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.