Death, Life, Love, and Mass Incarceration

by CJ Verburg

gawande-smithBook of the Week: surgeon/author Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal: Medicine and What Matters in the End. Have you read it? or heard of it? This is the only book I’ve ever seen with a 5-star rating at 3,000+ Amazon reviews (along with the slightly creepy distinction of #1 Best Seller in Death & Grief). 

being mortal coverAs a doctor who’s treated dozens, maybe hundreds of patients, Gawande was struck by their take on mortality. Like the old joke: I know everybody has to die; I just didn’t think that applied to me. People would come into his office who’d just been diagnosed with cancer, or some other terminal disease, & they were in shock: How can this happen to me? What they wanted Dr. Gawande to do was make it go away. Give me back my life. Whatever it takes–surgery, radiation, chemo–I want my life back.

Two realizations disturbed him. First, although most of his patients said they wouldn’t want to go on if they stopped being themselves, if they wound up helpless in a hospital or a nursing home, that was in fact how most of their lives Second, doctors collaborated in this outcome: “Medicine exists to fight death & disease. Death is the enemy. But the enemy has superior forces. Eventually it wins.”

In Being Mortal, we follow Gawande as he explores the options for aging, the pros and cons of the many turning-point choices along life’s home stretch, and the urgency of recognizing and confronting those choices. Mortality is implausible, yet it is universal. This book is a helpful step out of the mindset I grew up with–“Hope I die before I get old!”–toward ending life with the most possible dignity and comfort.

ADSmith-capDignity and comfort are not options in many of the lives depicted by Anna Deveare Smith in her new theater piece Notes from the Field: Doing Time in Education. It’s brilliant, and it’s playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre through August 2, with live music by local jazz virtuoso Marcus Shelby.

Unlike most young actresses studying Shakespeare, Smith homed in on Hamlet’s observation that theater holds a mirror up to nature.  Her subject is violent, headline-grabbing social conflicts in the United States; her technique is to interview diverse participants and observers and weave their testimony into a play. ADSmith-vestThe first clash she investigated was the so-called Crown Heights incident in 1991, sparked by a New York rabbi’s entourage running over an African-American child. Smith talked to outraged people on both sides and depicted each of them verbatim–not just their words but their accents and body language–in Fires in the Mirror: Crown Heights, Brooklyn, and Other Identities.

Anna Deveare Smith has transformed what theater can do by transforming herself into the people she interviews. ADSmith-hatShe levels the playing field: we can’t make our usual (often unconscious) snap judgments about each speaker based on gender, race, age, and appearance, because they all look like Anna Deveare Smith. Instead we’re obliged to watch and listen. I’ve had the good fortune to see every piece she’s done, from Fires in the Mirror and Twilight: Los Angeles, about the Rodney King fracas, up through her current investigation of the school-to-prison pipeline that dooms way too many American children.

ADSmith-tieNotes from the Field struck me as gentler, as well as more participatory, than Smith’s previous pieces. With so much anger in the media and the streets over discrimination at every level of the justice system against people (especially males) of color, Smith offers us some exceptionally articulate, insightful, and heartbreaking angles on a subject which–like mortality–we ignore at our peril.


Update: “Special Deal” to see Benedict Cumberbatch in Hamlet

by CJ Verburg

Hamlet-trio2As previously posted (July 18), I was thrilled to get the very last $20 ticket to the National Theatre’s NT Live broadcast of Hamlet at San Francisco’s Sundance Kabuki Theatre in November. Who could resist this all-time all-star cast? — with Benedict Cumberbatch as the prince, Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, and Ciaran Hinds as Claudius. (And who knew that both Hinds and Hille have played Lady Macbeth?)

Turns out I was luckier than I realized.

1251-1407490231-hamlet-sq_002Today’s online London Theatre News (#991) contains a SPECIAL OFFER:

Only £289 – pre-theatre two course dinner at Gaucho Smithfield and a £250 ticket to Hamlet

Valid Evening performances until 31 August 2015

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. The Telegraph reported that this is “the most in-demand theatre production of all time” — and that was a YEAR before Shakespeare’s masterpiece opens at London’s Barbican Theatre on August 5 [2015]:

“Hamlet tickets went on sale at 10am on August 11 [2014] and within minutes fans were expressing frustration at finding themselves more than 20,000 places back in the queue.”

With 2 weeks to go until opening night, there are no reviews yet, but that hardly matters since the entire run of the play was sold out months ago. Here’s the terse listing in London Theatre Guide:

As a country arms itself for war, a family tears itself apart. Forced to revenge his father’s death but paralysed by the task ahead, Hamlet rages against the impossibility of his predicament, threatening both his sanity and the security of the state.

If I were director Lyndsey Turner I’d be quaking right now. All the way to the bank.

Who’s Anthony Horowitz Tackling after Foyle & Sherlock? Saddam & Bond, James Bond

by CJ Verburg

Hamlet-trio2OK, gotta go to London in September.

I thought I’d dodged the bullet when I seized the very last ticket to the National Theatre Live’s November San Francisco broadcast of Hamlet–an all-time all-star cast, with Benedict Cumberbatch as the prince, Anastasia Hille as Gertrude, and Ciaran Hinds as Claudius. (Who knew both Hinds and Hille have played Lady Macbeth?)

Now here comes Anthony Horowitz over the horizon with both barrels loaded.

dinnerwithsaddamw176h240London’s Menier Chocolate Factory will debut his new play Dinner with Saddam on Sept. 10:

“Saddam, fearful of assassination attempts, was known to move regularly from private home to private home. Even before the war, he declined to spend nights in one of his palaces.” USA Today, 20th April 2003

So what happens when Saddam Hussein turns up on your doorstep and announces he is staying for dinner?


And if that’s not enough, Horowitz has incorporated material by Ian Fleming into a new James Bond novel, Trigger Mortis, due out Sept. 5.  We’re promised “a thrilling tour de force” which “recreates the golden age of Bond, packed with speed, danger, strong women and fiendish villains.”

Rumor has it Pussy Galore (Goldfinger) will make a reappearance. That’s a relief. I just noticed a closed accordion gate yesterday on her sister’s jewelry shop in Chinatown, Jade Galore.

How soon can we expect the movie? Dare we hope for a cameo by Honor Blackman?–maybe sipping a poolside drink with Sean Connery?

Another pair who’d make a terrific Gertrude and Claudius.


A Few Remarkable Artists, Here and Gone

by CJ Verburg

Hughes-WonderWanderBook of the Week: writer Langston Hughes’s second autobiography, I Wonder as I Wander, recalling his depression-era travels from California to Cuba to China.

MIL-rampersadI had the good luck to be part of a packed house last week when San Francisco’s Mechanics’ Institute Library hosted a conversation between Hughes’s biographer, Arnold Rampersad, and author Elaine Elinson.

Rampersad talked a little about his most recent addition to the oeuvre, The Collected Letters of Langston Hughes, and a lot about the poet himself. I wanted to read about the life of this maverick American writer from his own point of view, and wound up happily immersed for a couple of evenings in I Wonder as I Wander–a fascinating chronicle of adventures in a bygone world, and an irresistible title to anyone whose church choir ever heralded Christmas with the eponymous folk hymn.

BAK-AlmostHeavenA few days later, another of my favorite authors hit town: Bettyann Holtzmann Kevles, whose wide-ranging nonfiction includes Almost Heaven: Women on the Frontiers of Space. With the New Horizons spacecraft hurtling toward its brief encounter with ex-planet Pluto, the two of us explored George Lucas’s little park in the Presidio. We walked across Doyle Drive (closed and empty) to the still-magnificent Palace of Fine Arts, last great relic of the Panama-Pacific International Exposition one hundred years ago.FineArtsCaryatids


At the nearby pond it was Heron Day: adult and juvenile black-crowned night herons sorting themselves by camouflage.

PalaceFA-srHeronThis week also marked the loss of a great friend and exceptional theater artist.PalaceFA-jrHerons1

American Impressionist painter Lois Griffel has sent the sad news that her husband, actor Hal (Harlan J.) Streib, died on July 13.

Hal is one of those rare people who never demanded recognition for his uncommon talent, but gave it generously, onstage and off. I first knew him as a pillar of the Provincetown Theatre Company in the 1980s-90s. Bold and ferocious enough for Mamet and Shepard, reflective enough for O’Neill and Williams, his performances breathed vitality into a wide variety of plays. Perhaps even more valuable was his creative energy in the Playwrights’ Workshop (now Lab, and still going strong), which blew many an embryonic script off the page onto its feet. Hal inspired me to push myself as a playwright, and as a company member. 44-48-pearl-street-provincetown-2006-01He pitched in wherever a hand was needed, from framing Lois’s wonderful paintings and remodeling her Cape Cod School of Art, to reading any part a budding playwright or director asked him to tackle, to consoling us at the Governor Bradford bar after a long day’s night. When I moved to San Francisco, and Hal and Lois to Arizona, I always hoped and assumed I would see him again–maybe even collaborate again on a play. I’m deeply sorry that’s no longer possible; I’m grateful to have known him, to have profited from his theatrical ability and been enriched by his friendship.





Check Out Mystery Author Kim Cox’s New 5-Star Review of Silent Night Violent Night

XmasBall-wpThanks to author and blogger Kim Cox for showcasing CJ Verburg’s five-star noir cozy SILENT NIGHT VIOLENT NIGHT: a Cory Goodwin Mystery in her blog post of Thursday, July 9!

KimCoxKim is an author of Romantic Suspense, Mystery, Suspense, and Paranormal fiction. She lives in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina with her chainsaw-artist husband, their West Highland White Terriers, Scooter and Harley, and a Yorkie mix, Candi. A mother and grandmother, Kim has published novels, short stories, and articles. To sign up for her newsletter and receive exclusive information, new releases, contests, giveaways, and free books, click here.

The Writing Life: John McPhee on Drafts, Dictionaries, and the Mot Juste

McPhee So much current advice to authors takes the form of “Ten Ways to Ruin Your Book Launch” or “How to Blog Your Way to Discoverability” that we were pleased to rediscover these practical yet profound observations by a writer who’s achieved success because of, not in spite of, his high artistic standards.

from “Draft No. 4: Replacing the words in boxes,” by John McPhee, The New Yorker, April 29, 2013

“First drafts are slow blood_pen_ForbesIndia_280x210and develop clumsily, because every sentence affects not only those before it but also those that follow. . . . The way to do a piece of writing is three or four times over, never once. For me, the hardest part comes first, getting something–anything–out in front of me. Sometimes in a nervous frenzy I just fling words as if I were flinging mud at a wall. Blurt out, heave out, babble out something–anything–as a first draft. With that, you have achieved a sort of nucleus. Then, as you work it over and alter it, you begin to shape sentences that score higher with the ear and eye. Edit it again–top to bottom. . . . All that takes time. . . .

slushpile2“It is toward the end of the second draft, if I’m lucky, when the feeling comes over me that I have something I want to show to other people, something that seems to be working and is not going to go away. The feeling is more than welcome, yes, but it is hardly euphoria. It’s just a new lease on life, a sense that I’m going to survive until the middle of next month. After reading the second draft aloud, and going through the piece for the third time (removing the tin horns and radio static that I heard while reading), I enclose things in boxes for Draft No. 4. If I enjoy anything in this process it is Draft No. 4. I go searching for replacements for the words in the boxes. The final adjustments may be small-scale, but they are large to me, and I love addressing them. . . .

RedPenEditing-300x194“You draw a box not only around any word that does not seem quite right but also around words that fulfill their assignment but seem to present an opportunity. While the word inside the box may be perfectly O.K., there is likely to be an even better word for this situation, a word right smack on the button, and why don’t you try to find such a word? . . . If there’s a box around ‘sensitive,’ because it seems pretentious in the context, try ‘susceptible.’ With dictionaries, I spend a great deal more time looking up words I know than words I have never heard of–at least ninety-nine to one. The dictionary definitions of words you are trying to replace are far more likely to help you out than a scattershot wad from a thesaurus. flaubert-1If you use the dictionary after the thesaurus, the thesaurus will not hurt you. So draw a box around ‘wad.’ Webster: ‘The cotton or silk obtained from the Syrian swallowwort, formerly cultivated in Egypt and imported to Europe.’ Oh. But read on: ‘A little mass, tuft, or bundle . . . a small, compact heap.’ Stet that one. I call this ‘the search for the mot juste,’ because when I was in the eighth grade Miss Bartholomew told us that Gustave Flaubert walked around in his garden for days on end searching in his head for le mot juste. Who could forget that? Flaubert seemed heroic. Certain kids considered him weird.”


Dodging Lions and Wasting Time

Coliseo3by CJ Verburg

Coliseo2aDid you know San Francisco has more historical monuments and landmarks than Rome? (Pls RT)

Its strong Italian roots are one reason San Francisco’s North Beach is such a pleasure to explore. Known for its artists as well as its pasta, this northeastern corner of the city takes in a bit of the Financial District, Nob Hill, and Chinatown, half of Russian Hill, and most of Telegraph Hill and Fisherman’s Wharf. Stand in the middle of its main thoroughfare, Columbus Avenue, and (if you’re not hit by a giant white Google bus) you’ll see the CupolaTransamTransamerica Pyramid at the south end, like the Arc de Triomphe. This distinctive spire replaced what was once the largest and most important building west of the Mississippi, the Montgomery Block (Montgomery between Washington and Clay), the city’s center of commerce in the 19th century.

A block north is the wonderful bronze-and-glass tower now owned by the neighborhood’s most famous filmmaker (Columbus & Kearny). High above the red awning of Cafe Zoetrope is what I like to think of as the Francis Ford Cupola. To see artifacts from The Godfather and other Coppola films, visit beautiful old Inglenook Vineyard (briefly renamed Niebaum-Coppola) in Napa County. Francis Ford Coppola is also the founder of North Beach Citizens, where homeless neighbors can get help with housing, food, clothes, even books and furniture.

The intersection of Columbus with Broadway is also where North Beach intersects with Grant Avenue and Chinatown. This is the densest part of the city in residents, tourists, and tourist attractions, from strip joints and comedy clubs to cathedrals. Columbus-Bwy2Restaurants include not just Italian and Chinese but Thai, Japanese, Basque, Istrian, and Irish/Indian, among others. It’s hard to find a bad one–they can’t afford the astronomical rent (see below). The Chinatown-North Beach border is most visible in the mural that covers a building on the corner of Broadway, Columbus, and Grant.  The Italian wrap-around side was recently restored; the Chinese side awaits funding. An aerial sculpture of flying books lights up at night to honor North Beach’s literary side.

CityLCurrently celebrating its 60th birthday is City Lights Books, cofounded by local poet and legend Lawrence Ferlinghetti. Ferlinghetti has said he doesn’t think of himself as a Beat poet, but others tend to, if only because he’s the last man standing from the Ginsberg-Kerouac era.

BeatMuseumSAcross the intersection, where the other neighborhood bookstore used to be, is the Beat Museum. Decades ago, when I worked a block down the hill at Canfield Press, this corner of Broadway was my bus stop, under a bright larger-than-life sign depicting another local legend, stripper Carol Doda. Now in her late 70s, Doda has a line of lingerie and occasionally makes personal reappearances. I hope she kept the sign.

A block farther, beside the Shrine of St. Francis of Assisi, is the Nuova Porziuncola. Former mayoral daughter and city supervisor Angela Alioto–now the National Director of the Knights of St. Francis–spearheaded the transformation of the erstwhile monks’ basketball court into a replica of the “tumbled down chapel in the woods” where a poor Umbrian wanderer became St. Francis of Assisi. (How did he get hold of all that marble and gilt?) She’s now working on the Poets’ Plaza, AKA Piazza St. Francis, proposed for the block of Vallejo St. in front of the Shrine.

bfranklinA few more long, colorful blocks north is Washington Square Park. This is the neighborhood’s common, where Chinese tai chi exercisers dance around a boom-box every morning like graceful worshipers, homeless people and coffee-breakers share benches, and babies, dogs, pigeons, and techies frolic on the grass. In a grove of poplar trees stands a statue of that most San Franciscan founding father, Benjamin Franklin. The Mime Troupe still performs here every summer.

Looking north down Columbus, you can almost see to the end of the cable-car lines at North Point (Powell Street line: disembark here for CostPlus, Ross, and Trader Joe’s) and Aquatic Park (Hyde Street line: Fisherman’s Wharf and–ta da!–our own little North beach).