Thursday, April 30, 2009

Good Fences...

Our neighbors throw their cigarette butts in our yard AND their cat poops in our flower beds?

If only I hadn't already written a neighbor-depositing-cigarette-butts-into-another's-yard story. I could've added a domesticated animal to the mix. The take-away is to not rush a story.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Dog Treats

It takes some sort of Herculean strength to go out of your way to be nice to others when you aren't in the best place emotionally.

When a new, middle-aged barista started at Starbucks at few months ago, he took an immediate interest in Louie. But Louie's kind of a shy guy, and when this barista would come at him, he'd do everything from cower to growl. The barista made it his mission to win Lou over. Their relationship started gradually, with a hand extended for a sniff, then a scratch behind the ears, and then the shoulders. They were getting pretty well, and then the barista stepped it up by bringing Greenies for Louie.

From my conversations with the barista, the Greenies seem to have started at the same time that he began having some personal problems, financial and familial. And he occasionally doesn’t charge Bryan or me for our purchases.

Recently, Bryan told me that the barista wouldn’t accept payment for his latte, saying, “You’re a good person.”

I don’t pretend to think that me and my husband and our little dog figure into this barista’s life in any significant way. But it seems like he’s going out of his way to be kind, when the world is being pretty unkind to him. Like he’s embarked on a caffeinated path back to a better place for himself.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Pasado es Pasado

All of a sudden, my Spanish class is on its final chapter of the semester. Las Presiones de la Vida Moderna (The Pressures of Modern Life). Kind of a heavy theme to end with.

The chapter's grammar points are a few different idioms that use preterite-tense verbs. We started learning the simple preterite a few chapters ago, and at that time mi profesora said that we needed to have a good grasp of it, because it’s the most used tense.

Her explanation was something like, “If you think about your daily life, most of what you say refers to the past.”

It’s true.

One more test, a final exam, and then mi profesora will retire and we students will be mostly on our own. I can’t fit one of those accelerated summer courses into my schedule, so I'll be waiting until fall to take 201. By that time, mi profesora will hopefully be on some beach with a margarita. I wonder what her past-tense thoughts will be about our class and her final semester. She is ending her teaching career when I am (hopefully) just beginning mine.

Monday, April 27, 2009

"A Relative Stranger" by Charles Baxter

The characters in these short stories say the weirdest things. Like this exchange in a barbershop, from "Scissors":
"I've seen you around town," he said. "Sometimes I wave, but you never seem to see me."

She smiled. "Oh," she said. "I see you. And I always think, 'Well, there's Harold, and he's waving at me,' and what I do is, I sort of wave back, but, you know, mentally. No so anyone would see."
I love it.

Perhaps my favorite scene in this collection come from "Westland," where a man helps another man, whom he barely knows, dismantle a child's playhouse in the man's backyard.

The final story, "Saul and Patsy are Pregnant" is the second story about this east-coast couple transplanted into the midwest and transplanted into unrest. This story, beautiful and heartbreaking and of course a little weird but ultimately redemptive, is the perfect ending to this collection.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

One Hundred and Twelve

This guy makes my grandpa look like a greenhorn. Thank goodness Grandpa Joe doesn't have to use a scooter yet, and that he always puts on sunglasses when he goes outside.

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Ninety-eight Plus One

(He ate every shrimp and candied walnut and left the weeds. Which was good, because it allowed him room for an ice cream sundae.)

At lunch today, my grandpa started talking about how he'd had to learn English upon coming to America. Though his stories have become a bit longer in recent years, with more frequent sidetracks and occasional lost trains of thought, I do enjoy them. And since I'm studying to teach English as a Second Language, I took a particular interest in this story.

He said he learned to read and write at school, but it was the really good words that he picked up on the street. Later, back at his apartment, Bryan noticed a misspelling on a family tree he'd created a couple decades ago. His spelling was never terrific, but he's always gotten along fine. It's the story of most American immigrants. You may never achieve native-like fluency--either in your language or your cultural lifestyle--but because we are a country of immigrants, you belong.

Friday, April 24, 2009


(My Grandpa, at the spring-chicken age of 94, looking at patent designs he'd mailed to himself fifty years ago to prove idea proprietorship.)

My family likes to brag that my grandpa put an addition on his ranch at age 80. That it wasn't until 92 that he gave up driving (and gave me his car). And that he's totally stuck it to The Man with his Lockheed and Chrysler pensions.

Bryan, Mark, and I are going to celebrate with him tomorrow. And it'll be nice. We'll take him out to lunch, and he'll insist that he isn't hungry, but will then clean his plate and whatever overgrown dessert we order for him against his protest, saying he only has to eat as much as he wants. Then we'll go back to his place, and try to tease the secret of longevity out of him. I'm hoping his answer will include:

A) good family and friends
B) hard work
C) love
D) charity
E) periodic moments to exhale
F) ice cream

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Qué Controvertido

My Spanish homework gets didactic....

...and then lascivious.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

"Last Night at the Lobster" by Stewart O'Nan

The novella is an under-appreciated literary form. This one follows the old onion analogy better than any story I've read in a long time. The book starts out simple enough, with a restaurant manager and his crew on one day (the restaurant's last day), during the holidays and a wicked snow storm. Then the layers start peeling back, and you are deeper and deeper into these characters' lives. It's just one chain restaurant, and the employees will all move on to other jobs, but the story that chronicles this fictitious day means something. I don't know what it says about me, but I love microcosm stories.

Monday, April 20, 2009

James D. Houston

Long-time Squaw Valley faculty member James D. Houston has passed on. I never had a workshop with him, but I remember his 2007 follies performance with Al Young--the two of them known as the Granite Chief Quartet. Check out Lisa Alvarez's blog for a photo of the performance.

People always talk about role models for kids. As a young California writer, I am always looking for my own role models. Houston's quiet, thoughtful life is one to look to. Farewell.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

"Hunger" by Lan Samantha Chang

I liked these stories. I didn't love them. I think this might be due in part to the fact that I read most of the book while in jury duty. Maybe I should bring it with me to Belize in June, and read it in the jungle.

Friday, April 17, 2009

La Ciudad de Motor

Hoy, después de almorzar con mi padre, escuché a la radio español en mi coche (¡Radio Fórmula! 950AM). Las personas hablaron sobre "Motor City" y la canción "Sólo Mi Imaginación" de The Temptations por dos o tres minutos. 

Multi-culturalism at its best.

Big, Big Brother

I think he has trunks on under his scrubs, and is going to get some waves once the patient's stable.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

In My Library Book

Thanks, Harmony. I love you, too.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Hall of Justice

In the jury lounge today, CNN ran a story about a list of the worst California tax delinquents, which highlighted celebrities whose tax payments are in arrears. The big names include Burt Reynolds, Dionne Warwick, and Sinbad.

As I was going on hour six of being in that jury room, watching CNN's report, I wondered if celebs  have to sit in sterile white rooms for hours on end, being forced to watch the same TV channel. Or do they find a way to get out of that, too?

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

"World Made by Hand" by James Howard Kunstler

Who knew that a society left grossly dismantled from a world fight over oil would be so wonderful to read about? No electricity, no cars, no novocaine, and certainly no government. This is the setup of World Made by Hand.

The story is definitely not without conflict. But there's a certain contentment in this small gathering of people in upstate New York who've returned to a bucolic sort of existence. For them, it works because they work together. They trade, they make sandals out of old car tires, they help out those who--for various reasons--are even less well off than the majority.

Bryan was recently telling his mother about Not Buying It, a book about a woman who buys no consumables for a year (the very notion suitably appalled said mother-in-law). And the idea is a huge undertaking, but it harps back to a simpler existence, which World Made by Hand manages to make seem not half bad.

I thought the book might veer too far into a didactic tale of woe based on the world's current reliance on fossil fuels, but it really stuck to the characters and their plights, rather than shaking its finger at the reader's SUV and high-def TV. Although I did think the end fell apart a bit.

Monday, April 13, 2009

At Thirty Thousand Feet

Usually, I like a little eavesdropping in the course of my daily life. I'm a writer, and it's grist for the story mill. Except when it happens because the passenger next to me has a really crummy pair of earphones. And I get to hear not interesting conversations, but the SAME hip-hop song, over and over, or dialogue from TV shows I'm not watching. There better be some juicy conversations at Starbucks tomorrow.

Friday, April 10, 2009

Progress Report

I am on Long Island this weekend with Bryan and his parents for Bryan's grandmother's eightieth birthday. In the course of looking through old papers this afternoon, Bryan's dad found some of his old school evaluations. My favorite is from the second grade, in which Mr. Salt writes:

He "carries" and "borrows" very very well and has made huge strides towards doing and understanding the work we've done in times and division.

An adequate appraisal of my husband's schoolwork, and a prophecy about the man he would become.

Thursday, April 9, 2009


Boy Scouts have been doing this for decades. Sure, clean water could transform the lives of many rural populations, but it's the stuff of amateurs. Scouts turn out whole turkeys and coffee cakes in their scotchbox ovens. But then again, my brother's troop also camps with a menu of "pre-breakfast," "breakfast," "lunch," "cocktails," "pre-dinner," and "dinner." Oh, and there are snacks available twenty-four/seven.

Monday, April 6, 2009

"The Half-Mammals of Dixie" by George Singleton

I picked up this book of short stories after looking into the Writers at Work conference, where Singleton will be a part of this summer's faculty.

The stories all take place in the fictional South Carolina town of Forty-Five. The first three stories are told by first-person male narrators recounting an event in their childhood and are simply beautiful. Characters in this collection recur in multiple stories, and by the end of the book one feels as though they've spent some quality time in a very specific locale. Although if you do read the book straight through, you might feel--as I did--that there is one too many flea markets. Although it did make me want to head to a fairgrounds some Saturday morning, and see what I can find.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Sticking One's Neck Out

I've only seen "Throwdown with Bobby Flay" a handful of times, but in none of these episodes have I ever seen him win. The show's premise is that Flay challenges a chef who's an expert in a particular dish (pizza, pad thai, et cetera) to a cook-off. The idea that he could best an expert chef would seem a little arrogant, if Flay didn't work so hard to hone his own skills at the dish, and if he didn't lose so gracefully. I admire his willingness to put himself out there and risk failure. Either he would make a good fiction writer, or I should take up cooking.

Friday, April 3, 2009

"Writers Workshop in a Book" by Alan Cheuse, Lisa Alvarez, and Richard Ford

I purchased this book at Squaw Valley in 2007. At that time, I read a few of the articles and then put it on my bookshelf. At my retreat last week, I was reminded of this book by seeing Debbie's copy.

The book isn't really a "workshop" in any sense of the word. Rather, the essays (given orally at the conference over its forty years, and then transcribed for this book) are pep talks on all aspects of writing. Plot, description, setting. And stories of triumph. Like Michael Chabon's "Wrecked," in which he talks about letting go of a five-year, 1,500-page manuscript, and writing the superb Wonder Boys.

I am most thankful for Diane Johnson's essay, "How to Write a Novel," in which she gives writers permission to count pacing and staring out the window as a productive writing day.

Thursday, April 2, 2009


Michelle Panik. Fiction writer. ESL teacher-in-training. And now, clairvoyant.

I would forthwith like to predict the cultural backlash against Facebook, Twitter, My Space, and all the other social networking websites. It has all become too much.

Perhaps you've seen CNN's midday show, where the news crawler contains not media updates (which are lame anyway, but that's for another blog post) but Tweets and other types of social networking correspondences.

From this afternoon, while I was enjoying a beautiful bowl of tofu cashew curry:

"meede: I turn on TV & WOW. DOW over 8000! Obama gift sign of 21st Century Pres! Kewll Obamas did us proud as knew they would"

(Yes, I did pause my TV and transcribe this.)

I hope I'm not the only person who feels this way, but when I'm looking for news, I don't want it from someone identified only as "zrreal" or "malignanttooma." The smartest economists in the world don't know for sure what any sort of recovery plan do; surely "SuperDPS" doesn't have the answer, although he may have a G-20 conspiracy theory.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

One Week

I missed a lot of news while in the boonies last week.

Upon returning to Debbie's house and her Chronicle subscription, I found out Howard Junker decided not to retire. Thanks for reneging, Howard.

And a really wicked hive of killer bees got frisky with an elderly couple. Luckily the couple was friskier, and they survived.

But at least one thing didn't change: Diego's still hanging out in the bay. What can I say? San Diego's a place you don't want to leave.