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Which famous king or queen are you?

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Once upon a time there were 7 Catherine the Greats. No, 8.

“Let’s free the serfs,” said a Catherine.

“Let’s review the troops,” said another.

“Before we do ANYTHING, we need to watch Scarlet Empress to see how it’s done,” said a third.

When 8 Catherines the Greats get together to watch tv what does that mean? Yup. A PARTY.

1 Catherine called Z-Pizza. Catherine 2 started making the humus, because she’d lived in Beirut. Catherine 3 got on the phone and ordered the whiskey, to be delivered and served by very handsome waiters. Catherine’s 4 and 5 called Code Pink and invited them over to watch Scarlet Empress, because being a pacifist is very tiring and who doesn’t get refreshed watching Marlene vamping it up in pretend Russia? Then 1 texted Queen Victoria.

“Hmm,” he said. “I’m planning on visiting the colonies, but I’ll see if I can squeeze this into my schedule.”

In the meantime, Catherine 6 ordered fried chicken from Chow Hound, and Catherine 7 called her doctor because she had recently had surgery and then she called the florist, because seriously…. what’s a party without a huge bouquet? Catherine 8 folded the napkins and lay down on the sofa, a slipper dangling off of her foot.

The food came, the waiters came, and they were about to start the movie when Elizabeth I called.

“Wonderful!” shouted the queens as Catherine 3 told them who was on the line.

“Tell her to come right over.”

“And bring some potato chips.”

Today I met a lady in my online women’s support group who is a sword swallower. She is also a dermatologist, a juggler, a mother of 2 and an award winning pastry chef. Also a novelist.

Do people like that make you feel insecure?

Me too.

But I’ve learned to do what my mom always told me – make a list of my special talents.

  1. I am very good at taking the bus. I know exactly where to put the change or the card, and even if I don’t I always compliment the bus driver on their cool sunglasses or great hair.
  2. I am excellent at avoiding talking on the telephone. The phone makes me very nervous so I compose lovely letters to the pizzeria on cream-colored paper telling them about the pizzas I would like to have delivered to me in a week’s time.
  3. I have been told that I am an exquisite TV commentator. No! Not sports commentating – but rather Hannibal watching, Battlestar Galactica watching, or even Antique Road Show watching and then talking about the stuff and the people and the details like the cannibal cuisine, the cylon’s dresses, and the carpets in the background or the cars. My daughter is great at commentating on PBS shows – her specialty. She once gave a particularly piquant explanation of why Huell’s Howser’s name sounds a bit like a person getting ready to – if you’ll pardon the expression – hurl.
  4. Relaxing in bed. Seriously, no one does this as well as I do. I can relax in bed for hours with a cool drink, some carne asada fries with lots of napkins, books, Netflix, and depending on my mood – a vibrator.
  5. Sitting around. I sit at the kitchen table and make up my list (this one) and I look at the orchid my friend who is a dramatist, and an actor and a scholar and a mother of 4 gave me. It’s so beautiful. Purple, useless, tall. It doesn’t toil and it doesn’t spin. Wait – that’s lilies. But still. You get the idea.


With thanks to Jo Scott Coe for the list exercise and Noel Pabillo Mariano for the fries. And to Erith Jaffe Berg for the orchid. And to who know who for you know what.

courtesy of myself

courtesy of myself

Once upon a time there was a man who said he was and indeed he WAS a literalist. This means, according to him, that he couldn’t see pictures in his head or understand metaphors. He couldn’t imagine abstract things, he said.

“Well that’s not so weird,” I told him at the bookstore where we came to hear a mutual acquaintance who was a poet read from her works.

“No, it IS weird, “ he said. “It means I can’t appreciate poetry, because it’s all image-y and metaphor-y and that thing where things get compared to other things.”

“A simile,” I said.

“Yes,” he said. “I hated all that abstract-y stuff in high school.”

I wrinkled my forehead, which my mother told me never to do, because it causes literal lines, but I can’t help it so I do it anyway.

“So – if you can’t think imagistically or abstractly — what do you think about when you lie in bed at night?”

“Chores,” he said with a s shy smile. “And sex, and numbers.”

“Well, two of those are good.”

“Which ones?” he said.

I threw up my hands at that one.

“Chores and sex of course! Not numbers.”

Now it was his forehead’s turn to wrinkle.

“Not numbers,” I said. “I can’t even imagine numbers.”

“But they’re always there!” he exclaimed. We both leaned forward to have an argument, but the poet cleared her voice. She was getting ready to read from her latest opus. The dogs in the bookstore quieted down because even they understood what a simile was. A bone was like a yummy treat, and that was almost but not quite like hamburger and so on and so forth. It’s a chain of thinking, imagery is. On and on it goes, even if you’re a canine.

The poet read and the man who was the literalist thought about the laundry he had to do, and the boxes he needed to fill with numbers on his computer screen. The poet’s voice was pleasant and he found himself thinking about emptying the garbage and how recycling containers were blue and green. He found himself thinking about ironing his shirts for the job at the bank — the hissing sound the iron made on the cotton blend — and he thought about the computer screen blinking at him in its many colors, which was probably an improvement over the black and green screens of the olden days.

Eventually the poet stopped talking, and the man saw a copy of her book lying on the table. It was black and green and had an ISBN number on it. He bought it. He stood in line for the poet to sign. She looked at him expectantly. I came up and whispered in her ear about the figurative impediment.

The poet nodded.

For the literalist she wrote, and showed it to the man. He felt a prickly unexpected pleasure running up and down his stomach, groin and legs when he saw the poet’s handwriting. She wrote in a primitive fashion and had an extremely messy signature.

So clearly, knowing what a simile means isn’t everything.

Friends, last night I spoke with a cancer survivor about the primal scream that is poetic utterance, that poetry — however you define it — can face the extreme.

here’s a modest contribution.



unfinished poem

today I started a poem about 3 boys
who were murdered in a far away desert
but I couldn’t finish the poem because
as I was correcting the words, honing the language,
to make this perfect homage to these victims
some people murdered another boy
because of the 3 dead boys in the desert.
the 4th boy was just walking, but they killed
him because they thought revenge
was magic.
and as I was changing the poem
to reflect these new drastic developments
I read about boy #5 who died all alone — he just
died in a desert far away trying to come
here to THIS desert called America. clutching a rosary.
wearing jeans. so now I’m scared to try to finish
writing because I’m up to 5 dead boys and
soon there might be 11. so
I’m not going to finish, I’m not even
going to end, I’m going to pause and
make my breath go out and in and out
just hoping just hoping just hoping


Dear Friends –

I’ve been busy helping a family member with a medical situation. It’s funny how the medical and its attendant woes — pain, waiting, garages, doctors, logistics, pharmacies, — silences a person, makes a person quiet in the face of something that words can’t solve or change. So, I’ve been feeling quiet lately. Which isn’t a bad thing, exactly, but it IS a thing.

While I wait for the stories to come back into my brain, I wanted to send a brief shout out to 2 books that I just finished reading: A Life in Men by Gina Frangello and MFA versus NYC, an anthology of essays and reactions (edited by Chad Harbach) to where we are in the US, publishing-wise.

A Life In Men sounds like it could be a chick-lit romp but it isn’t. It’s Howard’s End meets Thelma and Louise meets The Stranger meets You can’t go Home Again. It’s an important, beautiful novel that takes the novel of education in new places, and marks out new territory for women characters. I don’t want to say too much about it, lest I spoil it, but it’s really worth your time. Give it a try. It is also strangely funny. The writing is gorgeous and deep.

MFA versus NYC  is a different, equally interesting animal. Are MFA’s worthwhile or should an aspiring writer just hoof it to New York and try to get an internship? What gets left OUT of an MFA education? What do agents really think about? Want? Worry about? What IS the history of the famous Iowa workshop program? Is George Saunders really happy being a professor?  I’m not sure these questions get answered directly, but they are certainly explored. I found alot to admire in these essays and responses. As someone who got an MA/PHD first and only later went for an MFA, I found the discussion of creative writing in the university particularly interesting.

I am still digesting the ideas of both books and welcome your comments.

magically yours –


Dear Friends — We’ve had a slight hitch in the proceedings as I tend to an under-the-weather family member and go through 5 stacks of mail.


As we deal, here’s a clip from THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING:

Dear Friends –

Apeiron Review was not only nice enough to publish my lyric essay on converting to Judaism last spring (Issue 3), they were also nice enough to invite me to be the illuminated object of their Author Spotlight for this June.


Here is a link to the interview!

Please take a look.

And afterwards you may return to your Soccer Watching, boating, jogging, reading, knitting, kvetching, dreaming, reading, Hannibal rerun viewing, snacking or just sitting around relaxing wherever you happen to be.

Thank you.


dear friends — a little flash fiction for you while you’re waiting for your dad, taking care of your or someone else’s dad, are busy being a dad, used to be a dad, are currently dadless, or whatever your relation to dadness as a category is:

once upon a time there was a guy with a beard. there is. a red beard. yes. let’s make it red. dark red and lustrous. and the beard had braids. two of them. long but no so long it was weird. well, actually this is already sort of weird. but here he is! right in front of me across the room, talking to a woman wearing purple who is talking about cats and a friend of hers who tried to call the cat whisperer but he wouldn’t come and so she had to make that choice — that hard choice to either live with the cat who scratches everyone even when they were oven mitts to pet it and ignore her other responsibilities OR to give the cat away. the guy with the beard puts his orange (!) baseball cap on and nods; he is listening, he isn’t saying much, but when you have a beard like that what can you say? what is necessary to impart other than your general awesomeness — your oldschool newschool posthippy post hillbilly something or other that you have going on here? another woman who is wearing green is talking about customers, and now i’m craning my neck trying to hear what they are talking about, but the man with the beard stands up and i feel sad that i will never get to know him.

then he walks by me and it’s a big disappointment. he’s not tall or burly, and he has a pony tail, which is sort of thin and wispy — not lustrous like the beard, and the woman in green says it was nice to meet you, and away they go and this story feels pretty bathetic and pathetic ending in this wispy ponytail hanging out the back sort of way, so i’m going to return to the first time i saw the beard, with its twin braids full of promise, their rubber bands — not hair bands, those flesh colored rubber bands like you see at the post office or Office Depot or wrapped around those dumb coupon newspapers that come in the mail — wound tight around them. beckoning some mystery having to do with hair and redness and a bristle of adventure.

Dear Friends — Yi Shun Lai asks guest faculty at this years August NILA residency to answer 5 questions.

To find out more about our residency up on beautiful Whidbey Island, click on

To find out more about my fantastically gifted and athletic teaching partner Janet Buttenwieser, click here.

Here they are along with my answers: mfa_header


1. What’s your favorite thing about teaching writers?

Writers want to learn how to write well. Then they want to learn how to write better. And after that they want to learn how to write differently. Which means that they are engaged, demanding, curious, and ambitious. Never satisfied. Always pushing. I love that.

2. How would you suggest students approach a writer, agent, or editor they admire?

Approaching writers you love is simple. First, be sure you’ve remembered the title of their work correctly. Then go up to them and say “I love your novel/poetry collection/essay/blog/standup bit, and I just wanted to meet you and tell you that.” As for editors, if you like what they publish — it’s the same thing. Thanking an editor for publishing you by way of an intro is classy and appreciated. When I figure out how to approach an agent without sounding like a jerk, I’ll let you know.

3. How about a sneak peek of what we can expect to learn from you in your sessions at Whidbey Writers Workshop MFA?

Long answer: The element of surprise is crucial to teaching adult learners. Folks need to be slightly off-kilter in order to think out of the box. Interactivity, clarity, and a sense of connection to others in the class, promote increased ability to discover and to remember.

Short answer: Nope. 

4. Tell us what “literary community” means to you.

It’s a tribe — an extended family with kinship and commitment to the well-being and success of every writer/artist in the tribe, whether they are writing outdoorsy essays, memoirs about boats, historical, literary, or commercial fiction, science-fiction/fantasy mashups, short stories, long novels, poems, or picture books.  Self-published, indie published, big time published. People who show up for your reading when no one else does. People whom you show up for, and edit, and pimp and help in any shape or form you can think of, because they have already helped or are going to help you

5. When not teaching or working at your “day job,” you can be found…

Watching tv, texting with my spawn about Hannibal, knitting, reading one of the tribe’s books, and/or complaining to someone (often Larry Behrendt who is writing his own book about Jewish-Christian dialogue) about something having to do with education, the economy, the two-state solution, racism, sexism, transphobia, gun control or the environment as I sit on a chair drinking coffee or wine in Coupeville WA or Los Angeles, CA.  I have been known to visit the gym, and then I complain to someone about that.



Once upon a time there was a girl who believed in god. Not her mother’s god and for sure not her father’s god who was a grim strict guy who insisted that you walk to church instead of bike or drive or god forbid (haha) stay home, and she stopped going to that god place, and stopped talking to that dad, and made her way to a different god place with a beautiful girl who had the name of the seasons, and she was happy for a time.

There was another girl who didn’t believe in god at all. She thought it was all pretty stupid although she liked the treats she got at the god place and the gold crosses and the candies and the other things that came along with being with believers in the god thing. Like fancy colorful windows and pictures. She got to drive to god with her mother and her father and it was the mother who was really into the god thing, but since she — the mother — didn’t like to drive the god thing couldn’t be such a BIG thing because of the logistics. So when the girl decided “nope, no more god for me!” it was a pain in the ass kind of thing, but also a funny thing, because when the girl stopped going, the dad stopped going to the god place too, and since he was the driver, the mother didn’t go anymore either. The mom was mad at first but then she figured it out. She prayed at home. The mother would go out and pray at the roses, and pray at the driveway and pray at the birds and the sky, and she imagined that’s what people did in the olden days before god places, and she was fine with it actually, in the end, as well.

If you believe in god you have to be flexible.

Would it surprise you that these 2 girls became women who became coworkers, then friends and then lovers and then spouses? Perhaps it’s not a surprise, but isn’t it nice and isn’t it symmetrical that the girl with the god-loving dad and the girl with the god-loving mom could come together, one believing and one not, and be in love and it all be ok? That people can believe different things and still love each other? A lot?

Well, that last part is a bit surprising isn’t it? And isn’t it somewhat wondrous? It makes me think that maybe there IS a god after all, although woman #2 is rolling her eyes and laughing at me for thinking/writing this. But woman #1 is nodding with large lustrous eyes at me and the computer screen and saying yes I think so yes.