Monday, August 31, 2009

My Caption Was Selected For The Top Three!

I just discovered that The New Yorker keeps a personal archive of all the captions I've submitted over the years. How nice of them. So here they all are.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

50,000 Dollar Baby

It's hard to imagine punching out someone named Jesus, but last night Hawaii's own Brian Viloria duked it out with Mexico's Jesus Iribe and won the IBF light flyweight world title.

Over 3,000 showed up at the Neil Blaisdell Arena to watch Brian and Jesus go at it, Hawaiian style. Viloria entered the ring, the Hawaii Five-O theme song blasting, with a line of hula dancers and supporters carrying both the Hawaiian and Philippine flags.

Viloria stated in the Honolulu Advertiser, "Jesus came to fight, man...he was no walkover. He brought his A game. Luckily, I brought my A game and we got to put on a great show."

So why would a girl like me be so excited about a boxing match like this? It's in my blood...literally. Out of the six uncles on my mom's side, four of them were competitive boxers, one being my beloved uncle Ben Avilla (below), who put up his dukes to cancer but sadly lost the match in 05. No doubt he would have been there last night. Uncle Splint (also a boxer) is the last living of the 14 Avillas. I need to call him this week to see if he was there. I'm betting that if he was, his imagination would have put him in the ring, glove to glove with Jesus.

Viloria received $50,000 for the bout. Iribe received $10,000. Less than they deserve, that's for sure, but it's never about the money, is it?

Friday, August 28, 2009

If I Could See Dead People...

I got to thinking the other night about who really deserves to be on my list of dead people I wish I could have met. Originally, I had T. S. Eliot as my leading dead man with Edith Wharton right behind him, but then I remembered John the Apostle and his exile to the Greek island of Patmos and realized he is definitely more important to me than my wannbe husband, T. S. Eliot. So after a long walk in the wind with my dog tonight, here is the list as I now see it:

1. John the Apostle (oh the questions I'd want to ask him...)

2. T. S. Eliot (I'd be very giddy, perhaps near hyperventilation, just to be in the same room with him)
3. Edith Wharton (we'd totally hit it off, I'm sure)

4. King Solomon (by far one of the best poets in all of recorded history, I'd want to hear him in his Hebrew native tongue read the entire Song of Solomon to me)

5. William Shakespeare (I would have to impress him with my recitation of Beatrice's lines from Much Ado About Nothing--after teaching it every year for 15 years, I've got nearly the entire play memorized..."What fire is in mine ears? Can this be true? Stand I condemned for pride and scorn so much? Contempt, farewell. And maiden pride, adieu. No glory lives behind the back of such. And Benedick, love on. I will requite thee, taming my wild heart into thy loving hand...yadda yadda)

6. Rich Mullins (he'd have to sing "These Days" for me then I'd have him teach me how to play the hammer dulcimer)

7. My maternal grandmother (vovo) Mary Avilla (I'd hug her and give her a neck rub--she gave birth to 14 children!)

8. My paternal grandmother Beda Johanson (she's from Lapland, part of the Sami tribe, so I'd have a lot to learn from her--she gave birth to 9 children and died when my dad was 5)

9. Leonardo Da Vinci (to show him how I can mirror write as good as he did)

10. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (I'd cook up my best vindaloo masala, sans the chicken, for him and try to learn something about passive resistance)

I guess that about wraps it up for tonight. I'm expecting weird dreams tonight...

Thursday, August 27, 2009

More Food For Thought

Because so many people liked my cat tuna tale, I feel compelled to spill the beans all over the page and purge myself of yet another tragic kitchen catastrophe.

As one of my most memorable mishaps, this one has to do with my first attempt at trying to cut up a whole chicken. Since I'm using this real-life scene as the opener for my novel Bum-bye, I'll do a quick cut/paste job of my first three paragraphs:

Cleaver in hand, I psyche myself up for the slaughter. I’m staring at a dead chicken sprawled out on my mom’s old cutting board. Its wings are bent in a way that say, “I surrender. You win.” I bought it this way at the grocery store, instead of a precut one because it costs $1.29 less to buy it whole. My mom always made it look so simple. I asked her to teach me many times, but she would wave me off and say in her Portuguese-Hawaiian pidgin, “Eh, no worries. Bum-bye, I teach you.” But she got sick in June of ‘84 and died Thanksgiving night, leaving me here six months later in her kitchen, not even knowing how to boil an egg or make a pot of rice.

I really don’t want to do this but I’m sick of Top Ramen and Pop-tarts, so with an uneasy breath, I take a swing at the pink heap of raw carnage. The blunt chop on the wooden board sends a splattering of bloody liquid to my upper lip, which I wipe with my sleeve. The left leg comes off clean and I’m feeling a surge of adrenaline, so I go for the right leg, which unfortunately does not come off. The leg is still attached by threads of muscle and tendon between the thigh joint and the body, so I grasp it and twist. The bone clicks out of the socket, and a blue rubbery vein dangles out. The clammy pimpled chicken skin is pulling back from its flesh, and yellow fat globules are clinging to each other. With both hands, I pull and twist in desperation, but the crunching of bone and tendon is freaking me out.

Reaching into the body cavity, I grasp onto the ribcage and hurl the whole thing across the kitchen. It lands with a splat on the floor by the fridge. I plunge the cleaver into the sink and run my trembling hands through my hair, until I remember they are covered in chicken slime.
Crouching beside the counter on the brown linoleum floor, I can’t control my breathing. “Come on,” I say out loud. “It’s just a chicken.” Retrieving the mutilated carcass, I scoop it up and take it to the sink. I wash it off with hot water and a dab of Palmolive dish soap and place it with its half-severed leg on a cookie sheet.

While the novel is fiction, this scene is not. Neither is the next scene where Gabi gets confronted by her half-baked, soon-to-be stepmother, Wanda, and the chicken never gets cooked because the oven never gets turned on. If you want to know what will happen from there, you'll have to pray the book will get published so you can read it.

In the mean time, let me confess that I have yet to cut up a whole chicken. In fact, preparing chicken of any fashion still gives me the willies if I think too hard about it. I have many other culinary malfunctions up my apron, but those will come later.

Bon appetit!

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

I Be Normal

The one and only time I saw Young Frankenstein I was about nine or ten, and what I remember from it (besides the cool Puttin' on the Ritz music), was the way Marty Feldman's eyes bulged in opposite directions while being strangled by Mel Brooks upon realizing that the brain Feldman had retrieved was not that of a genius scientist, but that of a mysterious person named Abby Normal. The misnomer had me cracking up for days after. After school today, I youtubed the scene, and there they were in pseudo black and white, funny as ever. I'll be Blockbustering that one this weekend.

What prompted me to remember this flick was a student who saw me mirror writing on my white board. She shook her head and said, "That's not normal!" I retorted with, "Hey, I be normal!" She wandered out of my room perplexed.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Zero is No Hero: A One-Minute Rant

The school where I teach has abolished all sugary drinks, which means I can no longer wash down my mystery meat school lunch surprise with a traditional Coca-Cola on ice. So today I took my chances on a Coca-Cola Zero, and that's exactly what I got. ZERO! I'm baffled by this new product that tastes and looks like a chemical-laden cup of brown Perrier. It's an insult to Asa Griggs Candler, founder of Coca-Cola. You can see it in his eyes that he would have never tolerated such a product, let alone expected anyone to buy something that consists of nothing.
I know this rant has ZERO to do with anything literary, but how can I be literary when I'm left with such a bad taste in my mouth?

Monday, August 24, 2009

Julia's Child

Leaving behind 60 ungraded papers on a Sunday evening to go to the movies could justify someone to tag me as an irresponsible teacher, but I did it anyway because that's what friends are for. Jenny and I went to Ward Theater last night to see Julie Julia, and I'm glad we did. The cuteness of it alone made it almost worth the $10 ticket, but watching Meryl Streep replicate Julia Child made it a cinematic souffle.

Growing up, I spent many a night with my mom watching Julia Child and her male TV counterpart, The Galloping Gourmet. These two earthy gourmands never failed to dish out an evening of caramelized comedy and lemon-zest laughs.

Anyone who knew my mom would tell you that not only was she a born comedienne, but her cooking never failed to deliver either. Garlic and onions took over the entire house when she'd spark up the stove, and everything she cooked, even the modest recipes from Ms. Child's TV show, always took on an exotic Portuguese flair. Picture here a traditional Thanksgiving stuffing topped with chopped yellow chili pepper and sizzling Portuguese sausage.

Now one would think with all this exposure I had to the culinary arts, I would perhaps through osmosis have become at least proficient in front of the stove. Sadly though, I must confess that while I love the idea of cooking...the hunting for ingredients, the prep bowls, the mortar and pestle...I am all thumbs. In fact, I almost lost one of my thumbs while chopping an onion with my favorite Cutco chef's knife. I also sliced through the nail of my middle finger with a 14-inch serrated knife oozing with raw chicken goo. That one sent me to the ER for a tetanus shot and antibiotics.

And then there was the tuna casserole. It was my first solo attempt, and I was in a hurry, hoping to impress my date with a savory home-cooked meal and must not have been paying close enough attention to what I was doing. My date (let's call him Joe), arrived to a romantically lit dining room fully bedecked with my mom's fine linen, expensive German crystal, and authentic Japanese china. I know he was impressed because he sat down and said, "Wow."

Before serving up the casserole, I drizzled hot butter and sprinkled crispy pretzels on top. The recipe called for those crispy onion things that come in a can, but upon realizing I didn't get those, I substituted the pretzels in their place. Guys love pretzels anyway, right? So we sat there at the table, sipping Canada Dry ginger ale in the crystal wine glasses and he made a toast: "To Debra!" I blushed then sipped delicately. He grabbed his fork and dug in. I watched for his reaction, for his approval, but what I got was not an "Mmm," but more of a "Hmm." I took a bite and to my horror found the texture and the flavor to be not right at all. I took another bite, drank some more ginger ale then tried it again. My taste buds detected something along the lines of rotting fish, and the gristly texture only added to the nightmare-in-progress. Joe didn't say anything while he chomped away mouthfuls of the stuff, and when I couldn't take it any longer, I told him I was sorry it didn't turn out right. But Joe, God bless him, continued eating to the last bite. I don't know how he did it.

I took our plates to the sink, and when I flipped open the lid of the trashcan, I gasped at the sight of the two empty cans of tuna I had used. They were those white with blue label generic cans, and the label shouted out at me from the depths of the garbage, "CAT TUNA!" I hid the evidence by scraping the demonic contents of my plate on top of the cans. Joe snuck up behind me and gave me a gracious hug, and I swear I heard him purr in my ear. I couldn't let the cat out of the bag, so I didn't. I never did. We went out for ice cream after he helped me with the dishes, and I had a triple scoop of something minty, just in case there would be a goodnight kiss, which there was.

Right about now I'm wondering whatever happened to Joe. If he's married, his wife is a lucky woman. I just hope she cooks better than I do.

Do my survey at the bottom of this page...

I just discovered a way to add surveys...what fun! I'll try to put more creative ones up next week. I've been to 21 states so far...29 to go!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Invisible Mom

So next to Edith Wharton is Ralph Ellison and his Invisible Man. I have read it twice, and I've yet to scratch the surface of its true depth. Basically Ellison's nameless protagonist goes about life in Harlem as a black man in a white man's world. His intellect and pure drive to succeed get him nowhere, except another step closer to the impenetrable glass ceiling.

But the scene that wrenches my heart most takes place on a frigid winter evening when the main character watches an elderly black couple getting evicted from their apartment (chapter 13). All of their belongs line the curbside: straightening iron, miniature Statue of Liberty, an old cracked breast pump, amongst many other personal items. Snow is falling, and this couple can do nothing else but watch. The scene is so real to me that I feel I know this couple and that I should have been able to take them in until they figured things out. After all, I went through a much similar ordeal, sans the snow, when my mom died and I wound up living out of my car.

My mom would have never let the eviction take place, neither to me nor to the old couple. She took in strangers all the time. Because she didn't drive, she met all sorts of people around the neighborhood, and many times I would come home from school only to find a new person sitting on my couch or at the kitchen table. These were almost always people who were down and out--single moms or lonely wives. I had no idea how many of these people she really knew until her funeral, when over 250 people showed up and signed the guest book. Many of these were women who tearfully introduced themselves to me as one of Irene's friends. It was overwhelming to not know so many people at such in intimate moment, but I was proud of her for never turning down someone in need.

It's been twenty-five years of not being able to see my mom. Twenty-five years of trying to be more like her and less like my selfish old self.

Friday, August 21, 2009

More on Time

A Choice

It’s just me and one cricket now
and the clock on the wall
cricket, clock, and me
three rhythms
one choice

Even the lonely bars and their windowless sadness
sleep now
emptied bottles,
cold worn floors,
and forgotten phone numbers
a sickening silence of bad choices

Steady into the night now
I match the clock,
but the cricket is faster
What a disaster is sleep

The cricket just stopped
Now it’s between me
and this clock.

--Deb E. Tenney, 2006

Thursday, August 20, 2009

One more

This one obviously didn't go over well with the New Yorker, but how could I resist?

Killing Time

According to a report from the National Center for Health Statistics, I have a life-expectancy of 77.9 years. That’s 28,433.5 days. I can subtract 9,477 days for an ideal eight hours of sleep per night, and that leaves me with 18,956.5 days to do whatever I must do.

Due to the nature of my life—(up at 6 am, in class by 7:15, teach five classes of eighth grade English in a row till 2:15, attend meetings, grade myriad papers, contact desperate parents, chat with students both past and present who come in share with me what’s going on in their lives...then pick up third-grade son before 5, make dinner (or buy something), grade more papers, edit police reports, wrestle one kid to take a shower and the other to do the dishes, tell a story or two in bed and/or sing a song by 9, pray, then take out my reading materials (Dickens' Bleak House right now) and read with my one good eye till 11)—I usually write well past midnight.

By the end of the first paragraph of Annie Dillard’s Holy the Firm, I could smell smoke-–not tragic burning-house smoke, but that of a fireplace in an old library. It took me two solid days to read the eleven-page excerpt one time through, and upon completing it, I felt like a child who had been lost all day in a corn maze and came out hours later at dusk, only to discover another corn maze.

Dillard says, “We have less time than we knew and that time buoyant, and cloven, lucent, and missile, and wild." T. S. Eliot (my dead lover) confirms this by saying, “If all time is eternally present/All time is unredeemable." So I cannot buy back time after I spend it, but as a person of letters, I choose to spend a large chunk of my FREE-time with pen in hand, ready to capture images that beg to be recorded on paper, if not for anyone else’s pleasure but my own.

George Orwell’s advice to scrupulous writers is to ask four questions: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?” He adds that they will probably ask two more: “Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” While asking these questions expends more of my limited minutes, the outcome, if applied well, will produce writing that will save my readers from wasting their time.

Ever since digital technology has invaded my home, I have wrestled against the temptations to stare for hours at a pixilated monitor, playing online Scrabble or searching Ebay for an antique typewriter, which I did find for $100—a 1950’s Royal, aqua blue gem.

But I never stare at a blank screen. No time to. Lucky for me, I have an energetic muse, sneaking around throughout my day, giving me new plot directions and settings and so forth. She and I work together like cats: dormantly lounging about on the mental windowsills of my day, thinking about the kill later on when the moon comes out. When the noises around us have subsided, we get that urge to pounce the keyboard. It’s a wild game of stalk the idea and attack. Stalk…Attack! If it’s not a school night, we can do this past 2 am. It may not be an ideal way to work, but it works.

I may kill time by playing the piano, knitting a sweater, or repairing a toilet. Whatever it is I’ve done with my time, I make sure I at least do it wholeheartedly. If I kill time by doing such actions without my senses fully engaged, then I’m a second-hand murderer, and as Eliot would say, “We had the experience but missed the meaning." If I miss the meaning behind what it is that I’m doing, then I may as well put my pen away for good and sell my soul to the highest bidder.

From Annie Dillard, I am learning the importance of images. Dillard’s grotesque image of a dead moth burning for hours like a candle seared my mind for days, and if I closed my eyes, I saw with even more clarity, how “when it was all over, her head was, so far as I could determine, gone, gone the long way of her wings and legs." Now, nearly two years after the initial shock of reading it, I still see the image, but my feelings about it have changed. The burning moth is my time: “This spectacular skeleton began to act as a wick." My time may burn on a wick for 77.9 years, give or take a few, and after a close-call in April, I have to accept that fact that I will at some point be blown out.

Eliot’s Four Quartets, especially at the beginning of the East Coker chapter, uses clear ecclesiastical images to depict the passing of time: "Bone of man and beast, cornstalk and leaf/Houses live and die: there is a time for building/And a time for living and for generation/And a time for the wind to break the loosened pane/And to shake the wainscot where the field-mouse trots/And to shake the tattered arras woven with a silent motto."

When I rub a moth’s wings they turn to dust. My body, likewise, will turn to dust when my clock stops. There’s no time in dust, but the smoke lingers in the library long after the writers have gone.


While this has very little to do with film, I'm posting it anyway. Every once in awhile, I enter the New Yorker's caption contest. This is one of my captions, which unfortunately did not make the cut. Check out this week's contest at

I entered this week and want to hear how others would captionize it...

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

My Little Bite on Twilight

Stephanie Meyer is earning way too much money. While clearly pop-fiction and not in anyway literary (note: six ghastly adverbs on page 173, two of which are “frostily” and “minutely”), the writing spirals downward and lands with a thud on page 459: “’Shhhh,’ he shushed me. ‘Everything’s all right now.’” No, Ms. Meyers, it's not all right. That's just plain bad writing.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Freakish Update

Okay, so I went on google to see if there's any info about Wharton's estate, and I not only found their website, but I found their blog, which freakishly uses the same blogspot template as mine:

According their website (, the funds have been raised to avoid foreclosure, so The Mount will prevail! I'm going to become a financial supporter, and one day I'm going to go there...come hell or high water!


A House of Worth

Speaking of Edith Wharton, she's #2 on my top-ten list of dead people I wish I could have met. T. S. Eliot is, and always will be, my #1 dead person I not only wish I could have met, but he's also the man I wish I could have married. Unfortunately, he died the year I was born. But Edith, who is like a sinister, dichotomous stepsister of Jane Austin, would be my ultimate BFF--the one to whom I would tell my darkest secrets while devouring hot cinnamon scones and chai at the estate she designed and built in 1902 in Lennox, Massachusetts called The Mount (see pic).

According to Wikipedia, the house
and its gardens are still open to the public from May through October although the house/museum has been threatened to foreclose. This is Edith's real-life House of Mirth, a place where one could find the "ah-ness" of living. How tragic it would be to board up the doors of this signature piece of her treasure.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

A Page of Innocence

When I applied for the MFA program at Pacific University, my critical essay on this timeless piece of fine literature is what secured my ticket...
To appreciate Edith Wharton's Pulitzer Prize winning novel, The Age of Innocence, you have to understand the almost forgotten practice of moral obligation. In our “Sex and the City” subculture, moral obligation means breaking up one short-term relationship via email ten minutes before having sex with a next-door neighbor. Even if the chocolate fountain, the ice sculpture, and the rainbow-tinted doves have been reserved, a simple click on the internet can delete all evidence of the mishap, and a few regretful emails can notify everyone that the wedding plans are off until further notice.
Set in upper-class New York City of the 1870s
, the story revolves around a time when marriage rituals, especially of the wealthy, were sacred, unmovable, and intentionally frozen in an unbreakable mold. Through the events and imagery of this story, however, Wharton's tremulous undercurrent warns that blind adherence to this matrimonial taskmaster will eventually bring about unnecessary suffering and loss.

Scorsese's film version of this, my all-time favorite book and film, shows Newland Archer (Daniel Day-Lewis) having relentless self-control to walk away from his unquenchable passion for one woman, the scandalous Countess Ellen Olenska (Michelle Pfeiffer) to consider the best interest of another, namely his puritanical fiance, May Welland (Winona Ryder).

Even when Newland notes how May “burns like a young maple in the frost, and how he was proud of the glances others turned on her," he fails to recognize that his lack of warmth for May while she’s in her best form would cause this young maple in time to dry up and wither, leaving behind only the bitter frost of rejection.

Newland’s decision to continue with the marriage plans not only deprives him of his own future happiness; it likewise forces May into a cold and loveless marriage where she would only represent the “steadying sense of an unescapable duty” (208). The Countess Olenska, May’s not yet divorced cousin, tries to break out of the system by asking Newland if he is very much in love with May. But instead of a direct answer, Newland responds, “As much as a man can be." Obviously, since he could not bring himself to admit to the countess that he was indeed in love with May Welland, then May Welland is the last person Newland Archer should be marrying.

Shortly before the inevitable wedding, Newland helplessly confesses to Countess Olenska: “But you are the woman I would have married if it would have been possible for either of us." Olenska painfully rebukes him: “And you say that––when it’s you who‘ve made it impossible?” Countess Olenska rightfully blames Newland for his tepid ignorance in abiding by the rules of the moral taskmaster, yet she also allows his loyalty to tradition to shatter their chances of happiness and convinces him to stay with May.

Newland Archer, May Welland, and Countess Olenska all suffer the losses of painful decision-making. As Newland staggers off from his wedding day, which was “fresh, with a lively spring wind full of dust," he winds up in a dustbowl of regrets, leaving him with morbid thoughts toward his new wife: “Yes, May might die––people did: young people, healthy people like herself: she might die and set him suddenly free." In the meantime, Countess Olenska becomes “almost unthinkable, remaining in Newland’s memory simply as the most plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts."

Even though Newland Archer promises Countess Olenska that “nothing’s done that can’t be undone," he chooses to follow the predestined ghosts of his frozen ancestors. After a long-enough time, May Welland eventually dies––with one hand on the frigid innocence of hope and the other on the frozen bitterness of duty.

The last scene of this mind-boggling story has a much older Newland Archer with his grown-up son, standing in front of Ellen Olenska's window. I will not comment on what he does next as I would hate to spoil the ending for those hapless souls who have not yet read the book.

After reading this story four times over a sixteen-year period, it still remains on my shelf as one of the most "plaintive and poignant of a line of ghosts."

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Hairy Potter

I've got this great blog title but not enough direction to write something meaningful about it. I saw the most recent HP film last weekend and was impressed with the overall effect, in spite of my lack of interest in the wizard/muggle world. I noted that Harry's all grown up now. His baby face from the first film has grown more angular, and he shaves. (I'll have to finish this when I can further extend the Hairy metaphor...)