Sunday, December 4, 2011

Gimme a Sense of Purpose

In a few weeks, I’ll be celebrating the ten year anniversary of launching my writing business. Since I had neither business skills nor family encouragement, I prepared myself more for failure than success. I used my last regular paycheck to buy a dozen cans of chicken noodle soup, a few boxes of pasta, and a 24 roll pack of toilet paper. If the business tanked, I was prepared to wait tables again, just like I had in college.

Looking back, I’d say one factor helped me spin the floss of my dreams into a decent living: I was motivated by a strong sense of purpose. My writing projects focused on issues that seemed vitally important to our society. I wrote about schools and homelessness. I wrote about health care systems that were not prepared to serve immigrant patients. And I wrote crazy creative pieces about working class Joes who’d been replaced in the popular culture by thin people in Armani. What kept my business in motion was my belief that good writing could make people care about matters that needed their attention -- and I still believe that. But, after a decade of writing, the arc of my interests has shifted. A business anniversary is an opportunity to evaluate things and reflect on the issues that now dominate my thoughts. 
In September 2011, after 15 months of taking care of my ailing Mom, I got wrapped up in a social problem that now seems more urgent than any other. Research and experience are both telling me that our communities are not prepared to meet the needs of the booming elderly population. While seeking help for my mom, I began to discover that services are very fragmented. They breakdown across health systems, insurance companies, and geography. Elders who have no advocate to help them are as vulnerable as children who walk through gunfire to attend bad schools. I really don’t know how people survive if they have no family member to help them navigate the bureaucratic systems that control their quality of life. 
One day, after listening to some total strangers discuss problems they faced while caring for their parents, I felt a new sense of purpose sink its teeth into my writing bones. Working with people I’d met through clients, friends, and service providers, I set up an interview schedule and began collecting information to help families caring for elders with fragile health and memory loss. Through a new website and Facebook page, I started publishing stories to help caregivers in different parts of the country. The product of this effort is called “Between the Pond and the Woods”. Every day I wake up full of new ideas about interviews and issues I want to include. The renewed sense of purpose is thrilling. Despite my deepening crows feet, it’s the same force that helped me get started when I was a young idealist. 
Since my new project is keeping me very busy, I won’t be writing much here. Although the stories are different, any one who enjoys the photographs from this site, will find more of them at  I invite you to take a look at these pages and share the links with those who may need them. I’m also searching for families and caregivers who want to share stories about caring for their parents, spouses or other family members. If you have a tale you want to share, please contact me at . In the meantime, accept my best wishes for a joyful holiday season. 

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Feeling Alive During Days of the Dead

A life without rituals is one deprived of meaning. Imagine a year with no July fireworks, a December with no gifts. Steal the parades from the small towns, empty all the Easter baskets and we become a herd of Grinches, green from lack of fun. Last week, despite a major power outage and a premature foot of snow, a small group of faithful writers kept our little Day of the Dead ritual in Jim Thorpe. Surely, the spirits brim with gratitude.

The role of ritual in creative life cannot be overestimated. As Joseph Campbell has observed, "A ritual is the enactment of a myth. And through the enactment it brings to mind the implications of the life act that you are engaged in. Now, people ask me, what rituals can we have today? My answer is, what are you doing? What is important in your life? What is important, they say, is having dinner with their friends. That is a ritual."

These encounters with people we value add meaning to the simple tasks we perform anyway -- just to survive. But the presence of others -- and a sense of occasion -- make us all the more aware of the value in each moment of life. For me, the Day of the Dead readings also remind me of friends who are no longer around to share cherished dinners and chats over coffee. Setting aside the time to miss them provides access to those memories of when they were here to share the bounty of life. 

Campbell says, "When you sit down to eat a meal, you are consuming life. But you don't know what you're doing unless you think about it. That's what a ritual does. It give you an occasion to realize what you're doing so that you're participating in the inevitable energy of life in its exchanges. That's what rituals are for; you do things with intention, and not just in the animal way, ravenously, without knowing what you're doing."

Thank you to my fellow writers who took the time to turn an afternoon into a meaningful occasion. And thanks to the unseen spirits that shared our humble work.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Speak of the Dead

My time in Mexico taught me many things: a beautiful language, the power of family unity, and marvelous ways to celebrate the presence of departed souls. The Days of the Dead are very special holidays. In Mexico, people build lovely altars that appeal to every sense. The colors and smells are there, and so is the spiritual connection to deceased friends on the other side. This year, in Jim Thorpe, we are holding a fourth annual Day of the Dead reading event at 1 PM on Sunday, October 30th.

At the "Speak of the Dead" reading, we will have a mix of readers and creative performers from Carbon County -- along with a special guest or two from my old Philly gang, the Liberties Scribblers. The event will be held at the Strange Brew Coffee House at 79 Broadway -- Jim Thorpe's main street. If you'd like to read or perform a piece in tribute to someone who has passed on, please contact me here or at the Facebook page for Pennsyl Pointe Writing Retreat.

We will also build a small ofrenda at Strange Brew. If you want to add an item in remembrance of a beloved soul, you can leave it for me at Strange Brew some time before the event. This is one of my favorite autumn rituals. Feel free to join us.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

Parallel Stories of Walking the Tightrope

Creative people embrace fabulous dreams. If you have abandoned yourself to the charms of a creative idea that now seems impossible to complete, consider the work of Philippe Petit whose incredible feats were captured visually in the documentary Man on Wire -- and poetically in the book Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Petit is the French highwire performer who walked back and forth between the towers of the World Trade Center in 1974. McCann is Irish by birth, but his book captures the soul of New York City as lived by its socialites, artists, hookers, and priests. 

Petit, a Frenchman from Nemours, spent six years planning his walk between the Towers, a project that was dangerous beyond words and patently illegal. His dream of the tightrope feat came to him before the World Trade Center had even been built. He read a newspaper article about the WTC construction project while he was waiting in a dentist's office and immediately began formulating a plan for his unbelievable walk more than 100 stories in the air. 

McCann's book captures the excitement of Petit's performance by leading us through the lives of characters who occupy each rung of New York City's social ladder. Some of their stories are heartbreaking. But the book is written with such affection for the tumult of life, you cannot help but feel delighted by their efforts to seize the available beauty in life. The sight of the tightrope walker adds a dimension of greatness to a day that would otherwise feel tragic to some, mundane to others. 

A third level of artistic complexity is added by James Marsh's film Man on Wire. If you have never seen it,  it is worth every dollar of a DVD rental and each minute of your attention. The work of Petit, the novel by McCann, and the movie by Marsh wrap the tragedy of 9/11 in a tableau of meaning that is far deeper and more complex than any one story could express. 

There will always be days when your life or work may feel impossible. And there are certainly times when the events of our lives seem to weigh more than we can bear. But by comparison, no task could be more difficult than the goals these artists set for themselves. Steal a moment to enjoy their work. Then take a big breath and get back up on the wire. 

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Character Education

If you can't predict what a character will do, you're more likely to stay hooked by a story. Complex characters take time to reveal their hidden motives and disruptive plans. Rampart, one of the best films I saw at the Toronto Film Festival, revolved around a corrupt policeman with loads of charm. Watching Officer Dave Brown develop and unravel was an extraordinary experience. Much of his behavior was awful, but his emerging desperation made you want to understand him more. It's hard to think of a character in literature with the same qualities of attraction and repulsion. Voracious readers: help me out!

Officer Dave Brown is not Raskolnikov -- but he shares some of the delusions that Dostoevsky's great character held about why he should be permitted to do some of the sickening things he does (e.g. bash in the heads of suspected criminals, kill those he presumes to be guilty).

Officer Dave Brown is not Gatsby -- but he has some kind of naive sense of entitlement and -- though he has no real skill for the endeavor -- he is prone to love.

Officer Dave Brown is not Salander -- he has a set of gifts that include bottomless irony and a penchant for disappearing, but his morals are not as clear as Lisbeth's and his taste for violence is less defensible.

The one thing that Officer Dave Brown may be is the clearest example of what a great actor Woody Harrelson has become. Watching this mesmerizing movie, I had to remind myself that Harrelson is the same person who began his career as the dumb guy everyone made fun of on Cheers. During Rampart, it is difficult to take your eyes off him because he seems to have control of every muscle, every pore -- and he uses them to reveal more about the character.

Any writer who wants to learn more about creating compelling characters should see this movie. It is as instructive as it is amazing.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

The Director's Deepest Cuts

The best dividends of travelling are the strange, intimate stories you hear from people in airports, subways, and cabs. When your journey takes you to an event like the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), the collection of tales expands to include confessions from world-famous artists who offer even more reasons to view life from new perspectives. I'm not sure whose story touched me most this year, but I think it's a toss-up between Francis Ford Coppola and Harvey Weinstein's chauffeur.

The chance to hear Mr. Coppola was the result of some wild luck. At TIFF you can stand in line to request a seat at any event. But those that feature legendary actors or directors fill up fast. If you're not prepared to wait an hour or two at the box office, forget it. For me, a week of travel is too precious to spend standing still, so I usually skip events that require a long wait -- even though I've shared memorable moments with producers and writers in TIFF lines. This year, after 40 minutes of waiting to pick up my ticket package, I made a random inquiry about availability for Coppola's premiere of Twixt. Even the TIFF guy couldn't believe my good fortune when he discovered there was one spot left. More serendipity brought me a seat very near the man who directed The Godfather, Apocalypse Now, and other unforgettable films.

Twixt was a fascinating experiment in story telling that had little in common with Coppola's best known works. Some story elements were drawn from straight from horror movies -- others had the emotional tone of serious character studies. Visual elements shift from frames of hand colored black and white photographs to highly stylized 3D sequences that could have been designed by Hitchcock himself. Since the plot of Twixt has Gothic overtones, I expect the film to appear in theaters around Halloween. But the most important aspect of the movie is the personal conflict that propelled its development.

Coppola is known for his expansive vision and massive appetites. His big belly is the central feature of a man who has overspent on budgets for some films that flopped like harpooned whales. But his explanation of Twixt revealed some of the personal turmoil that his prior excesses nearly hid. Tragic deaths lie at the core of the plot; denial drives the actions of the lead character. In his comments after the film, Coppola revealed that these themes mirrored his own epic pain over losing a child. He said that the film's plot came to him through a dream he had in Turkey one night after drinking too much wine. While the ending of the story was not revealed to him, his dream showed him that the key to resolving of the film's conflict was buried inside of him. Considering Coppola's work in light of his personal losses makes it's easier to forgive him some of the excesses he displayed in his career. Twixt was also a lot of fun to watch. It's spooky, visually compelling, and it gave Val Kilmer a chance to show comedic talent he didn't need when good looks were all the camera demanded. Kilmer is not beautiful in Twixt, but he looked good on stage in Toronto. It was also a treat to hear a former Batman laugh out loud. For me, the whole premiere was a reminder that our best creative work is often driven by memories that remain undead no matter how often we plunge a stake in them.

Sunday, September 11, 2011

Can George Clooney tell a good story? Live from the Toronto International Film Festival

Hardly able to keep my fingers on the key pad as the schedule for today's films gets arranged and re-ordered to shape the day. Creative people fill the sidewalks of Toronto as the film festival shifts into high gear. Directors, actors, producers, and fans have converged to see the films that have the potential become this year's hits. High on the list for today: A new Clooney picture --The Descendants, directed by Alexander Payne of Sideways fame -- and Albert Nobbs, a film co-written by its star Glenn Close. Both films intrigue because they are based on books or screenplays written from unusual perspectives. One describes a man who is heir to a large and valuable tract of land in Hawaii, the other charts the life experience of a woman who has spent her life dressed as a man. Stories like these can be portrayed in  ways that surmount the "star elements" of the films. Can't wait to see what they'll be like.