March 28, 2005

Literary Support For Our Troops

Filed under: Art and About Literature — admin @ 2:58 pm

Bob Etheredge of Orinda recently reminded me that April is National Poetry Month. I admit, I do not have that marked on my calendar. To hear that it is National Poetry Month immediately brings visions of young suitors courting maidens under the apple blossoms or Bohemians in small, smoky spaces listening to one another bare their souls in verse. I appreciate a good poem when it comes my way, but I rarely seek one out.

Poetry is a fundamental part of life for Bob and his father, Sam. I met the Etheredge boys when Sam edited a compilation of poetry that really struck my fancy. His book, “Poetry for a Lifetime,” is full of famous and beloved poets and their poetry. A lot of the poetry in Sam’s book I knew, and a lot of it I didn’t. Sam prefers a good rhyme to more contemporary experimental poetry, and my old soul agrees with him on that one. Sam also enjoys giving a little history or back story to poems to put them into context, which makes “Poetry for a Lifetime” an interesting and enlightening read, especially if you like history. When I received a copy of “Poetry for a Lifetime,” I read a little bit in bed each night before sleeping, which is something I had never done before. Sam had told me that I would find this practice would produce fulfilling literary moments, and he was right.

Now Bob is expanding my horizons through two new books which pair poetry with some practical tips, stories, star maps, mythology and first aid instructions. One is called “The Camper’s Companion” and the other is “The Military Companion.” They are designed to be books on the go, created to fit in your pocket or your knapsack and be pulled out for a campfire story or a quick moment of sanity during a tour of duty. The books are similar, but “The Military Companion” has a more militaristic flavor with the inclusion of inspiring speeches, war stories, world flags, military information, maps and poker rules.

Both books are fun to read, as well as educational and edifying. I am not a camper, nor have I been in the military. I honestly don’t see tents or fatigues in the same mental illustration as poetry. But I know Sam found great comfort from writing poetry during his service in World War II, and I’ve heard the same tale from military folks who served in wartime and peacetime. I know some of the best poetry gets written when people are experiencing the extremes of emotion. I know some of the best poetry gets read when people are looking for words that voice a strong emotion. These books made me realize that I need to elevate poetry to the pantheon of artistic fundamentals at the human core. I know for many of you, that was already obvious.

MiraVista Press, Bob’s company that publishes these books, has been sending copies of “Poetry for a Lifetime” to troops in Iraq for several months and gotten favorable responses. Now, Bob is giving all of us the chance to support the poetic nature of our soldiers by offering “The Military Companion” and “Poetry for a Lifetime” at half price if they are designated to be sent to Iraq. MiraVista will use names from, send the book to a soldier or Marine and pay for the shipping. MiraVista’s Web site,, has all the details.

For two years I’ve read the signs and listened to the rhetoric “Support Our Troops.” I didn’t know how I could substantially do that, other than clapping in church on Sunday morning when the clergy announces that congregation member so-and-so has returned home safely. But giving a soldier the gift of poetry and prose? That’s the kind of support I can give.

May 27, 2004

Now Playing: The Cat in the Hat

Filed under: Art and About Literature — admin @ 3:53 pm

I am fascinated by Mike Myers portrayal of the Cat in the Hat. It’s a part I know very well. I have studied the role in depth and played it countless times. The Dr. Seuss classic is one of my son’s favorite stories and so that darned Cat plays in repertory at my house for bedtime performances.

I have watched other caregivers perform the Cat in their interpretation of the mischievous feline. Some believe he speaks very slowly and deliberately, luring the story’s children into his web of fun. Some hear the Cat with a silly giggle, and add that sound effect to the end of his lines. One of our relatives cannot simply read the Cat — he must pantomime as well.

I have culled from these various performances and determined that my definitive Cat is a playful authority figure with a confident exterior housing an easily bruised ego. He’s part Mary Poppins and part Robin Williams. For some lines, I do a dead-on impression of Kathy Najimy. I don’t know why, it just feels right. I’m sure there are infinite interpretations of the role by millions of method-acting amateurs around the globe who have played the Cat.

Long before the movie came out, “The Cat in the Hat” got me thinking about the work real actors have to do. I know the art of creating a living, breathing and believable character isn’t easy, and I’ve always appreciated that skill. The part that bamboozles me is how an actor can stay engaged with a part they are playing when they are in the middle of their eighth stage performance of the week, or their twenty-third take of a scene in a movie. Yul Brynner’s commitment to the role of the King of Siam astounds me. Although Sean Connery was certainly the best Bond, I completely understand why 007 and the actor had to go their separate ways.

I’ve done enough theater in my life to have heard the spiel about “keeping it fresh” from people who actually like the art of acting. Growing up, I was in a number of shows playing a variety of roles, big and small. I couldn’t muster enough interest as a performer to keep it fresh, keep it new, after the gazillionth run-through. I looked forward to the performances because that meant the ordeal would soon be over. Once we got to show time, I would mark big, red Xs on the calendar in celebration of one less time I would have to endure a particular show.

At the tender age of 18, I finally admitted that acting was boring to me and resigned myself to the fact that I was meant to enjoy acting from the other side of the stage line. I packed all my past acting opportunities away in the trunk of life experiences and labeled it “been there-done that.”

Then I had children and suddenly I had to read my son’s favorite book of the month umpteen times a week, if not a day. The feelings of boredom when approaching the text were eerily similar to my boredom on stage. But a show ends after only a few performances. My kids’ childhoods will play on for years. I had to come up with a solution to entertain myself while entertaining the small folks.

It was “The Cat in the Hat” that inspired me to approach reading children’s books as if I was an actor hired to keep it fresh, sincere and honest. And now, my performances are breaking box office records for smiles, hugs and kisses.

June 8, 2003

Getting a Post-Graduate Classical Education

Filed under: Art and About Literature — admin @ 3:49 pm

I have a set of 50 Franklin Library Collectors Edition books that my parents gave me as a book-of-the-month club gift about 20 years ago. Tolstoy, Dickens, Brontë, Poe and other greats of western literature are all represented. I’ve read a handful of the titles over the years, but the only Franklin spine I’ve ever cracked is the collection of Poe short stories.

The books are beautiful, and they have added decorative class to domicile after domicile. But they also fill me with tremendous guilt. Several of the titles intrigue me, but not enough to actually open the book to chapter one.

There is a common belief that all writers are avid readers. Not only is this a pervasive cultural myth, but it haunts me personally and professionally. Quite regularly, when I tell people I’m a writer, they assume I’m up on the New York Times Bestseller List, and they ask for advice on something to read. Feeling too embarrassed to give away my secret, I often reach back several months, if not years, to recommend the last book I’ve read. You may be surprised to know that the question “What are you currently reading” is a common job interview query. I’m prepared for it, though, and come ready with an answer. I don’t have to lie. I am usually in the middle of a book — I just haven’t made any progress in the last, say, six months. The Harry Potter books excepted.

I used to be a reader. While growing up, I loved to walk the library aisles carefully selecting the next imaginary adventure. But college quickly killed my desire to read. As a liberal arts major, so many words crossed my eyes every day via required reading that the last placed I turned to for escapist entertainment was the written word. During my seven years of higher education, I eventually became a non-reader. I’m not proud of it — it just happened. I have done some self analysis and determined that because I am an auditory person, I must have burned out the circuits that take in visual information. I know, bad amateur psychology.

Then I interviewed a highly educated UC Berkeley professor and architect for a story I was writing about his new book and he confided that he was also a non-reader. I don’t know how we got on that topic. I certainly didn’t bring it up. But this extremely intelligent, articulate, creative man (I won’t blow his cover by divulging his identity) corroborated my burn-out theory from his college days. I know, bad amateur psychology validation.

Back to my Franklin Library. I always figured that I might fill the holes in my literary repertoire when my kids were assigned the books in school. I would read along with them as a way of enticing myself to get the classics under my belt.

Ironically, my collegiate alma mater lured me back to reading. Last December, Stanford launched a community reading project called Discovering Dickens. This spring, I have been reading weekly installments of Dickens’ “Great Expectations.” The project produced “Great Expectations” in its original, serialized format and sent it to eager readers every Friday for 18 weeks. This was intended to recreate the great expectations of 1860s Londoners who waited impatiently from week to week for their dose of Dickens.

The experiment worked completely. My father-in-law ordered the series, would read the weekly chapters and then start passing them around the family. I read the issues during the 2 a.m. feeding for my newborn and, I kid you not, I actually looked forward to her waking up so I could continue with the story. Each week I anxiously anticipated receiving the new chapters. The baby began sleeping through the night when I was within two riveting chapters of the end. I agonized whether to finish during daylight, but I got two more interrupted nights of sleep shortly thereafter and was glad to have my Dickensian companions.

My interest in reading has been jump started. With literary rejuvenation, I have pulled “David Copperfield” off the shelf, and organized a pecking order of the Franklin Library books. The baby still gets up in the middle of the night every once in awhile, and reading a classic is a welcome alternative to the drivel on late-night television. Maybe this time when I finish the new Harry Potter book, I’ll turn around and find out what “Mutiny on the Bounty” is really all about.