Saturday, October 29, 2005

Neighborhood proofs

Today I looked at the printer's proofs for the Oakland Neighborhoods book and OK'd them. Pretty fascinating to hold a mock-up of a book in your hands. The proofs I got from Arcadia for the previous book were not bound like these were. It makes a cool psychological difference!

It looks like I will have the shipment of books in time for the Nov. 19 launch party. There was a little nail-chewing on this timing aspect, but I asked the printer to Fed-Ex three copies when the book is ready (the rest will arrive by truck), so that if worse came to worse, I'd at least have a few copies to pass around.

Now it looks like I'll have 1,003 copies to pass around.

Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Being Loudy

I've been thinking all Frenchish lately. Besides remembering the modified "C'est la vie" of my old French teacher, I was last night trying to tell someone that my favorite vegetable was haricots verts (sp?) because they are so darn skinny and crunchy. (His favorite was broccoli.) My third French link in as many days was remembering something that happened to Alan and I in August. We were trying to get Coke out of a machine and wouldn't you know it, we fumble a coin and it rolls under the machine.

Now, in the U.S. when you drop a coin it's at most a quarter and oh well. In France, it was a 2-Euro coin, basically $2.50, so we were on our hands and knees trying to fetch it. It was too far back to reach, so we stood back up and Alan started trying to move the Coke machine. I wasn't aware that we were causing any kind of commotion (we were alone in a hallway of a shallow mall outside the train station at Versailles), but all of a sudden this guy comes out into the hallway from one of the shops and demands to know what we are doing.

"We dropped money," is what I tried to say, but I didn't remember the verb for "dropping" and instead used the verb for "falling." (In retrospect--this very minute, in fact -- I'm thinking that the verb is laisser tomber, to let fall. So I maybe wasn't that far off. Oui?)

So, the employee's eyes widen and he is asking me, "You fell?" He is worried about Le Litigation. "No, no," I say. "The money." It takes a while to sort out, but finally he understands.

He looks at us both and says in English, "And this gives you the right to be so loudy?"

It's clear we are being scolded, but it's pretty hard not to laugh. I hastily apologize (always scared of being the Ugly American) and he helps move the machine. We get our 2-Euro back and there's another one under there as well, so he is rewarded for his trouble.

Alan and I have both tried to assign the nickname Loudy to each other, but it just isn't sticking. Maybe because although we are Americans with all the boisterous crudeness the world expects of us, deep at heart we are really actually quiety.

Tuesday, October 25, 2005

A writers' community

I belong to the San Francisco Writers Workshop, a writers group that has been in existence since the 1940s with circulating membership. Currently, our leader is Tamim Ansary, author of West of Kabul, East of New York.
I love our group. Since writing is such a solitary activity, it’s great to get together with a bunch of people on a weekly basis and share our heartaches/successes/slog tales. It’s also good to get some feedback on a work in progress from serious writers.
Our group has spawned some well-known writers, like Tamim; Khaled Hosseini, author of The Kite Runner; Joe Quirk, author of The Ultimate Rush and a forthcoming book on evolutionary biology vis a vis the genders; Michael Chorost, author of Rebuilt; and Maria Strom, author of Rainbow Joe and Me.
There’s also been a spate of debut novelists getting publishing contracts. Kemble Scott’s book SoMa will be published by Kensington (I just read it and it’s a page-turner); Melodie Bowsher’s book The Embezzler’s Child will come out from Bloomsbury; and my novel tentatively titled A Woman of Ill Fame will be published by Heyday.
Our group has many, many talented writers, including Gary Turchin, and I know their turn is coming up next if there’s any justice in the world.
A note on the post titled “Please Excuse Prior Post”—that post was apologizing for a test post that appeared with the enigmatic text of simply “bbb.” While I had deleted the post, it simply wasn’t disappearing, so I decided to let it lay and address it… when of course, it then decided to disappear. Ah well. C’est la vie. Or as my high school French teacher used to say so astutely, “C’est la vie, c’est la guerre; ce n’est pas une pomme de terre” (That’s life, that’s war; it’s not a potato.)

Sunday, October 23, 2005

Excuse the prior post

"BBB" isn't really meaningful except to slobbering infants testing out sounds. That arose out of my frustration at crafting a really long, heartfelt post called "Would-Be Squirrel Rescue" about my attempts to shepherd a squirrel out of the road, only to hit "publish post" and have it disappear. Agh! So I did a test post (the BBB) which I now cannot delete because it oddly does not show up in my dashboard, though it does show up on the live blog. Whatever. I continue.

About the squirrel: turns out he was already dead, even though the breeze of passing cars made his fluffy tail stand up and waggle as if he were tormented, which is what made me do the U-turn and come to his aid. With my windshield sun screen, I pushed his rigor-mortised body out of the road, thinking it was the least I could do. As we approached the grassy median, his body jammed into the curb and no amount of maneuvering could get him up that slope, so I used my index finger and thumb of my left hand to grab his little back paw (where I thought fleas and rabidity were least likely to reside) and swoop him up to the median. I used that same hand to do the father-son-holy spirit thing you see the pope do, said "take care" to him, and got back into my car, studiously avoiding use of my left hand. I unrolled the window (right hand) and dangled my left arm out, driving fast enough that I hope the breeze would blow the germs right off!

In my original post, I talked a lot about my former animal rescues (most notably, a pigeon with a broken wing -- I saw the car that hit it or vice versa is more accurate-- that I held in my arms, fighting my own tears and its writhing while I begged the 7-11 clerk to call my friend and come get me. My friend did, we went to the bird rescue place and supposedly the pigeon is today flying with a healthy wing!) and how I have a certificate on my wall about my bravery in showing a skunk how to safely exit our basement.... oh well. My heart bleeds for my animal friends, and that was the gist of it.

The Oakland Heritage Alliance house tour was today, and it was great. Nothing so wonderfully lurid as walking through people's houses in a publically-endorsed event! It's funny to see the houses all carefully staged... and then you see in the Craftsman-tiled shower that they are using Head and Shoulders dandruff shampoo. Or they leave up their family photos so you study the faces and wonder where they all are right now... at a cafe while strangers wander through their house? It was all for a good cause, to raise money for OHA.

And now I am off to read the rest of my friend Scott's cool novel Soma, which will be published next year by Kensington.

Thursday, October 20, 2005

Historic history

I'm working right now (deadline breathing down my neck, so of course I decide to blog instead) on an update to Beth Bagwell's wonderful Oakland history book Oakland, Story of a City. This reference book is the be-all, end-all of Oakland history.

But it was written in 1982 and since then we've had a big earthquake, a firestorm, a Strong Mayor initiative, a dot-com rise and crash, etc. etc. My job is to update the book for the last 20 years. Right up my alley: I love Oakland, and I love history.


Ostensibly, yes. But I'm finding I have a real bias for old history. Historic history. What happened here in the 1970s is perhaps a little less compelling. Give me streetcars and ostrich-plumed hats and I'm in ecstasy. Give me Broadway Auto Row and I'm working rather than playing. But I can't complain. I'm honored that I was asked to do the update, and it is compelling to learn about Oakland's more recent history. I moved here in 1991 -- just in time for the firestorm--and so there's a lot I don't know.

For instance, during some research yesterday I came across these cool pictures of our City Hall just after the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake. The quake battered City Hall so badly that there was talk of tearing down the gorgeous 1912 structure, which was the first City Hall in the U.S. to be built as a skyscraper. Preservationists fought to save the building, and today it rests on seismic pads in the basement, which will move around and allow it to sway like a winsome girl in a daisy field next time the Big One hits.

Anyway, Bagwell's book is currently out of print -- the Oakland Heritage Alliance sold out of its print run. Which is good news, because it shows that Oaklanders love their history and will buy this book, and because as soon as the update I'm working on is ready, we can start fresh with a new print run with a new cover. (While I love the book, the cover could use a new design.)

Oakland Heritage Alliance is a very cool group that we can thank for many wonderful things still being around. It's not just a nostalgic, let's-love-the-past group; the members actively push for preservation--ironically, by attending City Council meetings in the City Hall they once saved!

Wednesday, October 19, 2005


Here's one of the reasons I love teaching. The other day I walked into the classroom and confessed to my students that I was in a really good mood, for no apparent reason. One student nodded knowingly and said, "It's the serotonin."

I teach community college English as an adjunct (adjunct="temporary" instructor who may teach up to 25 years without benefits and the security of a contract. I'm at four years and counting.) It's a complex job. While I love what a colleague once called the "performance aspect of teaching," I can't stand the outside-the-classroom stuff: grading zillions of essays, calculating grades, holding office hours and hearing the pitiful stories of students who just HAVE TO PASS the class despite the fact that they stopped coming, never turned in essays, failed all the quizzes, etc. I also don't like confronting students about plagiarism, which is a rampant problem administration doesn't always seem to care about.

What I do like is introducing students to things they might not have read otherwise (my two English 1A classes are right now reading Me Talk Pretty One Day), getting them interested in history and literature, breaking them into groups to work together and hopefully make friends (sad to say, it seems like unless if you're at a residential college with dorms, it's hard for students to develop those friendships that are really what college is about...) Some of my happiest moments have been hearing students talk about going over to each other's houses and knowing that that contact arose because I put them together to do a task. A colleague once told me that those friendships also increase retention -- a problem where once the semester gets underway and essays are actually due, people begin to drop out.

I think my main underlying philosophy of teaching is that if I can make reading fun, and make students want to continue reading after my class is over, then I've done my job.

Because let's be honest. I can't undo the decade or so of teachers shrugging and promoting students to the next grade even though they can't write a complete sentence and don't know how to make their subject and verb agree. I can't, in a three-month semester, make students understand the nuances of irony (one of my saddest days was using The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2003 and seeing the students not "get" the Onion article anthologized in it.) I can't turn their chunky, nonparallel sentences into paragons of eloquence with our twice-weekly classroom time. What I can do is turn them on to reading by selecting real books that I read and enjoy -- with the hope that they will continue to ferret out reading and by pure exposure pick up the writing tools that I and my peers picked up by the same method.

I can't tell you how many times students have said to me, "I never read an entire book before."
This is from community college students, who (hopefully but not necessarily) graduated from high school! The one book that has most often elicited the tacked-on postscript to that startling statement -- "until I read this one!"-- is Kindred by Octavia Butler.

And speaking of school, I now have to go there.

Monday, October 17, 2005

Inaugural nothingness

I've been putting off beginning a blog, because you have to have that first entry that -- to my mind at least -- should be about something important. And I've got nothing much to offer today. Had a great time at Litquake last week. I can't wait for it to be next year so I can go again! Litquake is an enormous, week-long literary festival in San Francisco. The M.O. seems to be hour-long readings with six readers, so each person is only supposed to read for 10 minutes. Perfect for our short attention span society.
I was surprised at the size of the crowds -- reading is NOT dead! I read with several friends at Litcrawl, a Saturday night where, much like a pubcrawl, you move from venue to venue to hear readings scheduled in blocks to suit your walking (staggering?) pace. The whole thing is just so well engineered -- one of the best volunteer-organized events I've ever seen. My friend Tamim's wife Debby Krantz is on the volunteer board, and she deserves huge kudos for making this all so seamless and enjoyable.