Saturday, December 20, 2014

Pretty sunset


Tonight.

Done


Today, I've completed all my applications for graduate school. Ten schools, applications are complete and paid for and at least three letters of recommendation have been sent to each school.

The schools I've applied to are:

  • University of Iowa Non-Fiction Writing Program
  • University of California at Riverside Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts
  • Otis College of Art and Design MFA Writing Program
  • Mount St. Mary's College MFA Creative Writing Program
  • Louisiana State University MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of Pittsburgh MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of Alabama MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of Arizona MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of New Mexico MFA Creative Writing Program
  • University of New Orleans MFA Creative Writing Program

Now I want to contract a case of amnesia, until I hear from each school some time in March.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Girl on a Swing


She is alone, a woman or perhaps a big, ungainly girl. She is by herself in the park on the swing. It is a cool winter day, a touch of rain in the air, the sky grey.

Her garnet red hair floats like a nimbus about her head as she pumps with her feet, knees bent and then fully extended, toes pointing to the sky.

She wears baggy jeans and a jacket that rides up above her rump, cradled in the broad hoop of the belt seat. Her backpack and shoes are piled in the sand by the strong steel legs of the swingset.

I don't know how long she has been here, but as I watch, taking an afternoon break, she continues to swing without stopping, without slowing. She was swinging before I came out. She will still be swinging when I leave. The chains sing rhythmically in the shackles and hooks: up and back, up and out, singing ringing chinging.

She is not swinging for me. She is not swinging for the handful of toddlers across the walkway, playing in the sand. She is swinging for herself.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Green shoots


Today it rained again, for the third time in two weeks. It's supposed to rain more today, heavily with possible thunderstorms.

I took Jack the dog for a walk this morning during a steady sprinkle. With only two weeks of rain, now there are fresh, green new blades of grass coming up all along the road.

I haven't seen deer in our woods since the rains came. With new growth to browse on, I think they are staying in the park and wilder parts of the mountain, instead of coming close to our houses and neighborhoods.


Saturday, December 13, 2014

Making seasons bright


This morning it is clear, bright and cold, after the storm.

My trip to Riverside was a good thing. I was invited to sit in on a three-hour graduate seminar, discussing regional fiction. There were about a dozen students around a long conference table, and three of the students gave multi-media presentation based on a work of fiction, that they supplemented with facts, history, photos and video to tie in the work with a larger issue. Although I didn't have a syllabus so I'm not sure, I concluded that the notion was that, as grad students, they were preparing how to teach about literature this way.

The three presentations I saw were all well put together, ably presented, and fascinating. One was about the high plains, based on Annie Proulx's "Brokeback Mountain." Another was about gentrification in poor neighborhoods of Portland, based on works by two local Portalnd authors. The third was based on an older work by a local Southern California writer, Victor Villasenor.

For each presentation, the discussion was lively yet respectful; analytical and targeted. The students clearly were engaged in the work, and in the issues raised. But in addition to this, the professor always brought it back to the main point - the writing. Yes, we are passionate about, say, the displacement of poor African Americans by hipsters in Portland's north east neighborhood. But how does the author Michael Jackson, in his novel, convey this to the reader? We kept circling back to the craft, the work.

The professor was encouraging and open and drew out responses from the students. She made the seminar a 'safe place' to have a discussion, even when it went into tricky areas  like race.

I sat, mostly silent, sometimes nodding my head or uh-huh-ing, but really I was itching to join in the discussion. As a guest I felt it would not be right to do so, but every once in a while I couldn't prevent a "gosh, that's great!" or other brief comment from escaping my lips. It was exciting to witness - it would be even more exciting to be a part of it.

The students and the professor were very welcoming to me, and though I didn't really get a chance to talk in depth to any of them (it wasn't the right context), I felt I learned a lot about the program.

The following day I met with another professor, over coffee, and he generously gave me an hour of his time. This time, I was able to share about my ambitions and the work I want to do - he drew me out, even asking me questions about the work that I hadn't thought of before.  I came away inspired, and very hopeful that my application to the program at Riverside would be accepted.

The other schools on my list are too distant for me to visit before applying, so I won't have this opportunity to observe them. Some of the programs invite accepted students to visit before they make their decisions, and I will take full advantage of that - if accepted.

When I finally made it home to Topanga, I felt excited and inspired, and felt like a thrilling future is on the horizon. What a good feeling.

Thursday, December 11, 2014

Waiting for rain

View from my room

It's been raining like mad in the Bay area and northern California today, gale force winds and flash floods, power outages and fallen trees.

We're expecting the same storm to hit southern California late tonight and most of the day tomorrow.

I'm driving from Riverside to Los Angeles tomorrow, and will probably be in the thick of it. My planning went awry - early reports of the storm had it hitting today and easing by tomorrow, which is why I decided to come to Riverside last night for an appointment this morning.

I'm here in a pleasant enough motel room, waiting to hear rainfall begin later tonight. I'm trying to plan when to head back to LA - surely after the peak of rush hour has ended. But what of the storm?

I'll just have to wait and see.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Dinos for Christmas


When you drive in to Riverside, California on the 60 freeway, the first thing you see is a barren and rocky hillside with a giant woolly mammoth on top. This is the Jurupa Mountains Discovery Center.

I got a good look at it, because traffic was moving slow.

By the time I was five miles from my exit to downtown, traffic was creeping along at five miles an hour.

I'm staying in a modest hotel - or, rather, motel. It's a revamped '60s 2-story Travelodge or something similar, but it's clean and pleasant and the bed is comfortable. It's just down the street from the famous Mission Inn, which, in the holiday season, is not available.


Just as well. After I checked in, I wandered down to the Mission Inn, thinking I might have dinner in its fabulous historic restaurants. But in this holiday season, the place is tarted up for Christmas, and the joint is jumping. There were hordes of elderly folks, dressed in their holiday sweaters, brandishing their Cadillac-style souped-up walkers, taking selfies in front of the glittering lights and giant Nutcrackers.

The nightmare before Christmas!
I wandered through the Presidential bar, but it was full to the brim, people laughing and drinking under the portraits of the presidents - predominated by Republicans, I noted. I passed the Kettle Corn stand, the place where you can pay to ride a Cinderella Coach, and a gift shop called Miss Tiggy Winkles. I couldn't take any more. I ended up at a taqueria down the street, with a good chile relleno and a cold Tecate.

Tomorrow I meet a professor from the UCRiverside Creative Writing Program, and observe her seminar. Then I meet with the staff administrator of the program. I'm going to walk and drive around town to get a feel for the place.

It's supposed to start raining hard tomorrow night. I'll be driving back to LA on Friday. Maybe I'll stop off and visit the woolly mammoth on my way.


Mom's Bar


In his 1956 novel "A Walk on the Wild Side," Nelson Algren lays out his "three rules of life":

"Never play cards with a man called Doc. Never eat at a place called Mom's. Never sleep with a woman whose troubles are worse than your own."

I'm not much of a card player. And if I look back over my life, I'm grateful to the male acquaintances who were kind enough, when it came to me, to ignore the third rule. But I've been pretty steadfast about never eating at a place called Mom's.

That doesn't mean you can't DRINK at a place called Mom's.

Mom's Bar is on a undistinguished stretch of Santa Monica Boulevard in West LA. It's in the same block as a huge Smart n Final that turns its back on the street, and its other neighbors are a Persian grocery, a Thai massage joint, a little pharmacy and a nail salon.

On a lazy Saturday afternoon the place is almost empty, just a couple of guys at the end of the bar, a single bartender lazily polishing glasses, a football game on the TV. I sat down and ordered a rum and coke.

Mom's is just a neighborhood bar; it's nothing fancy, and it doesn't even serve food. But it's got a following, especially at happy hour.

When you sit at a bar, you probably don't pay much attention to the bar itself. But when a bar is built with comfort in mind, people want to settle in, and maybe order another one.  One key component of a good bar is the bar rail, something sturdy, smooth and comfortable to lean up against. Some bars have a padded vinyl cushion running the length of the bar, but Mom's bar has the traditional bar rail, also known as the Chicago bar rail. This is a length of smooth solid oak, shaped with a curved lip at the top to keep spilled drinks from the patrons' laps, and has a nice contoured inner curve to rest your forearms against.

I sat there comfortably, sipping my (truth be told, somewhat weak) rum and coke. Oh, well, it was only five dollars. "Another?" asked the bartender.

I was so comfortable it was tempting. But, "No, thank you," I said. "I'll be back."



Thursday, December 4, 2014

Journey in the Cloud

Fog on the mountain
A couple months ago, I had a serendipitous encounter with a neighbor while walking on my road. She mentioned she was writing a memoir and had just begun working with an agent. I mentioned that I was applying to graduate school for a degree in writing.

She said she was part of a local writers' group, and that the group had just lost a member who'd moved away. They were looking for new writers to join them. She asked if I would be interested. I said yes.

So that's how I began meeting with a great group of talented women writers in early October. We're all working on different things, mostly memoir and non-fiction. There isn't a ringer in the bunch - these women are such excellent writers it humbles me to be in their company.

We meet on Wednesday evenings at the home of a member who lives way up in Tuna Canyon, which is at the crest of the ridge, and on a hilltop that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. To get there, you drive up Fernwood Pacific, a torturously winding road through one of Topanga's oldest neighborhoods, full of switch backs and tight ox-bow curves.

Last night, after three days of storm, I drove up into Fernwood. It was already dark; darkness falls about 5:15 these days.

If you look at a map of the Fernwood neighborhood, it looks like someone dropped a handful of cooked spaghetti onto a tablecloth. The main road, Fernwood Pacific, is the noodle outlined in blue, below:


Only in this case, the tablecloth has been thrown over a large mountain. Where Fernwood Pacific intersects with Topanga Canyon Boulevard, at the upper-right, it is 738 feet above sea level. By the time you get to the lower left-hand corner of the map, you've climbed 1100 feet in six miles.

Last night, as I started driving, the ocean fog was creeping into the canyon. Here, in a peculiar phenomenon, the ocean fog climbs up the coast mountains and cascades over the top, rolling down into the canyon. The higher up I drove, the thicker grew the fog. By the time I had reached the summit, I could barely see in front of the car.

As I climbed, I began to worry. The road is tricky, climbing a narrow ridge, bordered with steep fall-offs to one shoulder, or sheer stone cliffs rising up from the other. In some places, deep storm culverts gaped, big enough to shred my car tires if I drove carelessly into them. I thought for a moment about turning back.

And yet - I had driven this road before. Though I could not see for than a few feet, I knew what lay ahead. I had been to the house before, and knew there were lanterns to mark my destination. I had come this far already, and to turn back now would be foolish. It would be no more foggy after our meeting than it was now, I thought. Press on. So I did, and I arrived at our hostess' warm and welcoming house, and listened to some wonderful and inspiring readings.

A quote attributed to the American novelist E.L. Doctorow appears in many books about creative writing.

"Writing is like driving at night in the fog. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way."*

I read that and thought it was particularly apt for last night's journey in the clouds. Up beyond 1500 feet, it was only by focusing on what was right in front of me that kept me climbing.

When our meeting concluded, two hours later, we stopped and steeled ourselves for the treacherous journey back through the fog. Then we opened the door and stepped out into the night.

The sky was completely clear, the stars glittering.

Morning fog from my house
*Doctorow's wonderful quote appears everywhere, in "Brainy Quotes" and in "Goodreads" and online in blog after blog about the creative process. It appears in creative writing textbooks and "how-to" guides. Only there's one odd thing. The origin of the quote was an interview Doctorow gave to George Plimpton in the Paris Review in 1986. You can read the interview here:

http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2718/the-art-of-fiction-no-94-e-l-doctorow

The words "in the fog" do not appear. The closest thing I could find was an attribution to a 1988 volume of collected Paris Review interviews with writers. Perhaps the language about fog was in Plimpton's original notes, and edited out for the journal but later re-inserted in the book? It's a mystery.

I guess the point is, just keep driving on, and focus on what's in front of you.