Thinking that you killed Roald Dahl could give you a complex

Today I’m quoting from Nathan Bransford’s wonderful blog about a confession he made at a conference recently while he served on a middle-grade writers panel:

When I was ten I wrote to Roald Dahl and then he died the following weekend and, me being ten, I convinced myself it was my letter that killed him and I didn’t write to another author again for years.

Poor Nathan felt guilt for something totally unrelated to his writing that letter, but I think that’s not an uncommon phenomenon.

It made me think about other instances when kids think that because of some misconception they have more influence—good or bad—than they actually do. How long does that guilt or self-importance last? And is it necessarily bad to accidentally deceive oneself in this way? Such philosophical questions…

Have you thought that an action of yours caused something that turned out not to be related at all? How long after it happened did you discover the truth? Please share any experiences you’ve had.

Fun with agapanthuses (agapanthi?)

Magdalena & Kylie

Yesterday evening Kylie (my daughter), Dave (my husband),  Magdalena (our foreign exchange student), and I attended and participated in a local art event I’d read about that was being held in the park connected to the local elementary school, a mere two blocks from my house. All I knew was that there was this thing called the Agapanthus Project where everyone was invited to come create art out of dried Agapanthus. It was close by and free. What did I have to lose?

The Agapanthus is not my favorite flower to look at, but that’s probably the result of seeing too many of them in office parks. However, I have new respect for this tall, spindly, purple-bloomed plant due to nature artist (and my neighbor as it turns out) Zach Pine.

I suppose with that last name, his art was bound to involve nature at some point.

We arrived to find Zach, one man, three children, and many stalks of dried Agapanthus. Congenial and inviting, Zach told us there was only one rule—there were no rules. He showed us how the flower ends could be used as connectors and how one could extend the length by stuffing one stalk into another, since they were hollow.

One entrepreneurial type who looked to be about six years old had begun hoarding stalks and “selling” them for coupons, though it was never clear to me what constituted a coupon in his bartering system. Another boy, younger by a few years, was also stockpiling, and I felt sure that territorial skirmishes were on the horizon. But  as the older boy scooped up the pile that had clearly been gathered by the younger one, I made the observation aloud that really you couldn’t add more than one stalk at a time. The older boy threw the pile back down in the general direction of the younger boy and said to nobody in particular,  “I guess that would be like stealing…” before he trudged back to his own area. The younger boy looked relieved, and I was proud of the older boy for doing the right thing. Conflict averted. Whew.

Zach ingeniously traded the older boy a high-five for some of the dried Agapanthus that was beginning to be in short supply due to the aforementioned territorial tendencies among the builders.

No harsh words were ever uttered. No tears shed. No blood was spilled. There were building materials and the opportunity to create art for all.

Despite a few gusts that wiped out various structures, everyone persisted and re-built with good cheer. Clean-up time went smoothly, though it felt too soon for me. (I think I was finally getting the hang of this Agapanthus art.) The giant insect, the fence, the teepee, the sunburst, and the ship all went back to being bundles until another day of inspiration.


Spreading around what’s good

There’s so much that’s interesting and beautiful out in the world that I’ve decided to make it a goal to share something at least once a week that I’ve found. I think of it as spreading around what’s good.

The installation is by Norwegian artist Rune Guneriussen, who since 2005 has been creating narratives with man-made objects placed into the natural landscape of Norway.

With the horrible tragedy that just occurred in Norway, it was nice to find something beautiful from there to share.

I came by this via Berkeleyside, who was featuring Golsana Heshmati, an artist who shares light-centered art on her web site:

Just another day in Albany

map of Albany

I love living where I do—in Berkeley, just a few blocks from the Albany border. I subscribe to the Albany Patch, which regularly features the Albany police blotter. Reading it makes me feel glad to live here, where these are the kinds of log entries on a typical day:


7:41 a.m. Police recovered a stolen vehicle that was blocking a driveway in the 1000 block of Kains. The caller who reported the Honda said he parked in his driveway at 5 p.m. the night before, and hadn’t heard or seen anything amiss. Vehicle towed.

8:56 a.m. Someone in the same block of Kains reported that his or her Honda was stolen. Police said it was likely the two incidents were related, and that someone dumped the first car, then stole the second. Case report taken.

10:21 a.m. A man on San Carlos Avenue reported that his wife hid his car and would not tell him where it was. Civil matter, parties advised.

12:19 p.m. Police recovered a stolen vehicle at Solano and Cleveland avenues. Police said it probably was not related to the incidents on Kains, given the distance and because it was a different type of vehicle.

12:44 p.m. A babysitter on Talbot Avenue said she locked herself out of a house while a 2-year-old was inside. Miscellaneous public service provided.

8:26 p.m. A man in his 50s fell down on Solano and broke his wrist. He was taken to the hospital.


2:01 p.m. Someone reported three juvenile girls on the roof of Marin Elementary SchoolWarning given.

9:58 p.m. Someone etched a curse word into the hood of a vehicle in the 500 block of Pierce Street the prior night. Case report taken.

10:24 p.m. Someone reported that a man in his 20s “just urinated” on his or her home, and was then walking toward Club Mallard. Warning given.

Obsessing over angry birds…must reach next level…

angry birds

I became an addict. I knew I would, but I started it anyway. I was always one of those people who didn’t understand why someone couldn’t just decide to stop and then stop.

But I’d never played Angry Birds. And now I have. And life will not be the same hereafter.

I remember when someone told me what it was—a game where you launched birds from a big slingshot into various formations of shelters in order to annihilate green pigs.

Green pigs?

That’s so stupid—why would anyone want to fling birds at pigs?

I was so naive then…First I just played to keep my hands busy while I was watching the Daily Show. Now at stop lights I pull out my iPhone and fling a few birds.  And  I’ve even stopped once while writing about Angry Birds to play Angry Birds. The next thing you know I’ll be playing it in the shower or under the table at dinner or during sex.

It’s not as simple-minded as it sounds. There’s different kinds of birds that do different things. And sometimes the pigs wear helmets. And…okay, when I write it out, it still sounds kind of stupid. But it’s incredibly addictive.

So if you have not yet tried Angry Birds, don’t do it! Don’t get trapped in a cycle of needing to get to the next level and then telling yourself you’ll stop as soon as you get three stars but then in the rush of adrenaline from getting three stars, you go on and on and on.

Save yourself. It’s too late for me.

Short story review #3: The Great Hug, by Donald Barthelme

Donald Barthelme

I know it’s not a new story. In fact, it’s in a book that was published in 1981, so  if you can add—and I’m certainly not saying you can’t—you would figure out soon enough that this book is 30 years old. But good literature is timeless, so there’s no reason not to do a review of a story from the last century. Of course, generally reviews are written either to entice or discourage the reader—a poor review may be fun to read but is not likely to launch you into your car and head down to the closest book store, which of course a glowing review just might do.

But this is a different sort of review altogether. This is just me writing my opinion of a story, “The Great Hug” by Donald Barthelme.

It was interesting. I enjoyed it. I can’t honestly say I know what Barthelme was thinking when he wrote it, but the language was engaging and the rhythm lively. 

Balloon Man

This story of three and a half pages had the word balloon in it a total of 66 times. I’m willing to bet there is no other story on earth that uses the word balloon that many times. Even in a how-to guide on making balloon animals.

The opening grabs you, or at least it grabbed me, but then we never return to the issues it brings up:

At the last breakfast after I told her,we had steak and eggs. Bloody Marys. Three pieces of toast. She couldn’t cry, she tried.

But the rest of the story is all about the Balloon Man who won’t sell his balloons to kids. The narrator imagines the Balloon Man’s meeting with the Pin Lady:

Pin Lady has the Pin of  Tomorrow Night—a wicked pin, those who have seen it say. That great hug, when Balloon Man and Pin Lady roll down the hill together, will be frightening. The horses will run away in all directions. Ordinary people will cover their heads with shopping bags. I don’t want to think about it.

So I don’t think I’ll say anything more about “The Great Hug” because I don’t want to give anything away. I hate movie trailers that basically tell you the whole story, so I’m not revealing any more.

NY Times paperback book game a winner

Dave Sanders for The New York Times

Yesterday after luring over friends for a 4th of July barbecue I brought out a pile of paperbacks and told everyone we were playing a game that I’d heard about from the New York Times—the paperback book game.

The way it works is that one person reads the blurb on the back of the book aloud. Then everyone else writes down on a slip of paper what they think might be the first line, based only on what they know from the synopsis. The person who read aloud the synopsis writes the real first line and mixes it up with all the made-up ones.

I had been worried that our collection of books wouldn’t work as well as the ones suggested in the article. The creator of this game said that cheesier books were the most fun; but literary snob that I am, I had nothing in the romance or pulp fiction categories.

But it was so much fun! And despite a few people who worried that they wouldn’t be any good at it, everyone wrote great first lines. It was truly hard to choose the real one.

We used a range of books that included a Newbury-award winner, a Fannie Flagg book, and a non-fiction story of a giraffe. They worked just fine. The range of players was 17–80+ and had bookish sorts and not-so-bookish sorts. I highly recommend it. I can’t wait to play it again…

Here’s the link so you can get fuller instructions and background on the game:

Poetic directions for literary travelers

In the May 2, 2011, edition of the New Yorker—okay I’m a little behind, but it’s not like it’s time-sensitive—Dave Hanson wrote a clever piece about an app devised for the literary traveler. The idea is to simply type in a poet’s name and get directions to that poet’s former home, the directions being given in the style of that poet. He gave several examples, including this one for William Carlos Williams:

so much depends


a Red Lobster on the corner

of S.R. 22 and tompkins road

drive past it and there’s no way to turn around until you hit greenville

make the turn and we’re the white mailbox on the right

glazed with rainwater

And of course, “The Road Less Traveled” was perfect to parody to give directions to Robert Frost’s house:

Two roads diverge at the yellow light,

Alas you cannot travel both

If you pause and look down the one that goes right

You’ll see a really dreadful sight

The seething sprawl of suburban growth.


There are Starbucks, Applebee’s, Best Buy, and Lowe’s

Staples, Ikea, Petco, and Sears

T.J. Maxx, Victoria’s Secret, two Office Depots,

An Outback Steakhouse and three Costcos

All this has sprung up in the last seven years.


Nearby are McMansions, each with an S.U.V.

On cul-de-sacs that are impeccably drawn

8,000 square feet for a family of three

Lauren Drive, Ashley Road, Brittany Street

Each named for a developer’s spawn


Congestion is the modern blight,

Traffic (like urban planners) is often dense

Two roads diverge at the blinking light.

Go left—for God’s sake don’t take the right,

It will make all the difference.

He also does wonderful things with Dylan Thomas (Do not go gentle when you make that right) and T.S. Eliot (Once in Jersey the cars come and go/Betweeen the Turnpike and Ramapo).

Since one of my writing heroes is Dr. Seuss, I thought I’d give it a try Theodor Geisel-style.

When asking directions in Whoville they say

You’ll end up on paths going all the wrong way

For everyone knows that to find Dr. Seuss

Highways and street signs are really no use

You may head out left but end up going right

You may start at daybreak and walk until night

A map’s just a map and can’t help in this case

You could read it until you’re blue in the face

You can’t find the doctor by bus or by train

You can’t get there walking or even by plane

You just have to open your eyes and then look

It’s easy to find him when you read a book!

Doesn’t this inspire you to write directions for other writers? Consider all the possibilities. The way to Gertrude Stein’s:

A road is a road is a road, but once you get here, there’s no there there.

There, the gauntlet has been thrown—the challenge is yours to take.