It’s really all about the fun

I’m kind of a sucker for holidays, and Halloween is right at the top for days created purely for fun.

As a kid, I was a gypsy, Cinderella, a monster in chains, and a mummy. The neighborhood where I grew up had very few kids, and a lot of residents either forgot about Halloween or skipped town when it was time for tots to trick or treat. So when I was old enough, I tagged along with my cousins, who were all about getting as much candy as they could. I was shocked when one of them collected for UNICEF and then kept the money. She represented the greedy business side of the holiday that horrified me more than the haunted houses we went to when we were teens.

Ah, the teen years. You’re officially too old to trick or treat, but it’s too much fun not to get dressed up, right? I remember the party my senior year of high school when I dressed up as Magenta and my high school boyfriend went as Riff-Raff. The Rocky Horror Picture Show was pretty big back then…So I got to wear heavy eye make-up and lipstick, a short maid’s outfit, and frizz out my long hair. Gaylan, who was going prematurely bald at 17, didn’t have to do much at all to be a dead ringer for the spooky butler. A bunch of our friends dressed as fruits and wore a white sheet that connected them. What were they? Fruit of the Loom underwear, of course.

When I was a kindergarten teacher, I made the mistake of wearing a vulture mask that an artist friend had made. After the first five-year-old burst into tears, I had to take it off for the rest of the day.

But over the years I sure had fun wearing costumes to work. I was a Beanie Baby, mustard (to my teaching partner’s ketchup), a court jester, the Swedish chef (the flim is okey-dokie), a pumpkin (that was the year I was pregnant), the Scarecrow (to my daughter’s Dorothy), Cruella de Ville (my daughter was a dalmatian), Miss Transylvania, and a cow.

One year my fellow first-grade teacher moved for her husband’s work shortly after the school year began. So we happened to be in the headmaster’s office interviewing candidates for the position on Halloween. Everyone else had taken off their costumes after the morning parade, but I hadn’t brought a change of clothes. So I tried to ask serious questions in my black cat costume.

I loved it when Halloween was on a Friday because then the kids wouldn’t be at school the day after when they were always tired from lack of sleep and sugar crashes. Monday Halloweens were hard on all of us…

Sometimes costumes show poor judgment. Back when I was teaching at the elementary school in Felton, I remember a sixth-grader who stuck a pillow up her dress and came as a pregnant teen. You gotta wonder if her mom saw what she wore out of the house that day…

Then there’s the weird mix of Disney-inspired pre-fab costumes and pop culture trends that result in a slew of Arabian princesses (a la Aladdin) and Spice Girls. And the boys were always ninjas and baseball players.

But there were those gems too: the girl who wore many purple balloons and came as a bunch of grapes and the boy who was a television set.

One year my teaching partner wore ordinary clothing but glued a baby doll to her bottom. She was Mrs. McTwitter of the Shel Silverstein poem:

Mrs. McTwitter the babysitter, I think she’s a little bit crazy

She thinks that the sitter is supposed to sit upon the baby!

Now that I’m not a teacher, I don’t have a reason to dress up, although I did attend one Halloween party this year. But since I was at a conference all day, I didn’t really have time to create an elaborate costume. So I stuck a binder on my head and went as a binder full of woman a la Mitt Romney. (Easy and topical!)

I am wearing my jack o’ lantern earrings to work today. They used to light up, but the batteries ran down long ago. However, my batteries still run, so I might as well have some fun.


The Waiting Room is worth waiting for

I like documentaries anyway, and this one was set in my back yard. The Waiting Room is a day in the life of Highland Hospital in Oakland. Its tagline reads:

24 hours. 241 patients. One stretched ER.

Emmy Award-winning documentary filmmaker Peter Nicks was both director and cinematographer for this amazing film that follows the people who have no other place to go for health care and the overworked staff who do their best to help them. It won both the Golden Gate Award and the Audience Award at the San Francisco Film Festival as well as a bunch of other honors.

There’s no narration, just the voices of doctors, nurses, hospital staff, patients, and the family members who wait alongside their sick loved ones.

father & daughter

We see a young girl whose face has puffed up so much that it’s hard for her to speak, along with her siblings and separated parents, who take turns with her once she’s admitted. After being brave for so long, she finally begins to cry, and we see her father try hard not to fall apart.

We follow a thirtyish man who was diagnosed at Kaiser with testicular cancer but couldn’t get the operation he needed because he wasn’t a member and couldn’t afford to become one. We learn about his girlfriend’s recent miscarriage and the fund they’d set up to pay for the sperm bank so that they could still have children once he had surgery.

We get to know one of the regulars who takes drugs, drinks excessive amounts of alcohol, and doesn’t manage his diabetes well. And we hear the social worker asking the pastor at the halfway house where the man has been staying if he would be willing to take him in again.And we find out that the gunshot victim who dies on the table was only 15 years old.

So many heartbreaking stories. But the saddest part is that they’re all true. And it’s not an unusual day at the county hospital. It’s every day.

Certified Nurse Assistant Cynthia Y. Johnson embraces a patient in The Waiting Room.

I felt emotionally exhausted after just watching the film, which made me appreciate the medical personnel even more for their persistence and continuous compassion and patience.One admitting nurse in particular stood out for her ability to handle everything that came her way and make everyone around her feel that they mattered. I would have had a nervous breakdown within an hour, but she was still smiling at the end of the day despite the overflowing waiting room, the lack of beds, and the endless supply of misery handed up by the minute.

The movie didn’t need a narrator’s voice to explain what was happening: because so many people have no health insurance, they have no other option but to rely on county medical services. There are limited beds and only so many doctors and nurses. And so the waiting room may empty out at some point, but it will fill up again the next day and the one after that.

Notes from Litquake (Part V: Lit Crawl rules!)

 Lit Crawl 2012 featured 87 readings and 450 writers in the span of 3 1/2 hours in venues along Valencia and all over the Mission district of San Francisco. I couldn’t do it all, so I studied the descriptions in the program, made some tough choices, and mapped out my route.

Stop one had to combine dinner and Phase I, so I admit that my  main reason for choosing the reading at La Cumbre taqueria was that we could grab a cheap meal while being entertained. After hearing about this guy’s quest for the perfect burrito, there was still time left to wander into the Elbo Room for cocktails and hear the final reader from Babylon Salon before moving on to Phase II.

Clarion Alley is not the name of some hipster bar—it’s literally an alley with a makeshift stage halfway down. This was the site for the Muni Haiku Battle. Three contenders recited haiku for the chance to go up against last year’s defending champion. Five audience members were given the power to choose whose haiku won each round, but everyone in the alley shared their opinions as well. The only criteria: the poems had to have the correct number of syllables and the setting had to be a Muni bus. It was great fun. The contestants were also given five words or phrases from the audience to compose a poem on demand, including vomit, denim jumpsuit, and didgeridoo.

But Phase III was the crowning gem of the evening. After poet Matthew Zapruder and short story writer Amelia Gray read a few of their pieces to the packed crowd, Daniel Handler hosted a sort of literary game show pitting the two writers against two audience members. After two brutal rounds of Walt Whitman trivia and economic concepts, it was time for the lightning round when Handler posed questions such as “True or False? The best girl scout cookies are thin mints.” (The audience members incorrectly answered “false.”) When the writers lost, they had to produce prizes for the winners. Zapruder offered a chapbook of his poems. Gray scrounged through her belongings to produce a BART ticket with a dollar credit on it. Everyone was happy.

And another Litquake draws to a close until next year…

Notes from Litquake (Part IV: And now we’re really having fun!)

Last Thursday night I went to the second of Litquake’s “Writers in Conversation,” at Z Space where Daniel Handler and Andrew Sean Greer were quite the entertaining pair.

Two chairs, a small table, and a lamp on an area rug played the part of a cozy living room space where two published authors could earnestly discuss writerly pursuits in front of a large audience.

The only props visible were an accordion, a ukulele, a fishbowl, and a small mysterious trunk. In the goldfish bowl were questions written by none other than the two writers themselves. The idea was that they would take turns pulling questions out of the bowl and asking them of each other. Apparently these two had staged something similar in LA, which they admitted was a disaster. So they decided to try it out on us.

I’m not sure why it didn’t work in SoCal, but it was great fun this time around. They asked each other which classic author they just didn’t care for. Greer never understood what everyone saw in Thomas Hardy, and Handler is no fan of Mark Twain. Sometimes their answers led them adrift to other, less writerly topics, which was okay too.

During the last ten minutes, Handler opened up the mysterious trunk to reveal a portable bar, and while they answered questions from the audience, he mixed them each a martini.

They finished it off by playing a Dolly Parton ballad. And I couldn’t tell you why that was the perfect ending, but it was. I thought I got a video of the song courtesy of my iPhone, but when I played it back, it was just eight seconds of applause. And my one photo was blurry. Luckily a fellow blogger and Litquake attendee, M Luke McDonell, is allowing me to use his much better photo.

Thanks, M Luke McDonell.

Afterward I allowed myself to buy Daniel Handler’s latest book Why We Broke Up. (I have a rule that I only buy books for myself if  I’ve actually met the author, and/or I can have the author sign it.) While he signed my book I noted his unusual pencil grip (the way that only an ex-elementary school teacher would) and commented that he must not have had a very good first grade teacher to have such a grip. Loyal student that he is, he replied that I should not speak ill of Mrs. Parrot, especially since she probably passed on some time ago. I said that he did not really have a first grade teacher named Mrs. Parrot because that sounds too much like a character he’d write in one of his books. But he claimed it to be true.

This is how he signed my book: “To Tanya! Hello! Hi there! How are you? Me, too. Daniel Handler.”

You gotta love him.

Tomorrow: Notes from Litquake Part V: Litcrawl!

Notes from Litquake (Part III: Publishing trends)

Between the two panels of the New Writers Toolbox, a fellow member of the  California Writers Club (CWC) saw me and introduced me to her friend, a bubbly woman with some great ideas for a book series. So not only did I get to hear all the tips from panelists, I met another writer, who may join CWC, which would be great. (As president of the Berkeley branch, I’m always on the lookout for prospective members, especially lively ones who might be active volunteers.)

The third (and last) event of the evening was held in the San Francisco Book Club room, a lovely, comfy spot on the fifth floor of the World Affairs Council building. I hadn’t heard of the S.F. Book Club before, which is celebrating its 100 anniversary this year.

As I sat down, I noticed the vague smell of urine to my right, but I ignored it. After all, even incontinent people can be avid book lovers.

Bay Area Book Currents: Stories behind Bookselling” was a mix of people in the publishing business: Jack Shoemaker (formerly of the venerable Northpoint Press, currently publisher of Counterpoint Press), Allison Reid (co-owner of Diesel books in Oakland), Ethan Nosowsky (editorial director of McSweeney’s Books), and Paul Yamazaki (buyer for City Lights).

After a three-tiered intro (someone introducing the person who was introducing the moderator, who basically just introduced the panel), Paul and Jack tag-teamed to present a brief history of books in the Bay Area:

  • In 1970 Doubleday announced it would no longer do print runs of less than 25,000.
  • In 1981 the ratio of indy bookshops to big chain booksellers was 90/10.
  • In 2010 that ratio reversed to 15% independent bookstores and 85% big chains.

Paul elegantly described the journey of a book from writer to buyer as a bridge of many planks that includes agents, editors, and booksellers.

Apparently Jack was once quoted as saying: “Reading on an e-reader is like making love to an inflatable doll.” But his view of e-readers has changed. When Borders went bankrupt, it owed Counterpoint $385,000. If Counterpoint hadn’t made $365,000 in e-sales around the same time, they probably would have gone out of business.

Ethan reported that customers have told him they would pay a little extra to get the e-book along with the hardback because when they were commuting or on vacation, the e-reader was a better option, but at home they liked having the real thing. When he asked the audience who would be willing to purchase the two packaged together at a discount, several folks raised their hands. (Not me, I don’t own an e-reader, Luddite that I am.) But this could be something you see at your local bookstore soon…

When it was opened to Q & A, both Paul and Allison were asked if their stores sold self-published authors on consignment. Paul cited the huge number of titles he already had to comb through with just the publishers catalogues as his reason not to stock self-published authors. Allison was more open to the idea and has considered and carried self-published local authors, but she vets them the same way she vets the thousands of titles offered by traditional publishers.

Asked about the effect print-on-demand (POD) has had on booksellers, Paul said that some booksellers have begun to consider having them on site as an option for customers. The problem is the size of the actual machinery: it’s so big that most bookstores don’t have room for it, but a few are renting POD machines to see how it goes. So in the future, you may be able to obtain your friend’s self-published book by ordering it from your local bookshop.

Afterward, I took the elevator down with another CWC friend I’d seen sitting on the other side of the room, and we shared our thoughts on the various panels we’d seen. When we exited the building, she asked if I’d gotten a whiff of pee in the elevator and wondered about the guy we rode down with. I told her I’d smelled it earlier, but he wasn’t the guy sitting next to me.

Then it struck me—the only person who sat in my row and was also in the elevator was me. I tried sniffing myself but detect ed no urine smell. Then I lifted my book bag to my nose and inhaled. Yep. Cat pee. I had been carrying it around all day without realizing that it had been emanating this odor everywhere I went. I’m sure I made a lot of good impressions…

Notes from Litquake (Part II: Condensed advice for writers)

Okay, so I’m finally getting to some content for writers here. In case you too are a writer but didn’t get the chance to attend any of the events specifically for writers—a sub-category of Litquake events called New Writers Toolbox—this is for you. You’re welcome.

There were two panels. Of course I missed the first half of “First-Time Authors Reveal All,”  but I did get some good tidbits. The authors—Sarah Ladipo Manyika, Belo Cipriani,  Elizabeth Percer, Stacy Carlson, and Bill Peters all looked quite young to me. (Perhaps because I’m half a century old now.) Sarah did  mention either a teen or tween daughter, though, so she must be at least mid-thirties, right?

Belo has two publicists, one traditional and one just for e-pubs. Good to know if I ever get something published that I need to promote. He seemed like a lively fellow and is available for speaking engagements if you’re interested.

Bill pointed out that there are several scholarships, grants, and residencies out there for writers, and it never hurts to apply. He got one and recommends applying to the California Arts Council.

I was inspired and surprised to learn that either Elizabeth or Stacy (I couldn’t see any name plates or tags, and as you recall, I came in late) had two or three small children but still managed to write and get published.

And somewhere along the way, I learned of Rumpus, the Fix, and Wordwatcher, all websites that I was previously unfamiliar with. So now I have to check them out…

And here are the random highlights from the second panel, “Hot Off the Press: The Latest from Publishing Pros.”

Nuggets from Nancy Hancock (executive editor at Harper One):

  • Getting published is highly competitive (In case you were thinking that it’s totally easy.)
  • Editors and agents follow Google trends, so writers should too. (It’s free.)
  • Publishers are still making about the same number of books as before, but “there are different ways to make money from books.” (Not exactly sure what this means, but it seemed quotable.)
  • If you’re polite, you can write her a well-written query even if you don’t have an agent. (Apparently she’s had some bad experiences with rude query letters.)
  • When deciding whether or not to publish an author, Harper pays attention to past sales records. (Lucky for me, I don’t have one, so there’s no low numbers to worry about!)

Bridget Kinsella—author, journalist, former editor at Publishers Weekly, and currently a freelance editor—had these tips and reminders:

  • A good resource—Shop Awareness (I haven’t googled this yet, so I don’t even know what it is.)
  • Remember—only submit to one agent at an agency and one editor at a publishing house.
  • Check Publishers Marketplace to see which agents & editors like what.
  • It’s harder for newbies to sell to the big houses now because they’re taking fewer risks on debut authors.

Brenda Knight—founding editor of Viva at Cleis Press—shared some interesting facts:

  • Self-published books generally sell fewer than 250 copies, despite the few big success stories one hears.
  • She writes an author’s guide to social media that’s updated weekly and free:
  • Formula for romance novels: no sex for first 142 pages (but full of longing & anticipation)
  • E.L. James started out as a Twilight fan fiction writer.

And literary agent Amy Rennert had this to say:

If you haven’t written a good book, it doesn’t matter how good you are with social media. With most agents, it’s still a great query letter and writing that sell the book.

Oh, and don’t send a query letter comparing your book to Eat Pray Love because she’s gotten a zillion of those.

 Stay tuned for tomorrow’s post: Part III!

Notes from LitQuake (Part I: Getting there is half the battle)

Well, I survived another year of San Francisco’s premier literary festival. That makes it sound bad, which it wasn’t. It’s just that I’m exhausted and had little time to write this week.


I had signed up for two back-to-back panels that were part of the New Writers Toolkit. Trying to be the smart urban commuter, I’d looked up the train schedule and planned accordingly. But saying goodbye to friends at lunch took a teeny bit longer than it probably should have, so I missed by two minutes the train that would get me there on time. I tried to be all zen about it, reading my library book while I waited the additional eleven minutes on the BART platform.

I arrived with the determination to make up for lost time, but it took me a while to figure out that my BART ticket had gotten stuck to my iPhone, which meant I was fumbling through my book bag, removing and replacing my laptop, book, legal pad I brought to take notes, sunglasses, LitQuake festival guide, banana, cute polka-dot container of business cards, and wallet until I found it and could exit the station.

I had looked up the directions before I left, so I knew I just had to take a left at Sutter as soon as I got above ground and walk three blocks. I expertly wove my way through business folk, tourists, shopkeepers, and possibly other out-of-towners trying to find other destinations, with determination that I would be only 15 minutes late.

But there did not appear to be a 312 Sutter St. So I entered the building where 312 should be to ask for directions. The security guard/receptionist at the front desk asked what street I was looking for. “Sutter,” I answered, trying not to sound annoyed that it was not the street I couldn’t find—it was the number.

But I’m glad he did, because somehow I was on Sansome. Which meant I was three blocks away from where I started and closer to six blocks away from 213 Sutter Street.

It was an unusually warm day for downtown San Francisco, so when I finally arrived at the correct address, I was sweating profusely and half an hour late. And after I checked in with the LitQuake volunteer I had to admit that what I needed most in the world at that point was a bathroom.

Guess who got her period one day early? Normally, I’m prepared for such emergencies. I always keep supplies in my purse. But I didn’t bring my purse because I’d decided that my laptop might come in handy. So I had the resources to blog at a moment’s notice, but not the ability to halt the flow of menstrual blood.

But I was not going to let a little blood and sweat cause tears or stop me from getting everything I could out of the panel of newly published authors, so I stood in the back of the packed conference room and cleared my mind, ready to be inspired.

(Tomorrow: Part II)