We are having a great time in Hawaii. It’s sunny and beautiful and we are going snorkeling today. My son flew in from Sydney with his girlfriend. He and Gabi went through Honolulu and then flew to Kona. Tobi and Molly flew from San Francisco and yesterday. All four young people get along very well although they all just met for the first time. We are swimming in the pool, making omelets for breakfast, drinking bloody Marys and wine. The clouds settle on the edge of the ocean. The white flowers are open and hanging delicately stamened by the pool. We’re falling through the sky. The avocado trees have huge fruit falling into our hands, the papayas, watermelon, and pineapple are all ripe and inexpensive at the store. We’re mostly eating rice and fish for dinner so far. It’s a lot of energy here, a roil of kids and stories and music.
In January of this year I was on five boards. Now I am on three. Five boards is a lot if you have a job. If you’re retired or if what you do is mostly board service, then it can be great and give you something to do. You get to hang out with interesting cool people who are acting on the world. You get to go amazing parties and get dressed up and you feel yourself changing the world.
The biggest problem with being on a board is that no one can ever appreciate you enough. You are working hard for nothing and no one ever really adequately thanks you because they are also working for nothing. So it’s a thankless job.
I was on the board of the School of Arts and Humanities at Claremont for a while and I was on President of Pen USA from 2005-2006 and that was very much a learning experience. While president, I went to Lake Bled for one International Conference which turned out to be a memorable trip and to Berlin for another one where I stayed in a small apartment in the Turkish part of the city and hung out with my friend Petra and Helmut and with Rita Dove and I met Chancellor Angela Merkel.
What boards look for:
1. People who bring in funds either through their own personal giving or through their connections.
2. People who have business sense and are organizational thinkers.
3. People who have some set of skills the organization needs advice on such as publicity, real estate, finance etc.
4. People that are easy to get along with. One rotten person can spoil a fun board. Since everyone is volunteering anyway, it really helps if you are not a jerk.
5. People who are able to attend the organization’s fund raiser and meetings. If you’re too busy, that doesn’t work either.
The three boards I am on are A Room of Her Own Foundation, Poetry Society of America and Red Hen Press. The two boards I went off are Kore and American Composers Forum Los Angeles.
Kore is a wonderful women’s press in Tuscon but because I’m in California and I don’t get to Tuscon enough I couldn’t do enough for them and I was getting frustrated with myself. Sometimes you want to help an organization, but you can’t do a good job.
I’ve been the president of American Composers Forum Los Angeles for eight years.
People end up on boards because someone on the board invites them and they get enthusiastic about what the organization does.
So how do you go off boards?
1. Your term limit might end. Boards are supposed to have term limits although I’ve never been on a board where they were strictly enforced.
2. You might move away.
3. Someone might join the board who dislikes you or wants your job. In my opinion, if someone wants my job, it is never worthwhile to fight for it. Let’s be honest, fighting to keep a job where you aren’t being paid is just crazy.
4. At the point you are being bullied or disrespected, it’s probably time to go on your merry way. Fighting for what’s right is always important but the board will go on without you and you could use your creative energy to do some good work where you are appreciated and respected. If you have to fight your ground on a board, it’s time to dance on a different dance floor.
5. It might just get wonky. Sometimes your own life gets wonky –and you know what I mean—or the board you’re on gets wonky. At the time you aren’t having a good time, being challenged and feeling like the whole thing is a rewarding experience—don’t walk, run.
I’m at the Annenberg Beach House Café drinking Grenache and getting ready for the reading at 6:30 pm. I can see the ocean and the girls in their thong bikinis racing along the walk, I see the ocean light reflecting upward, the sky blue with wisps of clouds. There’s an old guy running, he looks tired but he runs anyway because that’s what we do in Los Angeles. Dozens of women come into the café wearing string bikinis. They buy drinks and go back outside. I’ m getting hungry being here watching people eat their sweet potato fries which I love. My friend Andrea Scarpino is reading tonight with Garrett Hongo and David Mason. It should be a very good reading. I’m wearing heels and wishing that I weren’t. What I would give for sandals or flip flops. It’s hard to be bad ass in flip flops, near impossible some might say. It’s like if a naked man is yelling at you. You’re thinking, “Whoah, you’re naked. Look down man. You probably shouldn’t be yelling, let alone threatening me.” I mean, look at you, you’re naked.
I remember during the World Cup, they almost caught this guy who had been selling Cup tickets illegally. They got to his room just as he had left his Rio hotel. “He left behind his flip flops,” they said on the BBC and I couldn’t help thinking that you aren’t really a super villain if you are going around in flip flops in the first place. It’s hard to be hard core evil without shoes.
Tomorrow night we will our youngest son Steve and it’s his birthday on August 2nd. He will be twenty-three and when we last saw him it was exactly two years ago. We work a lot on vacations and this one will be more work than usual. And we swim. My ex-husband is coming the day after we arrive to join us.
Today I had lunch with my friend Lisa and she is so beautiful and has such quiet energy like she’s sifting big thoughts all the time. I would have liked to go into her pool and float but there wasn’t’ time. September 11th I will see my mother for the first time in over thirty years.
Mark went to work while I was gone and redid our back yard all by himself. It is now cozy, cool, elegant, drought resistant, and the dogs like it.
I really love coming back to find projects like this all done. It is so beautiful. It’s a great place for writing, thinking and reading. And what more could we want?
We like MFA programs partly because it gives us a chance to come out of the woods and swim in the world of ideas. And swim we do. In and out of currents and streams, over waterfalls, sometimes we portage, other times we just swim from rock to rock. Any way you do it, it’s a given that the residency portion of an MFA program is going to be food for thought. We come to Nebraska City to wrestle with the angel. And for every writer, that angel is different.
For those of you who have never been to a low residency MFA program, the residency part is ten days where you work. You meet one on one with your mentors, you go to readings, panels, workshops and lectures. You begin to realize that you are a writer. You are around all these writers and you are one of them. You too have ideas and stories and magic. But it also seems like everyone else is way smarter than you, way better read. Like they have brilliance you could only dream of possessing. But you keep hanging in there and the brilliance is rubbing off on you and you also see yourself possibly writing Lolita or No Country For Old Men, maybe To Kill a Mockingbird, maybe you want to write The Fault in our Stars, but you know you can write. You feel the gusto simmering, you’ve got mojo. And part of all this confidence comes to you because you’re in the swim of story.
That’s the point of going to the Residency, to wake up your sleeping self, your own cosmic wild, your own moon story. Calvino tells the story of “Distance to the Moon,” and going to the moon to eat moon bread. That’s what writing is. You go to the moon and you eat moon bread and you feel lunar fissuring all around you. In Calvino’s story, eventually the moon swings away from the Earth and you can’t get the moon bread any more. Though I know it’s about Cuba’s severed relationship to the U.S., I know graduates of our program feel the same, like they’re in a boat trying to get out to the moon to get more of that lunar stuff but it’s swung out of reach, it’s too far away. But it isn’t. You can create your own writing community out of friends, fellow writers and your fellow graduates. You can create your own light and your own bread. The stuff on the moon was very sticky anyway.
Kay Ryan says she doesn’t like to write about the personal until it’s not sticky any more. That’s good advice to writers. If it still hurts to read it out loud, you’re still deep in the sticky stuff. Go to therapy or talk with your bartender. Get through the mess and muck of it, and remember you aren’t walking away from the story. You’ve got it. It’s still there. You’re just letting some life pass and then you’ll go back, you’ll pick it up and you’ll say, You don’t own me. You aren’t me. You’re a story and if I can get you down on the page and then hammer you like making gold jewelry and then get you out there working for me and being read, then maybe we have something to talk about.
But first, after Residency, catch your breath. And then go back into it. Moon bread is waiting.
Some people don’t like vacations because what they really want is to work all the time. Working validates their sense of being important. One of the first questions men will ask when they’re in the hospital recovering from a heart attack is, “When can I go back to work?”
What’s most satisfying to you? Where’s your sweet spot? Being at home with your family? Being at work? Sitting in a bar drinking? Being at a jazz club? A coffee shop? A library. A strip club. A boxing ring. The gym. A court room. A beauty salon. The dentist office? (you are strange if you like going to the dentist or the hospital.) Writing in your quiet place? Writing at a café?
Find your own sweet spot but be willing to experiment. We are going on a family vacation this week to Hawaii. We like to snorkel, swim, think, read, rest, drink, eat sushi we make ourselves and play charades.
Tomorrow I am flying home to Los Angeles. Home to waves, ocean, palm trees, traffic, heat, sushi, my dogs/birds/chickens, dry heat, my books.
I grew up with ponds and I think about ponds and stories all the time. There are big stories you have to live inside of, to tell, to bring to the surface of the pond. The surface of the pond is lilies and stories and when you look way down to the bottom of it, you see stars.
Human beings are not monogamous by nature but we get married anyway. We don’t need to get married to have children or even to buy a house. We don’t need men to support us. What we need is to feel that we belong.
Women get married because they want someone to hang out with, someone to dance with. Someone to boss around. Someone to talk at. Someone to father the children. Discipline the children. Take out the trash. Make the other half of the money. Smile when you come out with a tight dress. Someone that gets excited when you’re getting funky. Someone who gets looped with you because they’re always willing to have a good time. Someone to talk with all the time that you’re driving north or south, east or west. Someone who you can weave a story with.
Men get married so they have someone to have sex with all the time. Whenever they want. Someone to create the circle of love. In that circle there is food, clean laundry, the house is tucked and warm, the windows open and friendly, the plates stacked and warm, the sheets clean and inviting. The pillowcases folded back. There are new toothbrushes. We are in a world we are both tucked and un-tucked at the same time. But mostly, we are inside rather than outside.
That’s why men act so lost when they lose their woman. They’re outside the circle of love.
Getting married is confusing for a lot of people. On the other hand, a long marriage is very satisfying if you can hang in there. The advantages are simple. You have someone to raise the kids with and someone who climbs mountains with you. Someone to go spelunking with. Or skydiving. But mostly to climb under the covers and go to sleep. I like couples who hang in there. There is no reason you have to get married these days, there are no princes and no princesses but there are frogs and frogs live in ponds on lily pads and they swim, frog style, they dive into caves, they come up into the open air and they sun themselves. Water and sunshine makes them sing.
In sad country songs, people say they “have no place to go.”
I always have a place to go. Perhaps too many places. And too much to do when I get there and too many people I love. The world is big. I want to see Italy. And go back to France. I want to see the white cliffs of Dover.
Here in Nebraska there are many interesting students. Students who act on the world. Who do things. Who don’t wait for things to come to them. That’s my kind of people. Listening to the music and making magic. Not waiting for your ex to send you checks so you don’t have to work. Not drifting over the high plains. But writing, thinking, travelling, working, and raising your children which is not just a dream, it’s work and fun and it’s absolutely thrilling to see them come into their own.
I’m stopping now because I have some place to go. I’m reading tonight at the House of Loom.
You’re just saying that because I’m Black. You’re just saying that because I’m a woman. You’re just saying that because I’m your mama.
We’ve all done that. Taken something way too personally. I had a student a few years ago who was going into surgery and the doctor came and asked if she had any last questions. I do, as a matter of fact, she said. I have three questions:
1. How do you feel about Black people? The surgeon said, I love Black people and Black music and everything about Black culture.
2. She said, Okay, how do you feel about women? And the guy said, I love women and I’m a happily married man.
3. And she said, Okay, one more question. When was the last time you had sex? And he said, Well, I’m glad you asked that because I had sex this morning and it was great. I’m feeling amazing. And she said, Okay, I’m ready to go into surgery.
In fact, what she was checking was to make sure that he wasn’t going to bring the personal into his public life. Did he like Black people, women and had he gotten laid recently? These are valid questions for determining his state of mind vis a vis her.
Ideally, we do a good job in spite of our personal feelings but that isn’t really how humans work. We aren’t all making or building heavy machinery in a room by ourselves. Much of the work people do involves working with other people.
That’s why it’s always amazing to me when people yell at the host at a restaurant or the mechanic or even the person at the Verizon store. What motivates us to do a better job is being treated well.
In any business, it’s a good idea to treat everyone as well as you can. Be kind whenever possible, the Dalai Lama says, and then adds, It is always possible. In the book business, you need people to do things for you. It’s that simple. To get published and then get your book to sell, a lot of people are going to have to help you out. So you are going to have to treat a lot of people like they matter. Your editor, your publicist, your marketing person, book sellers, radio hosts, the list of people you should treat with the best attention you can is long. But you can do it. Because you are basically a nice person and you want your book to succeed.
What if you have a boss or someone you work with who makes everything personal? You say, It’s not working to do it like this. We need to do it differently. And what they hear is, I hate you. I think you’re an idiot. That’s a problem. In some ideal world, what you can convey is this. I like working here. I like this place, this company, and in fact, I care so deeply, that I’d like to discuss ways we can make things work better. If your boss has an actual personality disorder, this may not work. I’ve described narcissistic personality disorder below so you can see whether they actually suffer from a disorder or just lean toward anxiety. If they actually suffer from a disorder, then here’s my advice for dealing with them, Good luck and there are lots of other jobs out there.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder is characterized by a long-standing pattern of grandiosity (either in fantasy or actual behavior), an overwhelming need for admiration, and usually a complete lack of empathy toward others. People with this disorder often believe they are of primary importance in everybody’s life or to anyone they meet. While this pattern of behavior may be appropriate for a king in 16th Century England, it is generally considered inappropriate for most ordinary people today.
People with narcissistic personality disorder often display snobbish, disdainful, or patronizing attitudes. For example, an individual with this disorder may complain about a clumsy waiter’s “rudeness” or “stupidity” or conclude a medical evaluation with a condescending evaluation of the physician.
• Has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)
• Is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love
• Believes that he or she is “special” and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)
• Requires excessive admiration
• Has a very strong sense of entitlement, e.g., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations
• Is exploitative of others, e.g., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends
• Lacks empathy, e.g., is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others
• Is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her
• Regularly shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes
Jesus had a lot to say about the end of the world. So did John in Revelations. The way Revelations sounds, the end of the world is just around the corner. The fact is that the world hasn’t ended yet in spite of thousands of years of predictions. Jehovah’s Witnesses believe firmly in the end of the world and therefore they can’t actually go to college because the world might end. Hence the poverty of most Witnesses. If you talk with them and you think, You seem like you haven’t been to college, that’s because they usually haven’t. Not that there aren’t millions of idiots who did go to college.
But back to the end of the world. When the Y2K problem was discussed, that was supposed to be about the end of the world. Three hundred billion (over four hundred billion in today’s money) was spent on Y2K preparedness and as it turns out, businesses and schools that did nothing to prepare had no problems at all. There was no emergency. All that money spent preparing for a catastrophe that was imaginary. I remember that we had planned to be out of town for Y2K but then decided to come back in case something happened. Nothing happened.
When someone tells me that the world is going end, that the United States economy is collapsing, that global warming is going to destroy the planet in my lifetime, that California is going to fall off into the ocean, that I or my children will be sold into white slavery if we continue to travel to Third World Countries. I always think, why do people say “white slavery,” in hushed voices like it’s so much worse than other kinds of slavery.
I don’t believe the world is going to end. I don’t believe the Rapture is going to happen. And if the world ends or the Russians attack or Jesus comes to take away all the right wing pundits and televangelists and their followers, leaving the rest of us behind, I’ll be fine.
First of all, because of my upbringing and all the camping, I am ready for the zombie apocalypse. Don’t try to scare to me and tell me bad things might happen to me.
I’m ready for anything.
I was born ready.
I’ve heard that before.
I’m ready for anything.
If you want to live in fear, enjoy yourself,
I’m swimming up to sharks and looking them in the face.
You know what I see?
Teeth. Lots of big teeth.
But I’ve got all my teeth too.