Grateful to kind stranger

I was feeling kind of weepy anyway. I don’t know why. It could have been the frustrating day at the office, a post-Christmas crash, or some perimenopausal hormone do-si-do.

I was on my way home from work, running an errand for my daughter on Telegraph Ave. There were two parking places right around the corner from my destination. I put on my right turn signal, pulled up close to the curb, and backed right into a car that had come up behind me while I was rejoicing in my parking karma.

I rolled down my window and braced myself. I was sure an angry person was going to  jump out of the wronged vehicle and yell at me, maybe even call me a nasty name. I felt tears welling up as I held the steering wheel firmly at the ten and two position.

The car behind me went into reverse, then pulled up alongside me. I turned my head toward the  lowering window and offered simply, “I’m so sorry.”

The man inside said, “It’s no big deal. I thought you were turning right…”

I apologized again and stupidly mumbled something about trying to park. He smiled and assured me there was no harm done. I thanked him and tried not to burst into tears as he drove away.

Now if he had yelled at me, I probably would have cried too. But this way, I don’t feel quite as stupid, and my view of the world is definitely sunnier.

So, thank you, kind man who didn’t berate me for backing into your car. Thank you for restoring my faith in humanity. It may have been a small gesture on your part, but it meant the world to me.

What’s in a name?

Apparently the Pope isn’t all that busy these days, as he has taken time to make a proclamation concerning baby names: families are directed not to name their children after “celebrities, fruit or popular sports cars.” (No word on how he feels about giving babies the names of vegetables or unpopular sports cars, but something tells me he wouldn’t be fond of Zucchini or Fiat either…)

I happen to think that giving a person the right name is important. I remember the hours spent considering and discarding names before my only child was born. My husband favored the name Beryl. Being the elementary school teacher, and therefore privy to the mindset of a second-grader, I immediately pointed out that Beryl would turn into “Barrel of Monkeys,” “Barrel of Laughs,” and worst, “Barrel of Lard.”

I also didn’t want to give our child the name of any student I’d ever had because I wanted our child to be the only, or at least the first, child I knew by that name. Which is not only pretty ridiculous if you think about it, but also rather difficult, considering I’d already taught for nine years before having a child. And I’d taught in Santa Cruz where I’d had Oriana and Genesis; and in the era of no class-size limits, my Felton kindergarten class had a roster of 36 kids’ names that all had to be crossed off the list.

At our baby shower we still had no names chosen, so we put out a suggestion box. We had done something similar at a party many years ago when we had a new kitten who needed a name. Throughout the evening people would write their suggestions on a big piece of butcher paper hanging on the wall for just that purpose. Our good friend Don—who as a bird lover didn’t actually have much use for cats—had offered the name Godzilla, and it was the winner.

Of course nobody suggested we name our child Godzilla, but there were some interesting ideas, Walt Beebop and Georgia Gaga being among the more creative.

In addition, we had to figure out the last name and all the implications, intended or not: Do we choose one or both? If one, whose? If hyphenated, which comes first? What will happen when she partners up with someone with a hyphenated last name and they need to give their child a last name? But that’s a whole different blog post…

In the end we selected Kylie as our girl’s name and Fifer as our boy’s name. And Kylie claims to be quite grateful to have been born female if only to avoid what she considers a horribly unacceptable name. I’m glad she likes her name, but I wonder if she had been a boy if she’d feel the same way about the name Kylie and be totally okay as Fifer. We’ll never know.

At the time we thought we’d made up the name, only to discover Australian pop star Kylie Minogue shortly after our Kylie was born. And once when she was a toddler and we were hiking in the forest, having seen no humans for a few hours, we ran into a mom calling to her daughter who was just a little older than ours. “Kylie!” she called.

So much for bestowing a unique name.

But I have to say, she does seem like a Kylie through and through, and I cannot imagine her with any other name.

But sometimes I do wonder what Fifer would have been like…

For more on what the Pope has to say about names:

A Writer’s Christmas Eve

Twas the night before Christmas, my deadline loomed near 

I promised I’d finish that novel this year

The kids were asleep and the dogs were well fed

My husband was happily snoring in bed

My laptop was working, the printer was fine

And I’d had a glass of my favorite wine

I had no excuse, no reason at all

Why rather than writing, I stared at the wall

My fingers weren’t typing, my thoughts were not flowing

I just didn’t know where my story was going

The characters wandered, lost in a haze

I had not written a word in ten days

I’m always complaining I need time to write

And here I was given my own silent night

Back in late March I was filling up pages

I guess inspiration goes through many stages

Because by mid-April and surely by May

My muse had jumped ship and swam far, far away

Then in July when we went on vacation

I left my laptop inside of Penn Station

Replacing computers does come at a cost

But more than the money, my novel was lost

I wrote down everything I could remember

I think I got most of it by mid-September

But a plumbing emergency brought on a flood

The carpets were ruined all covered with mud

Our kitten went missing, the kids got the flu

So running the house was all I could do

I did have a writing spurt on Halloween

I figured out how I could end a key scene

But all through November till now I’ve been dry

With seven days left, did I have time to try?

What was that racket? Was something outside?

I rushed to the curtains and opened them wide

There stood a bearded man all dressed in red

“Santa?” I asked with a tilt of my head

“I’ve come to help out,” he said with a grin

“Where’s your computer? Shall we begin?”

Now this was an offer I couldn’t refuse—

Having St. Nick as my personal muse

We wrote and revised, and then we wrote more

When it turned light, he left by the door

But I could hear as he flew out of sight

“Make sure your agent retains movie rights!”

I am a writer, with proof now to show it

But I’m not a novelist—I am a poet!

That piece I created with such furrowed brow?

Why, it is the poem that you’re reading right now

It all depends on your definition of “writer”

Am I really a writer? I ask because I woke up this morning and realized I had nothing to bring to my critique group this afternoon. We only meet once a month. Could it actually be true that I had written nothing in a whole month?

My business card clearly states that I am a writer of children’s books, even specifying “middle grade novels, chapter books, poetry & plays.”

Okay, let’s go through these one by one.

First of all, I’ve only written one middle-grade novel, so that “s” on the end of novel making it a plural noun is pure fiction.

I’ve also only finished one chapter book, although I have penned several stories of interest to that age that are not technically chapter books. But again, that’s a misleading “s” on the end of chapter book.

Okay, I have indeed written many poems, mostly for children, but none lately. My last poem was composed specifically to read aloud at my club luncheon two weeks ago as part of the entertainment. “A Writer’s Christmas Eve”  was lots of fun to write and even more fun to read aloud, but it’s not exactly making a name for myself in the literary world.

Plays? I haven’t written a play since I stopped teaching three years ago. I just put that on my business card because I have lots of plays on hand, ready to lend them to traveling bands of children who are in need of something fabulous to perform.

So much for the lies on my business card.

Of course I do write this blog, which in the last month covered a great one-man show in San Francisco, bemoaned the end of Kid Lit Salon, confessed my stat-reading addiction, recounted some funny news, and shared my experience at a children’s book author signing.

I also chime in as a “local voice” for the Albany Patch, which involves commenting on the Albany police blotter in what I hope is at least a mildly amusing way. But this is not exactly material for a critique group.

Of  course, I rewrote several passages of writing for real, published authors in my capacity as an editor, the day job that affords me the niceties of life, like food.

But I should be leaving in, oh, three minutes and, like the little drummer boy, I have no gift to bring, nor a poem to read.


I just returned from meeting with my critique group.  But calling them a “critique group” doesn’t tell the whole story. These are not just people who critique plot points and show me where my meter is off. They are also not just women who love my characters or praise my writing skills.

These are writers who have survived dry spells, received rejection letters, and cursed their computers for eating stories. These are  peers who rejoice in each other’s small victories—having a story published in a magazine, getting an agent, or figuring out how to automatically number the pages in a manuscript.

But mostly these are friends who encourage each other to keep going when we think it’s impossible to write another word or submit another manuscript. Our meetings are not merely a place where we swap critiques and indulge in wordsmithing. We are sharing more than our writing—we are sharing ourselves.  We’re more of a support group. It’s practically therapy.

So when I showed up without anything to read, nobody blinked an eye. They asked me about my daughter, who is home after her first semester of college. They asked me how I was adjusting to life now that my father-in-law has moved in with us. And they were as genuinely glad to see me as I was to see them.

So  does the frequency of writing make one a writer? Is it the stamp of publication that constitutes a real writer? Or could it be that one is a writer by virtue of participating in a nurturing writers support group?

Go see Don Reed’s new show now!

Don Reed

Don Reed is a local treasure. He wowed Bay Area audiences last year with his East 14th: Tales of a Reluctant Player, which focused on his time growing up in Oakland, having a Jehovah’s Witness for a mom and a pimp for a dad.

His new show, the Kipling Hotel, takes up where Tales left off and follows his young adult life when he worked two jobs to try to stay in school at UCLA.

Don is a master at physical, face-morphing comedy, and I was laughing almost constantly during the two-hour show. His ability to become the various characters in his story is uncanny, from his grandmommy to his coked-out friend T to George, a holocaust survivor.

And that’s where the heart of Don’s story lies—in his friends. This unlikely cast of diverse characters serve as more than fodder for a comedy act. It’s clear that these people represent Don’s home, his history, and the possibilities that life offers.

It’s a touching memoir full of personal moments that may occasionally make you misty-eyed but is guaranteed to make you laugh out loud.

His show is at the Marsh in San Francisco for only one more weekend. Luckily, it’s coming to the Berkeley Marsh in January. If you live in the S.F. Bay Area, go see this show!

Dancing shadows and missed opportunities

photo credit: Fred Jardin

I saw this picture and it intrigued me. I didn’t even know what I was going to do with it—I just copied it and tucked it into my picture file, waiting for the right moment to bring it out.

The thing is I can’t tell if it makes me happy or sad.
When I first glanced at it, I smiled, thinking that the shadows on the wall represented the true souls of the people who walked by, and these two elderly people had dancers inside them.
Then it occurred to me that if they are using canes, they are probably no longer able to dance the way they used to, which might make them sad.
But I thought if they were able to dance so joyfully at some time in their lives, then they have those wonderful memories on which to draw, and it’s still a part of them.
Then I noticed that while the dancers are facing each other, the people in the foreground are walking away from each other, and that juxtaposition seemed heavy with implications. Perhaps dance had brought them together in another era, and without it, they had no use for one another.
But maybe they aren’t walking away from each other. Maybe they didn’t even know each other and had just passed on the sidewalk. Inside, they both feel more like their projected shadows than their current aging bodies, but neither sees the dancer in the other. So something that could have brought them together doesn’t because each was too focused on getting somewhere else, head down, oblivious of dancing shadows on the wall. So it was a missed opportunity.
Or maybe the missed opportunity was that they always wanted to learn how to dance but never did.
So what is the lesson here? Don’t wait? Dance now? Keep your head up so you don’t miss the dancing shadows?
Or is the lesson to make your own meaning? Is this just a lovely photo that I’ve twisted into my own version of a Rorschach test? What do you think?

County jail name ironic or fitting?

This just in from Littleton, Colorado:

“[Patrick J.] Sullivan, the county’s sheriff from 1984 to 2002, is being held on a variety of charges including possession of meth and soliciting a prostitute. He’s incarcerated in the Patrick J. Sullivan Detention Center that was named in his honor.” (AP)

Okay, but look on the bright side: it will be really easy for his family to remember where to send him mail.

In a related story from the Denver Post, Arapahoe County commissioners are considering whether it’s appropriate to name buildings, parks or streets after someone who’s still alive. That is, while they’re still able to commit crimes or otherwise embarrass the good citizens who honor them by naming a public structure after them.

Of course, even after people die, their indiscretions can come back to haunt their survivors. But do we tear down a stature of JFK because he cheated on his wife during his presidency? Or does the structure only have to be renamed if it ironically fits the crime, as it does for Patrick Sullivan?

Because government wheels turn slowly, it’s possible that Sullivan will have been convicted and already finished serving out his sentence by the time the facility is renamed. But then who will Arapahoe County honor next by renaming their jail? Maybe a jail should be named for the inhabitants—the incarcerated rather than the incarcerators.

I mean I understand the prestige of having a park, a hospital wing, or a museum named after you, but who relishes the thought of having his or her name on the side of a penitentiary? My guess is that not a lot of folks are clamoring for that particular honor.

So I say, leave it the Patrick J. Sullivan Jr. Detention Center as a warning to would-be criminals. You break the law, you have to lend your name to a prison or a sewage treatment facility or the city dump. That seems more fitting to me.

Read more: Arapahoe County to review building naming practice – The Denver Post

Confessions of a blogger

We’ve all done it. That is, if you’re a blogger. But I write this not to point any fingers at anyone, or try to bring you all down with me, but merely to get this off my chest: I, Tanya, check out my stats routinely, tirelessly, religiously.

No, that sounds too normal for what I do. The truth is I pore over each stat in a rabid frenzy, gleaning every possible morsel of information, whether it’s an actual scientific observation (on October 21, 11 people read my post on Lauren Myracle and the National Book Award debacle) or inferred (people don’t like cute kitty photos as much as I thought). There, I’ve said it, er, written it.

I’ve never been to an AA meeting, but everyone knows that the first step to conquering an addiction is admitting you have one, right? Although I confessed my problem with Angry Birds a few months back, and I’m no closer to being free of them…

For those of you who have escaped the allure of those stat bars, let me just explain how many ways you can crunch the numbers when you peek at your stats to see who is reading which blog posts:

  • the number of hits you get on any particular post in a day
  • the total number of hits you’ve gotten so far on any particular post
  • the percentage change of views from one week to the next
  • the number of comments on a particular post
  • the average number of hits for a particular post in any month
  • the number of views on your busiest day ever
  • the total number of views today
  • the number of categories you’ve used so far
  • the total number of tags you’ve used
  • the number of your active followers
  • how many spam comments you’ve been spared by your spam filter
  • total referrals you’ve gotten from search engines
  • which post has had the most viewers today
  • how many views have you gotten for the month of October this year
  • how many views have you gotten for the month of October last year
  • and, of course, how many total views in the lifetime of your blog

But I don’t stop there. I compare the number of views I got on a book review to the number of views I got on the post about an author reading I attended.

Or I wonder why my post on insect sex got more hits than my Top Ten List, especially since insects, sex, and insect sex are not even regular categories that I cover. Then I begin to think that maybe instead of focusing on books, writing,  and publishing, I should really do a science blog.

Except that I’m a writer, an editor, and a book nerd who took only one science course in college (astronomy) and did not do very well. Although you really can’t blame me because the class was right after lunch, and the prof turned off the lights and showed films fairly frequently, which had the routine effect of putting me right to sleep.

So maybe I shouldn’t abandon my blog in favor of more scientific pursuits.

But then I wonder why my post on the Berkeley Film Festival got three comments, but my post on saving independent book stores didn’t inspire a single person to write in. Does it naturally follow that people have more to say about movies than books?

And what is the significance of the fact that my post on e-readers got a lot of hits right after it came out but hardly any since then; yet my post on test-tube burgers that I wrote back in May continues to draw viewers? Does it mean that e-readers are already so last year, but genetically produced meat is the topic that everyone is secretly thinking about?

Then I realize I’ve been obsessing over stats for an hour, and I’d only allotted myself an hour and a half to write today’s post.

So my advice is this: never look at your stats. They will come to own you, or at least sidetrack you from what is truly important—writing (and looking at cute kitty photos.)