One of us lives on the east coast. One of us lives on the west.

One of us lives in a rural community. One of us lives in a city.

Both of us wander. Both of us witness. Both of us write.

This is a record of what we find.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

A MURDER OF CROWS Revisited from August 2013

Every evening we walk our dog Emma to Ina Coolbrith Park at the top of Russian Hill. And every evening there are a few scolding crows who object to Emma’s presence—who could blame them? She takes delight in chasing them off the grass in other locations around San Francisco whenever she gets the chance.

Photo courtesy of John Winkleman
But for the past few months, there have been more than a few crows at the top of the hill. In fact, there have been a whole lot of crows—a murder—which is what a group or flock of crows is called. (A group of ravens is called an unkindness, or a conspiracy. Rooks are a building or a parliament) Why a murder? (Why unkindness or parliament, for that matter? But I’m going to stick to crows and murder, here) Supposedly because of crows' historical propensity to show up on battlefields after a bloody fight, which led to their association with violent death. And whether it’s this attributive name or a more deeply imbedded superstition or Edgar Allen Poe, a gathering of a lot of crows feels somehow ominous. Like they’re plotting something. Like they’re up to no good. I keep a firm hold on Emma’s leash, in case they attempt to swoop down and airlift her out over the Bay. These Ina Coolbrith crows probably remember her from the other parks miles away—or have at least heard about her. I kid you not—crows not only have been proven to have face recognition, but to pass that information on to other crows—‘watch out for that bad guy’, or in Emma’s case, ‘that split-faced dog with the needle nose.’ And these birds are fearless—I’ve watched them, time and time again, work in pairs, dive-bombing a red-tail hawk they feel is infringing on their territory.

Photo courtesy of Matt from London

They’re also incredibly smart. John Marzluff, professor of avian social ecology and demography at The University of Washington calls crows and ravens ‘feathered apes.’ They have complex brains with astonishing reasoning abilities. They build and use tools. They are capable of three step reasoning. Without prompting or previous observation, a crow will retrieve a short stick dangling from a piece of string in order to retrieve a longer stick inside a cage in order to get at a piece of food in a long tube. That's complex thinking.

Crows also play. They use flats of bark to ‘surf’ the wind and take pleasure in sliding on snowy slopes. Crows have been known to engage in string play with cats. They play tricks on people. And dogs. Marzluff tells a story about a colleague on the University of Montana campus who woke up one morning to his dog madly barking—when he went out he could hear someone calling, “Here dog, come on boy. Come on.” When he went to see who was calling his dog, he found it was a crow! Later, that same crow gathered up a whole pack of dogs in the same way and when classes let out, the crow gave a big “Caw!” scattering the dogs, causing chaos and making more than a few students spill their bags of chips. A clever way to get a snack.

But back to murder. This concept of crows and ravens as harbingers of death, as evil omens. I know, of course, that it is a trope. That if you put a flock of crows in a story, the reader will assume something bad is going to happen. They will expect death to show up on the page by the end of the next chapter. But reality and fiction aren’t always the same and I’m starting to think that crows have gotten the short end of the stick, fiction wise. Maybe as our knowledge of these amazing birds grows and changes, the trope will change. Maybe someday a flock of crows on the page will signify a joke about to be played. Or a complex problem about to be solved.  For as Henry Ward Beecher, an oft quoted Congressional clergyman in the 1800’s once said, “If men had wings and bore black feathers, few of them would be clever enough to be crows.”

Does anybody have other stories about crows they’d be willing to share? I’d love to hear about them!

Take Good Care,


Friday, July 10, 2015

The Landscape of Home Away From Home

I’ve been home for a while (a month!) after a flurry of travel, (New York, Mexico City, San Miguel Allende, Santa Fe, Atlanta, Hawaii) and now I'm getting ready to head East again in a few weeks. It's hard to stay put for very long these days when there are so many places I want to go, (and go back to), so much I want to see.

For me, travel seems to open my heart and mind to other lives while expanding my sense of potential and possibility. I always love imagining myself, another version of myself, living in the places I visit. The contrast from a place like Santa Fe to say, New York City stretches across the spectrum from my life in San Francisco, allowing me to construct very different imaginary lives over the span of a few months.

Something I always do when I’m away from home, is to find ‘my house’—the house where I would, in my imaginary life, reside. I have virtual parallel lives and houses on several continents; a house in Buenos Aires, a house in Santa Fe, a house in Paris. My 'house' in Montpelier, Vermont is a charmingly tiny brick coach house, not much bigger than a child’s playhouse, where I could imagine myself as a quirky, arty spinster inviting my favorite writers to tea and making dolls to hand out as muses.

I discovered my favorite house (where the imagined famous writer version of myself lives and writes sweeping best seller sagas whispered to me by the ghosts who walk the moors) while on a family vacation driving through Dartmoor. We were in search of a Celtic stone circle from a postcard I’d purchased in Moretonhamstaed, driving, windows down, listening to the wind hush through the trees. Dragonflies zipped and hovered over grazing moor-ponies and sheep.  

And then there it was—the stone house that I silently but immediately recognized as my house. Time passed as we continued down the narrow road, until my husband turned to me and said, “Wasn’t that ‘your house?’”

“Yes!” I said. “It was!” He made a wide u-turn in the middle of the road, circling back. When I got out to take a photo, the owner came out and told us all about the house—how he and his wife and children were there on sabbatical—she was an architect, he a historian. He seemed very open to having my imaginary self move in when they went back to London the next year.

Now, if this all sounds pretty indulgent, consider the value of the exercise for housing fictional characters. We all have to live someplace, whether in real life, imaginary life or in fiction and sometimes the boundaries are thinner than you might think.

Take Good Care,


Thursday, June 25, 2015

Herding Gulls

During times when so much of my life seems to be in uncertain flux, it's good to look back and realize that some things haven't changed...

This is a post I wrote four years ago, but with the exception of the closing of The House Of Days, it could have been written today~

Yesterday, as the sun dropped low in the sky, my canine companion and I headed off on one of our favorite walks out on the municipal pier that curls into the San Francisco Bay at the end of Van Ness Avenue. Emma, a Shetland Sheepdog without a flock, especially loves this walk; she stalks and herds every gull who dares to rest on the pier wall. Her sincere efforts to launch herself into the sky (both comic and a little pathetic) always make the fisherfolk checking their crab pots laugh.

As we walked out on the dilapidated pier, shaped like a French curve drafting tool, warm coppery light poured through the Golden Gate. Literally hundreds of seagulls criss-crossed the bay, skimming the water in hopes of supper. A sea lion poked its head above the water, orienting itself before a smoothly undulated dive back under. A constellation of star fish clung tenaciously to the breakwall just above the tide line.

A lone swimmer from the Dolphin Club braved the inlet waters—53 degrees at the most. You couldn’t pay me to get in that cold water, but some people I know do it every single day.

Just off the pier, a class of grade school children sang sea shanties from the deck of the Balclutha—a retired, three-masted, 300 foot, clipper ship built in 1886. This ship once carried goods around the tip of South America but is now maintained by the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Museum and used for monthly overnight field trips for local schools.

After walking the length of the pier and back, we started climbing the hill toward our car, parked at the upper Fort Mason Green, but stopped to peer inside the House of Days. The small cement building, once the Searchlight building, was adapted by The Exploratorium; a tiny window allows viewers to glimpse a photographic display chronicling changing weather conditions at regular intervals. This is one of my favorite parts of our walk; for me, the pattern and rhythm of this progression is somehow validating, reassuring and holds the promise of many more glorious days to come.

Take Good Care,


Friday, June 19, 2015

The Landscape of Space Reprise

I love this quote. And I believe it deeply:

A writer only begins a book. A reader finishes it.

Samuel Johnson is credited with saying that. Here is another way to put it:

From BookBrowse's FB page
Right?  Have you ever done that? I literally have.  Or have you ever felt that? Felt like your book is so much a living breathing thing that you want to hold it, hug it, take its hand and walk to the park with it? I have felt that. Over and over again.

How does a writer create the kind of book that asks for that kind of engagement?  I have been thinking endlessly about this as I have revised my last WIP. My last blog post delves into this too. The answer lies, in large part, with the space we writers have to the story and on the page.  I have preached this for years. Ask my friends. I  have been obsessed with it. The partnership between the reader and the writer. Louise Rosenblatt's Reader Response Theory. (The reader is a necessary part of completing the book.) Scooting over on the bench to make room for the reader. All that and more. But it has been tough to put my pen where my mouth is. 

I made a break though though this time around. Part of what made it possible was that I had been away from the text for a while. (Give your self space from your WIP in order to make space for the reader!) I was ruthless about cutting. Not just excess adjectives or favorite phrases, but whole ideas. I took myself out of the manuscript and left the characters there to fend without me. I trusted---for the first time---that the reader would be there to take care of them. My characters. 

I created space, and in creating space I created trust. 

Or as Chuck Wendig says, as only he can say it:

The reader wants to work. The reader doesn't know this, of course, so don't tell him. SHHH. But the reader wants to fill in the details. He wants to be invested in the novel and to make his own decisions and reach his own conclusions. You don't need to write everything. You can leave pieces (of plot, description, dialogue) out. The reader will get in the game. His imagination matters as much as yours. Make that f#$%&@ dance for his dinner.

I am going to continue to ponder this. And work on it. I would love to hear your ideas about it too.  

Gratefully yours (and apologies for posting a day late!)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

The (Possible) Blessings of Boredom (revisited from 6/26/14)

I have just finished a big project—the novel I’ve been working on for the past few years. I’ve taken some time to catch up on some other business that was neglected in the fervor of the big project, spent a few weeks planning for and teaching another fun and successful Young Writers’ Workshop with my wonderful teaching partner Ann Jacobus, and now I’m going to…

Well, I’m not exactly sure what I’m going to do next.

I mean, I have plenty I could do—I have a half finished novel that should be taken apart and started over again. I have lists of ideas for new novels and more niggling at the back of my brain. But writing a novel is a huge commitment—not one you can take lightly and none of my current ideas are really “calling” to me at the moment. Besides, it seems my muse is taking a summer vacation like most everyone else. I’m expecting a postcard from Tahiti any day…

I’m trying not to panic. I don’t like not knowing what I want. Already, I feel an uneasy restlessness creeping up beside me. A restlessness that if quantifed, is basically a wish for a desire.

Luckily, blessedly, sometimes the Universe delivers a little gift right at the moment you sorely need it. One such gift showed up in the form of another blog post last Sunday—an essay by Maria Popova on the importance of boredom, which boils down to the innate discomfort of waiting for something when you don’t know what it is, and won’t know until you find it. Popova examines the writings of psychoanalyst Adam Phillips, who said that the experience of boredom is really the experience of waiting for yourself.

Waiting for yourself. I have to say that struck a nerve. That’s what I feel like I’m doing right now. Apparently, creativity needs occasional boredom—it is the time and space needed for a new desire to take shape. (Hear that, muse? I hope you’re getting good and bored on that lovely beach in Tahiti…)

Throughout the essay, I recognized so much of myself, so many of my own feelings—the association between being “good” and being productive and then the opposite—pairing being unproductive with being “not-so-good.” I certainly recognized the impulse to fill up spare time with busyness, to find a distraction…(like, ahem... checking Facebook and Twitter and email many times an hour.) The deep-seated fear that if you stop doing what you do for even a short time, you won’t know who you are anymore. I mean, how can you be a writer if you’re not writing? (The dualistic question is ‘how can you be a writer if you don’t take time to be present, to observe, to wander…?’)

But I do actually know that it’s so important at times to be still, to be quiet and, I suppose, to let yourself be bored for a while. I’ve told my own writing students that they need to “get off the phone” if they want the muse to call.

So, yes, it’s time to take my own advice and get off the phone.

For a while, at least…

You can all read all of Maria Popova’s excellent essay here.

Take Good Care,


Thursday, June 4, 2015

Repost of Community Garden

We have a community garden on our block!

My dear friend and neighbor, Stef, inspired it. Both of us—many of us on our block—garden. Stef lives on the park side of our street, and her garden sits in the back of her house, facing the park and the river. The river, right? The one that has overflowed a number of times recently and flooded the park and our block. Stef's house and land have been hit especially hard by the floods and she has virtually lost her garden. It has basically washed away.  Not good. Not good at all.


At the other end of our block, just past my house, there is a big open field. A local guy owns it. Way back when it was used as a cow pasture.  And then, I believe, it was hayed. Now, it basically sits un-used—sometimes kids play ball there, we all use it as a shortcut to get to the block behind ours, but mostly it has been a place where some people just let their dogs poop. So Stef approached the owner of the land about us using it for a community garden. He was thrilled with the idea! We asked our neighbors if they wanted to join in, two were interested, and now our four households are partners in the—

Esplanade Garden!

Stef's son and my daughter planting peas!

Over the last six weeks or so we have planned the layout of the garden, measured it, dug up sod, built a bean teepee, painted signs, shopped, planted seeds and starts, and watered the garden. The vegetables are already looking vibrant and strong. And we all—well, I think we all feel more vibrant and strong too.  It's fun to work collaboratively on such a dynamic project. It feels good to be in the dirt side by side. Each of us has a little expertise in one piece of the process (some—e'hem, like me—have less expertise than others!) and so we are learning a lot too!

Our pole bean teepee
And look!  Bean plants are beginning to grow!
Here is the other amazing (yet not so surprising) thing: we have already had a number of spontaneous and warm moments with other neighbors as a result of the garden. For example: when we were digging up the sod and had no real idea what we were doing, the neighbor across the street came over with her sod buster, a sharpener and her Master Gardener skills and she showed us how to dig up sod the right way!  She ended up staying to help, brought her dad and brother to help too, and it turned out that she and her family needed the sod to replace grass that had been destroyed in the flood. We dug it up, transported it to her house and they replanted it.  I had NEVER spent time with her before. Ever.  It was awesome. And, I don't know, it felt kind of critical too.

Community gardens are a great thing for all the reasons we already know.  They promote healthy eating and healthy relationships. They save money and save land.  And they connect us—to ourselves, to each other and to the landscape that is our home.

Our community garden made me want to understand their history. And so here is a brief overview, with some illustrations from a few of my favorite gardening picture books:

The Curious Garden by Peter Brown
1.  During the 1893 depression, Detroit's mayor, Hazen Pingree, proposed a plan. He suggested using donated vacant land for gardens, which would provide temporary work for unemployed folks. Known as Pingree Potato Patches, the program offered ¼ to ½ acre sites, and also provided seeds and instructions in 3 languages. The food raised was available for sale. Based on PPP's success, similar programs were started in in New York, Chicago, Boston, and other cities.

2.  In 1891, the first school garden opened at the Putnam School in Boston. Other school gardens followed. They were most often run by teachers and supported by local organizations—women’s clubs, gardening clubs, civic clubs, etc—who provided volunteers, land, and funding. In 1914, the U.S. Bureau of Education created the Division of Home and School Gardening in an effort to promote gardens nationally.

The Gardener by Sarah Stewart
3.  The war garden campaign began when the U.S. joined World War I. American volunteers banded together to raise food for their households so that farm-raised food could be exported to Europe, where there was a severe food crisis. Huge numbers of people participated in this effort, and gardens were started in backyards, vacant lots, parks, company grounds—on any available land. In 1918, the Bureau of Education restructured the Division of Home and School Gardening into the U.S. School Garden Army. Some reports state that 5.29 million gardeners grew $525 million worth of food in 1918 alone.

4.  People turned to gardening again during the 1930s depression. Two types of gardens existed at this time: subsistence gardens, which were found at people's homes and on community property; and work-relief gardens, where folks were paid to grow food that was used in hospitals and by charities.

Grandpa Green by Lane Smith
5.  World War II brought federally guided Victory Gardens. They were part of the larger Food Fights for Freedom campaign that included rationing, recycling, canning, handicrafts, and volunteer farm work. The Victory Garden program promoted gardening for household food consumption and, in 1944, 42% of the nation's vegetables came from them.  42%!!  This was a practical movement, yes, but it was also a philosophical and emotional one. Participating in Victory Gardens was a way to express patriotism, build morale and collaborate in a fun, relaxing way.

6.  In the 1970s, interest in community gardening was rekindled. It became an expression of urban activism and a new environmental ethic. In 1976, the USDA sponsored the Urban Gardening Program, which created urban offices in 16 (and then 23) cities to promote vegetable gardening and community garden. In 1978, the American Community Gardening Association  was created as a non-profit membership organization.

The Good Garden by Katie Smith Milway
7.  Truck farms. Remember the post I did on Ian Cheney and his amazing project?  I just LOVE that truck…

Do you have any community garden stories to share?  Or books about community gardens?

Gratefully yours,

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Authentic Sense Of Place

A recent post in Eco-Notes—Living Shelter Designs’ green building blog—caught my attention and imagination. Any discussion about ‘sense of place’ always peaks my interest, as it’s a concept I think about a lot, as a writer, as an artist and as an urban dweller.

The thought-provoking article focused on building local in the Pacific Northwest, but brought up ideas that are relevant no matter where you live. (Or if you’re a fiction writer, where your characters live!) In the post, author Kira Connery discusses how building local should strive to help define this often “ephemeral” sense of place. She says:

Place is a challenging term to define – what makes a location an authentic “place,” rather than just coordinates on a map? What makes some cities, towns and homes memorable and others forgettable? What impact does “place” have on our community and individual identities? And how do we uncover a location’s sense of place? Building professionals and scholars have long debated these questions amidst ongoing explorations of what makes a space a “place,” and how this sense of place varies from region to region.

She mentions my home town, San Francisco, and says while many immediately think of Victorians as its defining characteristic, the authentic character of a place is much more than just architectural style—it is a constantly evolving relationship between the people who live there and the landscape that defines their environment. I love that. And know that we San Franciscans interact daily with the hills, the circumscription of water in three directions, the tumble of fog advancing and retreating from the horizon. This to me defines the sense of place where I live as much as the wooden bay-windowed houses tightly butted up against one another lining the hills in my neighborhood.

Like many, I am drawn to landscapes with an authentic and unique sense of place and I feel strangled and even offended by landscapes that have been striped and replaced by something ugly and generic. Ms. Connery has something to say about that too:

In most cities and towns, it is easy to find buildings that don’t tell us much about our communities. Fast-food chains and big-box stores are two common examples of buildings that owe their appearance to processes far removed from their site and the community they serve. They are uniformly prescriptive, rather than uniquely perceptive. These buildings detract from a sense of place not because they lack a specific style, but because regardless of where they are built, their appearance and relationship to their surroundings is the same…
Place-making requires discovery, participation and interaction, not only from building professionals, but from home owners and community members as well. This process can shape architecture in a variety of ways: a building may respond to the history of a region, highlight local cultural or natural resources, showcase the craft and innovation of local artisans and builders, or celebrate local materials.

This last line acted like a light switch in my writer’s mind—I’ve copied and saved it to use when I’m revising a story for setting:

“…a building may respond to the history of a region, highlight local cultural or natural resources, showcase the craft and innovation of local artisans and builders, or celebrate local materials.”

What a marvelous tool for creating a specific and distinctive setting. Instead of just living in a ‘house in the suburbs,’ (or the city, or the country) what if your character lived in a house or a community that reflected the region, the local culture and/or the indigent natural resources, prescribed by artisans of the area? It’s a richer, more layer way to create setting and certainly worth considering, don’t you think?

To read the entire excellent article go to Living Shelter Designs’ Eco-Notes. Oh, and by the way, Living Shelter is owned by my brilliant architect sister, Terry Phelan!

I’d love to hear your thoughts on sense of place, whether in the real world or in your writing…

Take Good Care,