Wednesday, December 19, 2012

new adult wip

One of the things I like most about writing is its unpredictability. What other vocation allows, and, indeed, encourages, prurient exploration in the pursuit of production? Say you wake up one day and decide to write a novel set in the red light district of Vancouver, BC. Road trip! Or, suppose your character is undergoing brain surgery--cozy up to a surgeon, and tell him you're writing a thriller, and, BAM! You're in the OR.

I hope I'm never implicated in a homicide--one peek at my Google history this last week and I'd be locked up for a very long time. Why, you ask? Well. Just for the hell of it, I'm writing a crime novel. Novelette, really. Call me a casualty of the GONE GIRL Zeitgeist, mix that up with a fascination for noir classics and, just for the hell of it, throw in a little "new adult" à la Lena Dunham, and, et voilà! It's my new WIP.

Who knew I'd be wrapping my mind around a college-focused whodunnit? And during the holiday season no less. 

Anyone out there starting something new before the calendar-prescribed season of the clean slate?

Monday, December 03, 2012

Prizes! Tips from my hot writing group!

Okay kids. My SUPER popular Dialogue Boot Camp via LitReactor is scheduled for a reprise beginning October 3rd.

As before, I'm bringing the big guns to this class. You will not be disappointed. Not only am I gonna pack it with lectures that will give you insight into what makes dialogue sing, but there will be deconstruction. Evisceration. Good times aplenty!

In ten days, you'll have some mad skills. Some understanding of authority, voice, and the intersection of the two and a have a chance to practice.

And not only that.

The literary heavy-hitters in my workshop, those folks you always see in the New York Times? Yeah, them. They've ponied up some tips that will be unveiled during class. Worth it just for those, eh?

But, that is not all.

The Den Mom, aka, me, will critique three prompt-driven assignments (decided in a lottery). And as an added bonus: Three more students will be selected at random at the end of class to have their work critiqued by me—anything they want, up to 10 pages. We're talking detailed, line-by-line critique.

Sign up now! Don't delay, class starts bright and early October 3rd!

Sunday, December 02, 2012

fantasy dinner party

Here's who's on my guest list:
Beatrix Potter
Leonard Cohen
Bill Clinton
Chip Kelly
Julia Child
Sofia Coppola
Bruce Springsteen
and, of course, The Empress

Alternate: Tonya Harding

Who's on your list?

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

revising a life

Just back from a particularly sweaty walk in my West Portland neighborhood. I often go on these make-it-up-as-I-go-along quests when I'm feeling the metal edges of the hamster wheel too acutely.

This was a five-miler, lots of up and down, and at the end, as I turned up my street, I ran into a neighbor lady out on her own sojourn. A woman who I'd just heard was recovering from breast cancer. She looked lovely in her white knit cap and scarf. Alive, the way only a scrape with cancer can propel a person into aliveness. She was taking a little post-chemo constitutional, and I flagged her down.

Her son is a year ahead of mine in school, so we chatted about freshman year and the local high school and the things that are most important to 14-yr-old boys.

Ah, life. The seasons, the trajectory, the misfires and mayhem. You just never know, right? One day you're thinking you should give that gluten free diet another chance, or hm, maybe go somewhere warm for spring break. The quotidian, "Gee, what should I make for supper." Next day your husband gets hit by a trolley. Which leads me to my little cardio-epiphany on today's slog.

It had to do with God. Really, apropos of nothing, after cresting a particular muddy hill clotted with wet leaves, the idea of God as a writer of the Big Narrative crystallized. What if God was writing a book, and the default for this book was to have each character follow his or her well-worn arc in service to the grand trope. Behave in ways that were consistent with the narrative, because God is under contract to produce a certain type of book. Thinking some more about this, the oft-spoke term "Let go and let God" came to mind, and I had a visceral reaction to it. A roiling rejection of the notion that a person should break their particular stranglehold on something and let the chips fall where they may, as opposed to, say, giving God a little smack. A little, "WTF, Dude (sorry, God will always be a dude in my mind), I'm not down with the plan."

 Did I just swear at God? *Turns around to see if a lightning bolt is on its way through the window*

Heresy aside, what if, instead of believing in a power greater than oneself as the platitude offers, people began to embrace the highest power--the God--inside themselves.What if people were encouraged to stray from the prescribed path in service to their own narrative?

That's when Malala came to mind. Malala, the current face of courage and rebellion. The girl who, with everything stacked against her, continues to write her own narrative, embracing that fire within, bucking the tide.

I was thinking that how the long-sufferers of the world, those chronically complaining that the wrong people keep coming into their lives, and that their jobs suck, and that they can't get no, hey, hey, hey, that those folks are often the ones who invoke God's will when it comes to dealing with their chronic misfortunes. What if those people took the pen from God's hand, just once, and revised the section of the narrative in which they get fucked over, yet again. (Writers know about this. We hear our characters staging revolts all the time. On the page for me today, in fact, my character smacked me upside the head and declared, I'm not doing that. Thus the need for the walk.)

But in terms of staring down the alpha--having the hubris, the audacity, to grow the balls to make the scary decisions, to Malala your way to your dream come-what-may, I'm for it.

What would you be willing to throw away for the dream?

Thursday, November 08, 2012

brooklyn castle

Last week I took my schoolteacher husband to see this documentary about a Title 1 public school in Brooklyn nationally recognized for its chess team. Really, I just wanted to have a date with the hub--you know when you get that urge to hold your guy's hand in the dark? It was one of those.

Kirk has been having a really crappy year at school. His district is operating on a skeleton budget, and over the summer the administrators played Pick Up Sticks with the staff in a desperate attempt to balance a totally out-of-whack fiscal situation. You know, the "cliff" everyone's talking about. He has over 40 kids in a few classes. He's teaching a grade he hasn't taught since his practicum days some 35 years ago while grade school teachers have been transferred to high schools faced with subjects they are ill-equipped to teach. I could go on and on, but I'm going to stop there, because this isn't a rant. No, it's a love note.

What makes Brooklyn Castle such a satisfying film has to do with the humanity that pours out of kids and teachers on the screen. The documentary covers more than a year at the school, and follows several students through the ups and downs of competition and the realities of an economy where social programs and education are perennially on the chopping block.

 The filmmaker does a masterful job of bringing out the kids as they really are. Capturing the essence and spectrum of adolescence. The hopes. Pitfalls. Fear of failure. And the backdrop of dedicated teachers and administrators pushing that rock uphill during a perilous time in our economy makes the movie all the more stunning.

Kirk and I both teared up. Sitting there in an audience of four, quietly holding hands and rooting for these kids, for the school. And what a week to be watching such a film, right? The hurricane. The election. So much at stake.

The common denominator of the last seven days, I think, is love. When human beings work together, striving to accomplish that thing just outside the grasp, it's infectious.

What has inspired you lately?

Monday, November 05, 2012

Thursday, November 01, 2012


  Greetings from your resident naysayer and spoilsport. Today is November 1st. Day of the Dead AND day one of the 2012 NaNoWriMo blitz. Coincidence? I think not.

Don't get me wrong, I have been a fan of the writing bootcamp, and think it can be instrumental in getting a project off the ground. I've done it. It was an interesting experience, and I got a lot of pages written. Where are those pages now, you ask? On a long crashed hard drive--but the kernel of my project morphed into something that ultimately survived.

The best part of the experience for me was the connection element. I had a few buddies, and at the end of each session we'd trade our final paragraphs of the day. I looked forward to them sparkling down in my inbox, and was eager to share my own, so that kept me motivated and accountable.

That said, I do have reservations about NaNoWriMo. Or, I should say, one GINORMOUS reservation, and that is, the experience can lead to the absolute opposite outcome for writers. Instead of fueling production, it can be one more distraction. E.g. checking in on all your fellow WriMos to see how many words they've written, or spending additional time blogging, responding to blog posts and tweeting about word count, or lack thereof. Even locating the widget you want and backending it onto your blog sidebar can take as much time as writing four pages.

Can you say sink hole?

In the last four years, since my foray, writing communities have bubbled up all over the place. Social media and its ubiquitous, meteoric presence can be another full time job on its own, so with the addition of WriMoVille, you're taking minutes away from writing time. And who has minutes, right?

A few months ago, I wrote a novel in 70 days. A novel that, according to my agent, was in pretty good shape. The final draft took another three weeks, and now it's out to editors, so it's not that I'm a killjoy regarding butt-in-the-seat. For me, it's all about focus. I had to do less things instead of more things to get those 60K words down (and those were the keeper words--double that for rough draft). I had to be strict about my time on social media and extra curriculars and the sorts of communication enticements dangled before me.

I do like the idea of setting goals though, and I think what's most important about the idea of National Novel Writers' Month is figuring out what's the right goal for you. Maybe it's three chapters you work hard to polish. Maybe it's shitting out that initial lump of coal. Maybe it is, indeed, simply connecting with a writing community. My bit of caution, as a dyed-in-the-wool non rule-follower, is to make your WriMo experience particular to your goals as a writer. Don't get sucked in by the numbers unless that's what's important to you as a writer. In other words, make your own rules!

So tell me, writers, what do you wish for writing selves this month?

Monday, October 29, 2012

name that character

Mitch? Rod? Morgan? Julian? Broc?
   So, in between obsessively checking Sandy reports (lots of family on East Coast), today I've been working on fleshing out an outline for a sequel to RAISING CHEER. I'm one of those writers who has to name my characters before I can even write the first sentence (or truly tap out a meaningful outline). Of course, I often search-and-replace the names in subsequent drafts, but I simply cannot lope my people through their various conundrums until I get initial purchase on names.

And before I can name them, I need to know what they look like.

In the old days, before stock photography, I used to sketch my characters, and make tab-festooned clothing for them. Sort of like those Betsy McCall paper dolls of yore. Thank God I don't have to do that anymore. I'm not much of a sketcher. Now I just pop on a site like this one, and peruse the offerings. It's sort of like porn for character development. You know, like, Hey boy, what're you wearing? You never know where it will lead...

Since the second RC book will have most of the same characters as the first one, the only real name challenge is a new character. A love interest. A swarthy fellow (the pic above is a guy a bit older than the character in my book, but same brand of attitude). The third party in a love triangle. The romantic foil.

The stoneresque boy pictured left is the hero, Connor, from book one (that's a soft spot I have, I guess-- a sort of scruffier Josh Hartnett type burnout with a heart of gold), and the young gal with the cell phone above is exactly who I envision my main character, Brady, to be.

So, top picks for naming the ass hat (as discussed on Facebook): Julian, Prescott, Marcel (Marc), Broc, Adam, Georgio, Shane.

What do think, oh fabulous writing community? What would you name my asshole?

Friday, October 12, 2012

sit your ass down and write season

   The rain has arrived. Like a reverse groundhog's proclamation, the serious pile up of storms on the Doppler radar has announced six more months of the same.

Not that I'm bitching.

In the 23 years I've lived in Portland, I can't remember such a fantastic lingering sun spell. No rain since the beginning of July. Tomatoes that rival New Jersey August-grown ones. Umbrellas clenched like fists. Car windows left open all night (shit, that reminds me...). Enough, already.

Fitting that weather would change with the onset of Wordstock. Rain is writing weather, after all. Gone is the stray, "let's go bang a couple balls around the court" notion. It's curl up in front of the fire with a stack of books. With your notes. With your big, big ideas for the next book.

It's here. Yes it is. Whatcha gonna write?

Friday, September 14, 2012

art. portland style.

Go to any happening, any event -- concert, sports, literary -- and the most ubiquitous aspect is the bevy of rectangular discs surgically adhered to the palms of the people. The viral share--the YOU ARE THERE--the feeding frenzy of HERE'S WHERE I AM RIGHT THIS MINUTE -- delivered in scooping haste by the masses. Gone are the dusty press-pass-toting members of the media, who, until very recently, everyone relied upon for reportage. Well, maybe not gone, exactly, but certainly upstaged.

Case in point. Last night three members my writing group, Chuck Palahniuk, Chelsea Cain, and Lidia Yuknavitch, teamed up to help launch Lidia's latest book, DORA: A HEADCASE. The venue, one of a handful of surviving indie bookstores, made 100 tickets available (and were sold out within the hour) for this unique confab: bedtime stories for grown-ups. The idea was to spike sales for DORA, while benefitting a brick-and-mortar book store by offering something you just can't get via, ahem, Amazon. Yes, there were adult beverages involved.

Well, the media showed up:

and, as is their style, the on-the-beat reporter began to voiceover during Chuck's reading of a story he'd just, that afternoon, written. Well, if there's one thing I've learned about Chuck lo these 20 years I've been in workshop with him, he's 1) not fond of being interrupted while reading, and 2) he thinks  lightning speed fast on his feet - even when they're covered in bunny slippers.

After a brief brow furrow, the ascot and smoking jacket-clad Chuck put down his fresh, reasonable story and picked up a three-hole binder (another Chuck thing--the binder). "That's it, I'm reading the dirty one," he said. "No going back."

Monica and I and the leopard theme
So while the reporter snagged Chelsea for commentary, and muted Chuck's super graphic, sexual, shocking and amazing reading of the sort of story that has the editors of Playboy salivating, the audience collectively squeezed their prized stuffed animals and got all Harry Potter-eyed while the iconic author of FIGHT CLUB hefted the lets-get-you-good-and-uncomfortable bar to new and glorious heights. Again, demonstrating how now, more than ever, art is defined on-the-ground, by the terms of the artist and audience. Which is really what this celebration of transgressive fiction is all about, right? And what better place than Portland to show it, eh?

What's the coolest event you've been to in the last year?

Thursday, August 30, 2012

the assemblage of treasure and scrap

If there's one thing I truly suck at, it's physical organization. I am egregiously handicapped when it comes to sorting and making decisions about objects. If there is a Special Olympics sort of event, or a government issued card I can stick on my rearview mirror to mitigate my retardation in this area, consider my hand officially raised.

Yesterday I bought two books to help me navigate the chaos and clutter in my immediate midst. One book I gave to my husband (also moderately afflicted with the handicap), and the other, well, as you can see it's sitting under my mug of coffee (I know it looks like wine, but, I pinky-dog swear, it really is coffee). The problem is, I don't know where to start. I get all anxious and paralysis sets in, and then I start to hyperventilate. Sounds like a Hoarders case, yes?

I want to, you know, "space clear." Get rid of the bad, stagnant energy and whatnot. Shred useless, outdated documents. Restore my chi. (Or is it qi--I guess I need to excavate the fucking book and find out.)

For the past few months, when not trotting around Europe, we've been in that semi-homeless limbo known as remodeling hell. Our kitchen, dining room and living room -- the central thoroughfare of our lives -- have been off-limits. I've been brewing coffee next to the toilet. Washing dishes in the laundry slop sink. Chopping tomatoes and buttering toast on the dryer. I don't know about you, but when the food part of my routine goes awry for any length of time, it becomes this systemic hell. It's a Maslow thing, right? Food is pretty essential. Consequently, my chi (or qi) is out of whack.

The remodel is just about finished now, and all this week I've been peeking in the bins and boxes I packed up in early June. I've been trying to sort stuff; move the essentials back into their drawers. Which sounds simple and glorious, right? I get to put my kitchen back together! Use a proper cutting board on a solid surface. Alas, would that it were so. This afternoon I stood in front of two Rubbermaid bins completely paralyzed with options. Should I put that grater in the Goodwill box? Or maybe it should be ferried back upstairs to the kitchen and be placed a drawer that I've yet to earmark for such a tool. Or, perhaps I should toss it into the bin for tomorrow's yard sale? Well, that depends on how many graters we actually have. I mean, is this the grater from Kirk's VW camper? Is it our extra grater? And don't we use a Cusinart for grating these days? You'd think I was a husband from the 50's faced with a dead wife and no history of performing simple kitchen tasks.

The anti-clutter book I gave Kirk had this tagline commanding the reader to throw away 50 things. Would this grater be one of the 50 things? Should it be? Okay, move on to the turkey lacing skewers. Hm. And like that. All day long.

I really wish I was a pot-smoker. I think I could probably blaze this conundrum into the vapors of "whatever."

The darker issue here is this fear that my affliction -- the glacial pace with which I attend these sorts of chores -- is only going to become more pronounced as I age. Perhaps I am staring into my future, when I will one day hold a toothbrush in one hand, toothpaste in the other, and try to recall how they go together, and what to do with them once they're joined.

The problem is, of course, we simply have too much crap, us blended boomers. Crates and barrels and bins of sentimental detritus that we should clearly jettison. Or hire someone to jettison for us, lest we get sucked into the nostalgia of things such as a child's kindergarten masterpiece or a Mother's Day ashtray made sixteen years ago (maybe I will take up pot smoking after all! Let's save it, just in case!)

How about you? Are you as organized as a German engineer, or are you headed for your own starring role Hoarders?

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Sisi's fancy frocks contest

Want a chance at winning a really cool book by Sangu Mandanna? (She's another Melissa Sarver author --so sort of in my rep family, and her debut book, THE LOST GIRL, is really clever and built on a very cool premise).

You only have until Tuesday, August 28th at 4 pm Pacific Time, so hop on over to the Empress Chronicles and play this fun game! It's a mix-and-match sort of deal.There's fancy court gowns involved. You'll like it. Swear.


Thursday, August 16, 2012

on the street where I live

So this morning started with one of the autistic kids from the group home around the corner frantically ringing the doorbell at 6:45. Kirk opened the door, expecting some sort of emergency, and in dashed this six-year old, making a bee-line for the bathroom where he proceeded to flush the toilet repeatedly.

I threw on some clothes and went off into the bizarre Phoenix-like heat of early morning and soon found the frantic caregiver wandering the street. The boy, he told me, had jumped out the window. "He's obsessed with toilets," he said.

This is the third time the kid has found his way into our house, the little escape artist. WTF? Why us? What's the intrigue? Is our toilet giving off secret signals?

Autism is such an interesting and baffling condition. What goes on in there, in those brains? Neural pathways mapping a discordant world where obsessions and compulsions and savant behaviors become hardwired to the exclusion of social construct. The boy in our house this morning had crapped his pants, probably a connection to the flushing toilet. The brain and the body making its causal circuit.

The day, from that point forward, took on a sort of depressing pallor. I kept revisiting the image of the boy being hoisted over the shoulder of his caregiver as they descended our steps, his body gone limp as a sack of rice. What will become of these kids in that group home? Where will they go once they're too large to be hauled back to base? What sort of therapy are these kids given? Are they the babies of crack moms? Are they simply too much for their parents to handle?

My own boys, my girl, somehow they grew to normal size and development, in my womb and then in the world. Their chromosomes all correctly numbered. Their neural pathways wired toward function. My youngest boy, sometimes he ticks me off because he leaves his cereal bowl in the family room. His dirty socks on the floor. I have excellent, thriving, productive kids and step-kids and a loving husband. Blessings beyond measure. I should volunteer. I should give my time and heart to those less fortunate. I should learn about autism and lend a hand over at that group home full of kids who crap their pants and flush toilets and jump out windows.

And yet I know I won't.

When confronted with uncomfortable, unfortunate circumstance, do you ever feel guilty because you're not doing more?

Thursday, August 09, 2012


Our poster child for human beingness   
If you've been reading this blog over the past, um, seven years, you know that I'm a little bit of a soccer nut. Even though I, myself, have never played. Yeah, I'm one of those. But, c'mon, I've been a beast of a soccer mom for 20 years, I've written articles about the sport (and its regional fandom), and when it comes to women's soccer, ask my husband, he'll tell you that he NEVER sees me as animated as I am when glued to the Abby-Megan-Alex-Hope show.
Though I felt bad for the Canadians with the semi outcome the other day (they gave just as much as our women did, and if you're from Portland, you gotta love watching UP alum Sinclair), I was salivating for the chance to watch USAvJPN again. The Japanese women are simply the smartest, most disciplined team out there. They don't have our drama or individual personality. Our sheer physical intent. Our bravado. But they use every ounce of ability and focus.They punish every mistake. They are winners in the deepest sense of the word.
Last summer's Japan-USA World Cup final was a heartbreaker for the diehard USWNT fans, but one of those emotional sports capstones that paper towel companies relish. The country had been devastated by the earthquake just months before the World Cup. It was this sort of "Well, if the U.S. had to lose, better to the poor Japanese girls than to, say, the Germans or the French" feelings. Which is bullshit, but where would international advertising-fueled, media-inspired sporting events be without sentimentality?

And speaking of the media, nobody was more soundbite-bite worthy than Wambach when she went on record before the London Games with her, "It doesn't matter who gets the goals - I'm going to leave my whole Human Beingness on that field" statement.

Tears of silver 
Today's match was a tad anti-climactic after that amazing semi-final against our neighbors to the north. I mean, Rapinoe was spent and sore. Wambach, bless her heart, looked run over by a freight train for much of the game. Baby Horse was her usual energetic self, but was outshined at the back of the net by Lloyd today--which, in the end, is why I love watching these women. Pia's team is deep. So deep. And know each other so well, you get the feeling that they make plays based upon this sort of infallible intuition that you just don't see with the boys' teams.

And don't even get me started on that stud, Solo. If the Timbers HAD to trade one of their most popular team members, it should have been Solo, not Ricketts, they acquired. (Though my son tells me she's crap against grounders, and that's why she blows shootouts. Hm.)

So the USA wins gold in Women's Football, and soccer-playing girls all over the country have sparky, genuine, incredible athletes as role models, their stature only outsized by their hearts. Silver, Gold, Bronze or no medal at all, I'm a fan. #USWNTTID.

Wednesday, August 01, 2012

happy birthday

He would have been 50 today, my first husband. He's been dead half his life. There should be a milestone for this day, but I'm not sure, exactly, what.

Years ago our kids and I used to mark his birthday by cooking up his favorite meal: veal cutlets. Frank loved a good veal cutlet. Maybe, over time, he would have seen the cruelty in the veal cutlet, the little huts the baby cows are confined to and so forth (though, his name was Vitello, so maybe not). For our short life together (three years of a marriage that produced two children), we'd celebrate August 1st with eggs Benedict and mimosas upon waking. Jesus, talk about your high cholesterol food choices! Ah, but we were young. What did we know of mortality? What did we know about clogged arteries and politically sensitive eating and the raising of children? We were just out of the snorting coke years. The selling pot years. We had menial minimum-wage jobs in food service. We delivered the Sunday paper together, him--flinging the Arizona Republic from the back of a copper-colored pickup at four in the morning, me--pregnant and disheveled at the wheel.

What would Frank Vitello be like as a 50-year old? Would we have stayed married? Would we have churned out more kids? Where would we be living? When he died, we'd just moved back to New York State. That day they pulled his lifeless, smashed up body from a pile of crumpled Mustang, I was, again, big with baby. My daughter, who was technically a fetus when her father was killed, does not eat veal anymore. Or wheat, for that matter.Would her father be giving her shit for her gluten-free ways? Would he raz her about the tattoo on her ankle? Frank liked a good talk radio show. Would he be voting for Romney, then?

And what would he have to say about his son's chosen career as a poker player? "Why, at your age," he might say, "I was holding down four jobs and digging out the septic tank in preparation for my second child." Or maybe he'd be all proud and amazed that his son is living the life, rolling with the big boys. Doing well with the cards. In reality though, all he could say to his son today is, "Why, when I was your age, I was dead."

I remember my first husband's laugh. The way his eyes crinkled when he was amused. He liked a good, stout ale. He'd approve, I think, that I'm now married to a guy who brews his own. Sometimes I imagine us all at the dining table: my dead husband, my alive one, my ex and my children. One big meld of family sitting amid steaming piles of disparate food: tofu, beef, sauerkraut, pizza. If I could only be a fly on the wall while my various husbands discussed global warming, college sports teams, the upcoming presidential election, raising chickens.

The men. The babies. Life. 

Happy birthday, Frankie. If I had a kitchen, I'd cook you a meal.


Sunday, July 29, 2012

dead people's houses

A dozen white cotton gloves in a cardboard box. CDs imploring SPEAK GERMAN! and SPEAK ITALIAN! nestled next to Christmas globes. Cleansing creams and how-to manuals, salmon-silver Jell-O molds and hankies embroidered with Ethiopian mothers bent over under the weight of babies and gourds.

A Thigh-Master, still in its box and advertised by Suzanne Somers's pile of hair and smiling face, leered at the shlumpy masses as they traipsed up steep stairs embellished with blue painting tape to prevent mishap. Self-help paperbacks bleached by the years were spread out in a disheveled pile in an upstairs sleeping porch. All these items, and more. The legacy of some dead lady.

Today was a field trip illustration of folk singer Cheryl Wheeler's terrific song "Estate Sale," and it touched the same nerve that Cheryl's song does, the way we would-be gold-diggers were poking around in all of her stuff. For $1.75 I got a set of six vintage cocktail glasses, the Ethiopian mother hankie, and a bestseller by Diane Mott Davidson called "The Grilling Season" with a tagline that read: Revenge against your ex-husband can be a tasty dish--it can also be murder.

Which gave me pause. I wondered about this dead woman and what wrongs she may have suffered. Who, I wondered, had fucked her over? What was her story? Was her husband a philandering bastard who flirted with and fucked the barmaids down the street? Or was she widowed early on, and left alone, slowly rotting into an Alzheimer's decay until one of her kids tossed her into a home? At one point, she'd wanted to learn yoga, bridge, this woman. She was willing to try new things. To be better at stuff. She longed to keep her hands soft, her heart ready, her thighs firm. She had an electric wok. Imagine that? I almost bought it (everything was 75% off).

As I hauled my paper sack of loot down the crumbling steps, my joy at the deals in my bundle was mitigated by a sorrow. The sort of sorrow that usually sends me into the deep end of project. What sort of fabrication might I conjure? How might exploit the clues here, churn them up in the mixer, and spit out, say, 80K words?

Whose stories have you stolen lately?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012


After a month traipsing Europe, here's the big takeaway for me. I'm a fan of competence. I prefer order with my exquisite beauty and can only tolerate the occasional surprise. Sobering, that. I mean, all this time I thought I was more whimsical. More, la-di-da. But, sadly, nope. Turns out, I find whimsy and mash-up and spontaneous plan B's disturbing. I have a stick up my ass, in other words.

I far preferred the regimented German-speaking territories to the devil-may-care Italian ones. I didn't like that the Internet was spotty, that the road rules weren't clear, and that it took so fucking long to get your check in Italian restaurants. Oh yeah, and, by the way, the bread sucks in Italy. And mostly the pizza is crappy, burnt flatbread with flavorless sauce.

That said.

All my kinks got unkinked in Italy. My gray hairs turned ungray. My body and brain and spine were overcooked macaroni as I zoned out to the white noise of the ever-present cicadas. It was a dream, my time in Italy. A sensory dep chamber. The womb, maybe? Less come to Jesus than here's your mommy's boob. If Germany, Austria and Slovenia are the fatherland, Italy is the mother ship.

Consider: My grandmother (who just turned 100) left WWII Austria with my one-year-old father in tow. They got on the last ship out, fleeing the Nazis on a boat full of Jews out of Genoa--Italy coming to the rescue again.

Like my father and grandparents, I was born in Vienna. My formative years were an immersion in the structure and cadence of assertion and order. For holidays, we went to Italy and swam in the sea. My godfather, who still lives in Vienna, does the same. The flat in Vienna, the villa in Trieste.

Is it any wonder I'm forever Daddy's little girl?

We have a little of that going on here in the States. I mean, there's blue states and red states. Yankee pot roast and gumbo. Fir trees and birds of paradise. But the divisions are not archetypal the way they are in Europe. Here in Oregon, there's a mixture of mother/father energy. We have mountains and sea. Desert and valley. It's a bit of a mess, frankly. A beautiful mess, but a mess.

So, dear bloggers, where do you live? Mom's house or Dad's? Do you keep your room tidy, or are you a fan of the beautiful mess?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

vacation coma

Haven't been writing much. Or thinking much. Mostly, just gazing out at the view beyond my knees. Tough life, right? Decisions are all made in accordance with the heat, wind and direction of the sun. How divinely retro, to depend on nothing but nature, yes?

This week, Kirk and I have been holed up in the piney woods-framed Mediterranean sea town of Castiglione della Pescaia, in the mostly Swedish-run resort Riva del Sole. Like much of our trip, Riva is fairly free of the American tourist scene, and because my iPhone's "translator" isn't all that quick in the spotty wi-fi zone here, I mostly communicate by pointing and gesturing when I need, say, a glass of wine or a scoop of gelati.

Holidays in Europe emphasize downtime, I've noticed. People here are very good at relaxing whilst looking beautiful. Me, I have to say, it's all a little strange, this beach vacation thing. First of all, there's my fair skin and dry, curly hair. Like bratty toddlers, they're constantly whining at me: Do you even know the damage seawater does to me? What do you mean we're going to the pool again? I miss the slimy wetness of Portland! 

So there's that.

But also, even more akin to my feeling of disconnection, the beach, as our pal Anne Morrow Lindbergh pointed out so many moons ago, "is not the place to work; to read, write, or think."

At least at first, she admits before launching into her oft-quoted book. Lindbergh continues, "And then, some morning in the second week, the mind wakes, comes to life again. Not in a city sense – no—but beach-wise."

Unfortunately, I'll never know if that's true for me, as we're packing tonight and bee-lining to Salzburg (where I hear it's 60 degrees and raining). We're leaving the Italian vacation pace behind and plunging back into the land where Internet is never spotty, and clocks are obeyed.

Thinking more about Lindbergh's assessment of the first week on the beach, and my own sense of flaccidity these six days, I suppose I could liken it to a form of detox from the workaholic agenda-driven life I lead at home (and even the aspects of vacation which are destination-driven). The compulsion is still there, just under the surface--the first two days I had to slap my hand away from the potted geraniums on the resort patio, so badly did I want to deadhead them! Allowing a rhythm other than the one churning with intent is really, really hard. The day the server went down here at the resort, I about lost it. So dependent am I on modern lines of communication. (But I have to post on Facebook for the crouton company! Yikes!)

Oddly, too, my usual ingestion of intoxicants is all out of whack. Instead of a pot of coffee interspersed throughout the day, I have one or two shots of espresso. Wine every night, of course, but a couple of glasses spread out over hours. It's pretty much been the Mediterranean diet by default here. No butter, no heavy meats. Lots of fresh veggies and fruit and olive oil and fish. A little chocolate. Those Italian cookies, of course. And cheese. Which seems to like my better here than it does in the U.S. Go figure.

As far as the beach-reads go, Kirk and I just dovetail read GONE GIRL, which was great fun. Though he seems to be looking at me askance lately. (He thought the initial "cool girl" self-description of the Amy character was totally me, then freaked out with the * SPOILER ALERT* way she emerges as a psychopath.)

I've caught up on some YA reading, and when the Internet works, I check in with the "world" via Facebook and so forth--managed to "WhatsApp" my kids, and that's always reassuring. Back home our chickens are fine, I'm told, and our kitchen remodel seems to be on track.

So why am I waiting for the shoe to drop? Some disaster to tumble out of the sky? Is it part of the workaholic detox thing? Or the getting ready for reentry thing?

Let me ask you this: in the midst of a fabulous time, a relaxing vacation where all is well, do you obsess?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

under the tuscan sunset

So Kirk, Wanda and I are driving the back roads of Tuscany, zipping along the one-lane zero visibility bridges from Etruscan village to Medieval mine town, and we're thinking up best-seller ideas (we've reached that point in the vacation where Visa bills are factoring in), and we thought up a pretty good conceit. Sort of "Under the Tuscan Sun" meets "Golden Girls."

Here's the pitch:

Four middle-aged women (friends of long-standing), swear off men, sell all their worldly goods, and buy a villa in Tuscany. One by one they fall off the man-swearing-off wagon (insert beefcake cougar-hunting, Vespa-zooming hunk, or some recently widowed secret millionaire), but they can't let the others know they're indulging in boy. Madcap adventures ensue as they try to hide their trysts from one another.

What do you think? Got any other trope-meets-trope ideas? Let 'em fly!

Monday, July 09, 2012

In yet another cable car-type vehicle  
Hi kids. I'm in Tuscany. Fucking Tuscany!! Where all the schmaltzy feel good movies with happy endings that star Diane Lane are filmed. I know... this reportage from the earth's sexiest locales is starting to piss you off. And yet, you want the details. Right?

Spent the last two nights in the spa town of Montecatini Terme, where they name the water as well as diagram a sort of mix-and-match with the ailments the various springs are supposed to cure. Needless to say, my constipation is over. (But I think it was the gelati rather than the mineral water that did the trick.)

So, I'm writing off this trip, and one of the reasons I can do that (besides researching the novel I've already written and can't seem to sell), is that I work for a food company that just developed a line of croutons branded with a nod to "Old World Italy." All this week I'll be posting my culinary adventures on this particular Facebook Page, starting with yesterday's recon in the kitchens of the hotel/restaurant.

Gelati. That is all.
The write-off part of being a writer is pretty cool, but now with jobs in social media, you can pretty much write off your entire life. A tweet here, a blog post there, some Facebooking, and, et voila! work is life and life is work.

So Montecatini was fantastic. The Italian cultural norm of taking big-ass naps in the afternoon and staying out until 2:00 a.m. seemed to work well for me. As did the people-watching: old ladies strolling arm-in-arm, groups of boys playing street soccer, Tony Soprano types and their booming voices and ginormous stomachs holding court in the metal chairs of street-side cafes. The crazy drivers. The zippy motorbikes. Arias belted out in public spaces. And the shopping! Okay, I hate shopping, but I couldn't resist browsing through the street vendor wares, where tatted means lace, not body ink. Dresses come in three sizes: zero, two and matron--and the styles pretty much follow. Oh, and the aforementioned gelati--on every corner.

You dress to go out at night, and sashay down the cobblestones in your heels, then land at a cafe where you're expected to order a bottle (not a glass!) of wine, and linger until the wee hours. Was this country made for moi, or what?

There was some sort of beauty contest in the square the first night we were there. A throwback to overt sexism, where they skipped over the "talent" part, and the girls simply paraded around in bikinis -- and in the plot of street right beside it, you guessed it! A car show! Extra special sight-seeing for Kirk in this hopping town.

The right-leaning Tower in all its glory
So we motored away from the spa town this morning (Wanda, Kirk and I are now total BFFs, you'll be happy to hear. She seems to know a lot of shortcuts in Italy), and stopped in Pisa on the way to our current destination, the beach-in-the-piney-woods, otherwise known as Riva del Sole.

But first, Pisa. Let's take one of the world's biggest architectural fuck-ups and build a crappy little city around it and watch the Americans flock to it. Throngs of tourists all striking poses for posterity where they simulate propping the tower back to straight. Seriously, imagine 400 people all doing this, as if it's the most original idea ever. I envisioned all these people with copies of 50 Shades of Grey stuffed into their Leaning Tower tote bags. Ugh.

Anyway, kudos to Team Wanda:Kirk for negotiating various UTurns where seven streets came together and not getting us all killed on our way out of Pisa.

As of three hours ago, we're here in our piney woods bungalow, the cicadas are yammering away, and the beach beckons. See you soon, but before I go, let me ask you, what's the most outrageous thing you've ever written off on your taxes?

Friday, July 06, 2012

pilgrimage to bled

lots of cowbell up here in the Slovenian alpine  
No doubt about it, the Lake Bled region of Slovenia rivals any contender for "most beautiful place in the world." If you've ever had a cinematic dream with surreal colors and exaggerated wildflower meadows, they were based on this place, which is all very Hansel and Gretel-meets-Disney, even in the crazy downpour we're experiencing currently. 

This little 30 Euro-a-night cottage we're renting, all geraniums and dish tv, sits in the middle of a valley surrounded by the Julian Alps, and villages we can't figure out how to pronounce (the language lacks vowels and includes those interesting Eastern European letters with all the hieroglyphics above them). Accommodations abound here in Bohinjska Bistrica, and they're all neat as a pin and loaded with charm.

Sort of Wizard-of-Oz, yes?
When we arrived yesterday (after a somewhat harrowing hail storm on the mountain pass that flooded out the road and had us stopped on the Autobahn in pile-up fashion), we pulled up to one of the dozens of adorable houses that seemed to correspond to the info we had on our print out. On the porch was a legless lady in a wheelchair that looked to be about 105 years old. She smiled and nodded as I waved my paperwork in front of her face like a lunatic. "Ne Ne" she kept saying, and Kirk pulled out one of the volume of Rick Steve's books for the translation.

misty watercolor memories
Soon enough the son came over and somehow, with hand gestures and smiles, we made our way over to the modest unit where we were instructed to bunk. It's a lovely little place, with the usual feather bedroll and miniature refrigerator, bidet, and 1,000 channel flat screen dish television. No coffee maker, however, which, for a complete addict, was a bit troublesome (Kirk actually managed to make me coffee this morning though, using a dishtowel and a plastic funnel. The man is a genius!)

We popped into town for groceries and dinner last night, ordering "the special" -- which, near as I can tell, were scoops of paste, cat food and pickled organ meat. Now, I'm pretty experimental with my culinary adventures, but last night's dinner just lipped over the edge for me. I hit that wall of gross-out and there was no going back. You know what I'm talking about, right? Like you somehow imagine that you've just eaten shit and your brain goes into this fight or flight thing?

We climbed here in order to ring the bell. For luck.
I got over it, though. Had a little chocolate, some brandy. The usual cure-all.

So this morning we scurried off to the Vogel cable car, taking that up and up and up to an alpine vista where we climbed an additional mile or so to get the money view of the alps. We were on our way back to the lift when the thunder began, and thus began the downpour. Very dramatic, I must say.

I made us an arugula and some sort of cured meat salad. More brandy. More chocolate. The rain continues. We're watching some horse jumping competitions on the 1,000-channel television. I'm thinking of getting the dishtowel out again, and making another batch of coffee.

This is the life, I tell you.

What's the last thing you've had to improvise or jerry-rig on vacation?

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

like a fruit the stone

Death & Man, Egon style
Yesterday I took a break from my Habsburg-Wittelsbach obsession to check in some other Viennese icons. Turns out we inadvertently planned our trip during Klimt summer. It's Klimt, Klimt, Klmt, everywhere you look--him in his mental patient-looking smock holding a cat, him on a Saltzkammergut lake with his intrepid lover, Emilie. The Kiss, the pointillist landscapes, the bling-gold Bloch Bauer.

At the Leopold, the exhibit is based on postcards found in the closets and drawers of Emilie Floge, his long-term companion. I have to say, Klimt's people were a lot better at hiding scandal than were Egon Schiele's. Klimt basically had affairs and/or impregnated all of his models (several of his bastard kids ended up being named Gustav, after their randy daddy), but if there were any epistolary references to these torrid affairs, they were well hidden (burned).

Instead of declarations of love (or lust) the postcards are full of banal musings, such as: After breakfast, which I ate at 9, I painted a beech tree. Yawn.

Now, Klimt was one hell of an artist, but he just wasn't as interesting a person as that other dude--the young, crazed poster child for suffering, Egon Schiele. Egon, who admittedly died too young (28) to carry on decades of scandal, was sort of the inverse of his rival. Whereas Klimt was a generalist-and popular with collectors who liked a little Austrian sentimentality with their nudes, Schiele's work was deeply, profoundly personal. Take the brilliant Cardinal and Nun, for instance (Caress). Shame and sacred side-by-side. It's been called a paraphrase of The Kiss, Schiele's version of ecstasy. Now that's the real Austrian theme!

My favorite take-away from my non-Sisi day was the commentary on Self Seer, Schiele's Death and Man piece. It's an illustration of Rilke's notion that: "one carries one's death around like a fruit the stone." Love that!

So, what kind of fruit are you?

Saturday, June 30, 2012


You'll be pleased to know that Kirk and I are not taking any more of Wanda's shit, and simply ignore her when she demands we U-Turn when it makes no sense what-so-ever. We talk back to her, even. We flip her the bird, and continue following our old-fashioned paper map. She's such an insistent bitch, that Wanda: "Make-a-u-turn-if-possible-make-a-u-turn-if-possible," she echoes in her robot German accent.

Shut the fuck up, Wanda.

Somehow, though, we can't bring ourselves to turn her off. It's like my son--he seems to need me to nag about not eating cereal in his room, so he can continue to ignore me and bring bowl after bowl of Honey Nut Cheerios in there (and probably, in his head, he's saying shut-the-fuck-up-mom, too).

Speaking of my son, I got like two-and-a-half hours of sleep last night worrying about whether he'd been dropped off at the right place, if he had all his equipment. I wondered if his leg had healed after the quad pull he got during his last tournament. Maybe he was sick. Maybe his dad decided he should go back to the hot springs with him instead of ODP camp. I haven't connected with him because we've put our phones in airplane mode for the trip (I just can't justify the expense, given my addictive phone use--even with the international package, it's truly ridiculously costly) - but, lo and behold, at 6:00 a.m., I got the a text from him on my WhatsApp app (which, is a must for wi-fi texting over seas).

It's us in our salt mine garb.
I was thrilled to find out that, indeed, all is well and he's having a great time. His roommate is cool and, best, he and a bunch of fellow-campers chipped in to have four pizzas delivered to their dorms at Linfield, where the camp is. For a 13-year-old, that's a pretty awesome thing, ordering a pizza and having it delivered to a college dorm. Carson is in heaven. So, for the moment, I can stop freaking out.

Sleep-dep and Wanda's attempts to derail us aside, the trip from Bad Ischl to Hallstatt took only a half-hour or so, and wended along a river through the usual adorable towns to arrive at a storybook village on a lake so clear and ancient and Euro-lovely we thought we were still asleep, having a dual dream or something. We thought Partenkirchen and Bad Ischl were picturesque ... this town (which dates back to 900 BC civilization-wise) outshines them. By far.

We'd decided to come here rather late in our planning -- it's the only place on our itinerary we hadn't pre-booked a zimmer, so, chunky library version of Rick Steves Germany and Austria in hand, we bumbled our way through the village in search of one-night accommodations (on a Saturday in summer, no less. Nervy us of, I know).

Cute??? Yes?
The lady at the TI made a call, and then scribbled something on our map, and I navigated Kirk there with only one (okay, two) wrong turns. A charming Austrian man flagged us down, directed us to park, and then took us to this 900 square foot immaculate knotty pine cottage. With breakfast, it'll cost us 60 Euro. The place is total Hansel and Gretel, without the witch (we left Wanda in the car, still pissed off that we didn't take the U-turn).

After a hard day at the salt mines ...
After unpacking our overnight bags and plotting the rest of our day, we trotted down the little lane to a funicular that cranked us up a mountain to tour the Hallstatt salt mines--which was a blast. The german tour was led by a woman who supplemented her spiel with bits of broken English--telling us, at one point, that the wild enemas led the villagers to the salt. (Since I haven't taken a crap in three days, that sounded pretty good to me.) Really though, the main takeaway at the salt mines (which included a dark walk through uneven ground, sliding down a couple rails, and straddling a wooden beam that chugged us to the exit of the mine) was confirmation that in the U S of A,  our fear of impending litigation has turned us into fear-driven, over-cautious cretins, who are being systematically fleeced of our innate survival skills. There are no caution signs and warnings and diatribes and wavers in Europe as prelude to every conceivable experience. You simply hand over the dough and do the thing, using your wits, experience and common sense to keep you from stepping off cliffs and so forth.

heading back to our zimmer.
Note the unlegislated need to move out of the way of traffic.
After the salt mines, we meandered through the breathtakingly charming village, fed the swans, and plopped our butts down at a lakeside table for our Radler and Würstel. 

A perfect day. Well, almost perfect. I need to sign off now and power down a third packet of Metamucil.

Tomorrow, Vienna. Where we'll be for a while.

What's app with y'all? Staying regular?

Thursday, June 28, 2012

wicked wanda and bad ischl

Wanda didn't know about this, apparently

Lesson of the day: just because you punch the name of a town into your high-tech, German-engineered GPS system, doesn’t mean you can relax and follow directions and expect to get there.

Our plan was to leave Partenkirchen first thing after our morning muesli, and head to the fairy-tale castles by 8:50 to get our reserved tickets. The hostess of the Fraundorfer assured us that no matter which way we went, we’d end up at Neuschwanstein in an hour and five minutes.

Two hours later, we were hopelessly lost somewhere Southeast of Munich, three maps and a Rick Steves book all unfolded and bookmarked and crumpled on my lap, while Kirk, whose scratchy throat has turned into a full-blown cold, was nervously negotiating the single lanes through black forest and green glen.

At one point, after our GPS Lady (Wicked Wanda, we’ve decided to call her) commanded us to make a U-Turn, leading us the wrong way down a one-way street the width of dental floss, we frantically punched in some alternate towns—getting us even more lost. Here’s something we learned: “fastest” and “shortest” are very different options. Here's what we also learned: do your homework the night before. Foreign travel by the seat of the pants is stupid, risky, and likely to bring out Mrs. Crabby Seat-of-the-Pants.

Of course we missed our ticket time, and with a three-hour drive ahead of us into Austria, southeast of Salzburg, we scrapped our castle plans in favor of the Autobahn. Wicked Wanda recalculating our route periodically so we could avoid “traffic hazards” that magically cropped up every twenty kilometers or so, sending us off the A-route and onto various B-routes. Her circuitous plans for us took us through some incredible scenery as well as a few less stellar burgs whose prominent features included abandoned overhead electric lines.

Our trip continued to Bad Ischl, the Imperial mountain burg where the fated Franz Joseph-Sisi engagement took place. I'd booked us a cheap room in a pension on the far end of town, and Googled up some directions before leaving the States. Stupidly, though, instead of following my printed directions, I convinced Kirk to give Wanda one more shot, and when she ordered us off the main road, and onto an assortment of charming goat paths, there I was, like the girlfriend of a notorious womanizer, believing the curt, no-nonsense voice as she weaved us along precarious roads, around haystacks, and down more skinny lanes. She promised that our "destination will be on the right," but all that was on the right, before the road block, was a rusty fence, where we parked, got out, and wandered around heavy machinery for the next hour, hoping that our Pimsleur German and frantically waving map-wielding hands would lead us to a person who'd point to our destination.

Meanwhile, Wanda was back in the car, telling all her GPS robot buddies what a pair of idiots we were.

Eventually, we found our digs, retraced our steps and negotiated the rental Ford "Kuga" around several detours, narrowly missing a tour bus and a Mercedes cement truck going about 60.

I’m also happy to report that Kirk and I have not quite killed each other yet, though testier words between us have never been sprechen

I promise to post some pretty pictures soon--and report on the more lush, lavish and lovely aspects of this spa town that has haunted me since I started my Empress Elisabeth obsession. First, though, I have to convince my travel partner to get back on that horse. So to speak.