Monthly Archives: September 2011

Literary Blog Relay: “Transformation” Chapter 1

Tsukiji Fish Market

We are doing a literary blog relay:

One writer writes a 250 word post/story/fragment and then tags the next writer, etc., etc. We can write whatever we want, so long as our posts begin with the last line of the previous post and are linked to a central them; in this case, “Transformation.” Kind of like a track and field relay–except we’re writin’ it!

I’m kicking off the relay here, and in the name of continuity, I’ve decided to take the last line from Nova Ren Suma’s last post from our last literary blog relay

And coincidentally, Nova is next.

I had lost my legs and gained them back again and soon, like magic, I’d use them to walk away. I’d killed the prince with the Sea Witch’s knife, let his hot blood drip all over my feet until my legs turned tail and I tossed myself back into the sea where my sisters, shorn of their hair, greeted me with songs that I too, with my regained voice, sang.

But my return to the sea was not without regret. Vanity overcame my mermaid sisters and they turned against me for not being more grateful for their sacrifice, having bartered their hair for the knife, and by proxy, my life. I found no peace in sleep either, for I dreamt of murder and loveless life until I awoke tangled and choking in the kelp beds.

I revisited the beach, lay on warm sand, until the scales on my tail dulled and fell off of me like down off a growing duckling, until my plume tail burned with the memory of the prince’s blood and I could feel the knife as he had felt it, in what I thought was an extraordinary empathy that for a split second gave me much pride. And then, through my tears, I saw my legs, returned.

I walked. I walked away from the water, from my sisters and from the beach, now sequined with my cerulean scales. I walked toward town. I walked tall. I walked unabashed, every nerve on every toe blinking with pain.

THE FULL LINE UP, IN ORDER (completed posts in bold)

  1. Christine Lee Zilka
  2. Nova Ren Suma
  3. Wah-Ming Chang
  4. Nina LaCour
  5. Stephanie Brown
  6. Jamey Hatley
  7. Matthew Salesses
  8. Krystn Lee
  9. Bryan Bliss


  • Start with the last line of the previous entry.
  • Poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction all up for grabs.
  • 250 words (you can fudge if artistic license requires)
  • Thematically linked
  • Link to the next person on the list, as well as those who posted before you.
  • Post something within 4 or 5 days of the most recent piece.
  • Posts should start with an explanation, with links to the previous posts as well as the next.


Filed under Literary Blog Relay

Y is for Yard

Our Yard

When I was a little girl in Queens, our yard was the street, the playground, the corner store. It was in Queens where I gained an affinity for the tempo of a city, the rat-a-tat-a-tat metronome of jackhammers, car horns, manual cash registers, and games of punchball that forever set my personal pace for all things to come.

And where I finished growing up in the Los Angeles suburbs, our yard was the fenced-in portion of our property where I meandered without interaction. It was there that I built a keen interest in botany and gardening, as I learned the names of flora and learned to grow vegetables like only a girl without companions would. All the time reading book after book on companion planting and plant diseases and the various shapes of leaves, trying to satiate the rat-a-tat-a-tat tempo in my bones.

In Berkeley, home of naturalized[1] yards filled with twisting rosemary bushes and overgrown abutilon and bushy waist high heather, I learned to neglect our yard. And cook and eat lots of yummy good food[2] instead. And try to be a hippie and fail at doing so. And start writing a novel. Rat-a-tat-a-tat.

In NYC, our block is our yard. On our block is a photographer’s studio where lanky, underweight, freakishly tall women models venture, sometimes holding black leather folders. It is a warehouse where street food carts go to sleep at night, pushed there by weary East Village vendors of hot dogs, pretzels, nuts, and Halal dishes. Sometimes I want to sneak in there in the nighttime and see all the carts parked, and hear what is the vendors discuss at the end of their days.[3].

Our block is where construction forever takes place. It’s not unusual to find a backhoe on our street. Sometimes the street is neatly sealed, but weeks later, the street is re-opened and construction resumes. Our street is restaurants I’ve never visited.[4] It is a bar at which I always consider nursing a hard apple cider, but never do. It is the bar I’ve always fantasized about growing up–the place so convenient that it’s like a second living room.

Our yard is things yet undiscovered. Windows behind which anonymous people live. A brownstone that later turns out to be an understated B&B. A museum. An empty lot.

Our block is our yard. It is smeared with dog shit on some days, splashed with vomit and beer others, and then the rain comes and wipes it clean. Thousands of people cross our yard in an afternoon. It is never quiet. There is always a brisk breeze. In every minute, something changes in the yard.

Every yard becomes a part of me.

Every yard becomes me.

[1] Weedy

[2] The food in Berkeley is tremendous! You’d ditch gardening as a hobby and head straight to the farmers’ market for incredible meal ingredients and various restaurants for amazing food, too.

[3] They don’t tweet, so I don’t know. I know that @BigGayIceCream tweets their whereabouts and celebrity customers–do they talk about who visited their carts? Do they greet each other as friends? Do they go straight home? Do they arrange for a nightcap together?

[4] Wherever I live, if there’s a restaurant adjacent to me, and even if I live in the place for years, I find I never go to the place across the street. So weird.


Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.

*I inadvertently skipped the letter “Y”–it’s here now, albeit out of sequence.

**AWGH. And this is when I realize I *did* do “Y” (Y is for Yellowstone).

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Filed under Alphabet: A History, Life, Memes, New York City, The Personal

S is for Stallion

aspens + sky

“The world breaks everyone and afterward many are strong at the broken places. But those that will not break it kills. It kills the very good and the very gentle and the very brave impartially. If you are none of these you can be sure it will kill you too but there will be no special hurry.” –Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

I will never forget my first day of nursery school in New York City. My mother and I engaged in a weeks-long prelude of excited preparation, coordinating an outfit (a red dress with a peter pan collar, paired with patent mary janes–though as the diva I always was, I really wanted RED stride rite mary janes), and memorizing important phrases (“Where is the bathroom?”); there was enough anxiety and anticipation and focused effort to know that this was a Big Deal.

I was born in the U.S., but I didn’t speak a word of English. My mother and father carried me as a toddler years previous to the preschool and asked the principal for advice on how to spare me the handicap of accented English. “Leave her to me,” the principal had said, “I’ll teach her English. Don’t teach her a word yourself.”

That this is a testament to the suffering of my mom and dad in the still-blatantly-racist-1970s makes my chest and teeth clench.

And so it was that I learned to speak English with a southern twang, inherited by not my family legacy, and not my cultural history, but someone’s name I no longer know and a face I do not remember: GEED-tar, for guitar…PRAW-doos, for produce…IN-sur-ance for inSURance…

It was an English that drew lots of teasing once I moved to California.[1]

On my first day of school,[2] I held the bus driver’s hand. I had never left home on my own before. And here I was, leaving home for the first time in an unfamiliar bus with an old white dude wearing oversized sunglasses that looked like cataract sunglasses who looked nothing like my parents. Pictures in which I was not smiling were taken as I stood next to the bus driver who held my hand in his strange big bumpy warm hairy hand before I walked onto the bus. I was the only child on the bus.[3]

And after he pulled away, I panicked and I began to scream, because I felt like I’d never get back home again, because I thought I was getting fucking kidnapped by a man who had conned my parents into believing he was a bus driver, because I didn’t know who this man was, because I was going into the unknown. I began to slam the windows, demanding egress with my body and voice, because I didn’t know the words.

He stopped the bus. I quieted. And he buckled me in. Tight. He said harsh words to me, ones I understood as anger, ones after which I sat trembling and sobbing hiccups.

I’d never used a seatbelt before–when my father took us on drives, I stood upright in the footwells of the backseats, my hands wrapped around the headrests of the front seats (I still have a fond nostalgia for this dangerous memory). Seatbelted as I was, I felt pinned down. Tied down. Trapped. And I wept. I was going to die. And I had given up.

That was the first time I remember being broken.

You have to break to get stronger. Like stallions, we must be broken.

I got to school. These were the pre-ESL instruction days of 1977. The teachers had no idea what to do with a small child who spoke only a few survival words of English. They didn’t even have the wherewithal to at least point to crayon colors and announce the word for the color. They waved their hands in exasperation. And therefore, I became exasperated. I couldn’t tell them what I wanted and they couldn’t tell me what they wanted.

And so I screamed, “Bullow me!! Bullow me!” Which I’m sure sounded like, “Blow me! Blow me!”[4]

But what I was trying to assemble, as I recall, was a way to tell them to pay attention to me. “Bul-low” is a semblance of the Korean word “call,” and “me” was one of the only English words I knew. I didn’t let up.

And so they picked my body up, carried me across the nursery school room, and threw me in the bathroom stall, like a horse. When I recount this story, people are horrified. But it’s true. I was locked in a bathroom stall all day of my first day of school. Periodically, they would come by and say words that I surmised to mean, “Are you ready to come out now and behave?”

If you know me, then you know my response was a resounding wail. And a kick to the door.

They let me out at the end of the day for the bus ride home. I never told my parents what was happening at school. I am not sure why I never told them. Perhaps I thought it was my personal battle of wills. My desire to never be broken.

The next day, I must have been uncooperative yet again, because I ended up in the bathroom stall. I stayed there all day. I ate my lunch in there.

And then the next.

But eventually, and I do not know after how many days, I got out of that stall like any stallion brought into training. I had been broken. I behaved.

I learned the language in bits, and I’m going to say that I learned it on my fucking own, because no one knew how to really teach me until I reached a minimal level of competence. When they sang “This Land is My Land,” I hummed along, catching words here and there until I could assemble a lyric.[5]

I have been broken many times in my life. I have been brought close to death. I have been brought to wanting death more times than I can now count. Junior high and high school were torture and nearly killed me. I loved college, even though it nearly killed me too. I learned to grow a thicker skin, to experience new things broken and healed, like my heart. Each time, I was brought to my knees, emotions choked to within an inch of my life, stabbed so that the blood has flowed from my back and brought me to close to exsanguination, voice smothered so that the world has gone gray, my heart broken so that it could barely beat, but I survived. With scars. But stronger for the weakness.


[1] HAHAHAAAA! Plan backfired! Dammit, we all come from somewhere! We might as well claim the places from which we come! Decades of California schooling and several boyfriends and a husband later, much of that dialect has been erased. I kind of miss it.

[2] That morning was a day that I believe was very much like this morning in NYC, because when I stepped outside and felt the cool air on my face and the determined and cool breeze rip through my cotton dress, I got a deja vu/flashback of my first day of school. These moments give me great delight and satisfaction, because they make me feel like I am FROM here, that I BELONG somewhere, that I CONNECT to this earth.

[3] Yes, it was a yellow SHORTBUS.

[4] In hindsight: how fitting! So precocious!

[5] To this day, I am hilariously awful at song lyrics. Instead of Van Halen’s “Panama!” I thought for years and years the song “Cannonball! Cannonball!” Or that Sting was singing, “I’m a pool heart ace, with every break you take…” But, I can hang in a Jewish synagogue without feeling awkward, making up Hebrew words as I sing along with the cantor and the congregation. No one has to know.


Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.


Filed under Alphabet: A History, Life, Memes, The Personal

T is for Ten Years

when did they change the back of the penny?

This evening, after a day of errands and a lobster roll dinner, we parked our truck in front of our home and saw a pair of teva-sandaled feet pointing toward the fence, the body hidden by the hedge, next to our wooden gate. Someone was peering into our yard. Strange, especially on our very quiet street.

I stepped out of the truck as I called, “Can I HELP you?” to see a small eight year old child come out from behind the bushes. Followed by a gangly eleven year old girl. Followed by a middle aged woman with a white cane who I recognized as the previous owner of our house.

She, the previous owner, whom I will nickname “Jill,”[1] pops by every now and then (though I haven’t spotted her in a couple of years) to visit her old home. I’ve found her unapologetically wandering our backyard over the years, full of regrets (and boundary issues), holding a small girl’s hand and then a few years later, an additional younger boy’s hand.

I wondered what it was that brought Jill to the house today–and then it became crystal clear: that tomorrow is 9/11, the tenth anniversary of the day that terrorists hijacked commercial planes and flew them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon…and let’s not forget the plane that, thanks to its passengers, crashed into a field instead of the White House/Camp David/?.

The WTC buildings fell–they exploded, they crumbled, they melted, they pancaked, they flattened, they imploded. And along with them, thousands of innocents. And all day, all I could do, as I sat a nation’s width away from Manhattan, was watch the television, and write blog updates on my blog. [2]

9/11 was the day that escrow on this house was supposed to close (and didn’t, because the banks all closed, because our world as we knew it, was falling apart, and things would never ever be the same again). Our escrow actually closed unceremoniously a couple of days later, when the banks reopened.

And so Jill roamed, a decade later, the grounds of her previous and our current home with her children in tow on the anniversary of the day this house changed hands. “I should have never sold this house,” she said.

We briefly updated Jill–and she, us with news of her divorce, a new home, her children’s names. I told Jill we’d painted her muraled nursery room, the very one she and her husband-at-the-time had so cherished and that we’d promised to preserve–that well, we had wanted to have children when we bought the place, but heartbroken, we painted the colorful nursery room a very adult light green and turned it officially, into an office.

What a difference a decade makes. [3]

[1] Her name is not really Jill.

[2] I deleted my old blog, but as we all know, nothing on the internet is ever truly deleted, especially with things like the web archive site. So, if you care to read it, my blog post from 9/11/2011 is here.

[3] I thought about doing a blog post exclusively about 9/11, but I couldn’t bear to–I’ve thought about, and lived it, everyday for the last ten years. I’ve never forgotten, will never forget, and do not need reminding. And there are so many wonderful memorial posts, like Meg Cabot’s brilliant and tear inducing recollection of her NYC 9/11 or Steve Almond’s amazing Rumpus essay on the decade following 9/11 that make me feel like others speak with much more eloquence about this dreadful anniversary.


Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.


Filed under Alphabet: A History, Life, Memes

U is for Urgency

"i miss the old new york..."

My father keeps telling me how many years he has left to live, recalibrating his estimate each year, based on his general sense of wellbeing. He will occasionally announce like he did this year, “You know, I am 78. I have maybe 3 more good years left so I can travel. After that, maybe 5 years taking it easy. Then gone. Okay. Change channel to ESPN, please.” So far, he has outlived his original estimate years ago.

This does not alarm me–as my parents have been announcing their impending deaths my entire life, from the beginning of my remembering days. I once repeated Margaret Cho’s lines back with Korean accent-inflection and all to my mom, who began to giggle hysterically, seeing herself in Cho’s recollection and imitation of her Korean mother’s voicemails:

“BOOP! I have to tell you something. I just wanna tell yoooooou that Grandma and Grandpa, they are gonna die. *pause* I don’t know WHEN they’re gonna die, but sometime! So Mommy just tell you now, so when they die you’re not surprised. *pause* But don’t tell them! That’s not nice, that’s not nice! BOOP!”[1]

This is hilarious, because it is pretty much verbatim what my mother has told me. Except that in our household’s case, she kept telling me that she and Daddy were gonna die. Someday. And we should not be surprised. And that we needed to be independent. Because we could not depend on them to live forever. Because they could die tomorrow. (And let’s not even get started on my parental grandmother, my childhood live-in caregiver, reciting her funeral preferences to me as I fell asleep each night).

Of course, as “normal” as this all was to me, I started going to church on my own as an eight year old girl, surprising my atheist parents. It was a relief to discover the concept of Heaven and announce to my parents, “I am not afraid of Death!”[2] Humans are incredible at coping/adapting.

Ah, the things that war and early childhood suffering engenders! My war-surviving parents were blindsided by Death left and right, and they never wanted me to be blindsided. Perfect preparation for raising a writer, really.

This sense of impending death is useful in that it has provided me with an incredible sense of urgency and impatience my entire life. When in your head is the clear expectation that you or your loved ones could die any day and that the world could explode in guns and warfare, things get super crystal clear. And also, you make sure your pantry is never empty….just…in….case.[3]

When I got sick…this became less of a theory and more a reality. I really did have a stroke and it came out of nowhere, a freak event of a clot hurtling into the core of my brain, through a freak, previously undetected birth defect hole in my heart (which the doctor perfunctorily closed). I lost the ability to retrieve memories, and I had a fifteen minute short term memory (which eventually extended to a 60 minute short term memory, and then the ability to read a short story and remember it, after 6 months, etc., etc).[4] I couldn’t write fiction, let alone read fiction. I couldn’t return to writing my novel for two years.

The only thing I thought about, throughout my recovery, was regaining my ability to write. And in fact, the optimist in me was determined to come back as a BETTER writer, as inspired by Lance Armstrong (blood doping or not) as I was. I wrote in my diary everyday–sometimes it was gibberish. But mostly, it was a supplement to my damaged short term memory. Unlike Memento, I did not tattoo all that I had to remember (seriously inefficient!)–I wrote it down in my Moleskine journal, with timestamps, so that when someone would allude to something, I would rifle through the pages of my Moleskine until I found what had happened/been said previously.

But mostly, it was a record of my recovery, and it was my way of writing every single day. Oftentimes, I had to nap for hours after writing a single journal entry, because that very act would exhaust me/my brain. But I still did it. I wrote in an anonymous online journal about my recovery, where I gained some incredible friends who are still very good and close friends to this day. I just made sure to write. I was convinced that by doing so, I could reinforce writing capabilities and form new pathways in my brain that would make me a stronger writer. I wrote and I wrote. And I slept and slept afterward. And then I’d write. And sleep. Until I found myself itching to write fiction again, first in short spurts of descriptive paragraphs, and then finally, a short story.

Throughout this time, I was told I was back to normal more times than I could tolerate. But if I could not return to my novel writing, there was no way I was fully recovered. And I wondered about a life without writing fiction. I despaired. Deep inside, I knew I still had trouble remembering things, that part of my ability to retort wit/spontaneity was missing. I felt like a dull blade.

…and then, after two years of struggle, I woke up and blinked and everything was bright and sunny and calm and I realized I could remember things that I couldn’t previously remember. That I could remember people’s names again. That I could read something, and remember exact quotes and remember the exact page on which these quotes resided. That there was still a dark hole in my memory around the dates of my stroke that I had trouble remembering, but I could memorize license plates again while bored behind the wheel of my car.

And I could write my novel again. I nearly wept. But I didn’t, because my thalamus by that point had finally healed, and my coping ability had returned.[5]

The road back to my novel was graciously short, and yet simultaneously, way too long for my own comfort.

In the end, my novel benefited from that break. I returned with a greater urgency to finish and complete this novel. With a greater urgency about life and love itself. With a great understanding of this exigency. It’s been years since my stroke, and I still think about that time whenever I need to summon that need to finish/urge myself to move forward.[6]

[1] The thing is though: you can never prepare for Death. It sucks when it happens.

[2] I am no longer church-going or Christian. And I, like many Jews, am not really sure Heaven exists.

[3] On 9/11, right after the planes flew in to the WTC, my dad called me up and the first words out of his mouth were, “We are going to war! Prepare yourself! Go to store and buy water!”

[4] The only thing I was able to read and retain in those early months of stroke recovery was People magazine.

[5] Until I had fully healed, I wept with great ease. I just couldn’t control my emotions. Like a small child, I cried when I missed someone, and I cried when someone hurt my feelings, helpless without response.

[6] I try to engender the same sense of urgency in my students. I tell them we don’t have a lot of time. That we are in this basic skills class to remedy the last 10 years of ill preparation. That we have one semester, just a few months, to make up for all that lost time. That we are in it together.


Joining Heather’s Abecedary, Fog City Writer, and other writers in working through the alphabet with short, memoir-like pieces. Except I’m going to go in reverse, beginning with “Z.” It’s called Alphabet: A History.


Filed under Alphabet: A History, Memes, Stroke, Writing