Tuesday, February 04, 2014

Daughter

I'm a father of three. One is a daughter. Emily will be 35 in a few days. I was getting ready to be her dad at about the age Soon Yi Previn was when she chose Woody Allen over Mia Farrow. My daughter now has a daughter of her own. It goes without saying that I love them. But why go without saying when there's so much to say, so many places to say it? Take the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow story. Please. (I know not even Jack Benny can help us now, but we must smile when we can in these times.)

I haven't posted here in nearly a year. I've increasingly gone silent on other social media, all of which seems to me lately an overused skillet for rendering the fat of judgment from the rancid bacon of self-aggrandizement. Or vice-versa, I don't know, stupid metaphor. I scroll through my Facebook feed, hoping to see a new photo of little Zinnia, so the whole thing won't seem like a grotesque waste of time. Usually, there's no new photo, because as a working mother, Emily doesn't have time to waste.

More often than not, this past week, my quick daily scroll has become a series of digressions into the Woody Allen/Dylan Farrow "story." Horrendous. Friends post links to "articles" that feel embarrassing to me in their assured correctness. I'm using the ironic quotes because so much of this chatter is redolent of a peculiarly wretched strain in human nature, now magnified a billionfold by the new forums we've created to amplify our incessant need for notice or certainty or moral superiority. The sanctimony on both "sides" seems ideological. Reading all these things, the idea of participating has felt like wading into a cesspool, with way too many people splashing around in it already, all trying to be the smartest or most judicious shit-splashers, or just the most re-blogged, re-tweeted, re-splashed.

The catalyst for my jumping in was something I saw on Twitter yesterday. It came from Miranda July, whose work I admire. The tweet was one word: "Wife." The link that followed was to this photo.


It gave me pause, which is generally a good thing in any consideration of alleged wrongdoing. It's brilliant, really—a one-word caption before you see the image, and then the picture in place of a thousand words to roll up all the accusations about Woody Allen as a pedophile—a pinprick of provocation to anyone who follows you on Twitter and clicks through. And who wouldn't click through? You're Miranda July. You're provocative. You make people think. Your movie Me and You and Everyone We Know is an amazing portrayal of human relationships and longings and social complexity. Your book No One Belongs Here More Than You is full of stories that offer the same kind of tenderness, wit, and weirdness. I sat and pondered this tweet for a moment. What does it mean to post a photo of Woody Allen with Soon Yi Previn as a little girl, long before she became his wife, captioned with the word "Wife"?

And then my thought emerged from the foggy swamp of topical news, the celebrity tweet, the chatter and the chum for opinion-sharks. I saw with sudden clarity the girl's face. And I thought, That's not Soon Yi.

I could be wrong, of course. But I think Miranda July is wrong. Assuming the photo is real, there's probably a date for it that might confirm this one way or the other. But why bother with hard evidence in the court of public opinion? We can say whatever we want. Is that Soon Yi as a little girl, or is it her daughter (adopted, with Woody Allen)? Look at this photo and see what you think:


That's Woody, Soon Yi, and their two adopted children. Soon Yi has a very distinctive face. Here's a shot of Soon Yi from when she was closer to the age of the girl in the first picture:


Then look at this one, where Woody's and Soon Yi's oldest adopted daughter, Bechet, is closer in age to the girl in the first picture:


I hope Miranda July takes a look at these photos, because unless she's got blinders on, I think she'll come to the same conclusion I did. If she felt compelled to comment on other people's lives in this way, she should at least get the lives right. Her tweet, if any, should have read: "Daughter."

Update: Visiting Miranda July's Twitter page to get a screenshot of the tweet, I find that she's taken it down. In its place, with no reference or context: "I mean Daughter."

That changes the message. Some people might find it even more chilling, viewing this little girl as just another in a long line of Woody's underaged sexual targets. If she is or has been, and if Dylan Farrow really was molested at age 7, it's more horrendous than all the media cesspool that has gathered around the story. If, as he claims, Woody never did any such thing and is himself the target of a revenge smear, it's a deepening and widening of the pool.

I don't know, of course, and to say I don't know doesn't mean I'm "blaming the victim." It doesn't mean I'm discrediting anyone or passively accusing. It means I'm not omniscient. I'd like to suggest that no one is, that we can all learn more, think more, consider more, before offering up an opinion or provocation. As I looked at these photos to make sure I was seeing them clearly, I was trying to think: what do I really know about these people? Almost nothing. I've read a lot, and still I know almost nothing.

What I Think I Know

I know that the break-up of Woody's and Mia's unique, separate-lives/shared-family relationship was precipitated by her discovery of his affair with Soon Yi, or so they all have said. I know the allegations about his molestation of Dylan Farrow came out in the ensuing custody battle. I know the investigation did not find evidence of sexual abuse, that Dylan Farrow's statements have contradicted each other and been characterized by investigators as "coached"—and that these things don't mean the allegations are false. I know Woody Allen says they are. I know that Woody Allen and Soon Yi have been married for about 17 years, and that Soon Yi herself has said that he was never a father figure to her, that she spent very little time with him as a child, and that they became lovers when she was 19. I know that 20+ years later, they're married with two adopted daughters. I know that whatever we think of a 56-year-old man taking up with a 19-year-old woman, there's a huge difference between 19 and 7, and a huge difference between sleeping with someone else's adopted daughter and molesting your own. And I know that even the best, most balanced, comprehensive, clear-eyed writing I've read on this subject ultimately cannot provide the answers we seem to want.

All of it brings me back to my own daughter, her daughter, the way we fall in love with our children and, in a way, with all children—the enchantment we feel in their beauty and aliveness, how thrilling it is to encounter beings who seem unspoiled, undamaged, untouched. I know that for some people, the compulsion to touch the untouched is irresistible. For anyone with an imagination, it's not impossible to see why, and for anyone with a moral conscience, recoiling from that imagined transgression is immediate and powerful. I'm not easily repulsed. It usually takes a child molester, a rapist, a terrible injustice, or an egregious use of social media to do it. I can imagine a lot without feeling that I'm crossing a line or taking a side.

It's easy to imagine the pain of this family. It's also easy, I think, to imagine being accused as Woody Allen has been, and to feel the sense of injustice you'd carry if the accusations were false, the guilt you'd feel if they were true. We can imagine these things because we're really no different than Woody or Mia or Soon Yi or Dylan. We want love. Our families are fraught and fucked-up. We fight, we accuse, we defend, we try to do what we think is best.

I think of Emily and Zinnia. The idea of anyone hurting either of them makes me understand vengefulness. If Mia Farrow believes that one of her children was sexually abused, it's completely understandable that she'd want to destroy the abuser's life. I would, too. Even if the way she and her son Ronan use Twitter to air their enmity and judgment is distasteful, it's easy to understand why they do it. And it's easy to understand why Woody Allen wants no part of it, reluctantly issuing statements to defend himself.

I don't understand the compulsion to take a side in such a personal family matter, where so little can be known with certainty, and lob an opinion about it into the public square. How do people do that and not hate themselves later? Maybe they hate themselves already. Maybe we're all just projecting our worst tendencies onto Woody and Mia, the way we always have with public figures.

When someone as smart and sensitive and deeply-seeing as Miranda July can do something so misguided and potentially hurtful with just a handful of keystrokes, and it can get all the way around the world in an instant, we're no longer even in the court of public opinion. It's just Me and You and Everyone We Don't Really Know. The photo of Woody Allen and his daughter goes out with the caption: "Wife." It floats around the cesspool until it becomes indistinguishable from all the other shit.

And yet that little girl, Bechet, is a person. Born in China, adopted by American parents. She has a daddy. He's famous, so they get their picture taken wherever they go. Some of the pictures get used as weapons against him. We don't know what the pictures really mean or what the effects of this kind of fame and infamy are. We don't know what their relationship is. She's 15 this year. Woody's 150, or probably feels that way. We don't know. If the picture is for real, all we really know is, a girl sat on her daddy's lap. Someone took a picture of it. And then a bunch of shit happened, and next thing we know, the girl has been negated, presumed to be her adoptive mother, and the great game of misinformation and misjudgment and misanthropy goes on.

I wish Zinnia had a different sort of world to grow up in. Emily and her husband are splendid parents, so maybe, to the degree that Zinnia is treated with tenderness, respect, and dignity at home, her world will be different where it really matters.


She deserves that. So does every little girl, every child, and in fact, everyone. All of us adults, we deserve better, too. The great thing is, we can have it.

Maybe we can start by taking all that time and attention we spend on everyone we don't really know and spending it on everyone we do know instead.

We can start by shutting the hell up. And now, I think I will.

Thursday, February 14, 2013


So, for Valentine's Day my sis posts on her lovely blog this crushingly beautiful song by Mary Chapin Carpenter:



The video's not much to see, but the song just laid me out, and when you see the lyrics laid out, too, you understand that part of the song's effect comes from its structural perfection, viz.:

Jericho

You can't see me yet
Seeing takes a long, long time
From the outside in
Measuring in shift and sign
As you let your eyes adjust
To the darkness deep within
Sifting through the ash and dust
We are the places that we've been

You can't hear me yet
Listening takes a long, long time
And I've so much to tell
But words die on these lips of mine
In the stillness you may sense
Everything I long to say
Unraveling these golden threads
The walls will all come down this way

You don't know me yet
Knowing takes a long, long time
And time is all we have
Never traveling in straight lines
So memorize each turn and twist
And just be careful as you go
For if a love is a labyrinth
Then my heart is Jericho

The song is built as carefully as a city, or my own high-walled heart, which tumbled down into a heap of rubble and tears this morning, listening over and over, going farther into the center of the song, as easy or arduous a journey as this old map of Jericho might make it.


I listened to the song as if I were singing it to my kids, my darling spousette, my folks, my siblings, all the friends I haven't seen or heard or known in years (or ever, in the song's deep way of knowing). I listened to it as if they were singing it to me. I listened as if my one-month-old granddaughter, the biggest little thing that's happened in the long, long time since I last posted here, were singing it.


"You don't know me yet..." Aw, jeez. I'm a sniffling mess here.

Here's the thing. If you're reading this, I probably love and miss you. It's Valentine's Day. Be mine.

xo
J

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Gnostic Unemployment

This five-year-old laptop is giving me fits. Earlier today I shut it down and sat here looking around my office, which doesn't look much better than when I photographed it in May for that last post. A mess. I've been too busy writing and trying to sell myself to tidy up.

On a shelf, I saw some old notebooks. I pulled one down, opened it up to some notes on gnosticism from a lecture I went to in the early '90s, and found this:

Moses supposes
his gnosis Jehovah's,
but Moses supposes theistical-ly.
For nobody's gnosis
is strictly Jehovah's,
as Moses supposes his gnosis to be.

Semi-clever, but "strictly" is a sonic wrong note--it needs something that sounds like "posies," as in "posies of roses"--like "mostly," maybe, but the sense isn't right. I struggled with it there in the margins, writing a list of possible words to rewrite the thing around:

knows
chose his
psychosis
hypnosis
shmos (shmoes?)
closeness
discloses

I'd have no recollection of having written any of this if I didn't have the notebook, which takes me back to the time and the place: 1994, a conference called Body & Soul.


Isn't it handy, the way my iPhone photos arbitrarily load upside-down or sideways? Nice. Flipping pages, I see that Deepak Chopra gave the keynote and told a story about his friend Bob, who got electrocuted on top of a house, fell 15 feet to the ground and landed on his chest, which defibrillated his heart. "He was dead when he fell off the house. The fall brought him back to life."

I didn't write down what this story was meant to illustrate, but I instantly connect to it. I got zapped off the top of a nice, homey career, hit the ground, woke up, and starting running.

What I've done since May:

1. Wrote two big fat humor book proposals--chapter outlines, sample chapters, market & promotion stuff, the works. Two publishers recently expressed interest, but my agent thought I had a deal at Random House in July, and that fell through. So we'll see.

UPDATE: Mr. Agent called to say that Sourcebooks will publish my Tea Party lampoon next fall. The advance is small, but the royalty structure looks good. I'm thinking pseudonym, supporting the book with a political satire blog.

2. Did a couple of consulting days with Infinium in June, working to map out the future for a big local bank. More fun than it sounds like it would be.

3. In August, I hooked up with a former Sprint VP and another business genius to develop a start-up idea. We entered a venture capital contest (mainly to give ourselves a deadline to develop a pitch, for which I wrote and directed a video, among other things), but did not win. We're now working on the business model, web content, and other stuff. These people are so smart. I've learned a ton.

4. Started Hebrew classes. Penny and I are trying to keep with Jonah, who's in Hebrew school now and will be studying for his bar mitzvah over the next four years. Man, it's a mindfuck to study a new language. Spanish in high school was like eating flan compared to learning Hebrew at my age. But I can feel my old language-learning muscles stretching and flexing. It's cool.

5. Adapted a novel by another of my agent's clients. The script is now in the hands of a director who just sent me another set of revisions to do. I'm 50% assured that funding is just around the corner and this won't be yet another spec script thrown down the rabbit hole. The other half of me suspects that it'll all fall apart, as happens far more often than not. The novel, by the way, is called Keeping Time, by Stacey McGlynn.

Turns out, when I don't have a day job, I can write a script in less than six weeks. It used to take me a year, starting and stopping through weekends and evenings.

6. Started a novel of my own, which is really the only thing I want to work on right now. It's going to be a very funny, very sad, very vicious corporate satire. I'm now into the third chapter and completely in love with the first two, one of which is nearly 50 pages long and delights me every time I read it over.

I have to keep reacquainting myself with it, because the search for gainful employment takes a lot of time and energy. I try to accomplish something every day toward that end, viz.:

7. I've been doing some freelance brainstorming and copywriting for a local brewery, which I've really enjoyed.

8: Interviewed at a big marketing/ad agency. Feedback has been encouraging so far.

9: Reconnected with a friend who owns a web design company, and I may have a "freelancer with benefits" deal there, which would really take the worry out of the Damoclesian health insurance sword that's hanging over the end of the year.

Between those last three things, I think financial survival is likely. And if the script can just get a green light, which my agent seems to think will happen early in 2011, or if somebody says yes to one of the books, I'll breathe easier.

In this old notebook, I find the following quote from Elizabeth Roberts, whoever that is:

"To be a human being is to be a swinging door. The inner life and outer life must connect."

I scribbled in the margins, "Also, if you get too busy rushing in and out without paying attention, you'll smack yourself in the face."

The wolf is still at the door. But I do think my inner and outer lives are connecting, especially across the pages of that novel. And I have reason to hope that everything I've done these past six months will make it harder to blow the house down.

Moses supposes
what blows or bulldozes
his house is neurosis or anx-i-e-ty...
Prognosis for Moses?
His prose comes up roses,
if Moses lets goeses and shows he be me.

Some of you have been very supportive during this scary stretch of time. And I love you for it. You gno who you are.

Friday, May 28, 2010

Career Is Dead, Long Live Career

So, I lost my day job. From the inciting event to the wrap-up of the terms of my "retirement" (to which terms I acceded yesterday) took exactly three months. And what a quarter it was.

I got sick in the early throes, immune system no doubt depressed, a brief flirtation with death-by-sepsis that followed an inflammation of my--who knew?--carotid artery sheath. I take that to mean "heartsick."

And one month into it all, before there was any hint that it might end this way, I celebrated my 30-year anniversary on the job. I remember saying to the group of writers and artists gathered for the party that I didn't want my remarks to sound like a retirement speech, but that, then again, "you can be about to retire and just not know it yet." Nailed it!

30 years of fun and creativity and collaborating with some of the coolest people on earth and maybe caring just a bit too much, and it's over. So. What's next?

I don't know. I have another consulting job in June. I'm working on a book, a couple of scripts, and taking, as they say, some meetings with bona fide literary agents and publishers. So I hit the ground running. But now I'm skidding through 30 years of accumulated office detritus. A few of my darling co-workers stuck around after hours last week to help me box it all up. It filled a friend's pickup truck (seriously, getting the last box in was like playing Tetris®. Now with profanity!™). There was no time to sort while packing, and my home office was already pretty crowded. Now it looks like something out of Hoarders.

I had a manila folder for every one of those 30 years. Back before I started storing stuff on hard drives, I kept copies of everything. Thousands of jokes, little verses, names for products, sell-lines and slogans, new business ideas, memos, thank-you notes from editors, consumer letters, goofy poems to read aloud at people's birthdays or milestone anniversaries. The early stuff is either hand-written or typed on a Smith-Corona (and then on an original Mac, saved to flexi-disks I can no longer access), so unless it got accepted and applied somewhere, the writing only exists in these photocopies or on scribbled 3x5 cards. And I'm jettisoning almost all of it. I put eight grocery bags of paper out for the recycling truck yesterday.

It's weird, but the handwritten-ness of some things makes me unable to pitch them. I found two pages that I evidently submitted for a 1990 assignment to predict the next decade's big changes. If it were a Word document, I'd just pitch the hard copy. But it's the only existing version of this thing. You can see some of it here, with a couple of jokes from the brainstorm bowl AND a "modest proposal" I wrote when writers were asked how we could help the company save money back in the mid-90s.

Since Blogger loaded that photo sideways and you can't read it anyway, the cost-cutting proposal starts out, "Kill people." And it goes on from there in Swiftian mode. My predictions included environmental trends, "rampant religious fervor," musings about computer networks (I was still moonlighting at CompuServe in 1990), and "I would also like to mention desktop publishing." The 3x5s say, "You gotta laugh at your problems, cuz let's face it, that's what everyone else is doing" (a little Cope & Encouragement workin' for ya there) and, under the title, "NATURE & YOU: A Poem," this beautiful Message of Love:

If I had plants
instead of thighs,
you'd make them
photosynthesize.


Hadn't heard that rhyme before, and haven't heard it since. I should do a Wikipedia entry on it.

There's a long to-do list before I get to that. It's a big world out here and I want to do big things in it. Not sure if I'll have time for blogging along the way, so there may be even less to see here than usual.

But never doubt my love, O faithful few readers, commenters, lurkers, and drive-by glancers. Hold me close, ya tiny dancers. You know I dig you like clams.

Yr humble,
Jas P Howard

Available for parties, partnerships, and odd jobs befitting a guy besotted with words, words, words.

Friday, April 30, 2010

NaPoWriMo Winds Down

I missed the first day of National Poetry Writing Month, but wrote a poem every day in April thereafter. Might write one for May Day, just to get to 30.

Odd stuff happened along the way. The first poem I wrote inspired my friend Deb Beroset to do a lovely painting that she posted on her Zesty Artista blog. Subsequent poems got me in trouble at work. And a few caught me by surprise, expressing things I didn't know I knew.

If you just keep writing, things happen. Here's what happened today, end of the month, beginning of who knows what:

*

April Ends In Rain

You don't know what could come down
on your head. Every day, we wander out
into the world, avoiding car wrecks
or not, unknowingly dodging bullets flying
elsewhere in the city, pile-ups and ricochets
behind us, fate rolling its red carpet back up
like a tongue that licked around our edges
and decided to eat something else.

There's a man who's been struck by lightning
several times and lived to tell about it,
some magnet in his body drawing down
the charge, boom, and the air crackles,
his hat's on fire, or he's holding a torch
that was a book. Maybe those words
were just asking to be set alight.

Maybe the rain this morning was just to say,
yesterday was a dream. You worked
in the sunshine, you made love, you talked
with friends and played with kids, you wrote
about a wind that blew through and now is
gone. The weeping cherry you planted
when your son was born has shed its last
blossoms for the year. Look how green
the world can be when you wake up
and it's today, and today only.

The sleepwalker has left you, shuffling
off in slippers, a light rubbing sound
like a samba under the echoes of
his song, the one he's been mumbling
since you first fell in love with dreaming
and writing and women and the music
of your own wild imagination. You still
remember the words, 35 years later:
Green, it's your green I love.
Green of the wind. Green branches.
The ship far out at sea.
The horse high on the mountain.
Shadows dark at her waist,
she's dreaming there on her terrace,
green of her cheek, green hair,
with eyes like chilly silver.
Green, it's your green I love.


Who knows what it means? You never did.
But you love it to your soul anyway.
Everything that has conspired to kill
what is most alive in you could not do it.
You are awake.

*

[The quoted section is from Lorca's "Sleepwalker's Ballad," translation by John Frederick Nims, whose book Western Wind cracked me open just enough to glimpse a poet inside.]

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Dog Cat Rat (Man)

While dining in a sidewalk cafe on Throckmorton Street in Ft. Worth yesterday, I saw these four creatures:

Yep. A rat sitting on a cat standing on a dog being led by a man. I said to my colleagues, "Hey, look, a dog and a cat and a rat." And they double-took. And one of them said to the guy at the next table, "Hey, did you see that rat on the cat on the dog..." and the guy said, "Oh, yeah, that dude's always walking around downtown. Crazy homeless dude."

Back at my hotel, I googled Ft. Worth+dog+cat+rat, and this vid came right up. The "homeless dude" doesn't seem crazy at all--he just prefers animals to people, sort of like Temple Grandin. And I'm actually more interested in the animal pyramid than I am in him--especially that cat, which didn't fall off when I saw the act live. The balance of a surfer, the restraint of an aikido master, and the bored expression of...a cat.

Now I'm home from Ft. Worth. There's nothing quite like this oddity here. But having seen their little promenade makes me want to pay closer attention to beautiful obsessive weirdness everywhere.

By the way, I also recently met Temple Grandin, which is a whole other story, involving a whole other hotel. And pig-stunning. Also: Throckmorton. Just wanted to say it again.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Books Ruin Everything

February 2010 was the first month in which I failed to post anything since I started neglecting this blog back in aught-six. At first I neglected it in favor of freelance work. Then I neglected it in favor of Twitter. But lately, I've been neglecting Twitter, freelance, this blog, and life itself, in favor of books.

Books. Remember those? They're supposed to be part of what this blog is about, but when's the last time I wrote about a book here? Well, this is about a bunch of books. In the past six months (mostly in the past three), I've read the following:

Netherland by Joseph O'Neill ★★★★½
(I loved this novel so much, I started writing one, then began to suspect that my opening was plagiaristically close to that of a novel I'd read a few years ago, so I checked to see, and got hooked again by that all-too-influential opening, and thus ended up rereading in its massive entirety...
The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen ★★★★
East Is East by T.C. Boyle ★★★
Mudbound by Hillary Jordan ★★½
Chronic City by Jonathan Lethem ★★
Nobody Move by Denis Johnson (★★★½) which made me reread...
Angels and Jesus' Son by Denis Johnson (a composite ★★★★)

But did I just read novels? Nay, I did not, viz.:

No One Belongs Here More Than You stories by Miranda July ★★★½
Haywire poems by George Bilgere ★★★★
Refusing Heaven poems by Jack Gilbert ★★★
Dearest Creature poems by Amy Gerstler ★★★★
Open House poems by Beth Ann Fennelly ★★★
Unmentionables poems by Beth Ann Fenelly ★★★½
All In The Timing fourteen plays by David Ives (funny little one-acts) ★★★★

I read a memoir:

House of Cards by my pal David Ellis Dickerson (must recuse myself on the rating, because I'm pseudonymously featured in the book and heavily biased in favor of the author)

I read a screenplay:

A Serious Man by Joel and Ethan Coen (I give the film ★★★★, but the weirdly flat script ★★--I don't know how they knew they could make a great movie from it.)

I read what I guess you'd call a how-to:

Story by Robert McKee ★★★ (the best thing of its kind, but that's damning with faint praise)

At work, I was researching The Beatles and ended up rereading In His Own Write, by John Lennon ★★★★. What a hoot.

I also read a fat, densely-packed old issue of McSweeney's, guest-edited by Chris Ware--mostly comics, but it took me longer than any of the other books. I'd rate it from no stars to ★★★★★, depending on where you are in it.

I think that's it.

Why list all these? Simply to say that I'd recommend every one of them, except maybe Chronic City, an oddly detached disappointment. And that I was reminded, these past few months, of how thoroughly books kick television's ass. TV had begun to swallow the evening hours with a habitual couchslump, apr├Ęs-boy-bedtime. I haven't cut it out of my life entirely, but I've begun shoving books between it and my face. They almost always win.

I'm back to reading like I used to read: compulsively. Now rereading Humboldt's Gift and loving it. So there'll be more blog lapses. I suggest Joseph O'Neill et al. as worthy blank spot filler-inners. If you've let books slip to the periphery of your busy life, bring 'em back to the center of the camp. It feels good.