Beth Deitchman

Reader, Writer, Knitter, Slayer

Page 4 of 5

New Tires

There is a possibility that Dave and I got scammed today.  We pulled into a Shell Station in Wells, Nevada to take care of important road trip business.  As Dave was pumping gas, a guy from the tire store attached to the gas station approached the car and examined our tires.  He looked very serious.  Then he told Dave that the right front tire was pretty close to blowing out.  Being more afraid of blowing a tire than being scammed, we let them put the car up on the fancy car lifting thing to take a closer look.  That, naturally, led to us spending a shit load of money to replace all four tires.

We both had to admit as we drove away from Wells that the ride seemed much smoother. So, despite assurances from our trusted mechanic Scott that our tires would survive the trip to Denver, we chose to believe we were not scammed.  I’m pretty okay with that choice.  I mean, the nice men in Wells saved me the trouble of getting new tires later in the summer, which I knew I would probably have to do.  And I can feel relatively safe on the rest of the drive.

Of course, that’s not the only that thing that happened today.  We also found a Whole Foods in Salt Lake City (which actually has three Whole Foods), so we felt much better about our food situation.  On the way here we saw the Bonneville salt flats, which are seriously cool.  On the way back we’ll stop and get out since we’ll have more time going that direction.  At least we should have more time because we already have new tires. (I’m knocking on wood to make sure that nothing else happens). And we passed the Great Salt Lake, which is really big.  And blue.  And, I imagine, salty.

Tonight we’re staying outside Salt Lake City proper, so there will be no trips to see the Mormon Mother Ship, but I’m not broken hearted about that.  Both Dave and I have already seen it and I doubt that Ralphie cares (although who knows what appealing scents may surround the Mother Ship).  But we did get to wander around and get some much-needed exercise this evening.  There’s a nice little man-made lake near the hotel that we walked around after dinner.  I’m pretty sure that there are pelicans living in that lake.  I like pelicans.

I’m hoping to get to sleep earlier tonight.  I had some trouble last night because the room was so noisy–between the air conditioner, the refrigerator, and, I swear, the guy snoring in the room next door, I stood no chance.  So, once again, Dave saved the day with his Android.  He downloaded some white noise–ocean sounds–to play so that I could sleep. The man deserves a medal because he handles every situation with such ease.  We’re lost in the woods?  No problem!  I’ve got Google Maps!  My wife can’t sleep because of all the noise?  No problem!  I’ve got Google Play!

Tomorrow we head for Green River, Utah where we plan to have a picnic and take a hike in the woods.  With the Android, of course.

 

Battle Mountain, Nevada

Day two on the road and we’re in the middle of nowhere, staying in a hotel near the freeway in Battle Mountain, Nevada, which is apparently half way to nearly everywhere.  At least that’s what the billboard said.  And if a billboard says it’s so, well, then I guess it must be so, especially since the one I saw featured a picture of the Sphinx.

We left Truckee this morning around 9:30.  But we were up really early because Ralphie seems to think that wherever we sleep is home, and since his self-appointed job at home involves barking at things outside to keep us safe inside, he was busy.  We woke up many times to a low rumble that turned out to be Ralphie growling.  We finally had to get up  when Captain Vigilance started pacing and barking.

It was a really, really cold morning.  I mean, ice on the roof of our car cold.  Seeing your breath cold.  Freaking. Cold.  I did a fair amount of bitching about this cold as we hiked in the lovely Truckee wilderness.  So Dave, who was wearing short sleeves, told me that I would never have survived 100 years ago, and I said well, I probably would have died from asthma.  But, I continued, asthma is more prevalent now so maybe I wouldn’t have had it then.  So I would have died from the cold.  By then we had stepped into the sun, which was seriously warm.  So I stopped bitching and looked at the snow-capped mountains.  It really was lovely and worth braving the cold to see.

By the time we finished breakfast and checked out of the hotel, the ice had disappeared from the car.  When we were loaded up and ready, we headed out for Reno.  Dave found a food co-op there through the Google and we wanted to load up with some healthy deli stuff for lunch and dinner, knowing as we did, that there’s nothing but a McDonald’s in Battle Mountain.  (To be fair, there seems to be a pizza and steak house, but they don’t look terribly great.)  Unfortunately, despite the many wonderful things to be found in the little co-op (that we thought was closed because the parking lot was empty), they didn’t have a prepared foods section, so our dreams of fresh carrot and celery root salad or roasted beet salad were dashed.

That’s how we ended up, briefly, in Fernly, Nevada, a place so wretched neither of our electronic devices could tell us how to get to the grocery store, Scolari’s, we had discovered on the Google.  Samantha (our new GPS thingy) told us to turn left when we got off 80, but Google maps said we should go right, which turned out to be the correct option.  But then Google maps took us to a dead end in a sad little neighborhood and said we’d arrived at our destination.  Since there was nothing even vaguely resembling a grocery store in this dead end, the human at the wheel decided to turn the car around and see if the generic shopping center we had passed earlier might have anything useful.

I guess our robot friends just wanted us to avoid Scolari’s because, well, we are spoiled food snobs who live in Marin County, home to Good Earth Grocery Store, Mighty Leaf Tea, and lots of other fabulous things (like the company in Mill Valley that makes artisanal gluten-free granola using organic quinoa and a host of other organic ingredients–delicious with almond milk–see what I mean about the food snobbery?).  Scolari’s proved to be disappointing.  And I’ll leave it at that.

Once the car had gas, the coolers had ice, and we had lots of water, we hit the road again.  There’s not a lot to look at on the drive from Fernly to Battle Mountain besides the occasional rock formation.  But there’s so much empty space.  Both Dave and I keep remarking on how big our country is.  It’s been a while since I’ve been in this part of the country, but I can’t get over how much room there is to spread out.

We passed the time on the drive listening to Wait Wait Don’t Tell Me, which makes great road trip listening.  (Or sitting and knitting listening in case you wondered.)  We made it to our hotel by around 4:30, took the Ralphster for a little walk into “downtown” Battle Mountain, then returned to our room for some dinner (which included that lovely quinoa granola).

And now I’m starting to doze, like the mister and the puppy on the other side of the giant bed in our hotel room.  I think that means it’s time to say good night as it is a really late 7:30.  Who knows what time Ralphie will be up tomorrow?  There’s a group of people cycling across America staying here, too, and they’ll probably be out at first light, which means we will, too.

Tomorrow we leave Nevada and her slot machines in grocery stores behind and make it to Utah.  I’m looking forward to seeing the salt flats again.

 

 

On the Road with Ralphie

We’re in Truckee, California, our first stop on our first road trip with Ralphie.  Eventually we’ll end up in Denver, but we’re taking it slow and easy.  No more than four hours of driving a day and plenty of time to enjoy the scenery.

I love road trips because we get to make our own schedule and because we can take whatever fits into the car.  No getting up at the crack of dawn to get to the airport and no worrying about the size of our shampoo bottles.

We left San Rafael this morning at around 11:00 and headed to Davis, land of the bicycles and home of the aggies, to visit our friends Alex and Candace and their twin girls, Maya and Zoe (who turned 10 yesterday).  We hung out at their house for a while and met their dog, Sacha, an enthusiastic elk hound.  Then we went to Dos Coyotes for lunch.  It occurs to me now that we really should have taken a look at their chickens and rabbits, but at least we saw Maya and Zoe’s super cool playhouse with a stone tower in the backyard.

After lunch we drove to our old neighborhood near the Davis Food Co-Op and took a walk past our first apartment before heading downtown.  Neither of us had been in Davis in a long time so it was a little weird.  Everything seemed so much bigger–more space between houses, wider roads, bigger lawns.  Most of our old haunts were there but they didn’t feel even remotely ours any more.

Ralphie, unburdened by nostalgia, seemed to like Davis.  But then any time there’s new stuff to sniff, he’s pretty happy.  He also handled the long ride in the car really well.  I was worried that he might get stir crazy, but he just curled himself into a dog ball and went to sleep, waking up only whenever he heard the turn signal.

The drive toward Tahoe was uneventful, and we pulled into Truckee around 5:30.  After a quick dinner in the hotel, we went for what was supposed to be a short hike.  But we got lost and ended up wandering around for a while.  Now, even when there’s plenty of time, I’m not a big fan of being lost.  So imagine my panic when we got lost near sunset.  I tried to keep it together, but I don’t know how well I did.  Dave and his Android came to the rescue, however, and we made it back to the car well before dark, putting my fears of being mauled by wild animals to rest.  For now anyway.

And now I think it’s time to turn in.  The boys are already sound asleep next to me, Ralphie sprawled between us, twitching from time to time with his doggie dreams.

 

 

 

Blogger’s block.

When I started this blog in December I intended to post regularly–maybe not daily or even weekly, but definitely monthly.  And I was dutiful about it for a few months.  I posted some writing that I was proud of, and I felt good about myself for it.  But after I finished my hypochondria post, I found myself stuck in a rut.  I started to write several new articles (all with clever titles), but I could not finish any of them.  They just seemed silly or self-indulgent and so I abandoned them, leaving them to languish as half-developed drafts.

I’m naming my inability to post anything new blogger’s block rather than writer’s block because I write almost every day.  For the past few months I’ve been working on a story that started its life as a five-page free-writing exercise and has grown into a seventy-five page novella about Mary Bennet from Pride and Prejudice (think P & P meets Northanger Abbey and Harry Potter then says a brief hello to Willow from Buffy the Vampire Slayer).  In it Mary gets to have some adventures and romance of her own, which I think she deserves.

I also have a temporary job that I found through Freelancer.com that involves writing “articles” using key words sent to me by a marketing firm in Boston.  I’m pretty sure I’m writing a series of fake blog articles about Thai yoga, youth soccer, and IT asset management with links embedded in them to direct readers to websites offering something for sale.  Despite the soul-numbing boredom that the topics can inspire, I have been churning them out pretty quickly.

Yet, even with all this writing, I have been unable to bring myself to post anything new here since March.  Until tonight, of course, when I decided I have to break my blogger’s block.  So here I am, blogging about not being able to blog.  Does this mean that I have broken the block?  I hope so because I really want to do something with all those drafts  just waiting to be shaped.

 

Hypochondria: How Easy is a Bush Supposed a Bear

My sister’s favorite story about me goes like this:

During the summer of 1999 I had an emergency(ish) appendectomy.  About a week later, still sore and slow moving, I went with Dave to have lunch with some friends in Davis.  After lunch I had to go to the bathroom.  While I was there doing my business I looked down and saw that my abdomen looked purple.  Naturally I freaked out because obviously I was bleeding internally.  I returned to the table and, in a panicked whisper, informed Dave that we had to go home because I WAS BLEEDING INTERNALLY.  After we walked home,  I showed Dave my lower abdomen and said, “See?  It’s purple!  I’m bleeding internally!!”  Dave said, very calmly and sweetly, “You’re wearing purple underwear and it’s reflecting off the skin of your stomach.”

Okay, maybe it’s not Stephanie’s favorite story, but it ranks pretty high on her list and after thirteen years still makes her laugh.  I like this story for a couple of reasons: a. the punchline never gets old and b. it’s a great example of how my hyperactive imagination colors everything, especially things related to my health.  Like anyone whose imagination encourages them to see things that aren’t really there, I see internal bleeding where there is only purple underwear, or a heart attack where there is only a sore left arm.  Or a stroke.  Or melanoma.  Or…

Before I paint myself as a complete lunatic, however, I have to say that my fears about my health are at least sort of grounded in reality.  I have a few actual chronic health conditions.  I was diagnosed with asthma when I was five(ish), and as a child and teenager I had a few pretty serious attacks requiring middle-of-the-night emergency room visits.  I have never experienced anything more terrifying than feeling like I can’t breathe.  And to experience that fear more than once as a child leaves a mark.  At least that’s how my therapist once helped me to rationalize my hyper vigilance about my health.

But as a child I didn’t make the kind of creative leaps from familiar symptoms to dreadful diseases that I do as an adult.  I knew that my wheezing and shortness of breath were caused by my asthma and allergies and that, for example,  if I went over to Jennifer Keeping’s house to play I would need to bring my inhaler because they had a cat.  The connection was clear, and though it was scary and sometimes the symptoms hit me when I didn’t expect them to, which was even scarier, at least I knew exactly what was wrong with me. (That didn’t stop me from worrying that I was going to die, but I think that’s a valid worry.  People DO die from asthma, even though my father assured me otherwise to keep me calm during attacks.)

I’m not really sure when I stopped making those clear connections between my symptoms and their causes.  I think my first “heart attacks” happened in my mid-twenties; I distinctly remember walking through the restaurant where I worked feeling really concerned about the tightness in my chest.  Looking back I can see that it was simply anxiety–I hated my job, so naturally I was tense and anxious while I was there.  But at the time it seemed so obvious that I was on the brink of cardiac arrest.

As I get older I seem to be getting worse at interpreting my symptoms rather than better at it.  And the Internet does not help.  Instead it facilitates those creative leaps from purple underwear to internal bleeding by providing me with more details than I need about every illness known to humankind.  More than one doctor has suggested to me that I should avoid websites like WebMD because they will only feed my obsessions and intensify the feeling that I am spiraling out of control.

Recently that spiraling feeling has gotten even worse, so I decided to write this post  because I am tired of being ruled by my unruly imagination and sick of assuming the worst, of seeing bears where there are only bushes.  But I’ve been wrestling with this post for a few weeks now because I’ve had a terrible time figuring out where it was going.  And then my friend Emily reminded me to keep it simple.  And with that reminder something important clicked for me.  I realized that I choose how I interpret my symptoms, and if I choose to keep it simple, then a sore neck does not have to mean I have meningitis, it more likely means I need a new pillow.  In the grip of my fear, I had forgotten that I have any choice.  Suddenly, with that realization, everything has snapped back into perspective, suddenly the heart attacks and strokes have stopped.  Or so I have chosen.

Post script:  In October my sister had a beautiful baby boy named Brayden.  He was pretty big for a little guy, so she ended up having a C-section.  When she was about to go home from the hospital, I sent her a text message telling her not to wear any purple underwear.  A few days later she sent me a text to tell me she had a purple stomach–she had a real hematoma and needed a medieval torture device called a wound-vac to help with the healing.  I spent a week at her house doing laundry and cooking while she was going through this, and it’s clear to me now that if I had actually been bleeding internally after my appendectomy, I would not have been able to walk home from the restaurant to show Dave my purple stomach.

Ralphie

I fell in love last Sunday afternoon.  Truly, madly, deeply, head over heels, and at first sight.  His name is Ralphie and he is a boxer mix about a year old.

Dave and I started talking about getting a dog about a year ago–probably around the same time that Ralphie was born.  I spend a lot of time home alone during the day and I thought it would be nice to have a companion.  But our conversations about dogs usually went like this:

Beth: let’s get a dog!

Dave: You know you’d have to pick up his poop, right?

Beth: Oh. Right.  Never mind.

Then this fall I spent some time at my sister Stephanie’s house just after her son Brayden was born and I grew extremely attached to her dog, Joey.  Joey and I spent a lot of time just sitting together, me reading or doing my Rosetta Stone exercises while Joey curled up next to me.  I loved having that warm little body pressing against mine and his big wet eyes looking up at me when I spoke to him.  Since I had never really warmed to him before that visit, I was just as surprised as Stephanie by my budding relationship with Joey.

Those quiet moments with Joey showed me why I really wanted a dog: he was so happy just to sit with me and I was so comforted by his presence.  No, I think it goes even deeper than comfort; I felt pure love for him and from him.  When I came home I missed him and our companionship.  Joey also showed me that I am up to the ickier parts of dog ownership.  While I was there Joey was even more anxious than usual because of the change in his house, change that naturally accompanies the arrival of a new baby.  Unfortunately for my sister, Joey’s anxiety makes him throw up a lot.  One evening while I was there, Joey threw up while my sister and the rest of her family were too busy to deal with it.  To save Stephanie from insanity, I mopped up Joey’s barf.  And it didn’t gross me out, which, simple though it may sound, was a big deal.  It was the moment that changed everything.

That night while we were Skyping, Dave and I decided to get a dog.  We spent several weeks talking about what kind of dog we wanted and where would we get it.  We even had a name picked out: Douglas.  Last Sunday afternoon we finally had a chance to go to the Milo Foundation in San Rafael to have a look at the dogs available for adoption not actually thinking that we would be taking a dog home with us that day.  The first dog we saw was a sweet basset hound and both of us thought that she might be nice.  But then we saw Ralphie and that was it.  He was sitting at the front of his cage looking so handsome but very sad.  My heart opened all the way and I was a goner.  We only needed a quick walk down the block to know for sure that we wanted Ralphie, so we returned to Milo, adopted him, and took him home.

Ralphie, who is definitely not a Douglas, is adapting quickly to life outside the shelter, and we are learning more about him–and about dog ownership–every day.  He loves to go for walks because he is so interested in the world, and while he is learning not to pull on the leash, he gets stubborn when he’s picked up a particularly compelling scent.  We’ve taken him for a drive a few times and he seems to enjoy it, standing at attention with his front paws on the arm rest between my seat and the passenger seat and leaning his body against mine for balance, which I love.  We’re still figuring out what he wants to eat and when he wants to poop.  And because we are probably over-protective, we’re reluctant to leave him alone in the house for fear of traumatizing him.  But we will get over that.  For now we want him to be as comfortable and happy as possible.

For years I believed that I was not really a pet person.  I didn’t understand why people would allow animals indoors.  They pee, the poop, they shed, they drool, and they chew on things.  In fact, when we brought Ralphie home last Sunday afternoon, Dave and I both felt a little strange when we saw a dog walking around in our house.  But now I understand.  In the week that we have lived with Ralphie, Dave and I have fallen deeper in love with him every day.  When he wags not just his tail but also his whole body because he is so excited to see Dave or me, my heart melts and I don’t care about the dog hair on the couch or the time he pooped in the house.  I don’t even mind picking up his poop outside.  Although it’s been just a week, I already can’t imagine life without Ralphie any more than I can imagine life without Dave.  There may be only three of us, but our pack is complete.

That Certain Slant of Light

The rain started late last week.  Finally.  The rain is late this year and despite the pleasure of the past few weeks’ unusually beautiful weather, the lack of rain was starting to get worrisome.  So I’m glad that it finally started raining.  Sort of.  Because the rain brought the grey, which is, for me, even more than the short days or the cold, the real mark of winter.

I’ve always thought that up until about Christmas the early dark feels sort of cozy.  I like being tucked into my house at the end of the day while the dark starts creeping in earlier and earlier.  For the first few weeks or so it seems novel (even though it happens every year).  This year was no different.  The days started getting shorter and I enjoyed the safe, cocoon-like feeling in my well-lit house.  We even had a bonus this year, for while the darkness fell earlier every day, because the rain was so late the fall colors stayed on the trees until about a week ago.  And the late afternoon light had that lovely golden warmth of autumn.  But with the rain, the light–or lack thereof–that once made me feel cozy now leaves me cold. We have reached that point in winter when even the light from the sun is pale and dissipated.  This afternoon I look out of my window and see a grey world with all the color drained away, lit by a watery sunlight.

I am, from time to time, haunted by the first line of one of my favorite Emily Dickinson poems: “There’s a certain slant of light.”  I first read this poem, like so many other poems, in an English class at UCONN.  I remember this poem especially clearly because the entire class misunderstood it so profoundly.  It was part of an assignment in which we had to present a poem to the class, and the poor girl in charge of this one bore the brunt of the misinterpretation.  She (and the rest of us) saw in that “certain slant of light”  an invitingly warm golden ray that a cat might lounge in.  How we could have been so completely off the mark, I don’t know.  Maybe we all failed to do our homework.  And our professor–I cringe when I think about it–was appalled.  He was either faced with our collective laziness or he was butting up against our youthful inability to understand the reality of death.  Or, as my husband loves to say, maybe it was a little from column a and a little from column b.  For despite our Generation X pretense to world-weariness, we were so young and naive that we could see in this poem such a comforting image.  Re-reading it now I cannot imagine how we ever thought that an inviting slant of light:

There’s a certain slant of light,

Winter afternoons—

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes—

 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us—

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the meanings are—

 

None may teach it—Any—

‘Tis the Seal of Despair—

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air—

 

When it comes, the Landscape listens—

Shadows—hold their breath—

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death—

It’s embarrassing, really, that a group of English majors missed such blatant cues as “oppresses,” “heft,” “hurt,” “scar,” “despair,” “affliction,” and “Death.”  It’s even more embarrassing that we read that poem in the dead of a Connecticut winter, probably with an example of that very slant of light right outside the classroom.  I don’t pretend to understand the poem completely now, but I get glimpses of possible meanings each time I read it.  And it leaves me with a deep melancholy, just like a rainy winter afternoon.

Maybe there is some kind of cosmic irony (to indulge in a little drama) in the fact that I was born during the winter, and while I love my birthday, I really hate winter.  I used to hate it because of the cold and the dirty snow or the never-ending rain.  Now I think I hate winter because it is a stark reminder of my mortality.  At 18 or 19 (or even 35) my mortality would never have occurred to me as a framework for understanding this poem.  Mortality was still only an abstraction for me then, lacking any weight–or heft–that would connect it to my understanding of the world.  But I’ve just celebrated my 44th birthday, which means that I’m hitting the age where I might have more birthdays behind me than ahead of me.  That thought is profoundly sobering.  In fact, this is the first birthday during which that thought has occurred to me even though I still feel about 12 years old.  I think that contradiction might be something like the scar Dickinson writes about in her second stanza, that “internal difference– / Where the meanings are.”

Thoughts like these will continue to rattle around my mind for the next few weeks as the rain pours down on us.  But, luckily for me, I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, which means that spring will be here before the rain stops.  In just a few weeks daffodils will begin blooming in my neighbor’s yard and the apricot tree in our backyard will be covered in blossoms.  The sunlight breaking through the rain clouds will still have that watery quality for several more weeks, but it will be getting stronger and lasting longer every day.  The air will smell sweet and color will start to re-enter the world.  And my winter melancholy will dissipate, leaving almost no trace.

All Writing is Re-writing

Every written project I have ever completed started with a leap of faith that I would be able to do it because I had done it before.  But that faith often (maybe always) wavered after I  jumped into the project–sometimes as soon as my metaphorical feet left the metaphorical ground.  When this happened I turned to free-writing to discover that I had something to say after all and I could stop panicking.  Nevertheless, as a graduate student I often experienced frustration and disappointment with my writing even after it began to take a vague shape.  Being a non-Stoic, I tended to share this frustration and disappointment with my colleagues and my advisors.  One of those advisors, Richard Schoch of Queen Mary College, used to remind me from time to time that all writing is re-writing.  I liked to quote Richard when reassuring my frustrated and disappointed writing students, elaborating on his advice by adding my version: good writing does not spring fully-formed from our minds like Athena did from Zeus’s.

Early drafts of my academic writing almost never came out easily.  I felt that I was coaxing, dragging, or pulling each draft of each paper or chapter out of my brain and into my computer.  But once I managed to get the first drafts written and I actually knew what I was writing about, I knew what I needed to write next.  And, more exciting to me, I could see where I could begin doing the shaping; I saw where I needed to develop the thoughts in each paragraph with more thoroughly explained evidence and how I could untangle confusing syntax and make my argument stronger with well-developed and clearly crafted sentences.  I also saw where sections could be or had to be cut.  Then, as I got closer to finishing the project, I began the refining work.  Once I got to the final stages of writing my dissertation, for example, I could spend an entire day working on one sentence.  And I LOVED it.

While I was often overwhelmed by the difficulty of writing as a student, I am astounded and delighted by the sheer volume of work that I have produced recently just by letting my pen fly across the page.  I have three long(ish) stories in draft form, written purely as free-writing exercises.  As I have written about before, these stories seemed to be waiting in my mind for an invitation to be told.  But, just like my work for graduate school, these stories did not spring fully-formed from my brain.  Now I’m getting to the re-writing and re-working process where I know I will find holes in the narratives and characters that need more depth and dimension.  I am sure I will find many awkward sentences to smooth into, I hope, elegant phrases.   In other words, now the fun begins.

I’m not completely sure why I find restructuring sentences so thrilling and picking just the right word so deeply satisfying.  I think it has something to do with my desire for clarity, for understanding the world better.  Or maybe it is just about beauty or my subjective idea of the beautiful.  Then again, in an earlier draft of this essay, I gave Richard’s advice another interpretation: I don’t have to worry about the shape of my early writing because, if all writing is re-writing, then I have plenty of time to fix it.  I think that comes closer to explaining why I love the re-writing part of writing–the craft of writing–so much.  I don’t have to get it right the first time.  I need to be reminded, frequently, of that fact.  I also need to be reminded that it is okay to spend an entire day sculpting one sentence.  My drive to produce so often hurries me along, but the craft of writing slows me down, inviting me to linger lovingly, even greedily, over my words and phrases, those imperfect but gorgeous children of my mind.

 

Writing Sex

Last year I played Mary Bennett and Charlotte Lucas in Pride and Prejudice adapted by Jon Jory (I liked playing Charlotte but I LOVED playing Mary).  Jory’s adaptation really moves the story along, which means characters like Mary and Charlotte get short shrift.  His cursory treatment, however, gave me lots of room to create a wonderfully nerdy Mary with a slight adenoid problem who, if she were around today, would be playing Dungeons and Dragons, collecting Magic the Gathering cards, and writing fan fiction about Star Trek.

Anyway, that’s not the point of this post.  A few days ago I decided to write a story about Mary Bennett that takes place after the book / play ends (like P.D. James except there is no mystery).  Since I am currently indulging my love for fantasy fiction in my writing, I gave Mary’s story a recognizably fantasy slant.  Mary, unbeknownst to her family, has become an accomplished witch, secretly reading spell books in her room (when she isn’t reading Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho.)  When I started writing the story I thought maybe she would discover a way into a magical, Narnia-esque world and have adventures of the kind that brainy plain girls don’t usually get to have in Jane Austen books.  Instead, the story took a decidedly erotic twist when Mary recognized the new Vicar, who was visiting for tea, as a master magician whose books she cherished.  He, as any good magician-pretending-to-be-the-local-clergy will do, also recognized her as a fellow spell caster.  That plot twist led me to write a steamy , bodice-ripping sex scene that left me a little spent and kind of embarrassed.  Not with the whole story–I’m actually pretty pleased with the story, and I think that with a little more work it could be good.  But I’m embarrassed to post it to my blog because of this bodice-ripping sex scene.

Before Mary and the Vicar, I didn’t think I could even bring myself to write a sex scene, as I told Emily about a week ago (Emily, I hope you don’t mind being a recurring figure in my blog posts).  It’s not that I’m a prude or afraid of sex.  And I have no trouble performing sex scenes or being nude on stage (to be honest as long as there is no mirror, I can be nude pretty much anywhere).  I’m not sure exactly what it is about writing a sex scene that is so embarrassing to me.  While I worry what people will think of me and wonder how I could have such things on my mind, I don’t think that is the explanation.   I think it is me at my most vulnerable, writing something incredibly intimate and opening a window into a part of myself that I ordinarily keep very private–except, you might point out, for when I share it onstage.  But there is an important difference between acting and writing a sex scene: on stage I am performing someone else’s sex scene.  It does not originate in my imagination, so it feels a lot less intimate and I feel a lot less vulnerable.

If it is a matter of vulnerability, then I have a great chance to push my boundaries with my decidedly un-Jane Austen story about Mary Bennett.   I pride myself on being fearless as an actor, so why not as a writer?  And I guess that is my answer.  Why not?  So I will revisit the draft of Mary’s sexy story, work on it, and publish it to my blog.  I imagine my heart will be pounding as I go to hit that publish button, like Mary’s heart when the Vicar, well, you know.

Falling in Love With the Characters

Last week during the annual post-Christmas reunion dinner with some of our friends from UC Davis, Ruth asked me if I had a favorite character that I have played. I was stumped so I asked Dave since he lives with all those characters and my opinions about them and I suppose he sees my relationships with them more clearly than I do. His answer: Marianne from The Miser. Of course I agreed. I loved Marianne with her innocent belief that everyone loved her because that was the natural order of things, and I loved playing her in  the awesome costume that our designer, Michael Berg, devised for me: a purple princess dress with a purple lace-covered and pink and purple ribbon-trimmed corset worn on the outside, plus multi-colored lacy stockings, purple lacy socks and my pink and white checked converse lined with more purple lace. A blonde wig and a giant pink and white polka dotted bow completed the marvelous ensemble. My pre-show playlist for her included “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” “Practically Perfect” (from Mary Poppins), and “Barbie Girl,” all of which helped me get to that super cheerful place from which Marianne did everything. I also found a voice for her that is considerably higher than mine with which I got to say the sometimes show-stopping line, “But I’m not very responsible with shiny things.”  How could I not love her?

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But if Dave were to have suggested another character–Hermia from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Nina from the Cocktail Hour or Germaine from Picasso at the Lapine Agile, for example–I would immediately have raved “oh, of course, SHE was my favorite.” I have, in fact, fallen in love with nearly every character I have played, which is, for me, a key to making them playable. My job is to take whatever clues about the character I can find in the text and create a living person and that job is so much easier from a place of love. Falling in love with each character keeps me from playing a type rather than a person, and keeps me from playing my opinion of her or from being apologetic about her actions. Being in love with the character saves me from the temptation to comment on her in my performance, as if saying to the audience “I know she is an idiot, but she’s written that way so what can I do?”

There are a few characters I simply could not fall in love with and my performance of those characters suffered from that inability to connect. Paula from A Seagull in the Hamptons leaps immediately to my mind. I really didn’t like her much less love her. I found her weak and whiny and couldn’t find my way to a more sympathetic view of her. So I never fully got her and I struggled with every rehearsal and every performance. I was relieved to let her go when the show closed.

In a few weeks I will be taking on Mae (also called Sister Woman) in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. I  am already quite smitten with her despite her somewhat caustic nature and capacity for meanness. I have sympathy for her because I suspect she suffers from a great disappointment in life as it has turned out for her. Half my work is already done because of this sympathy and burgeoning love.

There is a lesson in here, I am sure, that concerns something much bigger than acting. If love is what lets me into a character’s world and allows me to create her with sympathy and honesty, what could I do outside of myself and outside of the theatre with that kind of love? What might I do for myself even? If I can love these characters despite their naive idiocies or petty jealousies or bad choices,  I can also love myself despite my naive idiocies, petty jealousies and bad choices. And if my capacity for love extends to fictional creatures, it is certainly big enough to take in the rest of the world.

I have never thought about this kind of connection between the work I do as an actor and my capacity for sympathy for other human beings and for myself. On the cusp of a new year seems like a great time to begin.

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