friday, July 04, 2008

Something Patriotic

Was going to post a word or two about the 4th of July. Then the baby pooped and breakfast wasn't done and we're going to San Clemente today.

Happily, I came across something stirring I would have been happy to say myself. So I share it with you here.

Happy 4th.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

On the Knighthood of Salman Rushdie

At the Wheeler School, the graduating seniors used to receive an engraved hardcover book of their choosing. We would supply the book, sans paper jacket, and the school would have its logo (in those days, a torch) engraved in gold on the cover. It was then presented to us along with our diplomas at commencement.

The year was 1989 and against the expectations of some, it looked like I would make it to graduation without flunking math or getting kicked out for being an insubordinate pup. It was time to choose my book for graduation, and I chose a book I had just started reading: Salman Rushdie's The Satanic Verses. (Here is the original cover art.)

During senior year at Wheeler, a year which also saw the publication of my father's first novel, this novel blew up like a landmine, instantly making its author's name a household word. Initial literary reviews were positive, but the reaction in several muslim-dominated countries was like a California wildfire. It was considered blasphemous and offensive to Islam. There were demonstrations that escalated into riots and book-burnings. Several countries banned the novel. Bomb threats were called in at book stores in the US and the UK; and a few bombs actually went off. Many stores kept it behind the counter or didn't sell it at all. I seem to remember a translator of the novel being stabbed to death, and there were numerous death threats to Rushdie, publishers, and booksellers.

Around February of 1989, when I was asked to choose my book for graduation, the Ayatollah Khomeini of Iran issued a religious judgment ("fatwa") against Salman Rushdie by name, calling for his execution by any faithful Muslim. An Iranian businessman offered up a bounty, and others added to the purse. Rushdie went into hiding for what would be almost a decade, never sleeping in the same location more than 2 or 3 nights consecutively. It was a bizarre and outrageously successful assault on literature, intellectual freedom, and the west itself.

I chose The Satanic Verses as my graduation book, just to express solidarity. Never heard of Rushdie. I ordered a copy from The College Hill Book Store on Thayer Street, near the school. (It still appalls me this bookstore doesn't exist anymore. It was a great bookstore with tall shelves, narrow aisles, and a black and white checkered floor.) Before I handed the book in, I read the first two chapters and was drawn in by the novel itself and its characters; I then had to wait through the spring to graduation, when I would get the book back and finish reading it that summer.

Last Wednesday, on the same day the Queen stripped Robert Mugabe of his knighthood, Rushdie was knighted. This was announced way back at the end of Tony Blair's term as Prime Minister, but the actual dubbing took place last week with little fanfare.

The palace did not mention Rushdie's honor would take place that day; and there was no mention of it on the radio news later - they only mentioned Mugabe. Rushdie's great honor before the Queen took place much as he lived from 1989-98, a time when his public appearances were exceedingly rare and always a surprise.

Sir Salman Rushdie slipped in and out of Buckingham palace, very likely for security reasons, as furtive as "Uccello di Firenze" fleeing the pirate ship in chapter two of Rushdie's new novel. A sad, lingering echo of the 'fatwa' period.

Through the chilling effects of terror and controversy, zealots and tyrants can win even when they lose. I knew it at age 18, watching a writer forced into exile by the leader of another country while the rest of the world looked on, sputtering and helpless. And I am still getting the message at age 37, watching what has happened to the United States in the name of "fighting terror." Zealots and tyrants can lose the battle yet win the battlefield.
A fitting time to learn, a week later, about Rushdie receiving his honor without announcement or fanfare, like a man who still has a bounty on his head.