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...more or less dealt with.

I have twenty pages of my draft of The Diamond in the Window, and three more pages of notes on the parts I haven't been able to write yet. It's sort of a big messy ambitious failure, but that's why we call them "drafts" and then opt to rewrite them over and over. This play is going to have to be so physical and probably I'll have to collaborate with choreographers and puppeteers (and we all know how well I collaborate with others) if I ever want to actually stage it. I've never written anything remotely like it.

The good news is when I get back to writing for grown ups it'll be ridiculously easy. All the scenes take place in the drawing room? Awesome. I need a road, a tree, and two dudes? Fucking rad. Two guys in a California house working at typewriters? That's really it? Oh, and a million toasters. Well, I think I can handle that.

(Speaking of which, Sam Shepard is supposed to come hang with us playwrights at some point this year. You'll know when that happens because my blog will devolve to something like OMG ZB + SS 4EVR!!!!!!!)

The best thing in the draft so far: a firey speech from Louisa May Alcott. That's right, I got to write a speech for Louisa May Alcott. Presumptuous? Probably. Exciting? Most certainly. And it allowed me to make the female characters more active (it's always seemed weird that a children's book by a female intellectual privileges Thoreau and Emerson's philosophy over Alcott's activism and ambition). Super exciting.
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...that my adaptation of The Diamond in the Window become at some point a bit conflated with Gaiman's Sandman.

That's all right. I console myself with the knowledge that Gaiman was doing the Jungian cha-cha from the get go. So I'm not stealing. I'm tapping into the collective unconscious.

(And proving myself a gothy little fan girl.)
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My colleagues were with me as far as "child of a changeling trying to establish personal identity and understand her family legacy by trekking out across a dangerous uncharted faerie wilderness," but then I lost them with the phrase: "...accompanied only by Bill, a magical tapeworm."[Poll #1057991][Poll #1057991]
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Soon I will post about how orientation has been going fine and how the people in this program are awesome and how I'm surrounded by people who can have conversations about Beckett and Kushner and the Simpsons and The Neverending Story and comic books and Mary Gaitskill and Monty Python and Michael Chabon and so on and so on...and also how my graduate advisor once shared a cab with Mary Karr, David Foster Wallace, and Jonathon Franzen and how he didn't mind when I shrieked "You are SHITTING me?!?" after discovering this fact. 

For right now I just want to mention that in addition to my intro seminar and my fiction workshop, I'm also taking playwriting for youth. I sat on the fence about this once, since I don't see myself as a kids' writer. But the more I talked to the teacher, the more excited I got about it (she has so much respect for youth, resents that people think that "youth theater" is somehow less artful than mainstream theater). And then when I talked to Hodge he pointed out that I'm always talking about children as aesthetes, that I talk nonstop about how certain books and shows and movies affected me when I myself was young. That I'm obsessed with the kind of storytelling that's both fun and smart and beautiful and engaging. So now I'm really, really excited by this prospect. He's right. How many times a week do I have the Hinson-Miyazaki-Barrie-Carroll-Leguin-Dahl-Silverstein-fill in awesome children's storyteller here-rant? How many times do I complain bitterly about the patronizing quality of a huge pile of movies and books for kids? This is an avenue I didn't anticipate exploring, but now that I've got the chance it seems like it was more or less made for me.

Of course I'm going to have to cut down on swearing and sex jokes, but I think I can still talk about murder and mayhem. After all, Lemony Snicket has paved the road ahead of me.
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When I was very small, I used to love to look at my father's tattoos. They were the grubby blue of a bic pen, a record of time spent in a California jailhouse for crimes never specified. Dad himself had been drunk, and the very large man who insisted upon tattooing him had also been very drunk, and so a number of the tattoos were illegible hieroglyphs. There was a recognizable heart, though, and something that even very young I recognized as either an ankh or a blurred cross. Something about having a visible reminder that my father pre-existed me, that he'd lived through something and it was marked on his flesh, was fascinating for me. It was like one of his elaborate (questionably true) stories of childhood or adolescence, only illustrated.

A few years later, when I entered school, I realized none of my friends' fathers had tattoos of any kind. None of my uncles did either. No other men in my life had ink on their skin. Briefly I wondered what that meant about my family, our place in the world (already precarious enough--by seven I had a hair-trigger understanding of class and felt my own alienation pretty starkly). For a very brief time, I was ashamed of the blurry ink that showed something about us that no one would talk about.

At ten, I encountered a book called Amy's Eyes, and in the first few pages of the story, a struggling tailor deposits his infant daughter at an orphanage so that he might go to sea to earn some money. With her he leaves a doll, the Captain, a sharp-dressed naval captain stitched from bits of cloth. Before Amy's father leaves her, he realizes some part of the Captain seems unfinished:

"One night he had come home after an evening at a public house, singing, drinking, and talking with friends, and it had all of a sudden come upon him that the Captain, then unfinished and with no clothing yet, could use a tattoo. It is an old urge among sailors to want a tattoo, and there is probably more to it than the vanity of being decorated. A tattoo is a token of memory and identity, and it is some small comfort after four months at sea, perhaps, to glance at the name of a loved on bordered around with flowers, or in time of trial to remember the tattooed motto 'Death Before Dishonor,' or when the ship is sinking to think on a graceful script that spells out 'Mother,' or to contemplate, in bitter moments, the picture of a heart thrust through with a dagger. So Amy's father gave the Captain a tattoo on his right forearm...It pictured a needle and thread, and touched in red and blue ink gave indelible notice that this was not a mere sailor before the mast, but a doll to take command high upon the poop deck, a doll of some significance."

The next day I announced to my relatively unsurprised parents that I was going to get lots of tattoos when I grew up. My father tried to tell me little girls didn't get tattoos and I informed him that I wouldn't be a little girl with tattoos, I was going to be a woman with tattoos. And also, I informed him, "Mr. Prison Tatts shouldn't cast any stones."

The tramp stamp on my back was a thing I got after my first round of depressions left me with a bipolar diagnosis. Part of my just liked the celestial motif, and it was simple as that. The symbolism I imparted to it, though, was that the sun contained all the other heavenly creatures within. That all the different phases of the sky were there, encompassed in one symbol. All the different moods. It was a way for me to accept all these shifting selves and sensations.

These days of course I'm a bit more stable. But the tattoo is a reminder of all mutability and all consistency as well: day becomes night, the phases of the moon change, summer edges on into winter, it's always moving but through the same motions. And of course I can't just look down and see it (it's on my back), but I like knowing it's back there, and I like catching glimpses of it when I change or when I get out of the shower. It's enough.

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This week Lloyd Alexander died at age 83.

I was ten when I first read the Chronicles of Prydain. My elementary school librarian, Ms. Simmons, recommended them, and as soon as I finished The Book of Three I returned to the library for The Black Cauldren. I read all five in a week, staying up way past my bedtime and reading by my nightlight (I'd convinced my parents I was afraid of the dark just for such a contingency).

Between the wry and self-deprecating humor (the main character starts out not just as a Pig-Keeper but as an Assistant Pig-Keeper), the strange wild Welsh-inspired magics, the gallantry and romance, and the adventure, I was obsessed. More than obsessed; for a few years, those books were the only things that kept me afloat. I was never a fully socialized child, always a little bit shy, but life took a nosedive around puberty and I learned what it was to be bullied and humiliated. Like any romantic, introverted, spacy kid, I glommed on to my most beloved escapes with fervor. When my skirt tore in front of Mrs. Templeton's entire class, or when the big girls in gym bombarded me with volleyballs just to see me duck, I summoned up thoughts of Prince Gwydion and Taran facing down the Cauldron-Born. I imagined Taran alone questing for his identity, afraid of his own insignificance. I summoned up their courage and used it for myself.

More than anything I wanted to be Eilonwy of the Red-Gold hair. I prayed to God every night that I'd wake up in Prydain. I tried to emulate her speech, her pertness and her stubbornness. I had a little glow-ball I called my "bauble." Eilonwy got to take part in the action sometimes, but sometimes she was hypnotized by evil witches and saved by heroes. She was perfect, perfectly embodied all the different things I wanted to learn to be by reading fantastic literature, at least at age ten or eleven. She was brave and strong and no sissy, and yet she was worthy of love, worthy of being saved.
I went back again and again to the library. I next read all the Vesper Holly books, the mock-pulps with their even-more-badass-than-Eilonwy heroine, and followed those up with the pseudo Les Miserables-esque Westmark trilogy, all of which I utterly adored. The Prydain books were what I always returned to, but there were other worlds to explore with Alexander, other adventures to have.

The point I'm trying to make is not that I was an obsessive little freak (which was true) or that Lloyd Alexander was wonderful because he gave me a fictive world to escape to (which is also true), but that something else important lived (and remains alive) in his work. I'm willing to accept that my escapist frenzy was excessive, that retreating from the world isn't always "healthy." What Alexander did for me, though, was to make me aware of what I already had by dramatizing it. Isn't that part of the role of a good fantasist, to take very human, very ordinary emotions and allow them to explore their own limits? To take fear and humiliation and self-doubt and let them explore a new setting, let them find some kind of expression (and maybe resolution) in a way that might reveal something interesting and humane to the reader? Lloyd Alexander gave me that, time and time again. Coded in the Welsh mythology, in the ass-kicking energy of Vesper Holly and the dirty but romantic streets of Westmark, there was a whole other world to be found: the world inside my own self, where I could be heroic just by keeping tears of shame off my cheeks, where I could stamp my foot and tell someone no if I didn't like what they were doing, where I had the power to stand up for myself and for my friends. The place where I was both a sorceress and a warrior, an adventuress, and a princess entirely deserving of love.

It was certainly not that simple. Some of those are hard lessons to learn, and some you have to learn again and again. But Alexander's work was the first truly totemic escapism I had in my life,  the first time I gathered strength and beauty to that degree from a work of fiction.

So thank you, Mr. Alexander. Godspeed wherever you are bound. I hope tonight some shy little kid shines a flashlight on your words under the covers and finds something beyond their own dreams. Or, maybe, that they find just that: dreams beyond dreams, worlds beyond worlds, all inside their own selves.
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Other than the excruciating fucking pain this has been a wonderful weekend. I managed to do something horrid to my back--not sure what but I've never had back pain like this. Consequently I am spending the rest of the afternoon flat on my back (insert filthy joke here). If it doesn't spasm for a while maybe I'll make it to It's a Beautiful Pizza for the Wicker Man viewing tonight (the original, not the remake). Otherwise I'm just going to lie around whimpering for a while.

Last night I finally made it to Snakes on a Plane with Guillermo at the beer theater. Seeing it with a theater full of drunks seemed like the best way to do it. I was surprised at how much fun it was, actually--it's a spoof but not a straight up parody (i.e. it has a great deal of fun with itself while still allowing you to get involved in what's going on). At one point Guillermo turned to me and said, "I still haven't figured out what makes snakes on a plane a better plan than bombs on a plane." I was appalled that he would even speak such nonsense while Samuel L. Jackson was burning snakes to cinder with an improvised blowtorch.

Many years ago a friend and I determined that all movies should come with a button in the armrest. If you hate the movie, you hit the button. If over half the audience hits the button, velociraptors are released into the film. If the velociraptors are not enough to save the movie, everyone pushes again, and if enough people push you release evil Nazis into the movie. This on the premise that dinosaurs and fascists make all plots better. If everyone pushes the button, if 100% of the audience pushes it, you get...brace yourself for this one...velocinazis.

Which are either Nazi velociraptors, or Nazis riding on velociraptors. The tequila, by this time, made it less a drunken conversation and more a mumbled argument, so I don't know what we finally decided.

Well, the point is, Snakes on a Plane is pretty much like cutting to the chase and giving the audience velocinazis before they even have to ask for it.

This morning [profile] hplovescats and I went for breakfast in Sellwood. To kill some time we wandered into Wallace Books, which is one of my favorite places--it's an old house filled to the brim with books. The walls are up, so it basically feels like a house of books. We went to the children's section and discovered the most totally kicking picture book I've ever found. It's called Frankenstein Makes a Sandwich, and it is absolutely hysterical. I ended up buying it because it delighted the snot out of me. If you love The Stinky Cheese Man, you will like this one too. (I know there have to be other adults out there who get a kick out of kid's picture books).

Okay. Now I'm done sitting up for a while. I'm going to go nestle into pillows and complain loudly for everyone's benefit for a while.
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I turned twenty-seven yesterday, so it made me quite happy to come to work at the library today and find my hold--season one of Punky Brewster--waiting for me.

Many of you know my longstanding eighties nostalgia obsession, which is at heart pure and simple regression therapy. This is the same impulse that led me to purchase several My Little Ponies well into my early twenties and that has led to not one, not two, but three separate Eighties Fantasy Film Fests at various dorms/apartments/houses in the last several years. After being teased and lured by[profile] punkybrister69's icon for a while, I finally decided it was time for a spin back through comfy territory.

Punky Brewster was the first television program I watched religiously. I believe Punky was intended to be my age at around the time the show came on--maybe a little older--and it was one of the only children-oriented live-action shows of the time. My aesthetic sensibility was informed by her clothing choices long, long after it was even remotely appropriate (indeed, I have a theory that the grunge movement was a result of teenagers with Punky in their collective unconciousnesses). Also she was one of the first heroines I encountered who "looked like me" (even though the resemblence stopped at brown hair/eyes and freckles).

I remember far more of this show, without re-watching, than anyone could care to read about. So I will not go into the blissful rantings that I have been promulgating at my cats for the past hour. The cats have to listen to me. You can un-friend me.

Here, though, if you care, is a brief list of the obsessions and values that can be traced back to my early obsessive love of this show:

1. Foster families--tI'm not sure why this caught my sympathy and imagination so much, but I've written tons of fiction that seems to revolve around transitional homes or foster parents.
2. Unlikely connections. In the adult world we read The Heart is a Lonely Hunter or Mary Gaitskill or Flannery O'Conner. But as a six-year-old, the idea of this tiny perky orphan and a curmudgeon loving each other and changing each other was deeply affecting.
3. Mis-matched socks and shoes and clothing is always stylish.
4. Pigtails, also, are cool. Even as an adult.
5. Pain and sadness are appropriate material even for children--especially for children. Seriously, I think the number one thing that grabbed me about this show was the fact that the characters all had genuine heartbreak, and while of course the aesthetic was sanitized and cute, the fact that the program ventured into a very real abandoment fear I suspect I was not alone in, and the fact that all the families and characters were damaged and truly sad, was pretty ballsy of the producers. This is at heart a story about making the best of what you have, finding love not necessarily where you look for it. This is a theme that I obsess on, that every story I write seems to be about, and I half wonder if I can thank my early exposure to something that challenged me to truly understand tragedy.

Also: she has a super-cute animal companion that at one point she calls back from the brink of death with the Power of her Wuv. Totally the best.

So: I will stop horning in on your territory now, [profile] punkybrister69. ;) I do have you to thank for reminding me this is a good idea.
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I am not even going to say that woman's name today; never mind that I'm actually sitting here shaking with rage, holding the newspaper in my hand and watching it violently wave back and forth. I'm not going to shriek, or pull my hair (though I may rip up the newspaper later). I am in fact going to ignore her, because she makes money off of people like me losing their shit. Fuck Conservative Barbie. She will prove herself mean, pointless, and ugly without any help from me.

Besides, Cuteness will overcome all. So instead of pitching a fit, I'm going to pitch a book! Today's book recommendation is entitled And Tango Makes Three.

This picture book tells the true story of two male penguins in the Central Park Zoo who "fall in love." When all the other penguins are pairing off into mates, Roy and Silo become attached (one fact not included in the children's book, is that the zookeepers decided to test Roy and Silo's attachment by exposing them specifically to different male and female penguins, to see if they could tell the difference. They could in fact tell the difference, and they in fact did not care.). Roy and Silo find a rock that is vaguely egg-shaped, and while the other penguins lay eggs and trade them back and forth on their little penguin feet, Roy and Silo attempt to hatch their rock. (By the way, cuteologists, how great an image is that?)

Intrigued, the zookeepers decide to give the lovebirds an egg that had been abandoned. The penguins care for the egg together and hatch it. They enact the same family drama that the other penguin pairs do. The baby is born, and the zookeepers name it Tango. Both daddy penguins take turns caring for baby, effectively nurturing the little tyke into adolescence and then adulthood.

This is the cutest book ever. The art is great, and the story is told simply and lovingly. In addition to being adorable it contradicts the stupidity surrounding March of the Penguins. You know, all the Focus-on-the-Family "God's will is the bond between a man and woman" hype. I've said it before and I'll say it again: it amuses me to no end that the same people who refuse to believe themselves descended from monkeys are willing to find proof of family values in a waddling flightless bird. How selective we are. (My other issue with this movie is that it's one of the worst nature documentaries I've ever seen--the penguins are very cute and fun to watch, but the science is bad. The documentarians are more interested in the noble struggles of the penguin as a story than they are in the identifiable and measurable facts, but that's besides the point here.) So anyway, if you are in the market for a picture book that will make you smile, And Tango Makes Three kicks the total shit out of lesser picture books. But you don't have to take my word for it...

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So I’m listening to Little Women in my car—it being my habit to listen to children’s books when NPR starts to make my stomach hurt—and I’m surprised how much I like it still. It’s got a rap for being sentimental and schmaltzy, but it’s actually a very smart and sophisticated book in a lot of ways. One of the things that interests me in particular is the way in which it deals with the political conflicts faced by an intelligent and educated woman in a society that affords her no real prospects. Like many works of women’s literature from the 19th and early 20th century, there is a real tension between breaking convention and maintaining it. The March girls are raised to be independent and free-thinking, but are still expected to uphold their duties as members of the softer sex (obedience to father, good works, sewing for the army, etc.). Jo is a tomboy, happily trodding the middle ground between male independence and female affection. Laurie, the boy next door, even calls her a “fellow” when chumming around with her. Alcott clearly takes a lot of pleasure in describing Jo’s roguish and ungirlish ways, but then, by the time Father comes home from the war, Jo has settled down and become a nurturer, nursing Beth back to health as best she can. Later Jo refuses her wealthy Laurie when he asks her to marry him, on the grounds that they are a bad match and that she is too fond of her own independence to marry; but then she weds a much older man who is explicitly a father figure, who is interested in molding the young girl.

There are tons of little examples, and since I am listening instead of reading I haven’t circled them all so as to find them later, so sadly I can’t prove my case more completely. Alcott’s struggles, though, remind me a good deal of Jane Austen’s, or the Bronte’s, in creating women who are more savvy and self-reliant that the status quo, who end up making their peace in some way or another with the status quo. You know, how Marianne ends up marrying Colonel Brandon in spite of initially lukewarm feelings, and how Emma has to learn to keep her smarty-pants self kind and sweet in a society in some ways unworthy of her. And so on.

I always find myself as a reader trapped in this conflict when reading stuff like this. In some ways I feel a little like shrieking: run away! Run away! Go live on Lesbos or something! Go start a commune of Bodacea-worshipping warrior priestesses! But more often I’m dazzled by the writer’s courage. I mean, for starters, can you imagine growing up with such an unbelievably pervasive misogyny, and still having the presence and insight to educate yourself, to engage in a world (be it of letters or politics or thought in general) that wants no part of you? These women found ways to challenge some of the most grievous parts of their societies in a way more or less palatable to those who might otherwise defend the status quo. And they depicted female characters trying to find something of a place in their own society rather than rejecting it outright—that may not be what we all want, but how admirable to have the guts to fight your way in.

Okay, so there are dissertations on this very subject that are more articulate and well-argued than my little blog, but I was thinking about it on the way to work today. And I’ve been so surprised to find so much smart social criticism in a book most of the world dismisses as saccharine. Just goes to show how ignorant it is to disregard kid’s lit.


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