722 words about 13 Words

I detest movie trailers that give too much away, which is often the case. Book reviews rarely give too much away, which is to be applauded. (Clap, clap.)

But I could write every word of the text from Lemony Snicket’s 13 Words and not give too much away. Because the beauty of the book is in its illustrations and word choice. There is a plot of sorts, but it isn’t the reason to read the book.

In fact, I’m not especially fond of the ending (which of course I would never give away here), and usually I have a hard time really liking a book if I don’t find the ending satisfying. So the fact that I’m willing to forgive the ending speaks well of the rest of the book. (Or maybe it speaks well of me because I’m getting more tolerant.)

Illustrator Maira Kalman uses fun colors and her quirky renderings are delightfully surprising.

The one color-related confusion I experienced had to do with the ladders. The text clearly states “Eleven ladders in ten colors,” yet I checked the aforementioned ladders and found this: 1 blue ladder, 1 yellow ladder, 2 green ladders, 2 reddish-brown ladders, 2 orange ladders, 1 drab olive ladder, 1 slate gray ladder, and 1 pink ladder, which is only eight colors no matter which direction you count them in.

And I know you’re thinking “Maybe your eyes didn’t discern the subtle difference between the two green ladders. Perhaps one was more Kelly green and the other more lime green.” But I am actually quite attuned to varying shades of green, and I can state unequivocally that the 2 green ladders were an identical shade of green. Same for the 2 orange ladders and the 2 reddish-brown ladders. However, this oversight is no reason for one not to buy the book. I only mention it in hopes that others who are baffled by this mismatch will not think they are crazy or incompetent.

Although the title hints that there are only 13 words, there are in fact many more than that. I didn’t count them, but I’m willing to bet that there are more than 71.

There are lots of ways to enjoy this book.

1. Read the front book jacket, on which the 13 words expressly referred to in the title are listed. Make up your own story using these words in order. Then read the book and compare your version with Mr. Snicket’s.

2. Look only at the pictures and see if you can figure out what the story is.

3. Count the number of, say, hats in the book. (You could count other items as well—books, cakes, flowers, squares, people, and paintings. You could even make up your own things to count. You’d probably want to at least look at the pictures first, though, or you won’t know what things are in the book. For instance, you could choose to count farm implements, but then you might be frustrated when there are no farm implements to be seen. In most books you would be wise not to choose haberdasher to count; yet in this book, you will indeed find a haberdasher, which you could count once or count every time the haberdasher is pictured. Oh I hope I haven’t given too much away…)

4. Look through the book and find all instances of the impossible. For instance, birds don’t wear bibs. Or strawberries decorating a cake do not still have the greenery intact. Or goats never drive glamorous green convertibles. (Anyone who knows goats knows how practical and unpretentious they are—they are much more likely to drive a Toyota sedan or an old station wagon.)

5. Read the book while looking at the pictures. (This one may seem obvious, but I didn’t want to seem that I was in any way disdainful of the more traditional.)

6. Try to read the book upside down. (No, that’s just silly—I’m obviously grasping for more ways to enjoy the book. What’s wrong with stopping at just five ways to enjoy the book? I mean, that’s more ways than most, isn’t it? Why do you keep pushing for more?)

I think I’m safe in saying that no other children’s book uses the bouquet of lovely words that 13 Words does. Not only do you get to read haberdashery and panache, which are featured words, you also get to read spiffy, swell, despondent, swagger, and verve.

And there can never be enough verve.

Dirty can be beautiful too

Technically vagina is not a swear word as far as I know, and neither is its cute nickname vajayjay, but the website where I found this extremely fun treatment of a woman’s anatomy is http://beautifulswearwords.com/. If you go there, you will see more run-of-the-mill swear words done up beautifully. So that’s the context. This is so vibrant and colorful that it made me smile. So I hope it does that for you too.

Abandoned goldfish survive quake, but how?


Earlier this year New Zealand was hit with a 6.3 earthquake that destroyed the city center in Christchurch. Because of the heavy damage, workers at Quantum Chartered Accountants were unable to  reenter their office until 134 days later, where they found two goldfish still swimming in their tank.

That’s no fish food or electricity to keep the tank filter going for 4 1/2 months. Originally there had been six fish, but one was found dead, and “three others inexplicably vanished,”  according to “earthweek: Diary of a planet” by Steve Newman.

Shaggy and Daphne were the lucky survivors, but one wonders about the three (presumably Fred, Velma, and Scooby) who disappeared under mysterious circumstances. I mean, Shaggy and Daphne had to get by on something, right? Not that I blame them. They could have all died, and what would that prove? In such extreme conditions, I say it’s every fish for him or herself. After all, it’s a fish-eat-fish world out there.

Originally there had been six fish, but one was found dead and ” three others inexplicably vanished,”

Stack some rocks or recycle a church—it’s all beauty

I discovered this wonderful blog that has lots of great photos, so this is my act of sharing beauty for the day: 

    “There is something sublime about stacking a few rocks…go ahead – try it.”

(from the  Serenity in the Garden blog)


The Minnie Evans Sculpture Garden is dedicated to folk artist, Minnie Evans. The Bottle Chapel was designed by artist Virginia Wright-Frierson. It’s 16 feet high and built from bottles. Volunteers and schoolchildren put it all together. This is recycling at its most beautiful.

 Airlie Gardens in North Carolina



Earthquakes—in Virginia?

My only child left for college a few days ago (okay 86 1/2 hours ago) with high hopes and ready to start an exciting new chapter in her life.

She emerged from Friday night’s redeye flight throwing up, having gotten no sleep on the transcontinental flight.

Luckily her dad had accompanied her, and they stayed at a friend’s house in Virginia before her pre-orientation program began Monday afternoon. So at least she got to rest up on  Saturday. 

Sunday she discovered she was covered with some sort of insect bites, but her stomach seemed stable enough for a trip to Bed, Bath & Beyond to get those twin x-long sheets that are required on all colleges beds.

Monday night I received my first Skype from her. She was covered in calamine lotion but appeared happy as she gave me a tour of her dorm room.

Ah, my baby girl is all settled into college life. It’s going to be okay.

Then Tuesday morning (my time) I got a phone call from the woman in charge of her immersion program, who said she needed my daughter’s phone numberto see if she was feeling well enough to join the group for the afternoon.

I’m thinking this is not good.

A few hours later I received a phone call from my daughter, who had lived in California all her life, to tell me she’d just experienced the biggest earthquake she’d ever felt.

In Maryland?

She’d had a recurrence of her stomach ailment, so she was in bed only to be roused out of it by a 5.9 temblor. Because nobody there was used to such a thing, everyone went outside and stayed there for a while before anyone thought that maybe it was okay to go back in the buildings. The phone reception was shaky—her language sounded garbled, as if she were underwater, so I finally had to tell her it was too difficult to make out what she was saying, and we said goodbye.

On the way to work, I tuned the car radio to an AM station and heard more news pretty quickly. The epicenter was in Mineral, Virginia, and that area had not had a quake of that size since the 1800s. There were no reports of fatalities or widespread damage, but lots of very surprised people. According to the seismologist on the radio (I bet East Coast seismologists rarely get to be on the radio) it was a shallow quake, only a few miles deep but felt from Canada to the Carolinas. (I like the sound of that—Canada to the Carolinas—it should be the name of a musical, but I digress…)

In DC, where my poor husband was inching along behind the wheel of his rental car in a futile attempt to get to Dulles airport in time for a 4:50 flight, people were also standing outside, marveling at this strange occurrence. Apparently many people decided it was a good reason to go home early, and all of them take P Street and Wisconsin Avenue to get home. I got a phone call from same poor husband who was hoping I could reroute him via Google maps. The Rock Creek Parkway was closed, and he needed different directions to the airport. It made me sound like I had a sense of direction the way I was rattling off how he’d need to cross the Key Bridge and get on the George Washington Memorial Parkway. (Like I would know!)

Although he made it to the airport before his flight left, he was told at check-in that 20 minutes wasn’t nearly enough time to get through security and take the tram to the right gate.

He called again while on standby for a later flight. I told him to get himself to a margarita, and I would pick him up at SFO whenever he managed to make it there.

Now that I know my husband is on his way home, my thoughts drift back to my sick daughter, alone and itchy in a strange new place. While I wonder if there’s a service in Baltimore that delivers bug repellant, I consider the big picture: maybe all the bad luck presented itself right away so that the rest of the semester just breezes along.

Well, a mother can hope, can’t she?

Stories that fit in the cracks of your day

Nanoism is an online publication for stories of up to 140 characters. Its About page calls it: “Shorter than traditional flash fiction, it’s both a challenge to write and quick as a blink to read.” It’s also described as “flexible fiction…stories that fit in the cracks of your day.”

I feel like my goal to spread beauty has focused more on the visual, so today I’m sharing some of my favorite nanoisms:

She is late. Finally, he must get up and walk, so he can come back in and find her, so the weight of his waiting doesn’t make him small.

–Claire Barwise, a writer living in Brooklyn

Making a snowman isn’t the difficult part,” our eight-year-old son tells us, looking outside the window. “Watching it melt away is.”

–Debbi Antebi, Istanbul, Turkey

He enjoys taking long walks downtown at dusk, breathing the cool evening air as the busy sidewalks gradually clear of witnesses.

–Tim Sevenhuysen, who writes microfiction at 50-Word Stories

The box thuds at her feet: mug, wedding photos, the 25-year pen. The platform trembles, the cold rush of air precedes the oncoming train.

–Linda Simoni-Wastila wishes she had a shorter last name and lives in Baltimore.

Tallying up all the kisses over the years, she had to conclude that she was in a relationship.

–Jenni Dowsett, New Zealand

Envy leapt around the room, poisoning everyone it touched, ruining the joy of my first success, making me wish I had failed.

—Stephen D. Rogers is the author of Shot to Death (www.stephendrogers.com).

For more nanoisms, visit http://nanoism.net/stories/.

Turning the ordinary into the beautiful one mural at a time


In my quest to spread the beauty that I find out in the world, here is painter/swimmer/sailboat enthusiast, Conny Bleul-Gohike.

When her mates at the sailing club found out that she was an artist, they didn’t have to do much to convince her to brighten up the place. 


Conny has transformed several storage containers used by the sailing club at the Berkeley Marina into murals.

Neptune guards the San Francisco Bay.

This one is based on a memory of the Berlin Wall coming down.

 This one is inspired by Banksy.

Conny says that women see the face in the mural below, but the men tend to just see the trees.

“As everything is so tolerant and open here in Berkeley, it gives you more opportunities to be courageous.”

–Conny Bleul-Gohike

http://berkeley.patch.com/articles/artist-brings-color-and-character-to-the-berkeley-marina?ncid=M255#photo-7341779 Photo Credits: J.J. Barrow

Insect sex has its ups and downs

I learn so much from National Public Radio.

For instance, this morning on Fresh Air I listened to Marlene Zuk, who wrote Sex on Six Legs: Lessons on Life, Love and Language from the Insect World.
photo by Alex Wild
Here’s just a sample: 
Damsel flies have a type of scoop on their penis, which they can use to drag out the sperm from a previous male and replace it with their own.


Of course I’m thinking that the scraping-out part doesn’t sound like so much fun for the female. In fact it reminds me of that thing the doctor stuck in me to help get my daughter out when my labor had stalled. That was not any fun either…

Here’s another tidbit:

“A spermatophylax, which can weigh up to 30 percent of a male’s body weight, is essentially like a really good snack attached to their sperm…It has a lot of protein in it, it’s very nutritious — and the female eats it while the sperm is draining into her body, and the males have to produce this before the female will mate. If he just has the sperm, she won’t mate with him. If he does have it, she will mate with him — but the bigger and more nutritious it is, the longer she’ll spend eating it.”

Now that’s something I could go for—nachos at the end of sex! It also demonstrates how bigger is better, although I don’t know if I buy the part about it having to be nutritious…

There was also this weird study about wasps in which some of the wasps got their faces painted to identify the alpha wasps, but the other wasps didn’t recognize the ones with face paint on, so the alpha wasps lost their status in the nest. Or maybe the non-alphas got to be alphas for awhile—now I”m not remembering exactly how that played out. Mostly because the whole time she was explaining it, all I could think about was how they were able to paint the wasps’ faces in the first place.

Insects are fascinating when they’re not biting you or invading your kitchen.

If you missed this amazing episode of Fresh Air, fear not—it’s excerpted on their web site:  http://www.npr.org/2011/08/15/139554957/sex-on-six-legs-when-insects-go-wild

Another week in Albany, CA

I guess you could say I’m irresistibly drawn to the Albany Patch because if its weekly crime blotter. It’s not that I enjoy reading about dangerous criminals or get a weird rush from hearing about violence—in fact, it’s quite the opposite. I think I feel better about my neighborhood (I live near the Berkeley-Albany border) knowing that these are the kinds of things that make the police log.

AUG. 2

5:33 p.m. Police arrested a parolee described as an “unwanted guest” in a garage on Stannage Avenue.

The guy should have figured out they no  longer wanted him there when they told him they ran out of clean towels.

5:37 p.m. A woman called police to report that her son was locked in the Taco Bell bathroom because “a group of kids is going to ‘jump’ him.” Miscellaneous public service provided.

I want to know what that miscellaneous public service was—a free chalupa?

AUG. 3

5:22 p.m Someone reportedly threw a cup of ice at a barista at Royal Ground Coffee, and stole money from the tip jar. Miscellaneous violation, warning given.

 Talk about adding insult to injury…

AUG. 4

4:09 p.m. Someone stole a lawn mower from Evelyn Avenue at some point in the prior week.

People wondered why someone was riding a mower down the street at night, but nobody thought to question him. 

AUG. 7

2:12 p.m. A woman fell four feet off a porch on Peralta Avenue and was taken to the hospital by an ambulance.

If she had four feet, maybe she wasn’t a woman…

7:02 p.m. Someone reported that his or her Jack Russell terrier was bitten by a “large shepherd” in Memorial Park

I can only assume the Jack Russell was bitten by a German shepherd because there are so few sheep to herd in Memorial Park.

Just another week in Albany, CA…

When is the last time you lined up to go grocery shopping?

I live just a few minutes south of El Cerrito, the city named after a little hill that is actually in Albany. I have a great fondness for this neighboring town, so I make a point to read the El Cerrito Patch just to keep up on all the latest news there.This is what I gleaned from Thursday’s issue.

You know you live in an exciting metropolitan area when people are lined up all the way from the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit) station to go to the new grocery store in town. There were no give-aways, free tastes, or door prizes, just the opportunity to be among the first to get inside the just-built Safeway. Of course it was no ordinary Safeway. It’s one of their “Lifestyle” stores, whatever that means.

The mayor of El Cerrito was there for the ribbon-cutting ceremony, and she brought her mother, whom I’ve dubbed “the happy produce lady.” (See below.)

A good time was had by all. For more on this late-breaking story, see http://elcerrito.patch.com/articles/hundreds-line-up-for-safeway-opening