Friday, January 31, 2020

The Mutual UFO Network

It turns out the Mutual UFO Network is a real organization, but I'm talking about The Mutual UFO Network, a marvelous book of short stories by Lee Martin. In the title story, the narrator's father sells a sort of "fake news" to people who believe in UFOs. "In my own home, my parents operated a mail-order business called The Mutual UFO Network. My father transferred computer-generated images to videotape and created illusions of spaceships streaking across the night sky." He then sold his wares to people "who wanted proof that what they'd suspected all along was indeed true: there were visitors from other planets, and they were indeed watching us." I wonder what the real organization thinks about the book! Also, I see from the Wikipedia article that the founder of MUFON lived in Illinois, and so did Lee Martin for a time. Coincidence?

This is a beautiful book. The characters in it are deep and complicated, flawed and lovable anyway. They suffer, they hurt, they love, they misbehave, and then, amazingly, so many of them are so decent, so compassionate, so capable of change. These are stories about people who yearn for reparation, transformation, some way to do the right thing after, sometimes, doing the wrong thing. I read this at exactly the right time, as I am watching people obstinately doing the wrong thing when they could do the right thing. This book gives me hope. Yes, it's fiction, but it's realistic, not escapist or genre fiction, where things may turn out all right but not necessarily in a believable way, more in a formulaic way. Nothing formulaic here, just wonderfully organic meanderings (not manipulative twists) and (motivated) turns. I follow Lee Martin's blog, and you can, too. It's listed on the right of my blog here. He teaches at Ohio State University, and his blog gives generous and practical writing advice.

And I'm still reading Sontag, where AIDS has struck, in the early 1980s, and, true to form, Susan Sontag doesn't want her story about AIDS to be thought of as a story about AIDS. And she's not aware of new information about children of alcoholics, either, in a book by Janet B. Woititz, who sees adult children of alcoholics as stuck between "Always tell the truth" and "I don't want to know." As Sontag author Benjamin Moser summarizes, "She called the conflict between demanding the truth and not wanting to know it 'the greatest paradox.'" AKA denial.

What I see in Lee Martin and in many of his characters is deep acceptance. In the characters, it may come after a period of denial. Denial, or meth, or alcohol, or sex may blunt the suffering for a while, take the edge off, but the suffering is there underneath, raw and waiting. Martin as a writer has acceptance and character, and he allows his main characters to experience acceptance, which leads them to action. His characters acquire nobility. By being human.

Thursday, January 30, 2020

Reading Sontag

I am reading Sontag, by Benjamin Moser. I'm reading slowly and steadily, aware that it will lead me to re-read On Photography, which is actually on my bookshelf, and Against Interpretation, which is not. Unless it is on a small bookshelf elsewhere in the house. I remember reading parts of it years ago, maybe in college? Maybe in my parents' house? Anyway, it's interesting to be looking at the decades of her life, some of which overlap my own, from the context of now, in the "hindsight is 2020" mode of the year 2020, as we begin it. Capitalist consumerism has indeed taken over and led to excesses of all sorts, down to the situation that puts us in the middle of impeachment proceedings, and the strange argument that a sitting president can do anything he wants to win an election. Uh oh. This just turned into a ran...dom coinciday! (And a Thor's Day in the blog.)

The image above is the book cover, its front and its spine. The cover portrait is a photo by Richard Avedon. Benjamin Moser understands Sontag by reading her journals, private, as well as her published works. Reading it gives me pause, as happens whenever I read a biography. I've kept a journal for thirty years. Do I ever want anyone to read it? Don't I keep it primarily to hold myself together? To vent? To keep track of things for personal reference? I think so. Whenever Moser mentions that Sontag barely mentioned her son David in her journals, I worry if anything I say about my kids, or omit, would cause them pain. When he notes that major political/historical events are occurring, and she's writing about herself, her personal woes, I think, yes, this is a personal diary! The other things can be discussed in public forums. Sigh...  And then I immerse myself again, grateful to see the intellectual and critical ideas of the age laid out so clearly.

Tuesday, January 21, 2020


Perhaps I shouldn't be surprised, but reading Sharon Olds's Arias has released something in me, and I've been writing a lot of new poems! Olds writes about anything--troubled family relationships, her mother who beat her, sex, death, childbirth, the intense love of one's children, scattering ashes, how California got made tectonically, etc.--so she probably gives me "permission" to write about anything, too! Or sing (in the shower, arias) about anything!! And I have to say I like the coincidence of how the black-and-white book cover matches that of Hope in the Dark!

Other random coincidii:

In the novel I just read, Right After the Weather, the main character has lost a couple fingers in a woodworking accident. In the French television series we are watching on Netflix, the main character has lost a couple fingers during a trauma of her past. The TV series is called Zone Blanche, for a "dead zone" of cell service, which is translated as Black Spot. Instead of White Zone or Blank Zone or Dead Zone.

Because of the eerie, supernatural power of the forest, it was reminding us of a series set in South America, Green Frontier, on Netflix. Maybe these are indeed versions of the same thing?And I just noticed the profiles up the river... Were they there all along as we watched the show? Ack! It may seem like I am escaping the news about impeachment and gun rallies. Could be. This afternoon I am escaping via junior high volleyball.

And Sontag, by Benjamin Moser, a really fat book. On a Fat Tuesday in the blog.

Sunday, January 19, 2020

Right After the Weather

I finished reading Falter, by Bill McKibben, and learned a lot! I learned more about cryonics and the desire of the super-rich to live forever than I had heretofore picked up via popular culture and Fututama. I enjoyed McKibben's use of the hookworm as a metaphor for a disease that has struck the rich: "We need to diagnose the intellectual and spiritual hookworm that has entered their bodies and attached itself to their brains." That hookworm turns out to be Ayn Rand! I was amazed at how many people in high places are hooked on Ayn Rand. I read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged as an adolescent, on the recommendation of my uncle, and now I understand him a little better. Sadly, he's dead, and Rand's influence seems not to have helped him live a better, longer life. (Cigarettes.) I guess I thought she was mostly an adolescent fixation, and people outgrew her, like I did. I guess not.

After Falter-ing, I'll need to read Dark Money, by Jane Mayer, but I don't really want to know more about dark money than Falter taught me, alas. And I discovered that I had already read the futurist and A.I. materials that might come next after these ideas. Instead, though, I turned to a novel for relief...though it grappled with difficult stuff to learn about being human, too: Right After the Weather, by Carol Anshaw. I was attracted to it because its main character is a set designer in Chicago! It was a good read.

Speaking of the weather, bitter winter has arrived! So has the first poem of the new year, which has a little snow in it. And a boombox. And Cole Porter. And that reminds me that I want to hear Harry Connick, Jr. sing the songs of Cole Porter on his new album, True Love. And to read Sontag, by Benjamin Moser, a new biography that awaits me at the library. So much to read, such a nice soft corner of the couch to read it in!

Saturday, January 11, 2020


I am reading Falter, by Bill McKibben, at exactly the right time: right after Hope in the Dark and Men Explain Things to Me, both by Rebecca Solnit, who mentions him, as they are active together in trying to save the world...and, I hope, in time to save the world.

McKibben's subtitle, Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out?, is an important question, and might mean there isn't time, but, like Solnit, he approaches the complexity of climate change with great hope and as a realist, not an optimist or a pessimist. So I hope to learn a lot.

I am reading it on a Slattern Day (in the blog), after doing a lot of housework these past few days, post-holiday. My daughter and her boyfriend left last weekend, and my son left on Tuesday, and I took down the Christmas tree the very next day. A bit of a sentimental slattern, I should confess that this was the same Christmas tree that was up and decorated since the previous Christmas. It was my hope in the dark all last year. No doubt I will do a bit more housework yet today, rousing myself from rest and reading, because it's still there to do. It has occurred to me that I should wear kneepads for cleaning the toilets. TMI?

I just finished reading No Crybabies Allowed, a delightful memoir of the first 12 years of her life by Terri Ryburn. I'm in a writing group with Terri and went to her book release reading on December 29 at Ryburn Place, her shop in the restored Sprague Super Service, along the 1926 configuration of Route 66. She also wrote a book about Route 66! Her memoir is in vignette style, and I have heard her read or tell excerpts from it before, and she is a stand-up comedian, so there's a lot of humor here, and poignancy. This volume ends in Oregon with a sneak preview of Volume 2. You can get it at her shop or on Amazon.

My fingerprints are faltering. My work with paper, plastic sleeves, booktape, and glue-dissolving cleansers--plus, probably, age and dryness--is apparently rubbing them off. This poses a wee bit of a problem as we set up my new phone to recognize my faltering fingerprint! My son tells me my brother has the same problem because he is a lawyer, and lawyers handle lots of paper. Who gnu?!

Monday, January 6, 2020

What I Meant to Write Yesterday

A clipping* from a Hilton Als review in The New Yorker has been sitting on my computer desk for a long time. It’s a theatre review titled “Frozen” about a revival of The Iceman Cometh by Eugene O’Neill. It’s from the May 7, 2018 issue, but it hasn’t been sitting by my desk that long—only since my mom passed several issues along to me to read before recycling. I was struck by Als’s reverence for one young actor’s fine acting.

Als describes the kind of acting I like to see, I hope do, and, when I teach or direct, try to encourage or inspire…or at least explain. Sometimes I try to describe it via difference, or, to put it in a dramatic conflict form, as Acting vs Performing. Some actors are mainly performers—maybe with great skill and panache—but still “acting,” not acting, still performing. They may prefer performing to acting, it may feel more fun and/or more secure; it may seem to get them more jobs, since it’s a way of calling attention to themselves, and sometimes audiences don’t really see the difference. But many audience members do, and some directors do, and other actors, and critics like this one. Here, praising Austin Butler, Hilton Als beautifully explains the acting vs performing thing:

Most performers want to be seen at any cost, but actors—at least those as good as Butler—are both determined and relaxed in their ambition to do justice to the playwright’s text while contributing to the life of the story. Butler, making his Broadway debut... illustrates, the moment he takes the stage, the difference between the two. …[H]e conveys, through economy of movement and facial expression, what many of his cast-mates try to show by shouting and grandstanding: his character’s inner life.

I loved the little moment during the Golden Globes last night when Fleabag writer and actor Phoebe Waller-Bridge made fun of herself while praising her director even though she was the writer and thought a scene was meant to go a certain way. How lovely that she could try a little harder and see another way of making it work!

Here is Hilton Als again on the issue, still in the context of The Iceman Cometh:

It’s always a pity when an actor cynically sticks to what he knows will work and leaves it at that. It’s an ungenerous impulse not to try harder than one has to, and it pinches the spectator’s heart. But Butler is the opposite of cynical. He wants to do right by O’Neill, his director, and his fellow-players. And, no matter how much they bray around him, he stands his ground, reacting to what may be pure in them, as performers, with his own purity, the wellspring of his work, which is that of a potentially great artist.

Real acting gets real respect.

*And now I can recycle the clipping!

Sunday, January 5, 2020


It was fun to watch the Golden Globes tonight, and/or to cringe and wince at them. My favorite moments were:

1)      Ellen getting the Carol Burnett award, and Kate McKinnon introducing her!
2)      The Splenda/Stevia commercial. It’s funny, and I’m pretty sure I’ve said that…re: growing my own.

Segue to…recreational marijuana is now legal in my state, Illinois, as of January 1. Hmmm…

Now I really want to see Jojo Rabbit and Fleabag. And 1917. For the World War I centennial in 2018, I curated a film series of World War I movies at the library, and helped us stock many WWI films, old and new, so I feel ready for it, though it will be devastating. 
And especially troubling in the current context of WWIII predictions and worries. Let’s hang in there, my fellow humans. Let’s help save the world.

Saturday, January 4, 2020

The Two Popes

OMG, The Two Popes. I loved this movie. I watched it on the verge of tears, via Netflix, with my husband and son, a sort of surprise. We saw it on the evening we said goodbye to my daughter and her boyfriend, who return to Oregon tomorrow and their jobs on Monday. It’s been a lovely holiday. 

I joke about almost all movies I’ve seen lately, saying, “It’s a Christmas movie!” and I had to say the same about Little Women in the theatre this holiday season and just now about The Two Popes thanks to 1) the subject matter and 2) the fabulous red and white costumes of the Cardinals.

Why I loved The Two Popes: it’s funny, it’s deep, it’s well acted, it’s about the essential stuff: love, compassion, error, forgiveness, authenticity, the ability to change. And the two popes, who are real. It’s stylish, down to the credits. The music is terrific. The switches from color to black and white. Ratzinger/Anthony Hopkins reminds me of my dad.

I’m not Catholic. My husband is. He loved it and predicts Best Picture for this film. We’ve also seen The Irishman and Marriage Story. I’ve seen Little Women and Knives Out and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood. I haven’t seen Joker or Parasite or Judy or Just Mercy. Eventually I will. I love movies. I love to see the nominees before the awards come out. For many, many years, I did no such thing. Babies!*

My husband is Catholic, and Cuban. Today he received his Ancestry dot com results. I had given him an early Christmas gift and (forgotten 30th) anniversary (December 16) gift, and the results arrived via email today. It was exciting to see his ancestry map. Mine (seen earlier) was pretty much what I expected, mostly European/Eastern European, mostly Irish and Hungarian.

His was also as expected, though surprisingly rich. Mostly Spanish, as he knew his grandfather was from Spain, with Portugal in there, too. And half Indigenous American peoples (via Mexico) and French, based on his Cuban grandmother, descended from indigenous people and a Frenchman. I was the one who predicted Africa, and this appears to be true. So we are as mixed as we thought! Somehow it all fits in with The Two Popes.

*This baby is my grandniece, Lincoln, with her new Lincoln rubber duckie, a Christmas gift from me. Her mommy says she loves it and cries when he floats away.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

20 in 2020?

2019 was a slow year for writing and sending out poems. Some years I aim for 100 rejections which requires more than 100 submissions. This year I only sent out 21 submission packets, so I only achieved 8 rejections, with 5 acceptances, 3 publications already out, 2 publications pending, and 8 packets awaiting response. So if I aim for 20 in 2020, which sounds good, meaning either 20 submissions or 20 rejections, it seems reasonable, based on 2019. But who knows? 2020 promises to be a busy year in other ways, especially since I am still a precinct committeeperson, and on the ballot again on March 17, 2020, St. Patrick’s Day, with a big election coming in November. Let’s all hope for the best on that one!

Happy New Year from me and from Escape IntoLife…via Via Basel and Matthew Murrey!