Recalled to Life

Back from hiatus, back from Vermont College of Fine Arts Post Graduate Writers’ Conference.

Moved over from my former host and server — thank you, Christine Frank!

Started second semester of library school at Pratt.  In the midst of the first draft of “Lit Again in Our Lifetime,” a novel of espionage and a love affair set during the Berlin Olympics of 1936, and awaiting an editor’s revision of “Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me,” a novel set in Bermuda in 1941, when some but not yet all of the world was at war.

So, how did you spend your summer vacation?

Every Time I See You Falling

I have to admit, I used to like to watch the Winter Olympics, but now I can barely glance at a television screen without wincing. Speed skating, which was being broadcast in a restaurant where I had dinner Saturday night strikes me, as I remarked to my companion, as “a lot of fun to do, but dull as hell to watch.” Even before the awful luge death, I had planned to avoid the endless coverage, all the slipping and sliding and spills, never mind those overwrought, overproduced mini-documentaries on the gold contender, “Svetlana was born with the blood … of a champion.”

I never wanted to be a figure skater. I have weak ankles and no athletic traits. Also, I hate the cold and hate getting up early, and in those mini-documentaries, stories are always told about the mother of the figure skater getting up at 3:00 to drive Brianna to the skating rink four hours away. It is always the mother of the American women skaters who do this, by the way, partly because Europe is presumably more compact (that is, the rinks are closer and perhaps accessible by train?) but also because Brianna, as an American, has an indefatigable work ethic, while Svetlana was just born that way. (Someone needs to tell the sneering partisans in the broadcast booth that it’s okay to stop hating the Russians now.)

I’m enough of a fogey to state that I liked it better when it was figure skating, before it became a skate-jumping tournament. Also, I can no longer stand to watch some poor kid sacrifice a lifetime of training to the momentary slip in a triple triple lutz thirty seconds into the program. Every time I see them fall, I change the channel.

Originally published Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Looks Like an Inside Job

Queens Gazette which, in case you have mislaid your copy, details the destruction of a piano which was placed in Athens Square Park by the nonprofit group Sing for Hope. As a summertime public art project which has become a kind of New York tradition (the cows, the Gates, the waterfalls), Sing for Hope has placed sixty pianos in public places around the five boroughs. “Play Me, I’m Yours!” the pianos invite.

One piano was placed in Athens Square Park in Astoria, home of the Steinway piano factory, the last active piano factory in New York City, which in the 19th century numbered 171. The last factory to close was the Sohmer factory, on Vernon Boulevard in Astoria, which closed in 1982, spent some time as an office furniture warehouse, and was declared an historic landmark in March, 2007, and has been in the process of being converted into condos for the past couple of years delayed, I can only surmise, by the credit crunch of the recession. If you have visited Socrates Sculpture Park, you have seen the former Sohmer factory with its landmark mansard-roofed clock tower. Sohmers are not Steinways, but they are nothing to sneeze at. When Irving Berlin wrote, “I Love a Piano,” he write it on a Sohmer.

Here is a photo and an excerpt from the fascinating (especially if you are a geek about the history of neighborhoods) report from the Landmarks Preservation Commission.

Why do I know all this? A few weeks before that factory was declared an historic landmark, I found a Sohmer piano put out on the street for Saturday large trash pickup. I have written about it hereand am also developing it into a larger piece because, how can I put this, I just love pianos. I still have the Sohmer I rescued from the street, even though the soundboard is ruined and several of the keys don’t work at all. I have not come up with the $8,000 I need to have it fully restored to its former glory. But I can’t let go.

“The badly vandalized piano at Athens Square Park, 30th Street and 30th Avenue,” reads the article in the Western Queens Gazette, “had all of its keys and part of its inner gears removed.”

Indeed. The vandalism is quite specific and specialized. The piano was not smashed, axed, beat up, beat in, set on fire or otherwise generally molested. But its keys and part of its inner gears were removed. This particular neighborhood is full of retired tuners and technicians. The violated piano was a Kimball, a Chicago-based manufacturer. The vandal carefully removed the keys from their supporting nails and left the frame. But why, as Keith Morrison on Dateline NBC would ask, why would anyone do that?

Originally published Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Parting, Sweet Sorrow, Etc.

I just finished our last workshop in Dinty Moore’s Literary Nonfiction class at the Kenyon Summer Writers Conference. An exceptionally kind and talented group of us. My new friend Nina and I walked over to get sandwiches from the deli to take on the plane with us and already the vibe in beautiful downtown Gambier and across the campus had modulated from that of a literary conference to that of an Episcopalian retreat. The Episcopalians are everywhere. Specifically, they are down the hall from the computer lab where I am writing this blog post, singing hymns, as good Protestant folk ought.

But where are the mimes? There ought to be mimes. Actually, they are here, but nobody has seen them yet. Or heard them. (OK, that was a cheap shot.) We had heard that a teenage troupe was in the week before, and mourned not seeing them. Then a few days later, we saw a sign “Mime Parking.” Photo op! I suspect they are being kept busy in one of the three theaters on the Kenyon campus. That’s right. 1600 students. Three theaters.

So, an end to my glorious week without blackberry, cell phone (my choice), television (except for the occasional updates on the World Cup and the marathon tennis match, courtesy of the bar at the Village Inn), newspaper (except again glances at the headlines of the New York Times online)or anything but sitting in workshop, reading work, being sent forth to do new work, and listening to readings. I predict re-entry will be saddening.

Originally published Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Social Worker

The holiday party held annually in the lobby of my building took place yesterday and provided an excellent opportunity to observe the changing demographic of the building. More young people are moving in, particularly young people starting families. There are two Jennifers, each with a newborn baby and a shy, kind-eyed husband. This is all good, in a bittersweet way. It is desirable to have young people about, and it is best if a co-op is occupied one hundred percent by owners but as I wrote last year, the disappearance of the old people makes me one of the old people.

I went down to the lobby with my neighbor Michael who knows more of the neighbors than I ever will. “That’s ‘cause you work,” he told me, which was, until recently, true. “I’m around all the time.” It is also because Michael, as the saying goes, could charm a dog off a meat truck.

For example, I introduced myself to a neighbor I thought was new to the building and learned she has lived here for two years, that she has a cool job in the music industry, and that she bathes her cat every day with some allergen-killing shampoo. She is a cute, chipper young woman with the sturdy, compact build of a gymnast because, as I later learned, she spent two decades performing gymnastics.

She had vaulted over to the hors d’oeuvres when Michael and I were approached by someone who was new to the building. He told us his apartment number. Michael, who goes to every open house the building holds and has the blueprints of the whole place locked in his memory, informed me, “That’s the old Melman place.”

Ooooooh.” I turned and tried to get an impression of the new guy: dark hair, dark eyes, dark shirt, black jeans, an unplaceable accent. “Mr. and Mrs. Melman. They died within a day of each other. She died and then he died the next day.”

My new neighbor looked distressed.

“No, it’s romantic,” I assured him. “They were married for like 70 years. They were like Cathy and Heathcliff.”

“If Cathy and Heathcliff were two short old Jewish people,” Michael added. “So, what do you do for a living?”

This was unusually blunt: for the party, for Michael, for the stage of the conversation we were in. But yet, there was something about the new guy that solicited a demand for an explanation. Who was he?

“I’m a social worker,” he said.

“Oh? Where?”

“In a clinic. In New Jersey.”

“Long commute.”

“I have a car.”

Oh, do you? Michael and I nodded and withheld the unasked questions. Among them:   How can a social worker afford a car andthe old Melman place, a two-bedroom on the top floor? And Do you live there alone? And God, the place must be pristine! The same tenants for 50 years and then newly renovated! And What is your accent? And Why are you pretending to be a social worker?And “in New Jersey”Could you possibly be less specific? AndWhy is the aura of intrigue about you as palpable as fog? And Can we go see your apartment? Now?

We are all dying to get into one another’s apartments. The units named after the first dozen letters of the alphabets all have unique layouts: the studios, the compact one-bedrooms, the wastefully large one-bedrooms and the highly coveted two-bedrooms. The units named after the next dozen letters of the alphabet, on the other side of the lobby, follow the same patterns, only flipped. Even if your apartment is exactly the same as that of your neighbor, even, if, oh, say you were to lock yourself out of your apartment when the door slams shut behind you on your way to take out the recycling and you have to cajole the woman downstairs into letting you cross through her apartment and climb out her window onto the fire escape so you can break into your own apartment through the living room window, you would still pause and marvel at what she had done with the space, how she had met the challenges of the literal nooks and crannies that all the apartments have. It is a pre-war building filled with the quirks and perks of the time: built-in bookcases, high archways, deep closets, meandering hallways, foyers, occasionally, a raised dining area just off the kitchen.

The Gymnast bounded back and we introduced her to the Social Worker. I added, after some preliminary chatting, “He bought the old Melman place.”

“Oh! They died within a day of each other!” she told him pertly.

“Did they die in the apartment?” he asked, understandably apprehensive at the party line on his new place.

“No.” I then realized I had no idea. Mrs. Melman had been in the hospital, but who knew about Mr.?  Ambulances are a routine sight outside the building.  When we ask “Who is it?” of a neighbor watching the EMS workers unload the gurney onto the sidewalk, the answer is usually given by apartment number, as in “Who is it?” “5N.” “At least, I . . . don’t think so.”

“Um, I um . . . cheese . . . right back . . .”

The Social Worker headed toward the refreshment table.

“That guy is not a social worker,” I said.

“I was thinking the same thing,” said the Gymnast. “There’s something just, like — ”

“He’s a spy, obviously.” I’ve been reading a lot of Alan Furst’s novels recently. “But not a very good one. Because spies should try to blend in more. Like those Russians in New Jersey.”  (New Jersey!)  “There’s nothing about him that says ‘social worker.’ What everything about him says is ‘international man of mystery.’”

As it happened, when I left the party, the international man of mystery joined me in the elevator and carefully asked me to repeat my apartment number.

“I’ve been thinking about having a gathering,” he said. “In my apartment.”

“Oh!” I was pleased that one of the young people would consider inviting me to a gathering, that I was not yet manifestly one of the old people; pleased, also, that I would get to see the old Melman place. “That would be nice.”

Only later did I realize – he never said what kind of “gathering.”

First published Monday, December 20, 2010

The Stakes Are High, the World is Bleak

I may be late to the party here, or maybe early, caught, as I am, between news of the movie and the publication of the book, which came out four years ago.

The film Winter’s Bone was last month screened at Sundance, where it won the Grand Jury prize, and the Waldo Salt Screenwriting Award. Skimming the news from Sundance on the internet, I saw that Winter’s Bone is about an intrepid teenage girl who struggles to keep her family together after the disappearance of their father.

Odd, I thought. How did that happen? My script Wildflowers of the West is about an intrepid teenage girl who struggles to keep her family together after the death of her father. And there is no market for such a thing, no, none, none at all. What was I thinking?

During my trip to the Austin Film Festival, I barely could spit out the logline (which I felt I had really, really boiled down, boiled down to caramel) before something shiny apparently moved behind my head and my listener was gone. In one case, we were going around a table telling a producer about our projects, and I followed a guy who said, “My script is like ‘E.T. meets Toy Story.’” “My two favorite movies!” cried the producer. “Send it to me!” She then turned her perfect teeth on me, and I got as far as “an intrepid teenage girl …” before the light went out of her eyes.

“Who is your audience?” snapped another woman at the festival, when we casually exchanged loglines. She sounded quite irritated, as though “intrepid teenage girl” was the most repellent phrase she’d ever heard. We were standing in line to see “Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire.”

Based on the novel. Aye, there’s the rub. Winter’s Bone was indeed a novel first. I have spent the weekend reading it and it is one hell of a novel.

The heroine, Ree Dolly, is more than intrepid; she is one of the fiercest and bravest young women I’ve ever encountered in fiction. An Ozark teenager, she has been raising her two younger brothers single-handedly since her mother went crazy (“Mom’s morning pills turned her into a cat, a breathing thing that sat near heat and occasionally made a sound.”) and her father’s primary occupation is cooking meth, which is a kind of family tradition. Her father, gone missing yet again, has put up the house and land for his bail bond. Unless Ree finds him, she, her mother and brothers will be “livin’ in the fields like fuckin’ dogs, man.”

This was published as a Young Adult novel. Don’t ask me how, although that explains how I missed it. I never did understand the YA market, not when my novel was published as a YA, and not since. My own novel is indeed Anne of Green Gables compared to Winter’s Bone¸which our old high school librarian wouldn’t have gotten through three pages of before declaring it unsuitable. The language is filthy. Drugs are everywhere. Sex too is everywhere but far less pleasurable. Love is a slap in the face or a good hard pinch that at least shows you care. Ree’s “grand hope” for her brothers is that “these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean.” And then, there are the bad guys.

Apparently Daniel Woodrell, who lives in the Ozarks, coined the phrase, or perhaps invented the genre of “country noir.” He has written eight novels, another one of which,Woe to Live On was made into the film Ride with the Devil. In this, the lead character is an intrepid teenage … boy.

He writes about teenagers for the same reason I do. The stakes are high, the world is bleak.

I am now going to buy everything he has written. And so should you.

Here is his author’s page on Amazon. And here is an interview with him in The Southeast Review.

Originally published Sunday, February 21, 2010

Stephen King, Stephen King, You’re Afraid of Everything

This made me laugh:

http://kenyonreview.org/blog/?p=7992#more-7992

My Astoria

I have recently acquired a pen pal in St. Louis, my home town, who was under the mistaken impression that I live in L.A., due probably to my recent interview for the Women and Hollywood blog. He wrote from a gloomy day in St. Louis, grumbling that he didn’t even want to hear about how the weather was where I was (L.A., he presumed) and complaining about the weeds taking over the zoysia grass. I’m sure zoysia is common worldwide, but I don’t hear a lot of talk about it in these parts. This is probably because I live in New York City, where talk of lawn care in general is thin on the ground. But the word “zoysia” immediately evoked my South St. Louis grandparents and their too-perfect lawn.

“I don’t live in L.A.!” I wrote back to him. “I live in Astoria, Queens.”

He wrote back that although he had grown up in Brooklyn (back when there were still Brooklyn Dodgers) he knew little of Astoria except for having traveled through it to visit a relative.

Well, that was Astoria, originally. A place to travel through. F. Scott Fitzgerald describes it thus, in the 20’s, before Astoria was transformed by the great wave of Greek immigrants in the 50’s. Back then, it was just a dismal backstage boneyard feeding the roaring 20’s maw of Manhattan:

This is a valley of ashes-a fantastic farm where ashes grow like wheat into ridges and hills and grotesque gardens; where ashes take the forms of houses and chimneys and rising smoke and, finally, with a transcendent effort, of men who move dimly and already crumbling through the powdery air. Occasionally a line of gray cars crawls along an invisible track, gives out a ghastly creak, and comes to rest, and immediately the ash-gray men swarm up with leaden spades and stir up an impenetrable cloud, which screens their obscure operations from your sight.

A place, in other words, no decent Princeton grad like the narrator of “The Great Gatsby,” would be caught dead stopping in, even for gas, traveling between his “bond business” on Wall Street and the great West Egg of Long Island to Gatsby’s mansion. How awful, to have to witness the “obscure operations” of the working class from your Ivy League gaze.

And popular culture has been no kinder. The people of Queens are depicted in the movies as buffoonish ethnics, the defeated lower middle class, slamming crockery and stepping on their vowels, or a curiously unethnic, untough and un-accented Hollywood baby-faced Spiderman.

What I had been about to tell my pen pal about Astoria was that I chose it, or it chose me, for a variety of practical reasons – its persistent lack of cool keeps the prices down, its proximity to Manhattan repeatedly startles visitors from other boroughs, and primarily, its sense of déjà vu. “It is like South St. Louis,” I would have written him, “except substitute Greeks for Germans, and I don’t know which is more xenophobic.”

Well, I do know which is more xenophobic. For one thing, the Germans are colder towards everyone, even their own kin, while the Greeks are more clannish.

Also, “xenophobia” is their word — “xenos” from the Greek meaning foreigner and “phobos” from the Greek meaning fear. I have lived in the same neighborhood for 15 years and only recently has the butcher or the tailor at the dry cleaner given me a reluctant nod in response to my “Good morning.” Even my saying it in Greek elicited no kinship: “kalimera” brought nothing but smirks or blank faces. “You Greek?” they ask. “No, actually I’m from –” I start to reply, but already the shades are drawn and the front door lock has clicked.

It would also be helpful to remember here that the word “barbarian”, now understood to mean an uncivilized person, means, in Greek, “one who does not speak Greek.” It was thought, according to noted Classics professor Elizabeth Vandiver, to derive from the Ancient Greeks’ mockery of the languages of other tribes: “Bar bar bar,” they would say to the mongrel tribe leaders, much as we say “blah blah blah” to indicate the speech of those whose interests and patience do not match our own.

What I would have told my St. Louis pen pal is that the pre-war buildings and the tidy gardens of Astoria remind me of South St. Louis. I bought my apartment because I loved the pre-war building, about which I have written here. The building has lovely arch doorways, and beautiful landscaping (though no zoysia) to which several of my neighbors contribute the whole of their weekends. My neighbors and I are not as close as I would like. But I realize that in NewYork City, even in the “ashes” of its glitter, that lack of neighborliness is a luxury problem. My building is diligently tended to, scrupulously clean, generically attractive, as the lobby of an “extended care facility” might be attractive, full of unused couches and artificial flowers. No, my building is not cool. But it is lovely.

But my grandmother would have been pleased. I would say “delighted” but “delighted” was never her style. I was able to buy the apartment in the first place because of a small inheritance from her and her frugal, reserved lifestyle. When I stepped into my then-empty apartment as a prospective buyer, I felt that my grandmother’s dishes would fit into the kitchen. I felt that she would have approved although, had she been there, she would have had no one to talk to, Germans and Greeks being what they are.

Recently, the Wall Street Journal was the latest to “discover” Astoria
as a “gentrifying” and “hip” emerging new nabe. We have been down this road before. Roomy apartments! Young hip filmmakers! Close to Manhattan! Up and coming! Have a baklava!

But on second thought, you know what? Stay away.

Originally published Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Emotionally Draining, Physically Exhausting, Please Don’t Let It End

Kenyon Day 4.

Quite a heady time here in the brutal central Ohio heat. I had planned on using the fantastic-looking pool here, but Kenyon seems to make its money by renting out its lovely dorms and buildings to a variety of groups throughout the summer. Last week was Job’s Daughters and a group of teenage mimes. This week it is writers and teenage swim camp. I have not seen the teenage swimmers swim, although I have heard from an eyewitness that they are profiles in endurance. On dry land, they stand in a herds, feeding, eyes glazed either because it is early in the morning (at breakfast) and they are teenagers, or because they have spent all day swimming (at dinner) and are exhausted. I had hoped to use the pool, but there are only slivers of availability.

So yesterday I went on a trail hike. The assignment was to describe myself at a moment in time and my goal here at Kenyon was to generate work that was not about me as a child. “Describe myself at a specific moment in time,” and I wanted to be 1) an adult and 2) happy. It took a hell of a lot of trail hiking to come up with something and by the time I got back to Mouse Cottage, as I have dubbed my over-air-conditioned dwelling which I share with two roommates and a noctural rodent, I had time only to shower, change and shuffle slowly, sore-muscled, off to the dining hall, where the teenager swimmers were huddled around the soft serve ice cream machine, silently pumping and nudging each other aside.

In this morning’s session, two people cried when they read their pieces. I cry when they cry. I cry at anything. I haven’t cried reading my own pieces aloud but I experience a different, marvelous confluence of nervous sensations: my hands shake, my palms sweat, and my voice trembles. Lovely. Can’t wait for my public reading Friday night!

Back to Mouse Cottage now, to change into my trail clothes.

Originally published Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me

In the time since I last wrote about the vandalized Astoria piano, much has changed.

I was laid off from my “day job” in legal marketing.

My primary and immediate response to this has been to focus almost all of my energy on revising my novel, Do Nothing Till You Hear From Me.  The novel takes place in Bermuda during the spring of 1941.  During my revision process, I have kept my leisure reading “in period” in order to keep the voice of the novel “yar.”

Among the nonfiction:  a collection of essays by George Orwell (always a pleasure), Facing Unpleasant Facts, John Steinbeck’s so under-crowed-about dispatches from the European theater, in a collection called Once There Was a War, transcriptions of Edward R. Murrow’s broadcasts from the London Blitz called (of course)This is London, and a heart-rending accounting of Murrow, Harriman and Gil Wynant by Lynne Olson, entitled Citizens of London.

In addition to the John Lawton “Inspector Troy” series of novels (particularly Second Violin, Blackout and Riptide), I have read and can happily recommend several contemporary novels which are set in the period.  A Fine Radiance by Lauren Belfer, The Postmistressby Sarah Blake and The Information Officer by Mark Mills.  A Fierce Radiance follows the story of Life magazine photographer Claire Shipley and her involvement with a doctor on a medical team racing to perfect the formula for pencillin with the hope of saving the lives of millions of soldiers (since so many of the wounded died from the infection to their wounds when they might have survived the wound itself).  It’s a terrific evocation of the New York City of that period, particularly of my old neighborhood on the west side of Greenwich Village.

The Postmistress weaves together the story of three women, two of them residents of a small New England coastal town and the third a radio reporter and Murrow colleague with the wonderfully Dickensian name of Frankie Bard.  Her reports from the London Blitz are both frank and bardic, and they reach into the lives of the two stateside characters with poignant and tragic consequences.

The Information Officer details another blitz — that of the island of Malta.  With its fast-paced and (almost unbearably) suspenseful plot and its witty, sexy characters, I wish British television would just hurry up and produce it already.  It contains the best exchange of dialogue I have read recently.  I can reproduce it here without spoilers since I’m not saying who, to whom, when or in what context:

“You threw him out of a plane?”
“You make it sound easier than it was.  He fought me like a tiger all the way.”

Originally published Wednesday, November 10, 2010

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