Wednesday, December 22, 2010

New author's page and link

Click here to see it. There's a big, scary tree behind me.

Thanks to MGW for letting me know that the first posted link was messed up.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Don't sit here: Killer Bench on Cayuga

The other day I was walking on Cayuga on the way to the Sweater Tree. Suddenly, lethargy overtook me so I decided to rest on an attractive bench made of burnished red wood. Not only that but the bench was located right next to something that looked vaguely like a water fountain. What could be better? I planned to rest there for a long time.

But just when I was about to settle in for my nap, I noticed this sign posted just behind the bench. I am reproducing the actual sign here with no embellishment:

"WARNING! Private property. Right to pass is contingent upon your complete release of liability to the property owner for any injury or death occurred. This bench and water fountain may be dangerous to your health from risks of which you may or may not be aware.

This bench is in the flight path of commercial airlines. You could be struck by falling bodies, airplane parts, luggage or the dreaded Blue Ice.

Among other things you could be injured by falling things or branches, flying beer bottles, rampaging squirrels, skunks or other critters, wasps and/or bee stings, dog or cat bites, bicylists, ride-by skateboarders, drive-by shooters, muggers, runaway baby strollers, inexperienced drivers who cut the corner too sharply, or wobbly drunken pedestrians both day and night.

Enjoy! ..."

(P.S. -- no, the bench in the picture accompanying this blog entry is not the same bench. But, in the likely event that you don't believe me, drive to Santa Cruz and walk on Cayuga Street until you arrive at the James Street intersection. There you will see the killer bench. But don't sit there unless you're really desperate.)

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Leo Tolstoy: "To walk a thousand miles ..."

Is Count Tolstoy an unappreciated long-distance trail hiking guru? Judging from this image, he sure looks the part: the weathered features, the two-pronged frizz beard, the intensity of his gaze, and the loose-fitting shirt that covers his chest and arms so he doesn't have to wear sunblock. Consider this piece of advice -- found more than 1,000 pages into the Pevear and Volokhonsky translation of War and Peace. I think these words will hold you in good stead if you ever find yourself out on the trail, although Tolstoy, in this case, is talking about the French army after the Battle of Borodino.

"When a man finds himself in motion, he always thinks up a goal for that motion. In order to walk a thousand miles, a man needs to think that there is something good at the end of those thousand miles. One needs a vision of the promised land in order to have the strength to move ... A man walking a thousand miles must say to himself, forgetting the final goal, 'today I will walk thirty miles to a resting place and spend the night,' and during this first march, the resting place overshadows the final goal and concentrates all desires and hopes on itself."

Anyhow -- I can't recommend this translation highly enough. I stayed up late at night marching through this thing -- and it still took me more than a month to make it from one end of the tome to the other. You might consider bringing this book along with you on your next sojourn, aiming for 50 pages a day or so, but I recommend taking out a razor blade and chopping it up into sections. The hard-back edition weighs about ten pounds.

By the way, I sent a fan email to Elif Batuman thanking her for her writings on Russian literature, which inspired me to tackle War and Peace. I told her I was having a hard time with all the footnotes and long passages in French and German. She recommended a trick she learned from Nabokov ---get a hold of two copies of the book and read them side by side.

Cactus Eaters with stamps

And cryptic messages just for you. Available only at Bookshop Santa Cruz.

Stay tuned for guest blogger # 1.

Wednesday, November 17, 2010

The Cactus Eaters: related stories, articles, book reviews, podcasts and more

The Cactus Eaters (HarperPerennial) was a Los Angeles Times Discovery selection and winner of the Elle magazine readers prize. The book has been reviewed or featured in SalonKirkus ReviewsNational Geographic, Nextbook, Publishers Weekly, and many other publications. My book can be found at Powell's Books, Bookshop Santa Cruz, and in bookstores across the country, and was featured in a 2013 HarperPerennial e-book promotion, "Stranger Than Fiction," also featuring Sarah Silverman's The Bedwetter and other high-profile memoirs.

Here is a hodgepodge of useful links including unexpurgated reviews of the book, which was a San Francisco Chronicle and Northern California Independent Bookstore bestseller and a number-one bestselling travel book on Amazon. It is now available in paperback. Here you will also find related podcasts, related articles and some of my latest adventures on the bottom. There are some oddities, too --- I'm featured in a radio program that also features Chuck D of Public Enemy. Alas, I did not get to meet Chuck D, but I still have his autograph on a cocktail napkin from his appearance at Toad's Place during the Apocalypse '91 tour.

Susan Salter Reynolds in the Los Angeles Times.

A review by the fiction writer Steve Almond in the Boston Globe.


Kirkus Reviews.

National Geographic.

Brave New Traveler.

Rick Kleffel's Agony Column, KUSP.

Agony Column book review of the Cactus Eaters

The Oregonian.


Publisher's Weekly.

Pearl's Picks.

Lisa Haneberg interview.

Good Food with Evan Kleiman.

Writer's Block podcast, featuring the chapter, "Operation Water Dump."

Denny Smithson, interview, Cover to Cover, Berkeley KPFA.

Etude: New Voices in Literary Nonfiction.

Mary Magazine with Jillian Kurvers.

Synchronized Chaos

Camino Santiago.

The Retiring Librarian., and last but not least, Leafing Through Life and the Bay Guardian.

Thanks to the sharp-eyed reader who just emailed me this recent Top 10 List which includes the Cactus Eaters. Naturally, I want to read the other nine books on the roster.

Also, here are some links to some of my other recent adventures in the New York Times:

Exploring Santa Cruz.

Getting lost in Kentucky and then slurping bourbon with complete strangers.

Fallin' off somebody else's bike in Maryland and Pennsylvania.

Exploring my second favorite city in America: Seattle, Washington.

Dealing with the fact that Mammoth Lakes is getting really gentrified.

And here's a link to a Backpacker story about Range Creek, Utah

That's all for now. See you a little farther down the trail!

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Subscribe to the Chicago Quarterly Review

I escaped from my bookstore reading rut by attending a great event on Monday -- five contributors (including one editor) reading from the latest CQR at the Capitola Book Cafe. It was a bravura performance, and introduced me to engaging new voices like Caitlyn He and Vanessa Hemingway.

Monday, November 15, 2010

Upcoming events and horse photo

Upcoming events:

I have three upcoming events, but only two of them have official dates and itineraries. Looks like I will also be addressing a group in the Oakland area soon. I will update this when I know more.

2011 events

February 12, 2001, "Reading in Good Company"

Atherton, CA

Thank you to the newly launched Bay Area book group Reading in Good Company, which has chosen The Cactus Eaters as its inaugural choice and invited me to participate. I will be there for the discussion, which will take place at 1 p.m. on February 12 at the Atherton Public Library in Atherton, Ca.

April 9, 2011: Literary Orange
Irvine, CA

Here is the complete itinerary for that upcoming conference and book talk at the UC Irvine library. I will be part of a travel/trailblazers panel with Robert Anasi and John McKinney. Make sure to be there. I'll bring the salamander stamps if you want them.

I would like to say that this is my trusty trail horse, Katahdin, and that I am planning to ride the length of the CDT with him next year. But that would be a lie.

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Cactus Eaters and the Dalai Lama

I heard from a reliable source that a copy of my book has been spotted at a funky hostel at the McLeod Ganj (the Dalai Lama's hometown). If it's still there, this is the farthest that a copy of the Cactus Eaters has traveled, and will ever travel --- unless someone shoots the book into the far reaches of outer space.

Maybe someone will give him a copy. I hope they cross out all the bad words.

Monday, November 08, 2010


Two readers of this blog like to keep track of this reading list. Everybody else, aside from those two readers, will kindly ignore this feature. If nothing else, this also helps me keep track of my own reading without having to join a social network that forces me to rate and review books for free, including the work of friends and other people. (bad, bad, bad.)


Jennifer Egan, A Visit from the Goon Squad

Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina

Robert Louis Stevenson, Treasure Island

David Mitchell, Black Swan Green, The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet.

Current movies: Walkumentary by Lawton.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Cactus Eaters FAQ, trail links and odds-and-ends

This has been updated slightly. I should tell you right now that this contains some spoilers so stop reading right here if you haven't finished the book. Every once in a while, I go in here and change the wording when I notice something clunky, unfinished, inflammatory, etc.

What are you working on now? 
Working title: the title, actually, keeps changing. It is now under contract Henry Holt and Company. When exactly will the book be in your hands? I can't say for sure. Working mighty hard, though. I am illustrating the book -- watercolors and pen and ink drawings and multi-media. If given the chance I will even design the cover. There is a little bit of overlap with the Cactus Eaters but this one involves a cast of hundreds -- lots of interviews, lots of historical research and travel combined with memoir aspects.

Why name the book Cactus Eaters instead of Cactus Eater
I  like the way it sounded.  It's a big improvement over the original title, Magnets of Adversity, suggested to me by a former professor. The other proposed title was The Lois and Clark Expedition, but I thought that was too cutesy. Having said that, I've always thought of The Cactus Eaters as a placeholder title, and hoped that some other title would present itself at the last minute because it sounds just a little bit New Age-y, like a Carlos Castaneda taking-peyote-in-the-desert revelation memoir, but no other title presented itself so there you go.

What happened to "Allison" from the Cactus Eaters?
I am glad to report that she is doing well in every respect. I hope I'm not revealing too much by telling you this, but she's been re-conquering the Pacific Crest Trail piece by piece. Recently she bagged a large chunk she hadn't hiked before -- in fact, she has now conquered every last millimeter of the California PCT, all 1,700-odd miles of it-- and my prediction is she'll bag the entire thing before too long. In fact, she probably hiked right past you if you happened to be on the trail last year. That's all I can say about that right now. To be honest, she's doing much more long-distance backpacking than I've done in recent years and will ever to again for various reasons, though I'm really into camping right now. 

Is The Cactus Eaters going to be made into a movie?  Two screenwriters approached me and said they would love to adapt it into a movie, but I have not heard back from them in a while.

Has Wild and its phenomenal success caused people to find out about The Cactus Eaters? 
I have no way of knowing if it does or does not. There is always this slow, steady trickle of readership of The Cactus Eaters, with people posting online review of it every single day, almost without fail, in one outlet or other according to my Google Alerts. But that has been going on from the very beginning. Is that because of word of mouth, and did the renewed interest in the trail sustain that? I have no way of knowing because, honestly, I don't follow it very closely. My guess is that the very small but steady readership of the Cactus Eaters is self-sustaining, through book groups, chat boards, words of mouth etc. I, personally, have not lifted a finger to promote the book in quite a few years because I am overwhelmed by so many other responsibilities (one more book coming along, a third book roughed out and about half-finished, and a zillion other things.)

What else should I read about the PCT? 
Well, you've all read Wild, right? So the next one on your list should now be Gail Storey's wonderful book, I Promise Not To Suffer. I was hooked the whole way through. It's funny, surprising, and sad, and it does something that few books can do: it gives you a vivid sense of what a good, healthy relationship actually looks like, what it requires from both partners, and how it works. I just sent Gail a note about all this but I want to make sure you know about it, too. Also, have you read Robyn Davidson's Tracks? Not a PCT book, (it involves a slog across the Australian Outback), and she has a team of nasty camels instead of thru-hikers walking with her, but you'll see that Davidson's journey has a lot in common with Strayed's and so many others.

If I go on to the Pacific Crest Trail and return home, will I have a nervous breakdown? Look -- if you go on any adventure and then resume your normal life, there is bound to be some kind of letdown. Don't let that factor dissuade you from hiking on a national scenic trail!! Chances are you'll feel a little down in the dumps and antsy for a short while and then you'll get over it as you discover new adventures. Besides, fearing a letdown is not a reason to avoid doing something enjoyable. That's kind of like saying you won't drink a milkshake because you will get a slight stomach ache and brain freeze afterward. In other words, it's worth it.

What is your biggest single piece of advice for PCT hikers?
Use a rolling resupply bucket (my book goes into detail about that) and always remember to hike your own trail. Everyone's out there for a different reason. If people are out there to bag miles, don't make fun of them because that's their goal. By the same token, if you're taking it slowly, you don't have to feel bad about the fact that you're only going a few slow miles a day. There's no 'wrong' way to hike the trail as long as you aren't harming the trail or the environment or other people (or yourself, for that matter.) Take the longview. Think in terms of 15-20 mile days, not a 2,650-mile journey. Otherwise it's too intimidating. Also, always help other hikers who need it. Oh, and one more thing. Don't use water-based ink in your pens. You never know if you'll want to draw from your journals 10 or more years from now so use pencil or a waterproof ink. I learned this lesson from painful experience. And one more thing.

Have you been surprised about the fact that people have had such  strong reactions about the book 
Yes. I am confident that most people got what I was trying to do. Most people who know about the book feel very strongly about it in a positive way. There is no way you can please everybody. You are always going to alienate some people no matter what you do. As most of my good friends know, I was way too invested in every little online reaction when the book first came out. I haven't read one single online review of the book for about two years now -- and I feel so much happier and more centered because of that. 

Have you undertaken any adventures since the trail?
Yes -- a whole bunch. Here is one of the more recent ones in The New York Times -- a great trip, but it will be a long while before I get on a bicycle again. I hate panniers. Here's an account of my journey in Eastern Kentucky. I loved it out there, but this is the last time I've gone overnight backpacking. You'll understand why.

Would The Cactus Eaters have taken place if you'd been carrying a reliable GPS?
Most of the incidents would still have taken place but I don't think I would have gotten lost so much. The fact is, I took two recent trips -- one to Maine, with a GPS and extensive studies of the terrain, and pre-programmed coordinates, and another to the Kentucky backwoods for the NY Times -- no GPS at all, and only a foggy understanding of the terrain. I did great on the Maine trip, even though there was no map at all, and in some sections, no trail. The Kentucky trip was scary at times, but when it was over, some good people in Whitesburg, Kentucky, invited me to their house, and we stayed up most of the night drinking Bulleit Bourbon. So I bought a whole bunch of it and put it in my backpack and brought it home to California, only to realize that they stock the same bourbon at Trader Joe's.

What was the timeline of your hike? 
I finished my PCT journey in the fall of 1994. The trail scenes all took place in 1993 and 1994. The book spans a 14-year period of my life, starting in 1993 in California (when the opening scene takes place) and coming to a close in the winter of 2007 in Manhattan. The post-trail Santa Cruz 'blue period' unfolds in 95 and 96. The book ends in 2007. A lot of the narrative hinges around the 1990s-- and that is very important for the book, mostly because there were no telecommunications devices at our disposal. It wasn't just the fact that we were greenhorns. We also had no cell phones, no way of calling out, and there was certainly no means of 'texting' anyone about what was going on. In a sense, it was extremely primitive compared to hiking these days. That definitely ramped up the adventure.

What has changed on the trail since you hiked it?
It's important to note that my experience was atypical, if not downright weird, for reasons that go beyond the year I did it, though that was certainly part of it. My trip was peculiar because we left too late and were not part of a large social group of hikers. This meant we ended up hooking up with fast-walking stragglers, who were bringing up the rear of the pack, and were probably quite a bit more eccentric and extreme than your everyday thru-hiker. As for the changes: There are more 'trail angel' networks and trail communities, and much better dissemination of updated trail information (up-to-the-moment trail conditions as well as recommended gear.) The upkeep and maintenance of the trail is much-improved. Trail advocates have gotten a lot more sophisticated and much better organized. The trail is a lot more visible, well publicized, and better managed these days. These days, it's easy to go on the net and get consumer information about the best and worst hiking gear. When I did the trail, I pretty much had to test out all that crap myself. There are (from what I hear) many more women hiking the trail, including solo-hikers (I know two of them, and one of them has a PCT book in the works.)

Why wait for more than a ten-year period before writing the book?
I didn't really wait.  it just worked out that way. I could not see my way around the trail, or see the shape of the narrative, or, to be honest, see anything the least bit funny about the hike (!), until I waited for a long time.

I am hoping to publish my own trail narrative. Any advice?
Do everything you can to get your work out there -- blogging, newspaper columns, or anything else at your disposal. If you have an interesting story to tell, you're sure to find an appreciative audience. Write from the joy of creation and try -- at least early on in the process -- to not drive yourself nuts wondering about how people are going to react. Write to help you understand what you think. Don't rush the process, ever. Someone once said that art is not a potato-sack race. Also, don't be afraid to take risks in terms of style, structure, content. Read constantly, while seeking inspiration from unexpected sources. Personally I love photography and sculpture exhibits because they awaken a playful kind of creativity I can't find in literary sources.

Did you know you were going to write a book when you set off on the trail?
Yes and no. If I was serious about it in the beginning, I would have put specific dates on more of my journal entries (and not written the entries in such messy handwriting and all out of sequence, which made it annoyingly difficult for me when I dug up those scattered to some extent, rain-smeared journals more than 10 years after the fact.) I also would have done a better job of protecting my journals from the elements. About 25 percent of my journal entries were decimated by El Nino storms while sitting in a box in an outside shed in Pleasure Point, California. My landlord accidentally threw out lots of stuff from that shed, including my rolling resupply box. And, come to think of it, I would have gotten photo releases from everybody, too. That would have been a smart thing to do. Every once in a while, someone gripes about the lack of photos.

Read on, but only if you are planning to hike any major trail:

Are you thinking of a through-hike? Make sure to read up, make plans, get in shape and talk to as many PCT trail vets as you can. For starters, order the official guidebooks and at least skim them in advance, marking up the water stops, supply stops, etc. Get inspired. Hike yourself into the best physical shape you conceivably can before setting out. To fire yourself up, you've got a heap of top-notch books to choose from. I named a couple of them earlier in this posting, but I also liked Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit (if you would like to read a beautiful, sweeping literary overview of pilgrimages on foot), Footsteps by Richard Holmes (in particular the section when he is tracing the footsteps of Robert Louis Stevenson in Europe) and my all-time-favorite fictional account of a long walk, To The End of the Land by the amazing David Grossman, about a mother trying to evade tragedy by walking through Israel.

The various experiential trail books and weblogs will give you some sense of what to expect. But, quite frankly, many of the published accounts are better for the sake of pure inspiration and entertainment than for actual trail preparation, simply because the trail is so wide open. Any two people are bound to have vastly different experiences. I've heard a couple of people describe my book as a "guidebook,'' and that's asking for trouble. The memoirs aren't supposed to be trail guidebooks. If you're really trying to get the most up to date picture of what is going on right now, there are countless weblogs now available, as well as informational clearinghouses on lightpacking that you can find on the web.

Of course, you will get updated information from official as well as unofficial PCT sites maintained and updated by enthusiasts. I recommend both Jardine books because they were the 'starting gun' for the lightpacking movement --- but there are countless lightpacking blogs and websites to choose from these days.

Choose your gear wisely. Don't go for flashy brands. Find out what successful through-hikers have used in the past, especially when it comes to stoves and water filters, two devices that can make your life a living hell out there if they are difficult to use or poorly manufactured. (I love my old warhorse Katadyn -- not kidding when I tell you that it can filter liquid mud into potable water, no problem!!! - but I'm not sure if they make my old-school 'pocket filter' anymore.) Find out about sewing your own lightweight packs from a kit if you're handy with a needle and thread. Ask a recent through hiker to share his or her itinerary and list of contacts (good cheapo restaurants, local 'trail angels' and the like.) In almost all cases, they will be more than happy to share their schedules. Do long prep hikes to determine your pace. Also, it would be a great idea to take an orienteering course taught by an experienced, savvy leader. Don't set unrealistic expectations for your MPD (mileage per day.) Find a comfortable pace and learn to stick with it. And whatever you do, don't make big batches of home-made granola. The nuts will spoil, and you will find yourself throwing that stuff away in the trash can or leaving it in the 'freebie' box at a trail stop. I hope that answers your question.

And, since we're on the subject of reliable trail information ...
Here is one of the most comprehensive Web clearinghouses I've found for PCT links, planning forums, PCT trail logs and the like.

Also, make sure to check out this inspiring site if you are either thinking of doing the trail or are interested in trail lore (or other trails.)

And here's some stuff about the Continental Divide Trail:

I just finished "hiking" it vicariously; Lawton "Disco" Grinter sent me his inspiring videographic memoir of his CDT adventures.

And finally, here is the clip-and-save Thank You's and Acknowledgments section for the Cactus Eaters

The "thank you" and "acknowledgment" section of my book was amended and updated two and a half years ago because it was overly long and woefully incomplete.  Thank you to everyone who helped out with my book, The Cactus Eaters. My wife, Amy Ettinger, worked hard in NYC (her employers, among other people, included the Metropolitan Museum of Art) so I had time to finish the project while holding down a 20-hour-a-week teaching load. She is the one who shlepped out to all those book readings and events, and dealt with the ups and downs of this from the beginning. Without her, there would be no book at all, period, end of story.

Thanks to my advisor Patricia O'Toole, to Michael Scammell, Lesley Sharpe, and the students in the nonfiction workshop.

Thanks to all the folks who inspired the work. A big thank you in particular to "Allison," and not just for being such an essential and good-humored part of the crazy journey, keeping a clear head and persevering on the trek itself (and choosing the PCT as the L&CE's expedition of choice, after considering several other options, including the AT and the Camino de Santiago). Allison also read and reviewed a number of my emails in regard to several essential scenes, most notably the cactus-biting incident, which was, as it turns out, even more perverse and horrible than I even remembered. Allison's feedback was incorporated into the section involving a tick attack (which was also worse than I remembered). In case you are wondering, Allison is doing very well. That's really all I can say about that for now.

Thanks to Mark the Postman, too. You saved me, big time, when you convinced me to throw all that junk out of my pack and send it home. Without you, I would have collapsed from heat prostration for sure. Sorry I couldn't figure out how to reach you and thank you before the book came out. I was relieved to hear you liked the book.

A rough draft of this book was completed in 1996 (I am not kidding. In some sense, the Cactus Eaters actually predates a certain other, much-talked about book about a different trail), but it sucked, severely, so I threw it away completely. The book began to take shape again around 2003-4 or so, when I drafted up a few lengthy emails and started to 'grow' them into a manuscript. Without the help of the Cheese Wheel Book Group, consisting of Vito Victor, Elizabeth McKenzie, Richard Huffman, Richard Lange and John Chandler, that task would have been impossible.

My sister, Edie Achertman, and brother-in-law Doug Achterman, and my pal Dave Howard, all contributed feedback and advice. So did my mother-in-law, Sheila Ettinger. Thanks to my parents about being good sports about the "Grampa Gappy" stuff, etc, and to my brothers Phil White and the late David Gordon White, (1965-2009) whose own writings and songs were always a huge influence on me.

Finally, I taught quite a bit of undergraduate essay writing, fiction, nonfiction and poetry while working on this thing. That experience really helped with the writing process, so I'm grateful to all the students (and so far, I've had about 300 of them, if you can believe that ...)

That's all for now .... Thanks for checking in every once in a while. I like hearing about all the places where the book turns up (including a hostel in India, and, from what I hear, all across Australia.) If you come across a copy of the book in an extremely far flung location, let me know. Even better, send me a JPG photo.



Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Running in mountain lion habitat

Yesterday I saw something that looked an awful lot like a mountain lion footprint on a soft dirt path heading up toward Moore Creek. Imagine the print of an ordinary house cat, but much, much bigger.

It's possible that my imagination was messing with me. Perhaps it was a coyote print, and the coastal winds had eroded the print, or blown it all out of proportion.

But it gave me a bit of a scare, considering the huge full-color sign near the park entrance, saying KNOWN MOUNTAIN LION HABITAT, with instructions to hold your ground and fight off the beast if it goes after you. The place was deserted -- no movement at all except for a few barn swallows swarming, a circling hawk, and a couple of jackrabbits. I've been up to the creek 20 times now, and I've only seen other human beings up there on two occasions. Both of them were drifters with dirty bedrolls and backpacks. This time I had all 246 acres of rocky grasslands and marine terraces to myself.

I kept on running through the deserted coastal prairie in spite of my better judgment. Moments later, something made a loud "GWARRRRRRRRRRRRRR'' on a ledge just above me. I jumped right out of my shoes. It turned out to be a cow.

Still, I'm going to hold off on solo runs through Moore Creek for the time being.
(better safe than devoured.)

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Recipes in translation

This week, missing New York City, I tried to recreate the outstanding "orecchiette with broccoli and provolone'' special they serve at Gennaro restaurant on Amsterdam. Unable to find the recipe in English on line, I searched the Italian cooking sites, hoping to find something similar. At long last, I found what I was looking for. The recipe was written entirely in Italian, with no English transcription. No problem! The recipe had a convenient "translation'' function. I was sure that it would convert the recipe into clear, understandable, easy-to-follow English.

So I pressed the little translation button at the side of the screen, and here's what came out:

Translation of recipe for the orechiette with provolone cheese and also the broccoli:

Step one: To begin with a bushel of orecchiette? Always measure bushel in grams for metric system.

Step two: While awaiting pasta to boil, you must prepare for the arugula world.

Step three: To cut the spicy arugula and provolone cheese into a fine Fiam! When you are finished with the fine Fiam, you must match type of cheese with rocket!

Step four: This is a very step of importance as such that taste totally changes, you have the choice to experiment with new combinations with soft cheeses such as goat cheese added to the coldness while mixing the sauce!"

Step five: Rocket your cheeses into the Fiam with matchmixing the sauce in arugula world. Steep five minutes, await!

Step six: Search the online world for still more delicious transformational recipes!

I must admit that I had some difficulty following these translated instructions. I have a few questions: how, exactly, do you match cheese with a rocket? What is a "fine Fiam"? Isn't a Fiam a low-cost Italian utility vehicle from the '80s? If so, what's it doing in my orechiette recipe?

I will ponder these questions in the coming weeks.

In the meantime, I will keep waiting for the arugula world.

Bookfest 2010

Hoping to catch the closing lecture featuring Joshua Cohen, Sam Lipsyte and Gary Shteyngart. If you're going, let me know.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Hiking the hood: an urban walk through Waterbury, Connecticut

Fresh off the Pacific Crest Trail, I tried to apply my through-hiking ethos to a city setting when I "hiked the hood'' in Waterbury, Connecticut.

I thought this one was lost forever to the analog world, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this uploaded online at the Waterbury Observer, run by the brilliant photographer John Murray.

Here it is --a blast from the past dating back to 1995, which makes it one of my earliest published pieces.

Thursday, October 07, 2010

Fleeing your lead-filled apartment

Thanks to everyone for the many, many emails regarding Amy's New York Times piece about lead poisoning and old apartments (see below.) And it sounds like a few of you, after reading her story, are just about to give notice and move out of your peeling, nasty, potentially lead-filled apartments. Take my advice and get out of there right away.

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

Borders is closing

The other day, I made my way through the crowds of people picking over the bones of my local Borders book store. I saw a floor manager standing near the entrance, and told him I was sorry to hear the store was closing.

As I spoke to him, I remembered the huge to-do about this store when it opened: protests, recriminations, nervousness, and someone (a local merchant, no less) foolishly strapping on a guitar and singing "break all the windows at Borders" during a gathering in front of City Hall. There was a lot of worry that Borders would become an overwhelming force driving out all indie bookshops.

Now it turns out that Borders itself is a casualty of more overwhelming market forces.

These days, it's not so much a question of corporate versus indie. Now it's bricks-and-mortar booksellers of all kinds trying to survive in world of online book-selling. As more of these stores fade from ours downtowns and retail centers, readers will lose another form of engagement. Goodbye to impulse buys you make while walking through the aisles. Goodbye to letting your kids run amok through the children's section with all the board books and stuffed animals.

Why express regret over a bookseller that some people regard as a "box" store? The trouble is, it's not just Borders. If you look closely at the book retail market in Santa Cruz, you will notice a number of new indie casualties this year. Gateways Books & Gifts faces imminent closure after operating for more than 30 years. After already downsizing and moving to a smaller space, Bookworks in Aptos -- also a 30-year retail veteran in Santa Cruz county, and one of my longtime favorites -- has closed altogether. Meanwhile, Tish, one of the employees at the venerable Capitola Book Cafe, tells me that the nearby community of Salinas -- a reasonably sized city -- has no full-fledged bookstore at all these days unless you count the gift shop at the Steinbeck museum or the book selections at various chain department stores.

I happen to spend all of my book-browsing time (and spare change) at two of our most promiennt local indie stores, which have survived in the face of market trends. Still, it saddens me to see anydowntown bookstore move out. It's one less place for people to meet, hang out and talk books and, for that matter, buy them.

So far our remaining indies have done a fine job of setting themselves apart by fostering a creative atmosphere and hosting community activities that can't be replicated at any big-box book stores or online bookseller.

Both Bookshop Santa Cruz -- which survived a previous head-to-head confrontation with the Crown bookseller chain-- and the Capitola Book Cafe host book clubs and writing groups. The Book Cafe is now an eatery with its own wine bar, and both bookstores have free or cheap events featuring local, regional and nationally known authors. I believe these stores survive because the owners have made them into full-on experiences. They are companionable and relaxing. You can actually hang out at either store all day.

I can only hope that these differences will be enough to help them survive long into the future.

I shared a few of these thoughts with the Borders employee that day. "Anyhow," I told him, in conclusion. "I'm sorry to see you guys move out. I really am. I think it's part of a disturbing trend, and I hope it changes."

"No worries!" he said in reply. "Can I help you find anything?"

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

Amy Ettinger: Why We Fled San Francisco (in today's New York Times). Updated blog post

On a (very) serious note, today marks Amy Ettinger's New York Times debut. This true and scary story, published in the NY Times' Motherlode section, explains why we left San Francisco in such a big hurry, without saying goodbye to anyone. The folks who own our building told us the apartment was completely habitable, recently painted and ready to go. They gave us no warning that anything might be amiss. The lesson, I think, is to do your own testing, and look out for your own best interests when you move into one of these old places. Alas, we can't assume "landlords" have our best interest in mind when they hand over that set of keys.

I'm very glad to report that the post resulted in a few folks contemplating a move away from their lead-infested abodes, and also prompted some folks to do their own testing.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

Squawk or treat: Chickens dress like Satan, The Mummy and George Clinton in rural Aptos

So what if I missed the concert event of the year in San Francisco? (see below.) This weekend I returned to the famous Glaum Egg Ranch Vending Machine, a 24-hour automatic dance party and egg dispenser located just off Freedom Boulevard in Aptos. Three dollars (crisp single dollar bills -- no coins) buys you 24 eggs and a performance by a group of shameless, butt-shaking robotic chickens who will dance and sing and squawk for you behind glass.

This time, I stuffed my crisp three dollar bills into the slot, the curtains lifted up, and I was thrilled to see that the dancing chickens had brand new costumes just in time for Halloween. One of them was dressed up like George Clinton, complete with a pink-orange-green Afro fright wig. Another was dressed like a friendly Satan, complete with a felty pitch fork. They also had a mummy chicken and a ghostly chicken wearing a sheet. Plastic spiders were crawling all over the chickens.

Anyhow, it was the cheapest, loudest and most perverse entertainment i've had in quite some time. And it's impressive that the people who run this robot chicken attraction seem to change their costumes every couple of months.

Now I have to figure out how to consume 24 enormous eggs before they all go bad.

If you think I'm lying about the robot chickens and the vending machine, see photos below, and follow the instructions here so you can see for yourself.

Friday, October 01, 2010

Absolutely not going to Hardly Strictly Bluegrass

..because the logistics, this time around, will simply be too much for me, but I am hoping to live vicariously through those of you who are going. If you are going, do me a favor and see the following groups or individuals so you can report back to me and Cactuseaters about what you saw:
-- The Dukes of September Rhythm Review Featuring Donald Fagen (!!!), Boz Scaggs and Michael McDonald.
-- Doc Watson
-- Emmylou Harris
-- Earl Scruggs
-- Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes
-- Robert Earl Keen (for whom my pet cat is named.)
-- Nick Lowe
-- Randy Newman (!!!!!)
-- The Flatlanders
-- Rosanne Cash
--Hot Tuna Electric
-- Sharon Jones and the Dap Kings (!)

And if you go, please don't blow pot into people's faces and talk loudly throughout the entire thing. Or yell out requests for "Every Day I Write The Book" during Elvis's set.

Thursday, September 30, 2010

Brand New Podcast of Cactuseaters talk with Rick Kleffel. (Includes Before and After Photo!)

(photo, taken by me, of Mount Whatever, located in Whatever State It Was.)

Here is the podcast of my recent live radio conversation on Talk Of The Bay, KUSP FM, about the writing of The Cactus Eaters.

And here are some of Rick Kleffel's recent thoughts on the book, posted on the Agony Column. Thanks to everyone for tuning in.

And yes, to answer your question, I will have more events and news soon. Can't say "boo" about it at the moment.

Monday, September 27, 2010

KUSP FM and the Agony Column

Thanks to everyone for tuning in! Had a great talk with Rick Kleffel. He is going to podcast it, and when that happens, I will put the link up right here. When you tune in to his website, you will also see a photo of me holding up a scary picture showing what I looked like on the trail (in a self portrait I took with one of those crummy disposable cameras that they used to sell in drug stores.) Meanwhile check out the offerings on Kleffel's Agony Column -- featuring conversations with Mary Roach, Vendela Vida, William Gibson, John Brandon and more.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Updated: Cactuseaters radio talk: In conversation with KUSP this Sunday at 7 p.m. western standard time

(This photograph shows a peaceful, alluring meadow under Mount Whatever.)

This Sunday I will have an on-the-air book talk with Rick Kleffel from 7 to 730 p.m. on KUSP 88.9 Central Coast Public Radio about The Cactus Eaters and other writings. It's a call-in show, so listeners can participate.

Giant slug reserves parking space at UC Santa Cruz

Apparently, invertebrates are getting dibs on parking spaces up there.

(thanks to B. for forwarding this.)

Photo credit: Peggy Delaney, UC Santa Cruz.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Cheap thrills for book lovers, part XXXXV: Joyland Reading in San Francisco

Peter Orner, Emily Schultz, Brian Joseph Davis, Tamar Halpern, Ruth Galm and Helene Wecker will be reading their latest work on Friday, September 17 (tomorrow).

I wish I could be there. Will someone go in my place and tell me what happens?

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Read these next (amended)

Rebecca Skloot: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Some pompous bozo on the internet claimed that Skloot violated a "rule'' of creative nonfiction and journalism: "never insert yourself in the story.'' That's news to me. The truth is that every nonfiction project sets its own rules, and in this case, her involvement is essential. In this book, Skloot uncovers the life of Henrietta Lacks, an African American woman whose freakishly powerful cancer cells find 'eternal life' in laboratories and played an essential role in a vast body of medical research. Meanwhile Lacks' family was kept in the dark about the mighty "HeLa'' cells and couldn't even afford proper health care. A deeply engrossing and shocking story. Skloot didn't "discover'' this story but she tied the strands together, using investigative reporting skills, immersion journalism and good old-fashioned storytelling. John D'Agata: About a Mountain. Wow -- talk about inventing your own rules for a creative nonfiction book. D'Agata took a lot of risks in this one and got a certain amount of flak for it, but this long meditative essay on human ambition, language and self-delusion is one of the best nonfiction books of the year. The Nick Tosches Reader includes outstanding -- and scary -- profiles of George Jones, Sonny Liston and Jerry Lee Lewis, and a few other essays that were so funny and raunchy, I kept thinking I was going to get struck by lightning for the sin of reading it. Under the "unjustly overlooked'' category, I'll include The Show I'll Never Forget, edited by Sean Manning. It's an anthology about mind-altering (for better and worse) concert experiences. Some of the essays focus squarely on performance. In others, the performance barely even registers, and it's all about the circumstances leading up to, and away from, the concerts. The standout is Heidi Julavits looking back, through several layers of murk, at a Rush concert. (She struggles to remember whether Rush is the band "with the one-armed drummer.'')

Don't overlook Black Swan Green by David Mitchell. The narrator is a dreamer (and a stammerer) in an English town in the grips of the Falkland Islands war. I loved his use of tone and his ability to toggle back and forth between comedy and heartbreak. An initiation scene, involving a middle school "Skull and Bones'' styled secret society, is almost unbearably suspenseful.

Speaking of comedy and tragedy (and messed-up families), I'm now reading Oh The Glory of It All by Sean Wilsey. So far, its also very sad and funny. I haven't Googled any stories about this one, but he must have gotten a lot of grief for writing this.

John Prine at sea

Can you believe this??? A bunch of my favorite bands, floating on the ocean at the same time, with well drinks, songwriting workshops and the chance to play blackjack with Steve Earle. If one of you wants to buy me a ticket to this thing, I'll work it into my busy schedule.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Line-up for Literary Orange

I'll be taking part in this literary festival at UC Irvine, featuring Ron Hanson and T. Jefferson Parker. The full list of speakers is now online. Save the date.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Standing up for unlikeable characters

Lately I've heard people trash certain novels and short stories because the central characters are "not likeable'' -- characters who do or think the wrong things, and don't pass the personality test. The characters are too ornery, too brazen, too selfish, too full of themselves. The charge has been levied at Jonathan Franzen, among others. Personally, I'm fine with challenging, off-putting, confounding or "difficult'' characters. If the story and the characters are compelling, and if the character is striving for something (even if it is something unsavory), I don't care if the central character is someone I wouldn't invite to my house for dinner.

I think it's a strange reason to dismiss a book out of hand. A couple of weeks ago, Vendela Vida addressed this question when she passed through town to promote her new book, The Lovers, which features a challenging central character, a widow returning to the place of her honeymoon 25 years later.

Vida told the audience that stories are a good way to learn about people you wouldn't necessarily spend time with in your day-to-day life, a chance to dwell in their world for a while.

She added that she isn't "looking for friends'' when she opens up a book.

(Speaking of Vida, she and many others can be heard in conversation online with Rick Kleffel, a books interviewer who asks good questions. )

Australians embark on Cactus Eaters themed adventure hike

Crazy coincidence. My folks are in town to visit, and the people next to them on the airplane had read The Cactus Eaters, are from Australia, and (from what i understand) are planning a three-week PCT hike. I hear they are going to write into this blog, and when they do, I'll post the whole thing. By the way, I don't think they actually plan to eat an opuntia. My father explained that he was the "gap-toothed'' paterfamilias featured in the book, and throughout the entire flight, the Australians good-naturedly referred to him as Gappy.

If you hear of any other spontaneous Cactus Eaters themed events, let me know, and I'll post something.

Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Not your neighborhood stink bug expert

For some reason I am getting a lot of emails and inquiries lately about stink bugs, perhaps because I blogged about them a couple of years ago. I just want to point out that I am (sad to say) not a stink bug expert, but if you are interested in a one-stop-shopping site with interesting factoids and pictures of stinkbugs, I suggest you look at this website instead. It covers the topic from every angle.

Friday, September 03, 2010

Coming soon: the dumbest author reading Q and A questions of all time

How many times have you gone to an author's reading at a book store and heard someone ask a question that made you want to crawl under your chair? Groan? Cover your ears? Flee the store? Cry? Move to another neighborhood?

There's one in every crowd -- that one person who's got to raise his hand and ask Alice Munro if she's related to Marilyn. Personally, I think these questions -- and the responses -- are often the most revealing part of a Q and A because they reveal more about authors' personalities, their capacity for empathy, and their ability to think on their feet, than any of the usual questions.

I'm putting together a partial list of the daffiest Q and A questions of all time --- and no, I won't spare myself on this list because I've asked a few staggeringly dumb questions to authors over the years, including a question to Janet Malcolm that was so confounding, even to me, that she couldn't answer at all. She just stared at me. And after a while, I think she said: "Next question?''

So far I've got a list of teeth-grinding questions that people have asked to Toni Morrison, Joan Didion and others.

If you have any examples of your own, send in.

If not, stay tuned.

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Coming soon: the dumbest author reading Q & A questions of all time

How many times have you gone to an author's reading at a book store and heard someone ask a question that made you want to crawl under your chair?

Cover your ears?

Flee the store?

There's one in every crowd -- that one person who's got to raise his hand and ask Alice Munro if she's related to Marilyn. I'm putting together a partial list of the dumbest Q and A questions of all time --- and no, I won't spare myself on this list because I've asked a few doozies in my time, including a question to Janet Malcolm that was so confounding, even to me, that she couldn't answer at all.

So far I've got a list of dumb, cringe-worthy questions that people have asked to such luminaries as Toni Morrison, Joan Didion and others. If you have any examples of your own, send in. If not, stay tuned.

Here is a partial list of some of the loopiest questions I've heard during the many author events I've attended. Most are verbatim (or, at the very least, I've tried to remember them and reproduce them as accurately as posisble.)

I think i'm entitled to write about this since I, personally, have asked incomprehensible questions at authors events. I once asked a question to Janet Malcolm that was so nervous and loopy that she literally did not know what I was talking about and could not provide any answer at all.

Here are some of the choicest moments:

asked to Joan Didion in New York City during an event to promote The Year of Magical Thinking: "So what I want to know is what made you feel the worst? When your husband died or when your daughter died?''

asked to Laurie Garrett, the author of the Coming Plague, at a reading in the Capitola Book Cafe. "I want to know if you think the e bola outbreak was timed to coincide with the release of the movie Virus starring Dustin Hoffman.''

asked to a Steinbeck biographer Jay Parini by drunk person. "Steinbeck knew he was good, didn't he? I mean, he really, really knew he was good!''

asked to a Steinbeck biographer by same drunk guy. "that Steinbeck, he was a real sonovabitch wasn't he? I real sonavabitch!''

asked to Toni Morrison in New York City (during the middle of a Q and A): "Can I read you some of my poems right now?''

“J-Dog’’ launches book tour: Jonathan Franzen and Freedom at the Capitola Book Cafe

It’s hard to believe nine years have passed since I saw Jonathan Franzen read from The Corrections at the Book CafĂ©. He was so much more of a performer this time, and relaxed enough not to take offense when someone shouted out "Go, J-Dog" right when he approached the podium. There was a distinctly local flavor to the reading, his very first for this book tour and his only Bay Area book store appearance. His friend Claudia Sternbach introduced him by sharing a funny, rueful story about giving him some advice before The Corrections came out.

“I told him that my book had sold dozens of copies and it didn’t really change my life all that much.’’

Of course, The Corrections went on to sell three million copies, win a National Book Award for fiction and end up at the center of an Oprah’s Book Club kerfuffle. Last time around, Franzen seemed ill at ease with all that attention, and the reading was a little stiff. This time he claimed to be so nervous that he appealed to the audience for a way out:

“It’s a little bit like the NFL pre-season but the starter can’t come out after the first quarter. Should I even do the reading?’’

Of course, the willful Santa Cruz audience refused to let him wiggle out of it, and he delivered a reading so powerful that I wondered if the pre-amble was a put-on to mess with expectations. The reading itself seemed to use that rhetorical trick. I’m not going to put any spoilers in here, but I’ll just say that he read a long section from Freedom that started light --- with a funny, expository section leading to a scene of violence, followed by a betrayal. The satirical humor of the first section took on a corrosive edge by the time he was finished. The effect made me uncomfortable. It's hard to pull off a reading with that emotional range, especially considering he hadn't read publicly from the book at all this year.

Often, at bookstore Q and A sessions, at least one person in the audience asks an off-kilter question that makes you do a double-take. At a recent Gary Shteyngart reading, someone asked him something completely incomprehensible involving the trading and raising of sheep across international borders. You should have seen the look on his face. But this time all questions were on point. One person asked Franzen about his reported misgivings about the title.

Freedom is a good old word that’s kind of been misused for political purposes,’’ he said. “If you don’t have a question mark or scare quotes around it, it is an incredibly pompous seeming title. It seemed self important – and gave me something to write towards."

Someone asked him that old Q and A chestnut – do you have any words of advice for a young, struggling writer -- and he came up with a great answer.

“Be prepared for the struggle,’’ Franzen told him. “Read lots and lots of books. Good writing gets internalized. Sentences become less mysterious and daunting. Find someone who will be really, really hard on your prose while still loving the writer.’’

In closing, he was asked “What gives you the courage to commit to a premise, shut off the (inner) critic and begin writing. ‘’

He responded, “The critic is not shut off at the early stages. Right from the first page, it starts rejecting every attempt out of hand, with insults to the writer. Sometimes you can get that critic to shut up for 20 or 30 pages. One tries to be friendly with that critic. I’ve gone as far as I can with that metaphor.’’

Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The end of Barnes and Noble?

I heard they were hurting, but this story about my neighborhood Barnes and Noble (two moves ago, I used to live just a few subway stops away from this) took me by surprise.

Monday, August 30, 2010

Wearing a hat this week

I just went to one of those 'cheap haircut' strip-mall places. Bad move. It looks like someone worked me over with a Rototiller.

I'm going to try to fix this when I get home (with a couple of mirrors and culinary scissors.)

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Monday, August 23, 2010

"We don't sell dank.'' (Reruns, part two.)

My eccentric neighborhood has some of the most unusual signs I've seen in a long while. Here is my latest sampling. The words are unchanged but the italics are all mine.

This is from two signs hanging up at the Daljeet's Boutique.

"No photos. No brats. No cellphones. no restroom so don't ask. No loitering. This is not the place to eat your pizza, tie your shoes, smoke whatever you smoke or hang out.''

Wow! Thanks, Daljeets, for making us all feel so cozy and welcome. And here's another one, from the Cannabis Company: "We don't see weed, bud, herb, dank, ganja, trees, or marijuana, and not even reefer. We don't know where you can get some. Thanks for reading, and welcome to the Cannabis Company.''

Well, that just about covers it, although they didn't mention green bud or fat nuggs. And here's one more sign, at Murio's Trophy Room. I'm wondering if an over-vigilant bartender put it up there:

"If you look under 125, be prepared to show I.D.''

Monday, August 16, 2010

PVHS Reunion at MotoArt

Had a great time at the PVHS reunion. Still, I sensed I was growing older when my father, who drove me to the event, walked into the venue and asked if we were in the right place -- and someone came up to him and asked if he was part of my graduation class! (My Dad just turned 84 years old.) It was great to catch up with everyone, and the venue looked like a bit of Soma right in the middle of Torrance, CA. It was part aircraft hangar, part art gallery, with bits of airplane rejiggered as furniture, sculpture, etc.

Had to cut out earlier than expected after imbibing a mysterious libation known as a "Sea King.'' Will not confirm or deny rumors that my parents drove me home from this event.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Revenge of the microphone: Gary Shteyngart at Bookshop Santa Cruz

The microphone kept cutting out on Gary Shteyngart during his informal Q and A this week at Bookshop Santa Cruz. “Technology hates me, obviously,’’ the 38-year-old author and writing professor explained. The danged thing cut out three times.

The world of gadgetry has every reason to despise Mr. Shteyngart. His new book, Super Sad True Love Story, is a funny, scathing response to shortened attention spans, the waning of books and reading, and the dominance of the digital world. In his new novel, reading is so marginalized that people think books smell like unwashed feet, and sometimes spray them to conceal their odor. Instead of reading, the people of SSTLS check in regularly with their apparat, a gizmo that, among other things, helps people log onto the Web, keep tabs on their health and broadcast their “hotness’’ rankings. To prepare himself for this book, Mr. Shteyngart broke down and got an iPhone. “It pings all the time with useless information all day long,'' he said. While Shteyngart said he had no problem with digital reading devices, he fears that books “are becoming yet another file that gets transmitted through the air like so many millions of other things.’’ Reading, he said, requires “a huge act of empathy” and emotional commitment, which is becoming increasingly difficult '‘when all day long we are being bombarded with little packets of information.’’

According to Shteyngart, his new book is not a cautionary glimpse into the world of tomorrow.

“Speculative fiction is not about the future,’’ he explained. “It’s about where we are right now.''

(I chose this illustration because it looks vaguely like the bear on the cover of his first book.)

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Reunion stripper

I found that link I was talking about in a previous entry. Could hardly believe this. She hired a stripper to go to a reunion in her place last year -- and had the stripper wired with an earpiece so she could give offstage directions!

I think the big running joke from this 'documentary' is that people always look so different at reunions anyhow (so how would someone really know if it wasn't you?)

This person grew up in the same town as me but technically it wasn't the same high school (I think her high school was a temporary merging of my high school and a rival nearby high school, unless I'm mistaken ...)

Anyhow, looking forward to my own reunion -- if any PVHS friends are out there reading this, would you let me know if you're going?

Monday, August 09, 2010

Formerly Hot book

Enjoyed reading this article about a college classmate's book, which creates a new demographic. I don't know Stephanie very well but I wish her success with this.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

Politically correct used cars

In my new hometown, "used cars'' is considered an offensive expression, and highly insensitive.

In fact, there's a car lot, two blocks away from me, in which the words "used cars'' cannot be found anywhere on the parking lot or on the merchandise.

Instead, there are little stickers on the windshields saying "this car has been previously loved.''

Friday, August 06, 2010

My new Author's Photo.

Here it is.

You'll notice that I'm not smiling in this one either.

The photographer is Carolyn Lagatutta.

Going to my high school reunion

I've only been to one before in my life. Determined not to look at any of the name tags and see if I can recognize everybody.

There is an outside chance that I will have a most unusual chaperone (or driver) for this particular event.

By the way, I just stumbled across this crazy story about a woman who went to the same high school as me, but instead of going to her 10th reunion, she hired a stripper to go in her place! Wondering if this is a true story. Personally, I don't think I'd get away with doing something like that.

Monday, August 02, 2010

Yarnbombing in Santa Cruz?

Thank you to Helene, who wondered if my Fuzzy Tree (see below) is part of the Yarnbombing trend. Check this out.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Monday, July 26, 2010

Advice needed for DIY mollusk puppet

Trying to make a reasonably sophisticated-looking mollusk puppet for an art project that is due in the coming weeks. It must be made out of cheap, easily available materials. It needs to have large and bulging eyes, a moveable mouth, etc.

Send me advice or links off-blog if you've got them. (Nope, I'm not kidding.)

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Literary Orange: a literary conference at UC Irvine

Just wanted to let you know that I will be speaking and signing books at the 2011Literary Orange, a literary festival in Southern California. I know it's a little early to get the notice out -- it's not happening until next April -- but I'll send reminders out before then on Facebook and elsewhere. It will be great to see everyone. I will be part of a travel-writing panel. Check the website in early fall for the full line-up. Last year the keynote speakers were Karen Joy Fowler and Dean Koontz.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Do you suffer from an irrational fear of chickens?

Disclaimer: There is some chance that the chickens described in a previous blog entry could cause Alektorophobia.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

Review: chicken ranch vending machine surpasses expectations (four stars out of five.)

Cactuseaters review: Glaum egg vending machine. Aptos, California.

The Glaum chicken farm egg vending machine exceeded expectations, combining good nutrition with wholesome family entertainment and overall dollar value.

Here's what you should do: drive down Highway One from Santa Cruz and take a left on Freedom Boulevard, then take another left on Valencia. Soon, on the right, you will see the chicken farm, and signs pointing to the vending machine, which is open all the time. Seriously. You could drive up there at three in the morning.

Anyhow, make sure to bring three crisp dollar bills (no quarters.) Insert the bills into the machine. Suddenly the curtain (blocking a small window) will go up, and 10 dancing chickens will emerge. They will sing. They will dance. They will wiggle their small, feather-covered butts to the tune of a loud Benny Goodman song. The song will go on for a very long time. You will notice that some of the chickens are dressed in patriotic colors. Then, when the song is over, the nearby vending machine will give you 24 huge eggs, which is a good deal. On the down side, the machine will hand the eggs to you on a large and awkward pallet without any cover, forcing you to drive home very carefully, watching for speed bumps, lest any of those eggs rolls out and splatters all over you.

I give this tourist attraction four out of five stars, though some people seem to disagree with me. I saw a grouchy woman pull up, slam her three bills into the machine, grab her eggs and drive off, leaving those robot chickens singing and squawking into the nothingness.

I will post pictures at the soonest available opportunity.

Friday, July 16, 2010

to Southern California Cactuseaters readers ...

I will be taking part in a big literary event in springtime down in So.Cal (where lots of family lives.) Will post more when it's official. Sorry to be vague, but it will involve a discussion of travel writing, plus book signing and more.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Congratulate them when you see them

My parents have just gotten back from their 60th(!!!)wedding anniversary cruise. (That really puts things in perspective, in this day and age when people can't even buy futons together anymore.)

In other news, my visit to the Glaum Egg Vending Machine (featuring a group of dancing robot chickens) was a big success. Will post pictures when I figure that out.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The most exciting weekend I've had in a long, long time

This weekend, I met a live bat, and now I am about to visit the famous Glaum Egg Vending Machine.

Full report soon.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Huge rattlesnake

I just saw the biggest, juiciest rattlesnake ever in Rancho San Antonio. I stood in the middle of the path and tried to direct people away from the snake. I warned everybody that the huge snake was on the right side of the road and that they had "better watch out." The trouble is that everyone thought I meant my right side of the road, so they did the opposite of what I told them and walked left instead of right, straight into the coils and dripping fangs of that rattlesnake.

If I had to guess, about 15 people walked straight into the jaws of that snake because of my attempt to help them out. It probably chomped and maybe even swallowed every one of them. (sorry, everybody.)

Tuesday, June 29, 2010

My bear encounter.

On Sunday, while strolling through the mountains, I almost walked right into a black bear yearling with white-and-cinnamon fur and a hulking Mama Bear, who was jet black, and right on the side of the trail near Crescent Meadow.

Someone warned me in the distance. "There's a bear!'' According to several witnesses (I have blanked out everything that happened next)I put my hands up to make myself look bigger and took small steps backward, away from the bears, who were only 20 feet or so away from me. After a while, they snurfled around through the bushes and took off.

I am not bragging about this at all, but it's worth mentioning because I've made such a mess of my bear encounters in the past.

It just goes to show that people can learn from their mistakes.

But I have no proof of this. I know that someone videotaped the whole thing but I don't have any way of reaching them (no contact info.)

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Cactus Eaters review on Oh Ranger, plus Save Me From the Disgusting Ants

Here is the most recent review -- and thanks to the reader who sent this in today. (I'm counting on you guys, since I don't have much time to trawl through the Internet these days.)

In other news, disgusting ants have entered my residence and they keep trying to carry me off so they can feed me to their ant queen.

When I wake up in the morning, I am exactly one foot closer to the door than I was when I went to sleep. This means the ants are trying to carry me off incrementally, in the hope that I won't notice until it's too late.

Anyhow, if you have any non-toxic solutions, please let me know. It's getting really bad.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Reading list

Colum McCann -- Let The Great World Spin.

Steve Almond -- Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life. The Toto lyrics chapter just about killed me.

Daniel Okrent -- Last Call. This book is a riot, and it's the most precise and engaging book on the subject. Now nudging its way up the bestseller list.

Dan Chaon -- Await Your Reply. Identity-theft nightmare. Will make an insomniac out of you.

David Howard -- Lost Rights: The Misadventures of a Stolen American Relic Real-life historical crime caper. Gripping and real. See blog entry below.

Rebecca Skloot: The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

John Richardson: My Father The Spy. Your parents' secret career.

Dave Cullen: Columbine. Everything you thought about Columbine turns out to be wrong.

On order: Beth Raymer, Lay The Favorite. The last time I saw Beth Raymer, it was four or five years ago, and she was giving an hilarious reading from an excerpt of the as-yet-unfinished manuscript. Now it's out, and soon it's going to be a movie directed by Stephen Frears. (movie should be out next year)

Saturday, June 12, 2010

Bad service: "This is not Baker's Square!!!"

Every once in a while, I am going to post brief stories about the truly horrible service I've experienced or witnessed in local restaurants. Feel free to send in if you have a tale to tell about exceptionally bad service. Meanwhile, here are two stories.

Not so long ago, I took my parents to a fancy downtown restaurant that is known for its home-made lemonade, its chicken entrees and its snide owner. My father complimented the waitress on the lemonade. "That is very, very good,'' he said. "Do you give free refills?''

"No!'' she said. "You think we serve refills for free here? This is not Baker's Square!''

My father took this in stride -- in fact, he thought it was pretty funny. Just to show that there were no hard feelings, when the waitress came back, he decided to give her some good-natured ribbing. When she asked if he would like some dessert, he said, "Thank you very much, but I think we'll go out to Baker's Square instead.''

"They put lard in their pies!'' she snarled.

On another occasion, I was standing in line at a high-end coffeehouse in the same city. A man was at the front of the line. He ordered up an orange juice. The man behind the counter came back a few minutes later with a container of murky liquid.

"Is that orange juice fresh-squeezed?" the customer asked.

"Fresh-squeezed compared to what?'' the barista replied.

Wednesday, June 09, 2010

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Kara Levy makes her Huffington Post debut!

Way to go to my friend Kara Levy. Here she is, reading a prize-winning fiction story that is now featured prominently in one of the world's most popular media blogs.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Indie bookstore isn't dead after all

I was upset to see that a former haunt of mine, Bookworks in Aptos, California, seemed to be kaput. I used to spend hours in the store, guzzling coffee, reading the magazines and buying just enough inventory to upgrade myself from "loiterer'' to "frequent customer.'' Stopping in to browse through this charming store, I saw some ugly brown wrapping on the windows last week, along with a notice saying that the space was being turned into, of all things, a bike store. (I love bikes, but this area has bicycle outlets the way Haight-Ashbury has creperies and stinky bong emporiums.)

Fortunately, the store has merely moved, although it's smaller than before.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Street poet bids farewell to Cactuseaters in SF (edited version. I wrote this in a hurry.)

Before relocating, I chatted with Lynn Gentry, the famed street poet of Haight-Ashbury, about leaving town. Among other things, I explained to him the staggering amounts of lead in my Victorian apartment (up to 45 times the permissible levels of lead according to the SF Health Department.)He sat down at his typewriter and came up with this nice farewell verse:

"Calls come suddenly and time is too late
to dawn upon minds that wished for so much more but
beauty sits so fragile; who could have known yesterday
the mystery that calls us to protect oursevles
From the dreams of ourselves where questions sit
in mind but little girls sit in view
about to turn two
and we turn our back on fantasies to realize paradise.''

Good one, Lynn Gentry.

Friday, May 07, 2010

David Howard's Lost Rights and Daniel Okrent's Last Call

I've been hearing from readers asking for more information about the Lost Rights nonfiction book and David Howard's Lost Rights book tour. Here is all the info you need. Also, make sure to get your hands on Daniel Okrent's highly entertaining portrait of Prohibition, Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition, another book that has been making the rounds this month. Amy and I did a bit of research work on Last Call, and it was very exciting to see it arrive in bookstores.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Lost Rights --- David Howard charts the strange journey of a stolen American relic

Who stole the Bill of Rights? I'm not speaking metaphorically here. One of General Sherman's infantrymen pilfered one of the fourteen original copies of the Bill of Rights in the North Carolina statehouse. The stolen relic (a real-life National Treasure) changed hands again and again as it made its way across America. The longtime journalist and author David Howard received a rave from Publishers Weekly for this highly anticipated book, which hits stores this summer. I had the privilege of reading this one in an early form, and I can tell you that it's a jaw dropping combination of investigative reporting and narrative, with memorable characters and so-strange-it-could-only-be-true situations. PW gave it a starred review and named it as the nonfiction pick of the week.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Cheap thrills for book lovers part XXXXXVI: Tim Cahill at SJSU

Tim Cahill will be speaking at SJSU on Wednesday night, (April 28th) and it should be a great event. By the way, I was once at a San Jose gathering where he was present, and I can attest to the fact that he is exactly like his writing persona: the life of the party, funny, self-effacing and smart, roaming from room to room with an endless supply of stories. Currently he's the Lurie Professor at SJSU, teaching adventure writing to graduate students and undergrads here on campus.

It's pretty unusual when you meet an author and find that he or she squares with the voice that you 'hear' on the page and the persona that comes across in the stories. Alas, I've met a couple of my other adventure/outdoor writing heroes and found that one of them in particular was ... well, let's just leave it at that.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Thank you, and wash your hands

Thanks to all the many, many people who wished me a happy birthday yesterday. I'm glad to report that my entire family has now recovered from the horrible, horrible stomach flu that had us all out of commission and off-blog for a long while. (I'm telling you, it's nasty stuff, this bug that's been going around. Don't even think about going to Babies R Us or the doctor's office without lathering up with hand sanitizer. Preferably something non-toxic like CleanWell.

Lots of folks are asking where I moved. Not to be cryptic, but here's a riddle. Suppose you were to drive south from San Francisco for roughly an hour and thought you were leaving behind all the slow food, weirdly high housing prices, Victorians with fishscale shingles and mansard roofs, lovely vistas, hippies and pot smoke of SF, only to find all these things waiting for you upon arrival?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Free drugs in Golden Gate Park?

Why do I always see a small army of beady-eyed, scuzzily dressed drug dealers hanging around the sign that says "DRUG-FREE ZONE'' at the park's eastern entrance? (Maybe they think the sign says "FREE DRUG ZONE.'')

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Cactuseaters relocates suddenly

This won't affect you, my readers, (both of you. Hi, Mom!) but I want to let you know that the Cactuseaters blog is relocating out of San Francisco. I've been bracing myself for this moment by eating thousands of English muffins from Arizmendi bakery every day. And playing that Journey song over and over. Just kidding about the second thing.

I will miss this city. On the good side, the endless dumb jokes about my name will (probably?) cease.

In honor of my move, Lynn Gentry, the Street Poet of Haight-Ashbury, wrote a farewell-oriented poem. I will blog it soon, verbatim.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Read these books

It's the 50th anniversary (more or less) of Saul Bellow's Henderson the Rain King. I can see how elements of this book would rub people the wrong way, but what a voice. It's like an undertow. I can imagine Wes Anderson making a risky movie out of this, with Gene Hackman in the title role. He'd be perfect. You read that here first. Don't be put off by the morbid title of David Shields' memoir/meditation, The Thing About Life Is That One Day You'll Be Dead. Yes, it's about mortality and decrepitude, but mostly it's about living well. I read the first part of Sam Lipsyte's The Ask at my friendly neighborhood Burgermeister but I had to switch to something else because it was making me laugh too hard for public appearances. At the risk of oversharing, I was worried that my happy-hour pint of Prohibition Pale Ale might pour out of my nose. Also, you must read John D'Agata's About A Mountain. And that's all for now.

Friday, April 09, 2010

Ugly Glasses reposted (my most popular blog entry of all time.)

I have no idea why this is so -- but this is my most popular blog entry of all time. which is weird because it has nothing to do with succulent plants, weirdoes smoking pot in Golden Gate Park, or New York City's famous rats. I will repost it here.

Ugly glasses

When I was a kid, if you wore big goofy angular frames like the ones worn by Elvis Costello on his first record, or Oscar Wao, or Piggy from Lord of the Flies, you would get beaten up or stuffed into a Dumpster. Today, these are your only options! I wonder what poor old Piggy would think, to know that he has been reborn as a fashion icon. Today's trendiest glasses are all awkward, expensive and absolutely enormous, with huge black bug-eyed frames with weird jagged edges. Anyhow, I was at the eyeglass store in Noe Valley yesterday. The salesman tried a bit of divide-and-conquer. He had me try on some really big frames, and when my wife made a sour face, he waited until she was out of earshot and said, "I disagree with her but it looks like she has the say-so.'' Tired of the hard-sell, I went to Sears to try out their options but they were even worse. They have spindly frames that sit crookedly on your face no matter what you do, while pinching your nose and squishing the sides of your head. Instead of investing in new glasses, I'll stick with the ones I have and buy a seeing eye dog

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

Cactus Eaters wins relentless profanity award

I am humbled and grateful about winning the first annual MPORB (Most Profanity in Outdoor-related Book) Award, given bi-annually to the author of an outdoors or hiking-related book with the most relentless and gratuitous use of profanity. The judges declared that there were "certainly other hiking books with large numbers of very bad words, but a search through the pages of the Kindle and eBook version of the Cactus Eaters revealed that Dan White's book had more expletives per page than any of the competition.''

Thank you, judges. I am &@$&!$%& grateful for this honor.

Saturday, April 03, 2010

Translation of Chinese Cactuseaters comment

You might read my blog and think that it's a very small operation with only one unpaid employee. But you would be wrong. In truth, the tentacles of the Cactuseaters blog reach all over the world. I have a staff of highly trained volunteer translators who help me decipher messages that I receive every week from all over the world. For instance, I received a Chinese comment just the other day. An attentive reader translated it as follows: "When an individual's heart can embrace conflicting ideologies, he/she becomes more appreciated."

Thank you, translator. This is a useful comment. I could use a few conflicting ideologies in my life. And to my readers: keep sending in those comments, whether they are in English, Mandarin, Tagalog, Sanskrit, Cantonese, Vietnamese, French, Greek, Spanish or Esperanto. (My team of translators will be standing by.)

Friday, April 02, 2010

Coming soon -- the Cactuseaters interview with nameless folk supergroup (featuring Wolf Larsen, Kelly McFarling and Megan Keely.)

Stay tuned for my interview with Wolf Larsen, Kelly McFarling and Megan Keely, who put on an incredible performance at the Blue Six in the Mission last Friday. I suppose I should have alerted them to the fact that I want to interview them for Cactuseaters before posting this, but I'll stick it up on the blog as soon as I'm finished.
The group is great, although they do need a name (and a bass player!)The three musicians -- who each have devoted followings -- perform 'hootenanny'' style, alternating lead vocals on original songs and then uniting to sing three-part harmony. They are all outstanding songwriters, but they also throw some wild, off-the-cuff covers into the mix (ranging from Whitney Houston to Don Ho.)By the way, the Bluesix Acoustic Room is the best place to see acoustic music in the city right now. It's like sitting in someone's living room right in the center of the Mission.