Sunday, November 22, 2009

music from a scorched earth

Following is the pitch I'm using for my newest/oldest screenplay, MUSIC FROM A SCORCHED EARTH.

To, you know, answer the question, "What have you been up to?" and, hopefully, account for the long absence from this blog.



Music expresses that which cannot be said and on which
it is impossible to be silent.

— Victor Hugo

Spiraling. She is spiraling down. Two months clean and sober, living just this side of homeless with devout grandparents and a trunk-load of secrets they won't share, won't discuss, won't even admit are there, and if 18-year-old Ellie doesn’t do something, she’s going to lose it.

Out. She wants out. She wants to claw out of her own skin (that's the addiction speaking), to crawl out of the hole that has been dug for her as a well-meaning cocoon that does nothing to shelter her from a past she did not live and the memories of ghosts who refuse to lie down.

School is suffocating. She is a prodigy, they claim — brilliant, an exceptional artist, a classical musician whose talent conjures that of the masters. Haydn. Handel. Hummel. What she possesses is beyond promising — if. If she can remain focused. If she can stay disciplined. If she can keep the bottle at bay.

The death of her friend and mentor at Guildhall, one of the most prestigious music academies in the world, and suddenly, London feels provincial. Comical. Unbearable. Ellie has to step out, step off, step away. It is the only way.

Escape to Vienna, to a music academy conducting program designed to restore the dilapidated school to its original grandeur. The move emboldens her. She can separate herself from her family's past, her father's pathetic addictions, her mother's calculated, clinical love, and the canyons of resentment that have ruptured and settled around her grandparents' volcanic past.

Never mind that she is the only female student of conducting in the entire school — the first female ever to grace its campus. Never mind that her teacher, himself just a student, demonstrates an alarmingly accurate ability to see through her tough-girl, fuck-you attitude to a part of her that she's not ready to reveal. And never mind that the score she's been assigned to lead an orchestra through in just a few week's time resonates in a way that makes her sick to her stomach. This is it. This is all she has.

What she doesn't know is that the music holds the answer to everything that has plagued her for as long as she can remember. The score that she must lead her orchestra through leads her directly into history, into old-world Vienna on the verge of the Holocaust, into the camps at Auschwitz, and, at last, into the living room of an old man's home on the banks of the Danube.

In the final score to this music from a scorched earth is a crescendo of promise: of confession and forgiveness, of resolution and redemption. And if she can face the music, if she can make it through, she’ll make it out.
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Monday, October 19, 2009

as it was written

I recently had the great fortune of receiving the galleys of a novel by Sujatha Hampton for her d├ębut work of fiction entitled, "As It Was Written," due out in February of 2010 from Thomas Dunne Books. 

I first learned of Sujatha through my yoga teacher, who emailed me to let me know that she was looking for someone to help her create a visual pitch for the book and devise a viral marketing campaign to generate online buzz prior to its release.

A few days ago, the book arrived in the mail. Minus its official cover, but complete with the publisher's marketing strategy bullet pointed on the back, it was exciting to unwrap from its package. There it was, after all, raw and new and full of potential, a writer's vision made tangible, suspended in that still, quiet middle place where years of work and discipline and daring wait to give way to an official flipping of the switch on the publicity machine, when the book will hit the shelves, the author will be paraded and toured, plied with questions of craft, and (hopefully), applauded for her work.

If the outside of the book was a thrill, what was contained within left me wanting to be a better writer. This is a story of love and longing and family, of culture and tradition, and of a multi-generational curse on which the story hangs. It's one of those books that you stay up to read and reluctantly put down at the last possible minute, when the demands of carpool and dinner and homework can no longer be silenced.

It's also one of those reads that is crafted like a literary treasure hunt, with clever turns of phrase and evocative descriptions dotted like pearls across the novel's landscape, there for the discovering.  I earmarked the page when I stumbled on this one: "...a cool wind blew down from the roof bringing a rain of yellow flowers the size and shape of apostrophes," caught my breath when I read, "Amma made an earthy sound, like the moving of mountains..." and finally had to put the book down when this achingly beautiful observation, "And in that moment the mother knew it was two and she knew one was a boy, and what this meant was too enormous a thought for such a simple slice of the hushed and gentle night," made the simple act of turning the page feel like sacrilege.

Who writes like that? Too enormous a thought for such a simple slice of the hushed and gentle night. It's turns of phrases such as these, simple, elegant, profound, that keep writers glued to their chairs, staring for hours on end, listening — praying — for this kind of inspiration to activate the stagnate cursor on the screen. This is brilliant writing, but you don't get here on talent alone. I don't know Sujatha — not yet — but I know something about the process, know that to write as she does, you've got to show up even when you have nothing to say, when the well is running dry, when you'd rather be running carpool and doing dishes and helping with homework — anything other than what you have to do, which is to confront the blank screen, and wait.

"As It Was Written" is the result of years of work and discipline and daring, and as it is written, is a stunning work of fiction. 2010 should be nothing short of amazing for Sujatha Hampton, and I can't wait to watch as the year gives up its own treasures to her.

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Saturday, October 17, 2009

first homecoming

Johannah had her first prom tonight, something she began preparing for weeks ago when she decided she wanted to design her own dress.

Her color scheme was what can best be described as "Cherry Cordial" — a pink, strapless dress with a lace bodice, cinched at the waist with a thick chocolate band. That, or it's way past dinner, and I am typing with my stomach. However you call it, it proved to be the perfect complement to her creamy skin and dark hair and eyes.

After "Project Runwaying" her into the dress (due to issues with the band, complete with subsequent tears, I had to sew her into it), we blew out her hair, braided the top with bits of fabric from the dress, and curled the rest. Under pain of death should she lose them, I also let her borrow my chocolate pearls.

A pair of killer heels and a pedi finished off the look.

A friend dropping her daughter off for a sleepover with Julia commented that maybe sewing Jo into the dress was a smart move, considering. I think I can see her point.

So, no tears on our part, and I think that's because there was no boy at the door with corsage and cracking voice. These days, I'm told, it's more common for the kids to go in groups, and I am not ashamed to admit that I'm relieved. I know it's coming, know it's a natural part of growing up. I'm just not ready for the growing up bit. Not really. Which is kinda too bad, because it's going to happen — is already happening — whether I like it or not.

Weird how, in the beginning, parenting requires that you hold on tight, don't let them out of your sight, until it's time to let them go, gradually, then completely. But if you do it right, and if you're very lucky, maybe they'll remember to look back every once in a while as they take one step, and then another, and another, on their way up and out.

That's what I'm hoping for, anyway.

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Monday, October 5, 2009

relative irrelevance

"To have a child... is to decide forever to have your heart
go walking around outside your body."

— Elizabeth Stone

I have become irrelevant. Overnight, and without warning, my thoughts/feelings/experience have lost most, if not all, of their weight/importance/value, and I have been reduced to someone to be pitied and/or ignored, take your pick.

All of the above forward slashing comes to you courtesy of my teenage daughter, who is responsible for eliciting her own share of forward slashes in me. By turns, she is charming/annoying, adorable/loathsome, my baby who spoke in entire sentences from the age of 18 months/a silent, brooding harpy who, if provoked, can reduce me to tears with the most vicious of word choices.

Welcome to Young Adulthood, and the roller coaster ride that is the Mother/Daughter Dynamic. Please, fasten your seat belts and keep your hands/heart inside, as this is promises to be one wild ride.

In all fairness, I knew this was coming, I suppose. I saw it happen with my nieces, the younger of whom just went off to college, which means that the memory of her ups and downs is still relatively fresh, the lessons taken away from observing and taking notes as my sister-in-law learned to navigate the choppy waters of hormones and coming-of-age there at the corners of my memory, easy to recollect when I need the comfort of experience to talk me off the ledge of despair or self-criticism.

But, foolishly, I thought I could sidestep the turbulence, could, with careful planning and sacrifice and the laying down of solid foundations for her to root herself in, avoid the wild ride altogether. As if it were possible to forge another route, to skirt adolescence, and the necessary push me/pull you of growing up and away and into adulthood.

But it's not about sidestepping at all, but rather stepping back, taking a breath, and realizing that, however nauseating the ride, and however much you'd just rather not go at all, it's a necessary part of what's next. It's what has to happen: If she's going to stand on her own, she has to learn to stand apart.

The apart part — there's the rub. That's where the hurt comes in. As much as it has to happen, as healthy as it's promised to be, it's no picnic.


When she was a little girl, about six months old, our brand-new television set blew a tube, leaving us with one of two options: We could replace the set, or go without. We chose to go without, spending our time together instead on walks throughout our San Francisco neighborhood to Golden Gate Park or the grocery store, or visiting family across the Bay. Weekends, we'd tune into A Prairie Home Companion or Mystery Theatre on the public radio station, not really aware that she was tuning in, too, soaking up stories that outpaced her comprehension, dousing her subconscious in hero journeys and turning points and plot twists, planting seeds that would someday sprout in a literary imagination that now grows wild and out of control.

And we read. Book after book, till she could recite them word for word, again long before she knew what she was saying. Soon after she finally was able to string together a thought of her own (her first sentence, at around 13 months of age, was spoken to our neighborhood cat whom we had come across on a walk one day after not seeing him (her?) for a while. "Maestro," she said, laying flat on top of him/her right there on the sidewalk, as was their custom, "I no see you long day."), she delivered her sentences in what we called Book Speak. An exclamation, an observation, a question — each was followed by her own self-reflective narrative. "'I'm tired,' she said sleepily." "'Can we go to the puppy store?' she asked excitedly." "'Where's Nana?' she wondered, puzzled."

And so it went. She was bright and gifted, a tiny little thing that powered her way through the mall talking to anyone and everyone who would stop to listen, charming them with her mop of spit curls and command of the language. But she was also the product of her environment, the result of having two engaged, present parents who were willing to bypass lofty job titles and fat paychecks to be there for her, to give her what money couldn't buy: our time and our attention.


15 years on, and it is hard to accept that that little girl who once bowled us over with her language skills can now cut us to the quick by choosing to not say anything at all. These days, she's busy chatting with friends on Facebook, and suddenly, we're not to know about those conversations. "Please don't read my status updates," she asks, when she asks at all. Most of the time, if she does update, it's set to private. I know what she lights up her Facebook talking about, am certain she's discussing boys and making plans for prom and seeking comfort from her friends when another girl has hurt her. It's not about what she's sharing, it's that she is selective now in what she'll share with us, that she is choosing to "outclude" (her word, circa age three) us on things that only weeks ago she would have come to us on.

And I know that it doesn't get better from here, not really. Naturally, necessarily, she will move on and out, will (God willing) find someone to share herself with, will build a life full of moments and memories that have nothing to do with us, just as we have done.

And if we do our job right, if the investment of our time and our selves pays off, this is exactly what should happen, what has to happen, if she is to be the strong, healthy, whole woman we want her to be. What's unknown, then, is who I will be, once all is said and done. Once this relative irrelevance becomes a way of life, and not just a terrifying next step. I have a few years yet to figure that out. In the meantime, the challenge is to hold on and let go at the same time, to know when to step aside or step up, and how much room to give, even when she doesn't ask for it, and to stay relevant.

Because for all she does and does not say, she needs me. She'll always need me. And for that, I'm grateful.
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Monday, September 14, 2009

easiest. diet. ever.

So one of the best things about the new place is the fridge. I know, I know. If you believe everything you see on HGTV, the refrigerator should ALWAYS be one of the best things about a home. But in all honesty, I've never been one of those people who cares overly much about lines and makes and models, or however appliances are classified. As with everything, it's what's inside that counts, you know what I'm saying?

Obviously, in matters of kitchen appartus, I have been remiss. Because people? The Samsung in our kitchen? It is ah-mazing. NOT ONLY does it keep our food cool/frozen, make ice, and generally behave as a refrigerator is expected to, but also? It slims, and tones, and lengthens. I kid you not, in two weeks' time, I have:

  1. grown at least three inches;
  2. lost about 10 pounds; and
  3. toned and strengthened flabby bits that have, in spite of my best "defy gravity" peps talks, lunges, and curls, dimpled and become all morose and pouty looking, like they're plagued with 40-year-old angst or something. Whatever, it's not attractive.
All without breaking a sweat (because, believe it or not, all those trips to the refrigerator, the opening and closing of the door, the reaching and bending for leftover pizza on the top shelf, the ice cream in the lower compartment fall disappointingly short in the "aerobic" category — who knew?).

Check it:

I have boyish hips! Tapered calves! And a waistline that would make Barbie a bulimic. I suppose there is a likely explanation for this. Something having to do with the convex shape of the door creating an optical illusion, blah blah blah WHATEVER. Fact is? It's working for me.

You know how, in all those beauty magazines, they tell you to post a picture of a genetically superior, bikini-clad model on the door of your fridge as motivation so that you think twice before reaching for that second helping of stroganoff? Yeah, that won't be happening in the new place. Because I'm in no hurry to cover up what this feat of engineering has accomplished.

Well played, Samsung.

And now, if you'll excuse me, there's a piece of apple pie that needs liberating from the fridge. And by the look of things? I can totally handle the extra calories.
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Wednesday, September 9, 2009

friday night lights

It's not the typical way of spending an anniversary, I suppose. Going to a high school football game. But it was our sixteenth wedding anniversary, one of those milestones that can't be referenced in shorthand like a tenth anniversary (when the realization that you've done anything consistently for a decade makes you have to sit down and rest a while), or a 25th (the silver celebration) or — gasp — 50th (solid gold, baby). Without a Hallmark handle to slap on it, we were left to our own devices. Which meant a varsity game at Jo's new high school where we shared a couple of cheeseburgers (one foolishly dressed with relish*), a view of the canyons back lit by the dying embers of the setting sun, and, on the field, the cool, metallic glow of floodlights that cast us all in a robotic pall and called forth memories of other Friday nights spent in much the same way, twenty or so years ago.


In many ways, I was your typical teenager. I adored boys, loved music (The Police were at the top of that list until 1987, when U2's The Joshua Tree would fully and forever leave any other bands contending for cassette time on my Sony Walkman in the dust, battered and bleeding and pleading for ear space), envied the pony-tailed cheerleaders, and worshiped my best friend. It was Marla who introduced me to Nordstrom's and L'Oreal and Dooney & Burke, who relieved me of my propensity for tube-socks-and-Famolare footwear, who let me know in no uncertain terms that this look? (the hair, not the latex) — yeah, it was fashioned for super villain Ursa (Superman II) BECAUSE SHE WAS NASTY. I was a smart ass, a francophile, a hard worker, and a good writer. With Marla's help, by senior year, I was also marginally cool, cuter than when I started high school, and finally hip to what fashion was and how it could be used.

(Going back to the cute thing, I want to share a memory that I HAVE TREASURED for 22 years. Acquaint (or reacquaint) yourself with my bio photo, and you will understand why. Back in the 80s, we called someone who was hot, "fine." Senior year, Marin Catholic High School, in the senior hallway, I was called "fine" by — check it — Varsity jocks. You know, the kind that wore Polo cologne (yummy) and white Levi's (...) and worked out in the weight room every day after school. "She's so fine now," one Mike said as I passed (they were all named Mike). "I know," a second Mike added, as other Mikes flexed and scratched and tossed their hair in agreement. VERBATIM, Internet, and OMYGOD what a rush. It only happened once (that I am aware of), and it didn't lead to anything more (like, say, a prom date, kiss, or invitation to wear one of their varsity jackets/jerseys/senior rings), but whatever. IT HAPPENED. If ever you cringe when you recall what you were like in high school, you will understand the significance of this memory, will know why I still cherish it all these years on, why I would even consider it for my epitaph, except for the fact that once I'm six feet under, She's so fine now will no longer be considered praise. I hope.)

I passed my after-school hours waiting for my carpool, sitting in the bleachers, watching football practice in the fall and winter, baseball in the spring. Friday nights were spent in the grandstands or on the sidelines keeping stats, loving the way the boys preened under adoring eyes, scrambling through their play book all the way to the Oakland Coliseum, where they would face off against the best team in the state.

But really, I came to watch Miller. From Sophomore year on, when once he sat next to me in the cafeteria after school and gave me his photo (be still, my heart), I carried a torch for Miller like an Olympic champ. He was blond and cute and athletic, a boy full of himself, of his potential, of the promises our privileged Marin lives threw at him without discretion, and I couldn't get enough of him. Long after he had passed the last of his photos out to the other girls, after he was nominated to the Homecoming court and took another girl to prom, after we went to Washington D.C. on a government studies program and he fell in love with still another a girl from back east, I kept that torch burning.

He must have known.

Game nights, after yet another victory, he'd take off his helmet, pass a hand through his sweaty hair, and toss me the biggest, most boyish grin: He was hot, he was fine, he was on top, and he knew it. I was there to witness him in all his glory and promise, to worship at the altar of his potential, to remind him of his perfection. I was faithful to my vocation, the most reliable of admirers who was at once tortured by unrequited love and exquisitely in love with my predicament.

I stumbled upon images of Miller recently on the Internet. I wasn't looking for him, not really, (though I had Googled him in the past), and so it was with not a little bit of trepidation that I scrolled down the page that he was referenced on, holding my breath as I waited for his picture. He was easy to spot in the group shot. His features had thickened, and his blond hair had darkened and receded a bit with the years, but it was him. Same athletic build, same sense of style (though no white jeans in sight, thank God), same boyish grin. It was all there. He was all there.

Except, he wasn't.

Looking through the photos of him with his friends, I found myself missing his voice, and realizing that for all of his good looks and blustering charm, this is what I remember most about him. The sound of my name on his lips (however infrequently he spoke it — you never forget how your name sounds coming from another's mouth), his laugh, the way the telephone condensed his voice on the rare occasion when I would pluck up enough nerve to call him (oh, yes, I did). And it's no wonder. Language is my currency, after all, how I pay my way to memory, experience the present, fashion a future. So to see Miller was one thing, but it wasn't everything. Without his voice, he was represented in the images, but he wasn't there. Not like he used to be.


Sitting in the bleachers last Friday with my husband of sixteen years, I watched the team on the field, the cheerleaders, the color guard and band, the kids around us (texting, always texting), thinking about Miller and the Mikes, about my years at Marin Catholic (which was more Marin than Catholic, but there it is), asking myself for the millionth time how was it possible that I have a high schooler now.

But mostly, I wallowed.

I wallowed in the fact that, sixteen years on, and I was still with this wonderful and complicated and frustrating and beautiful person. Sixteen years on, and he's just as blond and funny and charming as the day I met him. Sixteen years on, and — most amazing of all — he's as into me as I am into him. And sixteen years on, and the sound of my name on his lips is still the sweetest thing.

We made it past the one year bliss, the seven year itch, past the decade and decade-and-a-half markers, and twenty years married is within sight. Thinking back on the Millers and Mikes and mistakes of my past, for once I am unable to articulate what it is like to sit next to this man on a warm Friday night in September at a high school football game.

Happy Anniversary, Jeremy.

* This is the way the relish happened:

At the condiments stand.

Julia: Daddy likes relish, Mom. Don't forget.
Me: Yeah. I know. We've been married for 16 years, remember? I got the condiments thing down. Leave it to me, kid.


Him: There was relish on my cheeseburger.
Me: I know! I got it for you.
Him: Who puts relish on a cheeseburger?
Me: You do! You put relish on a cheeseburger! You love relish.
Him: On hotdogs.
Me: Oh.
Him: I can't say I've ever had relish on a cheeseburger.
Me: You ate it all, though, right?
Him: ...
Me: ...
Me: Happy Anniversary!
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Tuesday, July 28, 2009

date stamp: 8 p.m. gmt, june 29, 2009

Travel and a hectic production schedule are keeping me away from the blog, leaving little time for me to organize my thoughts, let alone arrange into some sort of eloquence here. No matter. The words and images from this date stamp speak for themselves.


Manchester, England
(8 p.m., local time)

It's been a lovely day, the sort of summer's day we don't get every year. And with sunshine comes optimism. So, I was optimistically on my way to date-stamp the curry-mile, that colourful slice of Mumbai in Manchester, when I saw the sign. A sign. Of the times we are living through. On the banks of the river Mersey - yes the river of ferry-crossing-across-fame - (it does pass through the Mancunian Metropolis) - atop the grassy bank, where people should be sitting outside, drinking and chatting, there are instead boarded windows and doors and a littered yard fenced off with wire fencing.

The closed pub, credit crunch symbol of the UK.

— Peter Spencer

Toronto, Ontario

GMT -5

(3 p.m. local time)

Today's date stamp finds me enjoying a dinner at a very unique establishment in the city of Toronto. A Spanish tapas restaurant where there is live 'Flamenco' dancing. Nothing helps digestion better than the pounding of feet on a wooden platform.

Svet Rouskov


New York, New York
United States
GMT - 5
(3 p.m. local time)

This is taken from the fire escape of my office building. I think it's a sort of urban garden for the florist shop, but since I have a terrible sense of direction, I'm not 100% sure. This is the joy of Manhattan - somehow, even in the tiniest of spaces, there's room for an oasis!

Mrinalini Kamath
Playwright, Filmmaker


Raleigh, North Carolina

United States
GMT - 5
(3 p.m. local time)


I hate Mondays.

And when I see this sign I know I’m one-third of the way
home with only fifty more miles to go. Seventy-five miles
each way. One-hundred-fifty miles a day. Just to work.

It’s really not so bad though and I do love the drive home.
An opportunity to unwind. An opportunity to think.
To think about writing. To think about my latest screenplay.
To plan my writing Weekend. I work for the weekend. I live for the weekend. But I still hate Mondays.
Michael Scherer


Louisville, Kentucky
United States
GMT - 5
(3 p.m. local time)

My daughter Sarah snapped this picture of friends at Seneca Park, in the late afternoon. She turned 12 today. It was a perfect summer day for a walk, for swinging, for a swim and a cookout. Later, at dusk, the girls caught lightening bugs, roving across narrow lawns on our tree-lined street, into neighbors’ yards, like gamboling nymphs. Ah, youth! And summer nights!

— Jeanne Hammond


Westlake Village, California
United States
GMT - 8
(12 p.m. local time)

Yoga done, one load of laundry in the machine, another waiting for a turn in the tumbler. Only noon, and already you've made it into the shower — a personal victory of the summertime variety. Just a few finishing touches now, a sweep of blush, some mascara and gloss, and the rest of the day is yours to do with as you see fit. This is true luxury, this free time, and you're grateful for it.

— Pamela Schott
Author, Screenwriter


Tikrit, Iraq
GMT + 3
(11 p.m. local time)

This was the view of my world, an hour before the start of 30 June. Dark, quite, not much moon. Alone. Many people, I suspect, fear darkness because of the great unknown. I have come to embrace it, for all the potential it holds. It's fitting, then, that this was my image heading into 30 June.

Art La Flamme
Blogger/Army Serviceman

Elsewhere in the world:

Abbey Road
London, England
United Kingdom


(8 p.m. local time)


Grand Canal
GMT +1
(9 p.m. local time)


Paris, France
GMT + 1

(9 p.m. local time)

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