Wednesday, December 31, 2008

"Mother of Sorrows" by Richard McCann

These linked stories, with their deeply imagined narrator, feel more like a memoir than fiction. The characters and their tragedies are so deeply felt it's almost a relief that what McCann has written in these stories is indeed fiction.

But instead of talking about the stories, I want to let them speak for themselves. Here's an excerpt from "My Brother in the Basement," in which the narrator talks about his dead brother. (The last paragraph refers to their shared secret language.):

Counting forward from the night I left him at Dolly's, my brother had only nine more years to live.

As always, there were still a few key facts the future had yet to disclose.

For instance, the fact that I would find myself sitting here one day without him, as I am now, attempting to remember the same things I'd once urged myself to forget. Or the fact that I would want to tell someone that a long time ago, when we were children, our mother dressed us as twins.

That I sometimes crawled into his upper bunk at night to fall asleep beside him. That "peanut butter" meant "I'm sorry." That "applesauce" meant "Laugh!"

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Cayman Highlights

Some photos from our Christmas in the Caribbean...

(Mark, me, and Bryan in a Christmas ornament.)

(Just after sunset, in Jim and Carol's backyard.)

(All the good photos, like this one, were taken by Mark.)


(Jim and Carol's boat.)

(And its underside.)

(Our Lobster haul. Mark and I were responsible for catching half of these.)

Monday, December 29, 2008

"Jack the Bear" by Dan McCall

Damn, now THIS is a story. I haven't been so moved since So Long, See You Tomorrow. In the early 1990's, Jack the Bear was made into a great movie with Danny Devito. Which I also highly recommend. If you are unlucky enough to have Time Warner cable in San Diego, it will be on TRUEE (channel 510) tomorrow at 5PM.

But back to the book. It's what this previously blogged-about moral dilemma centered on. The story's told by twelve-year-old Jack, who lives with his toddler brother and father. (You don't often see three-year-old characters in fiction, do you?) Jack and Dylan's parents had been separated when his mother passed away. The father, John, hosts the late-night horror film program on local TV. In the daytime he's the monster who plays with the neighborhood kids, all the while trying to tame his own private beasts. The story grabbed me around the collar on page one and only let go at the end, when it released its grip and sunk back into its own Loch Ness.

"Of the Farm" by John Updike

Oh, what a disappointment. This book didn't work for me. The story centers on a man who takes his second wife and stepson back to his childhood farm, where his ailing mother lives. From the beginning I just didn't sympathize with the narrator. I didn't feel like the story was full enough. Maybe this (partly?) due to the fact that the book was written in the mid-1960's, when divorce and remarriage was less accepted. And I am too jaded by our current society to see the narrator's struggle. But Updike's Rabbit books deal with all sorts of philandering and moral transgressions, none of which are lost on this twenty-first-century, Gen-X reader.

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Merry Christmas

May your Christmas table also be filled two fourteen-pound turkeys for six people.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

veinticuatro de diciembre de 2008

¡Feliz Navidad!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

No Man Is an Island

So Bryan and I are on Grand Cayman Island for the week, along with my brother, Mark. Bryan's parents live here. Today the boys went scuba diving and I snorkeled. The here people are friendly, so it makes sense the fish are, too; they kept coming up to look me over. I hope you all are in a similarly hospitable situation for the holidays.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Moral Dilemma

I'm reading this absolutely amazing book right now (more on the book once I finish it). But since it's from the library, I can't underline all its wonderful passages. And I so want to underline all its wonderful passages. I'm trying to decide if I should just give in and get out my pen, and pay whatever fine the library imposes on me. I'm only a quarter through the book, and hope I have the moral fortitude to not start marking the text. If I happily pay the library's fine, is it still considered immoral? Is it wrong to treat one's public library system like a trial offer?

Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Self-promotion for the Creative Person" by Lee Silbers

Mark gave me a copy of this book. He found it helpful for his line of work (film editing), and thought I might enjoy it, too.

Full disclosure: I think very little about things like promotion. It takes all--ALL--my energy just to create a humble little story that doesn't stink. But Silbers convinced me of the importance of self-promotion (once my stories move beyond not just not stinking), because if you feel deeply about your work, you want it to affect as many people as possible.

The book is organized into sections (persistence, word-of-mouth, creating a plan, et cetera) but really the book's value lies in the multitude of ideas that Silbers rattles off throughout these sections. Like writing (yes, hand-writing) thank-you cards, like taking advantage of a local promotional angle, like the idea that you can be nutty and creative, but still need to act professional.

With this book, I sort of feel like a freshman high schooler who takes the SAT for practice so that when they're a junior, they'll really kick ass on the test. Once I write something that warrants the need for publicity, I think I'll know what to do. All you further-along writers should take a look at this book.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Seven Pounds

You can swear on a blog and not upset the FCC, right? Holy shit, this movie's amazing.

Mark invited me up to see the Writers Guild's screening last night. Seven Pounds is the type of movie you can't say much about without spoiling the experience of the movie for others.

After the film the screenwriter, Grant Nieporte, talked about his process and answered audience questions. He had been working on sitcoms for years, and wrote screenplays in his free time. Apparently, he has six previous scripts in a drawer at home that no one will ever see. But with this story, he knew he'd finally found his voice. Success stories that don't happen overnight but instead involve a lot of quiet, hard work, always makes me feel good. Not with a twinge of schadenfreude, but because it validates this belief if you work really, really hard to craft whatever small talent you were born with, you will make it.

But here's something I can say about the movie--it's a question for others who've seen it: near the climax, what does Will Smith first take out of his car but ultimately leave on the driver's seat? Mark and I couldn't figure it out. It's a question we should have posed for Nieporte, but of course didn't think about it until we were back in the car and heading home.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Semester's End

My Spanish class is over, and I realized that we didn't get any type of denouement in Destinos. Early on, mi professora had said we'd only watch the first ten episodes. Perhaps we will watch more of it in Spanish 102 next year. But even so there are 52 episodes, and it's unlikely many Spanish students would watch them all.

From the beginning, I've been fascinated with the idea of story being used for another purpose--to teach a language. (And when I say "fascinated," I mean partly offended.) And now, with most students never getting to see the story from start to finish, storytelling is again taking a backseat to the coursework. But Destinos is a telenovela/soap opera, and soap operas never end. Perhaps if the literary fiction thing doesn't work out for me, I could work for "Days of Our Lives."

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Can I Borrow a Cup of Sugar?

Like a character that wakes you up to tell you their story, I have so much to blog about.

Tonight was the last meeting of the ESL class I've been helping out with. And it's taken me all this time to figure out why I love ESL. It turns out my reason is very similar to why I love fiction writing.

It strips humanity down to its most basic elements. People who used to be teachers or medical aides or other professionals in their home country are reduced to simple communication. And this is okay. In fact, it's encouraged, because that's how people improve.

Two weeks ago, the professor told the students that their final exam would be a five-minute speech about someone who's very important to them. She said the student could write the speech, but that they should practice it beforehand so they aren't standing in front of the class and staring at a piece of paper. She said getting a native English speaker to listen to them practice their speech would be really helpful, because the native speaker could help with correction of word choice and pronunciation.

She said something like, "Maybe you can knock on your neighbor's door and ask them to listen. I know in San Diego we don't always know our neighbors, but this could be a way for you to meet them."

One woman from Somalia said this would be challenging, because although she sees her apartment neighbors often, they seem hesitant to talk to her. The professor said this would be the perfect excuse to start a conversation with them.

And I could completely picture it. This woman in a beautiful dress and headscarf, knocking on some reclusive person's door. And the Somali woman giving a speech where she is grasping for the right words, her pronunciation terrible because she's nervous. And the neighbor standing in her doorway, stunned the entire time.

And I thought, yes! This is why I want to teach ESL. I want to make these types of happy meetings occur.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

"Rabbit at Rest" by John Updike

I love this book. If you read it, you will, too.

It's funny, sad, slightly disturbing, and a smidge depressing. I swear these make for a good read.

What do state legislators give themselves for being five and a half months behind on approving a budget? A bonus, of course.

Something to keep your spirits up.

Monday, December 15, 2008

Secret Santa

(The picture on the back of the envelope.)

Earlier this month, I signed up for HTML Giant's Secret Santa Gift Exchange for Independent Literature. Today, I received a most delightful brown paper package in the mail today with a poetry book, another poetry book, and a poetry/spoken/word/experimental CD. Thanks, Literary Santa.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Must Love Dogs

When you're little, you think friends are found at school. As I've gotten older, I've realized there are many, many more places to find wonderful, interesting people. This afternoon I went to a party hosted by one of the dog owners who's a regular at the park Louie and I frequent. It was really nice to chat with these people about something other than kibble or anal glands.

When you're little, you also have no problem correcting a peer's errors. Tonight at the park, I saw a man I often talk with. He's a Chinese immigrant, and taking ESL night classes. But...his English is terrible. (His dog's really cute, though!) In speaking, I think he focuses on speed at the expense of pronunciation. Either that or his teacher sucks. After the last time I'd talked with him, I told myself that next time, if I didn't know what the heck was saying, I'd ask him to clarify. But when I saw him cheerily approach me this evening, his cute little dog at his side, I knew I couldn't. And of course I didn't. I hope as a teacher, in a classroom setting, I'll be able to make these corrections. Not having a cute little poodle around might help.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

For the Rest of Us

(A donation was made in my name!)

You should all be so lucky to have such clever friends as I. Marc and V threw a Festivus party. There was a Festivus pole, there was the airing of grievances. There was talk of the feats of strength, and a donation was made in each of our names to The Human Fund. (Money for People.). We were also all able to go on strike and proclaim "Festivus, Yes! Bagels, No!"

In between we ate good food, watched the Seinfeld episode, tried to figure out how to say "Swedish" in Spanish, debated the calculation for the youngest age someone can date (half your age plus seven; duh), posed for pictures with the strike sign, brainstormed paint colors for V, wished someone happy retirement, and wished someone well in their new job.

And in a miraculous turn of events I returned home to find my phone, which I'd left out in the rain (the one day it rains in San Diego!), able to boot up. It's a Festivus Miracle!

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Getting to Know Your Neighbors

I sometimes complain to Bryan that our neighborhood is white, rude, elitist, and boring. And then today at Starbucks I sat next to a homeless couple who’d ridden there on bicycles. They were reading the newspaper, and the woman was concerned about the situation in Darfur. Her name was Heather. I wish I knew this because I’d talked to her. I saw her name on her Starbucks cup.

At the table beside me was a man and his two grandchildren. They were the nicest kids. The girl was really interested in Louie. But Louie is initially afraid of everyone. So the girl crouched down and approached him real slowly, so carefully. She quickly earned his trust.

Later, the grandfather told me he’s taking care of the kids because his daughter isn’t well mentally. The children and their mother have been “camping” for the last several months. The grandfather is now working with his ex-son-in-law to transfer custody of the children from his daughter to his son-in-law. Tomorrow’s the court date. The grandfather said he’d asked the kids what they’d like for Christmas, and the boy said a home. The girl wants to go to school.

People are so generous with the things they'll tell you.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008


In case you aren't able to stop and catch your breath, my mom has done it in your honor. She swears she was thinking about you while eating her sno-cone and watching the sea turtles.

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

The Wind in Your Hair

How do you combat the stress of a to-do list that never seems to get any smaller?

Have a good friend tell you how he once transported a pair of caribou antlers in an Audi Fox, thanks to a skillful use of its sunroof. The story is even funnier the second time.

Monday, December 8, 2008

Los Ojos Son Muy Importante

We watched "Destinos" in Spanish class again this afternoon. Imagine my delight when, while concentrating on the past tense of "ir," the protagonist walked into El Prado and the camera panned to masterpieces by El Greco, Velázquez, y Goya.

"Destinos" always goes out of its narrative way to teach viewers Spanish words and phrases, no matter how awkwardly they are injected into the story. And today's episode didn't disappoint. The narrator gave a brief, simplistic overview of each painter's works, defining them by the type of people they painted (viejo o joven; alto o bajo; delgado o bajo; pelo corto o pelo longo; una barba o no barba). And apparently, a figure's eyes is the key to their soul; paint these correctly, and you've got a masterpiece. Why did I ever give up the brush?

In ESL class tonight, students continued working through the picture dictionary's food section. We were treated to some fine photorealistic drawings of meat, poultry, and seafood in a supermarket. It was like a Dutch still life writ modern.

Sunday, December 7, 2008


So the college football conference playoffs are over and the bowl bids are in. This year, the Terps are heading to the...Roady's Humanitarian Bowl?

Don't get me wrong. I'm a fan of football. And certainly of all things humanitarian. When George Costanza created the human fund, I thought that's a great idea! before I realized what he was up to. Apparently, the bowl's title is a nod to the World Sports Humanitarian Hall of Fame. Which seems like a fine organization. But has anyone ever heard of this bowl game before? I plead ignorance.

(Enough links in this post for you? My blog entries are nothing if not informational. In which case they're nothing.)

I'd also like to congratulate this kid. Who, after interviewing for a Rhodes Scholarship two weeks ago, flew into the Florida-Maryland football game late and beat the pants off us. Good luck in Britain.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

"Hula" by Lisa Shea

I first read this book for a writing class at UCSD. I went back to it recently because I remember loving the images (some disturbing, some beautiful) that are presented with a completely flat affect. Plus, I'm working on a story that has a child narrator, and want to see how others are doing it.

I enjoyed the book this second time, although the lack of a plot or narrative thread bothers me a bit. The story amounts to a series of vignettes about two sisters, mostly in their backyard, who have to get along with an absent mother and abusive father.

Perhaps as enjoyable as Shea's printed words were my freshman-year, handwritten notes. Wow-wee, were those insightful. Like something I wrote in regards to this passage from the book:

"She jams her elbow into my neck. When I can hardly breathe, I let go. She gets up from the bushes. I find the spot on my neck where she elbowed me, another place where I might get cancer. It already feels hot there."

Here's what I scribbled:
-children's misconceptions are carried through repeatedly. Realistic.

This isn't wrong, but it is a awkward. Either the professor had us read primarily for point of view, or I wasn't good at seeing the forest for the trees. I think my comment is a nod toward the narrator's belief that she must now have cancer. But why didn't I make a clear point of this? In several instances, the narrator is certain she has cancer.

So the book has no plot, but I want to come out and admit I'm jealous I didn't think of creating a shell-shocked father who wears a gorilla mask and hands to the dinner table.

Friday, December 5, 2008


(Preparing to wade out to the dingy.)

Bryan has found his antidote for long days (and nights) at the lab. Last night we had dinner with good family friends Tim and Sue on their boat in Mission Bay. They are on their way to some part of Mexico (I guess on a sailboat you can't make too firm plans), but stopped in San Diego for a few days. And yes, grilling hamburgers in the middle of the bay and then eating below really is as cool as you'd think.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

I Blog About a Processed Food Product

I ate American cheese today and regretted it. I knew I would, but still went ahead and put a slice in my sandwich. The even stupider thing is there was a block of cheddar in refrigerator. The next time I'm too lazy to slice cheese, I need to make a peanut butter and jelly.

My better half loves this stuff, peeling a slice out of its wrapper and popping it into his mouth raw (yes, this stuff is as dangerous as uncooked seafood). I can't watch.

This country does many things well--opportunity, inalienable rights, pigskin football, all-you-can-eat-buffets--but we're better off outsourcing our cheese and cars.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

See the USA (Well, the Parts Between Detroit and DC) in Your Chevrolet

I'm not suggesting that execs from the big three read this blog, all I'm saying is that everyone once in a long while, I have a decent idea.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

The Ecstasy and the Agony

The thrill of a particularly muddy park session, the agony of a bath.

Monday, December 1, 2008

[Insert Title Here]

I'm not usually a procrastinator, but I waited until the last minute with a story title because I simply couldn't think of one. I hate titles. It got so desperate that in tonight's ESL class, before things started, I looked through my picture dictionary, hoping to find a title in it. No luck. But I did find pictures of vegetables I didn't know existed. And now I know their names.

Once things got going, students practiced using the modal "should." One student has been having trouble sleeping, so the teacher asked the others to give her advice on rectifying this by using "should." The whole time I kept thinking, "I should not have waited until the last minute to come up with a story title. I should have planned ahead."

I would pay good money for a writing conference talk/workshop on how to select a title. Enough show-don't-tell panel discussions; give me something I can use. Otherwise I'll have to keep relying on the titular kindness of fellow writers and family members. Which is getting embarrassing.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

Sibling Rivalry

With a deadline coming up I made two trips to Starbucks today. This evening I sat inside and listened to a middle-aged brother and sister with a strained relationship argue in the sweetest, most pleasant tone.

I figure they decided to meet in a public location knowing they wouldn’t allow the conversation to get nasty with strangers around. Kind of like the theory that people consume less food while eating with others rather than alone. Nothing like holidays to force, er-, bring family together.

Saturday, November 29, 2008


Since it’s still Thanksgiving weekend, I’d like to express my gratitude for Starbucks’ quiet patio, green-ginger tea, and turkey-bacon breakfast sandwiches. The latter can keep me in my seat and writing an extra hour, which is significant.

And also to the person who deserves co-authorship. Thank you.

Friday, November 28, 2008


You know when you have a friend or family member who won't tell you what's wrong? You know something's not right, but when you ask they just smile sadly and say "I'm fine"? I'm having this problem with a character right now. He has lots of issues, but he just won't tell me--the girl with the kind face--what's troubling him. Perhaps if I ply him with a Scotch neat.

Thursday, November 27, 2008


A buffet that spans four rooms is pretty darn good, but enjoying the food with family is ten times better.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


In tonight's ESL class at Grossmont that I've been helping out with, I brainstormed the beginning of a blog post. The class had talked about Thanksgiving, and the teacher then had them interrogate me about my turkey day plans by using present progressive questions. (It was good stuff, Paniks and O'Neill).

So like I said I was going to blog about this, until I got in my car after class and found rainwater on my seat. Yes, my sunroof leaks. I sighed, wiped off the seat, and figured I'd just have to carry a towel with me on days that call for precipitation. (Which, in San Diego, are thankfully few.) But after I'd pulled out of the parking space and accelerated, water poured down on me. to pour here in San Diego as I type this. I hope my car has an emergency drain hole, like a bathroom sink.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

When I Was Your Age...

A solution to that uncomfortable silence after Thanksgiving dinner where you and your relatives stare at each other.

Monday, November 24, 2008


This fine journal has chosen to print a story inspired by this, which was followed up with this.

If you're a typewriter fan, click the "1" on the journal's homepage and enjoy.

Sunday, November 23, 2008


Overseen at Starbucks: an older man reading the Sunday comics. His eyesight must not've been too good, because he had the pages smashed right up to his face, so he could see the scenes and read the speech bubbles. Almost as good as describing each comic frame aloud to your daughter, right Dad?

For another story as short as a comic strip, check this out.

Friday, November 21, 2008


So I read to this second grade class Friday mornings. I love it, the kids seem to like the books, and the teacher gets a break. Between pages, I try to make the stories interactive by asking questions and letting the kids comment, which they’re always eager to do. So much so that I can’t call on all the hands before turning the page, otherwise I’d be there all day.

But these kids are not to be discouraged. If I don’t call on them, they’ll persist in raising their hand after every page. When I finally do, they ask me to go back one, two, three, FOUR pages, so they can make their comment. Sometimes what they’ve been waiting so long to say is a personal story, a question, or an observation.

I used to find this a little frustrating. We are trying to move FORWARD in the story! But now I like that they’re so engaged. And even more, that they will not be silenced. I could skip their raised hand for fifteen minutes, but they will not relent until I call on them. Then they will speak their piece and then fold their hands, completely satisfied. I’m hopeful for our future.

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Can Artists Get Bailouts, Too?

I don't think the irony of automaker execs flying to DC on private jets so they can beg for a bailout is lost on anyone. It's two-faced to extend one hand for money, when the other behind your back is sporting a Rolex.

But perhaps the bigger issue with these jets is that after they'd transported execs to DC so they could ask for handouts, the execs blamed their low sales numbers on the underachieving US economy. Maybe if they'd travelled from Detroit to DC in one of these cars they produce, they'd realize the reason Americans aren't buying their cars isn't because of the economy, but because they're terrible, terrible cars.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Capítulo Cinco

My Spanish is beginning chapter five, and I am so excited because if the chapter outline is correct, it will teach me the difference between "ser" and "estar." Both are the verb "to be" but are used in quite different ways in Spanish. As far and I can figure out (which isn't much, but give me a couple weeks and a chapter test), "ser" is for descriptions and "estar" is for locations and temporary conditions or feelings.

Which, if you think about it, can really get at some big questions. It makes me think of a character I'm working with now, who became a local celebrity after winning a burrito-eating contest. Is his celebrity status a permanent, core part of his personality? If so, ser/es would be appropriate. Or is it a temporary condition, one that will go away once the public grows bored or he tires of it? If this is true, then estar/está is correct.

The funny thing is, this question gets at the core of the character's psyche. Perhaps studying this chapter will help me finish the short story.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

From All Walks of Life

I have started helping with an adult ESL class. The professor is wonderfully generous and enthusiastic, but completely overwhelmed with long days and classes that each have students with all ability levels. So I am going to assist the three lowest-level students in her Monday night class. They are just beginning to learn English, and she has asked that we work on phonics. These students are from Chechnya, Uzbekistan, and a Turk who's from Russia. Their English is definitely remedial, but they are eager to learn and very friendly.

After class, the professor told me that the man from Chechnya saw his family murdered in the ongoing violence and political struggle there. He was able to escape to a nearby country, then another, and finally made it to America, where he has both asylum and post-traumatic stress disorder.

I wish this were an isolated event, but I realize his story exists in every ESL class across our great country. I suppose what makes it worth mentioning is not that he’s experienced such pain and violence, but that he’s made it out and to this country, that he wants to learn, and that we are going to enable him.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Overheard at Starbucks...

The silent barks of a small terrier. She was a rescue, and her owner said the previous one had her voice box removed. I will steer away from making an issue of the overt censorship metaphor, and just say this is so cruel. The owner apologized for the silent mouthing her dog was doing towards myself and Louie, insisting she was harmless. I told her that her dog was no bother at all. I would never pre-judge an energetic dog that I didn't know as poorly behaved. But would exercise some prejudice towards a person who found barking an inconvenient behavior of their pet.

Saturday, November 15, 2008


Veronika and I went antiquing today, got brunch, and rounded out the morning at San Diego's Prop 8 rally. It just seems so simple to that love, wherever it's found, should be honored and validated.

After last night's concert, Jack in the Box taco-fortune cookies were handed out at the exit. I thought, "Cool! Maybe the fortune will help me finish my burrito story." It's about a guy who wins fame and adoration after eating a four-pound burrito. And you know, a fortune cookie shaped like a taco, a story about a burrito, it seemed symbiotic to me. So I opened the fortune taco today, and here's what I got:

I felt like Ralphie in "A Christmas Story," where Little Orphan Annie's secret message turns out to be "a crummy commerical" for Ovaltine. Back to Starbucks I go tomorrow, in search of a story ending.


Mark and I saw Ben Folds tonight. He was awesome, wacky, heartfelt, and, of course, melodic. Which was why it was so bizarre that I kept seeing cell phones light up during the concert and their owners sending texts, emails, and otherwise screwing around online.

I realize our society's pace has increased, but is kick-ass live music not good enough to hold one's attention? What would?


I can't think of a single thing to insert in the ellipsis.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Got Weekend Plans?

Thursday, November 13, 2008

The Great Northeast

Look for a reprint of my story "The Rules of the Road" in Lifelines. It's a journal published by the Dartmouth Medical School, with a slant towards medically themed work. I spent a winter at Dartmouth as an undergrad, through an exchange program, studying art history and running through their very beautiful, very cold landscape.

The thought of my humble little story bundled with other little stories and poems--sitting in a hospital waiting room, a college dining hall, cast in the snow and buried beneath ice and salt--is comforting, charming.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

SPAM and Cockroaches

Tonight, in the final meeting of my How To Teach Speaking and Listening class, we students demonstrated a portion of our final-project lessons plans. My partner and I had focused on teaching how to ask yes/no questions, and our demo was an abbreviated version of a Twenty Questions-like game with students guessing their partner's secret object. One of the items was a can of SPAM that I'd had on my desk at home. (This is where the eyes of any Panik reading this post perk up.)

After the demo, the student with the SPAM returned it to the bag, saying, "I haven't seen SPAM in a while."

And I said, "This can's a family heirloom. I've had it ten years."

Then I realized it was older than that. Much older. It had been a joke Christmas present that myself and each of my brothers had received one year. (We'd celebrated in Hawaii, and Hawaiians love their SPAM.) That Christmas, I was no older than eight. Which makes the SPAM twenty-one years old.

As I closed the grab bag, I thought, You've had that can of SPAM two-thirds of your life. What the hell have you done in that time?

This is a tricky question. Bryan and I often see twenty-four-year-old NFL football players on TV and say, "We've done nothing with our lives."

But if you develop the skills that were given to you, and apply them to useful means, or if you help someone, or do something larger than yourself, then you've made good use of your time. Even if you're not on TV, don't earn millions of dollars, and don't knock people over for a living.

SPAM is the food equivalent of the cockroach--it could survive a nuclear bomb, or whatever killed off all the dinosaurs. The cockroach and SPAM will both be around when we and our humble deeds and accomplishments aren't. It doesn't bother me in the least.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day

It may be November, but the weather's still wonderful.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Be Kind, Sign up Online-d

We at the TCSD membership department (and by "we" I mean "I") am trying to cut down on paper applications. It's good for environment and it's good for my time management. And members who join or renew online will enjoy faster activation, an auto-response with directions for the next steps, and that clean-laundry smell. Not that I don't enjoy talking with the really friendly postmen at the PO Box, but I'd prefer to walk away with less paperwork. Once again, you can join or renew electronically here.

Sunday, November 9, 2008

In Search of Apple Pie

Bryan and I went to Julian today. It wasn't a last-minute decision, and yet we didn't think to check the weather. We should have.

(It started to sprinkle on the drive, and was raining in town.)

(Then the heaves opened and hail pelted down.)

(We went into Mom's to warm up with some apple pie...)

(...and hot cider.)

Saturday, November 8, 2008

"The sound is /b/. The name is b. Say b."

Today I completed the second half of my tutor training to begin volunteering with the Laubach Literacy Council. I am so excited to begin teaching English to a small group of students. I must confess that after the first half of the training (last Saturday), I questioned whether Laubach was a  good fit for me. The training had focused on teaching an immigrant their first few oral words of English. And I thought that I would be better suited to teaching at a higher ESL level (I have all this complex English grammar in my brain!). But in today's session, we worked on getting a student to reading a few words, then sentences, which then culminates into a story. Myself and all the other tutors were exceedingly excited at the thought that this story might be the first significant piece of text someone would read in English. Here is that story:

This is a bird.
This is a cup.
This is a dish.
This is a fish.
This is a girl.
This is a hand.

The girl has a bird.
The girl has a cup.
The girl has a dish.
The girl has a fish.

The girl has a bird in her hand.
The girl has a cup in her hand.
The girl has a dish in her hand.
The girl has a fish in her hand.

There's absolutely no plot, conflict, or resolution. And it's ten times better than any story I've ever written.

Friday, November 7, 2008

The Verbivore

Did you know James Madison was the smallest President, at 5"4' and 100 lbs?

Richard Lederer spoke this afternoon at Mira Costa College. He's a linguist with San Diego ties, and previously hosted A Way with Words. He talked mainly about US Presidential trivia, in promotion of his newest book. But he also made sure to include some grammatical jokes, like: What's the difference between a cat and a comma? A cat has claws at the end of its paws, and a comma has a pause at the end of its clause.

I had to leave after the talk's first half--writing called--and didn't get to ask my question. Which is: "What part of speech is 'to smoke' in the sentence 'I stopped to smoke.'?"

It came up in my TESOL Grammar class. My professor solicited opinions from other Linguistic experts. The most likely explanation was that "to smoke" is an adverbial phrase, with the sentence having deleted an assumed phrase, with "I stopped (in order) to smoke." But the responses my professor received were so varied that I would have been interested to hear Dr. Lederer's response.

Thursday, November 6, 2008

Broken Promise

Stop what you're doing, and go read this. If you like it (and I know you will), leave a comment.

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

Vote Early, Vote Often

I am so tired I could cry. Instead I will smile, and write this blog post.

Voting at my poll went extremely well, considering we had voters waiting when we arrived at 6AM to set up. Everyone got processed in a timely, courteous manner. If they came in the evening, they were treated to Presidential trivia.

Pizza deliverymen are awesome, and husbands who surprise you with frozen yogurt awesomer still.

We had about a dozen poll watchers, including a militant woman representing the Democratic party who wasn't going to smile (or be pleasant) for any reason. Not even my Presidential Trivia! She watched us set up, came back twice during voting hours and hoarded our street index, and then returned upon closing to observe us in such a way that could be called intimidation. Luckily, we are not a group who can be intimidated.

I missed a question on my Spanish quiz today. Everyone knows televisión is a feminine verb. Except for me, this afternoon.

But I made up for it with a good showing on my TESOL Speaking and Listening quiz. And then my partner and I brainstormed for a How to Teach Tone lesson plan that visually depicts the intonation of different types of questions, like concrete poems. Which as I can see it, is the only redeeming use for the poetry form.

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

November 4, 2008

What are you doing reading this? Go vote!

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Night Before

I just got back from doing some preliminary setup at my precinct. We constructed the voting booths, put out non-sensitive material, and elected me to bring the coffee maker. As ready as we'll ever be!

Nota bene: everyone likes baked goods and poll workers are no exception.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Fall Back

The Daylight Savings time change does wacky things to your body. Medical data have shown that the "fall back" raises the incidences of heart attacks. And there are all those morning brunches with friends that are missed while sleeping through the "spring forward." And then there's that pesky side effect of artificially extending daylight--saved electricity. For Bryan and myself, the fall clock change transformed us into senior citizens.

It was about 4:15 this afternoon, when after some snacks, Bry and I both confessed to being hungry enough to eat dinner. So we cooked up some pasta and were chowing down by ten til five. To combat feeling like I was in my final stage of life, I decided to live it up and have wine with dinner. For those who might not be aware, this is pretty unprecedented for me. But it was a fruit wine (cherry) and tasted more like fruit juice that booze. Shortly after, I fell asleep on the couch, and I'm not sure whether I should also blame that on the time change (it was dark outside!) or the wine.

Friday, October 31, 2008

Happy Halloween!

No costume for Louie this year. But he did just get a bath after getting good and muddy at the park. So I guess he's being a big damp ball of curly fuzz this Halloween.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Come to San Diego. We may have closed our libraries, but you can drink on the beach!

Dear city of San Diego:

If you're going to shutter the Carmel Valley library, and deploy patrols to deter vandals, can you place me on a shift and give me a key? I promise to keep the hoodlums away, and keep the fiction stacks company.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Campaign for Niceness

With election season wrapping up, I'm hoping to ride the mob mentality coattails and go on my own crusade to improve the lives of this great planet with a really radical idea--ENCOURAGING HUMAN DECENCY! I am fed up with rudeness--whether from Tri Club members who send me rude emails, people who are impatient in coffee shops, rude drivers, and EXTREMELY rude punk kids in community college Spanish classes. STOP IT PEOPLE. This is an issue that moves beyond party or ideological lines, and we need to work across the aisle to solve it. Here is my talking point: we need to get along.

So I'm asking all of you--great people of the world wide web and the great wide world itself--to band with me and fight the insults, the belittlement, the abuse and realize that we are one people. I'm Michelle Panik, and I approve this message.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Sad Day

No, the Green Dragon didn't break down for good. The Christian Science Monitor is ceasing daily publication and becoming a weekly while also focusing on their web version. I don't purchase the CS Monitor (although I did recently become a KPBS member!), and now I feel guilty about it. I've been reading it online for years, and think they do some of the best news reporting in the world. At one point I considered subscribing to their "treeless" edition, which delivered a facsimile of the print publication to your email inbox every morning. But because I could read a different version online, I didn't.

Much has been said about media bias, and the argument has legs. But the larger problem is that people don't go to unbiased news sources. If you watch Keith Olbermann or Bill O'Reilly for fun, fine. If you watch them to learn about the day's events, you need your head checked. The CS Monitor is a truly impartial publication, and I hope their migration to focus on the web reflects the changing tides of media technology, rather than portending their demise.

Monday, October 27, 2008

I Write a Murder-mystery

That's right. Except the only publication it will see is as a ditto for a beginning ESL class.

It's part of a lesson project for my TESOL speaking and listening class. I just have an inkling of an idea, but can't wait to begin piling on the cliches, stock characters, and melodrama.

Sunday, October 26, 2008


Hi. My name is Michelle, and I give my characters too much credit. I make them too nice, their intentions too simple and pure, their actions too damn likable.

Recognizing I have a problem is the first step in my recovery. I'd like to thank talented writer and close reader Kimberly for showing me the err of my ways. Sometimes, what a character needs is for his wife to leave him. And before that happens, he should destroy his front yard.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

He Said, She Said

Bryan and I went through our mail (absentee) ballots this evening--wild Saturday night!--and read through candidate statements, issue arguments and rebuttals. We eventually decided which bubbles we wanted to fill in, and also decided that what the California ballot needs is a proposition to end propositions.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Dukes of Hazard Car

For anyone keeping track, the driver-side door handle on my car recently stopped working. It has now broken off completely. So I've begun simply opening the passenger door and climbing over. I'm nimble.

I really should just leave the windows down and climb through the driver side's. Not like anyone would steal the car. The only reason keeping the windows down gives me pause is because it would make it easy for would-be thieves to steal my Orbit gum. And I really like Orbit gum, especially the Sangria Fresca.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

The Final Year of Her Twenties

Before you turn thirty, there are a few things BO and I think you should do:
-sky diving
-scuba diving (BO's idea. I'd never do this)
-cliff diving (I might do this)
-platform diving
-synchronized diving (BO has a great toe-point)

And if you're still alive:
-wrangle a cowboy
-visit San Diego!

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Good Fortune

Good fortune continues to abound for Squaw Valley alumni. The latest Santa Monica Review arrived in yesterday's mail. On my way up to bed last night, I randomly opened it and happened upon the name Timothy Dyke, whom was in my Squaw Valley workshop. It's a great, clever story-about-a-story meta-story, and I recommend every either buy a copy or borrow mine.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Karma--You Give Some, You Get Some

Tonight at the grocery store checkout, I decided I didn't want a bag of Goldfish crackers. And instead of putting it back in the aisle where I got it, or at least giving it to the checker and explaining my change of heart, I stuck it on the magazine rack. I only had an hour to get groceries, take Louie to the park, eat dinner, and get to a night class at UCSD.

The checker saw me stash the Goldfish in front of Laura Bush, and said, coldly, "If you don't want that, could you please hand it to me?" Yikes. I would have done that originally, but said checker is one I usually try to avoid (except I couldn't tonight, because her line was shortest, and I was in that one-hour hurry). She is a militant checker, telling customers to single stack their soup cans, and not load the belt too wide. Tonight I got off easy; all she did was instruct me to carry my bag of strawberries alone in one hand so they didn't get squished. Off I slouched to the parking lot.

Where I redeemed myself, by pushing my shopping cart all the way to a return chute, rather than ditching it in an empty parking space.

Turns out my karma's still pretty good. ONTHEBUS decided to take one of my stories. There were two SASEs in the mail, and the thicker one was a rejection (a no-thanks slip, along with info about entering their latest contest [because they liked my first story so much?]).

The piece forthcoming in ONTHEBUS is something I read an early draft of aloud in my Squaw Valley house late one night. I was then selected for critique in Sands Hall's open workshop, where I got the valuable feedback that made it publishable.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Lake Tahoe

(Salmon swimming upstream.)

(Diving for salmon. Either that or these ducks had money in Wall Street and are making like ostriches to forget about it.)

(Chelsea can't wait for some salmon of her own.)

(I forget the name of this lake. So I'm going to call it Lake Pretty.)

(Halfway through a hike. Jim, Bryan, Carol, and John.)

Sunday, October 19, 2008

On the Plane from Reno to San Diego

On the way home from Tahoe today, Bryan and I sat behind a couple where the husband chose the aisle seat and the wife the window. They left the middle seat open for a stranger. I would rather be in the middle seat and squished up against my husband (which is where I sat) than have a little leg or elbow room next to a stranger.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Strangely Surreal Election Humor

Yin and yang.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Green Dragon

People often poke fun at my car. It's American-made, has a front bumper that sometimes drags, and the clear-coat is coming off. The windshield wiper pump broke, and I never open the sunroof for fear it won't close.

But my grandpa very graciously gave it to me in 2003 (when he decided, at age 92, that maybe he shouldn't drive anymore). Since then, I haven't had a car payment. And also since then, my insurance rate keeps dropping. Just last Sunday, I was telling my brother Mark that the insurance "is like $400 for six months." The new bill just came in the mail, and it turns out I was wrong. The cost for the privilege of driving my fine automobile around town for the next six months? $250.

The chipping clear coat is looking more like a "custom finish"--like sponge-painting in a bathroom--than a fault.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

God Only Knows What I'd Be Without You

Happy paper anniversary!

Monday, October 13, 2008


Sometimes, all it takes is a fun-size bag of Whoppers from your husband.

Sunday, October 12, 2008

The Smell of Petrol on a Sunday Morning

(Bryan and Mark talk technique.
Which means how not to fall on your ass.)

(Cole eats M&Ms from the same net 
he'd been dragging through the dirt all day.)

BO and I met Mark and his friends up in Gorman today. We rode this very peculiar type of bicycle that has a motor that's stronger than your calf muscles. And no spandex required! Mark led Bryan off into to trails, and brought him back in one piece with a smile on his face. I stayed on a flat section and practiced shifting between first, second, and third. Which is a whole lot easier than in Bryan's car! Of course BO and I don't have bikes or any of the fun bike accessories, but Mark, Karen, and Drew were so kind to lend us helmets, gloves, bikes, and plenty of advice.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

California Calling

I worked an Obama phone bank this morning. I've never before volunteered for a campaign, but it was both fun and informative and I recommend everyone volunteer for a campaign sometime in their lifetime. You will get a peek into the campaigning process, and might even influence the voting outcome.

I called Democrats and Independents, but even so I was disappointed about not getting yelled at more. I really hoping for something I could use in a story.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Music to My Ears

The Boston Typewriter Orchestra.

Want more bang for your buck? Click on "Cornelius."

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Almost a Year Ago

In case you are curious about one of the gnomes that showed up at the ceremony...

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Alright, Paniks

Who's responsible for this little guy?

He showed up in the mail today, with a return address of "Gnome Group, Inc." in Flushing, New York. We will be sending the address label out for handwriting analysis and fingerprint dusting.

For the uninitiated, gnomes have been spontaneously appearing to Paniks the last five years. The last appearance was a trio at Bry and my wedding. Since we are almost at our paper anniversary, we are considering this latest pint-sized one an anniversary gift. Many thanks!

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Cyclist Chatter

Overheard at Starbucks:

A trio of elderly cyclists. One sung the praises of her water filter, which she’d purchased through her Amway business. No matter how many different ways she explained it, a man with a rear-view mirror attached to his eyeglasses was chronically incapable of understanding the filtration process. God bless his elderly-but-still-getting-out-there-and-cycling soul.

The third cyclist—a man with eyeglasses as big as the bags under Droopy Dog's eyes—shared his toilet-cleaning habits, and wondered whether those tablets that make the water blue and smell like lilies really do any good.

Their parting words, which I agreed with, were that energy bar companies should stop making “chocolate”-flavors products, because it’s false advertising.

Monday, October 6, 2008

I Am My Own Lab Monkey

Learning a foreign language while also learning how languages are learned is symbiotic in ways both prodigious and distracting. Distracting because instead of just swallowing what my Spanish book gives me, I want to analyze whether the method is best, and how I would tweak the activity. Just do the activity, Michelle.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Common Ground

My ESL Speaking and Listening class is a clinical look at, in part, dialogue. Which, as a fiction writer, I've been studying for years. In a very different way, and for a very different purpose, but the conclusions are strikingly similar.

One point the book hits on is the notion of an interlocutor answering a question with another question. From the book:

S1: What does pragmatics mean?
S2: Do you have an hour or two?
S1: Complicated, huh? Just give me the short answer.

And this conversation involves two willing participants. Just think if S2 were irritated.

S1: What does pragmatics mean?
S2: You saying I don't know what pragmatics means?
S1: No, I'm just asking--
S2: You asking me to prove my knowledge to you?
S1: I just--
S2: You just want to make a fool out of me.

The stuff of a convincing character.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Flying Solo

Louie and I went to The Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf today. I had some structural changes to make to a story draft, and I find that when I need to make such major shifts, it helps to also change my locale. (Swapping chairs at Starbucks doesn't cut it.)

While there, a small bird hopped over to us. He was small, far too small to be on his own. I looked around for his mother but couldn't find her. He stared at us a moment, then hopped closer and began pecking at crumbs from a chocolate muffin. Again, I looked around for his mother, or another creature who should be telling him not to eat coffee shop pastries with their trans fats. He needed to be looked out for. He needed an other.

Speaking of others--my other, along with Tim, is famous (9/22/08).

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

"Marley and Me" by John Grogan

The neighborhood dog whisperer lent me this book. He is a wonderful person to live across the street from, someone who does volunteer work in his retirement and is always good for a sidewalk chat.

I think he's a great guy, and I don't even get snacks from him. I can only imagine what emotions Louie associates with him. Said neighbor keeps a box of Milk Bones in his garage, and whenever Louie and I pass by, he can't resist giving him one. Or two. I usually draw the line at four.

Some might think of this book as "light," and perhaps it is. But it's also very entertaining and is rife with vivid images. Like one of the author spraying Marley's stools with the hose for two weeks, watching each poop mound melt away, until he finds his wife's gold charm necklace.

In the end, the book has much to say about all sorts of relationships, about pleasure and sorrow, and about the ultimate end.

Sunday, September 28, 2008

Week Six

In a shocking move, the Panik parents have decided to bail out the O'Neills and provide funds for pantry items.

Amid concerns that such a bailout would undermine the mission of the 2008 Great Pantry Reduction, blog readers may rest assured that stipulations are in place that limit the agreement's scope and creates accountability for the consumption of surplus items.

No golden parachutes for a hungry writer or famished scientist.

Louie has generously agreed to reach across the aisle and do his part. We will be filling his KONG with peanut butter (we still have SIX jars) on a schedule that is convenient for the humans of this household.

Good night, and good luck.

Saturday, September 27, 2008


When I heard this was probably the last time the Rosarito-Ensenada Bike Ride would happen, I had to do it. Luckily, Pam agreed to do it with me. I got to hear about Pam's Mount Whitney adventure, practice a little Spanish, get a little exercise, and eat comida mexicana.

(How long do I take to give away 5.25 lbs of candy? A Half mile.
Riders bring candy to pass out to kids along the way.)

(It's kinda of a laid-back ride.)

(Going through a town.
The first part of the ride was along the coast, which was foggy.)

(Pam and I take photos of each other.)

(We thought we'd stop in towns along the way to get tacos.
But we ended up holding out until the end. These were delicious.)

(A half bar of Zest soap at the public showers after the ride. 5 pesos.)

Friday, September 26, 2008

The Trashy Magazines of Children's Books

Last year's crop of kids couldn't get enough of the Black Lagoon book series. This year, only one student had heard of them. But by the time we'd read two, The Teacher from The Black Lagoon and The Cafeteria Lady from the Black Lagoon, they were hooked.

These stories are sensational. They frighten kids (in the way kids love to be frightened) about a teacher who bites a student in half to demonstrate fractions, or grossing them out with soufflé of science experiments.

If this is what it takes to (initially) interest them in reading, I'll buy Mike Thaler's oeuvre.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

"Dead Boys" by Richard Lange

I am catching up on my book reviews.

Dead Boys was recommended to me at Squaw Valley this year, as something I ought to look at in regards to the story I had workshopped. After the workshop mate mentioned the title, I thought "that sounds familiar." A couple minutes later, I realized I'd seen Lange on a panel at the LA Times Festival of Books. He was really interesting, and I left the panel wanting to read this book of short stories. But of course it flew out my well-intentioned mind. I am so grateful to that workshop mate for mentioning it.

I moved through this book at the same time I read One Mississippi. I am usually a one-book-at-a-time gal, but Lange's short stories are so intense that I needed periodic breaks. Like after "Love Lifted Me," a story about a man who helps two teens get married, although he's skeptical of the boy. Late in the story, the girl stabs her would-be husband. This shift is so shocking, and arresting. After reading that, I flew through a couple hundred pages of One Mississippi before feeling that I could return to Lange's world.

"One Mississippi" by Mark Childress

After finishing this book, I really liked it. A third of the way in, I had been worried that the story would be too simple. This bildungsroman concerns Daniel, a boy who moves from Indiana to Mississippi in the early 1970's. The first half of the book follows Daniel as he puts his toe in the waters of such topics as race, religion, and homosexuality. But he never goes for a swim.

Until the end. Finally, we get to know Daniel. Perhaps this was Childress' aim all along.

Speaking and Listening for ESL Learners

My Wednesday night class (too tired to blog about it afterwards) is going to be about how to teach speaking and listening skills to English Language Learners.

And I am so excited.

Last night, we talked about helping ELL learn how to ask get-to-know-you questions of others. The questions should be interesting ("What's the last CD your bought?" rather than "Do you like music?") but not too personal (not "Do you listen to music in the shower?"). The ultimate goal of these questions is not simply the answer, but to get to know someone, and to have an interesting exchange where the other person will want to keep talking with you.

So, in a sense, the specific words exchanged in the conversation aren't the point. Rather, the goal is to get to know someone and keep a relationship going.

So dialogue isn't really about dialogue. Sounds like advice often given to fiction writers.

We also talked about paralanguage, which is the small, filler, sounds and words uttered in a conversation. Like "uh" and "hm," and "aha," and "ew."

With a partner, we had to create a dialogue using paralanguage. Here is the offering from me and my partner:
AM-PM Customer: Hmmm, do you have any, uh-uh, hot dogs?
Cashier: Um, yes. But, ew, do you really want a hot dog?
AM-PM Customer: Uh-huh. I've been craving an AM-PM hot dog all week.
Cashier: Whoa! Then you better get one...oops! (cashier drops it)
AM-PM Customer: Uh-oh, you dropped my hot dog. Ew!
Cashier: about if I wash it off?
(Blogger and partner taking a bow here)

During this exercise, I couldn't help thinking it would be more realistic if we established a unique speech pattern for each character, as well as have them repeat one or two pieces of paralanguage to further define them as a realistic character. Perhaps I'll try it if I ever do a re-write.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008


My Spanish class is watching a televonela "Destinos" ("Destinies" or "Destinations"), in piecemeal, every couple class periods.

This thing is fascinating.

It's a movie designed for people learning Spanish. The general story line is a family mystery that spans continents, time periods, and generations. There is a narrator who sometimes speaks in English but also Spanish, and the characters all speak (different dialects of) Spanish. The Spanish words are put on the screen next to their object--like all of don Fernando's hijos (children), which is done several times to comedic (although memory-storing) effect.

It's a little like those novels for SAT students, where the text is infused with big vocabulary, whether the words sound appropriate in the story or not.

In terms of story craft, "Destinos" flies completely in the face of the admonition that plot not be imposed on characters. And realistic dialogue? Not so much.

But don't get me wrong--I'm not criticizing the "Destinos" series. It's a great visual tool for learning or reinforcing vocabulary. And I'm ever a sucker for stories.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Mad Libs for English Language Learners

Tonight I had my first TESOL class. It's about how to teach grammar to ELL, and is also a bit of a brush-up on the grammar rules and terminology for us.

The class is great. I am a grammar fan, and the professor is wonderfully enthused and engaging. When I grow up to be an ESL teacher, I want to be like him.

With various activities, the three hours really flew by. My favorite was Mad Libs for ELL. The idea is to create a story and have your fill-in-the-blanks be "noun," "past-tense verb," "adverb," and other metalanguage terminology to teacher your students the lingo.

The professor asked for volunteers to do theirs in front of the class. "I"m a writer," I thought. "I'll do it." Here was mine, as well as I can remember the fill-ins:

When Cindy pulled back the CRICKETS that hung on her bedroom window, she saw that the weather was awfully SEXY. "Maybe I'll stay inside and FRY the SYCOPHANT," she said. But she had to go to EASTER ISLAND, so she got in her CHIHUAHUA and LISTENED SLOWLY away. Suddenly, she realized that inside her CHIHUAHUA were EIGHTY-EIGHT WINDOWS. "Hey!" Cindy said to the WINDOWS. "I don't take passengers for free. If you want a ride, you'll have to HIT me ONE THOUSAND AMERICANS."

The next time I have writer's block with my fiction, I know what to do.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Monday Night Football

(Bryan--with Tim behind him, and Philip Rivers in front of him--
at the game. Photo courtesy of my mom and her digital television.)

Mad props to Tim for taking my husband out for a night on the town.

Tim won Jerome's Best Seats at the Q contest, which awarded seats in two leather recliners in the end zone for Monday's game versus the Jets (full disclosure--the latter is my husband's favorite team).

Bryan and Tim already had tickets for the game when Tim won these. I sort of thought Tim might take Lora, his wife, so they could enjoy the VIP treatment together. But Tim is a very good friend (a best man, in fact), and offered the other ticket to my husband.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Week Five

A big shout-out to my husband for taking one for the team and pounding back chocolate milk every night last week. Goodbye, Nestle Quick!

Your Mom Busted in and Said What's That Noise

So Mark, Bryan, and I took Grandpa out to lunch today. Walking up to his door, we could hear that "If You Like Piña Coladas" song blasting from his room.

He is 97, and while I'd like to think that with all those decibels he was taking a stand against rules and anyone over thirty (um...what?), it had to be because his hearing's going. What isn't going is his love of music.

And food. As we headed out to the restaurant, Grandpa said he wasn't hungry but agreed to come and sit with us. And he did sit. And hoarded the rolls, ate most of a salad, and every shrimp on his plate. What a difference fifteen minutes can make.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Tell All the Truth But Tell it Slant

We read and write short stories with the understanding that they are part of a whole, a segment of a life. And while good stories generally need to be about an incident or set of circumstances, I am wondering at what point in the telling does a reader become satisfied and say, Okay, you can stop now.

There are so many stories that, while something may indeed change, nothing is resolved. Neat and tidy means the writer hasn’t mined their characters deep enough. Like a personal trainer who lets their client off with two pushup sets instead of three (or ten). Michelle, I want my muse to say, stop and give me twenty. But after your characters have been fleshed out, where in the messy aftermath of the story's change do you close up shop?

I suppose one way to find your stopping point is to put an internal clock on the story (a weekend, a vacation, a restaurant meal) and stop the outer story when this clock expires (Sunday night, the flight home, the meal check). After that, all you can do is hope readers will think about the story after they've read the last word, and wonder how the characters will carry on.

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Judging Science by Its Cover

I love this cover. It's an obvious one for a writer, but I equally love their covers of wild colors and amorphous shapes (or blatantly systematic patterns). Check  out  these  ones.

Science's art/marketing department must be a group of genuises (the Peter Principle working in reverse here). Their covers would make anyone open the magazine to find out what the hell the picture actually is.

This week's offering is straightforward. Still, I had to turn to the contents page for the scoop. The image is for an article about the Sisyphean task that is digitally archiving books.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Six Sentences

If you have a minute (really, just one), check this out: Six Sentences.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Library Card Perk

Starbucks card users, eat your heart out. Today, in celebration of National Library Card Sign-up Month, Chipotle offered a free burrito to anyone who could flash their San Diego public library card. I'm not a big fan of Chipotle, but I love my library card, and I am a fan of free food. I simply had to go. I know some people feel exclusive when flashing their AmEx, but as I stepped up to that Chipotle register, blue library card in hand, I felt like the bee's knees.

What I learned from this afternoon's spanish homework: it is difficult to complete the oral section after eating frozen grapes.

Monday, September 15, 2008


Southern California doesn't have many literary voices. And now, we have one less.

Dave text-messaged me about Wallace's suicide while I was en mi clase de Español (lo siento, Profesora). Dave's text--Any idea why David Foster Wallace killed himself?

Is there ever any explanation?

I read Infinite Jest for one of Quincy Troupe's workshops in undergrad. It was difficult, and two weeks was not enough time for a thousand pages. But God how I admired the heart and the enterprise.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Week Four

This afternoon, we were pretty proud of our progress with the pantry. Then the neighbors came over for a progressive dinner and we unloaded some jams and mustards!

Saturday, September 13, 2008

She Has Quite a Vivid Imagination

The good thing about journals that take electronic submissions is that their responses can't be measured by the size of the paper they're printed on. Like the acceptance I just got from Menda City Review. It's a story I wrote this spring and previously blogged about. Thanks to the digital age, I'm free to think of their acceptance email as a pillar-spanning banner.

For Bryan.

Fear the Turtle!

Friday, September 12, 2008

Back to School

The public schools are back in session, which means I'm back reading to Mrs. Jefferson's second grade class. I reprised the Arthur book Say Cheese! because it's a fresh crop of kids who haven't yet heard me exclaim, in a bicycle-on-a-bumpy-road voice, "This is n-n-n-ot w-w-w-hat I had in mind!"

Afterwards, I asked what books they'd like to read this year. I got some wonderful responses: Strawberry Shortcake, the Max and Ruby series, and Pokemon, which is a chapter book and too long for our thirty-minute sessions. But I admire their zeal.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

They Come in All Sizes

(Note the quarter for size.
Also note: this photo depiction of rejection letter is larger than actual size.)

Today I received what might be the smallest rejection letter ever. I'm not sure what to make of it. A gesture of condescension? A nod to the environment? An attempt at being different? A quirk of the artistic world? Whatever the reason, the encouraging, personalized note on the back was appreciated. I will submit again.