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: Mmmm..how 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.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

¿Cómo Se Dice, "Huh"?

¿Qué es esto dibujo? No se. It was in my online Spanish workbook. We students were supposed to type a question that the woman could be thinking. I came up with a choice one, but hadn't learned that word yet.

Muchas gracias, Marc y Veronia, por el jugar de béisbol. Viva le Dodgers!

I will never tire of men in suits at Starbucks who offer Louie the back of their hand while saying "Isn't he cute?"

If the new particle accelerator has your interest piqued, this book is a lighthearted take on the US's aborted Superconducting Super Collider. And includes some really cute geriatric love.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Week Three

(You can see the back of the pantry!)

Things are moving right along in the O'Neill pantry. This week's highlights included artichoke hearts on a pizza, and soup no matter the weather. Right about now, though, I could really go for some crackers. We have, like, three gallons of Costco hummus and nothing to eat it on. We're getting by using it on potato chips (second shelf from the top, left side), but that bag's almost empty!

Friday, September 5, 2008

"Equal Affections" by David Leavitt

I picked up this book on a recommendation of a Squaw Valley housemate. It's a comfortable type of story that you settle into, like an overstuffed couch. It's the story of the Cooper family that's framed by the mother's battle with cancer, with flashbacks to earlier times. And it's an interesting story--two gay children, the daughter who becomes a singer/songwriter and the son who goes into law. The father's an absentminded professor, who is sometimes caring, and sometimes having an extramarital affair.

There were parts of the story, though, where I caught myself thinking, "Who cares?" Maybe because there wasn't enough of an internal clock on the story, other than the mother's cancer (and it wasn't really treated like a clock). Still, I enjoyed the scenes, enjoyed watching the characters interact.

There was a poignant scene in the hospital, where the Coopers meet a husband and wife whose very ill son is a patient. From the husband to Mr. Cooper:

"But maybe you can tell me something else, Professor. Maybe you can tell me why us instead of anyone else, any of those other people, have to be sitting here tonight, instead of at home eating dinner? And don't say God, I stopped believing when I was twelve."

Thursday, September 4, 2008

Building Bridges to Somewhere

I am so happy to be starting a TESOL Certificate program to teach English as a Second Language. Right now, I most want to work in an adult education setting, but that may change as I go through the courses. There's also the opportunity to teach overseas, but I'd miss Bry and Louie too darn much. Plus we just got this new backyard; who would read books on its grass, or eat the figs?

No matter your political affiliation, this, and all the cheers and jeers that proceeded it, is a sucker punch to anyone trying to improve their community.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008


Pam, Becky, and I had a girls' night at a climbing gym. Actually, it was guys' night (have a Y chromosome, get five bucks off), but isn't every night a guys' night at a climbing gym? But I digress...I would like to thank these two fine ladies for turning my arms into noodles, and for not letting me fall.

Just yesterday I was talking on the phone with Patchen (or should I say, Pablo; or, for the next week or so, Paddy) and he asked how the publications were coming. I said they weren't really. But then today I was so delighted to receive an acceptance from The Battered Suitcase.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

In the News...

The Union-Tribune has a great article about United Through Reading's Inmate program, which I started volunteering with this summer. I've done a fair share of volunteer work in my life thus far (although you can always do more), and I've never met a nicer group of volunteers.

Added at 7:02PM:
If you are heartsick about today's state of affairs, there are places you can volunteer to improve our communities and people's lives. These are small things, but they matter.

Monday, September 1, 2008

Week Two

(The End of Week Two.)

Week two of the 2008 Great Pantry Reduction came to an end last night when I took this photo. In it, one might see plenty of food left. I prefer to think of it as plenty of potential.

We used the divide and conquer method on a box of crackers, which went great with hummus. I ate a can of beets (beets!), and we baked one of two boxes of brownie mix (what we endure for the greater good). The crunchy peanut butter is Bryan's domain, and I cleared out the dried cherries, dried cranberries, and am working on the prunes. Because we're a team, we went at a bag of whole wheat pasta with gusto. I can't wait for week four, when we're mixing almond butter with honey mustard for a pretzel dipping sauce.