The Tomato Pilgrim

Alas, this would be a better post in early summer, but this is my pilgrimage story that I told at my cockTALE party. You are ready for storytelling this Thanksgiving, right? The theme is FOOD. Tell a five minute or less story about food and ask everyone else to share one too. I'll post mine next week. Enjoy your holiday!

In my mind, the perfect tomato is big, as big as a grown-man's fist. It is deep red, firm. It is cut length wise into thick rounds and it is sprinkled with salt and pepper. I encountered such a tomato for the first time when I was five. It was in Fresno, and it came straight from my great-aunt Minnie's garden. Minnie was my grandpa's sister, and she had made an enormous luncheon because my mother had brought us to visit from Utah. I had never met my aunt Minnie or most of the people sitting at that table, but I ate tomato slice after tomato slice and I felt not only perfectly happy but also enthralled with the larger world those tomatoes introduced me to--a world that did not consist of frozen corn, frozen peas.
            I did not have tomatoes that delicious again until we moved to Northern California some years later and I had my grandfather's tomatoes. He grew them every year, and he grew so many that all summer long he would give us big grocery sacks full of them and we would eat them every night. By the end of the summer we would be unimpressed---pleased to have them and always ready to eat them, but also bored by how pedestrian they had become. We were like Adam and Eve. We didn't even know we were living in paradise until we were kicked out. Although that's not quite true because I did know how good I had at. For as long as I had my grandpa's tomatoes and a good decade afterward, I refused to buy supermarket tomatoes. I found them offensive in the same way that a lover of Michelangelo might be offended by a paper-clip sculpture I put on a pedestal and call La Pieta.    
            But as the Buddha tells us, change is constant. And my tomato paradise that I took for granted could not last forever. Eventually, I settled in Southern California and my grandpa moved to a retirement home. One day, I went to the grocery store, and I bought tomatoes. Then I went again, and soon I didn't even notice how bland they were.
            But when we moved to my house, I slowly began my pilgrimage back to the perfect tomato. My first attempts failed, the tomatoes I produced tasting watery and tough. But I persevered, learning more, getting stronger as I journeyed longer. Now I have raised vegetable beds. I flirt with homegrown lettuce and basil, but those are trifles. Everything I do with those beds, from what I grow and where I grow it is really all about growing tomatoes. Last spring I literally went to an event called "Tomatomania" to buy my seedlings. And I can tell you that this year I produced really outstanding tomatoes.
            But my tomatoes are not as good as my grandpa's or his sister's. So I pilgrim on, always hopeful that each new summer will give me tomatoes like the ones I had growing up. But I wonder if I ever will, and not only because I lack the heightened taste buds of a five year old, but because those first tomatoes were always more than tomatoes. They were my grandpa. They were his sister. And now that they are gone I wonder if, as good as it is, a tomato is just a tomato.



You are invited...to throw a party

Who: YOU!

What: Are invited to throw a cockTALE party. A cockTALE party is something I invented, well sort of. There are lots of venues these days where you can go and listen to people tell personal stories (I'm participating in one tomorrow! Feel free to come!), but in a cockTALE party you gather people you love and tell each other your own personal stories. Think of it as your own personal Moth.

Why in the world would I want to do that? Because stories are what define us and what connect us to one another. You are the only one who can tell your story, and if you don't tell it it will be lost forever.

How do I do this incredibly fun-sounding thing?  I tested it all out for you on Saturday. It was so fun! Here is what you do:

  • 1. Gather about six or seven people (or more if some people just want to listen. Anymore than eight and I think people will get too antsy).
  • 2. Invite them to come to your house ready to tell a five minute personal story focused on a theme. Our theme was pilgrims because it is almost Thanksgiving, and we heard amazing stories about times in people's lives when they felt they were sort of on a pilgrimage.
  • 3. Put out some food and wine (my husband made lemon drops and my guests also brought finger foods).
  • 4. Mingle and enjoy each other's company and start your stories when you're ready.
  • 5. That is all you have to do! Trust me, you will have a great time.

When: Whenever you want! But you could also incorporate this into your Thanksgiving dinner! How fun would that be! I even have a theme for you. Super easy: Food.

A few tips: 

  • 1. Keep your theme general enough so that people can interpret it in different ways and not so obscure that you'll scare people. I think now that pilgrims may have seemed too obscure at first, but, really, in the end, it turned out great.
  • 2. Mix things ups. I struggled for a while with the worlds collide problem. Should I invite one particular friend group or mix things up? I mixed things up, inviting friends from different parts of my life, and I think it made it really fresh and meaningful. But you do what you think best.
  • 3. Don't be afraid to go inter-generational. My teens came, and one of my daughter's friends came and told a terrific story that really highlighted how one word can mean something different at different times of our lives.
  • 4. Don't make people tell a story if they don't want to. My husband and younger daughter did not tell stories. People should participate at their comfort level.
  • 5. Don't worry if people's stories go over--or under--five minutes. It will all work out.
  • 6. Have fun and realize that sharing stories makes us human and it is an honor to have someone share their story with you.

Later this week I'll post the story I shared. If you do have a cockTALE party let me know! I'll be so excited. Tell your friends to have their own. Let's not just OWN our stories, let's share them!

PS: The photo is of the finger food my friend Cathy brought. She got the idea from what she calls The Google. I like to call it the Story Snake.

Happy Storytelling!


Where in the World Do You Want to Go?

I'm telling you, people, between teaching and grading and driving people around I am feeling spent.

Top five places I think about visiting when feeling whiny:

1. The British Isles (My friend Alexandria is very keen on Scotland, but I would like to see the old country--Ireland. Plus England, of course. Pemberly awaits.)

2. Hawaii. I've never been. That just seems wrong.

3. Greece and Turkey: I wanna see all the ancient Greek archeological sites. You know I like me my goddesses.

4. The other old country: Germany. I am descended mostly from German farming stock, so pass the bratwurst and hand me a dirndl dress.

5. Kyoto. Everyone says it's beautiful, and I wanna see the giant Buddha statue.

How about you? Where are you itching to go?


Five Keys to Maintaining Zen-like Calm in the Midst of Chaos

Well friends, you know I am all about stress-free living, what with my everything is bullshit and all that matters is love and my Kumbaya let me find you a goddess or read your tarot cards, and my let's all just have some chocolate and wine in my special meditation/wine-drinking/far enough from the house that you can't hear anyone yelling zone.

So I want you to listen to me and believe me when I tell you how to totally own a zen-like life when you are crazy busy with work and driving a million places and trying to keep everyone in relationship with one another, etcetera, etcetera, fill in the blanks of your own personal cocktail of chaos.

To maintain totally zen-like calm in the midst of chaos you must:

1. Think positive. For example, the next time you need to get your hair cut, don't think of it as an annoying errand that is eating away at your precious time, but think of it instead as a mini spa day that will nourish your soul! Think of the hair wash as a sort of massage and totally don't worry about your neck being pushed back into the small of your back and the fact that you feel like you are a chicken about to have its neck broken. As for the blowdryers, think of them as a refreshing sound scape reminiscent of beach sounds or tornadoes.

2. Multi-task. Here's a way to kill two birds with one stone: clean your house. It's nature's way of staying fit. All that bending! all that stretching! As with any new regime, at first you will be all, "Oh, I hate this; it's so boring," but--believe me--once you find your zone, you'll be an addict. You'll be all, "Oh, I can't wait to go home from my long day at the office and get my heart pumping with some serious vacuuming!" Soon, all your friends will be like, "You are so looking good!" and you'll be all, "Yeah. Meet my trainer, Mr. Hoover."

3. Put away your electronics and get down to business. Electronics are totally time sucks. Your digital scale, for example. Put that shit away.

4. Prioritize! People! Seriously! Do I really have to tell you that you should not have fun writing on your little blog until you have graded that seriously boring and increasingly larger stack of papers that is sitting not even two feet away? Work before pleasure. Did you not get the memo? And no. Dthis before you grade those papers either. Because that would totally be irresponsible of me--I mean you. So there.
on't look at

5. Delegate. Seriously. Does someone want to come grade these papers for me?


What I am avoiding right now

1. Grading papers.
2. Grading tests.
3. Cleaning the following: desk, bathroom, kitchen, living room. And changing my sheets.
4. Assorted paperwork. Curses paperwork! How I hate you!
5. Funny enough, writing. Hmmm. Why? Very mysterious.
6. Changing my daughter's hair appointment.
7. Making dental appointments. 
8. Figuring out what I'm going to make for dinner.

By the way, have you seen this? It's on Neflix. Very spooky but also gripping and mysterious, all the more so because it's in French. And are you watching this? David Tennant is not my secret boyfriend, but he'll doing in a pinch. I would prefer to watch the English version, but Gracepoint is on Hulu+ so that is the best I can do. Speaking of secret boyfriends, I understand Chris O'Dowd is in St. Vincent, so I might have to check that one out.

What are you avoiding?


The Bullshit Manifesto

I hereby decree the following:

Basically, everything is bullshit.

ISIS and ISIL are bullshit.
Bombing people is bullshit.
Classifying people is bullshit.
Status symbols are bullshit.
Fame is bullshit.
Being passive aggressive is bullshit.
Being a right in your face asshole is bullshit.
Small talk is bullshit.
Gatekeeping is bullshit.
Living through your kids is bullshit.
The Ivy Leagues are bullshit.
Professional sports is bullshit.
Circling the wagons is bullshit.
Social media is bullshit (ironic, I know).
Selling things is bullshit.
Selling yourself is even more bullshit.
Chasing after material possessions is bullshit.
Having your face in a screen all day is bullshit.
Denying inequality is bullshit.
Denying patriarchy is bullshit.
Being hurtful is bullshit.
Practically every institution is, on some level, bullshit.
Keeping a stiff upper lip is bullshit.
Anything that keeps your from being authentic is bullshit.

Only one thing is not bullshit: Love.

Alone among countries, Bhutan tracks its Gross Happiness Product. It does this to see if its citizens are becoming more or less happy. Likewise, I believe we should each keep track of our Gross Love Product. When you make a decision, you should ask yourself: will this increase the world's Gross Love Product? If the answer is yes, go for it. If the answer is no, then it's bullshit. If you can not decide how your choices affect the GLP, you should unpack the concept of love a little. Are you making a compassionate choice? Are you making a respectful and kind choice? There you go. That should solve your problem.

Obviously, you cannot remove yourself from the bullshit world. Like I said, basically everything is bullshit so that would be impossible. It's okay to live in the bullshit world, you just have to know that you are surrounded by bullshit and artifice and you must try not to be sucked in. Remember: the remedy for bullshit is love.


My writing process: Hint it involves zombies

What are you working on?
How does your work differ from others in your genre?
Why do you write what you do?
How does your writing process work?

Desiree Zamorano, who blogs at The Restless Chef and who is the author of the novel The Amado Women, tagged me with these writerly questions, and since I do whatever the fabulous Desiree asks, I will answer them now.

What are you working on?
I am currently working on staying sane until I go back to work next week. Too-long breaks make me neurotic, especially when most of my time is spent making sure each of my teenagers feels EQUALLY aggrieved. Oh, Wait! This is supposed to be about what I'm writing! I get it.

I'm working on the second of three book series. Part one is resting until I can approach my third draft with cold-hearted detachment. Part one is called Optimized, and part two is called Optimystic. The series is about a high school slacker who begins to investigate a group of peers who are involved in the clinical trial of a new medication. The medication makes people Einstein-smart but, alas, also  makes them look and act like zombies. The question is: just how far zombie have they gone?

How does your work differ from others in your genre?
I like to flirt with the line of reality. What is real? What could be real? How do we know the difference? Also, I like that my characters don't live segmented lives. For example, my girl Mia can investigate the maybe-zombies all she wants, but she still has to worry about how she will get into the college of her choice.

Why do you write what you write?
I always start from a place of curiosity. What questions or issues can I not stop thinking about? Whatever they are, that's what I need to explore through writing. In the case of Optimized, the questions that really got me going were: Why are we so obsessed with winning and with categorizing people and institutions into winners and losers? How far zombie would a person be willing to go (or might a parent push them to go) to get into the college of his or her choice?

How does your writing process work?
Writing is hard. Revising is fun. With that in mind, I try to be very disciplined. 1000 words a day, five days a week: That is my goal. I start by re-reading/editing the work I did the day before. That tends to get my juices going. Then I plod along and I write those 1000 words, no matter how horrible they are--and they are usually horrible. When I'm about half way done with a draft I will usually go back to the beginning and make a lot changes because by then I'll have a better sense of what needs to happen or what kind of actions or way of speaking is authentic for a character. Then, after I do that, I plod through the second half. Then I revise the whole thing, which I enjoy. Then I get people to read it. Then I revise. I do that until I'm sick of the thing and can do it no longer.

Okay. Your turn. I'd love to hear all about your writing process, either in the comments or on your blog. Go!

PS: The photo is of my lovely workstation. It's looking pretty organized--that's should be your first clue that I am in a worrisome neurotic stage!


On Vaccines and Choices and Lesser Lives

My big girl had a wee bit of a meltdown on Saturday. You may have heard that a growing number of parents are refusing to vaccinate their children. The LA Times had a big story about the growing number of unvaccinated kindergardeners last week. You can find that story here. My girl heard me talking about the article with my younger daughter. She heard my younger daughter ask me why parents didn't want to vaccinate their kids, and then she heard me say, "Some people think vaccinations can cause things like autism."

And that was when the meltdown started. Actually, the meltdown didn't start right away, because at first she had to really think about it, she had to put all the puzzle pieces together. It was a while before I heard her crying in her room. It was a funny kind of crying, part grief, part heartbreak, part anger. She said to me, "What's wrong with those people? They would rather risk their child dying of some horrible illness than have a child like me, someone with autism."

Ah. There it was. And she was right. In all the debate over vaccinations, the unspoken truth is the one she recognized right away, and that most of us read right past. There are people who would risk their children getting something like polio or measles--illnesses that once routinely wiped out entire families--than have a daughter like mine, a daughter who is disabled.

Now, as the parent of a disabled child I can tell you right now that I would rather have a child without a disability too--so don't think I'm getting all judgey on you. I'm not. I'm just asking you to think about a truth that is veiled for most of us, unless, of course, it is a truth that is faced directly by you and you see it for what it is: a statement about what our society likes its humans to look and act like.

When my girl said all this to me, I said, "I can see why that would feel hurtful to you. But remember too, Autism is a spectrum. You are very articulate. You are in community college. But some people on the Spectrum never even talk. All most parents really want to know is that they can die and their kids will be okay. Some parents never know that. It is very hard."

"But even if they can't talk they are not less," she said. "They are just as good as anyone."

And this, too, is true. Is my daughter less because she has autism or epilepsy or learning disabilities? Is she less because she is not at Stanford? Will she be less if she cannot succeed in community college? What if she can never hold a job? What if she can never live independently? Will she be less then?

You're probably thinking, no, of course not. So would you want her as your daughter?

You can say no. I won't blame you. I know how profoundly hard it is to live with a person with special needs. These are not philosophical questions for me. This is my real life. And it is hard. I know that as much as I think my daughter is as fully whole as anyone else, that I live in a world where she will not be treated as whole, where she will have fewer opportunities, where her challenges will often make other people's lives more inconvenient. Not everyone will want to work with her. Not everyone will feel like she can pull her weight. And that that is a very difficult thing to contemplate as I get older and worry about what will become of her.

But think it through. Think it all the way through, the way she did. If you do not want a daughter like mine, if you would rather risk your child getting a deadly illness (and unless you are ready to deny history you must admit they are deadly) then aren't you playing a sort of eugenics game? Aren't you saying I am really only interested in this baby as long as it doesn't have a disability that  I believe might be caused my this vaccine. I would rather have my baby die than suffer through the parenting of someone with this disability or than see them suffer through that disability.

Hey! You can say yes! I won't judge you. Because parenting a special needs kid is not for the feint of heart (and believe me I am totally the feint of heart so I know).

But maybe what we really need to do is worry less about whether a vaccine might cause autism and more about how we can build the networks we all need when the myths of perfection or independence begin to unravel, as they will for all of us. For we are all of us imperfect and we are all of us dependent, and if we could see that our humanity lies in those imperfections and those dependencies then maybe we would see that we are all of us whole and good enough and that none of us is
less and that, because of that, we will always have someone's back and someone will always have ours.


Advice for College Freshman

Dear College Freshman:

I know you have been offered a lot of unsolicited advice lately, and I know you are probably sick of it. But I have some for you anyway. I have been teaching college students for many years. I stand across a podium from you everyday. I grade your work. I know what I am talking about.

Here are my top tips for college success:

1. Come to my office hours. Visiting office hours is the number one predictor of student success. I read that somewhere. I don't remember where, so I don't know if that is actually true but it should be. It is very hard to give an unwelcome grade to someone you know is doing everything possible to be successful, and if you come to my office hours regularly (not just once or twice, but maybe every few weeks) I know that you are trying to be successful. You might be thinking: "But I never know what to say." Here is what you say: "How can I do better in your class?" or "Will you look at my rough draft?" or "Can we talk about the reading?"

2. Sit in the front of the classroom. You know what I think when I see you sitting in the back of class? I think: Why do you want so much distance between us? What are you feeling insecure about? Hmmm. Should I be feeling insecure about you too? You know what I think when you sit in the front of the class? I think: Wow. You are ready to learn. I bet you are really smart and will do well in this class. You know what else? If you are in the very front row, I will hardly ever look at you. My gaze falls on the middle of the classroom. So you get bonus points for your engagement but you will hardly ever be called on--unless you want to be called on.

3. Do the reading. Most professors take it for granted that you will never do the reading. So, if you do the reading and then say something specifically about the reading or if you (even better!) specifically reference a part of the reading in your paper or your midterm I will think, "Oh my God! She did the reading! I adore her!" It is always good if I adore you. I will have a very hard time giving you an unwelcome grade if I adore you.

4. Buy one of those cute little staplers. You know what I hate? I hate it when students turn in papers that are not attached in any way, or, worse, struck together through some sort of complicated folded and/or tearing/origami technique. I am like you! I am usually only sort-of organized. If your paper is not stapled I worry I will lose parts of it, and if it is typed then I will definitely get it confused with someone else who also printed in Times New Roman 11. Don't get me in a bad mood before I've even started looking at your work. Remember: It's best when I adore you.

5. Don't skip class and tell me that your grandma died. Let me tell you, people: college is a dangerous time for the grandmothers of college students! They die ALL THE TIME! Every quarter students say that they had to miss class because their grandma died. So first off, call your grandma and tell her how much you love her. These next sixteen weeks are going to be dicey for her! Know this: I don't want to know why you missed class, and I definitely don't want a suspect story like your grandma died. If you have to miss class just say something important came up or you had a family emergency. That's all I need--or want--to know. And then tell me that you have already contacted your classmate to get the notes or whatever. (Soon after I wrote this yesterday I read an essay by Roxanne Gay in Bad Feminist that noted the same thing. So, really, I'm not sure why the NIH hasn't been called in on this already. Call your grandma!)

6. Don't miss class and then ask me if you missed something important. I am just enough full of myself to think that every thing I teach or say is important. And definitely don't ask me what the homework is. It is on your schedule. You know that!

7. A word about email. I am more like your boss than your friend. So use your grown up words when you write to me. Spell things out. When referring to yourself, use a capital I. And don't expect me to get back to you instantly. I have a life. It may be a sad, little life but it is mine and I don't want to spend all my time answering emails, especially if you could have easily found what you need in the syllabus. Don't vex me, people. It is never helpful for either of us.

8. Turn off your phone. There are many reasons why this is important, but here is the one I want you to remember: You staring down at your crotch, smiling, and fidgeting with your hands is not a good look for you.

9. Join a club, especially if you are at a big, public school. There is some evidence that working-class students in particular have a harder time turning their college degrees into career opportunities because they have fewer connections than their more prosperous peers--even peers with much more mediocre grades. Clubs--especially those that connect you with alumni--help you make connections and they also help you feel connected to your campus and classmates. I would say it is better to be a good student who is leading an interesting life than a stellar student who has nothing else going on.

10. Go to your writing center. Students tend to think writing centers are for people who can't write well when they are simply for people who write. You are a student. You write. I would never send my work to an
editor or agent if I didn't have my colleagues look at it first. When you go to your writing center you are not acting like an unconfident loser. You are acting like a professional. That is the image you want to go for.


Busy, busy, busy

Busy, busy, busy. And no writing done at all for at least a month. I'm starting to feel unsettled by it actually. You may not know this, but writing can be a sort of addiction, which if you think about it makes sense. Why else would anyone write? It's not good for your physical  health (too much sitting), It's not good for your mental health (too much time sitting alone), not good for your pocketbook (you hardly ever make any money), and you feel compelled to do it anyway. Like me. I haven't written for a month and I'm getting all antsy and nervous and pouty. But what's a girl to do? My sweet younger teen doesn't start school until Tuesday and I'm driving my sweet older teen all over the place. (She can't drive because of those pesky seizures.)

But don't you worry none about me. I have a nice loaf of zucchini-chocolate chip bread that I  have been stuffing in my gullet.

I have my adorable Scout to keep my company.

I have pretty sunflowers in my backyard.

And I've discovered this magical thing!

Plus, I think I'll squeeze in about an hour and half of writing today. That will make me happy.

Hope all is well. What have you all been up to?