Apr 28, 2010

Hanging with Authors and Thinkers at the LATFOB

The LA Times Festival of Books was last weekend, and like most attendees, I imagine, I was left with two overriding impressions: first, extreme jubilation that so many people showed up this year, especially this year, in support of authors and the written word; and second, total overwhelm from having been in the presence of 400 authors and 130,000 attendees on the UCLA campus over just two days.

If you’re a participating author, your time at the festival always begins in the author’s green room, a huge room of tables and a buffet spread inside the UCLA faculty center which always feels like (no matter how old you get) the high school cafeterias of your past. The prom king and queen drift around the room, occasionally holding court, and you never feel like you’re sitting at the cool kids’ table. Unless you’re one of the cool kids and feeling secure in that knowledge, I suppose. The thing is, most of us who became authors were never the cool kids in high school, so probably nearly everyone in the room was feeling the way I was. (Except perhaps for T.C. Boyle, who walked between the tables wearing a black beret and dark sunglasses with everyone whispering, “That’s T.C.!” in his wake. I think if you actually know him you get to call him Tom. But I digress.)

On Saturday I had the great fortune to participate in an hourlong panel titled “Memoir: Keeping the Faith” with authors Dani Shapiro (Devotion); Eric Lax (Faith, Interrupted) and William Lobdell (Losing My Religion). We joked that our panel really should have been called “Keeping the Faith, Finding the Faith, Losing the Faith, and Questioning the Faith” since we were all coming at the topic from different, yet complementary, directions. Our moderater was Jack Miles, UC Professor of Religion and author of God: A Biography, who got stuck in traffic coming up from Orange County and strolled into the room at one minute to three, picked up the mike, and got us rolling, which was kind of a wonky beginning, but he was so charming and erudite that nobody seemed to mind. Each of the panelists spoke for a few minutes about their respective books, and then Jack asked a question of each of us. These panelists were terrific, all so thoughtful and considerate, and did such a good job of getting everyone thinking about faith and writing and storytelling and personal experience that I think it might have been one of the very best panels I’ve ever participated in.

During the audience Q&A section near the end, a man came up to the mike with a question for me. He said that when he hears about someone choosing to take a child to healers in Belize instead of to a psychiatrist he immediately scoffs at the idea, and he wanted to know what my suggestions I had for discussing faith with people whose beliefs are different from his own. (I paraphrase, but that was the gist of it.) It was a good question, and one worthy of consideration, I think. I spoke some about how we first have to establish there is no “right” answer, no one answer, and that because faith is so individual and personal it requires people on both sides of the discussion to maintain a healthy and genuine respect for ideas other than their own. Eric Lax spoke a bit about how that requires a certain degree of humility, to suspend one’s own disbelief (or belief) long enough to consider that perhaps the other person isn’t wrong, because only then can meaningful conversation begin.

It really comes down to a discussion of arrogance, I think. In my opinion, arrogance has very bad p.r., insofar that when we hear the word we tend to bristle, reacting to it as something negative. But if you can sidestep the undertones of haughtiness and disdain that surround the word, arrogance really means steadfastly and stubbornly adhering to one’s own point of view to the exclusion of others, which can—dare I say it?—sometimes be a useful survival tool. Engaging in a respectful conversation with someone who holds a different belief system about faith does require a loosening of one’s own arrogance, I believe. To me, it’s just as arrogant to say, “There is a God because I know it to be true” as “There is no God because I haven’t seen proof that one exists.” I left the panel having reaffirmed that I have my experiences, and the belief system that have grown out of those experiences. As far as faith goes, this makes me an expert only on what I myself believe to be true--yet deeply interested in what others have to say, as well. And judging by the number of audience members who lined up to ask questions of panelists, it seems that others are, too. This is an important dialogue, especially in these difficult times. I hope it continues.

Apr 19, 2010

Earth Day 2010

I feel about Earth Day sort of the way I feel about Mother’s Day. As in, shouldn’t every day be Earth Day? Still, I’m always up for a reason to celebrate it once a year in Topanga, where the festival has evolved into a two-day happening of live music, dancing, demonstrations, face painting, hula hooping, and really excellent vegan food booths.

The girls and I went both days this year, accompanied on Saturday by our friends Amy and Eber who came up from San Diego for the festivities. Since the parking situation along Topanga Canyon Boulevard was impossible as usual, forcing us to park somewhere near the Mexican border, we rode the shuttle bus to the community house, which was an experience unto itself. It was a converted school bus painted royal blue with psychedelic swirls on the outside, renamed Alice the Wonderbus. Inside there were couches lining both walls, comfy stacks of pillows up and down both sides, a big stuffed tiger, a couple of Mad Hatter hats lying around, and shag rugs covering the floor. My friend EJ said her kids hula hooped inside the bus on the way to the festival, though it was too crowded both days we were on it for Maya and Eden to break out their hoops. Still, you know it’s going to be a good party when getting there it twice as much fun as anything you’ve done in the previous week.

Despite a forecast of rain on Sunday we had two gloriously sunny, warm days. Loads of friends milling around, wine tasting, massage tables, jewelry and clothing booths, info about solar power and sustainable housing, a bellydancing performance on Sunday featuring dancers from ages 4 into their 60s, and some guy who calls himself Fantuzi leaping around on stage singing and dancing for 15 minutes both day. (I’m going to start calling my husband Uzi “Fantuzi”. Let’s see how well that goes over in our house.)

Also at the festival, our friend Scott’s unrolled his new local initiative called “Topanga Better Faster” which aims to start community dialogue about opening a food co-op, starting a community credit union, getting a charter middle and high school in town, and—my kids’ favorite—setting up a zip line from the town center down to Pacific Coast Highway. I think the zip line is just for attention, but it’s effective, isn’t it? Scott held his visioning meetings inside a geodesic demi-dome. People: this is Topanga at its best.

What we really need in town is a gas station, reinforced by a bad oversight I made this weekend which resulting in driving Maya and our neighbor to school this morning with my “empty” light on all the way, praying I’d make it to a gas station in time and still be able to get Eden to her bus. But Scott’s idea is to help Topanga become a Transition Town, which means less oil dependent, so I guess a gas station isn’t going to be part of the plan.

Anyway, Earth Day photos will follow. Don’t have a photo of Alice the Wonderbus though, because my camera battery died before the end of the day. Maya hatched the idea of having all her friends transported on it to her Bat Mitzvah party, which I think would definitely leave an impression on a bunch of 13-year-olds. Probably on the adults, too. We’ll probably wind up hanging out in the bus all night listening to Jefferson Airplane while the kids dance to Lady Gaga. Rock on.