Take a moment to remember a great teacher in your life

When I graduated from high school, I was cocky enough to think that I could take an upper division course in French Literature in college. After all, I had won the French Award.

But the thing about taking a literature class in another language is you have to read a lot of stuff in another language. I adored my high school French teachers, and they gave me great confidence in my language skills. But I really had no business sitting in that class with upper classmen pretending I could read a book in French without constantly consulting a dictionary. Nor could I keep up with the discussion—again, en français, s’il vous plaît!

But I was lucky. Madame Saigal was my teacher. She was encouraging and never made me feel stupid. When she saw me struggling, she called me into her office and helped me choose an appropriate topic for my paper, one that didn’t require huge amounts of reading and wouldn’t completely overwhelm me. She got me through that class even though I never should have signed up for it.

In academia the saying “Publish or perish” is too often the norm when the primary responsibility for professors really should be teaching. Monique Saigal was first and foremost an educator, and I was lucky to have her. She’s retiring now, and it makes me think back to my freshman year, when everything was harder than I thought it was going to be, but she reached out and made it a little easier.

Merci beaucoup, Mme Saigal, et félicitations!

What do you say to one of your idols in the bathroom line?

Thacher Hurd was the scheduled speaker for Kid Lit Salon. I arrived a few minutes early and bought his newest book, Bongo Fishing, which is his first middle-grade novel. I’d seen the book trailer a few weeks earlier, and I can tell I will enjoy reading it. I have to admit I was pretty excited to see him again.

I say again because when I taught 1st grade at Branciforte Elementary in Santa Cruz, CA back in the spring of 1987—oh, my god, I’m old—he was a visiting author. I remember having him sign my copy of Mama Don’t Allow. It was the first book I ever got signed.

I told him back then that I loved reading that book aloud to my students,  playing the song on my guitar, and singing it with them. I even told him how I had made up my own tune to accompany the “Lullaby of Swampland,” which is the song the band sings in the book to put the alligators to sleep so they can escape being eaten.

And there he was 24 years later at Book Passage just ahead of me in the bathroom line. I tried not to play the part of a gushing fan, but it did feel strange making small talk with the author of one of my favorite children’s books.

Thacher’s parents were big in kid lit (his dad Clement Hurd  illustrated Goodnight, Moon, which is only one of the greatest children’s books ever written) and were chums with its author, Margaret Wise Brown. So he began his presentation with some interesting facts and photos from his  childhood. 

He and his parents visited “Brownie,” as they called her, at her home in Maine that was accessible only by boat. He had great anecdotes of that visit, including the special fur room created just for him by the childless legend of children’s literature. (Apparently Margaret Wise Brown had an idealized vision of childhood and was into fur.)

What was fascinating to me was how openly he shared his process with the dozen or so of us who attended that night. We saw all stages of the creative mind at work, including the plateaus in which he got stuck. Creating is not a smooth, steady process but an unpredictable journey where, more often than not, one finds oneself just spinning one’s wheels. He was also refreshingly honest, in that he was not terribly encouraging about the current state of publishing children’s literature.

But he loved writing, whether his books continued to make money or not. And that’s really what it comes down to: if you love to write, then you write. And hope someone else is there to pay the bills.

Snippets from Albany’s police blotter—Part 3


4:10 p.m. Someone found a backpack on Jackson “with Tinkerbell on it” containing electronic equipment. The person was referred to another agency.

Sorry, Albany police only handle backpacks with Hello Kitty and superheroes. For characters from children’s literature and/or Disney movies, they have to hand it over to Berkeley police.


10:43 a.m. A baby deer was hit by a vehicle on San Pablo. The deer was found to have minor injuries. Berkeley Animal Control responded.

5:42 p.m. A woman came into the police department to see if a police officer could speak to her 5-year-old daughter “as a reminder” about “Not good behavior.” Log note only.

Really? Scared straight in kindergarten?


10:14 a.m. A caller reported a dead young deer deceased in the back yard. The caller was referred to Berkeley Animal Control, which was notified to collect the remains.

So it was dead and deceased? Was this the same deer deemed only to have minor injuries the day before? Someone needs to be more careful about releasing patients too early…

Snippets from Albany’s police blotter—Part 2


1:25 p.m. A man near Madison and Castro streets reported he was “concerned because there is a swarm of bees near the corner.” Police gave him the phone number for Vector Control. Log note only.

I would be concerned too—if I didn’t have two legs to walk away from them.

5:28 a.m. A man was reported near Santa Fe and Solano avenues “dragging trash cans all over the street” and “making noise.” Log note only.

You mean you want those poor sanitation workers to lift them soundlessly?


7:14 p.m. A man turned in a wallet he found on Jackson Street, but didn’t want to give police the exact location “or have the owner know who turned it in.” Miscellaneous public service provided.

So this thief took out the money and credit cards but felt guilty keeping the wallet itself?


10:30 p.m. Someone reported that a cat on Kains Avenue had been locked in a car “crying for (the) last hour.” The car’s window was down with a screen covering it. No police action warranted at this time.

I’m glad the police didn’t arrest that poor cat—it was probably the only private place it could find to cry, and we all deserve a good cry now and then.

Snippets from Albany’s police blotter—Part 1

These are actual items from the police desk in Albany, CA.  My comments are in green.

Albany Police Blotter


2:04 p.m. A man in his 40s, “wearing only long underwear,” was reported in front on Rendez-Vous Cafe Bistro. Police spoke with the man who “did not wish assistance.” Reported situation checks out OK.

4:18 p.m. A man was said to be lying down on the sidewalk, again in front of Rendez-Vous, “with his foot hanging off (the) sidewalk, he appears to be in bad shape.” Assistance refused.

My question is did he appear to be in bad shape after eating at Rendez-Vous? And was it the same guy wearing only long underwear?

5:12 p.m. A neighbor reported a 12- or 13-year-old blond girl in a purple t-shirt and blue shorts “going around” an apartment building “and turning on faucets.” The caller wanted police to speak with the child’s parents. Unable to locate source of the complaint.

Were these faucets inside other people’s apartments? If so, didn’t people stop her when she came in uninvited and headed for their sinks and tubs?


7:09 p.m. A neighbor reported “loud drumming” from a beige house on Kains. The caller “works at home (and) has spoken to subject’s mom,” but the issue had been going on for several months. Miscellaneous public service provided.

I’m interested in knowing what “miscellaneous public service” was provided—ear plugs?

Albany is a small town situated a few miles north of Oakland and a few miles south of Richmond—two cities considered to be serious crime capitals.

If it’s Tuesday, we must be at Guilford…

On our whirlwind tour of small liberal arts colleges in both the Central and Eastern time zones, I was most impressed by the students themselves.

In a sparse Quaker meeting room where most parents were drenched following the short walk from the admissions office because of an unusually ferocious rainstorm, three current Earlham students shared with us their separate journeys arriving at and going through this gem of a school in Richmond, Indiana. They engaged us all as they spoke candidly and enthusiastically about their experiences, despite our soggy socks and concerns that our children, having not had the foresight to pack proper rain gear, were somewhere on campus soaked to the bone and in need of dry clothes.

These were friendly, interesting, articulate young people who I could picture alongside my daughter in the dining hall, discussing current events and debating which was tastier—the snickers pie or the chocolate cake with raspberry sauce.

Surely these were extraordinary examples of students, handpicked to represent the school. But every student who crossed my path and my daughter’s was a person worthy of representing the school, from the generous roommate Kylie spent the night with (she mailed us the iphone charger my daughter left behind) to the young man who shuttled us back to the airport almost an hour away in Dayton, Ohio.

And that was only the first school on our stop. Having survived a tornado warning and thunderstorm that took out much of the region’s power—but mercifully not the Days Inn in Greensboro where we stayed—we arrived early for our appointment at Guilford, luggage in hand. Our student tour guides were delightful, as was the admissions intern who showed Kylie to the class she was observing and held down the fort in the admissions office during an all-hands staff meeting. I was mildly concerned for the health of Kylie’s assigned lunch buddy, who ate dry Froot Loops and a piece of cake for lunch, but overall I was impressed with how helpful and positive students were.

The information session at Goucher was led not by the admissions director or one of the staff but by a knowledgeable and perky student, who breathed life into what could have been just another pitch for small liberal arts schools. (By the third information session, it becomes more difficult to get excited by the programs offered, despite how marvelous they are. Yes, I’m glad that all these schools offer study-abroad experiences, small class sizes, and a challenging yet nurturing academic environment, but the distinctions among admissions directors do begin to blur the tiniest bit…) Trusting this important piece of  p.r. to a student showed confidence not only in her abilities to represent the school in a good light but also in the program itself.

Goucher campus

But wait, there’s more! Goucher allowed us to choose which tour guide to follow after they introduced themselves—a female senior whose major was one of the sciences, I believe, and a male freshman who was interested in peace studies. I never would have thought that a freshman could be so knowledgeable about the school, let alone have the confidence and charm he exuded while walking backward all over the sizeable campus and answering  our questions.

While he was responding to my daughter’s comment on the professor she’d observed earlier with a humorous anecdote involving condoms, the president of the college walked by and greeted our guide by name. After a moment, the freshman said to our little group, “Okay, the president just heard me talk about condoms to a group of prospective students and their parents…” Then with skilled comic timing, he shook his head and continued with the tour.

At that point I was smitten, both with Goucher and our tour guide.

Knox students

But the point is that every student I met at Earlham, Guilford, Goucher, and Knox was someone whose company I enjoyed, someone who gave me hope that the next generation had it covered, and most importantly, someone I would feel comfortable leaving my only child with.

Cereal lit—the new frontier?

Puffin books announced that through a deal made with Roald Dahl’s estate and U.K. supermarket chain Asda, it will soon be excerpting such children’s classics as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, The Twits, and The Witches

On cereal boxes.

Someone figured out that children look at cereal boxes while they eat breakfast in the morning, so they might as well be reading quality literature. They aren’t publishing them so that a child could read a whole book 200 words at a time—the excerpts are more like teasers to whet the interest of someone who might not pick up the book under normal circumstances. Imagine the cliffhangers that might arise:

“I think I’ll have just one more of those candy bars…” Charlie picked it up and tore off the wrapper…and suddenly… from underneath the wrapper…

Will Charlie find a golden ticket? Find out by picking up a copy of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory today at the library or your local independent book store!

It just might work.

But is this just the beginning? What about adults? Roald Dahl is great for kids while they eat  their fruit rings, but what can Mom read with her granola—a romance or maybe a mystery? Will Dad read thrillers on the back of his muesli box? And what about big sis? Will her corn flakes excerpt paranormal, dystopian YA?

 The cerealization of literature is only the first step. The boxes that house happy meals could have beloved children’s poems. You could read bits of War and Peace on napkins at the Russian bakery or some James Joyce on the side of a pint glass at a pub. The possibilities are endless.

So your challenge, dear readers, is to come up with a good pairing: what to read on the appropriate vessel. And write them in the comment section, so all can see. Good luck!

Will e-readers save trees?

Working in the publishing industry, I am aware of how much paper gets used. At our office, as much as possible, we try to work on the screen rather than hard copy, thus minimizing the amount of paper (and toner) that gets used. But we do go through a fair amount of paper in order to turn a manuscript into a book.

I do my part. Once projects have gone to press, I reuse the paper from one-sided manuscripts either in my home printer or by making little note pads for everyone in the office. Yes, of course the final product—a book—will be printed on paper, but at least we are using less paper in the process.

I confess right up front that I am not an e-reader person. I like the feel of a book in my hands. Curling up with a kindle is just not the same. I know people who own e-readers and love them. I know someone who helped produce one of the e-readers out on the market right now. I still have no interest in getting one. I made the transition from vinyl to 8-track to cassette to CDs just fine, but I love books. Not just the content inside them, but the books themselves.

I have heard prognosticators claim with great certainty that books made of paper will soon be quaint memories. In trying to make peace with the future, I thought, well, at least we’ll save a few trees by not printing so many books. Then I came across a piece written by Bill Henderson in Publishers Weekly commenting on an article from the venerable New York Times:

Here’s what an e-reader is: a battery-operated slab, about a pound, one-half inch thick, perhaps with an aluminum border, rubberized back, plastic, metal, silicon, a bit of gold, plus rare metals such as columbite-tantalite (Google it) ripped from the earth, often in war-torn Africa. To make one e-reader requires 33 pounds of minerals, plus 79 gallons of water to refine the minerals and produce the battery and printed writing. “The adverse health impacts [on the general public] from making one e-reader are estimated to be 70 times greater than those for making a single book,” says the Times. http://www.publishersweekly.com/pw/by-topic/columns-and-blogs/soapbox/article/46793-books-without-batteries-the-negative-impacts-of-technology.html


So now I have an ecological argument to support my love of books. And I plan to spread the word. Tell everyone you know this simple fact: the carbon footprint of one e-reader is 70 times that of a book. Not twice the carbon footprint, not ten times, but 70! Maybe it will do nothing. Or maybe it will be the beginning of the end of the e-reader.

Would you go to a particular college just to be near some great cheesy breadsticks?

I don’t make a habit of writing restaurant reviews, but this is an exception.

It’s our last night of Kylie’s college tour ’11 in Galesburg, Illinois. We were both really hungry. So we checked on my Urban Spoon app and found the Cellar, which was just a four-minute drive from our hotel.

What a find! The entrance is around the back of a building, so you have to know where to look for it. We entered, descended the stairs to this underground pizzeria, and were immediately greeted by Deb from behind the bar. With a strong Boston accent and a loud voice she let us know someone would be with us shortly, and then she proceeded to yell across the restaurant to one of the waitresses to make sure we got seated.

It was pretty crowded for a place that couldn’t benefit from walk-in traffic, especially at five until 6:00. Everyone was friendly, and there was a nice mix of families, college students, and regulars that conversed with Deb at the bar.

The garlic cheese bread sticks were to die for. There was a full bar, wine, and several beers on tap. I asked for a recommendation for a beer and enjoyed the Blue Moon served with two orange slices on the rim. The salad was simple iceberg lettuce with a slice of tomato and some cheese, but the balsamic vinaigrette was tasty, and it was only $3.50!

The star of the meal was their specialty pizza called Drago—mozzarella, basil, garlic, olive oil, and tomatoes. I know it sounds simple, but it was heavenly. The crust was perfect.

We sat at a high table near the bar and got to watch the goings on behind it. Deb loudly directed the new waitress to take care of the customers before she cleaned up the tables, but in a way that felt motherly—if your mother was cheering for the Celtics.

Deb at The Cellar

Kylie wanted to thank her for the great experience and meal we’d had, and I asked Deb if I could take her picture. She was surprised and looked bashful for an instant but then announced to some regulars nearby that someone wanted to take her picture. An older guy remarked that I must want to break my camera, and Deb agreed but allowed a quick shot.

She asked if Kylie went to Knox College to which Kylie replied no, she was from California but was looking at Knox. Deb assured her that she’d have a great time there. It make me almost sad that Kylie had already decided it wasn’t the right school for her. I could picture myself visiting her and getting those great cheesy garlic bread sticks again…

Getting by on 75% and lucky breaks

I thought I was organized. I mean, I knew on the day before we left that I didn’t do everything I’d actually planned to do–print out all the directions to every hotel and college, to and from, put them in chronological order, and divide them into folders, one assigned to each college we were visiting. But I had made hotel reservations, reserved a rental car from Greensboro to drive to Baltimore, and had called or e-mailed all four schools to arrange for campus tours, information sessions, one overnight stay in a dorm room, a lunch buddy date, two informational interviews, and classes for Kylie to observe while we were there. And I printed out their confirmations. Well, most of them. And I made the airline reservations from Oakland to Dayton, Ohio (with a layover in Denver), Dayton to Greensboro, North Carolina (layover in Charlotte), and Peoria, Illinois back home to Oakland, another layover in Denver. I just didn’t make the arrangements to get from Baltimore to Peoria. Oops. And somehow I left behind the printout from Goucher with little details like our schedule and what time to show up…


So I guess I would have to say I was 75% organized. But this morning (Wednesday, or Day 4) is the first time I’ve been able to write, reflect, or try to fill in the missing gaps in our itinerary. So 75% feels pretty disorganized. Especially when one is as directionally challenged as I am and has to factor in at least 15% more time for everything on the assumption that getting lost is a given.

Add in small miscellaneous factors like Kylie leaving her phone charger in her host’s dorm room on Night 1 and her glasses at the Best Western on Night 2, and my foolishly counting on sharing Kylie’s phone charger and being able to access my e-mail, and you’ve got a college tour that rivals It’s a Mad, Mad World for sheer confusion and wackiness.

But the thing is…we’re doing okay and having fun anyway. Instead of sobbing our way through road construction at midnight on I-95, we sang every song we could think of even when we didn’t really know the lyrics. Instead of cursing Carolina for turning her Country Kitchen (at one time open at 8:00 for breakfast) into a Mexican restaurant open only for lunch and dinner, we arrived early at Guilford, rolling our suitcases in the pouring rain and asked if we could possibly eat at their dining hall. Instead of calling the front desk of the completely booked-up motel at midnight to do something about the flea I saw on the covers of my bed, I pretended like I never saw it and went to sleep.

And we’ve had so many lucky breaks. When the admissions office at Earlham had said that the airport shuttle was really for prospective students and was unlikely to have any room for accompanying parental units, I had just accepted the fact that I would have to pay for a taxi for that long haul from Dayton to Independence, Indiana. But Paul, the driver, said there was plenty of room and I could sit up front with him.

Lucky break #2 The director of admissions herself put me in touch with other parents in hopes that one of them might be staying at a hotel near mine and could offer me a ride. And one did! In fact she also recommended a few restaurants in town where one dad and two other moms and I ate and compared college tour stories while our kids got a taste of dorm life. And Kathie, fellow mom of a prospective Earlham student, generously offered to pick me up from my hotel and take me to the parent breakfast the next morning.

Lucky break #3 We were driving up Interstate 95 knowing that both our phones were almost dead, and the charger was back in an Earlham dorm room. We whimsically wished that we would see a store where we might find an iphone charger at 7:00 on a Tuesday night. Moments later we saw a big AT&T sign on the side of a building as we drove by. Surely it wasn’t open…But it was.

Lucky break #4 Arriving after 1 a.m. at Towson’s Best Western, Kylie and I were ready to sleep a very long time. But I didn’t know what time we were supposed to show up at Goucher, so I just set the alarm on my phone to awake me at 8:00 and hope we weren’t supposed to be there before 9:00. When I called the office at 9:00 (the time the recording had said it opened), I was relieved to hear that our appointment was for 11:00.

Kylie went back to bed and I am now taking advantage of the big comfy chair and ottoman in our hotel room. So 75% seems to be working out okay after all.