Friday, August 28, 2009

The 7-year hitch

Seven years ago today, I arrived in Portland. And I can’t help but ascribe some significance to the time phase. Domestic mythology tells us that our bodies renew themselves on a cellular basis every seven years, and guess what, I was actually ending just such a cycle at that time.

Which means I’m ending another such phase right now. Astrologers call this the Saturn cycle, referring to the period when the imposing planet crosses the same degree in space (as observed from Earth, that is) that it occupied at the moment of your birth.

Every Saturn cycle has its own set of connotations – most notably the fourth one, the dreaded “Saturn return” of people’s late 20s, so often regarded as a reckoning and a wake-up call. But the more progressive astrologers will assure you that planets are not out to get people, and any life passage that occurs represents an opportunity, not judgment day.

But enough about you. My previous Saturn cycle – the 7th of these 7-year visits – is often associated with last-ditch attempts to hold on to some sort of status quo. And so it was with me. I had serious doubts about going to work for a self-identified “regional theater” in the industrial sense of the term. But I talked myself out of them for one major reason: Portland. Knowing I was a tad long in the tooth to keep relocating to cities I didn’t actually like, I figured that whatever else happened in Oregon, at least it would be happening somewhere I genuinely wanted to be.

Now: my upcoming date with the giant planet is frequently referred to the second Saturn Return. It’s often a time when people finally let go of outmoded habits. Often they realize there are certain things they just don’t need to do any more. Whether you ascribe this time of life to cosmic radiation or cellular renewal or empty nest syndrome or what have you, many people decide that it’s now or never.

You know, Saturn’s periodic appearance tends to scare the astrologically minded because it reflects a psychological booby trap. Probably you’ve experienced this yourself – that it happens more often than not, when it’s imperative you make a major change but you just can’t seem to get round to it…..something pops up in your life that forces the issue. Something, perhaps, that you had some small hand in manifesting? You know? Unconsciously, maybe, just a little?

That happened to me this year. It was brutal and unpleasant and the ramifications continue to ripple out, but thank you St. Michael and all your archangels for bringing it about. Because I wasn’t electively making the changes I needed, much as I wanted them. When lo, Saturn showed up and kicked my butt.

Not that I’m not grateful! I am. Truly. And yes, I’m still losing sleep over what the future holds, and I’m still working hard to divest myself of some residual resentment that all this didn’t happen on my own schedule. Yet I can’t deny I’m looking forward to the Saturn cycles to come, all of which betoken concentric circles of liberation, rippling infinitely outward from here on.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

A close house call

Do kids still read the old Doctor Dolittle stories anymore? Nowadays the tall tales of the kindly naturalist who could talk to the animals is better known through the movies: the lavish yet oddly dull Rex Harrison flick of the 60s, and later the even more diluted Eddie Murphy vehicles.

Well, prior to all that, I devoured the original books, by Hugh Lofting, when I was a kid. And though I outgrew them before I could get through all 12, I never forgot the lovely premise behind them all – a man recognized by creatures large and small as someone who could understand their languages and therefore help them in their need.

The Doctor’s talents came back to me last week, when I was desperate to communicate with my Kerry Blue Terrier, MacHeath. One early morning, we were out for his constitutional, and all appeared to be well; then suddenly, just as though someone had flipped a psychic switch, the poor dog underwent what I can only describe as a panic attack. Instantly he wanted to go home, and once home he crouched in a corner of the house, quaking and cowering.

A visit to the vet revealed nothing organically wrong, but at least I was reassured he wasn’t reacting to pain. An elaborate form of massage determined that. Blood tests revealed no alarming internal condition. Dementia? Again, none of the tests indicated that as the source of the apparent panic.

Sedatives seemed to be the only treatment, leading to a lessening of the tremors but also to a depressed, lethargic dog. Poor Mac spent days in a funk, refusing food and comfort. He appeared locked away in a private hell, unreachable. I felt helpless. And then I remembered a woman who worked for me during the Willamette Writers Conference who described herself as an “animal communicator.” Did she mean….a pet psychic? I went to her website to read about it, and wound up making an appointment on the spot.

And then I felt foolish about it. Was I grasping at straws?

The next morning I was expecting Patricia Schaller to arrive at my home when, to my astonishment, I heard Mac coming down the stairs – the most voluntary movement he’d exhibited in days. He went straight to the front door, and when I looked out I saw Patricia getting out of the car. When I opened the door, Mac ran down the front steps to greet her and bring her indoors.

Once settled inside, Patricia sat on the living room couch and Mac – not ordinarily an especially friendly pooch – jumped up and sat down next to her. She touched him with her open palm, and he melted – just spread out like spilt honey, and exhaled. The tremors stopped.

Patricia closed her eyes, scanning Mac’s body mentally and then listening to his thoughts for a while. Without hesitation, she told me that the problem was neurological and that it was concentrated in his lower back and especially in the right flank. Something wrong there was causing uncontrollable sensations (she hadn’t seen the shaking, mind you, and I hadn’t told her about it) and that Mac was terribly upset; he had no clue what was happening to him, and wanted me to make it stop. Patricia focused on an area she pinpointed as the main nexus of unwelcome sensations – the very area were Mac was seriously hurt in a pit bull attack a couple of years ago.

Then Patricia opened up a 3-way Q&A session, in which I could ask Mac questions through her and he could ask questions of me. Eerily enough, during this part the dog started directly at me the entire time. I’ve never had such a sense of communion with him before.

Ultimately Patricia urged me to go to DoveLewis so I could get a quick neurology referral, which I did immediately. Tuesday we go to get a doggie MRI, no doubt at colossal expense, but I’m glad things are underway. Meanwhile, Mac has shown steady improvement ever since his contact with Patricia. Currently he’s about 90% of the way back to normal; he’s relatively subdued, but no shaking or quaking!

If this sounds too woo-woo for you, well….I understand. But I tell you, that dog of mine recognized Patricia as his own personal Doctor Dolittle, and the contact gave him the confidence to trust that people were trying hard to get him the help he needed. If you have a health issue with an animal you take care of, or even just want to hear what s/he has to say, I urge you to contact Patricia. I look at Mac now completely differently. And I hazard to say he feels the same about me.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Top Chef PDX?

Here at the House of Mead, we gave ourselves up last night to a gluttonish debauch of epicurean delight by watching two editions of Top Chef back to back: first the new batch of fresh-faced recruits on Top Chef Las Vegas, then the frothy climax of Top Chef Masters.

Since we started the evening at our favorite neighborhood hangout, the casually epicurean Lucca, this was a night of total self-indulgence.

Both shows were terrific for diametrically opposed reasons (the seething competetiveness of the up-and-comers, the fraternity of the masters). But may I just say…..Las Vegas? Sure, it’s flashy, and yeah, there are now restaurants there that lack buffet lines. But still. Las Vegas? When they might have hied themselves next to New Orleans, for example. Or Montreal. Or even … if I may … Portland?

Okay, we don’t have San Francisco’s views. We don’t have New York’s street cred or Chicago’s history. But Top Chef PDX isn’t such a far-fetched idea. Between the Gorge and the coast, from Mt. Hood to Bend, there are plenty of photo ops and no end of restaurants that compare favorably with the vaunted Le Bernardin or Alinea. Such as:

Paley’s Place. Reserve well in advance so you can dine in the intimate private room, where the impeccable service complements the flawless food.

Castagna. One of the few restaurants on the planet where you can effortlessly hear your own conversation. This is a bit of minimalist heaven, our haute couture of dining – coolly elegant. Plus the adjoining café has the best bistro fare in town.

Roots. Worth going overseas for (it’s in Camas, Washington, beyond the Willamette, beyond the Columbia….keep going….martini connoisseurs take note, you may have to spend the night.

Sel Gris. Divine. Understated. Sublime.

Le Pigeon. Don’t even think about coming to Portland without paying your respects at this culinary temple.

These few restaurants are chosen almost at random; there are dozens I could just as easily have selected, from the long-established (Higgins, Wildwood, The Heathman) to the new and insouciant (Toro Bravo, Lincoln, Beast), from the cavernous (clarklewis, Wong’s) to the miniature (Bombay Cricket Club, Café Nell), from the classy (bluehour, Andina, Olea) to the kitschy (Le Happy, Voodoo Doughnut), there’s just no end to the eateries. And don’t even get me started on the coffeshops. (Comfy and quiescent Palio, in Ladd’s Addition is my fave – tell no one.)

Quo vadis, Padma? Plan your next bake-off in Portland, k?

Monday, August 17, 2009

We're almost famous

Who knew there was so much fiction set in Portland? I’ve read three in as many months, now, and each of the published this year: Portland Noir, Portland Queer, and now Jon Raymond’s haunting and memorable Livability.

While the author may not have set out to make the Pacific Northwest its own character, the moodiness of the region infuses everything. Whether Jon takes you to the coast, the Lloyd Center, to a Clackamas burb or a baronial Lake Oswego residence, there are the clouds, the towering trees, the encroaching vegetation, the sense that – as Ken Kesey once put it – the landscape doesn’t really need you.

All the stories are affecting (each of these nine stories delineate people who are painfully in touch with their feelings yet unable to share those feelings with others), but a standout for me was the overtly comic “Young Bodies,” about an avaricious store clerk who returns to the scene of her crime only to be trapped in the Lloyd Center overnight. Already a double-outsider (her parents are Russian immigrants and she buses into work every day from 135th & Stark), she finds herself turned into a phantom, whose only way to pass the time is to spy on the janitors and security cops.

The collection’s masterpiece is the final story – a novella really – entitled “Train Choir.” This is the piece that Jon Raymond and Kelly Reichardt adapted into the movie Wendy and Lucy , which the Reichardt also directed. As it turns out, the movie sticks amazingly close to its original, except in one key respect.

Spoiler alert: here I must warn you, if you haven’t seen or read the story, do not read on unless you’re willing to have the plotline’s impact blunted for you. K?

For people who were profoundly affected by the movie, as I was, it’s a shock to read Jon Raymond’s story and find that it’s even bleaker than his own adaptation. Whether this is a concession to our need for likeable characters at the movies or what, I don’t know. But there is no redemption in “Train Choir.” Verna (Wendy, in the film) does not tell Lucy she’s coming back for her; almost against her own will, she makes a decision, and seems to know without articulating it that she’s come to a break in her life. There was life before that moment; there will be life, such as it is, after. And it's one of many such breaks that ultimately become a life story, but that doesn’t help Verna at that critical moment.

It’s as existential as a Beckett play, and you understand, as the reader, that while Verna is about to start an entirely new existence, she’s completely shed the old one, and feels none too good about. It’s a somber, despairing note on which to end a book. The other stories don’t do this; hence Mr. Raymond’s parting moments are unsettling indeed, and almost seem to posit another book altogether – a brave new world of diminished expectations.

If you’ve read the book, I’d be interested to hear why you think the author entitled it Livability. I have my theories – but yours may be different.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

For Cascadians Only

Here’s a hankful of groovy upcoming events, if you happen to be in the Portland area soon.

The Ghana Travel Fund Bake Sale

Tomorrow, Sunday Aug 16, dramaturg at large Kim Crow is hosting a bake sale benefit from 10:30 am until 4 pm at NE 17th & Schuyler, one block north of Broadway near the Irvington Farmer's Market. All goods are made with love by Kim herself. Check out the menu:

Strawberry Icebox Pie
Plum Cake
Midnight Cake
Lemon-Poppy Pound Cake
Almond Biscotti
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Fleur de Sel Chocolate Sables
Honey Cookies

Who does the sale benefit? Hopefully, KIM, who is trying to make her way to Ghana to visit her sister and her family in their new home – a noble cause. I advise getting to the bake sale early because between the James and I, we may well sell it out.


Monday, August 17, from 7 to 9pm in the lobby of the Gerding Theater, Hand2Mouth Theatre is having a special send-off party to support its New York City premiere at the Ontological-Hysteric Incubator at the end of this month. Get this, the party features Holcombe Waller, Al James (of Dolorean), and Faith Helma of H2M fame (Faith will be doing a section of Undine, the show that's going to NYC). Admission is a sliding scale from $5 to $25.

But wait, there’s more

Portland Theatre Works is pleased to present Andrew Wardenaar's play Live, from Douglas for three workshop performances August 20-22 at Theater!Theatre! in SE Portland. Live, from Douglas was read in Portland Theatre Works' FreshWorks series in April of 2008 and selected for our more intensive LabWorks program for further development.

Hell hath no panic like a Douglas revealed, although until now that wasn't a problem. Douglas is a happy, hidden town. Everyone is named Doug, likes tea, and gardening, and the quiet life. The world doesn't bother them and they don't bother the world. Until a renegade Doug invites radio reporter Harriet Mirion to do a piece on Douglas. Will the feature she's planning ruin their little utopia?

"I'm excited to spend some time in Douglas this August and so should everyone else. Andrew's created such an absurdly funny world and given us characters we can really care about" says Artistic Director Andrew Golla, "And we've got a very good idea of what we're trying to find out in this workshop, so I'm planning on getting some great work done on this fantastic play."

Andrew Wardenaar has been writing plays for the past three years and is thrilled to see Live, from Douglas featured in this year's LabWorks workshop. His other full-length play, The Next Smith, was read in January as part of the first-annual Fertile Ground Festival.

7:30 p.m., Thu.-Sat., August 20, 21, 22
Profile Theater at Theater!Theatre! (3430 SE Belmont St., Portland, OR)
Tickets: $8 General Admission, $5 Students/Seniors

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Get thee behind me, Summer

O, thank you, St Michael and all your archangels, for getting us at last to the end of the summer TV doldrums. True, I’m grateful to Bravo for tiding us over with Top Chef Masters (which, surprisingly, turned out to be more fun than the regular Top Chef franchise), but otherwise……it’s been a desert of delayed gratification on the smallish screen. New episodes of the formerly de rigueur but now ineffably tedious Entourage don’t cut it; that show jumped the shark years ago.

Yep, the summer drought ends Sunday, when Mad Men returns for season 3, followed in short order by Top Chef Las Vegas, and then Project Runway finally, finally struts its stuff again on August 20.

Big Love, alas, just started filming, so you have to wait till early 2010 for the return of everybody’s most memorable Mormons.

Only through the thoughtful ministrations of my BFF – otherwise known as TIVO – did I get through the dog days. A couple months ago, I awoke one day to discover all 35 episodes of In Treatment singing to me from the TV room. Immediately I started rationing myself, planning my lunchtimes around taking just one session a day with the therapist with feet of clay, Paul Weston, played by Gabriel Byrne.

As absorbing as the first season was, season 2 turned out to be better. Of particular interest to me was the storyline involved Mia, a former patient of Paul’s who return to therapy with some unsettled scores. Hope Davis turned in a profound performance as the rare client who actually gets somewhere during her sessions – eventually – thanks to a quiet and unexpected epiphany. Expect Ms. Davis to get an Emmy for the role, on September 20, for Outstanding Supporting Actress in a Dramatic Role. (She’ll compete with Dianne Wiest, also nominated for her role as the therapist’s therapist.)

Cable shows are very well represented this year in the Emmy nominations, and it is no accident that many of them are exceptionally well-written. HBO in particular likes to hire playwrights to write their shows, and the playwriting sensibility is highly evident in their finest series. Sarah Treem, whose play A Feminine Ending did so well at Portland Center Stage a couple of years ago, was a major influence on the first season of In Treatment; her hand was equally evident in season 2, when she was joined by such notable playwrights as Jacquelyn Reingold and Warren Leight. (Jackie wrote the Mia sequence, in fact, and had a cameo role in one episode as half of a squabbling couple.)

Big Love can boast of playwrights Melanie Marnich and Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa; over at Showtime, Rolin Jones puts those wacky pothead on Weeds through their paces; and on network television, Bridget Carpenter writes for the much-lauded yet reportedly underwatched Friday Night Lights. The list goes on and on. Yet all these writers are still penning plays. “I won’t be writing for television forever,” Bridget said awhile back. “I have every intention of keeping my playwriting muscles in shape.”

Thank you for that, St. Michael. But in the interim, the injection of playwriting talent into ailing TV land is welcome indeed.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

And now for something you'll really dislike!

Why do I feel compelled to share this with you? I don’t know. Unless it’s because Splatterson keeps challenging me to find new depths of perversity. So here it is, for your horror: my most hated song of all time. Not only is it maudlin and derivatively lachrymose, it’s also needlessly lengthy.

Close second: “Love Hurts,” by Nazareth. I first heard this during a radio broadcast on April 1, and for years I was convinced it was an elaborate prank.

Proceed at your own risk.

Monday, August 10, 2009

On going around and coming around

Okay, I’m back from four days in the amazing centrifuge of literary activity known as the Willamette Writers Conference – a wondrous creative tune-up that posits all sorts of possibilities for the future.

By this evening I’ll have a new post on my other long-neglected blog, The Editing Room, and expect a makeover for SuperScript’s website, too. The latter has long required an update thanks to new services I’ve added by sheer force of demand.

Meanwhile, though, I took a brief but rejuvenating intermission in the middle of the Conference for the world premiere of The Bullet Round (subtitled "a chamber play in six rounds), by the endlessly inventive Steven Drukman. Directed by Megan Ward and produced by The David Mamet School for Boys, opening was bumpy in a few spots (the kind of thing that’s worked out by the next performance), but none of that detracted by a wryly amusing, intricately interwoven series of stories with something to say about America’s simultaneous horror of and fascination with guns.

Based in formal terms on Schnitzler’s famous Le Ronde structure, the story traces the progress of a Glock as it’s passed from on individual to another – sometimes reluctantly, sometimes accidentally, and once as an act of personal recuperation. Along the way, the playwright comically exploit weaknesses of character to great effect; nearly everyone in the play is divested of an illusion or two. It’s all excellent fodder for Steven Drukman, whose razor-sharp observations of human foibles borders on the anthropological.

The cast is terrific throughout, but I have to single out Gary Norman for his pitch-perfect portrayal of an acerbic professor who turns out to be more fallible than anyone but himself realizes. Drukman – no stranger to the Jesuitical pontifications that amount to job security in academia – gives us a character too wound-up to trust yet too human for us to judge. Gary’s timing with this portrayal of a man too clever for his own good is flawless.

Get thee to the theater and catch this one.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Vanishing Act

It’s astounding. Time is fleeting. Madness….takes control.

No, it’s not another midnight showing of Rocky Horror at the Clinton St Theatre. I'm gearing up for the 2009 edition of the Willamette Writers Conference. Just so you know, that’s what I'm disappearing into for the next four days. And therefore blog postings may be, um, intermittent. Or nonexistent.

I’m managing the volunteers for just the Programs side of Conference (workshops, classes, special programs like Manuscript ER and the like) – a task that has been a preoccupation since May, and come close to being a full-time job for the past few weeks. And as with any conference or festival I’ve ever worked on, the hard part really is the planning. Once the event’s actually underway, your first task is just to jump on that roller coaster as it’s leaving its docket. That much accomplished, you can always ride the thing to its conclusion.

But what is the Conference, you ax. It’s three and a half nutty days and nights of discussing writing, critiquing writing, and writing writing. With 800+ participants attending workshops, getting agent and editor responses, attending special events like Gigi Rosenberg’s Actors Lab etcetcetc, the Conference is a crazy quilt of information and fraternity, where you can find out everything from how you pitch your screenplay to a producer to turning social media to your professional purposes.

But wait! as the Scarecrow once said. Here’s someone who can help you! This video made after last year’s Conference, featuring the fab Marc Acito, clues you in to what’s generally up at the Conference. Thank you Paper Fort for alerting me to this.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Johnny, ye hardly knew ye

Early in King Lear, Goneril and Regan discuss their father’s erratic behavior. Goneril puts it down to incipient senility, and while her sister is sanguine about this theory, she has a simpler yet more profound explanation:

'Tis the infirmity of his age: yet he hath ever
but slenderly known himself.

We are our own best friends, right? No one knows us better than ourselves, we assume; we’ve known ourselves all our lives! Yet time and time again, it has disconcerted me to notice people whose entire lives were predicated on lies they told themselves so frequently that they came to believe their own press.

Cases in point. Two lifetimes ago in Los Angeles, I worked for an arts organization with someone ostensibly at the helm who was famous for holding forth about the important of honesty. She brought it up all the damn time: the quality of transparency, the value of authenticity. Yet her entire staff and quite a swath of the theater community knew that she was a compulsive prevaricator. A reckless one, lying when she didn’t need to, telling falsehoods she was easily caught in.

Inneresting, huh.

Different town in a different lifetime, where I worked for a while with a boss who extolled the spiritual life. He took time out of the office every day to meditate; he liberally quoted the Vedas -- by heart. Yet the man’s vaunted visits to the empyrean heights never seem to translate into actual……behavior. He was callously indifferent to his employees and talked trash about them behind their backs, yet tears would well up his eyes when he talked about the ascended masters.

Why all this always disconcerted me so much, rather than merely amused me, is that it made wonder what illusions I held about myself – what presumed values might I be tediously espousing, when it’s clear to various and sundry that I perform the opposite of what I profess?

Over the years I’ve discussed this again and again with a beloved friend known affectionately, in one particular circle of comrades, as Guru Loopy. On the spiritual circuit, Loopy has done it all: lived on a kibbutz; slaved for EST; formally studied manifesting; dyed every scrap of her clothing in clashing shades of red in exchange for residency at Antelope. That’s a partial list, believe me.

It was Guru Loopy who exposed me to a latter-day system of personality typography called the enneagram. Unlike systems such as numerology or palmistry, which refer to esoteric or mystical causes of personality (at least in some theories, not all), the enneagram profilng is refreshingly pragmatic. The man who developed the system, Oscar Ichazo, simply claimed he and others observed humankind, and noticed they tended to fall into nine main categories – hence points on a nonagon or an enneagram.

When Guru Loopy introduced me to this, the culture seemed to be in a negative phase; all the categories had pejorative titles (mine, #5, was called The Stinge) except for #9, The Peacemaker. Even #9’s dark side was only faintly criticized, as in: “hard time deciding because sees all sides of an issue with equal clarity.” Come to find out, most enneagram advocates are self-professed 9s. Guru Loopy, of course, was and is a 9.

Now that I’m thrust into yet another soul-searching phase, my mind returned to Guru Loopy and the caustic commentary of the enneagrams. Nowadays -- but of course! -- the whole thing has been recuperated to be more consumer-friendly. Judgmental labels are replaced by neutral terms, and most websites on the subject acknowledge that each number has its good side as well as its flip side. Especially interesting to moi-meme is that I seem to have lost a little valence along the way, getting knocked down from a 5 to a 4. Whereas formerly, being a 5, I was:

The Intense, Cerebral Type: Perceptive, Innovative, Secretive, and Isolated

I’ve now morphed into:

The Sensitive, Withdrawn Type: Expressive, Dramatic, Self-Absorbed, and Temperamental

which raises the interesting question of whether people change, or at least develop, or anyway regress and maybe loop back around again. Or is this just the enneagrm test's reflecting back to me my own state of mind, currently, now that I'm suddenly bereft of an identity 25 years in the making?

But what are you, you ax. You can find out right now. The quick, free questionnaire is available right here. Go ahead; you know you want to. Go ahead and click!

If you do take this brief test, I’d love to hear about your results. Maybe through each other we can get a bead on whether this thing actually works. And/or divest ourselves of another illusion or two while we’re at it.

Saturday, August 1, 2009

They don't make 'em like this anymore

Who’d’ve thought that here in darkly verdant Portland, Ore. (and yes, Ross, Darkly Verdant is my P.I. name as well as my drag name) we’d be grateful to see summer temps drop down to the mid-90s.

You can bop over to Il Mio Gelato, you can hide out in the cinemas or spend the day in a clawfoot tub. But for me, nothing refreshes like music – specifically, the sprightly, even groovy, jazz-inflected scores of 60s TV shows. In an era when TV themes are disappearing altogether (tried humming the theme to Lost recently?), it may astonish you to learn what networks once spent on this de rigeur feature. Feast your ears.