Lemony Snicket picked me…

…to be a finalist for the 250-word short story contest by Literary Death Match. Woohoo! Daniel Handler (aka Lemony Snicket) is the judge, and I’m thrilled he has not only read my piece but chosen it as a finalist. I’m honored and excited to be among the top 15* – and a big shout out to Literary Death Match for sponsoring the contest.

*Update: I ended up being one of two runners up in this contest! Yes, I won $100 but the confidence boost that recharged my battery was worth $1M. 

I thought I would print it here for anyone interested in a story squeezed into about four paragraphs. Again, the only requirements were that it had to be 250 words. Enjoy!

Independence Day

Fourth of July, and we are driving to the beach in a slog of traffic. Winnie, next to me, reads a novel on her Ipad. The twins are in the back seat, my daughter plugged into her Kindle and my son steadily swiping his mini Ipad, while I listen to a lecture podcast on my phone with a single earbud.

The podcast ends and in that beat I look over at the blue Toyota idling in the next lane, so close, a stone’s throw away. The driver is a dark-skinned woman with tight curls, large glasses, pudgy arms, and as we sit unmoving I notice her tears; great rivulets are racing down her face.

I finger the tissue that sits in its box between Winnie and I. The woman now looks my way, and our eyes catch. I pull out the tissue, roll down my window, and call out into the exhaust: “Hey!”

Winnie startles, and exclaims, “Charles!” But I ignore her and dangle the tissue out the window, and the woman takes her cue and leans way over the passenger seat, reaching, grunting. The tissue is a flaccid, unflying flag between us, stagnant in the humid air, and so I reach further, and as I do my arm jostles against the taut wire headphone, and with a sharp tug yanks my phone off the console and it pitches out the window, onto the concrete, smashing into splintery shards.

The woman gasps, Winnie screams. The kids look up from their devices.

Unknown

Lemony Snicket picked me…

Lunar New Year – Year of the Fire Monkey

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When we lived in San Francisco, the city shut down public schools and made the first day of Lunar New Year a holiday. I read New York City does as well. I researched the holiday and put together the Cliff Notes version (or Idiot’s Guide?) for the non-Chinese folks:

  1. Year of the Monkey: the Lunar New Year is based on the lunisolar calendar (not the Gregorian, as the US and most of the world does) which charts time based on the movements of the moon and sun. This means that the holiday usually falls between Jan. 21 and Feb. 20, and this year it falls on Feb. 8. The holiday period lasts for 15 days.
  2. Spring Festival is a synonym for Lunar New Year. It is celebrated in many Asian countries including Vietnam, Korea, Hong Kong and Japan. Of course, it’s now celebrated in the US as well, with San Francisco hosting the largest Lunar New Year parade.
  3. The Chinese zodiac is divided into 12 years, and each year is associated with an animal. I am a Tiger (NOT a Tiger-mom), have married a Tiger and my children are a Monkey, a Pig/Boar, and a Dragon. Apparently a Dragon girl is very auspicious. The animal is also paired with an element, and this year the monkey is paired with “fire.”
  4. No drunks here. There is no raucous drinking and ballyhooing on the eve of Lunar New Year; instead it is traditionally a time spent quietly with family. In recent decades the holiday has become more of a cultural celebration than a religious one. The Chinese government instituted a weeklong public holiday to celebrate the new year.
  5. Giving red envelopes (lai see or hongbao) are a tradition of married people giving a monetary gift to children and those who are not married. The red color symbolizes good luck and wards off evil spirits. The amount of money inside usually ends in an even number and never involves the number 4, which is pronounced similar to the word for death.

More on the Year of the Fire Monkey can be found here.

Lunar New Year – Year of the Fire Monkey

(Don’t) Kill Your Television

 

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What I watched this fall:

The Leftovers: (HBO) Season 2 gets crazy. I liked it a ton better than the first season, which was mostly set up and backstory. This season was more surreal, and the plot had much more of a mystery to unravel. Justin Theroux is easy on the eyes, to put it lightly, and the rest of the cast is stellar (in my opinion, particularly Christopher Eccleston). I love Amy Brenneman whenever she’s on screen, I’ve seen her in tons of shows and movies (Your Friends and Neighbors, Judging Amy) but her acting and characterization of the ex-wife who abandoned Theroux’s character is excellent. (Ah! Live Tyler, too, is haunting!)

The Affair: (Showtime) Ok so here’s the deal: we’ve all seen/heard/watched this narrative before: unhappy family man has an affair with loner, younger girl and turns their reality upside down. But how the show’s writers and producers make this story different (besides the twists and turns of the plot) is the shift in perspective sometimes more than twice per episode. Often we will watch the same set of events told by two perspectives, and it’s fascinating to watch the nuances and details that shift per point of view. Excellent acting all around.

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Anthony Bourdain: Parts Unknown: (CNN) So good. I want to be Bourdain’s friend. Why can’t that be? I appreciate good food and good drinks, he can bend my ear on the state of the world or lecture me on what it’s like to smear deer blood on his face while in Scotland (that was disgusting). He’s rough around the edges, an excellent writer, and we are lucky to have him on this earth (well, and on CNN).

Fargo: (FX) Season one was ok. Season two was so much better, and such a fun watch. From the editing and directing to the cast and characters. Jean Smart was amazing as the female head of the crime family, and Kirsten Dunst, Jesse Plemons and Ted Danson were incredible, they caught these characters and their flaws on such a minute level. Amazing.

What I’m Watching:

Jessica Jones: (Netflix) Marvel’s female character with super powers, and yes I’m going to call her a superhero. The show’s pretty good, there are a few actors I wouldn’t mind seeing leave the story all together, and there’s a tangential sub-storyline that I wouldn’t mind them axing. But the gist of the show is good, and I’ll admit I was spooked the first couple of episodes because it’s largely about (not a spoiler) mind control. Bravo to Marvel and Netflix for finally putting a female in the lead in a current show, and Jessica’s main sidekick is her independent, ass-kicking best girl friend.

Serial, Season 2 (watching in my mind’s eye): (podcast) We are 5 episodes in and I’m waiting desperately for next Thursday (the release of episode 6). Lt. Bergdahl’s story is vastly interesting and I find myself thinking about it even when I’m not listening. And if you haven’t listened to season one of Serial, download ‘em now!

 

What I plan to watch:

Making a Murderer: (Netflix) so much hype, it’s a must watch.

Vinyl: (HBO) Scorcese and Jagger? Um, duh.

The People vs. Oj Simpson: (FX) Been waiting for this for awhile.

Sidenote: while writing this post, I noticed my viewing preferences have narrowed to five networks: HBO, Showtime, CNN, FX and Netflix. For this gal, sayonara to network tv (although in truth, Scandal had a pretty good hold on me for awhile).

(Don’t) Kill Your Television

Someone Prayed for Me

“Did you feel exceptionally well last night? Between 7:30 and 8:15?”

My electrician asked me this and then turned back to the breaker box he was working on in our garage. I racked my brain. What was I doing at that time on a Monday night? Why was he asking me this?

I was flummoxed. He asked me again, his Spanish accent getting tangled on the word exceptionally.

Had he called me? Rang the bell and I had ignored him? No, I had texted him yesterday afternoon that the power was out in our office, and he had confirmed he would come this morning.

Hugo was his name, a man in his sixties who had fixed a few of our electrical problems in our new house. He was kind and a very good teacher, pointing out every fix he made, and how the house had been wired by the previous owners.

As he continued talking about the old wiring that needed to be replaced I finally remembered what I was doing. I had been lying in bed with my three year old, snuggled close with my nose touching her cheek, waiting for her to settle for the night.

I followed Hugo out and we started to say our goodbyes.

“Wait, Hugo,” I said, my arms folded to keep me warm. “Why did you ask me what I was doing last night?”

He paused and then I knew he had been thinking about me. He held his hands together, looking down at the ground and searched for the English words. Or maybe just words in general.

“Last night at church they asked us to pray for someone,” he began. “I prayed for my daughter, and for him,” he said, gesturing to his apprentice who stood a few feet away looking up at the trees. “And I prayed for you.” At this point he looked at me, his eyes meeting mine from behind his eyeglasses. “The entire church prayed for you.”

Someone prayed for me. Hugo prayed for me, Hugo who I had cold called after the local hardware store suggested him as an electrician, Hugo who had come over only three times since I had moved to Los Angeles.

I must look like someone who needed to be prayed for. I tried to reach back into my memory to the last time I had seen Hugo: what had happened? I only knew it was during the pre-holiday madness of Santa gifts and tree decorating and visiting family. Maybe I was stressed. Or was it sadness?

“That last time I saw you, you looked tired,” Hugo said. “So last night I said a prayer for Tessa.” He took my hand and said goodbye. “And God bless you.”

I followed him out to the front door. I took myself back to the previous night, laying in bed with my daughter. Had I felt a blast of prayer? A rush of love? I can’t remember anything unusual.

I said goodbye to Hugo, closed the door, and sat down heavily on our stairwell. I was touched, feeling the weight of a unique experience in my life. Uniqueness was not so common; routine ruled. I am someone who looks/appears/seems/ to need prayers. God help me. I must need it.

Someone Prayed for Me

2016: A List for Posterity

Welcome 2016. God that sounds so…Bladerunner. I put together random facts about the here and now to look back on.

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Kauai Island, January 2016

The state of Kauai, with its tiny population of 70,000 people, is the last place on Earth to ring in the new year. I just spent a week there with my family, and extended family. I’ve got Aloha on the brain.

 

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Los Angeles in the rain

California is in a drought. For the first time in history people have been mandated to stop watering their lawns or receive a fine. While I write today we are in the midst of (hopefully) our first deluge of many rainstorms from our little buddy El Nino –bienvenidos mijito!

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We launch into a presidential voting year. Republican hopefuls currently consist of a white, billionaire egomaniac and a black, non-politician with a God-complex. I’m totally not judging. Democratic hopeful is…well, a woman. Yep, you know who has my vote. And we will say goodbye to our history-making (and beloved to many) first black president.

The Gun Control Battle. The US continues to have terrible tragedies with repeated mass shootings here in the homeland. There’s little rhyme or reason to the murderers, aside from being able to easily access guns. As I write, Pres. Obama is trying to work with congress to manage this war against (ourselves, ahem, NRA). Abroad, the world descends on Isis as the terrorist group attacks Paris, and calls for broader and random attacks everywhere. And still, we won’t be terrified.

And speaking of fighting the Dark Side…

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The Force Awakens, 2015

The Force Awakens. The first Star Wars movie in a decade. As of this moment, it has generated $1.6 billion worldwide. November and December had a huge amount of hype, and Facebook feeds everywhere were stuffed with images of people dressed up and heading to the theater. My theory is the film meant most to my generation (40-50 somethings) and to our kids (5-10 year olds). Mostly because episodes 4,5 and 6 were terrible, so a few generations in between missed the boat. Not their fault. But with two more Star Wars coming out, maybe their kids will get into the franchise.

2016: A List for Posterity

The Holidays in Two Great California Cities

I don’t know why I feel the need to compare. Maybe it’s because I spent 15 years in one city and now I’m venturing into our first holiday in another. These comparisons are very, very subjective. Keep that in mind. Ho ho ho…

8 Reasons Why the Holidays Are Awesome in Los Angeles
1. It’s warm and there’s lots of sunshine. Duh.
2. Rockwell Table & Stage. We are booking a table for the Home Alone show. Extra plus that Rockwell’s is in my ‘hood.

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Rockwell’s Dinner Theater

3. We can see a screening of Star Wars at the El Capitan in Hollywood. There’s just something fun about it.
4. We can go for a walk on the beach in December without a jacket.
5. There are no Google buses or Facebook parties to clog up the city.
6. There are lots and lots of people and charities who need help (and not only during the holidays).
7. There are a ton of delicious restaurants, with ok service, and many are new (to me!)
8. It’s relatively easy to avoid the hyper-annoying event SantaCon.

8 Reasons Why the Holidays Are Awesome in San Francisco
1. The air is appropriately cool and crisp.
2. The Nutcracker Ballet at the War Memorial.

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The Nutcracker in San Francisco

3. My dear friend hosts a Swedish smorgasbord – yay pickled herring and Aquavit!
4. There’s nothing like a lit up city scape during the holidays.
5. There are no Star Wagons or movie production trucks blocking off streets or entire neighborhoods.
6. There are lots and lots of people and charities who need help (and not only during the holidays).
7. There are tons of delicious restaurants, with great service, but many have been tried (by me!)
8. Only 4 months until the SF Giants Opening Day!

The Holidays in Two Great California Cities

Turkey Farm Jailbreak

pumpkin pie

Thanksgiving is often a 4 or 5-day reprieve from busy work and school schedules. Many families get together for visiting, food, football or movies. The hours leading up to Thanksgiving dinner can be busy for those hosting family, filled with cleaning house, grocery shopping and the inevitable hours spent in the kitchen. For kiddos, (after of course helping in the kitchen, and cleaning their rooms), the hours stretch out before them and soon they’ll be asking for tv or the ipad. What if instead of relying on screen time, they created their own worlds with their imagination?

I’ve taught creative writing to elementary students from 2nd-5th grade, and many are aching for inspiration to create those worlds. There are those students who have always loved to weave stories and have no problem writing pages and pages of narrative. There are others who are reluctant to write, and are often nervous about judgment or criticism. But often after a few classes, even those who claim to be “horrible at writing” have asked for “just one more minute…” while deeply entwined in their story arc.

I’ve put together five writing prompts for inspiration. For the reluctant writer, set a timer for 20 minutes and let him/her pick the most compelling prompt. Let your writer know there will not be any grammar, spelling or judgment of plot. This is an exercise on creativity and a gateway to building confidence and belief in one’s voice.

Most importantly, let them know that there will be a “live authors’ reading” after dessert in front of the Thanksgiving gathering of friends or family. (note: if the thought of presenting their story aloud makes them fret, offer to read the piece for them. I’ve found that 100% of the time the writer wants their voice heard.)

Writing Prompts:

Turkey Farm Jailbreak (Point of View)

The Day the Mashed Potatoes Dreamt (Personification)

Magical Pumpkin Pie (Magical Realism)

Being Grateful for Your Thanksgiving Dinner Guests (Gratitude)

Dear Me: Thanks for being you (Gratitude)

Deserted Island (Gratitude)

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Turkey Farm Jailbreak (Point of View)

First person point of view: the viewpoint of a character writing or speaking directly about themselves, using variations of “I” – Wikipedia

You, dear writer, take the first person point of view of the head turkey on a turkey farm. Go ahead and name him or her. Let’s say its name is Tom Turkey. Tom lives on a bustling, feathery turkey farm and Thanksgiving Day is rapidly approaching. Tom is one smart turkey and decides enough is enough: he will orchestrate a coup d’état, or a turkey-rebel uprising, against the farmer. Start with Tom Turkey’s escape plan – who does he gobble his secret plan to first? Does he draw out a map using a piece of hay dipped in mud? Does he get his hands on walkie-talkies and don black clothes so as to better escape in the dead of night? Or does he and his turkey friends dig a trench near the pond with an elaborate maze of tunnels for escape? Try to write from Tom Turkey’s point of view and make sure you consider the following:

Setting or location: barnyard, barn, pigpen, turkey house, farmhouse, horse corral, pond, tractor, garage, or anything else you want to include!

*Extra points for drawing a map of the escape route!

The Day the Mashed Potatoes Dreamt (Personification)

Personification: the representation of a thing or idea as a person – Word Central.com

What is the mashed potato’s biggest dream? Perhaps it’s to meet the girl of his dreams: a pat of butter. Or maybe it’s to disappear the turkey so that it may be the star of the Thanksgiving table?

Pick a Thanksgiving dish and give it a dream. Here is a list of traditional dishes, or pick one you usually see on your own dinner table.

  • mashed potatoes
  • stuffing
  • gravy
  • turkey
  • sweet potatoes
  • Jell-O
  • pumpkin pie
  • pecan pie
  • green beans

Example: “My dream in life would be to take over the Thanksgiving table. My family and I would become a delicious variety of textures and flavors for every human’s taste bud: my brother the baked potato, my cousin the scalloped potato, my little nieces and nephews the tater tots! We would call it – Thankspotato Day!”

Magical Pumpkin Pie (Magical Realism)

Magic Realism: the matter-of-fact inclusion of fantastic or mythical elements into seemingly realistic fiction. – Encyclopedia Britannica

You have been charged with making the pumpkin pie for the Thanksgiving feast. What your family doesn’t know is that you have a magical ability to make one ingredient in the pie induce a very magical effect on those who eat it. Pick a regular ingredient that you will then bewitch to create a magical effect. Here are the ingredients for pumpkin pie:

Pumpkin pie recipe:

1 deep-dish pie crust

3/4 cup sugar

1 teaspoon cinnamon

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon ground ginger

¼ teaspoon ground cloves

2 eggs

1 15-ounce can of pumpkin

1 12-ounce can of evaporated milk

Write a story about what happened during dessert to all of your guests at the table. Magical effects might be invisibility, ability to fly, the ability to read minds or any other forms of magic!

Being Grateful for Your Thanksgiving Dinner Guests

Pick a favorite character from a book you love. It doesn’t have to be your very favorite but it could be a fictional or non-fictional person you admire, or who makes you laugh, or who you would love to be friends with in real life. Next pick a friend, a real friend, someone you’re grateful to have in your life. Your real friend and your fictional friend are both coming to your house to have Thanksgiving dinner with your family. Write what happens.

For example, I love the character Hermione from the Harry Potter series. “The doorbell rang and Cathy and I went to answer the door. It was Hermione and not only was she right on time but she had a book under her arm. “Hi! I can’t wait to have Thanksgiving dinner with you! It’ll be my first Thanksgiving ever and I’ve been researching all about it. Did you know that when the Pilgrims arrived…” Hermione kept talking and Cathy and I looked at each other and giggled….”

Dear Me: Thanks for being you

This exercise sounds a bit strange but I’m aiming for a little appreciation of something we don’t thank enough: our body. Your body works tirelessly in ways you don’t think about every day. Your lungs help you to breathe, enabling you to deep breathe while running, or hold your breath while swimming. Your heart never skips a beat and distributes fresh blood throughout your body with its endless pumping. Your legs provide you with the ability to run, skip, jump or walk. Your brain gives you thoughts and solves problems and creates dreams.

Write a letter to a body part, thanking it for all the ways it has been there for you. Here’s my example:

Dear Hands:

Thanks for being there for me, Hands. You’re there for me when someone waves hello, or gives me a high five. You often catch me when I fall (even though you sacrifice the palms getting scratched up) and you are great at throwing and catching a ball. You help me grasp tree branches so I can climb high. When gloved, I can hold ski poles for the slopes in winter, or even while wet I can hang on to paddles on a kayak. I can dance with you, I can snap, clap and flick with you. I’ll take good care of you, Hands, and always give you a band-aid when you need, or wash you with soapy water when you’re dirty, or give you a rest on my lap when you’re tired.

Sincerely, Me.

 Deserted Island (Gratitude)

First step: think about a person you’re thankful for. Maybe it’s a family member, a teacher, a friend, or someone who has helped you out in a time of need.

Now imagine you’re headed to an island with one single house for you and this person, but no other people inhabit the island. You can also bring one thing, and one food (there’s enough drinking water in the house). You’ll be on the island for one school year.

Here are my picks: I’m thankful for my Aunt Rebecca because she’s a writer and she has always encouraged me to keep writing. I would bring my favorite book, one that I never get tired of reading, “My Brilliant Friend” and I would bring a black bean and cheese burrito with avocado and salsa.

Now that you’ve made your choices, write about a typical day on that island. Wake up and look at the beautiful azure sky and the brilliantly clear-blue waves hitting the sand. What do you do next?

Photo Credit: QuintanaRoo via Compfight cc

Turkey Farm Jailbreak