Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Vegas, Baby!

Las Vegas may not be one of the Seven Wonders of the World, but of there was list Seven Weirdest Places of the World, it would certainly be there. In a couple of hours, you can walk from Venice to Paris to Mandalay Bay to Luxor—and hit New York and Bellagio on the way back.

Caesar himself would be proud of Caesar’s palace. Seriously! If didn’t know my history, I’d believe the Romans made it to Vegas, too.

There are pirate fights on the hour at Treasure Island, an erupting volcano at the Mirage; the fountains at Bellagio burst with color and music into the night sky.

Once, when there was a Monet exhibit at the Guggenhiem gallery at the Venetian (sadly, now defunct), I looked at a painting of the Doges Palace for a long time, then walked out on the traffic bridge and looked at the Vegas version, cars zooming under me on Las Vegas Boulevard. Except for the gargantuan video screens advertising Wayne Newton or Bette Middler or Cher, it was eerily right-on.

Speaking of art, note the fabulous sculpture from the Riviera, the posteriors of the women shining from being touched gazillions of time for good luck.

It’s Vegas, Baby.

And here’s a shoe from a shop window at the Mirage. Women wear these shoes here! Some can actually walk in them without looking like their ankles are going to give out on them any minute. It’s kind of a miracle.

Me, I play video poker on the nickel machines. My idea is winning is taking a really, really long time to lose my $20 stake. Better yet, playing a long time and cashing out the same $20—or maybe, on a good day, $25. Or $30. Who-hoo!

Steve, though—he wins more often than not. $6,000 this time! A trip to France.

Of course, there’s a sad side to Las Vegas, too. Yesterday morning, walking, we saw a guy up ahead of us, weaving a little, talking to himself. He was filthy, his hair tangled, his clothes in tatters. As we followed him up the escalator to cross on a traffic bridge, Steve took a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet.

He tapped the guy on the shoulder. “Have you had anything to eat today?” he asked.
The guy shook his head, no. Steve gave him the money, and the guy’s face broke into an astonished smile.

“Some people aren’t as lucky as we are, you know?” Steve said to me, as we moved on.

“Yes, we are very, very lucky,” I said.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Mary's Rant

This, from my friend Mary, one of the best English teachers I know. It expresses so well how frustrating it is to care about kids so much and work so hard to educate them in the fact of the stubborn stupidity of policy-makers and, alas, some citizens, too, who persist in denying teachers the resources they need to get the job done.

"I have one of the dept. document cameras, but the projector and laptop I have checked out is from the IMC with their cart and my own speakers. I use it at least once a week; the document camera not as much because it's such a pain to rehook it all up.

"21st century classrooms? I've been ready for the last three years; even the soldiers I had as guest speakers today were a bit frustrated with the system that Sara Berghoff, my husband, Laura Phillips, and I have jerry-rigged together.

"Thankfully, I assured the soldier boys (and they agreed wholeheartedly!) our tax dollars pay for excellent military equipment, food and clothing -- just not for technology for our schools. (and ditto to Sen. Lugar's aide since the laptop kept "freezing" on the DVD she brought to show, and she finally scrapped it and ad-libbed the rest. She can take THAT impressive bit back to the senator, and maybe he can talk with our wonderful, new state supt. who must have left his heart in San Francisco or "our man Mitch," aka "the Blade," or that impressive roundtable of experts when they want to pay us based on test scores and continue to cut funding for schools, or even our newest boss who will solve all matters of education on the federal level with a continuation of "No Child Left Behind, No Child Moves Ahead.")

"And, if you live in [our township] and didn't get out and vote for the recent referendum as well as push it to your neighbors, what a shame.

"I wonder how many sharp, new colleagues of mine (who are now friends, too)will now get riffed this spring?

"Grrrr....a frustrating day, in more ways than one, even though spending the day with active-duty soldiers and someone in public service trying to make a difference as we all attempt to help teach the "future leaders of tomorrow " (YIKES!) how to appreciate what we have in America is usually a "best day" of the year for me. And, truly, it was, despite my 10 p.m. rant. :)

"I'm still smilin' and will be back to "mold minds" manana!


"P.S. Oh, wait. Sorry. You asked for only positive replies, and I just realized mine probably wasn't. Dang.

"P.P.S. What DID you ask? Oh, yeah. NO, I don't have a department projector."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Alice's Workshop

I’ve published some poems, but I’m not really a poet. What I mean by that is, I might write a decent poem, but I couldn’t explain why it’s decent. If a poem is seriously flawed, I generally can’t identify the source of the flaw; thus, I have no idea how to fix it. I can’t take apart a poem, like I can take apart a story or a novel to see how it “works.”

Still, there’s something so satisfying about writing a poem—a moment caught and saved forever or a thought made visible in images.

The poet Alice Friman says that writing a poem is like trying to capture a ghost. Imagine that someone gives you a sheet and says, ‘Find the Ghost.’ So you go around the room throwing the sheet into the air until, suddenly, there’s form beneath it—and that’s how you know where the ghost is.

“The poem is the ghost,” Alice says. “The words, the sheet that gives it form.”

I treated myself to a poetry workshop at the Writers’ Center of Indiana with Alice last Sunday afternoon—several delicious hours of considering one poems-in-progress from each of eight participants. Alice is a marvelous teacher, smart, practical, passionate about poetry. She sees what you’re trying to do and is able to make you see what’s actually there. (As opposed to what you thought, hoped was there.)

“What if?” she says. “What if?” Thinking out loud about strategies and solutions, surprising herself with her own ideas along the way, which is a pleasure to observe. But it’s your poem,” she always concludes. And it is—though always better once you apply whatever she had to say about it.

Here’s the poem I submitted—improved by the cuts that Alice and the group suggested. But I’m still not sure about the last stanza. I like it, but do I need it? Alice said, “I can live with it. But it’s your poem.”

What do you think? Keep? Cut?



I worked a whole year in this museum
and never saw the painting until that summer
you nearly died. The year of the drought,
the whole world burned brown,
so that sometimes, outside,
away from where you lay in the hospital bed,
the air seemed more alive than anything else, pressed
against me until I thought I could not breathe.

I came alone one afternoon, while you slept,
wandered the galleries, hoping
to find sadness larger than my own, made beautiful
and saw this painting
I had passed a hundred times, saw the care
with which Canaletto had rendered the architecture:
the precision of the domes and arches,
the perfect regularity of the windows,
the long balustrade above the promenade,
the repeating diamond design on the face
of the Doges’ Palace.

I saw the luminous pink of that building.
I saw the blue sky.
I saw people: quick, curved colors, sometimes
no more than dots on a balcony,
half-hidden by pillars--
like ghosts
like the second thoughts they were.

He had made the world first, I saw that
in the way the stones of the piazzetta bled
right through the men and women there.


Five years pass. It is November: cold,
clear, and I come back because I am happy,
because I think I know what this poem will be.
I will sit before the “View of the Piazzetta
San Marco Looking South,” paint
with words what I remember.

But the bench where I sat before is gone,
the walls are pink, the painting hangs
near the doorway to a room flooded
with sunlight, and the Doges’ Palace
dissolves into it, all the lovely verticals
collapse, leaving a clutter
of shacks at the base of the campanile,
hungry dogs, children at play, ladies gossiping,
tradesmen leaning into secrets--
in the far corner, a solitary figure
in a black cloak with red cuffs, vivid
as the bells that announce themselves
in the long shadow of the tower falling
across the square.

And I see
that I know nothing, I am prepared
for nothing. Each painting, each sadness
and happiness will yield to me
what and when it chooses.

Monday, November 9, 2009

The Gathering of Writers

About a year ago, when nonprofits everywhere were crashing, I became the Executive Director of the Writers’ Center of Indiana. Long story. Mainly, I took on the job, as a volunteer, because the Writers’ Center was there when I finally trumped up the courage to try to write and I wanted it to be there for others who dreamed of being writers and needed a place to begin.

Believe me, being the Executive Director of anything was the last thing in the world I ever thought I’d be.

(Once, in Las Vegas, my husband and I watched a disgustingly scruffy, eastern-European guy losing big-time at the high stakes Baccarat table and being a really bad sport about it. When the Casino employee leaned down and said something to him, the guy leapt up, pointed his finger at the Casino employee, and shouted, “You! You are imbecile! I want never you should be in charge of nothing!”

This has become a joke in our family. When somebody screws up—or has major potential to screw up—it’s what we say. It says a lot about I felt about this unlikely turn of events in my life.)


With the help of an amazing Board of Directors, numerous volunteers and supporters, and the indispensible Roxanna Santoro, who keeps chaos at bay in the office, the Writers’ Center is not only surviving, but thriving!

Plus, I love this work. Who’d have thought?

Saturday we had our annual Gathering of Readers and Writers, coordinated by Victoria Barrett, who, in my humble opinion, should be put in charge of organizing the universe. Award-winning poet Alice Friman, who helped found the Writers’ Center in 1979 (just in time for me to take my first class)gave a keynote address that celebrated the Writers' Center's 30th anniversary by way telling of her own story--and ended with a reading of a half-dozen poets who were there from the start.

More than a dozen Indiana writers gave break-out sessions and participated in panels on poetry, fiction, memoir, mystery-writing, screenplay, publishing, and other topics. (FYI: there are many, many accomplished, award-winning Indiana writers whose work is recognized on the national level and beyond.)

It was a wonderful day. The foyer and galleries of the Indianapolis Art Center, where the conference was held, were lined with Day of the Dead altars, each one just waiting to be turned into a story, a poem, a memoir, a movie—maybe a mystery. Even the weather was inspiring; sunny and balmy, autumn’s last gift.

But my absolute favorite moment of the day was glancing into the library where Norman Minnick, a new, young voice in poetry, was presenting a session and seeing Roger Mitchell—

well, here’s his (abridged) bio:

Roger Mitchell is the author of nine books of poetry and a work of nonfiction. Roger Mitchell is the author of nine books of poetry and a work of nonfiction. The University of Akron Press published his most recent book, Half/Mask in January, as they did his previous book, Delicate Bait, which Charles Simic chose for the Akron Prize in 2002. Mitchell is formerly the director of the Creative Writing Program at Indiana University, where he held the Ruth Lilly Chair of Poetry. Other recognition for his writing includes the Midland Poetry Award, the John Ben Snow Award for Clear pond, his work of nonfiction, two fellowships each from the Indiana Arts Commission and the National Endowment for the Arts, the River Styx International Poetry Award, and others. He was a 2005 Fellow in Poetry from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

…sitting in the audience, taking notes.

“All writers are beginners,” Alice Friman said.

She’s right. And it made me really, really happy to watch close to a hundred writers spend a whole day beginning together.

Monday, November 2, 2009

The Morning after Halloween

We took our dog, Louise, for a walk as we always do on Sunday morning, weather willing. Not long after we left our house, I saw a pair of dingy white house slippers on the sidewalk, positioned so that they looked as if someone had just stepped out of them and kept right on going. Not far away, resting in some ferns, was a single rubber glove (yellow).

Along the Monon Trail, I found a curly brown wig, a black sock, pink and purple boa residue, a red plaid cap with a fringe of fake brown hair along the back, a bunny tail,a flame headband, bits of pillow stuffing, the tip of a plastic sword, and a nifty red sequinned trident.

In the gutter outside Three Dog Bakery, Louise's favorite store, there was a stemless silk rose (red).

You write the story!