Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Holy Hailchunks, Batman

Five minutes after I got in my car after my morning run, it started raining and I felt lucky for the timing. Five minutes after I got into my house, it started hailing!

Hailing in Oakland, California!

The sound of the pellets bouncing on the windowsill made Boddington, a cat we are watching while his parents are in Hawaii for the same rotation Alan and I will take, sprint to the window to look.

Monday, February 27, 2006

Joe Quirk at Rickshaw Stop

Come to San Francisco's funky and red-velveted Rickshaw Stop on March 16 to see Joe Quirk read. The reading's theme is "Cliffhangers" and I know exactly what Joe has to be reading: ten minutes from the first chapter of his novel The Ultimate Rush. Joe read from this at Litquake and you could feel the palpable inhale as people waited for his next words and realized blue-balledly that his 10 minutes were up.

Five others are reading too. James Warner is the wickedly funny emcee. Should be a good night out. More details here.

Saturday, February 25, 2006

A Woman of Ill Fame postponed

My Gold Rush novel A Woman of Ill Fame has been pushed from this fall to spring ’07.


People make fun of me for this expletive, I guess because it sounds very Nancy Drewish, but I’m confident in my ability to, on occasion, swear like a sailor at port. All my sisters say “Rats” like me, and we emphasize the sulky pathos inside our disappointment.

I’m part of a growing movement to reinstate “Rats” as a commonplace expression. Let’s say, you’re circling the block for the third time and see someone pull into a choice parking space just in front of you: Rats!

You’re trying to find your ringing phone somewhere in the house, and just as you spy it, the caller goes to voice mail. Rats!

You break a nail. Holy cow! No, no no….RATS!

The exclamation is satisfying not only in its syncopated consonance, but also because it’s evocative of a time when a medieval woman might see the flicker in her kitchen and scream “Rats!”

And of course there’s the whole carrying-the-Bubonic-plague thing.

According to my dictionary, rat comes from the Latin root rodere, to gnaw. And there is no mention of rats as an expletive.

The image above comes from an illustrated online version of the Pied Piper, a really horrible story where a piper steals all the town's children. I think this story is where the phrase "You've got to pay the piper" comes from... because if the piper had been paid for ridding the town of rats, he would not have taken the children.

Anyway, I had hoped 2006 would be the year I’d hold a published novel in my hands (uh, one that I wrote, I mean). Seems like I’ve got another 12 months to go.

Wednesday, February 22, 2006

Black Diamonds

Alan and I hiked the Black Diamond Mines preserve today. I had been out there on Sunday with the Nature Friends and liked it so much I wanted to show him.

This was where coal mines operated from 1855 to 1902. The pioneer cemetery, shown in the top two photos, holds over a hundred graves of the Welsh miners and their families. It’s so sad to wander the tombstones and see the very young death dates. Thank you, modern medicine!

Several of the stones said, “Gone but not forgotten,” and that seemed like such a cruel irony… because of course the people who pledged to never forget are themselves forgotten.

There’s rumors this cemetery is haunted, but I didn’t get that vibe at all.

After the coal mines closed, in large part because – well, do you use coal to heat your house anymore? (When I lived in Ireland, I did! I used to love going to the corner store with my coal hod to load it up. Peat smells a lot better when it burns but is much harder to get lit)

Anyway, the world moved away from coal and towards oil, and the mines closed down. The five little towns filled with 5,000 residents closed up shop and moved the buildings to nearby towns. Twenty years later, the mines were again used, for sand required for the glassmaking process. As Alan and I hiked, we saw plenty of the sand on one of the trails and I picked some up. It was fine as Mexican beach sand.

Oakland’s Hazel Atlas Glass Company used sand from the Somersville Mine, and thanks to this Oakland angle I was able to create a Montclarion history column. Doing a Google image search on Hazel Atlas brought up pictures of beautiful Depression glass, including some striped tumblers I’m sure we had in our house growing up.

My sister Christa is a big antiques person and when she comes out here next month, I’ll have to ask her about it. She knows a lot about bottles because for several summers we rented a cottage in Maine that sat on the edge of a Victorian bottle dump. We had a great time excavating the Lydia Pinkham’s Elixir bottles.

The Hazel Atlas mine portal is open for tours starting next month, but in the meantime there is beautiful hiking to do on the 5,717 acres set aside by the East Bay Regional Park District. Bravo, EBRPD! I think here in the Bay Area we get complacent about our open space and forget that it took a lot of planning and fighting to get these places preserved.

Right now, the road to the Black Diamond Mines is lined with trees in full blossom and the hillsides are bright green, with cows so happy they run! Soon, the summer sun will bake the hills brown and the cows might get a little logy… but right now everything’s bright and springlike. Hard for this ex-Vermonter to realize it’s February.

On a final note, I remember that when we were kids we used to shout "Black Diamonds!" as a sort of "no tag-backs" to timeless classics like "I hit you first/owe me a hot fudge sundae/no returns/Black Diamonds." (We'd say this rhyme in lieu of Jinx when two people said the same word at the same time, since it afforded no bad luck to anyone and even ensured ice cream for the future.) Someday I'll have to get to the bottom of that rhyme and figure out what Black Diamonds really means.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006


Over the weekend I arranged my ticket to Hawaii! Alan’s five-week OB/GYN rotation takes place in Honolulu and before my semester started, we had been talking about how great it would be if I could accompany him. I had envisioned myself on the lanai with my laptop, working on my next novel; grocery shopping and making dinner for my exhausted amniotic-fluid-spattered partner….

But until Random House made its offer, I hadn’t been able to financially swing the idea of taking five weeks off from work.

I told my class today that at the end of April a substitute would usher them through the end of the semester. They are such cool students – I feel like I have their blessing.

Thanks to the fact that my credit card earns airline miles, my flight to Honolulu was free (there ARE advantages to being deep in debt, it turns out). I had a funny phone call with the airline frequent flyer rep. At one point, she said, “I don’t know who you are or how you can manage to go to Hawaii for a month…” (apropos of my trying to decide whether to leave on a Monday, which involved a five-hour layover in Seattle, or wait until Wednesday with a one-hour layover—she was urging the earlier flight to not lose a precious moment in Hawaii). It was fun to explain that I had just sold a novel – turns out she is a writer, too, working on a play about her life. We had a very non-airline talk for a while.

I’ve only been to Hawaii once before, to Maui about six years ago. We stayed in a tent the whole time and only ate one meal out! It was great. I remember getting a week-long snorkel rental for $7 and we snorkled almost every day.

I nearly died in a series of battering waves all taller than me. I was still blowing my nose and having sand issue forth for weeks afterward! I still remember how panicky I was when I couldn’t stand up—the undertow just wrenched the ground from beneath me and then the wave would pummel me into spastic somersaults. Alan saved me.

On the less-frightening side, we had incredible hikes past waterfalls and lush greenery. I remember swimming in caves whose water was supposed to turn red each year with the blood of an Indian princess who had died there tragically (apparently, there are brine shrimp that actually make it red at certain times of year).

I am just so excited to think of five weeks to explore Hawaii and focus on writing! It’ll be like my own private artist’s retreat!! I will use the time wisely.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

What is Hexe about?

The Publishers Weekly listing says: “Set in a small German town in 1487, Hexe examines the medieval struggle between Christianity and pagan tradition through the story of a Christian woman on trial for witchcraft.”

I really like that description, which either my editor or agent crafted.

Hexe is a first-person narrative of a woman who is accused of witchcraft by her own daughter-in-law. She grapples along with her village to find footing somewhere between their long-standing, nature-based ways and the rigid stance of Catholicism—both of which are asking for her life.

Hexe is the German word for witch, and it’s pronounced Hex'-uh.

Monday, February 13, 2006

A lesson in zen

Typically, one of my first thoughts upon waking would be, “Hey! Maybe today is the day my book will sell!” I would not venture out without my cell phone, and after periods of turning it off (for work, for shows, etc.) I would make a point of turning it back on to see if a particular literary agent had called me…

But one day recently, without any forethought, I abandoned that. I put on my running clothes and headed out without even realizing my phone wasn’t on me, and ran a little creekside trail near my house.

And I didn’t even think about my novel when I was running, just about other things that were going on. Paying attention to the water in the creek, the smell of wood, and – well, I have to be frank—the loud music in my earphones.

After my run, I slowed to a walk, and went to my neighborhood grocery store, pulling a shopping list out of the back of my mp3 player case. I was buying food for that night’s dinner and delighting in the centuries-old tradition of only buying as much food as you can carry. Forget car trunks and shopping carts: I was simple, focused on the ingredients for one meal.

I wandered the aisles enjoying the slowing down of my breath, the heat in my cheeks subsiding. I lingered. The day stretched ahead of me. I was not teaching that day, and I had no other task than to prepare dinner. I savored my slowness.

And because of that, fate put me in an express lane that went monumentally slowly. I saw people in other check-out lanes with provisions to get Hannibal and the elephants over the Alps moving out the door with their receipts, while I stood.

It was the kind of day where our cashier became locked out of her cash register, and several visits back and forth with the store manager never yielded results. But I didn’t care for once. I stood patiently, reflecting that the young cashier was so self-possessed. Had I been her age, with the people stacked up in line, I would have been frantic – but she was taking it in stride.

Finally, we all moved to a different lane, and finally I was released from the supermarket, with two bags suspended from my hands. I noted with pleasure that they were equally weighted.

And I walked home, up the hill, steady steps, quiet mind, just taking absolute and total contentment in my leisure.

And when I walked in my front door, my partner Alan bolted up from the sofa and said, with some urgency, “Someone’s been trying to reach you all afternoon!”

I looked at the face of my cell phone, which displayed the name of the person who had tried to call me every 20 minutes.

That someone was Marly Rusoff, my literary agent.

Hexe sold to Random House!

Here's a link to the Publishers Weekly listing
More later!

Saturday, February 11, 2006

Hamlet in a Sweatshirt

You have to check out Impact Theatre’s Hamlet, playing through March 18 at La Val’s Subterranean Theater.

Usually I’m not a big fan of let's-set Shakespeare-in-another-era, but this version which casts Claudius as the modern-day President and Gertrude as the First Lady with a drinking problem is great.

Hamlet, played by Patrick Alparone, sulks in his dark sweatshirt like the teen he is. His bouffant hair is reminiscent of James Dean, and his talent is also reminiscent of that actor. Whenever Alparone’s on stage, the Elizabethan language makes sense. In fact, I had to lean over to ask my friend Chris, who is teaching Hamlet this semester, “Is this pretty much verbatim?” and his answer was “Yes.” In some other characters’ mouths, however, the text is as wooden and impenetrable as a foreign language.

This production begins with a wordless “montage” as the Ghost watches Claudius and Gertrude silently and lustfully embrace, as Hamlet and Ophelia kiss, as Hamlet greets Horatio, etc. I loved this Ghost for his bewildered, skinny patheticness. I think other versions of Hamlet make the Ghost very kingly and severe…this time I felt the deep puzzled sadness the Ghost feels about how the living have behaved since he departed. And, might I add, thanks to Alparone’s acting, this is the first time I truly felt that the Ghost was Hamlet’s **DAD** and that the whole play is imbued with that loss.

Incidentally, the song “Glycerine” played as the Ghost observed the fickleness of the living. “Don’t let the days go by….”

Claudius is another strong player. He is the kind of blustery guy who ruffles everyone’s hair and has easily squeezed into the king’s position of power.

Polonius got outright laughter, deservedly. And he was a dead ringer for Michael Cors, so I kept expecting him to say, “Ophelia, your garment looks like a baboon exploded on it.”

The second half of the play was far less powerful. I’d in a heartbeat go see the first half again, but would rather not see the second. Intermission broke just before the long scene where Claudius tries to calm Laertes, and all the momentum from the first half just vanished. Another criticism is that they cut out the “Alas poor Yorick” scene, which is an important accompaniment/contrast vehicle to the “To be or not to be” speech.

A scene that could be stronger is the one where Polonius is slain behind the curtain. Both Hamlet and Gertrude continued along as if Polonius had been pinched rather than killed…. and his body was literally in the scene as poor Michael Cors tried not to breathe. Finally, actors behind the scenes were quite noisy, such that I wanted to shush them.

Those are small criticisms for a really wonderful production. In this black-box cellar, there was not a whit of scenery and yet the show was just as vivid and riveting as if there had been a real castle with its battlements and great hall. (Or I guess in this retelling, it would be a real White House with its oval office and Lincoln’s bedroom.)

There’s also a really great, genuine swordfight between Laertes and Hamlet. Bravo!

I’ve been doing a lot of research into medieval witchcraft over the last year or so, and that really helped inform this play for me. For instance, the way Hamlet lingers over deciding whether the Ghost is really his dad’s spirit or instead a demon makes total sense. This was an era when people believed demons took the shape of neighbors, and spirits visited during the night: no wonder Hamlet is unsure what to think. It’s easy to discount him as a wuss: hello, your dad asked you quite specifically to avenge him, what are you waiting for? But knowing more about the belief systems of the time allows me to consider him as a little more complex than that.

[And speaking of witchcraft, I have some very, very, very, very, almost unbearably exciting news to impart, but I can’t blog about it until Monday when it’s officially announced.]

La Val’s is a cool place to see a show. The “subterranean” part of the title means that it’s underneath a pizza parlor, and during key moments of the show it adds some levity to hear that someone’s mushroom and sausage pie is ready. In fact, when Hamlet succumbed to the poisoned sword tip, someone upstairs dropped a pool ball… and somehow it seemed appropriate.

Go see it!

Thursday, February 09, 2006

Event at Cafe DiBartolo

This Saturday, the 11th, join me and featured readers Paradise Freejah Love, Mertis Shekeloff and Rachel Medanic for an event celebrating the new book Oakland's Neighborhoods. We'll meet at Cafe DiBartolo, next to Walden Pond Books, our event sponsor, at 3:00.

Cafe DiBartolo is a really lovely cafe and I'm so glad owner John DiBartolo was kind enough to host us. Come early and grab a mocha!

You'll hear poetry (Paradise), fiction (Rachel) and memoir (Mertis) -- all about Oakland! Copies of the book on sale next door at Walden Pond. See you there!

Friday, February 03, 2006

1,000 sold in two months

Well, I'm going to make my final deliveries to bookstores of Oakland's Neighborhoods tomorrow. This print run is through!

I'm happy at the way the anthology has been received. People like the creative writing that residents wrote and how it makes them look at their own neighborhood differently. And for others, my neighborhood histories have been informative.

I've also really enjoyed getting to know booksellers as I make the deliveries. These are great people who love reading or they wouldn't be doing what they're doing.

To be honest, the post title is a little hyperbolic. My print run of 1,000 was an "unders" run, unfortunately, so I actually only got 975. And I gave away about 100 to the book contributors and as samples to booksellers. So I've really sold about 875. The book came out Nov. 19 and today is Feb. 3 , so to be quite honest the post should read "875 books in two and a half months!"

Ah well... that's still pretty good for a self-published book.

I'm gearing up for the second print run. This time I'm trying to get a distributor to take it on because having 1,000 (uh, 975, James Frey urges me to disclaim) books in my basement during rainy season has been very nail-biting. It's just not natural for a writer to have to worry about "inventory!" Tarps and constant monitoring have been requisite.

Thursday, February 02, 2006

Running and the art of silence

Today I made it all the way around the lake! Three whole miles. Kind of sad considering I ran the San Francisco Marathon in 2001, but at least I’m running again after a long hiatus.

As I ran, I listened to songs on my mp3 player and spent some time reflecting on how different it is to run to music. As Pam said on The Office about her new ipod, “This’ll really change the way I work out.”

Back when Alan and I trained for the marathon, logging incredible numbers of hours on the “Laugh More” trail (it’s the Lafayette-Moraga trail, which I reduced to its first syllables to make it seem more friendly), we did not have mp3 players. We had been discouraged by running with CD players because they always skip, even the ones that promise no skipping. Moreover, they’re huge. So we would chat and then sometimes just go long periods without saying anything.

And while I ran, I daydreamed. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gold-medaled in Olympic events I’ve never even tried. Or worked with Rick Springfield to design the house whose floorplans I drew back in junior high, with the custom-built “kissing room.” Or saved someone’s life by quick-thinking. Or befriended an elderly person who unbeknownst to me turned out to be incredibly rich and without children or other heirs.

Or I’d think about story plots and reason out dialogue. The rhythm of my breathing and my footfalls became part of my trance, and sometimes I’d experience floating above my shoes, as if my body had been reduced to nothing but my hovering lungs. I get nostalgic thinking about that. It was fairly meditative.

Now, fast-forward to me enveloped in music. I feel that running is so much easier, so much quickly dispensed-with. But in the spaces between songs… oy. All of a sudden I hear my labored breathing and my clunky sounds on the pavement. But then the next song starts again and I’m blissfully unaware that I’m working hard.

So… I’m of two minds. I’ve lost a lovely, in-touch-with-my-body, meditative activity – but in return I’ve found a way to jam through my exercise hardly aware of it.

After my run, I went up and down the stairs of the Cleveland Cascade (pictured) twice, just to push myself a little harder. I walked it, drinking from the water bottle I’d grabbed from my car after I finished.

And the third element of my exercise was mental. I stood on the grass near my car and contemplated the trees, looking up at how the sky shone through the foliage. All through my run, I had been drizzled on by the light rain, and the sky was a very pale grey.

[Someone just sent around an email of great first lines of novels, and one read something like, “The sky was the color of television, when you’re on a dead station.” I thought of that line while I looked.]

The point is, I did the thing that I did a post or two ago, where I try to make the tree recede and the sky come forward, exchanging the foreground and the background. I love doing that.

And I had just assigned it to my critical thinking students. There’s a great essay called “The Innocent Eye” by artist Dorr Bothwell in our textbook Thinking for Yourself, about watching the spaces between dancers, hearing the silence between notes of music. Didn’t Miles Davis say it’s the space between the notes that counts? And I think the book Shoeless Joe talked about watching the patterns in the outfield when players shifted to negotiate with a hit.

Anyway, I had asked my students to just keep their eyes open over the next few days and jot down a few instances of exchanging positive and negative space. And I thought it was important for me to keep doing it too.

So I looked at that tree and looked and let it look back.

Next time, I’m going to run without the player, but in case you’re interested in my playlist today:

1. “Daria” by Cake
2. “Like Humans Do,” by David Byrne
3. “Fire Coming out of the Mountain,” by Gorillaz
4. “Crippled Inside” by John Lennon
5. “Distance = Rate” by the Pixies
6. “I Feel For You,” Prince’s remake
7. “Cannonball” by the Breeders
8. “I believe in a thing called love” by The Darkness
9. “Do the Dog” by the Specials
10. “Sweet Emotion” by Aerosmith

A bit more about my player. It’s a Rio sport 530 (pictured). It doesn’t hold much music, and I’ve dropped it so many times the fast forward/backward buttons don’t work, which means I have to listen to every song (which means I’m deleting the John Lennon and Gorillaz songs because they were not good to run to), and dropping it also means the little device that lets it attach to your waistband is also broken….

but! I saw it in an exhibit called Blobjects and Beyond: the New Fluidity of Design at the San Jose Museum of Art. And since I love thinking I am sweating all over a museum piece, I will keep this baby going until it begs me to shoot it.

Important footnote: I’m actually over Rick Springfield, although my interest was piqued again when friends of mine said they just met him at a trade show in L.A. last week and he gave them an autographed photo.

I am not the walrus but instead the dinosaur

Today, while pursuing a housefly with my swatter, I realized I was just like the dinosaur in Jurassic Park. If the fly did not move a bit, I couldn’t tell where it was. But when it began its wild zig-zag, it was easy for me to hunt it down.

And why do they call it housefly? Seems like the term presumes that the fly belongs in the house.