Oklahoma v. California? No contest…

In my local paper, the West County Times, is a short regular feature titled “News of the Weird” which I never fail to read. This morning did not disappoint.

Apparently Oklahoma state senator Ralph Shortey was moved to write a bill banning the use of human fetuses in processed food. Which, of course, would be really gross… if it were true. When the state leader of the anti-abortion camp—who I assume would have made it his business to know about such things—pointed out that this was not an issue, having never heard of one instance of such a disgusting practice, Shortey said he’d read about it on the Internet.

My reaction? I’m so glad to have fled Oklahoma when I was 17.

It’s not as if nobody in California has  ever done something dumb (sorry, double negative there), but when I catch anything in the news about the state where I was born, it’s usually something tragic. (Think the bombing of the federal building and numerous tornadoes.) Or it’s an account of some politician who is so stupid, it’s embarrassing. (Think Ralph Shortey, Jim Inhofe…forget it, the list is too long.)

California has tragedy. (Think earthquakes.) And it has crazies. (Do I really need to list names or can I just say “Hollywood”?) But we have progressive, intelligent politicians representing us. (Okay, so twice we elected as governors movie stars with very small brains, but our senators are usually pretty good.) Plus we have mountains, the ocean, great weather, amazing diversity, every kind of food you’d ever want, abundant culture of all kinds, and fresh local produce all year long.

I’m sure there is some California state senator who has introduced ridiculous legislation—Prop 8, to name just one—but there’s enough other news about California that I’m not embarrassed to say I live here when I read the paper.

So, thanks, Ralph Shortey, for reminding me why I moved away.

Sorry, Okies, you’re stuck with him. And Jim Inhofe too.

So much to write about…

If you’re a blogger, and you’re awake and paying just a little bit of attention to the world around you, you will see, hear, or think of so many things that it will be hard to choose what to write about. In the last 20 minutes, I discovered two different stories that I wanted to comment on or at least post. I’ll save the other one for tomorrow.

On NPR’s Morning Edition, just moments ago, I heard an anecdote about an emergency call in England. It seems that the operator on the answering end heard only heavy breathing and dispatched officers immediately. When help arrived, they found George at home alone, with the phone cord wrapped around his neck, choking him. Somehow George had managed to dial 999 (the UK emergency number) even though he has no fingers.

You see, George is a basset hound.

I couldn’t make this stuff up.

Thoughts on Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Jesse Andrews has written a book that is so authentic, you feel like you’re inside the mind of a 17-year-old boy, which was entertaining for me, having never been in the mind of a boy.

Inside the book jacket, the narrator himself describes the three main characters:

Me: My name is Greg Gaines. I am 17. I am the one who wrote this book. My physical appearance is unsatisfactory, and there is probably a fungus eating my brain. I’m not even sure I’m a human.

Earl Jackson is the only person who is even sort of my friend. We make mediocre films together. Werner Herzog is our biggest influence. Earl is generally filled with violent rage.

Dying Girl: During my senior year, my mom forced me to become friends with a girl who had cancer. This brought about the destruction of my entire life.

Greg is carefully navigating his way through high school the only way he sees possible—by not becoming a part of any group at all, thus escaping the hatred of any other groups. His ultimate goal is to be invisible and not interact with anyone except to acknowledge everyone without offending them. Which is a tightrope that he’s managed to stay balanced on until senior year when his mom’s friend’s daughter is diagnosed with leukemia and insists that he renew a friendship that never really existed.

Earl’s family and living situation is less than ideal, so he likes to prowl Greg’s kitchen for food and watch movies at Greg’s house. When Greg’s dad comes home with a video camera, they discover their true calling: to recreate every shot in Aguirre, the Wrath of God, which is the first of many films they will shoot together. Much of the humor comes from the naivety and raw ambition when they attempt to make their masterpieces:

Like Werner Herzog in the South American jungle, we faced almost unimaginable setbacks and difficulties. We kept taping over our own footage, or not hitting record, or running out of camera battery.

The title lets the reader know right away that the book will not stay in the realm of humorous movie-making. But the story is not predictable or saccharin, and the narrator himself tells the reader not to expect any big epiphanies or depth on his part. But of course Greg does change through his relationships with Rachel and Earl, without ever wanting to. And his plans to stay out of the public eye are permanently dashed to oblivion when grown-ups get involved. But he’s still the self-deprecating anti-hero that we’ve grown to love.

This is Jesse Andrews’s first novel and I hope not his last.

Will the real Nancy Drew stand up?

My local independent bookstore, Pegasus (on Solano), hosted an evening of sleuthing into the life of the real Nancy Drew. First Person Singular (aka Joe Christiano) put on another wonderful, free literary theatrical event there that was definitely unique. I didn’t really understand what it was going to be before I went, but I knew it would be worthwhile literary entertainment. The place was packed, so apparently, others had high expectations as well.

“None too Keene: Nancy Drew Noir” turned out to be a combination of a reading and analysis with musical accompaniment and humor thrown in. Now you understand perfectly, right?

Providing an appropriate soundtrack was Richard Leiter on keyboard. Berkeley High sophomore Lydia Odette Warren played the part of our young heroine and read aloud the opening and closing chapters of a brilliant reworking of the very first Nancy Drew book ever published, Secret of the Old Clock. Her readings were interspersed with commentary from the czar of noir, Eddie Muller, who informed us that the character of Nancy was based on real-life Nan who wrote her memoirs recounting her own sleuthing years. But this Nancy Drew was no perky teen but a hard-edged, scotch-drinking, hug-averse young woman who addressed her father by his last name.

Carolyn Keene was the pseudonym that a succession of editors used when rewriting the hard-boiled detective stories to “girlify” them.

Many theories were offered and no doubt, conclusions were made, but at the end of the evening I was sure of this: if Joe Christiano keeps inventing new ways to entertain us with literature, the book is far from dead.

Vacation’s all I ever wanted (part III)

Happy International Day of the Seal! I just heard that from Joe Burke on KALW and had to add it to today’s post.

Dave and I had slots for the noon tour. I was the tiniest bit worried about some members of our group because we overheard grumblings among the mother and daughters of one family who seemed peeved by the father’s lack of planning. The dad was certainly gung-ho about the upcoming hike and told our guide that he came every year. (Maybe his teenage daughters had seen enough of the elephant seals to last them through their thirties, and that’s why they weren’t thrilled to be spending their spring break there again.)

But everyone got along fine. Our tour guide informed us of many interesting facts about the elephant seal, such as this gem: the male elephant seal who proves to be the biggest baddest seal on the strip gets to be alpha and have a harem of 15 to 30 females. But the fact that really struck me had to do with the female’s gestation period. After the male finds a mate and they do their procreative thing,  the female swims off into the ocean to feed for a few months. During that time, her fertilized egg is on hold, not growing, just waiting until the mother-to-be returns to the shore, when something kickstarts the growth process. Then nine months after that—which is closer to a year after she’s mated—a 75-pound seal pup slides out ready to nurse. It’s like getting pregnant but putting off the mood swings and weird cravings for a couple of months.

At the staging area there’s a whiteboard tally of how many elephant seals are on shore on a given day. I don’t remember the number of adult males, but I do remember that there were 47 females and over 1400 pups. That’s about 30 kids per mom. Those are pretty scary odds. Especially when you hear about the “super weaners.” Those are the ones who nurse aggressively for a long time so they get huge before swimming out into the ocean on their own.

The first sighting was from up on the cliff down to a small lagoon dubbed Loser Beach by our tour guide. That’s where the males go who failed to become alphas to commiserate with the other males who failed to be alphas. No harems here. Thus the name.

Once we’d crossed a few dunes, we came upon our first elephant seal up close. Everyone got out their cameras and took photos, staying the respectful 20 feet away as we were told. It didn’t do much. Apparently most of the time, they just sort of lie there, occasionally flipping sand up on their backs with their fins to work as a sunscreen. That first one seemed to be sneezing. When I asked the guide if that’s what it was, she said it was probably just something up his nose that he was trying to get rid of. Isn’t that kind of the definition for a sneeze?

Next we walked over to the beach where there were elephant seals as far as you could see. If I wasn’t wearing my glasses, I probably would have thought they were big rocks. A few huddled together, but most of them spread out enough to allow each other a perimeter of a few feet of sand. But it was close quarters right on the beach. Further up there were a few outliers. It’s hard to imagine them traveling that hundred yards or so just for a little more privacy because they really don’t move that fast—it’s quite a chore to transport that many pounds (up to 6000!) on those two puny flippers.

It was a nice afternoon walk on a gorgeous day, and I got to see these amazing creatures in their natural habitat from mere feet away.

We left them lying there on the beach and drove to Duarte’s, which apparently is a local institution, a must-visit when you’re in the area. All that walking made me hungry and thirsty, so I had a lager and Mexican cole slaw and counted my blessings that I was a human and not an elephant seal.

Self-conscious fiction for the preschool set

Back in college, I took a wonderful seminar course in self-conscious fiction, taught by the late, great Brian Stonehill. The readings for that class were fantastic, and it truly changed the way I looked at literature.

Now I find that self-conscious fiction has made its way into children’s literature—it’s like my two favorite genres colliding!

Slate ran an opinion piece by David Plotz recently with the subhead

A tribute to the most existentially terrifying kids’ book ever written.

Plotz was referring to Mo Willems’ 2010 picture book, We Are in a Book! which indeed has two characters, Piggy Pig and Gerald the elephant, come to realize that they exist only in the book held in the reader’s hands and consequently proceed to have an existential crisis.

Plotz seems to be of the opinion (with only the tiniest bit of tongue in cheek that I can detect) that such a traumatic incident is scarier than all the  Harry Potter books put together. I kept waiting for the punchline because of course I think the book is clever and hilarious, and I’m willing to bet that kids do too. But he contends

We Are in a Book! (the title’s jaunty exclamation point comes to seem like a taunt) smacks kids right in the face with that nothingness, shows them grotesquely—in the desperate prayers and mad gesticulations of a cartoon elephant—that death is to be feared because the void awaits us all.

I suppose if you were to study Willem’s children’s book in a college-level philosophy class, the discussion could dip to theoretically terrifying depths. But why would one do that? I say read and enjoy. Some people just think too much…

For the full story in Slate, go to http://www.slate.com/articles/arts/books/2012/03/mo_willems_meditation_on_death_.html?google_editors_picks=true=

It’s the small things that make my day

On the way home from work, I stopped at Safeway to pick up some pork chops. As I was plopping them down on the conveyor belt and tucking my handbasket into the one already on the ground, I thought I glimpsed something in the basket below. I removed my basket and saw a huge Hershey bar with almonds lying flat on the bottom of the basket, camouflaged against the black plastic of the basket.

I handed it to Larry, the cashier, who was about to scan the items for the tall man in front of me. The woman who had just paid for her groceries saw it and realized it had been in her basket but she must have left it behind.

“Oh, that was mine,” she said apologetically, and started to dig around for the billfold she’d just dropped in her purse.

“Let me pay for it,” offered the tall man in front of me.

The woman looked embarrassed and tried to say no, but the man told Larry to scan it quickly so she couldn’t pay for it. Larry scanned it and handed it to the surprised woman who turned to her generous benefactor and, at first, didn’t seem to know what to say.

“Just pay it forward some time,” he said.

She thanked him and nodded, adding, “I’m taking it to some kids at school tomorrow.”

After they’d both gone, Larry said to me, “That was Chuck—he’s a good guy.”

I agreed with a big smile.

And as I walked out of Safeway, bag in hand, I thought how wonderful it was that such a small kindness made not only that woman happy, but me and Larry too. And Chuck looked pretty pleased as well. An ordinary errand had made my day.

Thank you, Chuck.