Wednesday, May 31, 2006

I am wiped out--life has been wonderfully hectic lately, and my body is starting to register that. I have spent most of the day in bed, reading, trying to get some energy back. A very welcome respite. I don't know if I have the focus right now to write a coherent post, so I think I'll just list some of the details from the last week I don't want to forget...

The trip to the Integratron:

--Driving the mongo van out into the desert, seeing my students' sweet faces in the rear view mirror, feeling a rush of responsibility similar to how I used to feel when I drove my kids around as babies. So much preciousness at stake!

--Trying not to crack up when the woman who now owns the Integratron talked about the caulk-intensive renovations to the building. "We had to get rid of George's dusty old caulk," she said (George is the man who built the building in the 1940s, using instructions he claimed to receive from an alien from Venus). Then she launched into a rhapsody about how much she and her sister love caulk. "We love caulk more than food around here!" she said. Imagine how this sounds out loud, and you'll get a sense of why I had to stifle my giggles (especially because she was being very earnest and sincere about the whole thing.)

--Lying on a huge beanbag chair during the sound bath, my feet on a pillow, feeling the vibrations of the crystal bowls rushing through my limbs like warm water.

--Opening my eyes afterwards and seeing my students with their eyes closed. A very tender sight. Later, seeing a pair of quail scamper across the sand outside, their top feathers bobbing.

--Visiting the orchid farm that happened to be across the street. Amazing to find such humid color and scent in the middle of the desert. Gazing at flats of baby venus fly traps; teasing them with objects, watching their mouths clamp shut over pieces of wood and paper.

--I miss my students already!

I was sad to not be able to attend the Johnston graduation on Saturday, but my experience at the Pima Writers Workshop in Tucson ended up being more gratifying than I could have imagined. Meg Files, the director of the conference, is a wonder--warm and generous and universally beloved. I connected with so many kindred spirits there (including the mother of one of my childhood friends!) I even got to meet (and have dinner with!) one of my very favorite writers, Nancy Mairs, whose bravery and honesty, in both her work and her life, continue to inspire me. I hung out with some fabulous writers, including Rachel Manija Brown (whose hilarious, affecting memoir, All the Fishes Come Home to Roost, is a must read. I devoured it on the plane ride home), Frank Gaspar, and Lance Larsen, all of whom I look forward to staying in touch with. Here are some of the details I want to remember from the trip:

--The turbulent plane ride into Tucson. It was so bumpy, the flight attendants walked down the aisle on their knees to pick up our empty cups and crumpled napkins.

--Amazing stretches of saguaro cactus, looking like a child's drawing of the desert come to life.

--Police swarming the hotel after someone waved a gun at a wedding reception and embarked upon a shirt-shucking escape/chase. The very pissed-off looking bride wandering around the bar later, after the gunman and his buddy were apprehended (in a hotel room where they were pretending to be sound asleep).

--Visiting the inspiring, off-the-grid adobe house that Kay Sather is building in a hole in her backyard. Reading the funny and profound essay she wrote about her chamber-pot-and-sawdust composting toilet.

--Being squished between two poets in the back of a Mustang convertible.

--Being squired around by two of the most wonderful women (and writers) I've met--Marge Pellegrino and Naomi Benaron.

--Visiting Antigone Books.

--Bearing witness to several writerly epiphanies.

--Feeling like part of a tribe.

--Sitting next to an 18-month boy on the plane ride home who kept touching my arm with his soft little hand and saying "arm."

Now I think I'll get back to the book I'm reading (my friend Mary Sharratt's rich and engrossing new novel, The Vanishing Point, which I plan to blog about soon), and build up some strength for my next adventure.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Well, the Integratron was amazing--what a trip. A lovely way to end my U of R class. I will have to write about the sound bath experience at some point in the near future, but for now, I need to pack. I'm leaving for the Pima Writers Workshop in Tucson in the morning and won't be back until Monday. Have a wonderful weekend, everyone!

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I admit it. Like much of the rest of the country, I am hopelessly addicted to American Idol. I find it so compelling to watch people get plucked from their ordinary lives in order to chase their wildest creative dreams. Needless to say, I was very excited when we were given the opportunity to see American Idol in person. We attended the final sing-off between Taylor Hicks and Katherine McPhee at the Kodak Theater last night.

Our seats were in the corner of the very last back row of the highest balcony in the ginormous auditorium (or "chamber" as the signs called it. "No food or drink in the chamber", we were warned before we entered the doors. I half-expected to see instruments of torture as we walked inside. I suppose some people might consider American Idol an instrument of torture in itself, but I won't go there.) Even though the people on stage looked small as salamanders, it was a real treat to be there. There was such a buzz in the crowd--I think we all knew we were bearing witness to a real cultural phenomenon. I loved being able to see the voted-out finalists walk to their seats before the taping--the crowd went especially wild for Chris Daughtry and Elliott Yamin when they appeared. All the finalists and judges were so tiny from our perch, but all their movements, not to mention their hair or lack of it, were unmistakable. During commercial breaks, when the finalists got up to hug the judges and mill around, etc., it was like seeing zoo animals in their natural habitat (not that the Kodak theater is that natural an environment). It was cool to watch the behind the scenes scramblings, the producers saying "20 seconds to air." "20 seconds--really?", "15 seconds", etc., tension and excitement mounting, the crowd, told to be silent, holding our breath.

Viewing the performances in person, even from a distance, was very different from watching them on tv. It became clear to me that Katherine McPhee is much better on screen--she really plays to the camera. As a result, I think she doesn't give a whole lot to the audience. She is beautiful, and her voice is beautiful, but somehow that beauty felt contained inside her, or between her and her eyelock with the camera. Her energy didn't reach to the back row. Taylor, on the other hand, really plays to the audience. He works every inch of the room. There was a noticeable physical difference in the crowd when he was performing--more excitement, more of a rush. His last song gave me chills and made me tear up even though it was a totally cheesy pop number. I doubt that would have happened if I had been watching it on tv (although maybe it would have--it doesn't take a whole lot to make me cry). In person, his performance reached right into my rib cage. Our whole balcony jumped to our feet, screaming, when he was done. When Katherine sang her final song (which was a horrible song to begin with, and she made it kind of screechy on top of that), only a couple of people in our balcony gave her a standing ovation. The judges kept talking about how Taylor knows who he is as a performer, and I think that makes a huge difference. I don't think Katherine knows who she is as a performer yet, and her performances have a real self-consciousness because of that. Taylor is more free to play with his performances because he's fully grounded in who he is. Plus he wore a purple velvet jacket! I tired my fingers out hitting redial, trying to vote for him after we got home. I only got through twice. I look forward to watching the finale tonight.

A couple of years ago, I was in Denver on my paperback book tour for The Book of Dead Birds. The lovely Donna Gershten, author of Kissing the Virgin's Mouth (winner of the very first Bellwether Prize) introduced me at the Tattered Cover book store. I asked her if she wanted to join me and some friends for dinner after the reading, but she said she had other plans. It turned out that she wanted to go home to watch the American Idol finale (which I could relate to--I was bummed I was going to miss it. I got back to my hotel room just in time to see Fantasia coronated). I'm glad to know I'm not the only Bellwether author addicted to the show!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Today, it's my great pleasure to blog about It's a Girl: Women Writers on Raising Daughters, edited by the marvelous Andi Buchanan. It's a Girl, companion to the recent It's a Boy, is a moving, delightful, funny, deeply honest anthology, filled with women writers mining the rich and complicated mother/daughter relationship. I am honored to be part of it. My essay, "Zen Mind, Daughter's Mind" explores my daughter Hannah's interest in Buddhism, an interest I had hoped would be a source of connection for us.

It's funny--when I wrote the essay, I had forgotten that I had submitted "Zen and the Art of Extracurricular Activities" for It's a Boy. The Zen connection between the two essays is purely coincidental. It's not as if I'm some big expert on Zen or anything. I suppose it's not completely surprising, though--what I've learned from Zen (living in the moment, letting go of expectation, etc.) has definitely affected my mothering. I imagine that even if I hadn't studied Buddhism, the experience of parenting would have taught me exactly the same thing!

Today I thought I'd let go of expectation and this blog, and hand the reins over to Hannah so she can talk about what it's like to be written about by her mom. Hannah, it's all yours:
Yo yo yo Hannah in da hizzous! (Or something along those lines...)
It's strange to have your mother write about you... I remember all the things she's written about, but I remember them differently, from my perspective, and let me tell you, it's a lot different. I'm flattered when she writes about me, though, just because it shows she's thinking about me, and that's (usually) a good sign, well, since she's my mom. It's weird, though, to see how she percieves things I've said or done... and makes it sound like a whole other thing than what I meant. Sometimes negative, sometimes positive. Having my mom write about me has changed my perspective and helped me learn a lot about me- and her, too. It's different to relive experiences in somebody else's eyes... But I've learned a lot and I'm really proud of her...

Well, peace out I guess. Refreshments are in the lobby :D. (Had to say that.... bye!)
Awww. I'm bursting my buttons. Thanks so much, my lovely Hannah! And thank you so much, Andi, for creating a forum where such dialogue can take place!

Friday, May 19, 2006

I just discovered that Self Storage is available for preorder on Amazon. Pretty cool! I imagine that if you preorder now, you'll get the typical Amazon discount once the book is really available (since the order won't go through until the book is released). Seeing the ISBN makes the book feel more real to me, somehow. When the cover art is up, it will feel even more real...

Update: The discount is now available. It's a hefty one, too--34% off. Thanks to everyone who has preordered--I appreciate it tremendously.
I am having so much fun teaching my Writing With the Senses class at the University of Redlands. My students are wonderful--very sweet and intelligent and curious. They are writing some gorgeous work. The time is just whizzing by--I can't believe we have only one more week of class. So far, we have explored Smell, Touch, and Taste, with our senses and on the page. Next week, we will be exploring Sound (culminating in a field trip to the Integratron, where we will indulge in a sound bath.) I wish we had time to explore Sight, too, but I figured that because we live in such a visual culture, sight is the easiest sense to write about, and I wanted to give the other senses their due. I am so glad I have this opportunity to tap into that inspiring, creative Johnston energy again. Being on campus, I keep running into ghosts of my younger self. So many memories on that quad, in that dorm...

The first line of my book Fruitflesh is "A strawberry changed my life." Now we have the chance to change the lives of those who pick the strawberries that end up on our tables.

Here is the latest bulletin from United Farm Workers:

"Coachella Valley strawberry workers need your help. The jobs they do are physically demanding, requiring workers to crouch and bend from the waist for prolonged periods of time. Pickers, who are often paid by piece work, need to work at a very fast pace in order to earn enough to take care of their families.

When workers perform work that hard, they expect to at least get paid what they are owed. But now we’re hearing many Coachella Valley strawberry workers are not getting paid for all the boxes they pick.

“At the end of the day, one is missing 2 to 3 boxes, but it is just not me, it is almost everyone in our crew. Imagine, 300 people working the strawberry and each one is missing 2 to 3 boxes, that’s a lot of money someone is keeping. I feel I work very hard for someone to take some of my earnings. Then, when you try to get it corrected, the supervisor denies the incident and becomes verbally abusive.” -- Leonor Gonzalez

These strawberry workers face other abuses. Restrooms in the fields are too far away from where they labor. The foreman won’t separate restrooms from his truck—where the workers' lunches are also stored despite repeated requests. So the workers’ food attracts flies from the restrooms.

Strawberry workers do not have to endure these conditions. Last March, the United Farm Workers signed a historic new contract with the nation’s largest strawberry employer, Coastal Berry Co. It provides the best pay and health care coverage for strawberry workers in the nation as well as a grievance system which protects the workers’ basic rights.

Please help us organize these strawberry workers, so they can win fair pay and an end to these abuses. Make your secure donation today. To show our appreciation, we will send you a special "Justicia y Dignidad" (Justice and Dignity) strawberry button for donating $20 or more. "

Monday, May 15, 2006

RIP, Stanley Kunitz

The Long Boat

When his boat snapped loose
from its mooring, under
the screaking of the gulls,
he tried at first to wave
to his dear ones on shore,
but in the rolling fog
they had already lost their faces.
Too tired even to choose
between jumping and calling,
somehow he felt absolved and free
of his burdens, those mottoes
stamped on his name-tag:
conscience, ambition, and all
that caring.
He was content to lie down
with the family ghosts
in the slop of his cradle,
buffeted by the storm,
endlessly drifting.
Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the Infinite!
As if it didn't matter
which way was home;
as if he didn't know
he loved the earth so much
he wanted to stay forever.

Sunday, May 14, 2006

Happy Mother's Day!

I hope we'll remember the spirit of the original Mother's Day Proclamation, written by Julia Ward Howe in 1870. It's both wonderful and horrible that her words are still so relevant today:

Arise then...women of this day!
Arise, all women who have hearts!
Whether your baptism be of water or of tears!
Say firmly:
"We will not have questions answered by irrelevant agencies,
Our husbands will not come to us, reeking with carnage,
For caresses and applause.
Our sons shall not be taken from us to unlearn
All that we have been able to teach them of charity, mercy and patience.
We, the women of one country,
Will be too tender of those of another country
To allow our sons to be trained to injure theirs."

From the voice of a devastated Earth a voice goes up with
Our own. It says: "Disarm! Disarm!
The sword of murder is not the balance of justice."
Blood does not wipe our dishonor,
Nor violence indicate possession.
As men have often forsaken the plough and the anvil
At the summons of war,
Let women now leave all that may be left of home
For a great and earnest day of counsel.
Let them meet first, as women, to bewail and commemorate the dead.
Let them solemnly take counsel with each other as to the means
Whereby the great human family can live in peace...
Each bearing after his own time the sacred impress, not of Caesar,
But of God -
In the name of womanhood and humanity, I earnestly ask
That a general congress of women without limit of nationality,
May be appointed and held at someplace deemed most convenient
And the earliest period consistent with its objects,
To promote the alliance of the different nationalities,
The amicable settlement of international questions,
The great and general interests of peace.

Friday, May 12, 2006

My daughter Hannah and I are featured today in a Press-Enterprise article about taking creative risks. Unfortunately, the picture of the two of us on the traintracks--me with my big old rifle perched on my thigh, Hannah in her adorable dirndl-style dress--isn't available online.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

It was fun to see an article about self storage auctions on the front page of the LA Times today. Interesting that the writer featured the self storage auction world in Riverside, since that's precisely where my novel Self Storage is set. I'll have to send him a copy of the book when it's available.

Speaking of the book, I recently set up a Self Storage page over at MySpace, just to give the novel an early online home. It makes everything feel more real, somehow. Exciting!

Friday, May 05, 2006

As I predicted, I've been too busy to blog all week, but I wanted to let you know about a CODEPINK campaign that I helped craft. We will be putting this ad in Iraqi papers on Mother's Day:

From American Women to Iraqi Families on Mother's Day:
Let's Unite to Bring the US Troops Home and Put an End to the Bloodshed

In the United States, today is Mother's Day. But many mothers -- in the US and Iraq -- have little to celebrate. We've buried too many of our loved ones in this conflict. We've seen too many lives crippled forever by physical and mental wounds. We've watched in horror as our precious resources are poured into war while our families' basic needs of food, shelter, education and healthcare go unmet. We've seen the growing plague of fear, hatred and intolerance seep into our homes and communities.

This is not the world we want for ourselves or our children. That's why we are marking this Mother's Day by holding a 24-hour protest outside the White House in Washington DC to call for an end to the occupation of Iraq, an occupation that has fueled an endless cycle of violence.

We have seen in poll after poll that the majority of Americans and Iraqis want the US troops to return home. Even the majority of US troops (72%) think they should return by the end of this year. It is time for the politicians in both countries to listen to us, the people.

We want you to know that we will continue to organize protests and pressure our government to end this illegal occupation of your country so that you, with the help of the international community, can begin to heal your wounded nation.

We have also been circulating a petition demanding an end to the occupation and an end to US permanent bases in Iraq; the petition also calls for money for rebuilding to go directly into the hands of Iraqis -- not US companies ( We will be delivering these to George Bush, Iraqi officials, and the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. You can read our petition here and join the call. You can also contact us at with your ideas of how we can work together, family to family, to promote peace.

This Mother's Day, we extend our hand in friendship to Iraqi mothers and their families. We look forward to the day when we can work together in peace.

Sponsored by CODEPINK: Women for Peace

Monday, May 01, 2006

Stephen Colbert is my new hero. Take a look at his blistering, hilarious and deeply brave White House Correspondents performance here. If you're as impressed as I am by his chutzpah, you can thank Stephen Colbert here.