Karla Keffer

Archive for March, 2009|Monthly archive page

“Embrace the bad to find the good”

In Uncategorized on March 30, 2009 at 10:36 am

Greg Kotis is a two-time Tony Award winning playwright (Urinetown! The Musical) and the husband of one of my favorite authors, Ayun Halliday (The Big Rumpus, No Touch Monkey! And Other Travel Lessons Learned Too Late, and the “Chief Primatologist” of the quarterly zine, The East Village Inky). I found this article the other day on a routine Googling spree and had a not so minor Eureka in the bathtub moment when I read the following:

I try to write good plays. But when I try to write a “good” play, the kind of play I assume I’m supposed to write, I’m usually acutely aware of the badness of it, how little it looks, sounds or feels like the great writing of my playwright heroes (David Mamet, Arthur Miller).

Ah HA! Ah ha, ah ha, ah HA! A big, huge, ginormous key to my writer’s block, right there! See, E.L. Doctorow is one of my favorite writers. I had the great pleasure of studying with him back in the mid-Triassic period when I was slogging through the MFA farce (and it truly was a pleasure to study with him – he had no patience for the whole “literary fiction” chokehold, and he gave me an A on my final paper on why On The Road sucks prairie oysters). I wanted to be E.L. Doctorow, and I spent years trying, and failing. I had no idea why, and no one to talk to about this. I was too ashamed. I thought I was stupid and uniquely crazy. I took this as final, incontrovertible proof that I had no talent. If I can’t write like Doctorow, then I have no business writing.

I’m sorry. Back to Greg Kotis:

So here’s how I cast my own focusing spell: Typically a few weeks into any effort, I abandon ship, throw the steering wheel out the window, embrace the badness, write toward the badness, and push beyond the boundaries of where imaginable badness can go. I make the monologues too long, the exchanges too arch. I might even arrange for all the characters’ names to start with the same letter.

There is something very freeing about accepting the judgments of your inner critic, then providing that critic with all the evidence he or she needs to render verdict. Masochism? I think of it more as an “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” strategy of playwriting.

The exhilaration of abandoning the effort to write well — sort of like the fun in destroying a sandcastle you’ve just made — leads to the desired oblivion. Eventually, the writing stops being strictly bad. It starts keeping to its own rhythms and rules and finally begins to feel sort of OK.

All right! Now this, I think I might be able to handle. Maybe.

I hate doing things badly. Especially writing. With acting, there’s this open understanding that even if you do things badly the first couple of rehearsals, you’ve got the room for and the capability to improve. That’s what rehearsals are for. For some reason, I’ve never been able to treat writing similarly. I know, I know, that’s what drafts are for. But I have never been able to shake the belief that if my writing doesn’t come out perfect the first time – and by “perfect,” I mean literary pantheon-ready, as if even Arthur Miller, say, woke up one morning and banged out Death of a Salesman on a lark – I have no talent. Period. And guess what happens?

Back to Greg Kotis:

[If] I try to write good, I write bad; if I try to write bad, I write.

I love Greg Kotis’ plays. How can you not love a musical with a song called “It’s A Privilege To Pee”? Or a holiday play in which Santa is a polygamist who smokes joyweed? I love Arthur Miller, too, but the few times I’ve seen Death of a Salesman I’ve been acutely aware that I am watching a Great Play by a Great Playwright. With Greg Kotis, I can kick off my shoes and laugh my ass off and, yes, learn important lessons about class structure! (That sounds like I don’t think Greg Kotis is great. Let me define my terms: When I say Great Playwright, I mean when I mention Arthur Miller, I usually get a reverent “I loooooooove Arthur Miller, complete with requisite clutching of one’s heart. When I mention Greg Kotis, I usually get “AAAAAHHH! Greg Kotis! Urinetown! I love him! He’s so funny!” Both are great in their respective ways. Eeenyways.)

So I guess the trick for me, now, is to not fall into the trap of thinking I can write “like” Greg Kotis. We are, of course, not one and the same. I’ve got my own version of how “bad” looks, and I guess that’s what I need to learn to embrace. If I can. If I dare. If I don’t waste a whole day dicking around on Twitter when I could be working on my seriously bad sendup of Death of a Salesman, gods help us all.

(I’ll spare you the existential question of whether or not I should bother writing at all. That’s why I pay my shrink the big bucks.)


Who’s got the REALLY Embarrasing Photo Now, Huh?

In Uncategorized on March 27, 2009 at 3:54 pm

I have met Neil Gaiman once, so perhaps it’s a bit unseemly for me to engage in a throwdown over whose childhood photo is more embarrassing. But sometimes we do things that aren’t perhaps in accordance with the rules of proper comportment, and I truly mean it in good fun (and it’s not like Neil Gaiman reads my blog, anyway). So, as promised, here’s that picture of Grandpa and me in 1983 or so, both of us sporting big honkin’ plastic glasses. At least Grandpa’s are black and kind of geeky-cool.


You can’t see it, but my rockin’ beige numbers sported an “Annie” logo on the side. To wit:


And no, the glasses did not give their wearer translucent eyeballs, thank god. I had enough problems. As an adult, though, I’d wear translucent Annie glasses in a hot minute.

You know, Grandpa’s hair never did go gray. It didn’t stay as jet black as it was in this picture, but right up to the end his hair remained a sort of dull shade of black. Grandma Gloria said it had to do with his blood pressure medication. All I know is, he didn’t dye it. I never found anything remotely resembling Just For Men in his medicine cabinet. There was an awful lot of smoker’s tooth polish, though.

Pictures of Grandpa

In Uncategorized on March 26, 2009 at 5:01 pm

Here are some pictures of my grandpa that I wanted to include in my last post, but that I couldn’t scan because my ancient operating system won’t support my scanner, and some nonsense involving files being saved as PDFs and not JPGs, yadda yadda microchips. Anyway, some World War II vintage photos for your enjoyment.


This is Grandpa in 1944 or ’45. He must have been about 18, but he looks 12.

Grandpa and I happened to go to the same high school fifty years apart. We were both bored out of our skulls, but Grandpa was able to drop out in 10th grade, back when parental permission wasn’t required. A day or two later, he changed his birth certificate to read his birth year as 1925, because the minimum age to join the Navy was 17. (He figured he couldn’t pull off passing for 18.) I asked him what his parents had to say about it, and he told me not much, because he didn’t tell them until it was too late to do anything about it. Some people have all the luck, I tell you.


My grandmother Gloria, who died in 1992, and Grandpa at the Court of the Two Sisters Restaurant, New Orleans, 1945. They met at a skating rink in September 1944 and were married in May 1945, a month before my grandma graduated from high school. They married in haste because my grandpa found out he was shipping out to New Orleans. One of Gloria’s aunts kept insisting my grandma was pregnant. She was not. Their only child, my mother, wasn’t born until November 1949.

There will probably be more photos along the line, including one of me as a seven-year-old with godawful plastic beige glasses.

Keep Smilin’: Richard Earl Moore, 1926-2009

In Uncategorized on March 24, 2009 at 4:57 pm

So, as some of you may know, my grandpa died this past Saturday, as I was on the train back to Harrisburg for what I’d figured would be my final visit with him. When I saw him last Tuesday, he was still in good spirits, giving the nurses affectionate hell and cussing over the shakes in his limbs. Sadly, as Grandma Vera told me, he looked much better than he actually was. His kidneys were very, very weak, and his heart even weaker, and the wound on the sole of his foot had turned gangrenous. By Friday, it was pretty clear that Grandpa was on his last lap around. (I almost typed “leg,” but that would be inaccurate, although I’m sure Grandpa would have got a good chuckle out of the tastelessness of the remark.) Grandpa was always adamant that when it was time for him to go, it was time for him to go, and we were not to hook him up to life support or hover around his deathbed, wailing and rending garments. He wanted us to make him as comfortable as possible and die in peace, and thankfully, that’s what was done.

Grandpa was also adamant that after he died, we were not to steep ourselves in grief and crepe. (Smartass that I am, I felt it expedient to point out that if I wanted to steep myself in grief and crepe, he couldn’t do a damn thing about it, which made him laugh and, subsequently, embark on one of many lovely philosophical wanderings.) He had the sort of hard-nosed, genial personality that makes it fairly easy for even a weepy drama queen like yours truly to wipe her eyes and keep smilin’, as he was fond of saying at the end of our phone calls. And as Grandma Vera puts it affectionately (and secularly), Grandpa had the Devil in him. I’m not much of a believer in the afterlife, but I like to think Grandpa is up there laughing at the many little things that have gone wrong in the past few days, like the Amtrak conductors failing to announce that not all doors would open at Harrisburg and the many typos I made while trying to post on Twitter this morning.

Grandpa was also fond of wrapping up our conversations with the phrase “Honey, stay sober, will you?” This, of course, was the Devil talking – drinking was one of Grandpa’s favorite hobbies. So please raise a glass of Smirnoff and ice water, or a bottle of Miller Lite (any cheap booze will do – pennypinching was another favorite hobby) in loving memory of my grandpa, the unparalleled Richard, the Earl of Moore. And for god’s sake, keep smiling. Here’s the great Bugs Bunny in “What’s Opera, Doc?” to help you out. If I had a nickel for every time Grandpa and I watched Bugs Bunny together, I would have a hell of a lot of nickels. As Grandpa used to say, I just thought I’d throw that in.

It’s Alive! And It’s Got Fangs!

In Uncategorized on March 16, 2009 at 10:37 am

So I’ve got my “art” blog, Punk Piranhas up and running again, at least for the short term. It’s rude art in both senses of the term – I draw shit on Microsoft Paint, and it’s got some adult content. Whatever. I’m having fun, and I hope you will too.


My Grandpa

In Uncategorized on March 15, 2009 at 5:59 pm

Got a call from my grandma on Friday. Grandpa is back in the hospital. He has a pretty advanced sore that’s refusing to heal on the sole of his foot, which is the result of what we’ve now learned is a 100% blockage in the particular artery that’s in charge of foot wounds. On top of that, his kidneys aren’t working properly, so they’ve got him on dialysis, and a whole mess of other tubes and so forth. I’m heading down to PA on Tuesday morning. Not sure in what shape I should expect to find him. He might pull through and get back to something resembling normal for an 82-year-old man. He might pull through, but continue declining over the course of a year or two. He might die within the month. None of us have any idea.

My very sweet grandmother Trudie died last summer, six days before she would have turned 84, which was a very rude sort of wake-up call to the fact that our loved ones are not immortal. I guess I’m more accepting of, or at least resigned to, the possibility that my sweet, endearingly cantankerous grandpa might not have much time left. But I can’t take any comfort in the whole “he’s old; he’s lived a rich and full life” litany. He is, and he has. He dropped out of high school in 10th grade and joined the Navy, where he was a radio operator on a decoy ship off Omaha Beach. (Yes, they were hit.) He was doing Hatha yoga in the ‘50s when nobody but Jack Kerouac and Co. were doing it. He got fired from teaching Sunday school around the same time when he told the kids that Moses climbing Mt. Ararat was an allegory for the elevation of one’s mind. I used to chase him around the pool table when I was little. He makes me laugh. He still lets me hug him and snuggle my head on his shoulder.

So, yeah. These are good things. But as one of my cousins pointed out at my grandmother’s wake, you can repeat over and over that the dead person has lived a rich and full life, and you don’t want to see them suffering, and all of that’s true, but losing a loved one, human, cat, rabbit, or whatever, just fucking sucks. And I know I’m jumping the gun. (Pun noted but not intended – Grandpa is a card-carrying member of the NRA, and he finds it amusing to send me lithographed NRA greeting cards, complete with pictures of deer. I am proud to say I now laugh my ass off when I receive one.) But I want to be as prepared as possible. And I don’t want to cry in front of him, because he hates that.

If he’s up for it, I think I’ll read him what I’ve written so far of the snail story (see sidebar for related Tweets, if you so desire). One of the nicest things he’s ever said to me was, “I like hearing how you think.” So I’ll give him that, and perhaps a cactus too. It suits us.

Belated and deep condolences to Dano on the passing of Lucky the Little Black Cat. I hope she’s faring well in Cat Heaven and that our beloved departed feline people are playing with her and sharing their freshly killed mice.

Blueberries, Backaches, and Books of Wonder (with Special Guest Star Neil Gaiman)

In Uncategorized on March 9, 2009 at 5:43 pm

Mad, huge, ginormous props to the beyond kind and generous staff of Books Of Wonder, who spoke gently to me and brought me Tylenol and water as I stood in line at Neil Gaiman’s Saturday Blueberry Girl reading, out of my mind with lower back pain and enochlophobia. That’s the way to treat someone in deep physical and psychic pain! I would have been happy if the Books Of Wonder staff had spoken gently to me and nudged me to the nearest available chair, but since they went above and beyond the call of duty by rounding up painkillers and actually checking back to see how I was doing, I am their slave for life. I encourage you to sign up for voluntary servitude your own bad self by ordering online or ensconcing yourself in their West 18th Street storefront next time you’re in NYC. Their selection of children’s books is…well, the only word I can think of is, wow. Just wow. That’s my kind of Chicken Soup For the Soul!


Mad, huge, ginormous props, too, to Neil Gaiman, whose father passed away on Friday, and who remained signing books until the bitter end despite very obvious fatigue and melancholy, to Charles Vess for his beautiful artwork and his patience with the rude behavior of such Neil Gaiman fans as your author, and to Kimberly Butler for those awesome photos of Neil and for a lovely ten-minute conversation that started when I confessed, unwittingly, that I thought Neil was “so goddamn cute” and evolved into an eye-opening discussion about photojournalism, Gaza, and censorship in the news media. Thank you all. You made me, the weepy woman in the striped stockings, a whole lot less unhappy.

Little Neil, his dad, and grandpa (apologies to Neil himself for reappropriating this photo)

Little Neil, his dad, and grandpa (apologies to Neil himself for reappropriating this photo)

Who’s Down With G.O.P., RAPublicans, Yadda Yadda Bling

In Uncategorized on March 4, 2009 at 2:05 pm

Goddamn, it just cracks my shit up sixty-four thousand ways ’til next Square Root Day to see the foundering remains of the Republican party trying to save face by going all Ghetto Fabulous, as my e-pal Dan C. put it. Reminds me of those middle school assemblies where they’d bring in some anti-drug rapper/rocker and over half of us would be so skeeved out we’d have to go straight to the lav and shoot up. Well, okay, not literally. But we’d sure as hell want to, and that still kind of defeats the purpose, does it not?

Dare we hope the Repugs are going the way of the Whigs? Or is this latest episode of “G.O.P.: Head Up Its Ass” like that moment in Spaceballs! when Dark Helmet tells Lone Star, “Fooled you! Evil will always triumph because good is dumb”? (Oh, quit looking at me like that. Yeah, you. My lovely, anti-establishment dad took me to see Spaceballs! when I was ten and we had a great time, even though I made him sit two rows behind me because I wanted everyone to think I’d come alone. There’s no need to look down your nose at me because your dad took you to the Fellini Festival at MOMA. It’s not my goddamn fault I grew up in a cow pasture.)

Anyhooligans, yeah. Wow. Audacity of hope and all that. It’s just that the Repugs have had their boot on our neck for so long that I’m terrified to cry victory, lest they kick us in the face and send us spiraling back farther than we were before. Sighsighsigh.