The Maplewoods Mirror

(Something odd is going on here.)



The Maplewoods Mirror #28 - August 2008  

Welcome to my monthly newsletter on life and writing.  If you want to see my website for past issues and other news, please visit


To see a three-minute video about my newly published book, click here. 

In This Issue

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss in Concert (review)

Rorschach Politics (a test)

Sandra Tsing Loh on Working Mothers (news)

Parents Update (news)

California Screamin’ (memoir)

The Greek Theatre

Robert Plant and Alison Krauss

While I don’t believe in destiny—though it’s a fun element to play with in stories—I do believe in synchronicity.  Sometimes a cascade of events bring remarkable outcomes. 


Much of my news and music come through KCRW, which anyone in the world can now get online at  I soak in NPR’s “Morning Edition” and “All Things Considered,” as well as the station’s own programming such as “Left, Right, and Center” and “Morning Becomes Eclectic” with Nic Harcourt.  Harcourt often offers free CDs and tickets to the first five KCRW subscribers who call when he gives the phone number. 


A few years ago, I managed to be one of the first five caller nearly whenever I tried—say, twice a year.  In the last year, I’ve always received a busy signal whenever I tried.  Thus, when I was driving into Santa Monica College in June—before the “hands free” law went into effect for cell phones while driving—I called just as Harcourt said, “I have free tickets for the Robert Plant-Alison Krauss concert at the Greek Theatre….”  I dialed before Harcourt gave the phone number.  It’s always the same phone number, after all.


Alison Krauss and Robert Plant at the Greek


When I made the call, I did not know Plant and Krauss’s music together, and, frankly, I did not remember that Robert Plant had been the lead singer for Led Zeppelin.  I have one of Krauss’s albums, so I knew of her sweet voice.  Mainly, it was summer, and I wanted to go to the Greek Theatre.


Lo and behold, I did not get a busy signal.  My call went through, and a KCRW person asked for my subscription information.  Victory! A pair of tickets would be waiting for me at the Greek Theatre ticket office. 


Ann wasn’t particularly interested in going, however, but my friend Gordon was.  In fact, he was in awe of Plant and was thrilled to go.


Before we went, I researched the duo.  What were we about to see?  The more I read, the more excited I became.  Led Zeppelin is well known, and the group’s first album came out in 1969, just as the Beatles were starting to fall apart.  Jimmy Page, part of the New Yardbirds, was forming a new band and suggested a singer from West Bromwich, Robert Plant.  Plant in turn suggested a drummer, John Bonham, and with John Paul Jones, the band was complete. 



In high school, I loved Led Zeppelin for its range—from hard rock songs such as “Black Dog,” to delicate tunes with a blues influence.  Their third and fourth albums had a lot of acoustic instruments, too, and some of their songs, such as “Going to California” (a tribute to Joni Mitchell) and “Stairway to Heaven,” mesmerized me. 


The group disbanded in 1980 when John Bonham died after drinking too much.  The surviving members and Bonham’s son on drums united in December 2007 for a benefit concert in memory of Ahmet Ertegün, the music executive who helped guide them.  Some people spent thousands of dollars for a single ticket to that show.


Alison Krauss, in contrast, has made a name for herself as a bluegrass and country singer who plays a great fiddle.  Twenty-five years younger than Plant, she released her first solo album in 1987 when she was sixteen.  She formed a band, Union Station, which has been popular.  She sang “Down In The River To Pray” and other songs on the O Brother, Where Art Thou soundtrack, which was produced by T. Bone Burnett.


T. Bone Burnett


It turns out, Robert Plant has a huge interest in American roots music—“Pity the fool who stands still,” says Plant—and when he came to the states to sing in a tribute to American blues singer Leadbelly with Harry Belafonte and others in Cleveland a few years ago, he met Alison Krauss.  On that visit, Plant and Krauss sang a few songs together, and when they realized their voices worked well together, and they loved much the same music, they decided to record together. 


Krauss brought in T. Bone Burnett, who gathered a huge array of possible songs the two might use, which, when winnowed down, became the album Raising Sand.  Plant credits Krauss teaching him to harmonize as a duet, which he’d never done before.  Burnett, too, plays on the album and in concert with them.


Robert Plant (singing)


What’s incredible about the album and witnessing them in concert is that they are such yin and yang: a delicate country singer and a hard rocker known for his primal screams, and yet it somehow works.  She’s in her thirties; he’s in his sixties, yet they blend beautifully.


I decided if they can work, so can men and women in general.  After all, Plant and Krauss each blend their feminine and masculine sides into something as delicious as gazpacho.  In America, most people look at gender as black and white, but there are plenty of shades between, which most people have.  Krauss couldn’t have come as far as she has if she wasn’t driven, which is typically considered masculine.  She’s had to deal with plenty of male music executives and male band members, yet that hasn’t overshadowed or obscured her lyrical music-making.


Plant in his younger years often strutted and sang with his shirt off and wailed with the best of them.  He was a guy’s guy.  Yet he’s had long blond hair for his whole adult life and had never been afraid to delicately shade a song and use lyrics with meaning.


Robert Plant in younger days with Led Zeppelin


Perhaps this is extreme, but when I hear them sing, I sense all is right in the world.  Husbands and wives can find harmony.  Israel and Palestine can be friends.  Former Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic can be found looking like Santa and tried for his war crimes.  Somehow Alison Krauss and Robert Plant show that on this very odd planet, there is beauty. 


One of my favorite pieces they perform is a Gene Clark song called “Polly Come Home.”  It’s slow, dirge-like, yet somehow uplifting.  It’s lyrics include:


Polly, come home again
Spread your wings to the wind
I felt much of the pain
As it begins.




Krauss and Plant are about contradiction that works.   To hear and see them, click on the links below.


For an excellent eight-minute documentary on their partnership click here.


For a BBC morning interview that’s fabulous click here.  


For a few of their songs to watch and hear, click on the song titles:


“Please Read the Letter”

“Polly Come Home”

“Black Dog”

“Gone Gone Gone”

Rorschach Politics

I realized this week that everything I hear George Bush do is either filtered through pundits or given in sound bites.  When I watch George Bush, my heart falls for how much our liberties have been chipped away for the last seven years.  His supporters, however, will say that in this post-911 world, we’ve needed a leader like George Bush.  As he says in an interview with Irish journalist Carol Coleman on the eve of his visit to Ireland in 2004, he’s not worried how popular he is with the public.  History will judge him.



Supposedly, the interview was banned in this country, but clearly it’s available, and it’s George Bush talking at length, being upbeat and in control, so you judge for yourself.  It’s ten minutes, but it’s important you see him talk without commercial or pundit interruption.  View him at  Tell me what you think after viewing it.

Sandra Tsing Loh on Working Mothers

I just heard from one of two of my thesis students, both of whom are in a special USC summer class at Pembroke College at the University of Cambridge in England.  Nasha Khan writes that her plane arrived late at night, she got very little sleep, and the next morning, “We were sitting in class—beat and jet-lagged beyond belief. But things are wonderful. We LOVE it here. I'm working on the first chapter of my novel.” 


That made me reflect on my own student days at USC, which were always stimulating, including a class led by playwright Jerome Lawrence where we wrote eight-minute plays that were then produced on campus.  What I remember most was fellow student Sandra Tsing Loh’s actors on roller skates roaming all over the Stop Gap Theatre, laughing because they weren’t completely sure what to do.  None of us were, but we grew as writers.


Sandra now not only has a regular commentary called The Loh Life on KPCC, but also she’s writing books, plays, and has been contributing to The Atlantic. Her recent story on working mothers (and a review of two books) shows how far she’s come since her student days. 



One of the things Sandra does in the story is compare real-world writers versus Carrie Bradshaw on Sex and the City.  Says Sandra, “I want to spend my days like ‘writer’ Carrie, lolling in bed in her underwear, smoking and occasionally updating her quasi-bohemian equivalent of a My­Space page.  In real life, female journalists (particularly sex columnists) have frightening stalkers, dour editors who begin phone conversations with ‘This is not your best,’ and paychecks so thin they trigger not just an amusing episode in which some Jimmy Choos must be returned but years of fluorescent-lit subway rides to a part-time job teaching ESL at some community college on Long Island.”


For her Atlantic story click here.

Parents Update

Since I wrote about my parents last month, all is fairly well with them.  My stepfather Phil, after giving up his month-old BMW, moved into assisted living in Minneapolis.  He’s acclimating. 


My mother continues to live with emphysema, having to focus on breathing when she becomes anxious, but two months ago, her concentration to read came back after disappearing for eight months, so she’s going through three or four novels a week presently.  Those who think reading is frivolous, think again.  It’s keeping her going.


I sent her a dummy version of my novel The Laughter and Sadness of Sex, which may not be published for two years.  I wanted her to read it now while she can.  I’m working hard on my next book to be published, The Brightest Moon of the Century, which will be out March 7 with a reading and publication party at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena.  I’ll get her a copy of that as soon as I can.


In order to pay for her assisted-living expenses, she will have to sell her Frank-Lloyd-Wright-Foundation-designed house.  She'd originally had Wright himself agreeing to design it, but he died later that year, so John Howe, one of his associates, designed what was essentially a Usonian home.  It's the one in which I grew up, placed at the top of a small hill on eight acres in Minnesota.


This is the front yard where I grew up in Minnesota.  The property will soon be for sale.


My father George continues to do well up in Sonoma, and Ann, Ellen, and I will be seeing him and his wife, Abbie, at the end of this week.  Then we go onto Minnesota for six days.  That’s why this issue is out early.

California Screamin’

A picture is a thousand words, and the one below tells a lot.  Ellen and I went to California Adventure, thanks to Zachary and his girlfriend, Emily, giving us tickets that they couldn’t use.  California Adventure is the companion part to Disneyland, and grown-ups more than young people might prefer it, what with a lot of historical slices of California on display, a mini-vineyard, a wine bar, fruit stands, and health food everywhere. 


I succumbed to the one fast-food place I found there, which sold corn dogs.  Little did I know it was a gourmet corn dog that was as large as an oak branch.  “Would you like one, Ellen?” I asked.


“No,” she said.  “You shouldn’t eat one, either.”  Such wisdom at age nine.


After I ate it, Ellen wanted to go on the one roller coaster that was there called California Screamin’.  How bad could it be if it was at Disneyland?  The line wasn’t too long, so I agreed to go on it with her after making sure there were no loops.  No loops.


I saw grandparent-types and little kids get on the ride, so I was reassured it was a gentle thing.  After a steel harness the size of lampposts came around our shoulders, the roller coaster slowly took off, gliding gently around the first corner and stopping by the lake.  It was probably to build up the anticipation of that first long incline up where all roller coasters go slowly to get you worried.  When you reach the top at the height of your anxiety, you zoom down, screamin’.  I looked above me and saw a lot of people at the railing looking down at us.  How sweet. 


An announcer came on and said, “Welcome to California Screamin’.  Your countdown begins now.  Ten, nine, eight…”  A countdown?  Whatever for?  Perhaps it was to not startle the older and young people on board.


“…One, blastoff!”  The thing took off like a rocket sled, my cheeks surely ruffling with the tremendous G force.  My eyes were blurring, and we hit the first hill going sixty or more.  Thanks to the lampposts, I stayed in my seat as we hit the first hill.  Otherwise, I’d be in space.  We sped even faster down the hill. 


My stomach lurched.  “Please stay down, corn dog,” I kept muttering.


For the life of me, I can’t tell you much about the ride beyond being thrown in every direction at speeds that Buzz Aldrin would puke at.  I must have turned purple when I saw before me a loop.  Where the hell did the loop come from?


We plunged into the loop, and my head shot down from the physics of it all.  As we circled, I thought how this wasn’t right.  If people were meant to go on such things, they’d be born with wheels.  Stay down, corn dog, stay down.


We came out of the loop, went up another hill, slammed right, smashed left, and pitched downward again.  To add insult to injury, a flash went off with the taking of a photo.  Great. 


The photo is below.  Ellen, as you can see, loved the ride.  How my corn dog stayed down, I don’t know, but Ellen said, “I told you not to buy that corn dog.” 



For the next hour I had to sit and not move much as my stomach settled.  Ellen was patient with me. 


It occurred to me, this is a hard world to master.  Every day is a new challenge.  First it’s driving with hands-free phones, trying to make the Blue Tooth device work with the cell phone.  Then it’s changing passwords at work—one of five places I work where each place has a different entry system online.  Then there’s California Screamin’.


Somehow, a golf cart at Leisure World now appeals to me. 


Lake Minnetonka, near where I grew up in Minnesota outside of Minneapolis


If you missed the past issue or didn't see it with photos, you can click here.


If you want to see this issue or any others with photos, go to my website,, and scroll down to the individual issues.

See you next time,




For reviews or more information on my books below, click on the cover.