Friday, December 31, 2010

Tiptoe through the tombstones with Bod

Action First:  I'll drive over to Bayview Cemetary in a few minutes and take a stroll in honor of Neil Gaiman and his Graveyard Book.  He and Bod and Silas and Scarlett and Liza and the Owenses make the graveyard seem so inviting that I simply must make a pilgrimage.  I'll bring my journal to wander and write, Gaiman-wise - long-hand first - then come home and adjust as I type.  Yes, that feels like the thing to do.  Makes me nostalgic for the ole Grove in New Haven where as "intermediate" students at Ridge Hill Elementary we regularly took field trips to do grave rubbings.  (Hmm. Upon reflection, I suppose children's fascination with cemetaries wasn't lost on our teachers after all.)  Ta for now.  Back once I've communed with the tombs...

Ah.  That was refreshing.  (Slightly snow-covered stones, crispish day, fresh air stroll, crunchy graveyard gravel beneath my Converse, pacific bay views)

The Review:
'The Critically-Acclaimed and Award-Winning Author' Neil Gaiman spent 20 years considering and then creating this book, and lucky for kids he did.  It's Roald Dahl meets Coraline meets Kipling, and just the sort of dark adventure that the young thirst for so often.  Coming of age story?  Yes.  Series of linked short fictions?  Yes.  Paranormal adventure/fantasy novel?  Yes.  Period(s) piece?  Sorta.

And while reading TGB I felt vaguely deja vu-ish in a literary way, as it sports so many "Gaimanish" devices recalled from my recent reading of Good Omens,yet polished up in a much more sophisticated manner, to my mind.  Time + practice improves craft.  Whoda thunk? 

Familiar stand-bys from the mind of Mr. Gaiman:  The witch at the dunking stool: Pepper's little sister in GO, & then Liza here as well.  The otherworldly guardians of the good:  Aziraphale & Silas.  Otherworldly evils: The archdukes of hell, Hastur & Ligur, & the Jacks & the ghouls.  Comparatively long, involved penultimate chapter: "Saturday" & "Everyman Jack".  Scarlett (War) & Scarlett (Girl).  One could continue, but one won't.

Decided differences between GO & TGB:  This one - although funny in places and amusing on a regular basis - is less a heady laughfest-of-ideas and more a serious childrens' book with lighter moments.  And plotwise, the "Everyman Jack" chapter brings TGB to a thrillingly taught climax where "Saturday" meandered.

Worth reading, story by story, and as a whole?  I say, yes.  Worth reading by the kid in your life?  Absolutely.

Inspired "Bonus Action":  This book fired me up to go out and write/draw a young person's story of my own.  It's been years since I've waxed so inspired to write a fiction.  So, whatever the reading experience, that makes this an super-fine book to me.  Iphy, here I come!  And I just watched an (as always) fascinating Charlie Rose interview w/Salman Rushdie about his new (children's) book, Luka and the Fire of Life:  doubly inspired now to write a new tale of a child (let's try a female for a change, eh, gents?) saving a parent...

The Summary.(via Gaiman's home page - and he's uber-involved in social media - blog's right there, links, etc. mousecircus link is for his children's books)

The clip.  In this case, a significant bit of it, via the Harper Collins home...

MFB in a graveyard,

Also worth checking out:  Colbert & Gaiman. Clever vs. Clever.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010


My action on this one is to write a thank you letter to Maile Meloy

Her short fiction collection broke my "meh." streak with a breath of clarity.  For that I feel quite grateful, and quite sated with literary nourishment for at least a day or two. 

I've long held the short story as perhaps my favorite form.  When well-wrought, each tale's impact offers a moment of quick, quiet transcendence.  Meloy makes that happen every time. 

Her stories are "small" and contemporary, focusing on one or two nuanced characters who face conflicting yet simultaneous emotions.  Nary a misstep here, yet few of these stories offer neatly tidied outcomes:  like life, only well-honed and compacted to offer high entertainment as well.

A telling contrast, my last book and this.  Both writers strive to offer everyday living distilled to create a heightened experience of quotidian passions.  But only Meloy succeeds for me.

Action reflection:  It's tough to tease just one action from a collection of distinct tales.  Luckily, however, offering gratitude to a stranger counts.

So I'll write to her, and put another of her books in my 2011 queue.


p.s.  For the official blurb on the book, click it, or go to Maile Meloy's web page.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


D'ya ever wonder why, in the name of all that is psychologically stable, you kept on reading a book when it dragged you ploddingly into realms of (sometimes not-so) quiet desperation? 

I don't usually wonder that.

A Thousand Acres?  Not perfect, but enjoyable.  The House of Sand and Fog?  Fabulous. (Devoured in one sitting, breathless, crying, katharsis.  "Mmmmm... Please sir, may I have some more?")  The Inheritance of LossShalimar the ClownAntigone?  Bring it. 

In fact, for Xmas I asked Santa for an "I Heart Hamlet" T-shirt.  He managed a soot-stained program from the Joe Papp production of Othello in Central Park.  I wept happy tears.

And this love of tragedy isn't an artifact of age either.  Back in high school and college, I dug the stuff.  First course, first year at Brown? Ancient Greek Drama: Best. Course. Ever.  And nary an Aristophanes in sight.  All tragedy, all the time. 

So why was the meandering bleakness of The God of Animals so difficult to endure, I ask myself?  Perhaps because what we often label tragic events aren't actually the stuff of tragedy.  

There's a difference between what's tragic and what's merely depressing or downright sad.  The former has something to do with emotional engagement with a single character who commands a certain degree of gravitas, and an intensity of pacing - that snowballing toward the final horror that feels inevitable yet preventable at once - leading to katharsis. And this novel simply didn't have a classically tragic structure to support it.  For me, that lack of solid structure made the difference between a satisfying read and a rather taxing one.
So what is this novel, at least for this reader?  It's one slowly grating downward spiral with a cast of characters who are either clueless or twisted or just plain mean.  Or naively confused or oversexed or abused or adulterous.  Or most of the above. 

Or horses. 

Did I mention that The God of Animals is a horse book?  About a little girl whose mom self-meds one serioiusly clinical case of depression by staying in bed 24/7 and whose entirely obtuse yet hunky dad, upon losing his elder daughter to a rodeo star, displaces his abandonment rage onto female horses and his younger daughter, our protagonist/narrator?  Well, it is.  And things go from that to worse, in a quiet, quotidian sort of way, until there's a blip of possibility, and then - oops!  nope! - it's back to random accidents and uncomfortable adult-child relationships.

Other readers who found this novel more engaging than I almost unanimously note that protagonist Alice's interior monologue rings true for them, offering the ambivalence and confusion and passion of early adolescence with unsparing accuracy.  On this, I concur.  But I suppose I've read so many books (both novels and memoirs) with similar truthiness that this quality alone didn't win me over.

A brief ray of tepid sunshine:  Aryn Kyle's a youngish writer whose prose moves along confidently.  A stronger novel may well lurk in her future.  And she's certainly not hurting now reputation-wise, as this novel garnered plenty of attention when it was released.  I wish her, as I wish you all and I wish myself on this fine evening in the Pacific Northwest,

More fail better.

* Only. Great. Books.  That's my mantra now, and for 2011.  I will be asking expert readers - English teachers and bibliophiles, not book-sellers and publishers out to create a phenom, and certainly not random readers on virtual bookshelves - for their top 10's and I'll curate their lists for us all.  Because even with Amazon and goodreads and literary awards and such, there's no even-close-to-reliable way to find great - or at least very good - books, and there aughta be.  I'm on it!  (And this could be quite a project!)

* May research the psycho-social roots of this re-emerging (Coinage du jour: remerging. Like it?) 'girlie, gritty horse fiction' genre.  Many parallels here to the Jane Smiley's The Georges & the Jewels that I just read last month... Why so few/no realistic boy-based horse fictions lately?  (OK, so maybe Cormac McCarthy's All The Pretty Horses - and the rest of his Border Trilogy - pretty much slew all late 20th/early 21st century contenders?)

* In fact, must redeem horse fiction in own mind by rereading the first section of McCarthy's The Crossing (now there's a tragic novella that will haunt you, in a good way).

* And must reread Joy Harjo's stunning poem "She Had Some Horses" to reset the power of horse-as-symbol in my literary mindset.  If you haven't read it, you must.  Go do so now...

Sunday, December 26, 2010


Dedicated to the memory of Karen Silkwood and Eliot Gralla

“From too much love of living,
Hope and desire set free,
Even the weariest river
Winds somewhere to the sea—“

But we have only begun
To love the earth.

We have only begun
To imagine the fullness of life.

How could we tire of hope?
— so much is in bud.

How can desire fail?
— we have only begun

to imagine justice and mercy,
only begun to envision

how it might be
to live as siblings with beast and flower,
not as oppressors.

Surely our river
cannot already be hastening
into the sea of nonbeing?

Surely it cannot
drag, in the silt,
all that is innocent?

Not yet, not yet—
there is too much broken
that must be mended,

too much hurt we have done to each other
that cannot yet be forgiven.

We have only begun to know
the power that is in us if we would join
our solitudes in the communion of struggle.

So much is unfolding that must
complete its gesture,

so much is in bud.

                - Denise Levertov

(Candles in Babylon)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Life As We Knew It

What do you do once you've lived through the end of the world? 

You write a book review. 

This one will be short and sweet.  In Susan Beth Pfeffer's belletristic YA novel, sixteen year old diarist Miranda Evans and her family survive volcanoes, blizzards, a deadly flu epidemic, and near-starvation, outliving nearly all their neighbors and presumably their extended family as well.  Premise:  An asteroid hits the moon, knocking it closer to the earth and setting off a series of natural disasters that pretty well wipe out most of the humans on the planet, and presumably most other terrestrial species as well.  It's a survival story, pure and simple, and the interest for readers - especially young ones - will lie in how Miranda and her family deal with an increasingly less "convenient" lifestyle and how they slowly become more resourceful, determined, and cohesive in the face of catastrophe after catastrophe.

Pfeffer's prose moves along smoothly, with evenhanded pacing and short chapters keeping the action at the fore, although one must consciously suspend disbelief that a 16 year old is describing these calamitous events with such seamless clarity, on a series of makeshift diary pages, and on the very day they're happening.  And of course, character development takes a back seat to such a stimulating plot, although events do eventually conspire to force both Miranda and her younger brother, Jonny, to mature while the crisis brings out the best in the relatively static characters of Miranda's mom and her older brother, Matt. 

I think that's almost enough said about the book.  Except to say that I chose it because it was noted over and over again by local teens as a favorite novel and I wanted to see what all the fuss was about.  AND that as I web-surfed to provide you with links for this post, I discovered that Pfeffer's produced two additional "Moon Crash" books since 2006, one set concurrently but in NYC rather than Pennsylvania, and the other a sequel uniting the protagonists of both novels, to be published in paperback this spring.  Now why'd she have to go and write a series?  Guess I've got two of my January reads lined up, as apparently I have grown fond of this plucky family after all...

Action:  Hoo, dogies.  It's just gotta be about canned goods. 
See, the family here survives mainly due to mom's quick decision to go shopping the day after the moon-shift and buy all the non-perishables she and her kids can get their hands on.  Her insistence on preparedness and frugality keeps them alive for much of the book.

So:  1.  I'll take a load of canned goods/non-perishables to the food bank.  (Baby, it's cold outside, snowing even.)  2.  I'll check our emergency preparedness kits and update them. (And maybe even our fire extinguishers too...)  A little for the world, a little for us.  And practical.


(MFB was definitely the Evans family's motto too, and it served them well.)  What's MFB?  It's More 'Fail Better'.  See my 'pinecone turkeys' blogpost from 11/24/10.  (With a tip of the ill-fitting hat to Samuel Beckett.)

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Good Omens: Not bad.

But what's all the fuss?

Even the writers wonder the same thing in their commentary for the anniversary edition.  They seem dumb-founded by this sci-fi-ish novel's cult following, as - in truth - am I. 

Oh, I get fans' enjoyment of Pratchett & Gaiman's sense(s?) of humor, and I too found their musings on human nature thought-provoking, but I much prefer Gaiman's more recent works like Anansi Boys and Stardust, and this novel's plot- and character-development left me wondering... 

In particular, during the lengthy penultimate "Saturday" chapter, when I should have been flipping the pages relentlessly with breath held and eyes wide open as we careened toward the book's climax, instead I wound up skimming and flipping pages just hoping for some decisive forward plot movement as we bopped around among various plot threads in a stop-start-stall  motion.  And then there's the issue of character development, even for what you might call the dual protagonists, angel Aziraphale and demon Crowley.  To me, that issue loomed large:  Many of the characters seemed merely allegorical devices and vehicles for one-liners for most of the book, so, for me, keeping engaged on a psychological/emotional level grew challenging.

On the other hand, I did laugh out loud many times and smile often, so if diversion's what you're looking for at the moment, then most of this book will serve you well.

What's it about?  Too much to tell, really... Good and Evil and Armageddon and the stupid, cruel, violent, generous, decent things humans do.  Human nature and the nature of the world.

And when this book falls into the hands of its perfectly right reader, a rabid dogged fan is born.  It's happened to over one million people, and it could happen to you.

In the end, Good Omens is another solid read for anyone who likes to think, holds an open mind - esp. about religion - and enjoys a good laugh.


What's my action?  Magic.  See "Gnomens" post, and stay tuned for "December Story" (dropping about Jan. 1 or 2) to see what happened...

FYI for Listening Learners:  For a leg up on the first 100 pages or so, which can seem dauntingly peppered with characters, settings, and - for us Americans, sometimes obscure - references to many things British, get the CD on tape or downloadi the audiofile.  The reader, Martin Jarvis, thoroughly 'gets' every word, inflection, and innuendo, so he's well worth listening to to get your footing.  And if you listen in the car and then read at home, you'll speed through Good Omens at the same pace as it proceeds... One week's adventure to save or slay the world as we know it.

FYI:  In my experience, this book's legion of fans is primarily adolescents, so I'm attaching two quotes that may justify their passion.  It's Adam Young, the unwitting eleven-year-old Anti-Christ from bucolic Tadfield, England, expressing his disdain for the world the grown-ups have left him:

"You grow up readin' about pirates and cowboys and spacemen and stuff, and jus' when you think the world's all full of amazin' things, they tell you it's really all dead whales and chopped-down forests and nuclear waste hangin' about for millions of years. 'Snot worth growin' up for,  if you ask my opinion." (204)

And Crowley musing that demons get a bad rap:

"There were people who called themselves Satanists who made Crowley squirm.  It wasn't just the things they did, it was the way they blamed it all on Hell.  They'd come up with some stomach-churning idea that no demon could have thought of in a thousand years, some dark and mindless unpleasantness that only a fully functioning human brain could conceive, then shout "The Devil Made Me Do It" and get the sympathy of the court when the whole point was that the Devil hardly ever made anyone do anything.  He didn't have to.  That was what some humans found hard to understand.  Hell wasn't a major reservoir of evil, any more than Heaven, in Crowley's opinion, was a fountain of goodness; they were just sides in the great cosmic chess game.  Where you found the real McCoy, the real grace and the real heart-stopping evil, was right inside the human mind." (76-77)

Never mind that the entire last third of the novel negates this last assertion, it's this sort of pronouncement that teenagers - and students of the human condition of all ages - applaud.

Monday, December 20, 2010

i live in the present and apparently i already know how it works...

If you know little about the internet, e-readers, social networking, cell phones & their apps, and video games, you will likely find this book's content new and interesting.  If you also know little about the science of learning and recent developments in our understanding of how the brain adapts, then the info. here will seem even more intriguing (if you keep in mind that the author's actually making an argument here so he's quite selective in the research he's chosen to include and how he interprets its import).  If you believe, as tech writer Nick Bilton seems to, that technology is inherently neutral at worst and in fact "good" in most cases, and that people who express concerns about some of the potentially negative impacts of technology are - in many cases - just "hand-wringing" (one of his favorite condescensions) Luddites, then you will likely find an ally.

If, however, you rather expected a New York Times reporter to present thoroughly compelling, logical cases to support his personal views or to acknowledge that both recent research and personal experience may tend to support some social commentators' concern about how technologies may be impairing concentration and problem solving while increasing impulsivity in the "digital native" generations, you might be disappointed in i live in the future & here's how it works.  And ditto if you aren't a technophobe and have kept abreast of the developments in technology over the past decade or so, as much - though by no means all - of the content will already be familiar.

* Easy to read/skim.  Fluid writing, no doubt. 
* Bilton is, after all, a prominent tech reporter/blogger, and he's amassed enough interesting detail that you're bound to find at least a few sections - or even whole chapters - thought-provoking.  For instance, I found chapters 3 ("your cognitive road map: anchoring communities") and 4 ("suggestions and swarms: trusting computers and humans") personally relevant to some projects of my own and I enjoyed some of his corporate case studies.
* A particularly potent point for me:  Bilton predicts that the future success of many content-based high tech businesses may not be as dependent upon the quality of the information offered as upon the consumer's perception that the content is ultra-new/timely and tailored directly to his/her immediate needs.  While this narrowing toward a world of "me economics" that Bilton hypothesizes rather terrifies me in its implications (a world where we're all connected, but nobody cares unless there's something in it for them), when I bop around the interwebs I find it hard to deny, and well worth remembering as I create web content.

Bottom line for me: 
Bilton's patronizing attitude toward anyone who has concerns about the merits of some technologies is palpable throughout this book, and his "arguments" sometimes veer from addressing the actual concerns of detractors into tangential cases for technological benefits not at issue.  However, I found his writing style engaging and some of his insider info. both interesting and useful. 


** My actions for this book:  I've adjusted some of my projects for this year to be more timely, interactive, and web-video-based in order to balance my penchant for creating texts.  AND I'm only going to focus on content that connects people to the world in ways that will inspire empathy rather than solipsism.

FYI: The review on the Amazon link (click the cover image) provides an alternate, and perhaps welcome, perspective to mine.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Lorax in a little red hat

Gnomes by Rien Poorvliet and Will Nuyen: This modern classic offers beautifully conceived and executed illustrations matched with straightforward, pseudo-scientific descriptions of gnomes' every aspect.  It's more than a tad dated at this point, but pleasant to look at (especially when one immerses one's entire head in double-page panoramic illustrations) for an hour or so. (faint praise, aye.)

One suspects that many elements here mirror or support the social values of Dutch illustrator Poorvliet and writer Huygen, and that's just fine, but for a modern audience, the glorification of gender stereotypes detracts from the whole magical vibe considerably.

It's also a little risque and violent at points for a book whose cover screams, "I'M HARMLESSLY CUTE!".
A snotgurgle about to grind up a gnome.  Scary!
Not that I'm entirely against these elements if the reader's age-appropriate; I'm just sayin'. 

And with that: 'Nuff critical stuff said. 

Here's a brief snippet from the somewhat heavy-handedly moralistic closing, so you get a sense of the prose style (or lack thereof). Tomte Haroldson, the writers' "informant", speaks directly to them/us in order to share a parting reflection on Gnome society's view of human folly:

"Man runs wildly about in the world of today and lives almost always at nature's expense...We have our instinct and intellect in proper balance; you have subordinated your instinct to your intellect...And that's why we (together) must proceed in three ways: the restoration of instinct, the restoration of balance in nature, and less striving for power...all the other evils on earth stem from the craving for power."

Tomte's criticisms seem reasonable enough. 

Now if only I had the magical powers of imaginary beings, perhaps I'd be able to persuade other humans to follow his advice.  And if only I had the resource requirements of somebody 15 centimeters high, I'd be able to live as lightly on the land as he...

Note to self: Must redouble efforts to reform worldview in light of "magic"; how else can self hope to follow ole gnomey's advice? 

In the meanwhile, MFB.

Monday, December 13, 2010

The Tao of Crutcher

Chris Crutcher's YA novel, set in Spokane about a decade ago, still ranks right up there with the very best fiction for young people.  Drawing on his background as a family therapist and a child protection specialist, Crutcher gets everything about teenagers just right, without ever seeming forced or patronizing.  And the protagonist here, T.J. Jones, immediately captures both our attention and our admiration without ever coming across as too perfect.  In fact, T.J.'s quick temper, the product of abuse in his toddler years, acts as a realistic catalyst for some of the action in Whale Talk, which centers around the ragtag swim team he and his English teacher pull together in a sports-dominated high school, as well as the racism T.J. regularly deals with as one of the few mixed-raced people in his town. 

If you haven't read much realistic YA fiction and you're a stickler for a strong read, I suggest starting here.  You'll see all the typical tropes and themes of the genre done as well as they can be done, given their inherent limitations.  Crutcher is always pitch-perfect where many other solid writers strike a cheesy chord, and while you'll see every aspect of typical teenage life here - even some that many adults would rather not know about - you'll also catch a glimpse of the true, often-understated heroism that teenagers are also fully capable of. 

I don't want to give too much more away, so I'll just say: Whale Talk is a quick and gripping read, so if you're traveling this season, it might be just the thing to make a long plane ride fly by.


p.s. My action?  Humbled by the work ethic of the swimmers in Whale Talk, I have taken a personal vow to re-double my own "practices", hitting weights and additional strength on the days I don't do my bodyflow class.  That means working out 7 days a week.  If they can do it, I can try!  AND I will also make it a point to notice those people who often go unnoticed this week, to offer them my mindfully curious gaze.  If I make both these steps into habits, just imagine the positive impact I could have on my own wellbeing and others' too...
As always, I'll let you know how it turns out.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

A Ritual to Read to Each Other

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong god home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
Though we could fool each other, we should consider-
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep,
the signals we give - yes or no, or maybe -
Should be clear; the darkness around us is deep.

                                 - William Stafford

I've been rereading this poem again and again, fascinated and convinced.  Of what, I know not.

Might we puzzle this out together?  Interesting that - or at least as it seems to me - much of this poem might be read multiple ways, yet his final urging is to be clear.  Or does he mean "should" not as a directive but as a wish counter to experience, as in "it should be this way, yet it isn't"?  The darkness within us is deep?

Ah, those first few reads are the falling in love bit:  the vigilant awareness of the other, noting every turn and glance, parsing the signals, making the leap toward a hoped-for truth, landing in uncertainty, letting time pass, returning to clues, a letter under the desk , a quick unnecessary smile, then misreading the cues, then stumbling upon a long electric gaze, then puzzling again.  Joy of the chase.


And I'm serious:  What do you make of this poem?  Tell me.

Friday, December 10, 2010


What do you get when you read Gnomes & Good Omens at the same time?

                                         This guy.

And magic.

So that's my action for the next two weeks (at least):  Practice seeing the world as governed not by action-reaction in the visible realm, but by magic.  That's it.  Every day, every hour, stop and look around and imagine that whatever's going on was created by all of us beings (sentient and non-sentient alike perhaps) AND ALSO by somewhat (usually) benevolent beings or forces. 

I wonder what living in that mindset will do.  And don't worry: I'll let you know.


p.s.  I know, I know:  Where's the wit?  I'm finding that earnestness plus wit is a tough combo for me to muster:  I'm either rushing headlong into the silly or mindfully stepping through the sincere.  "More Fail Better" = my mantra.  If you see MFB in future posts, that's what I'm talking about.

p.p.s.  More on why both books are well worth just about anybody's time (if they're open-minded about religion and enjoy both a rip-roaring laughfest and a gently smile-inducing feast for the eyes) later in the month.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Made A Difference.

Are you a teacher?  Writer?  Entrepreneur? Businessperson?  Reporter?  Community organizer?  Politician?  Earth mover and world shaker?  Parent?  Child?

Do you want people to remember what you're telling them? 

Then take a few moments to indulge in this breezily written and award-winning book that follows its own formula: 

To make your ideas stick, you must...

Keep it Simple yet
grab attention with the Unexpected.
Stay Concrete yet Credible.
Add dimension and stickiness with Emotion,
and wrap it all up in a Story.

Then your ideas will be stickily SUCCESs-full.

And these authors walk their talk:  They use all the SUCCESs principles to craft every chapter in this book.

My Actions: 

First, I wrote my November Story as a narrative (I wouldn't have otherwise), which was an Unexpected form for anybody who's been reading my blog thusfar.  And I kept the plotline Simple while attempting to generate at least a little Emotion in the reader by exaggerating character traits and the conflict.  Then I added the Concrete list to increase Credibility and create stronger emotional pay-off.  I'm not saying it's a masterpiece, but it's stickier than it would have been had I simply posted a reflection or just the list. 

Then, I began using the SUCCESs principles to enhance the stickiness of my marketing and business plans (stay tuned for your opportunity to benefit!) AND I passed the book on to my Dave, who's also reading and using it.

Finally, I attended a gathering today about the battle over extending tax cuts for the rich, and I shared both the principles and a pertinent excerpt with many of the folks there as well. 

And in this case, the actions came entirely effortlessly.  This book has legs! 


Here's the authors' website for a taste of what they're talking about: 
Made to Stick.

Buy Made To Stick on Amazon

TEACHERS:  Talk to me about this.  I think the principles could help all of us trouble-shoot our lessons: they're worth revisiting on a weekly basis at minimum. 

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The Illiterate

Touching your goodness, I am like a man
Who turns a letter over in his hand,
And you might think that this was because the hand
Was unfamiliar but, truth is, the man
Has never had a letter from anyone;
And his is both afraid of what it means
And ashamed because he has no other means
To find out what is says than to ask someone.

His uncle could have left the farm to him, or
his parents died before he sent them word,
Or the dark girl changed and want him for beloved.
Afraid and letter-proud, he keeps it with him.
What would you call his feeling for the words
That keep him rich and orphaned and beloved?

The more often I read this sonnet by William Meredith, the more exquisite it seems.  I memorized the poem last year for Poetry Out Loud! and still it takes my breath away.  The simile is so rich and apt and closely developed that you almost forget that this is about someone touching someone - or something - they adore. 

The sonnet dead?  Fie!

I do wish Meredith were still around so I could thank him.


Friday, December 3, 2010

What if Holden Caulfield Wrote the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?

It'd pretty much be this. 

Only if Holden became a lot less annoying after the first fifty pages and got a terminal disease and had to save the world rather than just walk around Manhattan for a few days.  Which could only be an improvement. (Sorry, Catcher fans:  You've met the uber-Holden-hater.  Well, hate's maybe too strong a word.  Detester?  "Why did I waste my time on this book"-er?  "How in the world did this become 'an American classic'"-er?)

Anyhoo.  Two hip hip hoorah's for the breezy, often laugh-out-loud silly cross-country, cross-dimensional, darkly mind-bending Going Bovine by Libba Bray.  Can you say Twenty-First Century Picaresque?

Its 'hero' is a sixteen year old slacker with Mad Cow named Cameron Smith.  His sidekicks: Gonzo the dwarf (maybe his Marvin?) and Balder the Norse god/garden gnome. His mentor:  a punk angel named Dulcie.  His trek: from his smalltown Texas home to DisneyWorld via New Orleans and the eleventh dimension.  His task:  Rid the world of the Wizard of Reckoning and his Fire Giants plus save Dr. X and thus save his own life. (prions and black holes and snow globes have something to do with it)  It's the monomyth for sure, the ole Hero's Adventure, but with decidedly modern twists, and with allusions to Cervantes and Star Wars and Norse myth sprinkled in for good measure.  But plenty sassy and utterly engaging.  Flawed?  Absolutely.  But the most rollicking read of the year.

And it's one of those books that goes this way: 

First, you're a little skeptical of the mannered "teenager-speak" in the protagonist's voice and the gratuitous references to masturbation, but ...

Then the plot kicks in and the forced, clipped speech eases off, as does the protagonist's initially self-involved, sarcastic, entirely unappealing personality.  (I mean, I get what she's striving for: underdog, anti-hero, rudderless young'un who'll find his higher self on the journey - but it's just too blatantly annoying at first.) I'd say it's a lucky thing for readers that Bray shifts to her strong suits: impeccable pacing and an often satirically infused plotline w/the funny just flying, deepened by lots of apt pop references and literary allusions. So...

Then you start flipping the pages as fast as you can because it's actually compelling and smile-inducing and rich.

And then you simply have to slow down because you can't stop laughing.

Then you ease up to pace yourself because you want to savor this book for many days, not just a few hours.

And then you're annoyed again by more gratuitous sex and drunken shenanigans, but then it's back to the plot and you're off to the races again.

This novel brought me back to my first Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and Neil Gaiman reads, that serene push-pull of the generously light-hearted yet darkly resonant novel. 


p.s.  My actions: 
  I'm going to work on my wit.  Bray's most memorable stylistic strength in this novel is her ability to mix a classic storyline with a contemporary sense of humor that draws on the rhythms and register of everyday speech.  Although my blogs aren't likely to approach the mythic any time soon, I can certainly work in or work from or work out a voice with more of a comic kick.  At least at times.  If the moment strikes.  Or the muses. 


  And I'm going to refresh my understanding of Norse mythology.  It's been so long since I studied that subject that I'd forgotten about Yggdrasil.  I'm going to the library today anyway, so I'll find a book and see where it leads me.

   Or maybe I'm moved to make a Balderish garden gnome.  Stay tuned...

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

November Story.

       Once upon a time there was a ravenous reader.  She lived in a beautiful city by the sea, but the city was far, far from the hustle and bustle of the rest of her world.  The reader dove headlong into new realms whenever she opened a book, but when she'd resurface, she found herself back in her beautiful city, and just as far from her world as she had been a book ago.  After a time, this troubled the reader. 

    She wanted to live a life well spent, a life that touched her world.  And in her fanciful reader's heart, she imagined that her life would make her a hero of the monomyth:  She would journey forth, attract some steady sidekicks, venture with them into worlds challenging and unknown, and then return, changed, bringing back boons to elevate her city and her world.  

   But every moment she spent inside a book was a moment spent outside her world.

     So what's the rub? The reader simply couldn't give up reading, but time was running short.  She was half way through her hero's life, and she'd barely stepped upon the path. 

     It was time to make every moment count.

        The ravenous reader pondered and pondered.  She liked to think of herself as eternally well-intentioned, but she was essentially lazy at heart.  She wanted to do as little as possible.  'Baby steps' was her borrowed mantra, one she held fast to in good times and in bad.  But could it serve her in this new pickle? 

     So she pondered and she pondered and she pondered again, and she hadn't pondered all that long when she hit upon what could be called a plan.  It was simple enough really:  Every time she climbed back out of a book, she would take a step or two on a new path of the book's own making.  Wherever it pointed her, she would wend.

    And so, step after step, she journeyed forth.  And in just one lazy month she found that she had

  • Struck up a friendship with a champion pigeon racer.
  • Fed a bunch of juncos in a blizzard (and chickadees and finches and sparrows and wrens and varied thrushes and and towhees and Stellar's jays and squirrels) who now visit her every day. (Tip for would-be heroes: Good food's always a bonding thing, especially in a snowstorm.)
  • Started a to celebrate play and beauty in cyberspace and to offer the world reasons to be grateful.
  • Started to Twitter (finally!) - the better to spread the joy. 
  • Made her first google map to trace the steps she took within books.
  • Changed up her food to favor more compassionate consumption.
  • Made at least 40 people she doesn't know smile.
  • Made two pinecone turkeys and a Thanksgiving centerpiece, all out of salvaged materials.
  • Reconnected with a friend and colleague who found her again on this blog.
  • Thanked a brother, a mother, a cousin, a father, and a whole lot of folks all over the country.
  • Started telling stories again.
  • Asked three "critical friends" for help. (Perhaps the scariest step of the month, because it tested the premise that her friends would be willing and able to offer their time and expertise to help her. So far, so good.  Mentors and pals for the journey: check!)
  • Remembered that action begets action, step follows step.  She knew this already, but she had forgotten how swiftly the Universe itself steps in. 
  • Figured out that changing her own life for the better is also changing the real world.
And if she had added the steps that she took that followed on steps that she took for each book, her list would be longer than Santa's today. 

Now, December's dawning.  The ravenous reader's surveying her progress on the path, taking a deep breath, and striding on.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Because You Asked about the Line between Prose and Poetry

Sparrows were feeding in a freezing drizzle
That while you watched turned into pieces of snow
Riding a gradient invisible
From silver aslant to random, white, and slow.

There came a moment that you couldn't tell.
And then they clearly flew instead of fell.
                                         - Howard Nemerov

I heard Billy Collins reading this on KUOW on Monday, because he had been asked this question by the interviewer and because it was – for once – snowing rather than raining in Seattle.  

Just read it through a few times, in light of its title.  If you don't get the shivers, then I don't know what to say to you.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Awww... That was nice.

The Georges & The Jewels.  If you loved Misty of Chincoteague or The Black Stallion as a kid, your kid might just love Jane Smiley's YA novel.  I did.

It's a quiet, horsey kind of book (big surprise), told by Abby Lovitt, a seventh grader from a born-again family that buys half-broke horses and then trains them up for sale.  Set somewhere in Northern California in the somewhat recent past, this relaxed but quick-moving tale rings true:  Smiley's got seventh grade internal naivete and awkwardly orchestrated interpersonal drama pegged, and she clearly grew up riding, just like Abby.  As we enjoy our protagonist's solid decency and quiet observance of the life all around her, we also explore the ways of geldings (Georges) vs. mares (Jewels) with a little bit of horse-whispering along the way. 

My guess is that old forty-something fogeys like me will smile gently and nod, recalling the psychologically complex teen truths and traumas Smiley can conjure, while tweens will see themselves and their friends in these characters so far removed from their own daily lives.

A quick read, this one's bound to get passed around from (would-be) rider to (would-be) rider.  Definitely an unpretentiously pleasant and true-feeling tale.  Give it an afternoon.  I don't think you'll regret it.


p.s. What was my ACTION?  You say.  Well, I made pinecone turkeys.

How in heaven's name does that relate to this book? You ask.  Well, reading about how Abby and her classmate Kyle crafted a clay version of Mission San Juan Bautista for a school-wide CA history project, I waxed nostalgic for the days of dioramas, Crayolas, and Silly Putty.  Neither Abby nor Kyle had much money, so they had to make do.  Hence, I decided to indulge my inner craftinator, but on a budget.  I wanted decorations to freakify the day, to make Thanksgiving edgy again.  And I did myself proud.

Check out yesterday's post to see my creepily fetching gobblers: icons of the day they be.  And happily for all, no actual turkeys were sacrificed at my house this Thanksgiving.

Pedestrian pinecone pop-art or protectors of poultry?  Jury's out.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Fail better. Grateful for the opportunity.

Yup, Beckett's still right:
 "Ever tried.  Ever failed.  No matter.  Try again.  Fail again.  Fail better."

Sometimes it's all we can do.

So my Thanksgiving will be small and local.  Going nowhere, but organic, and with pinecone turkeys. 

Thank you to The Compassionate Instinct for better food choices and to The Georges & The Jewels (Jane Smiley, YA horse novel) for the inspiration to get crafty.

I do not know how to calibrate cosmic magic, but I must say that Goethe may be right as well:  When we act openheartedly and with courage, the universe steps up to meet us.

I offer gratitude to all those who've tuned in here, even for a moment.  Please come back, and please help me to create a voice here that elevates you, that compells you to give thanks and to fail better.

Tell me what you need, and I'll do my best to deliver it.  No doubt I'll fail, but rest assured: every day I'll fail better.

Monday, November 22, 2010

Maximum Read.

Sweet read too.  Fast, fast, fast first in this YA series about a small flock of genetically engineered kids out there fighting for their freedom.  No big surprise: Patterson's a master plotter.  Not so much depth of character except for Max (first person'll do that for ya), but maybe later?

L'accion du jour:
Draw'ring.  The voice in my head demands:  some sorta super-birdie must drip from my pen.  Mayhaps I'll conjure a token of thanks for Marnie, the Max fanatic who simply shrieked (in her winningly exhuberant way) when she learned that I wasn't yet acquainted with her fave female superhero.  She's an artist herself,  as well as a writer-reader-athlete-dancer, so I know she'll appreciate an unexpected thank you from last year's English teacher. Shriek-worthy?  Stay tuned...

Pushing past my ineptitude toward brilliance: Max-worthy for sure, and sweet.

p.s.  Another card in the stack (pebble in the pond?  feather in the cap?) of evidence to prove my theory:  the best YA novels nowadays are penned by folks who cut their teeth on adult novels.  This one's pure page turner, but cunningly so.  So: Patterson, Alice Hoffman, Jane Smiley, Orson Scott Card, Neil Gaimon, Terry Pratchett: just a short list of bestselling adult authors who've turned their superior narrative talents to the YA market.  Maybe this trend's resurgence started with Sherman Alexie, no?  Anyone offering additional title suggestions?  I've got a Jane Smiley in my pile...

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Simple Gifts.

'Tis the gift to be simple, 'tis the gift to be free,
'Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
'Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gain'd,
To bow and to bend we shan't be asham'd,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come round right.

-          Elder Joseph, 1848

Friday, November 19, 2010


        My shopping expedition: a complete bust.

What happened??  After pondering my "rules" and setting what I thought was a generous budget of $50, I decided against traveling to Freddy's because it's about 15 miles away, as opposed to 1 mile for my local grocery store and then 2 miles for Trader Joe's.  Transportation via car = greenhouse gasses.  So...

Stop #1: At my beautifully maintained, locally-owned and operated grocery store: only a few items are marked for point of origin, even the produce in the organic section.  I compared a few items: price for organic produce is generally 3X non-organic produce, some of which IS labeled: Grown in Mexico or USA or Northwest.  Sigh.  I bought a northwest grown onion, plus a USA grown sweet potato and cilantro.

On to TJ's: Much more affordable organic fare, but next to nothing is labeled with its origins.  It's all distributed through CA, but that doesn't mean it was grown there.  In fact, the only choice I could make in terms of point of origin was:  Organic walnut halves (from Uzbekistan) OR California Walnut Halves.  I chose the latter, because I figure that walnuts grow in shells on trees, so the organic element probably isn't as important as it would be on row crops, and clearly the shipping energy impacts would be much less from CA than from Uzbekistan.  Reasonable logic or irresponsible leap toward nationalistic pride? 
And it's this kind of quandary that makes shopping with compassion such a minefield. 

Here's my original list, coded like so:
   * =  fit all of my criteria
   # = fit at least one of my criteria.
   V = vegetarian.  wasn't in my criteria, but helps the planet and all beings

# organic black beans V
# sweet potato V
# onion V
cilantro V
almond flour V
# walnut halves V
green chilis V
frozen dinners V
pumpkin butter V
mache V
greek yogurt V
reduced fat celtic cheddar V 
almond milk V
can of cat food
pot stickers
TOTAL: $38.
Items on my list that I didn't purchase:
Thin bars (no way to know where all those ingredients came from - ditched 'em)
salami (decided that it didn't fit my criteria at all!)

But, wait, you say:  There aren't any items with stars.  What??  Indeed:  I bought absolutely no items that fit all my criteria. 


Must sit and ponder what to do next to get me closer to my goal. 


Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Fred Meyer and Pollan-anna.

I'm going grocery shopping in an hour at the local "they've got EVERYTHING" grocery/department store, Fred Meyer, and for once I see exactly how I have to act.  I've got to clarify my own food ethics and then see if I can live by them today.

Quick backstory:  Any interview with Michael Pollan's going to be a good interview.  So what could he possibly have to say about The Compassionate Instinct?  Absolutely nothing.  The fact that the editors put this interview into this particular book shows their utter lack of relevant content. 

And yet: This piece struck me as more enjoyable and action-inspiring than virtually anything else in the book so far.  Why?  Michael Pollan knows his complex topic - food systems and how choosing our food relates to our ethics - better than just about anybody, and he can convey his knowledge to us with clarity, humor, and an utter lack of preachyness.  He sees food choices - and I suspect all our day-to-day choices - as opportunities to clarify and exercise our own particular ethics.  And, as he says, in what other realm do we get to vote for what we believe in three times a day?  This strikes me as absolutely right, and I gotta respect him for not prescribing a view, but instead illuminating the complex repercussions of our choices.

What struck me after reading this interview was that I'm not entirely clear about my own food ethics right now.  Am I more about humane treatment of animals or about habitat conservation?  Sustainable farming methods, organic farming methods, or local farming?  Personal health or economic & environmental well-being for all?

To make better choices, I really do need to prioritize a bit.  So:
1. Starting today, no exceptions to the "no factory farmed proteins" rule.  I'm actually about 90% on this already, but let's go for 100%.  If I'm going to purchase a non-veggie protein, then it's got to be not simply organic or "cage free", it's got to be demonstrably humanely raised. 
2.  I'll choose locally farmed, organic produce whenever possible, because that uses less fossil fuel for transport and supports a local, living economy. 

So then, if those are my newly-focused rules, what could be an actual plan for when I'm standing in the produce section? 

How about this?
a.  Set a reasonable budget for food I want to buy.
b. When at the store, gather the items that are locally, organically grown and humanely farmed first.
c. Approximate how much of my budget I have left, adjust, and get as much of the rest of what's on the list as I can afford.

OK:  Freddy's, here I come!

P.S. To sample Michael Pollan, just try Michael

Monday, November 15, 2010

Pay It Forward = Pollyanna?

We'll see.  Because I'm thinking that my actions for the rest of the week will keep focus on gratitude practice, with the added step of "paying it forward". 

                                                 (Isn't she fabulous?)

The Compassionate Instinct connection:  According to researcher Robert A. Emmons, when people keep a gratitude journal - even just five entries per week - they're not only more likely to express feelings of happiness and contentment, but they are also more likely to be reported as helpful and kind by their friends.  Apparently, his study's been replicated with similar results.  Also, when Emmons performed a similar study on folks with neuromuscular disorders, the ones who kept note of their gratitude reported better sleep and more positive emotions overall than control groups.  That "paid forward" to their spouses and significant others because participants seemed outwardly happier. 

So, I'm going to keep tracking my gratitude.  (It helped a lot this morning to have written my thanks for the kitteh's can-do attitude:  "No toys?  No problem.  I'll just play in this pile of papers over here.  Or with this curtain. That pen looks fun too!  Ooh!  Box o matches!  Sa-wweet!  And this table leg!  And - look! - there's my tail..."  Then, when he proceeded to plough through every loose item in the house and then gnaw on every plant, I could assure him "That's not acceptable!" and clean up after him with a bit more equanimity.)

But why the extra step of  "paying it forward" consciously?  If Emmons's research is right, won't it just naturally emerge?  Well, if my mission is to create a better life for myself and all beings, I'm not taking any chances.  I've heard/read from multiple sources that it takes at least 30 repetitions to create a good habit - I tend to think it's often even more than 30 - and at least triple that number of repetitions to break a bad habit.

So I'd better get cracking! I'm going to make a point of expressing thanks directly and truly watching others' behaviors with compassion so I can find a way to make a positive impact on their days.  Seems a tad Pollyanna-ish, but I'll see how people respond, and whether I feel any happier as a result.  Or sleep better. (Now that would be worth the effort.)

Let you know how it's going later in the week.  I'm thinking that I'll write again on Wed., and post to my other blog (Gift/Gratitude Happens - link to the right) tomorrow.  Hope to see you then!
p.s. Quick note on reading practice:  The book's articles are still, for the most part, pretty lifelessly written and often sketchy about interpeting data and applying research findings to broader contexts, but keeping notes with the twin lenses of "What do I have questions about?" and "How might this apply directly to me at work and at home?"  has helped make reading it a reasonably worthwhile experience.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

Wild Geese

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting--
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

© Mary Oliver. 

Mary Oliver won the Pulitzer Prize in 1983 for her book of poems American Primitive. The Harvard Review describes her work as an antidote to "inattention and the baroque conventions of our social and professional lives. She is a poet of wisdom and generosity whose vision allows us to look intimately at a world not of our making.
Want more? Try  Then buy her books.

Saturday, November 13, 2010


That should be
his middle name.

Right now, he's purring away, head resting on my laptop's touch pad, cosied up between me and my technology.  And me?  I'd rather spend an hour retyping his 'edits' than dump this warm mess of contentment off my lap...

So here we sit, smack dab in the middle of a mutual oxytocin-fest.  Is this "love hormone" - the first synthetically synthesized hormone, and the one thought to be involved in emotions as diverse as mother-child bonding and anxiety - driving my creeping affection for the cat and his apparent attachment to me?  Is my current calm, as proposed in both The Compassionate Instinct and Nova's recent episode on dogs, a largely biological process offering me stress reduction while making his basic parasitism seem less, well, parasitic? 

I feel like my feelings for him are genuine.  A sort of mildly maternal approval plus a true appreciation of this particular feline's uniquely doggish disposition and overall good manners. But what about him?  He sure seems to evince a decided predilection for my lap.  Does he like me, or just my body warmth? Possibly he's just angling to ensure that the hand that feeds him keeps on feeding.

And suppose we grant that he's enchanted with me personally.  If he's capable of affection, is he also capable of empathy or compassion or even simple sympathy? 

According to some of the writers in The Compassionate Instinct, apes are, so maybe it's not such a stretch?  Many primates engage in conciliatory behaviors after a fight, and chimps have been known to pat friends' backs seemingly soothingly in times of trouble.  And of course we've all seen Wild Kingdom shots of baboons or gorillas grooming each other fastidiously; some biologists interpret this as purposeful bonding.  But are the groomers feeling anything like affection for the groomees?  Are the back-patters truly empathizing with - or even feeling sympathy for - the pattees?  How can we know when we're seeing human-like emotions expressed and when we're merely projecting?

So the cat returns me to the book. And I'd like to simply accept all the "science" noted there, because I'd like to think that empathy is experienced by all those animals I myself admire or enjoy.  But the initially intriguing animal research referenced in many of the articles keeps getting muddied by some seriously sketchy interpretations and leaps of logic that continually favor the notion that primates, at least, have a "compassionate instinct".  I'm only half-way through the book, and - as I've noted - I'm jumping around from essay to essay, following my fancy, so maybe I've just landed on the less-persuasive articles.  So far, though, I'm not convinced.

Hope springs, and I'll let you know how it all pans out on Monday.

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