Review: Glad No Matter What: Transforming Loss and Change into Gift and Opportunity

Glad No Matter What: Transforming Loss and Change into Gift and Opportunity Glad No Matter What: Transforming Loss and Change into Gift and Opportunity by SARK
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was my first exposure to SARK’s writing, aside from her posters. It was a gift from a former co-worker as I left my job at the San Francisco Public Library. At the time, I didn’t feel very gracious about the transition, and so it has taken me a while to finish reading this.

“Glad No Matter What” is primarily a book about the type of loss and change that surrounds the death of a loved one, but I could apply some of it to the loss and change I am currently experiencing as I transition to my new home. SARK’s unbridled enthusiasm and good nature bursts from every page, and it is difficult not to be cheered by her multicolored scrawls.

My favorite portion of her book was about her “emotional GPS” and how she notices negative thought patterns and reactions as she is having them, then tells herself “recalculating” as she finds a new “emotional route”. I chuckled over this, and then gave it some thought. Sometimes I feel very guilty about my negative responses to things while feeling helpless to change them. But with the emotional GPS idea, I can recalculate negative reactions into less negative responses.

I admit to skimming over some parts that were simply too spiritual for my tastes, but I remain an admirer of SARK as a creative force and a positive influence in a cynical world.

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Year in review mixtape: swan fillet.

For this year in review, I want to do something different. I enjoy reading others’ questionnaires but didn’t enjoy filling my own out, and my “post the first line from the first post of each month” meme results bored me. This year just seems too big to summarize as I’ve done in the past.

Once upon a time, I used to make mixtapes. I won’t pretend that they were any good, but I miss paying that level of attention to the music that moved me. So here is my year in review in mixtape form. No droll footnotes or quoted lyrics … just songs that brought pieces of me from there to here and reassembled them almost in order.

I call it “swan fillet”.

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Review: We Need to Talk about Kevin

We Need to Talk about Kevin We Need to Talk about Kevin by Lionel Shriver
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I really do not know what to write about this book. On the one hand, it is a known quantity; no one starts reading it without knowing, at least in the most general sense, what it is about. On the other, it answers none of the questions the reader will have about its horrific central narrative.

Shriver is, undoubtedly, a talented writer. The story made me feel ambivalence for every single character introduced, no small feat considering how easy it would be to create a maudlin mother or monstrous son. No, in fact, every single person involved has realistic foibles, making the absence of the great “why” at the end all the more appalling.

It could happen to any one of us, here in the real world. And it has. And I’m not sure I needed to read a book about that.

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Review: The Dewey Decimal System: A Novel

The Dewey Decimal System: A Novel The Dewey Decimal System: A Novel by Nathan Larson
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It may be weird to say that I am a fan of dystopian near-future settings. I have a morbid fascination with bleak, sparse landscapes and crumbling infrastructure; I remain hopeful that I will never have to live in such a world, but constantly wonder what type of person I would be if I survived in one.

In “The Dewey Decimal System”, Larson creates an instantly engaging survivor as a protagonist, and a compelling city in ruins around him. Larson’s staccato, fragmented style makes this a quick and brutal read with plenty of physical and emotional carnage. I only wished for more scenes in the New York Public Library, yearning for more details of this post-apocalyptic information age that seems entirely devoid of the ‘net.

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"The Sugarplum Favor" -- a Christmas story by Tad Williams

I hope you are enjoying the holiday, Festivus, Winterval, or whatever you consider this period of time. I am spending it mostly unplugged, an important thing I do not do often enough, but I had to plug back in to share this with you.

I have been an avid fan of Tad Williams since discovering his Otherland saga, a science-fiction series I regularly recommend while never being able to adequately describe it. So when Deborah Beale, Tad's co-conspirator and wife, tweeted about a new short story of his available for bloggers to post, I was absolutely thrilled to volunteer. And through the magic of the Internet, here it is.

Tad Williams' new short story collection, A Stark And Wormy Knight, is available now, worldwide, as an ebook, $4.99 (or equivalent) for one month at Amazon.

The following story is unique to this blog and a few others.  Happy Holidays!

(A Christmas Story)
Tad Williams

     Danny Mendoza counted his change three times in while the teacher talked about what they were all supposed to bring for the class winter holiday party tomorrow.  It was really a Christmas party, at least in Danny's class, because that's what all the kids' families' celebrated.  Danny had his party contribution covered.  He had volunteered to bring napkins and paper plates and cups because his family had some left over from his little brother's birthday party with characters from Gabba Gabba Hey on them.  He'd get teased about that, he knew, but he didn't want to ask his mother to make something because she was so busy with his little brothers and the baby, and now that Danny's stepfather Luis had lost his job they had a Money Situation.  Danny could live with a little teasing.

     Danny was going to buy a candy bar for his mother, one of those big ones.  That was going to be his Christmas present to her and Danny knew how much she'd like it -- he hadn't just inherited his small size and nimble fingers from her, he'd got her sweet tooth, too.  And she had just been talking about the Christmas a few years ago when Luis had a good job with the Sanitation Department and he'd brought her a whole box of See's chocolates.  Danny knew he couldn't match that, but the last of the money he'd saved up from raking leaves in the neighborhood and walking old Mrs. Rosales' wheezy little dog should be enough to buy a big old Hershey bar that would make Mama smile.  No, what to get wasn't a problem.  The thing that had him thinking so hard as he went down the street at a hurried walk, hands shoved deep into his jacket pockets, was whether he dared to get it now or should wait another day.

     In Danny's San Jose neighborhood the Mercado Estrella was like an African water hole, not only a crucial source of nurture but also the haunt of the most fearsome predator in his 3rd grade world.  Any stop at the little market meant he risked running into Hector Villaba, the big, mean fifth-grade kid who haunted Danny's days and often his nights as well.  Danny couldn't even begin to guess how much candy and other goodies Hector had stolen from him and the other kids over the years, but it was a lot -- Hector was the elementary school's Public Enemy Number One.  About half the time his victims got shoved around, too, or even hit, and none of the grown-ups ever did anything about it except to tell their humiliated sons they should learn how to fight back.  That was probably because Hector Villaba's father was a violent, drunken brute who didn't care what Hector did and everyone in the neighborhood was as scared of him as the kids at school were scared of his son.  The last time someone in the neighborhood had called the police on Hector's dad, all their windows had been broken while they were at church and their car scratched from one end to another.

     Danny was still trying to make up his mind whether to risk stopping at the market today or wait for better odds tomorrow (when class ended early because of the holiday) when he saw Mrs. Rosales walking Pinto, her little spotted dog.  He almost crossed the street because he knew she'd want to talk to him and he'd spent a lot of time doing that already last week when went to her house to get Pinto nearly every day.  He was too close, though, she'd seen him, and Jesus hated being rude to old people almost as much as he hated it when kids lied, or at least that was what his mama always told him.  Danny wasn't expecting much from Santa anyway, but if Jesus got upset things would probably be even worse.  He sighed and continued toward her.

     "Look who's here!" Mrs. Rosales said when she saw him.  "Look, Pinto mi querida, it's your friend Danny!"  But when he waved and would have passed by she told him, "Hold on a moment, young man, I want to talk to you."

     He stopped, but he was really worried that Hector and his friends might catch up if he stood around too long.  "Yes, Mrs. Rosales?"

     "I short-changed you the other day."  She took out a little coin purse.  It took her a long time to get it open with her knobby old fingers.  "I owe you a dollar."

     "Really?"  Danny was astonished.

     She pulled out a piece of paper that looked like it had been folded and unfolded a hundred times and handed it to him.  "I know boys need money this time of year!"

     He thanked her, petted Pinto (who growled despite all their time together, because Pinto was a spoiled brat) and hurried toward the market.  Another dollar!  It was like one of those Christmas miracles on a television show – like the Grinch's heart growing so much it made the x-ray machine go sproing!  This changed everything.  He could not only buy his mom's present, he could buy something for himself, too.  He briefly considered blowing the whole dollar on a Butterfinger, his very favorite, but he knew hard candies would be a better investment -- he could share them with his younger brothers, and it was Christmas-time, after all.  But whatever he got, he didn't want to wait for tomorrow, not now that he had something to spend on himself.  Danny Mendoza had been candy-starved for days.  Nothing sweeter than the baby's butterscotch pudding had passed his lips that week, and the pudding hadn't been by his own choice.  (His baby sister had discovered that if she waved her spoon things flew and splattered, and she liked that new trick a lot.)  If he hurried to the market he should still get there long before Hector and his friends, who had many children to harass and humiliate on their way home.  It was a risk, of course, but with an unexpected dollar in his pocket Danny felt strangely confident.  There had to be such a thing as Christmas luck, didn't there?  After all, it was a whole holiday about Jesus getting born, and Jesus was kind to everybody.  Although it sure hadn't seemed like a lucky Christmas when Luis, Danny's stepfather, had lost his job in the first week of December.  But maybe things were going to get better now -- maybe, as his mama sometimes said, the Mendoza family's luck was going to change.

     He was even more willing to believe in miracles when he saw no sign of Hector  and his friends at the market.  As he walked in Christmas music was playing loudly on the radio, that "Joy to the World" song sung by some smooth television star.  Tia Marisol, the little old lady who ran the place on her own since her husband died, was trying to hang some lights above the cigarettes behind the cash register.  She wasn't his real aunt, of course.  Everybody in the neighborhood just called her "Tia."

     "Oye, little man," she called when she turned around and saw him.  "How's your mama?"

     "Fine, Tia Marisol.  I'm getting her a present."  He made his way past the postres to the long candy rack.  So many colors, so many kinds!  It almost seemed to glow, like in one of those cartoons where children found a treasure-cave.  When Danny was little, it was what he had imagined when the minister at the church talked about Heaven.  The only better thing he had ever seen in his whole life was the huge piñata at one of his school friends' birthday party, years and years ago.  When the birthday boy knocked the piñata open and candy came showering out and all the kids could jump in and take what they want – that had been amazing.  Like winning a game show on television.  Danny still dreamed about it sometimes.

     Danny realized that he was staring like a dummy at the rack of candy when every second the danger that Hector and his friends would arrive kept growing.  He quickly examined the big Hershey bars until he found one with a perfect wrapper, a massive candy bar that looked as if it had been made special for a commercial.  He would have loved to spend more time browsing -- how often did he have a whole dollar to spend just on candy? -- but he knew time was short, so he grabbed a good-sized handful of hard, sour candies for sucking, took several different colors of candy ropes; then, as worry grew inside him, as uncomfortable as needing to pee, he finally snatched up a handful of bubble gum and ran to the front counter.

     "What's your hurry, m'hijo?" Tia Marisol asked.

     "Mom needs me," he said, which he hoped was not enough of a lie to ruin Jesus' upcoming celebration.  After all, Mom did always need his help, especially by this time in the day when she'd been on her own with the baby and the littlest brother since morning, and had just walked the other brother home from preschool.  He pulled the three dollars worth of much-counted change out of one pocket and mounded it in front of Tia Marisol, then put the Hershey bar and his own handful of candy down beside it before digging out the crumpled dollar Mrs. Rosales had given him.  She slid her glasses a little way down her nose while she looked at it all.

     "Where'd you get so much money, Danny?"

     "Raking lawns.  Taking Mrs. Rosales' dog for walks."

     Tia Marisol smiled, handed him back twenty-three cents, and put everything into a paper bag.  "You're a good boy.  You and your family have a happy Christmas.  Tell your mama I said hello, would you?"

     "Sure."  He was already halfway through the door, heart beating.

     The Christmas miracle continued outside: other than a couple of young mothers with strollers and bundled-up babies, and the old men who sat on the bus bench across the street drinking from bottles in paper bags, the area around the store was still clear.  Danny began to walk toward home as fast as he could without running, because he had the bag under his coat now and he didn't want to melt Mama's candy bar.  Still, he was almost skipping, he was so happy.  Joy to the world, the Lord is come...!

     "Hey, Mendoza," someone shouted in a hoarse voice.  "What's in the bag, maricon?"

     Danny stopped, frozen for a moment like a cornered animal, but then he began to walk again, faster and faster until he was running.  There was no question whose voice that was.  Pretty much every kid in his school knew it and feared it.

     "Hold up, Mendoza, or I'll kick your ass good!"  The voice was getting closer.  He could hear the whir of bike tires on the sidewalk coming up behind him fast.  He looked back and saw that Hector Villaba and his big, stupid friends Rojo and Chuy were bearing down on him on their bikes, and in another second or two would ride him down.  He lunged to the side just as Hector stuck out his foot and shoved him, sending Danny crashing into the low wire fence of the house he was passing.  He bounced off and tumbled painfully to the sidewalk as Hector and his gang stopped just a few yards ahead, now blocking the sidewalk that led Danny home.  The hard candies had fallen out of his bag and were scattered across the sidewalk.  He got down on his knees, hurrying to pick them up, doing everything he could to avoid eye contact with Hector and the others, but when he reached for the last one Hector's big, stupid basketball-shoe was on top of it.  The older boy leaned over and picked it up.  "Jolly Rancher, huh?  Not bad.  Not great, but not bad."  He waved it in Danny's face, making him look up from all fours like a dog at its master.  "I asked you what's in the bag, Mendoza?"

     "Nothing!  It's for my mama."

     "For your mama?  Oh, iddn't dat sweet?"  Hector's fingers hooked under Danny's chin and lifted.  Danny didn't fight -- he knew it wasn't going to help -- but he still flinched when he saw Hector's round, sweaty face so close, the angry, pale yellow-brown eyes.  Hector Villaba even had the beginnings of a real mustache, a hairy smudge on his upper lip.  It was one of the things that made him so scary, one of the reasons why even bigger twelve year olds like Chuy and Rojo let him lead them -- a fifth-grader with a mustache!

     "C'mon, open it up," Hector told him.  "Let's see what you got for your mama."  When Danny still didn't offer up the bag, Hector's friend Chuy put a foot on Danny's back and pushed down so hard that Danny had to brace himself to keep from being shoved against the sidewalk.  "I said show me, maricon," said Hector.  "Chuy gonna break your spine.  He knows karate."

     Danny handed Hector the bag, biting his lip, determined not to cry.  Hector pulled out the big Hershey Bar.  "Hijole!" he said.  "Look at that!  Something for your mama, shit -- you were going to eat that all by yourself.  Not even share none with us.  That's cold, man."

     "It is for my mother!  It is!"  Danny pushed up against Chuy's heavy hiking boot trying to reach the candy bar, which didn't look anywhere near so huge clamped in Hector Villaba's plump, dirty fingers.  Chuy took his weight off for a moment, then kicked Danny in the ribs hard enough to make him drop to the concrete and hug himself in pain.

     "If you try any more shit, we'll hurt you good," said Hector, laughing as he unwrapped the candy bar.  He tossed a piece to Chuy, then another to Rojo, who grabbed it out of the air and shoved it in his mouth like a starving dog, then licked his fingers.  Hector leaned down and gave Danny another shove, hard enough to crash him against the fence again.  "Don't you ever try to hide anything from me.  I know where you live, dude.  I'll come over and slap the bitch out of you and your mama both."  He pointed to the hard candies still clutched in Danny's hands.  "Get that other shit, too, yo," Hector told Rojo, and the big, freckled kid bent Danny's fingers back until he surrendered it all.

     The Christmas chocolate bar, looking sad and naked with half its foil peeled away, was still clutched in Hector's hand as he and his friends rode away laughing, sharing the hard candy out of the bag.

     For a while Danny just sat on the cold sidewalk and wished he had a knife or even a gun and he could kill Hector Villaba, even if it made Jesus unhappy for weeks.  At that moment Danny almost felt like he could do it.  The rotten, mean bastard had taken his mom's present!

     At last Danny wiped his eyes and continued home.  It was starting to get dark and the wind was suddenly cold, which made his scratched-up hands ache.  When he reached the apartment he let himself in, dropped his book bag by the door, then called a greeting to his mama feeding Danny's baby sister in the kitchen as he hurried on to the bathroom so he could clean up his scratches and tear-stained face and do his best to hide the damage to the knees of his pants before she saw him up close.  It wouldn't do any good to tell her what had happened – she couldn't do anything and it would make her very sad.  Danny was used to keeping quiet about what went on between home and school, school and home.

     After a while he went out and sat at the table and watched as his mother fed green goop to the baby.  Even her smile for Danny looked tired.  Mama worked so hard to keep them all fed and dressed, hardly ever yelled, and even sang old songs from Mexico for Danny and his brothers when she wasn't too tired...

     And now that cabron Hector had stolen her present, and he didn't have any money left to get her something else.


     Later that night, when the house was quiet and everyone was asleep, Danny found himself crying again.  It was so unfair!  What had happened to the Christmas luck?  Or did that kind of thing only happen to other kids, other families?

"Please, Jesus," he prayed quietly.  "I just have to get Mama something for Christmas – something Hector can't take.  If that's a miracle, okay – I mean, I know you can't do them all the time, but if you got extra one…"


     Something woke him up – a strange noise in the living room.  For a moment he lay in bed wondering if Santa Claus might have come, but then he remembered it was still three days until Christmas.  Still, he could definitely hear something moving, a kind of quiet fluttery sound.   His brothers were both sprawled in boneless, little-boy sleep across the mattress they shared, so he climbed carefully over them and made his way out to the living room.  At first he saw nothing more unusual than the small Christmas tree on top of the coffee table, but as he stared, his eyes trying to get used to the dark, he saw the tree was...moving?  Yes, moving, the top of the pine wagging like a dog's tail.

     Danny had never heard of a Christmas tree coming to life, not even in a TV movie, and it scared him.  He picked up the tennis racket with the missing strings Luis kept promising to fix, then crawled toward the scraggly tree with its ornaments of foil and cut paper.

     As he got closer he could see that something small was caught in the tree's topmost branch, trying to fly away but not succeeding.  He could hear its wings beating so fast they almost buzzed.  A bird, trapped in the apartment?  A really big moth?

     Danny looked for one of the baby's bowls to trap it, then had a better idea and crept to the kitchen cabinet where his mom kept the washed jars.  He picked a big one that had held sandwich spread and slithered commando-style back to the living room.  Whatever the thing was, it was really stuck, tugging and thrashing as it tried to free itself from the pine needles.  He dropped the jar over it and pulled carefully on the branch until the thing could finally get free, then Danny clapped the lid on the jar to keep it from escaping.

     The thing inside the jar went crazy now, flying against the glass, the wings going so fast that it made it hard for him to see for certain what it was.  The strange thing was, it actually looked like a person -- a tiny, tiny little person no bigger than a sparrow.  That was crazy.  Danny knew it was crazy.  He knew he had to be dreaming.

     "What are you doing?" the thing said in a tiny, rasping voice.  It didn't sound happy at all.  "Let me go!"

     Danny was so startled to hear it talk that he nearly dropped the jar.  He held it up to the light coming in from the street lamp to get a better look.  The prisoner in the jar was a little lady -- a lady with wings!  A real, honest-to-goodness Christmas miracle!  "Are angel?" he asked.

     "Let me out, young man, and we'll talk about it."  She didn't sound much like an angel.  Actually, she sounded a lot like that scratchy-voiced nanny on that TV show his mama watched sometimes.  Her hair was yellow and kind of wild and sticky-uppy, and she wore a funny little dancing dress.  She was also carrying a bag over her shoulder like Santa did, except that hers wasn't much bigger than Danny's thumb.

     "P-Promise you won't fly away?" he asked this strange small person.  "If I let you out?"

     She had her tiny hands pressed up against the inside of the jar.  She shook her head so hard her little sparkly crown almost fell off.  "Promise.  But hurry up -- I don't like enclosed places.  Honest, it makes me want to scream.  Let me out, please."

     "Okay.  But no cheating."  He unscrewed the lid on the jar and slowly turned it over.   The tiny lady rose up, fluttering into the light that streamed through the living room window.

     "Oh, that's so much better," she said.  "I got stuck in a panoramic Easter egg once, wedged between a frosting bunny and a cardboard flower pot.  Thought I was going to lose my mind."

     "Wow," he said.  "Who are you?  What are you?"

     She carefully landed on the floor near his knee.  "I'm a sugarplum fairy," she said.  "Like in that ballet."


     "Never mind.  Look, thanks for getting me loose from that tree."  She turned herself around trying to look down at herself.  "Rats!  Ripped my skirt.  I hate conifers."  She turned back to Danny.  "I didn't mean to scare you, I was just passing through the neighborhood when I felt somebody thinking candy thoughts -- real serious candy thoughts.  I mean, it was like someone shouting.  Anyway, that's what we do, us sugarplum fairies -- we handle the candy action, especially at Christmas time.  So I thought I should come and check it out.  Was it you?  Because if it was, you've got the fever bad, kid."  She reached into her bag and produced a lollypop bigger than she was, something that couldn't possibly have fit in there.  "Here, have one on me.  You look like you need it."

     "Wow.  Wow!"  He suddenly realized he was talking out loud and dropped his voice, worried that he would wake up his mama and Luis.  He reached out for the lollypop.  "You're really a fairy.  Do you know Jesus?"

     She shrugged.  "I think he's in another department.  What's your name?  It's Danny, isn't it?"

     He nodded.  "Yeah."  It suddenly struck him.  "You know my name...?"

     "I've got it all written down somewhere."  She started riffling through her bag again, then pulled out something that looked like a tiny phone book.  She took out an equally small pair of glasses, opened the book and began reading.  "For some reason you fell off the list here, Danny.  No wonder you're so desperate -- you haven't had a sugarplum delivery in quite a while!  Well, that at least I can do something about."  She frowned as she took a pen out of the apparently bottomless bag and made a correction.  "Of course, they may not process the new order until early next year, and I'm not scheduled back in this area until Valentines Day."  She frowned.  "Doesn't seem fair..."  A moment later her tiny face brightened.  "Hey, since you saved me from that tree branch I think I'm allowed to give you a wish.  Would you like that?"

     "Really?  A wish?"

     "Yes.  I can do that."

"You'll give me a wish?  Like magic?  A wish?"

     She frowned again.  "Come on, kid, I know you've been shorted on candy the last couple of years but is your blood sugar really that low?  I just very clearly said I will give you a wish.  We're allowed to when someone helps us out."

     He was so excited he could barely sit still.  It was a Christmas miracle after all, a real one!  "Could I wish for, like, a million dollars?"  Then even if Luis didn't find another job for a while, the family would be okay.  More than okay.

     She shook her head.  "Sorry, kid, no.  I only do candy-related wishes.  You want one of those extra big gummy bears?  I hear those are popular this year.  I could bend some rules and get it to you by Christmas."

     He was tempted -- he'd seen an ad on television -- but now it was his turn to shake his head.  "Could I just get a big Hershey bar?  One of those extra-big ones?  For my mother?"

     The little woman tilted her head up so she could see him better from where she stood down on the ground.  "Truly?  Is that all you want?  Gee, kid, I could feel the desperation coming off this house like weird off an elf.  You sure you don't want something a little more...substantial?  A pile of candy, maybe?  A year's supply of gumdrops or something?  As long as it's candy-related, I can probably get it done for you, but you better decide quick."  She pulled quite a large pocket watch on a chain out of her bag, then put on her glasses again.  "After midnight, and I've still got half my rounds to go."  She looked up at him.  "You seem like a nice kid, Danny, and it doesn't look like you guys are exactly swimming in presents and stuff.  How about a nice pile of candy, assorted types?  Or if you'd rather just concentrate on -- what did you say, Hershey Bars? -- I could probably arrange a shopping bag of those or something..."

     For a moment his head swam at the prospect of a grocery bag full of giant chocolate bars, more than Hector the Butt-head Villaba could ever dream of having now matter how much he stole...but then another idea came floating up from deep down in Danny's thoughts -- a strange, dark idea.

     "Can you do all kinds of wishes?  Really all kinds?"

     "Yeah, but just one.  And it definitely has to be candy-related.  I'm not a miracle worker or anything."

     "Okay.  Then  I'll tell you what I want."  Danny could suddenly see it all in his imagination, and it was very, very good.


     The school holiday party was nice.  Danny and his classmates played games and sang songs and had a snack of fruit and cheese and crackers.  Nobody brought Chips Ahoy cookies, but one of the mothers did indeed bring cupcakes, delicious chocolate ones with silver, green and red sprinkles for Christmas.  There were even enough left over that although Danny had finished his long ago despite making it last as long as possible, he was allowed to take home the last two for his little brothers.  He suspected that the teacher knew his family didn't have much money, but for this one day it didn't embarrass him at all.

     After the bell rang Danny followed the other third-graders toward the school gate, holding one cupcake carefully in each hand, his book bag draped over his shoulder.  He was watching his feet so carefully that he didn't see what made the other children suddenly scatter to either side, but as soon as he heard the voice he knew the reason.

     "Look at that, it's Maricon Mendoza, yo," said Hector Villaba.  "What'd you bring us for Christmas, kid?"  Danny looked up.  The mustached monster was sitting astride his bike just a few yards down the sidewalk, flanked by Rojo and Chuy.  "Oh, yeah, dude -- cupcakes!" said Hector.  "You remembered our Christmas presents."  He scooted his bike forward until he stood directly over Danny, then reached out for the cupcakes.  Danny couldn't help it -- he jerked back when Hector tried to take them, even though he knew it would probably earn him another bruising.

     "Punch the little chulo's face in," Rojo suggested.

     Hector dropped his bike with a clatter.  The other kids from school who had stopped to stare in horrified fascination jumped out of his way as he strode forward and grabbed the cupcakes out of Danny's hands.  He peeled the paper off one and shoved the whole cupcake in his mouth, then tossed the other to Chuy.  "You two split that," he said through a mouthful of devil's food, then turned his attention back to Danny, who was so scared and excited that he felt like electricity was running through him.  "Next time, you better remember to bring one for each of us, Mendoza.  You only bring two, that's going to get your ass kicked."

     Danny backed away.  It was hard to look into those yellow-brown eyes and not run crying, let alone keep thinking clearly, but Danny did his best.  He dropped his book bag to the ground and out fell the stringless tennis racket that he had brought from home.  Hector hooted with angry laughter as Danny snatched it up and held it before him as if it was a cross and Hector was a vampire.

     >"Que?  You going to try to hit me, little boy?"  Hector laughed again, but he didn't sound happy.  He didn't like it when people stood up to him.  "I'll take that away from you and beat your ass black and blue, Mendoza."  The bully took a step nearer and held out his hand.  "Give it to me or I'll break your fingers."

     "No."  Danny wasn't going to step back any farther.  He lifted the racket, waved it around like a baseball bat.  It was old and flimsy, but he had come to school determined today.  "You can't have fat asshole."

     Behind Hector, Rojo let out a surprised chortle, but Hector Villaba didn't think it was funny at all.

     "That's it," he said, curling his hands into fists.  "After I kick your ass, I'm gonna rub your face in dog shit.  Then I'm gonna kick your ass again.  You're gonna spend Christmas in the hospital."  Without warning, he charged toward Danny.

     Danny stepped to the side and swung the racket as hard as he could, hitting Hector right in the stomach.  With a whoop of surprise and pain Hector bent double, but when he looked up he didn't look hurt, just really, really mad, his eyes staring like a crazy dog's eyes.

     "That'  I'" he said, then sucked in air and stood up straight, but even as he did so a funny expression crossed his face and he looked down at where he was holding his belly.  Hector's hands were suddenly full of crackling, cellophane-wrapped hard candies, so many of them that they cascaded over his fingers and onto the ground.  He lifted his hands in disbelief to look and dozens more of the candies slid out of the front of his open jacket -- candy bars, too, fun-size and even regular ones, Snickers bars, Mounds, Tootsie Rolls, lollipops, candy canes, even spicy tamarindos.  The other children from the school stared in horrified fascination, guessing that Danny had broken a bag that Hector had been carrying under his coat.  They were so scared of Hector that they didn't move an inch toward any of the candy that was still slithering out of the big boy's coat and pooling on the ground at his feet.

     "Oh, man," one of the other third graders said in a hoarse whisper, "Mendoza's going to get beat up so bad...!"

     But even more candy was pouring out of Hector's belly now, as if someone had turned on a candy-faucet, a great river of sweets running out of the place where Danny had knocked him open with his old tennis racket.

     "What the...?"  Then Hector Villaba looked down at himself and began to scream in terror.  Candy was showering out of him faster and faster onto the sidewalk, already piled as high as the cuffs of his pants and still coming.

     "Hijole, dude!"  said Rojo.  "You're a piñata!"

     Hector looked at him, eyes rolling with fear, then he turned sprinted away down the street squealing like a kindergartner, a flood of candy still pouring from him, Crunch Bars, M&Ms,  (plain and peanut) as well as boxes of gumdrops and wax-wrapped pieces of taffy, all raining onto the street around the bully's legs and feet, bouncing and rolling.

     Rojo and Chuy watched Hector run for a moment, then turned to stare at Danny with a mixture of apprehension and confusion.  Then turned from him to look at each other, came to some kind of agreement, and threw themselves down on their knees to start scooping up the candy that had fallen out of Hector Villaba.  Within a few seconds the other school kids were all scrambling across the ground beside them, everybody shoveling candy into their pockets as fast as they could.

     Danny waited until he wasn't breathing so hard, then started for home, following the clear trail of candy that had gushed from Hector Villaba as he ran.  He didn't bother to pick up everything, since for once in his life he could afford to be selective.  He stuffed one pocket of his jacket with candy for his brothers, then filled the other just with Butterfinger Bars, at least six or seven, but kept walking with his head down until he spotted a nice, big Hershey Bar in good condition which he zipped in his book bag so it would stay safe for his mother.  The rest of the way home he picked up whatever looked interesting and threw it into the book bag too, until by the time he reached home he was staggering with its weight up the apartment building walkway.  For once, Hector Villaba had been the one who had run home crying.

     He didn't feel sorry for Hector, either, not at all.  Scared as the fifth-grader was now, he would be all right when he reached home.  Danny had made that a part of the wish and the fairy had said she thought it was a good idea.  Jesus didn't want even mean kids to die from having their guts really fall out, Danny felt pretty sure, so he had done his best not to spoil the Lord's birthday.  Of course Hector Villaba probably wouldn't have a very merry Christmas, but Danny had decided that Jesus could probably live with that.

Tiger-eyed and Tinytown.

I rediscovered this wonderful literary community online called Fictionaut, and posted an older bit of flash fiction called “Tiger-eyed”. An excerpt:

The tiger-eye beads around her neck would wink at me like a nervous uncle sharing a secret with a child. They roll on her sternum like marbles. At night, on her nightstand, they whisper my secret to the patchouli-scented room. How long have they known?

Also, the first draft of my short story “Tinytown” is 28% complete. The new word-counting widget in the sidebar told me! Because I am encouraged by statistics, I hope to make that 100% by the end of the year.

I would like to say that I found these bits of writerly motivation from within, but it’s all the slush-pile reading. There’s nothing quite like seeing completed stories every day to make me want to complete my own.

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

What? No one's posted the trailer for "The Hobbit" online yet? Let me fix that for you.

Best. Drum solo. Ever.

We all love a good air-drum to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight", but the cumulative joy from that tiny riff can't compare to Fred Astaire's brilliance. (via MetaFilter)

Metalwork fountain pens.

I have serious pen lust. (h/t FunkyPlaid)

All I want for Festivus is more "Community".

If you do too, snail-mail letters are the way to go. Send your heartfelt pleas to:

Robert Greenblatt c/o NBC Universal 100 Universal City Plaza Universal City CA 91608 USA

If you haven’t watched the show at all but are interested, now is a good time to catch up. (Hulu has the full run for American viewers.)

I am still in shock that “Community” has been shelved indefinitely yet “Whitney” wasn’t just canceled outright. That is the least funny television show I have seen in approximately ever.


Yesterday, FunkyPlaid and I walked downtown on some errands. As we left our flat, we both remarked on the loveliness of the day, blue skies barely clouded, and yet somehow we still managed to get caught in a short downpour on Princes Street.

This confirmed my suspicion that Scottish clouds just dip their bellies in blue paint from time to time.

19.365: the city & the city

Today as I sat and hammered out some metadata at my volunteer post – which was exactly six times more exciting than this sentence sounds – the building shook. After a twelve-year stint in California, I am no stranger to shaking buildings. It just hadn’t occurred to me that the wind could shake a building as much as the ground could.

I hopped off the bus in an unfamiliar part of town just so I could figure out my way back, and with the wind it ended up being a little more exciting than I expected. Thank goodness for the steadfastness of the lamppost I clung to as my boots slid out from under me. Hello again, Chicago! I used this excuse to scamper into Tesco and consult blue-dot on the map, which sometimes lies. The walking directions home took me in what I was sure was a large U-turn, but now looking at the map I suppose it was the most direct route.

A lot of navigation here is like that, which makes logical sense in a city-planning-over-centuries way, but I just like to pretend that the bus I’m on is involved in a very slow car-chase, always trying to shake that persistent cop on its tail.

Celsius is much more satisfying for reporting temperatures. Fahrenheit insists it is 37 degrees, which is many numbers, but Celsius says 3. That is about how it feels. Just a few degrees among the lint in your pocket, instead of 37, which is a feast of grapes for lunch, or an impressive spate of paper clips on your desk. Hell, you could make a paper-clip necklace with that.

In other exciting news, I’ve been overpaying my bus fare by exactly 30 pence every time. I swore the sign said £1.60. The tickets piling up in my purse each say £1.30. Another awkward social situation explained!

Responses to Single Dad Laughing's post "I'm Christian, unless you're gay."

I found this incredibly touching. It helps to read the post first, then watch the video.

Feminist Ryan Gosling.

There is so much to like about Feminist Ryan Gosling. This is one of my favorites.

Library Visits at Historic High

Total visits in the last ten years increased by nearly 40%. Who said the library was no longer relevant? 

Library Visits at Historic High

Total visits in the last ten years increased by nearly 40%. Who said the library was no longer relevant? 

Curried sweet potatoes and getting carded.

I went to the market tonight for dinner ingredients, one of which was white wine. Instead of buying a whole bottle, I opted for a miniature bottle, not quite so miniature as the ones you get on the airplane, but close.

At the till, the clerk asked for my ID. This is flattering at the age of thirty-mumble, so I cheerfully obliged.

I could have hugged her for the theatrical jaw-drop.

As I left and caught a glimpse of my shadow, I realized that my youthful appearance was likely the work of the yeti hat.

Still, I'll take it.

salmon in the slow-cooker

Print Recipe

Cygnoir’s Curried Sweet Potatoes

I don’t even know if you can call this a recipe, but since it worked so well, I wanted to share it.


Course: Side Dishes

Cuisine: American

Prep Time: 5 Min

Cook Time: 25 Min

Total Time: 30 Min

Serves: 2


  • 1 pound sweet potatoes peeled and diced
  • 4 Tbsp unsalted butter
  • 1.5 tsp mild curry powder
  • 1 tsp cinnamon


  1. Preheat oven to 210ºC (convection) / 425ºF. Cut potatoes into 1/2-inch or otherwise bite-sized pieces, depending on your daintiness. Melt butter in method of your choosing. Dump curry powder and cinnamon in melted butter and swirl it all up.
  2. Put potato bits in an oven-safe baking dish and drizzle seasoned butter over them until all bits are coated. Salt and pepper to taste — for me, this is two tiny shakes of salt and five grinds of pepper.
  3. Bake for 10 minutes, then shake it up. Bake another 10, shake it up again. Turn off the oven but leave the potatoes inside for another 5 minutes. Some magic happens. Serve and enjoy along with a tiny bit of smugness.

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Fluff piece.

Some shiny bits from the day …

FunkyPlaid and I were referred to as "the septics" by a friend and I guessed correctly what it meant. And it wasn't even an insult! Well … not entirely.

What? What's that? A photo of what I made for dinner? Unheard of.

I know you know Marcel the Shell with Shoes On. I know this because you are obviously a person of taste and refinement. However, if you somehow missed the recent release of the second Marcel video, I have included it here for your enjoyment:

[youtube [](])

And then this video made me dance in my seat (via Bradley):

[vimeo 30293264 w=400 h=225]

Official Trailer: Girl Walk // All Day from Girl Walk // All Day on Vimeo.

Did you finish NaNoWriMo? My friend Adam did, as per usual. He makes it look so awesome that every year I am convinced that I should do it too. And then on the first of November I am overcome with the lazy. His excerpts make me happy.

Also there were articles about economic collapse and massive climate change. But then there was a piano-duet cover of Jesus & Mary Chain's "Just Like Honey"!

[youtube [](])

Never fear! I will return to the hard-hitting journalism this site is known for very soon.

HIDWtS: Thanksgiving in Scotland.

This Thanksgiving edition of How I Decide Where to Sit is dedicated to reviewing all the rookie mistakes one can make when riding public transit in a new city for the first time, because it is kind of like what the Pilgrims did when they– no. Even I can’t torture that metaphor. It is dedicated to rookie mistakes because I made them all today and I need to laugh about them with you.

  • I waited thirty minutes for a bus whose arrival time as reported by the phone app was stuck at "21:39" before giving up and walking to a stop of a different bus that seemed to be showing up every ten minutes.
  • I assumed that the stops for the line going inbound were in generally the same place as the stops for the line going outbound.
  • I forgot about the driving on the left side of the road thing, which means I was waiting on the wrong side of the street for the inbound bus.
  • I thought I could easily cross a simple little two-lane road to get to the correct side of the street, but finally gave up and walked all the way around to the subway (underpass) so I could cross without dying.
  • When I finally boarded the right bus, I was so set on sitting up top that I was forced to sit on the very back row, which is almost exactly like the rumble seat.
  • Despite much rumbling, I fell asleep. But woke up just as the bus approached the landmark nearest my stop!
  • I disbelieved my gut telling me to walk THAT WAY home and instead listened to the little blue dot of the GPS which lies.

So really it was like riding public transit for the very first time ever! That is the spin I am going to take because I am in denial, denial that moving to a new country, even if you (sort of) speak the language, means not knowing how to do anything very well for a while and just sucking that up because the alternative is hiding in your very nice flat all the time and pretending to buy postage from the cats just so you get better at counting out the different coins. Not that I have been doing that at all.

[caption id=“” align=“aligncenter” width=“500” caption=“Lothian Buses 991 SN57 DBX, by Ingy the Wingy”]Lothian Buses 991 SN57 DBX[/caption]

Anyway, I had thought about doing some sort of Thanksgiving meal here, but the more I pondered approximating turkey, stuffing, cranberries, and the rest, the more homesick I felt, and then I felt disappointed about feeling so homesick. My stomach sold the rest of me out for the memory of pumpkin pie. Yesterday’s vegan baking experiment of pumpkin mini-muffins did not do the trick, although they were tasty. (I used this recipe, with a ripe banana in the place of the eggs.)

Homesickness aside, I am extremely thankful for this new home, for my family and friends, and for owning a lot of candles because this place is very dark just now. I think I will go roast some chestnuts.

HIDWtS Rating: We just debated taking turkey legs to the chip shop that will fry anything. Do you think they will do pumpkin puree?

[box type=“shadow”]I used to ride a shuttle to work. It was a really nice shuttle and the first time I had ever had that luxury, causing me to overthink pretty much every aspect of it, especially where to sit. And now I overthink where I decide to sit in every open-seating situation, so I’m writing about it in a series called How I Decide Where to Sit.[/box]


I like St Andrews more each time I visit, and I already liked it a lot the first time. There are great people there, and books and learning and junk, and also videos of sneezing pandas. To commemorate my deepening affection for this place, here is a really fancy postcard that it took me all day to make.

cheap postcard

Or my iPhone did it in about two seconds.

Walking to the market last night, I was gently picked up by the leaf-addled wind and set down a few yards in front of where I started. Since it was generally in the correct direction, I saw no need for alarm. This happened about four more times on the way there and back.

Bluster. I forgot about proper bluster! Such polite people excused themselves as they bounced all over the walk. Every once in a while, I caught a glimpse of someone’s head suddenly spasming backwards. The old leaf to the eyeball, I nodded knowingly. And then got a leaf to the eyeball.

I don’t know how I got it into my head that Scottish people don’t eat chocolate chip cookies, but I had, and so I was craving them horribly. Then I found chocolate chip cookies in the market. Gluten-free ones. Why did I ever doubt Snackland?

The part I hate, the paying part, happened. I couldn’t postpone it any longer. So I milled around near the line for the till until the nicest-seeming clerk was free, then stampeded her. She was, in fact, very nice, and so I bought groceries in a non-humiliating fashion for the first time since arriving here. This also had to do with the use of my debit card instead of fumbling through a too-deep wallet for unfamiliar coins. I’ll take the sad little victory, thanks.

Will it ever seem natural for me to say “cheers” instead of “thanks”? The Midwestern “a” that haunts my “thanks” makes me cringe. I will try to be understood and to fit in – trousers, not pants – but some words still seem affected when I say them.

Sometimes the world is so beautiful I forget to be self-conscious. I am just an awed human in an ancient place, and it feels wonderful. Then I realize, as I did last night, that while gaping at the stone spires silhouetted against the flannel sky, a small line of drool has escaped the side of my mouth.

Nice to meet you, world. I am all class.

the Kindle lending experience from a patron’s perspective “a wolf in book’s clothing”…

the Kindle lending experience from a patron’s perspective “a wolf in book’s clothing”…

Mental map, one month in.

I’ve been in Edinburgh a month already! Really? Really. So I thought it might be time to draw a mental map.

Mental map, one month in.

The trees here don’t look anything like that. And I didn’t know how to draw the building we live in without taking up the entire lower-third of the map, so you get a Monopoly house instead.

It took a lot of willpower not to include the tram works, but I didn’t have an iPad stylus setting for “fubar”.

The good news is that my map of the immediate vicinity is very clear. I can now navigate between all places of importance, which is a list that coincides with the places I will find tea.

Additional good news: next week I start my volunteer position at the National Trust for Scotland, which means I will be reliant on public transit once more! Mental map, prepare to be … extended a few miles to the west in a very narrow corridor. With authority.

Shepherd's pie.

Here is another post about food instead of about anything else, because food is easier to talk about.

Although FunkyPlaid does an excellent job looking after me, I do not do the best job looking after myself. I have allowed myself to be a bit overrun by deadlines and responsibilities, and haven’t carved out enough time to just sit in one place and not do anything. I even have a China Miéville book on my nightstand that has been sorely neglected.

Because of my mental state, I have been falling back on old recipes for dinner. Not so tonight, when I decided to make Alton Brown’s recipe for shepherd’s pie.

This involved a trip to Waitrose, which I love. It is very posh and has nearly everything … except for a glass baking dish, which we neglected to pack, so I had to do some on-the-fly adjustments.

shepherd's pie, ingredients

I was skeptical of these adjustments until most of the hard work had been completed. Then I decided that no matter what happened, I was going to devour it because it smelled so good.

shepherd's pie, in progress

Lucky for us, it tasted good too!

shepherd's pie, ready to eat

Despite the preponderance of iPhone photos, my dSLR still exists. I just haven’t had the wherewithal to reacquaint myself with it yet. Soon, soon. First there is a glass of wine …

Simplest sauce.

There is plenty to report, but no time, so here is my pinboard of home cooking. There are just a few photos up now, but I hope the collection will grow as we continue to explore our new culinary horizons.

Dinner tonight involved an old standby, this excellent recipe for tomato sauce with butter and onions. It is not only tasty but very easy and inexpensive to make.

Simplest sauce.

  • Two 400g tins of organic peeled tomatoes: £1.50.
  • One organically-grown yellow onion: £0.25.
  • One 240g packet of organic unsalted butter (only used 70g): £1.50.
  • One 500g packet of Doves Farm organic brown rice fusilli (only used 200g): £2.50.
Approximate total cost of two servings: £3.50.

Simplest pasta.

Share a simple yet tasty recipe in the comments, won’t you?


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I give respect and reverence to those who came before me.