Another small world story

SunburstI remember hearing an episode of This American Life in which the theme was coincidences. Apparently the degree to which an occurrence is a genuine coincidence depends mostly upon who it happens to. If your grandmother tells you she ran into an old friend downtown, that seems less than amazing. To you. But if you are the grandma, and you never go downtown, and you haven’t seen that friend for 40 years, et cetera–then it may feel like an amazing coincidence.

Yesterday my husband told me a little anecdote that I couldn’t even wrap my head around at first. I actually made him repeat it. It blew my mind. I told myself that I was going to write about it as soon as I finished this big project I was working on. (These are the sorts of carrots that move me forward.)

Dave received an email from a man who had read one of Mark Peattie’s books on Japanese military history, Sunburst, and loved it so much that he wanted to contact the author. After a Google search revealed that Mark died a few years ago, he set upon locating his next of kin and discovered Dave, who is his son (and my husband). He emailed Dave that he’d obtained a used copy of the book and happened to mention the inscription: “To my good friend, Bob Grove.”

Bob Grove was my dad. He died twelve years ago and probably only met Mark once. I never knew that Mark had given Dad that book, although it makes sense, considering my father loved reading history of all sorts.

So where exactly lies the coincidence? I’m not even sure. Probably the most amazing part of the story is that this reader out in the world was so earnest in his search to connect with the author of a book that he truly appreciated and that he was willing to spend some time to achieve that goal.

So perhaps this small-world story seems rather pedestrian to anyone but me.

But it still blows my mind.

Lamott writes about grief

anne lamottAnne Lamott has so much humor and so much wisdom that I am just in awe of her.

I went to a reading for her latest book this past December, which was my third time to see her. This time she was promoting Stitches: A Handbook On Meaning, Hope and Repair, which focuses on dealing with grief and emotional healing.  I know it sounds heavy, but it had many light moments too.

She always has something interesting to say in addition to reading from her books. Unfortunately, I got so caught up in listening that I didn’t take any notes, and my memory is no good any more for details. But I read her book soon after the reading and finished it in a few days. (It is a quick read.)  I think this line from the first page conveys the essence of her message:

Life holds beauty, magic, and anguish. Sometimes sorrow is unavoidable.

In this book, Lamott explores the nature of devastating loss, but never pretends to have easy answers. She offers hope in a few ways, first by acknowledging that there is pain that just doesn’t seem bearable. Of course people handle that in various ways—whether it’s by relying on friends, drinking to excess, turning to family, or just managing to put one foot in front of the other until it does somehow become bearable. She touts the benefit of everyday acts and described a crafts project creating butterflies and angels out of coffee filters with children at her church.  But my account of the book doesn’t do it justice.

The great thing is that you don’t have to rely on me to tell you about it because you can read her book to fill in the blanks. And I hope you do.

Can I rise from the ashes of despair to do it all again?

Okay, I’m willing to admit that my headline is a bit on the dramatic side. But that’s how I feel.

On Monday, October 21, PlayGround Theater Company pays tribute to local theater legend, Barbara Oliver. I had attended Monday night’s intensive, led by casting director Annie Stuart and culled what gems I could from the guest speakers, actresses Stacy Ross and Rinabeth Apostol. They warned us against too much stage direction, imploring us to trust the actors to bring our characters to life, and assured us that one important detail about a character (she has six prescription bottles in her purse) goes much further than a handful of adverbs insinuating themselves into the dialogue.

I took this tip to heart and boiled down my protagonist’s predominant characteristic with a simple casting note—the old woman could be any race or build but needed to have a twinkle in her eye. This I hoped would get across the mischief and passion of a woman who had lived fully, had steered toward adventure, and was not about to go quietly into that good night.

Both Ross and Apostol spoke of the scarcity of juicy roles for women outside the standard fare of ingénues and mothers. My main character did have motherhood on her c.v., but she also lists a string of husbands and lovers to show that her children did not define her. And rather than sink into dementia hidden away in a bedroom of her son’s house, she chooses to run away with her imaginary lover and plans to kiss him openly on the train to give other passengers something to “meditate on.”

Thornton Wilder
Thornton Wilder, playwright and Berkeley High’s most famous literary graduate

On the Thursday night preview session with artistic director Jim Kleinmann and actor/director Soren Oliver (who is also Barbara Oliver’s son), I took copious notes on their presentation that covered the lives of both Barbara Oliver and her favorite playwright, Thornton Wilder. I listened to letters that Wilder wrote and an intro to his lesser-known but critically acclaimed play The Skin of Our Teeth. I learned how Oliver had switched rather late in her life from being the “queen of Shaw” (a devotee of playwright George Bernard Shaw) to becoming what I secretly dubbed a “Wilder woman,” who discovered her great love for arguably Berkeley High’s most famous graduate. (Or at least most literary graduate. I don’t want hate mail from Andy Samberg fans.)

I rushed home, pulled out my laptop, and started writing. I pored over my notes, internalized all the information that had been presented, basically reread the script of Our Town (Wilder’s most-performed work)and crafted what I felt was the perfect one-act play—A Wilder Woman. It had everything—it captured Barbara Oliver’s and Thornton Wilder’s spirits in a mere nine pages while creating a juicy female role with some heft. Poignant, funny, and dark—not only was I sure that my play would get chosen to be staged for Monday Night PlayGround, I was imagining the teary heartfelt words of thanks from Barbara Oliver’s family and possibly even a congratulatory note from the Wilder estate. I was practically penning the acceptance speech for my first Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Award.

All week I was laid low with a severe chest cold, but I knew that on Friday I would get the jolt of energy I needed because the list of selected plays would be posted. So this morning when I double-clicked on the email from Jim at PlayGround, my whole being was pounding with an anticipatory beat. I scanned the short list, knowing my name would be there. But it wasn’t. I actually double-checked in case I’d overlooked it in my rush of excitement.

The judges had spoken: my masterpiece was not deemed worthy of production.

But the thing about PlayGround is that I have five more shots at getting a play produced between now and May. The question is, can I do this again in November? And what if I don’t get selected then? Do I keep repeating this process every month until I either make it to the stage or…I don’t?

And of course the answer is yes. Because that is what writers do. We pour our hearts and souls into every project, whether it’s a poem, a short story, an early-grade chapter book, a middle-grade novel, a song, or a play. And then we submit to magazines, agents, publishers, contests, and theater companies. And 99 times out of 100, we get rejected. That is a writer’s life. But we keep writing. Sometimes we rewrite that play or start a new novel.

And sometimes we spill our sorrows in a blog post, take some cold medicine, and continue to go on living.

Bullying Antidote offers hope and explores options

bullying antidoteBullying has been around as long as there have been people, but it is not an inevitable condition that we as a society have to give in to. New approaches are starting to make headway as schools and parents tackle this issue that will not go away.

Last week I attended a book launch at Laurel Books for The Bullying Antidote: Superpower Your Kids for Life, written by my friend Kristen Caven and her mother, Dr. Louise Hart. It was a warm, muggy night in Oakland, so the door was opened in Luan’s cozy little bookshop to allow the occasional breeze to provide some relief. A small but engaged audience of parents and teachers listened to the authors present ideas based on both science and experience.

Kristen & Louise
Louise Hart & Kristen Caven

Hart is a community psychologist who has studied school environments and is an expert in self-esteem development. Caven is a writer who is actively involved in the parent association where her son attends high school. (She also happens to be an active member in the California Writers Club, which is how I know her.) Together they have compiled information that explores the topic quite thoroughly. One major aspect of this issue has to do with different parenting styles. Nobody sets out to raise a bully or a victim (or at least I hope nobody does!), but any sort of extreme parenting, whether permissive or autocratic, leaves its mark on our children. Through positive parenting, the authors suggest that we can help turn the tide on a trend that has contributed to the bully/victim dynamic. Recognizing patterns, understanding motives, and focusing on effective communication are all part of a multi-pronged approach to dealing with this prevalent problem.

During the question and answer portion of the presentation, a young man shared his recent experience as a substitute camp counselor. Neither a teacher or a parent, he hadn’t known about the book event. He just happened to be walking by and impulsively entered the open door. Then something about the topic piqued his interest, and he stayed. His own father, he admitted, was less than an ideal parent, but rather than putting energy toward resenting him, this young man seemed bent on breaking that cycle and taking what he learned to heart.

It’s possible that, as it often is, the authors were mostly preaching to the choir, considering those assembled. But even if just one young person really understood the advice being offered that night, perhaps it will influence his choices and actions, spurring a ripple effect that will touch many. It may be a romantic notion, but hope thrives on such notions, doesn’t it?

California Book Awards worth the journey

CBA logo

I recently posted my experience getting to the California Book Awards but didn’t actually write about the awards themselves, which was a bit of a tease. So I’m making good now.

First off, I love the California Book Awards logo of Mark Twain atop a bear, though I know Stephen Colbert would be horrified. Some people might be surprised that Samuel Longhorn Clemens is considered a California writer by the natives of our state, but he did spend a significant amount of time here, so that seems fair to me. And FYI for you out-of-staters, the bear is our official state animal.

Although I arrived at 575 Market Street at exactly 7:00, it turns out that the Commonwealth Club is at 595 Market Street, the building I passed in a rush a few minutes earlier. (To be fair, 7s and 9s are quite similar and so easily confuse the addled brain, or at least my addled brain.) If you read my earlier post, you know that the ceremony was scheduled to begin at 6:00 anyway. Looking at the program once I arrived, I see that the reception started at 5:15, but lucky for me, there was still plenty of wine, cheese, bread, and a cornucopia of desserts left at 7:10 when I walked by the reception area on my way to a seat in the back of the room where the ceremony was being held.

I had missed the presentation of the award that I was most interested in—the  silver medalist for young adult fiction,  which went to Marissa Moss for A Soldier’s Secret: The Incredible True Story of Sarah Edmonds, a Civil War Hero, but I still bought the book and got it signed. I love Marissa Moss and her Amelia’s Notebook series, so she may have been the main draw for me, but half the fun going to an awards ceremony is hearing from people you don’t know. And I got to see the last half of the awards presented, which covered quite a range.

The gold medal for nonfiction went to Dr. Victoria Sweet for God’s Hotel, which focuses on the Laguna Honda Medical Center in San Francisco. (She had supervised rounds across the country at Harvard’s teaching hospital that same morning.) She spoke warmly and eloquently about her time at what sounds like a very special medical facility.

CA Book Award winnersAnd I enjoyed hearing from the author of Masha’allah, Mariah Young, whose stories are centered in East Oakland. I always think it’s nice when cities in the Bay Area other than San Francisco get their share of attention. And since I love reading about places set in the East Bay, I bought a copy of her book and got it signed.

Both Adam Johnson’s The Orphan Master’s Son (gold medal for fiction) and Jennifer Dubois’s A Partial History of Lost Causes (gold medal for first fiction) were edited by David Ebershoff at Random House. I congratulated him afterward too. I figure editors don’t get awards but also work hard to make books the best they can be, and here he had helped guide two of them to gold medals. Plus, he made the trip from New York to support his authors. I liked that. Of course he pointed out that the awards were in San Francisco and not in some Podunk town in the middle of nowhere, so it was a win/win. We already had The Orphan Master’s Son at home, but I bought A Partial History of Lost Causes and got that one signed too.

And just because it was the winner in the juvenile category, I bought The One and Only Ivan, by Katherine Applegate, which I started reading on the ride home. And I love it! I’ll definitely be writing a review of it soon. Four books purchased in one night was pretty extravagant, but I held fast to my rule of only buying books for myself if I can get them signed.

Hobnobbing with award-winning authors and eating macaroons really isn’t a bad way to spend an evening.

For a full list of the winners, go to:

David Sedaris never disappoints

Sedaris coverI naively thought that arriving at Book Passage 45 minutes early would land me a seat for the reading on Tuesday night, but that didn’t even guarantee a spot in the parking lot. I know David Sedaris is a Bay Area favorite, so I probably should have realized that all the seats in a small, independent book store would be gone by 5:30 for a 7:00 reading.

So my new regular companion for attending readings (who also happens to be my daughter) and I got in line for food so that we could eat our dinner while watching Sedaris on the monitor set up in the bookshop’s café. We got the last table there. Despite their being out of tomatoes and iced tea, we managed to stave off our hunger and get a seat for the show, albeit not in the same room.

Sedaris started by reading the story that made Kylie fall in love with his writing in the first place, a touching and humorous piece highlighting an event from his childhood when he and his sister Amy sang “Kookaburra” in bed, to the great dismay of their father.

As he traditionally does, he read excerpts from his diary, omitting any that contained obscenities, explaining that it didn’t feel right to use such language in daylight. (Of course, had it been winter, it would have been dark at 7:15 pm when he was reading. But nobody was going to argue that just because it was almost summer in the Bay Area, it wasn’t fair of him to censor his own diary.)

He also recommended a book to us, even suggesting that we buy it rather than his own book because it was better written. I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t remember the title or the author’s name, but I do recall him saying the book store had three copies if anyone wanted to purchase it. He also recommended podcasts (Mark Maron‘s WTF) and one by Julie something—I know, I should have taken better notes).

Then he had a long question and answer period. Because you never know who has the most interesting questions or who are the people who are just raising their hands because they like to hear their own voices, this part of the program can be a mixed bag. I can’t help but wish the questions were vetted ahead of time, but you get what you get. I mean, I could have answered the woman who wanted to know how many brothers and sisters he had. ( 4 sisters and 1 brother, if you care) But I enjoyed his in-depth answer to the question concerning the best interviewers.

Sedaris let us in on some of the behind-the-scenes artifice that goes on in the world of television talk shows. Apparently, at the bigger shows like Letterman’s, someone on staff conducts a 45-minute long pre-interview with guests while they’re getting their make-up done. Then someone decides which parts will work best and turns it into a script that the guest is supposed to memorize for the five minutes of air time. Not being an actor, Sedaris feels pressured and somewhat ill-equipped to perform this way. But with Jon Stewart at The Daily Show, things are different: Jon drops by the dressing room and chats cordially with guests for about 15 minutes, just to establish a comfort level, and then on stage allows the interview to take its natural course, whether that includes specifically talking about the book being promoted or whatever. When Sedaris asked if he could tell a joke, Stewart said yes but not to tell him ahead of time because he wanted to be able to laugh at it spontaneously and not have to “fake-laugh.”

waiting for David Sedaris

Because we were not in the seated area of the reading, we were near the back of the line when it came to signing books. Luckily, we befriended the two people in front of us, who were friendly colleagues, which made the wait seem a little shorter. We’d queued up around 8:15 and had only moved a matter of inches by 9:00. It was around that time that Jeff, the man in front of us, borrowed one of the now-empty folding chairs to sit in while in line. His colleague joined him. Kylie followed suit, and before long, chairs snaked back into the store by twos, resembling a curved bus. Despite the strict warning that no photos be taken, I didn’t think anyone would mind if I took a picture of the signing line itself.

For over two hours, Sedaris chatted with fans individually and asked them questions. At some point he also ate dinner. He had a mysterious box of trinkets that he occasionally opened to produce small gifts or to retrieve something to show. The twelve-year-old girl who related to Me Talk Pretty One Day because she too had gone to speech therapy got her choice of bracelets. Jeff explained that in his heart of hearts he was wearing a Count Chocula T-shirt (in reference to a remark Sedaris made during The Daily Show  interview), at which point Sedaris pulled out a Count Chocula T-shirt to show (not to give away).

When we finally arrived at the signing table, I asked him about the Julie he’d mentioned earlier because he’d said he couldn’t explain Sedaris signed pageher humor to the whole crowd but he’d be happy to talk about her one on one. Looking up at Kylie, who was standing next to me, he asked her how old she was before he answered my question. It took Kylie several seconds to remember that she was 20, but apparently that was old enough for Sedaris to say the word he thought might be objectionable to younger folk. I told him how much I loved his Billy Holiday imitations, after which Kylie asked if he might not sing a bit for us. He said he hadn’t sung in years and would only do so if someone had passed around a hat to collect money for such a performance. I asked how much it would take to get him to sing, and he thought for a moment, then answered “two hundred dollars.” Then he drew a picture of an owl and signed my book. He asked Kylie if she had any Chinese friends (we never did find out where that question was leading to) to which Kylie replied almost guiltily that although she had Korean and Japanese friends, she did not currently have any Chinese friends. Then he asked her how much she spent for the most expensive piece of clothing she owned. She looked down at her outfit composed mostly of thrift store items or pieces borrowed from me until she remembered the one pair of shoes that she’d bought some months ago that were on sale for $150. With that, Sedaris flipped through a sticker book he had, found a pair of red mary janes, and stuck it on the title page of Kylie’s copy of his book, Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls.

The whole experience was somewhat random but satisfying.

Eve Ensler is a standing-ovation inspiration

Eve EnslerMy daughter Kylie recently came home for the summer from college and wanted to visit our favorite local independent book store, Pegasus. While perusing books, I noticed a small poster advertising an appearance by author activist Eve Ensler at the First Congregational Church in Oakland, sponsored by the Berkeleyist of radio stations, KPFA.

I loved Vagina Monologues, and I’ve seen it performed three times now. It’s the only show that Berkeley High does every single year. Kylie was a narrator in her college production. I thought it might be a nice mother-daughter outing, and the bookstore was selling tickets,  so I bought them.

I didn’t know how much I was going to love Eve Ensler.

The ticket price included a copy of her latest book, In the Body of the World, a memoir that includes meeting women in the Congo who were beaten and raped, her battle with uterine cancer, and her thoughts on the current and ongoing devastation of Earth.

Not exactly upbeat fare.

But Ensler was amazingly positive, inspirational, even funny, and genuinely grateful for being alive. She recounted how, through her cancer treatment, she got to really know her sister and how she finally inhabited her body in a way she never had before. And she discovered that the love she had sought all her life had been there all along.

She read passages, or, as she called them “scans,” from her memoir that had her audience cheering and sobbing. An especially memorable and humorous one was “Farting for Cindy,” an account of her recuperation in the hospital after her surgery that removed a tumor from her uterus “the size of a mango.” As anyone who is trying to recover from surgery today knows, the event everyone awaits eagerly to signal that your body is getting back to business as usual is farting and/or pooping. Cindy, a sort of fart whisperer, was dedicated to making that happen and had a gift for producing what she called “music to [her] ears.” When Ensler discovered that Cindy was an unpaid volunteer, she felt even more compelled to pass gas, just to please her.


Ensler read aloud beautifully from her memoir that often took the form of poetry. She did not read as a rape victim and cancer survivor—she read as a woman who successfully fought her demons and has great faith that humankind will figure out a better way to treat the Earth and each other. With tears in our eyes, we gave Ensler her third standing ovation of the evening.

And my daughter and I walked back to the car hand in hand, holding our signed copies of her book, filled with hope for the future.