These Cats Have Character

November 11, 2018

My Dad was a fan of items — ornaments, decorations and tchotchkes– that he described as having “character”.  If I brought home art from school, the highest compliment would be when he looked at something and determined it had character. Out in the world,  he would have a certain amused and admiring tone as he picked up whatever thing had caught his eye, said, “now this X has character.” I am sure he bought these honeycomb cats for their character.

My dad had a respect and care for objects that– with all love to my husband– I can say I don’t see much in my current life where even expensive electronic items are flung about and the disposable nature of anything inexpensive is emphasized in how it is treated.

I have this very distinct memory of my father sitting at our dining room table, carefully sliding the decorations out of their envelopes, and assembling them  with a precise  gentleness. Which is probably why, so many years later, they are in remarkably good repair.

How many years, exactly?

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Something else my father did was put dates on things, as if he knew that one day someone would become nostalgic and wonder. It’s hard to say — does this look like 1980…or 1960? Do the colors look like funky 60s colors, or neon 80s colors? The 1980s which would coincide with my childhood. But doesn’t it look like 1960? In which case he would have bought them during his first marriage, and a decade later packed and carried them into his new life, and eventually his second marriage. That’s a lot of years and travel for these little black cats.

 

View from Our Window as the World Burns

November 10, 2018

This is the view from our kitchen window at 3pm on a Saturday afternoon. If you are searching for the sun,  direct your eye to that speck of muted brightness behind the palm tree.  It’s easy to look right at it–the air acts as filtering lens.

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The city smells like a campfire. Not the kind that you can escape by walking a few yards toward fresher air, but the kind that is everywhere when you step outside, and that seeps through your drafty windows and under the cracks in under your doors, settling into your head as a dull ache and in your eyes as a gentle sting. We are surrounded by the areas we are luckier than — Thousand Oaks in one direction, Malibu in the other.  I heard on the radio that school where I sometimes teach a screenwriting course is being used as an evacuation site. As devastating as both of these fires are for the people in these local areas–in a few cases, people I’ve met and know–apparently neither as destructive as the fire that continues up north, near a town called Paradise. I’m planning a trip to Northern California for early December, but now, as I research routes, the roads we hope to travel have all been closed.

I’ve felt adjacent to the line of fire in another sense as well this week. The fire in Thousand Oaks has overshadowed the event the happened just a day before the fire began — a dozen people were shot and killed at a bar in Thousand Oaks. Friends have been posting memories of eating there over the years. The roommate of a friend’s daughter who attended Pepperdine was killed.

And the Thousand Oaks shooting redirected my gaze from the shooting that took place exactly a week before, at a yoga studio in my once-home of Tallahassee, Florida, where one of the victims was a student in the same FSU English Department that I belonged to.

Not me. But close to me. I want to put my arms around the world and say, sorry. Sorry for your loss.

 

We Live, and Then We Die

I was lucky this summer to get to go home for almost two whole weeks. I’ve always been grateful to be able to go back home in a way that few of my friends can.  My mother still lives in my childhood home, and when I arrive, I carry my suitcase up the stairs and put it in my childhood bedroom, where the same bedroom furniture set remains.

When I have just a few days, it can be hard to mentally pull myself away from my big city life. But when I have a little longer, home is the place that grounds me, that provides distance from my day-to-day battles, and a vantage point from which to view my life.

This summer’s trip was more emotionally packed than usual. For one thing, I attended a high school reunion — which was predictably disorienting.  Some acquaintances looked so different from high school that I only recognized them because of their name tags. Others seemed to look exactly like they did in high school. We spent a lot of time exclaiming to each other how we looked just the same, but then someone played a slideshow of pictures and it became abundantly clear that no one looks like they did in high school, because we looked like children.

There was a table in the back dedicated to the pictures of fellow classmates who will never look as old as we do. Military service, suicide, cancer.

I also met people at the reunion for the first time. These weren’t spouses or partners, they were people who’d gone to my school for the same three years I did, and I had never met. What was I so involved with that I never once noticed this person? I wondered.

At the beginning of the first night, I felt distant and awkward. Conversations with my old classmates felt painfully  like conversations I have all the time with strangers.  By the end of the second night however, I was feeling nostalgic and close to my old friends and acquaintances. This person is so cool! I thought, as we had drunken conversations in the finished basement of a couple who married after high school and have a kid looking at colleges.  If I just led a different life, lived in a different city –we would still be friends who hang out all the time! 

But the reunion was just a start to my jaunt down memory lane. Because on the first night of the reunion, as I wandered around outside the American Legion hall  trying to move past the awkward phase, I checked my phone and found a message from an old boyfriend who I hadn’t heard from in years. He was writing because a mutual friend — someone we’d worked with — even shared a house with for a short while — had suffered a stroke. A day later the friend died. My old boyfriend sent me a photo of the three of us at some bar that neither of us could identify. In the photo we looked so fresh-faced and innocent, I wanted to reach out and pet us. But I couldn’t remember the evening at all, or even guess what we might have talked about that night.

A few days later,  a writing partner called to that a fellow writer — who had been a mentor and helper on our project– had also died of a sudden stroke.

On Sunday, I looked in the local paper and saw that there was memorial service for the former artistic director of the local theatre company where I’d interned the summers after my last year of high school and first year of college, so I went. I entered another room full of round tables and chairs occupied by people with faces and names I hadn’t seen for years. As with my first meeting of my high school friends, I felt happy to see them, and at the same time separated by glass.

To hammer home any themes that might be emerging, for the two weeks I was home, I stayed up late each night and binged episodes of Six Feet Under (which I recommend if, like me, you missed it when it aired). It’s about a family who runs a funeral home. Each episode begins with somebody dying, but for the most part, the people who die are not main characters so the show is not as depressing as it sounds. Although also, it is, because it is about people yearning for connection and never quite finding it. And then, before they have finished looking — they die.

 

Submitting

I’m in the process of submitting a short story to various journals.  It occurs to me that this is an act that requires “submitting” in both senses of the word: “Presenting ones work for consideration or judgement,” and “yielding to or acceptance of a greater authority” (whether that greater authority is whomever has the power to judge, of the way things work, or the mysteriousness of the universe and its unknowable will).

My personal submissions process generally leads to some rabbit-holing. Each journal’s website encourages me to consider whether I am a fit by reading other work they have published. I generally try to do this, and I will also occasionally search for interviews with or works by the editor.

In this way, Dogwood (a journal) led me to an essay by Carole Ann Davis, which led me to this poem by Miklos Radnoti, a poet I had never heard of.

The quote from the essay by Carol Ann Davis that caught my eye:

Before getting to my desk this morning I read a beautiful poem by the Hungarian Miklós Radnóti, who died in a ditch while performing forced labor during World War II but whose notebook of poems was found upon his exhumation in the raincoat that covered his body, a poem that contains lines about the end of summer “bath[ing] in the sun,” and a “pain that wanders around / but you start again as if you had wings.” The notebook nestled in consolation next to his dead body for over a year before it was found.

The poem by Miklos Radnoti that I subsequently found (a different translation from the link above):

Letter to my wife

Soundless worlds are listening somewhere deep
In the earth; the silence roars in my ears and I keep
On crying for help but from Serbia stunned by war
No one can give me an answer and you are far
Away. The sound of your voice becomes entwined
With my dreams and, when I awake next day, I find
Your words in my heart; I listen and meanwhile the sound
Of tall, proud ferns, cool to the touch, murmurs all round.

When I’ll see you again, I can no longer promise – you
Who once were as grave as the psalms, and as palpably true,
As lovely as light and shade and to whom I could find
My way back without eyes or ears – but now in my mind
You stray through a troubled land and from somewhere deep
Within it your flickering image is all I can keep
A hold of. Once you were real, but now you’re a dream,
I tumble back into memory’s depths till it seems

I’m a boy once more, wondering jealously whether
You love me and if, at the height of youth, you’ll ever
Become my wife – I begin to hope once more
And, tumbling back, my wakeful state is restored
And I know you are – my wife, my friend, yet how
Far off. Beyond three savage frontiers. Now
Autumn’s coming. Will it forget me here?
The vivid memory of our kisses still endures.

I believed in miracles once, but now they’ve fled
And squadrons of bombers slowly drone by overhead;
In the sky I saw with amazement the blue of your eyes;
But then it grew dark and the bombs in the aeroplane high
Above were longing to fall. All the same, I came through
And now I’m a prisoner. And though I’ve measured the true
Scale of my hopes, I’m certain I’ll reach my goal;
For you I’ve already travelled the length of the soul,

The roads that seek distant lands; if I must, I’ll contrive
To conjure myself over red-hot coals and survive
Among showers of flames – yet still I will return
To be with you one day; if I have to, I’ll learn
To be tough like the bark on a tree – and now I’m soothed
By the calm of men who, achieving power, move
Through endless trials – and the knowledge that I’ll pull through
Descends, like a wave, with the coolness of 2 x 2.

Camp Heidenau, in the hills above Zagubica, 1944. August-September.

Things like this, I guess, are the rewards of submitting oneself to the process.

My Cinestory Contest Review

I first heard about CINESTORY several years back when I went to a screening of an indie film called Cake. The writer talked about taking the script to the Cinestory Retreat and finding support for it there. I went to their website and thought the experience sounded amazing — spending time in an idyllic setting working with professional writers on ones project, making friends and bonding, etc.

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Who wouldn’t want this?

Over the course of a few years I submitted two or three features to the Cinestory Contest (entry fee $55-$75) and never heard back, but last year, just as I’d finished a first draft of an original pilot, I saw they’d added an episodic lab for TV work, and submitted again.

This time, I was excited to get an email notifying me that I’d made the quarter finals, and more so when I got the email saying I’d made the semi-finals!

But some of the warm fuzzies cooled and floated away when I read this:

RETREAT FEES
GRAND PRIZE WINNER: Free
CATEGORY WINNERS: $1175
FINALISTS: $1600
SEMIFINALISTS: $1700

$1700??

Let’s go back and read that submission page again. Reading more carefully than I did, you’ll see that the grand prize winner gets “free tuition,” which by implications means the the other invitees… don’t. Also, if you go to their FAQ there is a statement noting that the is a cost for the retreat.

That cost, by the way, does not cover lodging or transportation. So, for me, the question became, do I have in excess of $2000 to spend in three days?

In other years, when I have been working a day job, the answer might have been yes. This year I am mostly writing, so the cost is on the high side for me. In truth, the $55 entry fee was already on the high side for me.

For me, the $2000 buys a month of food and rent, and expenses so I guess that’s like my own personal writers’ retreat?…  Except… not. Working at my desk at home is not meeting people and making connections. What if, like with the Cake, someone took a shine to my project and help shepherd it to fruition? What if someone just liked me, my writing, my work ethic, and it led to the job in or near a writers room? What if this were the opportunity  that changed my career?

I won’t ever know, because I didn’t go.

Luck, they say, is when preparation meets opportunity.  Once you’ve prepared, how far should you go –and how much should you spend — on the hunt for “opportunity?” for those little moments, those chance meetings that might change everything …or might change nothing?

Cinestory, by the way, is a non-profit organization. None of the mentors are paid. As noted in the FAQ, “they volunteer their time for free.” The way  they say it implies I should feel good about that, though I’m not exactly sure why I should feel good that money is just going to the organizers and not the instructors.  Isn’t that just saying that if I ever succeed in my own struggles to achieve a career and reputation in the industry then I can look forward to being asked to work for free, teaching students who are paying generously for the experience?  If you want to pick a profession  (besides writer) that gets consistently undervalued — it’s teaching!

So my review of Cinestory retreat is that it looks enticing on the website.  My review of the Cinestory contest marketing is that it feels disingenuous, despite what I’m sure are genuine good intentions on the part of the organizers.

If you are an aspiring writer with a day job and want to take a feel-good vacation that will maybe give you some inspiration, friendships, connections, you should totes submit. But if it doesn’t work out, consider using the same amount of money to take three 10-week long classes at UCLA extension, also taught by working industry writers who are being paid (albeit too little) to help you with your writing.