Sunday, May 07, 2006

Pardon my French, Or: This is Not a Pipe

More cross-cultural fun...

In Australian journalist Sarah Turnbull's Almost French, a witty and illuminating account of negotiating life and love in Paris, she describes hanging out with her French fiance and a group of his male friends. He has an idiosyncratic habit of smoking a pipe, so, trying to impress the gang, she asks him in her awkward French if he would like her to fetch him his pipe--literally, do you want a pipe?

Frederic's pals burst out into laughter: "I wish I had an Australian girlfriend!"

Turns out "une pipe" refers to a blowjob.

Language is a bitch!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Calling all Bostonians

It's just gorgeous weather here outside Boston. The blossoms and flowers look almost psychedelically colorful and ripe. It's sensory overload, practically.

May 14th is Lilac Sunday at the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain. I've never been before, and am expecting a mad scene if we do make the hike out there. It's the one day per year they let people picnic on the grounds, a big ol' Boston tradition. Since I'm fond of my adopted city (technically I'm a bit west of Boston, out in suburbia), and I'm not sure whether we'll still be here another year from now, I'm wondering what the "typical", "must-do" Boston experiences are. Cape Cod (check), Fenway Park (can't afford it), swan boats, 4th of July fireworks on the Esplanade (check, but I should go back), yadda yadda. Let me make it clear that I'm no tourist. But I want to be able to say I took a big, juicy bite out of the...Bostonian equivalent of the Big Apple. Oh, as for lobster, I can take it or leave it.


I just learned a new word today, when my Japanese husband asked me if a similar word existed in English: fukujoshi. Literal meaning: stomach-up-death. Tweaked a bit, it means death on top of someone else's stomach. In other words, dying in the middle of sex. I think they're referring to the man here. Anyway, sometimes you have to go outside the English language for a really descriptive, concise, punchy word.

On a different note, we were in Borders today, at the cafe, browsing through books we had no intention of buying: he likes stuff about neuroscience, dense political and economic analyses...though for a laugh he did recently complete He's Just Not That Into You (we both married young, and never knew how rough it is out there, dating).

Our taste in reading material could not be more disparate. He shies away from fiction; that's the bulk of what I read. Non-fiction I like tends toward memoirs, books about food, history (but not military history, please) culture and the arts. I realize this all sounds vague and general. Suffice it to say, different tastes in books. I wonder how that happened...

Anyway I came very close to finishing The Julie/Julia Project, which I will definitely get into more detail about as soon as I'm done...I'm liking and admiring it a lot, but it took over fifty pages for me to be won over.

Also about forty pages away from the finish line with A Confederacy of Dunces. Tell me what to read next.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Esperanza (Short Fiction--Part Three)

When Tim’s tour of duty was up he came home and started working at our father’s hardware store. Our beautiful mother, whom the ravages of age and sunlight had left virtually untouched, was the most content I’d seen her in years. Bach’s Brandenburg concertos filled the house, where she baked fresh bread for our older brother and forwarded tins of homemade cookies to Johann at baseball camp, secure in the knowledge that he would receive them, even if he failed to write letters back.

Even Betsy, freewheeling through her freshman year at college, returned from her visits home awed by the sense of fullness emanating from the household. Only our father seemed less sure of things, pressured by the encroachment of huge discount chains into his territory. The small guy can’t win, he said one night. The next evening as father and son took inventory in the back of the store, he clutched suddenly at his chest but Tim couldn’t help him, as he’d been trained to deal only with extremes in climate, hostile forces hitting from without.

Despite our last-ditch efforts to locate him, Manuel was not present at the funeral. Afterwards our mother was inconsolable. Doubly bereft, she moaned constantly, at one point softly crying out for Manuel, too. I held her hand, thinking how unfair it was that she could moan his name in public without feeling like a deviate. Betsy told feeble jokes, and Johann, in his suit of mourning, pitched imaginary fastballs into space. Tim tried frantically to calm her. After the visitors had left, he went upstairs to his room and came back wearing his military parka and boots. He’d never shown us these before, apart from group photos: bulky packs of eskimos, faces obscured by thick hoods.

“This is what he’d be wearing,” he told her.

“But how do we know?” She sobbed. “We’ll never know where he is.”

When the insurance check arrived it was determined that Tim would go to Antarctica on a fact-seeking mission. After a strenuous search, Betsy managed to find an eight-day cruise that came in at just under ten thousand dollars. We booked his reservation and waited for November, start of the austral summer.

Tim arrived home ruddy and glowing with excitement. In the airport we ran up and hugged him tearfully. Our mother, anxious and weary with the anticipated findings, awaited him at the house. When we got back our mother sat him down and fed him a meal she’d prepared, his most favorite foods.

After the meal we moved to the den, where he opened up his pack and passed around instamatic shots of Southern elephant seals, a volcanic beach, an Adélie penguin colony on Paulet Island. This was just for starters, he told us, since he had ten rolls of film to be developed. It was an amazing place, he kept saying. Amazing.

Our mother, looking pale, quietly asked about Manuel. After a moment Tim said he hadn’t managed to find out anything. She pressed on: What about Esperanza? Tim explained that Esperanza was a military foothold, off-limits to sightseers. He had not wanted to cause trouble. Besides, the day-to-day schedule was pretty packed.

“You never liked Manuel,” she accused.

But she was wrong. Anyone could see it was Johann who didn’t like him.

Tim sadly left. After two days, we thought he’d reenlisted. Then three weeks later we received a postcard from the jungles of Brazil. Don’t worry, it said. I’m okay. And the following week, the U.S. Embassy wired us the message that Tim was in a hospital in Sao Paolo, stricken with a mysterious fever, and in his state could not be safely transported home.

Our mother, the only one of us with a ready passport, went ahead; Betsy, Johann and I followed the next day. From the airport we went straight to the hospital, where our mother sat at his bedside, crying, “Esperanza.” Flustered nurses brought her cool drinks. “Your brother?” One of them turned to me and smiled. “Very nice. He looks just like Marinho.” I didn’t ask who Marinho was.

The next day he was lucid, but too feeble to speak. We sat with him, chatting about the neighbors, about camping, about the hardware store we’d decided to put up for sale. No one mentioned Manuel.

His eyes slid closed; we’d exhausted him. He went to sleep and woke up hours later, shivering and drenched with sweat. Johann looked down at his hands, while Betsy urged Tim to think penguin. The hardy and adaptable bird-mammal, world’s most lovable anamoly. I touched his hot-cool forehead and watched him breathe. Here in the tropics we enjoyed none of the visible assurances of cold-air exhalations. I had to watch his chest.

We perspired helplessly. None of us were prepared for our touchdown onto this new continent. So we clung to him. I’m sure Betsy took careful notes, gauging each subtle flicker of expression. Tim lay prone on the bed. All that knowledge trapped inside him, gently melting away.

His eyes slowly pointed toward our mother. “Mom,” he said. Then, “Mama.” Then a faint lilt, a lurch: “Mamá.” Or was it my imagination? Then finally, “Ma. Maa.”


Eventually our mother began to age. It was bound to happen, and then the hysterectomy, which pinpointed her lack, internalized it. This time she accepted gracefully. Hormones helped to regulate her moods, and she directed her energies back to her very first love, piano. Children came to the house to study with her.

After college Johann was hired by a public-relations firm; one day he gathered us together at his apartment to announce that he’d changed his name to John. (He almost reverted later, then stuck with his decision.) Betsy studied drama in New York, and recently got rave reviews at Chicago’s Gateway Theatre for her Blanche Dubois, although her true forte is comedy.

I live in a big city, and my secret terror is of encountering Manuel without realizing it. An anonymous run-in on the street is what most worries me. I could calmly befriend him, invite him over, if his identity were clear to me.

As a result I try to know everybody by name--or avoid contact with men I can’t classify. This is not as difficult as it seems. People find me outgoing, effusive, when I smile and orchestrate a mutual introduction. Because of my work as a journalist, none of this looks suspicious.

As an offshoot of this friendliness I have had many lovers. So far none have been Manuel Suárez. I’ve decided that this in itself is no reason to turn them down; after all, it’s something tangible, knowing who someone is not. These men are harmless and self-serving. We exchange phone numbers and addresses, which I eventually throw away. I am placated temporarily, but later I think that they are delays, wasted moments, obstacles strewn in the path that connects me to him.

Esperanza (Short Fiction--Part Two)

Nonetheless, with his incorporation into the family a weight was shifted off our mother’s shoulders. She spent many hours with Johann. By age six, however, he was determined to play baseball. Our dad, who indulged our mother in many ways, protested that she was transforming his younger son into a mama’s boy. I believe the situation was more complex, although she let up on Johann after that. He was inevitably turning into someone else. He still tagged along on our outings, if reluctantly. At least once a month we would stroll, en famille, through the halls of Cincinnati’s natural history museum. Betsy, Tim and I studied the flora and fauna of the Antarctic. We already knew more than the other kids at school. Our reports and oral presentations rang out with authority.

Tim, in fact, had undergone an evolution from indifferent student into a serious, single-minded young man, the kind the Marines claim to need. At the age of fifteen Tim set out on a jogging regimen of six miles a day, and continued his high school baseball career only with our father’s promise to take him winter camping in Colorado. He had already pitched his state-of-the-art tent in our snowy backyard, and now needed a fuller experience. We had our bitter winters in Ohio, but Tim found the flatness of the land uninspiring. He and Dad did make the trip in February of Tim’s junior year, to the undisguised envy of our mother, who had found the anniversary cruise to the Bahamas dull and disappointing.

His muscles tautened, but it was Tim’s inner transformation that astonished us: by his early teens he simply knew everything one could know about Antarctica, without setting foot there. He passed on his knowledge to Betsy, who was a wild and gleeful girl, liberated by the lucky order which had placed Johann, and not her, in the perpetual shadow of Manuel Suárez. Betsy was an expert on krill plankton, and at age eight could pick out the Adélie from the chinstrap, Emperor and macaroni penguins. At dinner she described for our parents the huge chinstrap breeding grounds on the shores of Deception Island.

Throughout these years we never lost sight of Manuel. At first as a baby in a snug snowsuit, then as a little boy perhaps kissing Julia goodbye each morning: I myself saw a slow panning shot of Manuel skipping off to school past the unvarying whiteness of distant, mammoth, oddly-shaped chunks of ice. He wore a parka, swung his satchel and sang sweet songs that crackled in the air. And later on we worried about the ozone layer, the status of the Antarctic Treaty and its ramifications. But we couldn’t place him anywhere but Esperanza. The intellectual fervor of Tim or Betsy, for example, never led any of us to consider studying Spanish. To our family, Manuel was Antarctican.

In my teens I chose to forget the ten-year age difference and envisioned him as an older brother stationed in the army overseas, inaccessible but out of danger. By my senior year of high school, and against some unspoken rule, I had started fantasizing him as a dark, dreamy, latin-lover type, around thirty. On a Sunday afternoon I might lie on the bed with toes curled, stroking my belly and muttering, “Manuel, Manuel.” I was deathly afraid my mother would catch me.

Tim, on the other hand, was fearless. Not only did he strip himself down to shorts before a five-mile run in the snow, but by his last year of high school he’d travelled out west to scale the high perpendicular faces of rocks and run kayaks down rivers that foamed like rabid animals. HIs brand of recklessness was serious and premeditated, almost choreographed. While Johann threatened to run away and join the army, it was Tim who actually enlisted.

As I progressed through college, mentally pasting a gaucho face onto any guy who went further than a kiss, Tim was stationed at the Northern Warfare Training Center in Fort Greely, Alaska, where they drilled him in arctic combat and survival. I came home whenever he visited us on leave. While our dad told everyone how proud he was, our mother had an anxious look in her eyes. She had faith in Tim, but his leaving had exacerbated another fitful need. Manuel?

In any case she again tried the Consulate General of Argentina, which steadfastly refused to divulge information on private citizens. They wouldn’t even verify whether the boy, almost twelve years old now, was still in Esperanza, and we were forced to concur that Manuel Suárez might have drifted away. Betsy managed to procure from the community college a Buenos Aires phone book. She found twenty-six Carloses--potential fathers--under the Suárez listing, and twenty-three men (or boys) named Manuel.

Esperanza (Short Fiction--Part One)


Our mother spotted the story, which the wire services had apparently picked up, on page four of the Cincinnati Post. She sat at the kitchen table, turning pages with the hand of the same arm that cradled two-month-old Johann, who sucked on a bottle. In the driveway Dad worked on his car.

After a pause, she called the three of us kids over--even Betsy, who was six--to hear the capsule article. Manuel Suárez had been born two days before at a hospital in Esperanza, on the Antarctic Peninsula. Esperanza was the Argentinean base where Manuel’s father and other scientists conducted research on weather patterns around the South Pole. “Argentina’s President delightedly announced plans to grant little Manuel a lifelong annual stipend of ten million pesos, in honor of his countryman’s achievement as the first person born on a continent.” Mother and baby were reportedly doing well.

Betsy objected: if Manuel was “the first person born on a continent,” what were the rest of us, then--frogs? Only later would she enjoy sidelining the facts for the sake of a whimsical notion.

Our mother didn’t respond. Gazing down at the paper, she said darn. Then darn it, like a needle poking through wool. She had just had her fourth child--an easy, uncomplicated labor--and had overriden her husband’s picks to bestow on this final baby the name of her favorite composer, Bach. Our mother was a romantic sort who lounged on her bed, during the last months of pregnancy, leafing through the travel spreads in magazines like Town and Country and National Geographic. Our father had promised her a cruise for their fifteenth anniversary, coming up in two years.

But an opportunity missed, like that! It was only on reading about Manuel that she felt cheated somehow. After all, who would even have considered giving birth in Antarctica--or that it hadn’t been done before? We kids were extra nice to her that first week; we did our chores without being asked, and kept our rooms clean.

I tried pointing out that the mother, Mrs. Julia Suárez, had been flown into Esperanza by special transport plane in her thirty-third week. Even a ten-year-old girl like me could see the macho recklessness, the collaboration involved in pulling off such a feat. These arguments failed to stir my mother. She looked at her baby, who was suddenly needy and plain.

It was Tim who saved the day. He was a wiry, athletic eleven-year-old with no apparent interest in infants, and so Tim’s suggestion, that we “adopt” Manuel, came completely out of left field. But our mother immediately seized on the idea, and that night began knitting the baby a sweater. The sweater, embellished with penguins on both sleeves, came out so well that she hated to part with it. Besides, it fit Johann perfectly.

Instead we bought Manuel a few trinkets, the kind of brightly-colored toys that stimulate the mind of a child. My mother packed these in a small box which she placed inside another box, along with a letter directing the consulate to forward the inner package to Manuel Suárez, the little boy in Esperanza. Every year she sent something, an article of clothing or a toy, accompanied by a simple letter in English, signed by each member of the family. These packages never came back to us. We saw this as an encouraging sign. The continued receipt of these gifts, indicating the implicit approval and, indeed, involvement of international authorities, effectively sharpened in our mother’s mind the reality of Manuel, and his tangible relationship to her, to us. Rather than monopolize him, she actively encouraged, even demanded, our engagement.

Each year we held a birthday party for him. Rather than invite friends or relatives we kept the festivities within the family, decorating the ceiling with balloons and streamers and ordering a sheetcake from the bakery. Betsy threw herself into the spirit of these parties, playing games like pin the tail on the donkey and hide-and-seek with her “pretend” playmate, Manuel--who, as we all knew, existed. I helped our mother serve the cake while Tim set up the folding wooden stage our father had constructed for the puppet show. Only Johann, once he’d reached the age of four or five, reacted to these celebrations with indifference, poking at his cake with a fork. His birthday fell two months before Manuel’s, and each year he had his own party and presents.

Our mother was never completely the same after Manuel’s birth. At times she seemed both weightless and solid, reading novels and baking pies. Her hands were blue-tinged and she wore sweaters straight through June. Still, Mom was colored with an energy and determination to unlock the mysteries of the planet. Rather quickly her love of music and other man-made art forms shifted to a curiosity toward ice formations and natural phenomena. She found human beings interesting in proportion to their success in grappling with the elements. She respected Amundsen, first man to reach the South Pole, and even felt a pitying admiration for Scott, who died trying. Her hero and rival was, of course, Mrs. Julia Suárez. The lost goal not a South Pole landing but Manuel.

Change of Plans

My short story "Lag Time" isn't even on my backup disk. While I debate whether or when I want to manually type the story out, I will offer up another short fiction of mine, "Esperanza."

It was published maybe a year after "Lag Time." Due to its much shorter word count (3000) it was sent out to a ton of literary magazines--probably sixty or more, and back before the days of electronic submissions (it got costly!)--then finally was accepted at Confrontation.

On searching out their website, it appears their last edition came out in 2004...another college lit mag typically folds?

I will provide another fun publishing anecdote for this story afterward--but first, here's the actual goods.

My new crush

Quickly, as it's a busy day...

Just wanted to say that I love Stephen Colbert. I know, take a number and go to the end of the line, but there it is.

I can't believe it's not butter, either. Awesome.

I'm not on the browser where I can do links right now, but go over to and express your appreciation for the guy, if you haven't already.

Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Walking the Walk

Well, I've been going on about writing for the past week or so, offering no real proof that I've actually accomplished any writing of my own. (Blog writing is a blast, but that's not what I mean.)

I'm about to remedy that by posting a short story of mine, "Lag Time." Once I dig up the backup disk it's supposedly on, I will post it in brief was probably about 6000 words altogether, so in total it is a committed read, but y'all can go at it at your leisure, and hopefully you will feel inclined to read it in its entirety.

Since this is a writers' blog, a bit of background:

It was written my second semester of grad school, revised slightly over the following autumn, and submitted to thirty or more literary magazines. The length of the piece actually disqualified it from being sent to more places. Anyway, after a year or more it was finally accepted at Gulf Coast Journal and was published in the spring of 1997.

About another year later, "Lag Time" was selected for Honorable Mention for the O. Henry Awards for that year. I recall being disappointed, then I went out and bought the anthology containing the winning stories and they were all boring and homogenous. So I felt better, somehow, not to have made the cut.

It's still the favorite piece of mine. Warning, though: if you like plot-driven fiction, stay away. There is really no plot. Atmosphere, yes. Start looking for installments within a day or two.

I've never been good with titles

I just renamed the blog. It took me over an hour hunched over the computer, coming up with one unworkable phrase after another. Do you know how tough it is to be original these days? Everything, I mean EVERYTHING, has been thought up before.

I really did like the previous handle, Another Day, Another Carrot. Besides being an homage to the immortal Bugs Bunny, to me it did convey something of the daily grind of writing (or carrots...). But it wasn't quite snappy enough, and frankly, I doubt most people had any idea what the hell it meant, or that it was even connected to a writing theme.

See, I'm working the branding angle here, trying to sell the product. Anyway, First Draft it is, for now, though don't hold me to anything for the long run. Here's to all the first drafts and novels in mid-process out there...

Tuesday, May 02, 2006


Here's an article from today's about an author's book debut getting rained on by another project that appeared a few months earlier on an unexpectedly similar topic, a couple's life with an impossible dog.

The author, Lee Harrington, starts with her pre-publication fantasies of A-list interviews, book signings and royalties...but before that could happen, this other memoir of a couple and their unruly dog was released, got rave reviews and prime display space, and is selling briskly.

I admit it's a painful read--I stopped mid-article to blog this--and I'm not even planning to write about dogs. (I haven't read either book.) But the possiblity is certainly there for all your hard work, ideas and planning to be undercut by the upstart, the freak doppelganger, the flashy new girl who appears in class out of nowhere to make the rest of us look like pathetic wannabes, hopelessly derivative, so five minutes ago.

Nothing to do but let it go...meanwhile Harrington's upcoming novel is scheduled for release next year.