Around the Sun

A week of 2008 remains, and, if this year has taught us anything, surprises are possible. Still, the media’s trotting out theri Top 10 lists; so I’m giving it my shot. In many ways, it’s been an incredibly tough year for me. Though I’ve studiously avoided writing about it here, I spent much of the year adjusting to being an orphan after my mother’s death on December 18, 2007. I had a small but heartfelt production fall through. I put my production company to bed. And I wrapped up the year with my back going out spectactularly (and my doctor clapping me on the shoulder and helpfully saying, “We’re getting old, buddy”).

It’s also been a year of amazing, sometimes poignant highs. Here are some of them in ascending order.

10. Dead of Winter
After a long hiatus, Pavement Productions geared up to do a production we’d wanted to do for a long time: Dead of Winter, a trio of ghost stories I’d written. We had the good fortune to team up with Portland’s The Bluestockings, pulled together an excellent cast and crew, but the production spiraled into a truly eerie space as death seemed to stalk everyone involved, with nearly all of us suffering a personal loss and one cast member having to drop out. We finally got the damned thing launched, had hit and miss and reviews, and though we stuggled on weeknights and toughed it through some lousy weather and nearly every production company in town putting up a show at the same time, we had solid weekends and sold out all our Saturdays. Plus the show was fun as hell, and audiences were hugely appreciative. Then, midway through the run, Lisa L. Abbott, the director I’ve collaborated with since 1995 (and who has been the primary interpreter of my work) won a tenured teaching position in Savannah, which was wonderful for her, but meant she and her husband, Sean DeVine (Pavement’s technical director) would be leaving Portland. Shortly afterwards, Buffy Rogers, The Bluestockings’ artistic director, moved back to New Orleans. A bittersweet ride and, ultimately, Pavement’s last full production. Group highlight: the cast and crew spending an unnerving evening in Portland’s haunted White Eagle Tavern.

9. Angels+Demons
I continued my Angels+Demons photo project through ’08, with some terrific results as Janet Price signed on as the project’s makeup artist, my finding a sort of “sweet spot” in the lighting design, and the models bringing wonderful ideas and looks to the project. I’m not done yet–more A+D in ’09, and eventually, I hope, a show.

8. Burning Time
As a JAW alumnus, I was invited back to Portland Center Stage for the 10th anniversary of JAW to participate in Commission!Commission!, an absolutely mad gig where patrons bid for a playwright’s services, give them an idea to write about, and then the writers have a half hour to write and the director and cast have a half hour to pull a show together. Edge City, and, this year for the first time, open to the public. Ah. More ways to fail. But my patron fed me a marvelous idea about a father who takes his kids to Burning Man while their mother falls apart at home. It practically wrote itself, and Sharonlee MacLean took the mother’s role and burned the house down. Good times. (I’m exhausted just thinking about it.)

7. Next of Kin
A tough, gritty drama (though laced with gallows humor) I wrote about a trio of siblings coming together as the family patriarch’s death approaches. Written as I knew my mom was coming to end of her run. I loved the play, but reactions from some of my most trusted collaborators were cool at best, and I suffered a crisis in self-confidence. Then Andrew Golla and the fine folks at Portland Theatre Works chose it for a reading. The show was well attended, and the audience was absolutely wonderful and engaged with piece. In short: it worked. An emotional trial–a personal triumph. The play needs revisons, but I came away reassured.

6. Spies
Bond came back with Casino Royale, but Quantum of Solace was hugely entertaining and fed into a new play idea I’d been wrestling with for almost a year. Then my sister-in-law sent me John LeCarre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, which proved to be the first piece of fiction I’d been able to get into in years (I mostly read non-fiction as research), and suddenly the threads began to pull together. More research to do, but, as Pete Townsend wrote: you can get up off the floor tonight/you have something to write

5. Liberation goes to press/Flynn returns
My two big war plays came back with a vengance: Liberation was published by Original Works Publishing and Waiting on Sean Flynn was produced by Neanderthal Acting Company in Detroit, where it played to 500 people in a weekend. Two of my favorite plays, back again, with renewed interest elsewhere.

4. End of the Pavement
Where to begin? Lisa and I had contracted with the Back Door Theatre for a June slot to stage a revival of a rewritten version of my 1991 Oregon Book Finalist Bombardment, and then Lisa got the Savannah gig, and the writing was on the wall for Pavement. We decided a full production was out of the question; so we decided to go out the way Pavement began, presenting readings of new plays, and we ended up producing a four-week mini new play festival, with readings of new plays by Nick Zagone, Matt Zrebski, and myself, and wrapping up with a classic Pavement “anthology” show of short plays inspired by Ubu Roi. It was a hell of a ride, and we so completely sold out the final night that we had to turn people away. When it was all over, Deb and I sat alone in the theatre where Waiting on Sean Flynn and Delusion of Darkness had premiered and felt one era end and another begin as the Stones sang Mixed Emotions, a song Lisa and I had picked out to wrap it up: Let’s grab the world/By the scruff of the neck/And drink it down deeply/Let’s love it to death/So button your lip, baby/And button your coat/Let’s go out dancing/Let’s rock n roll

3. Blue Nights/Red Days
My theatre gone, I was feeling both a little lost and liberated, and then idea a play idea came from where all the best ideas come–out of nowhere, and the next thing I knew, I was working on Bluer Than Midnight, a really strange little play about Blues music, the Civil Rights Movement, and…the afterlife. I’m hoping for a private reading of it this year, and I’ll see what happens next, but no matter where the play goes, it’s given me a terrific gift in that, for research, I bought a battered old red Fender Stratocaster and learned to play the Blues (badly). After years of music in my life as a listener, I again have it in my hands.

2. Oregon Book Awards
What can I say except Lost Wavelengths won the Oregon Book Award? It was an incredible high, made even better by being nominated among such distinguished company. Sometimes things really do happen at just the right time.

1. Obama
Among all the theatre and personal strum and drang, there was the election of elections. I love politics, though, for all my opinions, most of what I know about it comes from my time as a journalist and from reading Hunter S. Thompson, who, for all his quirks, was one of the sharpest political observers out there. Somehow, I locked in on Obama before Iowa, just a feeling, at a time when Hillary Clinton seemed unbeatable. Then Iowa came and it was a race. Somehow my gut told me this was the guy, though I faltered at times, worried, rode the roller coaster. But nothing prepared me for the speech at Chicago’s Hyde Park, where in ’68 police beat Vietnam War protesters senseless in a televised civil war that shattered the Democratic Party and the nation. I wept, unashamedly. Hope was, indeed, more than a slogan.

So I find myself wrapping up the year with an R.E.M. song that I clung to going into 2008, only to find the meaning has changed. We have hard times ahead, but the game isn’t over.

Here’s hoping you all have a rich, productive, and fulfilling New Year.



I want the sun to shine on me
I want the truth to set me free
I wish the followers would lead
with a voice so strong it could knock me to my knees

Hold on world ’cause you don’t know what’s coming
Hold on world ’cause I’m not jumping off
Hold onto this boy a little longer
Take another trip around the sun

If I jumped into the ocean to believe
If I climbed a mountain would I have to reach?
Do I even dare to speak?–to dream?–believe?
Give me a voice so strong
I can question what I have seen

Hold on world ’cause you don’t know what’s coming
Hold on world ’cause I’m not jumping off
Hold onto this boy a little longer
Take another trip around the sun

Around the sun
Around the sun
Around the sun
Let my dreams set me free.
Believe. believe.
Now now now now now now

Tomorrow and the Day After

There’s a crack in everything….

We’re just about a week out from the first debate, a little over a month away from the election. I’m puzzled. I don’t have any certainty over this election, which is probably good because I’m frequently wrong right when it comes down to the wire. Over the years, my gut was right about predicting Carter (’76), Reagan (’80 & ’84), Bush (’88), Clinton (’92 and ’96), then wrong with Gore (2000) and Kerry (2004). In other words, George W. Bush fucked up my average, along with everything else in America.

This year, my gut says Obama. But, as I said, I’m not certain. I am, however, feeling better because McCain’s bounce evaporated after just a week, and the celebrity/puppy love over Palin seems to have faded, as crushes often will once you get to know the person, which leaves McCain with basically nothing.

And it’s weird about history, but I’d forgotten the absolute nihilism I felt in ’92 at the prospect of another four years of a Bush. As apocalyptic as it turned out, I didn’t feel that bad in 2004 about W., much as I despised him, because, shit, who could have imagined Katrina? That was when I knew, indeed, that we were living in one of the worst times in American history. You…are…there.

But, back to this year’s politics. Here’s why I think Obama has a chance. He’s basically been steadily leading McCain in both the popular vote and the electoral college (where it counts) since he clinched the nomination. Last week, directly after McCain’s Hail Mary pass (which no one seems to acknowledge was as much a desperate attempt to keep his party from splintering as it was to change the overall game), McCain edged ahead, but not by much, and, in fact, more or less pulled to a statistical tie. The debates will tell the tale, certainly, and neither guy is the most briliant debater in history. (Though Biden’s very good, and the VP debate ought to be…fascinating. It’ll either be a slaughter or it’ll look like the first Kerry/Bush debate, where Kerry clearly won but Bush didn’t screw up so badly that he didn’t croak his incumbent advantage.) Brass tacks, though: 2004 was very, very close, really coming down to Ohio. Obama’s a stronger candidate than Kerry, is running a smarter campaign, and, despite the fact that he automatically loses a few points due to race (there are just some white people who will never vote for a black guy), he holds a very strong hand in at least winning every state Kerry did. That won’t be enough, of course, but he’s also putting other states in play sufficiently that both campaigns are contesting states that McCain shouldn’t be worrying about. His ground game is also reputed to be extremely good, his grassroots organizing, and McCain’s is rumored to be a mess. It was Bush’s ground game, particularly among evangelicals, that carried his ass in 2004. Sometimes, it helps to be a community organizer. Obama’s fundraising and use of the Net is clearly superior to McCain’s.

And this is where I think Palin screws McCain rather than helps him: he’s 72 years old, he’s had melanoma four times, and he’s going to look like 26 years of rough road by the time we get to the final stretch, when even youthful, vigorous candidates begin to look like papery husks. All that puts an emphasis on Palin possibly becoming president, and, I think, with people so worried about their checkbooks, jobs, homes, and retirements, the thought of putting a clear lightweight in charge of a listing ship will give them serious pause. She needs to either game up in a big way or Obama needs to make a serious misstep, else McCain has a steep hill ahead of him. Not a good place to be when the Republican brand is so bad their presidential candidate can only get traction by running away from it. Plus there’s simply the war: McCain won’t end it, and people–especially those with military ties who have borne the burden and traditionally vote Republican–are done with it.

So that’s what my gut tells me. It’s pretty clear that people can choose 1960…or 1929. But, as The Clash (and many others) noted: the future is unwritten. There is, literally, no telling what could happen between now and November 4th and how absolutely mindbending this all could become. The entire economy melting down, a terrorist attack, a gigantic skeleton falling out of a closet, and the stars could realign. And if that happens and McCain wins, all those folks who muttered about leaving the country in 2000 and 2004 might actually start dusting off their passports. Not that it’ll do them a lot of good, because by that time the whole damn planet will be swirling ’round the drain.

…that’s how the light gets in.
-Leonard Cohen–