Wednesday, December 19, 2007

The Story of Stuff

If (like me) sustainability and consumerism have been on your mind lately, you simply must watch this video: The Story of Stuff.

Press release!!

In the tradition of Tuesdays with Morrie, this is the inspirational story of how one man learned life's greatest lessons in the face of incredible hardship.

and other life lessons learned in Siberia

Andrew Bienkowski & Mary Akers

Published by Allen & Unwin on 7 March 2008
No article or review should appear before this date without prior permission
RRP: $22.95 * Format: Paperback * ISBN: 9781741754223

Andrew Bienkowski was five when, exiled with his immediate family, he watched his grandfather starve to death so they could survive.

Reminiscent of Viktor Frankel's great classic, Man's Search for Meaning, this extraordinary book melds the unfolding story of survival against the odds with the practical wisdom 5-year-old Andrew gained while coming to terms with his new home; with its dramatic landscape and endless challenges. In amongst the pain are moments of great beauty, breathtaking northern lights, the appearance of the first butterfly after the long months of winter, the unexpected kindness of strangers who risked everything to be kind. It was these experiences that inspired Andrew to become a psychotherapist, and to devote his life to helping others.

As Churchill famously said, "We make a living by what we get. We make a life by what we give."

Each chapter details powerful ways to achieve this with such concepts as radical gratitude (learning to be grateful even for the difficult experiences in life); who we can and cannot help; genuine being with others in need, and the remarkable changes that we can experience when we do.

Andrew Bienkowski
has spent more than 40 years as a clinical therapist. After Siberia, the family spent a year in an Iranian refugee camp where Andrew nearly died from dysentery, malaria and malnutrition. Three years in Palestine and a year in England followed before he finally immigrated to America. There, he went on to earn a Masters in Clinical Psychology and to become a psychotherapist.

Mary Akers' work has appeared in literary journals, many related to health and healing. Her story, Wild, Wild Horses was a Notable Story of 2004, and she has been a three-time Bread Loaf work-study recipient.

For further information or to arrange an interview, please contact:
Kelly Doust * Publicity Manager * Allen & Unwin Book Publishers
Tel: 02 8425 0137 Email:
Download 300dpi cover images from the Allen & Unwin website.

Friday, December 14, 2007

Hair and mushrooms...

...used to clean up oily beaches in an environmentally friendly way. Amazing!'s off!!

The book went to the printer Friday (Australia time, which was last night my time). Whoo hoo!! The design team decided to do a glossy overlay for the cover, too; it will have the matte picture of snow and reflected trees, and then that image will be covered with a gloss that has an embedded snowflake pattern that can only be seen at certain angles. Should be amazing.

I can honestly say that I haven't got a single reservation about this book. The editor and publisher have been amazing to work with and they kept me involved and updated every step of the way. I am surely spoiled for any future editor and publisher. :)

Friday, December 07, 2007

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

THE UNDERSTORY by Pamela Erens

Jack Gorse is a complicated man. The particularity of his nature is revealed in the book’s opening paragraph as he describes an episode of curdled cream in his self-serve coffee—an episode that led him forever after to drink his coffee black and obsessively double check each time he fills his cup.

We soon learn that he is also facing eviction from a rent-controlled apartment in New York City, an apartment he has illegally inhabited for years following the death of a similarly named uncle. The slow, cold war of attrition that ensues leaves Jack the only remaining tenant, and the architect hired to oversee the project his only human contact.

The ever unfolding layers of Jack’s personality reveal a man both intelligent and oddly na├»ve, shy and slyly voyeuristic, cunning and emotionally guileless. He is a fascinating man. He is also a quiet man, but even though this story is a first-person narrative, I would hesitate to label it a quiet book. The Understory crackles with the energy of compulsion and unrequited obsession that is slowly and meticulously revealed in a way that could be called meditative (for its gradually deepening understanding), except for the fact that Jack fails miserably at meditation. No, the true genius in the storytelling here is that Jack reveals his deepest self, without actually revealing his deepest self. He simply recounts, while we see what he cannot.

In fact, it’s this continual dichotomous tendency that serves up the book’s delicious tension. Gorse is beset by a stubborn ennui that plays against a dramatic narrative backdrop of eviction notices, narrowly escaped fires, and a culminating scene of violence that is as sudden and unexpected as it is dramatically right.

The Understory is a book that relentlessly and incrementally pulls you forward on intelligent tenterhooks till you slap against a conclusion that resonates long after the turning of the final page.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

More amazing news!!

And, I've learned that a good friend and great writer, Jim Tomlinson, has just been awarded an NEA Fellowship for 2008!!! The news today keeps getting better and better!!!

Here's the list of prose fellowships, FYI.

Congratulations, Jim!!!

Congratulations to Laura van den Berg

Laura has just been announced as the winner of the 2007 Dzanc Prize! You can read more about this at Katrina Denza's blog. Laura is a great writer and a fine human being--what excellent news!

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Monday, November 05, 2007

Parrot fish the key to reef survival?

There's an interesting article in the journal Nature that talks about how important parrot fish are to the health of a reef (they dine on the algae that can kill reefs) and why they should be placed on the protected species list. A summary can be read here: BBC News.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Most of us have heard by now about mercury in tuna, but there is another reason to eat tuna in moderation: declining fish stocks (primarily from overfishing) that could lead to extinction. You can read about it in this BBC article.

Friday, October 12, 2007

More thrilling news!

I have a cover design! The non-fiction book that I've written with my co-author, Andrew Bienkowski, is due out in March, and the editors and design team have come up with a fantastic design! I couldn't be happier.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Thrilling News!

My dear friend Paul Yoon just had his short story collection "Once the Shore" accepted for publication by none other than the elegant and classy Sarabande Books!!! Paul is such a wonderful, hard working writer, and such a genuinely nice guy. It seems like a marriage made in heaven--I couldn't be more thrilled!

Friday, September 07, 2007

Jim Ruland discusses the making of Big Lonesome

It's the second anniversary of Big Lonesome's publication, and Jim Ruland is blogging about the origins of his stories and other interesting tidbits. You can check it out here.

Friday, July 20, 2007

Happy birthday, Paula!!

Today is my bestest best friend's birthday. My BFF, as my teenaged daughters might say. But she really is. Paula is one of those friends you can go three months without talking to, and when you do reconnect, you just pick up where you left off as if not a day had passed.

Paula and I met in sixth grade. We went to different schools, but our two elementary bands came together for concerts twice a year and Paula and I were the tall, skinny blonde flutes (with a crush on the drummer) who wore big plastic glasses and had long straight hair. Somehow we sensed an affinity even then.

When we got to be eighth graders, we started playing in the Junior Band in the high school and sat beside each other every day. Together we thought up Fantasia-like images to go with the music we played and occasionally I would draw them to make them real. She gave me a nickname--I'd always wanted a nickname--Mur. I was her first friend ever to have a step-parent. I was probably also her first friend ever to live in such modest, modest means.

When I turned 15, my stepfather took a job as groundskeeper at the local country club and we moved into an empty hundred-year-old farmhouse on the ninth fairway (after moving out all the bales of hay and bags of fertilizer) that was only about 100 yards from the green. Golfers frequently "played through" my flower beds and occasionally my parents' bedroom. Paula's mom worked at the clubhouse (was it Wednesdays?) and she came with her most days. Summers found us crashed poolside. Summer evenings we would prowl the empty course and clubhouse and see what telling abandoned objects we could discover, what vending machines we could get to dispense, and then tell our secrets sitting on the diving board, swinging our legs and staring into the deep end. Two large trees on the practice range became our respective "houses" and we would call each other on our twig phones and talk about our fabulous husbands and children (twins, of course, a girl and a boy). Did we have jobs in our imaginary futures? I can't remember.

As we got older, we went on double dates, performed in school plays, agonized over boys, shared hotel beds on school trips...and shared secrets. Always. We had slumber parties--oh, how I loved her happy, raucous family--and "shopped" our way through every Sears catalogue that came in the mail, drooling over what we wanted, decrying the "geeky" stuff (gag a maggot!). We both watched helplessly as someone we loved gave in to the lure of alcoholism.

Today, we share parenting joys and trials, a love of good, wholesome food, strong and meaningful (but hard-won) relationships with our respective spouses, and absolute devotion to family and friends. Paula is my bosom buddy, my bestest, best, and if I could say one thing to Paula today (actually, I've already called her and talked for an hour and a half, but you know) I would say this: "Honey, you...are my shining star--don't you go away." ;)

I love you, PaJane!

Wednesday, July 18, 2007


In June of this year, Press 53 released Curtis Smith's most recent short story collection titled The Species Crown. Smith is also the author of the novel An Unadorned Life and two previous short story collections, Placing Ourselves Among the Living and In the Jukebox Light. This was my first chance to read a book of his, but it will not be the last one I read. I so enjoyed this collection.

Some of the stories in The Species Crown are lighthearted, always a nice touch in short story collections, which can tend to be a bit on the dark side. One of my favorite stories was "My Totally Awesome Funeral" first published in Hobart. Although written in the first person, there's a wonderful twist of an implied directive, the storyteller directing the reader to celebrate his passing--when the time comes. Here's a sample: "Drink another just because you can. After my wife and son have gone to bed, let the hardcore partiers hijack me for one last ride--shotgun!--and no matter the season, roll down the window and let the wind lash my hair." It manages to be a raucous celebration of death that makes the reader smile. How often can you say that about a short story?

Another story I especially liked was "The Real, True-Life Story of Godzilla!." It's a third-person tale of Billy Glenn, a washed up semi-pro basketball player who gets conscripted to join a Team America style group that will play throughout Japan. When that ship runs aground, Billy--because of his height--finds work playing Godzilla in grade B films. He finds love, then loses it unexpectedly and ends up spending his days searching through the eyeholes of his Godzilla costume, looking for lost love.

My very favorite story--I'm certain of it--was "Vacation in Ten Parts." The descriptions put me right smack in the middle of a floundering marriage desperately attempting to find its footing in the shifting sands of the Caribbean. The supporting cast of characters all ring true as fellow desperados on a flight to or from somewhere--no one is quite certain. The second-person lyricism throws it all in high relief: "Study your wife through the fine scrim of mosquito netting. Peaceful, her slumber, her legs tangled in crisp, white sheets, the cotton ripe with the ocean's briny scent."

This collection is so rich and varied, so skilled in the many different voices, locales, and points-of-view, that I was sad when I reached the end--always the sign of a great read.

Saturday, July 07, 2007

Ron Currie Jr.

If you read one review for my friend Ron Currie's just released book God is Dead, read this one. It's an excellent, insightful review and the reviewer clearly "got" the book. Go Ron!

No Reason Not To

I have a newly published story up at the lovely e-zine Southern Hum!

Sunday, June 03, 2007

St. Thomas, UVI

I am in St. Thomas for a coral reef conference that begins tomorrow. I love the Caribbean, but I've never been to any of the US Virgin Islands before. It's like being in the Caribbean with none of the non-US hassles. US currency, US's such a lovely place and the people have been very welcoming and kind.

I'm struck by the fact that the Caribbean has become more of a melting pot than the US. I've met Austrians, Dominicans, Antiguans, Egyptians, all making their homes in St. Thomas. This morning I went out to gather supplies for the next few busy conference days, snacks, drinks and fruit to keep us going for the week. (The director of ITME is also here--together we are representing the school--he's presenting later in the week.) I'm actually really thrilled to be here and looking forward to the many informative talks scheduled. I'm going to take notes for my fiction, which is frequently about marine-related subjects, or set in a marine environment.

I've decided that this will be the niche that I pursue in writing--marine ecology fiction. The Rick Bass of the oceans, that's what I'd like to be.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Radical Gratitude and Other Life-changing Lessons from Siberia

My first book (and my co-author's first book, too) has been sold! And it goes to Allen and Unwin in Australia. I am so thrilled. The editor is a dream to work with and the writing is going really well. You can read a bit about the book at my agency's website: Blake Friedmann.

Here is a link for viewing my charming and lovely agent Isobel Dixon.

And my good friend and co-author, Andrew Bienkowski, has his page here.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Topsy the Elephant

Stephan Clark has an excellent new short-short up at LA Weekly. You can read it here. And you should.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Ray's Road Review

A new ezine has launched, Ray's Road Review and I am thrilled to have a story in the inaugural issue alongside Cliff Garstang, Sandra Novak and Carl Moore! (And poetry by Beebe Barksdale-Bruner.)

Friday, May 11, 2007

LOTTERY by Patricia Wood

Perry L. Crandall would like you to know that he is not retarded. Retarded would be 75 on an IQ test, and he is 76. Besides, Perry takes care not only of himself, but also of his Gran, a crusty, no-nonsense woman who loves him for who he is and lets him shine his light through his own accomplishments. (She tells him the L in his name stands for Lucky.)

Perry describes his life in simple and succinct sentences that manage to be full of wonder and surprise. As he speaks, we see all too clearly the many ways in which his nuclear family has failed him, but Perry never sees it that way. His glass is always half full. Shoot, his glass is three-quarters full--it only looks half-full to those of us too blind to see things the Perry Crandall way. And it's this innocence and optimism that makes his family betrayals all the more heartbreaking to the reader. We want to crawl into the book and protect Perry from the vultures, especially when he faces the biggest tragedy of his life.

But Perry insists he doesn't need protecting, and he proceeds to prove it us and to the three remaining people who care the most about him: Gary, the owner of Holsted's Marine Supply who has employed Perry since he was sixteen years old; Keith, Perry's heavy, flatulent, potty-mouthed co-worker; and Cherry a young, tattooed and pierced cashier at the local Marina Handy Mart.

When Perry wins the Washington state lottery we learn just who his real friends (and real family) are. His mostly estranged cousin-brothers come knocking, strangers arrive on his doorstep...and we hope--oh how we hope--that Perry can learn to distinguish the friends from the leeches.

There is so much to love about this big-hearted first novel. The characters are rich and real and alive. Perry's voice is fresh, authentic, consistent, and homespun-philosopher-wise...and then, there's the ending. Oh, the ending! The ending is so unexpectedly perfect and poignant and satisfying. I keep trying not to write, "Keep a box of tissues handy," but, well, keep a box of tissues handy. You'll need them. But--to use another cliche--you'll be smiling through your tears.

Whale DNA proves illegal "bycatch"

New Scientist has published an article about how DNA technology is being used to establish the number of Minke whales being taken illegally in North Korean waters.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

PEN World Voices

Mark Sarvas over at The Elegant Variation has a wonderful wrap-up of PEN's World Voices conference, including panel summaries, videos of readings, photos and lectures.

Friday, April 06, 2007

THE LINE PAINTER by Claire Cameron

Carrie, the protagonist of Claire Cameron's debut novel The Line Painter, is consumed by grief after the sudden death of her boyfriend Bill. She takes off in Bill's car, headed, she decides, for the western reaches of Canada. Friends and family, worried--both about her state-of-mind and for her safety--call repeatedly on her cell phone, leaving messages that give us, as readers, insight into Carrie's plight and hint at a darker reason for Carrie's sudden departure.

In a remote area, north of Lake Superior, Carrie's car breaks down in the middle of the night. She hasn't passed another car for hours, her friends and family have no idea where she is, her cell phone can't find service, and most immediately pressing of all, she has an overfull bladder. Universal law dictates that as soon as she squats, headlights appear. But--no ordinary headlights--these belong to the truck of a line painter. In the remotest regions of Canada, Frank works the night shift, alone, tranforming dingy grey road lines into bright white reflective ones, with the help of millions of tiny glass beads suspended in the paint. He offers Carrie a (very slow) ride into the nearest town.

Carrie, we soon realize, is an enigmatic character: she takes up smoking again, because it seems like the thing to do; she tells us she tried, earnestly, to make herself "grow up" by moving in with her boyfriend, wearing suits, and playing house; and she alternates between extreme naivete and a heavy world-weariness. At times, Carrie's inability to distinguish real danger from imagined, her impulsive attempts to establish control over the situation, and her refusal to face her problems are a source of readerly frustration. But as the story unfolds, her doubts and anxieties begin to make perfect sense. By the end of the book, I was captivated by Carrie's experiences and by her heart, which was larger than I ever expected. The layers of guilt, regret, grief and loss that emerge in the last third of the book expose the beating heart of this unusual story.

At it's core, I believe that The Line Painter is a high concept novel. Like Life of Pi, or The Alchemist, Cameron's novel covers a physical journey--a journey with strange, fantastical elements--that leads the protagonist to a life-changing epiphany. If Life of Pi's high-concept hook is, "Boy crosses the ocean in a lifeboat with a tiger," The Line Painter's hook could be, "Stranded woman gets picked up by a line painter, embarking on a road trip of terror--and ultimately of forgiveness."

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

COMES THE PEACE: My Journey to Forgiveness by Daja Wangchuk Meston

Daja Wangchuk Meston begins his memoir dramatically with a desperate leap from a third story hotel window in a remote area of Tibet. It's a quick glimpse at a man pushed beyond his limits, unsure of his place in the world, and desperate beyond sense. When he jumped, he fully expected to die.

That was in 1999, and the author had been in the custody of Chinese authorities, suffering long days of interrogation with no sleep, accused of crimes against the People's Republic of China for his work on behalf of Tibetan rights.

The memoir then leaves behind that awful, desperate step--a step that shattered his heels and his life (both of which would take years to mend)--and takes us back in time to his first steps as a toddler on the Greek island of Corfu. Daja was born to hippie parents (Feather and Larry Greeneye) who hoped to leave behind the commercialism of their own American upbringing. When he was one, his parents travelled to India on a whim, and then on to Nepal to attend a Buddhist retreat. It was there, in the mountains of Nepal, that the author's father suffered a debilitating attack of paranoid schizophrenia and disappeared, only to emerge from the woods a week later, disheveled and incoherent. He was sent back to the states (alone) and did not see his son again until decades later.

When Daja was three years old, his mother inexplicably delivered him to a local family (Tibetan nobles, living in Nepal) to raise. For three years he believed they were his real family--until they sent him, alone, at the ripe old age of six, to a Buddhist monastery to take the vows of a monk.

A number of privileged Americans have gone (by choice) to monastic retreats, seeking solitude, respite, and peace. This might lead the innocent reader to assume that Daja's upbringing took place in a peaceful, idyllic setting. The truth is, his childhood was far from idyllic. Thanks in part to his pale skin and blond hair, Daja was treated as an outcast both by his peers and adult monks alike. And the indignities he suffered over the next ten years were Dickensian in scope: sleep deprivation, forced labor, lice infestations, constant hunger, humiliation, beatings, dysentery, alienation and isolation.

He was further emotionally orphaned by a mother who chose, herself, to join the (different) monastic life of a Buddhist nun, shaving her head, wearing robes, and leaving the secular world behind (to include the responsibilities of parenthood).

At its core, this is the heartbreaking story of a lost childhood. It is the tale of one man's lifelong search for identity, belonging, and the welcoming arms of family. And it is difficult to read this book and fathom what the young author endured without feeling angry on his behalf. But the adult Meston refuses to stay in a place of anger and self-pity, searching instead for a path toward understanding and forgiveness. Fortunately for all of us, the redemptive ending brings us full-circle, and--as the title implies--comes back around to peace.

Thursday, March 15, 2007


While in Arizona, we visited the site of an ancient pueblo that was a thriving community about 1,000 years ago. One of the most amazing sights at the pueblo was the ancient petroglyphs. They moved me--inexplicably--the way the sight of a breaching whale moves me. They expanded my consciousness and the sense of my place in the world.

I can relate to the human desire to leave a mark. Isn't that why I write, after all? To leave something behind that another human might see and relate to? 1,000 years ago I'd have been right there scratching my heart out in the dark rock. Today I scratch my heart out onto my keyboard, but the basic urge is the same.

Of course, as we were leaving, Len and I had to conjure up an alternate scenario, as we often do. We recreated an adoloscent indian coming home with rock dust on his arms and his mother asking suspiciously, "Where have you been, young man? Defacing public property again?? What have I told you about that? What will the neighbors and those crazy scratching of yours. We have to live here, you know..."

Thursday, March 08, 2007

Hiking Kendricks Mountain

The day after hiking Bill Williams Mountain, the weatherman promised it would be sunny and clear, 50 degrees and warm with no wind. It was the perfect day to tackle the second highest peak in the area: Kendricks Mountain.

In 2000, lightning ignited a devastating fire on the mountain that burned over the course of several months. The blackened, armless poles all over the ground and reaching into the sky were a tragic reminder of the violence of nature, but in an ironic twist, the lack of trees made for spectacular views. At the base of the mountain, there was almost no snow, but the higher we hiked, the more snow we encountered. At the open area just below the summit, the snow reached its deepest point--about five feet--as could be confirmed by the sign for the trailhead barely peeking out above the snow.

Hiking Kendricks Mountain, Part II

The cabin at the lower summit was used for years by a Ranger who lived there in the summer and kept a horse in a nearby cleared pasture. Every day he rode to the upper summit to spot for forest fires. How's that for an unusual job? The cabin was very small inside--not much bigger than my bathroom at home--and I opted to leave my pack there for the final assault to the upper summit which meant a half-a-mile climb up a 60 degree grade, through five+ feet of snow.

We were so tired by this time, having already hiked for five hours through treacherous, ever changing conditions, but we could see the summit and wanted it in the worst way, so we made the decision to go for it. (The last person to make the hike hadn't. We could tell because his tracks ended at the cabin. But clearly, he hadn't had snow shoes, and what had we lugged them all this way for, if not to make that ultimate peak? So we set out. And we made it.

The day was so clear and warm and beautiful! Such a change from the previous day at Bill Williams Mountain (which we could see in the distance)!Shoot, we could see all the way to the Grand Canyon from up there. It was amazing and gorgeous and breathtaking (and at 10,000 feet, breathtaking has a literal meaning, too). But since it was already 2PM, and we had a long trek down still ahead of us--and the promise of even more slippery slopes as the giant, diagonal drifts across the trail began to melt and give way--we took our pictures, savored our accomplish- ment, and began the long trek down. Just to give you a bit of perspective, that long snowy open area you see in the picture is just the trail to the cabin...there were still five hours down the mountainside to go before we reached the trailhead and our vehicle.

Tuesday, March 06, 2007


Kelly Spitzer kicked off her Writer Profile Project with Yours Truly. And you can read the interview here. Thanks Kelly!

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Climbing Bill Williams Mountain

On the second day of our trip, we set out to hike Bill Williams Mountain. We were rested, well fed, happy to be away from cell phones and laptops, and generally psyched to get physical. In our pre-trip Internet research, this hike was billed as a moderate 2.75 mile hike. Cool, we thought. A few hours, we thought. Take it easy on the first day, we thought.

Well, we've hiked many trails and many mountains over the years, and this hike was not 2.75 miles. It was closer to four, which meant eight, round trip. Not so big of a deal if we had known, but there's a psychological element to hiking that is very important. I tell myself, "I'm almost there," based on the knowledge given, and I speed up and muscle to the top, exhilarated. I love that feeling of getting to the summit, sweaty and conquering. But if that last half-a-mile turns into two additional miles at a steep grade, well, let's just say I get a little cranky. The deep snow didn't help. As we neared the summit, the drifts were three feet deep in some places. And in Arizona (go figure!) they don't blaze the trails. So here's the thing: You pour a buttload of snow all over a mountaintop, and any trail pretty much vanishes.

Thankfully, some intrepid soul had been on this trail perhaps a week before and there were remnants of tracks to follow. Without those, we'd still be wandering around looking for the trail. Unfortunately, when we reached the 9,000 foot summit, we were in the midst of a snow squall. It made for cool conditions, to say the least, and almost zero visibility. But we took some lovely shots of trees against the sky. (Yes, it's blue above the trees--the snow clouds were around and below us, but not above.)

At the top, we broke out the stove we had rented from a Flagstaff outdoor store, hoping to make some hot drinks to fortify us for the trip down. (We have our own trusty equipment but you really can't fly with fuel canisters in your bag.) Unfortunately, we discovered that the store had sold us the wrong canister. It didn't fit the stove! (Yes, we should have checked.) More utter crankiness, especially from Len who really enjoys cooking in the cold. (And good thing we'd packed water instead of relying on melting snow!) So, we put away the stove and chewed our half-frozen Cliff very dark chocolate was like dusty pebbles, it was so cold. It didn't even melt in my mouth! I finally just swallowed the pebbles.

Then we left the summit, which wasn't all that fabulous, given that the view was clouds--oh, and six million dollars worth of communications equipment--towers, dishes, buildings--marring the summit. For the first part of the descent, I donned my snowshoes. I should have had them on before--my feet were wet and cold from slogging through the snow--but again, I kept thinking we were almost there...Anyway, at the bottom, it was like a different day. The sun was out, the snow was melted, and it was almost 50 degrees, and I was happy. I love mountains. And I love being done.

The Petrified Forest

I've wanted to visit the petrified forest for as long as I can remember. My grandfather kept a chunk of petrified wood on his desk until he died, and my grandmother kept it there afterwards. To give that some context, these were people who travelled all over the world, lived in India, Ethiopia, climbed the pyramids, rowed their VW bug across the Nile on a raft of sticks. They had seen many, many corners of the world, but the petrified forest always fascinated them, and so it fascinated me.

I always pictured the petrified forest as something that stood tall, perhaps like the great redwoods, frozen for eternity, but it's not that way at all. The trees date back to the triassic era, the time of Pangea, when all the continents were one large landmass. At that time, Arizona was actually a tropical swamp with 200 foot trees and alligator-like creatures. Those mammoth trees fell to the ground and were carried downstream until they reached a large open area where they came to rest and, instead of rotting, began to absorb mineral-rich water, flavored with volcanic ash. .
The trees were trapped under layers of sediment and hidden for millions of years. As North America shifted away from the other continents, her climate began to change and Arizona dried up. Over millennia, torrential desert rains eroded the sediments and the layers of volcanic ash, revealing the now-petrified trunks. As the ground beneath them washed away, the trees rolled down the sides of the crumbling mountains.

The area is both beautiful to look at and awe inspiring to contemplate. That such amazing and varied natural forces combined over millions of years to make a common thing, whose properties we have always taken for granted (i.e. wood is a relatively soft, saw-down-able thing), and turn that knowledge on its head...that wood could bejewel itself into stunning blues, oranges, purples, silvers and yellows...that these treasures could wait patiently for millions of years to make their debut...

Well, I find it all very mind-numbing. But I do have this illogical tendency toward mysticism where nature is concerned. And I am very much a "green" advocate...but something about seeing the grand scale of climate change that has always affected our planet was reassuring. The earth is a closed system--a giant organism, if you will, and I do believe that if we give her just a bit more help in terms of greenhouse gasses, pollution, etc, she will adapt. And humans will survive--or not--but Mother Earth will survive and continue her mysterious ways, regardless.

Monday, February 26, 2007


It took me several weeks to finish Al Sim's most recent collection--Stories in the Old Style--but before you conclude that I didn't enjoy it, let me explain.

I, too, wondered why I had taken so long to finish reading these stories that--if asked casually, "Did you like them?"--I would have unequivocally said were wonderful. And so I sat down, post-read, to critically examine both the individual stories and the collection as a whole, both of which I concluded "worked" in the mysterious and illogical way of good fiction. In revisiting them, though, I realized how deliciously self-contained each story is--so complete within itself, that I needed to sit with the just-finished story a while, before moving on to another. I wanted to enjoy the resonance of the last word, and so had trouble immediately opening my reader's heart to the next story in line. "Better to set the book down and think on those perfect final words for a bit"--or so my reader's heart might have said.

But, now...if the brain could just make a logical interjection...

I think that this need-to-stop-reading is actually a testament to the strength of Sim's collection. In fact, during a class on ordering and assembling a story collection, Peter Ho Davies said that a collection should be read in just such a way. He suggested that each story be savored and granted a full stop at the end so that the reader might fully enjoy the final enduring image and keep thinking about the story long after the last words are read.

And now, another country heard from: the stomach.

For some (entirely strange and personal) reason, I often equate a good read to good food. I consume them both, relish them both, and leave both feeling satisfied when the chef or author has done his job well. And in the case of Al Sim's collection, his 18 stories were like a box of fine chocolates. (Yes, I'm aware that Forrest Gump has forever ruined that analogy...) But consider for a moment the fact that one really well made chocolate can be enough to satisfy even the most stubborn sweet tooth. Two-at-a-time can be eaten, yes--with somewhat diminished enjoyment--but three? Well, that definitely feels like overindulgence.

And since you are too polite to ask but nonetheless curious, my very favorite bon-bons were: Two Head Gone, a story of human helplessness in the face of ordinary but devastating loss; The Freedom Pig, in which a runaway slave and his master's pig conspire to reach the promised land; Get the Can, a lovely, lyrical short-short that uses a childhood game of one-up to show that all things are possible; and especially Fetch, an emotionally packed short-short that ripped my heart out and left it bleeding in the snow at the edge of the frozen lake.

No stranger to publication, Sim's stories have previously appeared in such vaunted journals as Glimmer Train, Antietam Review, Crab Creek Review, North Atlantic Review, Fourteen Hills, The Literary Review, Red Cedar Review, and New Millennium Writings. And his choice of title? Well, Sim titled his collection spot-on, in my view, because his stories truly are written in the "old style." They hearken back to such various influences as the surprise endings of O. Henry, the grit and realism of John Steinbeck and the barely contained wildness of Jack London.

As a group, or stand alone, Sim's stories are spare and brutally beautiful.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Sisyphus and the Snow

I've just spent an hour-and-a-half shoveling snow. Now, in general, I like to shovel snow. But today, a few things conspired to make the experience slightly less than wonderful. For starters, I miss my Old Faithful shovel. Its replacement is a mere shadow of the shovel that Old Faithful was before his demise. Also, my neighbor's dog was let out halfway through the job and forgotten by his owner. Said dog quickly determined that I was not a natural part of the snowy landscape and in order to alert everyone in a five-mile radius of that fact, he proceeded to serenade anyone listening (read: me) with a repeating refrain of sonorous Beagle (read: bugle) songs (Arrrr-rooo!!! Arrrr-rooo!!!).

But the snow was lovely and light and as I shoveled--as I am wont to do--I considered the many blessings and curses associated with such a morning's work:

Blessing: I've been wanting to lose some weight, and I figure I burned about a thousand calories today.
Curse: The residual lactic acid buildup from the previous day's 100 crunches and free-weight training.

Blessing: The westerly wind when shoveling to the left.
Curse: The westerly wind when shoveling to the right.

Blessing: My new, short haircut tucked out of the way, safely under my hat.
Curse: My new short haircut after returning inside and removing the hat.

Blessing: The edges of the driveway.
Curse: The middle of the driveway.

Blessing: The snowplow drivers who keep the street cleared of snow.
Curse: The snowplow drivers who deposit a waist-high pile of sludge at the end of the driveway just as I am completing my task.

Blessing: Light, powdery snow when lifting shovelful after shovelful of the stuff.
Curse: Light, powdery snow when throwing it into a prevailing wind.

Blessing: The neighbor who approaches with his snow-thrower chugging away--headed right for my driveway.
Curse: The neighbor who cheerily waves as he chugs past on his way to some other neighbor's driveway.

Curse: Light, blowing snow down the back of my coat.
Blessing: Light, blowing snow down the back of my coat after I've been shoveling for 45 minutes.

Curse: That I will need to see my chiropractor after this.
Blessing: That my chiropractor always throws in a lovely bit of massage with the adjustment.

Curse: The 1,000 pounds of snow that I moved today.
Blessing: That my husband is coming home and the next 1,000 pounds will be his responsibility.

Blessing: We're going on vacation in three days.
Curse: Our main planned activity: snowshoeing.

Tuesday, February 13, 2007


"It seems in every interaction there is something to learn if we can only see ourselves as students. If we can humble ourselves, and allow ourselves to see the world without our own beliefs and dogmas, then we could see so much beauty awaiting us in each moment."

--Sukh Chugh

Friday, February 09, 2007

Bad Haircut

Okay, so I'm not Sampson or anything, nor am I especially vain (most days), but I have a new and hideous haircut and it's killing me.

It was on a whim, yesterday, that I pulled into the grocery store parking lot with my almost 17-year-old daughter who has been having a rough couple of weeks. Ahead of us we saw a sign for SuperCuts and she said, "I've been thinking of getting my hair cut."

"Me, too," I said, "Let's go in."

My hair has been long and boring for a while now, and I thought, what-the-hey, let's shake things up. And I found a great style--short but sexy--and I took it over to the stylist.

"Have you ever had short hair before?" she asked, with a quiver in her voice. That should have been my first sign of dangerous waters ahead, but once I commit to something, I commit all the way (even if the current has picked up to "ripping" and there's a mist hanging over the water ahead).

Gad, she took so long. More than an hour. You would think that taking your time would be a good thing for a haircut. But each section she picked up and measured so carefully, apologizing if one small piece eluded her scissors and then starting the whole laborious process over again. Finally I just wanted her to be done. Once we hit an hour, I didn't even care what it looked like, I just wanted out of the damned chair!

She was nice, but she was tentative, and my hair is all wrong. Nothing at all like the picture. I even kind of know what needs to be done (I'm a pretty good hair cutter myself) but I can't do it to my own hair. It's really a sad, sad sight though. And since my house used to belong to Kim Alexis ('80s supermodel) there's no shortage of mirros around to remind me of my folly.

Ah, at least there's time. Time heals all bad haircuts. In the meantime, it's winter, so hats are in.

Tuesday, February 06, 2007


It is sooo cold in western New York. We are freezing our noonies off. (For those, that is--unlike my cats--who haven't already had them surgically removed.) We are fortunate to have a warm house, reliable vehicles, well-insulated pipes, and plenty of food.

When the wind whistles at my windows, and the edges of the door gather frost, and icicles hang from my eaves so long that they begin to evaporate into weird shapes like ice cubes left too long in the freezer, I think of the homeless with no safe haven to call home. I think of the poor who--even with plastic over their windows and lots of layers and dangerous space heaters--aren't warm enough because their homes are old and leaky and uninsulated, and they are paying through the nose to send a good portion of their heating dollars into the attic and out through the roof.

This morning I am compelled to put a fraction of my good fortune toward those less fortunate. There are many worthy organizations that need assistance, but today I choose The Buffalo City Mission.

Sunday, February 04, 2007

Monday, January 29, 2007

International Climate Change Conference

Visit the site of the International Climate Change Conference held in Martinique last month and learn more about the effects seen in the Caribbean, and ITME's contribution to the research. Click on "Les Contributions" and scroll down to the ITME link (Dr. Sascha C.C. Steiner). If you click on that, you can open a pdf of our slide show from the lecture, complete with photos of bleached and damaged corals in Dominica's waters.

Friday, January 19, 2007

Snow again!

And I still like it.

Shoveling snow is one of those things--like driving the car or showering--that allows me to focus my mind and compose words in my head. It also satisfies some Tetras-like need that I have to line things up and order the universe (preferably with an endless-loop techno-pop score playing through my head). (Of course, one look at the clothes piled on the chair beside my bed or my office desk and you'd be doubled over with laughter at my "order the universe" comment, but humor me here.) There is nothing quite like shoving and sweating for half an hour and then looking back to see a nice neat driveway with a rising pile of snow on either side. Granted it's a little like building a giant sandcastle on the beach or an inmate pounding large rocks into smaller rocks...or washing the dinner dishes...there's a built in Sisyphianness to it, but it's still satisfying to see a cleared driveway and feel I've done my job. And frankly? In these hectic, sandwich-generation days of mine, I'll celebrate that sense of A Job Well Done wherever I can find it.

It's also, conveniently, a fine cardio / pectoral workout. And--since I'm competitive by nature--when I heard my neighbor fire up his snowblower, I made like John Henry, Snow Piling Man, and attempted to prove the superiority of Man over Machine. Unlike Mr. Henry, I didn't collapse dead at the end, but I didn't really win either. (My neighbor loves his snowblower and so he did his driveway, the sidewalk up and down his side of the street, his other neighbor's get the idea.) But I "won" in the small world of my own driveway and that's what matters most. (And, really, it's all about perspective, anyway, right? I mean, to an ant, my driveway is the universe...but that's a story for another time.)

Wednesday, January 17, 2007


I was musing this morning, whilst shoveling my driveway, if the memory of snow is like the memory of pain.

For some reason, over breakfast with my kids, we were talking about the fact that as humans we have a short memory for pain. We may remember, "Oh, that hurt," but we don't really remember the intensity, the constancy, of pain itself. Not the specifics of pain. (Just like once we are well, we forget how truly awful it was to be sick--until we get sick again.) I think it's an evolutionary advantage for the species. I mean, who would ever have more than one child if the memory of pain was persistent?

We concluded that our brains are actually wired to forget the bad stuff in order to keep the organism alive, functioning, and reproducing (without eating the young). This is another reason I believe that people who suffer from certain types of depression really do have a chemical imbalance in the brain--they can't forget the shit--no matter what Tom Cruise thinks it is.

But, anyway, to cycle back to snow...How is it that every year I look forward to it? I live near Buffalo, NY. I see a heck of a lot of snow in an average year. It's not a scarce commodity. In fact, by April, it's the bane of my existence. So why have I been so looking forward to a snowfall (not counting that awful, destructive surprise thing we got in October--on Friday the 13th, no less)?

Is it that I have a short memory for snow? And another thing! By the end of each snow season, I am an expert at shoveling. I know just how to do it in the most efficient, neat, productive way that takes into account such variables as the type and quantity of snow, the surrounding temperature, the extended forecast, the amount already at the edges of the driveway...I am one efficient snow-shoveling machine, come April. And yet, at the start of each season, I am clumsy and awkward, relearning it all. Is there no physical memory stored in the muscles of my body--like riding a bike or roller skating--that I can access on demand?

If it's in there, it doesn't kick in. It's like I have to relearn snow removal each year as the temperature drops and the white stuff falls.

But, I shoveled this morning, enjoying every bit of my clumsy which-shovel-to-use-for-what attempts. I was even happy to see the pile covering the end of my driveway, where the plow passed and dumped a street's worth of salted, chunky stuff.

I know this happiness--this I'm-a-snow-shoveling-beast elation--won't last. But I intend to enjoy every minute of it for as long as it does.

Monday, January 15, 2007


"I believe I found the missing link between animal and civilized man. It is us."

-Konrad Lorenz, ethologist, Nobel laureate (1903-1989)

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A second opinion

My middle daughter was diagnosed with scoliosis three years ago. For two years we simply monitored it every six months because the doctor believed she was nearing the end of her skeletal growth.

Then she shot up five inches (overnight?) and the minor curve grew alarming. A Boston brace was ordered. I cringed in sympathetic embarrassment when the man making a cast of her body stroked the plaster-of-Paris strips tight against her nearly naked adolescent curves. Two weeks later, at the final fitting, the same man walked in holding her brand new torture device. 23 hours a day, seven days a week. He chalked and adjusted, chalked and adjusted, and finally satisfied, pronounced it done. She could get dressed and we could leave.

But odd mother and daughter that we are, we laughed hysterically behind the curtain, instead. When she tried to dress, nothing fit and we hadn't thought to bring clothes a size larger. For five minutes, the absurdity of that awful brace poking out from unzippable pants and a suddenly too-tight shirt superceded the pain of having to start high school being "different" and wretchedly encumbered and so we laughed--laughed until the tears streamed down our faces. I sometimes wonder what the receptionist in the waiting room thought. Do other families laugh at times like this? Or are we the only ones with such absurd coping mechanisms?

But we used it as an excuse to buy new clothes and borrowed a few of her older sister's things, and for six long, hot, summer months she endured that brace, taking it off only to shower and for swim practice and meets (and a few hours in December for a formal dance). She was more faithful to that brace than I can imagine any other teenager being. She cried herself to sleep some nights, but she didn't take it off. She dealt with it. She bounced tennis balls off her stomach to entertain her friends. She urged, "go ahead, punch me in the abs." She made humorous sounds by scrunching her stomach under the brace and creating a vacuum of air. She called it her eight-hundred dollar push-up bra. And if a brace was ever going to work, it was going to work this time because my brave young daughter had been so faithful even though she didn't want to be.

Except it didn't. And her spinal curve progressed six more degrees in six months (from 41 to 48) while wearing that brace that was supposed to correct it. Her orthopedist grimly informed us that she would need spinal fusion surgery to stop it. The x-rays were truly alarming; my stomach dropped when he pulled them up onto the screen. It was clear that something needed to be done. Since the surgery he was suggesting is major and would take her out of school for up to a month, I asked, "Can we wait until summer?" With a grave look, the doctor shook his head and said, "I wouldn't." That look conveyed volumes and so we began preparing for the worst, gathering information, speaking to others who had gone through this drastic surgical correction, and generally girding ourselves for the inevitable.

Part of the process of gathering information involved seeking a second opinion. I liked and trusted her first doctor, but you just do that for something this big. You just do. I had seen those alarming x-rays and I didn't believe that the diagnosis would be different in terms of recommending surgery, but I thought the methods might vary and that any and all information was valuable. So we researched the Shriner's Children's Hospitals and found that they do some of the most cutting edge work in children's orthopedics, with scoliosis at the top of the list. And, they only take you on as a patient if they believe that surgery will help you--plus there is never any charge for procedures that Shriner's doctors do to help children. It's a charitable institution. It's what they do.

Our appointment yesterday was with the Erie, Pennsylvania Shriner's Hospital chief-of-staff (Doctor #2) and he did all new x-rays and measurements. He also asked her a bunch of questions about her scoliosis (not us, although we were in the room--she's 14, so this was a good move on his part). He asked her if she had pain, numbness, bladder problems, etc. Her answers were all nos. Then he asked her why she had come for a second opinion. She faltered and turned to me but I encouraged her to answer. She said, "Because surgery is kind of a big deal and we wanted to be sure."

Then, God bless the doctor, he asked, "How about the appearance? Does that bother you?" (A funny aside: I thought he had asked her if her "parents" bothered her, and I was all ready for her to say, "Duh!") She seemed confused by the question, though; she looked at him for a moment and double-checked. "The appearance?" she asked.

(Let me just say here that this young woman is tall and gorgeous and very self-assured, and frankly couldn't care less if one of her shoulder blades sticks out more than the other, or if her back rises up higher on one side than on the other when she bends forward. From the front you can't even tell--her body has fully "compensated.")

The doctor nodded and said, "Yes, the appearance. Does it bother you?"

She gave him a withering look and said, "No." (Her teenaged disdain for the vanity of the question made me so proud of her at that moment.)

Then the intern brought the x-ray in and put it on the screen and I thought there had been some mistake. I looked at my daughter to see if she was as confused as I was, but she was staring at the x-ray. I would swear that the curve on the screen was much milder than the one we had seen in the other doctor's office. And doctor #2 proceeded to tell her that he didn't think she needed surgery. He said she's almost at the end of her growth (thank goodness, she already looks me in the eye) and she is functioning fine. He said he would only recommend surgery if she was very self-conscious about the appearance, and even if we eventually decided to do surgery for that reason, there was no rush. She's only 14 and if we waited a year it wouldn't make any difference. He said get another x-ray in six months, but he doubts it will have changed. Oh, and he measured her thoracic curve as 46, not 48, and the lumbar (compensating) curve was almost gone.

So...(choirs of angels sing) surgery! We are still going to go back to doctor #1 with the results and the new films, but I doubt we'll do anything before the six month recheck no matter what he says....I keep trying to figure out how this could have happened...Her braces (on her teeth) were clearly visible on this recent x-ray, and neither she nor I remember seeing them on the older x-ray. Could we have been looking at someone else's x-rays in December when we got that bad news...? Or had wearing the brace actually made it worse and now that she's not wearing it it has gotten better? Did all the prayers work a miracle cure? It's really a puzzle, but a happy, happy puzzle. I can't tell you the weight that has been lifted! Doctor #2 basically told her, "Go have a normal life, honey. No restrictions."

And when she asked him what she should do about the brace--keep wearing it or what?--he said, "You're too old for that brace. Take it out behind the house and shoot it."

Since she's recently been taking a gun safety course and learning to shoot skeet, I think we just might do that.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

THE KILLING SEA by Richard Lewis

I finished Richard Lewis's most recent YA novel The Killing Sea in two days. Really one and a half. I purchased it for my son but couldn't wait for him to get through a trilogy he is currently reading and so I picked up The Killing Sea and read it myself. Am I glad I did! It's a wonderful read and a real page turner.

Two protagonists move through the story: Ruslan, a local Indonesian boy who works at a small beachside cafe in the town of Meulaboh; and Sarah, a teenager sailing with her family through the Indonesian islands over the Christmas holiday. The two meet briefly when Sarah's family anchors their sailboat near the cafe, looking for a mechanic to fix their engine. Ruslan (whose mechanic father ultimately fixes the engine) is captivated by Sarah's blue eyes. A budding artist, he returns home later that night and draws her in his sketchbook (against the teachings of a local cleric who deems any image-making to be a form of idolatry). Sarah barely registers Ruslan's existence before stalking off to the sailboat when her mother insists she don a headscarf out of respect for the local culture.

Lewis sensitively and deftly explores the notion of the spoiled American as we see Sarah undergo her own sea change after the tsunami rips her world apart. Both Ruslan and Sarah are left parentless: Ruslan, motherless since birth, cannot find his father after the tsunami; Sarah's parents both disappear beneath the rising waters as they flee their stranded sailboat. She learns the fate of one shortly after the waters recede, the other she cannot find before she must leave to search for a hospital for her younger brother who inhaled seawater and is having difficulty breathing.

Ruslan and Sarah's paths intersect again, post-tsunami, as they struggle to survive against violent rebels, wild animals, contaminated water, blocked roads and mounting hunger. The trials they endure give the two teenagers a strong bond of survivorship that transcends gender, race, and religion. In their journey they are helped by a savvy feline named Surf Cat, a motley group of rebels who are strangely familiar, an unlikely crew of fellow survivors, and a number of cast-off items that are put to inventive good use.

The Killing Sea is a story born of the 2004 tsunami, yes (Lewis volunteered as an aid relief worker in the aftermath, and a portion of the proceeds from his book will go to support local relief organizations), but it is not only about the tragedy. It is also about an unlikely friendship that transcends ethnic and religious boundaries. The Killing Sea is an enduring, timeless story--a story of hope and survival, of human triumph against enormous odds.