Tuesday, March 17, 2009


One of my favorite children's books is Alexander And The Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day by Judith Viorst. It details a day in Alexander's life when just nothing went right.

I had a day like that yesterday only it was worse. It collided head on with my daughter-in-law's own Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day. Combine the two and I had a day of epic, bad proportions.

It all started at seven in the morning with taxes. That was actually going well until I went on the bank's site to print up the record of the charity checks I had written and found I couldn't get to them with the proper date. That ultimately meant another hour's work on the computer. Then, I locked Plato into the kitchen while I went to a doctor's appointment. When I came home an hour and a half later he had gotten into a box of fertilizer and theoretically could have eaten some, although what dog in his right mind would eat fertilizer? I didn't know the fertilizer was there. My daughter-in-law hid it in a box in the kitchen and put a very heavy rock on top of the box. She loves her plants and where else could she put it where it would be readily available? Plato is persistent--he got to the box.

Another hour spent calling the vet, who said they would probably have to induce vomiting. I was going to have to drive Plato down to the vets as no one else was available and I'm not supposed to drive, given my knee goes out at inexplicable moments to horrible effect. I called my son and daughter-in-law and they got in the car and started rushing home but I had this feeling that if I didn't get Plato down there RIGHT NOW I would have a dog writhing in pain and dying right at my feet. That didn't seem fun, so I was prepared to take my chances with my knee. My son called and said he would rather lose Plato then lose me and would I please wait until they got there? I then realized that if the knee went on my way to the vets I would not only kill myself and some unlucky pedestrian or driver but I would also kill Plato so I said yes, I would wait.

While I'm waiting I get a phone call from our agent for our home insurance who informs me that the insurance for our home at Tahoe is being cancelled. No reason. They're trying to get us set up with another insurer, because of that, they need to ask me some questions. While I'm reeling from the news, she's ticking off the questions: has the house been rewired? When was it done? How about the plumbing? Then she starts asking questions about our house in Berkeley, and I'm thinking, are they going to cancel the insurance on our house in Berkeley too?

That is when I think I really lost it. I had to go to our Quicken account and try to access accounts going back to 1991. 1991! I made it back that far but couldn't find a blessed thing.

Glenn and Wendy and Theo got there. Glenn rushed to the vet with Plato and the offending fertilizer; Wendy, Theo and I went up to the house, where--as I'm reaching desperately for a glass of wine--Wendy begins unleashing her own Horrible, Terrible, Not Good, Very Bad Day.

Wendy's days are theoretically harder than mine. She's six months pregnant--give or take a week, and that--while exciting--can be enough for most women to handle. She's got the very adorable, very active, three year old Theo who tests constantly. If they gave a prize for a child who tests adults the most he would win it hands down. One of her favorite comments to him these days is "If you don't put that down right now, Theo, you'll have no ice cream!" He likes to throw things and sometimes the things he picks up should not be thrown because they connect with things like people's heads and very expensive new TV sets. She will bribe without compunction. One has to survive so one bribes.

She had been at her father's with Theo and in a strange environment when she's being asked to deal with a lot of very difficult things, Theo's testing goes into overdrive. Her father, Clyde, is dying of cancer and her Uncle Vic is not in his right mind. He's just a little addled. Even with that, his idle chatter is amazing. The two old men are intellectuals whose vocabulary and choice of subjects is esoteric, to say the least. Clyde is 86 and Vic is 92. Vic pushes a wheel chair around for stability and Clyde is confined to one so they are constantly colliding. While Wendy's trying to control Theo, "If you throw that one more time, Theo!" she is being pestered unmercifully by her father's and uncle's caregiver about an abdominal pain her uncle is having which they believe is caused by constipation.

Enter my son, Glenn. He picks up Wendy and Theo to drive them to a store so they can buy Theo some new shoes. Wendy is crying the whole way there, having reached the end of what she thought was her Horrible, Terrible, Not Good, Very Bad Day. Enter Plato and the fertilizer issue and they come rushing home without buying Theo shoes. Wendy isn't quite through venting and Glenn is out of range so she unleashes her day on me as I grope for my glass of wine.

Glenn comes in an hour and a half later, rounds the corner in front of where I'm now sitting trying to enjoy my glass of wine, and he screams. He, of course, has also had his own Terrible, Horrible, Not Good, Very Bad Day because of Wendy's bad day and my bad day and it all ended up in his lap because he had to take Plato to the vet and that meant an hour and a half waiting for them to resolve the fertilizer issue. There was fertilizer in Plato's vomit. That dog will eat anything.

When Glenn screamed I jumped. I don't particularly like to hear him scream. After another glass of wine, I got the gist of his discomfort (Wendy cried all the way to the house, I had to sit at the vets for an hour and a half and now--and now...)

And now? And now? What and now?

Wendy's uncle had to be taken to emergency for the stomach pain. It apparently wasn't constipation. Wendy and Glenn immediately get on the phone and arrange to relieve the caregiver for Uncle Vic who has taken him to emergency. While they're in emergency with Uncle Vic, who's taking care of the little tester of adult's patience? Right!

I want to tell you, what with the taxes, and the charity checks I had to retrieve, and the fertilizer, and the dog who eats anything, and the call from the insurance agent I was--I repeat--not very happy about sitting the little character who tests for even an hour, much less the amount of time Wendy and Glenn might end up in emergency with Uncle Vic. Trips to emergency can last up to 20 hours or more. Theo mostly sleeps with his parents although he's graduating to a youth bed soon. When I crawl into bed the only person I want in bed with me is Jerry.

But off they go to emergency while I sit there with my wine, emotionally and physically gone while Theo does his testing thing. I ignored him. Bad Nana. Slap my hands! I didn't care. You try dealing with a kid that's a testing fool at the end of a day that's been tested with taxes, charity checks that haven't the right date on them, fertilizer, a dog that eats anything, possible knee going out incident, Wendy venting so I couldn't get to my wine, and a call from our insurance agent.

Oh, I forgot! One more thing! Plato, having had to vomit, now has to have rice and cottage cheese for dinner. I haven't got dinner started, I don't think I have the energy to even think about what to fix for dinner, I certainly have no way to drive down to get the cottage cheese. I am certainly not going to risk life and limb for Cottage Chese. On top of having to fix a dinner I don't want to fix, I have to boil up some rice and the kitchen is a shambles because Jerry, said, on pain of death, that I was not to do any writing until I finished the taxes. To me, that also meant I was to do nothing else, so I hadn't done the dishes. Try fixing a dinner when you haven't the faintest notion what you're going to fix and having to boil rice with a kitchen piled high with dishes.

Jerry came home after getting the cottage cheese and beans and hot dogs because I decided that was the most I was going to manage for dinner. Here comes the sad part. I reached up to an upper shelf to get a large four cup measuring thing so I could start boiling up the rice and I dropped it. It survived but it broke a beautiful wine glass of mine--an irreplaceable wine glass and did major damage to one of our favorite mugs. The mug is destroyed, but it can be replaced but it will cost $25 to $30. I mean, this is an expensive set of dishes--one's I've always wanted and finally got, after forty years of marriage. The wine glass cannot be replaced. Luckily I have five more of them so at least we can entertain a small group. It was so beautiful. Sigh.

Glenn called to check on us about that time. Jerry is cleaning up the glass. I have retired to the sitting room for another glass of wine. Glenn is saying they haven't gotten Uncle Vic into emergency yet and they don't know when they will. Jerry says, "You need to come home now. There are a few things going on here."

He and Wendy showed up about an hour later. All that time Theo tested. Hardly ate a thing. All I could manage for him was the hot dog; he threw it on the floor.

What was your own Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?

Monday, March 16, 2009


Europe is so many things: beautiful views, grand cathedrals, shooting down ski slopes, riding on super fast trains through glorious scenery. My favorite things have to do with people, because you can find beautiful views anywhere and you can even find great buildings other places but the people you see--those are the memories I treasure and the funny memories come to my mind first. This one was right out of slapstick heaven.

My husband and I were in a little town just north of Albi in the south of France one summer many years ago. We sat down to have a cup of coffee with one of those wonderful French confections in a patio in front of a small cafe. We started sipping our coffee when we saw an old man, obviously French, struggling up a walk just to the left side of a bunch of tables in front of us all filled with happy vacationers, totally oblivious to anyone but themselves. The man was certainly in his late 80's if not older. Just behind him was his wife of similar years. Using a cane, he slowly made his way up the slope--intent on getting that cup of coffee. Every move was laborious. His wife tottered along behind him, her glance directed down at her feet, carefully calculating every step. He gave not one glance behind him to check on her but just worked his way slowly, tortuously up the hill.

I'm sure my husband would have offered them our table if it wouldn't have been patently ridiculous, as they would have had to do the same thing to come down the hill to our table. His wife stayed right behind him, tottering along ever forward. It was as though he represented the shore of a mighty sea she was trying to reach.

Finally the man saw an empty table among the throng and turning in, worked himself unsteadily toward it. He reached it, pulled out a chair, and collapsed into it. His wife tottered toward the chair across from him. He reached out with his foot and kicked the chair out for her. Ah, French gallantry!

Monday, March 9, 2009


What is characterization? How do you make a character come alive in a reader's eyes? A number of us are struggling with that right now, and as I find having something down on paper helps clear thing up, I thought I'd try answering that. In answering it, I also came to the conclusion that developing a character can also develop plot because ultimately one of the best ways to develop a character is through reacting to other characters and events and this leads to plot. Knowing how to characterize is critical.

Do you need to show personal appearance? Or age? Probably, but in my opinion you want to include that information in action. A primary rule of writing is to show rather than tell, so it's probably better to say a character tossed her head (or his head) to get an irritating bit of hair out of her eyes, as one example, than to spell out literally how someone looks. Age--I think that's tougher. An agent told me once that it is absolutely verboten to start a book with "Twelve year old Lucy..." Can you say, "Like many other 12 year olds, Lucy was...?" Absolutely not. I ignore age as much as I can. I'm chicken. I just have a 12 year old going into her seventh grade class. Maybe have an older kid tease some a younger kid and that way age can be mentioned. Get the information out with action of some kind--even if it's just going into her classroom. How do you show age and personal appearance?

As I said earlier, I think one of the most important ways to show age and appearance, a character's personality and develop plot is to have a character react to events or other characters, by either action or dialogue or by using the character's thoughts. Try to think of a favorite book where a character's traits come through because of action. One of the books I think of in this connection is the wonderful "The Great Gilly Hopkins" by Katherine Paterson.

The story starts with characterization. Gilly is asked a question by her social worker. Gilly totally ignores the question, instead blows a bubble from a wad of gum that becomes so large it pops and ends up plastered all over her hair--perhaps the equivilant of giving the social worker the rasberry. Obviously the next foster mother is going to have to deal with that gum, which will put the social worker in a bad light because of how she's delivering Gilly to her. Gilly could care less. The picture of Gilly blowing that bubble is the picture on the cover, and perhaps one of the most beloved covers in all children's literature. Gilly is being driven to her next foster home by the social worker. Gilly is furious at her life--furious about being shuttled from one foster home to the next for the large part of her life. From the dialogue between Gilly and the long suffering social worker you pity the poor person who's going to have to deal with Gilly and you just know--from page one--that the book is going to be packed with all kinds of funny horrors. Gilly is a foster mother's nightmare.

Nightmares are much more fun to read about than so called "nice" children.

Characterization that has a character reacting to events or other characters can also set up scenes and further plot. The scene is the movie "Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs" when Snow White is running frightened through a nightmare forest ends with her throwing herself on the ground and sobbing. Eyes peer out at her and she is terrified. Then a parade of little animals come out and sit around her and she is charmed. Here you go from total terror to total delight. Quite a trick if you can do it and both scenes come out strongly because you're dealing with opposites.

How does Paterson show Gilly's age and personal appearance? Maybe Gilly's hair color is brought out in the bubble blowing scene and somehow during the conversation with the social worker her age comes out. I think that's got to be the best way to show age and appearance and personality and plot and Katherine Paterson is a master at this kind of writing.

How do you bring a character to life?

Wednesday, March 4, 2009


I am thinking about starting a blog for a thrift store. The name of the store is "The Turnabout Shop." I volunteer there--sorting and marking clothes, working at the front desk taking money. I am very fond of this store. I think the women who volunteer there are an amazing group. I figured maybe a blog might get the store out there in the public eye more. We need more volunteers, we need more people to shop there. So I'm introducing the idea here, to get it on paper and see how it feels. I am going to post a photograph I took with my iPhone to see if someone (besides me) could take photographs of the store I could post along with stories about the store.

I started an email group for the store a couple of years ago, which the members of the email group love, and I'm hoping if I emailed the members a link to the site that would help get the site where it needs to go. I would also ask them to forward the link to friends and relatives who might be interested in the store.

The organization behind the store, The Berkeley Clinic Auxiliary, was involved, along with a lot of our civic minded people, helping refugees from the San Francisco 1906 earthquake and fire to get settled in Berkeley and get any help they needed. This group of ladies I work with come from a great tradition of helping others and I'm proud of each and every one of them.

I would probably have to do everything myself, so it would have to wait until I've recuperated from knee surgery. The picture I'm posting here shows two of the ladies sporting hats that were brought out to them on the day the shop was hosting it's monthly luncheon meeting. We were celebrating their 90th birthdays. I know the lady on the left well. I almost fell over in a dead faint when I found out she was turning 90. This lady may have a lot of wrinkles but she is a dynamo!

Any and all who look at this posting--do you think a blog about a thrift store would work? I would only post once a week, and what I'm thinking is I would introduce different parts of the store, what we stock in merchandise and different special items that come into the store and are for sale. I would have pictures of the store and of any special items that have come in. I just googled thrift store blogs and came up--not with thrift store as such, but blogs that used stuff one would find in a thrift store. I think a blog could incorporate links to such blogs to increase interest in shopping at the Turnabout.

What do you think?

Monday, March 2, 2009


I am amazed by the fascination a drum holds for Theo. (The drum is a drum cover--the rest of the drum is history). Ever since he saw Dulaman being performed on the computer he is into drums. (Dulaman is a song about seaweed by a Celtic musical group.) He continues to watch Dulaman being performed, studying carefully every move of the drummers. The percentage of his waking day spent playing on his drum is up to 75 to 80 percent. He doesn't just hit the drum cover, he twirls the drumstick between his fingers and using either end, taps the drum--sometimes hitting the drum itself, other times hitting the frame. He is getting to be amazingly proficient. He moves in time to his drumming at the same time as he plays his drum; shifting his weight from one foot to the other while croaching low, periodically stopping to lift the drum and drumstick to his right ear while furiously playing a series of taps.

He takes the drum and drumstick to nursery school with him. The teacher asked Wendy to let her know what Theo is doing at the age of 25. I think she sees drums in his future as I do. Not only do I think they're in his future, I think he's inventing a whole new drum sound. There is a cadence and rhythm to his playing I've never heard before.

In case you're curious what Dulaman is about, I've copied the lyrics in English below:

Oh gentle daughter, here come the wooing men
Oh gentle mother, put the wheels in motion for me

Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Seaweed from the ocean, the best in all of Ireland

There is a yellow gold head on the Gaelic seaweed
There are two blunt ears on the stately seaweed
The Irish seaweed has beautiful black shoes
The stately seaweed has a beret and trousers

[Chorus 2x]

"What are you doing here?" says the Irish seaweed
"At courting with your daughter," says the stately seaweed

I would go to Niúir with the Irish seaweed
"I would buy expensive shoes," said the Irish seaweed


I spent time telling her the story that I would buy a comb for her
The story she told back to me, that she is well-groomed

"Oh where are you taking my daughter?" says the Irish seaweed
"Well, I'd take her with me," says the stately seaweed

Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed


Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Seaweed from the ocean, the best, the best
Seaweed from the yellow cliff, Irish seaweed
Seaweed from the ocean, the best, the best
The best in all of Ireland