Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Nomination for the Pushcart Prize

Epiphany Journal has nominated my story The Green Light of Dawn for the Pushcart Prize. So honored. So grateful that this story, on which I'd worked for several years, has received this recognition.

This story isn't available online yet, but you can buy the hardcopy or the ecopy of the magazine--or take out the subscription.

Action Fiction!

What: My story In the Cloud, performed by actors Reuben Alvear and Jimmy Cross
Where: Stage Werx (446 Valencia Street)
When: Sunday, December 20, at 7 pm
Why: Because it's Action Fiction! Stories by local authors performed by local actors. This evening, my story will be included in the lineup of six performances.

For updates and more info, go to the event page:

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Exit Strategy

"Stepan’s hope used to be his children—both of his sons showed such great promise when they were little! The first was the son of a poor father, born while Stepan was a simple engineer in Moscow, earning 120 rubles a month, and the second was born after Stepan had started a software company and made his fortune. Stepan had always, always tried to do his best by his family, but no good deed goes unpunished, and now was payback time. Look, just look at what they had done to him—his whole body aching, his hair white by the age of sixty!"

Read the rest of this story in Best New Writing 2016 anthology.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Green Light of Dawn, in print!

"The end of August in Crimea was hailed as the height of the "velvet season." The warm weather held, but most vacationers from the former USSR returned home to work and school, and the accommodations were cheap. Boarding the plane in New York, I made two connections, in Paris and Kyiv, and landed at the international airport in Simferepol, early morning, two days later. From there, I caught a train to the coast of the Black Sea. I didn't have a firm agenda, except that I eventually had to make it to the top of Mount Ai-Petri. . ."

The opening to my story "The Green Light of Dawn," that appears in the current issue of Epiphany magazine. The current issue is sold out, but do subscribe. And, if you're in New York, come to the opening party at the New York Public Library, on Tuesday, November 17.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Wrapping up Tokyo

We flew home from Tokyo on Saturday and spent the weekend unpacking, working around Bowie's jet lag. Sleep is such a skill. Over the years, Dave and I have developed practices that allow us to barely feel the aftereffects of time travel, but the little guy is an innocent. He stayed up till two in the morning on Saturday night, and then on Sunday slept until three in the afternoon. Sunday night was rougher: having gone to bed at midnight, up again at two, wanting to play, which we did for two hours. Today, I'm planning to wake him at one in the afternoon, and expecting crankiness. The baby will sleep!

Yesterday Dave posted his round up of the remaining photos and stories about Tokyo; I have some, too. First of all, a series of photographs from the efficiency apartment.
The main room, with the view to the kitchenette and the front door. Observe the ladder that would lead to the alcove (and additional bed) in the attic had it been moved to the ledge over the door.
The main room (picture taken from the same spot at a 180 degree angle to the one above), with the view towards the crib, the bed, and the bathtub behind the glass wall. 
The all-important feet warming pool by the bathtub.
Every efficiency apartment needs a balcony -- for drying clothes on warm days or, say, growing plants.
This is how clothes drying happens on wet days -- in the closet.
The front door of the unit. The closet with the washing machine, next to which (not pictures) the clothes closet above, with the drying rack. Bowie's stroller fit nicely into the walk-through space.
The large sink in the kitchenette with all the wrapping from one afternoon's lunch (see story below).
Every day, after nap, Dave, Bowie, and I picnicked on the floor of our room for lunch. We made cucumber and tomato salads, fruit salads, finished leftover noodles, bought take out sashimi at the grocery stores, pastry from the local cafes. Each of these lunches generated a heap of packaging, as pictured on the photo of the sink above. San Francisco outlawed plastic bags a few years ago, and we've forgotten what it's like elsewhere. The packaging felt overwhelming. Often, individual fruit, say, pears and apples, came individually wrapped. (Postcards I bought at a corner store too came individually wrapped). Grapes came in plastic boxes. At the supermarkets, if I bought two bento boxes at different stalls, each vendor would give me a new bag, regardless of how many bags I already held in my hands. I habitually carry a cloth tote with me; showing it to the cashiers helped little. (Of course, there was also the language barrier.) Each pastry was wrapped thrice: first in paper, then in a tiny plastic baggy, then in a thicker to-go bag, especially when two or three pastries were purchased at once. At the end of the trip, I brought all the extra plastic bags home--Dave takes regular trips to Safeway, where they collect and claim to recycle plastic bags.

By the way, the perfect tool to clean an efficiency apartment? That's right, a lint brush. Our apartment came equipped with one. I watched the lint brushes in use at an indoor playground at the Tokyo Dome. At closing time, employees scrubbed all the play structures with different appropriate solutions, including the carpeting with lint brushes. That's the way to keep a place clean.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Tokyo Bookstores

Dave and I love downtowns. The shared energy of millions of people, the bold physical, spacial way in which this energy manifests itself, the chance encounters to which it leads. A common complaint about cities is that they alienate people both by pushing them up against each other and separating into individual units. But few among city residents are true loners. Making friends in a city takes some skill and patience--or a very cute baby, who will talk to anyone and will get anyone to talk to him. I've seen the most dour-looking middle-aged men light up when Bowie babbles in their direction or pokes them in the knees, elbows, or shoulders. True, in Tokyo rush hour even a cute baby will get tossed around and moshed with the crowd.

Getting ready for the trip to Tokyo, we asked around for a baby-friendly neighborhood where to book our accommodations. Our friends Megan and Ted, parents of baby Ella, recommended Shibuya-Daikanyama area. They'd spotted baby strollers and carriers here, cute baby stores and playgrounds, baby- (and parent-) friendly cafes. Megan, a fellow writer and book person, sold me on this neighborhood by describing and forwarding an article about a must-see bookstore, a location of a Japanese chain, Tsutaya. We booked our apartment as close as we could get (Ebisu, in Shibuya, next to Daikanyama).

Bookstore culture appears to be going strong in Japan. In one of our sightseeing afternoons, we explored an entire bookstore neighborhood, Jimbocho (for more in-depth view, see this and this English-language blogs). Located between several major universities, this area houses dozens upon dozens of used bookstores, manga comic book stores, book publishers, and multi-storied locations of national bookstore chains (there are several). Each of these stores, we assume, must own its specialty area. I spent some time in a foreign language bookstore, Kitazawa, that shared a building with a children's bookstore, giving me an opportunity to browse while Bowie and Dave played downstairs. Looking at the shelves of dusty hardcovers, I imagined I'd found Haruki Murakami's reading list. Toni Morrison, Nabokov, Salinger, Ezra Pound, e.e. cummings--doesn't this sound just right? Yes, and Scarlett--Alexandra Ripley's fan fiction to Gone with the Wind (I was a big fan in my teens). Downstairs, Dave and Bowie located a whole shelf of Cheburashka and Crocodile Gena toys--popular Soviet cartoon characters, rights to whom had been purchased by a Japanese company a few years ago and successfully merchandised. I'd read of this; nevertheless, the encounter seemed surprising.
Kitazawa bookstore entrance
Murakami reading list??
Towards the end of our vacation, feeling more grounded and comfortable in Tokyo, Dave and I decided to split up during Bowie's nap time and venture out on our own. This allowed me an evening of browsing at that Daikanyama Tsutaya store (T-site) Megan had told me about. The bookstore consists of three cube-like two-storied buildings, connected to each other by a "magazine row"--an enormous collection of Japanese and international magazines. I spotted issues of MIT Technology Review and Lucky Peach, among others. Most of my allotted time I spent studying the shelf dedicated to English-language translations of Japanese authors. I wanted to take home a book by a female author. This criteria narrowed my choices to half a dozen books (sigh). I ended up with Kuniko Mukoda's short story collection The Name of the Flower and Hiromi Kawakami's novel Strange Weather in Tokyo. I suppose, a book report must follow one day. The stories from The Name of the Flower I've read so far are as good in Tomone Matsumoto's translation as anything one might read in The New Yorker. The first few are stories about wives and lovers and sad businessmen who, though they might excel in their jobs, are cut off from their emotions, which causes family strife and general unhappiness.
The selection of books by Japanese women in English translation

Besides bookstores, cafes, and boutiques, there are several interesting cultural sites in the Shibuya, of which we visited Meiji Shrine in the Yoyogi park and a 1919 traditional house of a local politician Kyu Asakura. After the firebombing of Tokyo (an extensive series of bombings at the end of WWII), much of the city was destroyed. What we see today was built after the war. These historical sites seem to be popular places of pilgrimage for the tourists and for the locals, who take the opportunity to dress in national costume and take pictures here for special occasions--like weddings. Dave has a photo on his blog.

The inner yard of the Kyu Asakura traditional house
For us, Shibuya turned out to be a great choice of a neighborhood to stay. Not as busy as more central Tokyo locations, it provided lots of things to do with Bowie. Twice more we visited T-Site, the Tsutaya bookstore in Daikanyama: a good place to write our postcards while entertaining Bowie with pop up books. Though, it seems that good Japanese babies don't climb bookshelves while they are at it--and good Japanese parents don't let their babies climb the bookshelves. Bowie and I got reprimanded. The employees of the children's sections also seemed disturbed by Bowie's desire to nurse in public, so they showed us the way to the "baby room"--many stores, especially department stores, in Tokyo provide private places for nursing. I know, I know, "When in Rome Daikanyama..." Tsutaya, by the way, is a part of a larger conglomerate that goes by the name of Culture Convenience Club. I can easily imagine finding this name in a Murakami novel.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

At the Fish Market

In many ways, the three of us vacationing together is easier and more fun (even more fun :) than Bowie and me on our own. The responsibility is divided, and so risk tolerance increases, as does our mobility and physical prowess. Dave's been carrying Bowie in the baby carrier, but even when he's not, we're able to pick up the baby and the stroller separately and so manage shortcuts to subway and stores. Tokyo subway seems fully handicapped accessible, but the elevators are not always in the most obvious locations.

Each day, as we understand each other's needs better and grow more accustomed to the patterns of life in Tokyo, we're able to stray further from the apartment, to see and experience more neighborhoods and attractions. Olga eats a substantial breakfast in the morning. Dave wants his coffee in the afternoon. Bowie must nap and crawl. It sometimes rains in Tokyo--coming from San Francisco in the middle of a prolonged drought, we forget what that's like. Bicyclists here ride on sidewalks (we see lots of moms on bicycles with one child seated in front and one in back). Pedestrians seem to obey automobile traffic patterns and walk on the left side of the sidewalk, making window-shopping a bit tricky. Stations in the subway are marked differently--on some, arrows for walking point to the right side, on others, to the left. People who wish to stand on escalators and moving sidewalks stand on the left side; those who want to walk, do so on the right. Those who want to walk fast make a weird zigzag between the first and the second.

We've made it to two major tourist attractions so far, the Sensō-ji temple in Asakusa and, this morning, to the Fish Market. Ok, we may have only barely stepped inside the actual wholesale fish market and spent most of our time meandering the entertaining foodie stalls in the outside market area, but we did see a lot of dead fish being chopped to pieces. This is sort of the opposite of what our diving and snorkeling excursions have been about, and so we weren't hugely comfortable on the premises. That didn't prevent us from eating sashimi for brunch (the freshest, most fragrant and finely textured fish I've had anywhere). Of the three of us, Bowie held the moral line the firmest: he refused to have any fish and stuck to the noodle-like shredded radish.

Bowie's been eating noodles almost exclusively this week and breastfeeding lots. As we're approaching his one year birthday and he shows no signs of being ready to wean himself off breast milk, I'm considering my options., the website I've been using to answer my breastfeeding questions, suggests that children naturally self-wean somewhere between two and seven years of age, and that health benefits of breastfeeding do not have an expiry date. I'd love to give Bowie the option to wean himself, though I'm not sure I'm prepared to wait seven (or even two) years for him to do so.

Being on the road, if anything, has definitely strengthened our breastfeeding bond--he's been nursing for comfort in unusual places and situations, asking for the breast almost as often as he did as a newborn, every hour or two. Our Tokyo efficiency apartment comes with a full-sized crib and most nights I put him in it. But his sleep is very restless. He's teething continuously (his bottom canines are out now; we're waiting on the last set of molars), and cries out in pain in his sleep, then wakes himself up. So I take him into bed with Dave and me, which means he's nursing throughout the night. He's a strongly attached baby, and I'm starting to worry now about how these patterns will have to adjust when we get back home and I return to work. I nearly cried of joy today at the fish market when Bowie picked off a strawberry from a mochi custard dessert Dave and I shared and little by little munched all of it (he tried the mochi too, but didn't go past one bite). A child could probably survive on noodles and strawberries, right? Right.

On to the Tokyo Dome for the afternoon's adventure. It's a notable concert hall venue (the Beatles played at the Dome two years after it opened, and George Harrison recorded Live in Japan here) and an amusement park. We hear there's an awesome indoor playground there, and we can all ride the carousel too.
In the alleys outside the fish market

Chopsticks are the best part of what you call dining

Monday, November 2, 2015

Ebisu-Tokyo Living

From the palatial halls of the Beijing business class hotel we are delivered to an efficiency Tokyo apartment that we booked via AirBnB. There's a hallway/kitchenette and the main room with the bathroom partitioned behind a glass wall, so that the bed is actually jammed against the bathtub. The three of us, our three pieces of luggage, two backpacks, Bowie's utility tote, a stroller and a car seat, all fit inside, just so. Seen another way, we're severely under-utilizing the space. If we consolidated our luggage and hooked the ladder over the door, two more people could use the bed in the attic space.

The tiny apartment is a thing of beauty. Several things make it so: tall ceiling in the room and the window that admits plenty of light by day; large sink in the kitchenette; a washing machine and an ingenious drying rack in the closet; a small shallow pool outside the bathtub that, when I unplug the tub, automatically fills with warm water--to keep my feet from getting cold while I'm drying the rest of my body with a towel.

I also love the fact that the apartment is keyless. A combination code opens the door to the unit, and the front door opens like the entry booths in San Francisco's subway, with a tap of a plastic card. At least three security cameras monitor the entrance, and I have a feeling that these are not pro forma, somebody is truly watching and monitoring the security of this building. Upon our arrival on Friday night, the card that opened the front door was missing from the agreed-upon location, and so we were milling about outside while Dave texted with our AirBnb host. One of the neighbors let us in (taking pity thanks to Bowie, who was babbling plaintively from his car seat), but wouldn't do so until she confirmed we had the right combination code for the unit.

My first impression of Tokyo? I had no idea how many stereotypes about Japan I'd consumed. My imagination was largely fueled by the few novels I'd read (Murakami, Kobo Abe, Amelie Nothomb) and movies (Seven Samurai, Rashomon, Spirited Away, a recent art film The Great Passage)--in addition to WWII stories of bombings, geishas, and vets, occasional news stories about financial crises, electronics empires, fashion crazes, overcrowded subways, alcoholism, and overwork. As is the case with China (though China's case is more extreme), this media diet now seems extremely one-sided and largely negative (at best, Japanese customs might be represented as "odd"). In short, without thinking about it, I'd been expecting to meet sad and depressed loners (mostly men and young school girls), subservient and prone to suicide. Needless to say, this is like picturing all Russians as vodka-guzzling murderers of old women and prostitutes. Argh.

We're staying in the Ebisu area of Tokyo, a fun mix of fairly gritty bars and noodle bars and a maze of alleys with the yuppiest establishments I've seen anywhere. Think: a cafe that imports beans from Yemen, ice cream topped with honey comb, another ice cream shop that makes its own square cones and serves up vanilla-azuki bean flavor, a flavored canele craze, with competing pastry shops serving up their own versions of this French pastry. Bowie's nap schedule and the weather (o joy! it rained hard this morning) continue to set the pace for our journey, so we're fully enjoying exploring the alleys, the cafes and the playgrounds of our neighborhood. The party sometimes comes to us: apparently, this area is Halloween central; so on Halloween night, Dave and Bowie got into the midst of it--Dave's posting his pictures on his blog.

A novel way to travel!

Yemeni cafe in Ebisu
A preternaturally calm poodle getting a haircut

How about a fistful of noodles

Friday, October 30, 2015

Animatronic Dinosaurs and Other Creatures

Dave's conference is over. It was a success by all accounts, and the ending is bitter sweet; he's already missing the camaraderie and the rush of excitement that went into organizing and running the show. For the next week he is, disconcertingly enough, on vacation. We're flying to Tokyo this afternoon.

After the end of the conference, he and his teammates went through the exercise of naming their favorite parts of the event--no duplicate responses allowed. For me, the highlight of this week was seeing Bowie's reaction to a masked dance, a traditional Chinese performance we watched at a local restaurant. The outing was a part of Dave's conference--an event for all of the employees of his company, to which Bowie and I tagged along. To make it to the show, I had to wake Bowie from his nap, and in his drowsy, jet-lagged state, he was cranky with me. His mood started to change as we entered the restaurant, in response to all the people who were smiling and cooing at him. And then he saw a performer walk by, and in front of his eyes, the performer's masked face changed colors! Bowie's jaw literally dropped. He laughed of joy for the next twenty minutes as the masks danced and played with fans, and then transformed into acrobats and performed feats of strength and balance. Taking Bowie to this show, we had no idea that he'd be able to appreciate it--if anything, we expected him to get cranky and to nurse through another boring dinner. But now that I think about it, the bright lights, the music, the people, the funny walks are all his favorite things. How could he not love the show?

Mesmerized by a masked dancer

And if I were to speak for Bowie and name another highlight of this week in Beijing, it would be yesterday's excursion to the Museum of Natural History, aka animatronic dinosaur heaven. Thank you, travel blog: I don't think I would've dared to take Bowie across the city for it, if not for the way blogging creates pressure to get out of my comfort zone, to have something new to write about. This museum was recommended by Laura, the interpreter at Dave's conference, who advised this instead of going to the zoo (the animal there are kept in sad conditions). As soon as we arrived, we knew we came to the right place because of how many babies of Bowie's age we encountered. For the price of $1 per adult (might be cheaper for locals), many new moms seem to bring their crawlers and early walkers here. What's not to love, especially if allowed onto hands and knees? Broad granite hallways occasionally give way to rock and glass and linoleum flooring. Ramps and staircases lead to different habitats, from the cave-like dinosaur room to a bamboo forest made of real bamboo with bamboo sticks strewn around the floor for the taking. Bowie wants to touch it all and feel it all, and most of the time he can. A roar comes from above--as animatronic dinosaur lifts his head. So what? Here comes the next staircase, and the next one after that. What's this? A rose garden under glass? Thank you, museum designers, for taking such thoughtful care of your roses. Bowie gets it: look, but don't touch. He looks and then moves on to the next staircase. Oh, wait, a new friendly baby. Let's say hi and pose for another set of photos.

Heading into the museum
Bowie vs. the dinosaurs

FYI, nursing nursing in public seems totally fine in China. I've nursed Bowie in a park and at a bus stop, in a yard of a residential building and at this museum. At the museum, around closing time, there were several of us parked on the benches at the exit with the nursing babies. Most of the time people didn't pay us any attention, and when they did, they smiled and walked on--unless accompanied by toddlers, who wanted to know what we were doing and came over to say hi to the baby.

To conclude this part of the trip, here's a list of discoveries we've made in the past week:

-- Trashcans make excellent hiding places for toys
-- Purple dragon fruit leaves purple marks on rug. So do blueberries
-- Yogurt leaves whiting marks on rug
-- Potted plants are tastier than bacon
-- Happy smiling babies are welcome anywhere. Cranky cry-babies will get their business lounge privileges revoked
-- Telephones have chords! Doorbells ring like bells! Elevators have buttons!
-- Trashcans can roll
-- Baby can figure out not only a TV set but also an alarm clock. It rings at five am at leaves a terribly annoying song stuck in your head all day
-- An unplugged ethernet cable will entertain a baby for solid fifteen minutes. So will a shoe-shining box
-- Apples are good for juggling
-- Trashcans make excellent drums
-- No, Bowie, potted plants are NOT food
-- Crawling on rug will give you a rug burn 
-- Looking for that ethernet cable and an apple? Check the upside down trashcan before leaving the room
It's Bowie in a box!

Packing up things

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Exploring Beijing

Little by little, in between our strenuous nap and meal schedule, Bowie and I are exploring Beijing. Our business class hotel is located, appropriately enough, in Chaoyang, Beijing's business district, and within it, an area particularly reserved for office towers, high end malls (think Prada, Versace, Chanel, Gucci), posh hotels and residential blocks, peppered with foreign embassies, high end restaurants and bars. Typically, sans baby, I'd hop on the subway and seek out urban adventures--as Dave and I did on our previous trip here in 2010. With Bowie, we've been keeping close to the hotel, in part, because we're still transitioning our sleeping schedule and Bowie gets cranky after short awake intervals, and, in part, because Dave's here, and in the last few days, he's been able to take breaks and spend them with us. Half an hour of play with daddy beats all of the hutongs in Beijing--for now.

We don't need to venture far from the hotel to experience the city. This part of Beijing is developed in Las Vegas-style long blocks, and crossing the broad avenues dividing these blocks is, in itself, something to write home about, especially with a stroller. Pedestrians, taxis, scooter, mopeds and motorbikes, bicyclists, small delivery vehicles, all descend onto the crosswalk at the same time, going in different directions. There are street lights that some people do try to obey. On our very first excursion outside, we saw a deliveryman on the ground, head in a makeshift brace, one leg at an awkward angle. Accidents will happen; I don't know whether in Beijing they happen more often or are more severe than anywhere else (Though few motorcyclists here wear helmets; this man didn't)--witnessing this one early in the trip has put me on guard. The man, I hope will be Okay--he was talking to the people gathered round--though it took the length of our walk, at least twenty minutes, for the ambulance to arrive.

In between the large public avenues, there are malls, office buildings, and residential blocks connected by hutongs--small alleys, spaces that feel a lot more private. The ground floors of many office and residential buildings have shops and restaurants; there are also street vendors. Security is tight; most yards at least in this part of town are fenced off and the entrance is monitored by guards. This doesn't mean they are closed to the public; some are, many aren't. Bowie and I went inside one of them to explore one fine-looking playground, and deemed it acceptable for a warmer day. In another yard, we found a 7-11, where we restocked our supplies of yogurt and teething biscuits. The next day we did better by finding a local supermarket. I imagine it was state-owned and subleasing space to private vendors: There were stores inside the store. We bought sweets from one vendor and a notebook and stickers from another.
The minimum security yard
The maximum security yard

I'm not ready to tackle the crowded subway with Bowie's stroller, but today we tried a taxi. I asked to be taken to Temple of Sun park, that on a map appeared reasonably close to our hotel--a forty-five minute walk. I figured, we'd go there by cab and walk back. Twenty minutes into the cab ride, I started to suspect we were heading elsewhere. Fine, I thought, I didn't really have an agenda. The day was sunny and warm, Bowie was enjoying the cab ride, alternating between flirting with the driver, gazing out of the windows, and trying to dismantle the roof of the cab. My biggest problem was not being sure of the way back. I had no idea what part of the city we were being taken to; my cell phone in China only worked for texting, not data, and the only person I could text (Dave) was in the midst of running his company's annual conference; I did have a bilingual map with me, but spending the time to figure it out would sorely test Bowie's patience (he tolerates the stroller when it's moving; standing still is no good). Taking a taxi to get back would be my only reasonable option. I'd never stopped a cab in China before--getting one from the hotel was easy enough, but do cabs stop on the street? Would they stop for me and Bowie? Would I be able to find a proper taxi stand? What was Mandarin for "taxi"? I'd taken from the hotel a card with the hotel's name and address written down: Something to show the driver. Having this card in my pocket felt reassuring; I relaxed into the ride and distracted Bowie from reaching for the gear stick.

Entrance to the Temple of Earth park
The driver dropped us off in front of what soon turned out to be Temple of Earth (instead of Temple of Sun) park--inside, I found an English-language description. I wonder if the driver purposely decided to upgrade our experience. The doorman had been surprised at our desire to go to Temple of Sun park--it's just a neighborhood attraction, nothing to see there, he said--and, writing this up, I looked up Temple of Earth to find that it's the second largest temple park in Beijing, after the famed Temple of Heaven. This park was similar to Temple of Heaven (I remember it well from my first trip to Beijing) as a gathering place for the people. Bowie and I strolled by a group of retirees singing into a portable karaoke machine and dancing, people playing miniature golf, several booths displaying and selling products and foods from a particular town in Yunnan province (There were ample tasting opportunities. I tried rose-flavored cakes and sesame and peanut cookies and some kind of marinated mushroom and a chewy mint- and anise-flavored fruit. Bowie stuck to his teething biscuits).

To Bowie's delight, we promptly found a playground. Here were opportunities for play and exercise for all ages. Toddlers used the swings and climbing structures while moms, dads, and grandparents swung from monkey bars and used stationary bicycles. Bowie became fascinated by fallen leaves. In San Francisco, demarcation between seasons is mild--he's missing the experience not only of snow, but of rain, thunderstorms, changing leaves, mud. He wanted to clear all of the fallen leaves off the playground, and succeeded in tidying only a little corner before I got worried about all of the scattered cigarette butts and dragged him off. We spent about fifteen minutes waiting for a baby swing to open up (children were taking turns), when to my surprise, the guardians of the last child took the swing off with the baby--apparently, the swing was not a part of the playground set up, but had been supplied by the family and strapped on to the exercise rods. Ingenious. Bowie didn't mind. Another friendly child shared her balloon with him, and so he proceeded to bang it against the ground and tried jumping on top of it. Luckily, the balloon escaped unscathed.
A little guy riding his private swing

Contemplating foliage
Park for all ages

The return trip turned out easier than I feared. After we exited the park, we walked around the residential neighborhood for a bit, giving me time to observe the traffic and taxi patterns--and get an ice cream. Taxis did drive in the quieter outer lanes of the busy avenues. Just as Bowie started to fuss, I was able to flag one down. The driver helped me with the stroller; we were on our way to the hotel.

No car seat!
And, yes, I do feel uneasy about riding with Bowie unstrapped in the back seat of the car. Accidents will happen. I keep thinking about that man we saw lying on the street, waiting for the ambulance. We have one more full day in Beijing left. Shall I take Bowie to what I heard is an awesome dinosaur museum or stay close to the hotel? Bowie has developed rug burn on his knees from crawling around the hotel's hallways. He found and nearly ate shattered pieces of floor tile in an indoor playground at the nearby mall. The risk and reward calculation is far from obvious. I'm making plans one day at a time. Since there's weather here, let the weather decide.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Bonding on vacation

Writers don't take vacations. Neither do mothers. And yet, Bowie and I are undoubtedly on vacation, as opposed to Dave, who's working every day, including weekends, on this part of the trip. Vacation, for us, has meant not something we go away from, but the sense of departure itself, the journey, the change of pace. We feel strongly the absence of nanny Marina, Bowie's tireless guide in his exploration of the world, and whose companionship and love, experience, and steady character we've all come to depend on in the last few months. I admit to weighing Bowie a couple of times on the hotel bathroom scale, wishing to have some tangible report of progress to send Marina. His weight gain has definitely slowed in the last couple of months, which wouldn't be a cause for a second thought if he hadn't been a baby champion in his early months. No dice; the scale's barely holding steady. What's growing is his second set of canines--the bulges are about to pop through--to the total of sixteen teeth; so, there.

In Marina's absence and Dave's occasional presence, Bowie and I have been bonding. Each morning, we accompany Dave down to breakfast, where we share a table with a rotating crew of his co-workers. They are on various deadlines; we're on a mission of discovery, and watch them come and go as we stay for a two hour long ritual of taking up foods, throwing some on the ground, placing others into mommy's mouth, taking out the remains, placing into own mouth, chewing--taking a break to flirt with the neighboring tables--occasionally swallowing, usually spitting out. Baby's favorite food this week? Bacon. Unlikely second winner? Papadum, Indian crisp bread--thank you, pan-Asian buffet. I keep expecting Bowie to develop a sudden interest in congee and fruit (aren't babies supposed to like mushes and sweet things?), and so I keep piling those on our plate, too. So far, he prefers things crispy and crunchy, something to sink his teeth into, with the occasional exception for yogurt (in China, we've tried several varieties; even the "plain" ones seem sweetened). In the time it takes baby to chew a single piece of bacon, mommy ends up having three breakfasts. Hey, it's all my favorite foods.

After breakfast, Bowie exhibits signs of extreme tiredness. There's the eye rubbing, the tugging on mommy's shirt, the jumpiness when somebody makes a loud noise. We return to the room for a nap; nurse; the baby's wide awake. He rolls off the boob, begs to be lowered down to the floor, crawl-runs for the nearest electric plug or a shoe, tugs, chews, gracefully allows to distract himself with a book or a ball. Preparing for the trip in San Francisco, nanny Marina has helped us pack a few of Bowie's favorite toys and books. This kit is a huge success. To it, we add magazines from the hotel room, bottles of water, pieces of food squirreled away from breakfast, and, argh, as of yesterday, TV remote control. Dave and I don't really watch TV at home or on the road, but guess what? The remote control comes with the big red button that tells a baby, able to comprehend cause and effect toys, "press here." It's all trial and error. Nobody showed him how to use the remote. He pushes the button, and occasionally it works. He pushes some more. Next thing I know, he's switching the channels. Quite purposefully.

The amazed mommy, simultaneously thrilled at the baby genius and eager to get baby unhooked from the shiny picture, picks up the balls from the toy kit. Up goes a ball in the air. The baby half turns, curious to see what's happening, then returns full attention to the screen. Up goes the second ball. Now I've got the baby's attention. Eeee, he says, which I figure to mean, do it again. So I do. Again. And Again. Faster. With clapping. With funny sounds when I lose both balls and requests to Bowie: Will you get me that ball? And that other one? Bowie does. This baby, who merely a few weeks ago barely reacted when you said his name, can now follow through a command; tries to repeat the word for ball--мячик, I say, ма-ма-ма, says Bowie. Ma-ma-ma, which could mean mommy or ball, and probably still means neither, but there it comes, the next step is clear. Мячик, I'll say, мя-мя-мя, will repeat Bowie, going for the ball and tossing it back to me (or hiding it from me, as his sense of humor develops). But we're not there yet. We're on the rug and mommy's learning to juggle.

When this juggling routine gets old, we take more laps in the hallway, then return to the room. Blinds closed, lights off, we try to summon sleep once more, and with some luck, and punching, and kicking, sleep sets in. Bowie goes into his crib, mommy makes coffee.

Berry compote in the making

Saturday, October 24, 2015

Living it up in Beijing

My friends Anna and Eric recently journeyed by train from San Francisco to Portland and back. Their friend, a frequent train traveler, had amassed enough points on Amtrak to be able to treat them to bunks in a private cabin. On their return to San Francisco, Anna wrote an essay that she shared at the San Francisco Writers Workshop about a man they met at dinner on the train, who was curiously well-informed about all the rail, air, and highway networks in the country. Anna, who is completing an international spy thriller, suspected the man of being associated with the firm. She and Eric clearly felt like spies themselves, infiltrating the world of the eccentric first class train travelers and observing not only the landscape in the window of their cabin and the constellations in the nighttime sky but also their fellow humans and themselves in an unfamiliar setting.

Travel, by way it pegs us to assigned seats, highlights the disparities of wealth and privilege. It also allows us the occasional opportunity to cross over, to intrude and take note of the lives of others. I remember talking to an American woman once who'd been dreaming of making a pilgrimage to Israel, to walk the way of Christ. She could picture the route exactly and had her entire itinerary planned out, down to the places to stop for lunch. The thing that was holding her up? If she were to take a cross-Atlantic flight, she wanted to be comfortable, she said. She wanted to do it in style. She was saving up for a first class ticket.

Here in Beijing, Bowie and I are trespassing as business travelers. We're sharing Dave's room in a comfortable--very comfortable--business class hotel. Clean filtered air, a crib for Bowie, mini fridge, a coffee maker and an electric tea kettle, TVs in the room and in the bathroom over the tub (TV is supposed to be relaxing?), a desk with lots of electric plugs, accommodating various standards, for all of our computers and phones. There's a leg massage machine. The room is on the 23rd floor and when we open the automated blinds, we're entertained by the view of the endless stream of traffic down below and new construction projects.

Beijing construction in the smog

In the forty-eight hours since our arrival, we've had little opportunity and need to leave the hotel. Bowie's got a case of jet lag, which means short drowsy days and then complete alertness at two am. At that hour, we've been picnicking in the bathroom and taking long crawls down the hallways. Then, back to bed until breakfast. The breakfast buffet, a smorgasbord of Asian, American, and European dishes (think: kimchi and baked beans) is just the thing for a little man who's experimenting with solids. There's cucumber and bacon and noodles and buns and watermelon to munch on, or, well, to throw around, yogurt to dip your fists into.

Picnic at 2 am

Sometime after breakfast and before dinner, we did make it to an indoor playground at a shopping center across the street from the hotel. The playground is perfect for crawlers and beginning walkers: a large enclosed padded space with miniature houses and slides and little rocking dragons (why rock on a horse if you could rock on a dragon?). Bowie took to this playground right away--and instantly became the center of attention. The half-dozed moms, nannies, and grandmas (and one grandpa) instantly wanted their babies to say hi to the foreigner. They did, and Bowie did; hands met hands and faces and noses and mouths; there was a little laughter and a little crying and a little hair pulling. Then followed the photo shoot, where we all had to document this cultural exchange. Bowie climbed the slide, rocked on a dragon, hid behind a miniature house, and then, as soon as seemed appropriate without causing an international scandal, we said пока-пока, bye-bye to our new friends and took off. I have to admit to being more scared of friendly babies than of airports and airplanes and cold and traffic jams and bad air. Their mutual curiosity and inability to cover their faces when they cough makes them perfect conduits for germs. In his eleven months, Bowie's had what feels like more than his fair share of colds, and though the docs keep telling me I won't be able to protect him from having another, I do wish I could. I trample on his social life; we return to the hotel.

Friends forever

Friday, October 23, 2015

Taking Bowie on the Road

Between professional travelers and the people who prefer to stay close to home, Dave and I, passionate as we are about experiencing new places and cultures, have not built our work life to accommodate more than a couple of trips a year, and so each departure feels fresh, an adventure, some of them more scary and daring than others.

Baby traveler
Once, on a Greek island of Naxos, we met a French couple with a three-week old baby. The two of them worked for Doctors Without Borders, and never got a chance to spend enough time together. After their baby was born, instead of staying in their hometown, surrounded by well-meaning family and friends, they decided to take the baby to a quiet relaxing place where the three of them would have a chance to bond. These professional travelers thought nothing, nay, found it relaxing, to take their newborn to a small island, accessible by ferry only in calm seas (the ferry we arrived on was able to dock at the port on the third attempt, just barely) and by a small aircraft, equally dependent on weather. At that time, Dave and I were only thinking about thinking about having a baby, and we put this story away as something both thrilling and worth aspiring to.

Sleeping like a rock star
I'm writing this from Beijing, where the nearly eleven-month Bowie and I landed yesterday, to rejoin Dave. Dave's been traveling to China for work; this time, he's helping to organize the company's annual conference happening next week. He's been here for a few days already to see things through (here are his photos from the past week). Bowie and I couldn't miss this chance to watch him do his job magic and to assist by breaking his sleep into bite-size chunks (tastier this way?). We also have our sights set on the following week, when Dave will take a vacation and we head to Tokyo.

So far, we've done little more than arrive, take a brief survey of the hotel and the nearby malls, fall asleep at dinner (Bowie), take a two o'clock in the morning snack of the dinner leftovers (Bowie), have breakfast and take a midday nap (Bowie). I'm hanging out now waiting for an appropriate time to wake Bowie from the nap (jet lag baby!) so that we could try out the perfect indoor playground area Dave had scouted out for us.

Here's the thing I love the most about traveling with Bowie so far: the baby knows how to make friends. In the airport and during the flight, he worked the system better than a priority status. We got seated early and, since the aircraft wasn't completely full, the flight attendants moved the man seated next to us, allowing Bowie extra room to crawl and play. A tireless neighbor behind us spent at least an hour playing peekaboo with Bowie; another neighbor used her fingers to teach him Chinese numbers. Bowie then counted individual grains of rice served to us for dinner--a few did end up in his mouth.

And hey, those baby changing stations on the Boeings? Quite functional with plenty of counter space with entertainment for the busy crawler. From the paper cups and paper towels to the faucet and the mirror, it's all a curiosity to him. Speaking of entertainment, while waiting on that clean diaper, peeing all over that changing station seems just the thing to do!

Overlooking Beijing traffic

Friday, September 18, 2015

Celebrating the Writing Community

Litquake descends on San Francisco in October; my inbox is teeming with invitations to literary readings and author round tables. My own work will be a part of Action Fiction! reading during Litcrawl's Phase One on October 17th. Thinking of the vibrancy of the San Francisco's writing community, I want to note a few successes that seem important by the people who have spent years writing and polishing their work, and whose stories are finding their way to larger audiences out there.

Alia Volz has recently published an essay in the New York Times about volunteering in the Mounted Patrol for the National Parks Service. Growing up in Mendocino County, Alia took her first riding lesson at four years old. She writes about her childhood and hippie parents with humor and true feeling in the recent essays that have appeared in Tin House and Narratively.

Genanne Walsh won the novel prize from The Black Lawrence Press. Twister will be published in December of this year and is now available on pre-order. A hurricane descends on a small Midwestern town. This event, both mundane and momentous, sweeps up the histories of the town's residents and clashes them against one another. At the center of the novel is the relationship of two half-sisters, one of whom has recently lost her son in a war. I've read partial drafts, and I can't wait to see how it all comes together.

Tim Floreen's young adult novel Willful Machines comes out in October, just after Litquake, available on pre-order now. He's having a book release party at the Book Passage in the Ferry Building on October 28. I and the participants of the San Francisco Writers Workshop have heard him read excerpts from two earlier novels--we were hooked. This novel sounds no less brilliant.  

Last for this post, but certainly not least, Peg Alford Pursell's collection of flash fictions, Show Her a Flower, a Bird, a Shadow (love the title), will be published by ELJ Press. This book is slated to come out in January 2017, and I will surely have an opportunity to say more about it later. Peg's flash fictions have been published in literary magazines, and I can't wait to see them in a book form. New depths emerge in each story, the (implied) author's concerns and ethos shine through.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Svetlana Boym's Another Freedom

"The word for freedom, eleutheria, is related to the border zone town of Eleutherae between Athens and Thebes, to art and religion, the history of the festival of the Dionysia and the emergence of classical tragedy. Pausanias reports that "the reason why the people of Eleutherae came over was not because they were reduced by war, but because they desired to share Athenian citizenship and hated the Thebans." They carried with them the wooden statue of Dionysus, who initially was not accepted in Athens. According to the legend, the got from the borderlands became infuriated and brought plague to the city of Athens. This is how the festival of the Dionysia came into being. Subsequently this collective festival opened a space for individual creativity, transforming ritual into theater--a space where political and artistic eleutheria opened dialogues about the boundaries of the polis. Eleutheria is a freedom of the border zone--a freely chosen "immigration" and incorporation of local and foreign gods--that also gives birth to poetry and theater."

From Svetlana Boym's Another Freedom, Chicago UP, 2010

Thursday, June 25, 2015

Marie Houzelle's Tita

Occitania, a large region of Southern France that includes parts of Spain and Italy, has been for centuries crisscrossed by traders and traveling folk from the far reaches of Europe and Northern Africa. Its ancient language, Occitan or langue d’oc, a close relative of Catalan, was immortalized as early as the 11th Century by troubadours, the traveling poets, serenading chivalry and courtly love. Though annexed gradually in the early modern era by the French kings, the region has preserved many of its ancient customs, the language, cuisine, the tradition of wine making. Born here in the 1950s, Tita, the heroine of Marie Houzelle’s eponymously titled novel, inherits this rich culture at the moment of crisis.

After World War II, life in a small Occitan community is dominated by the Catholic church and the old class structure separating the landed bourgeoisie from the farmers and day-laborers. But the depressed wine business and the growing trend for the young people to seek opportunities in the cities, outside of traditional occupations, threatens to drain the region of all lifeblood. A daughter of a wine-seller and a self-made woman who before marriage owned a beauty salon in Lyon, Tita sees her father’s business suffering from the lack of demand while her mother enjoys playacting a fashionable lifestyle. She must have a crocodile-skin handbag for her birthday; her daughters must have two first communions, the private and the solemn, each accompanied by new outfits and lavish parties.

Tita’s favorite pastime, besides reading, is making herself an inconspicuous listener in the rooms where adults gossip and talk business. This way, she learns that she was an illegitimate child, born before her parents’ marriage; that to correct the family’s finances, her father is considering taking a teaching post in Mexico. As things stand, her father won’t be able to provide the dowry for his three daughters, a heavy burden of responsibility for a man born in the 19th Century.

From her opening lines, “I’d like to be a nun. Or a saint,” it’s clear that seven-year old Tita has a unique approach to life. She seems to have been born a vegan: all animal-based foods disgust her. She’s willing to eat a bite of cheese if in exchange she might be allowed to go to church early in the morning, enjoying a quarter hour of solitude; but the very smell of veal, popular in local cuisine, is an offense to her senses. Spiritually curious, Tita enjoys attending early mass or participating in the May Day procession, but she strongly rebels against all perceived illogic of the church and her Catholic school. Tita debates, for instance, with her Catholic teacher, mademoiselle Pelican, on the matter of Pope’s infallibility. “[Pelican] had to admit it in the end: if Pius XII himself told me I’d made a spelling mistake and I had the Robert, my favorite dictionary, on my side, Robert would win.” And, yes, the dictionary plays a very important role in Tita’s life: it’s a great source of comfort whenever she encounters an unfamiliar concept or situation in the books she reads or in conversations between adults.

The novel’s short chapters, each introducing its own internal conflict and resolution, and yet firmly linked together into a larger whole, are loosely structured around Tita’s story of origins and her quest for education, her way of breaking from the confines of mademoiselle Pelican’s classroom and into the egalitarian world of the public school. She doesn’t need or want her father’s dowry to secure her future; what she craves is a kind of education that would challenge her intellectual abilities. Neither her Catholic school, nor the Catholic boarding school that’s looming in her future, would be able to provide that environment for her. And the state run school that could set her on the proper path seems off-limits: none of the children of the upper stratum of the local bourgeoisie have ever set foot in a public school.

A good deal of authenticity in Tita’s observations comes from the biographical details that the character shares with her author, Marie Houzelle. Houzelle grew up in a similar small town, speaking Occitan and French at home, learning Latin in school, writing her first journal in Spanish, perfecting English and picking up Swedish at the university, and German when she lived in Berlin. Just like Tita, she put in her dues at a Catholic school and started writing musical plays for her friends as a young adult. And yet, despite these biographical coincidences, conflating Tita with her author would be a mistake. The novel has strong literary routes, clearly influenced by sources as varied as Proust and Comtesse de Segur, a French author of Russian origin who wrote popular children’s novels in the middle of 19th Century. Tita’s personality quirks are very much her own and are described with a good deal of levity and slight ridicule that comes across even through the narrative first person voice.

In the mainstream American publishing marketplace today, a novel with a child protagonist telling her own story typically would be classified as young adult reading. Yet the label is decidedly too narrow for this witty and provocative work, whose seven-year old protagonist is reading Proust and openly discusses pre-teen sexuality. A few early readers of the novel have described Tita as a “precocious young girl,” but this description, too, doesn’t fully capture the character’s uniqueness. The conflict between Tita’s propensities, the local traditions, and her parents’ attitudes about the future animates the story and works its drama in the readers’ hearts, at the same time the novel also works on a deeper level, raising certain philosophical questions that demand careful thought and multiple re-readings.

A child, no matter how eloquent and well-versed in Proust she is, cannot know enough about the world to make completely self-guided choices about her future. A certain amount of luck is needed to set her on her path, and in addition to luck, a kind of obstinacy and stubbornness in pursuing those passions that will become obvious to people in their lives who can facilitate the work of luck. In Tita’s case, her passion for language and literature itself finally works its magic, allowing for an opportune connection to an adult with enough imagination to solve her educational dilemma.

Tita’s predicament is equally meaningful for children at the beginning of their lives as for the adults who find themselves still searching for a way of living a wholly individual life without completely breaking with the traditional values and remaining vocal and beloved members of their community. Tita is a hero in the sense of the classical epics: she is a leader, a pioneer, who can change things not only for herself but for others around her. And she does this not only by rebelling, by going against the norm, but by constantly searching for creative and unexpected compromises.

In the world of contemporary fiction, Tita is a rare joyful presence on the page, whose first person voice is so strong that at times it’s difficult to see through it the pen of a much older and more rounded, more experienced author. Unlike the rebellious children of classic literature who never grow up—Pippi Longstocking, the Little Prince, or Peter Pan—Tita’s future practically leaps from the page. The reader comes away believing Tita’s dreams: she’s going to move to Paris to attend university, she will travel, have at least half a dozen children with men from different countries, pursue her passions (writing fiction? why not!) rather than get stuck in a career—and possibly discover the cheeses to her taste. Nothing and nobody could stop her joyful if not always easy journey through life, not the lack of money or role models within her community, not her mother, for whom Tita’s creativity becomes a burden toward the end of the book, not her love for her father that keeps her connected with the town of her birth.

Houzelle moved away from her hometown as a teenager and eventually trained as a linguist and a chamber music singer. She combined raising three children with holding various jobs, from writing for a travel guide, translating, and editing, to singing with early and classical music choirs. Having worked in a number of languages, Houzelle came to write prose in English after taking creative writing workshops in the expat Parisian community. She lives in Ivry, a proletarian, left-wing suburb of Paris, and has published a number of stories, many set during the 1970s women’s liberation movement and featuring female protagonists with young children and husbands, who experiment with various professions, friends, lovers.

A prominent member of the English-language Paris writers community, Houzelle is finding audience in the greater English-speaking world. Thanks to editor Laurel Zuckerman, in September 2014 Tita became available from Summertime Publications, a Scottsdale, Arizona-based press, specializing in finding unique French voices. Houzelle’s voice is unique indeed: the voice of a worldly and opinionated French woman who employs fluent and animated, if at times characteristically French-inflected English, to write against stereotype of her countrymen and women. It’s a voice that commands our attention and leaves us longing for more.

Info on purchasing the book as a paperback or an ebook.

Saturday, June 13, 2015

What Goes Around in B O D Y

"I was peeling potatoes for dinner one day when my doorbell rang. The sudden shrill noise made me jump and I dropped my paring knife into the compost pail. I rinsed my hands in the sink and wiped them on the dish towel, at which point the doorbell rang again. My unexpected visitor was growing restless. . . . "

Read the rest of What Goes Around in B O D Y, a lovely online journal based out of Prague and publishing lots of great work in translation as well as English-language originals.

Monday, June 8, 2015

The Study of Happiness, A Dissertation Proposal

"The happiest person I know is my father. In happiness research, we distinguish several philosophical approaches to the notion of happiness (Haybron, 2000). I will examine three distinct paths of inquiry before formulating my dissertation thesis.

While in colloquial parlance “happiness” typically signifies a psychological state, Aristotelian happiness raises a question of societal values: how a person’s well-being compares to that of his or her neighbors, how enviable his life is. A person’s entire character is at stake, and lifetime is but an opportunity to build an estimable reputation. “Count no man happy until he’s dead,” Solon, an Athenian thinker, advised.

My father, a professor of electrical engineering at Stanford, in his forties started building and installing solar photovoltaic panels for businesses and homes in the burgeoning Silicon Valley. At the beginning, his company survived off research grants and boutique contracts, for example, designing solar panels for an auto race across the Australian outback. In the past fifteen years, as the costs of energy skyrocketed, his contracts grew exponentially and now include universities, banks, trucking companies, national store chains, auto manufacturers, and various government agencies. Two years ago, the company went public, and since then its stock quintupled in value. . . ."

Read the continuation of this story in Redivider 12.2, now available for purchase.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Karen Bender's Refund

Karen Bender's collection Refund, upon publication in January of this year by Counterpoint Press, received wonderful reviews from a score of highly admired publications, including LA Times and NY Times. I'd had the privilege of working with Karen during my time at Narrative, and so particularly looked forward to reading this collection. Just before Bowie was born, in writing the following, I came to think of Refund through the lens of the title story as a post-9/11 book.

To calculate the financial costs of the September 11 attacks, economists begin with the obvious: $40 billion in claims to insurance companies. This incredible number skyrockets when we add the losses on the stock exchanges, the impact on the travel and entertainment industries, on jobs and business in New York City, the subsequent costs of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, the dramatic increase in the military budget. And yet, judging by the prose we’re seeing today, the financial costs are likely minor compared to the long-lasting psychological impact terrorism and the Bush-era recession and fear-mongering have levied on the nation.

In the past decade, several notable works of fiction addressed the events of 9/11, from Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland and Claire Messud’s The Emperor’s Children to novels by Don DeLillio, Jonathan Safran Foer, Francine Prose, short stories by Martin Amis and Deborah Eisenberg. In Karen E. Bender’s collection Refund, only the title story looks directly at the events of 9/11, yet most of the thirteen pieces feel as though they emerge from the wreckage. Bender has a way of focusing her gaze on the periphery of the main event, the view that allows her to capture the nuance of complex and lingering drama. Reflecting on “Refund” in an interview, she said, “I wanted to write about September 11 in a way that wasn’t ‘noble’—there was a lot written about the way people were heroic, which was true and moving, but there was also the fact that people were living by the site and trying to figure out how to live in the face of this surreal and horrible destruction.”

A particular brand of desperate resilience marks the characters of Bender’s third book that follows on the wings of her two novels, A Town of Empty Rooms (Counterpoint Press, 2013) and Like Normal People (Houghton Mifflin, 2000). The adults as well as the children can achieve happiness as long as it’s “weighted by resignation.” The collection opens with the story “Reunion,” in which Anna Green’s twentieth high school reunion is interrupted when one of her former classmates opens fire at the crowd. Anna drives home, unscathed, but has to wait until the morning to share the experience with her husband. More pressing problems demand her attention at home: the two young children constantly bicker, her daughter throws tantrums at bedtime unless Anna’s husband sleeps on the floor of her bedroom. When Anna does tell the husband of the shooting, he seems unsure how to react. “Are you okay?” he asks, and “What did you do?” The conversation—and the brief hug—are quickly interrupted by their children. Her husband, while caring deeply, is overtired and lacks the emotional resources to comfort Anna in any substantial way.

What is a reasonable reaction to intense and, worse, chronic fear? In a more optimistic, forward-looking time of American history, desire for safety might have been seen as a cowardly response. Benjamin Franklin wrote once, “They that can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither.” Bender’s characters are not above looking for temporary safety, the problem is that their world, circumscribed by responsibilities to family and children, allows neither safety nor liberty. Looking for bonding with somebody who shared the traumatic experience with her, Anna contemplates an affair with a former classmate but doesn’t go through with it because the man turns out to be a swindler. The protagonist of “Free Lunch,” afraid for her future after getting laid off, does have a brief fling with a former colleague, and she evaluates the affair as “protection against a falling into a chasm that went on and on.” Naturally, this protection is fleeting, and nothing can save her from the future of “numbness and [job] résumés,” moving her family to a smaller city, downsizing.

Another survivor—the teacher protagonist of “The Sea Turtle Hospital,” after the second lockdown at school in a week—escapes by trying to help her charge, an underprivileged student, to fulfill a dream (or a momentary fancy) of seeing a sea turtle. On impulse, after the lockdown is lifted, she takes the student to the hospital where the animals are treated. What they find is a blind turtle, doomed to spend the rest of his long life in a small tub at an underfunded, volunteer-run facility. “This wasn’t in the book,” says Keisha, the student, and demands of the teacher, “Save him.” The best the teacher can do is to offer her a dream of a bigger tub for the turtle, “a mile long even, with . . . special pools with rocks so that he could imagine he was in a tide pool.” The turtle would remember how to swim, and experience the sensation of floating again. Floating—the dream of floating—carries this and other characters in this collection forward.

Popular psychology describes fear as one of humanity’s basic emotions, and in this collection Bender exposes many facets of fear. It not only drives her characters to adultery and rage, toward opportunities for escape, but also illuminates their passions and beliefs, encourages greater empathy, forces them to push through the immediate troubles to desperately “count their riches, over and over.” In one of the most apocryphal stories of the collection, “Anything for Money,” Bender shows fear to be the defining human emotion. Aurora, a preteen granddaughter of a Scrooge-like Hollywood producer, Lenny Weiss, arrives to his mansion after her mother is committed to a rehab facility for alcoholism. Lenny gives her a room in his house and reluctantly begins developing a relationship with the girl. In one of the pivotal moments of their cautious friendship, Aurora asks Lenny, “What are you afraid of?” She deems his first answer, “Nothing,” unsatisfactory. He promises to think of something better, and the rest of the story becomes a kind of cosmic reprisal for his arrogance. By the time Lenny comes up with a good answer, fear has gotten the better of him.

Navigating the dangers of a post-9/11 world is but one of the themes in Bender’s collection. Fear and sadness are alleviated by the inner strengths of her characters and the suspenseful, fable-like plots of several stories. The day she eliminates an unwanted pregnancy, the protagonist of “The Third Child” finds relief in helping her son and a neighbor girl to make a magic potion out of vinegar, mayonnaise, and seltzer water to transform themselves into a cheetah and a princess. In the middle of getting a biopsy, the terrified protagonist of “This Cat” interviews her surgeon about her pet iguana. “There was the needle, and there was pain; I was sweating. . . . ‘What did the iguana do?’ I asked between breaths.” The sublime humor of this passage deftly highlights just how much backbone the woman has.

Humor and the grand sense of cosmic irony drive the plots of several stories. In “Candidate,” we catch Diane Bernstein at a particularly trying moment in her life. A transplant to the Southeast from Seattle, she’s at odds with the politics of most of her neighbors, colleagues, and students at the college where she works. Her son has been diagnosed with autism; her husband left to confront his own fear of mortality; she cannot keep a babysitter because of the boy’s growing rages. But driving the story is a completely off-the-wall incident: a local far-right politician, Woody Wilson, shows up at Diane’s footstep looking for contributions to his campaign, and as soon as she questions his politics, he collapses onto her living room floor. He comes to quickly enough, and assures her the incident is due merely to fatigue. He begs Diane not to tell anyone, for the fear of ruining his chances, and she, afraid to be blamed for causing harm, complies. As he stays in her house to recover with an icepack, their conversation grows unexpectedly intimate and honest, and potentially healing to both parties.

“Refund,” the title piece, is, perhaps, the best example of a story with a profound theme developed in an unorthodox way, through fable-like irony. Josh and Clarissa, both artists, get themselves in financial trouble when they decide to send their three-year-old son to a private school they cannot afford. Luckily, they’re both offered temporary jobs teaching art in Virginia, and for the duration they decide to sublease at market rates their rent-subsidized apartment in Manhattan. At first, the transaction goes smoothly, and then 9/11 happens. The tenant reacts emotionally, demanding all of her money back, and when Clarissa tries to negotiate, the tenant increases her demands. “I am requesting $3,000 plus $1000 for every nightmare I have had since the attack, which currently totally twenty-four. You owe me $27,000 payable now.”

But what sum of money could be sufficient as compensation for 9/11? The ensuing exchange throws light onto the emotional journey that Josh and Clarissa follow as they return to their beloved city to witness the lasting damage, as well as on the tragedy that their tenant has lived through. Through this unlikely negotiation Bender skillfully leads the reader on the journey from frustration and disbelief to horror and pathos, avoiding a shred of sentimentality.

In the interview about the origins of this story, Bender added, “I felt the city was truly starting to heal the moment I heard someone yell, ‘You idiot!’ out of a car.” Kindness and empathy are important responses to tragedy, but in Bender’s world, they’re not sufficient without the open expression of accompanying fear, anger, and pain. Through the stories in Refund, she impressively shows the value that these typically negative emotions play in our lives, the strength, comfort, and beauty we derive from them.

Two stories from this collection appear on the site of Narrative Magazine, where they are accessible for free (registration required). The book is available for purchase in your neighborhood bookstore, on Amazon, and on IndieBound