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Monday, December 10, 2012

The miracle of the latkes, 20 years later


My mom has written before about Hannukkah miracles. The most famous one took place about 20 years ago, when, in the midst of one of her renowned block-wide latke parties, her food processor broke down halfway through a batch of her famous potato pancakes. My dad disappeared into the garage while she and some of her friends huddled around the machine, patting it as if it were a dead dog, murmuring faint praise. I couldn't have been more than seven or eight and I was absorbed in a game of dreidel, which in those days we always played on the linoleum floor, watching to be sure that the tops never stuck in the cracks between tile, and when I looked up again my dad had surprised us all by sneaking in amongst all the neighbors, cradling a half-wrapped, brand-new food processor still in its box.

"I was going to give you this for Christmas," he said, and before I could really understand what had happened, my mom had crumpled into him, hugging this most O. Henry of gifts. Before long the new machine was up and whirring, the kitchen buzzing with laughter and frying oil.

This is one of my mother's signature stories. I've since learned the subtlety of it; the careful way my parents have navigated their interfaith relationship. This weekend I was reminded, yet again, of how much those gestures mean.

Ryan and I decided early last week that we wanted to ring in Hannukkah somehow this year, and so we invited a few friends over for dinner and started planning recipes. My parents were out of town and I didn't feel right making latkes without my mom.

"But we can't have a Hannukkah party without latkes," Ryan said.

"It isn't the same without my mom's recipe," I said. "Besides, we don't have a food processor, so..."

The truth was, I was terrified of making latkes. Some part of me had always been terrified of all that hot oil, of laboring over a soaking tub of scrubbed potatoes, of straining the batter through towels, of getting stuck in the kitchen above the hot stove. Some part of Ryan still quietly persisted, bringing it up again when we went to the flea market to get ingredients. We bought fresh vegetables and spices and two pounds of potatoes...just in case. And then we passed a small stall selling kitchen equipment, where an entire row of used Cuisinart sat, their plugs trailing off the table.

"How much?" Ryan asked, picking each one up, spinning their blades with his thumb and forefinger. "Can you plug this in so we can see it work?"

Half an hour later, we walked back to the car with our arms laden, the new toy swinging in our farmer's market bag.

That night we bustled around our small kitchen, chopping vegetables, layering lasagne, grilling chicken, peeling potatoes. I'll never forget the feeling of slipping those first few potatoes into the machine, watching as the blade splintered carbohydrate into a fine batter. It awakened something in me that I'd left on my parents' tile floor. And when it came time to drop the first few pancakes onto the frying pan, something small and important shifted: here I was, making latkes, without my mother, for the first time. And when our guests came, and ate the first batch, I leapt up and prepared the second batch, enjoying the hustle of the hot hot kitchen, enjoying the company of my friend Tiffany as she leaned against the fridge, catching me up on her life while the pancakes lapped up oil. I was reminded of my mother in one of her famous aprons, her hair bunched around her face as the heat rose ever higher, one hand on her hip, one hand on the spatula as she stood by the pan, chatting with neighbors and friends.


What was it, that feeling? Was it pride? Was it love? Was it awe? The feeling stayed with me until long after the guests had left and the dishes were washed. It was the sensation that a tradition had been passed down and I was there to honor it. And the realization that I wouldn't have even tried if it hadn't been for this goyische boy with blue eyes, the one who an hour before the guests came drove to Lowe's and bought holiday lights for the patio--"blue and white," he'd said, "for Hannukkah."




Tuesday, November 27, 2012

one hundred word story #101

The girl had been living in the staff lounge three weeks before they found her stash. She’d bundled her jeans and sweaters behind the biggest lounge sofa and stuffed granola bars and candy wrappers beneath couch cushions. The office building was brand new; they’d only just furnished the third floor. All the administrators worked behind locked doors. “Does she work here?” the building manager asked, watching as the small woman put on her hat and slunk outside. “No,” said the janitor. “But how did she get in?” the manager pressed. “The same way you did,” the janitor said. “She applied.”

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Isn't it ironic


My childhood: a study in unironic tie-dye.

Remember when irony wasn't a thing? Or if it was a thing, it was a dramatic thing? Saved only for moments of sheer theatricality. So far as I know, it didn't come in the form of skinny jeans and mustaches and vinyl and expensive espresso. Somewhere along the way, irony came to replace nostalgia and sentimentality. It was a way of recalling the past by making fun of it. It's something we all do, almost mechanically.

I recall an old friend from abroad whose layers of sarcasm were piled so thick that I could rarely understand what he was saying. There were jokes, but they were dark, and there were cutting, knowing observations, and there was bitterness, and there was anger, and at the very heart of it all, a kind of sadness so entirely swaddled in emotion that it would spill out at the most unexpected moments, little bursts of honesty that when unfurled, would wipe away all the bullshit. It was those moments that made him my friend. There was a brilliance to the way he cloaked it all in, an irony to his self-deprecation and occasional malevolence, and yet it was an irony I have yet to truly understand.

I wonder, though, if things in him had settled, and if all the caustic one-liners were swept away, if we had been better friends.

I've written before that irony is a thing that emerged in my generation in response to eight years of George W. Bush. I still believe this, and feel within me a deep-seated sense of political unrest whenever I think of those eight long years. Perhaps because that era is over, and because my personal life has achieved some semblance of stability, I don't burn with that glimmer of political dramatics the way I once did.

It's still curious, then, that during that period irony transformed into a cultural aesthetic, one that can be spotted cycling through San Francisco's Mission District on a fixie, sipping a four-dollar espresso, sporting expensive jeans with carefully-torn holes on the knees. But I could be wrong; surely I am. Some of them wear tie-dye.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The wild rumpus

I saw Stephen Elliott read tonight. He read a lot of beautiful words, one after the other. He read from The Adderall Diaries and the screenplay-in-progress for Happy Baby, a film based on his novel of the same name. I wish I could remember the delicate and abrupt way the words turned. But instead I remember this: sitting in the front row watching him describe what it meant to write nonfiction.

"When you're in your twenties, you are so worried what everyone else thinks about you," he said. "When you're in your thirties, you don't care what they think. When you're in your forties, you realize they were never thinking about you at all."

I've heard versions of this over the years, from teachers, writers, friends. But tonight I heard it differently. I thought of how much I long not only for the impulse to write, but the knowledge that I have something actual to say. I spend my days reading and re-reading and editing and revising technical texts that have the practical strength to make things happen, the same way a recipe writer jots down precise instructions for other chefs to follow. But when it comes time to write my own things, to spoon up my own emotional grit, I keep feeling like I'm coming up empty.

I know why it's happening, too. It is the obsession that writers sometimes have that someone is already looking over your shoulder, that each word must impress, that an idea must be fully formed before it is worth, well, anything. When I was a teenager, I'd sneak into my parents' den to write on our family computer, and anytime someone opened the door, I'd growl. They'd never be there to snoop; half the time they wouldn't even notice I was writing until I'd snapped in my chair. That's the great paradox about writing; nobody cares that you are a writer until you have written, and why shouldn't they? Few people are as impressed by someone training for a marathon as they are by someone who has just completed one, in record time, no less.

Perhaps the greatest irony of all is that all I seem to write about these days is how much I want to write.

It's similar to the desire for immersion. You want to understand the words, the cultural cues, the accents, the subtlety of exchange, before you can even conjugate the verbs. The only way to learn is to let yourself be helpless; to hang in limbo, not knowing if what you're saying is absolute crap, or culturally insensitive, or idiotic, or just plain unintelligible, until the day comes that you actually stop thinking about the words themselves, and instead you focus on the meaning behind them.

And that is what I learned (or, rather, learned again) from Stephen Elliott.




Saturday, November 3, 2012

The gospel of stories

"When he was a small boy his father at bedtime told him the great wonder tales of the East, told them and re-told them and re-made them and re-invented them in his own way--the stories of Scheherazade from the Thousand and One Nights, stories told against death to prove the ability of stories to civilize and overcome even the most murderous of tyrants; and the animal fables of the Panchatantra; and the marvels that poured like a waterfall from the Kathasaritsagara, the 'Ocean of the Streams of Story,' the immense story-lake created in Kashmir where his ancestors had been born; and the tales of mighty heroes collected in the Hamzanama and the Adventures of Hatim Tai...To grow up steeped in these tellings was to learn two unforgettable lessons: first, that stories were not true (there were no "real" genies in bottles or flying carpets or wonderful lamps), but by being untrue they could make him feel and know truths that the truth could not tell him, and second, that they all belonged to him, just as they belonged to his father, Anis, and to everyone else, they were all his, as they were his father's, bright stories and dark stories, sacred stories and profane, his to alter and renew and discard and pick up again as and when he pleased, his to laugh at and rejoice in and live in and with and by, to give the stories life by loving them and to be given life by them in return. Man was the storytelling animal, the only creature on earth that told itself stories to understand what kind of creature it was. The story was his birthright, and nobody could take it away."

--Joseph Anton, Salman Rushdie

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Doc in a Box

Sometimes stories present themselves.

It was just past 11am, Sunday, a sunny, beautiful day. They were leaning against the railing that separated the sidewalk from the train tracks, a middle-aged woman with a sallow face and a similarly-aged man in a polo shirt.

"Are you from around here?" the woman asked. Her face was weirdly calm. She was holding her forearm at an odd angle.

"Uh," we said, but we stopped walking.

"I think I might have broken my arm," she said. Some part of me had instinctively avoided looking down. There, in the middle of her forearm, was an uneven ridge, three or four inches long, purple and swollen. It looked like an eggplant was sprouting from her arm.

"Our ride's coming," she said, nodding back to the street. Somehow I doubted that this was true. "Can you tell me where there's a doc-in-a-box?"

I didn't really know where to direct her--what exactly is a doc-in-a-box? I half expected to point to a dumpster and see a man with a stethoscope emerge. So many questions. I directed her to the clinic across the way and she smiled and nodded, cradling her arm closer to her chest.

"Have a nice day," she said.

We kept walking, and the further we got from her, the more I kicked myself for not getting the full story. They were positioned just so on the train tracks--maybe they had hitched a ride on the Starlight and she'd barrel-rolled out the side? And what had happened to their mysterious driver? Had someone dropped them off on one street, and they'd somehow gotten ensnared in some urban imbroglio by the next street? I could just imagine their driver, a flustered familiar, maybe a niece or nephew, rolling up alongside their aunt and uncle and sputtering, "But I JUST dropped you off!"

Michelle was with us and she pointed out that their clothes were not too soiled; perhaps they had not jumped the train but rather been jumped by someone. "That arm was broken hours ago," she said. "They had to sleep it off, whatever it was."

All the potential explanations swirled in my head for the rest of the day. It was Choose-Your-Own-Adventure reversing in my mind. Surely there was some simple explanation for it; she probably just stepped off the curb wrong. There was something to the very ordinariness of it all; as if this was the kind of thing one did on any given Sunday--leaned casually against a fence along the train tracks, nursing an arm the size and shape of a small eggplant.

By the time we had walked back at the end of lunch, the couple was gone. It gave me pause. Maybe their ride had come. Maybe they found a box with a doc in it.

Or maybe, they'd hitched a ride on the next train out of town. I think I hear it now.

Monday, October 8, 2012

On commitment


I've been to a lot of weddings recently. And I've also seen a lot of dogs.

We live by a dog park and every day when I bike home from work I see them, big and small, black, brown, and white, terriers and mutts and pit bulls and collies and purebred poodles, French bulldogs and scruffy chihuahuas with legs like sticks.

I imagine Mitt Romney driving with his dog on the roof of his truck. I wonder if that dog sees the world the way I do: leery of what could happen with his owner at the wheel.

I remember the dogs I saw in Chile; emaciated, scrappy things wandering the streets.

I think of the dog my father broke out of the pound when he was younger than I am now, and how, years later, he stayed up all night on our lawn, cradling Tommy when there was nothing else he could do.

I think of what our dog, this hypothetical, imaginary thing we call aimlessly around the house, would do to fill long afternoon hours. I measure the height of things in our apartment to see if tails would knock them over. I worry about how long it would take to train her. There's a narrative for her forming in my mind. I plan for her the way others plan weddings. It seems like these are parallel choices: here you are, making a decision that will dictate who you spend your time with, and where, and how, and just what all that means, and there you are, welcoming a living, breathing, beautiful thing into your life, making space for it where maybe there wasn't before, learning its tricks, eccentricities, preferences, vocabulary. It seems like the kind of decision you labor over until it is made, and once you are sure, that yes, this is person you want and need by your side, and yes, this animal belongs nowhere else as much as it does right here, maybe then you learn to accept the things you can't predict will happen. Because they will happen, with or without him, with or without her, and who knows how much richer your life could or would be.

The metaphor stops there. People aren't dogs, though I like to imagine that they are. Dogs can't talk; they can't rub your back or buy you blood glucose monitors when you lose them (again). They can't make the kind of babies you might someday want.

But they sure are awesome. Dogs, that is.



Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Termite church

I can't stop thinking about the termite church down the street.

I noticed the church the first time a few weeks ago, midday on a Sunday, when the carillon bells were ringing and a ragtag crew was huddled under the patio awning. It has a beautiful steeple, elegant and sharp, its tones resonant and comforting amidst the slight chaos and confusion of downtown San Jose. That first Sunday I figured that people were gathering to pray, but then I noticed that many of the parishioners had that same skinny lean to them, and that some of them resembled the regulars who spend their nights in the public park across the street. I half expected to see a friar breaking bread, his head bald in the sunlight. I wish now that I had stopped walking and gone inside.

A few nights ago Ryan and I went walking and I noticed a thick blue fabric wrapped snugly around the steeple. It looked like a giant band-aid, a gauze so thick even the glass windows were smothered in its red and blue. As we drew nearer I saw that the entire church was cloaked in awful stripes, the telltale advertisements for pest control hanging loosely to the facade. It looked like God had spun a colorful spiderweb around a church and left it to catch flies.

"Is this a sign?" I asked.

"It's a sign that there's termites," Ryan said.

I wonder if they pray. We kept walking but my impulse was to turn back, to get up close, to zero in and see if they were inside, thousands of small, fluttering, invasive pests, huddling closely together, praying. How did they know? Did they know? What was it about that old, bitter wood that tasted better than the buildings across the street?

Even now, days later, I wonder what the inside of that steeple looks like, with thousands of creatures turning ever inward, and what would happen if one day a divine hand pulled back the fabric and let them loose.

Do you think they would go?



Sunday, September 30, 2012

Baseball


We went to the Oakland Coliseum today to see the A's smash the Seattle Mariners. I believe they won because I spent the last two innings drawing Coco Crisp and Yoenis Cespedes as dogs. That, and they are professional ball players.

Sometimes I think the world looks better when you close your eyes and pretend everyone is just a big, barking animal. Then I open them and remember, oh yeah, that's not so far off. And what's better - we can both catch balls.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Authors & Illustrators for Children

In case you had any doubts about the 2012 election - try asking a kid.



This ad is brought to you by the lovely writers and artists of Authors and Illustrators for Children, a nonprofit co-founded by my aunt, April Halprin Wayland, writer, activist, poet extraordinaire.

Monday, September 17, 2012

My JDRF pitch

The leaves are turning. The wind is shifting. The universe holds its breath: it knows. It is fundraising season.

Every October my family and I raise money for the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, a nonprofit whose funds go directly to research that affects the lives of people living with type 1 diabetes. If you've ever read this blog, or perchance glanced at the machine on my hip, you know why we do this. That song never changes. This year, instead of appealing to your pocketbook for my own benefit, I want you to shift your focus.

This year I want to raise money for JDRF to support the parents and caregivers of people with type 1. For decades type 1 diabetes was known as "juvenile diabetes" because it is typically is diagnosed in children and adolescents. Type 1 is autoimmune, which means that the body develops uber-powerful antibodies that destroy the islets of Langerhans -- those oh-so-special cells that create insulin. Insulin is the hormone that makes it possible for us to metabolize all the sugar we eat. It is what lets us use what we put in our bodies for energy. It is also easily destroyed by digestive enzymes, which means that for those of us who no longer make it, the best way for us to get the hormones we need is to inject them through the skin. The go-to method for treating type 1 is multiple injection therapy; depending on your age, size, metabolism, and the kind of insulin you take, you could be taking anywhere from one to five shots a day. An increasing number of diabetics take insulin through an insulin pump, an amazing little machine that requires daily upkeep. Not to mention testing your blood sugar, which must be done with minute lancets that pierce through the fleshy skin of your fingers.

This is a lot for a little kid to think about. I can only imagine what it must feel like for their parents, siblings, and caregivers.

I think about all the things my parents have done for me -- regular parent stuff, like making me dinner every night as a child, or teaching me how to assemble a tent, or shlepping across the state with my rowing team in high school -- and somehow it is all raised to the power of three when insulin gets involved. How they must have worried when I left the country - alone - not once or twice, but three times. What must have been going through their mind when I'd call them from somewhere far away because I'd lost my blood sugar monitor or gotten low at work or been denied coverage or gotten food poisoning and threw up my dosage. I remember the way my parents handled health insurance companies, and the graceful way they taught me to be unashamed for this thing that sidled its way into our lives.

I think about the kids I met at camp, many of them still too young or unprepared to give themselves their own injections. Somehow it was one thousand times harder for me to give them their shots than to take my own. I remember their parents at the end of the week: the ones that called to hash out dosages with camp nurses, the ones who took advantage of five days without carbohydrate counting to go on a little vacation of their own. What must that be like?

I think about my older brother, Josh, who years later is a fabulously popular high school teacher, and how he'd sit with me until I felt better, this big wonderful sensitive goofy person who innately knows to make the big things small again.

I think of my best friends growing up, who sat through my gigglefests whenever I got low, and quickly perfected the subtlest way of asking, "...Are you sure you don't need some juice?" And the reasonable, honorable way they taught me to see type 1 for what it is -- a thing as outside me as it is inside.

I think of my cousins and aunts and uncles and neighbors and grandparents, the ones who donate every year, who attend JDRF research meetings in other cities, who don't mind when I pass up the Christmas pie, but are ready with a slice in case I change my mind.

I think of my boyfriend, whose patience is a thing of wonder. A few weeks ago I was standing in front of the bathroom mirror, staring at my abdomen, which was decorated with a pump infusion set on one side and a continuous blood glucose monitor glowing on the opposite hip. Sometimes it just looks ugly to me. I asked him what he thought and he said, I can't even really see them anymore. They are a part of you, so I like them.

These are the people I want you to donate for. Or if you are these people - do it for yourself. There are millions of worthy causes worth your time and money, but few whose impact spreads quite as quickly as this one.

My family is raising money for the JDRF Walk to Cure Diabetes on October 7. To donate for our cause, visit our team page.

Thank you.

Monday, September 10, 2012

A moment

These are the things she thinks about when no one is looking:

the perfect size dog
marshmallows
the Gobi desert
toyboattoyboattoyboat
every person she has ever loved, in consecutive order
the smell of iron
how her Oscar speech would start
why it's called Dr. Pepper
Calvin and Hobbes
her grandfather's face that day


And when others ask, this is what she claims to be thinking about:

the heat
the stock market
that crisis in another country
the circumference of the Earth
endangered whales
that sale at Macy's
the latest cover of the New Yorker

On the rare occasion that these things overlap, that's when she realizes she's hit a moment of truth. Either that, or she's found the perfect size dog.

Sunday, September 9, 2012

Passion and pianos

One of the people I admire most in my life is my grandmother Saralee, who became a fine pianist at a very young age, which earned her a scholarship to Julliard in the early 1940s. This is a woman who was devoted to her husband and two children, but was also so driven to plan her life around the piano. She's almost 90 and she still practices almost every day, running those arthritic fingers up and down the keys as if the very sound of music could feed the hungry, as if the perfect sonata or the most elegant concerto could achieve as much or more as the CEO of a corporation or a doctor in an emergency room. When she plays, the stakes are always that high. She respects music the way others respect business--the way many respect money. She acknowledges that no matter how many times she plays a piece, it could always sound different; it could always sound better.

I sense that many artists feel this way about their craft. I go through periods when all I want to do is write. It's not enough to write; I have to really write--I have to write as if what I'm doing is as worthy of time and attention as any other professional task. As if this were why I got up, why I commute, why I stay inside, why I put other things off. I have to feel an absence when I'm not writing, as if every day something doesn't get written I'm staring at a piano that hasn't been played. These are the stakes of not writing. Not writing is akin to not caring - something that feels very dangerous.

This begs the question, then, how does one transfer passion? Is it transferable? Or is that the wrong question entirely?

I don't know yet, but until I do, that will be the question that gets me up every day.

Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Night walks

I took a walk tonight under the moon. For the first time in as many months as I can remember, I did not take my iPod or my cell phone. The cicadas were humming, the grasshoppers chirping. I have always loved the sounds of a summer night. I had forgotten about them.

Everywhere I have ever lived, I have taken night walks. There's something about seeing a city settle, noticing the way shadows gather on lawns, watching the gradation of grey to black in everything from roses to decaying lawnmowers. It seems that every street has its pattern: for each house with its lights off, its shutters drawn, there is another with the doors left tidily open, the TV on, the fan whirring. I love walking past rooms where you can tell something has just been interrupted. I'd like to think it's a form of literary voyeurism; there's nothing like walking in to a story right when a secret gets revealed.

I only walked four blocks, but in that time and space I saw houses that looked like people, their porches worn into wan smiles, their turrets climbing like pigtails. I saw a young black man sitting on a stoop smoking a cigarette in front of a beautiful old restored home. I saw a woman washing dishes. I saw a lava lamp illuminating a store window. I saw trees bigger than I remember them being. I noticed the lean of telephone poles. I passed an elderly Asian man who looked like he was just getting off work. I heard the light rail pass.

I thought about all the things I did today; all the tasks completed, all the food eaten, all the information consumed, all the emails written, all the phone calls made. So much accomplished, and yet it wasn't until I went outside, alone, after the sun went down, that I felt really awake. Really myself. It was both the best and worst feeling, knowing that there are so many stories floating around me, so many things to notice, and regretting the fact that I must have missed so many already, because for some reason it felt more important to plug into someone else's virtual world.

In Fuengirola, I walked for a very different reason. I walked at night because, quite frankly, there was nothing else to do. I walked on Saturday mornings, often going to the end of the Paseo Maritimo before I realized that I'd walked clear out of our little town and to the boundaries - and eventually limits - of the next town over. I'd walk and I'd listen and I'd watch all these people moving, shifting, interacting around me. I spent a lot of time following the beach. I got lost in suburban side streets. Once I got lost in a neighborhood because I recognized a street name from my own barrio - just to realize that the next town over had a street of the same name. These walks furthered that loss of self that comes with leaving where you're from. I wanted to walk into another language. I wanted it to feel clean. I wanted to lay down on the sand and soak it all in. For several weeks, this was how I spent my leisure time.

I realized tonight that when I turn off my iPod, when I silence my cell phone, when I really listen to what's going on around me, the words are already there. I can feel them forming in my temples. There are still so many things to say, and so many ways to say them. There's time to get it all down. I just have to remember to listen.


Saturday, August 25, 2012

Back to school



This is dedicated to all my teacher friends. I miss having something to go "back" to. Learn good, kids.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Lit Up!



This was filmed last month at Lit Up Writers in San Francisco. I hope to be participating in more literary events in the Bay Area now that I am back in my old stomping grounds. Many thanks to Graham Gremore and Jennifer Lou for curating this lovely event.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

The thrills of summer

I had a moment of truth today.

Somehow, for two years of my adult life, my primary responsibilities were writing and teaching. And perhaps even more amazing, I spent two summers driving cross country with the best man in the world.

This summer I started working within 48 hours of graduating - and haven't stopped since.

I suppose we all have to grow up sometime.

I realized, though, that often when things fall into place, I have to resist the urge to break them apart. It's an impulse that must go back to childhood - the same feeling you might get when you find an undone seam in your shirt and you want desperately to unravel it all. It's an instinct I only recently realized I have. And now, since I'm a grown-up, I'm resisting it with all my might, because I worked my ass off to get here. The good news is, it has rekindled a creative fire I worried I might lose.

After my first full day at the office, I came home and found this:



This, to me, epitomizes the ideal summer. It was early June and this was our first campsite of many. The day was long but passed quickly. We fell into a leisurely rhythm of driving, hiking, cooking, and sight-seeing. We couldn't predict where we'd be next, and even when we did plan ahead, something more interesting always came along. We were outside most of the day.

As wonderful as that trip was, and as tempting as it is to think longingly of Carlsbad Caverns or beignets in New Orleans or flea markets in Pittsburgh, I have to remember the stress and anxiety that came with uncertainty. That same month I had to transfer from an already expensive insurance plan to the exhaustively expensive HIPAA plan - something I never could have afforded without my family's help. I was about to start graduate school but didn't really know where it would lead me. I was moving 110 miles from my boyfriend. A lot of things were exciting, and a lot of things were scary.

I'm trying hard to remember that when things feel scary, it is often because deep within them lies some new and untapped thrill. And what says summer more than that?

So here's to weekend vacations - to new beginnings - to stable jobs - to sharing an address with the best man in the world. I promise not to rip the seam.




Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Introducing Fictionables

Remember the 100-word-story postcard? Want to buy one? Or three? Or five?

Three different designs (#16: Heartbreak, #42: When you're a skunk, and #31: Pies) will be available starting mid-August on my new Etsy page, Fictionables.

Help us spread the word - in every possible sense.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Dear Internet,

Dear Internet,

Please help me write a book.

I realize that lots of letters and prayers might start this way, but mine is unique, I swear. This is not a Kickstarter pledge, nor is it the pitch letter I hope to one day write. This is the kick before that step. This is the I-have-something-in-mind-and-in-order-for-it-to-realize-its-full-potential-I've-got-to-do-a-lot-more-research step. A long step, yes, but a crucial one. One that you, Internet, could hurry me along.

When I was 22 I moved to Fuengirola, Spain, to work as an educational assistant at an elementary school that was implementing its first year of a bilingualism program. I was naive and my Spanish was high intermediate at best and I more or less flew by the seat of my pants and nothing too terrible happened and I'm a much better person for having lived alone, thousands of miles from home, in another language, for the better part of nine months.

That is not the story I am writing. The story I am writing is way more interesting. The stories I am writing are about all the things I feared would happen, an amalgamation of immigration stories that six-year-olds told me, whilst learning to add and subtract, and the stories their moms and dads told after school, and perhaps most interesting, the glaring difference between the two. The stories I want to write are about living between languages, cultures, countries, identities. The stories I am writing are about expatriates -- those that embrace the label and live each day homesick, those that slip right in while no one's looking, those that exist in limbo until the day someone finally notices.

So where do you come in, Internet?

Well, here's the thing: I've written six stories so far, and hope to write at least five more. My characters are American, Spanish, German, and English; but I want to include much more. In order to do this I need a better understanding of how people land in Fuengirola, what their life is like there, and what kinds of fears and desires they have. Don't worry: I do plan to do my homework - I will read what you recommend, and I will sit my ass in my chair and flail through the words as they come or don't come - but more than anything I need to know what life is like for expats in Fuengirola today. Now.

Note: I am not asking for money, or space, or anything fully tangible. I'm asking for people who currently live in Southern Spain, or who have in the past, to answer a few simple questions about their life abroad. This will be a piece of fiction and I am not interested in using other people's experiences or words. What I want are your impressions of life abroad, and what reflections you may have about your own nationality during your time away.

What will you get? A very kind email from me, a written acknowledgement if this thing ever gets published, brownie points in Heaven.

If you are still reading and are interested in chatting with me further about this project, please email me at foreignerthebook@gmail.com.

Thank you, Internet, for letting me post such a long letter. I owe you one.

Yours,

Julia

Thursday, July 19, 2012

On faith and future

I’ve read a lot about the difference between educators who identify either as “a writer who teaches” or “a teacher who writes.” I have wavered on that line for so long, not really wanting to choose, because to me they are complementary skills, like fiction and nonfiction. The challenge for me has always been time and space. How do I value my time as writer? As a teacher? What is the best way to develop as both?

I found much comfort in Don Murray’s words. Two weeks into the Invitational Summer Institute at the San Jose Area Writing Project, Ryan and I drove up to the Eastern Sierra to camp out for his birthday. I was a ball of worry. I did not know how to adapt my ideas for my presentation. I had committed to teach at a summer camp for children but was in desperate need for a mental vacation. I was still waiting to hear back about a potential full-time writing gig, one I that both excited and worried me, because I knew that by accepting this job, I would not have the time or space to teach. I could tell Ryan was tired of hearing me worry, so I opened up Don Murray’s book and searched for a passage to read aloud. As luck would have it, I opened to this paragraph, entitled “Faith”:

“Hardest of all for me. Faith that I can write, that I have something to say, that I can find out what it is, that I can make it clear to me, to a reader, that I can write so that the reader is not aware of the writer, but the meaning.

Faith enough not to read what is written until the entire draft is done and then not to compare it to what it might have been or what others have done, but to listen to the writing, to see in it its own meaning, its own form, to hear its own voice. Faith enough to stand out there all alone and invite the lightning.”
-- Murray 84-85

I’m not a strong believer in epiphanies - more often than not, they are moments that confirm a secret fear or desire, one that lay hidden within us all along. I suppose epiphanies are less the moments themselves and more the strike that starts the lightning. We were driving through Los Banos and I found myself clutching this book, learning, once again, that no matter what I decide to do, I get to be the one that decides. I have a book I want to finish, so I’ll work on it bit by bit until I can share it with my readers, and then I’ll work on it rewrite it and revise it and rework it until it something I can feel proud sharing. I have exercise and health goals, so I’ll do my best to make time for running and eating well. I value my friends and family, so I’ll try to find time for both. I want to learn so much - how to teach, how to design websites, how to draw, how to speak other languages, eventually, how to parent - and so I’ll simply have to trust that these are things that I’ll learn, in time.

And perhaps the greatest irony here is that I felt so validated when reading Murray’s reflection on his own wavering faith. These are things we all feel - Anne Lamott certainly has, Hemingway likely did (they say he wrote the ending of one of his novels something like 38 times?), teachers seem to. But what I’ve learned about teachers this summer, at least the ones I’ve met, is that the commitment to their students is stronger than any fleeting insecurity. Perhaps it is comparable to the commitment writers feel to the page, but I don’t know if it is. A page doesn’t talk back to you or endure standardized exams. Perhaps this could explain how my greatest fear as a teacher was facing a room full of empty, expressionless faces. How could you know what you were doing had an impact?

You don’t - just the way I don’t know where my writing will take me, if anywhere, but it’s the pleasure in the process that keeps the words coming.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

The landing

Last night Ryan and I walked to San Pedro Market, where we saw a live jazz band playing under the canopy of trees strung with little white lights. We wandered through the stalls selling baklava and pizza, juice, coffee and beer, walking between hipster couples with large earrings and young families pushing strollers and thirtysomething executives with Bluetooths. There was an ancient cactus towering overhead, its blossoms hanging over an old plaque that declared this the city’s first central plaza. This, I thought, must be San Jose. I live here now.

What does that mean, to live in San Jose? So far it means skirting St. James Park and biking down Fourth Street to San Jose State. It means biking the Guadalupe Parkway under the airplanes, circling the Shark Tank and eating jambalaya on the Fourth of July at the Poor House Bistro. It means coming home from class, taping our windows and doors, and painting our place our own colors. It means walking through Japantown searching for fireworks, stopping at Smile Market first because we like its name, second because the man behind the counter has the most brilliant silver hair, third because they sell packs of pens for one dollar each.

I don’t really know how to navigate this city yet, or where, exactly, to place myself in it. For three years this was the place I drove to on weekends, arrived late and tired so I could lay down on the couch with Ryan and shake my week out of me, weeks of writing and grading and stressing and family and running, forever running.

Now I can feel San Jose seeping into my bones. It’s an energy I can’t quite define. It isn’t the hipster irony of San Francisco, nor is it the down-to-earth quiet of Davis, the hot splendor of Málaga or that unreal magic of Southern California. It is a place of wrought iron, of clanging trains and tall, metallic buildings that catch the light just so, a place that speaks Spanish, Vietnamese, Chinese, Japanese, Tagalog, English - and likely much more.

I still remember my first day in each new place: that foggiest of September days when my parents dropped me off at the Anacapa dorm along the Santa Barbara coastline, that bright cold morning I descended the bus in Granada, where a huddle of Spanish “mothers” waited, their hair in curlers, the trees around the square barren and thin as toothpicks; that dazzling October day I drove up the steep hill in Bernal Heights that would be my home those three daydream years, when adulthood felt like a trick I was learning to stick, that first day back in my hometown, shuffling back into my parents’ kitchen, trying so hard not to feel 15 again. The common denominator is always the way these first days are framed, before the terrain is mine, before the topography real, before the smells familiar, before all my favorite spots surface -- this new place, or rather my place in it, is unclaimed. It is both terrifying and freeing - this knowledge that here is an identity I can walk into with open arms.

The difference this time is that I’m not alone. This time my favorite person is sitting in the room opposite, and he knows how to caulk baseboards and grill steak and he’s ready with a glass of juice when I’m low. This time I (we) are spending so much energy building this place from the ground up that by the time night falls there’s nothing appealing about going out, unless it is to Trader Joe’s for more carrots and apples, or to stroll the streets of Japantown looking for wizard houses. (I believe that all buildings with turrets house wizards.)

This time I want to stick the landing.




Monday, June 25, 2012

On the river

On the River

From my mother:
the flare of my nostrils,
the predilection for pens,
the insatiable desire for the ocean.
She gives me carrots in lemon zest,
potato latkes fried in oil,
money for the ride home.

From Pops:
the squint in my eyes
the clench of my jaw
that itch to have a job,
to move, to hustle.
Pops gives and gives and gives--

a new battery for my car,
lightbulbs for the back porch,
running shoes for the next big race.

My Amah gave me this cackle,
a bookshelf full of red books,
family history recorded in sheet music.
She gave me words I still don't understand
but need just as much.

Gramma Jackson could ride
a bicycle backwards with her body
facing the back wheel.
I once saw her reel in a 140-lb halibut
off the side of an Alaskan boat.
She refused help,
even when the fish
pulled her back and forth
along the narrow bow.
She was 76.

I'd like to think
I got my pull from her -
but I could never quite get
my fish in the boat.

Grampa Fred taught me
how to record,
how to measure,
how many pounds, how many inches,
how many gallons.
How much we could not measure:

How do you quantify
winning a pinochle game
against a whole mess
of boy cousins?
Or filling the church
that hot Saturday last October
when Gramma left us,
her head always proud,
her feet always firmly on dry land.

It was my brother
who gave me this heart,
laden with words I still chase -
the way he chases waves,
bigger, endlessly bluer,
than the waves we grew up surfing.

I never knew Grampa Leahn
but what I do know I feel
on the river:
in the hush hush of egrets
chattering over the hum of the boat -
riparian radio, Mom calls it.

I sense him in the silt
that settles between my toes.

Our family is found in the Earth,
solid as granite,
forgiving as sand,
fluid as the river.



--after Linda Hogan's "Heritage," written during Roohi Vora's afternoon writing group at the San Jose Area Writing Project, June 2012


Tuesday, June 5, 2012

On angels

"HARPER: Night flight to San Francisco. Chase the moon across America. God! It's been years since I was on a plane!

When we hit thirty-five thousand feet, we'll have reached the tropopause. The great belt of calm air. As close as I'll ever get to the ozone.

I dreamed we were there. The plane leapt the tropopause, the safe air, and attained the outer rim, the ozone, which was ragged and torn, patches of it threadbare as old cheesecloth, and that was frightening...

But I saw something only I could see, because of my astonishing ability to see such things:

Souls were rising, from the earth far below, souls of the dead, people who had perished, from famine, from war, from the plague, they floated up, like skydivers in reverse, limbs all akimbo, wheeling and spinning. And the souls of these departed joined hands, clasped ankles and formed a web, a great net of souls, and the souls were three-atom oxygen molecules, of the stuff of ozone, and the outer rim absorbed them, and was repaired.

Nothing's lost forever. In this world, there is a kind of painful progress. Longing for what we've left behind, and dreaming ahead.

At least I think that's so."

--Angels in America, Part Two: Perestroika, Act Five, Scene 10


Tony Kushner, you kill me every time.

Thursday, May 31, 2012

On nostalgia

When I was a kid I used to love reading my grandparents' back issues of Country magazine. The glossy issues were mostly photographs sent in by subscribers, with the occasional article about twenty-first century barn raising or specialty pie crusts thrown in for good measure. More than anything the magazine celebrated nostalgia - think of those inspirational messages superimposed over kittens dangling from trees, those close-ups of basset hounds and babies in baskets. It was so sentimental, but the reason why it worked was because it was one hundred percent sincere. Try as I might, I could never find a hint of irony in those pages. Just puns, and American flags, and corn on the cob and Fourth of July.

I was reading these magazines in the Bush Sr. years and on into the Clinton era. It was really difficult to read these magazines come 2001 - by then the red, white and blue felt ironic in spite of itself.

For years I felt a similar pang of nostalgia when I thought about my hometown. How could you not? You grow up, you go away, you come back, and suddenly there are all the trees you grew up climbing, and there's the pond where you once caught tadpoles, and there's the Farmer's Market with all the vendors who know your first and last name. I was always reminded of the caption-writing contests in Country, and how, if I framed a scene with my fingers, I could name what happened there: where I learned to read. Where Josh built a skate ramp. Where we put on plays. All those quiet spaces where, on quiet evenings when the weather was right, you could reinvent yourself.

Coming back as an adult, as a graduate student, as a person with relationships and ties to other communities, has transformed, yet again, what my hometown is to me. It's a place intensely focused on school - a place where people come from around the world to study the crops, the law, medicine, science, writing. But it's just as much (if not more) what happens when school is not in session. Running 5ks, 10ks, half marathons. Local artists, local crafts, Flea Markets, farmers from around the valley, families on bikes, activists.

The last few years have taught me how to write, how to read, how to teach, how to cultivate and participate in a literary community, and perhaps more than all that, how to be an adult in the town I knew as a child. I get to hang out with my parents because they are my family and because they are my friends. I can reconnect with childhood friends beyond the superficial - I can really see what their adult lives are like. I can make my own decisions and judgments about the things I like and don't like about living in a small town.

In some ways leaving Davis a second time is giving me the chance to grow up again; to have a clearer idea of what I want from the world, of what I can contribute, of who I want with me along the way. This is not kittens hanging from trees or basset hounds in baskets. This is acknowledging that the world is imperfect, that sometimes bad shit happens, that the universe is not ruled on reason. And the best thing about being a writer is knowing that when things go wrong, you've got the vocabulary at your fingertips to put a name to it all. Name it, own it, make it art, move on.

And there, by the grace of whatever, go I...

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Fiction-aid


Fictionade Magazine - a magazine I currently contribute stories to - is offering a revolutionary online lit mag model for emerging writers and readers of contemporary fiction. If you like reading new stories and want to support emerging writers, this is one easy way to do it.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Noise

"The family is the cradle of the world's misinformation. There must be something in family life that generates factual error. Over-closeness, the noise and heat of being. Perhaps something even deeper, like the need to survive. Murray says we are fragile creatures surrounded by a world of hostile facts. Facts threaten our happiness and security. The deeper we delve into the nature of things, the looser our structure may seem to be become. The family process works toward sealing off the world. Small errors grow a heads, fictions proliferate. I tell Murray that ignorance and confusion can't possibly be the driving forces behind family solidarity. What an idea, what a subversion. He asks me why the strongest family units exist in the least developed societies. Not to know is a weapon of survival, he says. Magic and superstition become entrenched as the powerful orthodoxy of the clan. The family is strongest where objective reality is most likely to be misinterpreted. What a heartless theory, I say. But Murray insists it's true."

--Don DeLillo, White Noise, 81-82

In an era when some Americans feel the need to "defend" the "institution" of "marriage," this feels ever more salient.

Monday, May 14, 2012

On graduation

I have this theory that words are cyclical, that all periods of serious production are followed by their necessary blank slates, that white noise that fills the gap between projects. I can't help thinking of all the unnecessary words in the world - the slogans, the cliches, the maxims, the polite repartee, the conversational habits of the universe - and wondering if as writers our job is to sieve it all down, sort it all out, until the only words that are left are the ones that matter most. The ones we've really got to earn.

I defended my master's thesis last week. I ended up turning in five stories that follow the same characters on the southern coast of Spain, four other stories (linked in theme but not in character/setting), and a working draft of the 100 word story project. It totals about 140 pages and feels like a promising but unwieldy baby, this beautiful yet messy monster that hasn't yet discovered the true source of its power. All of this, and still I feel the need to winnow, to pare it down, to find its roots. It is an exciting feeling. One I hope to fuel as the years go by and the characters grow with me.

My goal now is to produce another four or five stories set in Spain, to improve the narrative voice, diction and cultural cues to the point where I could structure a novel in linked stories. I hope to work on this manuscript for the next year (or more, whatever it needs, honestly) and then to apply to fellowships and work residencies abroad, where I could more fully delve into the voices of expats abroad - the voices I still remember but can't fully imitate.

Beyond that, the future is as endless and bizarre as this wide net of words. My defense was early; I still have four more weeks of grading, homework, planning, filing. I will soon be moving back to the Bay Area, where, for the first time in more than three years, I will be living in the same zip code as my boyfriend. I have been applying for jobs like crazy - teaching jobs, writing jobs, school jobs, anything that involves writing and people and environments where I can really throw myself into creative projects. This week sparked the first of several graduations - the air is ripe with the angst and excitement of programs ending, chapters closing. Sometimes I hate nostalgia, though I give into it with such ease. I have started contributing to Fictionade, a new subscription-based e-magazine, which shows great promise.

This weekend we drove down to Santa Barbara (my alma mater) for a friend's wedding. I still remember the fog of that final spring - how anticlimactic it all was, the moisture in the air until mid-May, when the beach was suddenly overtaken by the hot breath of the Santa Ana winds. It was the hottest I'd ever known Santa Barbara to be; in those final weeks of college I remember going to bed with a wet wash cloth across my forehead, watching the shadows on my yellow co-op wall as the heat trapped us indoors. The climate was telling us something. Move along now, it said. You've done what you came here to do. Go find other things to do, other places to be.

I can only imagine what heat Davis promises me, in these last few weeks. The messages are louder this year, but maybe that's because this time I'm really listening.


Monday, April 30, 2012

On submission

I submitted my master's thesis on Friday, all 140+ pages of short stories and flash fiction. Hence the radio silence.

Note, too, the word "submit." As if handing it over were akin to bowing in submission, prostrating with your manuscript beneath you, making yourself smaller than it. I made the mistake of celebrating before it was time, running down the hall as soon as I'd slid those crisp bound pages into my three readers' mailboxes, chanting, "I turned it in! I turned it in!" To which our program administrator said, not unkindly, "Ah, yes, but they haven't read it yet, have they?"

There probably isn't a better way to describe what it's like, trying to write. The obsession with new characters, new stories, new projects - the precision of revision, the frenzy of rethinking, rewriting, the careful, plodding way that stories develop over time - and then, once you submit it, letting the documents loose into that vacuous wide open ether, who's to say that what it is you've sweat over, labored over, alternately loved and hated, is anything of substance?

I suppose, I guess, one's thesis committee.

Not that I'm nervous or anything. Or anxious or terrified or secretly suspecting that, in one week's time, they'll gather me and my friends and my family all in one little stuffy room, then ask me to drop the sheets one by one out of a third story window, underscoring, yet again, the fruitlessness of it all, this prodding, obsessive need to play with words.

But then there are nights like last Friday, when I was lucky enough to see one of my pieces (from the dratted thesis) performed by a wonderful actor, Benjamin Ismail, at Stories on Stage in Sacramento. I was especially encouraged to hear the amazing "The Art of Fiction" by Lindsey Crittenden, a successful writer who graduated from this very same program a while back. I was so nervous, thinking and rethinking and obsessing over all the edits I should have made before this thing made the light of day, all the scenes that should have been shorter, all the lines that could have done more, earned more. And then a funny thing happened. He started reading and he found things in the story that I didn't know were there. He found voices where I wasn't sure there were any, and little moments of poignancy or humor that I didn't necessarily plant or plan.

So maybe we get both kinds of moments - those ever-present occasions to kneel, to submit, to let all our work vaporize into the atmosphere, and those rare times when someone reads our work back to us and we get to stop, breathe, and think, hey, maybe there is value in all this.

Maybe there is and maybe there isn't - until then I'll just have to keep submitting.

Monday, April 16, 2012

one hundred word story: Werewolf

Gertie never liked Harriet’s boyfriend. He combed his hair into a ponytail and rarely bared his teeth. Maybe it was the loose way he buckled his pants. Maybe it was his hugs—long, excruciating embraces that crumpled women in his arms. Gertie resolved to be kind, until the day he surprised her after work. His face was darker, his eyebrows bushier, his hands mottled with scars. I feel like we can’t connect, he said, brushing one paw along her palm. The moon gleamed. Gertie called security. That night, she eyed the waxing moon, waiting for that long and plaintive howl.

for a longer version of this story, check out Fictionade Magazine starting April 21

Friday, April 13, 2012

Duende

The duende…Where is the duende? Through the empty arch comes a wind, a mental wind blowing relentlessly over the heads of the dead, in search of new landscapes and unknown accents; a wind that smells of baby’s spittle, crushed glass, and jellyfish veil, announcing the constant baptism of newly created things.

--Federico Garcia Lorca, “Play and Theory of the Duende” (1933)

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Introducing the 100-word-story postcard



Starting in late April, I will be selling 100-word stories as postcards. All of the images and stories are my own; my boyfriend Ryan helped me upload, tweak and design the postcards. I will bring a set of postcards to Stories on Stage in Sacramento on April 27th, when a local actor will perform my short story, "Big Dog."

It's my goal to get these postcards out into the world, mailing stories around the globe. Spread the word!

Sunday, April 1, 2012

On running




Today I ran one of the most beautiful courses I've ever done with my friend Shirlee. The half marathon started at the Santa Cruz waterfront, wound along West Cliff, wandered out beyond Natural Bridges State Beach and looped Wilder Ranch. That loop was by far the best part of the 13-mile run. I've had the pleasure of running along many beautiful beaches - Santa Barbara, Malaga, Tenerife, Hawaii - but today the waves were crashing so high that as we followed the coastline, our feet clipping the bluffs, we were dusted in ocean spray. The bluffs followed an ess curve and with every bend you could make out a long line of runners dotting the opposite cliff. Sometimes I think this is how humans should move - all of us chugging along at our own pace, in twos, threes, and fours, occasionally breaking the line just to feel that momentary thrill of leading the pack.

Sometimes I feel the best about my body when I'm running.

There is something that happens when I am racing, usually around mile 10. I find someone ten yards ahead and decide it's time to beat them. As soon as I get on their heels it's time to pick the next person. And so on. Today I noticed new magic. All I had to do was name the color of their jersey, and before I knew it I'd catch them. Purple. Blue. Pink. Red. It felt like writing. Name a feeling and you feel it. Describe an action and there you are, ten steps forward, ten times faster. Running falls somewhere between careful calculation and a complete freedom to be - it is a measurable escape, a feeling I crave often.

Mile 12 is intolerably long and today I found myself chanting a little mantra. This is something I can do. This is something I can do. When I was first running with my dad, I'd remember the trains from Shining Time Station and the way they'd chug, I think I can I think I can. At some point I dropped the think.

How wonderful things can be when you don't have to think, when muscle memory is good enough. I love it when I'm running and I forget for a moment that actions have consequences - that on nights like these, after long runs, I must set alarms to test my blood sugar in the middle of the night, or that, everywhere I go, I'm zippered up with all kinds of sugar. I think I can? No, this is something I can do. And did -- with my boyfriend's mom Shirlee, who has run six of these babies before. Talk about badass. And at the finish line, there they were - Ryan, my parents, his dad, our dog Taj, the ocean itself. All limbs still functioning, all organs intact.

I have a few friends who run the full 26.2-mile marathons and my respect for them (and their knees!) deepens with each race. I don't know if I'll ever run that far in one go, but I think, maybe, someday I can.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

What happens after

My Grandpa will be turning 90 this year. He lost his wife of 66 years, my dear Grandma, last fall. Grandpa is still in good health; he keeps a nice garden and follows the Sacramento Kings.

The last time he went to the doctor, the doctor told him about one of his patients, who at 92, was widowed and two weeks later married an old childhood sweetheart. They lived together for ten years before he died.

My dad asked Grandpa what he thought of this. Grandpa said he could never see himself with another woman; for him there was only and only ever will be Grandma. She was a wonderful woman. They traveled the world together, raised three kids, seven grandchildren and two great-grandkids. All that is given. But what worries Grandpa is what happens after - in heaven.

"What would I say to her when we meet again?" he asked my dad.

I'm not sure what charms me more - the idea that he expects to see her again, or the the image of the two of them, reunited once more.

Monday, March 19, 2012

one hundred word story #100: Bean counter

It’s a tireless game, all this imagining. You want a universe and so you must invent it. You want a popsicle and so you must make it drip down your chin. You want a man with a Frisbee for a head, so you draw him. Etcetera. Other people--PhDs, MBAs, MDs, JDs, CFOs, UFOs—other people perform real services, create real goods. Other people can weigh what they’ve created in two hands. Other people chat you up at cocktail parties, say, What you do sounds so fun. You smile, but inside you know. Your hands are dirty from counting words.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

one hundred word story #99: Red tide

He takes me to witness the red tide. The beach emits sparks as long as the tunnel waves exploding out of black water. When his feet touch sand, the ground blanches, white jets light up the rich black earth. We sit at the intersection of two glowing tides. The water leaks into the heavens: long, black, fluid, star-like waves extend skyward. I stay here until I, too, am bioluminescent. My freckles become stars, my hair its own Milky Way. He star-gazes my freckles. When I brush my hair, he sees shooting stars. I glow. It’s not forever, but it’s enough.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Flash fun



My piece, "When life gives you lemons," was a finalist in the Sacramento News and Review's Flash Fiction contest, as was "Caving."

Watch out, universe: 100-worders may well storm a city near you someday.

image credit: Sacramento News and Review

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

one hundred word story #98: Collage

Hey buffalo breath. Hopefully I've learned to stop falling in love with extremely beautiful women with brothel talent. Come to think of it, yes I now hate you. You got the clown nose. I was in the Mustang GT500 that passed you doing 144mph. I heard some B/S bout you, hope yr ok. To the girls in the past who led me on: Be real. Ditch the out-of-state vanity plates and the personalized bumper stickers. You looked super cute as a zombie looking for very dirty, dirty graphic designers. Must be from the South. oh well im used to it.


note: this is all found text from online missed connections ads

one hundred story #97: Upside down

She never used to let me hold her. She'd rub against my legs, purring, and when I’d pick her up she’d climb up my shoulders until she was atop my back. I’d walk sideways until she jumped off. Last night we found her on the deck. She smelled terrible. It's strange, holding an animal you know won't be alive long. As the night wore on she deflated in my arms. She preferred the outdoors, but the last night Josh slept here, she curled up alongside him—as if she knew. I turned sideways and when the time came, she jumped.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

one hundred word story #96: Santa Barbara

So we're sitting around eating shish kabobs when Toya announces that the truck on the corner has a bed full of ice. "Dirty snow," she says. Half the house gets on its feet. I am still eating when Allie stuffs a snowball down my shirt. Ten minutes later, there’s a trail of snow prints on the kitchen floor, a miniature snowman (with orange peel arms) outside the front door, and ten wet housemates. Allie and I rendezvous to ambush JC. I launch a snowball into his room. It lands in his underwear drawer. Some things are too perfect to plan.

one hundred word story #95: Letting go

I was skating alone until a boy, seven or eight years old, zoomed across my path. We spun together in a little circle, clutching each other so we wouldn't fall. I grabbed his collar. Every time I tried to let go, he’d fall backward, losing balance. I clung harder. We kept twirling until we’d worn a slow groove in the ice. I let go. He stood there with his jaw ajar, as if about to blow a bubble."Are you all right?" I asked. He nodded and skated away--right into the little plastic shield. I never should have let go.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Miranda July & Mike Mills

Is it surprising that the woman who brought us this



is connected to the man who created this?


Now that's what I call a double feature.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

one hundred word story #94: Exoskeleton

In high school I had a crush on a single boy. One day I decided I would just not like him anymore. It was cold, January. I wanted to leave my feelings out in the safflower fields. I sat down amongst the cover crops, hugged my knees, and the feelings slid off like a snake's exoskeleton. I was molting. Eventually I stood up, leaving behind the ghost shell of infatuation and the one thing he once said that made me feel pretty. I ground my heels into the dirt, crushing the crush. That night, my skin grew in even thicker.

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

one hundred word story #93: High flyers

They were flying. I parked along the bluffs overlooking the water. I saw humans in the air, surfing marionettes tied to kites in the sky. The wetsuited men and women were strapped into wakeboards and harnessed to enormous kites, kites so large and powerful that the wind carried them over the crashing waves, into the air. They braided the water. There was at least a dozen of them skimming the water and leapfrogging into the air, shimmering over that velvet blue as if it were soft fabric. It was color, wind, water, sun, flight. I didn’t blink for thirty minutes.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

one hundred word story #92: Baby talk

Victoria never liked babies. She hated their spittle, the high decibels of their cries, their complete reliance on the world. As a babysitter, she was aware of all the ways children could be broken. Playground slides. Sharp corners. Scissors. Babies were like overripe fruit. Adults had to be much tougher. One night a white bird appeared in her bedroom, dangling a swaddled thing in its beak. She shooed it outside but the damage was done: the baby had already soiled her sheets. I didn’t even have sex, she said to the baby, who, despite his overripe smell, had broken her.

Friday, February 24, 2012

one hundred word story #91: Heartbreak

She has a heart but all it pumps is blood. She can't fall in love. One night an infomercial changes everything. There it is: a love machine. It arrives two days later, this small contraption that slips right in her bra, as close to the atrium as she can get it. She wears it on her next date, and immediately Craig is more attractive, more wonderful. Months pass. Craig proposes. She has never been happier. But she forgot to read the fine print. The machine short-circuits on her wedding day. As she walks down the aisle, her heart races, bursts.

Monday, February 20, 2012

one hundred word story #90: A question of choice

A panel of men is selected to decide if health insurance companies should cover birth control. While they determine who gets protection, and how, a panel of women assemble in a room opposite. Their topic? Little blue pills. While the men turn away women needing medication, their own special prescriptions are not being filled. That night, at the pharmacy, the line is long. Later still, their wives are even more disappointed than usual. How could you, the men pout. What we do in the bedroom is not your business. Oh, but it is now, the women say. It is now.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

one hundred word story #89: The bully

The bully spikes her chocolate milk with Tabasco. She watches the parade pass her by: the girls with their glossy magazines, the boys with their cards. Fear runs down their arms with sweat. Junior high is sticky. The bully spots her girl, the smallest sixth-grader, and pushes her against the wall. The girl crumples. This is it. This is her moment. Whatever it is the bully takes is never as good as the taking itself. But this time the girl leans forward and kisses the bully, a practiced maneuver, long and severe. It stings. The bully slumps; she’s been taken

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

one hundred word story #88: Legend in the making

She carries a pistol in her bra and a match in her boot. Occasionally the townsfolk notice the odd bulge in her shirt but they know not to ask questions. Not since the great stick-up of ’47, when One-Eyed-Wanda single-handedly saved the town from invading chipmunks. One day Wanda smells something suspicious wafting up from behind her cabin. She loads the gun, nestles it between her breasts, and goes downstairs. Two outlaws are roasting chipmunks on a spit. Wanda reaches for her boot and they freeze. She strikes the match and throws it on the fire. Bon appétit, she says.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Valentine



This video is an excerpt of "USA: Poetry: Frank O'Hara" produced and directed by Richard Moore, for KQED and WNET, originally aired on September 1, 1966. O'Hara was killed in an accident that July. I first read his poems in Robyn Bell's class at the College of Creative Studies at UCSB in 2003, and I haven't stopped since.

Happy Valentine's Day.

Friday, February 10, 2012

2.10.12



Evidence of a diabetic life well lived:

The blue needles are used to pull insulin from the vial into pump reservoirs. The black needles are the ones that go beneath the skin. The hypodermic needles are for the occasions when a pump site might be faulty.

I filled this box in about four months.

It's funny, the things you get used to, after eleven years.

Monday, February 6, 2012

one hundred word story #87: Back country

The tour guides on the bayou feed the crocodiles marshmellows. I often see them from my house on the bank. When they ignore my no trespassing signs, I fire a warning shot. Once I accidentally grazed someone with a ball bearing. He fell off the boat in surprise, his form collapsing into bubbles as the guide distracted the crocodiles with candy. This prompted me to post a new sign. The guide devised a new route, but sometimes they make a wrong turn. The crowd always gasps when they see my sign: TRESPASSERS MAKE GOOD GUMBO. I live for that moment.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

one hundred word story #86: Crunchy

He’s synesthetic. He’s macrobiotic. He’s vegan. Al eats only raw food that, when written down, appears yellow, green, or brown – colors of the earth. His body is so pure, so unadulterated, that if you stared down his throat, you could read the Adidas swipe on the sole of his shoe. His body is a wind tunnel. When winter turns to spring, you can spot him out west of town, shooting through the fields like a kite. I found him once, tangled up in my cherry tree, and asked, Why? Al’s smile was beatific. Because it’s wonderful, he said, being raw.

Thursday, February 2, 2012

one hundred word story #85: The curve

Isn’t it always a question of timing? She asks, hair swept across her face. I think it’s always about timing. George isn’t listening. He’s watching the race unfold. They are professional Nascar drivers. See how James takes that curve, nice and slow? She points. He knows when to gather speed. I don’t care how James takes the curve, George says. He turns away, buries his fists into his pockets. She stiffens. George, if this is about last night—. She senses him waiting. I can be patient, she says. Yeah, he says sadly, only when you’re in the driver’s seat.

Tuesday, January 31, 2012

one hundred word story #84: Transit

We park my bike next to yours in the shed overnight. The next morning, three small tricycles hide under my back wheel. The tricycles have my curvy handlebars and your racer stripes. My bike looks tired, her tires deflated. Your bike’s pedals spin midair. You reach for a trike, but it rolls out of view. Maybe they belong to the neighbors, you say. You reach for the door but I stop you. Let’s leave it open, I say. We’re not gone long, but when we come back, the bikes are gone. That night, we park our cars down the street.

Monday, January 30, 2012

one hundred word story #83: Migrant

Gertie wants to follow the birds south. She can see them from her window: Canadian geese, loons, the occasional egret or blue heron. It’s been a long autumn. Sometimes, on days when it is all too much, she gets on her bike at sunset and tails the birds around the pond. The birds fly in one great vee, swooping back to their nesting grounds in time for dark. But sometimes there is a straggler, a lingerer, a loner who considers the darkening sky an invitation and just keeps flying. Gertie understands. One day she’ll go. Until then, she waits, nesting.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

one hundred word story #82: Spring cleaning

Kevin walks into the kitchen as the appliances are staging their revolution. The fridge door slams open and shut, jiggling expired salsa and salad dressing. The dishwasher foams, soap bubbles colonizing the tile floor. The oven is on full blast. The wires in the circuit breaker have been cut. What do you want? He asks. The oven opens its mouth. The dishwasher gurgles. The fridge swings open, beeps. The icebox has a message scratched across its frozen surface. Use us, or we’ll use ourselves. Kevin empties the fridge. Mops the floor. Bakes cookies. He relaxes, until he sees the bathroom.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

one hundred word story #81: Rainbow

Eric is incapable of feeling emotion, so the doctors install a meter on his abdomen. When the arrow swings to the red zone, it means he is reacting in anger. When it goes blue, his body is heavy with sadness. He can’t locate a color for happiness. Then Angelika walks in his shop. One look and blood rises like mercury to his brain. Eric feels steam in his throat, iron in his chest. This feeling – if that’s what it is – is off the charts. Are you okay? She asks. The meter is whistling—self-deconstructing. I am, Eric says. I am.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

one hundred word story #80: Lecturer

He is loquacious, not listening when people ask questions, not caring when someone gets the answer wrong, just loving, adoring, worshipping the sound of his own voice, its sonorous tenor echoing off the classroom walls in almost visible waves. Then, halfway through a lecture on Active Listening, his voice gives out, hissing like a deflated tire while the words wind down. He. Can. Only. Say. One. Word. At. A. Time. The gaps between words fill with sounds of students talking. Some have smart things to say. He is startled into silence. Despite his efforts, he’s given his best lecture yet.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Self-deportation? Really?

Apparently there is a grassroots organization, endorsed by the Tea Party, called Patriots for Self-Deportation, whose mission it is to "call awareness to the threats that our beloved nation, the United States of America, faces from illegal immigration."

This is frightening, absurd, and frankly, un-American.

The movement calls for Americans to "verify that you are an anchor baby" (those are their exact words) and in the case that one is not, say, one of "us," citizens are advised to reapply for citizenship (yes, that's a "re" there), or return to the country of the ancestors' origin. Effectively, this website and its organization is asking people to go back where they came from -- all under the guise that by doing so, they are being real patriots.

Perhaps the best part of this website are its comments. There were those like me, who after stumbling upon this site, assumed (and frankly, hoped) that it was a huge practical joke. This organization believes that the best way to address illegal immigration is to ask citizens to research their family history with the intention of catching "an illegal" (they use that word to refer to a person more than once), and then voluntarily self-deport (I did not know that was a reflexive verb, thanks Mitt Romney) back to their ancestral home. This is all assuming that one's ancestral home will be beckoning them back with open arms, regardless of, say, religious persecution, political exile, um, genocide, or, I don't know, run-of-the-mill immigration regulations. How could this not be a joke?

And then I noticed this: about halfway down its Frequently Asked Questions Page, there is the following exchange:

Luke Owen: "This is batshit insane."
Eric Rife: "It's called SATIRE. Loosen up."
Patriots for Self-Deportation: "We are for real. Why would you think it is satire?"
David: "Because you are ridiculous."

Here are some questions for you, Patriots for Self-Deportation:

1) Who, in their right mind, would rescind their citizenship? Especially if they were born in this country and their parents or grandparents fought tooth and nail to get them a better life? Especially if their family was fleeing a war, a racist regime, etc., etc.?

2) Given the amount of paperwork that goes into applying for citizenship in any country, do you really think that this is the most efficient way to approach illegal immigration in the United States?

3) By the way, where are you from? Your parents? Grandparents? Oh yeah, that's right, it is not supposed to matter, because we live in a country that was founded by people fleeing other countries. A place where people should be treated like people -- not objects that can be made legal or illegal, zipped back and forth over borders because they fail to be "anchor babies."

If you are curious as to what got me so riled up about this, please watch this:



You'll notice some laughter in the background. I think that's our pal Luke Owen.

one hundred word story #79: Problem solver

Jared’s body is a series of stacked triangles—his nose pointed, his pecs sculpted, his legs boxy and small. He is an unsolved mathematical proof. His body, though compact, is only useful when plugged in to an equation. He’s not big enough for football, not aerodynamic enough to swim. What can he do? He fits into a square two times. Given the right proportions, he can make any angle right. But he is incomplete. One day he meets his match: Alfonso, the diver, whose legs are steel, whose arms circumnavigate Jared’s neck. Together, they solve problems. Together, they are indivisible.

Monday, January 23, 2012

one hundred word story #78: His story

When she tells him her major, he says, Let me tell you something about history. History is dust. History is the dirt under your fingernails. What are you going to do with that? She doesn’t say anything, so he says, I study political science. I’m going to make history. He hasn’t looked up from his drink, so he doesn’t notice when she walks away. But she does remember his face—-enough to recognize him ten years later, when he interviews for an internship at her law firm. Has your political philosophy changed? She asks. Oh that? He says. That’s history.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

one hundred story #77: The sound of music

She used to listen to records with her father while they washed dishes. Her hands had to be dry when it came time to flip the record. She’d hold it with her thumb and forefinger before placing the needle. This is sacred, he’d say, peering through the record’s eye. Twenty years later, when she’d fit her music collection onto a single hard drive, she realized what was missing. Aretha, Bob, Etta—they were invisible files written in invisible code. She longed to hold something. That night, at the music store, she thumbed stacks of records, rubbing music into her hands.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

one hundred word story #76: The letter

On your way out you say, write me a letter. I watch until your car is white speck on the horizon. Monday is lousy with rain so I let the drops fall on the page. Tuesday the trees are dewy with blossoms, so I squish some in the envelope. Wednesday a squirrel leaves footprints on the paper. Thursday I want to fit the rest of the world in, but there aren’t enough words. When Friday comes, you are here again, your books on my desk, your smell in my room, you say, don’t worry, baby, this is what I meant.

Friday, January 20, 2012

one hundred word story #75: Good girl

She always worked hard, took out the garbage, brushed her teeth every night. By all accounts, she was a good person. What was so special about good? Or was that just it—good wasn’t special? She decided to test her limits. She started small: biting her fingernails, lying about her age, skimping on tips. No one noticed. She took it up a notch, sending passive-aggressive emails, “forgetting” to file her taxes, letting her dog shit on the park lawn. She’d never felt better. Then she realized: good is defined in terms of bad – and bad felt so good. Thank goodness.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

This makes me really happy



Lydia Davis: on the off-off-off-off-off chance that you come across this, or perhaps have your name set on Google Alerts, or perhaps have an intern somewhere whose job it is to Google you, please know that your stories are my manna. Granted, you are too interesting, important and busy to read blogs like mine, but I'll let myself dream that perhaps, someday, through the miracle that is the internet, you'll know what I mean.

footage from the 2010 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, shot by Penguin Digital

one hundred word story #74: When you're a skunk

Stefano and the skunks sport gang colors, comb their white stripes into mohawks, The cats stake out windowsills kitty-corner to the crime scene. The trouble started when the chief cat, Maurice, discovered the trash heap behind the student co-op and snuck his ladyfriends in for a late night snack. By the time Stefano’s crew showed up, the good stuff was gone. The ensuing battle was a sensory explosion: Maurice and his girls’ sharp claws could only do so much before Stefano launched his secret attack. The stench inspired a silence so raw, so reverent, the cats got drunk on skunk.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

one hundred word story #73: Intelligent design

Elsie works nights as a nurse, volunteers every week with the elderly. She prays on her hands and knees. She is vegetarian, vegan on Sundays. Her clothes are second-hand. Then, one night, Jesus comes to her in a dream. He says, I can grant you one wish – peace on Earth, eternal life—anything. Her dream self asks for a tree that grows Louis Vuitton purses. Jesus is surprised but he obliges her. Elsie wakes up embarrassed. She’s nearly forgotten the whole thing when she steps outside and there it is: a tree decorated in designer purses. “Hell yeah,” she whispers.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Reggie Watts: my cosmic hero




Improvised song about the universe? By the one and only Reggie Watts? On public radio? Yes please.

one hundred word story #72: Bedside manner

"Open wide," the dentist says. Clarissa hates the dentist. She hates the smell of his gloves and the brusque way he flosses her teeth, see-sawing between molars like he secretly wants to saw them all down. He always asks he questions when his hands are deep in her mouth. One day he asks her to recite the Quadratic Equation, then waits while her mouth fills with saliva. Clarissa takes this as a sign, and studies before her next doctor’s appointment--a pap smear. When the gynecologist says “Open wide,” Clarissa recites the Pythagorean Theorem. “Um, other end,” the doctor says.

Monday, January 16, 2012

one hundred word story #71: Ninth life

Their mom said they could no longer afford the cat. Rudy filled a burlap sack with rocks. Gerald coaxed the old girl inside, her fur matted and dirty. Tom tried to block out the mewling, the incessant throb of her purrs. When they got to the bridge they saw that the riverbed was dry and cracked. The brothers looked the other way while Tom wound up. He didn’t notice the fabric shred just so. When he released, the bag was light and airy, the cat gone. There was no plop. The boys waited. And then: the bridge began to purr.

one hundred word story #70: Hit and run

Burt is a lonely medical student. He spends long hours studying in the library and as many hours at the pub, decoding graffiti on the wall. And then he meets his match: a leggy brunette with fascinating viscera. Her lab report says it was a hit and run. Burt cannot understand who could run from her. They keep her face covered but a single curl escaped below her jaw. He writes her poems on pub walls, leaves notes in biology textbooks. One day he sees a note balled in her fist. Fuck off, it reads. Burt hits her and runs.