Notes from an official giver on World Book Night 2012

World Book Night 2012 went by so fast.

I got out my Sharpies and some used foam core and made two posters. Dave helped me attach them to my little shopping cart. Wearing my official giver pin, we drove to South Berkeley.

We stopped at a laundromat on Sacramento just north of Ashby. We asked people inside if they were interested in receiving a free book. Many looked skeptical, wondering what our game was. I explained that I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings was the inspiring true story of Maya Angelou’s difficult childhood and one of my favorite books. The first young man I approached said he was already a reader and read books all the time, so he was not in need of encouragement; but he pointed out another man in the back of the laundromat who he was sure needed a nudge. Unfortunately, the man turned out not to read English, but smiled at my offer. I wished I’d had a Spanish language copy to distribute as well. We managed to give away a few copies, and one woman promised to start reading it right away while she was waiting for her laundry.

Then we stepped outside and wandered down the sidewalk maybe a hundred feet or so until we reached a small market where people were coming and going. We gave our spiel about World Book Night and how we were giving away free books to encourage reading. We asked if people knew who Maya Angelou is, and most had at least heard of her.

One woman had actually met Ms. Angelou and another had seen her speak at the Paramount some years ago. One woman was just eager to get something for free and said, “If it’s free, I’ll use it for toilet paper!” When I tried to explain that the idea was for her to read it, she laughed and told me she was just joking and that she’d read it.

We met a few people who really didn’t want a book and a few who had already read the book and agreed that it was great. One man said that he’d like to have the book but his eyes were getting so bad that he couldn’t read any more. Dave suggested that he have someone read it to him, and he said he’d give it to his wife, and maybe she’d read it to him. He happily put the book in his plastic grocery  bag, got on his bike, and pedaled away. I hope he sees cars on the road better than words on the page…

It was definitely a positive experience. I hope that it continues to be an annual event. Even if only one of the 24 people read it and get out of it as much as I did, I would consider it a success. Of course I hope all the copies get read and those recipients pass it on to a friend or family member who will continue to pass it along. What if the 24 copies of I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings get read by 72 people? Or more!

It felt good giving away brand new books to people who might otherwise not read them. Plus, I figure that, as a writer, I can’t just write words and hope they get read. I have to support reading any way I can. And if that means literally putting a book in someone’s hands, then that’s what I’ll do!

Bravo to the many book publishers, paper producers, booksellers, and authors (who waived their royalty rights for this give-away) for their contributions to this worthy project.

I’m already excited about doing it again next year.

For more info on World Book Night, go to

Life After Shopping Gospel preaches against consumerism

Reverend Billy Talen has a mission—to spread the word that consumerism is the devil’s playground and we need not walk through the valley of the shadow of debt. Part performance artist, part eco-warrior, and part political activist, the sum of Reverend Billy’s parts adds up to entertaining consciousness raising.

Whereas most street preachers warn their audience away from sin, Reverend Billy stakes out a spot near the Disney Store in Times Square and affirms that there is life after shopping. With the flair of a TV evangelical minister and moussed hair reminiscent of Elvis, the reverend also boards buses, crashes Starbucks (who has a restraining order against him coming within so many feet of any of their ubiquitous coffee shops), and urges folks to host Thanksgiving dinners in bank lobbies. He also showed up at quite a few 99% events, spreading the gospel of Life After Shopping (previously the Church of Stop Shopping). The Stop Shopping Gospel Choir backs him up with songs about the evils of consumerism.

The subject of Morgan Spurlock’s documentary What Would Jesus Buy? Reverend Billy has been around for awhile. But he keeps talking the good talk. Or yelling it.

You gotta love a guy who has so much fun making his point. And by creating this persona who wears white suits and carries an oversized megaphone, Billy Talen is more entertaining than the typical activist. Face it—most activists have good intentions but not much in the way of a sense of humor.

Billy describes himself this way: he puts the “odd back in God.”

He is based in NYC but used to live in San Francisco. I hope he comes back to the Bay Area at some point to tour because I would relish being in a crowd that gets to shout Hallelujah when a charismatic speaker in a pompadour preaches. And, being a devout atheist, I don’t get that chance very often.

See videos and more on his website:

Eco artist was ahead of his time

“Without an environment which is befitting to man and without peace with nature an existence worthy of man is impossible. These peace negotiations with nature must begin soon or it will be too late.”

It sounds like something an environmentalist might have said in recent years, but the speaker’s ideas were formed well before the current rush to be green.

Friedrich Stowasser  (December 15, 1928 – February 19, 2000) was an Austrian painter who made up and took on the unwieldy name, Friedensreich Regentag Dunkelbunt Hundertwasser, which means “Peace-Kingdom Hundred-Water.”

A controversial but popular figure in his home town of Vienna, Hundertwasser had distinct ideas about architecture being in harmony with man and nature, and he often lectured on this topic.

The federal chancellor suggested to Vienna’s mayor that Hundertwasser be given the opportunity to design public housing. And thus Hundertwasser House was born. It took years to find the right spot and negotiate Hundertwasser’s requirements. The original architect left the project, skeptical that this artist’s crazy ideas would ever be implemented. But it was completed in 1986 and is still a point of pride for the city.

Believing that “an uneven floor is a divine melody to the feet,” Hundertwasser designed the apartment complex to have undulating floors. The roof is covered with earth and grass, and trees grow from inside the rooms, branches protruding from windows. Speaking of these “tree tenants,” as he calls them:

“They are a gift of the house to the outside world, for the people who pass by the house. Man gives voluntarily small territories of his dwelling space back to nature, from which we unlawfully appropriated and destroyed large areas.”

Another feature of the apartment complex springs from Hundertwasser’s belief that every tenant has a  “window right” to personalize the area around his windows on the outside of the building.

Composting toilets contribute to the eco-conscious atmosphere, as does a whole water-treatment system that cleanses used water for reuse.

What happened? With all this forward thinking thirty years ago, why aren’t there variations of Hundertwasser Houses all over the world? It’s not just a theoretical concept—it’s a proven commodity. It’s a living example that’s been in operation long enough to deem a success on many fronts: government-sponsored housing, art, architecture, and environmentally friendly habitation in the middle of a big city.

So I’m formally challenging governments and private industry around the planet: follow Vienna’s example. I propose tree tenants, window rights, and composting toilets for all!

Why Anne Lamott is my new hero

If you read yesterday’s post, you know that I saw Anne and Sam Lamott at Dominican College reading from their new book, Some Assembly Required. Anne Lamott is always entertaining, and it was especially enlightening to watch her interactions with her now-grown son Sam, whose more reserved demeanor made a perfect complement to her witty, meandering, off-the-cuff banter.

Sam felt the need to explain why his mother was not answering questions directly by saying that she starts with A and ends up at Z, and he occasionally looked at his watch as a reminder that she didn’t have to spend so much time on one question, usually after she had long abandoned the original thread of her answer in favor of something even funnier that crossed her mind. Anne freely admits that she tends to wander from one topic to another in a sort of free association, but that is part of her charm and why Q&A sessions are particularly fun.

When Anne accidentally said “Jax” instead of “God” at one point (and what grandmother doesn’t confuse her only grandson with the holy guy),  she gave Sam a sidelong glance and then revealed to the audience: “Sam loves it when I mess up.” Sam smiled impishly and nodded.

But Jax is not the only one in such high esteem. During another passage, she mistakenly referred to Jax as “Sam,” which puts both of them at a rather high level if you work out the equation to its logical end:

 Jax = God. Jax = Sam. Therefore, Sam = God.

And although everyone in the room knew instinctively already that this was true, Anne told us that the most important day of her life was the day she gave birth to Sam, and the second was the day Jax was born. I’m a sucker for a devoted mom, especially if that devotion manifests itself in humor.

All that love and devotion notwithstanding, my favorite moment of the evening was during Q&A when Anne attributed the quality of her writing to her copyeditors and claimed that they were the ones that kept her from “looking stupid.” Not only did she win me over with her humbleness, but she sang the praises of her copyeditors, who are generally restricted to the nosebleed seats in the arena of public attention. Not that I’m bitter or anything…

She spoke about wanting to organize the country of India, dispensed advice on how to use real people in fiction, and defended her maligned cranberry spritzers. You know— A to Z.

Sam Lamott grew up while we watched

Last night I had the pleasure of seeing Anne Lamott and her son Sam speak at Dominican College. (Go Penguins!) Sponsored by the college and Marin’s amazing independent bookseller Book Passage, the two read excerpts from their new book, Some Assembly Required, which is sort of a sequel to Lamott’s seminal treatise on single motherhood, Operating Instructions (1993).

When Anne Lamott discovered at the age of 55 that she was going to be a grandmother, the seeds for this book were planted. Sam at 19 and Amy at 20 were going to be parents. Some Assembly Required is mostly the voice of Anne the grandmother recounting the first year of Jax’s life. But it has “interviews” with Sam that feature day-to-day details of poopy diapers, sleep deprivation, and sheer joy over the kinds of things that only parents understand.

I have especially fond memories of reading Operating Instructions because it came out when I was at home on maternity leave with my daughter nineteen years ago. I remember reading it in the glider while Kylie nursed, awkwardly turning pages and trying not to poke her in the head with the book’s corner. (By the way, for those of you who didn’t have a baby in the ’90s, a glider is a really comfy rocking chair without the dangerous rocking component that crushes cat’s tails and crawling babies.)

Lamott dared to write down those thoughts that all mothers have but don’t admit to, e.g., If I left the baby outside just one night, I could catch up on my sleep and be a better mom tomorrow. A whole generation of mothers sighed in relief, realizing they weren’t evil for occasionally wishing that their sweet, precious babies would just go away for an hour or so.

Because so many of us related to that book, we all felt a closeness not only to Anne but to her son, whose young life was well documented. I witnessed this at her readings over the years, whether the book was non-fiction or a novel: the first question posed during Q&A was inevitably “How is Sam?” We were all mothers by proxy, invested in that little boy’s well-being.

And so it was not just with a casual reader’s anticipation of seeing an author that I awaited Sam’s turn to read—I found myself inexplicably feeling proud of this boy-turned-man whom I’d never met before. I can only surmise that in my fresh state of motherhood nineteen years ago, I so identified with Anne Lamott (even though I was not a single mother and not nearly as neurotic), that I felt a motherly devotion to little Sam.

I think that is why when he signed my copy of Some Assembly Required, I smiled tearfully at him and stupidly gushed, “You’ve turned out to be such a handsome young man.” As if I were his doddering great-aunt who only saw him irregularly at weddings and funerals.

Of course he is handsome, but that’s not what I really meant. I was congratulating him in my own way for becoming his own person despite being the only child of a famous writer whose personality is a force of nature. I was thanking him for having allowed me to peek at his childhood and now get an inside look at his own child’s first year.

I guess I was just a proud mother by proxy.

Tomorrow: why Anne Lamott is my new hero.

Glorious photos everywhere!

I subscribe to several blogs and don’t have time to read them all. Which is why it’s nice to sign up for a few photo blogs. I’ve seen some great pictures lately.

Easter was of course an event that inspired much picture-taking, and Polly Nance took lots of great photos. My favorite one is this one, “Lennon in time-out.” See the rest at

The Albany Patch has a photo gallery of some breathtaking sunsets.

And the El Cerrito Patch is collecting photos of local wildflowers.

Serenity in the Garden was all tulips. (Click here to see them.)

Spring is in the air!

Do I really need a bucket list?

Apparently everyone has a bucket list—all the things they want to do before they die. My friend Al Levenson has a bucket list that you can read on his blog, A Year on the Road. My 19-year old daughter has had a bucket list for a few years and has already made great headway. Morgan Freeman and Jack Nicholson even made a movie about it.

So I figured I needed one too. To that end, I sat down and gave it some thought.

When I was a teenager, I dreamed of going to Paris.

I’m lucky enough that I’ve gone twice.

In my twenties, I dreamed of having my own family and owning a house.

When I was thirty, we bought a house and had a baby.

In my thirties, I realized that the whole parenthood thing was trickier than I thought, and I hoped that I would be able to raise a healthy, happy daughter who would pursue her own dream.

Now I know that I’m still a parent—that’s a job for life—but I’m very proud of the woman who my little girl has grown into, and even though I’m sure there will be obstacles to overcome, I’m confident that Kylie will handle them. And anything she can’t do on her own, we can do together.

As far as careers go, I wanted to be the best teacher I could be and make a difference in children’s lives. Now I don’t pretend that every student in my class was changed for the better because I taught them, but I feel in my heart that many of them benefitted from something I gave them, whether it was my humor, my hugs, or introducing them to a favorite book. Maybe all they’ll remember of me is one of the silly songs I used to sing in class. That’s good enough for me.

In my forties, my dream has been to be a published writer. But that dream partially depends upon a fickle and ever-changing industry, so I don’t have complete control over the publishing end of that. But I do have control of my part—writing. And I do write.

I hear you saying that I don’t get it, that family and career aren’t considered bucket list items. Bucket lists are more specific: places to go, people to meet, goals to achieve, benchmarks to pass.

But I’ve thought about it.  I have no burning desires that have yet to be fulfilled. I really don’t want to go skydiving or visit the North Pole or meet the queen of England. And although there are a few places I’d still like to see—I’ve never been to Spain—I’m not going to regret it if I never make it there.

I guess that’s the essence of a bucket list: when you reach the end of your life, what would you regret not having done?

I have no regrets. I’m basically happy. Boring but true.

But the same friend who has a bucket list on his blog also has a reverse bucket list, which actually intrigues me more. So instead of a bucket list, I’m going to start a reverse bucket list. Thanks for the idea, Al! While I’m compiling mine, you can read Al’s:

Listmania strikes again!

I’m a sucker for lists, I love books, and I’m competitive (in a nerdy game-playing way, not in athletic or business arenas). So I’m sure it wouldn’t surprise you to learn that I jumped at the chance to see how I fared when a facebook friend posted a book list with this challenging teaser:

The BBC believes most people will have read only 6 of the 100 books here. How many have you read?

The list had many classics taught in lit classes in the English-speaking world, but it also had some contemporary fiction of note and even some bestsellers that never received any critical acclaim. It didn’t have any Barbara Kingsolver, who is probably my favorite living writer. (To be clear, I’m just talking adult fiction here. Don’t get me started on children’s books.)

I immediately clicked on this list and began checking off titles that I’d read (or at least I’m pretty sure I’ve read—high school was a long time ago). Of course since my major in college was English and I’m an avid reader, I knew I’d probably surpass 6, which was the score to beat. But I dutifully checked off book titles and was delighted with my score, even though there were several on the list I’d never even heard of.

Any list of 100 books with both War and Peace and The Da Vinci Code seemed a little suspect to me, so I began to think. How did the BBC decide who made the list? And why do I care how I stack up against anyone else who looked at this particular book list and accepted the challenge? The thing is anyone can make a list and ask others how many have read the same books. If we went to the same high school, chances are we checked off a lot of the same classics, but what does that tell me?

The more I thought about it, the less impressed I was with myself. Yeah, I read Of Mice and Men, but so have most 8th-graders in America. They still teach it at our local middle school where I’m a writing coach. And I admit—I probably wouldn’t have read Hamlet (after all, plays are meant to be seen, not read, right?) if it hadn’t been assigned reading in a college course.

So I thought, “Do those count?” And my next thought was “Count for what exactly?” Is this a quiz to see how well-read I am? Is it a test of my abilities in any way? Is it a testament to my education? Does scoring high on this BBC book list challenge mean anything at all?

It means I was sucked in again by a list.

And it probably won’t be the last time…

If you want to take the challenge, even after reading this, go to

Just the two of us (Part 2)

Dave and I have a longtime nightly routine of playing cards after dinner. Because Mark takes much longer to eat than us (or really, longer than anyone except maybe my late grandmother), Dave and I would play a hand of Rummy 500 while he finished. Then he’d join us for a few more hands of cards. We taught him the rules of the game and gently reminded him of the rules when he broke them, which was probably five or six times per game. He definitely got better and even won a few hands. Of course we always pointed out when he discarded something that would have given him points and we let him take it back.

After dinner, Dave did the dishes and we watched The Daily Show and The Colbert Report upstairs on the daybed. Then Mark would retire to his room and one or both dogs would accompany him. He’d watch whatever was on TV (he never got the hang of choosing pre-recorded programs from the DVR) until he fell asleep with the TV’s bright blue screen filling the room. (He knew how to turn off the programs but not the TV itself.)

That was our routine for four and a half months.

But Mark felt like Berkeley was too much of a big city and he missed his dance instructor back in Redwood City. (He admitted to me that he was in love with her even though she was kind of mean to him.) He wanted to move back to his old apartment, but since he couldn’t do that, he agreed to live in the assisted living section of Woodside Terrace, where they would make sure he took his meds. There he can also order from a menu at lunch and not even have to clean up his little blue Equal packets from breakfast.

Today I cleaned up the room he inhabited while he was here and his favorite chair area in the living room. Under the chair were a few Triscuits  and a lot of junk mail. Nearby were a chewed-on shoehorn and a few stray pencils, about twenty magazines and a few bookjackets with no book. I found his stash of chocolate in the bedroom along with the exercise straps he never used and the pajamas that he never wore. (Why put on pajamas when you’ll just have to get dressed again the next day?)

And I found a used Depends. He had not put it in his laundry hamper because I had made it quite clear that he was not to do that. It was stuffed in his bedside table drawer, which was a few feet away from the covered trash bin I’d given him specifically for diaper disposal.

So no longer will I accidentally discover used diapers in strange places or find little blue Equal packets strewn along the dining room table and floor. But I also won’t have funny stories to tell about finding toast stuck to the blanket in the closet. And it’s awfully quiet around here now…. I guess we’re empty nesters all over again.

But we still have a lot of Equal left.

Just the two of us again

So it’s back to just me and Dave. And of course the two dogs and the cat. When our only daughter went away to college last August, we became empty nesters.

But then we realized that Dave’s dad, Mark, was having trouble living by himself. He left a skillet on the stove while it was on and forgot about it. He didn’t take his meds. He was burning through money at a rate that would bankrupt him in a matter of months.

So we did what family does—we invited him to come live with us. And he consented. Dave and I moved our bedroom upstairs and gave him our bedroom on the first floor, knowing that the stairs might get too difficult for him. Mark brought as much stuff as he could and stored the rest.

I never knew a man could own so many pairs of shoes and underwear.

We settled into a rhythm. We knew he was awake and getting dressed when we heard him throw down his shoes (in order to knock out the spiders and scorpions that he was sure had crawled into them during the night despite my assurance that we have no scorpions and no big, poisonous spiders). He always started with his coffee (plus four packs of Equal) before he ate anything.  At some point during breakfast, he’d ask us, “What’s up for you today?” no matter what day it was. When I answered, “Going to work,” which was most of the time, he always looked mildly surprised.

When he first moved in, we tried to provide a hot breakfast with eggs or bacon or blueberry pancakes. But by the time he started his eggs, they would always be cold. And he does not like blueberries. (I never imagined that there was anyone who didn’t like blueberries.) We eventually learned that he preferred toast with jelly—or occasionally with a few packets of Equal—while he looked through the sports section for any Stanford-related news.

Dave usually left to take the dogs to the beach before Mark ever got to his toast. After I did my morning puzzles, I’d excuse myself and leave him to his toast and coffee. Sometimes I waited for him so he could go to the gym with me, but once he memorized the route (walk one block to Ensenada, turn right, walk one block to Solano, turn left), he generally preferred to go on his own later in the day.

When I’d get back from the gym, his place setting was usually littered with many little used blue Equal packets. The dining room light would be on, his chair pulled away from the table, the coffee cup half empty, and just a few crumbs would be left on the plate. It looked as if he might return any moment, but often he had gone back to bed.

Usually by the time I came home from work, he was ensconced in his favorite chair in the living room with one or both dogs keeping him company.  The empty Equal packets would still be on the dining room table, and now he would have a half-empty bottle of Corona next to him on the bookshelf and a can of peanuts on the table. He would be reading—or more often, rereading—one of the hundreds of books he’d brought with him, often something involving a naval battle. Or sometimes he was thumbing through one of the alumni mags from his three alma maters (Pomona, Stanford, and Princeton). A few times he was listening to music—a German drinking song, a marching band, or a sappy country tune. He never got out his CDs—I think the CD player confused him, but he could play saved songs on his laptop. Occasionally he would look at one of the several magazines he subscribed to—Men’s Health, National Geographic, the New Yorker, Ebony, Naval Battles, or Strategy & Tactics. (The May/June issue was “The Sun Never Sets: British Colonial Wars of the 1800s.”)

Now Mark is an 82-year-old white guy. He doesn’t remember how he came to subscribe to a magazine marketed to African Americans. I’m guessing that the person selling magazines was young, female, attractive, and very possibly had large breasts, which means Mark could have signed up for Cosmo or Vogue just as easily.

The first few months I’d ask him if he had lunch, but since he usually answered that he didn’t recall, I stopped asking. And since he had some issues with the microwave, I stopped pointing out the leftovers that would make nice lunches. And when I found out he didn’t like sandwiches if the bread isn’t toasted, I stopped making him sandwiches for lunch. Eventually I figured out that if there was salami and cheese in the fridge, he wouldn’t starve.

He often set the table when I asked him to, which gave him the chance to clean up his used Equal packets and bring in his breakfast dishes to the kitchen while I was cooking dinner. He was always appreciative of whatever I presented as dinner, even if I later found out he’d given most of it to the dogs.

Tune in tomorrow for Part 2!