Friday, January 30, 2009

Paris Days 22 and 23 - my life in captions

After my first day of actual writing, too tired to string two sentences together, I glue them together with pictures.

Day before yesterday I got my busted bike back from 18 Vélo Vintage, 58 Rue du Ruisseau in Montmartre.

Paris to Sarko: Up yours! Yesterday (Thursday) the entire Bastille and every thoroughfare leading in and out was jammed. You couldn't move, the smell of cooking meat was everywhere - it was like Folsom St. Fair but in winter and with no sex. I lasted 15 minutes.

I get a little shiver of frisson when I decipher a French pun. Everywhere people sported signs that read "REVE GENERAL," playing on the rhyme between "reve" (dream) and "grève" (strike).

After the strike demo I met inauguration buddy Irène for dinner at Jours de Fête, 72 Quai de Jemmapes, right across the canal from me. Her buddies run the joint - a couple, she English, he French; conversation was in French about a quarter of the night and I limped along admirably. Food was first-rate - Irène and I both cleaned our confit duck to the bone.

The view northeast back on my side of the canal.

Twink & Tinkerbell in the Marais.

Expectations? What expectations? The other day, I bought five avocados for three euros - that's better than Trader Joe's - from a vendor in the 17th, near where I met the judge for a conversation date. When the grocer learned I was from the US, and that we shared opinions of the current and former president, he slipped a handful of clementines into my bag.

Really fun errand at Messiaen's church today - I have more fun in church than any atheist I've ever met except Albert Fuller and that's a special case. The 3PM light through the stained glass did this to the stone.

Walking through the Beaubourg I picked up this earworm and for once got Messiaen out of my head:

"If you try to knock me you'll get mocked
I'll stir fry you in my wok
Your knees'll start shaking and your fingers pop
Like a pinch on the neck of Mr. Spock"

I come from San Francisco, I live in a Franciscan monastery, and here I am hanging out with St. Francis at the sacristy of La Trinité - for 60 years the musical and spiritual home of St. François d'Assise composer-librettist Messiaen.

Now that I'm all warmed up from writing captions I feel like I could add something more substantial before my forehead hits the keyboard. I found a super extra darling cafe by the Beaubourg, certainly famous as it's that cute and right in the middle of things and has been there, according to what's painted on the mirror, since 1892 - Le Petit Marcel. I paid an outrageous sum for a cafe au lait and then got my money's worth out of it with my first 90 minutes' work using the newly printed (merci EL!) outline, notes and 2nd draft. I began and finished a scene the outline told me I was supposed to write, using notes that told me what was supposed to go in it; I took the results home and spent another 90 minutes entering it into the third draft on the computer. When I was scribbling the scene down at the cafe it seemed stillborn, but entering it into the 3rd draft it showed signs of life. Re-reading it now I'm not entirely convinced but I'm encouraged nonetheless and really happy to have gotten the lats three weeks of admin and planning and printing and the now, today, the first writing out of the way. Tomorrow's post-gay agenda: brunch, three parties, a tattered 19th century Russian novel, and a letter to my mom.

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Thursday, January 29, 2009

Paris Day 21 - just not yet

From the Villa St. Martin across the street I mooch some green neon.

Virginia Woolf enjoyed making fun of Orlando not so much as a 400-year-old, perennially adolescent, egotistical hot tranny mess, but as a writer. Specifically, in words I'll remember when the Alzheimer's sends me to my non-driver's California ID when I'm asked for my name, she loved giving him/her shit for his/her struggles with "the cardinal labor of composition, which is excision." Orlando's poem only grew, and was never finished.

I am that rare individual, the happy writer, because I am doing very little excision these days. I'm mostly adding. The outline is now twenty pages; the notes are nearly 100. Because time is making its way through the hourglass of this residency with the force of a sandblaster, I have set myself some deadlines to start the much more difficult work of committing new sentences to the third draft, and then the principal labor, which is ripping them out. Today and tomorrow are my last days to go over the outline and the notes, trimming, expanding and organizing according to chronology and theme; Saturday I have social plans pretty much all day and it's my 4-days-deferred day off, but I will do one chore - print the notes, the outline and the relevant sections of the second draft (about 2/3 of it). The following day, Feb. 1, I will sit with my laptop in front of these three piles of paper and my task will actually be very simple: to make them disappear.

As the fourth week of my time here approaches, my discipline is slipping. I began with such beautiful rules - no reading, Net surfing or even thinking allowed during meals - just stare out the window and eat. No work allowed for more than 6 days in a row. Limit the writing to 90-minute sets - stay fresh. Yesterday I gobbled my dinner with three chat windows open, I completed my 8th consecutive day of work, and I looked up from the morning session to realize that two and a half hours had gone by. I'm sure I'll jinx myself by writing this and I'm sure I'll deserve the punishment, but I am just riveted by this process and by the ease with which it's unfolding. I've gotten a lot of shit from trusted mentors who have looked at my sprawling and promiscuous creative life of film, fiction, nonfiction and music, my overloaded class schedule, and said honey it's all very amusing but if you're going to have a career one of these days you're going to have to pick one of these things and focus on it. And I've always looked at their stellar exemplary careers and thought yes, that is right, I must do it, it is the principal labor of building my career, and I will do it, one of these days, after the film is through, after the novel - God make me focus, just not yet. The last three weeks, returning to the novel after it has sat in a cool cave while the film took over my life, I am reaping rewards for my procrastination, rewards I wouldn't even have known to want or ask for. Questions arise faster than I can write them down, multiple answers are suggesting themselves as I type the questions - and even as I write down the alternatives, the best way forward becomes apparent. The contrast between this voluptuous spring of ideas and the cracked earth that grudgingly yielded the first two and a half drafts of this novel shocks me. It makes me think I could never produce a novel in fewer than six years and two or three major creative distractions. It inflates my awe of the book-of-the-year club (Updike, Chabon, Oates). Perhaps if you do this enough, your product cures in weeks rather than months and years.

Metaphors compete for Feb. 1. It's either graduating from school and having to make a career, getting married after years of whoring around, or raising a 999-plant pot farm out of the earth and, what? Cutting it all down, trimming and curing it? Or smoking it all at once?

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Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Paris Day 20 - John Updike

It was turning into another one of those never-set-foot-out-of-the-monastery days so I performed an intervention and took a walk down my street. I didn't realize it had its very own Arc de Triomphe (the Porte St. Martin) or that it leads straight to the Beaubourg but both of those things are true. All the Parisian stores have sales right now, and, in a deft representation of what I can afford to buy even during sale season, all the mannequins are stripped naked. The dirtiest thing I have seen so far in Paris is the storefront pictured above with the one clothed male model - so very L'Histoire d'O.

I also passed this theater where Grease is playing. Wouldn't it be delish to see Grease in Paris, in French? Unfortunately, in addition to being short on euros and hours, I don't have any marijuana, so I'm going to skip it. Those of you in the Bay Area should check out the sing-along Grease that Peaches Christ and Heklina are doing at the Bridge Theater Valentine's Day. I wish I could be there but I have a hot date that night in Paris with my partner of six and a half years (no not James, unfortunately - the novel).

I haven't had writer's block since getting to Paris but I've now spent an hour avoiding saying something about the death of John Updike. I haven't read a lot of his novels but what I've read, the Rabbit tetralogy, I've read many times, which means I've turned several thousand pages of Updike. I have no way of knowing how much of an influence he was on me, though I often think Rabbit taught me what little I know about how to write. The one thing he wrote that really pissed me off - his notorious review of Andrew Hollinghurst's novel The Spell that managed to dismiss the whole enterprise of gay fiction -
Novels about heterosexual partnering, however frivolous and reducible to increments of selfishness, social accident, foolish estimations, and inflamed physical detail, do involve the perpetuation of the species and the ancient sacralized structures of the family.
- set me spluttering with pre-post-gay outrage for months before it set the course of my fiction efforts from then on, from my abandoned novel The Breeders to the present novel with its profusion of pregnancy.

Even at his most lyrical, Updike wielded authority in every sentence of those four monumental books - to say he wrote like God is not as figurative as it sounds. Four passages come to mind tonight - random memories from books I haven't looked at in many years, but each characterized by a command of the kinetic so uncanny it makes
Updike's death hard to believe: his videorealistic description of the pinball game, Nelson smashing up the cars in the lot, Rabbit at Rest's terrifying recapitulation, out on the Sunfish, of the tetralogy's formative trauma.

The fourth passage, which opens Rabbit Redux, I read over and over again when I first encountered it, and was happy to find online: summer the granite curbs starred with mica and the row houses differentiated by speckled bastard sidings and the hopeful small porches with their jigsaw brackets and gray milk-bottle boxes and the sooty ginkgo trees and the baking curbside cars wince beneath a brilliance like a frozen explosion. The city, attempting to revive its dying downtown, has torn away blocks of buildings to create parking lots, so that a desolate openness, weedy and rubbled, spills through the once-packed streets, exposing church facades never seen from a distance and generating new perspectives of rear entryways and half-alleys, and intensifying the cruel breadth of the light.
When people complain about Updike, specifically about the Rabbit novels, I think they're complaining about the unyielding quality of that light. Nothing got past it, because nothing got past him, and that is why John Updike wrote like God.

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Monday, January 26, 2009

Paris Days 18 and 19 - pseudoflaneur

I've always understood the flaneur to be the guy who has time to just amble around town, checking things out, seeing if life might happen to him on his rounds, no big deal if it doesn't. My American friend Joel here in Paris has that written on his card - I almost wrote business card but a flaneur with a business card is oxymoronic (and there's the difference between here and home in a nutshell - the French word for business card is
carte de visite). The online dictionaries give other definitions for flaneur: an aimless idler; a loafer, according to; an aimless and usually self-centered and superficial person, according to the Word Tutor on the same site (take that, Joel). According to Edmund White, whose book by that name I haven't read, "a flâneur is a stroller, a loiterer, someone who ambles (ambles!) through a city without apparent purpose but is secretly attuned to the history of the place and in covert search of adventure, aesthetic or erotic." Or he might just be looking for something to blog about.

My first stop on today's afternoon rounds was the Church of the Trinity, where Messiaen was the organist for six decades. I have an idea for a project there and went to see if I could bounce it off someone. On the walk over, I alternated between getting carried away by the second and third of the Vingt Regards, and suppressing a looming panic attack - the movie's a little racy here and there and I have this persistent paranoia that someone in Messiaen-land is going to clock me when we're introduced. The woman at the office showed neither any indication she'd ever heard of the film or me, nor any inclination to violence, and pressed a brochure into my hand with generic contact information. I sat at the nearly deserted cafe across the street, imagining that Messiaen and his wife must have been regulars, and wrote Juliette a letter almost entirely in French - who knows what it says. On my way out of the neighborhood I climbed a pole and posed with the street sign, above.

Flaneurs who don't know the history of the place they're ambling through are condemned to keep finding things that remind them of friends. Has Milton scholar and Apparition of the Eternal Church star John Rogers walked the length of Milton Street, as I did today?

When I encountered it, Rue Milton was overrun with elementary schoolchildren just getting out of class:

I looked for one of those historical markers, wondering if Milton had lived there or otherwise earned the naming rights locally - did he flee to Paris after the regicide? - but when I found history on the wall it was of a more recent vintage:




And then, after standing in front of that plaque along with a dozen mothers who were waiting for their children to come running through the front doors, I continued on my walk, stopping in at a little Armenian grocery where half the items were named for my friend Artashes:

I bought Artashes eggplant spread and fig jam.

Today's diary entry is supposed to account for yesterday as well as today but yesterday was one of those days I spent the last diary entry worrying about - nothing happened. Back in San Francisco, Tony and Kristen had a baby, but here there was less going on. I woke up, I wrote, I drank my freeze-dried coffee crystals, I wrote some more, I prepared food and cleaned up after myself, I contributed to
La Creation du Monde, I wrote, I moved the furniture around, I ate, I posted a diary entry, I passed out. I had made a resolution not to spend any money all day, and as a result didn't once set foot off the monastery. You could even say the day was monastic.

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Sunday, January 25, 2009

Paris Day 17 - bordel

One of the hardest things for a writer to get his mind around is the conflict, inherent in his calling, between discipline and experience. To write requires solitude and sobriety, a concentrated and sloe-eyed confrontation with the self and the world: picture Emily Dickinson, alone, laboriously pulling the universe through her ink well. For most of us, though, having something to write about requires society, recklessness, wool-gathering, cultivation of chaos, ruination of sobriety, screwing and screwing around, and the messier the better - what might be referred to around these parts as a bordel of a life. For the diary writer (and it's dawned on me in the last few days that this is not a blog, but something closer to a diary), the need for experience is even more acute, and having ventured, in an kind of Ambien sleepwalking rampage, out onto this limb of daily writing, I find myself living in fear that one of these days in Paris absolutely nothing is going to happen to me worth writing about and that limb will dry up and crack with my next step forward. In the 16 days of this diary I've had rainbows and I've had dog shit, but how long can that kind of luck last? This is how I justified going out last night.

It was another conversation date with Marc - the 23-year-old much better looking younger brother of Ryan Philippe. This time the setting was some kind of art opening at the Palais de Tokyo. I used to pass it all the time when I stayed with friends who had a place in Passy, and the place had been on my mind recently after another friend forwarded this choice piece of pornography in Butt Magazine. Late to meet Mark, I found, on the grand staircase facing the Seine, a pack of feral potsmoking fire dancers:

Marc liked the first one as an homage to Coco Chanel

The art opening itself was not what either of us was expecting, which might have something to do with the fact that we didn't read the invitation very carefully. It took place in an auditorium where chairs were set up in front of a big screen, but when the lights dimmed and the show started, there was nothing to watch. It was a pre-hearing of a radio broadcast, a collage of interviews and sound clips from Corsica, mostly in French but with smatterings of Spanish and Italian, English and German - my native tongue and all the ones I blew off in school. I had a hard time concentrating - I found the rapid-fire Italian much easier to understand than most of the French - and when I closed my eyes and tried to focus I kept drifting back to problems in the novel, ideas for La Création du Monde. When Marc made some impatient noises I suggested we blow the joint and get dinner.

Dinner wound up being
take-our Chinese back at his place on the other side of the river, and when our food was eaten and our after-dinner drinks drained, I said I needed to get back to the monastery as I hadn't finished my writing for the day. So I got up and gathered my things and went to the door, where we exchanged our first kiss on the lips - chaste and brief. And that would have been it if I hadn't turned back around to say something, and the opportunity presented itself, in that moment of leaving behind Ryan Philippe's much better looking younger brother, to kiss him again, and a few minutes later his cat was dodging us as we tumbled, stark naked, to his bed.

Look, I tried to leave. I could hear my novel calling to me from across Paris, demanding its promised share of the day. Three or four times I said I have to go, and each time he said just five more minutes. I kept feeding those minutes into the machine, but of course it was never satisfied. If both my desire to leave and Marc had been a little stronger, it might have turned into a dicey situation - I guess I've forgotten what 23-year-old male sexual need is like but at one point I was surprised to find myself prevented by a scissor lock of his legs from getting out of bed and at another he actually threw me back onto the mattress. Poor cat! Perhaps he's used to it.

Yesterday, at the used-bike shop in Montmartre, I struck up a conversation with an American girl who's in Paris for several months and we commiserated on the difficulty of learning French here. No wonder Americans are monolingual - geopolitically the empire may be crumbling but linguistically it seems to have a couple of centurions standing watch over every street corner on Earth. Even the other day, studying French in that little cafe on Libya Street, surrounded by locals, in walked Steve Perry on the radio with open arms. I know it's churlish and implausible to complain about finding myself in bed with an absurdly good looking young Parisian with a fiery sex drive, the strength of which at 38 I retain but a dim and distant memory, but the two of us can't speak French for more than three and a half minutes before giving up and switching to English, where we're apparently both more at home. As I wrote a few days ago when introducing Marc, James specifically said I should find a Parisian boyfriend in order to learn French. And he's right! I'm here to finish a draft of the novel, make a film, and learn the language, so what am I doing in bed with a boy who might as well be from Cleveland? When I finally succeeded in leaving Marc's apartment I felt like once again Steve Perry had waltzed in on the middle of my French studies. Well, there's always the judge, who keeps me honest with the French conversation, but he canceled today's tete-a-tete because of illness. At least I learned one word last night - I now know how to say thigh - and thanks to the context I'll probably remember it. Of course there's that other thing I'm doing here in Paris, which is keeping this diary, and as you can see my bordel of a date with Marc got me through one more day of that.

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Friday, January 23, 2009

Paris Day 16 - pep talk

Like many writers, I have a blown-glass ego - inflated, empty and extremely fragile. Like many schizophrenics, I talk to myself. Today I was walking the streets and stairways of Belleville talking a blue streak, and it was a really lovely conversation, important I think, worth writing down. The subject is an old standby, a genre even - the pep talk. It comes in handy when you are spending six hours out of the day reading really terrible work that you've spent years of your creative life producing. You can't afford a therapist, a life coach, or an MFA program, and your friends and family deserve better, so you talk yourself through it. You buck yourself up. You say, look, Paul, so what if Part III sucks - you'll fix it. Have confidence in yourself. Look at all you've accomplished. Look at what you did with the film, the challenges you surmounted, the setbacks you endured, the discouragement you weathered, the interviews you didn't get and the rejection letters you did, the aesthetic and intellectual prospects you attained in spite of it all. Look how you started from nothing - no funding, no credentials, no equipment, no experience or training, no permission, no nothing - and look at where the film has gone and where it's taken you, from America's finest audience film festivals that nobody's ever heard of to its grandest cathedrals and concert halls, from the side of a barn in Tennessee to the Library of Congress and now to Paris - Paris! - the city that created Messiaen, the city that Messiaen conquered and shaped. Think of it! That le Mairie de Paris, le city itself, the Jerusalem of your creative spirit, has honored your work, has invited you here, has given you its imprimatur and confidence and studio and stipend, its material support and civic blessing - and at this point, exactly at this point, having reached the acme of my pep talk, I stepped directly in a pile of dog shit.

Sleeping on problems in the novel is one way of solving them - caffeine is another good weapon - what worked today was my slightly malodorous walk around Belleville. I was heading toward the Parc des Buttes Chaumont, but there were chains on the gate - a woman pushing a stroller explained they closed it because of the high winds (they don't and really can't do this in San Francisco and every once in a while some bicyclist gets her head bashed in by a falling branch). So I wandered for an hour, stopping only to take pictures of the odd building - the ones I like best look like they should be eaten -

- picking up some just absolutely filthy-disgusting props for La Creation du Monde, pink and baby blue teddy-bear capped Christmas ornaments the size of grapefruits that are hanging above the Eiffel Tower champagne flutes - and the other thing I stopped for was to write down these solutions that kept presenting themselves around every corner.

Toward the end of my walk I stopped at the Petit Balcon Cafe on Libya Street, where I ordered an espresso, got out my notebook, and prepared to jot down a deluge of notes. But once my feet stopped, so did the ideas. Joyce Carol Oates once wrote something to the effect that when her knees gave out, she was going to have to find another line of work. Tonight I settled for the remains of my latest tajine concoction, about an hour hypnotized in front of Sherry Vine's friend list on Facebook (will I ever have 2101 Facebook friends, and, if so, will that stop the hurt?), and hanging those Christmas ornaments above the champagne flutes. I should probably wash my shoe before I go to bed.

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Thursday, January 22, 2009

Paris Day 15 - me talk pretty Sunday

My conversation date was even prettier than this Marc Younan building in the Villeman Gardens behind the monastery

The work hours flew today. The work I'm doing is comparatively easy although increasingly demoralizing as I read through the second draft. Part III is the oldest, longest and worst of the four parts of the novel. This is the advantage of putting the novel away to mold for 18 months - when you pull it out you really know what stinks.

Fixing it will be a bitch, but for now all I have to do is criticize, analyze and outline. Karenin could do this work in his sleep. I intend to get working on the hard part in my sleep, mulling intractable problems before bed and waking up to find beautiful solutions drooling peacefully at my side.

Relief from all of this came in the form of a conversation date with a 23-year-old Parisian named Marc whose photo had to be inaccurate - nobody is that good looking. Actually it was inaccurate for a different reason - he was even cuter in person. I had to wait five hours to discover this, as he was late to our two-thirty rendezvous and at two-fifty I gave up and exorcised my disappointment at the nearest boulangerie. I'm cell phone-free and loving it! By email we reset the date for after dinner, met at le Chat Noir in the Eleventh and spent at least six minutes speaking French - his English, learned from American TV, makes him sound like he was born and raised in Cleveland but maybe had some dental work two or three days ago. This devoted subject of the Empire seemed to think in American English - twice he had to struggle to remember how to say something in French, but not once in the language of Jerry Seinfeld. In any case it was painful to look at Marc for 90 minutes (think Ryan Philippe's much cuter younger brother), and while we left the door open for a second date I would feel guilty if anything developed with him. James specifically said I should find a Parisian boyfriend to help improve my French.

Sunday I see the judge around lunchtime, and will speak French whether I like it or not.

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Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Paris Day 14 - separated at birth edition

James...and the Laser cover boy?

The City Hall wedding Paul remembers...and the one he doesn't.

Laser HQ in the Marais. I can't quite figure out what these people do. They must be consultants.

The wages of sin aren’t death, they just feel like it. Tonight at 7PM I just couldn’t bear being awake anymore and a tall mug of Lady Grey tea did nothing to alleviate the pain. So I put myself down for a nap and got up five hours later. Like another local party animal, je ne regrette rien—it was a planetary celebration and worth a disruption in my sleep and work schedule. It’s also a potent reminder of how much time and energy I get back when I don’t party.

I only got half my six hours of writing done today but I reached a significant milestone in getting through the last of that onerous box of notes on paper. There are still more notes to absorb on the computer - I just discovered an infestation nested in the second-draft Word comments. But it feels good to be done with that box, and to have started a new document, the outline, which will replace the 4x6 cards I worked from last time. I am addicted to process - when I think of how much pleasure it gives me I feel like the world's biggest geek. But that is not a new feeling.

After three hours' work on the novel, another good contribution to Creation du Monde, and lunch, I struck out in search of pants. The jeans I wore to Paris had an incipient hole in the crotch, and that bike I bought in Montmartre turned it into serious problem with respect to both fashion and drafts. Paris is mostly useless for clothing men in my income bracket, and after a week of running around with too much ventilation I had made peace with the prospect of spending a chunk of my stipend at either the Levi store or American Apparel - bitter ironies both for a California boy. Fortunately, en route to American Apparel I stumbled across this place - Momo Le Moins Cher at 31 Blvd. Magenta - which had hundreds of pairs of Levis in pretty great shape and some really filthy beaded and sequined drag numbers that I could not resist for Beltane. Before walking out of there with four items, I spent a half hour chatting with the proprietor, an African from near Senegal named Bou Bou, and that will have to pass for my French practice for the day.

Bou Bou is fun - chat him up and he'll cut you a deal.

Yesterday I referred to the hockey game and the anthracite champagne sparkling on the Hotel de Ville above - here's a video clip:


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Paris Day 13 - regime change

Barack Hussein Obama is president of the United State of America. George and Laura Bush were removed from the nation’s capital via military helicopter. I have had a few drinks. This is a potentially hazardous set of circumstances in which to blog, but it’s what I have to work with.

Let me start with a confession. While it’s true that I have wandered the maze of Montmartre accompanied by Messiaen’s unfathomable modes, and negotiated Parisian traffic to the tune of Poulenc’s crazed
Promenades (On the Train (!), In the Car (!!!), On the Bus (!!!!!!)), the plain fact is that I came to Paris tripping my brains out on Russian art. I allowed that I attended opening night of the squalid and sublime Lady Macbeth de Mzensk, but have kept to myself my obsessive immersion in the 4th and 6th Prokofiev piano sonatas – Yefim Bronfman’s coruscating take on them – not to mention the unforgivable excesses of the 2nd concerto Andantino – and only casually referred to my ongoing reading of Anna Karenina. Today was my second day off in Paris and much of it, after having my pants charmed off me by the area between the canal and Belleville, and an hour writing letters at the Café du Chat Noir on the Rue Saint Maur, was devoted to poring over a passage right in the middle of the novel that made a great impression on me.

I’ve never read
Anna Karenina, and hesitate to write about a novel I’m halfway through. Watch me do it anyway. Karenin has decided once and for all to divorce his wife and take their son from her, and Anna’s brother Oblonsky has finagled his way into his distinguished brother-in-law’s office to badger him into coming to dinner, where he hopes his wife (fellow adultery survivor at the hands of the Oblonsky siblings) will dissuade Karenin from pursuing the divorce and his sister’s ruin. From the opening pages I’ve visualized and more importantly heard Oblonsky as Brian Blessed as Augustus in I, Claudius – large, in charge, happy, almost autistic in his refusal to entertain the prospect of dissent, disloyalty, negativity or personal rejection, someone around whose disbelief in his own irresistibility a Golden Age could hardly restrain itself from flowering, if said autistic happy fool happened to be emperor. This is Bill Clinton without the neediness. Oblonsky and Augustus mold the world into a vision of their own positivity by the brute force of their magisterial bonheur, and when Tolstoy pits this way in the world against the dour sterility of Karenin, it’s the first time in 400 pages that I’m really hooked. It’s a dogfight – hypomanic, oblivious, Panglossian bon vivant lover / compulsive adulterer (French in spirit) vs. sour, joyless, correct, analytical authoritative bastard (Vladimir Putin) - and with it the pages begin turning themselves. More than I cared about whether Vronsky would wind up balling Anna and whether she dies in the end as a result – foregone conclusions – or whether Kitty and Levin will wind up joined in marital bliss (another, unless Tolstoy is preparing an overwrought bait and switch), I want to know whether Oblonsky will succeed in extracting the stick from his brother-in-law’s cuckolded ass and get him to come to dinner. That success is one of the most substantial satisfactions in fiction. Even then Tolstoy raises the stakes by making Oblonsky late to the dinner, blowing in the door to find his mismatched guests staring at their cocktails, not knowing what to say to one another. Twenty minutes later, he’s made introductions and kindled conversations, and after a perfectly prepared and presented dinner worthy of a head of state, the men rise from the table midsentence, transferring essential debates to the parlor, and even Karenin has forgotten himself in the Dionysian throes of postprandial bonhomie. Stick successfully removed – score one for the positive people.

My evening started back at the Chat Noir, which seems like the French café that spawned a dozen imitations in the Mission District between 1962 and 1981 – long worn oak bar, primary colors on the walls and exposed pipes, wrought-iron table pedestals. I was there to meet a friend of a friend and begin with her a five hour trek through Paris, initially in search of a place to watch the inauguration on TV, that brought us to the American Cathedral, the American Church, and a little bar in the French Quarter where I learned that one does not order a “verre” de champagne but a “coupe,” even though both words result in one’s being served much the same beverage. My companion,
Irène, objected to hearing the inaugural address simultaneously translated into French but I kind of liked it – it meant something to hear the inaugural address of our first transnational president in a group of non-Americans in a language other than English. From there we walked along the Seine, up into the Marais where the Hotel de Ville was sparkling above an ice hockey match like anthracite champagne, and to dinner at a seemingly respectable restaurant where hot gay couples were making out at table.

Irène and I parted so that I could hit some Marais bars on my own, but apart from becoming transfixed by the 50 Cent video for “Candy Shop,” which I now see 27,758,450 people, or half the population of France, have watched on YouTube, I was bored. I walked home to the Récollets Center meditating on why that scene with Oblonsky made such a powerful impression on me.

Maybe it’s a stretch to say I’m part Russian – I’m a quarter White Russian Jew (some shtetl outside of Minsk) and a quarter Ukranian Jew (some shtetl outside of Kiev) – but I am certainly some part Karenin / Putin, determined that I will forge my place in the world by force of will, strategy, manipulation, correctness, intimidation and brilliance. My other half is Italian, but for sake of argument we could say it was French; better yet we could say it was Oblonsky, and walking home from the Marais tonight I wanted with something approaching ferocity for Oblonsky to win – to emerge victorious from my life, stick in hand. I threw a going-away party for myself a few days before leaving San Francisco, and watching Oblonsky work over his guests with his beautiful gregariousness, I flattered myself, in part through what my friends said about the party and in part from my own observations, to think that I had succeeded in manifesting some of that same contagious and connective happiness. Oblonsky is, like his sister, a compulsive lover, an adulterer, brimming over with affection, sex, society, promiscuity of all kinds. I thought of how well the novel is coming along, how promising I think La Creation du Monde is, how hugely either of these two works could succeed, what that success could mean for me personally, and from there I followed a bright but fatally narrowing passageway, well trod by the likes of Karenin-Putin, in which I imagined the impact of such a success on a couple of men whom I love but who have rejected my friendship, how I wanted success and notoriety to elevate me to a degree that I could approach them from some unimaginable altitude, purified by the thin air of glory. Oh yes I remember you. This is probably the worst available motivation for artistic success and the one responsible for 98 percent of careers in the arts, whether the original irritant behind the pearl was drunk dad, bipolar mom or some other formative tale of woe. I thought, of course you want to be Oblonsky, the irrepressible lover whose skin is thick with joy – but it is only because you are Karinin that you have summoned the will to endure the solitary psychic punishments of writing, etc., to become the artist that you are today, an achievement that brought you to the think about all this on the banks of the neon-illuminated Canal St. Martin in the first place. So suck it up.

Then I saw how Tolstoy’s vision totally contravened this last thought and the whole notion that art springs necessarily from the emotional ruins of the artist. If there’s an artist figure in the first half of the novel, it has to be Oblonsky: he makes a mess of his home life (that exemplar of “unhappy families” with which the novel so famously begins), but he doesn’t give himself a terribly hard time about it and forges ahead with his agenda of engendering beauty and happiness everywhere he goes. His entrance into that dinner party, where everyone is staring into their cocktails mutely hating themselves, each other and society in general, is the perfect metaphor for the novelist sitting down to a day’s work. How do you make these people move? How do you make them talk to each other, be funny, antagonistic, pompous, sympathetic, human – how do you make them live? Oblonsky accomplishes this necromancy in 20 minutes, drink in hand. It’s a feat Tolstoy obviously admires because it’s the same blessed gift on display at the beginning of War and Peace, with Anna Pavlovna circulating like a cocktail fairy, sprinkling conversational pixie dust on all her guests. So Tolstoy’s host, artist and probably his God has to be a person of gregarious positive charm, not grim force of negative will, and I don’t think it’s by accident that he has Oblonsky address Karenin in French. My novel is finally coming out, in a cataract, because I am in Paris, and because I am happy.

This room, its views, these people, the richness of these eggs, this milk and bread, this language fitfully becoming my own, these neighborhoods, a cancer of brutality and banality removed from my nation’s capital in a helicopter – how could I not be happy? But I haven’t acknowledged recurring dark moments of my two weeks in Paris. I’m having nightmares, almost every night. They happen just twenty minutes or an hour after I’ve gone to bed. I wake up terrified and sweating, heart in throat, sure my life is in danger. I think, it’s the hugeness of this space, something numinous looming beneath its 20-foot ceiling; I’ll get used to it, the terrors will go away. It occurred to me yesterday after translating that historical marker that I am sleeping in a space where thousands of men and women, mangled by war or illness, came to die. I don’t believe in ghosts, but it appears that part of me that surfaces between bedtime and REM sleep might be picking up a lingering resonance of suffering and fear. Or is it just the part that won’t allow me to be Oblonsky? How much do we get to choose such a fate? Again I look to Tolstoy, who twins his irrepressible lovers for the sake of poignant contrast: Oblonsky, who spreads his love godlike, sure of its goodness, and his sister Anna, whose love poisons every life it touches. I wrote to my friend Bobbie about how I am scared sometimes that, having had such a miraculous year, I’m going to hear a little bell any moment bringing it all to a close. The time in Paris so far has been a beautiful extension, and these little night terrors bear the menace of a distant pealing.

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Monday, January 19, 2009

Paris Day 12 - where am I, exactly?

James, who for reasons which passeth understanding is pictured above on the cover of a European commercial pamphlet that Martin forwarded to us, was surprised to hear me refer to my Paris home as a monastery. I didn't really think of it that way until I looked at it from the Villemin Garden the other day, before heading down to the opera. From that perspective, doesn't it just scream monastery?

Here's another picture, from Rue des Récollets, with Velib' bikes in the foreground - my room is at the top corner, one window overlooking Rue des Recollets on the right, and the two adjacent ones facing west:

In any case I remembered that I was supposed to translate that historical marker out front:

Here's a stab at it, hoping Francophone readers of this blog (Martin this means you) will tear it to pieces in the comments:

History of Paris
The Récollets monastery

The Récollets, established at the end of the 15th century from a reform of the Franciscans, was initially called “Lesser brothers of the strict observance of Saint Francis.” In 1604, they obtained from Henry IV permission to move into a building offered to them steps away from Saint-Laurent Church. The monastery’s first stone was laid in 1619. Under the Ancien Regime, their library attained a significant reputation. Closed in 1790, the monastery in 1802 was turned into a hospice for the terminally ill and then, in 1861, into a military hospital. In 1913 it took the name of Jean-Antoine Villemin (1827-1892), an army doctor and author of studies on tuberculosis. It’s location near the Gare de Nord and Gare de l’Est guaranteed the hospital a great deal of activity during the two world wars, and again during the Algerian conflict. The facility was mothballed in 1968. The monastery buildings that survive to this day date from the 18th century. The façade, the chapel and the grand staircase are particularly noteworthy.

My day was adequate. I put in my six hours on the novel, shot some video for La Creation du Monde, shopped cooked ate (discovering ultracharming corners of my neighborhood), got on top of some email correspondence, managed 45 minutes with my French textbook. I've decided tomorrow will be my day off for the week - I don't want to be one of those bosses who doesn't get that tomorrow is a planetary holiday. I have a date to meet a friend of a friend in the neighborhood, then will head down to the American Cathedral where I'm hoping to run into fellow Messianiste Peter Bannister and possibly Lucian, of brunch fame, for the inauguration on TV. Amazing to think that the smug and detestable worm will no longer be president tomorrow - equally amazing to contemplate his replacement.

I'll close with this poster I saw a couple of days ago - among other Parisian treasures, I'm collecting Beltane drag and make-up ideas.

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Sunday, January 18, 2009

Paris Days 10 and 11 - eulogy, pornophony, brunch

You're actually allowed to take non-flash pictures at the Paris Opera, but I saved my camera for intermission

I started yesterday’s writing session with three hours of darkness left to the morning, and was happy in the second hour to stumble on an idea for a radical plot twist at the end of the novel. It's an outrageous cliché to compare this experience to angling, and not for no reason - there's the tug on the line, the realization, not instantaneous but very fast, that you’ve snagged a big one, then the racing heart, the leap to action, the panicky thrill in knowing that your skill in the next minutes will determine whether you end the day with glory and a feast or a broken strand of monofilament. I typed as fast as my fingers would move to get the idea down, racing to keep up with implications and variations, and I didn’t slow down until the scene – a funeral oration and burial – became so vivid that I had to divert some energy in order to observe it, to acknowledge the real orations and burials that overlay this one like transparencies but also to recognize the superiority of this one to all the others, the excellence and fearlessness with which these characters had just proved themselves capable of grieving. As the mother’s role in all this revealed itself, the pathos of the whole thing began to register with an actually frightening velocity until the pressure on my sinuses couldn’t be contained and I did something I have never done in thirty years of writing — I burst into tears.

One option after an experience like this is to pop a bottle of champagne and call it a day, but as the sun wouldn’t be up for another two hours and I have no alcohol of any kind in the studio, this was impractical. So I kept working, going over the scene, filling it out, playing with the contours of the oration, and finally coming to the conclusion that a scene this elemental must have been written already by a great and famous writer and I was destined to be laughed at for an act of naked plagiarism. The sun rose, I ate Weetabix. I fed novel notes to the recycling box under my desk, took care of some errands online, worked on La Création du Monde, put in another couple of hours on the novel. At a certain point I realized I hadn’t left the studio all day, so I took a walk around the public garden behind the monastery and snapped a few pictures, came back up here in time for a quick dinner – eggplant tajine, slightly burned - before hopping on my bike to meet friends at the Bastille Opera House for opening night of Lady Macbeth de Mzensk.

Midway to the Bastille, I heard what sounded like a rubber bullet being fired near my feet – some combination of shwing! and thpwawt! – and sure enough, that tumor that had materialized on my rear tire on the ride from Oresto was gone and I was riding on my rim. So I locked up the bike, hoofed it the rest of the way to the opera house and met up with my friends Frank Browning and his lover. That’s using the term “friends” somewhat loosely, or at least prospectively, since before reconnoitering at the box office I hadn’t met these guys except through email introduction and through my having read Frank’s book The Culture of Desire: Paradox and Perversity in Gay Lives Today when it came out 15 years ago.

Lady Macbeth, of which I’ve never seen or heard one iota despite being a Shostakovich fan, was absolutely amazing. The music veered into Wagner and occasionally Weill but always came back to snap that signature Shostakovich rat trap of trombones and squealing woodwinds around your heart – thrilling, thrilling music! The drama was squalid, and the music matched it, more than earning the opera its immortal epithet from the New York Sun - “pornophony.” Parts of it actually put Messiaen to shame in terms of music that just sounds like fucking. Lots of bare boobs bouncing around onstage on the fluorescent-lit minimalist stage. Spoiler alert for anyone who might see this production (Netherlands Opera): at the point when Katerina’s guilt starts to cost her sleep, the dead, clad in brown body stockings, start walking in slow motion up the walls on either side of the stage. As far as I’m concerned, whoever came up with that bit of stagecraft (Martin Kusej?) one-upped Shakespeare. When I realized what I was seeing (the lighting made it pretty subtle) my whole body broke out in goosebumps – my jaw literally dropped – and I would have burst into tears of aesthetic bliss if I had not already gotten that out of my system earlier in the day.

Through all four hours of four acts, several interludes, and a long intermission, I was preoccupied by the thought of how the audience – which filled every seat of the house, with hordes of Parisians turned away at the box office – was going to reward soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek for the heroic and superhuman performance she was delivering. The answer turned out to be probably the loudest, longest and most satisfying roar I have ever heard in a theater. Many hundreds of people shouted and hollered for this woman and it sounded like thousands – it was, despite fierce competition, the most exciting choral singing of the night. If Westbroek isn’t the toast of the town for the run of the opera, there is no champagne in Paris.

Today was a bit more subdued and I didn't cry once. I met my Welsh friend Lucian – he spends part of his time in San Francisco – on Rue Montorgueil, where we shopped for brunch (the whole thing is one of Paris’s best open-air markets, especially on a Sunday) and then ate back at his place. Amazing food – what do we do to our eggs in the US? Have we invented a special technology to remove their color and flavor? Lucian and I opted for the bakery with the ten-person queue, and as a result ate the second-best almond croissants I’ve ever had (the grand prize goes to the time I got them right out of the oven at Delessio’s on Market Street in San Francisco), one of the best baguettes and a very good fougasse (better: the old Phoenix Bakery which used to be in Hopland and then moved to Willits before vanishing, as Phoenixes will). I cracked up the cheesemongers when I asked the difference between mouton and brebis. Americans are so cute.

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Friday, January 16, 2009

Paris Day 9 - lessons

Terrible morning of noise next door; evening exalted by news of neighbors’ imminent departure. In between, 20-minute bike ride to restaurant Oresto out in the 17th for a date with a guy I met online to trade English and French conversation, a half hour of each. He’s a judge (!), younger than I, and was the perfect conversation partner in that he justly kept us to our allotted time, didn’t hesitate to correct me, didn’t chafe at being corrected, and was awfully nice to look at. If I have a date like that or go through a chapter of my French text every day I’ll be ready to take the AP exam by the time I leave for Israel.

I got through my six hours of work on the novel, quickly dispatching a stack of papers that turned out to be mostly diary entries from my last trip to Paris in the summer of 2007. Poignant: long letter to Albert Fuller – was it a draft? He died two months later. So many little non-novel finds I’ll have to find time to transcribe – these looseleaf pages are not getting on another plane with me. Here’s one small treasure for any art-makers in the audience – passages from Calvin Tompkins’ New Yorker profile “Shadow Player – the Provocations of Paul Chan”:

I realized that what I had to do was impoverish the image. I had to give up all the things that I thought were my strengths – the vibrant color, the brutal clarity of line…the sort of depth I got by almost putting the foreground and the background together. If you’re willing to impoverish, you can go on to something else.

Can you free it from what it is, to become what it can be?

My mind was cleared for something else to happen, which I think is what art does. If you do it right, that’s what happens.

If I read that passage every night before I go to bed, and watch a segment from The Mystery of Picasso, I will have the courage to edit my novel. But I refuse to impoverish La Creation du Monde - that is my Grand Marnier souffle with vanilla creme anglaise and mixed berry coulis garnished with mint leaves. Google isn't letting me get into the HTML so the dessert will at least be impoverished of diacritical marks.

The image above is my view from the couch that separates my bed, with its view of the Hotel St. Martin, and my writing desk, with its view toward the Rue Faubourg St. Martin. I would like an architect or maybe even a structural engineer to explain what we're looking at. Am I to believe that the helter skelter knot of ancient toothpicks is holding this place up?

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Thursday, January 15, 2009

Paris Day 8 - la crise

My Parisian honeymoon is apparently over. Evidence: I had to take a sleeping pill last night, not because of insomnia, but because I was so freaked out from two distinct and seriously bloody hypnagogic nightmares. After a day of biking blissfully around Paris, an old foot problem has resurrected itself. A family with what sounds like a three-year-old child has moved in next door and every footstep of this busy group creaks to rouse the dead nuns of the Récollets along with us living residents (I was actually grateful for the summons at five this morning, having taken that pill last night and being anxious to preserve my pre-dawn writing schedule, but the presence of a young child shouting and babbling on the other side of a thin wall for the next two and a half months of trying to write and to shoot video is considerably harder to envision). And after a week of blogging daily with compulsion and abandon, I posted something I shouldn’t have in last night’s blog, which was actually my second stab at a Day 8 posting - it having been a more than usually interesting day. Said posting was probably the catalyst for those nightmares and so I did something I’ve only done once or twice in my life as a blogger, which was to delete it.

I have dim expectations for this replacement posting, because most good prose but particularly the diary-blog relies on transparency and candidness and yesterday’s transgression has spooked me into being cautious and obscure. It's hardly the first time in my life as a blogger that I’ve screwed up like this – made an abrupt left turn on the high wire, special to blogging, between publishing immediacy and judiciousness (a word I hate in this context but the only one I can come up with that's vague enough to not start replicating yesterday’s foul). I’m reminded of my experiences at Burning Man, a place I felt, from my first sight of it, had been created for me: a tabula rasa of creative and social flagrancy. And while it wasn’t flagrancy that got me into trouble, it took three increasingly awful trips to the playa (debilitating nausea that followed any exposure to the dust or mud) to realize that while Black Rock City perfectly satisfied vital elements of my character, I was fundamentally unsuited to be there. I was allergic to it.

I hope the comparison to blogging doesn’t go that far, because posting these dispatches has been fun and has probably served my primary project in ways I can’t fully gauge. But it’s also sucking up a lot of time and with La Création du Monde, the City of Paris, the French language and a three-year-old next-door neighbor all competing for my attention I’m not sure if I’ll be able to sustain this as a daily discipline, especially if it persists in presenting me with ethical and strategic difficulties like Day 8's. As a record of my life, how could it do otherwise?

Blogging was so very much easier when I was in my 20s.

The poster above (“Pendant la crise, l’architecture continue”) accompanied the deleted Day 8 posting, which had me, as I waited on my bike on a Place de la Bastille traffic island, declaiming to the swirl of Parisians jetting by on their mopeds and sensible tiny European cars, Pendant la crise, le blog continue aussi. It's a much different story if la crise is of my own making.

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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Paris Day 7 - "free"

Today was my first day off. I’ve decided to emulate various Jewish family members by observing a sabbath of sorts during this period - I will not work more than six consecutive days on the novel. I’ve pulled some nasty work binges at previous retreats, going weeks without any kind of day off, and the idea of doing that for three months in Paris seemed equally criminal, idiotic and contrary to the spirit of the residency. It’s not a residency in Frankfurt.

My day off began with 4 a.m. reveille (I’m not jetlagged, I’m not, I’m not, I’m not) and three hours of work on the Day 6 blog entry, most of it spent trying to get a single photograph to adequately represent that rainbow. (If someone would enlighten me on how to create a layer mask in Photoshop CS-2, I would be grateful.) I closed the distance between breakfast and lunch with 20 pages of Anna Karenina followed by four hours of sleep - no comment on Tolstoy though I am losing patience with Levin's economic theories. After lunch, a half hour on La Creation du Monde. I’m giving myself a day off from the novel, but the other projects, the blog and CDM, I can’t part with even for a day. My name is Paul and I’m a workaholic.

I finally got out of the house around 2 and walked north. My destination was Rue Ruisseau up in/above Montmartre, where there is a used-bike shop that was advertising 50-euro bikes on Craig’s List. I loved every minute of my 3-hour walk, past Stalingrad and along the aqueduct with weirdly enchanted skyscrapers in the norther distance (above), past a candy-colored 60s modern box -

- through the Indian/Sri Lankan section east of Gare du Nord, up through Pigalle and the southern slope of Montmartre, Rue Lepic and all the narrow streets and stairways. But until I have a bike I feel grounded. Now I am the happy owner of the cheapest bike in that shop – 80 euros, thank you very much, plus a 20-euro lock that looks like it was made with prison labor in a former Soviet satellite state and furthermore like something you could break by just flashing a Bic pen at it.

I can’t tell if the name pictured below is the make or the model and have nothing further to say about it.

I should add something about the new Velib "free" bike service that Paris introduced, if for no other reason than to save readers the trouble of telling me I wasted 100 euros. These bikes are free for 30 minutes. Keep them longer and you get charged. One of my colleagues here tried the service on a previous visit and racked up 150 euros in fines.

Dinner at a restaurant in front of the Mairie du 18eme (“Brasserie le Nord Sud”) where I cleaned a confit duck leg to the bone and washed it down with a blue Chimay. I bought groceries and Creation du Monde props and biked home.

I walked around Montmartre with the chattering of Messiaen’s demented angels resounding in my head, tears welling in my eyes.

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Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Paris Day 6 - blowing my fuses

It was such a nice reward Monday morning after predawn work to watch that big moon set that I was primed for a repeat performance yesterday, and disappointed when it didn’t materialize – the dawn was rainy and overcast. As I was looking west for even a glimmer of moonlight behind the clouds, I saw that the sunrise was staining the 10th a slightly radioactive peach, and started taking pictures.

Then I noticed was that there was an unbroken rainbow arcing over Paris from the National Archives to the Port de la Chappelle. I couldn’t capture the whole arc and the only picture that came out shows just the southern base of it rising from behind rooftops and chimneys across Rue des Récollects:

I had to cut the morning’s work short in order to pick up my stipend at this big government building by the observatory, way out in the 5th. I’ve been in Paris probably a half dozen times in my life including this trip, for a total of the same number of weeks, so while I’m increasingly comfortable finding my way around (especially after renting a bike the last time, in the summer of 2007, and never riding the Metro), huge swaths of the city remain terra incognita. One of these is out by the observatory, and yet as I ran (late) across Montparnasse Boulevard toward the Port Royal RER station, I had the most powerful sense of déjà vu.

I only figured it out when I saw the pharmacy on the corner – I’m almost positive this is where Jean Servais goes toward the end of Rififi to talk to the junkie’s dealer (at a pharmacy) before dashing down the stairs
to take the RER out to the house under construction in the burbs where he rescues the kid and everyone gets shot. Rififi (Du Rifif Chez Les Hommes is the original French title) is one of my four or five favorite movies. So the morning had three things to recommend it: rainbow. Rififi. Stipend.

I set about spending the stipend immediately, walking through the Latin Quarter past the Luxembourg Gardens to find perfect prop after perfect prop (all of Paris is on sale right now) for Creation du Monde. Among the things I love about this project, it has turned Paris into a treasure hunt. I wanted these champagne flutes to be a surprise for James but I just cannot resist gloating over them:

Just when you think Paris can't get any more beautiful...

I would write more about the Brazil-ian experience of visiting C.R.O.U.S. to pick up my stipend, and associated thoughts, watching various students in head scarves collecting substantial wads of euros, about how Joe the Plummer just has not succeeded in getting through to these silly French people, because they are very assiduously sharing their wealth – with the likes of me, no less – even as there is less and less of it to go around. Socialists! But today is supposed to be my day off, which I’m allowing myself even though I didn’t quite finish my writing day yesterday and didn’t manage to sit down with my French lessons…being here is its own language class, of course, and I now know how to say that the electric stove keeps blowing the fuses.

Before I quit I just want to express my concern for the people behind the Pacino Rififi remake, which I've only just this minute heard about. Are they fucking crazy? Is the idea to improve on that film? New retail goal - an old copy of the Auguste de Breton novel. If anything will get me to study French on a daily basis, that's it.

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Monday, January 12, 2009

Paris Day 5 - deeply concerned

Paris to the moon indeed

Today I finished my fifth day and 30th hour of work on the novel since arriving in Paris, also my fifth contribution to La Creation du Monde / 90 Variations. I'm deeply concerned because I am enjoying my work so much. This is not normal behavior, especially for a novelist. I remember arriving at Jentel in June of 2007 and sliding hard into a nasty weeklong depression. Totaling my car against a 250-lb. animal en route probably had something to do with it, but mostly it was the work. I'm helpless, at the end of a day that started at 4:30, to come up with a metaphor that captures what it's like to try to master the chaos of a project like this that's six and a half years in the making - how about artificially inseminating greased pigs? No, that's no good - you want them greased. In any case it's necessarily a mess and this is no exception but I'm just enjoying the clean-up. I'm anal compulsive, I have organizational skills and I'm using them to turn big piles of paper and word docs into one single tidy chronological and labeled document. I don't feel panicked or even hurried despite looking forward to being able to just read this thing, stare at it and the second draft and the third-draft fragment for a few weeks, amplify the notes here and cut there, really get it under my skin before sitting down with 4x6 cards and translating what I've absorbed into an outline for the rest of the third draft. It's bizarrely comforting and pleasurable to go to work and know what you're supposed to be doing. I must be doing it wrong.

I seriously think I'm doing it wrong - how else could my characters be showering me with gifts so generously? Aren't they supposed to sit there in a corner, jaundiced with the end-stages of terminal social anxiety disorder? Today Christopher Mirabilis presented me with an aphorism - an aphorism! He's averaged about one a year over the life of this project and none of them were nearly this good. It feels terribly unlucky to write this down - tomorrow I will have writer's block.

But if that happens I can do what I did this morning during my breakfast break, which was to take pictures out the window of the moon as it set over the 10th:

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Sunday, January 11, 2009

Paris Day 4 - "bip!"

A room within a room of one's own

I’m basically holding it together with the sleep schedule but jetlag is still hard. I just finished the day’s writing with a 45 minutes session during which I lost consciousness at least a half dozen times, and the only reason I woke up at all was that I was listening to the second Schnittke violin sonata. If that piece doesn’t restore consciousness, your rest will probably be everlasting.

I am too tired to write. That sentence literally took a half hour – it took a while to discover how short it was. The day began at 4:30. Beeping sound at random intervals tormented me throughout the day – smoke alarm battery running out, impossible to locate (adjacent empty room, hidden on top of exposed beam - new vocabulary word: "bip"). Lunch: I was kidnapped by the stunning and joyous femme de ménage from the Ivory Coast, who had cooked up a feast for eight of us residents downstairs in the studio of the gorgeous Iranian writer-actor I just met today. Unbelievable food. I feel fat. I went for a walk up to Sacre Coeur and found whole blocks of discount stores with winter sales – so tempted to stock up on props for “La Creation du Monde” but I have to make this film on an even tighter budget than the dregs of Montmartre offer. Also I found a ridiculously cute Tibetan clothing store at the foot of the hill on a tourist-trap street – Tibetan cargo pants and felt dunce cap hat that would be so perfect for May Day in Tennessee. Once I collect my bourse euros on Tuesday I’ll feel less poor. Another problem – my suitcase weighed just about exactly 50 pounds on my way in here, and it had better not weigh any more on my way out. (For those of you shaking your head and wondering when I will learn to pack light, kindly take into consideration that the suitcase included a tent and mattress pad for camping in Tennesee, an HD camera, a tripod, a dozen Apparition of the Eternal Church DVDs, several pounds of novel drafts, and winter clothes - but not, for the millionth time, dental floss, which cannot be had in Paris for any price).

Milestone today in the writing, an unpleasant one: I finished reading finished material. This was unpleasant only because I enjoyed the read so much – it’s much better than I was expecting. I am abandoning my plan to jettison the third draft - the idea had been to start fresh with a radically revised fourth that chopped up the whole outline and restored only segments. I was really expecting the existing draft fragment (79,000 words, roughly the first third of the book) to be a piece of shit – in fact I was dreading this luxe Parisian residency for that reason. Now the hard part – figuring out what exists of the second draft, what my notes say scrawled on post-its and business cards and envelopes that ferried rejection letters, what guidance exists in the dozens of documents in my novel folder...the last 18 months of focusing on the movie have left this project in some disarray.

In preparation for the hard slog ahead, I rearranged the furniture, putting my writing desk in front of the southern west-facing window, retrieving a nice-looking rug from the loft area above the front door and pounding some dust out of it, hanging several lengths of string from the exposed beam on the studio's one straight wall (being the corner top unit, the mansard roof results in sloping walls on two sides – another side is taken up by that loft and a narrow passage behind the central bathroom within a room. If I were less tired, I could describe this better - see pic above). What else? Oh, that lunch – I was apprehensive about my first party in France, in French. Then most of the residents turned out to be from Argentina and Colombia, so I wound up speaking mostly Spanish, some French, and often some combination of the two. I am going to declare that the French portion of the afternoon's language exertions will count for my daily hour of study. I really am histrionically tired.

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Saturday, January 10, 2009

Paris Day 3 - storm the Bastille

When my mother emailed me that I should stay away from the Gaza demonstrations, I couldn't quite tell how much of her concern was for my safety and how much was for my judeo-geopolitical soul. I replied that I had given myself a political pass on the Gaza situation, as I have generally on the Israel-Palestinian conflict, reasoning that my innate sympathy for the oppressed is in enough conflict with my sympathy for my Israeli sister and her six children, across the street from whom a Hezbollah rocket exploded a house two and a half short years ago, that no amount of study, debate, and moral agonizing is going to lead me to a tenable position. When it comes to all but the most obvious points (settlers), I am that creature I detest in much less consequential matters - a man without a political opinion. I am crippled by ambivalence, which is not the same thing as indifference. I think of the people crammed into Gaza whose children are being cut in half by Israeli bombs and I feel I must join the angry throngs. I think of how I would feel if Hamas rockets were landing across the street from my sister and her kids - which they don't by virtue of distance, not lack of desire - or if Mexican rockets were landing across the street from my family in California, and the overwhelming force with which I would demand that my government respond - and I cannot protest. I'm reminded of Wordsworth shorting out on the subject of French Revolution after visiting Paris:
Thus I fared,
Dragging all passions, notions, shapes of faith,
Like culprits of the bar, suspiciously
Calling the mind to establish in plain day
Her titles and her honours, now believing,
Now disbelieving, endlessly perplexed
With impulse, motive, right and wrong, the ground
Of moral obligation—what the rule,
And what the sanction—till, demanding proof,
And seeking it in every thing, I lost
All feeling of conviction, and, in fine,
Sick, wearied out with contrarieties,
Yielded up moral questions in despair,
And for my future studies, as the sole
Employment of the inquiring faculty,
Turned towards mathematics, and their clear
And solid evidence.
(The Prelude of 1805, Book 10, 894-910)
Don't worry - I'm not so far gone that I'm going to resort to math. After finishing one project that delved substantially into the intersection of spiritual ecstasy and physical violence, I'm working on much more benign territory these days and so work is a thorough enough escape from the events of the day. (I confine math to vague anxiety about what a 3-euro liter of orange juice really costs.)

But even pleasant work, and my soaring Parisian aerie, require escape and so this afternoon I took a walk and of course ran right into the Gaza protest on its seething course between Place de la République and the Bastille. All the conflicting emotions described above surged amid the angry, mostly Arab and north African crowd holding pictures of bloodied Palestinian children, chanting against Israel, against America, against Sarkozy. I walked with the mob for a while until a sense of profound disloyalty - treason, really - pushed me away.

My destination had been the Bastille and I arrived by a different route along with the heart of the protest, here seen from the steps of the opera house:


I hadn't yet run into the march when I stumbled upon this glove and broken bottle within a few feet of each other on the banks of the Canal St. Martin.

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Friday, January 9, 2009

Paris Day 2 - jet lag, neon, cous cous, fatwa

So far I seem to have gotten the upper hand in the battle with jet lag. I slept on the plane, kept myself awake until midnight last night, slept until 6:30 this morning, and only fell asleep twice today, and for less than an hour total. This is all on the strength of my excitement to be here in Paris and my consumption of two cups of Carte Noire Arôme Absolu Arabica Exclusif ("Un café nommé désir") - café soluble lyophilisé - that's Kraft Foods freeze-dried coffee crystals to you, bee-atch, and it's what you're all getting for Christmas next year. This whole American thing about grinding your own beans, and brewing your own coffee is, pardon my French, retarded. In any case, I woke up from my second nap to the neon benediction pictured above, and you can only imagine my disappointment (undoubtedly visited upon every tenant of this aerie) on approaching the window.

So I cultivate satisfaction in other pleasures, including some salubrious habits I'm reviving from prior residencies. I'm keeping very close tabs on how I spend my hours, and today checked off six hours of work on the novel in three sessions. The work is comparatively painless because it involves reading over the first dozen chapters, pretty settled work as this project goes - six hours of cranking out new material is something I will have to build up to. I've sworn off reading, surfing headlines, messing around on Facebook while I eat, one of my worst habits at home - I have decided that while I am in France and hopefully after I will take advantage of mealtime to eat. There is no WiFi this high up in the building and so it is very easy to unplug the Ethernet cable and not have Internet access until all my creative work is done for the day. If I keep one habit while I am here, and bring one habit back home (where James, in the same room, keeps tabs on what I'm up to by checking my Facebook status), it should be this one. Internet access at home is like a pet mouse that now has great-great-grandchildren, many thousands of them, inhabiting every part of my day, my life, my consciousness. How nice to start fresh and get that infestation under control again (the last extended periods of unwired sanity being Jentel, a month, and MacDowell, seven weeks). Kill your WiFi! I am really happy to have a cheese and salami plate that I don't refrigerate. The other amazing thing about being here, so far, is that when I step out of the premises for a walk or a shopping trip, I find myself instantaneously surrounded by Paris. I'm still trying to get a handle on the hood - today I walked down the Blvd. Strasbourg and encountered whole blocks devoted to Afro-French women's wig shops and manicurists. The Canal St. Martin is frozen over in places, though water still pours freely through the deeper locks.

On returning to the Récollets Center I scored an invitation to lunch by the residence director - there's a little cafe on the first floor and Fridays are cous cous days. I will never miss one of these meals - we are served our own individual tajine with cous cous, chicken, an oxtail, a tangy thin sausage, stewed zucchini, onion, and some reconstituted dried fruit that was somewhere between a raisin and plum in size but tarter. I ate half my food and took the rest, in its tajine, up to my room and had it for dinner - it was even better the second time.

Lunch and dinner in the palm of my hand

Lunch conversation was a little disquieting - one of the incoming residents was supposed to be the Bangladeshi writer Taslima Nasreen, against whom a fistful of fatwas have been declared for such impertinences against Islam as feminism and theological dissent. The status of her arrival and residency is unclear, thanks to a story last week by Le Figaro - followed by the AP, dozens of other publications and now Paul Festa's Post-Gay Agenda - naming the Récollets Center as Nasreen's home in Paris effective Feb. 1. Don't get me wrong, I'm honored to be under the same roof as this woman, but weren't the powers that be more careful about publicizing Salman Rushdie's whereabouts? (I perpetuate the coverage with some hesitation but when Le Figaro breaks a story and the AP follows it, the cat is definitively out of the bag, and I think it's a safe bet that the neighborhood's religious extremists haven't got PFPGA bookmarked.)

You know, between a berserk passenger grounding my transatlantic flight, a fatwah'd neighbor, and my second destination transformed rather convincingly, since I bought my tickets, into a war zone, I'm going to be kissing the ground when I land in Tennessee. Just watch - then I'll be taken hostage by some right-wing militia in Ohio.

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Thursday, January 8, 2009

Paris Day 1 - she sick woman very is

I cannot make souffles under these conditions

When the flight attendant gets on the PA to ask for a doctor or EMT because a passenger is ill, you imagine something fairly dramatic is going on elsewhere on the plane - the old guy in 25c is clutching his arm, half keeled over into the pasta primavera of the adjacent woman. In this case they meant but did not say that the passenger was ill in a very specific sense - he had gone berserk, threatened other passengers and made an attempt on the cockpit door before being overpowered by the flight crew and handcuffed for the two hours it took to get to the nearest airport, which was in Iceland. I had to ask three flight attendants to get the real story behind our impromptu stopover - most of them were sticking to the bullshit they'd fed us over the PA. The one I talked to last gave me the goods and confirmed my suspicion - based on how said passenger was helped, by his armpits, off the plane - that he'd had a wee bit too much to drink. "He was probably on some kind of medication and the alcohol made him lose it," said my source, who seconded my feeling that if our party animal could fly in handcuffs for two hours he probably could have made it another two to Frankfurt, thereby preventing me from having to recalculate my fucking carbon offset. He probably felt really on top of things right up until the moment they cuffed him. I'm not saying that because I've ever done anything remotely like this. Just - forget it.

Still life with oranges and exposed beams

Riveted as I should have been by the drama, I was mostly concerned with whether I was going to miss my connection and get stuck in G-d-awful Frankfurt. Thanks to ice storms in Amsterdam, my connecting flight was also late and I just made it, having run through an airport that seemed, at the time, possibly bigger than the city it serves. The plane fishtailed a bit as we descended into Charles de Gaulle but landed in the usual way. So weird to see France under a few inches of snow - much like the apparition of snowcapped mountains above the Anderson Valley I drove through in late November. The last time I landed in Paris, Air France had misplaced my suitcase and so I spent a week living out of my backpack carry-on (the suitcase arrived in San Francisco an hour before I did). This time my bag was nearly first off the carousel...minutes later I was on a shuttle train...minutes after that I was on the RER to Gare du Nord, and 40 minutes later I was being shown my room here at the Centre Internationale d'Acueille et d'Echanges des Recollets. I have unpacked, showered, shot the first clip of a daily video series ("90 variations: La Création du Monde") I've been brooding over the last few days and just figured out on the plane, in between reviewing two French chapters and getting through 60 pages of Anna Karenina and chatting with the big cute apparently straight guys on either side of me and dreaming Tylenol PM dreams; also I went shopping, made myself such dinner as is possible with two electric burners, a sink and a fridge, and am now doing battle with a powerful urge to sleep. It's the only reason I'm blogging - the alternative is walking around Paris in sub-zero temperatures (OK, sub-zero Celsius, but...). I feel like I've experienced at least a few absurd things worth recording - oh yes, the first music I heard in Paris, piped in over the RER sound system: Beat It. Music on the train, which sounded live though I didn't see the accordioniste or chanteuse: La Vie En Rose. Two flight attendants SF-Frankfurt promised me free drinks because of my Obama t-shirt. Somehow I never got one - they were too busy wining and restraining the flight psycho. When other people get more attention than I do, I die a little.

Historical plaque about the Recollets - nice to see St. Francis mentioned since Messiaen got me this residency - is the bird design a St. Francis reference? Tomorrow I will translate this.

I love my studio. Exposed gnarled massive off-kilter beams surrounded by an Ikea-minimalist renovation. The walls slope as though it were a Mansard roof but it's older than Mansard - in any case I'm on the top floor of four and overlook the Rue Faubourg-St. Martin to the west, the Rue des Recollets to the south, and if I stand at the window and look north I have a comprehensive view of the Gare de L'Est, which puts to shame most state buildings in the United States. It's actually amazing how tired I am right now. Maybe it would be less painful to walk.

Our courtyard, facing the Rue Faubourg St. Martin.

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Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Indulge me - I offset my carbon

One of the amazing things about the Academy of Sciences, which James and I visited on our daylong fifth-and-sixth-anniversary celebration, is how hard they're pushing a climate change message. You couldn't turn around in the joint without another reminder - and the Morrison Planetarium was no exception. Even when the subject was ostensibly outer space, they hammered home the point that we are making the planet uninhabitable. I don't know whether I was more impressed by the degree to which they stayed on message, or bummed out by it.

In any case it was a good kick in the pants for me to offset the carbon I'm going to spew into the atmosphere with my next four months of flying - short of your own personal nuclear waste spill, the very worst thing you can do to the environment is to get on an airplane. One of the reasons I have postponed doing this is that there are so many offset schemes out there I couldn't find the time to research and decide among them. So I chose an offset outfit the way I often choose elected officials or positions on ballot propositions - I consulted the experts, in this case the Sierra Club, which recommended a business called NativeEnergy. According to NativeEnergy, here's the damage I'm about to do between tomorrow and May 7:

TOTAL: 7.441 tons
CO2 from flying 18,216.44 miles

From San Francisco, CA to Frankfurt, Germany
5,681.49 miles

From Frankfurt, Germany to Paris, France
297.27 miles

From Paris, France to Riva, Latvia
965.54 miles

From Riga, Latvia to Tel Aviv, Israel
1,795.31 miles

From Tel Aviv, Israel to Madrid
2,203.67 miles

From Madrid to Chicago, IL
4,182.93 miles

From chicago, IL to Nashville, TN
398.28 miles

From Nashville, TN to Cincinnati, OH
238.21 miles

From Cincinnati, OH to Cleveland, OH
223.05 miles

From Cleveland, OH to Las Vegas, NV
1,831.18 miles

From Las Vegas, NV to Oakland, CA
399.5 miles

Total cost - 50% efficiency and 50% biomass - $112.

I understand the argument that I'm paying what amounts to an "indulgence," but the fact remains that not taking this paying residency or visiting my sister and meeting my newborn niece or not taking the Ohio gig aren't options I'm able to consider. From one perspective I could argue that two weeks in Tennessee are optional, but in fact that trip prevents me from flying back to the west coast and then round-trip to Ohio for the Oberlin screening May 5th. In any case, I'm glad to be no longer doing absolutely nothing to ameliorate my impact.


Thursday, January 1, 2009

2008: Annus ambivalence

January 5 New Yorker cover Among so many other embarrassments that go with the territory of being me, I discovered a new one at holiday parties this year - having had such a kick-ass year when everyone around me was losing their health, boyfriends, homes, jobs, retirements, shirts, etc. I had my share of year-end mortifications and am far deeper into penury than most people I know, but 2008 in sum was truly an annus mirabilis both creatively (OH MY GOD, Cal Performances, Southern Circuit, St. Bart's, Grace Cathedral, Jacaranda-LA, Stephen Pelton Dance Theater, Orchestra Hall-Minneapolis, the three Chicago screenings and Christopher Taylor's shattering performance of the Vingt Regards, Library of Congress and the Betts Stradivarius, the rest of the fall tour, an unexpected anthology publication), politically (Obama, the George Bush sewage plant) and personally (married, again!). I was so convinced I was going to blog about other highlights, specifically three ecstatic gatherings of the Radical Faeries (July above Cazadero, September in Tennessee, December at Cell Space), the annual Trannyshack Reno boozestravaganza, and a bizarrely fun 20th high-school reunion, that I never did it, and now I add embarrassment to procrastination in deciding not to - 2008 provided a literal embarrassment of riches. As George Dusheck used to say, if I had blood I'd be blushing.

Still, false modesty has it limits and I have to close out 2008 with two new pieces of great press and one piece of news I haven't blogged about. Alex Ross, a longtime friend of Apparition of the Eternal Church, made a lovely mention of the film in his Jan 5th Carter-Messiaen essay in The New Yorker. And Chicago Sun-Times critic Andrew Patner included the film in his year-ender on the best of the Chicago music scene with one of my favorite quotes in the film's whole press packet, calling it "Paul Festa’s knock-out Messiaen-on-acid documentary."

For the record, nobody in the film was on acid at the time of the interview and Messiaen never tried it. At least as far as I know.

The news is that in less than a week I depart for a three-month filmmaking residency in Paris at the Centre des Recollets, on the banks of the Canal St. Martin, right by the Gare de l'Est. James will join me for a couple of weeks when the residency is through -
so if you know anyone who wants to swap an apartment pretty much anywhere in Europe for a darling Mission/Noe flat just over the hill from Dolores Park March 24 to April 7, hook us up!
Then I leave for Israel, or what's left of it, for two weeks with my sister and her six kids, one of whom was born since my last visit in June 2007. Then I return to Tennessee for the spring gathering of the Radical Faeries, and after two weeks there I stop overnight in Oberlin, OH, where my film will close out the conservatory's six-month Messiaen centenary celebration May 5th.

I have mixed feelings about the upcoming tour. Obviously I'm thrilled with every destination and opportunity and reunion, but four months is a serious slice of the year to spend away from loved ones, especially one just diagnosed with a terminal illness and another who has proved incapable of responding to video chat even when his snout is pressed up against the computer monitor. James is midway through a job search that will most likely result in our leaving San Francisco at some point in the summer - which means that my time remaining in my hometown can probably be counted in weeks or months at the most. I haven't decided whether the three months of creative seclusion (such as it will be in the heart of Paris) will result in my becoming a dedicated blogger or an even flakier one - for the answer to this question, check this space.

Here are some photos from the year, in no particular order, to fill in where blogging failed:

Trannyshack Reno - Auburn pitstop - Metal Patricia

Auburn, with Space

In Tempe with organist Kimberly Marshall and music critic Alex Ross (above) after Alex and I spoke on an ASU Messiaen panel with composer Bill Bolcom (below)

With Miranda Barry and Charlotte Sheedy after the DC premiere of my film on Halloween at the Library of Congress's Pickford Theatre

Self-portrait on a Frank Lloyd Wright carpet (Grady Gammage Memorial Auditorium, Tempe, AZ)

With Wolfie Silver-Fang at the November Faeposium in San Francisco, where she apparently won some sort of Oscar for her performance

Eisa Davis onscreen, accompanied by ASU student organist, Gammage Auditorium, Nov. 11th

Last Trannyshack at the Stud, August 19th - Heklina yuks it up with Bevan Dufty

After Eisa's Passing Strange Broadway opening, with her mom Fania and Manoel Felciano

With James, listening to toasts at our wedding reception in June. My cousin Lynn Rothman is behind us.

Six men stood around while the sole woman in the group fixed a flat on that nasty road above Cazadero.

Enough film coiled up at the Library of Congress archive to circle the earth

Justin Bond responds to Messiaen in St. James Cathedral in Chicago, October 8th

I made rubbery ravioli for my mom's birthday party. Party theme: 67 is the new 50.

Pianist Jerry Lowenthal, after New York rehearsals for our DC concert, shown here with his Liszt and Wagner manuscripts

Minneapolis's stylish and vast Orchestra Hall before the Minnesota premiere there of Apparition of the Eternal Church

One of a few high-school reunions this year - this one at Medjool, with the lovely and talented Ocean Berg

Another Reno bus photo - the fashion show, which I lost despite three arduous days of crash-dieting

Easter Sunday in Auburn

In the kitchen on Navarro Ridge with Arty, iii and James

Above Cazadero: Chris, iii and Arty

Chris climbs out of the water...

...and plays with fire

At the Passing Strange party - Marian Seldes reads aloud the Times rave review

"Saint Paul" etched into the Washington National Cathedral with my birth year

Fall gathering with Christopher and Sister Mish

Jewish Christmas party with Sister Dana and high school classmate Daria Pennington

Rehearsal for Heklina's final number at the Trannyshack Kiss-Off Party

Ziggy with the yellow plums at Buena Vista Park that I would turn into a souffle for Heklina's farewell dinner

Photo by pool wizard Bob Byrne of me in front of a house in Dubuque, IA

Bob and an unidentified sister. It's really quite amazing to me how much of my year was spent in churches and with nuns.

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