Sunday, April 25, 2010

I'm Finding This Hard to Believe

It is a draft. It requires a rest and a thorough reading by yours truly for glitches, grammar boo-boos, and glaring plot holes.

It might suck. It might be, as Anne Lamott so aptly puts it, a truly shitty first draft. But two years and four months after writing the first tentative scene, I did it.

The novel is finished.

Saturday, April 17, 2010


The food isn’t real,
we made it all up
But there is something that nothing keeps quiet,
a yammering that wants to crowd everything out.
And I keep watching the TV
and letting the words and words and words
--those words, we made them all up--
remind me that I must be
hungry, I must be,
and I listen to the words
until they feel like something real.

And I have wanted to be beautiful
and I have wanted to be regular
and I have wanted to be hairless
and I have walked in shoes that made me cry,
and I have looked down to find
every part of my actual body lacking,
even when it walked without the shoes and smelled
like a living thing, and went into the street
to look at the moon at some dark time
when I should have been asleep,
when the rules say sleep, the clock.

Even when I laugh because we made it all up,
I go back to bed wondering if my neighbor saw me,
thinking I am not beautiful now because I am not young.

If I take ten steps back
and say we made it all up
and I don’t want this now,
I want to catch water and wear warm rags
and watch the moon at some dark time,
quiet, all of you, quiet now,
they will say she is missing something,
it’s God,
her marbles.

There is a thing to choose here. When I do
all the words and words and words will fall out of my mind
and the people who like me funny will like me silent
and the people who like me smooth will like me shriveled
and my warm rags and my hair, gray and coarse as a horse’s tail
and I will be happy with a bowl of beans
and lettuce that grew next to the house
And the house can just fall apart
because I will die no matter what.

But I go to work and do things
to keep the wheels turning,
teaching people to read
so they can be informed voters
and tell “Good Night Moon” to their children,
and know which pill to swallow,
and finally find Shakespeare and Socrates,
and words and words and words,
even these words, and I made them all up.

Wednesday, February 03, 2010

A "Who's On First" for Writers

There seem to be four kinds of writers.

1. There are successful, seriously talented writers. Everyone secretly envies or hates them. They don't really care, they just write.

2. There are successful, mediocre writers who either believe they are part of the first group or pretend not to care because writing affords them a satisfying life.

3. There are aspiring writers who will never be part of the first group, probably won't be part of the second group and if they were part of the second group they would definitely think they were part of the first group.

4. There are aspiring writers who would rather die than be part of the second group and feel as though they WILL die if they can't be part of the first group.

It's a hell of a bug, this writing thing. If you aren't willing to go a little nuts in the effort, consider dentistry.

Thursday, January 07, 2010

Journal of the Novel

August 8, 2009

In what feels like a delicate and precarious place with the work. I have written up through some climactic stuff and now am at a moment that has felt so huge and important since the very beginning. And I am finding it very difficult to go there. I wrote one sentence hours ago and have been stalling ever since. People who love to read but don’t write would never believe how hard this is, how intimidating to make it up as you go along, page after page, after page. It feels like a walk out onto the high board. It never seemed all that high when you were looking up from the water, but from up there, it felt like the top of the world, not fun but terribly risky.

Today I read through some pages that I had not looked at for a long time, and did have that strange experience of hardly recognizing it as my own writing. That’s a crazy feeling. But often a happy one. Reading something I wrote myself and enjoying it as I would if it was written by someone else, is a good feeling. Also have wrestling with the plot (so what else is new?). I actually opened the MS in another doc and started trying to do something different, trying to excise the character of Sh_, and it was just hell. I think I need to keep her, but it still feels like the characters have far too many moments of being yanked hither and thither simply in service to my outline. It is such a house of cards, though, to imagine deconstructing parts. Scary.

Still wrestling with language. I decided that I will continue to use Mandarin translation for the few words I need. I will then vet those with J_—god bless J_, I am so grateful to have her on board to help. When the draft is basically complete, I will look into getting old Xiang (Hunanese) translation help—although I’ll probably have to pay for that. I also have to make a final decision on the name issue, but I’m not going to do that until I feel the story is basically finished. It is just too tedious to figure out right now, with the other writing bearing down on me.

Plot and character are so inextricable. Elizabeth Bowen once wrote:

“Action is the simplification (for story purposes) of complexity. For each one act, there are an x number of rejected alternatives. It is the palpable presence of the alternatives that gives action interest. Therefore, in each of the characters, while he or she is acting, the play and pull of alternatives must be felt. It is in being seen to be capable of alternatives that the character becomes, for the reader, valid.”

And I have found this statement of hers amazingly true:

“The novelist’s perceptions of his characters take place in the course of the actual writing of the novel. To an extent, the novelist is in the same position as his reader. But his perceptions should be always just in advance.”

This is so apt! Over and over I have found that I absolutely, positively cannot PLAN what will be the next thing a character does—the actions of my people stay in the unknown until I begin to excavate them by the physical act of typing the words onto the page. I find this a great mystery and the heart of the creative act. It is what I love and hate about this work. When it is happening and I am watching it happen, I am delighted and feel something akin to creative bliss. When I am at a sticky point it feels like trudging through a bog on a moonless night, no map in hand, no one to shine a light and call “Hey, over here!”

People, people, people

Tonight, I’m feeling pretty fed up. I know there are Nelson Mandelas and Desmond Tutus out there. There is a Dalai Lama and a Tich Nhat Hanh. There was a Mother Teresa. But man, those folks are few and far between, and they have to work inordinately hard to hold back the dark side.

A perusal of various forums in the cyberworld seems to point to a dearth of intelligence, a lack of empathy, an inability allow for ideas other than those one espouses. Civility, courtesy, and simple human kindness seem to be disappearing from the planet. American citizens use the most heinous racist language to talk about the President of the United States, his wife, his young daughters. Fortune and fame are lavished on the nastiest and most vicious social pundits.

It is as if our vast population has turned into a pack of dogs, overbred, overpopulated, reflexively biting our own kind. Our differences terrify us. We can’t share. We can’t allow. We want to overtalk, overpower. We use whatever influence we have to create the world in our own image. We hate each other. We kill each other.

Be kind.
(photo credit)

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Farewell the Storyteller

I didn't get a chance to say so earlier, but I was so sad to hear of the passing of Frank McCourt on July 19. Like the best memoirists can do, he made me feel like I knew him. And for those of us who nurture the desire to write when we are, erm, older-ish, every role model in that ilk is like a little ray of hope. You know, I always harbored the secret wish to meet him someday, or at the very least, hear him speak in person. We are certainly poorer for his passing.

If you have not had the pleasure, I recommend the audio book version of Angela's Ashes, read by the author. Here's a little taste:

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Journal of the Novel

June 11, 2008
[I had written about 50 pages, consisting of a half-dozen or so disconnected scenes.]

Seems slightly late in the process to begin the journal, but what the hell?

I am so frustrated.

There are so many things I know. And there are a great many things I feel. But getting ahold of structure is proving daunting. Daunting? It feels impossible. I feel that if I knew the skeleton of the thing I could go nuts throwing flesh on the bones, but it's as if I'm creating the flesh with very little to hang it on.

July 7, 2008
I have struggled deeply with the work since starting my job at ______ . I envisioned 20 hours a week being a cakewalk vis-a-vis my novel pages. But I am not really a fast writer, at least not yet, not usually. When I have all day, I write all day. I love it as full-time work, truly. If I could pour my heart into writing fiction and poetry eight hours a day, every day, and make a living at it, I would be in heaven [I, and millions like me....]

A lot of time got past me with little or no work getting done, and now I am feeling fainthearted. How easy it is to fall into the passive mindset of home! At school, the pressure is always on to perform. Thank god for the grant money and the threat of a) having to pay the money back for lack of producing, and b) looking like an utter slacker and fool to those who have believed in me.

The outline from last month was incredibly helpful, in terms of getting a grasp on where this might all lead. It is possible the muse is lifting the veil just the smallest bit. It's all very foggy and indistinct at this point--oh, so fitting for a novel set in the Pacific Northwest!--but I can almost see that I actually have a skeleton that I can write flesh onto.

Told E. today that I am writing a novel, and she had that polite, pleasant-yet-flaccid reaction that people used to give me when I told them I had applied to Stanford. So different than how my writing colleagues always reacted at school: very positive, very credulous. I can't wait to show them all that this is no pipe dream. This is my life. I am a writer.

July 25, 2008
This morning I am watching Bill Moyers' series for PBS called "Becoming American--The Chinese Experience." Just as when I was laboring over my application to Stanford, I become overwhelmed with a feeling of trying to contain something larger than myself, something that is on fire in the universe, trying to come to life through me. I feel tremendously responsible and seriously inadequate for telling the story of the unimaginable circumstances in the life of Y_; of the desires and large heart of B_; of the sad, untimely death of D_ and the subsequent heartbreak of P_; of R_'s quest to find a place for herself, to be of use in a life of her own. I don't want to shortchange any of these people. I want my readers' hearts to be broken open by this story, to have their curiosity piqued, to have their basic human compassion stirred up. I want people to weep over my book. I want to make this REAL. I feel hardly able to aspire to the task. I need time--lots of it, and I feel pressured by a lack of time. I must find a way to continue to fund my writing time. This story wants to be told.

August 4, 2008
Have passed the 100 page mark, a number that felt so significant. Now feeling tremendous pressure, staring down the barrel at all the story that still has to happen. I know I need to just stay in the room, stay with the scene I'm writing, make notes to myself about ideas for fleshing things out, but don't go off on tangent. And DON'TDON'TDON'T dive down into the first-draft-oh-my-god-I-totally-suck doldrums. The only way to tell the story is to tell the damned story. Period. I have several scenes penciled into the outline, so there is certainly no lack of direction, per se. I am at a spot in the forward story that feels mushy and uncertain. I need to tighten up my reasoning for creating the scene and figure out what everyone's motivation is. It could and should be a fairly pivotal point (though not so much that it is a turning point, quite). However, I am coming up on a turning point before too long. Need to just take it a scene at a time, draw out emotional spots and really work them, work my characters' motivation, not rush a scene because I can see where it ends. We'll have A_ and R_ meeting for the first time. B_ and R_ will make love, BT_ clashes with his father, someone rapes Y_, then D_ gets shot. Act III. I wish like hell I had gotten more done before leaving campus and during the month of June. I really skated. I regret it! I could have possibly completed the draft and really given something more finished to Professor Tallent when I get back to school. Ah well--all I can do is the best I can do. [Follows a list of all the many things I need to accomplish before the 2008 school year begins.]

Damn, all I want to do is write.

September 3, 2008
161 pages. I am actually approaching the climax of the novel . I'm trying to take the counsel of Charles Baxter and not rush toward the action, toward the inevitable. At the same time, I find each word, each action, every thought of every character needing to be absolutely vital, absolutely specific to the story.

Each time I write up to a new scene, some turning point in the plot, I have a sense of emptiness, of mild panic at the vast unknown and the myriad of writing choices that I face as I begin. The first few sentences are always stuttering, awkward, often needing to be jostled, erased. It is like the clumsy first attempt to open a beautifully wrapped package. There is nothing to do but begin. It is only the writing that creates the writing.

I also feel that I owe my characters the dignity of telling their stories well, of being honest, accurate, of filling in the blanks, of giving them voices. I want to do that for my people.

September 8, 2008
[Begins with a long ramble about the getting back to campus, spending $470 on books, how depressed I am about having to take yet another math class.]

Wow, so as to the novel--oh yeah! I'm probably also blue because I haven't written for three days straight. I'm about to launch into the sweet little bridge section I am thinking of as "News from Everywhere." Pulling all sorts of rabbits out of that hat, getting into the heads of at least a dozen minor characters and maybe an animal. My purpose is to show that a huge event takes place when we are all going about our lives, that the ripples of such an event keep moving out from the incident and echoing, that there is a consciousness in the world that supersedes the small violent acts of human beings. And it could be great fun.

[And here follows a radical silence. Although I was able to write a some pages during the first few weeks at school, I eventually had to put the novel almost at full stop. Finally, in Spring 2009, I was in my final quarter at Stanford, taking 28 units. Five of those were a second advanced fiction class that Adam Johnson graciously allowed me to audit. I was able to have the first 40 pages workshopped, and they were very well received.]

To be continued....

Friday, August 07, 2009

All Good Things Must End...or Morph

I learned stuff at Stanford. So much stuff my brain is in shock. One thing I learned is that trying to maintain a blog about going to Stanford AND trying to get the best grades possible are mutually exclusive endeavors. At least, for me.

Graduation was amazing. My husband was right there cheering me on, along with all four of my grown sons. They loved the Stanford campus, especially the Cantor Museum. Here are my oldest (far left) and youngest (far right) conferring with a guy named David in the modern art wing. (David is a sculpture.)

When the big day came it was all just a blur. I found out 48 hours prior that I was graduating with distinction. Not only did I not know that, I had to ask someone what it meant. My GPA put me in the top 15% of my class. Who knew?

The hoopla in the stadium was fun; I got a lot of cheers when I carried in my "How do you like me now?" sign. Then we all sat through what was arguably the worst commencement speech EVER. Justice Kennedy was rambly, monotone, redundant, and didn't seem to understand the purpose of a university commencement speech. You know: Good job! You rock! Go out there and change the world! You can do it! The Class of '09 got some mumbly, cranky bit about taking law to the world. Please don't ask what that means, because no one around me knew. The girl to my left was doodling on her program: "Take away message from commencement: Law=Good."

Then we adjourned to Memorial Church for the English Department degree conferral ceremony, where I got to get up in the brass angel pulpit and give the undergraduate commencement address. It was the most exciting conclusion to my Stanford adventure that I could have ever imagined, and I am still getting email about my speech--take that, Justice Kennedy!

So, now I'm home, and it's great. And I really miss Stanford. It was quite a ride. Stay tuned.

Carla Baku, '09

Thursday, April 30, 2009

Would You Like Some Chicken with Your Rice?

Condoleezza Rice is back at Stanford. Currently she is penning her memoirs, but she eventually will be back in the classroom, pressing her world view on brilliant young minds (brilliant enough to ask difficult questions, one hopes). Three nights ago she ventured out to hang with students at Roble, one of the four-class residences. One thinking student captured this conversation and posted it to YouTube:

I was particularly amazed by this comment, as quoted in The Stanford Daily:

“I didn’t authorize anything,” Rice told a group of Roble students in a conversation that surfaced on YouTube Monday night. “I conveyed the authorization of the administration to the [CIA] that they had policy authorization subject to the Justice Department’s clearance.”

Wow, it's like being on a merry-go-round. What I heard was, "I only authorized an authorization of torture." Whoa, hold on. I'm getting a little dizzy.

And what about this comment? “The President instructed us that nothing we would do would be outside of our obligations — legal obligations — under the Convention against Torture,” Rice said. “So, by definition, if it was authorized by the President, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention against Torture.”

What I hear: "George told me it was okay if he said so." A time-honored move, sometimes quipped thus: "I was only following orders."

What I don't hear: "I am willing to stand by all my own decisions and take full responsibility for my part in the Bush administration. I was appointed to a position of great power and I am woman enough not to hide behind verbal sleights of hand."

The emperor is no longer on the throne, but his minions are still running around naked.

I'm happy to report that there was a demonstration outside Roble Hall during this Condi-fest. Stanford does not have quite the activist history of another Bay Area University (which shall here remain nameless...ahem), but dissent is alive and well.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Blog or Holiday Letter--You Be the Judge

Y' all know by now that I don't really qualify as a blogger. It's like not visiting the dentist. The longer you put it off, the more terrifying it is to show your face. So now I owe a blog entry that reads like one of those awful holiday letters from people you barely care about. Here's the skinny, then let's call it even:

1. I worked on the novel like a maniac all summer, close to 200 pages.

2. Humboldt Literacy Project is an invaluable resource to the North Coast. I worked there June through August. If you are reading these words, you are qualified to teach another adult to read, too. Go for it.

3. August. Taos. Earthships. Carla want:

4. Back to Stanford. New on-campus apartment identical to last year, except a) Closer to main campus--good b) South-facing balcony--excellent c) Equiped with cockroaches--bad. Exterminator arrived promptly and cockroaches have been held at bay.

5. Am now paying the piper for cramming so many wonderful fiction classes into my first year. I was looking forward to taking Spanish (3 quarters required, total). Expected it to be challenging but kind of fun. For the first three weeks I had a scheduled meltdown: weeping, wailing, gnashing of teeth. No, really--just ask my husband. After 10 weeks, I have had to write three compositions and give two oral presentations, all in Spanish, plus have conversations with the professor and demonstrate my ability to read, write and listen to Spanish during a 3-hour final. It wasn't kind of fun. But...ahora hablo un poco espaƱol. Ole.

6. My family is still surviving, as are my houseplants. They have their own adventures (the family, not the plants) and they will not get a lot of ink here. Let them write their own damn blogs.

7. I have hardly touched the novel all quarter. Damn that homework gets in the way. But I am home for the holidays and plugging away. I have a small but enthusiastic set of first readers all waiting to give their feedback, if I ever get the damned first draft finished.

So why am I blogging, damnit?
Happy festivus everyone.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

I Am A-Mused

The process of writing a novel--did I mention I'm working on a novel?--has been teaching me the most interesting things. For instance, you can't really figure out what the novel is about until you actually put your ass in the chair and your fingers on the keyboard. And the other thing is that muse rumor is apparently true.

I blundered my way into a scary part of the story this week, writing a scene in 19th century China. It was intimidating because I am not Chinese, have never visited China, I live in the 21st century, am by no stretch of the imagination an authority on everyday life in the 19th century on any continent. I have a whole lot of books all over the desk that tell me about Chinese history (all those dynasties and all) and about factors that led to massive Chinese immigration to the U.S. from southern China in the 1800s. But what would the inside of a house look like? What, precisely, would they have had for dinner? What would a sixteen year old girl wear? If she went fishing, would she hold the line or use a pole.

Here's the truth about the muse: She won't show up until you give her a clue that you are serious, until you are in there mucking around with the language, throwing up images on the page. All of a sudden these quiet little spooky whispers start seeping through the walls of the psyche. Kind of like this: "Psst. Forget Southern China. Your girl comes from the mountains in the north. No, no, not rice--millet. Her father grows millet. What food did her father bring home? Easy...write this down: pickled radish, sticky buns with bean paste, strips of salted herring." Each time one of these specific notions occured to me, I Googled it, because I truly had no idea whether what I was choosing had any connection to reality. And each time, Google confirmed it. I could almost hear dear Muse whispering, "Well, DUH."

Well, let's find out what she knows about the Woman's Christian Temperance Union...

Monday, June 23, 2008

Year One Scorecard: 3.990 GPA In the Bag

And here we are. The first year at Stanford is now one for the record books. My initial posts to this blog are so interesting to me now; when I read them I can feel what I was feeling then--how disoriented, how terrified, how thrilled by the unknown.

Here are some of the things I learned this year:

1. I can write a serious and scholarly research paper, an "A" paper, even after changing my topic at the eleventh hour.

2. It is possible for a 50-year-old to pull an all-nighter. Without caffeine. There is such a strange moment around, oh I'm going to say 4 a.m., when you know you won't be going to bed before your 9 a.m. class. You wonder what that weird humming is. You move very slowly and stare before making major decisions like which shoe to put on first.

3. I never want to pull another all-nighter. NEVER.

4. There are brilliant professors at Stanford, people that make me want to pursue the possiblity of my own brilliance. Especial thanks to Scott Herndon and Elizabeth Tallent.

5. Even in this astounding place there are professors who can be just a tad arrogant. I'm thinking of--well, let's just suffice it to say, he didn't get invited back next year, but I did.

6. There are 20-somethings who are utterly stunning in their insights, comprehension, critical thinking, logic, and humor.

7. The same 20-somethings often use the word "like" as a conversational filler when in casual conversation.

8. A particular 50-something with minimal interest in football can go a little nuts when Stanford kicks Berkeley's ass at the Big Game GO CARDINAL!!

9. When you are 50, people are always very surprised to find out you are an undergrad. If they are over 40, they are almost universally pleased for you, and often say they are jealous, that they'd love the chance to do it again. This has come from peers, parents of other students, checkers at the Stanford Bookstore, and the doctors at the Vaden Health Clinic.

10. I can draw a five-page mini-graphic story that makes people cry. (Sorry Professor Johnson....)

11. I love the clock tower, the carillon, and the organ in the Memorial Church. I love the tour guides who have to learn to walk backwards. I love the Bender Reading Room in Green Library and the made-to-order omelette bar at Stern Dining. I love tourists on campus, even the ones who point video cameras in classroom windows. I love visiting-writer colloquia in the Terrace Room in Margaret Jacks, and the great snacks the Stegner Fellows put out for Writers' Workshop. I love the pink magnolia flowers and the smell of orange blossoms near the main quad. I love Maria at Olives for always knowing when I want a double-decaf-soy-mocha. I love that one of my fellow transfers chats a moment about singing in the university chorus, then mentions that he will be doing research on Einstein's theory of relativity over the summer. I love the way main campus feels on Sunday, an hour before the sun sets.

It sounds like the cheesiest sort of Oscar-night speech, and I just don't care. HAIL STANFORD, HAIL.

Tuesday, June 17, 2008

My friend Robert

Spring quarter allowed me the privilege of taking a small poetry workshop with dear Robert Bly, great-hearted, sometimes controversial, always amazing American poet. Once a week, for three hours at a time, I sat with a dozen or so other fortunate Stanford students and absorbed the beauty and intensity and humor of this amazing man, whose passion is abundant, particularly at the age of 81.

I made a special connection with Robert. I'm certain he enjoyed having someone over the age of 50 in his class. When the subject of war came up, when we began to speak of similarities between Vietnam and Iraq, our eyes would meet and we would both become very quiet, two people understanding the terrible similarities and feeling the ugly fact that human beings persist in their follies, their dark follies.

Robert gave me tremendous encouragement. He told me I should be preparing a book of poetry. When I won first place in Stanford's 2008 Urmy-Hardy poetry prize, he came to the reading to hear me read my poem. We talked a lot in class about soul, about having lived through pain, about what these things bring to the work of the poem.

On the last day of class, Robert and I talked before I left. He invited me to write him. He hugged me and told me that he would miss seeing me every week. We embraced and kissed each other on the cheek.

I do miss him. Very much. I am thankful to have made a soul-connection with such a vast heart. Thank you, Robert Bly, my teacher. My friend.

If you would like a taste of what my class was like each week, see for yourself the wisdom of Robert Bly .

The poem that won the prize (first printed in the Northcoast Journal) is here:


You did what you knew how to do,and when you knew better, you did better. Maya Angelou

Timber was a despot
king when I was buying
penny Tootsie Rolls at Bonomini’s,
a freckled kid with one eye on the
newest Classic Comics. Jean Val Jean
could walk right through that door
and I would die trying to give him
every loaf of Wonder Bread.

Leland worked the mill and made
just enough to raise seven
sons to pull green chain. His one girl
learned to cook and sew and stretch
a dime paper-thin: pinto beans
ladled onto buttered white bread
laid in the scarred bottom
of a melamine bowl.

One night we heard that Timmy P.
was headed for St. Joe’s, three
fingers lost to a crosscut saw. He drove
his primer-gray ’56 Plymouth around
afterward, left arm on the open window,
hand just thumb and pinky and fat
bandages in between.
And he went back

because trees were everywhere, just
like schools of Chinook, and everywhere
names that big trees made
big: Dolbeer, Carson, Vance. The trees
that grew right down
to the edge of the bay
when Humboldt was the name
of a man and not the silver water.

We rode the train to Pacific Lumber,
a third grade field trip. Huge,
loud, hard hats and the useful
tang of redwood everywhere. Behind
a thick glass window, pressure jets of
water stripped long hanks of fibrous bark
off the pink wood, pink like salmon. It was

damn near patriotic.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Where Have All the Housewives Gone?

Now I understand why June Cleaver was such a stiff. Look at the Evil Clown at her right elbow! Scary! Imagine the nightmares for poor Beaver.

This week in advanced fiction we workshopped a creative short piece by one of my young female classmates. The story is set sometime in the near-ish future, with a protagonist who is also a young woman (twenty-five). During her research, the protagonist "discovers" a syndrome called 'Housewive's Depression.' There are some brilliant descriptions, lists of things the housewives talk over with the researcher that clearly show they are suffering from a large dose of Feminine Mystique. But the bottom line is that, in this fictional world, Housewive's Depression is a groundbreaking field of study.

During workshop, the three women in the room who are over 50--the professor, a journalist at Stanford on a Knight Fellowship, and me--all came at the story with the same question: Why is Housewife Depression being hailed as a new discovery? This has been done, said the Knight Fellow. Seems there should be a gesture acknowledging the work of earlier feminism, says the professor. Isn't the term housewife an arcane reference for a piece set in the future? I ask.

When it was the writer's turn to speak, she was quite clear in letting us know that she is a feminist studies major and she know about all the women's movement of the sixties and seventies. She's read the books, you see. There was a pretty strong feeling of nettlement coming from her side of the table. I felt that I could almost see we three mature women through her very young eyes, a trio of fading females treading on her story idea, perhaps too locked into the rhetoric of the feminist movement as it used to be to truly appreciate the fresh place from which she was trying to write. Well, maybe.

I feel about this rather as I felt when my youngest son, at the age of 12 or so, waxed expansive on the relative demerits of a car I mentioned liking the look of. I smiled and asked where he got his information. "I've been under the hood," was his answer. Say what?

What the feminist studies major does not (and cannot) grasp is what it actually felt like to be walking around in a pre-feminist American culture. I wasn't allowed to wear pants to school until I was in junior high. For crying out loud--no pants! I used to hang from my knees on the monkey bars. Damn those pipes were cold. Every girl had to take Home-Ec in the ninth grade. No exceptions. It was legal to pay a woman less than a man for the same job. It was legal to pat a female co-worker on the ass. There was no such thing as marital rape. Hell, there was no such thing as domestic violence.

Sandra Day O'Connor recently spoke at Stanford. Back in the day, when Ms. O'Connor whizzed through law school and set out to get a job with her shiny new law degree, she was told during an interview that she would not be hired because she was a woman. The man told her "the clients just wouldn't stand for it."

I was born into a world where there was no birth control pill and no legal abortion. Where women still wore gloves when they went out of the house. A world where the only thing I could think to say when asked what I wanted to be when I grew up was "teacher" or "nurse" even though I didn't want to be either of those things. Once, playing in my best friend's backyard (we were on the monkey bars again) she said to me, "It's better to be a boy." This was a conventionally feminine young girl--she wasn't confessing questions about gender identification. She just saw the limits the world wanted to slap on her. I was surprised, and I asked her why. "Everything is just a lot easier for boys," she said. "They get treated better."

And that's why we old girls don't hesitate to speak up, you see, to dust off the rhetoric when we feel like it's being taken for granted. We've been under the hood. Really.

Thursday, May 01, 2008


I'm required to take an applied science class while at Stanford--yes, me, the mathematical dunderhead. I was able, by dint of blather, to talk my way into a lovely mechanical engineering class: "The History & Philosophy of Design." This week we are to bring a 'design manifesto' to class. I don't know what all the engineering students around me will be aiming for, but the following is my go at the assignment.

“What will you do with your one wild and precious life?”
--Mary Oliver

I am the designer and architect of my one wild and precious life, arbitrary and oppressive interference by a corrupt and corporate mindset in the greater community not withstanding. In recognition that I have a moral responsibility to myself and my fellow sentient beings, I choose to base my designs in the following Twofold Consideration: How will my design increase happiness in my life and the lives other sentient beings? How will my design reduce, prevent, or eliminate suffering in my life and the lives of other sentient beings?

A single life, vibrating in the web of the space-time continuum, has a vast influence for good or ill in the universe. This influence is precipitated by the decisions of the individual. I choose to recognize the power and value of my individual decisions and to become more deliberate and conscious in my life designs.

In keeping with these observations, I will take the following specific steps toward accomplishing my living design:

I will adhere to Michael Pollan’s An Eater’s Manifesto: “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly Plants.” I will abide by the Twofold Consideration by purchasing locally-grown, organic, fair-trade food whenever possible. To maximize my ability to grow my own food, I will begin the conversion of my front lawn into raised garden beds, with a sustainable irrigation system.
I will avoid product consumption whenever alternatives exist that honor the Twofold Consideration. I will subject all product consumption to the most rigorous interpretation of the Twofold Consideration.
I will conserve financial resources in order to begin converting my home to sustainable energy sources. I will make concrete steps toward living a carbon neutral life, in particular, the purchase of a veggie-oil vehicle.
I will interact with other humans by following the prescription of the Golden Rule and the proscription of the Silver Rule. I will approach my fellow life travelers with kindness, courtesy, and a sense of humor. In this way I will strive to live gently with my fallible nature and the fallible nature of others.
I will write a poem every day and I will read a poem every day. I will remind the most important people in my life that I love them and that they are the central focus of my dearest thoughts. I will allow the natural world to instruct me on my place in life. I will meditate on the fact that I am a carbon-based life form, existing in an essential mystery.

Monday, March 31, 2008


While I was home for spring break, I took a drive out to Loleta, a pastoral place that ultimately overlooks the ocean. Back in the very early 1970s, there was a hippie commune set up at a former lighthouse/coastguard station. It was called the Lighthouse Ranch, and I lived there for a while.

I recently wrote a short memoir piece about life at the Ranch, and it was strange to trek over those old times. It seems a little like a dream, how earnestly we pursued our desire to love God and love each other. The photo above is on the side of the old 'brothers' dorm.' So much of what was there is either gone, locked up, or melting back into the ground. It's a perfect metaphor.

This is the main building. There was a big dining hall and giant kitchen on the ground floor; I spent quite a bit of time working there. It looks grim, but back in the day, I was in love with the place and the hundred-or-so people who lived there. Below is a little excerpt from the memoir.
Trying to explain how it was is like trying to explain how you would know the sound of your lover’s breathing, even in a dark room full of breathing strangers. We were all very young. There was a war, and we were tired. We were tired of the war and tired of the passions war inflamed. We wanted to love each other, so we called each other brother and sister. We had decided that we were on the bus with Jesus. Not only did he look like one of us, he was offering paradise. We got on the bus with Jesus and it was a new trip.

The thing that you don’t know about living with a hundred people is that the most important thing is jam. It is very important that everyone get the same amount of yogurt at breakfast, and that no one eats all the jam. You might think the elder’s job is to drag you out of your little bunk, sisters’ dorm, brothers’ dorm, married couples too, everyone huddled in a stupor at 6 a.m. to hear a recording of the Apostle’s purpose and vision. But it is actually his job to make sure about the jam. Jesus may have increased the loaves and fishes, but he hasn’t made any moves toward increasing the jam.
It was always something with the food. The girl who shopped for groceries wept every week in the co-op, standing by the bulk bins. No matter what she planned, there was never enough money. There were sandwiches made of fava beans. ~Baku 2008
Drop me a comment if you'd like to read more.